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.
Book Review on Dawn French's Because of You
Dawn French describes her book, Because of You as a love letter to her daughter, step-daughter and mother. She claims that the book dared her to write it.
In Because of You, Hope gives birth to a still born baby and goes on to steal the child of another woman, Anna, who had given birth the same hospital that night. Hope raises the child Minnie as her own. When Minnie becomes pregnant at 17 it is discovered that she has a hereditary heart defect, inherited from her biological father, Julius. Hope tells her Minnnie the truth of her birth, before handing herself in to the police. It is then that events speed on to a dramatic conclusion.
The story, Because of You is split into short, sharp insightful chapters, where the reader either sees the events specifically from the character's own viewpoint, or from the stance of the narrator, talking about the character. In this respect, Julius comes off worst. The chapters sign post clearly who and what aspect of the story is about to be explored. The story is written in a no-nonsense concise manner and includes social and political commentary throughout.
The emotions explored in Because of You are vast and intense. The events invite the reader to be drawn in and not only understand the story, but feel what the characters are feeling. This is quite a feat when the reader's are asked to frequently shift who their sympathy and empathy is aimed at. Because of You feels like it ought not to be a book but to be rushed, but the reality is it is a book that is almost impossible not to race through. I think this is maybe because Dawn French uses dialogue quite extensively as a writing device. Usually linear-ish, though not always, the chapters lead purposefully toward the dramatic conclusion of the story. I didn't see the ending coming, but I feel I probably should have!
The two couples the story is about are the real parents of Minnie, (who they named Florence) couldn't be more different. Julius, is a first rate egotistical idiot politician; his wife, Anna is grieving and bereft, for almost the whole story and hates her husband. As she comes to terms with how much Julius disgusts her, the reader see her grow in strength.
Hope became pregnant to quiet Isaac, a student from Liberia. Hope has escaped her own fairly dysfunctional background in Bristol and loves her indpendent life, where she is a cleaner in a London hospital. Hope becomes involved with quiet Isaac. A somewhat allusive, figure, he is warm, kind and gentle, but returns to Liberia being unalbe to actively participate day to day in the deception of the abduction he was part of.. Hope devotes her life, soul and everything she has and is in raising Minnie.
Family is obviously the key theme explored in the story, but class, wealth, politics, honesty, duplicity, morality are all simmering at or just below the surface. For a text that is easy and quick to read and absorb, it is hugely powerful. Dawn French is able to show the complexity of any given topic. She is, I think, challenging all of us when we oversimplify and put things inot straightforward 'right and wrong' boxes.
Dawn French's Because of You was longlisted for the 2021 Womens' Prize for Fiction. I was thrilled for her. As a celebrity author she has more than earned her Sergeant stripes.
Book Discussion Questions on Dawn French's Because of You
Book Club on Dawn French's Because of You (If you haven't read the book!)
Personal Response to Dawn French's Because of You
I thought this was a really enjoyable read. It got me back into reading after too long a gap, where I hadn't been able to concentrate. Friends have already used it as a bookclub text and loved it. There is a lot to discuss and each topic is evenly drawn and explored. The part I found most powerful was the letter Minnie wrote to her mother, where she says "I'm not from them, I'm from you." It broke my heart just a little bit!
Dawn French is a particularly skilled letter writer. I'd like to ask her if letter writing features regularly in her real life, but I guess the opportunity to do so isn't likely to arise!
Book Review of Dolly Alderton's Ghosts
Dolly Alderton's Ghosts follows the thirty second year of its main character Nina and explores the relationships that she has with her friends, parents and boyfriend Max. As such it is ambitious in scope and presents a realistic portrayal of significant points in life. From exploring issues of having children, to managing careers, to coping with middle age and caring for elderly parents there is something that most readers can relate to.
Presented as a first person narrative the style is straightforward and the text could almost be a 'real life' diary. As such, it reminded me of a slightly more serious Bridget Jones type narrative, Striving for and attaining good mental health is a theme that is never far from the surface and we watch Nina navigate the disappointments and upsets of life as she ultimately strives to achieve an equilibrium and sense of peace.
Nina presents as a likeable, but flawed woman finding her way in a modern world. Young readers would probably laugh at my minimal understanding of 'Ghosting' before reading the book but Nina experiences it first hand and copes well. Alderton explores and examines online dating and its pros and cons with aplomb. For a mature reader like myself this is eye-opening.
Dolly Alderton's Ghosts presentation of dementia and Nina's growing awareness of the loss of her father (as she had known him) as being the true tragedy in her life is moving to read. It is the struggle that Nina's Mum has in managing the loss of her husband to dementia that was the most powerful aspect of the book for me.
Dolly Alderton's Ghosts is a book that different generations of the same family could enjoy and come together to chat over. As a writer I imagine Alderton growing in sophistication and going from strength to strength.
Book Discussion Questions on Dolly Alderton's Ghosts
Lola is something of an expert in judging online dating profiles and the etiquette of online dating. To what extent did you agree with Lola's observations?
Which of Nina's friends did you have the most respect for and why? Which of Nina's friends did you have the least respect for and why?
Nina's mum changes her name to Mandy at a time that her husband is struggling to maintain a grasp of his own reality. How much sympathy do you have for Mandy? To what extent do you think she is a good wife and/or mother?
Explore Nina's relationship with Angelo. Particularly in the early days of their relationship who was at fault and why?
Max and Jethro both ultimately let down Nina and Lola. Discuss the extent to which they should be blamed for their actions?
Who is the most naive character in the book and why?
How effective is Dolly Alderton's portrayal of dementia in the novel?
Nina initally loves her flat with its artex ceilings and general need for decoration. Discuss how satisfied you think Nina is with her life?
Nina retains a very close relationship with her ex Joe and even acts as an usher at his wedding to Lucy. Did you find the portrayal of their friendship realistic? Why or why not?
Who is your favourite character in Dolly Alderton's Ghosts and why?
If Ghosts was being made into a film who would you cast as the main characters?
Ghosts is a very contemporary book and includes many references to current day use of technology and explores contemporary views regarding feminism, parenthood, mental health etc. Do you think Ghosts will stand the test of time? Why or why not?
Book Club Questions on Dolly Alderton's Ghosts (If you haven't read the book!)
What is your experience of online dating? Discuss whether you think it is an effective style of dating.
In Ghosts Nina has a prickly relationship with her mother and for much of the text seems to have little sympathy for her. Discuss mother/daughter relationships and what can cause friction in them.
In Ghosts Nina's father has dementia and as his cognitive abilities decline increasingly wants the comfort of his deceased mother. Share any personal experiences that you have of managing dementia.
In Ghosts Nina is twice 'ghosted' by Max. If a lover 'ghosted' you do you think you would be prepared to reignite the relationship and try again.
Nina copes with rejection in Ghosts by sleeping with a neighbour. What is your view of getting over one relationship by embarking on another?
As a genre Ghosts is very much an example of 'realism'. What type of fiction do you most enjoy and why?
Dolly Alderton is an author who has a previous career as journalist, podcaster and influencer. Do you judge novels written by 'celebrities' in a different way to those written by established authors?
Personal Response to Dolly Alderton's Ghosts
It took me a while to get into Dolly Alderton's Ghosts as the characters felt too young for me to be really interested in what happened to them. Of course, the only person that reflects on and reflects on badly is myself. A good book can be compelling to read and invite empathy and interest regardless of whether those featuring in it are relatable to the reader. Once I overcame my own prejudices I found Dolly Alderton's Ghosts well worth reading. It was a page-turner and provided plenty of food for thought for all age groups. I do think though it would particularly appeal to twenty and thirty-something readers.