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Book 59: The Keeper of Lost Things, Ruth Hogan (2017)

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Location: Carluccio’s for Xmas Dinner

Chosen by: Theresa

The keeper of lost things is Anthony Peardew, a man who lost his fiancée Therese’s keepsake on the day she died forty years ago. Unable to forgive himself, he has dedicated the rest of his life to collecting, documenting, and looking after lost items—hoping to reunite them with their owners someday. Realising he doesn’t have long to live, he passes his secret mission, his house, and the lost things on to his housekeeper Laura.

Laura is a young, divorced loner who feels like she has wasted her intelligence and youth on the wrong man. After shutting herself away in the house, she is won over by a neighbour’s daughter, Sunshine, who has Down syndrome and offers much light and happiness in the novel. There is also Freddy, the predictably rugged gardener who Laura has a crush on. Not to mention Therese’s ghost, who is stroppily haunting the house and playing music at all hours.

A heavily-featured subplot is the long-time friendship of Eunice and Bomber, a local publisher. Eunice has lost something too and has something that was lost. The two plots are intertwined, though the secrets are given away on the very first page, which is highly frustrating for readers who had hoped for a twist. To resolve the plot, Laura has to figure out how to reunite the lost items and put the unhappy ghost to rest.

The ghost love story and the quest to return lost items makes this book more than it looks (since the cover is somewhat happy-go-lucky chic lit). The novel serves as a reminder that little things, seemingly of no consequence, mean more to people than you realise. Trivial things are significant to their owners, even if it’s just a hair bobble. It would be nice to think that there really is a keeper of lost things out there, as there are things we’ve all lost that we’d love to be reunited with (mine is a knitted bumblebee).

However, the novel does have its issues. It started well, but the balance of the two storylines just didn’t work. Some of us wanted more of the Anthony storyline, and others wanted more of Eunice’s life. Some wanted less of the Bomber/Eunice subplot, which was too long to be a side plot, yet not long enough to be a true split.

There are a lot of characters, and they’re often spread too thin, meaning that some lacked depth (Freddy, Therese, and Eunice), while others were only given enough space to be stereotypes (Portia, Felicity). Although we loved Sunshine and “the little cup of tea” (who doesn’t love a little cup of tea?), there it’s hard to like the protagonist Laura, who has a mopey yet superior attitude.

This feel-good debut novel is enjoyable—a quick, inoffensive easy read. It’s pleasantly light-hearted, though predictable at times and does stray into the typical romance novel format, with an ending that is wrapped up a little too nicely. Claire summed it up fairly well when she said it was “cheese on toast”. Sometimes you need a good slice of cheese on toast though.

Score: 6

If you’ve read The Keeper of Lost Things, feel free to score it out of 5 using the star rating above. Have you ever lost anything?

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Book 58: All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr (2014)

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All the Light We Cannot SeeLocation: Zizzi

Chosen by: This choice came about due to some confusion with “The Light Between Oceans”, a previous book club review.

This critically-acclaimed novel won the Pulitzer Prize, was a National Book Award finalist, and a 2-year New York Times bestseller, among many other accolades. Set against a backdrop of World War II, we experience two very different storylines.

Marie-Laure is a young, blind French girl, who is forced to the walled citadel Saint-Malo with her father to live in her reclusive uncle’s house when the Nazis occupy their home town of Paris. Marie’s father works at the Museum of Natural History, and he must protect the museum’s most valuable jewel—a jewel the Nazis want due to a fairy tale about it.

In contrast, Werner Pfennig is an orphan who lives in a German mining town with his sister. They find inspiration in an old radio, listening to news from around the world. When Werner learns how to fix and build radios, he is enlisted in the Nazi Youth due to his skills. As the war escalates, we see normal people trying to live their lives in this difficult environment. As the novel progresses, Marie-Laure and Werner’s stories merge, though not in the way you think they will.

Doerr took ten years to write this book, and his efforts certainly paid off in the believability of his characters, the strength of their relationships, and the vivid, detailed descriptions of each setting. To say it’s “well-written” somehow isn’t strong enough. His baddies summon real hate, his goodies follow paths that are truly moving. The relationships between Marie-Laure and her father and uncle are wonderful. His descriptions are so evocative that they transport you to France and Germany (in fact so convincingly that I forgot I was in a Japanese train station as I read it).

Despite being difficult to get into at the start, the novel grabs you—with short chapters that make it a gripping page-turner, pardon the cliché. There are harrowing times, tense moments, and flashes of hope. Although All the Light We Cannot See isn’t uplifting, and at times feels a little bleak, it’s one of those books that should be read. Could it have ended a little sooner? Perhaps. Would it have been nice for a little more happiness? Maybe. But this is the reality of war. The acts of defiance from normal people were reminiscent of Alone in Berlin (a previous book club favourite). And there are magical moments—moments of light—even when it seems like there are none.

Score: 8

If you’ve read All the Light We Cannot See, feel free to score it out of 5 using the star rating above.

Book 57: My Name Is Leon, Kit de Waal (2016)

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img_2884.jpgLocation: The Stable for “Tuck in Tuesday” —nice place, good pizza, though the door’s pretty hard to find…

Theme: Books set in Birmingham

Chosen by: Lorna

As a Birmingham-based book club, it seemed only right to review a book about Birmingham at some point. However, finding one was easier said than done! It seems that not many books are based in Birmingham, so our shortlist was, well, short. Thankfully, we found My Name Is Leon, written by former social worker and Brummie Kit de Waal. Despite not naming the city as Birmingham, we recognised many of the road names, and some of us even remember the riots described in the book.

Set in early 80’s Birmingham against a backdrop of racial tension, this is the story of 9-year-old mixed race Leon and his white, blonde-haired baby brother Jake. When their mother becomes ill and fails to look after them, Leon takes care of Jake until they are put into foster care. After a few months, the brothers are separated when Jake is adopted by a young white couple. It’s easy to imagine how this would be difficult to understand for a young boy, and as Kit de Waal worked in social care for many years and adopted children herself, she saw this effect first-hand. Her personal knowledge of this area shines through, as the novel is entirely believable throughout.

Told from Leon’s perspective, Kit de Waal is masterfully subtle in portraying Leon’s situation—unlike other child-perspective narratives (such as Emma Donoghue’s Room), which often feel overdone. The result of this is sad and heart-breaking at times, without being overly harrowing, and she does well to avoid the common trap of making the book downright depressing. The simplified language makes it easy to get into Leon’s head and see how he misconstrues half-overheard conversations—believing he is not wanted by his foster carer and will be abandoned.

For the most part, the book is driven by the fascinating interactions between well-drawn characters—particularly in how the other characters react to Leon. Many of the adults in the novel, such as social workers, fail to really listen to him. As a result, they misunderstand his behaviour and see him as difficult. However, Leon’s interactions with Tufty, who has a local allotment, and Maureen, his foster carer, are particularly heart-warming, showing that love, friendship, and family comes from many unexpected sources.

The book isn’t plot-heavy, though the action sections are well-written, particularly when Leon is caught up in the tense atmosphere of the riots. The book is relatively short, covering around a year in Leon’s life, and most of us were disappointed when the book ended—only because we wanted more of it. As Kit de Waal’s debut, we could see why the book was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award 2016. There was really nothing we had to criticise about this novel—we just want more of it please Kit!

Score: 9

If you’ve read My Name Is Leon, feel free to score it out of 5 using the star rating above.

IMG_2885(As an aside, I really wanted to like this book as I managed to get hold of a signed first edition, and was surprised to discover that Leon and I share a birthday, a hometown, and are both mixed race with a mother named Carol—it was surely a sign!)

Book 56: Reader on the 6.27, Jean-Paul Didierlaurent, 2015

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reader-on-the-6-27Location: 1847—our favourite veggie restaurant in Birmingham. As always, delicious halloumi and chips.

Theme: A book under 200 pages.

Chosen by: Raman

A book about reading on a train, the Unconventional Book Club read this book: on a train (the 6.21), in Cornwall, on a plane to Cape Verde, on a plane to Malaga, and in the Tuscan hills.

Reader on the 6.27 is an unusual book that defies adequate description, which is perhaps why the blurb is at best inadequate and at worst misleading. In lieu of a good blurb, this strange little French book is about a wet lettuce of a man with a reasonably good heart who reads aloud on a train every day to bring some interest to his otherwise dull life, working in a job he hates at a book pulping factory, with a friend whose legs got eaten by the pulping machine, and on a quest to find a woman whose diary he finds and decides to read.

This all makes for an interesting, quirky concept with great potential. A guy reading out loud on a train? Sounds great. Indeed, on the whole, the majority of the group enjoyed Reader on the 6.27. It’s an easy read with pleasingly short chapters, making perfect train-journey-length reads. There were also some extremely funny parts, particularly the saucy reading-out-loud incident in the nursing home.

Adding to its strangeness, there’s no real beginning, middle, or end. The book takes a while to get going, with lots of superfluous detail near the beginning regarding sub-characters who are seemingly unimportant, forgotten later in the book, or are left undeveloped. There was also an unpleasant amount of grim in-depth toilet and waste expulsion stories from diary-writer Julie, who is a toilet attendant. Having recently reviewed Eileen, we couldn’t help but ask what’s the preoccupation with toilets and waste?

Despite most of the group’s enjoyment of the book, much criticism was levelled at it even from those who liked it—a strange outcome in itself. Reviews ranged from “I didn’t really like any of the characters, but I enjoyed reading it” to “I didn’t hate it” to “it was dull”. Equally, none of us really got the point of the book or the inclusion of some elements.

Perhaps due to its diminutive length, parts of the story felt underdeveloped, the side characters felt like caricatures, and some details were included that were wholly unexplained. It felt there was more back story to be plumbed, especially in Guylain’s relationship with his parents. Then, when it felt like the book was about to take off, it rudely ended.

Indeed, the largest criticism was regarding the ending, which is abrupt to say the least. In an unsatisfactory ending, the reader doesn’t discover the fate of Guylain’s friend Giuseppe, nor the outcome of Guylain and Julie’s potential relationship. We were left wondering are they supposed to just live happily ever after? Since the characters seemed highly unsuited to each other, did the author just spare the reader the inevitability of them not working out?

If you write a short book, the details need to be on point. Instead, it felt like some aspects were lost in translation. What was so hideous about Guylain’s name—and why didn’t he just change it? Why does a man who tries to blend in read aloud on a train? If he loves books so much, why doesn’t he look for a new job rather than one killing books? Why does he search several shopping centres before checking the one that he knew from Julie’s diary was exactly the right size?

Despite the questions and criticisms raised, the book scored fairly highly and is certainly different. It’s perhaps best summarised by one book clubber’s review, “I liked it despite its obvious shortcomings”.

Score: 7

If you’ve read Reader on the 6.27, feel free to score it out of 5 using the star rating above.

You can buy it on Amazon here.

Book 55: Little Women, Louisa May Alcott (1868 & 1869)

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6ce3221ebf5ad145ab24b16470467022.jpgLocation: James Dahl Indian—our first book club curry, and probably our last there since they charge extortionately for poppadom dip.

Theme: Books that changed your life (double-header)

Chosen by: Clare

For most of the group, Little Women was either a childhood favourite or a set text in English lessons at school. Only two of us had never read the book before. So after the dip-pricing shock, the first thing mentioned was that most people had read an abridged version as children and were suddenly surprised by how long the book is.

Little Women is perhaps so famous it needs no introduction, but in short, it’s the tale of four sisters growing up in America, following their transition from girlhood to womanhood. Originally published in two volumes, the first volume “Little Women” was written in just a few months. After immediately garnering much critical and commercial success, the second volume “Good Wives” was written equally quickly when readers wanted to know more about the characters. It is now published as one single volume containing both books.

The stories of the March sisters—Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy—are now so well-known from popular references that without even reading the book, many people know that [spoiler alert] Beth dies. Although child death wasn’t uncommon at the time, it’s still a shock for many readers. What most people don’t know is that the book was largely autobiographical, with Alcott writing about her own sisters, one of whom died. In fact, her intention for writing the book was to make money for her struggling family.

Alcott was writing at a time when women in America were starting to find their feet, get jobs, and not just be stay-at-home wives. As such, the novel explores the theme of female independence to a degree—particularly in the gutsy tomboy Jo, who didn’t want to get married and sold her lustrous hair to pay for her father’s hospital treatment.

It’s no surprise that most of us liked and identified with Jo. However, the other characters were often type-driven and narrow in scope. Beth is sickly sweet, Amy is a bit of a brat, and Meg is vapid and vain, while their mother is a typical goodie. This may have been a result of Alcott writing quickly or trying to simplify the content for children or young readers. Perhaps because the novels were rushed, Amy’s marriage feels incongruous.

Whilst most of the book clubbers had enjoyed the book as children, they struggled with it as adults. Those reading it for the first time gave up. Only one book clubber retained their original love for it. The writing style is repetitive, the story is very twee, and tone often falls on the side of sentimental or moralising. Very much a novel of its time, the stories in each chapter often feel like thinly-veiled lessons in how to be a good person. In short, while appreciating its value to children and for its time, most of us didn’t enjoy the book as adults.

Score: 5

The double-header was Mansfield Park, but so few of us managed to read the book that it’s not actually worth writing a review. Poor show UCBC.

If you loved or loathed Little Women, feel free to score the book using the 5-star voting system above.

Book 54: The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, Becky Chambers (2014)

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9781473619814Location: Red Peppers…on one of the rainiest days in living memory in Birmingham. We practically could have swum there.

Theme: Sci-fi

Chosen by: Lorna

The theme suggestion of sci-fi has been banded around a few times, but this is perhaps the first sci-fi book we’ve actually gone for—in part because we were all given a free copy thanks to World Book Night. A beautiful velvet-feel-cover paperback at that.

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet follows the quirky crew of the Wayfarer, a battered spaceship that’s been patched together. The novel kicks off when new crewmate Rosemary arrives, a human from Mars with a secret. The crew are a melting pot of species, from the very affectionate reptilian pilot Sissix to the Sianat pair navigator Ohan, and the centipede/otter-looking Dr Chef. The crew take on wormhole-building missions around the galaxy, including one large and particularly dangerous mission to the far side of space.

So, it’s probably worth mentioning that none of us particularly like sci-fi. Most of our reviews started with “Well I don’t read much sci-fi” or “I avoid sci-fi books like the plague”, so kudos to Becky Chambers for the fact that we all finished reading the book, which believe me doesn’t always happen. What’s more, all but one of us enjoyed it. So while the book has taken some criticism for not being “pure sci-fi”, this may well be the reason that most of us were onboard with it.

At 432-pages long, Chambers does a magnificent job of worldbuilding, or should I say universe building. The descriptions of the universe are incredibly detailed, with possibly too much technical detail at times and that was sometimes hard to imagine. While this slowed down some of the readers, the sequel might be an easier read since the characters and histories are somewhat familiar.

Indeed, there are many planets, species, and histories described in The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet —the universe, known as the Galactic Commons, is wide. As such, the novel is very well-written, and it’s clear that Chambers has a brilliant imagination and knows her stuff, possibly thanks to her parents’ jobs in space science. As succinctly summed up by Claire, “Good on her—she’s created a world, a universe, a solar system.”

Overall, not a great deal happens in terms of plot, being more character- and relationship-driven than action-packed. The novel feels more about the characters’ interactions, including inter-species relationships, speciesism, and prejudice, leading to it being donned “a space opera”. The variety of characters were enough to keep us entertained without a strong plot, and it feels like you really get to know the characters and their relationships. Some of the characters are particularly interesting, especially the ship’s AI Lovey and the adorable Kizzy knitting hats for the ship’s robots.

But if you’re expecting the book to suddenly “happen”, you’ll be disappointed. As such, some of us felt that the action-driven elements felt a little formulaic and could be more dynamic. Rosemary’s secret and story could have unravelled in a more momentous way, instead falling a little flat. And the ending was a tad soppy and sentimental.

However, these points are forgivable since Chambers does a fantastic job of delivering commentary on the human race from an “alien” perspective through the characters. Particularly the descriptions of bloodthirsty humans that the rest of the universe feel are pretty stupid having destroyed their own environment—““No good can come from a species at war with itself”. Some of the observations of humankind are profound, hinting at issues such as politics, racism, and gender, but in a subtle way that still feels like fiction.

What makes The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet even more interesting was that Chambers originally self-published the book and gained a cult following that led to a publisher and further book contracts, not to mention being shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke Award and the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction 2016. This is especially poignant considering that Chambers almost gave up on the book, feeling that nobody would want to read it, and eventually finished it thanks to a Kickstarter campaign. What an inspiration to all of us.

I’ll leave you with a few enjoyable quotes from the book:

“All you can do, Rosemary – all any of us can do – is work to be something positive instead. That is a choice that every sapient must make every day of their life. The universe is what we make of it. It’s up to you to decide what part you will play.”

“Humans’ preoccupation with ‘being happy’ was something he had never been able to figure out. No sapient could sustain happiness all of the time, just as no one could live permanently within anger, or boredom, or grief.”

“She would never, ever understand the idea that a child, especially an infant, was of more value than an adult who had already gained all the skills needed to benefit the community. But a real tragedy was the loss of an adult with friends and lovers and family. The idea that a loss of potential was somehow worse than a loss of achievement and knowledge was something she had never been able to wrap her brain around.”

Score: 7 – well there’s a surprise.

If you’ve read the book, feel free to score it out of 5 with the voting buttons.

Book 53: Eileen, Ottessa Moshfegh (2015)

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Image result for ottessa moshfegh eileen

Location: 1847 – wonderful veggie food, as always.

Theme: Christmas

Chosen by: Ameesha

We always struggle to choose a “Christmas” themed book—it seems like they’ve all been read to death—but Eileen, with its wintry cover, captured our attentions. It wasn’t exactly Christmassy, with its alcoholism and digestive discomfort, and it was as a far a U-turn as we could have made from the previous happy-ever-after Readers of the Broken Wheel Recommend. Yet … it made an impression on us. Ottessa Moshfegh’s second novel seemingly made a big impression elsewhere too, being shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize and garnering much critical acclaim.

As summarised succinctly by the Washington Post, “You have never read anything remotely like Eileen”. 24-year-old Eileen lives in her rundown Boston home with her alcoholic ex-cop father. She works at a men’s prison and fantasises about one of the guards. She wears her dead mother’s clothes. Nothing much happens. Then mysterious redhead Rebecca starts working at the prison and strikes up an unusual friendship with Eileen. That’s all you really need to know.

Despite the misleading and inaccurate marketing of Eileen as a “taut psychological thriller”, the novel is more a character study of a self-loathing, miserable, half-prudish, half-perverted young women stuck in an unhappy family dynamic. Told from the in-depth and unreliable perspective of Eileen, the reader discovers, in minute detail, Eileen’s base desires, perversions, and digestive ailments.

Described as “gratuitous” by some critics, at times the novel borders on disgusting, and the grubby Eileen is often hard to like. Yet at other times, her honest depiction is relatable, as Eileen tries to fade into the background, and Eileen’s unhappy life elicits the reader’s sympathy. The scene-setting creates a cold, dark atmosphere, and the novel feels enjoyably moody. Despite little happening, Eileen is strangely intriguing, almost like a morbid curiosity keeps you reading.

The novel is certainly polarising, with our reviews ranging from “loved it” to “over-laboured”, “tells it like it is”, and “the opposite of fluffy”, scoring between a 4 and a 9. Some of us wanted more of Rebecca (we also couldn’t help but wonder whether she was inspired by Du Maurier’s Rebecca), others wanted to know more about Eileen’s post-Boston life, some were waiting for something to happen, and Theresa just wanted “to give Eileen a good scrub”.

While the character development is strong, it felt that the ending was rushed after such a lengthy build up. Perhaps the unusual style is because Moshfegh first attempted to write the book in 90 days following The 90-day Novel by Alan Watt—primarily because she felt the notion was a joke. But since Moshfegh described herself as “broke” beforehand, she’s probably laughing all the way to the bank now.

If you’re looking for a slick, fast-paced action thriller, this is not it. But if you’re looking for something different, Eileen is a fascinating read. Let us know what you thought of Eileen using the voting buttons.

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