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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!)

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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.

Book 52: Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend, Katarina Bivald (2013)

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Image result for readers of the broken wheel recommend

Location: Las Iguanas, Christmas special!

Theme: “Just because”

Chosen by: Lorna

In Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend, 28-year-old, Swedish, plain, bookworm Sara takes a chance on an offer to stay with her pen pal, an old lady in small town America, who she has never met but shares a love of books with.

She quickly discovers that the tiny town—“Broken Wheel”—is broken, run down, and in need of inspiration. What follows is Sara’s opening of the town’s first book shop in a town where nobody reads, her gradual revival of the town, and her inspiration of the town’s residents—including getting them to read.

This debut novel contains all the required elements of a “feel good” book, with romance, friendships, humour, and saving a dying town. The plot and ending are pretty predictable, and there’s nothing even vaguely unpleasant to be found here. In fact, it’s overwhelmingly cheerful—if not a little twee.

Not to mention, it’s a book about books. “A book for book lovers” if the reviews are to be believed. (A minor point, but the spoilers of classic books are annoying for readers who haven’t read them yet.) Rather than pitching itself with the classics it describes, it falls dangerously near the genre of “chick lit”.

It’s interesting to see how a perceived “outsider” can impact on a quiet American town, and particularly how Sara already knows so much about the town through her pen pal’s letters. It’s enjoyable to observe the town and the residents’ revival—in a decidedly character- rather than plot-driven novel. That said, the town’s residents are a little 2D, paper cut outs in a paper town. The trouble is, the novel fails to feel real, or at least conceivably believable—it’s too fiction.

Score: 7

Book 51: The Lonely Londoners, Sam Selvon (1956)

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Image result for the lonely londonersLocation: The Eagle & Tun, home to UB40, and our first time in a “desi pub”.

Theme: Black History Month

Chosen by: Lorna

In 1956, Trinidadian author Sam Selvon wrote The Lonely Londoners. The book marked an important point in the history of literature as the first book to focus on working-class black immigrants after the introduction of the British Nationality Act 1948.

The book is set over a 3-year period in London after the Second World War, with a very loose plot focused on the day-to-day lives of a group of West Indian immigrants. The main character, Moses, has lived in London for a decade, yet achieved nothing. Moses helps other newer immigrants to navigate British life—looking for jobs, trying to date white women, and seeing prostitutes.

Despite their hopes that England would be a land of promise, Moses and “the boys” are homesick, holding on to their dream of home, and it’s no surprise since they are only given the jobs that nobody else wants, are frequently exploited, and are treated as outsiders by the rest of society. For them, London is a lonely city where they are unwelcome and forced to unite through their common differences. It is a London divided, and that divides.

But Selvon himself went some way to removing this division by writing the book, not least because he rewrote the book in creolized English after starting in the Queen’s English so he could convey the realistic emotions of his characters and create awareness. While the slang and vocabulary used isn’t a barrier to enjoyment, the beat writer tradition he employs really is a barrier unless you’re a fan of it. Rather than the unfocused, meandering snapshots, we would have preferred a beginning, middle, and end (perhaps we’re a little conventional in our unconventionality.)

This succinct book offers a quick foray into the subject, but we felt that it lacked detail and merely skimmed the surface of the issues. On the whole, we wanted less of the characters chasing women and more insights, particularly of the female experience, which isn’t really explored. Instead of observational snippets and social commentary that provides just a flavour, we wanted back story and a more in-depth exploration of the immigrant experience.

Inevitably, coming to the book in 2016 when society has considerably moved on means the book doesn’t offer the kind of insights it did back in 1956. Yet it remains incredibly popular—perhaps leading to our high expectations. While we didn’t love the book for these reasons, it certainly provoked an interesting discussion around some of our parents’ experience of immigrating to England and of how much has really changed.

Score: 6

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