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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.

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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

Book 45: The Lie Tree, Francis Hardinge (2015)

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downloadLocation: Bacchus Bar, double header

Category: Award-winners

Chosen by: Susan

Francis Hardinge’s The Lie Tree was awarded the Costa Book of the Year 2015, among other impressive accolades. As if that wasn’t endorsement enough, all of us at the Unconventional Book Club enjoyed this book, a rare occurrence indeed. This young adult novel tells the unusual tale of 14-year-old Faith who is uprooted and moved to the remote island with her famous, or infamous, scientist father, who is found dead under suspicious circumstances. Faith’s investigations lead her to a mysterious tree, which appears to bear fruit when its keeper tells lies. To discover what happened to her father, Faith begins feeding the tree lies and weaving a tangled web across the island.

Described by fellow author Patrick Ness as “dark, thrilling, utterly original”, he couldn’t have been more on-point. Not only has Hardinge conceived a unique story—Victorian Gothic without relying on the common “ghost story” conceit—but she also conjures the bleak atmosphere, painting a vivid image of the rugged island and its inhabitants, through evocative descriptions that really breathe life into the story.

Moreover, Faith’s shrewd lies unravel the mystery in a way that is compelling and intriguing. The novel is at once clever, complex, and well thought-out, while being presented in bite-size chapters that space the plot nicely without overwhelming the audience. Which brings us to the question of young adult literature, as much debate over this novel centres on whether it is YA literature or suitable for adults.

Some members of the book club didn’t know, nor notice, that The Lie Tree is supposedly a children’s book. Indeed, Hardinge displays mastery at approaching complex subjects in a basic manner, so while young adults may relate to Fay’s character, adults may appreciate more subtle undertones and the philosophical/religious debate that surrounds the tree. This makes the book most suitable for a thoughtful teenager or adult, as the vocabulary might be difficult to digest for younger readers. Like Hardinge’s dedication to her father, who treated her like an adult when she was a child, Hardinge too treats her readers as adults, regardless of whether they are or not.

One of the triumphs of this book is its treatment of women. Faith is ballsy and determined to overcome to barriers that hinder her from investigating her father’s death. Simialrly, other female characters in the novel are complex—often being more than what they may seem. Even in Faith’s difficult relationship with her distant mother, Hardinge explores the female dynamic and the methods employed by women in a society where their actions were heavily restricted. These feminist themes make The Lie Tree a great inspiration for young female readers.

Our main, and collectively agreed, criticism of the novel is the front cover spoiler that Faith’s father is found dead—especially because this event doesn’t actually occur until quite far into the novel, leading most of us to spend at least 80 pages anticipating her father’s death. We would have preferred a vague “Faith investigates a mysterious death”.

Score: 7

Book 44: The End of the Affair, Graham Greene (1951)

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Location: Bacchus Bar, double header

Category: Classics

Chosen by: Rachael

In this double header of reviews, we found ourselves split for the second time. Half of us loved the book; the other half really didn’t. The End of the Affair is the love (or hate) story of Bendix and Sarah in war-torn 40s London. Bendrix is the former lover of Sarah, a married woman of good social standing, whose husband Henry is a well-known, well-respected man.

For reasons unknown to Bendrix, Sarah abruptly ends their love affair, and love-sick Bendrix hires a private detective, determined to find out why. As the name suggests, the novel atypically begins at the end of the affair, which is actually somewhere in the middle of the plot. Confused yet? Well, this is not just a simple tale of an affair.

It’s difficult to write this review without spoiling some of the story, so if you don’t want to know anything about the book, maybe switch off here. That being said, I won’t ruin the surprise either.

The affair

Suffice to say that Bendrix and Sarah aren’t your run-of-the-mill blasé cheaters, they’re tortured souls, whose fatal flaws make the story. There is angst and turmoil, complicated feelings, and Greene expertly invokes the feeling of love and the desperation to need to feel love back. There is an element of Wuthering Heights to this affair, the failure to tell be honest about one’s true feelings, leading to tragic and avoidable situations. There is also a third party in the affair, strangely not Henry but God.

The God Question

What starts out as a simple affair turns into a surprisingly deep religious and philosophical questioning. This book explore about big things, not just our relationships with each other, but our relationship with God, the nature of existence and the physical, and death. The thought-provoking debates on God and philosophy are well-informed and educated, though are conceded perhaps a little too quickly. Set against a backdrop of World War, the subject is pertinent.

The Style

If you’re looking for a holiday read, this certainly isn’t it. It’s by no means an easy read, and some of the book clubbers found it heavy going, or should I say “It looks like a short book, but it was like wading through treacle”. Greene is an excellent writer, who crafts beautiful sentences. He captures a lot in a short book, with a plot that unravels in an intriguing manner, presenting the same events from several perspectives, and a strangely comforting unconventional ending.

Score: 7

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