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


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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

Book 50: The Girl on the Train, Paula Hawkins (2015)

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Image result for The Girl on the TrainLocation: Sack of Potatoes, double-header. A momentous book club occasion – book 50!

Tipped as “the psychological thriller of 2015”, The Girl on the Train debuted at numero uno on the New York Times Best Sellers list, where it stayed for 13 weeks. It topped the UK hardback chart for longer than any other book, and by Oct 2016, it had sold over 15 million copies worldwide.

If you’ve haven’t already read it yet (and let’s face it, who hasn’t?), it’s a first-person story narrated by three women: Rachel, Anna, and Megan in alternating chapters. Rachel is an alcoholic who gets the train every day and observes the lives of Megan and Anna. Anna is married to Rachel’s ex-husband. Megan lives a few houses away from Anna. Then Megan goes missing. Rachael becomes embroiled in the mystery of Megan’s disappearance. The big mystery.

So what’s the big deal, you might wonder? Is it all that? It can be hard to decipher whether these huge bestsellers live up to their hype, so here’s the low down.

The novel is very cleverly written in terms of plot, particularly how the web of mystery is built up and then gradually unravels— slowly spoon-feeding the reader clues to piece it all together. Despite this, it’s enjoyably fast-paced with short chapters, meaning it’s an easy one-day read … on the train even. It’s “a real page turner” to be completely clichéd, and the twists are exciting. In these terms, it lives up to the hype. It’s not the best written book, if we’re being honest. Good writing is sacrificed for plot at times, but the plot is strong enough to excuse its shortcomings in writing style.

There has also been much comparison to 2012’s big psychological thriller Gone Girl due to the unreliable narration, thrilling aspects, different perspectives, and presentation of suburban life. But Hawkins renounced these claims, stating that Gone Girl’s female protagonist Amy is “a psychopath…controlling and manipulative” while Rachel is “a mess who can’t do anything right”.

Despite this, we found more comparisons than Hawkins did in that like Amy, the female characters in The Girl on the Train aren’t particularly likeable. Rachel’s behaviour is often annoying, Megan is irritating, and Anna is a bit bland. What’s worse, the female characters are … sort of a sad indictment of womanhood. Likewise, as with Gone Girl, the male characters are abhorrent, and yet the female characters need them somehow. If you analyse it too deeply, the message is a bit unsettling. Until the ending of course, but we won’t ruin it for you. In short, definitely worth a read.

On a side note, we debated a second Unconventional Book Club outing to see the incredibly-quickly-produced film adaption of The Girl on the Train. But after a less-than-successful first outing to see much-loved book The Time Traveller’s Wife butchered in the film adaptation, we decided not to risk it. The question must be asked—why would a quintessentially British novel describing the train-track-overlooking-terraced-house-gardens scenario we know so well be depicted as American detached houses? There’s no logic in that, but it was enough to make most of us avoid the film.

Score: A solid 8.

Book 49: Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier (1938)

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Rebecca - Virago Modern Classics 1973 (Paperback)

Location: Sack of Potatoes, double-header.

Chosen by: Claire

With one of the most famous opening lines ever “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again”, Rebecca’s popularity has transcended almost 80 years. Since being published in 1938, it sold over 2 million copies between 1938 and 1965 and has never gone out of print. It. Despite often gracing the “100 books you must read” lists, half of the book club had amazingly never read it.

For those who haven’t either, Rebecca is best described as “a gothic romance”. Du Maurier herself described the novel as “a sinister tale about a woman who marries a widower…Psychological and rather macabre.” Due to the book’s title, you might be mistaken for thinking that Rebecca is the protagonist, but in fact Rebecca is our unnamed protagonist’s new husband’s dead ex-wife. Got that? Rebecca is beautiful and mysterious, and our young protagonist feels horribly inferior to her predecessor.

Having met Maxim de Winter in Monte Carlo and married within a few weeks, the second Mrs. de Winter is surprised to find her new husband Maxim now cold and distant. What’s more, the infamous and malicious house keeper, Mrs. Danvers, adored Rebecca and makes the new Mrs. de Winter feel unwelcome at Manderley, her new home. As the novel progresses, the mystery surrounding Rebecca is unravelled.

Like countless others, Rebecca certainly had us hooked—from those who had never read it before and loved it to those on a re-read who described it as “one of the best books I’ve ever read”. It is incredibly well-written, descriptive, and compelling. In particular, our nameless protagonist’s feelings of inferiority and jealousy are relatable. In part inspired by the author’s own jealousy of her husband’s beautiful previous fiancé, and her memories of Cornwall and similarly-named Menabilly house, it is no surprise that the novel seems so believable.

Our only criticism of the novel relates not to du Maurier herself, but to the common edition that most of us read—the Virago Press edition. Firstly, the cover is a massive spoiler alert—thanks for that Virago! Secondly, the edition’s afterword by Sally Beauman (not to speak ill of the dead as she passed on this year, but…) is at best infuriating and at worst completely out of touch with du Maurier’s sentiments.

It’s baffling why Virago thought that including this afterword would enhance the book. While du Maurier—as the real-life jealous lover—clearly associates with the protagonist in feeling incomparable to the beauty who came before her, on the contrary, Beauman is clearly a fan of the first Mrs. de Winter. Beauman even went as far as writing a “sequel” of sorts named Rebecca’s Tale, where Rebecca’s story is relayed, though far from the spirit of du Maurier and the afterword almost feels like a sales pitch for her own novel.

So if you’ve not read the book yet, our advice is most certainly do—but not the Virago edition!

Score: A shockingly-brilliant 10/10!

Book 48: 52 Weeks of Murder, Owen Nichols (2016)

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Fifty Two Weeks of Murder

Location: 1847, double-header.

Category: Crime thrillers

Chosen by: Rachael

A brand new shiny debut author—so new we might be the first to review this novel—how exciting! I was even lucky enough to interview the author, and you can read his thoughts here.

You might be fooled into thinking that 52 Weeks of Murder does just what it says on the cover. But that would be massively underestimating the reach of this new crime thriller. Not just your standard whodunnit, the novel is unconventional (like us!) in many ways. None of which I’ll spoil for you here other than those already revealed in the blurb.

The plot is atypical—rather than trying to discover who the murderer is, we are introduced to him in the opening chapter, wealthy Lord Buckland, as he sets a gruesome challenge designed to cause chaos. He offers a five-million pound prize each week to the person who commits the most creative and original murder. Unsurprisingly, the murder rate increases and a special task force is put in place to catch Buckland.

Asst. Chief Constable Anders is an integral part of the team investigating the ever-more brutal murders. An unusual protagonist, Anders is a method detective from across the pond. With an interesting history of her own, she’s unlike any other crime thriller lead. Tough, methodical, uncompromising, and beautiful, she’s an almost-superhuman avenging angel.

With this novel concept, you can imagine how gory, graphic, and brutal 52 Weeks of Murder is. It should really come with a warning label: “not for the faint-hearted”. In fact, this gutsy action-packed attention-grabber almost feels like watching a TV show at times. It’s enjoyably fast-paced, quickly moving from murder to murder, and you can’t help but think “oh, I’ll just read one more chapter”. It’s also stacked with twists and is at times shocking— avoiding the common clichés of crime thrillers and often taking you down a different path than the one you were expecting.

A common criticism of crime thrillers is their sloppy writing style—but 52 Weeks of Murder is refreshingly well-written and insightful. In a genre that’s literally drowning in poorly-written novels with narrow-focused plots that blend into one and are instantly forgettable, Nichols presents a fresh and different approach to the crime thriller—challenging the genre even, and asking big questions. He offers a wider commentary on current social issues, a plot you won’t feel like you’ve read somewhere before, and a fascinating, unique protagonist. If you want more from your crime thrillers, this is certainly one to pick up!

We won’t spoil the ending for you, but the novel lends itself well to a sequel or even a new crime thriller series. We certainly can’t wait for more from Anders!

Score: 7 – Do we ever score anything other than 7 these days?!

Book 47: The Crow Road, Iain Banks (1992)

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Location: 1847, Great Western Arcade. Another veggie restaurant with delicious halloumi fish’n’chips. Highly recommended!

Chosen by: Lorna

Category: Favourites

Review: With one of the most famous opening lines ever—“It was the day my grandmother exploded”, The Crow Road has become somewhat of an icon. It is often hailed as the best Iain Banks fiction book. We briefly discussed Banks’ impressive accolades as both as contemporary fiction and Sci-Fi writer, successfully managing to penetrate both genres with his alternate names.

At 500+ pages, this novel is an epic Scottish tale of family relationships—of life and death. Narrated by the somewhat immature Prentice as he returns from university for his grandmother’s funeral, we are introduced to his interesting collection of family members and two other local families with interweaving pasts. In some respects, this is a coming of age novel for Prentice, who begins the novel preoccupied with sex, drinking and drugs, his beautiful cousin Verity, and the unexplained disappearance of his Uncle Rory 20 years ago.

In other senses, the novel is a mystery—what happened to Uncle Rory? It’s also an exploration of the question of religion and faith, played out through Prentice’s belief in a higher power and his father’s staunch atheism, and their strained relationship.

Alternating Prentice’s musings with a third-person narrator, the novel jumps back into the past frequently, with several time periods covered in the lives and relationship of the three families. This back and forth, and huge cast of characters, can be confusing—especially early on. (Someone suggested that the novel should include a family tree.) The novel is enjoyably nostalgic if you remember the eras depicted, and the novel is very “of its time” without being horribly dated.

Despite the plethora of characters included, they are well drawn and believable with their many failings. As Banks is prone to, the novel is ridiculously well-written and descriptive, with moments of brilliant humour. However, it’s not a particularly easy read with Scottish dialogue and deep subject matters.

For this reason, we scored the novel well—8/10—despite more than half of us not hugely enjoying it. A few of us thoroughly enjoyed the novel’s musings. But most members felt it simply wasn’t gripping enough, spending too much time in Prentice’s head and in flashbacks, with little actually happening. This lead to an ebbing and flowing (and sometimes waning) interest. In summary, “it was a strange book…”

One strong point of agreement was in Banks’ beautiful portrayal of Scotland—we were ready to pack our bags!

Score: 8/10

Favourite quotes: “People can be teachers and idiots; they can be philosophers and idiots; they can be politicians and idiots… in fact I think they have to be… a genius can be an idiot. The world is largely run for and by idiots; it is no great handicap in life and in certain areas is actually a distinct advantage and even a prerequisite for advancement.”

“God, what did any of it matter, in the end? You lived; you died. You were as indistinguishable from a distance as one of these blades of grass, and who was to say more important? Growing, surrounded by your kin, you out-living some, some out-living you. You didn’t have to adjust the scale much, either, to reduce us to the sort of distant irrelevance of this bedraggled field. The grass was lucky if it grew, was shone upon and rained upon, and was not burned, and was not pulled up by the roots, or poisoned, or buried when the ground was turned over, and some bits just happened to be on a line that humans wanted to walk on, and so got trampled, broken, pressed flat, with no malice; just effect.”

Book 46: The Art of Racing in the Rain, Garth Stein (2008)

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The Art of Racing in the Rain

Location: The Warehouse Café, veggie café – very enjoyable

Category: Male authors

Chosen by: Rachael

Back in the first phase of the book club, Rachael nominated The Art of Racing in the Rain as one of her 5 choices. Back then, it didn’t get pulled out of the hat. Four years later, she nominated it again—gotta love a trier! A novel narrated by a dog isn’t our normal cup of tea, but hey, it graced the New York Times bestseller list for over 156 weeks, so someone certainly liked it!

Enzo the Labrador-part-terrier has human-like consciousness. In fact, he’s convinced that his life as a dog is preparing himself for his next life as a human. Enzo’s getting on a bit, so he’s become fairly philosophical about his demise and narrates his life story through memories. Meanwhile, his owner Denny is in the midst of a life crisis, which Enzo intersperses with his memoirs.

As you might have guessed from the title, the novel heavily focuses on motor racing. Denny is a racing car driver, and Enzo—the avid TV watcher—loves racing. A true man-dog-best-friend combo, they watch races together and Denny explains the art of racing in the rain to his companion. Because Enzo isn’t a dog, he’s a friend. If you look deep enough into the racing sections, there’s a metaphor for life in there somewhere…

So as you can probably guess, this novel is pretty unique. It goes without saying that if you don’t like dogs or racing, you probably won’t get much from this book. If you like both, you’re on to a winner. If you like dogs, you can skip the racing parts—if you like racing, you can skip the doggy parts. As much of the Unconventional Book Club didn’t like motor racing (those sections were described as “long and tedious”), most of them skimmed the racing aspects, but enjoyed Enzo’s absolutely convincing voice—a dog who perceives our organised systems of human life so acutely. If you’re expecting banal details of a dog’s daily life, think more along the lines of acute insights of human life from a dog’s perspective.

Overall, the novel elicited a wide variety of responses, from “over-sentimentalised” and “it came, it went; I shan’t remember it” to “it had a great effect on me” and “was surprisingly brilliant”. A few members had a little cry; it manages to be both heart-breaking and life-affirming if it takes you. The novel itself is a mixture of amusing anecdotes, laugh out loud parts, an innocent perspective, and the handling of serious, mature themes.

Despite the range of views that The Art of Racing in the Rain stimulated, we all agreed on one point…it does make you wonder. When you look at your pet, or a passing dog, or any animal—what are they thinking? Are they imagining doing laps in a racing car? Observing the society we’ve carefully built around ourselves? Or dreaming of becoming a human in their next life?

Score: 7

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