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.
This Side of Salvation by Jeri Smith-Ready (December 2015)
Everyone mourns differently. When his older brother was killed, David got angry. As in, fist-meets-someone-else’s-face furious. But his parents? They got religious. David’s still figuring out his relationship with a higher power, but there’s one thing he does know for sure: The closer he gets to new-girl Bailey, the better, brighter, happier, more he feels.
Then his parents start cutting all their worldly ties to prepare for the Rush, the divine moment when the faithful will be whisked off to Heaven…and they want David to do the same. David’s torn. There’s a big difference between living in the moment and giving up his best friend, varsity baseball, and Bailey—especially Bailey—in hope of salvation.
But when he comes home late from prom, and late for the Rush, to find that his parents have vanished, David is in more trouble than he ever could have imagined…
An entertaining, albeit unimaginative novel for our December read that made complete sense once we realised this is, technically, aimed at the YA market. Many important topics to mull over; life, death, faith, coming of age but; is the quality of writing enough? Perhaps not for us 30 year olds but for our younger fellow readers? Absolutely.
Asylum by Patrick McGrath (November 2015)
In the summer of 1959 Stella Raphael joins her psychiatrist husband, Max, at his new posting–a maximum-security hospital for the criminally insane. Beautiful and headstrong, Stella soon falls under the spell of Edgar Stark, a brilliant and magnetic sculptor who has been confined to the hospital for murdering his wife in a psychotic rage.
But Stella’s knowledge of Edgar’s crime is no hindrance to the volcanic attraction that ensues–a passion that will consume Stella’s sanity and destroy her and the lives of those around her.
A bleak, tense, thought-provoking read that provoked a considered discussion from the group. The murky world of the title’s asylum opened us up to the dark depths of an obsessive relationship, mired by precarious mental health. A brilliant read and the perfect book club choice.
Alice Munro captures the essence of life in her brilliant new collection of stories. Moments of change, chance encounters, the twist of fate that leads a person to a new way of thinking or being: the stories in Dear Life build to form a radiant, indelible portrait of just how dangerous and strange ordinary life can be.
The team learnt that short stories, however enjoyable in our own personal reading, perhaps aren’t the thing for book club discussion; spanning simply too many characters and stories. Coupled with some relatively dull tales about some pretty ordinary people, it all proved rather boring really.
The Bookman’s Tale by Charlie Lovett (September 2015)
After the death of his wife, Peter Byerly, a young antiquarian bookseller, relocates from the States to the English countryside, where he hopes to rediscover the joys of life through his passion for collection and restoring rare books. But when he opens an eighteenth-century study on Shakespeare forgeries, he is shocked to see a Victorian portrait strikingly similar to his own wife tumble out of its pages, and becomes obsessed with tracking down its origins. As he follows the trail back to the nineteenth century and then to Shakespeare’s time, Peter learns the truth about his own past and unearths a book that might prove that Shakespeare was indeed the author of all his plays.
Guaranteed to capture the hearts of everyone who truly loves books and literature – in particular the golden age of Shakespeare, Jonson and Marlowe – The Bookman’s Tale is a sparking novel and an engrossing exploration of one of literature’s most tantalizing mysteries.
The group had a good old giggle over this pseudo-intellectual murder mystery, courtesy of children’s author Charlie Lovett. Stereotypical characters and a fairly predictable narrative may have given us a good old laugh but this not dampen the sheer entertainment factor. A corny old yarn for some corny old booklovers.
All The Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy (August 2015)
John Grady Cole is the last bewildered survivor of long generations of Texas ranchers. Finding himself cut off from the only life he has ever wanted, he sets out for Mexico with his friend Lacey Rawlins. Befriending a third boy on the way, they find a country beyond their imagining: barren and beautiful, rugged yet cruelly civilized; a place where dreams are paid for in blood.
“All the Pretty Horses” is an acknowledged masterpiece and a grand love story: a novel about childhood passing, along with innocence and a vanished American age. Steeped in the wisdom that comes only from loss, it is a magnificent parable of responsibility, revenge and survival.
All agree that lauding a book as ‘One of the Greatest American Novels of this or any time’ is a dangerous business. Although undoubtedly a modern classic of the very highest quality, the first installment of McCarthy’s ‘Borders trilogy fell short on it’s monotonous journeying and ‘slightly-too perfect’ hero John Grady. Cinematic this may be but please give us a hero to believe in.
Look Who’s Back by Timur Vermes (July 2015)
Summer 2011. Berlin. Adolf Hitler wakes up on a patch of ground, alive and well.
Things have changed – no Eva Braun, no Nazi party, no war. Hitler barely recognises his beloved Fatherland, filled with immigrants and run by a woman. People certainly recognise him, though – as a brilliant, satirical impersonator who refuses to break character. The unthinkable, the inevitable, happens, and the ranting Hitler takes off, goes viral, becomes a YouTube star, gets his own TV show, becomes someone who people listen to. All while he’s still trying to convince people that yes, it really is him, and yes, he really means it.
Look Who’s Back is a black and brilliant satire of modern media-bloated society, seen through the eyes of the Führer himself. Adolf is by turns repellent, sympathetic and hilarious, but always fascinating. Look Who’s Back is outrageously clever, outrageously funny – and outrageously plausible.
A so-called satirical novel that promised much but sadly delivered a slice of boredom. In Germany, where using the Nazi salute is a criminal offence, no doubt that Vermes’ ‘Ali G’-style Hitler is coasting some fairly difficult waters. In the UK however, his clear skirting of some seriously uncomfortable subjects made for bland reading. Great cover though.
The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M Cain (June 2015)
First published in 1934 and banned in Boston for its explosive mix of eroticism and violence, The Postman Always Rings Twice is a true classic and established James M. Cain as a major novelist.
A short but and sweet classic perfect for the crime virgins among us, James M. Cain’s famous novel is fast-paced, vivid and hilarious. Though puzzling slightly over the choice of title (a metaphor perhaps?) the group were pleased as punch to read something truly entertaining to kick off the summer months.
Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut (May 2015)
Dr Felix Hoenikker, one of the founding ‘fathers’ of the atomic bomb, has left a deadly legacy to humanity. For he is the inventor of ice-nine, a lethal chemical capable of freezing the entire planet. Writer Jonah’s search for its whereabouts leads him to Hoenikker’s three eccentric children, to an island republic in the Caribbean where the religion of Bokononism is practised, to love and to insanity. Told with deadpan humour and bitter irony, Kurt Vonnegut’s cult tale of global destruction is a funny and frightening satire on the end of the world and the madness of mankind.
A slightly baffling though very entertaining satirical commentary on the stupidity of mankind from Vonnegut that drew a reasonably large crowd at this month’s book club. All-encompassing, thought-provoking and often hilarious, this was a general hit but perhaps failed to hit profounder depths with it’s rather cartoon-like characters.
The House of Mirth – Edith Wharton (April 2015)
First published in 1905, The House of Mirth shocked the New York society it so deftly chronicles, portraying the moral, social, and economic restraints on a woman who dared to claim the privileges of marriage without assuming the responsibilities. Lily Bart, beautiful, witty, and sophisticated, is accepted by “old money” and courted by the growing tribe of nouveaux riches. But as she nears 30, her foothold becomes precarious; a poor girl with expensive tastes, she needs a husband to preserve her social standing and to maintain her life in the luxury she has come to expect. While many have sought her, something—fastidiousness or integrity—prevents her from making a “suitable” match.
An unsurprisingly lacklustre response to Edith Wharton’s classic. Although fighting against 21st century attitudes, Lily Bart’s unconvincing performance left us still feeling a little doubtful and exhausted by her drawn out flirtations. Was it good to tick it off the ‘classics list’? Yes. Was it worth the time and effort? A resounding nope.
The Girl on the Train – Paula Hawkins (March 2015)
Rachel takes the same commuter train every morning. Every day she rattles down the track, flashes past a stretch of cozy suburban homes, and stops at the signal that allows her to daily watch the same couple breakfasting on their deck. She’s even started to feel like she knows them. “Jess and Jason,” she calls them. Their life—as she sees it—is perfect. Not unlike the life she recently lost.
And then she sees something shocking. It’s only a minute until the train moves on, but it’s enough. Now everything’s changed. Unable to keep it to herself, Rachel offers what she knows to the police, and becomes inextricably entwined in what happens next, as well as in the lives of everyone involved. Has she done more harm than good?
A compulsively readable, emotionally immersive, Hitchcockian thriller that draws comparisons to Gone Girl, The Silent Wife, or Before I Go to Sleep, this is an electrifying debut embraced by readers across markets and categories.
An unenthused response from the crowd towards this rather predictable debut novel that draws inevitable comparisons to other new releases. However this fast-paced, well-plotted novel provided some sorely needed entertainment. The general consensus? Just take this one for what it is and you’ll get along just fine.
Go Tell It on the Mountain – James Baldwin (February 2015)
Drawing on his boyhood in a religious community in 1930s Harlem, he tells the story of young Johnny Grimes. Johnny is destined to become a preacher like his father, Gabriel, at the Temple of Fire Baptized, where the church swells with song and it is as if ‘the Holy Ghost were riding on the air’. But he feels only scalding hatred for Gabriel, whose fear and fanaticism make him cruelly abuse his family. Johnny vows that, for him, things will be different. This blazing tale is full of passion and guilt, of secret sinners and prayers singing on the wind.
Whilst some found Baldwin’s intense debut novel to be incredibly moving and powerful, some found the heavy evangelism that saturates the book tiring to say the least. Flashbacks to a past of suppression and slavery appreciated, the obscurity of the ‘threshing floor’ not so much. Baldwin’s hatred for his father saturates this nevertheless absorbing novel.
A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki (January 2015)
In Tokyo, sixteen-year-old Nao has decided there’s only one escape from her aching loneliness and her classmates’ bullying. But before she ends it all, Nao plans to document the life of her great-grandmother, a Buddhist nun who’s lived more than a century. A diary is Nao’s only solace—and will touch lives in a ways she can scarcely imagine.
Across the Pacific, we meet Ruth, a novelist living on a remote island who discovers a collection of artifacts washed ashore in a Hello Kitty lunchbox—possibly debris from the devastating 2011 tsunami. As the mystery of its contents unfolds, Ruth is pulled into the past, into Nao’s drama and her unknown fate, and forward into her own future.
Full of Ozeki’s signature humour and deeply engaged with the relationship between writer and reader, past and present, fact and fiction, quantum physics, history, and myth, A Tale for the Time Being is a brilliantly inventive, beguiling story of our shared humanity and the search for home.
Launching into this Booker Prize contender with great enthusiasm, the group found a poignant, timely book full of heart, charting the tough teenage years of Japanese student Nao. Ruth’s slow unraveling of the girl’s potentially tragic story left us both thoughtful and bewitched by the Japanese sense of ‘honour’.
The Giant’s House by Elizabeth McCracken (December 2014)
The year is 1950, and in a small town on Cape Cod 28 year-old librarian Peggy Cort feels as if love and life have stood her up. Until the day James Carlson Sweatt – the ‘over-tall’ 11 year-old boy who’s the talk of the town – walks into her library and changes her life forever. Two misfits whose lonely paths cross at the circulation desk, Peggy and James are odd candidates for friendship. In James, Peggy discovers the one person who’s ever really understood her, and as he grows – six foot five at age twelve, then seven foot, then eight – so does her heart and their most singular romance. THE GIANT’S HOUSE is a strange, beautifully written and unforgettably tender novel about learning to welcome the unexpected miracle.
A lacklustre response to this decidedly creepy tale of a standoffish librarian and her infatuation with the ‘giant’ teenage boy down the road. Unlikable, dull characters, the unease of age difference and some very laboured ‘meaningful’ passages meant this was all a bit of a joke really.
Stoner by John Edward Williams (November 2014)
William Stoner enters the University of Missouri at nineteen to study agriculture. A seminar on English literature changes his life, and he never returns to work on his father’s farm. Stoner becomes a teacher. He marries the wrong woman. His life is quiet, and after his death his colleagues remember him rarely.
Yet with truthfulness, compassion and intense power, this novel uncovers a story of universal value. Stoner tells of the conflicts, defeats and victories of the human race that pass unrecorded by history, and reclaims the significance of an individual life. A reading experience like no other, itself a paean to the power of literature, it is a novel to be savoured.
The group had some widely varying reactions to Professor William Stoner’s fatalistic approach to life. Some feeling distinctly unimpressed yet most finding the strength to sympathise with his lowly, humdrum reputation and strained, uneventful life. Beautifully written. A book that touches the soul.
All My Friends are Superheroes by Andrew Kaufman (October 2014)
There’s the Ear, the Spooner, the Impossible Man. Tom even married a superhero, the Perfectionist. But at their wedding, the Perfectionist was hypnotized (by ex-boyfriend Hypno, of course) to believe that Tom is invisible. Nothing he does can make her see him. Six months later, she’s sure that Tom has abandoned her.
So she’s moving to Vancouver. She’ll use her superpower to make Vancouver perfect and leave all the heartbreak in Toronto. With no idea Tom’s beside her, she boards an airplane in Toronto. Tom has until the wheels touch the ground in Vancouver to convince her he’s visible, or he loses her forever.
A beautiful little book that we all agreed would make the perfect gift for a loved one. Quirky, clever and incredibly special this is nevertheless a difficult one to draw out a discussion on, being deceptively simple and only 120 pages long. Good for you lazy book groupers though!
The Republic of Gilead offers Offred only one option: to breed. If she deviates, she will, like all dissenters, be hanged at the wall or sent out to die slowly of radiation sickness. But even a repressive state cannot obliterate desire – neither Offred’s nor that of the two men on which her future hangs.
Brilliantly conceived and executed, this powerful evocation of twenty-first-century America gives full rein to Margaret Atwood’s devastating irony, wit and astute perception
The Manchester Book Club is on a roll with yet another clear contender for book of the year. This modern classic left a deep impression on all with it’s strong, resonant tale of one woman’s life within the repressive Gileadean regime. Questions of repression and feminism weigh on our minds heavily. Where do we possibly begin? This is Atwood at her best.
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (August 2014)
It begins with a boy. Theo Decker, a thirteen-year-old New Yorker, miraculously survives an accident that kills his mother. Abandoned by his father, Theo is taken in by the family of a wealthy friend. Bewildered by his strange new home on Park Avenue, disturbed by schoolmates who don’t know how to talk to him, and tormented above all by his unbearable longing for his mother, he clings to one thing that reminds him of her: a small, mysteriously captivating painting that ultimately draws Theo into the underworld of art.
As an adult, Theo moves silkily between the drawing rooms of the rich and the dusty labyrinth of an antiques store where he works. He is alienated and in love-and at the center of a narrowing, ever more dangerous circle.
The Goldfinch is a novel of shocking narrative energy and power. It combines unforgettably vivid characters, mesmerizing language, and breathtaking suspense, while plumbing with a philosopher’s calm the deepest mysteries of love, identity, and art. It is a beautiful, stay-up-all-night and tell-all-your-friends triumph, an old-fashioned story of loss and obsession, survival and self-invention, and the ruthless machinations of fate.
A hefty contender for book of the year, this doorstop, sweeping, cinematic American novel captivated every one of us. Theo is the perfect anti-hero, defined by his grief and countless flaws. From the bleak Las Vegas desert to the dusty confines of a New York antique store, there is something here for us all. Difficult to keep up the stamina for so many pages but well worth the effort in the end.
Alison Hart, a medium by trade, tours the dormitory towns of London’s orbital road with her flint-hearted sidekick Colette, passing on messages from dead ancestors. But behind her plump, smiling persona is a desperate woman: the next life holds terrors that she must conceal from her clients, and her own waking hours are plagues by the spirits of men from her past. They infiltrate her house, her body and her soul, and the more she tries to be rid of them, the stronger and nastier they become…
The team were distinctly unenthused by this drab, aimless book which promised so much but delivered little. Unsympathetic characters dealing with subjects better left to other books. A fear prevails that this will put the group off Mantel’s far greater achievements in the Wolf Hall trilogy…
On a cold, rainy Stockholm night, nine bus riders are gunned down by an unknown assassin. The press, anxious for an explanation for the seemingly random crime, quickly dubs the killer a madman. Detective Inspector Martin Beck suspects otherwise. One of the victims was one of Martin Beck’s best detectives – surely he wouldn’t have been riding that fatal bus without a reason…
A true classic of Swedish crime fiction. This time with the pair sending Detective Martin Beck on the hunt of the Stockholm bus murderer. Fast-paced with all the swings and styles of classic detective fiction this was a highly entertaining, rather humorous addition to the series.
The Diary of a Nobody by George Grossmith (May 2014)
Mr Pooter is a man of modest ambitions, content with his ordinary life. Yet he always seems to be troubled by disagreeable tradesmen, impertinent young office clerks and wayward friends, not to mention his devil-may-care son Lupin with his unsuitable choice of bride. Try as he might, he cannot avoid life’s embarrassing mishaps. In the bumbling, absurd, yet ultimately endearing figure of Pooter, the Grossmiths created an immortal comic character and a superb satire on the snobberies of middle-class suburbia – one which also sends up late Victorian crazes for spiritualism and bicycling, as well as the fashion for publishing diaries by anybody and everybody.
A lovely, chuckley feel-good book but not necessarily a ‘book club book’. Pleasant feelings but not all that much to discuss, but perhaps we all need that sometimes!
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson (April 2014)
During a snowstorm in England in 1910, a baby is born and dies before she can take her first breath.
During a snowstorm in England in 1910, the same baby is born and lives to tell the tale.
What if there were second chances? And third chances? In fact an infinite number of chances to live your life? Would you be eventually be able to save the world from its own inevitable destiny? And would you even want to?
Kate Atkinson’s blockbuster novel doesn’t seem to have had a single bad review out there and the group added to the flurry of excitement with lots of positive thoughts. What is the significance of the déjà vu moments in our own lives? When are the moments when the course of our lives could have changed beyond recognition? Likable characters, pleasant prose and one of the best portrayals of the Blitz many of us have ever read in modern fiction. Top notch.
Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys (March 2014)
Born into an oppressive colonialist society, Creole heiress Antoinette Cosway meets a young Englishman who is drawn to her innocent sensuality and beauty. After their marriage disturbing rumours begin to circulate, poisoning her husband against her. Caught between his demands and her own precarious sense of belonging, Antoinette is driven towards madness.
A novella that is often met with mixed reviews received just as reluctant reviews from the group. A quirkily written, deeply disturbing and anxiety-inducing tale which unravels the mysterious tale of Mr Rochester and his ‘Bertha’, Wide Sargasso Sea is a thoughtful book, if slightly depressing. Can Rhys actually write? Is this a bit rubbish or is it simply one big Creole nightmare? ..Needless to say, a world away from Jayne Eyre.
Boy A by Jonathan Trigell (February 2014)
‘A is for Apple. A bad apple.’
A man walks alongside a teenage called Jack. Nobody would expect anything out of the ordinary. Unless they knew that Jack had chosen his own name from ‘The Big Book of Boys’ Names’, or that he shed his old name along with his old life – or tried to.
Jack has spent most of his young life in juvenile prison institutions. At 24, he is utterly innocent of the world, yet guilty of a monstrous childhood crime. How guilty? Who was the boy who committed that crime, and is he the same person who can now survive only by hiding his real identity?
To his new friends, he is a nice young man with occasional flashes of unexpected violence and fear. To his girlfriend, he is mysterious and strangely inexperienced. To an invisible lynch mob, he someone to be closely watched and ultimately punished. And to himself, Jack is on permanent trial: can he make it? Can a person really start from scratch, forget the past, become someone else? Is a new name enough? Does he have a right to forget his own childhood, having taken someone else’s?
This searing and heartfelt novel perfectly captures Jack’s bewilderment and exhilaration as he approached adulthood in his new world and the effect on him and those around him of media manipulated hysteria.
Boy A is a devastating indictment of society’s attempt to rehabilitate such children, while treating them as a species apart.
A book that promised so much in terms of discussion and that ultimately displayed some very modern writing and captivating ideas led to a much briefer talk than expected. That said, with the tragic Jamie Bulger case all in the forefront of our minds, questions of culpability, childhood and forgiveness were in the offing. Well-written, with just the right amount of tension to keep us on tenterhooks, perspective is gained and we left with some sympathy for the breathtakingly young perpetrators of unspeakable crimes.
Life in London’s East End in the 1950s was tough. The brothels of Cable Street, the Kray brothers and gang warfare, the meths drinkers in the bombsites – this was the world Jennifer Worth entered when she became a midwife at the age of twenty-two. Babies were born in slum conditions, often with no running water. Funny, disturbing and moving, Call the Midwife brings to life a world that has now changed beyond measure.
A wonderful, welcoming and much needed new venue greeted us for 2014. Our biggest meeting yet, with plenty of brand new faces for a brand new year, Jennifer Worth’s memoirs created a lively discussion on childbirth, poverty, religion and our general ignorance to a very important part of our past. Squeamishness and Worth’s rose-tinted glasses aside, we enjoyed this much more than expected and learnt a lot in the process.
Misfortune by Wesley Stace (December 2013)
Although the focus may have lay more with the sweet potato chips than the book for November’s meeting, everyone was anxious to get stuck into something new for December. A man in a dress won the day…
Lord Loveall, heretofore heirless lord of the sprawling Love Hall, is the richest man in England. He arrives home one morning with a most unusual package – a baby that he presents as the inheritor to the family name and fortune. In honor of his beloved sister, who died young, Loveall names the baby Rose. The household, relieved at the continuation of the Loveall line, ignores the fact that this Rose has a thorn…that she is, in fact, a boy.
Rose grows up with the two servant children who are her only friends, blissfully unaware of her own gender, casually hitting boundaries at Love Hall’s yearly cricket game and learning to shave even as she continues to wear more and more elaborate dresses. Until, of course, the fateful day when Rose’s world comes crashing down around her, and she is banished from Love Hall as an impostor by those who would claim her place as heir.
Although some were expecting a more farcical tale from singer-songwriter Wesley Stace, this slightly off-kilter tale of a baby boy raised as a girl to fit in with his adoptive parents’ whims gave rise to some intriguing discussions on gender-identity, sexuality and norms of Victorian society. We were all predictably entertained by this novel, with most running of steam towards the end as some meaningful morals went slightly askew.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman (November 2013)
A tiny little group of book peeps were resplendent with excellent chat on our inspiring October read. We were therefore all the more excited to peruse Trish’s spooky choices for this month, finally plumping for Neil Gaiman’s brand new novel. How exciting!
A middle-aged man returns to his childhood home and is drawn to the farm at the end of the road where, when he was seven, he encountered a most remarkable girl and her mother and grandmother. As he sits by the pond behind the ramshackle old house, the unremembered past comes flooding back – a past too strange, too frightening, too dangerous to have happened to anyone, let alone a small boy.
A groundbreaking work as delicate as a butterfly’s wing and as menacing as a knife in the dark, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a told with the rare understanding of all that makes us human, and shows the power of stories to reveal and shelter us from the darkness inside and out.
This lovely little offering from Neil Gaiman provided a bit of autumnal magic yet, as with many books that the group simply enjoyed without reserve, there was very little debate to be had. Although Trish provided us with a revolutionary view on the darker aspects of the tale, our overriding focus was on the magic of childhood, stranger danger and the luscious taste of honeycomb and thick double cream.
In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez (October 2013)
The disappoint felt by the group over McEwan’s latest novel Sweet Tooth was palpable. Being confronted by an relatively unexplored author and book for October by the lovely Katherine was welcome indeed. How did we find it?!
It is November 25, 1960, and three beautiful sisters have been found near their wrecked Jeep at the bottom of a 150-foot cliff on the north coast of the Dominican Republic. The official state newspaper reports their deaths as accidental. It does not mention that a fourth sister lives. Nor does it explain that the sisters were among the leading opponents of Gen. Rafael Leonidas Trujillo’s dictatorship. It doesn’t have to. Everybody knows of Las Mariposas—“The Butterflies.”
In this extraordinary novel, the voices of all four sisters; Minerva, Patria, María Teresa, and the survivor, Dedé, speak across the decades to tell their own stories, from hair ribbons and secret crushes to gunrunning and prison torture, and to describe the everyday horrors of life under Trujillo’s rule. Through the art and magic of Julia Alvarez’s imagination, the martyred Butterflies live again in this novel of courage and love, and the human cost of political oppression…
Although the difficulty getting hold of this wonderful book resulted in a teeny weeny group this month, the general consensus was one of admiration for Alvarez’s stirring portrayal of the Mirabal sisters. Although lacking a wider portrait of life for the Dominican people under Trujillo’s rule, the novelised account of life for Minerva & co during the dictatorship and their rebellion against it opened our minds to a history too often overlooked by those in our region of the world. We left feeling inspired.
Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan (September 2013)
A change of venue and a few new faces shook things up for the MBC this month in the best way possible and some controversial debate was had over Claire’s choice; The Book Thief.Everyone calmed down a little after a few beers and the production of Mia’s tantalising and oh-so-hard to choose from novels. This particular book has been on many of our reading lists for a while…
The year is 1972. The Cold War is far from over. Britain is being torn apart by industrial unrest and terrorism.Serena Frome, in her final year at Cambridge, is being groomed for MI5.
Serena is sent on a secret mission – Operation Sweet Tooth – which brings her into the world of Tom Haley, a promising young writer. First she loves his stories, then she begins to love the man. Can she maintain the fiction of her undercover life? And who is inventing whom? To answer these questions, Serena must abandon the first rule of espionage – trust no one.
Oh dear. A lesson learnt by all book groupers this month is: just because an author is revered by so many does not necessarily mean that you’re going to enjoy his latest offering. An indignant group found McEwan’s heroine dull and uninspiring, her story trite and predictable and McEwan’s efforts frankly disappointing. Our discussion was repetitive and disjointed as a result. We preferred the ping pong at this book club meet!
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (August 2013)
Although some may think that a ‘novel narrated by death’ is a rather unexpected choice for summer, we were all looking forward to delving into Claire’s choice; The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. Woul this international bestseller live up to the mark? I hope so!!
1939. Nazi Germany. The country is holding its breath. Death has never been busier.
Liesel, a nine-year old girl, is living with a foster family on Himmel Street. Her parents have been taken away to a concentration camp. Liesel steals books. This is her story and the story of the inhabitants of her street when the bombs begin to fall…
Some lauded this international bestseller as one of their absolute favourite MBC choices so far. Although a sad tale of Nazi Germany could potentially have clashed with our summer spirit, Liesel’s tale was the opposite – moving, inspirational and incredibly thought-provoking. Although some felt Death’s narrative voice became a little hammed-up at times, this novel was a clear winner and will remaining on our bookshelves no doubt for a re-read in the future.
Number9dream by David Mitchell (July 2013)
After what may go down in history as one of our most enjoyable reads and discussions in Manchester Book Club history, Caroline brought a variety of mouth watering choices for summer. Finally choosing to read David Mitchell’s number9dream, could this possibly pip Pigeon English to the post as book of the year?
When 19-year-old Eiji Miyake arrives in Tokyo from backwater Japan to locate the father he has never met, he begins a whirlwind journey that zigzags from reality to fantasy in a chain of extraordinary encounters. But until Eiji has fallen in love and exorcised his childhood demons, the belonging he craves will remain, tantalizingly, just beyond his grasp…
A mixed bag this month as few people managed to ultimately finish this deceptively long coming of age tale. Eiji’s epic hunt for his father shifts between reality and the boy’s dream world and, although leaving some a little cold, most found Mitchell’s skilled prose both enigmatic and incredibly natural. Will we all have a go at his most famous novel, Cloud Atlas? Well, yes, we probably will.
Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman (June 2013)
May brought with it an unseasonably sweltering and suitably lively discussion over Vicki’s choice. Although, as always, we were anxious to see what awaits us next. Veronica’s choice; Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman has had the rave reviews already… I wonder what the group will think:
Armed with a pair of camouflage binoculars and detective techniques absorbed from television shows like CSI, Harri and his best friend, Dean, plot to bring the perpetrator to justice. They gather evidence—fingerprints lifted from windows with tape, a wallet stained with blood—and lay traps to flush out the murderer. But nothing can prepare them for what happens when a criminal feels you closing in on him. Recently emigrated from Ghana with his sister and mother to London’s enormous housing projects, Harri is pure curiosity and ebullience—obsessed with gummy candy, a friend to the pigeon who visits his balcony, quite possibly the fastest runner in his school, and clearly also fast on the trail of a murderer. Told in Harri’s infectious voice and multicultural slang,Pigeon English follows in the tradition of our great novels of friendship and adventure, as Harri finds wonder, mystery, and danger in his new, ever-expanding world…
The Man Booker-shortlisted Pigeon English has been, by far, the most enjoyable and impressive novel the Manchester Book Club have read to date. Find our review and a little more about the group here.
A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters by Julian Barnes (May 2013)
A lively discussion regarding Verity’s book choice along with some brand new lovely faces to the group was followed by some mouth watering choices by Vicki…what to choose!? After much deliberation we plumped for Julian Barnes’ A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters:
Beginning with an unlikely stowaway’s account of life on board Noah’s Ark, A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters presents a surprising, subversive, fictional history of earth told from several kaleidoscopic perspectives. Noah disembarks from his ark but he and his Voyage are not forgotten: they are revisited in on other centuries and other climes – by a Victorian spinster mourning her father, by an American astronaut on an obsessive personal mission. We journey to the Titanic, to the Amazon, to the raft of the Medusa, and to an ecclesiastical court in medieval France where a bizarre case is about to begin…
Scorching weather and even hotter discussion this May! Julian Barnes’ short story collection cum novel cum who-knows-what provided a mixed bag of reactions, with a few not particularly enjoying being thrust into the unknown with a variety of prose pieces and essays that vary wildly from one another, with only Noah and a rather unassuming animal friend for company. Thought to be rather patronising in places by some, others found Barnes’ world view and breadth of knowledge and style refreshing.
The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockeier (April 2013)
Following a highly convivial March meet, Verity provided us with such an excellent selection that choosing a book for April’s meet was particularly tantalising. After much deliberation the group selected The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier.
The City is inhabited by those who have departed Earth but are still remembered by the living. They will reside in this afterlife until they are completely forgotten. But the City is shrinking, and the residents clearing out. Some of the holdouts, like Luka Sims, who produces the City’s only newspaper, are wondering what exactly is going on. Others, like Coleman Kinzler, believe it is the beginning of the end. Meanwhile, Laura Byrd is trapped in an Antarctic research station, her supplies are running low, her radio finds only static, and the power is failing. With little choice, Laura sets out across the ice to look for help, but time is running out. Kevin Brockmeier alternates these two storylines to create a lyrical and haunting story about love, loss and the power of memory…
Although, to mark Manchester Book Club’s first birthday, our hapless host failed (for the first time) to finish this little nugget by Kevin Brockmeier, the rest of the group came up trumps with a full and thorough reading and plenty of opinions to boot. Although there were mixed responses to Brockmeier’s eventual conclusion to Laura’s survival tale, it was generally agreed that this was an entertaining book with plenty to discuss. A dystopia that captured all our imaginations.
Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene (March 2013)
With a friendly new face in the mix and in the wake of a highly successful February book discussion, Lauren turned up with four gems for us to choose from. Feeling the need for a little something classic, we plumped for Our Man In Havana by Graham Greene:
Mr. Wormold, vacuum cleaner salesman in a city of powercuts, is, as always, short of money. His daughter, sixteen, followed everywhere by wolf whistles, is spending his money with a skill that amazes him, so when a mysterious Englishman offers him an extra income he’s tempted. All he has to do is run agents, file reports: spy. But his fake reports have an alarming tendency to come true, and the web of lies he weaves around him starts to get more and more tangled…
As much loved as Graham Greene is and as entertaining as Lauren’s choice inevitably proved to be… the higher the enjoyment factor the less the group often have to say! Although we could have done with a few Cold War experts amongst our number the group nevertheless found Greene’s satire of life in the secret service highly amusing and the plain Mr Wormold a fairly cosy and likeable character. Thumbs up!
Beloved by Toni Morrison (February 2013)
After a rather subdued and smugly sober January meet, Mark provided us with some wildly different and, we were hoping, contentious literature for our perusal. After a lot of nervous deliberation the group plumped for Toni Morrison’s tale of slavery, hope and loss; Beloved:
It is the mid-1800s. At Sweet Home in Kentucky, an era is ending as slavery comes under attack from the abolitionists. The worlds of Halle and Paul D are to be destroyed in a cataclysm of torment and agony. The world of Sethe, however, is to turn from one of love to one of violence and death – the death of Sethe’s baby daughter, Beloved. Whose name is the single word on the tombstone, who died at her Mother’s hands, and who will return to claim retribution.
Easily one of our favourites yet. Morrison’s seminal work was both poignant and highly disturbing. Banishing all thoughts of Oprah from our minds we were transfixed by Morrison’s hypnotic prose, tragic characters and the reminder of centuries of repulsive oppression. Strong female characters bound by a terrifying past strive to make their way to freedom and, by golly, do we hope they make it.
The Last of the Savages by Jay McInerney (January 2013)
With 2013 already swiftly descending on us we decided to celebrate a bookish Christmas and New Year with an alternative venue and whip around with some mulled wine. Hannah was kind enough to supply us with some very exciting choices for our first discussion of the new year, with teh group finally voting for The Last of the Savages by Jay McInerney:
When Patrick Keane arrives at an exclusive New England prep school in the Sixties he meets his roommate, the radical Will Savage. The last in the line of a privileged white family from the Mississippi Delta, Will disavows his father’s expectations and embraces the searing anthems of black soul music. From wildly different backgrounds, Patrick and Will form an unlikely friendship that is to span three decades, from the turbulent Sixties to the Nineties. The Last of the Savages is a dazzling exploration of interracial love, music, family and enduring friendship.
Tumbleweed ahoy! January’s meeting was a rather quiet affair, feeling rather jaded after Christmas and not really having all that much to discuss about a book that, although well-written (clichés aside), skimmed so much of the protagonist’s lives that we were left feeling something a little lacking. A sympathetic biographer, intriguing setting and filmic narrative however held our attention, enough to consider a bit of McInerney in the future. Why not!?
The Drought by J G Ballard (December 2012)
Water. Man’s most precious commodity is a luxury of the past. Radioactive waste from years of industrial dumping has caused the sea to form a protective skin strong enough to devastate the Earth it once sustained. And while the remorseless sun beats down on the dying land, civilization itself begins to crack. Violence erupts and insanity reigns as the remnants of mankind struggle for survival in a world-wide desert of despair.
A flurry of sick notes were received this month – partially due to the busy Christmas season but also, we suspect, due to the difficulty some had finishing this supposed Sci-fi classic. Lack of character and some fairly hackneyed similes meant that, apart from one passionate book group member, much skim-reading ensued and we were left feeling, well, rather thirsty really…
The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers (November 2012)
The lovely Charlotte provided us with so many interesting novels at the last meet that choosing something to read during October almost became impossible! Putting our foot down to a choice of three, Jane Rogers’ Man Booker long listed The Testament of Jessie Lamb made the cut:
Jessie Lamb is an ordinary girl living in extraordinary times: as her world collapses, her idealism and courage drive her towards the ultimate act of heroism. If the human race is to survive, it’s up to her. Set just a month or two in the future, in a world irreparably altered by an act of biological terrorism, The Testament of Jessie Lamb explores a young woman’s determination to make her life count for something, as the certainties of her childhood are ripped apart…
Although largely agreed that this is not the most well-written novel in the world and highly frustrating in parts, the group at least agreed that Jessie’s Lamb’s story contained some explosive, Man Booker-prize worthy ideas. Sadly marred by an unconvincing, irritating teenage narrator, the issues approached in Jessie’s pre-apocalyptic world captured the imagination of the group and we spent a happy hour speaking of women’s rights, the teenage mind and the possible realities of bio-terrorism…
Amerika by Franz Kafka (October 2012)
Karl Rossmann has been banished by his parents to America, following a family scandal. There, with unquenchable optimism, he throws himself into the strange experiences that lie before him as he slowly makes his way into the interior of the great continent. Although Kafka’s first novel (begun in 1911 and never finished), can be read as a menacing allegory of modern life, it is also infused with a quite un-Kafkaesque blitheness and sunniness, brought to life in this lyrical translation that returns to the original manuscript of the book.
Amerika presented a first foray into the world of Kafka for some and a final dip into their dusty collections for others. Although undoubtedly well-written (even in its unfinished and largely unedited state) the general feel was for a book that, although not representative of the author’s far more surreal and darker works, still served as an effective advertisement for the group to go forth and devour some of the more obvious Kafka classics. An often quite comic portrait of a nation that the author never had the opportunity to visit in person.
Mr Norris Changes Trains by Christopher Isherwood (September 2012)
Taking a leaf out of Louise’s book, Jess brought more than a mere three choices with her for September’s read. After a quickety quick vote, Mr Norris Changes Trains by Christopher Isherwood won hands down:
After a chance encounter on a train the English teacher, William Bradshaw, starts a close friendship with the mildly sinister Arthur Norris. Norris is a man of contradictions; lavish but heavily in debt, excessively polite but sexually deviant. First published in 1933 Mr Norris Changes Trains piquantly evokes the atmosphere of Berlin during the rise of the Nazis.
Well, what a surprise awaited us this week! Everybody seemed rather subdued and really at a loss as to what they thought about this book, positively or negatively. Where Arthur Norris provoked disgust and irritation in some, others found the deviant characters within this novel to be both amusing and well-observed. Further intrigue lay in Isherwood’s tense pre-WWII setting and rather ‘queer’ undertones. Beyond that? ….well, not very much really.
The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt (August 2012)
The lovely Louise delighted us all by bring no less than eight interesting titles for August’s read. After a pondering few moments we plumped for Man Booker shortlisted ‘The Sisters Brothers’ by Patrick deWitt:
Hermann Kermit Warm is going to die. The enigmatic and powerful man known only as the Commodore has ordered it, and his henchmen, Eli and Charlie Sisters, will make sure of it. Though Eli doesn’t share his brother’s appetite for whiskey and killing, he’s never known anything else. But their prey isn’t an easy mark, and on the road from Oregon City to Warm’s gold-mining claim outside Sacramento, Eli begins to question what he does for a living – and whom he does it for.
With The Sisters Brothers, Patrick deWitt pays homage to the classic Western, transforming it into an unforgettable comic tour de force. Filled with a remarkable cast of characters – losers, cheaters, and ne’er-do-wells from all stripes of life – and told by a complex and compelling narrator, it is a violent, lustful odyssey through the underworld of the 1850s frontier that beautifully captures the humour, melancholy and grit of the Old West and two brothers bound by blood, violence and love.
After a month spent working our poor weary heads around madcap cats in Moscow, Louise’s choice was a welcome break and, although it didn’t quite wow all of us, with a pair of devoted fans within the group, a lively discussion was had by all. What was the significance of the beavers after all!!? Although some felt deWitt’s characters lacked depth, some found this to be a convincing, sympathetic portrait of two contracted killers and we are all, without a doubt, intrigued to see what the author offers up next.
The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov (July 2012)
Well the book group voted and from Alex’s three choices the title that won with most votes from the group collectively was the renowned ‘The Master & Margerita’ by Mikhail Bulgakov. Alex strongly recommended we all read the same translation by Diana Lewis Burgin and Katherine Tiernan O’Conner published by Picador. Here is the synopsis of the book…
A literary sensation from its first publication, The Master and Margarita has become an astonishing phenomenon in Russia and has been translated into more than twenty languages, and made into plays and films. Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel is now considered one of the seminal works of twentieth-century Russian literature. In this imaginative extravaganza the devil, disguised as a magician, descends upon Moscow in the 1930s with his riotous band, which includes a talking cat and an expert assassin. Together they succeed in comically befuddling a population which denies the devil’s existence, even as it is confronted with the diabolic results of a magic act gone wrong. This visit to the world capital of atheism has several aims, one of which concerns the fate of the Master, a writer who has written a novel about Pontius Pilate, and is now in a mental hospital. By turns acidly satiric, fantastic and ironically philosophical, this work constantly surprises and entertains, as the action switches back and forth between the Moscow of the 1930s and first-century Jerusalem.
Everyone seemed pretty excited to have a crack at this classic (Alex included, despite the fact that she had read this book many moons ago) although it certainly isn’t a beach read for the summer and required a bit more concentration from us all! A first foray into the intimidating world of Russian literature for some, a drop in the ocean for others, it is certain that Bulgakov’s intellectually and politically provocative bizarre book captured our imaginations. Hurrah!
The Dubious Salvation of Jack V. by Jacques Strauss (June 2012)
For the second choice of read for the group Simon chose a debut novel which he hoped would be a ‘quirky and funny, in an inappropriately appropraite way, look at the South African apartheid’ and something short which would make people laugh after the previous months read (see below). Here is the synopsis…
Even as an eleven year old I had a strong sense that the universe was setting up nasty traps for me, all sorts of really horrible ways to die in which (and this is the crucial point) I would in some way be complicit in my own demise (and this before I had done anything to warrant this particular anxiety). I have always been shit scared of the deranged universe and it’s not really that stupid and irrational…it gets all of us eventually. It’s 1989, and in the dying years of the Apartheid regime, eleven-year-old Jack Viljee considers himself the centre of his world. The son of an Afrikaans father and an English mother, wedged between a strident older and favoured younger sister, Jack allies himself with the family’s beloved maid, Susie. Plagued by portents of doom, Jack nevertheless has firm views on race (complex), politics (straightforward), poofdas (inoffensive), God (dangerous), sex (bewildering), sisters (disappointing), parents (unfailing), Zulus (frightening) and the KGB (cunning). His Afrikaans family are wanting in a number of respects: they have too many children, let the maid keep chickens in the backyard, buy tomato sauce in ten litre vats and cover their furniture in plastic. Still, there is no doubt they could wipe the floor with his soft English relatives. Either way, at his new school he knows that he is set on an inexorable path to Englishness. Life is simple. But the comfortable domesticity of the Viljee household has been upset by the arrival of Percy, Susie’s fifteen-year old son. Percy – young, bored and full of rage – makes everything awkward and embarrassing for Jack. After one particularly humiliating event, Jack betrays Susie and learns that even the most childish act can avalanche beyond his most outlandish imaginings. The world, it turns out, is not so simple.
So what did the group make of it? Well only Simon truly admired the book and he couldnt make the book group (though emailed his thoughts over) the rest of the discussion was divided, with people seeing both the pro’s and con’s to the book. That said the discussion was lively and the book brought up debate over child narrators and also humour as a device when a novels theme is much darker. Not a bad read, good for discussion.
Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell (May 2012)
For the first official choice of the Manchester Book Club co-founder Lucy chose a book that is meant to be the great ‘Manchester novel’ from one of the cities most famous authors.
Mary Barton is the pretty daughter of a factory worker who finds herself dreaming of a better life when the mill-owner’s charming son, Henry, starts to court her. She rejects her childhood friend Jem’s affections in the hope of marrying Henry and escaping from the hard and bitter life that is the fate of the workers, who are resentfully dependent on the callous mill-owners for their livelihoods. But when Henry is shot dead in the street Jem becomes the prime suspect and Mary finds her loyalties tested to the limit.
Overall we think its fair to say that no one at the meeting had particularily enjoyed reading the book, possibly an understatement, though everyone appreciated the fact it was a novel about the city they meet for book club in… if a very grim one. They discussed how the book had aged and the fact it was Gaskell’s debut novel, and pondered if they would read her again?
Favourite Books (April 2012)
For the first meeting of The Manchester Book Club all members brought their favourite books in to discuss and get to know each other better.