Friday, 7 June 2013

Summer Book Clubbing

The weather's been great in Manchester and I've been enjoying some proper summer reading.

I've ended up falling for a couple of Book Club promotions. First of all Waterstones - and i swore I never would again, after buying a couple of things from last year's summer book club and *loathing* them. I swore i'd never be so daft as to be swayed by the whole pre-packaged, gently coercive, intellectually-pretentious Waterstones fandango.

Yet I did and I'm glad I did because I ended up reading Liz Moore's 'Heft', which is a wonderful novel. It hits all the right notes for me - a bunch of outsidery characters in nothing-happening chapters that are slow, detailed, and thoroughly melancholic. It's slow-moving and gravid with unfolding tragedy, misunderstandings and hugely awkward situations. And each of the central characters is marvellously flawed and lovable. I know it's a book i'll want to revisit. So many gorgeous scenes. I wanted to punch the air even as my toes curled in embarrassment.

On a rainy afternoon in Stockport I rewarded myself with an afternoon of reading and mooching. I sat in Costa Coffee reading Liz Moore and I went into WH Smiths and fell into the Richard and Judy summer bookclub promotion. Yes, i sort-of despair at this stuff. The fact that the vast multiplicity of books published in any one season can be brutally whittled down to a spare selection that get heavily promoted by this well-oiled and hideously efficient media juggernaut. I hate the fact that the books are so heavily discounted that it makes even thinking about making a more unusual or individual choice seem like a wilful absurdity on the part of the consumer. I'm completely suspicious of the whole fast-foodiness of the posters, the promotion, the hype.

However, in nine years i've never read a book recommended by the R&J book club that I've disliked. Oh, maybe one. But that's still a pretty good score.

So - there I was - buying three and then reading three, one after the next, this past week. Three very slick novels of very different kinds. All Richard and Judys are solid, good reads, I've found. They're story-telling machines - very well constructed. Often with big human quandaries and dilemmas at their hearts. Often set beside the sea side.

I thoroughly enjoyed all three. Liza Klaussmann's 'Tigers in Red Weather' is a kind of dysfunctional family saga set over the middle of the twentieth century and set mostly on Long Island. The characters are beautifully drawn and the time scheme shuttles back and forth very neatly, sketching out the difficult moments and filling in the background to what is essentially a murder mystery. The publicity stuff makes much of this book's timely and superficial echoes of 'The Great Gatsby' - but i found it more to be like a rather hellish version of 'Valley of the Dolls' - and all the better for it. A proper summer blockbuster - with lots of glamour, highly-wrought behaviour and a bit of perversity, cocktails  and grisly murder.

'The Universe Versus Alex Woods' by Gavin Extence is rather lovely at times. The precocious teenager has a distinctive voice and, though I wasn't always convinced by it, it's well sustained throughout his adventures. I love the details about what it would be like to be hit in the head by a meteorite - and then to have your brain hoovered for grit and space-dust. He has a very sweet friendship with the Vietnam vet with whom he starts up his Kurt Vonnegut reading group... but sometimes i felt a bit sold short on some of the promises of the material, as we galloped towards the book's climax and its biggest selling point - which is the whole assisted-suicide issue. But I thought the whole thing was charming, by the end.

My favourite of the three has to be M.L Stedman's 'The Light Between Oceans' - which is one of those anxiety-inducing novels that are all about a moral quandary and characters that you feel are so real they make you want to explode with frustration when you seeing them make the wrong choices and doing the wrong things. This is a such a vividly imagined and realised novel. The oceans and the lighthouse and the little town on the coast of Australia are so well presented. It's all about passion and mistakes and desire for revenge - and about parents doing anything to keep their kids. And it's one of those fabulous, sweeping epics that keep you guessing the outcome right until the end. The final chapter was just wonderful.

I can see the lure in these book clubs. It's like not having to think about what you're going to read next. Just picking up the next in the pile and being reasonably assured that you're going to quite enjoy it, at least - and be swept away utterly at best.

I'm so used to picking my own eccentric way through the landscape of reading. I have been since I was about five. It's quite fun to give myself up to someone else's choices.

It's a bit like being on holiday.

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