Book Review of Mary Lawson's A Town Called Solace
Mary Lawson's A Town Called Solace is set in Northern Ontario in 1972. It is beautifully accessible, eternally hopeful and poignantly sad.
A Town Called Solace explores the relationship between Clara, (the sister of Rose, a rebellious teenager who has run away from home), with Mrs Orchard her next door neighbour, who also inexplicably disappears, and later Liam, the mysterious man who then appears in Mrs Orchard's house. Told from alternate narratives we learn everyone's story and the relationships between them.
The main story in A Town Called Solace, is a historical one. I'ts a tale that Clara never actually learns about. Had she known I wonder how she or her parents might have felt about her friendship with Mrs. Orchard. Elizabeth Orchard, a Primary teacher who was unable to have children, befriends Liam, the small boy from next door. Events unfold and Liam is removed from Mrs Orchard's life. Years later Elizabeth, having moved to a town called Solace, leaves her house, in her will, to Liam, now a grown man, If I were teaching the book in school I'd be looking at the unreliability of narrative voice as I'm not sure I believed everything Elizabeth said!
Liam, now an accountant, in the aftermath of a failed marriage, arrives at Solace determined to stay only long enough to sort out Mrs Orchard's estate. Events unfold in a way that the reader realizes early on that Liam's visit will be a lengthy one. After all Mrs Orchard has a cat that someone must look after!
The individual stories that emerge are tragic and heartbreaking, yet any sense of despair felt by the reader is fleeting. Somehow, Mary Lawson manages to instil hope in the most awful of situations. Perhaps it is the feisty innocence, but determination of young Clara, who links each of the stories, that allows for optimism to emerge.
The book has both a small town, parochial feel alongside a sense of it being universally important. The deceptively simple writing style embodies this. It's straightforward nature belies its utter brilliance. It feels strong and immersive. The reader is left enchanted, yet wondering why this is the case. There are definite weaknesses in the plot - the inclusion of child safety issues pertaining to Clara seem like an editor's after thought. Not particularly being a cat lover myself the ending struck me as cheesy, yet it didn't matter.
Despite criticisms that can be made A Town Called Solace resonates to the very heart of the reader. It has the same kind of feel good message as The Midnight Library, but the plot is probably a bit darker in places. Perhaps it is because ultimately we are all concerned with the small corners of life that make up existence. Trivial to others, but important to us.
It is both pleasing and surprising that Mary Lawson's A Town Called Solace has been longlisted for the Booker Prize. I wonder if it could win?
Book Discussion Questions on Mary Lawson's A Town Called Solace
Bookclub Questions on A Town Called Solace (if you haven't read the book!)
Personal Response to Mary Lawson's A Town Called Solace
The fascinating thing about The Booker Prize is how diverse the selected longlist and then the short list of books are. I would not have expected this to be on it, yet why not? It is a powerful and sophisticated exploration of the frailty of people. It deserves it's place.
The more I read, particularly in recent years, the more obvious it seems to me that the fundamental purpose of all fiction is just to help us understand ourselves and the people we love. Mary Lawson achieves this in A Town Called Solace. It is probably a good job that I've been out of the teaching profession for several years now. If that's all I'd had to say when teaching IB English my lessons would have been very short.
Book Review of Fredrik Backman's Anxious People
Fredrik Backman's Anxious People is a thought provoking book, with overall an uplifting and feel good vibe. It encourages us to be kind and reflect on what really matters in life. The plot is clearly thought out and effectively executed. The way all the loose ends are tied up at the end is incredibly well done. Bravo Fredrik!
The driving force of the plot of Anxious People is a failed bank robbery, which inadvertently turns into something of a farcical hostage situation. The bank robber, running from the scene of the crime, that never happened, ends up in an apartment where eight prospective buyers are being shown round by an estate agent. They inadvertently find themselves in a siege situation, being held by the hapless bank robber who had no plans to take anyone hostage.
There follows an exploration of the emotions, hopes, dreams, losses and achievements of the different characters lives. Flaws are revealed, conversations are held, histories are shared and, above all, the fundamental need for connection between humans is illustrated.
Bring in a father/son police officer duo into the action and a whole extra dimension to the story is added. The scene is set for a fully-fledged crime drama with a heavy dosage of irony, humour and pathos. The blurb on the back of Fredrik Backman's Anxious People suggests that this is a restorative book that reminds the readers of the good in humanity. In this way, it is almost interchangeable with A Man Called Ove.
Backman comments on how many of the jokes are lost in the translation of this book from Swedish to English. I don't easily laugh out loud so for me, that's no problem. The dominant tone is probably one of pathos that is enjoyable to read. As a writer Backman reminds me quite a bit of Matt Haig. I would put Anxious People in exactly the same genre as The Midnight Library. Both texts are poignant reminders that despite the mistakes we make along the way, life is precious and every moment needs to be valued.
Book Discussion Questions on Fredrik Backman's Anxious People
Book Discussion Questions on Anxious People (if you haven't read the book!)
Personal Response to Fredrik Backman's Anxious People
For me it is the vulnerability and fragility of human life that stands out in Fredrik Backman's Anxious People. It is a book I'd definitely recommend. There was, though, one aspect of the writing style that I couldn't reconcile myself to. A key theme of the book is to show that we shouldn't be judgemental and that we need to understand the backstory of an individual to really understand them. That's great and I adhere to it, yet I found the narrative style constantly judging those who judge! I found the discourse slightly patronizing and just a little bit supercilious. I haven't explained that well and maybe I'm being unfair. My friend who loaned me the book felt that the narrative is simply a commentary, not a judgement. I'm not sure who's right. Either way, I wouldn't let that stop you reading the book and deciding for yourself. If you need a lift, Anxious People is probably a great choice for you.
Book Review of Matt Haig's The Midnight Library
Matt Haig's The Midnight Library tells the story of 35 year old Nora Seed, following the night she takes an overdose. The various things wrong with Nora's life emerge quite quickly. She had a difficult father, she became ostracized from her brother when she jumped ship on the band they were in together, just as it started to be successful. Her best friend is upset with her for not joining her in Australia. Just when things seem pretty much at rock bottom she is fired as a piano tutor by the single student she has and her cat dies!
It doesn't take long for all the factors leading to Nora's suicide to emerge. Neither does it take long to figure out how Matt Haig is going to present his message to us. In a between life and death state, Nora finds herself in a large library where, as long as it stays midnight, she has the option to try out all the lives she might choose to live. The process of doing so enables her to eradicate the numerous regrets she has. Nora tries on many lives, from olympic swimmer, rockstar, wife of a famous musician, wine producer and countless more. What becomes apparent is that every life leads to different choices which not only affect her, but also the lives of other characters.
As a child Mrs. Elm, the school librarian was always kind to Nora and it is she who comforted her when she received the news that her father had died. It makes sense then that it is Mrs. Elm who navigates Nora through the library.
In the story, The Midnight Library, Nora is intelligent and aritculate. She is also afraid of life. She knows that her brain is tricking her and she is acutely aware that whatever choices she makes she is living as a kind of imposter. She returns time after time too her 'root life,' until finally the decision has to be made about whether she will live or die.
As readers, we are left questioning whether Nora is actually in her 'root life' or whether that is simply one among many parallel existences.
Book Discussion Questions on Matt Haig's The Midnight Library
Book Discussion Questions on The Midnight Library (if you haven't read the book!)
Personal Response to Matt Haig's The Midnight Library
I quite enjoyed Matt Haig's The Midnight Library. I respected the message that Haig was putting across. He includes a lot of signposts for how we can look after our mental health. In The Midnight Library, Haig is teaching us that regrets don't help us move forward. We can't actually change the past, but we can choose our futures. We can't guarantee they are perfect, but we can live them. I could appreciate that message. There are whole passages in the book that are worth having as a mantra to live by. For anyone struggling with their mental health, it is well worth revisiting these sections.
Like a lot of readers, I've struggled to concentrate in recent weeks. I wrote about managing coronavirus stress some weeks ago, so I was happy enough to enjoy the obvious direct nature of Haig's writing style. As I read The Midnight Library, I kept thinking it must have been written with a teen fiction audience in mind, as the message does get hammered home. I think it is fair to say that Matt Haig's The Midnight Library, is linear and lacks subtlety.
When I was reading it felt, at times, like Haig had returned to chapters already written and added in a bit of extra text to make sure that the reader hadn't missed any of the intended message. This gave it a slightly didactic feel. The story reminded me a bit of Life on Mars, with that whole between life and death feeling. In terms of choosing different lives, it is a bit like Kate Atkinson's Life After Life. Life After Life is a more sophisticated book though. The character Nora, in the story has studied philosophy, but I don't really view this as a philosophical text. It's more a cross between self-help and fiction.
If you follow my book blogs, you'll know that of late I've become quite obsessed with Richard Holloway and have recently read Waiting for the Last Bus. I think he would highly recommend The Midnight Library to readers. It covers the big questions. It's a totally different level and style of reading to Waiting for the Last Bus, but the messages of both are not so different. I enjoyed the book and found parts of it quite profound, but I felt like it needed another round of editing to move it from an okay book to a really good read.
Book Review of Sarah Moss's Summerwater
Sarah Moss's Summerwater describes the holiday experiences of a series of families who are staying in log cabins, near a loch, in a remote part of Scotland. The chapters are, if you like, snapshots, or snippets, of the different holiday makers' lives.
Some of the families own their cabins and others rent them. There is a feeling that nothing is quite what it seems and the lives of everyone are falling apart. Everyone is vaguely watching everyone else and no one is entirely sympathetic to one another. At the resort it is noted that a new family, interlopers, people who come and go making noise, have arrived. The equilibrium is disturbed and the reader is led on a heady path to where they know not. This is cleverly portrayed by the children on the swing, who leave a child struggling because she doesn't look or sound right and doesn't wear the right clothes.
Moss explores characters of all ages and touches many issues. We see the fear of dementia in the eyes of the elderly lady, alongside years of harboured resentments within the marriage. We observe the middle-aged woman running for her life, such is her seeming desire to escape it! We see the self-conscious teenager take risks with his safety, venturing too far into the loch in storrmy conditions. Disappointment pervades the characters' emotions.
The relentless use of pathetic fallacy provides no let-up. It is perhaps ironic that I actually found one of the only hopeful moments presented via the dissatisfied mother of young children, who, when given an hour to herself, could think of no way to fill it, other than returning to the children who were paddling in puddles on the beach - the children, her source of discontent, were still loved.
In between each snap shot of life are short descriptions of nature and change there is an impending sense of doom. Within them is a lot to say about the balance between nature and people. These pages need reading properly.
There are parts of Summerwater that everyone will relate to. It is a book that invites introspection and reflection. It is a short book, but with a lot to say about the purpose or futility of existence and the flawed nature of people. Subtle, but with the appearance of deceptive simplicity, Sarah Moss's Summerwater needs reading carefully.
Book Discussion Questions on Sarah Moss's Summerwater
Book Discussion Questions on Summerwater (if you haven't read the book!)
Personal Response to Sarah Moss's Summerwater
I was interested to see how great the reviews were for this book. I feel I missed a trick when I was reading it. Overall, I found Summerwater a bit creepy. I bet it isn't a book that Richard Holloway would enjoy at all, for example! It is the bleakest book I've read in a long time! I don't mind a good sprinkling of despair as a rule, but this perhaps was a bit close to the bone!
Sarah Moss did a wonderful job of creating tension. She draws character extremely well, but I didn't put all the stories together adequately and consequently was left a bit befuddled by the ending. I also didn't pay sufficient attention to the little in-between chapters, yet I could recognize how they were important. Any lack of engagement about the text is definitely more linked to my state of mind, than to what is a well-written dramatic and profound book. It was quite sinister though and the final page or so completely disturbing. I think I probably admired, rather than loved, Sarah Moss's Summerwater.
Book Review of Richard Holloway's Waiting For The Last Bus
Waiting for the Last Bus is a wonderful book. It is insightful, intelligent, humble and thoughtful. It is also quite difficult.
With searing honesty, Richard Holloway grapples with his religious beliefs and doubts. He considers what it means to have lived a good life and how people manage their worries of the afterlife. He explores the big questions and faces his own uncertainties. The necessity we often feel to view things in binary terms, and the limitations of doing so, is a theme he frequently returns to in the text.
Using anecdotes and beautiful examples, drawn from fiction and philosophy, Holloway gets to the very crux of what it means to be alive. Of course we can't know for sure about the opposite, which Holloway acknowledges, but he explains how dominant death is in his thoughts and contemplates the afterlife. Holloway even talks about those who believe they have come back from the brink of death, doing so in a thoughtful and sympathetic manner. Holloway looks at those of us who are focused on living a good life and those of us who are more concerned with heading to the afterlife, exploring the part religion plays in that.
This is a text to return to. Within Waiting For The Last Bus is sound advice, though never dogmatically presented, on how to handle large life problems and how to keep perspective. Rather than telling the reader they should respond to situations, with certain patterns of behaviour or actions, Holloway reveals how people's lives will be either enhanced or diminished according to how they think about issues and situations they are in. He makes interesting observations about the past, present and future. We can't change the past, but we can change the future. The absolute necessity of being able to forgive is a key theme to which he frequently returns to in his writing.
In attempting to review Holloway's book it is easy to fall into the trap of presenting his text as a self help manual. That's not what it is at all but it is a book that is full of wisdom. I guess if I was trying to give it a genre I'd call it a philosophical tract, but one full of humility, warmth and understanding. It sets the big questions in everyday frameworks we can understand and relate to, but it never reduces the significance of that which it explores. Everyone will remember something different in Holloway's writing and take their own meaning from it,
Book Discussion Questions on Richard Holloway's Waiting For The Last Bus
"Most of us were brought up to believe we made ourselves and constructed our own destiny." This is the opening of a chapter where Holloway goes on to explore whether we do in fact have free choice. Discuss your views of free choice, referring to chapter three as you share your ideas.
Holloway quotes Derek Walcott more than once in this book. What do you think Walcott's line '... give back your heart to itself' means?
Holloway quotes Hamlet's soliloquy when Hamlet contemplates murdering his stepfather Claudius, but chooses not to kill him while he is praying. He claims this is "hire and salary, not revenge ..." Do you think taking revenge is ever helpful? Have you ever had revenge taken on you? Do you have any revenge stories to share?
Holloway says "Grief is shattering, but it can be survived if we let oursevles experience it. It has to be done, not bypassed, muffled or diverted." Discuss grief.
In Waiting For The Last Bus, Holloway shares anecdotes of people having planned their own funerals. One person he knew went as far as recording themselves singing the pieces they wanted played. What music would you have played at your own funeral? Discuss what you think makes a good funeral?
"Our tragedy is that though we do not know what we are doing when we act, our actions are irreversible.." Discuss this Richard Holloway quotation. Is there any point having regrets in life? What can we do to reduce the sorrow or regrets we do have?
Book Discussion on Waiting For The Last Bus (If you haven't read the book!)
Holloway frequently uses the bible as a prompt from which it is possible to discuss philosphical ideas. Where do you get most of your inspiration for 'deep and meaningful' conversation from?
With or without having read the book, how do you interpret the metaphor Waiting for the Last Bus?
What would you consider to have been a good life?
Death is the one certainty in life. Does thinking about that make you want to change anything in your own life? Will you implement the changes?
Holloway thinks that the ability to forgive prevents individuals being stuck in a lifetime of regret and resentment. How easy do you find it to forgive people?
Holloway draws a lot on Larkin's poetry. Do you have a favourite poet that you read in order to help you understand life?
Holloway talks of someone ringing him to check a fact for his obituary. What would you like people to say about you in your obituary?
What is the purpose of a funeral? Discuss.
Holloway has spent much of his life struggling with his faith, lack thereof and what it means to be a believer. Discuss your own religious views with one another? Which religion holds most appeal for you and why?
Personal Response to Waiting For The Last Bus
It is necessary to concentrate to read this book. It isn't something to escape into, it needs thinking about. Its relevance and importance are such that I want all my friends, foes, and anyone in between to read it. If you're recently lost someone then it is perhaps particularly poignant to read, but it is as much about life as it is about death.
Based on a series of radio interviews it is possible to pick up and read any chapter. It isn't essential to read it in a linear fashion from beginning to end, but there is something powerful to think about on each and every page. I don't think I'm being dramatic to say that my own future may be just a little bit changed from having read it.