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

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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?), there 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 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!)

Book 54: The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, Becky Chambers (2014)

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9781473619814Location: Red Peppers…on one of the rainiest days in living memory in Birmingham. We practically could have swum there.

Theme: Sci-fi

Chosen by: Lorna

The theme suggestion of sci-fi has been banded around a few times, but this is perhaps the first sci-fi book we’ve actually gone for—in part because we were all given a free copy thanks to World Book Night. A beautiful velvet-feel-cover paperback at that.

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet follows the quirky crew of the Wayfarer, a battered spaceship that’s been patched together. The novel kicks off when new crewmate Rosemary arrives, a human from Mars with a secret. The crew are a melting pot of species, from the very affectionate reptilian pilot Sissix to the Sianat pair navigator Ohan, and the centipede/otter-looking Dr Chef. The crew take on wormhole-building missions around the galaxy, including one large and particularly dangerous mission to the far side of space.

So, it’s probably worth mentioning that none of us particularly like sci-fi. Most of our reviews started with “Well I don’t read much sci-fi” or “I avoid sci-fi books like the plague”, so kudos to Becky Chambers for the fact that we all finished reading the book, which believe me doesn’t always happen. What’s more, all but one of us enjoyed it. So while the book has taken some criticism for not being “pure sci-fi”, this may well be the reason that most of us were onboard with it.

At 432-pages long, Chambers does a magnificent job of worldbuilding, or should I say universe building. The descriptions of the universe are incredibly detailed, with possibly too much technical detail at times and that was sometimes hard to imagine. While this slowed down some of the readers, the sequel might be an easier read since the characters and histories are somewhat familiar.

Indeed, there are many planets, species, and histories described in The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet —the universe, known as the Galactic Commons, is wide. As such, the novel is very well-written, and it’s clear that Chambers has a brilliant imagination and knows her stuff, possibly thanks to her parents’ jobs in space science. As succinctly summed up by Claire, “Good on her—she’s created a world, a universe, a solar system.”

Overall, not a great deal happens in terms of plot, being more character- and relationship-driven than action-packed. The novel feels more about the characters’ interactions, including inter-species relationships, speciesism, and prejudice, leading to it being donned “a space opera”. The variety of characters were enough to keep us entertained without a strong plot, and it feels like you really get to know the characters and their relationships. Some of the characters are particularly interesting, especially the ship’s AI Lovey and the adorable Kizzy knitting hats for the ship’s robots.

But if you’re expecting the book to suddenly “happen”, you’ll be disappointed. As such, some of us felt that the action-driven elements felt a little formulaic and could be more dynamic. Rosemary’s secret and story could have unravelled in a more momentous way, instead falling a little flat. And the ending was a tad soppy and sentimental.

However, these points are forgivable since Chambers does a fantastic job of delivering commentary on the human race from an “alien” perspective through the characters. Particularly the descriptions of bloodthirsty humans that the rest of the universe feel are pretty stupid having destroyed their own environment—““No good can come from a species at war with itself”. Some of the observations of humankind are profound, hinting at issues such as politics, racism, and gender, but in a subtle way that still feels like fiction.

What makes The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet even more interesting was that Chambers originally self-published the book and gained a cult following that led to a publisher and further book contracts, not to mention being shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke Award and the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction 2016. This is especially poignant considering that Chambers almost gave up on the book, feeling that nobody would want to read it, and eventually finished it thanks to a Kickstarter campaign. What an inspiration to all of us.

I’ll leave you with a few enjoyable quotes from the book:

“All you can do, Rosemary – all any of us can do – is work to be something positive instead. That is a choice that every sapient must make every day of their life. The universe is what we make of it. It’s up to you to decide what part you will play.”

“Humans’ preoccupation with ‘being happy’ was something he had never been able to figure out. No sapient could sustain happiness all of the time, just as no one could live permanently within anger, or boredom, or grief.”

“She would never, ever understand the idea that a child, especially an infant, was of more value than an adult who had already gained all the skills needed to benefit the community. But a real tragedy was the loss of an adult with friends and lovers and family. The idea that a loss of potential was somehow worse than a loss of achievement and knowledge was something she had never been able to wrap her brain around.”

Score: 7 – well there’s a surprise.

If you’ve read the book, feel free to score it out of 5 with the voting buttons.

Book 53: Eileen, Ottessa Moshfegh (2015)

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Location: 1847 – wonderful veggie food, as always.

Theme: Christmas

Chosen by: Ameesha

We always struggle to choose a “Christmas” themed book—it seems like they’ve all been read to death—but Eileen, with its wintry cover, captured our attentions. It wasn’t exactly Christmassy, with its alcoholism and digestive discomfort, and it was as a far a U-turn as we could have made from the previous happy-ever-after Readers of the Broken Wheel Recommend. Yet … it made an impression on us. Ottessa Moshfegh’s second novel seemingly made a big impression elsewhere too, being shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize and garnering much critical acclaim.

As summarised succinctly by the Washington Post, “You have never read anything remotely like Eileen”. 24-year-old Eileen lives in her rundown Boston home with her alcoholic ex-cop father. She works at a men’s prison and fantasises about one of the guards. She wears her dead mother’s clothes. Nothing much happens. Then mysterious redhead Rebecca starts working at the prison and strikes up an unusual friendship with Eileen. That’s all you really need to know.

Despite the misleading and inaccurate marketing of Eileen as a “taut psychological thriller”, the novel is more a character study of a self-loathing, miserable, half-prudish, half-perverted young women stuck in an unhappy family dynamic. Told from the in-depth and unreliable perspective of Eileen, the reader discovers, in minute detail, Eileen’s base desires, perversions, and digestive ailments.

Described as “gratuitous” by some critics, at times the novel borders on disgusting, and the grubby Eileen is often hard to like. Yet at other times, her honest depiction is relatable, as Eileen tries to fade into the background, and Eileen’s unhappy life elicits the reader’s sympathy. The scene-setting creates a cold, dark atmosphere, and the novel feels enjoyably moody. Despite little happening, Eileen is strangely intriguing, almost like a morbid curiosity keeps you reading.

The novel is certainly polarising, with our reviews ranging from “loved it” to “over-laboured”, “tells it like it is”, and “the opposite of fluffy”, scoring between a 4 and a 9. Some of us wanted more of Rebecca (we also couldn’t help but wonder whether she was inspired by Du Maurier’s Rebecca), others wanted to know more about Eileen’s post-Boston life, some were waiting for something to happen, and Theresa just wanted “to give Eileen a good scrub”.

While the character development is strong, it felt that the ending was rushed after such a lengthy build up. Perhaps the unusual style is because Moshfegh first attempted to write the book in 90 days following The 90-day Novel by Alan Watt—primarily because she felt the notion was a joke. But since Moshfegh described herself as “broke” beforehand, she’s probably laughing all the way to the bank now.

If you’re looking for a slick, fast-paced action thriller, this is not it. But if you’re looking for something different, Eileen is a fascinating read. Let us know what you thought of Eileen using the voting buttons.

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 Club 13: The Anniversary of The Unconventional Book Club

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Discussion location: Las Iguanas, The Arcadian – Latin American cuisine.

In contrast to our previous meetings, we decided to celebrate our anniversary by discussing our favourite and least favourite books, and the reasons we love or loathe them.

First for our favourites

Becki: Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials Trilogy.  In particular, Book 2, The Subtle Knife as I could re-read it forever.


Lorna: Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, I first read it aged 13 and it is one of the few books I still get pleasure from re-reading, it makes me smile and puts me in a good mood.


Fiona: Tommy’s Tale by Alan Cummings as it is filthy and hilarious and makes me laugh, is also a short read!


Rachael: The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende as I found it in Australia under a bed and as it was so battered I thought it must be good, I was blown away by it and didn’t want to leave the hostel for days just so I could read it.


Theresa: Little Women by Louisa Alcott, it made me want to grow my hair long enough to be able to cut it short.


Ameesha: Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar as really identified with it as a teenager, felt I could have written it as it articulated my feeling so well.  Probably worrying considering Plath committed suicide.


Susan: The L-shaped Room by Lynne Reid Banks, had a big impact on me, my English teacher in school saw that I was getting disengaged with literature so lead me to their secret cupboard and gave me this book to read, which I loved and made me see faith in literature again.

Now our least favourites

Becki: Anais Nin’s Spy in the House of Love.  I was recommended it by a friend and it was one of the few books I couldn’t finish, I read 20 pages of clumsy metaphors about opening flowers and gave up.


Lorna: Zadie Smith’s The Autograph Man, I was disappointed that I couldn’t give it O stars on Amazon.


Fiona: Cracked Up To Be by Courtney Summers – it was awful and diabolical.


Rachael: Adrian Mole – I hated it, hated the TV adaptation; domestic, depressing and mundane.


Theresa: The Lady’s Maid (I’m not sure which one, there seems to be two!) It had a predictable, happy ending that made me think, I could write this!

Ameesha: Room by Emma Donoghue, I hated the child writing style, it felt contrived.


Susan: A Clockwork Orange,  as it was tedious and I had to keep checking the dictionary.


What are your favourites and least favourites?

Book 10: When God Was a Rabbit, Sarah Winman (2011)

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Discussion location: The Lost & Found (Previously Bennett’s  Hill), now an expensive but pretty ode to a Victorian conservatory/garden.

Chosen by: Zoe

Reason for choice: Despite maintaining that she doesn’t remember choosing it, we recall that she saw a picture of it on an advert, googled it and found it was in the Amazon top 20.

Discussion points: Where were you when Princess Diana died, and on 9/11?


The debut novel of Sarah Winman, When God Was a Rabbit, has a title and front cover that instantly conjures interest and intrigue.  It earned Winman the accolade of New Writer of the Year, and was described by The Times as “a superb debut” and having received a plethora of glowing reviews from the Guardian, the Observer etc, the expectance levels and potential of this novel were high from the outset.

Indeed, the first half of this novel seems to live up to its great expectations.  Split into two distinct parts, the first half is an exploration of the protagonist, Elly’s childhood, whilst the second half covers her adult life.  Part 1 is innocent, humorous and promising.  The reader is introduced to Elly’s unconventional family dynamic, for example, her father accepting that his sister is in love with his wife; colourful characters such as Ginger, and Arthur who believes his cause of death will be a coconut, and the close, supportive relationship with her older brother, Joe. There are also the interesting interactions with God, the rabbit whom Elly converses with, and the unusual Jenny Penny, Elly’s best friend.

The tone of the first half of the novel is jovial and amusing, with Elly’s identifiable childhood recollections, such as having to wear clothes because somebody had bought them for you.  There are also humorous scenes like the nativity play, which wonderfully capture the naivety of childhood thought and perceptions. The honest writing style reads like a journal and seems to carry well the persona of Elly’s youth, in a refreshingly un-detailed, childlike manner of stating the facts and moving on. At this point, the reader has hope for Elly, and although they might have no idea what the point of the story is, they do not expect the sudden change of Part 2.

The novel recommences when Ellie is a dysfunctional twenty-something with few relationships outside of her own family and is an outsider. Unlike the honest, journalistic style of the younger Elly who is developing her persona, the older Elly is almost absent, narrating her detached observations of her own life through an observer perspective, with little reflective thought or explanation for the events occurring.  For example, having missed the transitional years of Elly’s life and the experiences during it, a sudden gratuitous sex scene is completely out of place and unexplained.

It almost seems that Part 1 and Part 2 are two entirely different books. Whilst the first half is epitomised by innocence and subtle humour, the second half is a bombardment of events and action with little description or reflection. Whilst the first half develops Elly’s character, the second half is devoid of her personality.  Though the novel accurately reflects the innocence and magic of childhood compared to the harsh reality of adulthood, there seems to be an unexplainably large divide between the two halves of the novel, where Elly’s childhood and adulthood characters are entirely unrelated; making the novel disjointed.

Despite the lack of explicit reasons for Elly’s sudden character change (or lack of character), there is the implicit idea that the abuse Elly suffered by neighbour, Mr. Golan, is somehow attributable to her detached adult self; bringing up the almost commonplace issue of child abuse in modern novels. Though the lack of detail and subtlety regarding the child abuse was particularly welcome and better not dwelt upon, it seems all too prevalent as a rationale for “the broken adult” which we see in the second half of this novel, and Winman seems to have fallen into the trap of needing to attribute a cause to the isolation and melancholy of her adult protagonist (remember The Perks of Being a Wallflower).

Like the aforementioned Perks, When God Was a Rabbit has an almost ‘checklist’ approach to content, with Winman attempting to cover too many sensationalist topics, including suicide, child abuse, sexuality, kidnapping, the supernatural, murder, prison, 9/11 and so on. It seems that9/11 is a popular topic for current media, and parts of the novel are reminiscent of 2010 film Remember Me, and although the treatment of 9/11 was tactful, the novel’s appendix reveals the striking similarity between Winman’s own experience of 9/11 and that of Elly’s, which seems lazy of the author.

Covering a timespan of several decades, the political and sociological backdrop of the novel is identifiable for many readers, and the family’s attempts to find Joe when he is missing is highly emotive.  Although the reactions to these events are realistic, they are in unrealistic situations, which are far too unlikely to happen to one family.  Moreover, the ending of the novel is implausibly happy, with Joe regaining his memory and Arthur regaining his sight by a coconut.

Overall, the first half of the novel was promising, amusing and charmingly well written, but was disjointed by a second half which was disappointingly absent of the character we had become interested by in the first half.  The events which occurred were too incredible, too coincidental and the author tried too hard to cover too broad a range of subjects. This was clearly a debut in its lack of refine and editing (and the odd choice of title due to the lack of God or the rabbit compared to other things featured in the novel), but holds promise for Winman’s second novel.

Overall rating: 7/10

An enjoyable read if you can ignore the overwhelming level of content and enjoy the relationships portrayed.

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