Tag Archives: book group

The Queen of Dirt Island by Donal Ryan

Last November, when my book group chose the books for 2023, I recommended The Queen of Dirt Island by Donal Ryan. The novel had good reviews and I remembered reading and enjoying The Spinning Heart (2012). The suggestion that it concerned some strong Irish women made it an attractive choice. So here we are, 12 months later, ready to discuss this gem of a book.

The Queen of Dirt Island

The story is structured in a series of two-page chapters, which roll forward and provide a rhythmic beat to one’s reading. It’s a steady story which unfolds over a couple of decades on the edge of a remote and rural Irish housing estate in County Tipperary. It begins with the birth of one of the women, Saoirse. Her father is killed in a road accident even before she is brought home from hospital. He mother, Mary, has been rejected by her family for becoming pregnant. But her mother-in-law, Eileen known as Nana, looks out for her, becomes her friend, and eventually comes to live with Mary and Saoirse.

The story of the women’s struggles, within their families, on the edges of their community, against poverty, and the demands of life, is carried forward through the steady pulse of the short chapters. The prose has a lilt to it, and the speech of the women, their idioms and imagery, are from the best Irish traditions.

Someone had asked Paudie to hide guns in the shed, down behind a load of bales of hay. And other stuff, too. Nana wasn’t sure what. Semtex, Eileen. What in the name of God and His Blessed Mother is Semtex? It doesn’t sound like anything that could ever do any good. And apparently we could all have been blown to Kingdom Come over it. Jim Gildea told me. You’re lucky, Mary, he said. Someone was watching over ye the way it was all brought out in the open now, before Paudie was in too deep. In too deep, Jim Gildea said! As if a shed full of guns and Sem-fucking-tex isn’t deep enough! (21)

Saoirse learns about the world from the conversation of Mary and her mother-in-law Eileen. She is well protected until she is a teenager. In the extract above she hears about her uncle’s arrest.

There’s a great deal of humour in the talk of the adult women as Saoirse grows up. She learns about her world through overhearing their conversations. Despite the lack of punctuation it is always clear who is speaking. When Saoirse reveals that she is pregnant, the chapter called IMMACULATE, is one long paragraph of her mother’s fury. 

How in the fucking fuck could you have gotten pregnant? […] I thought you were different. I thought you’d be something. God forgive me, it’s my own fault for trusting you. I thought behind it all that you were good. (73-74)

The story is built on the strength of the four women: from the grandmother, through Mary to Saoirse and to Pearl, Saoirse’s child. Mary is the queen of Dirt Island. She inherits it from her parents, despite her brother’s ambitions to take it from her. She is the character in the book written by Saoirse ‘s boyfriend, Josh. A heroine, redrawn from Saoirse’s own memories to create something ‘unrecognizable, alien, monstrous’ (214). Josh spiced up the story that we know, to distort Saoirse’s father and his death, and her mother’s role in Paudie’s misdeeds. Later the novel is rewritten and becomes a classic, included in the Irish school curriculum that Pearl is taught.

This distortion reminds the reader of the strength of these women, and we know they love and support each other through daily life, growing up, marriages, births, deaths and betrayals. They shape Saoirse childhood, and then Pearl’s. They have warmth and pride, fury and revenge, love and pity. 

We finish this book, having enjoyed its rhythms and impetus, and the slow march of the decades, aware that we have been given a glimpse of loving life and community. And we make sense of the epigram.

Let the books remember the local battles.
Re-write the plot. Let the harvest wither.
This is your life. She is your great event.
Keep her in the sun.
[‘History’, Mary O’Malley]

What will the other members of my book group think?

The Queen of Dirt Island by Donal Ryan first published in 2022. I used the Penguin edition. 245pp 

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A Town Called Solace by Mary Lawson

The reader is drawn into this novel by Clara’s distress. She lives in the town called Solace in Northern Ontario, Canada. Her world is all askew because her sister Rose, who is sixteen, has disappeared. And now a strange man appears to have moved into the house next door. This is Mrs Orchard’s house. 

Clara is eight, and we find ourselves hoping that things will come right for her and her family, especially given the new development of the man in Mrs Orchard’s house. Is he connected with Rose’s disappearance? What will happen when Mrs Orchard returns? 

A Town Called Solace

In A Town Called Solace three people are suffering. The story unfolds to follow each of them until their stories run together and are resolved.

Clara wants her sister to return, but she is disturbed by the man next door, for she has the responsibility of feeding the cat. Mrs Orchard was a friend to her before she was taken into hospital.

Mrs Orchard’s story is told from her hospital bed. We find her to be a sympathetic patient, helpful to the nurses and the other women on the ward. But she comes to see that she will not recover. The reader discovers that she came to the town many years before, trying to escape her reputation. Something happened in the past. We also discover that she has given her house to the man seen by Clara.

Liam is the man in the house next door. He received notification of the gift of Mrs Orchard’s house just as he was leaving his life, his wife, and his job in Toronto. His first plan is to repair the house and sell it to raise money so that he can start again somewhere else. He must do this before winter sets in.

As the absences of both Rose and Mrs Orchard become extended, Clara begins to trust the adults in her world less and less. Her father has used an ‘abnormally normal voice’ since Rose disappeared. 

Her father couldn’t stand an argument. If people were arguing he had to sort it out, he couldn’t help himself. He’d wade right in the middle of it (‘wade’ was Rose’s word). ‘Whoa there,’ he’d say, making soothing patting motions with his hands. ‘Let’s cool things down a bit, see if we can find a compromise.’ Or, ‘Let’s see if we can strike a bargain. Who wants what, let’s start with that.’ It drove both Rose and her mother crazy (according to Rose, being infuriated by him was the one and only thing she and her mother had in common). He waded in at school too, Rose said, and it made people want to kill him. But in fact he was pretty good at it, at least in Clara’s opinion. All problems had solutions, according to her father; it was just a question of finding them, and he always did find them in the end. (15-16)

Clara’s mother retires to bed and pays scant attention to Clara. Neither of them tells her the truth about Rose or Mrs Orchard. They were trying to protect her, but it causes her great distress.

Liam finds his way gradually in Solace. Clara visits his house when he is out to feed and play with the cat. He is unaware of the cat and Clara’s visits until he finds her there one evening.  He understands her need for straightforward talking and for her physical world to be consistent. He gets a job with the local carpenter to expedite the fixing of the house, makes friends with the local policeman who is very concerned about Rose’s disappearance, and he becomes a friend to Clara and helps her untangle the mystery of Rose’s whereabouts.

Mrs Orchard’s story felt out of kilter to me. Her episodes are not sequentially placed. She has died in Liam’s section, but we meet her in hospital before that event. She contributed to Liam’s wellbeing, but her story seems over-complicated.

In time, Clara and Liam manage to gain information to track down Rose. We learn what happened to Mrs Orchard. Liam eats pies and drinks coffee and takes up with the librarian who makes excellent ice-cream that you have to dig out of its box with a hammer and chisel. And the cat reveals that it feels at home with Liam.

I did get caught up in the story and wanted to know what would happen next. It is a feelgood book, and it will go down well with book groups, as her previous novel Crow Lake did. Mary Lawson is good at describing her characters so that, for the most part, they are rounded, not tokens. This is particularly true of the secondary characters, an example being Clara’s father quoted above. But we come to be familiar with the man who fixes shingles, the librarian, the woman in the diner, Clara’s school teacher, the policeman and so on.

The town itself is bleak, and well evoked, with the right details. Here is Liam, fresh from Toronto, exploring the town. 

The stores, ranged along the two main streets, consisted of the basics plus a couple of extras aimed at tourists. There was a small grocery store with a liquor store tac ked on the back as if hiding from the authorities, a post office, a bank, a fire station, a Hudson’s Bay store with parkas and snow boots in the window already. …
Set back from the road was an old church graced by a couple of maple trees, and beside it was an equally old primary school. Both looked too big for the town’s needs. They’d be relics, Liam guessed, of the long-ago days when the North with all its riches looked like a place to be if you wanted to get ahead. Nowadays, apart from the lumber, it was probably only the tourists that kept the place alive. (31)

When he thinks about going into a café he finds that both of them are closed. ‘Just after seven on a Thursday evening and the place was a ghost town’. But Solace has human warmth, decent people, with a willingness to pitch in to help those who need it. Liam soon adapts to the ways of the town, helping resolve the mysteries.

A Town Called Solace by Mary Lawson, first published in 2021 and in paperback by Vintage. 290pp 

Longlisted for the Booker Prize in 2021

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Two Good Reads (in Lockdown)

As I write this (early May) no one has any idea how long the lockdown will continue. But one thing is sure: people will still want good books to read. And book groups will also still want recommendations. These two books, reviewed here, are both fairly long, and have been on my tbr pule for some months. And on my radar for longer, recommended by bloggers and others. So I bought one last year and found the second one in a second-hand book shop in February. 

  • The Fortnight in September by RC Sherriff
  • A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles 

Both are recommended as longish and relaxing reads for book groups and for lockdowns.

The Fortnight in September

Set between the wars, the novel is about a suburban family as they go on their annual holiday to Bognor. As the title suggests it is THE fortnight in September, and they have been many times before. Not much out of the ordinary happens. 

Much of their pleasure in the holiday comes from everything being the same as all the previous years: their preparations, their timetable, the boarding house, the other customers in the pub, the way they spend their days. Each of these are experienced in loving detail by the family who believe in getting pleasure from each moment.

One of his best ideas was to have a set programme for every other day – leaving the days in between absolutely free for everyone to do what they liked. It was a wise plan from several points of view. The little squabbles you so often saw happening on the sands in the afternoon were not always due to the heat: more often they came from people being too much together, and getting on each other’s nerves. (166)

However, Mr Stevens is getting older and his hair is thinning. Mrs Stevens discovers that their landlady has had no other visitors that year, and frankly the digs are a bit below par. The oldest child Mary has a holiday romance and is a little burned by the experience. Her brother Dick has been depressed all year since leaving school and taking on a job his father found for him. He decides to take matters into his own hands and get a new job. It is clear that it will be their last fortnight.

It is a hymn to nostalgia. But it is also an account of change, its inevitability and the opportunities it brings. This novel was a great success when it was first published. It was one of the first books published by Persephone (no 67) and they have issued it in the Persephone classics series with a lovely beach on the cover: Algernon Talmage: Silver Morning, Alderburgh Beach (1931)

The Fortnight in September by RC Sherriff, first published in 1931; I used the Persephone edition of 2006. 326pp

A Gentleman in Moscow

In 1920 the young Russian Count Alexander Rostov is placed under house arrest in the Metropol Hotel in Moscow. He has been deemed a former person, because he had private wealth, an aristocratic title and does not fit the Bolshevik ideas of a good comrade. He is a cultured man, and had written a poem that caught the mood of revolt in pre-Revolutionary Russia, so he was not executed.

For 34 years, until 1954, he lives in an attic room, befriends the hotel staff, becomes a waiter, adopts a child who becomes a great pianist, befriends a senior member of the Russian communist party and takes a lover. During this time he maintains his courtesy, generosity, culture, good manners and attention to detail.

But in setting upright the cocktail glass in the aftermath of the commotion, didn’t he also exhibit an essential faith that by the smallest of one’s actions one can restore some sense of order to the world? (459)

He manages to create a decent life, despite being confined. The history of the USSR is seen from the interior the Metropol. The story is told with considerable panache and extravagance.

It is charming, witty, funny and a good, well-told story. I was bothered by not knowing how he became a waiter, although I could see that it suited him, with his cultured attentive manner, courtesy and attention to detail. And I was uneasy that he slept in a tiny room with his adopted daughter until she was 25. 

This book was recommended for book groups by fellow travellers last year when I was in Nice. You can find their other recommendations here.

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles (2016) published by Windmill (Penguin Books). 462pp

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The Salt Path by Raynor Winn

You cannot have escaped the good reception this book has had, perhaps you’ve been told about it by someone who has read it, or noted it in a shortlist for a prize. It has some alluring ingredients: resilience in the face of bad fortune; it is set in that liminal seashore zone; betrayal, illness, walking, wild camping, beautiful landscapes and wildlife. 

With such ingredients it was sure to be successful and bring pleasure to many. My book group read it in September and discussed it a couple of weeks ago. It provoked lively discussion, which is our criterion for a good book. If you haven’t read it I can assure you that you will find something to please you in it.

The Salt Path

Raynor Winn and her husband Moth are in their 50s and have been living in Wales for many years on a freehold small farm. Their children have grown up, the farm and its land are taken from them in a court case which is presented as both unfair (the judgement) and a betrayal (by a former friend). They have no means, no financial security at all. And then Moth is diagnosed with a degenerative and terminal illness: CBD. What are they to do?

They decide to walk the South West coast path, from Minehead to Portland, and to camp along the way. The choice is pretty near random, based on a book: The South West Coast Path: From Minehead to South Haven Pointby Paddy Dillon, complete with OS maps and a waterproof cover. The choice of guidebook also determined the direct of their walk, even though it meant doing the toughest part first.

So they set out in late summer of 2013 and with a break in the winter living in a shed they were renovating they walked 600 miles in the next 10 months. They slept wild and ate as cheaply as possible, and therefore badly. And they hoped that by walking they would find a solution to their homelessness, their lack of income and the pressing problem of living with an approaching death. Walking is known to help clear the mind, but these two had such difficult daily experiences from the challenges of their walk that they were not able to spend much time thinking about or discussing their imponderable future. 

But they met these challenges with stamina, endurance, resilience and mutual support despite being preoccupied with the daily pursuit of food, a safe place to sleep and an occasional wash. They were resourceful in the face of having so little cash. A scene that gives real pleasure was set in St  Ives, and out of cash as usual Moth begins a loud recitation of Beowulf in Seamus Heaney’s translation and Raynor takes round the hat. They earn £28.03.

Other people cross their path or walk with them for a while. Few are aiming to go so far or are rough sleeping. Some are welcome company, a few are not. Some are generous too with warmth or food or a welcome. The landscape, especially the northern coast of Cornwall is impressive while also providing severe challenges. Early mornings, before many people are around, and while the shore birds are still feeding, and the air is fresh and clear, these are the good times.

They encounter strong prejudice against homeless people, and experience urban homelessness briefly in Plymouth and note the contrast with their coastal path existence.  

And they find that their love for each other is a strong as ever having been severely tested by the circumstances of their walk. They meet good luck and generosity having arrived at some decisions about their futures, and find permanent accommodation as easily a pretty feather or a pebble. 

What did the book group think?

All members of the group had enjoyed going on the emotional journey of The Salt Path with the writer. Some felt angry about what had happened to them and respected the couple’s positive response to such a dreadful position.

Much of the time while I was reading this book I wondered why we were being asked to applaud bonkers behaviour. Why on earth were they walking the coastal path? But in my book group it was suggested that a better question would be – why not? They had nothing better to do. 

And because we live close to the South West coastal path, and have all walked parts of it, we set to again to discuss what we had enjoyed about this compelling and moving book. One reader suggested that the best writing described the walking and the landscape and she was not so keen on the insertion of bits of local history. Another remarked that it was the author’s story, not so much the couple’s.

We all agreed on the pleasures of walking in the south west, and that walking is good for you and makes you feel good.

The Salt Path by Raynor Winn published in 2018 by Penguin. 275pp

The Sunday Times bestseller, Winner of the Royal Society of Literature Christopher Bland Prize & shortlisted for the 2018 Costa Biography Award & Wainwright Golden Beer Book Prize 2018

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A new book group

Have you ever started a new reading or book group? What was your experience? We have found it challenging, so I give you our story and ask for your comments and advice.

120 C18 groupEstablished readers of this blog will know I moved to Devon just over a year ago. I had got the number of unpacked boxes down to 100, so I met with my daughter to discuss establishing a reading group in the area. I missed talking about books with friends and wanted to meet bookish people and to read books recommended by others.

Planning

  • We faced a number of questions:
  • How to get people to join us?
  • Where to meet?
  • How frequently?
  • At what time of day?
  • What books should we read?
  • How would we choose the books?

Initial practical arrangements

My daughter knows more people in the area than me because she has lived here for several years. And she was now engaging with other mothers at the school and pre-school gates. She approached various people and suggested meeting once a month, in each other’s homes, at 7.30. The host would provide refreshments but not a meal. We decided on the dates of the first two meetings.

From the start all members were busy women, and it has proved difficult to establish the right practical arrangements. After a few sessions of changing the date and time and meeting place Anna suggested we set the dates and books ahead and keep to it even if people’s commitments changed. By that time we had enough members to see us through times when readers were busy elsewhere.

Choice of books

120 GrassWe wanted our first books to signal the seriousness of our reading. Doris Lessing had recently died and she won the Nobel prize for Literature. We began with The Grass is Singing. For me it was a re-read and my goodness I had forgotten but was soon reminded the searing sterility of the marriage at the heart of the novel, and the connections Doris Lessing made between the oppression of women and of the Rhodesian native black population.

The second book was meant to be a contrast: The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier. Our discussion about it showed that the group enjoyed up-to-date writing and could be critical. Our third book was Persuasion by Jane Austen.

Having read our three nominated books, the choice became dependant upon all members. We were, in the words of one member, ‘very polite’ about making suggestions for future reads. It quickly emerged that the group wanted variation: modern and older classics, lighter (but not too light) fiction, including translated fiction, as well as non-fiction and poetry. But nothing very long. When I asked group members last month about their observations for this blog most of their comments referred to the choice of books.

New members

Another decision we reflected on was whether to have a closed group or not. We know of groups that have fixed membership, new members only being inducted when people leave. One reason for this is that the group’s books are supplied by the library in fixed numbers. We decided to remain open, and so far haven’t used the library to supply our books.

Benefits of the group

120 Reading-GroupWhy would busy people join a reading group, especially when they are frequently unable to finish the book before the meeting? One reason is that having the book group allows them to prioritise reading, gives them a little more incentive to find time and space for the reading.

Here’s a list of books we have read so far:

  • The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing
  • The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier
  • Persuasion by Jane Austen
  • Julie & Julia by Julie Powell
  • A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride
  • Life after Life by Kate Atkinson
  • If only it were true by Marc Levy

And here are our plans for reading in the next few months:

  • Staying Alive edited by Neil Astley (a collection of poems, from which we will choose and say something about our choices).
  • The Bear by Claire Cameron
  • A Week in December by Sebastian Faulks

And in December we will have a Christmas feast and plan for next year.

It is very hard to establish a reading group. We keep going even if only two of us turn up, and so far that has worked. We have to recognise the busy-ness of our members. We have had a good discussions even with only two people.

Please Comment

What books would you recommend for a reading group such as ours as it approaches its second year? How do you choose?

What difficulties have you experienced with a book or reading group?

 

Some on-line resources for reading groups

The Reading Agency supports Reading Groups for Everyone.

A site that offers lots of resources for organising a reading group is The Reading Club

A Book Club Blog: Book Club Girl

120 R Group fo logo 

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