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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

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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?

Book 60: The Winter Ghosts, Kate Mosse (2009)

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The Winter Ghosts (Kate Mosse) - Knihy | Martinus.czLocation: 1847—our favourite veggie restaurant and a regular venue—the best halloumi in Birmingham as voted by us!

Chosen by: Every year, we seem to look for a wintry, ghosty book to suit the season (yes, I’m 5 months behind with this review, apologies). The Winter Ghosts had mentioned for a few years, so this year we bit the bullet.

Set in France in 1928, Freddie is unable to overcome his grief at the death of his older brother George, who died in the war. Freddie is battling his own demons—and having gone to France for a change of scenery, he loses control of his car on a snowy road in the Pyrenees. After staggering to the nearest village, he finds a place haunted by an overwhelming sadness. At a banquet in the town, he meets the enigmatic Fabrissa and they spend the night sharing their stories with each other.

Although the plot is somewhat predictable, I won’t spoil the story for you beyond the blurb. Plus, the plot isn’t really what’s important here. The book isn’t a simple scary ghost story, but an exploration of grief and how difficult it be to overcome. The story is extraordinarily sad, not least because it’s based on real history, a true story that isn’t well-known.

As anyone who has read Mosse will know, she’s renowned for her power of description. This novel, although shorter than her trilogy, is no exception. The snowy landscape is so evocative that you need an extra blanket to read this book. She paints an atmospheric picture of the landscape, transporting the reader to the south of France. If it wasn’t easy enough to imagine, there’s also a helpful map and illustrations. It’s perfect when the weather outside is frightful.

That said, Mosse is a marmite author. Some of us loved her descriptive style, while others found it over-laboured, feeling that the book was longer than it needed to be. Most agreed that this is a quick and easy read, with pleasingly short chapters. It’s undoubtedly well-written and evocative—the question is whether Mosse is your cup of tea.

Score: 8

If you’ve read The Winter Ghosts, you can score it out of 5 using the star rating above.

Book 59: The Keeper of Lost Things, Ruth Hogan (2017)

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Image result for The Keeper of Lost Things, Ruth Hogan

Location: Carluccio’s for Xmas Dinner

Chosen by: Theresa

The keeper of lost things is Anthony Peardew, a man who lost his fiancée Therese’s keepsake on the day she died forty years ago. Unable to forgive himself, he has dedicated the rest of his life to collecting, documenting, and looking after lost items—hoping to reunite them with their owners someday. Realising he doesn’t have long to live, he passes his secret mission, his house, and the lost things on to his housekeeper Laura.

Laura is a young, divorced loner who feels like she has wasted her intelligence and youth on the wrong man. After shutting herself away in the house, she is won over by a neighbour’s daughter, Sunshine, who has Down syndrome and offers much light and happiness in the novel. There is also Freddy, the predictably rugged gardener who Laura has a crush on. Not to mention Therese’s ghost, who is stroppily haunting the house and playing music at all hours.

A heavily-featured subplot is the long-time friendship of Eunice and Bomber, a local publisher. Eunice has lost something too and has something that was lost. The two plots are intertwined, though the secrets are given away on the very first page, which is highly frustrating for readers who had hoped for a twist. To resolve the plot, Laura has to figure out how to reunite the lost items and put the unhappy ghost to rest.

The ghost love story and the quest to return lost items makes this book more than it looks (since the cover is somewhat happy-go-lucky chic lit). The novel serves as a reminder that little things, seemingly of no consequence, mean more to people than you realise. Trivial things are significant to their owners, even if it’s just a hair bobble. It would be nice to think that there really is a keeper of lost things out there, as there are things we’ve all lost that we’d love to be reunited with (mine is a knitted bumblebee).

However, the novel does have its issues. It started well, but the balance of the two storylines just didn’t work. Some of us wanted more of the Anthony storyline, and others wanted more of Eunice’s life. Some wanted less of the Bomber/Eunice subplot, which was too long to be a side plot, yet not long enough to be a true split.

There are a lot of characters, and they’re often spread too thin, meaning that some lacked depth (Freddy, Therese, and Eunice), while others were only given enough space to be stereotypes (Portia, Felicity). Although we loved Sunshine and “the little cup of tea” (who doesn’t love a little cup of tea?), it’s hard to like the protagonist Laura, who has a mopey yet superior attitude.

This feel-good debut novel is enjoyable—a quick, inoffensive easy read. It’s pleasantly light-hearted, though predictable at times and does stray into the typical romance novel format, with an ending that is wrapped up a little too nicely. Claire summed it up fairly well when she said it was “cheese on toast”. Sometimes you need a good slice of cheese on toast though.

Score: 6

If you’ve read The Keeper of Lost Things, feel free to score it out of 5 using the star rating above. Have you ever lost anything?

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 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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