Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman (December 2016)
Under the streets of London there’s a place most people could never even dream of. A city of monsters and saints, murderers and angels, knights in armour and pale girls in black velvet. This is the city of the people who have fallen between the cracks.
Richard Mayhew, a young businessman, is going to find out more than enough about this other London. A single act of kindness catapults him out of his workday existence and into a world that is at once eerily familiar and utterly bizarre. And a strange destiny awaits him down here, beneath his native city: neverwhere.
An entertaining, classically Gaiman-esque read. The perfect way to end the year 🙂
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (November 2016)
As teenagers in a Lagos secondary school, Ifemelu and Obinze fall in love. Their Nigeria is under military dictatorship, and people are leaving the country if they can. Ifemelu – beautiful, self-assured – departs for America to study. She experiences defeats and triumphs, finds and loses relationships and friendships, all the while feeling the weight of something she never thought of back home: race.
Obinze – the quiet, thoughtful son of a professor – had hoped to join her, but post 9/11 America will not let him in, and he plunges into a dangerous, undocumented life in London. Years later, he is a wealthy man in a newly democratic Nigeria, while Ifemelu has achieved success as a writer of an eye-opening blog about race in America. But when Ifemelu decides to return home, she and Obinze will face the toughest decision of their lives.
Fearless, gripping, at once darkly funny and tender, spanning three continents and numerous lives, AMERICANAH is a richly told story set in today’s globalized world: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s most powerful and astonishing novel yet.
A mammoth book club discussion for a mammoth book! Where to begin? Adiche’s exploration of the lives of Ifemelu and Obinze and the racial/class issues they face as they explore life on different continents is both thought provoking and cringe worthy to readers who recognised certain distinguishing features of the ‘well meaning white liberal’ in themselves. Adiche’s epic, shifting narrative manages to be both incredibly prescient considering our current political climate and charmingly irreverent at times. Brilliant.
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (October 2016)
An audacious, darkly glittering novel set in the eerie days of civilisation’s collapse, Station Eleven tells the spellbinding story of a Hollywood star, his would-be saviour, and a nomadic group of actors roaming the scattered outposts of the Great Lakes region, risking everything for art and humanity.
One snowy night Arthur Leander, a famous actor, has a heart attack onstage during a production of King Lear. Jeevan Chaudhary, a paparazzo-turned-EMT, is in the audience and leaps to his aid. A child actress named Kirsten Raymonde watched in horror as Jeevan performs CPR, pumping Arthur’s chest as the curtain drops, but Arthur is dead. That same night, as Jeevan walks home from the theatre, a terrible flu begins to spread. Hospitals are flooded and Jeevan and his brother barricade themselves inside an apartment, watching out the window as cars clog the highways, gunshots ring out, and life disintegrates around them.
Twenty years later, Kirsten is an actress with the Traveling Symphony. Together, this small troupe moves between the settlements of an altered world, performing Shakespeare and music for scattered communities of survivors. Written on their caravan, and tattooed in Kirsten’s arm is a line from Star Trek: ‘Because survival is insufficient’. But when they arrive in St. Deborah by the Water, they encounter a violent prophet who digs graves for anyone who dares to leave.
Spanning decades, moving back and forth in time, and vividly depicting life before and after the pandemic, this suspenseful, elegiac novel is rife with beauty. As Arthur falls in and out of love, as Jeevan watches the newscasters say their final goodbyes, and as Kirsten finds herself caught in the crosshairs of the prophet, we see the strange twists of fate that connect them all. A novel of art, memory, and ambition, Station Eleven tells a story about the relationships that sustain us, the ephemeral nature of fame, and the beauty of the world as we know it.
A successful discussion on what we all found to be an engaging, thought-provoking distopian/apocalyptic novel. Mandel’s fragmented narrative worked to bring together the human race’s longed for past and it’s desperate present seamlessly, veering away from the usual horror and violence of the genre to an altogether quieter, more hopeful novel that overall felt much more realistic. Survival is insufficient.
It is the Swinging Sixties, and Rosamund Stacey is young and inexperienced at a time when sexual liberation is well on its way. She conceals her ignorance beneath a show of independence, and becomes pregnant as a result of a one night stand. Although single parenthood is still not socially acceptable, she chooses to have the baby rather than to seek an illegal abortion, and finds her life transformed by motherhood.
A celebration of the drama and intensity of the mother-child relationship, Margaret Drabble’s The Millstone won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize in 1965.
A great classic choice from our newest member and a novel that proved ripe for discussion. A cosy, heartwarming, incredibly positive book that could have so easily veered off into tragedy. Rosamund has an ‘ordinariness’ that lends her tale universal appeal, further enhanced by a wry portrayal of 1960s London and some beautifully quirky characters.
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver (August 2016)
The Poisonwood Bible is a story told by the wife and four daughters of Nathan Price, a fierce, evangelical Baptist who takes his family and mission to the Belgian Congo in 1959. They carry with them everything they believe they will need from home, but soon find that all of it — from garden seeds to Scripture — is calamitously transformed on African soil. What follows is a suspenseful epic of one family’s tragic undoing and remarkable reconstruction over the course of three decades in postcolonial Africa.
The group were unsurprisingly enthralled by Barbara Kingsolver’s undisputed monolith of a book. The exclusively female viewpoints were a big hit as Kingsolver explores the depths of Congolese history and American ignorance. Scorching hot and profoundly moving. A novel for your bucket list.
The Periodic Table by Primo Levi (July 2016)
A chemist by training, Primo Levi became one of the supreme witnesses to twentieth-century atrocity. In these haunting reflections inspired by the elements of the periodic table, he ranges from young love to political savagery; from the inert gas argon – and ‘inert’ relatives like the uncle who stayed in bed for twenty-two years – to life-giving carbon. ‘Iron’ honours the mountain-climbing resistance hero who put iron in Levi’s student soul, ‘Cerium’ recalls the improvised cigarette lighters which saved his life in Auschwitz, while ‘Vanadium’ describes an eerie post-war correspondence with the man who had been his ‘boss’ there. All are written with characteristically understated eloquence and shot through with deep humanity.
Chemical elements as a metaphor for life. A wonderful concept and one that felt all the more apt as the book chat swiftly turned into the political, given this months frightening events. Experiencing the more harrowing portions of Levi’s past at one remove made this snippet of biography even more powerful.
I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith (June 2016)
‘I write this sitting in the kitchen sink’ is the first line of this timeless, witty and enchanting novel about growing up. Cassandra Mortmain lives with her bohemian and impoverished family in a crumbling castle in the middle of nowhere. Her journal records her life with her beautiful, bored sister, Rose, her fadingly glamorous stepmother, Topaz, her little brother Thomas and her eccentric novelist father who suffers from a financially crippling writer’s block. However, all their lives are turned upside down when the American heirs to the castle arrive and Cassandra finds herself falling in love for the first time.
A confusing combination this month of, without a doubt, the best book we have read so far this year coupled with the least successful book club discussion. There are doubtlessly certain ‘themes’ to discuss here, such as the English preoccupation with class. However, the group’s consensus was that a novel can simply be beautifully, evocatively written and gain I full five stars for it. We don’t always need a debate after all…
The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer (May 2016)
On a warm summer night in 1974, six teenagers play at being cool. They smoke pot, drink vodka, share their dreams and vow always to be interesting.
Decades later, aspiring actress Jules has resigned herself to a more practical occupation; Cathy has stopped dancing; Jonah has laid down his guitar and Goodman has disappeared. Only Ethan and Ash, now married, have remained true to their adolescent dreams and have become shockingly successful too. As the group’s fortunes tilt precipitously, their friendships are put under the ultimate strain of envy and crushing disappointment.
An indifferent choice that wasn’t all that…ahem….’interesting’? Reading the lives of people not all that different from ourselves is rather boring, as it turns out. And that’s before you get us started on the title.
The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd (April 2016)
14-year-old Lily Owen, neglected by her father and isolated on their Georgia peach farm, spends hours imagining a blissful infancy when she was loved and nurtured by her mother, Deborah, whom she barely remembers. These consoling fantasies are her heart’s answer to the family story that as a child, in unclear circumstances, Lily accidentally shot and killed her mother. All Lily has left of Deborah is a strange image of a Black Madonna, with the words “Tiburon, South Carolina” scrawled on the back. The search for a mother, and the need to mother oneself, are crucial elements in this well-written coming-of-age story set in the early 1960s against a background of racial violence and unrest. When Lily’s beloved nanny, Rosaleen, manages to insult a group of angry white men on her way to register to vote and has to skip town, Lily takes the opportunity to go with her, fleeing to the only place she can think of–Tiburon, South Carolina–determined to find out more about her dead mother. Although the plot threads are too neatly trimmed, The Secret Life of Bees is a carefully crafted novel with an inspired depiction of character. The legend of the Black Madonna and the brave, kind, peculiar women who perpetuate Lily’s story dominate the second half of the book, placing Kidd’s debut novel squarely in the honored tradition of the Southern Gothic.
A slim turn out for a book that although entertaining, ended up classified as ‘cosy’ and an ‘easy read’ and didn’t hold much in the way of discussion. Book snobbishness aside we all agreed that it is OK just to let ourselves be entertained sometimes. Kidd’s novel approaches important themes of race relation in mid-century America in a way accessible to all.
The Dressmaker by Rosalie Ham (March 2016)
After twenty years spent mastering the art of dressmaking at couture houses in Paris, Myrtle “Tilly” Dunnage returns to the small Australian town she was banished from as a child. She plans only to check on her ailing mother and leave. But Tilly decides to stay, and though she is still an outcast, her lush, exquisite dresses prove irresistible to the prim women of Dungatar. Through her fashion business, her friendship with Sergeant Farrat—the town’s only policeman, who harbors an unusual passion for fabrics—and a budding romance with Teddy, the local football star whose family is almost as reviled as hers, she finds a measure of grudging acceptance.
But as her dresses begin to arouse competition and envy in town, causing old resentments to surface, it becomes clear that Tilly’s mind is set on a darker design: exacting revenge on those who wronged her, in the most spectacular fashion.
Although the group rather liked the sound of this inventive tale, Rosalie Ham’s execution left something to be desired. Shoddy writing left us all a little confused about who was who and the one dimensional characters were cringeworthy. Mixing poignant, serious subjects with slapstick, ‘Little Britain’-style caricatures made for a confusing, jarring mix. Ham by name ham by nature.
The Girl with All the Gifts by M.R. Carey (February 2016)
Every morning, Melanie waits in her cell to be collected for class. When they come for her, Sergeant Parks keeps his gun pointing at her while two of his people strap her into the wheelchair. She thinks they don’t like her. She jokes that she won’t bite, but they don’t laugh.
Melanie loves school. She loves learning about spelling and sums and the world outside the classroom and the children’s cells. She tells her favorite teacher all the things she’ll do when she grows up. Melanie doesn’t know why this makes Miss Justineau look sad.
Zombie fiction with a bit more heart than the norm, this selection from M.R. Carey melds some hard-core gruesome action with meaningful relationships and science you can get along with. Although the tale doesn’t reach much deeper than a few strategic mullings on life, death and the importance of childhood, this is full throttle entertainment at the very least.
A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler (January 2016)
This is the way Abby Whitshank always begins the story of how she and Red fell in love that summer’s day in 1959. The whole family on the porch, half-listening as their mother tells the same tale they have heard so many times before.
From that porch we spool back through the generations, witnessing the events, secrets and unguarded moments that have come to define the family. From Red’s father and mother, newly arrived in Baltimore in the 1920s, to Abby and Red’s grandchildren carrying the family legacy boisterously into the twenty-first century – four generations of Whitshanks, their lives unfolding in and around the sprawling, lovingly worn Baltimore house that has always been their home…
The team were left rather baffled at what, exactly, makes a book meet the criteria for a huge prize such as the Man Booker. Despite its disappointments and inconsistencies, there were some truly poignant moments in this novel, leaving us pining for a short story collection from Tyler, rather than this largely unbalanced yet heartwarming family saga.