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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 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.