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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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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 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 4: Shadow of the Wind, Carlos Ruiz Zafón (2001)

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 Discussion location: Las Iguanas (not Spanish, but good tapas)

 Chosen by: Becki Jay

Reason for choice: Another book destroyed faith in literature, worried that would hate another book as much, but this and One Day (David Nicholls) restored faith.

Best lines:

“Books are mirrors: you only see in them what you already have inside you” ~ Julian

“The moment you stop to think about whether you love someone, you’ve already stopped loving that person forever.” ~ Julian

 “Few things leave a deeper mark on the reader, than the first book that finds its way to his heart.” ~ Daniel

Review:

The Shadow of the Wind, (or La Sombra del Viento) is the first ‘adult’ novel by Spanish author Carlos Ruiz Zafón, and despite only being published in 2001,is reportedly one of the best selling books of all time, critically acclaimed and winner of numerous international awards.  Incredibly well written, with an intriguing central mystery expanding into a tangle of plotlines, a wide range and depth of characters, spanning across vivid descriptions of Barcelona and several decades, it is not difficult to see why.

The story begins in 1940’s post-civil war Barcelona,  as ten year old Daniel Sempere is taken by his father to the labyrinth-like ‘The Cemetery of Forgotten Books’ where he is permitted to take any book on the premise that he will guard it for the rest of his life. Daniel is compelled towards a book named ‘The Shadow of the Wind’ and reads it cover to cover that same night.  Entranced by the novel, he tries to find more books by the author, Julián Carax and finds that nothing has been heard of him since 1919. Through Zafon’s novel of the same title, Daniel embarks on a journey to discover the fate of Carax, through an array of characters and locations.

The descriptions of Barcelona throughout the novel invoke not only a strong sense of Spanish identity, but of both nostalgia and embracing the unknown, indicative of a post-war country. Moreover, the depictions of the city are so evocative that they rouse the desire to visit the settings, such as ‘The Angel of the Mist’ on MountTibidabo, and ‘The Cemetery of Forgotten Books’, which one cannot help but wish was real. (The success of this must also be attributed to the excellent translation by Lucia Graves, daughter of Robert.)

Much of the strength of ‘The Shadow of the Wind’ is derived from Zafón’s wonderful depiction of character.  In particular, the two main characters of the novel are complex, authentic and likeable; from the coming-of-age, curious Daniel to the loveable womaniser-come-good and political outlaw Fermín (arguably the best character in the novel).  Furthermore, Zafón does not neglect the sub-characters to mere stereotypes, but develops their back stories, such as the the old man in the asylum who simply wants to spend a night with a prostitute before he dies. Here, Zafón’s attention to detail is displayed in minor details such as Daniel and Fermín remembering to repay the old man by sneaking a prostitute in for him at the end of the novel.

This thoroughness is exhibited throughout the novel in the intricacy of interwoven plots and characters that gradually unravel through conversations and letters.  Not only are the revelations consistent (such as Fumero’s unpleasant childhood), but are carefully arranged to give the most potency to their disclosure.  Furthermore, Zafón cleverly creates a multi-narrated story through a lone narrator, with the use of letters and parts of the story being re-told by other characters, and stories within stories; enabling veiled truths , such as Nuria Monfort’s lies to lead Daniel off the trail, and embed the mystery further.

The portrayal of women in the novel has been widely discussed by critics, as the women of Daniel’s world are elusive; the enigmatic Nuria who tells Daniel half-truths; his dead, almost angelic mother, whose face he cannot recall; the beautiful, blind book lover, Clara Barcelo who he discovers in bed with her music teacher; Carax’s lover Penelope who also vanished circa 1919; and Beatriz, who is firstly engaged to a soldier in Franco’s army, and is then locked away by her father. Furthermore, the descriptions of women during the sexual scenes of the novel are rather like flayed swans – arched backs and glistening breasts. Yet, perhaps this treatment of women can be explained by Fermín’s assertion that “nobody knows much about women, not even Freud, not even women themselves”.

Arguably, by the end of the novel, both Daniel and Fermín have found love, and the end of the novel is a little ‘disney’, though it is difficult to begrudge such likeable characters for not dying or ending up miserable and alone.  Moreover, since the novel is fraught with tension, such as when Fermín is accused of murder, a non-happy ending might have lowered the tone.

This sophisticated novel is greatly let down by its blurb, which would do nothing to encourage the potential reader.  Perhaps the only warning label that should be attached to The Shadow of the Wind is ‘not for the faint hearted’, as its flowery language and complexity of characters and plots can be difficult to follow, especially if you cannot read the book continuously and must try to recall where you were last.

Indeed, the novel does lend itself well to a film adaptation, though Zafón has stated “I have no particular wish to see a film made of the novel. I don’t believe everything has to become a movie… Nobody can make a better film of this novel than the one you’ll start to see when you begin to read its first pages.”

Overall rating: 8/10

Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind is a triumph of ingenuity; a complex story of love, mystery, murder and history; of wonderful characters and beautiful scenery.  Read this and go up a reading age.

Plot synopsis to follow when I find my memory stick…