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Bookgroupers loved Peter Carey’s new one A Long Way from Home. Although they felt the first of the second half were quite different.

The first half was a rollicking easy-going story set in 50s Australia. In particular people with good memories of 50s and 60s Australia said it had lots of iconic imagery from that era such as the radio quiz shows, and the Redex Trial (a round Australia car race run between 1953 and 1998) that the book’s plot it’s based around. So it’s a lot of fun, particularly for people from that era.

While bookgroupers found the second half to be less fun, a different book according to one bookgrouper, you could also say its more interesting. It gets into the difficulties that are as integral to that era of Australia as the fun iconic images of the first half. It covers in a very interesting and human, and well researched way, indigenous issues. It puts gender and relationship issues in clear focus and even gives plenty of space to the shysters, showmen and ‘colourful racing identities’ that were so a part of those years.

These are all the things that we Australians, at least left leaning ones anyway, now criticise the 50s for in hindsight. So in that sense the first half is the good parts to the 50s and the second half is all the stuff that 50s Australia swept under the carpet.

In addition to the politics i really felt the characters were marvellous. I hope it’s made into a movie as they are big entertaining characters, with great visual aspects corresponding with their personalities and roles in the story. I felt they were really archetypal characters from that time. They managed to represent and incorporate all the big themes and stories of that period within their personal histories, but in a way that did not feel forced or cliched. In particular the main character, Willy. His life story was very cleverly constructed to encapsulate the 50s, in all their complexity.

The book is presumably also quite autobiographical, as it is set in Bacchus March where Carey is actually from, and he is a baby boomer so it is set in the period in which he grew up. In addition to this personal background he does appear to have researched very thoroughly all the content in relation to the Redex Trial, cars of the period, and the indigenous side of the book. So it’s very interesting from that point of view.

The only criticism that the group could agree on was that the ending seemed quite sudden and contrived. As if Carey had run out of time on his contract or reached his word limit, so he just needed to conclude the book. We felt the ending isn’t satisfying and doesn’t really fit with the rest of the book. However he might argue, accurately, that life is like that, and so is 21st century Australia. We are still struggling with these issues. An unfinished work, like the book.

There were also great moments in beauty in the book; the description of the romance between Willy and fellow quiz contestant, Miss Clover, is gorgeous especially their first night together; and there are some great observations; along with all the serious matters. When it does deal with big issues, i felt it brought them to the page in a new fresh way. The prime example being Australia’s frontier war history. Carey finds a way to tell the story of how that war history continues right down into very recent decades, and does it in a very accessible way. There is also very strong female side to the book. All the the women have a lot of ‘agency’ as French philosophers might say, while also being heavily trapped by the attitudes of the time.

So overall, while it is a very worthy book, as you might expect from a Booker Prize winner, it is also unexpectedly interesting and a lot of fun to.

I strongly recommend it.


October 24, 2018 at 7:55 am Leave a comment


This was a very divisive book for bookgroup. A couple of bookgroupers really loved it whilst the rest of us hated it.

The main issue was the violence. I only read the first chapter, which is about five pages. In that short time the main character manages to kill two people and rape one of them – a young boy. After that I decided I did not need any more of this in my life. From what others said the violence continues throughout, with no let up, and includes violence against animals as well as men.

The question bookgroup asked was – is there any point to all of this violence? Is there any difference between it and pop culture books and movies that are full of violence for violence sake, except perhaps the violence here is much worse in every way? Does the violence serve any purpose?

Those of us who hated the book felt it served no purpose. The book appears to be set in the early 1800s (according to The Guardian its actually the 1850s), briefly in whaling communities, but mostly a group of men on a whaling boat. We felt we knew what those communities were like. Intensely poverty stricken and unequal. Most people were powerless and therefore both subject to violence and perpetrators of violence – nothing new there.

Some of those who liked the book felt it was a useful thing for the book to point out just how violent those times were. Others who liked the book felt the violence was beautifully described- poetic.

Interestingly the two reviews I glanced at, The Guardian and the London Review of Books, reacted much the same way as bookgroup. They both agreed it is intensely dark and relentlessly violent. But the LRB wanted to point out that the writing was interesting, while the Guardian said it was unredeemably bleak.

Personally I would suggest there are much more profitable things you can do with you time than read this book, but apparently some people do enjoy it.

September 1, 2018 at 8:58 am 1 comment


Prayers for the Stolen is set in Mexico in the 2000s. It's about the narco-traffickers' traffic in young girls, from the point of view of a girl. This review from the guardian raved about it and I agree. I cant usually cope with such awful subject matter, especially when you know its true, these things, or things very like them really happen, but its done so cleverly that i found it was funny and entertaining without at all downplaying the horror of the reality.

It achieves this through a very clever use of point of view. It's written in the first person from the point of view of a young poor rural girl called LadyDi. This enables you to read all the very difficult material about narco-traffickers, people smuggling, guns and drugs and paedophilia more easily because it's from this naive perspective. However, LadyDi is always quoting her mother who is a very world world weary and cynical character, but very smart.

This device allows the author to make all these really funny and interesting observations about what's going on that would otherwise be out of place for a naïve young girl. As she is quoting her mother the author is able to put all these very diary and very funny world weary observations into the mouth of young LadyDi, so its full of remarkable quotes and observations and real insights about what it takes to survive in such a terrible world.

Other bookgroupers also agreed it was very well done, interesting and funny, along with horrific. One bookgrouper used the word dystopian to describe it. That is exactly right – but the book is no made-up fantasy. Clement has lived her whole life in Mexico and produces what The Guardian calls 'the new journalism'

Prayers for the Stolen, (is)…described as a novel, but that's much too simple a description for what Clement is doing with the genre. In this startling tale of a young girl abducted into the Mexican drug trade, the social history – the reality of the world from which the fiction comes – burns away anything on the pages that could feel "made up". This is like the new journalism made newer still……..

Every sentence in Prayers for the Stolen is direct, potent, unexpected; twisting on the page like a knife in the gut. Ladydi tells us about Paula, a pretty girl who, unlike all the others, has been released by her captors and is able to return home, now hollow-eyed and dead inside. Her story is the catalyst for all the girls' stories in this terrifying narrative that exposes the inexorable repetition of lives brutalised by the sovereignty and corruption of the drug cartels.

The writing is electrifying not only because of its subject matter – anyone could report the facts – or because Clement is so strong on the insider viewpoint that gives new journalism its kick, but because she is a consummate stylist who makes sure nothing is wasted. Every scene is related with her trademark concision and fastidious attention to detail, her prose a gorgeous amalgam of spoken Mexican English, prayer, repetitions, incantations and American dreck…..

So there's brightness, too, humour in the darkness of Ladydi's world – a tenderness and love that are glimpsed as possibilities of another life, like the plastic flowers and glittery tinsel decorating a roadside shrine…..

Clement's authority comes from her deep intimacy with the subject matter of her books…… and as a Mexican, the territory of her three novels is her home. For Prayers for the Stolen she spent time with the girls and women in prison whose only real crime was having once been young and pretty. When she writes: "The Santa Marta Jail in the south of Mexico City was the biggest beauty parlour in the world," it rings true because it is true. She hung out with all those daughters and girlfriends and mothers and sisters left behind by the drug barons who kidnapped them from their homes and families. Now they sit around waiting for justice that won't come, doing their hair and painting their nails and telling stories – stories that are real lives.

It was so vivid and so real – it makes you think 'of course this is what happens when might makes right, when money talks and there is no higher authority, no avenue of appeal beyond guns and money'. Its mad max, and every other post apocalyptic movie you have ever seen happening for real in rural Mexico.

August 27, 2017 at 6:42 am Leave a comment


Commonwealth is a middle class blended family drama. The custody arrangements mean that every North American summer 6 kids from two families spend several weeks together with couple that created the whole situation, who provide next to no supervision. It's about the long-tail effects of what those kids got up to each summer in 80s on them as adults in the present day, and by implication of the behaviour of the couple. The consequences of their self-absorption.

The Guardian's review begins

Ann Patchett’s seventh novel begins in the early 1960s, at Beverly and Fix Keating’s christening party for their daughter Franny. An unexpected guest turns up, with a large bottle of gin in lieu of an invitation. Bert Cousins is a lawyer in the Los Angeles district attorney’s office; Fix Keating is a local cop. They barely know each other, but Bert wants an excuse to escape a home with three small children and a pregnant wife. With the help of Bert’s gin, everyone gets drunk and many lives are changed. Handsome Bert kisses beautiful Beverly, sparking an affair that splits and reconfigures their families. Eventually Bert and Beverly leave their spouses, marry and move to Virginia, where their six children come together each summer.

Commonwealth crosscuts between the lives of the Keating and Cousins families over the next five decades, as tragedy strikes and life unfolds. In her 20s, Franny Keating begins a relationship with the renowned novelist Leon Posen, a much older man in desperate need of inspiration for a new book. The stories she tells him of her childhood sow the seeds for his bestselling comeback, also entitled “Commonwealth”. The impact of that novel, and the secrets it reveals, spin the threads Patchett uses to stitch together the stories of 10 people: the six Keating-Cousins children and their four parents.

Most bookgroupers liked it. They appreciated that the language did not get in the way. It seemed to narrate events and give insights to behaviours of characters without ever drawing attention to itself. One bookgrouper particularly liked that the dialogue was quite surprising, and everyone agreed. it was like real dialogue in that characters rarely answered the questions they were asked directly, instead making observations triggered by the question or related to it, so their conversations moved from one related thing to the next, as they do in life.

We had an interesting discussion about whether it was a deliberate, pretentious, attempt to turn a pretty ordinary story in to ‘Literature’. It wasn't from the language perspective, as i’ve said the language did its job without being flashy or showy. However, it did do a number of other things that you could argue were deliberate attempts to flag to the prize awarding literarti that this was ‘Literature’: it was non-linear timewise and character wise; and self – reflective or ‘meta’ as some would have it.

It was non-linear time wise because it started from the end, or near it, then jumped to different moments in the history of the family that led to that point. Nearly every book that wants to be ‘Literature’ does this. It often feels quite forced, just adding confusion but no other value. However in this case it did not get in the way. Most of the book was actually in time order, apart from the beginning and the end. And the points chosen were clearly turning points. So you could argue it was ok because it didn't get in the way, it wasn't confusing. but you could also say it was entirely unnecessary, and just included because the author, a former book editor, knows that it is expected for Literature.

Similarly, as a former editor the author would know that all ‘Literature’ these days has to switch point view between different characters to show the author can ‘write’ men and women and whoever. The book is structured this way — with a section from the point of view of one character and then another. But the end most, but not all, of the main characters have had their own section. Again, while you could say its unnecessary and therefore just for show, its also done well, so it doesn't seem to be confusing or distracting. Each section is reasonably long so its not hard to follow, and as you spend time with each character it starts to explain their behaviour as related in other sections by other characters. Although I thought it wasn't entirely successful. For me the men were a little bit stereo typical, without a great depth of character, but the book ids mostly from the point of view of the women characters and they were very good.

It was self reflective in that it featured a book and film about the events described in the book, even with the same name as the book. So it's a book describing a book about itself. As i understand it, this is what some people call meta-narrative, which is very trendy in literary circles. So on this count you can definitely argue that the author was trying hard to be literary. It really wasn't necessary in the story, which is otherwise quite a well-done middle-class family drama with a few surprises here and there; some very interesting lines; and some well observed descriptions of the interactions between people. It is done well enough that it could have stood on its own in that genre without the ‘meta’ bit. Therefore the choice to include it does smack of chasing prizes.

Whether or not it was self-consciously pretentious, i think if you like middle class family dramas, especially about west coast Americans, this would not be a bad choice. However there many many such books. I'm not sure there is anything distinctive about this one.

August 5, 2017 at 7:14 am 1 comment


Although it is a study of America in the early 1800s this book could be a vision of the future. It’s apalling central character Rufus was raised in a household with slaves, whom he simultaneously regarded as friends and family, and ordered around to do his every wish and command. His total inability to form genuine relationships may be what is waiting for us all in the era of the robot; when our children have been brought up with electronic child care slaves they are free to use and abuse.
But Rufus is not the core issue. The real story is of African American woman – Dana – from the 1970s.

She gets transported back in time to the slave owning past when the life of her white ancestor – the apalling Rufus – is threatened. She then gets transported back to her time when her own life is threatened. So the book is constructed from the series of dramatic events that lead to her being transported back-and-forth, and how it is for her to survive between these events, either as a black woman in slave era America or back in her own 70s Los Angeles wondering what is going on.

This time travel scenario is set up so that even though she often only stays in her time for a few hours between trips to the past, when she goes back years have passed. Likewise she can be back in the slave times for months, but only gone for a few minutes from her own time.

This set-up is a little complex but it makes for a great book. It’s a very clever at multiple levels. Its main purpose is to allow us to see more clearly the slave owning world because we can see it through modern eyes, but black eyes. However, it also has some practical story telling bonuses. For example, it stops her killing her obnoxious ancestor because she knows has to wait until her ancestor Hagar is born, otherwise she herself might never come to be.

It’s well written in the sense that the writing stays out-of-the-way, and does it’s job of communicating characters and scenes. It does not try to wow you with language fireworks but its certainly not any the less powerful for that.

This more plain writing style is the major real difference with the previous book group novel – Beloved. It was also a very powerful novel about slave America, but the writing was difficult at times and beautiful at others. Either way the writing was constantly, and deliberately, in your face. In contrast this book is very easy to read. It doesn’t shout at you that its a literary novel. Tellingly though everybody in the group finished it for the first time in many years because it was easy to read.

Interestingly both books agreed that in their view the most crucial part of the slave experience is the humiliation, self loathing and self doubt it causes. Both books communicate this same experience, just in different ways.

They both say that self-doubt and humiliation comes from feeling like you have given in to violence, chosen not to resist and fight back, and how this causes ongoing guilt. A feeling that you are allowing this to happen to you; even though you have no choice, it’s clear you will be killed if you do resist; nevertheless self loathing comes from that perception that you have acquiesced, accepted and therefore in some way participated in this abomination.

These books hammer that point, this in their view is the biggest part of the slave experience and why that self loathing has echoes down the generations

Even though it was written in the 70s the book does take the opportunity to deal with many things other than slavery.

The main character is black and in her own time she’s married to a white man, and there is a lot said about that at the beginning. Rightly so. Interracial marriages as they called in the US, even in the 21st century, seem to remain very controversial. The purpose of the story of their families both ostracising them in their own is to show America still has a long way to go. 

There is also a lot of gender issues in the novel because Dana, the main character, arrives back in time with short hair and wearing pants. They dont know what to think of her. 

There is also interesting dynamics amongst the black slaves. There is a hierarchy. Dana is seen as too close to the masters, too educated, so she is called a white nigger. This shows to complexity of humans, and makes the point that just because you are a victim of some terrible doesn’t automatically make you are saint. Victims can also be horrible to their fellow victims.

The other main character, Rufus, is a remarkable psychological creation. He is just appalling in almost every way, but this is done in a way that really shines a light on what it means to live well what it means to have good relationships. 

Everything with Rufus is about punishment and reward; even when he has genuine feelings. He really does seem to love Dana and another woman in the book Alice – the mother of his children. Even so he only deals with them in a punishment and reward way. He wants them to love him and he thinks he can achieve that through punishment, often terrible punishment, and reward. It makes no sense, every reader knows you cant beat someone in to loving you, but in his case its all he knows. It is the only model of relationship he has see, because he has grown up isolated on slave era plantation with his father. As a man of his time this is how his father treated both Rufus as a child and his slaves, so Rufus behaves the same way.

This really tells you something about the the slave-master relationship. It also seems to be saying something about the impact of slavery on the white slave-owners not just about the impact of slavery on the black slaves

And this is where you can argue the study of slavery has great contemporary relevance. We may be entering a new era of slavery, the slavery of robots. So it may be that we are all at risk of becoming Rufus when we all have permanent personal slaves. If we treat them as slaves will they have the same affect on us? Will we all become like Rufus in the way that we deal with people because we are used to dealing with our electronic slaves, so will we treat each other in the same way and be disappointed when people don’t respond like our robots respond? If we get used to treating our robots as slaves will we want to treat humans the same way? Worse still will we look for opportunities to get a ‘real’ slave – a genuine human we can treat like a robot, will that become the new conspicuous consumption?

Even bookgroupers who don’t normally like sci-fi or fantasy managed to cope with the time travel aspect with no problem. I think because of straightforward language and the really clever devices were used to set up the scenario:

  • Making Rufus the ancestor of Dana meant she had she to keep rescuing him until her ancestor Hagar was born even though he was so appalling. 
  • Making the trigger for the time travel a life-threatening situations for either Rufus or Dana because it meant the drama had to keep coming to get them back and forth. It created constant suspense because whatever time she was in you wondered what was going on back in the other time.
  • Having her there from the 70s really made you look at the slave world through her 70s eyes. 
  • Having her there as black woman really brought it home very strongly especially in one instance where she was sent back in time with her white husband so they were there together and how that played out – a black woman and a white man back in that time – and how they had to behave to survive was very revealing.

Highly recommended

July 8, 2017 at 12:15 pm Leave a comment


beloved Beloved won the Pulitzer Prize and the American Book Award in 1988, and the author  Toni Morrison went on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993. it was also 41st on this list of best books of all time. With that kind of resume you might think bookgroup was destined for disappointment due to exceedingly high expectations.

Not in this case. This book delivered. It is understandably famous. It uses what you could call magic realism, fantasy or supernatural elements, to bring the real horror of American slavery to life.

Probably like a lot of people I thought I knew enough about the slave era in America. I have a longstanding interest in the politics of equality and as a result I have a much brighter view of the 20th century and much darker view of earlier centuries than most. So my view of slavery based societies, and all pre-20th century societies, whether they are based on feudal, religious, traditional or colonial arrangements is very dark. I thought I had a clear eyed view of the evil seemingly ordinary humans are capable of when there is no oversight of, or accountability for, their actions.

This book made me realise my sight was not nearly dark enough. It also opened my eyes further to the community, family and intergenerational effects of such systems of domination and oppression – the impacts of these systems at the population level for generations afterwards.

A key message the book wants to send appears to be that the real inhumanity of the slavery system is that it forces people to be complicit in their own humiliation. They become self-loathing because they feel they are constantly making decisions to accept being abused and degraded, instead of dying or going mad. Even though their only choice is death or survival they feel survival is somehow morally the wrong choice. They feel they should choose to die rather than to be treated this way. The book seems to be saying that it’s creating this feeling of self loathing that is the real evil of slavery, because it explains the intergenerational dysfunction and disaster that follows slavery.

The power of this experience is communicated through the central story of the book which is very slowly revealed piece by piece. Having recently escaped slavery, Sethe (the main character) and her children are about to be recaptured. She chooses to kill her children thinking that is better than letting them suffer the way she has. She succeeds in killing her infant daughter but not the other children.

Reading of the horror inflicted on her, and the other slaves around her, its hard, impossible really,  to feel that Sethe’s choice was wrong. Nevertheless the book goes further, it says understandable or not, right or wrong, its an act with far reaching consequences. The murdered child becomes a malevolent ghost and eventually a malevolent flesh and blood person, created from the remorse of the mother.

It seemed to me that this scenario, and the ideas it encapsulates apply to all subjugated and brutalised peoples. It helps explain the African American experience that it describes, but also the experience of indigenous populations decimated by colonial peoples, as Intergenerational trauma. How can you feel you belong to a country, and communicate that belonging to your children, when in that country your ancestors have been treated so badly they choose to kill their infant children, to protect them from such treatment? When the pain of making that decision is so strong it has the power to create a flesh and blood ghost of remorse?

AS Morrison says in the foreword to the edition i read

that the order and quietude of everyday life would be violently disrupted by the chaos of the needy dead; that the herculean effort to forget would be threatened by memory desperate to stay alive. To render enslavement as a personal experience,

However the book also has some answers. If self loathing is the problem, self love is the solution.

Here,” she said, “in this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it. They don’t love your eyes; they’d just as soon pick em out. No more do they love the skin on your back. Yonder they flay it. And O my people they do not love your hands. Those they only use, tie, bind, chop off and leave empty. Love your hands! Love them. Raise them up and kiss them. Touch others with them, pat them together, stroke them on your face ’cause they don’t love that either. You got to love it, you! And no, they ain’t in love with your mouth. Yonder, out there, they will see it broken and break it again. What you say out of it they will not heed. What you scream from it they do not hear. What you put into it to nourish your body they will snatch away and give you leavins instead. No, they don’t love your mouth. You got to love it. This is flesh I’m talking about here. Flesh that needs to be loved. Feet that need to rest and to dance; backs that need support; shoulders that need arms, strong arms I’m telling you. And O my people, out yonder, hear me, they do not love your neck unnoosed and straight. So love your neck; put a hand on it, grace it, stroke it and hold it up. And all your inside parts that they’d just as soon slop for hogs, you got to love them. The dark, dark liver—love it, love it, and the beat and beating heart, love that too. More than eyes or feet. More than lungs that have yet to draw free air. More than your life-holding womb and your life-giving private parts, hear me now, love your heart. For this is the prize.” Saying no more, she stood up then and danced with her twisted hip the rest of what her heart had to say while the others opened their mouths and gave her the music. Long notes held until the four-part harmony was perfect enough for their deeply loved flesh

Bookgroupers did have some problems with the book. They felt it was hard to follow because it jumps back and forth in time and refers to many different characters, especially at the beginning. They also felt the language was difficult in places, especially because of the unfamiliar accents and language at he beginning, and later because it has passages of unpunctuated stream of consciousness style writing. Several Bookgroupers also found the fantasy and/or supernatural elements confusing, especially who or what is Beloved – the flesh and blood ghost of remorse.

I loved it. If you feel like reading a genuine prize winning literary classic, this one is definitely worth the effort.


April 16, 2017 at 1:38 pm Leave a comment


White_Teeth_Tube_Map White Teeth by jamaican-english writer Zadie Smith won the orange prize for fiction and a bunch of other awards.

All Bookgroupers enjoyed this book which is very rare. Usually there are are at least some dissenting views. Sometimes the dissenting view is me but in this case I agree. I found this to be wonderful in many many ways.

Perhaps its most obvious virtue is that it’s an evocation of the rainbow society of modern London, circa the 1990s anyway. It was a terrific history of how that society came to be, including its connections to empire; a particularly persuasive history as it comes from someone inside that society – the author being a Londoner from a Jamaican family. Getting this insiders view of that society, rather than an outsiders perspective of how they thought it was, made it much more enjoyable.

Where I come from,’ said Archie, ‘a bloke likes to get to know a girl before he marries her.’
‘Where you come from it is customary to boil vegetables until they fall apart. This does not mean,’ said Samad tersely, ‘that it is a good idea.’

Even better though was that it managed to be funny and entertaining at the same time, so it wasn’t just an appeal to the readers conscience about racism and multiculturalism.

Lacking any name for the furtive rumblings that appeared in her lower abdomen on these occasions, Clara called it the spirit of the Lord.

In addition to all that it is a novel on a grand scale it multiple levels. At the level of plot it is an epic story spanning multiple generations of multiple families spread through many big moments in history including Indian independence, the end of WW@ and the fall of the Berlin wall.

At the level of ideas, it combines this geopolitical history with the personal and family history of the characters to illustrate how things work and why they work the way they do.

If religion is the opium of the people, tradition is an even more sinister analgesic, simply because it rarely appears sinister. If religion is a tight band, a throbbing vein and a needle, tradition is a far homelier concoction: poppy seeds ground into tea; a sweet cocoa drink laced with cocaine; the kind of thing your grandmother might have made

Despite all these many virtues the strongest feature of the book may be at the level of its characters. They are interesting, funny, believable, frustrating, realistic and romantic. A Jamaican Jehovah Witness mum, an adulterous pious muslim Bangladeshi dad, genius children and London wannabe teen rapper gangsta boys. All brought to the page with real spirit and love, and enough attention to detail that makes them completely believable despite their oddity.

She was that age. Whatever she said burst like genius into centuries of silence. Whatever she touched was the first stroke of its kind. Whatever she believed was not formed by faith but carved from certainty. Whatever she thought was the first time such a thought had ever been thunk.

Highly recommended


April 16, 2017 at 11:52 am Leave a comment

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