Book 66: The Immortalists, Chloe Benjamin (2018)

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Image result for the immortalistLocation: Mowgli, Grand Central

Chosen by: Rachael

The cover of Chloe Benjamin’s The Immortalists reads: “If you knew the date of your death, how would you live your life?” This is a question that many of us have considered at some point, and this interesting premise is largely what drew us to the book. We had interesting discussions about the notion, and voted on whether we’d like to know the date of our death or not. Only two of six of us present said yes.

In 1969, New York, four child siblings visit a travelling psychic who (separately) tells them the date they’ll die. After that, the book is split into four distinct parts covering a large segment of each character’s life. The first story is Simon’s, the youngest sibling, who goes to San Francisco to explore his sexuality. Next is the wild Klara, who goes with Simon and becomes a magician/illusionist. The third story is about Daniel, a suspended army medic. The final story is that of the oldest girl Varya, who works in an animal research lab conducting tests on potential life extensions.

The four-story structure made certain parts of the book more enjoyable than others for us—with Simon’s story being the most enjoyable and vivid, Klara’s being interesting, Dan’s story a little predictable, and Varya’s being difficult to read. Likewise, while Simon and Klara are fairly likeable characters, Daniel and Varya are difficult to like.

According to the blurb, “the siblings must choose how to live with the prophecies the fortune-teller gave them that day. Will they accept, ignore, cheat or defy them?” While the notion of the book was thought-provoking and asked some questions about fate and how you live your life, the actual book didn’t answer those questions, making the ending a bit of an anticlimax.

As such, The Immortalists wasn’t really what we were expecting, being more of a family dynamic character story than an exploration of fate vs. choice, destiny vs. actions. It’s not clear from the blurb that the book is literary fiction depicting four in-depth character stories and the complexities of sibling relationships, which is perhaps the fault of the marketers more than the author.

On the whole, we agreed that the book was fairly enjoyable, well-written, and an easy read, and it scored well. However, criticisms of the book were “it’s okay but it’s not going to set the world on fire” and “it’s an interesting concept but the book itself wasn’t really food for thought”.

Score: 7/10

If you’ve read The Immortalists, feel free to score it out of 5 using the star rating above. Would you want to know the date you’ll die? 


Black Friday Deal: 50% off Audible Audio Books Membership

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At the last Unconventional Book Club meetup, the topic of audio books came up. Some of our members swear by them, as it means you can technically absorb the book’s content while also cleaning up, doing the housework, or doing something else.

As such, a few of us thought we might try out an audio book. It seems like Amazon were listening in on the discussion, because just afterwards, I got an email offer for 50% off 4 months’ Audible membership, so only £3.99 per book.

Their Black Friday deal lasts until 14th December, and you can cancel your membership after the offer before it goes up to the full price of £7.99 per month. You can access the deal here.

I don’t normally promote offers, but this one seems too good not to! Happy listening folks.

Audible Logo

Get 50% off Audible for the first 4 months

Join Audible for just £3.99/month. Offer available until 14th December 2018.

Book 65: The Restless Sea, Vanessa de Haan (2018)

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Location: Mowgli, Grand Central—absolutely delicious food. We’ll definitely be revisiting this venue!

We were kindly given copies of The Restless Sea by Reading Groups for Everyone.

Vanessa de Haan’s debut novel The Restless Sea is set over the Second World War, starting just before the war begins and ending after it finishes. It explores the war through three characters: Olivia, an officer’s daughter who is thrown from her sheltered upbringing into the wilds of rural Scotland; Jack, who survived pre-war London as a child by stealing, and joins the disciplined Merchant Navy; and Charlie, a well-respected, rising pilot and family friend of Olivia. The interaction of the three characters throughout the novel forms the plot.

I’ll start by saying that less than half of the Unconventional Book Club managed to finish this book, which says a lot. And we’re talking some seasoned readers here. At 496 pages, covering the entire Second World War period and three different character’s stories, the book simply feels unwieldy, overly long, and excessively detailed. Those of us who managed to finish the book did so only by skimming. One member described it as “like trying to wade through treacle”.

It’s a great shame really, because we all found the book well-written, and were interested in the less-explored side of the war—the Merchant Navy. Most of us enjoyed the historical aspects, and it’s evident that the book was extremely well-researched in terms of depicting the various aspects of the war.

To fully immerse the reader in the wartime setting, there’s a lot of dialogue about what’s happening elsewhere during the war, in-depth descriptions of battles and bombings, and a huge amount of visual detail to paint the picture. Although this makes the book evocative, it also makes it feel overly long. We felt that it could have been reduced to around half the length, which would have made a more compelling read.

Likewise, the three different character perspectives provided interesting insights into what the war was like for a young woman and two men from very different backgrounds; however, by including three character stories and the characters’ interactions with each other, it felt like the author really tried to cover too much.

What’s more, the huge amount of effort put in to make the war feel realistic was seriously undermined by the implausibility of the non-war side of the plot—particularly in the characters’ interactions with each other. I’ll try to avoid any spoilers here, but the number of coincidences in the plot really stretched credulity.

Throughout the novel, characters just happen to stumble across one another in various settings. So much so that the plot felt ludicrous and contrived. Although some coincidental meetings propel the plot, others are completely unnecessary. The book’s tagline is “Three lives collide in a way that only the war makes possible…”, but it feels even less likely that these random coincidences would occur during the chaos of war.

While we felt the book had potential due to the interesting subject matter, its hefty length and unbelievable plot led to a very low score from those who managed to finish it. As one member summarised, “Fascinating subject, same old plot lines.”

Score: 4/10

If you’ve read The Restless Sea, feel free to score it out of 5 using the star rating above.

Book 64: Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, Reni Eddo-Lodge (2017)


Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race: Reni ...Location: Bar Estilo, the Mailbox

We were kindly given copies of Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reading Groups for Everyone. This book marked an Unconventional Book Club first as a nonfiction book. While many of us read nonfiction, we haven’t delved into reviewing one before. First, we’ll go through the positives, then any criticisms.

The positive takeaways

On the whole, we all found the book “illuminating” and “thought-provoking”, seemingly the key words of the discussion. The book is a relatively short, easy read that is both educational and interesting. It provides plenty of food for thought, forcing us all to think and be more aware—both of our own experiences and those of other people. In short, it opened our eyes to things we weren’t aware of.

For those of us from ethnic minorities, it reminded us of prejudice and racism we experienced growing up. For those of the group who are white, the book made us challenge ourselves. We had an interesting discussion on the concept of “white privilege” and how you may not notice injustice when you aren’t on the receiving end of it. Some interesting comments included:

“I wouldn’t think of myself as being ‘white’ but I suppose I didn’t see the barriers because I haven’t experienced them.”

“You think you’re a liberal enlightened person—then you read this!”

“It’s a bit scary— it makes you think about things you’ve never thought about before.”

A group favourite was Chapter 1, which highlights some historical information on race, such as the commonwealth. While there was a lot we already knew, most of us gained some new information, such as the repatriation of ethnic groups that occurred after WW1. These historical aspects aren’t widely taught in school—and really should be. For some of us, it was surprising to discover things we didn’t know about that had happened in our own lifetimes. Comments included:

“It made me think I don’t know as much as I think I do!”

With many members working or having worked in HR, the issues with still-existing structural racism were well-known. Since it’s so obvious and apparent, it lead us to question why on earth it’s still happening. The upshot was that it left some readers feeling sad, like we are in “a sorry state of affairs”. While Eddo-Lodge points out that saying “sorry” isn’t helpful, one can’t help but be left with a feeling of sadness at the way things have been, and in many cases still are.

The criticisms

There weren’t many criticisms of the content—more that the book needed better editing in parts (I would say that as a book editor, wouldn’t I, but I wasn’t the only one). In particular, some parts needed much more detail, as there wasn’t enough information to make the point clear. Other parts were overly detailed and could have been reduced to save space for the bigger issues.

For example, the discussion on class wasn’t covered in enough depth for such a non-straightforward issue. Likewise, the discussion on being mixed race (an issue close to my heart, being mixed race) is a huge and complex area, yet was given a very limited, one-sided coverage in just 8 pages. In addition, most of us agreed that the chapter on feminism was at best confusing and at worst the weakest in the book. These issues don’t detract from the overall message of the book, but could have been dealt with more fully or left out and covered properly in another book.

We also discussed the book’s title, which is likely to alienate some potential readers and may be counterproductive. Although Eddo-Lodge explains her reasoning for keeping the title the same as the original blog article that sparked the book, it no longer seems relevant and is in fact the opposite of the main message in the book.

In summary

Overall, we found the book eye-opening and thought-provoking, leading to interesting discussions and increased awareness. While the book is too shallow on some complex issues, it shines a light on injustices that are still occurring, and prevailing structural racism that needs to be addressed on a national level. It may not be an “enjoyable” read as such, but we all agreed that it’s a very important book—and that it plants a vital seed that will hopefully sprout into something much more. Indeed, the book does end on a positive note with the addition of the “aftermath” chapter highlighting an improved discourse on race.

Score: 8

If you’ve read Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, feel free to score it out of 5 using the star rating above.

Book 63: The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Society, Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Burrows (2008)

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http_media.npr.orgbookssummer2008stambergguernsey_cover-3e89a5e2bf7cef4bff17d78045904ec77390c2dd-s6-c30Location: Las Iguanas, the new branch on Temple Street, on a gloriously sunny day.

We chose this book with the intention to attempt a second book club film outing, but by the time we got around to reviewing the book, the film was no longer showing at cinemas. Oops.

As such, TGLPPS was a re-read for most members. Of those, reviews were mixed—two had forgotten it entirely, while it remained a fond favourite for the other two. Overall, scores ranged from a miserable 3 to a solid 10, again making a cohesive review difficult (as per the previous book How to Stop Time). This time, I’ll look at each theme and the varying views on it.

Set in 1946, the book is a series of letters between 30-something London writer Juliet, her editor and her best friend, and the members of the Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Society. Through a random happening, Juliet receives a letter from a member of the society, and through letters with the society members, she learns about life in Guernsey during the German occupation, building relationships that will change her life forever.

The epistolary (letter) format received different reactions from our book club. Some members found the format to follow difficult at first, but came to enjoy the different angles and perspectives it offered. Others found it troublesome throughout, largely due to a lack of distinction between each character’s voice.

There was also the common criticism of epistolary novels that the letter writer has to include unnatural details to propel the plot forward, making it feel somewhat contrived. In terms of plot, some of us found it a little too neat and tidy, while others loved the feel-good plot centered around character interactions, budding friendships, and sharing stories.

A few members truly loved the characters, finding all of the characters likeable, believable, and full of, well, “character”. On the contrary, several members felt that the characters were one-dimensional and at times stereotypical. Some loved Juliet, with her flamboyant language and heart of gold. Others found her twee, and thought it unlikely that she would be loved by everyone in person, having only built a relationship through letters. The author was American, so her depiction of British characters didn’t always feel on-point to some of us.

That said, the author did much research into life in Guernsey during the war, and her knowledge shines through. The novel provides great insight into life in Guernsey during the war, and the difficulties that residents faced—in a part of the world not widely covered in other novels. Her vivid descriptions made at least half the book club want to visit Guernsey.

As the residents describe their war-time experiences of the occupation to Juliet, there were some incredibly sad parts. Even sadder when taken into consideration that these events really happened. Despite these sad events, the narrative is woven around more lighthearted discussions, and maintains a positive tone throughout. As one book clubber described it, “It’s the perfect example of how to turn negative, sad situations into positive experiences through sharing humanity and kindness.”

Of course, not all books about war need to be depressing and harrowing (though we do have a tendency to choose harrowing books at the Unconventional Book Club). For some members, this jovial tone kept them smiling despite the darker parts of the novel and made the book an uplifting experience. For others, parts of the book felt silly, frivolous even—lacking a certain grittiness that often comes with war novels.

As such, this “feel-good tingled with sadness” book was like chalk and cheese for us.

Score: 7.5

If you’ve read The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Society, feel free to score it out of 5 using the star rating above

Book 62: How to Stop Time, Matt Haig (2017)

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http_i.dailymail.co.ukipix201707062242193C9E00000578-4672738-image-a-25_1499377504469Location: The Woodman, a return visit after their kitchen burnt down and eventually reopened. Enormous thick-cut chips—one portion was enough for the whole table!

How to Stop Time is the story of Tom Hazard, a guy who looks 41 but is more like 400. A rare genetic condition means his aging has happened so slowly that he’s been alive for several centuries. The deal is, every seven years, Tom must get a new identity and move on before his lack of aging arouses suspicion—meaning many lifetimes and various locations. Now, Tom is a history teacher at a London school, and he wants to live a normal life. But it’s never that easy is it?

On concept alone, the book proposes a fascinating idea. Unfortunately, for most of the book clubbers, it stayed as just that—a good idea. To put our review into context, it scored a measly 4, a few “it was okay” 6s, and a perfect 10 from me. Writing a cohesive review is therefore slightly difficult, so I’ll cover the criticisms first, and then the compliments.

The main bone of content was how often Tom just happens to bump into famous people throughout history. In our entire lifetimes, none of us have met anyone particularly famous or influential. If one was alive for 400 years, would they really meet so many famous people? It feels unlikely, even for those who enjoyed the book, and contrived to those who didn’t. Perhaps meeting one famous historical writer would have been sufficient.

The other issues were that Haig seems to cover too much—romance, friendship, parenthood, history, and time—making it feel “disjointed and muddled” at times, and that the novel was “too philosophical”. Some book clubbers found the timeline confusing. We all agreed that the novel was wrapped up a little too quickly, with a quest that ended fairly abruptly.

Now on to the good bits. There was unanimous agreement that Tom’s historical descriptions of London were enjoyable, looking through the veil of history to see an old London beneath the modern-day city. His ability to bring history to life in this way meant we all would have liked him as a history teacher. Some (or was it just me, being a philosophy graduate?) loved the philosophical musings, and the others agreed that there were at least some interesting observations. We also felt that it would work quite well as a film adaptation, and lo and behold, Benedict Cumberbatch is set to play Hazard in a StudioCanal adaptation.

In essence, the novel was marmite for the Unconventional Book Club. However, it did pose some interesting questions. If such people existed, would society hunt them down and try to harvest their DNA to prolong life? Would it be possible to say in one place and remain unnoticed? If you lived for 400 years, what would you do with your time?

Score: 6.5

If you’ve read How to Stop Time, you can score it out of 5 using the star rating above. Did it pose any interesting questions for you?

Book 61: The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini (2003)

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Good Quotes From Kite Runner. QuotesGramLocation: Pizza Express and The Rep Theatre

The Kite Runner marked an Unconventional Book Club first for us—our first outing to see a play adaptation. The last adaptation we attempted was The Time Traveller’s Wife at the cinema a few years back, and it was so far removed from the book that Rachael actually walked out mid-film. We were hoping for a better outcome this time! Unusually, the book also marked a re-read for half of us.

Khaled Hosseini’s first novel, The Kite Runner, is about a young boy named Amir growing up in Afghanistan with his distant father and his devoted best friend Hassan. Each year, the boys take part in a kite running competition, but one year, the events that take place alter their lives forever.

While focusing on the relationships between friends and father-son, and the themes of guilt and redemption, the novel also balances the bigger picture of Afghanistan’s turbulent history—through violence, monarchy downfall, Soviet intervention, refugee exodus, and the Taliban.

This in part explains why the book has developed such an impressive status—topping the New York Times bestseller list for over two years and selling millions of copies. It offers an insight, a secret window, into life in Afghanistan before and after the Taliban—an area that many readers weren’t so familiar with when the book was published. Some of these insights are particularly controversial, leading to criticism of the book in Afghanistan.

That said, Hosseini has plenty of personal experience, having grown up in Afghanistan and moved to America, where he was a medical intern who took a break to promote his first novel. In fact, his motivation to write the book was hearing that his beloved sport of kite flying had been prohibited by the Taliban. The book no doubt has some autobiographical details for Hosseini, but it’s also much darker than he originally intended.

There are certainly some shocking moments (with huge impact on the first read), some harrowing moments, and some especially sad moments, meaning the book is a page turner, but not an easy read by any stretch. Despite this, The Kite Runner is a firm favourite of many of the book clubbers—scoring a 9 from almost everyone. Reviews ranged from “the best book I’ve read in ages” to “too harrowing for a re-read”.

It’s the kind of book that sticks with you, particularly because Hosseini’s writing style is so evocative and vivid that it transports you to the streets of Afghanistan. Not just “well-written”, The Kite Runner is so detailed and honest that it feels real. What’s more, the traumatic events that take place aren’t just fiction, but things that really happened to people Hosseini knew. This historical and cultural insight made The Kite Runner a strong favourite for us.

Score: 9

If you’ve read The Kite Runner, you can score it out of 5 using the star rating above. Did you see the play or the film version? What did you think of the adaptations?

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