Chorlton Chapters League Table

This table lists the books we have read and discussed. As part of the monthly discussion, members at the meeting score the book out of 10 and the average of these marks gives the book its ranking in the table.

Jump to reviews

Rank Title Date Read Score
1 the night watch may 2019 8.90
=2 to kill a mockingbird sep 2007 8.86
=2 one hundred years of solitude feb 2012 8.86
4 half of a yellow sun dec 2017 8.67
=5 the handmaid's tale jun 2011 8.64
=5 flowers for algernon jun 2012 8.64
7 stoner jun 2015 8.42
8 one flew over the cuckoo's nest mar 2017 8.33
9 east west street oct 2017 8.31
=10 the reader mar 2007 8.30
=10 if this is a man / the truce jan 2009 8.30
12 a visit from the goon squad jul 2017 8.29
=13 11.22.63 jul 2014 8.25
=13 the power feb 2019 8.25
=15 a prayer for owen meany nov 2006 8.20
=15 the bloody chamber jul 2012 8.20
17 the miracle life of edgar mint feb 2010 8.07
=18 all the light we cannot see jan 2016 8.00
=18 the sisters brothers nov 2016 8.00
=18 alone together jan 2018 8.00
=18 misery feb 2018 8.00
22 conversations with friends mar 2019 7.94
=23 the help oct 2012 7.93
=23 elizabeth is missing sep 2015 7.93
=25 the little stranger mar 2011 7.91
=25 wonder apr 2016 7.91
27 an american marriage jul 2019 7.88
28 the book thief aug 2009 7.87
29 the go-between nov 2009 7.85
30 rebecca jun 2008 7.84
31 the martian oct 2014 7.83
32 perfume jan 2007 7.80
33 brave new world oct 2009 7.79
=34 notes on a scandal aug 2007 7.77
=34 we need to talk about kevin nov 2007 7.77
36 instructions for a heatwave mar 2014 7.75
37 a million little pieces aug 2008 7.73
38 cloud atlas aug 2006 7.72
39 the road sep 2012 7.63
40 under the skin jan 2015 7.60
41 reservoir 13 sep 2018 7.57
42 tamar jun 2013 7.56
=43 the psychopath test feb 2015 7.53
=43 the reluctant fundamentalist feb 2017 7.53
=45 in cold blood sep 2008 7.50
=45 essays jan 2013 7.50
47 five rivers met on a wooded plain jul 2018 7.46
48 pies & prejudice may 2012 7.44
49 the remains of the day may 2016 7.43
50 the leopard sep 2009 7.42
51 catcher in the rye feb 2007 7.40
=52 the wrong boy mar 2009 7.38
=52 boxer, beetle jan 2012 7.38
=52 life after life sep 2013 7.38
55 stuart - a life backwards aug 2010 7.36
56 the great gatsby mar 2008 7.33
=57 a kind of intimacy jun 2010 7.25
=57 the house of sleep oct 2010 7.25
59 a man called ove dec 2018 7.23
60 the barrytown trilogy/the van jun 2009 7.22
61 the secret history mar 2010 7.18
62 the examined life apr 2014 7.14
=63 the outsider may 2007 7.13
=63 wuthering heights apr 2017 7.13
65 all the birds, singing aug 2014 7.10
66 the light between oceans jun 2017 7.09
67 hungry, the stars, and everything sep 2011 7.06
68 saturday may 2018 7.05
=69 a little history of the world nov 2012 7.00
=69 maggie & me may 2014 7.00
=69 the miniaturist jul 2015 7.00
=69 gatekeeper mar 2016 7.00
=69 a secret sisterhood aug 2018 7.00
74 the little prince jan 2019 6.92
75 lullaby apr 2018 6.88
=76 26a may 2006 6.86
=76 homegoing jun 2019 6.86
78 child 44 apr 2012 6.82
79 the fortress of solitude aug 2017 6.80
80 buddha da sep 2006 6.79
=81 the life of pi jan 2008 6.78
=81 one big damn puzzler nov 2008 6.78
=81 hotel world nov 2018 6.78
=84 the suspicions of mr whicher oct 2010 6.75
=84 the man in the high castle aug 2011 6.75
=84 the housekeeper and the professor apr 2015 6.75
87 alone in berlin jul 2011 6.71
88 swallows and amazons aug 2016 6.70
89 the picture of dorian gray apr 2008 6.69
90 the wasp factory nov 2010 6.67
91 american pastoral apr 2009 6.63
92 the many-coloured land jul 2007 6.60
=93 a perfectly good man mar 2013 6.55
=93 fellside dec 2016 6.55
95 house of leaves jul 2016 6.50
96 never let me go feb 2009 6.46
97 pigeon english mar 2012 6.45
98 the name of the rose may 2008 6.44
=99 the girl who saved the king of sweden jun 2014 6.40
=99 my autobiography nov 2017 6.40
101 timolean vieta come home jul 2010 6.39
=102 northanger abbey jun 2006 6.38
=102 contempt may 2010 6.38
=102 n-w oct 2013 6.38
105 brideshead revisited oct 2008 6.24
106 the hundred foot journey feb 2014 6.17
107 slaughterhouse 5 oct 2007 6.14
108 if on a winter's night a traveller feb 2011 6.10
=109 firmin: adventures of a metropolitan lowlife jan 2011 6.07
=109 hateship, friendship, courtship, loveship, marriage nov 2013 6.07
111 stranger in a strange land jul 2009 6.05
=112 generation A apr 2011 6.00
=112 paradise may 2011 6.00
=112 the life and times of the thunderbolt kid jul 2013 6.00
=112 augustus nov 2015 6.00
=112 the dinner apr 2019 6.00
117 the haunting of hill house may 2015 5.95
118 the new york trilogy mar 2018 5.94
=119 panic jul 2006 5.92
=119 northern lights apr 2007 5.92
=119 the guilty one feb 2013 5.92
=122 a confederacy of dunces oct 2016 5.75
=122 extremely loud & incredibly close jan 2017 5.75
124 to the lighthouse oct 2006 5.70
125 into the wild apr 2010 5.67
126 the secret mother oct 2015 5.64
127 kalooki nights aug 2013 5.60
128 our kid feb 2008 5.56
=129 the bridge apr 2013 5.50
=129 the map of love sep 2016 5.50
131 the body in the library may 2017 5.36
132 the secret agent jan 2014 5.33
133 my name is red sep 2010 5.25
134 the good soldier jun 2016 5.20
135 the other hand jan 2010 5.13
136 the riders jul 2008 5.08
=137 running with scissors jun 2007 5.00
=137 ablutions sep 2017 5.00
139 the mind's eye jun 2018 4.89
140 the truth about these strange times may 2013 4.86
141 the loney jan 2016 4.85
=142 manchester, england sep 2014 4.83
=142 the crying of lot 49 aug 2015 4.83
144 the way inn mar 2015 4.82
145 a vicar, crucified nov 2014 4.73
146 you were gone oct 2018 4.58
147 the full montezuma may 2009 3.88
148 the man who was thursday nov 2011 3.61
149 guns, germs and steel aug 2012 3.33

Reviews

(mentions of ranking places in these reviews were correct at the time of writing but obviously may drift over time. Consult the table above for the correct placings)

Book choice for July 2019

An American Marriage [suggested by Helen Close]

An American Marriage

Newlyweds Celestial and Roy are the embodiment of the American Dream. He is a young executive, and she is an artist on the brink of an exciting career. Until one day they are ripped apart by circumstances neither could have imagined. Roy is arrested and sentenced to twelve years for a crime Celestial knows he didn't commit.

Devastated and unmoored, Celestial finds herself struggling to hold on to the love that has been her centre, taking comfort in Andre, their closest friend. When Roy's conviction is suddenly overturned, he returns home ready to resume their life together.

A masterpiece of storytelling, An American Marriage offers a profoundly insightful look into the hearts and minds of three unforgettable characters who are at once bound together and separated by forces beyond their control. [product description from Amazon]

The book has a
Wikipedia entry, and its own page on the author's website.

Author's Wikipedia page.
Author's website.

Review

[Review required] Scores for this month were 7, 9, 8, 7, 9, 8, 8, 7. Average 7.88 giving 27th place in the league table above.

 

Book choice for June 2019

Homegoing [suggested by Harriet Holder]

Homegoing

Effia and Esi: two sisters with two very different destinies. One sold into slavery; one a slave trader's wife. The consequences of their fate reverberate through the generations that follow. Taking us from the Gold Coast of Africa to the cotton-picking plantations of Mississippi; from the missionary schools of Ghana to the dive bars of Harlem, spanning three continents and seven generations, Yaa Gyasi has written a miraculous novel - the intimate, gripping story of a brilliantly vivid cast of characters and through their lives the very story of America itself. [product description from Amazon]

The book has a Wikipedia entry.

Author's Wikipedia page.

Review

[Review required] Scores for this month were 7.5, 8.5, 5, 7, 6, 6.5, 7.5. Average 6.86 and equal 75th place shared with 26a.

 

Book choice for May 2019

The Night Watch [suggested by Frances de Navarro]

The Night Watch

Moving back through the 1940s, through air raids, blacked out streets, illicit liaisons, sexual adventure, to end with its beginning in 1941, The Night Watch is the work of a truly brilliant and compelling storyteller.

This is the story of four Londoners - three women and a young man with a past, drawn with absolute truth and intimacy. Kay, who drove an ambulance during the war and lived life at full throttle, now dresses in mannish clothes and wanders the streets with a restless hunger, searching... Helen, clever, sweet, much-loved, harbours a painful secret... Viv, glamour girl, is stubbornly, even foolishly loyal, to her soldier lover... Duncan, an apparent innocent, has had his own demons to fight during the war. Their lives, and their secrets connect in sometimes startling ways. War leads to strange alliances... [product description from Amazon]

The book has a Wikipedia entry.

Author's Wikipedia page
Author's website.

Review

[Review required] Scores for this month were 9, 9, 9, 9, 8.5. Small sample sizes often skew a results set and even though the book was very well received by those who read it, its average of 8.90 puts it at the top of our leaderboard, where it finds itself in very well renowned company and was quite a surprise to this month's group!

 

Book choice for April 2019

The Dinner [suggested by Isobel Cumbers]

The Dinner

A summer's evening in Amsterdam and two couples meet at a fashionable restaurant. Between mouthfuls of food and over the delicate scraping of cutlery, the conversation remains a gentle hum of politeness - the banality of work, the triviality of holidays. But the empty words hide a terrible conflict and, with every forced smile and every new course, the knives are being sharpened...

Each couple has a fifteen-year-old son. Together, the boys have committed a horrifying act, caught on camera, and their grainy images have been beamed into living rooms across the nation; despite a police manhunt, the boys remain unidentified - by everyone except their parents. As the dinner reaches its culinary climax, the conversation finally touches on their children and, as civility and friendship disintegrate, each couple shows just how far they are prepared to go to protect those they love. [product description from Amazon]

The book has a Wikipedia entry

Author's Wikipedia page
Author's website.

Review

A series of interesting questions drove our discussion, one of which was "is it necessary to like any of the characters in order to like the book?" A pointed question, since none of the characters here were at all likeable, and several became less likeable as the narrative progressed. The consensus was that a book could be enjoyable even if the characters weren't, but even so only a minority of reviewers liked this one! How could would that expensive meal have become? Why choose to have such a sensitive discussion in a public place, unless to curtail the worst of any likely emotional outburst. Although parts of the tale were entertaining on the whole most found this a profoundly unsatisfying story, with a disappointingly bland end. Scores for this month were 5, 5, 6, 6, 4, 7, 7.5, 7.5, 6, and 6 giving in an average of 6.00 and joint 109th place alongside several others.

 

Book choice for March 2019

Conversations with Friends [suggested by Ross Allatt]

Conversations with Friends

Frances is twenty-one years old, cool-headed and darkly observant. A college student in Dublin and aspiring writer, she works at a literary agency by day. At night, she performs spoken word with her best friend Bobbi, who used to be her girlfriend. When they are profiled by Melissa, a well-known journalist, they enter an exotic orbit of beautiful houses, raucous dinner parties and holidays in Provence.

Initially unimpressed, Frances finds herself embroiled in a risky ménage a quatre when she begins an affair with Nick, Melissa's actor husband. Desperate to reconcile herself to the desires and vulnerabilities of her body, Frances's intellectual certainties begin to yield to something new - a painful and disorienting way of living from moment to moment. But as Frances tries to keep control, her relationships increasingly unspool: with Nick, with her difficult and unhappy father, and finally even with Bobbi. [product description from Amazon]

The book has a Wikipedia entry

Author's Wikipedia page
Rooney does not have a website. Other biographical notes are available beyond those on Wikipedia, but for all practical purposes are identical.

Review

[Review required]. Scores for this month were 9, 8.5, 7, 7, 9, 9, 6, and 8 giving in an average of 7.94 and a league position of 21st.

 

Book choice for February 2019

The Power [suggested by Sarah Stansfeld]

The Power

All over the world women are discovering they have the power.
With a flick of the fingers they can inflict terrible pain - even death.
Suddenly, every man on the planet finds they've lost control.

The Day of the Girls has arrived - but where will it end? [product description adapted from Amazon]

The book has a Wikipedia entry

Author's Wikipedia page
Author's website.

Review

[Review required]. Scores for this month were 9, 9, 9, 9, 7.5, 8, 7, and 7.5 resulting in an average of 8.25 and joint 12th place in our league table.

 

Book choice for January 2019

The Little Prince [suggested by Phil Howarth]

The Little Prince

The Little Prince is a classic tale of equal appeal to children and adults. On one level it is the story of an airman's discovery, in the desert, of a small boy from another planet - the Little Prince of the title - and his stories of intergalactic travel, while on the other hand it is a thought-provoking allegory of the human condition.

First published in 1943, the year before the author's death in action, it is apparently the most translated book in the French language. Both moral fable and spiritual autobiography, the little boy lives alone on a planet not much bigger than himself, and leaves it to travel round the universe. [product description adapted from Amazon]

The book has a Wikipedia entry

Author's Wikipedia page
Author's entry on biography.com

Review

For the second month running I didn't attend the meeting so once again I'm unable to provide a potted version of the debate. Maybe 2019 will be the year one of the other members provides a review? The scores for this month were 8, 7, 9, 7, 7, 8, 8, 4, 2, 10, 8, and 5 resulting in an average of 6.92 and 70th place in the table.

 

Book choice for December 2018

A Man Called Ove [suggested by John Beresford]

A Man Called Ove

At first sight, Ove is almost certainly the grumpiest man you will ever meet. He thinks himself surrounded by idiots - neighbours who can't reverse a trailer properly, joggers, shop assistants who talk in code, and the perpetrators of the vicious coup d'etat that ousted him as Chairman of the Residents' Association. He will persist in making his daily inspection rounds of the local streets.

But isn't it rare, these days, to find such old-fashioned clarity of belief and deed? Such unswerving conviction about what the world should be, and a lifelong dedication to making it just so?

In the end, you will see, there is something about Ove that is quite irresistible... [Product description from Amazon]

The book has a Wikipedia page and was made into a Swedish language film (with English subtitles) in 2015, which also has its own Wikipedia page. There are rumours (and an IMDb stub entry) of an English language remake with Tom Hanks in the lead role.

Author's Wikipedia page.
Author's website.

Review

As nominator I had of course read the book, but for this month my excuse is I couldn't attend the meeting, so I'm unable to bring you a thumbnail of the discussion, which I'm sure was entertaining (despite being curtailed by the need to leave early for the club Christmas meal) since the book was, allegedly, another "divisive" read. While I wait for the elusive review from another writer, the scores for this month were 9, 10, 8, 5, 8, 5, 8, 8, 7, 6, 6, 7, and 7 giving an average of 7.23 which places it 55th in the table.

 

 

Book choice for November 2018

Hotel World [suggested by Helen Close]

Hotel World

Ali Smith's masterful, ambitious Hotel World was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and the Orange Prize.

Five people: four are living, three are strangers, two are sisters, one is dead. In her highly acclaimed and most ambitious book to date, the brilliant young Scottish writer Ali Smith brings alive five unforgettable characters and traces their intersecting lives. This is a short novel with big themes (time, chance, money, death) but an eye for tiny detail: the taste of dust, the weight of a few coins in the hand, the pleasurable pain of a stone in one's shoe . . . [product description from Amazon]

The book has its own Wikipedia page.

Author's Wikipedia page.

Review

This time round your webmaster was the only one out of the ten who attended this month's meeting who hadn't read the book, so although it was a long and interesting discussion I can't really shine much light on it for you. Here's my usual hapless plea for anyone who would like to pen a brief review. No? No-one? Oh well. Scores were 8, 7, 8.5, 7.5, 5, 7, 7, 6, and 5, giving Hotel World joint 74th in the table.

 

Book choice for October 2018

You Were Gone [suggested by Wendy Gibson]

You Were Gone

A woman walks into a police station.

She has no phone and no ID, just a piece of paper that reads 'David Raker'.

She says she's his wife.

She looks just like her.

She knows everything about him.

But David buried his wife eight years ago.


Is this really the woman he loved?

Did he really say goodbye?

Or is he losing his mind?

[product description from Amazon]

Author's Wikipedia page.
Author's website.

Review

A well attended meeting including three new members assembled to rip the piss out of this month's read, having almost uniformly found very little to praise and much to deride. Plot holes the size of the cliffs of Dover, MacGuffins aplenty, and contrived and inconsistent conveniences such as none of the public services being open to collect another copy of Derryn's birth certificate while the library and schools appeared to be operating as normal. A main character, a noted and famous amateur sleuth who nevertheless after a day and a half of strange events begin to seriously question his own sanity, being apparently incapable of finding more than one witness to his dead wife's funeral or a single account of the event in printed or online media. The sudden appearance of a secret entrance to the mental hospital, and the division of a normal 3-bed semi-detached house into two physical dwellings which had gone unnoticed by neighbours, postmen, meter readers and any other visitors over an 8-year period were two other examples of head-scratchingly appalling plot points but seriously I think we could have gone on all night finding things to laugh at about You Were Gone. Not surprisingly this derision was reflected in the scores, which at 6, 5, 4, 4, 4.5, 5, 4, 4, 5, 3, 4, 6, and 5, made this the 4th most UNpopular book in over 12 years of reading, and put it in 137th place in the league table.

 

Book choice for September 2018

Reservoir 13 [suggested by Ross Allatt]

Reservoir 13

Midwinter in the early years of this century. A teenage girl on holiday has gone missing in the hills at the heart of England. The villagers are called up to join the search, fanning out across the moors as the police set up roadblocks and a crowd of news reporters descends on their usually quiet home.

Meanwhile, there is work that must still be done: cows milked, fences repaired, stone cut, pints poured, beds made, sermons written, a pantomime rehearsed.

The search for the missing girl goes on, but so does everyday life. As it must.

An extraordinary novel of cumulative power and grace, Reservoir 13 explores the rhythms of the natural world and the repeated human gift for violence, unfolding over thirteen years as the aftershocks of a stranger’s tragedy refuse to subside. [product description from Amazon]

Author's Wikipedia page.

Review

Another very sparsely attended meeting this month with once again only five members present (including one new member). Fortunately this time round, we had all read the book. Absentee chairperson questions provoked a good debate, with Reservoir 13 receiving many plaudits for its gentle meandering tale of village life in the wake of the tragic loss of Rebecca/Becky/Bex. Most of us (a) expected there to be some kind of resolution and (b) were disappointed when there wasn't one. We agreed this book was a mystery, but since it was never clear whether the girl had been murdered - she could have had an accident or simply taken herself off somewhere - it can't be called a murder mystery. The cyclical nature of the narrative was attractive to some, irritating to others (matching the division apparent from online reviews) but in the end the scores were mainly on the high side, being: 10, 4, 9, 9, 7, 8 and 6, giving an average of 7.57 and 37th place in the league table.

 

Book choice for August 2018

The Secret Sisterhood [suggested by Noel Fagan]

The Secret Sisterhood

A Secret Sisterhood uncovers the hidden literary friendships of the world's most respected female authors.

Drawing on letters and diaries, some of which have never been published before, this book will reveal Jane Austen's bond with a family servant, the amateur playwright Anne Sharp; how Charlotte Brontë was inspired by the daring feminist Mary Taylor; the transatlantic relationship between George Eliot and the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe; and the underlying erotic charge that lit the friendship of Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield -- a pair too often dismissed as bitter foes.

In their first book together, Midorikawa and Sweeney resurrect these literary collaborations, which were sometimes illicit, scandalous and volatile; sometimes supportive, radical or inspiring; but always, until now, tantalisingly consigned to the shadows. [product description from Amazon]

The two authors Emily Midorikawa & Emma Claire Sweeney both have websites.

Review

A very sparse meeting this month with only five members present (and only three of them having read the book). Nevertheless a lively debate driven by Noel's interesting questions. The remainder of this space available for rent to a reviewer who read the book, as once again I was one of those who didn't. I promise to do better next month! The points scoring this month was an easy average calculation, scores being: 7, 7, and 7, giving an average of 7.00 and equal 63rd position in the table alongside four others.

 

Book choice for July 2018

Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain [suggested by Phil Howarth]

Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain

'There exists in all of us a song waiting to be sung which is as heart-stopping and vertiginous as the peak of the cathedral. That is the meaning of this quiet city, where the spire soars into the blue, where rivers and stories weave into one another, where lives intertwine.'

One quiet evening in Salisbury, the peace is shattered by a serious car crash. At that moment, five lives collide -- a flower seller, a schoolboy, an army wife, a security guard, a widower -- all facing their own personal disasters. As one of those lives hangs in the balance, the stories of all five unwind, drawn together by connection and coincidence into a web of love, grief, disenchantment and hope that perfectly represents the joys and tragedies of small town life. [product description from Amazon]

Author Barney Norris does not yet have either a website or a Wikipedia entry, but his publisher has put up a biography page.

Review

This space available for rent to a reviewer who attended the meeting and/or read the book, as once again I failed to do either. Out of the fourteen members who attended the meeting only one other person hadn't read it, and scores were in the main very good, being: 7, 8, 4, 10, 7, 7.5, 8, 7, 8, 8, 7, and 8, giving an average of 7.46 and 42nd position in the table.

 

Book choice for June 2018

The Mind's Eye [suggested by Naomi Montague]

The Mind's Eye

Janek Mitter stumbles into his bathroom one morning after a night of heavy drinking, to find his beautiful young wife, Eva, floating dead in the bath. She has been brutally murdered. Yet even during his trial Mitter cannot summon a single memory of attacking Eva, nor a clue as to who could have killed her if he had not. Only once he has been convicted and locked away in an asylum for the criminally insane does he have a snatch of insight -- but is it too late?

Drawing a blank after exhaustive interviews, Chief Inspector Van Veeteren remains convinced that something, or someone, in the dead woman's life has caused these tragic events. But the reasons for her speedy remarriage have died with her. And as he delves even deeper, Van Veeteren realizes that the past never stops haunting the present...

The Mind's Eye by Håkan Nesser is the first novel in the stunning Van Veeteren series, which currently comprises ten novels. [product description from Amazon]

Both the book and the series have their own Wikipedia page.

Author's Wikipedia page.
Author's website.

Review

This space available for rent to a reviewer who attended the meeting and/or read the book. Scores are once again gratefully donated by our man on the spot as: 5, 5, 5, 6, 6, 2, 5, 4, and 6, giving an average of 4.89 and 127th place in the league table.

 

Book choice for May 2018

Saturday [suggested by Simon Henshall]

Saturday

Saturday, February 15, 2003. Henry Perowne, a successful neurosurgeon, stands at his bedroom window before dawn and watches a plane -- ablaze with fire like a meteor -- arcing across the London sky. Over the course of the following day, unease gathers about Perowne, as he moves amongst hundreds of thousands of anti-war protestors in the post-9/11 streets. A minor car accident brings him into confrontation with Baxter, a fidgety, aggressive man, who to Perowne's professional eye appears to be profoundly unwell. But it is not until Baxter makes a sudden appearance at the Perowne family home that Henry's earlier fears seem about to be realised. [product description from Amazon]

The book has its own Wikipedia page.

Author's Wikipedia page.
Author's website.

Review

Nine people did the long-awaited "Chorlton Chapters walkabout" across Chorlton Water Park to Jackson's Boat, with one further member meeting the group there. Sadly, I was not one of them, so this space is available for a review from someone who attended the meeting and/or read the book. Scores are reliably reported by our man on the scene as: 6, 6.5, 9, 8.5, 5, 8.5, 7, 7, 5 and 8, giving Saturday an average of 7.05 and 61st place in the league table.

 

Book choice for April 2018

Lullaby [suggested by Elaine McCaughley]

Lullaby

The baby is dead. It took only a few seconds.

When Myriam, a French-Moroccan lawyer, decides to return to work after having children, she and her husband look for the perfect caretaker for their two young children. They never dreamed they would find Louise: a quiet, polite and devoted woman who sings to their children, cleans the family's chic apartment in Paris's upscale tenth arrondissement, stays late without complaint and is able to host enviable birthday parties.

The couple and nanny become more dependent on each other. But as jealousy, resentment and suspicions increase, Myriam and Paul's idyllic tableau is shattered... [product description from Amazon]

Originally published in France as Chanson Douce. The US English translation is called The Perfect Nanny.

 

Author's Wikipedia page.
Author has no website at time of writing, although it can only be a matter of time ;o)

Review

A large meeting (15) this month and a lively discussion with a wide range of viewpoints. Several members loved the book, a few hated it, the rest landed either side of the "middle" in recognising its strengths and weaknesses. Some found the writing, especially the descriptive passages, good, others thought it was clunky (especially stilted at the beginning although we debated whether this was a device on the part of the author to set a "stilted" tone for Maryam's life before returning to work), some wondered whether the translation was all it could have been. Regarding the plot once again a split between those who thought it flowed and hung together well, and those who were concerned with the lack of any real motive for murder, and the unusually rapid "flip" of the nanny from devoted carer to homicidal horror. Motivations (of the mother and the nanny) were also roundly debated in what was one of the most enjoyable discussions of recent months. Scores (including 2 postal votes) accurately reflected the spread of opinion, being: 8, 8, 4, 8, 6, 9, 7, 8, 8, 6, 8, 9, 6, 6, 5, 5, and 6, resulting in a place for Lullaby almost dead centre [ ;0) ] of our league table with an average of 6.88 and 65th position.

 

Book choice for March 2018

The New York Trilogy [suggested by Ross Allatt]

The New York Trilogy

The New York Trilogy is perhaps the most astonishing work by one of America's most consistently astonishing writers. The Trilogy is three cleverly interconnected novels that exploit the elements of standard detective fiction and achieve a new genre that is all the more gripping for its starkness. It is a riveting work of detective fiction worthy of Raymond Chandler, and at the same time a profound and unsettling existentialist enquiry in the tradition of Kafka or Borges. In each story the search for clues leads to remarkable coincidences in the universe as the simple act of trailing a man ultimately becomes a startling investigation of what it means to be human. The New York Trilogy is the modern novel at its finest: a truly bold and arresting work of fiction with something to transfix and astound every reader. [product description from Amazon]

The novel has a Wikipedia page.

 

Author's Wikipedia page.
Author's website.

Review

Another book that split the group into lovers and haters. As a hater, I'm probably not best placed to give a balanced review, so I'll concentrate on the highlights. Positive: Excellent, often luminous prose; fascinating ideas; interesting characters; clever use of literary references and allusions for those in the know; ground-breaking mix of detective fiction and postmodern surrealism/unreliable narrator, etc; open nature of the stories engenders many debates/interpretations. Negative: some of the most interesting ideas don't go anyway or are never followed up; stories themselves are introspective and pointless; many of the elements are repetitive and yet concrete links between the stories are lacking. On this occasion haters outnumbered lovers, and so the scores (7.5, 3, 9, 5, 6, 4, 9, and 4) gave The New York Trilogy an average of 5.94 and 104th place in the league table.

 

Book choice for February 2018

Misery [suggested by Wendy Gibson]

Misery

Misery Chastain is dead. Paul Sheldon has just killed her - with relief, with joy. Misery has made him rich; she was the heroine of a string of bestsellers. And now he wants to get on to some real writing.

That's when the car accident happens, and he wakes up in pain in a strange bed. But it isn't hospital. Annie Wilkes has pulled him from the wreck, brought him to her remote mountain home, splinted and set his mangled legs.

The good news is that Annie was a nurse and has pain-killing drugs. The bad news is that she has long been Paul's Number One Fan. And when she finds out what Paul had done to Misery, she doesn't like it. She doesn't like it at all.

Paul Sheldon used to write for a living. Now he's writing to stay alive. [product description from Amazon]

The novel has an entry on the author's website, and a Wikipedia page. It was made into a film in 1990 starring James Caan and Kathy Bates.

 

Author's Wikipedia page.
Author's website.

Review

A lively discussion this evening, prompted by questions that Wendy had carefully torn from sheets of Corrasable Bond and filled in the "n"s by hand to get us into the spirit of Misery. While some of the plot elements were thought to stretch the bounds of credibility (the loss and subsequent movement of Paul's car, Annie's escape from prosecution despite a mountain of evidence, the inept and slow-witted policement) most agreed that the story bowled along very nicely. King does a great job of building the tension, representing Paul's drug-befuddled disorientation, and interspersing moments of true horror with those of comic relief. Of particular note were the scenes of Paul's sorties outside his room, which wound up the tension to the max. At the other end of the spectrum were the passages from "Misery's Return" which were widely thought to be turgid, slow going, and superfluous to the plot. Many of us skimmed over them or didn't bother to read them at all, although as an exercise in how to write a really bad book, they were an object lesson! Scores were 9, 10, 6, 7, 7, 9, 6, 10, and 8, including two postal votes, giving an average for the second month running of 8.00 and a fourth book occupying joint 16th place in the league table.

 

Book choice for January 2018

Alone Together [suggested by Uzma Ali]

Alone Together

Technology has become the architect of our intimacies. Online, we fall prey to the illusion of companionship, gathering thousands of Twitter and Facebook friends, and confusing tweets and wall posts with authentic communication. But this relentless connection leads to a deep solitude. MIT professor Sherry Turkle argues that as technology ramps up, our emotional lives ramp down. Based on hundreds of interviews and with a new introduction taking us to the present day, Alone Together describes changing, unsettling relationships between friends, lovers, and families. [product description from Amazon ]

The novel has its own website.

 

Author's Wikipedia page.
Author's website.

Review

Small attendance this month given the inclement weather and the change of day (to Thursday). Conversation was also limited by the fact three out of the five members present hadn't read (much of) the book, but given the topic, a very interesting and lively discussion ensued around the various aspects and impacts of social media and robot technology. The two people voting both gave the book 8, making the calculation of the average very easy. A score of 8.00 puts Alone Together in joint 16th place.

 

Book choice for December 2017

Half of a Yellow Sun [suggested by Simon Henshall]

Half of a Yellow Sun

Half of a Yellow Sun recreates a seminal moment in modern African history: Biafra’s impassioned struggle to establish an independent republic in Nigeria, and the chilling violence that followed.

In 1960s Nigeria, thirteen-year-old Ugwu, a boy from a poor village, is employed as a houseboy for Odenigbo, a radical university professor full of revolutionary zeal. Soon they are joined by Olanna, a beautiful young woman who has abandoned a life of privilege in Lagos to live in a dusty university town with her charismatic lover. Into their world comes Richard, a shy young English writer, who has fallen for Olanna’s sharp-tongued twin sister Kainene, an enigmatic figure who refuses to belong to anyone. But the shocking horror of civil war soon engulfs the nation. As Nigerian troops advance and they must run for their lives, their loves and loyalties are severely tested, while their lives pull apart and collide once again in ways none of them could have imagined... [description combined from Amazon and author's website]

The novel has a Wikipedia page, and a dedicated page on the author's website. A film version was released in 2013.

 

Author's Wikipedia page.
Author's website.

Review

An engaged and energised group of thirteen of us, almost all of whom had finished the book this month, gathered for a wide-ranging and occasionally philosophical discussion, driven by Simon's searching questions. The general agreement on the well-drawn characters, clever weaving of their personal tales into the backdrop of political unrest in Nigeria that led to the formation of Biafra and subsequent war, the occasional horrific seminal moment (viscerally mirrored in the case of sisters Olanna and Kainene), the different ways each of them reacted to the trials of war, and the convolutions introduced into these relationships by their various indiscretions and betrayals, all led inevitably to a series of very high scores: 8, 9.5, 9, 8, 9.5, 9, 9.5, 6, 8, 9, 9.5, and 9, giving an average of 8.67 and 3rd place in the league table.

 

Book choice for November 2017

My Autobiography [suggested by Clare Freeman]

My Autobiography

Born into a theatrical family, Chaplin's father died of drink while his mother, unable to bear the poverty, suffered from bouts of insanity, Chaplin embarked on a film-making career which won him immeasurable success, as well as intense controversy. His extraordinary autobiography was first published in 1964 and was written almost entirely without reference to documentation - simply as an astonishing feat of memory by a 75 year old man. It is an incomparably vivid reconstruction of a poor London childhood, the music hall and then his prodigious life in the movies. [Product description from Amazon]

Author's Wikipedia page.
Author's website.
(plus, as you would expect, an extensive biography on IMDb)

Review

This space for rent to anyone who would like to summarise the discussion 11 of us had -- a little subdued as fewer than half the attendees had read the book. It did sound like a fascinating read for the most part, although there was general agreement that the final section, where Chaplin spends most of his time name-dropping the dukes and duchesses whose company he kept, did drag on a bit. Scores from the five readers went: 6, 6, 6, 6, and 8, giving an average of 6.40 and joint 83rd place alongside The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden.

 

Book choice for October 2017

East West Street [suggested by Ross Allatt]

East West Street

When he receives an invitation to deliver a lecture in the Ukrainian city of Lviv, international lawyer Philippe Sands begins a journey on the trail of his family's secret history. In doing so, he uncovers an astonishing series of coincidences that lead him halfway across the world, to the origins of international law at the Nuremberg trial. Interweaving the stories of the two Nuremberg prosecutors (Hersch Lauterpacht and Rafael Lemkin) who invented the crimes or genocide and crimes against humanity, the Nazi governor responsible for the murder of thousands in and around Lviv (Hans Frank), and incredible acts of wartime bravery, EAST WEST STREET is an unforgettable blend of memoir and historical detective story, and a powerful meditation on the way memory, crime and guilt leave scars across generations. [Product description from Amazon]

Author's Wikipedia page.

Review

This space for rent to anyone who would like to summarise the discussion 14 of us had. Since I didn't read the book (again!) a lot of it went over my head. Many readers didn't finish (or start) but those who did scored it highly in the main: 10, 9, 7.5, 10, 5, 10, 7, and 8, which translates to an average of 8.31 and 7th place in the league table just below One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest.

 

Book choice for September 2017

Ablutions [suggested by Phil Howarth]

Ablutions

A nameless barman tends a decaying bar in Hollywood and takes notes for a book about his clientele. Initially, he is morbidly amused by watching the regulars roll in and fall into their nightly oblivion, pitying them and their loneliness. In hopes of uncovering their secrets and motives, he establishes tentative friendships with them. He also knocks back pills indiscriminately and treats himself to gallons of Jameson's. But as his tenure at the bar continues, he begins to lose himself, trapped by addiction and indecision. When his wife leaves him, he embarks on a series of squalidly random sexual encounters and a downward spiral of self-damage and irrational violence. To cleanse himself and save his soul, he attempts to escape ... [Product description from Amazon]

Author's Wikipedia page.

Review

A good proportion of the attendees this time round had read the book with many of them having finished it, and opinions were sharply divided as to its merits. While deWitt's other appearance in Chapters' annals was a mainly positive experience, this time round readers found it mainly negative - a total dearth of likable characters, depressing locations, sleazy activities and vivid descriptions of the dregs of society. Several people wondered who the book was aimed at (a common theme among online reviewers too) and even though many found it readable, fewer found that easy read an enjoyable one. All this dichotomy is reflected in the scores which, including two postal votes, were: 2, 2, 8, 7, 7, 2, 4, 9, 5, and 4, giving an average of 5.00 and joint 117th place in the league table shared with Running With Scissors.

 

Book choice for August 2017

The Fortress of Solitude [suggested by John Beresford]

The Fortress of Solitude

This is the story of two boys, Dylan Ebdus and Mingus Rude. They live in Brooklyn and are friends and neighbours; but since Dylan is white and Mingus is black, their friendship is not simple.

This is the story of 1970s America, a time when the simplest decisions - what music you listen to, whether to speak to the kid in the seat next to you, whether to give up your lunch money - are laden with potential political, social and racial disaster. This is also the story of 1990s America, when nobody cared anymore.

This is the story of what would happen if two teenaged boys obsessed with comic book heroes actually had superpowers: they would screw up their lives. [Product description from Amazon]

The book has a Wikipedia page.

Author's Wikipedia page.
Author's website.

Review

A small meeting compared with previous months (hopefully due to holiday season rather than any residual confusion over where the meeting was being held!), five of us gathered to discuss Fortress with everyone having made the valiant attempt to read it, and two finishing it. However only one reader actively enjoyed the book, one was as enthused with it as he was frustrated, and the remaining three, who managed between a half and three-quarters of what was an extremely "dense" read, while finding much to like about some passages, ultimately decided there was altogether too much writing and not enough plot. Yet another example of an author trying (and in many cases succeeding) to be "literary" at the expense of a good story. The repetitive nature of the street scenes in the school holidays and the "magic" flying ring came in for particular criticism, and those who got past halfway were unable to offer any light at the end of the tunnel, as apparently the book becomes even harder to read and less enjoyable as it goes on, and there really is no payoff at the end for all that effort. Scores were: 8, 5, 9, 6, and 6, giving a average of 6.80 which places it 63rd in the league table between Child 44 and Buddha Da.

 

Book choice for July 2017

A Visit From The Goon Squad [suggested by Frances de Navarro]

A Visit From The Goon Squad

Jennifer Egan's spellbinding novel circles the lives of Bennie Salazar, an aging former punk rocker and record executive, and Sasha, the passionate, troubled young woman he employs. Although Bennie and Sasha never discover each other's pasts, the reader does, in intimate detail, along with the secret lives of a host of other characters whose paths intersect with theirs, over many years, in locales as varied as New York, San Francisco, Naples, and Africa. We first meet Sasha in her mid-thirties, on her therapist's couch in New York City, confronting her longstanding compulsion to steal. Later, we learn the genesis of her turmoil when we see her as the child of a violent marriage, then a runaway living in Naples, then as a college student trying to avert the suicidal impulses of her best friend. We meet Bennie Salazar at the melancholy nadir of his adult life -- divorced, struggling to connect with his nine-year-old son, listening to a washed up band in the basement of a suburban house -- and then revisit him in 1979, at the height of his youth, shy and tender, reveling in San Francisco's punk scene as he discovers his ardor for rock and roll and his gift for spotting talent. We learn what became of his high school gang -- who thrived and who faltered -- and we encounter Lou Kline, Bennie’s catastrophically careless mentor, along with the lovers and children left behind in the wake of Lou's far flung sexual conquests and meteoric rise and fall. A Visit from the Goon Squad is a book about the interplay of time and music, about survival, about the stirrings and transformations set inexorably in motion by even the most passing conjunction of our fates. In a breathtaking array of styles and tones ranging from tragedy to satire to Powerpoint, Egan captures the undertow of self-destruction that we all must either master or succumb to; the basic human hunger for redemption; and the universal tendency to reach for both -- and escape the merciless progress of time -- in the transporting realms of art and music. [Product description from Amazon]

The book has a Wikipedia page.

Author's Wikipedia page.
Author's website.

Review

A very popular choice, read by all but one of tonight's attendees. Unfortunately that one was me, so this review is consequently brief (but could be fleshed out by help from that mythical reader I always ask for and am always disappointed). Readers found the characterisation very strong for many of the characters, and parts of the prose breathtakingly beautiful. Many who read it on Kindle found they were highlighting passages all the time. The convoluted and episodic structure didn't appear to give our readers the same trouble as other reviewers have reported, but there were definite favourites out of what is effectively a collection of short stories, with the "powerpoint presentation" one being the least popular. Scores were: 9, 8, 9, 9, 9, 7, and 7, giving an impressive 8.29 average and 9th place in the league table.

 

Book choice for June 2017

The Light Between Oceans [suggested by Wendy Gibson]

The Light Between Oceans

After four harrowing years on the Western Front, Tom Sherbourne returns to Australia and takes a job as the lighthouse keeper on Janus Rock, nearly half a day's journey from the coast. To this isolated island, where the supply boat comes once a season, Tom brings a young, bold, and loving wife, Isabel. Years later, after two miscarriages and one stillbirth, the grieving Isabel hears a baby's cries on the wind. A boat has washed up onshore carrying a dead man and a living baby.

Tom, who keeps meticulous records and whose moral principles have withstood a horrific war, wants to report the man and infant immediately. But Isabel insists the baby is a "gift from God," and against Tom's judgment, they claim her as their own and name her Lucy. When she is two, Tom and Isabel return to the mainland and are reminded that there are other people in the world. Their choice has devastated one of them. [Product description from Amazon]

The book has a Wikipedia page and was made into a film in 2016 (see also IMDb).

M.L.Stedman has neither a website nor a Wikipedia page in her own right, at the time of writing. The author page on her publisher's website (Simon & Schuster) contains only a single sentence about her.

Review

Twelve of us braved Dulcimer's oven to discuss a book that clearly had a wide range of different effects on its readers. Some found the various tortured backgrounds and even more tortured foregrounds of the main characters compelling, others thought parts of the novel were too saccharine-sweet and pat, with its tidy endings and everything turning out alright. While the novel does contain stunningly evocative and visual descriptions of storms, sea, and sky, and stimulates a strong sense of 'place', much of the plot stretches the bounds of credibility, even allowing for the era in which it is set (1920s) and the remoteness (and consequent insularity) of Partageuse in general and the Janus Rock in particular. Another positive aspect mentioned in discussion was the sometimes clever imagery employed, with the title suggesting multiple levels of meaning, as well as 'Janus' facing both ways at once -- something many of the characters did throughout the novel. Overall the book separated its readers into those that could forgive, ignore, or not notice its idiosyncracies and just enjoy the story, and those for whom it simply didn't deliver. Scores this month went: 5, 9, 6, 7, 8, 6.5, 5, 9, 6.5, 7, and 9, giving TLBO a 7.09 average and 54th position in the league table.

 

Book choice for May 2017

The Body in the Library [suggested by Uzma Ali]

The Body in the Library

It's seven in the morning. The Bantrys wake to find the body of a young woman in their library. She is wearing evening dress and heavy make-up, which is now smeared across her cheeks.

But who is she? How did she get there? And what is the connection with another dead girl, whose charred remains are later discovered in an abandoned quarry?

The respectable Bantrys invite Miss Marple to solve the mystery... before tongues start to wag. [Description from author's website linked below]

The book has a Wikipedia page and was adapted for the screen in 1984 (see also IMDb).

The Body in the Library also has a dedicated page on the author's website.

Author's Wikipedia page.
Author's website.

Review

A relatively large gathering, including one new member and one returning after a couple of years off, played musical chairs in Dulcimer while discussing The Body in the Library. Several readers had given up struggling through the repetitive and dated prose describing gossiping, tea-drinking women and weak, supercilious men, who engaged in a merry dance of inconsequence while Miss Marple made surprisingly few appearances yet still managed to solve the case ahead of the professional but stereotypically dense detectives. The revelation that Agatha Christie thought the opening of this book was "the best she'd ever written" was greeted with almost universal derision. Even so there were some who managed to shrug off the tedium of the read and unearth a semblance of a plot, from which they claimed to have extracted some measure of enjoyment. These few who scored the book 7 were comprehensively in the minority, with half the scores being 5 and a couple of more realistic 4s. Your friendly neighbourhood reviewer (me) didn't finish enough of the dreck to justify giving it a score, which would have been 1 at best. So without further ado here are those scores: 4, 4, 5, 5, 6, 7, 6, 5, 6, 5, 5, 5, 5, and 7, resulting in an average of 5.36 and 108th position in the table, out of 123.

 

Book choice for April 2017

Wuthering Heights [suggested by Amy Gregg]

Wuthering Heights

Wuthering Heights is a wild, passionate story of the intense and almost demonic love between Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff, a foundling adopted by Catherine's father. After Mr Earnshaw's death, Heathcliff is bullied and humiliated by Catherine's brother Hindley and wrongly believing that his love for Catherine is not reciprocated, leaves Wuthering Heights, only to return years later as a wealthy and polished man. He proceeds to exact a terrible revenge for his former miseries.

The action of the story is chaotic and unremittingly violent, but the accomplished handling of a complex structure, the evocative descriptions of the lonely moorland setting and the poetic grandeur of vision combine to make this unique novel a masterpiece of English literature. [Product description from Amazon]

The book has a Wikipedia page.
It has been adapted for film and television an unprecedented 14 times, first in 1920 and most recently in 2011, and also three times as an opera! Rather than point to any one of these, here is a link to the Wikipedia disambiguation page, which lists them all.
Wuthering Heights also has its own dedicated website.

Author's Wikipedia page.
Biographical notes on the above-mentioned website.

Review

Several of the ten attendees this evening hadn't finished the read, many finding it heavy going for one reason or another. Still a lively discussion covered such diverse topics as the lack of a definite hero in a cast of characters made up almost entirely of villains, none of whom emerged blameless from the story. It was remarked several times how events "crept up" on the reader having not previously been mentioned, perhaps the most significant of these being the birth scene when there had been no indication that Catherine was pregnant. Members speculated that this was because of Emily Bronte's ignorance of the course of a pregnancy, or possibly a nod to the mores of her readers who perhaps did not like to read of such indelicacies. Everyone recognised the accomplishment of the work, being Bronte's first novel, written at a fairly young age with no "professional" guidance other than what may have been provided by her sisters, but even so it was widely viewed as a hard read, due in various parts to the uneven nature of the text (being occasionally impenetrable and overblown while in other parts the prose is wonderfully crafted); the bleak nature of the plot and setting; and the lack of many redeeming features in any of the characters. All these misgivings were reflected in the scores - including 4 postal votes - of: 7, 6, 8, 5.5, 6, 8, 8, 7, 8, 8, 7, and 7, giving it an average of 7.13 and joint 51st position alongside The Outsider.

 

Book choice for March 2017

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest [suggested by Ross Allatt]

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

An international bestseller, Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest defined the 1960s era of ever-widening perspectives and ominous repressive forces. Full of mischief, insight, and pathos, Kesey's powerful story of a mental ward and its inhabitants probes the meaning of madness, often turning conventional notions of sanity and insanity on their heads.

The tale is chronicled by the seemingly mute Indian patient, Chief Bromden; its hero is Randle Patrick McMurphy, the boisterous, brawling, fun-loving rebel who encourages gambling, drinking, and sex in the ward, and rallies the other patients around him by challenging the dictatorial rule of Big Nurse. McMurphy's defiance -- which begins as a sport -- develops into a grim struggle with the awesome power of the "Combine", concluding with shattering, tragic results. In its unforgettable portrait of a man teaching the value of self-reliance and laughter destroyed by forces of hatred and fear, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is a classic parable that has left an indelible mark on the literature of our time. [Inside cover blurb]

The book has a Wikipedia page and has also been made into a film, which has its own Wikipedia page.

Author's Wikipedia page.

Review

The first meeting for a long time where all 12 attendees had read the book, and most of us had finished it. Ross's questions sparked a lively and interesting debate exploring the symbolism of the book (what did the black boys symbolise; what did Chief Bromden's visions mean; what effect did the fishing trip have on the inmates; etc) as well as the power play between the main characters, the vignette into a time when lobotomy was still considered a valid therapy (although widely debunked by the early 60s), and the undercurrent of misogyny in a text where all but one of the female characters are whores or bitches. After a slight kerfuffle with the scoring where we thought for a moment we had a new #1 but it turned out to be finger trouble on the calculator app (again!), OFOTCN still ended up with an impressive average of 8.33 from scores - including 3 postal votes - of: 6, 8, 8, 7, 9, 9.5, 10, 9, 9, 8.5, 8, 7, 9, 9, and 8, and a resulting 6th place in the table.

 

Book choice for February 2017

The Reluctant Fundamentalist [suggested by Cheryl Price]

The Reluctant Fundamentalist

At a cafe table in Lahore, a bearded Pakistani man converses with an uneasy American stranger. As dusk deepens to night, he begins the tale that has brought them to this fateful encounter...

Changez is living an immigrant's dream of America. At the top of his class at Princeton, he is snapped up by the elite valuation firm of Underwood Samson. He thrives on the energy of New York, and his budding romance with elegant, beautiful Erica promises entry into Manhattan society at the same exalted level once occupied by his own family back in Lahore.

But in the wake of september 11, Changez finds his position in his adopted city suddenly overturned, and his budding relationship with Erica eclipsed by the reawakened ghosts of her past. And Changez's own identity is in seismic shift as well, unearthing allegiances more fundamental than money, power, and maybe even love. [product description from Amazon]

The book has a Wikipedia page and has also been made into a film, which has its own Wikipedia page.

Author's Wikipedia page.
Author's website.

Review

A very popular read which I don't feel qualified to review as I was (at first) the only attendee who hadn't read it. Would love to receive notes from anyone who could write up their feelings (although this has never happened!) - the discussion proved that many readers found many different things to like about the book even though the narrative structure was initially unfamiliar/uncomfortable, and the internal monologue did become at times a little tedious or unrealistic/artificial. With only three "dissenting" scores out of what proved not only to be a very well attended meeting but which also attracted an unprecedented number of pre-registered "Postal" votes, the scores were: 8, 8, 7.5, 8, 8, 8, 10, 8, 7, 5, 5, 9, 8, 7, 5, 8, 8, and 8, giving an average of 7.53 and joint 32nd place in the league table alongside The Psychopath Test.

 

Book choice for January 2017

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close [suggested by Wendy Gibson]

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

In a vase in a closet, a couple of years after his father died in 9/11, nine-year-old Oskar discovers a key...

The key belonged to his father, he's sure of that. But which of New York's 162 million locks does it open?

So begins a quest that takes Oskar - inventor, letter-writer and amateur detective - across New York's five boroughs and into the jumbled lives of friends, relatives and complete strangers. He gets heavy boots, he gives himself little bruises and he inches ever nearer to the heart of a family mystery that stretches back fifty years. But will it take him any closer to, or even further from, his lost father?
[product description from Amazon]

The book has a Wikipedia page and has also been made into a film, which has its own Wikipedia page.

Author's Wikipedia page.

Review

The few who finished this read thought that the ending tied everything together nicely and made the effort of reading worthwhile, but the majority gave up (long) before the end. Without knowing the ending, many found Oskar's activities unrealistic at best and tedious at worst, and the subplot of the grandfather's experiences in Dresden seemed inconsequential except to serve as a tenuous parallel with 9/11 (as in, each generation has their own bombing to deal with, or something). Overall a disappointing novel, which garnered middling scores from most readers: 7, 7, 5, 6, 7, 2, 7, and 5, giving an average of 5.75 and joint 96th place in the table alongside A Confederacy of Dunces.

 

Book choice for December 2016

Fellside [suggested by John Beresford]

Fellside

Fellside is a maximum security prison on the edge of the Yorkshire moors. It's not the kind of place you'd want to end up. But it's where Jess Moulson could be spending the rest of her life.

It's a place where even the walls whisper.

And one voice belongs to a little boy with a message for Jess.

Will she listen?
[product description from Amazon]

Author's Wikipedia page.
Author's website.

Mike Carey is also the author of The Girl With All The Gifts, which was nominated in October 2014.

Review

A frustrating read for many of us, where one or other of the well-documented shortcomings of this novel (its similarities -- to the point of feeling that characters had simply been transplanted -- to Orange is the New Black; the cliched courtroom scenes; the credibility of some aspects -- notably Devlin's relationship with Grace, Salazar's weakness, and the incompetence of Save-Me Scratchwell) served to distract from the book's obvious strengths: Carey's wonderfully original turns of phrase (used to such good effect in The Girl With All The Gifts); the supernatural parts of the story and in particular the description of coma, and "the pit" to name but two. One reader had abandoned the novel after 100 pages or so (a common occurrence if reviews are any guide) but several had seen it through to the end and agreed that the latter half was stronger than the former, but the "turgid middle" took some getting through. All of this ambiguity was reflected in the scores: 7, 6, 6, 7.5, 4, 6, 7, 7, 7.5, 7.5 and 6.5, giving an average of 6.55 and joint 70th place in the table.

 

Book choice for November 2016

The Sisters Brothers [suggested by Phil Howarth]

The Sisters Brothers

Hermann Kermit Warm is going to die. Across 1000 miles of Oregon desert his assassins, the notorious Eli and Charlies Sisters, ride - fighting, shooting, and drinking their way to Sacramento. But their prey isn't an easy mark, the road is long and bloody, and somewhere along the path Eli begins to question what he does for a living - and whom he does it for.

The Sisters Brothers pays homage to the classic Western, transforming it into an unforgettable ribald tour de force. Filled with a remarkable cast of losers, cheaters, and ne'er-do-wells from all stripes of life - and told by a complex and compelling narrator, it is a violent, lustful odyssey through the underworld of the 1850s frontier that beautifully captures the humor, melancholy, and grit of the Old West and two brothers bound by blood, violence, and love. [product description from Amazon]

The book has its own Wikipedia page.

Author's Wikipedia page.

Review

One of the most well-liked books of recent months, readers found The Sisters Brothers easy to get into, easy to read, with a wealth of well-drawn minor characters who introduced interesting and enjoyable side stories (the teeth cleaning episodes got a particular mention here) and a likeable (despite his profession) narrator who painted a tangible picture of life in the wild west and with whom it was easy to sympathise. One or two of the plot points were occasionally found to stretch the fabric of reality in the direction of fantasy but overall this didn't detract from our enjoyment of the book, which was reflected in the scores not only in terms of rating but also the tight spread of marks: 7, 9, 8, 8, 8, 8, 7, 8, and 9, giving an average of 8.00 and equal 12th place in the table, alongside All The Light We Cannot See.

 

Book choice for October 2016

A Confederacy of Dunces [suggested by Naomi Montague]

A Confederacy of Dunces

Never published during his lifetime, John Kennedy Toole's masterful comic novel takes its title from a quotation in Jonathan Swift's satirical essay "Thoughts on Various Subjects, Moral and Diverting".

A monument to sloth, rant and contempt, a behemoth of fat, flatulence and furious suspicion of anything modern - this is Ignatius J. Reilly of New Orleans, noble crusader against a world of dunces. The ordinary folk of New Orleans seem to think he is unhinged. Ignatius ignores them, heaving his vast bulk through the city's fleshpots in a noble crusade against vice, modernity and ignorance. But his momma has a nasty surprise in store for him: Ignatius must get a job. Undaunted, he uses his new-found employment to further his mission - and now he has a pirate costume and a hot-dog cart to do it with... [product description from Amazon - with interpretation of missing text]

The book has its own Wikipedia page.

Author's Wikipedia page.
Some biographical notes from the biography.com website.

Review

Two of this month's reviewers finished the book, two made it past halfway, and the rest of us abandoned it at anything up to a third of the way through. While most people agreed that it had not been as funny as they expected, or as online reviews suggested, one or two laugh out loud moments had been found. The most striking thing this month was how divided the group was on the enjoyment the book provided. Naturally this division centred on the main character Ignatius. Those who enjoyed the book found him to be a well-drawn awful character with no redeeming qualities, but who engaged in sublimely written adventures, excellent set pieces and had a good supporting cast. Ironically it was for pretty much the same reasons that the haters hated it - the appalling Ignatius making them feel so disgusted or at least disquieted that they had no incentive to carry on reading. This division was starkly represented in the scores, where everyone either gave the book an 8, or a 4/5: 4, 8, 4, 8, 5, 8, 4, and 5, giving an average of 5.75 and 94th place in the table, just above To The Lighthouse.

 

Book choice for September 2016

The Map of Love [suggested by Helen Close]

The Map of Love

In 1900 Lady Anna Winterbourne travels to Egypt where she falls in love with Sharif, and Egyptian Nationalist utterly committed to his country's cause.

A hundred years later, Isabel Parkman, an American divorcee and a descendant of Anna and Sharif, goes to Egypt, taking with her an old family trunk, inside which are found notebooks and journals which reveal Anna and Sharif's secret. [product description from Amazon]

Author's Wikipedia page.
Author's website.

Review

Only four of this month's group had read enough of the book to score it (or even engage in meaningful discussion), the rest of us either not starting at all, or abandoning it (much) less than half-way through having become exhausted with the endless tedium of Arabic lessons, Egyptian politics (from various eras), and the often unfathomable jumping between timelines and cast. The majority of the finishers were also subject to this exhaustion to varying degrees but plowed on regardless in the hope of some exciting revelation which in truth never materialised. Even the book's biggest supporter (and original proposer) admitted the discussion had uncovered problems with The Map of Love that she had previously not been conscious of. So the depressed scores for this month turned out to be: 7, 5, 6, and 4, giving an average of 5.50 and equal 99th place in the table, alongside The Bridge.

 

Book choice for August 2016

Swallows and Amazons [suggested by Uzma Ali]

Swallows and Amazons

When John, Susan, Titty and Roger are granted their wish to set sail on their beloved boat Swallow, they know it will be the summer holiday of a lifetime. But their adventure truly begins when they encounter Nancy and Peggy, the self-proclaimed Amazon Pirates, and the dastardly Captain Flint. [product description from Amazon]

The book has its own Wikipedia page, and has been made into a film.

Author's Wikipedia page.
Internet home of The Arthur Ransome Society (TARS).

Review

The discussion this month was fairly evenly split between those readers who could step over Ransome's tedious and repetitive descriptions of the minutiae of sailing and his (very much of its time) racism, sexism, and class-ridden characterisation and despite all that enjoy a child-like romp in a fantasy world of shipwrecks, piracy, buried treasure, and life on a desert island that wasn't THAT far removed from the real world of the Lake District of the 1930s, and those for whom any or all of those factors detracted from their enjoyment even though they may have enjoyed those occasional episodes when one or other female character would take a break from the cooking, cleaning, and making of fires. Several readers who had read -- and enjoyed -- the book as children admitted to being less enamoured of it as adults, but there was also a general consensus that it was unfair to judge the book with 21st century mores. The voting, including one registered on Facebook that had been added at around the time we were voting in the bar, went like this: 10, 8, 6, 8, 5, 5, 4, 6, 9, and 6, giving an average of 6.70 and 64th position in the league table, nestling snugly between Alone in Berlin and The Picture of Dorian Gray.

 

Book choice for July 2016

House of Leaves [suggested by Wendy Gibson]

House of Leaves

Johnny Truant wild and troubled sometime employee in a LA tattoo parlour, finds a notebook kept by Zampano, a reclusive old man found dead in a cluttered apartment. Herein is the heavily annotated story of the Navidson Report.

Will Navidson, a photojournalist, and his family move into a new house. What happens next is recorded on videotapes and in interviews. Now the Navidsons are household names. Zampano, writing on loose sheets, stained napkins, crammed notebooks, has compiled what must be the definitive work on the events on Ash Tree Lane.

But Johnny Truant has never heard of the Navidson Record. Nor has anyone else he knows. And the more he reads about Will Navidson's house, the more frightened he becomes. Paranoia besets him. The worst part is that he can't just dismiss the notebook as the ramblings of a crazy old man. He's starting to notice things changing around him ... [product description from Amazon]

The book has its own Wikipedia page.

Author's Wikipedia page.
Author's website.

Review

A small group this month - we are, after all, in the height of the holiday season - so we started with four and gradually swelled to seven, of whom only three had read the book. Once again Wendy presented her questions in a unique and original way - biscuits in the shape of houses and leaves, and questions written on leaf-shaped paper. Apart from the dissenting postal vote that had been registered, those attending who read House of Leaves thought it was worth the effort - and what an effort! - since the multi-layered stories were each entertaining in their own way and it soon became clear when reading, which of the many footnotes and textual rabbit holes could safely be ignored. There was general agreement though that the unusual structure of the book was a barrier to many people picking it up in the first place. Agreement also that it would make a good film, which is interesting because it appears on the list of "10 unfilmable books that would make great films"!! All the reviewers present awarded the same score, so with the aforementioned postal vote our scores this month were: 5, 7, 7, and 7, giving an average of 6.50 and 69th position in the league table.

 

Book choice for June 2016

The Good Soldier [suggested by Ross Allatt]

The Good Soldier

'A Tale of Passion', as its sub-title declares, The Good Soldier tells of the complex social and sexual relationships between two couples, one English, one American, and the growing awareness by the American narrator John Dowell of the intrigues and passions behind their orderly Edwardian facade. It is the attitude of Dowell, his puzzlement and uncertainty, and the seemingly haphazard manner of his narration that make the book so powerful and mysterious. Ford called it 'the only novel of mine that I considered...at all to count' and it has perplexed and delighted commentators since its publication in 1915. The novel has many comic moments, despite its catalogue of death, insanity, and despair, and has been read as both a comedy and a tragedy. It has inspired the works of many later, distinguished writers, including Graham Greene. [from the back cover]

Once again this month's choice has its own Wikipedia page and has also been made into a (TV) movie, which has an associated Wikipedia page.

The novel is also available to read for free, online, at Project Gutenberg.

About the Author

Author's Wikipedia page.
There are some Biography notes at the Ford Madox Ford Society website.

Review

Eleven members attended this meeting of whom 5 had read the book. The remainder of this review is blank with my usual plea for any input from anyone who either read it, or attended the meeting and could put together some short notes. Voting went: 4, 4, 5, 6, and 7, giving an average of 5.20 and 100th place in the league table.

 

Book choice for May 2016

The Remains of the Day [suggested by Amy Gregg]

The Remains of the Day

''After all what can we ever gain in forever looking back and blaming ourselves if our lives have not turned out quite as we might have wished?'

In the summer of 1956, Stevens, the ageing butler of Darlington Hall, embarks on a leisurely holiday that will take him deep into the English countryside and into his past...

A contemporary classic, The Remains of the Day is Kazuo Ishiguro's beautiful and haunting evocation of life between the wars in a Great English House, of lost causes and lost love. [Product description from Amazon]

The book has its own Wikipedia page and has also been made into a film, which has an associated Wikipedia page.

About the Author

Author's Wikipedia page (amazingly, still doesn't have a website, although he does have a Facebook page).

Review

Sixteen members (eventually) crammed into the small space beside the bar, having been 'evicted' from our usual first floor comfiness on account of the live music. Some searching questions revealed most of our readers had thoroughly enjoyed Stevens' tale despite (or perhaps because of) his obsessions with butlering, bantering and Miss Kenton. Frustrations abounded though, ranging from "why didn't he DO something about his relationship with Miss Kenton earlier?" to "he could have handled the situation with the Jewish servants better" (or could he?). The attractiveness of a world in which people know their place and are content with it, was eloquently discussed while on the other hand the benefit of NOT knowing one's place and striving to be something else was also something that the novel drove us to think about. Despite the novel's obvious strengths (and awards), a small minority still found it a tedious and repetitive read, all of which led us to score it thus: 8, 8, 5, 4, 8, 5, 7, 9, 8, 6, 8, 8, 8.5, 9, and 10, giving an average of 7.43 and 35th place in the league table.

 

Book choice for April 2016

Wonder [suggested by Noel Fagan]

Wonder

'My name is August. I won't describe what I look like. Whatever you're thinking, it's probably worse.'

Auggie wants to be an ordinary ten-year-old. He does ordinary things - eating ice cream, playing on his Xbox. He feels ordinary - inside. But ordinary kids don't make other ordinary kids run away screaming in playgrounds. Ordinary kids aren't stared at wherever they go.

Born with a terrible facial abnormality, Auggie has been home-schooled by his parents his whole life. Now, for the first time, he's being sent to a real school - and he's dreading it. All he wants is to be accepted - but can he convince his new classmates that he's just like them, underneath it all? [Product description from Amazon]

The book has its own Wikipedia page.

About the Author

Author's website.

Review

Eleven of us gathered to discuss Wonder and the vibe of the meeting was generally positive. We felt the characters were realistic and, apart from the occasional use of "writerly" language, told their stories accurately from a young person's point of view. The use of different viewpoints as the book progressed was well liked as was the light and shade, as Auggie's harrowing story was brightened by human touches and good use of humour - both his and the other characters'. Most people felt this was an excellent book to suggest to children as it subtly teases out lessons on bullying and the consequences of our treatment of "the other" in society. Favourite characters were Jack Will, Summer and Miranda - although the adult characters such as Mr Tushman and Auggie's parents also received honourable mentions. The nearest we came to a heated debate was on whether the ending was too sugary-sweet. I think we ended up split over that. Anyway for a book ostensibly for children/young adults, Wonder did surprisingly well in the scoring, receiving: 7, 8, 7, 7, 6, 9, 9, 9, 9, 8, and 8, giving an average of 7.91 and equal 15th position in the table with The Little Stranger.

 

Book choice for March 2016

Gatekeeper [suggested by Uzma Ali]

Gatekeeper

Fighting for his freedom in the popular convicts’ Tournament does not turn out as Jann Argent expected. The "prize" is enforced exile to humanity’s first colony planet.

His interstellar journey brings him into contact with a motley bunch of fellow travellers. What is it about the members of the group that drew them together? Why do three of them share a problem with amnesia? And what unworldly force causes their ship to crash-land on the new world in the middle of a violent storm?

GATEKEEPER is a science fiction / fantasy crossover that will appeal both to lovers of space-faring tales of alien worlds, and to those who adore the mystical, magical stories of Stephen Donaldson, Tanith Lee and Marion Zimmer Bradley. It explores the potential for ordinary people to become more than they are, and fulfil unexpected destinies in the face of extraordinary challenges. [Product description from Amazon]

About the Author

Author's website (sadly out of date and in need of a complete refresh, for which I apologise :o)).

Review

It would be unusually self-serving (even for me) to write a review of my own book, and when I've asked for other reviewers to contribute in the past there's rarely (never?) been any response, so instead I'll copy some of the comments that were made during the discussion. Since there are no "book club discussion" questions available online, our talk was sparked by attendees writing down what they liked and didn't like about the novel, which Uzma then converted into questions. I'd like to end on a positive note, so starting with dislikes: "In early parts the analogies seemed too frequent and a bit clunky"; "some cliche characters"; "found it a bit tricky to keep up with the new language"; "took ages to get into it, uncertain [which characters were] good or bad, other world too much like Earth"; "a bit confusing when [the story switched] between the two planets". And the LIKES: "Enjoyed the book once arrived on planet - much more 'page turny' "; "good, relatable characters"; "I don't generally enjoy SF but really enjoyed the highly visual descriptive style of writing"; "good narrative flow, great imagining of another world, strong characters"; "after a few chapters I couldn't put it down"; "very pacy and well explained"; "loved the completely new world, fast paced and always wanted to carry on reading." On a personal note, thanks for ALL the feedback - good and bad - hopefully it will help me make the next one even better. This month's scores were: 6, 7, 8, 8, 6, 6, 7, 7, 7, and 8, giving an exact 7.00 average and 49th position in the table shared with three others.

 

Book choice for February 2016

The Loney [suggested by Mike Walsh]

The Loney

If it had another name, I never knew, but the locals called it the Loney - that strange nowhere between the Wyre and the Lune where Hanny and I went every Easter time with Mummer, Farther, Mr and Mrs Belderboss and Father Wilfred, the parish priest.

It was impossible to truly know the place. It changed with each influx and retreat, and the neap tides would reveal the skeletons of those who thought they could escape its insidious currents. No one ever went near the water. No one apart from us, that is.

I suppose I always knew that what happened there wouldn't stay hidden for ever, no matter how much I wanted it to. No matter how hard I tried to forget. [Product description from Amazon]

About the Author

Author's Wikipedia page.

Review

Once again most of the attendees at the meeting had read The Loney, but this time the discussion revealed many issues with the book. Although the author's descriptive passages were well-crafted and the novel is bursting with ideas, the consensus was that there were too many ideas all thrown together, with none of them being followed up - especially those which the cover blurb would have readers believe were of a "Gothic" nature. What happened with the animal bones? Why was the gun introduced? What was all the weird dancing about? What was really in the cellar? And why, in the end, did not much happen? Critics have said the novel is "a marvel of complex characterization" but our readers found most of the characters paper-thin. The Loney has been critically acclaimed as "the masterpiece by which Hurley must enter the Guild of the Gothic"; "A masterful excursion into terror"; and "...an unforgettable addition to the ranks of the best British horror.". In contrast we found it crammed with the banal conversations of the Belderbosses, irrelevant detail, plot strands that never went anywhere and an ultimately unfulfilling read that didn't deliver on its hype. This antipathy was well reflected in the scores: 6, 3, 5, 3, 6, 4, 5, 6, 4, 6, 5, 4, and 6, giving a 4.85 average and 101st position in the table.

 

Book choice for January 2016

All The Light We Cannot See [suggested by Wendy Gibson]

All The Light We Cannot See

Marie-Laure has been blind since the age of six. Her father builds a perfect miniature of their Paris neighbourhood so she can memorize it by touch and navigate her way home. But when the Nazis invade, father and daughter flee with a dangerous secret.

Werner is a German orphan, destined to labour in the same mine that claimed his father’s life, until he discovers a knack for engineering. His talent wins him a place at a brutal military academy, but his way out of obscurity is built on suffering.

At the same time, far away in a walled city by the sea, an old man discovers new worlds without ever setting foot outside his home. But all around him, impending danger closes in.

Doerr’s combination of soaring imagination and meticulous observation is electric. As Europe is engulfed by war and lives collide unpredictably, ‘All The Light We Cannot See’ is a captivating and devastating elegy for innocence. [Product description from Amazon]

The book has a Wikipedia page.

About the Author

Author's Wikipedia page.
Author's website.

Review

Most of the 15 attendees had read this month's choice, and we had two advanced scores from members who couldn't make it. Overall the book was generally well received, with most readers appreciating the prose, plot, and description of places and characters. Some of the German characters came over a little 'thin' for some commenters, but in contrast the majority of the French characters were well-realised. The connection - by radio - between Werner and Marie's grandfather was widely thought to be far-fetched, and most of us would have liked a little more certainty over what happened to the gem, and to Marie's father. The "epilogue" sections at the end of the book also got a mixed review, but overall the novel was well-liked and thought to be a worthy read, which was reflected in the uniformly high scores: 8, 9, 7, 8, 8, 9, 7, 8, 8, 7, 8, 8, 9, 8,and 8, resulting in an average of exactly 8.00 and 12th position in the table.

 

Book choice for November 2015

Augustus [suggested by Amy Gregg]

Augustus

After the brutal murder of his great-uncle, Julius Caesar, Octavian, a shy and scholarly youth of nineteen, suddenly finds himself heir to the vast power of Rome. He is destined, despite vicious power struggles, bloody wars and family strife, to transform his realm and become the greatest ruler the western world had ever seen: Augustus Caesar, the first Roman Emperor.

Building on impeccable research, John Williams brings the legendary figure of Augustus vividly to life, and invests his characters with such profound humanity that we enter completely into the heat and danger of their lives and times. [Product description from Amazon]

The book has a Wikipedia page.

About the Author

Author's Wikipedia page.

Review

Around half of the members attending had read some of Augustus this month, but only two had finished it. Discussion was split between those who'd abandoned it after anywhere between two chapters and slightly more than half-way, (who generally thought the epistolic structure was a little impenetrable, the cast of characters needed a gazetteer, and the descriptions of battles could have been heavily curtailed), and those who finished it (who, while agreeing with some or all of the previous points, found that later letters concentrated on only two characters - Augustus and Julia - and became simultaneously easier to follow and more enjoyable for it. Of the ten in attendance, six felt they had read enough to register a vote, these being: 8, 4, 5, 5, 8, and 6, giving Augustus an average of exactly 6.00 and equal 80th position in the table, tied with 'Generation A'; 'Paradise'; and 'The Life & Times of the Thunderbolt Kid'.

 

Book choice for October 2015

The Secret Mother [suggested by Ross Allatt]

The Secret Mother

Mai Ling is chasing the Chinese dream. She's escaping to the city, seeking a new life, running away from the old customs of arranged marriage and domestic drudgery. The Secret Mother puts a face to the label 'Made in China'. It tells the bittersweet story of a girl - like millions of others - willing to risk everything. The Secret Mother uncovers the life of Mai Ling, a sixteen year old who follows the Chinese dream and pays the highest price. [Product description from Amazon]

The book has a dedicated page on the author's website.

About the Author

Author's website.

Review

Seven of us gathered for what turned out to be a pointed debate on The Secret Mother between a majority who - generally - thought the book was "OK" and one who had decided it didn't contain enough detail on Chinese factory procedures, Chinese culture, or life in Manchester to realistically portray any of those things. However the general consensus was that the author, as someone who knew very little about the reality of life in China, had done some good research and crafted a believable story, with most agreeing that the Chinese parts of the split narrative were stronger than the Manchester parts, the female characters were (much!) stronger than the males, and the lack of realism on the factory floor - if there was any - did not detract from the narrative. With two attendees not having read enough to vote, but two registered "postal" votes, we still captured seven votes: 6, 5, 8, 7.5, 6, 6, and 1. In other circumstances I may have been tempted to refer to that last as a "rogue" vote, and in such a small sample population in dragged The Secret Mother down to an average score of 5.64 and (an undeservedly low, in my opinion) 89th position in the table between 'Into The Wild' and 'Kalooki Nights'.

 

Book choice for September 2015

Elizabeth is Missing [suggested by Noel Fagan]

Elizabeth is Missing

'Elizabeth is missing', reads the note in Maud's pocket in her own handwriting.

Lately, Maud's been getting forgetful. She keeps buying peach slices when she has a cupboard full, forgets to drink the cups of tea she's made and writes notes to remind herself of things. But Maud is determined to discover what has happened to her friend, Elizabeth, and what it has to do with the unsolved disappearance of her sister Sukey, years back, just after the war. [Product description from Amazon]

The book has a dedicated page on the author's website.

About the Author

Author's Wikipedia page.
Author's website.

Review

Although many members were unable to attend the meeting this month, a sizeable number of these felt moved to register a "postal" vote. Even so the meeting was still well attended with around 9 people including three new members. I was one of "the missing" but facebook debates did give a flavour of the feeling of members towards this read and it seemed most enjoyed it, especially the clever and accurate depiction of dementia from the sufferer's point of view. Scores reflected a slight ambivalence between the quality of the writing and the rather melancholy main themes, but even so the average of: 8, 7, 8, 9, 6, 10, 7.5, 7, 7, 8, 9, 8, 7.5, and 9 is 7.93, giving September's book equal 12th position in the table alongside 'The Help'.

 

Book choice for August 2015

The Crying of Lot 49 [suggested by Uzma Ali]

The Crying of Lot 49

Suffused with rich satire, chaotic brilliance, verbal turbulence and wild humour, The Crying of Lot 49 opens as Oedipa Maas discovers that she has been made executrix of a former lover's estate. The performance of her duties sets her on a strange trail of detection, in which bizarre characters crowd in to help or confuse her. But gradually, death, drugs, madness and marriage combine to leave Oedipa in isolation on the threshold of revelation, awaiting The Crying of Lot 49.

One of Pynchon's shortest novels and one of his best.

The book has a Wikipedia page.

About the Author

Author's Wikipedia page.
Author's website.

Review

A majority of this month's small group of 6 had not enjoyed the read, for many of the usual reasons that reviewers do not enjoy Pynchon - rambling and impenetrable text (which the blurb above interprets as "chaotic brilliance"), pointless narrative rabbit holes, characters that hold little or no interest for the reader and the traditional "post-modern" anti-structure which many readers struggle to get past. From the two who *did* enjoy it (potentially after reading it through again a second time), I never really got a sense of exactly why, although they may have mentioned parts of the story were interesting, or intriguing, or clever. With one attending member not scoring but an additional score submitted by email, the six votes lined up as: 3, 8, 8, 4, 2, and 4 giving an average of 4.83 and equal 97th position in the table, tied with 'Manchester, England'.

 

Book choice for July 2015

The Miniaturist [suggested by Clare Freeman]

The Miniaturist

On an autumn day in 1686, eighteen-year-old Nella Oortman knocks at the door of a grand house in the wealthiest quarter of Amsterdam. She has come from the country to begin a new life as the wife of illustrious merchant trader Johannes Brandt, but instead she is met by his sharp-tongued sister, Marin. Only later does Johannes appear and present her with an extraordinary wedding gift: a cabinet-sized replica of their home. It is to be furnished by an elusive miniaturist, whose tiny creations mirror their real-life counterparts in unexpected ways ...

Nella is at first mystified by the closed world of the Brandt household, but as she uncovers its secrets she realizes the escalating dangers that await them all. Does the miniaturist hold their fate in her hands? And will she be the key to their salvation or the architect of their downfall? [Product description from Amazon]

About the Author

Author's Wikipedia page.
Author's website.

Review

Although many of the group seemed to enjoy this read, and had a lot to say about it, I was in neither of those camps. Which means I don't feel qualified to write an unbiased review and so the floor is open once again to anyone who attended and would like to offer something to fill this space (as if). Interestingly the scores (including one submitted in advance) were almost all "middling" and didn't reflect the enthusiasm with which the book was debated. They were: 7, 7, 6, 7, 9, 7, 8, 8, 6, 6, and 6 giving an average of dead on 7.00 and consequently 47th position in the table, tied with 'A Little History of the World' and 'Maggie & Me'.

 

Book choice for June 2015

Stoner [suggested by Eve Lennard]

Stoner

William Stoner enters the University of Missouri at nineteen to study agriculture. A seminar on English literature changes his life, and he never returns to work on his father's farm. Stoner becomes a teacher. He marries the wrong woman. His life is quiet, and after his death his colleagues remember him rarely.

Yet with truthfulness, compassion and intense power, this novel uncovers a story of universal value. Stoner tells of the conflicts, defeats and victories of the human race that pass unrecorded by history, and reclaims the significance of an individual life. A reading experience like no other, itself a paean to the power of literature, it is a novel to be savoured. [Product description from Amazon]

The book has a Wikipedia page.

About the Author

Author's Wikipedia page.

Review

Twelve of us squashed around a downstsirs table to avoid the live music in our usual spot upstairs, but the crush did nothing to halt a lively and searching discussion about this remarkable novel. A treatise on an ordinary and unremarkable life, on the face of it, and yet for a farm boy to rise to a position as professor of English Literature is in itself remarkable. Stoner never quite believes in himself though - he is always striving to be better in many aspects of his life - as a teacher, husband, father, lover - and failing in almost all of these in one way or another, at least in his own mind. Readers were frustrated by his lack of reaction to - effectively - having his daughter stolen from him, along with his study, his hopes for a happy marriage, and much of what could have been a glittering career. But when he does react, his triumphs are all the more significant because of their sparsity.

In many ways, this novel reminded me of a French film. It meanders along telling its story, within which nothing much happens, and then ends in an unremarkable way which can leave the reader (or watcher) wondering whether it was all worth it. It's perhaps not surprising then that the modern rediscovery of Stoner began with its French translation, and the work continues to be more popular in Europe than it is in its native America. For many readers, its strength lay in its ordinariness, but told through compelling and often beautiful prose that led reviewers to award unusually high scores which, including two "postal votes", were: 4, 9, 7, 5, 8, 10, 10, 10, 8, 10, 10 and 10 giving an average of 8.42 and 5th position in the league table.

 

Book choice for May 2015

The Haunting of Hill House [suggested by Helen Close]

The Haunting of Hill House

Four seekers have arrived at the rambling old pile known as Hill House: Dr. Montague, an occult scholar looking for solid evidence of psychic phenomena; Theodora, his lovely assistant; Luke, the future inheritor of the estate; and Eleanor, a friendless, fragile young woman with a dark past. As they begin to cope with horrifying occurrences beyond their control or understanding, they cannot possibly know what lies ahead. For Hill House is gathering its powers - and soon it will choose one of them to make its own. Adapted into a film, The Haunting, starring Liam Neeson, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Owen Wilson, The Haunting of Hill House is a powerful work of slow-burning psychological horror. [Product description from Amazon]

The book has a Wikipedia page.

About the Author

Author's Wikipedia page.
Author's website.

Review

A smaller group this month, and I wasn't among them so although I read the book I can't report on the discussion, which gave rise to a fair mix of scores. If anyone who attended would like to submit a precis of the group feelings and opinions it would make a nice change from my ramblings. Scores (including three submitted in advance) were: 8, 7.5, 7, 4, 5, 2, 5, 8, 5, and 8 giving an average of 5.95 and 80th position in the league table.

 

Book choice for April 2015

The Housekeeper and The Professor [suggested by Chris Cooper]

The Housekeeper and The Professor

He is a brilliant maths professor with a peculiar problem - ever since a traumatic head injury seventeen years ago, he has lived with only eighty minutes of short-term memory. She is a sensitive but astute young housekeeper who is entrusted to take care of him. Each morning, as the Professor and the Housekeeper are reintroduced to one another, a strange, beautiful relationship blossoms between them. The Professor may not remember what he had for breakfast, but his mind is still alive with elegant equations from the past. He devises clever maths riddles - based on her shoe size or her birthday - and the numbers reveal a sheltering and poetic world to both the Housekeeper and her ten-year-old son. With each new equation, the three lost souls forge an affection more mysterious than imaginary numbers, and a bond that runs deeper than memory. [Product description from Amazon]

The book has a Wikipedia page.

About the Author

Author's Wikipedia page.

Review

Another significant group assembled in the linear space at Dulcimer's for our discussion of Housekeeper. Chris differentiated the presentation of his questions from other meetings by ordering them numerically, with the ordinal numbers determined by a mathematical formula. This approach was integral to the meeting, and divided the group into those who had horror stories of maths lessons from their youth, and those who enjoyed them. Indeed the discussion did major on the influence of maths on the story, since it was a prime element. Ogawa gives little away in terms of her characters' identity, either through personal descriptions, location or plot, but what obtuse hints there were allowed most readers to derive some sympathy for the characters. Interactions between the professor and the housekeeper and her son were pivotal to the story, but necessarily bound by his memory problems and in addition, baseball functioned as the ideal element to bring the boy closer to the old mad. To sum up: an interesting read even if not a lot happened. Members were relatively generous this month, scores being: 7, 7, 6, 5, 8, 7, 7, 8, 7, 7, 6, 7.5, 6.5, 6, 7, and 6 giving an average(mean) of 6.75 and joint 53rd position alongside The Suspicions of Mr Whicher and The Man In The High Castle. To conclude my attempt to squeeze as many mathematical terms as I can into this review, I should probably also - for one month only - tell you that this month's median score value is 6.5, and the mode is 7.

 

Book choice for March 2015

The Way Inn [suggested by Wendy Gibson]

The Way Inn

The Way Inn is a global chain of identikit mid-budget hotels, and Neil Double is a valued member of its loyalty scheme. Neil is a professional conference-goer, a man who will attend trade fairs, expos and conventions so you don't have to. This life of anonymised, budget travel would be hell for most, but it’s a kind of paradise for Neil, who has turned his incognito professional life into a toxic personal philosophy.

But Neil is about to change. In a brand new Way Inn in an airport hinterland, he meets a woman -- a woman he has seen before in bizarre and unsettling circumstances. She hints at being in possession of an astonishing truth about this mundane world. And then she disappears. Fascinated, and with his professional life unravelling, Neil tries to find the woman again. In doing so he is drawn into the appalling secret that lurks behind the fake smiles and muzak of the hotel... [Product description from Amazon]

About the Author

Author's website.

Review

This space available for a detailed review of the book and/or meeting discussion this month, although the extremely low scores tell their own story: 7, 7, 2, 5, 5, 4, 5, 4, 5, 5, and 4 giving an average of 4.82 and 94th place in the league table (4th from bottom).

 

Book choice for February 2015

The Psychopath Test [suggested by Uzma Ali]

The Psychopath Test

This is a story about madness. It all starts when journalist Jon Ronson is contacted by a leading neurologist. She and several colleagues have recently received a cryptically puzzling book in the mail, sent anonymously, and Jon is challenged to solve the mystery behind it. As he searches for the answer, Jon soon finds himself, unexpectedly, on an utterly compelling and often unbelievable adventure into the world of madness.

Jon meets a Broadmoor inmate who swears he faked a mental disorder to get a lighter sentence but is now stuck there, with nobody believing he’s sane. He meets some of the people who catalogue mental illness, and those who vehemently oppose them. He meets the influential psychologist who developed the industry standard Psychopath Test and who is convinced that many important CEOs and politicians are in fact psychopaths.

Jon learns from him how to ferret out these high-flying psychopaths and, armed with his new psychopath-spotting abilities, heads into the corridors of power, spending time with an international death-squad leader and a legendary CEO whose alleged psychopathy caused huge fluctuations on the stock market. As well as talking to psychopaths, Jon meets those whose ordinary lives have been touched by madness and those who depend on it to make a living – disturbingly discovering that many of the people at the helm of the industry are sometimes, in their way, as crazy as those they study.

Combining Jon’s trademark humour, charm and investigative incision, The Psychopath Test is a fascinating journey through an unsettling industry; a deeply honest book unearthing dangerous truths and asking serious questions about how we define normality in a world where we are increasingly judged by our maddest edges. [Product description from Amazon]

The book has its own Wikipedia page.

About the Author

Wikipedia page.
Author's website.

Review

Eighteen of us squeezed into the front corner of Dulcimer's downstairs bar, displaced by the live music upstairs. Splitting into two groups in an attempt to combat the noise, the discussion in our group centred around psychopathy itself, the application of the test to people we know, to what extent it is certain/predictable that high-scoring psychopaths will end up murdering, or at least severely harming, others, and only gave brief mention of what an easy read the book was, how Ronson manages to maintain a relatively light tone despite his dark subject matter and whether or not he could have done more in the way of a conclusion or two. Nevertheless scoring was quite high at: 9, 7, 7, 8, 8, 8, 7, 5, 8, 10, 6, 7, 7, 8, 8, 7,and 8 which means an average of 7.53 and 27th place in the league table.

 

Book choice for January 2015

Under The Skin [suggested by Eve Lennard]

Under The Skin

Isserley always drove straight past a hitch-hiker when she first saw him, to give herself time to size him up. She was looking for big muscles: a hunk on legs. Puny, scrawny specimens were no use to her.

So begins Michel Faber's first novel: a lone female scouts the Scottish Highlands in search of well-proportioned men and the reader is given to expect the unfolding of some latter-day psychosexual drama. But commonplace expectation is no guide for this strange and deeply unsettling book; small details at first, then more major clues, suggest that something deeply bizarre is afoot. What are the reason's for Isserley's extensive surgical scarring, her thick glasses (which are just glass), her excruciating backache? Who are the solitary few who work on the farm where her cottage is located? And why are they all nervous about the arrival of someone called Amlis Vess?

The ensuing narrative is one of such cumulative, compelling strangeness that it almost defies description--the one thing that can be said with certainty is that Under The Skin is unlike anything else you have ever read. The result is a narrative of enormous imaginative and emotional coherence from a writer whose control of his medium is nearly flawless and who applies the rules of psychological realism to a fictional world that is terrifying and unearthly to the point that the reader's identification with Isserley becomes one of absolute sympathy. [Product description from Amazon]

The book has its own Wikipedia page, and has also been made into a film which has a Wikipedia page.

About the Author

Wikipedia page.

Review

A lively debate (prompted by quotes from the book supplied by Eve) and an unusually large gathering for this time of year - 16 of us! Comparisons with the film were drawn (the book is better) and discussions held over where the "humans" originated, what they were, and what their society was like, all carefully hinted at in the book while at the same time leaving much to the reader's imagination. Isserley's ambivalent reaction to Amlis Vess, her worries that she was about to be supplanted by a more well-crafted vodsel impersonator, or even have the need for hunting replaced altogether by a new breeding program, were all hotly debated. The general appreciation of a well-written and original tale was reflected in the scoring: 6, 8, 8, 7.5, 6, 7.5, 8, 9, 7, 6, 7, 9, 7.5, 9, and 8.5 giving an average of 7.60 and 25th place in the league table.

 

Book choice for November 2014

A Vicar, Crucified [suggested by Mike Walsh]

A Vicar, Crucified

Abbot Peter has recently swapped leadership of a remote monastery in the Sinai desert for retirement in the bleak and stormy seaside town of Stormhaven. When the local vicar is discovered crucified naked, in the vestry, the Abbot is invited to act as a Special Investigator.

Discovering a surprising connection along the way, he partners the attractive and ambitious Detective Inspector Tamsin Shah in pursuit of the killer. He believes a mysterious ancient symbol can help them in their quest; she is far from convinced.

With the church invaded by forensics, the community is in shock, adjusting to the frightening knowledge that the murderer is one of them. But who? The curate? The bishop? The treasurer? The youth worker?

As cold waves crash against the winter shoreline, suspicion replaces friendship at St Michaels, where no one is safe and no one trusted. But as the ravenous press descends on the town, and secrets unravel, there will be more victims, and a desperate climax, before the hidden truth becomes clear.

This is the first of the Abbot Peter murder mystery series.

About the Author

Author's website.

Review

Promised much, delivered little. (Apparently that's all I need to say!) Scores were: 5, 5, 5, 5, 6, 5, 4, 5, 5, 4, and 3 giving an average of 4.73 and 92nd place in the league table.

 

Book choice for October 2014

The Martian [suggested by John Beresford]

The Martian

I'm stranded on Mars.

I have no way to communicate with Earth.

I'm in a Habitat designed to last 31 days.

If the Oxygenator breaks down, I'll suffocate. If the Water Reclaimer breaks down, I'll die of thirst. If the Hab breaches, I'll just kind of explode. If none of those things happen, I'll eventually run out of food and starve to death.

So yeah. I'm screwed. [Product description from Amazon]

The book has its own Wikipedia page and is due to be a Ridley Scott film (currently predicted to release on 25 Nov 2015).

About the Author

Currently doesn't have a Wikipedia page, but I'm sure that won't be true for long.
Author's website.

Review

A lively discussion, ten out of the eleven attendees having read the book and all but one-and-a-half having really enjoyed it. Several people commented on the inaccessibility of the first section of the book which is largely devoted to a lot of scientific exposition to set the story up, but most agreed that (whether they skim-read this or not) the "survival" elements of the story were well done and provided a rollicking good read. One or two readers would have preferred more character development, and more focus on the "human" element of the trials that faced Mark. Scores this month: 8, 8, 10, 8, 6, 9, 8, 9, 9, 3, 9, and 7 giving an average of 7.83 and 16th place in the league table (without that rogue, and extremely unfair, low mark, it would have made the top ten).

 

Book choice for September 2014

Manchester, England [suggested by Noel Fagan]

Manchester, England

The definitive account of the pop cult capital of the UK by Dave Haslam, one of Manchester's top DJs and journalists.

Manchester, a predominantly working-class city, away from the nation's capital, has been at the margins of English culture for centuries. The explosion of music and creativity in Manchester can be traced back from Victorian music hall and the jazz age, to Northern Soul and rock and roll, through to acid house and Oasis. But its roots are in Manchester's history as a melting pot of popular idealism and dissent, from the industrial revolution on, via film, theatre, comedy and TV. And for Manchester, read England and the world.

Dave Haslam is uniquely placed to tell this story - Manchester, England is as witty, erudite and passionate as you would expect from a man who can say, again and again, "I was there". Like Jon Savage's England's Dreaming, this is the last word on the abiding centre of 40 years of UK pop culture. [Product description from Amazon]

About the Author

Wikipedia page.
Author's website.

Review

Book blurbs usually overstate the reality but to call this the "definitive" account is stretching things beyond paranormal. Most readers (6 out of 8 in the meeting had read enough to have an opinion) thought the first section of the book - about a third - dealing with "historical Manchester" (up until around the 1960s) was well researched and hung together as a narrative, even though Haslam's "quirky" writing style gets old VERY quickly. But once we begin to stray into territory that Haslam is more familiar with, he appears to abandon any attempt at fact-finding and just rely on his memory of events, which (as we know through the insider knowledge of one club member) isn't all that accurate. Pretty soon the book devolves into a kind of pale ego trip about how great it all was, how many names he can drop, and "wasn't the Hacienda great?" The last half of the book can only be skim-read if you want to retain your sanity. It's quite repetitive, and by this stage the quirky writing style has become so irritating you just want to get it over with as quickly as possible. Scores this month: 5, 7, 5, 3, 5, and 4 giving an average of 4.83 and a position third from bottom of the league table.

 

Book choice for August 2014

All The Birds, Singing [suggested by Wendy Gibson]

All The Birds, Singing

Jake Whyte is the sole resident of an old farmhouse on an unnamed British island, a place of ceaseless rains and battering winds. It's just her, her untamed companion, Dog, and a flock of sheep. Which is how she wanted it to be. But something is coming for the sheep - every few nights it picks one off, leaves it in rags.

ake's unknown past, perhaps breaking into the present, a story hidden thousands of miles away and years ago, in a landscape of different colour and sound, a story held in the scars that stripe her back. [Product description from Amazon]

About the Author

Wikipedia page.
Author's website.

Review

A lively discussion this month, helped along by Wendy's baked questions. Was it realistic that Jake had reached her present age without dealing with her issues? Why was she so closed? What did the beast represent? Was it real, or imaginary, or partly both? Why did the book end the way it did? Should there have been more? Did she find happiness? What was Otto's dog doing with all those mysterious things it dug up and dragged under the house? All these questions and more we comprehensively failed to answer! But for the most part, we agreed it had been a good read. Scores this month: 8, 8, 6, 7, 9, 6, 7, 5, 7, and 8 giving an average of 7.10 and 41st place in the league table, out of (currently) 92.

 

Book choice for July 2014

11.22.63 [suggested by Amy Gregg]

11.22.63

WHAT IF you could go back in time and change the course of history? WHAT IF the watershed moment you could change was the JFK assassination? 11.22.63, the date that Kennedy was shot - unless...

King takes his protagonist Jake Epping, a high school English teacher from Lisbon Falls, Maine, 2011, on a fascinating journey back to 1958 - from a world of mobile phones and iPods to a new world of Elvis and JFK, of Plymouth Fury cars and Lindy Hopping, of a troubled loner named Lee Harvey Oswald and a beautiful high school librarian named Sadie Dunhill, who becomes the love of Jake's life - a life that transgresses all the normal rules of time.

With extraordinary imaginative power, King weaves the social, political and popular culture of his baby-boom American generation into a devastating exercise in escalating suspense. [Product description from Amazon]

The novel has its own Wikipedia entry.

About the Author

Wikipedia page.
Stephen King is SO famous that he has BOTH a UK website and an American website.

Review

Widely agreed to be a very good read, whether or not this was the reader's first exposure to King, this proved a very popular choice. Written in King's trademark style, the book also avoids his usual poor endings, with most readers thinking the story finished well even if it was not the ending they were expecting. The paradoxes of time travel, and the method of translation from future to past and back are all very well handled, and his realisation of late 1950s/early 1960s America is outstanding. For some, the historical content was new and interesting, others thought this the novel's weakest point, preferring the fictional content and the characterisations (which, again in King's usual fashion, are extremely strong and well drawn). Of particular note, from discussion points, are the clever device of having 1958 "reset itself" each time the protagonist returns, the inventive way King retells essentially the same story, especially in the early days of Jake's trips, while making each one subtly different to maintain interest and heighten tension, and the piling on of the pressure as a result of each new "thing" that Jake has to put right as the long-term effects of his changes ripple through time. Very high scores this month: 8, 8, 10, 10, 8, 6, 8, 8, 9, and 7.5 giving an average of 8.25 and 7th place in the league table.

 

Book choice for June 2014

The Girl Who Saved The King of Sweden [suggested by Naomi Jackson]

The Girl Who Saved The King of Sweden

Nombeko Mayeki is on the run from the world’s most ruthless secret service - with three Chinese sisters, twins who are officially one person and an elderly potato farmer. Oh, and the fate of the King of Sweden - and the world - rests on her shoulders.

Born in a Soweto shack in 1961, Nombeko was destined for a short, hard life. When she was run over by a drunken engineer her luck changed. Alive, but blamed for the accident, she was made to work for the engineer - who happened to be in charge of a project vital to South Africa’s security. Nombeko was good at cleaning, but brilliant at understanding numbers. The drunk engineer wasn’t - and made a big mistake. And now only Nombeko knows about it... [Product description from Amazon]

About the Author

Wikipedia page.
Author's website.

Review

While Jonasson has a good writing style and provided several laugh out loud moments for many readers, some of the group found this story SO surreal and far-fetched as to be profoundly off-putting, and even some of those who initially enjoyed the story found it became quite wearing by the end, with coincidence piled on ridiculous coincidence and caricature characters set up and knocked down arbitrarily without any attempt at nuance or exploration of their humanity or real relationships. Nevertheless a few of our readers still found it an enjoyable, fun read - most definitely something out of the ordinary - and these widely different viewpoints were once again reflected in the scoring: 8, 7, 7.5, 5, 7, 4, 2, 8, 8, and 7.5 resulted in an average of 6.40 and 59th place in the league table.

 

Book choice for May 2014

Maggie & Me [suggested by Clare Freeman]

Maggie & Me

It's 12 October 1984. An IRA bomb blows apart the Grand Hotel in Brighton. Miraculously, Margaret Thatcher survives. In small-town Scotland, eight-year-old Damian Barr watches in horror as his mum rips her wedding ring off and packs their bags. He knows he, too, must survive.

Damian, his sister and his Catholic mum move in with her sinister new boyfriend while his Protestant dad shacks up with the glamorous Mary the Canary. Divided by sectarian suspicion, the community is held together by the sprawling Ravenscraig Steelworks. But darkness threatens as Maggie takes hold: she snatches school milk, smashes the unions and makes greed good. Following Maggie's advice, Damian works hard and plans his escape. He discovers that stories can save your life and - in spite of violence, strikes, AIDS and Clause 28 - manages to fall in love dancing to Madonna in Glasgow's only gay club.

Maggie & Me is a touching and darkly witty memoir about surviving Thatcher's Britain; a story of growing up gay in a straight world and coming out the other side in spite of, and maybe because of, the iron lady. [Product description from Amazon]

About the Author

Wikipedia page.

Review

Most of those who'd read Maggie & Me found it a quick, easy read and relatively enjoyable. Barr can have a brilliant turn of phrase and several parts of the text reflected this even though much of it was pretty mundane. On the negative side, many if not most of the characters were very one-dimensional, leading reviewers to question the authenticity of the "memoir" and the link to Margaret Thatcher was tenuous at best, which at least one of the reasders felt was nothing more than a marketing ploy designed to bring the book to the attention both of those who loved and hated Thatcher. This ambivalence reflected well in the scores and Maggie & Me's eventual mid-table position: 8, 6, 6, 7.5, 7.5, 7, and 7 - an average of exactly 7.00 and 41st place in the league table, equal with A Little History of the World.

 

Book choice for April 2014

The Examined Life [suggested by Wendy Gibson]

The Examined Life

This book is about learning to live.

In simple stories of encounter between a psychoanalyst and his patients, The Examined Life reveals how the art of insight can illuminate the most complicated, confounding and human of experiences.

These are stories about our everyday lives: they are about the people we love and the lies that we tell; the changes we bear, and the grief. Ultimately, they show us not only how we lose ourselves but how we might find ourselves too. [Product description from Amazon]

About the Author

Author's website.
Wikipedia page.

Review

At least one of the seven reviewers of the book felt it had obvious shortcomings with its structure but nevertheless The Examined Life scored well: 9, 7, 5, 9, 7, 7, and 6 giving it an average of 7.14 and 38th place in the league table (Notice how there are never any half marks when I'm not there. Very suspicious). If anyone who read it wants to submit a more comprehensive review please feel free.

 

Book choice for March 2014

Instructions For A Heatwave [suggested by Ross Allatt]

Instructions For A Heatwave

It's July 1976. In London, it hasn't rained for months, gardens are filled with aphids, water comes from a standpipe, and Robert Riordan tells his wife Gretta that he's going round the corner to buy a newspaper. He doesn't come back. The search for Robert brings Gretta's children - two estranged sisters and a brother on the brink of divorce - back home, each wih different ideas as to where their father might have gone. None of them suspects that their mother might have an explanation that even now she cannot share. [Product description from Amazon]

The book doesn't have a Wikipedia page or its own website/Facebook page, but it seems to have made an appearance on just about every "high profile" book club (Richard & Judy, Mariella Frostrup, etc) and is widely reviewed in all sorts of places.

About the Author

Author's website.
Wikipedia page.

Review

The majority of the ten members who gathered to discuss Instructions for a Heatwave thought it was one of the best choices in recent months. O'Farrell's prose, especially when describing travel, or the emotions, sights and smells of homecoming, often bordered on excellence and her depictions of several different types of dysfunctionality in individual family branches and the interactions between them were expertly drawn. Most readers felt a great deal of sympathy for Aoife. We were at a loss to explain the significance of the setting -- in a heatwave -- which although mentioned a few times in the text never really made any impact on the story, and there were a few Maguffin moments (the sudden appearance of a second family home in Ireland which everyone seemed to have forgotten about for most of the story, and Claire's magical volte-face in her attitude to Michael Francis when he declared he was taking the children to Ireland being two memorable examples), but these did little to detract from the book's popularity. Its scores of: 8, 9, 8, 8, 4, 8, 8, and 9 gave it an average of 7.75 and 19th place in the league table.

 

Book choice for February 2014

The Hundred-Foot Journey [suggested by Beth Garratt-Glass]

The Hundred-Foot Journey

The Hundred-foot Journey is the story of Hassan Haji, a boy from Mumbai who embarks, along with his boisterous family, on a picaresque journey first to London and then across Europe, before they ultimately open a restaurant opposite a famous chef, Madame Mallory, in the remote French village of Lumie re. A culinary war ensues, pitting Hassan's Mumbai-toughened father against the imperious Michelin-starred cordon bleu, until Madame Mallory realizes that Hassan is a cook with natural talents far superior to her own. [Product description from Amazon]

The novel has a Wikipedia entry and has been made into a film due for release later this year.

About the Author

Author's website.

Review

This space available to hold a review of the book by anyone who read it and attended the meeting. Scores were: 7, 3, 6, 8, 7, and 6, giving an average of 6.17 and 61st place in the league table.

 

Book choice for January 2014

The Secret Agent [suggested by Richard Frost]

The Secret Agent

Behind the façade of a Soho shop selling dubious merchandise lives Verloc with his wife Winnie, her mother and her retarded brother, Stevie. Verloc is an overweight indolent anarchist who conceals his political activities, such as they are, under a veneer of domesticity and family life. [Product description from Amazon]

The novel has its own Wikipedia entry and has been made into a film. It is also available to read online.

About the Author

Wikipedia page.
"On-line Literature" entry.
Fan society site.

Review

January's meeting did well considering the cold weather with a group of 11 gathering to discuss The Secret Agent - a book which we learned later was a favourite of the barman. Sadly he found few of our members in agreement. Only two had enjoyed the read, although they both did a very good job of explaining why. Most of the other attendees found the prose impenetrable, some of the sub-plots diversionary and much of the rest of the book confusing or not worth the effort. On the positive side, most people who read beyond the half-way point, or finished it entirely, found it got better towards the end, and most also agreed they had found SOMETHING to like about it. These small crumbs of comfort were not enough to persuade them to give the book very high scores though, those scores being: 10, 5, 6, 4, 4, 4, 8, 4, and 3, giving it an average of 5.33 and 77th place in the league table.

 

Book choice for November 2013

Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage [suggested by Helen Close]

Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage

The award-winning Canadian writer Alice Munro's collection is about the lives, hopes, dreams and ends of women: their marriages, their relationships with those who touch their lives in some momentous way--however brief or long-standing--and the extraordinary effects wrought by the hand of fate. She is not only a genius storyteller, she has a cunning ability to make you believe the short story you've just read was actually a full-length novel. So if you've ever thought twice about buying a book of short stories, then the marvellous Alice Munro will make you think again...

Munro's world is one of post-war Canada, when women are beginning to experience a constrained kind of freedom. In "What is Remembered", a chance meeting at a funeral has a profound, yet stabilising effect on Meriel, a young wife and mother. "Young husbands", writes Munro, "were stern in those days". Between learning how to kowtow to bosses and manage wives, there was so much else to learn: mortgages, lawns and politics for a start. The wives, meantime, were afforded the opportunity of "a second kind of adolescence"--but only in the confines of the family home, while the men were absent, and only after wifely jobs were accounted for. In the book's title story, a capable, spinsterly housekeeper finds love in the most unexpected place, in the most unexpected way. However the opportunity presents itself, it is what you choose to make of it that really matters, the author seems to be saying. Johanna could be deeply disappointed with her "opportunity" but, in her straightforward way, amends a few details and makes the most of it. [Product description from Amazon]

The collection has spawned two films - Hateship, Loveship; and Away From Her - and has its own Wikipedia entry.

See also the book selection page for March 2011, when this was originally proposed, and which contains a synopsis and review from a different source.

About the Author

In common with last month's author Zadie Smith, Alice Munro doesn't have a website (at the time of writing). Her Wikipedia page is here.

Review

A small group (7) gathered to discuss HFCLM and generally agreed that while Munro is clearly a master of the short story form, these particular stories had a very samey feel, repeating themes and not really saying anything very different. The fact that she documents "real life" so accurately was seen as a positive by some, but a little tedious and pointless by others. Some characters were well drawn, others appeared out of nowhere to "save" the story and were consequently confusing and unrealistic. Only two of the group had read all the stories, the rest giving up around the half-way mark. Scores for this month were: 9, 6, 6, 4, 6.5, 5, and 6, which places HFCLM at equal 63rd place in the table with an average of 6.07, alongside "Firmin: Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife".

 

Book choice for October 2013

N-W [suggested by Wendy Gibson]

N-W

Zadie Smith's brilliant tragi-comic NW follows four Londoners - Leah, Natalie, Felix and Nathan - after they've left their childhood council estate, grown up and moved on to different lives. From private houses to public parks, at work and at play, their city is brutal, beautiful and complicated. Yet after a chance encounter they each find that the choices they've made, the people they once were and are now, can suddenly, rapidly unravel. A portrait of modern urban life, NW is funny, sad and urgent - as brimming with vitality as the city itself. [Product description from Amazon]

Wikipedia entry.

About the Author

Unusually, Zadie Smith doesn't have a website (at the time of writing). Her Wikipedia page is here.

Review

This space available to hold a review of the book by anyone who read it and attended the meeting. Despite many people complementing the writing there was a general feeling that, as well as being nowhere near as funny as the cover notes suggest (i.e. not funny at all), the book was a difficult read - especially the first part which several people didn't get past - and this is reflected in the scores awarded by those who came to the meeting: 6.5, 8, 7, 8, 7, 6.5, 3, and 5, giving N-W an average of 6.38, and equal 57th place in the league table.

 

Book choice for September 2013

Life After Life [suggested by Cate Bale]

Life After Life

[Originally suggested in April 2013 - this entry copied from there]

Probably the newest book ever suggested for Chorlton Chapters (and therefore not to be confused with the 1975 book of the same title written by psychiatrist Raymond Moody), when first selected in April of this year this had only been out for exactly two weeks and has already garnered 410 ratings and 169 reviews on goodreads.

What if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right?

During a snowstorm in England in 1910, Ursula Beresford Todd (ikr!) is born and dies before she can take her first breath.

During a snowstorm in England in 1910, the same baby is born and lives to tell the tale.

What if there were second chances? And third chances? In fact an infinite number of chances to live your life? Would you eventually be able to save the world from its own inevitable destiny? And would you even want to?

Life After Life follows Ursula Todd as she lives through the turbulent events of the last century again and again. With wit and compassion, Kate Atkinson finds warmth even in life’s bleakest moments, and shows an extraordinary ability to evoke the past. Here she is at her most profound and inventive, in a novel that celebrates the best and worst of ourselves. [Product description from the author's website]

About the Author

Official Facebook page.
Wikipedia entry.
Author's website.

Review

A busy meeting of 16 members old and new engaged in a long and lively discussion of Life After Life. Despite the repetitive nature of the text, the idea of the novel combined with Atkinson's excellent prose, gave the book decent scores, and the number of people who had finished the book was higher than usual. Questions of whether Ursula ever became truly aware of her ability to "try again", or was able to direct her later attempts at life (and, if so, why she would choose to fetch up in such a drab existence, finally) were never really answered, either in the discussion or the book. Scores were 8, 7, 8, 8, 8, 8, 7.5, 7, 7.5, 8, 4, 7, and 8 giving an average of 7.38 and equal 28th place in the league table, beside The Wrong Boy and Boxer, Beetle.

 

Book choice for August 2013

Kalooki Nights [suggested by Noel Fagan]

Kalooki Nights

[Originally suggested in September 2011 (and June 2012) by... er... Noel - this entry copied from there]
Kalooki Nights is a loosely biographical story of Maxie Glickman, a post-war Mancunian Jew.

The central theme [centres] around victimhood and minority identity when the witchhunt moves elsewhere. Maxie and his schoolfriends soon learn deep anger at the treatment of the Jews in the war and exert enormous energy hating the war criminals. To justify their anger at events they never witnessed, they hunt for antisemitism in all around them. When they don't succeed, they seem to annoy others in order to provike reactions that can be seen as anti-semitism. This is exemplified in Maxies choice of wives and girlfriends, most of whom are anodyne at best but provoked into reaction against Maxie's constant self-pity and reference back to Jewsih themes. There is an amusing contrast on display in the form of Maxie's sister's man - an Irishman (sorry, the name escapes me), who is very eager to learn Jewish ways and frustrated when he never quite succeeds.

This is an interesting premise - how do members of an oppressed minority react when the oppression stops? Do members integrate with the whole, as some characters do, or do they continue to act the role of the victim, becoming increasingly frustrated as sympathy evaporates? But the premise might have been brought to denouement in half the number of pages. Although Kalooki Nights did have moments of humour in the early encounters, it became repetitive and dull. Not even the intrigue about Maxie's friend Manny (who had gassed his parents) was enough to sustain interest. I did read on to the bitter end (and there was much bitterness to be got through in the process), but I'm not sure it repaid the effort. [review by MisterHobgoblin writing on Amazon - one, it has to be said, of a number of less than glowing reviews all of which comment adversely on the length of the text]

About the Author

Wikipedia page.
Howard Jacobson is also a columnist for the Independent newspaper.

Review

Continuing the "dwindling" trend of recent months, our venue Olive & Thyme was almost deserted (just a solitary pair of diners), the music quieter (a lone singer with an acoustic guitar) and the group - at six - even smaller that last month. Only one of us had finished the book, coincidentally the only one to enjoy it. Most of us never really engaged with the story, or enjoyed Jacobson's long-winded, erudite prose. Those who had progressed more than half way were still "expecting it to get better" and the member who had reached the 80% mark commented that a lot was going to have to happen in that last 20% to make the effort worthwhile. Overall, in answer to the final question posed by Noel, the consensus was that no, it hadn't been worth the three-year wait to read it. Scores reflected this: 9, 5, 4, 4, and 6, giving Kalooki an average of 5.60 and 71st place in the table.

 

Book choice for July 2013

The Life & Times of the Thunderbolt Kid [suggested by Helen Close]

The Life & Times of the Thunderbolt Kid

Bill Bryson was born in the middle of the American century - 1951 - in the middle of the United States - Des Moines, Iowa - in the middle of the largest generation in American history - the baby boomers. As one of the best and funniest writers alive, he is perfectly positioned to mine his memories of a totally all-American childhood for 24-carat memoir gold. Like millions of his generational peers, Bill Bryson grew up with a rich fantasy life as a superhero. In his case, he ran around his house and neighborhood with an old football jersey with a thunderbolt on it and a towel about his neck that served as his cape, leaping tall buildings in a single bound and vanquishing awful evildoers (and morons) - in his head - as "The Thunderbolt Kid."

Using this persona as a springboard, Bill Bryson re-creates the life of his family and his native city in the 1950s in all its transcendent normality - a life at once completely familiar to us all and as far away and unreachable as another galaxy. [(excerpted from) Product description on Amazon]

Wikipedia entry for the book.

About the Author

Wikipedia entry.
Author's website.

Review

In a slightly quieter Olive & Thyme with a slightly smaller group, the discussion this month was largely positive. Most people found Bryson's narrative laugh-out-loud amusing, very evocative of childhood in general and not just 1950's American childhood, and could relate to much of what he wrote about. The way he juxtaposes light-hearted memories with more serious recollections of the times such as the shooting of black teenagers was something several people mentioned as being something they enjoyed and appreciated, and several members learned a lot about the times and the American culture that previously they had been unaware of. Unfortunately all this positivity wasn't reflected in the scores, which were generally on the low side and never rose above 7 even for those who really enjoyed it: 6.5, 5, 5, 5, 6, 6.5, 7, 7, 7, and 5 gave Thunderbolt Kid an average of exactly 6.00 and equal 63rd place in the table.

 

Book choice for June 2013

Tamar [suggested by Chris Cooper]

Tamar

In 1944, two spies are sent deep within Nazi-occupied Holland. Their mission - to help those involved with the Dutch resistance movement. Both men are trained to send, receive, and translate coded messages. These messages contain valuable information concerning the movements of the Nazi army. Even though these men face death at every turn, they are committed to stopping the evil that is associated with the Nazi regime.

In 1995, Tamar is dealing with the suicide of her grandfather. He has left Tamar a box full of clues that she cannot decipher. She decides that it is one of his elaborate puzzles; one that Tamar may not be able to solve. After enlisting the help of her cousin, Yoyo, Tamar sets off on a journey to discover why her grandfather left her these treasures, and what they mean to her family.

Mal Peet has created a novel that intertwines the story of a young girl's journey of self-discovery and a young soldier's fight to stay alive. It is a beautifully written novel that contains secrets within secrets. Peet leads the reader on an adventure that is both intriguing and frightening. Readers may be left speechless once the truth unfolds. [Amazon Review by LadyJay (Teens Read Too)]

Wikipedia entry for the novel.

About the Author

Wikipedia entry.
Author's biog (on his website).

Review

Our discussion, slightly impeded by the hubbub of conversation from a packed dining area and the raucous loud music, covered lots of ground including the occasional beauty of Mal Peet's prose contrasted with his patchy attempts at writing as a teenage girl compared with the success of his wartime narrative. We felt his Nazi characers, while not being as one-dimensional as some writers, could have been fleshed out more, but that in general the deprivations of living in an occupied country were well represented if a little dulled in deference to his target audience (Tamar is marketed as a YA novel). The final twist was quite well telegraphed for most readers and the fact that 'old Tamar's' son had chosen to completely abandon his family was widely agreed to be the most unbelievable aspect of the plot, and not made any more believable by his magical appearance during young Tamar & Yoyo's quest. Nevertheless the readability of the novel was acclaimed and reflected in the relatively high scores. Three of the group hadn't finished (or even started) the book, but the rest of us voted like this: 7, 8, 8, 7, 7, 8, 8, 7, and 8 giving an average of 7.56 and 22nd place in the table.

 

Book choice for May 2013

The Truth About These Strange Times [suggested by Beth Garratt Glass]

The Truth About These Strange Times

Saul Dawson-Smith can memorise the sequence of a shuffled deck of cards in under a minute; he can recite pi to a thousand decimal places and he remembers every conversation he's ever had. He is ten years old.

Howard McNamee is twenty-eight: lonely, overweight and poorly educated. He lives far from the scene of his difficult Glasgow childhood, in the home he shared with his mother. Struggling to pay his rent with a succession of menial jobs, Howard comes home each day and talks to the late Mrs McNamee, as he sits in front of the wardrobe that still contains her clothes.

These two solitary people find themselves forming an unlikely friendship, as Howard is taken under the wing of Saul's parents, thrust into a life in London (where he tries to navigate a bewildering new city and accidentally acquires a Russian internet fiancee), and Saul prepares himself for the World Memory Championships - the event he has been training for his whole life.

But as the pressure mounts on the young boy Howard realises he must act to save his small friend from a life of unbearable expectation. The decision he reaches turns all of their lives upside down.

Saul and Howard embark on an extraordinary adventure: the road trip they take together is an exhilarating escape-bid, a journey into Howard's past and a bewitchingly strange voyage of discovery for man and boy. [Product description from Amazon]

About the Author

Wikipedia entry.

Review

"A lukewarm reception all round" was the only feedback I got about this book. If there's anyone out there who would like to go into more detail, do let me know! Of the ten people at the meeting, seven felt able to vote having read enough of the book to pass judgement. Their votes were: 4, 4, 4, 6, 6, 5, and 5 giving an average of 4.86 and 75th place out of 78 in the league table (although on the bright side, almost a clear whole point away from the next lowest entry).

 

Book choice for April 2013

The Bridge [suggested by Clare Freeman]

The Bridge

The man who wakes up in the extraordinary world of a bridge has amnesia, and his doctor doesn't seem to want to cure him. Does it matter? Exploring the bridge occupies most of his days. But at night there are his dreams. Dreams in which desperate men drive sealed carriages across barren mountains to a bizarre rendezvous; an illiterate barbarian storms an enchanted tower under a stream of verbal abuse; and broken men walk forever over bridges without end, taunted by visions of a doomed sexuality.

Lying in bed unconscious after an accident wouldn't be much fun, you'd think. Oh yes? It depends who and what you've left behind.

Which is the stranger reality, day or night? Frequently hilarious and consistently disturbing, THE BRIDGE is a novel of outrageous contrasts, constructed chaos and elegant absurdities. [Product description from Amazon]

Wikipedia page.

About the Author

Wikipedia entry.
Author's website.

Review

Re-reading the review of last month's book, A Perfectly Good Man, the first sentence could apply equally well to this. A (narrow) majority of the group finished the book this month but pretty much all of us found it hard going. While there is a degree of resolution/explanation by the end, the clues during the course of the novel are sparse and well-hidden (often behind impenetrable passages of thick dialect) so it presents a very challenging read with, most people agreed, little payback in the end for all that effort beyond the occasional stand-out humour or brief passage of brilliantly shining prose. And once again, although perhaps not in such an absolute way as last month, there was that "so what" feeling on reaching the end. Although there were one or two high scores, the preponderance of middle-to-low votes dragged down the average score for The Bridge to an unusually low position in our league table: 3, 6, 8, 5, 3, 6, 5, 5, 7.5, 8, and 4 giving an average of 5.50 and 70th place out of 77 in the league table.

 

Book choice for March 2013

A Perfectly Good Man [suggested by Ross Allatt]

A Perfectly Good Man

When 20-year-old Lenny Barnes, paralysed in a rugby accident, commits suicide in the presence of Barnaby Johnson, the much-loved priest of a West Cornwall parish, the tragedy's reverberations open up the fault-lines between Barnaby and his nearest and dearest – the gulfs of unspoken sadness that separate them all. Across this web of relations scuttles Barnaby's repellent nemesis – a man as wicked as his prey is virtuous.

Returning us to the rugged Cornish landscape of ‘Notes from an Exhibition’, Patrick Gale lays bare the lives and the thoughts of a whole community and asks us: what does it mean to be good? [product description on Amazon]

No entry on Wikipedia, but being down with the kids the novel has its own Facebook page.

About the Author

Wikipedia entry.
Author's website.

Review

A well-written book, with occasionally beautiful and often evocative prose, but with a frustrating structure that often left readers confused and almost put a few of us off reading it altogether. Although firmly rooted in Cornwall through the writer's experience and love of the area, we felt the story could have happened anywhere, and found some aspects of it unbelievable, although the characters were well-drawn. At least one commenter observed that the cover story for the book - that of the suicide mentioned above - was a thinly veiled marketing attempt to drum up potential readers' interest and disappointingly turned out not to be central to the main story. Most felt the book fizzled out and/or left the reader with a "so what" feeling, although some argued that there were elements that were cleverly interwoven. The scores this month were fairly uniform with only one major dissenter: 7, 5, 6, 7, 6, 7, 6, 7, 7, and 7.5 giving an average of 6.55 and 50th place in the league table.

 

Book choice for February 2013

The Guilty One [suggested by Helen Close]

The Guilty One

A little boy was found dead in a children's playground...

Daniel Hunter has spent years defending lost causes as a solicitor in London. But his life changes when he is introduced to Sebastian, an eleven-year-old accused of murdering an innocent young boy.

As he plunges into the muddy depths of Sebastian's troubled home life, Daniel thinks back to his own childhood in foster care - and to Minnie, the woman whose love saved him, until she, too, betrayed him so badly that he cut her out of his life.

But what crime did Minnie commit that made Daniel disregard her for fifteen years? And will Daniel's identification with a child on trial for murder make him question everything he ever believed in? [product description on Amazon]

Book page on the author's website.

About the Author

Author's website.

Review

A lively crowd of fifteen gathered to discuss The Guilty One and the interesting discussion continued for an hour. Briefly, most people found they were drawn into the story despite the poor writing (which may have improved over the course of the novel, or we may just have got used to it), somewhat "thin" (in some cases almost totally absent) characterisations of many of the minor characters and even some major ones in their adult form, and the countless threads of story that either didn't ring true or were left dangling. We counted four separate ways in which the story could have been fleshed out better and would have made for a more satisfying read. Not surprising then that the scores were a wide mix - 8, 6, 5, 4, 4, 6, 5, 7, 7, 6, 7, 6 and 6 - or that its score of 5.92 gives it equal place with "Panic" (63rd in the table), with which it shares many characteristics.

 

Book choice for January 2013

Essays [suggested by Amy Gregg]

Essays

The articles collected in George Orwell's Essays illuminate the life and work of one of the most individual writers of this century - a man who elevated political writing to an art. The Penguin Modern Classics edition includes an introduction by Bernard Crick.

This outstanding collection brings together Orwell's longer, major essays and a fine selection of shorter pieces that includes 'My Country Right or Left', 'Decline of the English Murder', 'Shooting an Elephant' and 'A Hanging'. With great originality and wit Orwell unfolds his views on subjects ranging from a revaluation of Charles Dickens to the nature of Socialism, from a comic yet profound discussion of naughty seaside postcards to a spirited defence of English cooking. Displaying an almost unrivalled mastery of English plain prose, Orwell's essays created a unique literary manner from the process of thinking aloud and continue to challenge, move and entertain. [product description on Amazon]

There appears to be no single Wikipedia page for the collection of essays known simply as "Essays" although Orwell's complete bibliography page does list several collections assembled by various people at different times. This link to a tribute site includes the text of many of the essays (and is free!).

About the Author

Eric Arthur Blair (1903-1950), better known by his pen-name, George Orwell, was born in India, where his father worked for the Civil Service. An author and journalist, Orwell was one of the most prominent and influential figures in twentieth-century literature. His unique political allegory Animal Farm was published in 1945, and it was this novel, together with the dystopia of Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), which brought him world-wide fame.
Wikipedia page.
Further extended biography (another part of the same site linked above)

Review

Ten brave members ignored the wintry weather and having managed to avoid getting lost in the last minute change of venue, gathered in the back room at Morley Cheek's to discuss Essays. Eight of the group had read at least some of the many essays and such an eclectic mix of subjects proved a rich source of conversation meaning that once again I ended up wishing I'd read some if not all of Orwell's prose. While the debate often strayed away from the essays themselves to explore the subject matter of a few in more depth, we were all agreed that many of the works remain relevant today, and Orwell's writing and voice are as fresh now as when the essays were written 70-100 years ago. The book received a passable set of scores: 10, 6, 6, 9, 7, 8, 7, 7 and therefore 22nd place in the league table, shared with In Cold Blood.

 

Book choice for November 2012

A Little History of the World [suggested by Bev Chong]

A Little History of the World

In 1935, with a doctorate in art history and no prospect of a job, the 26-year-old Ernst Gombrich was invited to attempt a history of the world for younger readers. Amazingly, he completed the task in an intense six weeks, and Eine kurze Weltgeschichte für junge Leser was published in Vienna to immediate success, and is now available in twenty-five languages across the world. Toward the end of his long life, Gombrich embarked upon a revision and, at last, an English translation. A Little History of the World presents his lively and involving history to English-language readers for the first time. Superbly designed and freshly illustrated, this is a book to be savoured and collected. In forty concise chapters, Gombrich tells the story of man from the stone age to the atomic bomb. In between emerges a colourful picture of wars and conquests, grand works of art, and the spread and limitations of science. This is a text dominated not by dates and facts, but by the sweep of mankind's experience across the centuries, a guide to humanity's achievements and an acute witness to its frailties. The product of a generous and humane sensibility, this timeless account makes intelligible the full span of human history. [product description from Amazon]

There's also a Wikipedia page.

About the Author

Wikipedia page.
The Gombrich Archive (starts with a short biog)

Review

A very small group - 5 - initially gathered to discuss the book of which only 4 had made an attempt to read it and only 1 finished. We were later joined by one other, who also hadn't read it. Nevertheless those who had tried it were impressed with the pace, the way history was condensed, and also the way the threads of things happening at the same time in various parts of the world were pulled together. Most agreed that the book is very dense and heavy going and cannot be read for very long without needing at least a splash of cold water in the face. The scores were very straightforward - 7 from the four who voted giving an average of (*works it out on fingers*) 7, which currently translates to 36th place in the league table.

 

Book choice for October 2012

The Help [suggested by Cate Bale]

[this book originally suggested in Nov 2010, from where this text is taken, and also in Jun 2011. At the third attempt, it makes it to the top of the pile]

The Road

What perfect timing for this optimistic, uplifting debut novel (and maiden publication of Amy Einhorn's new imprint) set during the nascent civil rights movement in Jackson, Miss., where black women were trusted to raise white children but not to polish the household silver. Eugenia Skeeter Phelan is just home from college in 1962, and, anxious to become a writer, is advised to hone her chops by writing about what disturbs you. The budding social activist begins to collect the stories of the black women on whom the country club sets relies and mistrusts enlisting the help of Aibileen, a maid who's raised 17 children, and Aibileen's best friend Minny, who's found herself unemployed more than a few times after mouthing off to her white employers. The book Skeeter puts together based on their stories is scathing and shocking, bringing pride and hope to the black community, while giving Skeeter the courage to break down her personal boundaries and pursue her dreams. Assured and layered, full of heart and history, this one has bestseller written all over it.
From Publishers Weekly - Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

There's also a Wikipedia page.

About the Author

Kathryn Stockett has not been around long as an author and consequently online resources are limited.

She was born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi. After graduating from the University of Alabama with a degree in English and Creative Writing, she moved to New York City where she worked in magazine publishing and marketing for nine years. She currently lives in Atlanta with her husband and daughter. The Help is her first novel.

The above is taken from her website and naturally she also has a Wikipedia entry.

Review

This space available to hold a review of the book by anyone who read it and attended the meeting. The only comment I received - that "everyone seemed to like it" is reflected in the scores awarded by those who came to the meeting: 8, 7, 9, 8, 7.5, 8, and 8, giving The Help a 7.93 average, and 10th place in the league table.

 

Book choice for September 2012

The Road [suggested by Anita Galasso]

[this book originally suggested in Feb 2009, from where this text is taken]

The Road

A father and his son walk alone through burned America, heading through the ravaged landscape to the coast. This is the profoundly moving story of their journey. "The Road" boldly imagines a future in which no hope remains, but in which two people, 'each the other's world entire', are sustained by love. Awesome in the totality of its vision, it is an unflinching meditation on the worst and the best that we are capable of: ultimate destructiveness, desperate tenacity, and the tenderness that keeps two people alive in the face of total devastation. 'The first great masterpiece of the globally warmed generation. Here is an American classic which, at a stroke, makes McCarthy a contender for the Nobel Prize for Literature ...An absolutely wonderful book that people will be reading for generations' - Andrew O'Hagan. 'A work of such terrible beauty that you will struggle to look away' - Tom Gatti, "The Times". 'So good that it will devour you, in parts. It is incandescent' - Niall Griffiths, "Daily Telegraph". 'You will read on, absolutely convinced, thrilled, mesmerised. All the modern novel can do is done here' - Alan Warner, "Guardian".

Wikipedia entry.
IMDb entry for the film.

About the Author

Cormac McCarthy, born Charles McCarthy (born July 20, 1933 in Providence, Rhode Island), is an American novelist and playwright.  He has written ten novels in the Southern Gothic, western, and post-apocalyptic genres, and has also written plays and screenplays.  He received the Pulitzer Prize in 2007 for The Road, and his 2005 novel No Country for Old Men was adapted as a 2007 film of the same name, which won four Academy Awards, including Best Picture.  He received a National Book Award in 1992 for All the Pretty Horses.

His earlier Blood Meridian (1985) was among Time Magazine's poll of 100 best English-language books published between 1925 and 2005 and he placed joint runner-up for a similar title in a poll taken in 2006 by The New York Times of the best American fiction published in the last 25 years.  Literary critic Harold Bloom named him as one of the four major American novelists of his time, along with Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo and Philip Roth.  He is frequently compared by modern reviewers to William Faulkner.

McCarthy too has both a Wikipedia entry (from which the above is borrowed) and a website.

Review

Another relatively small group this month, but in contrast to last month most of us had read, and enjoyed, The Road. McCarthy's bleak prose, sparse style and graphic descriptions of his post-apocalyptic world are at once convincing and compelling. The relationship between the man and the boy drew particular attention in the discussion and, while we were amused by the way in which the pair miraculously managed to find hoards of food when they were most in need, and, in the end, a sanctuary for the boy at the very moment his father dies, these minor lapses in dramatic realism did not detract from the powerful tale. It provided us with ample fodder for discussion, both with what was in the book, and also what was left out -- left, that is, to the reader's imagination. Very uniform scores this time round: 8, 8, 7, 7, 8, 8, 8, and 7 gave The Road a 7.63 average, and 20th place in the league table.

 

Book choice for August 2012

Guns, Germs and Steel [suggested by Rob Friedlander]

front cover

Life isn't fair -- here's why: Since 1500, Europeans have, for better and worse, called the tune that the world has danced to. In Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond explains the reasons why things worked out that way. It is an elemental question, and Diamond is certainly not the first to ask it. However, he performs a singular service by relying on scientific fact rather than specious theories of European genetic superiority. Diamond, a professor of physiology at UCLA, suggests that the geography of Eurasia was best suited to farming, the domestication of animals and the free flow of information. The more populous cultures that developed as a result had more complex forms of government and communication--and increased resistance to disease. Finally, fragmented Europe harnessed the power of competitive innovation in ways that China did not. (For example, the Europeans used the Chinese invention of gunpowder to create guns and subjugate the New World.) Diamond's book is complex and a bit overwhelming. But the thesis he methodically puts forth--examining the "positive feedback loop" of farming, then domestication, then population density, then innovation, and on and on--makes sense. Written without bias, Guns, Germs, and Steel is good global history. [review from Amazon]

Wikipedia page.

About the Author

Wikipedia page.

Review

A small discussion group, only three of whom had actually read the book, and no chairman or questions for discussion, left very little scope to explore this dire work beyond agreeing that it IS dire. Many of those who hadn't read it were put off either initially by the topic, or by reading some of the many negative reviews online. Those who DID read it could only agree with those negative reviews - annoyingly repetitive style, boring text and the author didn't even have sufficient courage in his convictions to formulate a proper conclusion. No surprise then that the scores - 3, 3, and 4 - mean that our group has a new LAST PLACE entry in the league table, with an average of only 3.33.

 

Book choice for July 2012

The Bloody Chamber [suggested by Steve Tabner]

front cover

A collection of darkly sensual reinterpretations of familiar fairy tales, many with a twist. The most famous short story in this collection is probably A Company of Wolves, which was adapted from Angela Carter's own radio script and was later made into a cult movie (a movie which incidentally remains on my list of favourites). The themes of sexuality and loss of innocence are explored throughout the collection. The stories are collected together because of their umbrella theme, but were not necessarily written at the same time; this is notable because there are actually two versions of Beauty and the Beast in the book, the first of which ("The Courtship of Mister Lyon") is greatly over-shadowed by the superiority of the other ("The Tiger's Bride").

Overall a rewarding collection of magical tales that invokes all those dark archetypes that dwell in your subconcious to leave you feeling uneasy and yet enchanted.[M J Wright writing on Amazon]

Wikipedia page.

About the Author

Wikipedia page.
Writing website (includes extensive biographical notes).

Review

This space available to hold a review of the book by anyone who read it and attended the meeting. I read it, but having missed the meeting I wouldn't dream of imposing my jaded view on the world. I will say I wouldn't have scored it anywhere near as highly as the scores which were actually awarded on the night, which were these: 9, 8, 7, 8, and 9 giving an average of 8.20 and equal 7th in the league table.

 

Book choice for June 2012

Flowers for Algernon [suggested by Noel Fagan]

front cover

[Originally suggested in November 2011 - this entry copied from there]
Wikipedia page.
Film adaptation.
Daniel Keyes wrote little SF but is highly regarded for one classic, Flowers for Algernon. As a 1959 novella it won a Hugo Award; the 1966 novel-length expansion won a Nebula. The Oscar-winning movie adaptation Charly (1968) also spawned a 1980 Broadway musical.

Following his doctor's instructions, engaging simpleton Charlie Gordon tells his own story in semi-literate "progris riports." He dimly wants to better himself, but with an IQ of 68 can't even beat the laboratory mouse Algernon at maze-solving:

I dint feel bad because I watched Algernon and I lernd how to finish the amaze even if it takes me along time.
I dint know mice were so smart.

Algernon is extra-clever thanks to an experimental brain operation so far tried only on animals. Charlie eagerly volunteers as the first human subject. After frustrating delays and agonies of concentration, the effects begin to show and the reports steadily improve: "Punctuation, is? fun!" But getting smarter brings cruel shocks, as Charlie realizes that his merry "friends" at the bakery where he sweeps the floor have all along been laughing at him, never with him. The IQ rise continues, taking him steadily past the human average to genius level and beyond, until he's as intellectually alone as the old, foolish Charlie ever was--and now painfully aware of it. Then, ominously, the smart mouse Algernon begins to deteriorate...

Flowers for Algernon is a timeless tear-jerker with a terrific emotional impact. [David Langford writing on Amazon]

About the Author

Wikipedia page.
Author's website (includes short biography).

Review

Almost unanimous agreement among tonight's 13 readers that this was an excellent read: moving, thought-provoking and well written, with Charlie's character remaining true to himself in the face of his increasing intellect. The book raised a number of philosophical questions (largely around the effect of his intelligence on Charlie's peers) which were briefly discussed, and also surprised several readers who had never considered themselves fans of science fiction but had found Flowers for Algernon a satisfying and enjoyable story. Scores for this month reflected this, being: 8, 9, 8, 10, 9, 8, 9, 7, 9, 9, and 9 giving an average of 8.64 and equal 3rd place in the table with The Handmaid's Tale which we read exactly a year ago.

 

Book choice for May 2012

Pies and Prejudice [suggested by Zarka Khan]

front cover

[Originally suggested in June 2011 - this entry copied from there]
A Northerner in exile, Stuart Maconie goes on a journey in search of the North, attempting to discover where the clichés end and the truth begins. He travels from Wigan Pier to Blackpool Tower and Newcastle's Bigg Market to the Lake District to find his own Northern Soul, encountering along the way an exotic cast of chippy Scousers, pie-eating woollybacks, topless Geordies, mad-for-it Mancs, Yorkshire nationalists and brothers in southern exile.

The book is heavily reviewed on Amazon and also has its own page on the author's website.

About the Author

Stuart Maconie is a TV and radio presenter, journalist, columnist and author.

He is the UK's best-selling travel writer of non-TV tie-in books and his Pies and Prejudice was one of 2008's top selling paperbacks. His work has been compared with Bill Bryson, Alan Bennett and John Peel and described by The Times as a 'National Treasure'.

He co-hosts the Radcliffe and Maconie Show on BBC Radio 2 every Monday-Thursday evening, as well as [several other shows].

[Stuart has appeared on] Peter Kay's Phoenix Nights, and Never Mind the Buzzcocks, and his other books include the acclaimed official biographies of both Blur and James.

His music memoir Cider with Roadies was published in 2004.

He lives in Birmingham and Cumbria, and is happiest when fell-walking with his dog, Muffin.

The above abridged from the "about Stuart" pages on his website and there's the usual Wikipedia entry.

Review

Reviews of Pies and Prejudice were generally favourable with most members commenting on a good writing style and lots of recognisable observations of northern life. If anyone who was at the meeting would like to supply a more detailed review please let me know. Scores for this month were: 8, 6.5, 6, 6.5, 8, 8, 8, 8, and 8 giving an average of 7.44 and 19th place in the table, between In Cold Blood and The Leopard.

 

Book choice for April 2012

Child 44 [suggested by Kate Grigsby]

front cover

With so many new books in the crime and thriller field vying for our attention, alert readers need all the help they can get. In the case of Tom Rob Smith's Child 44, the numerous glowing reviews were preceded by a lively word of mouth on the book. The latter can often be misleading, but not in this case -- this is a very exciting debut. It is set in the Soviet Union and in the year 1953; Stalin's reign of terror is at its height, and those who stand up against the might of the state vanish into the labour camps – or vanish altogether. With this background, it is an audacious move on Tom Rob Smith’s part to put his hero right at the heart of this hideous regime, as an officer in no less than the brutal Ministry State Security.

Leo Demidov is, basically, an instrument of the state -- by no means a villain, but one who tries to look not too closely into the repressive work he does. His superiors remind him that there is no crime in Soviet Union, and he is somehow able to maintain its fiction in his mind even as he tracks down and punishes the miscreants. The body of a young boy is found on railway tracks in Moscow, and Demidov is quickly informed that there is nothing to the case. He quickly realises that something unpleasant is being covered over here, but is forced to obey his orders. However, things begin to quickly unravel, and this ex-hero of state suddenly finds himself in disgrace, exiled with his wife Raisa to a town in the Ural Mountains. And things will get worse for him -- not only the murder of another child, but even the life and safety of his wife.

Tom Rob Smith’s beleaguered hero is a protagonist who we know will (at some point) have to rebel against the totalitarian state he works for. But it is the suspense of waiting for this moment as much as the exigencies of the thriller plot that makes this such a compelling novel. [Barry Forshaw writing on Amazon]

The book has a Wikipedia page.

About the Author

Author's Wikipedia page.
Author's website. "Rotate desk and click objects to navigate"?? Good grief.

Review

A slow start, an increase of pace and interest about a third of the way in, and a disappointing end of cartoon chase sequences and predictable revelations makes this book a mixed bag. Anachronistic dialogue and a failure to maintain historical accuracy destroyed enjoyment for some people, others found the characterisations weak and one-dimensional, while still others agreed with many online reviews that mention finding the author's regular changes of perspective within a single scene disconcerting at best and profoundly irritating at worst. Nevertheless the pace of the book and it's subject matter kept the majority of us reading, and the scores for this month were reasonably healthy with 2 or 3 dissenters: 8, 8, 7, 5, 7, 7, 8, 6, 7, 5, and 7 giving an average of 6.82 and 32nd position in our league table, in between 26a and Buddha Da.

 

Book choice for March 2012

Pigeon English [suggested by Ross Allatt]

front cover

Eleven-year-old Harrison Opoku, the second best runner in Year 7, races through his new life in England with his personalised trainers - the Adidas stripes drawn on with marker pen - blissfully unaware of the very real threat around him. Newly-arrived from Ghana with his mother and older sister Lydia, Harri absorbs the many strange elements of city life, from the bewildering array of Haribo sweets, to the frightening, fascinating gang of older boys from his school. But his life is changed forever when one of his friends is murdered. As the victim's nearly new football boots hang in tribute on railings behind fluorescent tape and a police appeal draws only silence, Harri decides to act, unwittingly endangering the fragile web his mother has spun around her family to keep them safe.

The book has its own website.
Wikipedia presently assumes you mean Pidgin English (the language).

About the Author

Author's Wikipedia page (very sparse).
Confusingly stephenkelman.co.uk is owned by a Glaswegian graphic artist. There is a bio page on the book's website though (linked above)

Review

This space available to hold a review of the book by anyone who could give it anything but the tired negative diatribe that I would be tempted to write, especially while I'm still pining for the life I burned through while reading it, that I'll never get back.

Scores for this month were a good reflection of the debate: 7, 8, 7, 5, 4, 6, 6.5, 8, 7.5, 6, and 6 giving an average of 6.45 and 43rd position in our league table, bracketed by Never Let Me Go and The Name of the Rose, only one hundredth of a mark separating each of them.

 

Book choice for February 2012

One Hundred Years of Solitude [suggested by Helen Close]

front cover

One Hundred Years of Solitude chronicles, through the course of a century, life in Macondo and the lives of six Buendia generations-from Jose Arcadio and Ursula, through their son, Colonel Aureliano Buendia (who commands numerous revolutions and fathers eighteen additional Aurelianos), through three additional Jose Arcadios, through Remedios the Beauty and Renata Remedios, to the final Aureliano, child of an incestuous union. As babies are born and the world's "great inventions" are introduced into Macondo, the village grows and becomes more and more subject to the workings of the outside world, to its politics and progress, and to history itself. And the Buendias and their fellow Macondons advance in years, experience, and wealth . . . until madness, corruption, and death enter their homes. From the gypsies who visit Macondo during its earliest years to the gringos who build the banana plantation, from the "enormous Spanish galleon" discovered far from the sea to the arrival of the railroad, electricity, and the telephone, Gabriel Garcia Marquez's classic novel weaves a magical tapestry of the everyday and the fantastic, the humdrum and the miraculous, life and death, tragedy and comedy--a tapestry in which the noble, the ridiculous, the beautiful, and the tawdry all contribute to an astounding vision of human life and death, a full measure of humankind's inescapable potential and reality. [from readinggroupguides.com]

Wikipedia entry.

About the Author

Author's Wikipedia page.

Review

This space available to hold a review of the book by anyone who read it, or attended the meeting.

Scores for this month were extraordinarily high among those who had read it: 10, 10, 6, 10, 9, 9, and 8 giving an average of 8.86 which EXACTLY EQUALS our long-standing top spot holder To Kill A Mockingbird (since September 2007) and therefore gains it equal 1st place.

 

Book choice for January 2012

Boxer, Beetle [suggested by Helen Dobson]

front cover

This first novel moves between the present day and England a few years before the Second World War. Kevin, a collector of Nazi memorabilia and the sufferer of a very unpleasant medical condition, is sucked into a dangerous adventure, as he tries to unravel a seventy-year old mystery involving beetles, boxers, eugenics, and fascists.

Among the book's great characters, are an upper-class entomologist, a beautiful but violent Jewish boxer, and a spirited composer of atonal music who longs to escape from her family so she can go to a big city and learn to be witty, ironic, and brittle. Some of these people may not be particularly likeable (although one does warm to Seth 'Sinner' Roach, the boxer) but they are always interesting, and are treated with enough depth that, as well a being repelled, one also feels compassion when faced with their flaws, failings, and delusions.

'Boxer Beetle' displays a great depth of learning and the reader learns about invented languages, anti-Semitism in England and America before the war, and the battle of Cable Street among other things. The recreation of thirties England feels perfect.

In conclusion this book is funny, exciting, and clever; telling its story with confidence and verve, whilst never becoming pretentious or vacuous. ["Eleanor" from Amazon - other reviewers not so positive]

Wikipedia entry.
Novel's own website.

About the Author

Author's blog (sporadic updates).

Review

Hard to summarise a long debate about the book but the general consensus was that it's a very promising debut novel which evokes the world of the 30s very well. There was some concern about the ending, and the possibility that the author had overstretched himself in parts, but a good conversation ensued about the characters, themes (nature vs nurture, male relationships, or lack thereof (!) etc). [Thanks to Ross for the write-up]

Scores for this month were 7, 7, 6, 8.5, 7.5, 9, 8, 5, 7, 7, 8, 7, and 9 giving an average of 7.38 and joint 20th place in the league table.

 

Book choice for November 2011

The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare [suggested by Steve Tabner]

front cover

This is Chesterton's most famous novel. On its face it appears to be a detective story filled with politics and intrigue par excellence. Moving through this literary masterpiece it becomes clear that this thriller is nothing less than the mystery of creation itself. Upon its debut critics called The Man Who Was Thursday "amazingly clever," "a remarkable acrobatic performance", and "a scurrying, door-slamming farce that ends like a chapter in the Apocalypse."

Drawing on contemporary fears of anarchist conspiracies and bomb outrages, the setting is firmly set in its time and place - turn of the century London - but it also defies temporal boundaries. Police detective Gabriel Syme finds himself drawn into a world that has gone beyond humanity when he infiltrates the society of militant anarchists and is elected "Thursday", one of the members of the Central European Council of seven monarchs.

Dreamlike, prophetic, and frequently funny, the novel attacks contemporary pessimism and through a bizarre series of pursuits and unmaskings, returns Syme - and us - to reality more aware of its beauty, promise, and creative potential.

Wikipedia entry.

About the Author

Wikipedia Entry.
Author's website (created by a fan - includes an open source transcript of his biography by Masie Ward).

Review

It's no real exaggeration to say that only the selector of this book had anything good to say about it, and even he admitted that on rereading it, it was not as good as he remembered. For the rest of us, there were no good memories. It was all bad. Even allowing for the fact that it was written over 100 years ago (which other novels of the time don't seem to find such problems with) it is grossly overwritten, tediously and obviously plotted, the characters all speak with Chesterton's voice and manner, and the author rams some pretty unsavoury philosophy down the throats of his readers. Incredibly a novel that at least in part deals with the reaction to a terrorist threat finds virtually no resonance with the world of 2011. One to be avoided, for those who didn't attempt it.

Scores for this month were 3, 5, 2, 3, 3, 3, 3, 7, and 3.5 giving an average of 3.61 and a very definite LAST place in the league table, taking over that spot from the infamous The Full Montezuma which relinquishes the position after a creditable two-and-a-half years.

 

Book choice for October 2011

The House of Sleep [suggested by Uzma Ali]

front cover

Sarah is narcoleptic. Her inability to distinguish between dreams and waking reality gives rise to many misunderstandings. For Terry, a disillusioned film critic, sleep is merely a memory. For Dr Dunstan, sleep is nothing less than a global disease. Constructed to reflect the different stages of sleep, "The House of Sleep" is a brilliant and original comedy about the powers we acquire - and those we relinqish - when we fall asleep, and when we fall in love.

Review by M.L.York "Grammarian" writing on Amazon:
This is simply such an impressive book.

Coe writes about the one thing from which nobody can escape, and which nobody really talks about, and manages to put it at the centre of every character's life. All of his astonishingly vivid and separate characters - from the imaginative and solitary Terry to the disturbingly cold Dr Dudden - share sleep as something which changes their lives, and which eventually pushes them all back together, whether they like it or not.

The book contains everything you need to keep you hooked through every waking and sleeping moment - familiar characters (you'll see yourself in at least one of them!), an interesting plot and subject, a beatifully lucid writing style and the most intricately woven relationships since Wuthering Heights.

Each chapter inches the characters alternately further apart, and further together, as the book races effortlessly to the final lines.

Coe is marvellous, and his book is a dream to read.

About the Author

Wikipedia Entry.
Author's website.

Jonathan Coe was born in Birmingham in 1961. He has published seven novels, all of which are available in Penguin: The Accidental Woman, A Touch of Love, The Dwarves of Death, What a Carve Up!, which won the 1995 John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, The House of Sleep, which won the 1998 Prix Medicis Etranger, The Rotter's Club, winner of the Everyman Wodehouse Prize and The Closed Circle. He has also published a biography of the novelist B.S. Johnson, which won the Orwell prize in 2005. He lives in London with his wife and two children.

Review

This space available to hold a review of the book by anyone who read it, or attended the meeting.

Scores for this month were 8.5, 7, 7, 8, 5, 7, 7, 8, 7, and 8 giving an average of 7.25 and equal 23rd place in the league table with A Kind of Intimacy.

 

Book choice for September 2011

Hungry, the Stars and Everything [suggested by Noel Fagan]

front cover

Helen is a 29 year old food critic with a big black hole in her life. But a lot to be thankful for: a great job, a loving partner and an assignment to review a mysterious new restaurant, Bethel, tipped for a Michelin star.

Then, alone in the restaurant, she finds herself embarking upon an extraordinary eleven-course meal where each dish takes her back to a life-shaping moment in the past. There's a dysfunctional family home, some unexplained dark fantasies, and a heartbreaking love affair. All of which leaves Helen wondering whether she is where she wants to be after all.

About the Author

My name is Emma Jane Unsworth and I live in Manchester, England. My short fiction has been published by Comma, Redbeck Press, Channel 4 and Prospect Magazine. I am a columnist for The Big Issue in the North.

My first novel Hungry, the Stars and Everything was published by The Hidden Gem Press in June 2011. It's about drinking, eating, not eating, astronomy and the devil.

Author's (rather sporadic) blog [from where the above autobiographical notes have been taken].

Review

The largest group for some time (19) engaged in an animated debate on Hungry, energised by Noel's inventive idea of handing round a box full of individual questions which were selected at random and both asked, and initially answered, by members in turn.

While many found Unsworth's use of language refreshing and new, and thought the plot device of the restaurant review (in present tense) as an hors d'oeuvre for a more in-depth review of Helen's life so far (in past tense) worked well, there were negative comments on Luke's sudden and revelatory personality transplant, lack of use of the devil motif for much of the middle of the narrative, and disappointment that Helen didn't end up with the man on the plane.

News that the author and her partner spend time watching astronomy programs leant weight to many readers' belief that the story had a distinct autobiographical feel to it, but the eventual high average score, despite being dragged down by a number of very low marks, reflects the fact that most of the group found it an enjoyable read. So those scores for this month were 6, 7, 6, 9, 8, 8.5, 7.5, 5, 5, 4, 9, 9, 6, 6, 8, and 9 giving an average of 7.06 and 27th place in our league table.

 

Book choice for August 2011

The Man in the High Castle [suggested by Rob Friedlander]

front cover

Imagine the world if the Allies had lost the Second World War... Philip K Dick trips the switches of our minds with his vision of the world as it might have been: the African continent virtually wiped out, the Mediterranean drained to make farmland, the United States divided between the Japanese and the Nazis...In the neutral zone that divides the rival superpowers in America lives the author of an underground best-seller. His book - a rallying cry for all those who dream of overthrowing the occupiers - offers an alternative theory of world history. Does 'reality' lie with him, or is his world just one among many others? [Amazon]

Wikipedia page.

About the Author

Since his untimely death at age 53, there has been an extraordinary growth of interest in his writings, which during his lifetime were largely ignored by serious mainstream critics and readers. Such is no longer the case, and the novels of Philip K. Dick frequently appear on university curricula devoted to modern American literature. But that is only the beginning of the transformation. Since 1982, when Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (based on Dick's novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) made its debut, eight feature films based on Dick's fiction have appeared, the other seven being Total Recall, Minority Report, Screamers, Impostor, the French film Confessions d'un Barjo (based on Dick's mainstream novel, Confessions of a Crap Artist), Paycheck, A Scanner Darkly and Next. That's an average of roughly one movie every three years since Dick's passing - a rate of cinematic adaptation exceeded only by Stephen King. And there are other big-money film options currently held by Hollywood studios.

Philip K. Dick has done more than arrive. He has become a looming and illuminating presence not merely in American but in world culture, with his works translated into major European and Asian languages. There is even a bastard adjective - "phildickian "- that makes its way into print now and then to describe the baffling twists and turns of our times. An understanding of the basic facts of Dick's life not only casts light on the themes that predominate in his writings, but also brings to view a fascinating story in its own right. [this biography continues at great length on the official site, linked below, from which this extract is taken]

Author's website.
Wikipedia page.

Review

For once the majority of the ten who turned up to discuss The Man in the High Castle had finished the book. While the ending confused many, and spoiled the book for some, the remainder of the text was generally seen as a good attempt at realising an alternative history in a concrete and believable way. Several of the characters (particularly Mr Tagomi and Juliana Frink) were well-drawn and Dick did an extraordinary job of creating an entire world simply through the conversations and interactions of ordinary people living in it.

The broad brush strokes of arrogant Germans still looking for a frontier to conquer (in this case, the rest of the solar system) and polite Japanese spreading their culture and mores throughout much of what was the USA, were well executed and at least possible, and the mostly minor trials and tribulations of the characters were both realistic in themselves and in the context of their reality.

Where the book left many readers scratching their heads was the use of the I Ching, whether within the narrative, in the creation of the narrative (it is widely reported that Dick used it himself while writing the TMITHC), or in the creation of the narrative within the narrative, not to mention the occasional diversion into yet another alternative universe such as that experienced by Mr Tagomi, or by Juliana in the final scenes.

This month's scores were 6, 7.5, 3, 8, 7, 7, 8.5, 5, 8.5, and 7 giving an average of 6.75 and equal 31st place in our league table (with The Suspicions of Mr Whicher).

 

Book choice for July 2011

Alone in Berlin [suggested by Matt Stibbe]

front cover

Among the 231 reviews of this novel that Amazon offers is this one by Julia Coulton. She's a "top 1000" reviewer and from Manchester, which seemed good enough reasons to borrow it:

I had never heard of this novel until a few weeks ago, but it is taking book lovers by storm across the world. It is not a new book, it was published in 1947, tragically just after the author's death. But it was translated again into English last year, and I can't recommend it highly enough.

The events, based on a true story, take place in Berlin under the grip of Nazi rule. One elderly couple, Otto and Anna Quangel, learn of the death of their only son fighting in the German army, and the futility of this ending changes something inside Otto. He starts to resist the Nazi regime in a very low level but profound way. He writes postcards with subversive messages on them, asking people to question what the Nazi's are doing and what they are telling the people. He leaves them in apartment blocks and offices on stairwells for random strangers to find. He performs this task alone at first, but later his wife Anna finds out and joins him in his mission.

The Gestapo are infuriated by this postcard campaign, which goes on for over two years, and leaves them floundering in the dark looking for the culprit. The novel is a great thriller as the police try to track down who is daring to oppose the Nazi regime in such an infuriating way, and their inept attempts at investigating the crime make both gripping and amusing reading. What is remarkable for me about this book is that is shows just what a chilling effect the terrifying Nazi dictatorship had on ordinary people, who had a range of reactions to it, from enthusiastic embrace, to indifference, to resistance and defiance. And the patchwork quilt of characters that Fallada weaves into the story is rich and extensive. The tentacles of fear reach into the hearts of families and communities, making people react in gross and frightening ways. This book exposes what ordinary people suffer under brutal dictatorships, and how their behaviour is warped by their experiences, far more than any historical account could do. It is a page turner of a thriller. It is a history lesson. It is a tragedy.

And Fallada himself was a tragic figure. His real name was Rudolf Ditzen, and he died of a morphine overdose before this book was published, which was something of an accurate reflection of a life plagued as it was by mental illness and addiction. But his gem of a novel captures the terror of what it was for ordinary people to life under the shadow of the Nazis like nothing else has for me. Superb.

Wikipedia page.

About the Author

Author's website.
Wikipedia page.

Review

This space available to hold a review of Alone in Berlin by someone who read it and attended the meeting.

This month's scores were 7.5, 6, 6, 6, 8, 6, and 7.5 giving an average of 6.71 and a disappointing 32nd place in our league table.

 

Book choice for June 2011

The Handmaid's Tale [suggested by Cate Bale]

front cover

The Republic of Gilead offers Offred only one function: to breed. If she deviates, she will, like dissenters, be hanged at the wall or sent out to die slowly of radiation sickness. But even a repressive state cannot obliterate desire - neither Offred's nor that of the two men on which her future hangs

The Handmaid's Tale belongs to a genre that I normally leave well alone. A good story and science fiction rarely go hand in hand together with such astounding success. The world depicted in the book is a fictional one but it COULD happen, it's almost too easy to imagine it and this is what makes the tale so fascinating and so terrifying. The character Offred is a normal person in an utterly abnormal and artificial situation, and we gain unique insight into the way she deals with it; with losing her husband and her daughter and trying not to lose her mind. She can rely on nothing and no-one but herself. Even so, she builds some kind of existence for herself. She manages to adapt to an incredible existence and makes a (sort-of) life for herself from nothing. The overwhelming impression left by this book is the idea of man's adaptability, how he struggles to survive under the most horrendous circumstances, and how he can triumph if only hope remains. [anonymous review on Amazon]

The Handmaid's Tale also has a Wikipedia page and has been made into a film of the same name, which has both a Wikipedia page and an IMDb entry.

About the Author

Margaret Atwood was born in 1939 in Ottawa and grew up in northern Ontario, Quebec, and Toronto. She received her undergraduate degree from Victoria College at the University of Toronto and her master's degree from Radcliffe College.

Throughout her writing career, Margaret Atwood has received numerous awards and honourary degrees. She is the author of more than thirty-five volumes of poetry, children's literature, fiction, and non-fiction and is perhaps best known for her novels, which include The Edible Woman (1970), The Handmaid's Tale (1983), The Robber Bride (1994), Alias Grace (1996), and The Blind Assassin, which won the prestigious Booker Prize in 2000. Atwood's dystopic novel, Oryx and Crake, was published in 2003. The Tent (mini-fictions) and Moral Disorder (short stories) both appeared in 2006. Her most recent volume of poetry, The Door, was published in 2007. Her non-fiction book, Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth, part of the Massey Lecture series, appeared in 2008, and her most recent novel, The Year of the Flood, in the autumn of 2009. Ms. Atwood's work has been published in more than forty languages, including Farsi, Japanese, Turkish, Finnish, Korean, Icelandic and Estonian. In 2004 she co-invented the Long Pen™.

Margaret Atwood currently lives in Toronto with writer Graeme Gibson.

The above biographical notes are taken from Atwood's website. See also her Wikipedia page.

Review

All eleven new and old members agreed this was one of the best books the club has so far read. Even though written more than 25 years ago the dystopian vision is still frighteningly real and all too possible. Indeed some argued that similar repressed societies are all around us right now. There was general agreement that the final section of the book was an interesting exercise in context-setting and served to remove some of the bleakness of the main narrative.

This month's scores were 9, 9, 9, 9, 9, 8, 9, 9, 7, 8, and 9 ably reflecting the consensus of the discussion and with an average of 8.64 giving it a well deserved second place in our league table.

 

Book choice for May 2011

Paradise [suggested by Neil Fletcher]

front cover

Hannah Luckraft knows the taste of paradise. It's hidden in the peace of open country, it's sweet on her lover's skin, it flavours every drink she's ever taken, but it never seems to stay.

Almost forty and with nothing to show for it, even Hannah is starting to notice that her lifestyle is not entirely sustainable: her subconscious is turning against her and it may be that her soul is a little unwell. Her family is wounded, her friends are frankly odd, her body is not as reliable as it once was. Robert, an equally dissolute dentist, appears to offer a love she can understand, but he may only be one more symptom of the problem she must cure.

From the North East of Scotland to Dublin, from London to Montreal, to Budapest and onwards, Hannah travels beyond her limits, beyond herself, in search of the ultimate altered state - the one where she can be happy, her paradise.

Incapable of writing a dull sentence, or failing to balance the grim with the hilarious, the tender with the grisly, A.L. Kennedy has written an emotional and visceral tour-de-force. A compelling examination of failure that is also a comic triumph, a novel of dark extremes that is full of the most ravishing lyrical beauty, Paradise is the finest book yet by one of Britain's most extraordinarily gifted writers.

The above description is taken from the author's website. Unusually, Paradise does not (yet) have a Wikipedia page.

About the Author

Copious information on A.L. Kennedy's website, or her Wikipedia page.

Review

This space available to hold a review of Paradise by someone who read it and attended the meeting.

This month's scores were 4, 4, 8, and 8 giving (for the second month in a row!) an average of a perfect 6.00 and equal 45th position in our table above.

 

Book choice for April 2011

Generation A [suggested by Rob Friedlander]

front cover

"Generation A" is not a sequel to "Generation X", and it grips from the start. Imagine a future where bees are extinct, but somehow five people around the world (USA, Canada, France, Sri Lanka and New Zealand) are all suddenly stung. Helicopters or military transport planes land, figures in hazmat suits step out, and the five individuals are taken away, drugged and bound if they struggle. When they come to they find themselves in research facilities, furnishings stripped of all brand identities, and each day they have blood samples taken, a computer generated voice talking to them in an accent of their choice, asking them questions about themselves. They are eventually released, but are soon recalled to an island off the coast of Canada and instructed to tell each other stories...

I found the first half of the book utterly gripping, wondering who the people were, how and why they'd been stung by a seemingly extinct species, and why they had been rounded up. I was a little concerned at the start of the second half as I thought the individual stories (not reminiscences, but short pieces of fiction) would drag and become repetitive, but this was far from the truth - they were all hugely enjoyable and incredibly created. What was the purpose of this though? Ahhh - it all comes together beautifully in the end, and any hints in this review would ruin the surprises. [abridged review by Peter Lee on Amazon]

Here as always is the novel's Wikipedia page.

About the Author

Douglas Coupland's career has been, contrary to initial glance, consistent and methodical. His ongoing focus has been on visual culture, writing, typography, popular culture, essay writing and technology.

Douglas Coupland is Canadian, born on a Canadian Air Force base near Baden-Baden, Germany, on December 30, 1961. In 1965 his family moved to Vancouver, Canada, where he continues to live and work. Coupland has studied art and design in Vancouver, Canada, Milan, Italy and Sapporo, Japan. His first novel, Generation X, was published in March of 1991. Since then he has published ten novels and several non-fiction books in 36 languages and most countries on earth. He has written and performed for the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford, England, and in 2001 resumed his practice as a visual artist, with exhibitions in spaces in North America, Europe and Asia.

2006 marked the premiere of the feature film "Everything's Gone Green," his first story written specifically for the screen. In 2007 Coupland's novel, jPod, was adapted into a series of thirteen one-hour episodes with Canada's CBC.

Coupland's biography of Marshall McLuhan was published by Penguin Canada in March of 2010. In October 2010 Coupland presented the 2010 Massey Lectures across Canada, coinciding with a published version of the lectures, Player One: What is to Become of Us.

Coupland has designed a Terry Fox memorial in Vancouver, to be unveiled in September 2011, and a national memorial for fallen firefighters, to be unveiled in Ottawa in 2012.

The above bio notes taken from his personal website. There's also a Wikipedia page of course.

Review

While we had the smallest turnout in ages (just 5 of us), we were chatting about the book for the longest time that I remember (until 10, with most not realising how late it was). The general consensus seemed to be that that it was a pleasant read, but we were disappointed in the end. No-one regretted reading it, but it wouldn't have been a recommendation to others for most of us. [review by Rob Friedlander - thanks Rob].

This month's scores were 7, 6, 6, 5, and 6 giving an average of a perfect 6.00. A score which translates to 45th position in our table above.

 

Book choice for March 2011

The Little Stranger [suggested by Helen Close]

front cover

To be honest I have always had a bit of a soft spot for ghost stories but even allowing for a certain bias regarding the subject matter this is without doubt a blindingly good novel. On the surface it is all so deceptively simple. A country doctor, approaching a dreary and unloved middle age, finds himself paying regular visits to the local stately pile where he encounters the once grand but now rather moth-eaten Ayres family. Soon afterwards strange and seemingly supernatural events begin to take place: the formerly placid family dog attacks a small child; strange marks appear on the walls; bells ring for no apparent reason; doors occasionally seem to lock themselves and sinister scribbles inexplicably turn up on doors and windowsills. Dr Faraday seeks, and believes he finds, a rational explanation for the strange events but the Ayres are altogether less sure.

What makes this apparently rather simple set-up so compelling is the skill with which Waters applies layer after gentle, rustling layer of doubt, paranoia and unease. Dr Faraday is, for example, a far from perfect narrator. Unimaginative, class-conscious and painfully aware that he doesn't have the 'right accent' to fit in with the grand Ayres he finds himself alternating between cloying resentment towards the family one minute and fawning servility the next. In turn the Ayres have fallen on financially ruinous times and the - from their perspective - frankly unpleasant plebian classes are literally encroaching on Ayres territory in the form of council houses being built on land skirting Hundreds Hall. Working class on the way up collides with landed gentry on the way down. The whole situation is a portrait in minature of post-war England preparing to tear itself apart. Throw in a possible romance and an unhappy event from the Ayres's recent past and you have an explosive mixture - sort of 'Rebecca' meets 'The Turn of the Screw' via Borley Rectory.

I finished reading The Little Stranger a few days ago and it hasn't settled quietly into its grave. It rustles and creaks; it casts shadows where shadows really shouldn't be and it refuses to tie itself up into a neat little bundle of comfortable conclusions. The more I think about it the more wheels within wheels within wheels I begin to see. It's beautifully elegant and it flows in the way only novels written by born story-tellers ever seem to manage; and more than anything else it creeps up on you in subtle, disturbing ways. Sarah Waters is one of our finest novelists and while this may not have the immediate shock impact of, say, Fingersmith, I think in its quiet and deceptively gentle way it is every bit as good. A beautiful novel with dark, haunted depths.[Gregory S. Buzwell on amazon]

Here as always is the novel's Wikipedia page.

About the Author

Sarah Waters was born in Wales in 1966. She has a Ph.D. in English Literature and has been an associate lecturer with the Open University.

She has written five novels: Tipping the Velvet (1998), which won the Betty Trask Award; Affinity (1999), which won the Somerset Maugham Award, the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award and was shortlisted for the Mail on Sunday / John Llewellyn Rhys Prize; Fingersmith (2002), which was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize and the Orange Prize, and won the South Bank Show Award for Literature and the CWA Historical Dagger; The Night Watch (2006), which was shortlisted for the Orange Prize and the Man Booker Prize; and The Little Stranger (2009), which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the South Bank Show Literature Award.

She was included in Granta's prestigious list of 'Best of Young British Novelists 2003', and in the same year was voted Author of the Year by both publishers and booksellers at the British Book Awards and the BA Conference, and won the Waterstone's Author of the Year Award.

Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith have both been adapted for BBC television by Sally Head Productions. The adaptation of Fingersmith was nominated for a BAFTA. Affinity has been adapted for ITV by Box Productions. The Night Watch is currently in development with BBC2, and film rights in The Little Stranger have been optioned by Potboiler Productions.

Sarah Waters lives in London.

She has a Wikipedia page and an extensive personal website from where the above biography is taken.

Review

This space available to hold a review of The Little Stranger by someone who read it and attended the meeting. This month's scores were 8, 8, 9, 8, 8, 8, 8, 7, 7, 9 and a late email submission of 7 giving an average of 7.91 - the highest for some time - giving The Little Stranger 6th position between The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint and The Book Thief.

 

Book choice for February 2011

If On A Winter's Night A Traveler [suggested by Olivia Walsby]

front cover

One definition of metafiction is "Fiction that deals, often playfully and self-referentially, with the writing of fiction or its conventions." That could pretty much describe Italo Calvino's "If On A Winter's Night A Traveler," a gloriously surreal story about the hunt for a mysterious book.

A reader opens Italo Calvino's latest novel, "If On A Winter's Night A Traveler," only to have the story cut short. Turns out it was a defective copy, with another book's pages inside. But as the reader tries to find out what book the defective pages belong to, he keeps running into even more books and more difficulties -- as well as the beautiful Ludmilla, a fellow reader who also received a defective book.

With Ludmilla assisting him (and, he hopes, going to date him), the reader then explores obscure dead languages, publishers' shops, bizarre translators and various other obstacles. All he wants is to read an intriguing book. But he keeps stumbling into tales of murder and sorrow, annoying professors, and the occasional radical feminist -- and a strange literary conspiracy. Will he ever finish the book?

In its own way, "If On A Winter's Night A Traveler" is a mystery story, a satire, a romance, and a treasure hunt. Any book whose first chapter explains how you're supposed to read it has got to be a winner -- "You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino's new novel, "If On A Winter's Night a Traveler." Relax. Concentrate." And so on, with Calvino gently joking and chiding the reader before actually beginning his strange little tale.

As cute as that first chapter is, it also sets the tone for this strange, funny metafictional tale, which not only inserts Calvino but the reader. That's right -- this book is written in the second person, with the reader as the main character. "You did this" and "you did that," and so on. Only a few authors are brave enough to insert the reader... especially in a novel about a novel that contains other novels. It seems like a subtle undermining of reality itself.

It's a bit disorienting when Calvino inserts chapters from the various books that "you" unearth -- including ghosts, hidden identities, Mexican duels, Japanese erotica, and others written in the required styles. Including some cultures that he made up. Upon further reading, those isolated chapters reveal themselves to be almost as intriguing as the literary hunt. Especially since each one cuts off at the most suspenseful moment -- what happens next? Nobody knows!

It all sounds hideously confusing, but Calvino's deft touch and sense of humor keep it from getting too weird. There are moments of wink-nudge comedy, as well as the occasional poke at the publishing industry. But Calvino also provides chilling moments, mildly sexy ones, and a tone of mystery hangs over the whole novel.

At times it feels like Calvino is in charge of "If On A Winter's Night A Traveler"... and at other times, it feels like "you" are the one at the wheel. Just don't put this in the stack of Books You Mean To Read But There Are Others You Must Read First. Pure literary genius. [review by E.A.Solinas on amazon]

As you might expect, the novel has a Wikipedia page.

About the Author

Italo Calvino is widely written about, and the material is so ubiquitous it seems pointless to repeat it here. He has a Wikipedia page and there is also a well-stocked fan site within which you will find this page, where the website author has included the full text of Rhys Hughes' essay on Calvino, which goes into immense detail of his life, work and style.

Review

Barely half the turnout of last month - an initial nine and a late straggler - battled for supremacy between likers and loathers. As is so often the case, what the loathers loathed - Calvino's "cleverness", and especially the use of the second person narrative - was at least part of what the lovers loved. Even those who didn't finish the read agreed that his use of language was extraordinary; colourful; exotic and rich. But some couldn't get past the half-finished plots and the elaborate meta-fiction, while others were able to work with those elements and derive some enjoyment from the read. One interesting wrinkle to manifest itself in two or three readers was that they had given up on the book the first time, but had found it easier to read at the second attempt, perhaps because they were prepared for its idiosyncracies. But the few fans were not enough to turn the tide against those who were either indifferent or actively irritated, and with a scoreline of 5, 8, 4.5, 8, 1, 7.5, 9, 6, 5, and 7, Calvino's average of 6.10 took over 41st position in the league from last month's Firmin.

 

Book choice for January 2011

Firmin: Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife [suggested by Laura Smith]

front cover

"I had always imagined that my life story...would have a great first line: something like Nabokov's 'Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins;' or if I could not do lyric, then something sweeping like Tolstoy's 'All happy families are alike, but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.'... When it comes to openers, though, the best in my view has to be the first line of Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier: 'This is the saddest story I have ever heard.'"

So begins the remarkable tale of Firmin the rat. Born in a bookstore in a blighted 1960's Boston neighborhood, Firmin miraculously learns how to read by digesting his nest of books. Alienated from his family and unable to communicate with the humans he loves, Firmin quickly realizes that a literate rat is a lonely rat.

Following a harrowing misunderstanding with his hero, the bookseller, Firmin begins to risk the dangers of Scollay Square, finding solace in the Lovelies of the burlesque cinema. Finally adopted by a down-on-his-luck science fiction writer, the tide begins to turn, but soon they both face homelessness when the wrecking ball of urban renewal arrives.

In a series of misadventures, Firmin is ultimately led deep into his own imaginative soul - a place where Ginger Rogers can hold him tight and tattered books, storied neighborhoods, and down-and-out rats can find people who adore them. [taken from fantasticfiction.co.uk]

About the Author

Sam Savage grew up in a small town in South Carolina in the '40s and '50s. Then he went north, first to Boston and New York, and later to France and Germany. He studied at the University of Heidelberg and at Yale, eventually acquiring a Ph.D. in philosophy from Yale. He taught there, briefly and unhappily. It was a period when many had become convinced that there are no genuine philosophic problems, only genuine linguistic puzzles. This discovery did not leave any "career options" for Savage, since the only puzzle that interested him at that time was himself. In 1980 he went back south, to McClellanville, South Carolina (pop. 400), where he spent the next twenty-three years. He worked as a carpenter, a commercial fisherman, and a letterpress printer. He lived, however, mainly on a diminishing pile of inherited money and the labors of his wife, while he attempted to write, pretended to write, and often really did write. Most of the things he wrote have not survived. In 2003, he moved north again, this time to Madison, Wisconsin, where he now lives.

Savage has proved to be the most persistant and annoying of the Old Rat's fictions.

The above biography, taken from barnes&noble.com, is credited to the author's official web site (www.theoldrat.com), which unfortunately now seems to be permanently unavailable. There is, however, a Wikipedia entry.

Review

Eighteen members were present for the discussion on Firmin, and of those who finished it, the majority enjoyed it, although all agreed it started out very slow and boring. While some found the ending sad and disappointing others thought it worked well. There was little to like about Firmin but his relationship with Jerry seemed to redeem him. Indeed when Rob suggested that Firmin WAS Jerry - his alter-ego and the subject of the vaunted "rat book" that was never found - the conversation took a whole new direction and never really regained a foothold in reality. The scores reflected readers' ambivalence and was skewed downward by the last few voters, who really didn't like it at all: 6, 6, 7, 6, 7, 6, 6, 7, 6, 4, 5, 5, 6, and 8 giving a low average of 6.07 - 41st position in the league, just above Stranger in a Strange Land.

 

Book choice for November 2010

The Wasp Factory [suggested by Anita Galasso]

front cover

Meet Frank Cauldhame. Just sixteen, and unconventional to say the least:

Two years after I killed Blyth I murdered my young brother Paul, for quite different and more fundamental reasons than I'd disposed of Blyth, and then a year after that I did for my young cousin Esmerelda, more or less on a whim.

That's my score to date. Three. I haven't killed anybody for years, and don't intend to ever again.

It was just a stage I was going through.

The Wasp Factory was the first novel by Scottish writer Iain Banks. It was published in 1984.

For a powerful book that's been around for 25 years, it's not surprising there are many online resources. As well as the usual Wikipedia page you can find a discussion of the work on this Guardian book club page and a section on the author's own website.

About the Author

Iain [Menzies] Banks was born in Fife in 1954, and was educated at Stirling University, where he studied English Literature, Philosophy and Psychology.

Banks came to widespread and controversial public notice with the publication of his first novel, The Wasp Factory, in 1984.

His first science fiction novel, Consider Phlebas, was published in 1987. He has continued to write both mainstream fiction (as Iain Banks) and science fiction (as Iain M. Banks).

He is now acclaimed as one of the most powerful, innovative and exciting writers of his generation: The Guardian has called him "the standard by which the rest of SF is judged". William Gibson, the New York Times-bestselling author of Spook Country describes Banks as a "phenomenon".

Iain M. Banks lives in Fife, Scotland

The above taken from this fan site, Banks also has a Wikipedia entry.

Review

Despite the intense cold, a creditable sixteen members arrived at Bar480 to discuss Banks' debut novel. While a relatively few animal lovers took exception to the appalling treatment dished out by Frank and his brother to a variety of dogs and rabbits, the general feeling was that the novel was not as horrific as reviews had led us to believe, and that Frank eventually became a character the reader could sympathise with, if never exactly identify with. The murders, at once both inventive and slightly ridiculous, were blackly comic to some people and although reaction to the ending was mixed, the book received a fair crop of plaudits such as "interesting" and "different". Scores for this month shaped up as: 7, 7, 7.5, 8, 2, 7, 6, 4, 7.5, 7, 8, 8, 7, 7, and 7 which turned out to be not such a high score as I was expecting - an average of 6.67 and 31st position in the league table, just below The Picture of Dorian Gray.

 

Book choice for October 2010

The Suspicions of Mr Whicher or The Murder at Road Hill House [suggested by Claire Jolly]

front cover

It is a summer's night in 1860. In an elegant detached Georgian house in the village of Road, Wiltshire, all is quiet. Behind shuttered windows the Kent family lies sound asleep. About an hour after midnight a dog barks: the Kents' Newfoundland is known for reacting noisily to the slightest provocation.

The family wakes the next morning to a horrific discovery: an unimaginably gruesome murder has taken place in their home. The household reverberates with shock, not least because the guilty party is almost certainly still among them.

If the above intro, taken from the book's own website, sounds familiar, it should. It could be the plot of any number of murder mysteries, horror films and spoofs made or written in the last hundred years. The difference being, THIS one was the first.

Perhaps one of the most celebrated books the club has ever selected, as well as having its own website as above (although strangely NOT its own Wikipedia page), there is a review on the Guardian pages by Ian Rankin and it appears ITV has recently commissioned a drama based on the story.

You can even listen to the author discussing her book on YouTube.

About the Author

Kate Summerscale, in contrast to her work, does have a Wikipedia page, but that's about as much biographical information as there is. Scant.

Review

Eleven members gathered to discuss Whicher and his murder, split very definitely between those who enjoyed it (who were in the majority) and those who very definitely didn't. A truer representation of a "Marmite" book would be harder to find. Those aspects of the work that the enjoyers enjoyed - the factual approach; the insights into middle-class life of the period; the descriptions of the first detectives and their procedures (or lack of); the revelations of what all the players did in later life - were exactly the things that the dislikers disliked. Scores for this month shaped up as: 6, 8, 7, 5, 5, 5, 8, 8.5, 8, and a late email vote of 7 which results in a creditable average of 6.75 and 29th position in the league table (which now has 50 entries!), just above The Picture of Dorian Gray.

 

Book choice for September 2010

My Name Is Red [suggested by Pauline Turnbull]

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Orhan Pamuk is one of Turkey's premier novelists and My Name Is Red, when published in the original Turkish in 1998, became the fastest-selling book in Turkish history. It is high time then that a translation to English was made, and this publication will be widely welcomed by Pamuk's growing legion of English-speaking admirers.

In the late 16th century, during the final years of the reign of Ottoman Sultan Murat III, a great work is commissioned, a book celebrating the Sultan's life. The work is conducted in secret, to the ignorance of the artists involved, for fear of a violent religious reaction to the European style of the illuminations in the book. An artist goes, missing, feared dead, and Black, a painter who has been in a self-enforced exile because of spurned love, returns to help his former Master investigate the disappearance.

Pamuk's prose is as exquisite and rich as the elucidations it describes. This is a dense, atmospherically fevered book, which demands a high level of patience and attention from the reader, perhaps mirroring the patience of the miniaturists. Written in the first person, with multiple narratives, this is a book full of unreliable witnesses, and as the various stories of the narrators unfold, the truth of the disappearance slowly emerges. The sense of place and time are carefully constructed and diligently maintained throughout the novel, which, like Umberto Eco's The Name Of The Rose, far exceeds the genre of literary historical crime to become a hypnotic meditation on religion, love, time, patience and artistic devotion. [Iain Robinson, writing on Amazon]

The book has a Wikipedia page.

About the Author

I couldn't get Pamuk's website to load, so the following is extracted from Google's cached copy:

Orhan Pamuk was born in Istanbul in 1952 and grew up in a large family similar to those which he describes in his novels Cevdet Bey and His Sons and The Black Book, in the wealthy westernised district of Nisantasi. As he writes in his autobiographical book Istanbul, from his childhood until the age of 22 he devoted himself largely to painting and dreamed of becoming an artist. After graduating from the secular American Robert College in Istanbul, he studied architecture at Istanbul Technical University for three years, but abandoned the course when he gave up his ambition to become an architect and artist. He went on to graduate in journalism from Istanbul University, but never worked as a journalist. At the age of 23 Pamuk decided to become a novelist, and giving up everything else retreated into his flat and began to write.

His first novel Cevdet Bey and His Sons was published seven years later in 1982. The novel is the story of three generations of a wealthy Istanbul family living in Nisantasi, Pamuk's own home district. The novel was awarded both the Orhan Kemal and Milliyet literary prizes. The following year Pamuk published his novel The Silent House, which in French translation won the 1991 Prix de la d�couverte europ�ene. The White Castle (1985) about the frictions and friendship between a Venetian slave and an Ottoman scholar was published in English and many other languages from 1990 onwards, bringing Pamuk his first international fame. The same year Pamuk went to America, where he was a visiting scholar at Columbia University in New York from 1985 to 1988. It was there that he wrote most of his novel The Black Book, in which the streets, past, chemistry and texture of Istanbul are described through the story of a lawyer seeking his missing wife. This novel was published in Turkey in 1990, and the French translation won the Prix France Culture. The Black Book enlarged Pamuk's fame both in Turkey and internationally as an author at once popular and experimental, and able to write about past and present with the same intensity. In 1991 Pamuk's daughter R�ya was born. That year saw the production of a film Hidden Face, whose script by Pamuk was based on a one-page story in The Black Book.

He also has a Wikipedia page.

Review

A smaller group than in previous months gave a hint of what was to come, and it was soon revealed that hardly any of the dozen old and new members assembled had finished the book. Many wanted to, some enjoyed the idea and the plot, but virtually everyone had struggled with the almost impenetrable prose style of Pamuk (in this work at least. There was evidence that he can adopt a different style although at least one other of his works - Snow - was said to be just as bad). So if you're looking for an extremely literary work with detailed and erudite descriptions of every detail going on for page after page, and you have the time to devote to what is a very slow read, this is the book for you. If you want a murder mystery that just gets on with things, look elsewhere. As usual the scores reflected the mood of the group very accurately, those willing to give it a mark coming up with: 5, 5, 4, 5, 5, 7, 6, and 5 which gave it an average of 5.25 and 45th position, beating The Other Hand, but only four places above the catastrophically infamous Full Montezuma.

 

Book choice for August 2010

Stuart - A Life Backwards [suggested by Noel Fagan]

front cover

This is the biography of a person you've never heard of - a strange but compelling idea. Alexander Masters takes as his subject career criminal Stuart Shorter, and traces his development from grave to cradle, so to speak. In the process he highlights some of the ways that criminality escalates and proliferates: Stuart, a sometime heroin addict and surging muddle of violence, is a chaotic and difficult person, with serious convictions to his name (five years for raiding a post office, for example), but he emerges as a victim of the inadequate criminal justice system, of childhood trauma and of a neglectful educational system. In fact, Stuart, whom Masters paints warts and all, is oddly likeable. This makes the story of his ill-directed life a tragic one, and it's a powerful and timely story too. Moreover, Masters writes in a distinctive and intelligent way; he's not afraid to say things that fly in the face of political correctness, and he's not afraid to show his occasional disgust with Stuart's excesses, but this is a poignant and compassionate book, which deserves to reach a wide audience. [review by The Fisher Price King on Amazon]

The book has a Wikipedia page and has also been made into a movie for TV.

About the Author

Alexander Masters' website appears to contain no bio information so pop along to Wikipedia if you're interested. The entry is very short and concentrates on his impressive string of degrees and even more impressive string of awards for Stuart, in both book and screenplay forms.

Review

Stuart engendered perhaps one of the most lively discussions we've had, with contributions from everyone of the dozen or so members present. Everyone enjoyed the read, a few even realising during the course of the discussion that they had actually enjoyed it even more than they first realised. The "Life Backwards" approach was seen as less intrusive a device than in other works with unusual structures, possibly because each section was recounted in chronological order even though the sections themselves were reversed in time. The group thought Masters did a good job of retelling Stuart's tale without mawkish sentiment, preaching, or solutionising. The story itself is powerful enough to stand on its own. The positive view everyone had of the book was reflected in the surprisingly even-handed scoring this month: 8, 7, 7, 7, 7, 7, 7, 7, 8, 8, and 8 giving an average of 7.36 and 19th position, between The Wrong Boy and The Great Gatsby.

 

Book choice for July 2010

Timoleon Vieta Come Home [suggested by Sarah Dennis]

front cover

This book has certainly sparked some mixed reviews! Personally I loved it! I am an animal lover; I would rather give to an animal charity than a human charity any day and I often find myself more moved by the plight of animals than by that of humans. Despite the fact that I love animals, I still enjoyed this book and don't condemn it just for its gruesome ending. I don't see how just because one is an animal lover the end would make them condemn the whole book.

Yes, the ending is disturbing (but you really do see it coming from early on and so have plenty of time to brace yourself) and I did find the last few pages difficult to read. I read them whilst chanting in my head "it's not real, it's not real, it's not real"!

There are some wonderfully tragi-comic moments in the book. I found the humour very dark and dry and the general style often slightly reminiscent of "Perfume" by Patrick Suskind. There are also a few genuinely comic moments without the element of tragedy infused in them.

All in all, a great book; very entertaining but maybe avoid if you're inclined to be a tad over-sensitive. [review by 'Miss Kiki' on amazon]

The book has a Wikipedia page.

About the Author

Dan Rhodes has written six books:

Anthropology (2000)
Don't Tell Me The Truth About Love (2001)
Timoleon Vieta Come Home (2003)
The Little White Car (2004 - writing as Danuta de Rhodes)
Gold (2007)
Little Hands Clapping (2010)

He is the winner of the 2010 E.M. Forster Award. Here's a list of some of the other honours he has received:

Anthropology was shortlisted for the Macmillan Silver Pen award, losing out at the final hurdle to The Hill Bachelors by William Trevor. If you're going to lose to anyone, it might as well be William Trevor. At a break in proceedings, Rhodes had a dramatic tussle over a bottle of wine with someone he later found out was Harold Pinter.

Timoleon Vieta Come Home won the QPB New Voices Award in 2004. This was Rhodes' first prize, and although he was mildly disappointed that he could no longer refer to himself as an award-losing author, he was, on balance, delighted to have won. He celebrated by going on the water dodgems at Coney Island, fatally damaging his brand new watch in the process. He had thrown away the receipt.

Read more of the same on his website (from where the above was taken), or try Wikipedia.

Review

The mixed reviews from Amazon mentioned above were mirrored by the group of 15 members who assembled to discuss it. Many people really loved it, but while most agreed the short stories were well written and enjoyable, an almost equal number thought the thread that joined them - the eponymous dog's journey - was an unwelcome and even unnecessary device, and that the story of Cockcroft, who had no redeeming features whatsoever, was boring and pointless. A few saw the end coming, but most did not, and in at least one case the end was enough to reverse a reader's opinion of the book in a negative direction. This month's scores also reflected fairly accurately the division of feeling, being 9, 7, 6, 5, 9, 7, 7, 4, 7, 8.5, 5, 5, 5, and 5 giving an average of 6.39 and 33rd position, barely ahead of Contempt and Northanger Abbey.

 

Book choice for June 2010

A Kind of Intimacy [suggested by Jo Jackson]

front cover

Annie is morbidly obese, lonely and hopeful. She narrates her own increasingly bizarre attempts to ingratiate herself with her new neighbours, learn from past mistakes and achieve a ""certain kind of intimacy"" with the boy next door. Though Annie struggles to repress a murky history of violence, secrets and sexual mishaps her past is never too far behind her, finally shattering her denial in a compelling and bloody climax. A quirky and darkly comic debut - giving readers a glimpse of a clumsy young woman who has too much in common with the rest of us to be written off as a monster.

Jenn Ashworth's debut had me hooked from the first page. In Annie, Ashworth has created one of the most interesting, mysterious, endearing but at the same time terrifying characters I have ever had the uncomfortable pleasure of encountering in a book.

There are times when I felt that I simply wanted to hug Annie and make it alright. Tell her that everything's OK and that she IS beautiful. I balk when I read that sentence back, too, but that is what Annie does to me... I had that feeling a lot reading this novel, and each time I had it it made me feel uncomfortable, sensing that Annie was more than she seemed, feeling inadequate and arrogant: my hug wouldn't be enough, and would I be able to give it, and would I be able to cope with the consequences.

Ashworth really keeps her cards close to her chest, maintaining mystery and surprise throughout, revealing pieces and dropping hints of the fullness of Annie's past, the horror of her present, past and future.

This book is a love story of sorts, a crime novel of sorts, but most of all it is a tender and compassionate portrait of a lonely young woman, emotionally battered and psychologically disturbed. [review by colin j herd on amazon]

About the Author

See Wikipedia, or read Jenn Ashworth's blog, or visit her website (which was down when I tried to visit).

Review

This space available to hold a review of A Kind of Intimacy by someone who read it and attended the meeting. This month's scores were 7, 10, 6, 7, 8, 8, 7, 8, 6, 6, 8, and 6 giving an average of 7.25 and 20th position just behind The Great Gatsby.

 

Book choice for May 2010

Contempt [suggested by Richard Layfield]

front cover

After a second reading of Contempt, I feel compelled to call the short, tautly written novel a masterpiece.  Told from the perspective of a neurotic egotist, the narrator accounts how he "sacrificed" his literary writing career to debase himself in the tawdry task of writing screenplays so that he can afford to lavish his wife with more opulent living quarters.  The narrator convinces himself that not only does his wife not appreciate his "sacrifice," but that she no longer loves him.  It's horrifying to read this narcissist's account of his marital disintegration.  Close reading reveals that the narrator never sacrificed his writing career for his wife's opulent tastes, but rather is debasing his writing talents for his own greedy materialistic acquistion.
[Abridged from a review on Amazon by M Jeffrey McMahon]

About the Author

Alberto Moravia (November 28, 1907 - September 26, 1990), born Alberto Pincherle - the pen-name "Moravia" is the surname of his maternal grandfather - was born in Rome to a wealthy middle-class family.  His Jewish father, Carlo, was an architect and a painter.  His Catholic mother, Teresa Iginia de Marsanich, was from Ancona but of Dalmatian origin.

Moravia contracted tuberculosis at the age of nine which prevented him finishing conventional schooling.  Confined to bed for five years, he devoted himself to reading books: some of his favourite authors included Dostoevsky, Joyce, Ariosto, Goldoni, Shakespeare, Molière, Mallarmé.  He learned French and German, and wrote poems in both languages.

In 1925 he moved to Brixen, where he wrote his first novel, Gli Indifferenti (Time of Indifference), published in 1929.  The novel is a realistic analysis of the moral decadence of a middle-class mother and two of her children.  In 1927 he started his career as a journalist with the magazine 900, which published his first short stories.  He eventually became one of the leading Italian novelists of the twentieth century whose novels explore matters of modern sexuality, social alienation, and existentialism, and is best known for his anti-fascist novel Il Conformista (The Conformist), the basis for the film The Conformist (1970) by Bernardo Bertolucci.  Several more of his novels translated to film, including Contempt, filmed by Jean-Luc Godard as Le Mépris (Contempt) (1963). [biog abridged from his Wikipedia entry]

Review

This space available to hold a review of Contempt by someone who read it and attended the meeting. The scoring went 9, 8.5, 7.5, 7.5, 7, 7, 6, 6, 5, 5, 4, and 4 giving an average of 6.38 and equal 32nd position with Northanger Abbey.

 

Book choice for April 2010

Into the Wild [suggested by Martin Foy]

front cover

Christopher McCandless was twenty four when he headed off alone with the intention of surviving by what he could hunt and garner in the wilds of Alaska. People have since labelled him as reckless, arrogant and stupid - but with his idealistic yearning to emulate Tolstoy, Jack London and Thoreau, was he not in fact courageous and noble? He was certainly ill-prepared for such a venture and paid the ultimate price for his odyssey.

Jon Krakauer, the author of the book, had a particular, vested interest in the tragic tale. He too as a young man had experienced a similar compulsion to set himself against the wild elements, to rebel against his conventional lifestyle and upbringing. In his opening note, Krakauer seems to apologise for including his own story of setting out to conquer a mountain and almost losing his life in the process; but I found this account even more intense and compelling than the sometimes over-meticulous details of everyone encountered by McCandless in his last months.

The unavoidable conjecture as to McCandless's motivation, his troubled family background, and state of mind in his last awful weeks, make a compelling reason for using this book as a set text in schools. Most cultures have a kind of "coming of age" ritual, especially for young men, who have to test themselves, set themselves against the establishment. There is much in the book that should open discussion with teenagers - though surely there must be a way to opt out of the conventional path most unquestioning people's lives take, without sacrificing their own life, as most of the rather depressing examples quoted in the book do.[review by Four Violets on amazon.co.uk]

Naturally, a book this famous has a Wikipedia page, and since it has been made into a movie, there's also an official movie site.

About the Author

JON KRAKAUER is the author of Eiger Dreams, Into the Wild , and Into Thin Air , and is editor of the Modern Library Exploration series.

Born in 1954, Jon Krakauer grew up in Corvallis, Oregon, where his father introduced him to mountaineering as an 8-year-old. After graduating from Hampshire College in 1976, Krakauer divided his time between Colorado, Alaska, and the Pacific Northwest, earning his living primarily as a carpenter and commercial salmon fisherman, spending most of his free moments in the mountains. In 1977 he traveled alone to the remote Stikine Icecap in Southeast Alaska, went three weeks without encountering another person, and climbed a new route on a graceful, intimidating peak called the Devils Thumb. In 1992 he climbed the West Face of Cerro Torre in the Patagonian Andes (a mile-high spike of granite sheathed in a carapace of frozen rime, Cerro Torre was once considered the most difficult mountain on earth.)

In May 1996 Krakauer reached the top of Mt. Everest, but during the descent a storm engulfed the peak, taking the lives of four of the five teammates who climbed to the summit with him. An analysis of the calamity that he wrote for Outside magazine received a National Magazine Award. The unsparingly honest book he subsequently wrote about Everest, INTO THIN AIR, became a #1 New York Times bestseller and has been translated into 24 languages. It was also honored as the "Book of the Year" by TIME magazine, one of the "Best Books of the Year" by the New York Times Book Review, a finalist for a 1997 National Book Critics Circle Award, and one of three finalists for the 1998 Pulitzer Prize in General Non-Fiction

[abridged bio from Random House]

See also Krakauer's Wikipedia page.

Review

Into the Wild split the group with some people loving it and some hating it. There was a lively discussion with quite a bit of disparity. It was agreed that the style was very journalistic, though some people found this informative and interesting while others thought it was not enough to sustain the reader's interest. Discussion about the protaganist Chris McCandless found some people disliking him throughout, some people liking him and many disliking him at first and warming to him as the book progressed. Those who liked the book were interested in the exploration of the pull of nature and the desire to withdraw from society. The scoring, by fifteen readers, of 2, 3, 3, 3, 3, 6, 6, 6, 7, 7, 7, 7, 8, 8, and 9 gave an average of 5.67 and 39th position, below To The Lighthouse and slightly above Our Kid.

 

Book choice for March 2010

The Secret History [suggested by Helen Dobson]

front cover

If I could take only one single book to the notorious island it would be The Secret History.

Originally I bought it only because a friend of mine had recommended it to me about a dozen times and kept asking me whether I had finally read it myself. Well. I was into 19th century classics at the time and really really really didn't feel like reading a novel by an unknown contemporary author. And an American one as well! So I bought and started reading it only to avoid further awkward quesions.

What can I say? I truly love books and have read hundreds. But none, literally NONE, ever made me feel the way The Secret History did and still does. It's the most fascinating and gripping book I've ever had the honour to read. The characters are fascinatingly mysterious; the plot the most interesting one I can think of; the setting great; and the language simply wonderful.

The bad thing about having read The Secret History (10 times? 11?) is that now I will always be longing for another one like it. The Secret History is THE book.

I know that other readers have experienced the same. Many of them keep asking about a new novel by Donna Tartt. I don't. I don't really want her to write another one, and I don't think she will. Every serious author wants their new novel to be just a little bit better than the last one. And let's face it: Donna Tartt will never achieve that because she's already written the perfect novel. [one of 203 reviews on Amazon, most of them equally enthusiastic as far as I can make out]

Naturally, a book this famous has a Wikipedia page.

About the Author

"If I could write a book a year and maintain the same quality, I'd be happy. But I don't think I'd have any fans."

Thus Donna Tartt explains the decade of silence since her debut novel, The Secret History, made her the international literary sensation of 1992.

Until the publication of her second book in October 2002, Tartt endured rumours of writer's block and nervous hermithood. But now that The Little Friend is safely in the bag, she says calmly, "it just took a while to write."

Trying to meet readers' high expectations after The Secret History was never going to be easy, but Tartt wasn't intimidated by the search for a new idea. She said at the time, "I have my life to resort to."

For The Little Friend, its author has dug deep into her southern background. Raised among the antebellum mansions of Grenada, Mississippi, Tartt experienced the shabby gentility of a changing south. Her extended family members were the stuff of Tennessee Williams and William Faulkner and, for Tartt, "books were the great escape".

Fixated by Robert Louis Stevenson and Peter Pan, young Donna was taken on her own imaginative odyssey by her grandfather. A believer in the power of medicine, he fed his granddaughter codeine cough syrup, and much of her childhood was a "languorous undersea existence".

A less dubious family contribution was a love of Dickens and Kipling, and Tartt's own storytelling talents were later nurtured at college. Her professor told her she was a genius and, even among classmates such as Bret Easton Ellis, the chain-smoking, Nietzsche-sprouting Tartt cut a dash.

While fellow graduates sought conventional employment, Tartt became a "professional houseguest" who started writing The Secret History. Nine years later, the classical cleverness and adolescent angst of her murderous aesthetes sold millions and meant the author need never again pick up her pen.

But despite being translated into 23 languages, Tartt remains "a writer, not a TV personality", whose job it is to "dive deep". Now aged 38, the gamine-featured, pint-sized perfectionist is unfazed by the transitory nature of celebrity, concentrating instead on "the five books I have in me".

Of her own style, Tartt remains vague, following Kipling's instructions only to "drift, wait and obey".

Her continuing royalties have afforded her as much time to drift and wait as she needs to produce another opus. Her army of fans may be champing at the bit for more of her work, but Donna Tartt remains a defiantly bookish character, "moving a comma round very happily for hours".

Caroline Frost [writing on the BBC Four Documentaries page]

See also Tartt's Wikipedia page and this rather idiosyncratic fan site.

Review

Another large group (20+) divided into two to discuss The Secret History. On our side, a dozen people who enjoyed the read and the clever way Tartt made the reader side with the group despite them committing two murders (albeit one accidental). However many of the characters were either poorly drawn, stereotypes or in some way unbelievable. It was posited (by Ro) that much of the text was an attempt to mirror classic Greek tragedy, and an understanding of that may have enhanced the reading experience, but no-one agreed with the breathless cover comment that the novel was either "haunting" or "compelling," most thought that some additional background to the Greek scholars' group before Richard's arrival would have been useful, and that the ending was a bit of a let down. Nevertheless, an entertaining and worthwhile read overall. This months scoring, of 7; 7; 8; 7; 7; 6; 9; 7; 7; 8; 8; 7; 6.5; 5; 7; 7.5; 7; 9; and 6.5 gives The Secret History an average of 7.18 and 21st position, below the Barrytown Trilogy and above The Outsider.

 

Book choice for February 2010

The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint [suggested by Laura Smith]

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Debut novelist Brady Udall's The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint is a moving tragic-comedy that has been compared to the works of John Irving. The tender humour of this novel, coupled with subtly explored issues, makes this an outstanding read. Udall's prose style is engaging and refreshing, and the voice of the narrator is utterly convincing. When eight-year-old Edgar Mint gets his head squashed by a post van on the Apache reservation where he lives with his alcoholic mother, it is the beginning of a new life. Resurrected from near death by a junior doctor, Edgar find himself in a new environment, sharing a ward with three men in various states of serious injury, the focus of the hospital's attention and with no recollection of his previous life. So begins Edgar's journey.

This is essentially a rites of passage novel. But the passage that Edgar must take is more painful than most. With no memory and with only a typewriter for company, he faces alienation among his people, is disregarded as retarded and is shoved out of sight by white America to a tough school for troublesome reservation children. Edgar seeks the solace of acceptance or escape, anything to take him away from the suffering of being different, of being an outsider. By showing Edgar learning about himself, understanding the world around him, and experiencing everything again for the first time, Udall explores the big explosive themes of religion, race, identity and gender with a deft hand. There is nothing ham-fisted in his treatment of these issues. They are dealt with in a quiet but direct manner, through the eyes of a child coming to terms with the absurdity of humanity. This is, in some ways, also a rags-to-riches story and the notion of what exactly it is that enriches our lives is central. Edgar must first journey before he ultimately discovers this wealth. His journey is a search for identity, for the missing gaps in his life and it is only when all these gaps are filled that Edgar can discover his true worth. [review from amazon]

About the Author

Brady Udall is an American novelist.

He grew up in a large Mormon family in St. Johns, Arizona, graduated from Brigham Young University and later attended the Iowa Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa. He was formerly a faculty member of Franklin & Marshall College starting in 1998, then Southern Illinois University, and now teaches writing at Boise State University.

A collection of his short stories titled Letting Loose the Hounds was published in 1998[6] and his debut novel The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint was first published in 2001. The characterization and structure of the latter has been favorably compared to the work of John Irving. Thematically it has been compared to Charles Dickens. Michael Stipe has optioned a film adaptation of Miracle, with United Artists hiring Michael Cuesta to direct.

The above adapted from Udall's Wikipedia page.

Review

(Almost) everyone loved it. The scoring reflects that: 8; 6; 9; 8.5; 10; 9; 6; 8; 9; 8; 8; 8.5; 7; and 8, giving an average of 8.07, snatching overall fifth place from The Book Thief, and sitting below A Prayer for Owen Meany.

 

Book choice for January 2010

The Other Hand [suggested by Cate Hughes]

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We don't want to tell you too much about this book. It is a truly special story and we don't want to spoil it. Nevertheless, you need to know something, so we will just say this: It is extremely funny, but the African beach scene is horrific. The story starts there, but the book doesn't. And it's what happens afterwards that is most important. Once you have read it, you'll want to tell everyone about it. When you do, please don't tell them what happens either. The magic is in how it unfolds.

So runs the blurb on the book's cover, which many reviewers have complained over-hypes the story and sets expectations that the book doesn't fulfil. Others disagree, such as Helen Cleaves writing on Waterstones' website:

The Other Hand is not an easy read. It is emotionally challenging, laugh-out-loud hilarious and demanding. It is also one of the most compelling books I have read for years. Not only is the plot strong and the characters convincing, but the writing itself grabs hold of you and refuses to let you go. Written with an intense energy and sparing precision where every word is made to work, Cleave's description is startlingly fresh, free from any of the usual cliches. This book provides a new way to look at life in England in 2008 - through the eyes of a refugee who as an outsider is well-positioned to question our assumed values and aspirations. And Cleave is not kind on the middle classes - I read this with some discomfort as he exposed the hollowness of suburban life. I won't give away the plot as the blurb is deliberately evasive. I would have preferred to have the story left unresolved. But this book's strength lies in the characterisation and quality of the writing. Like the first breath you take when you step outside on a freezing day from a warm cosy house this is a power shower of a book. It will wake you up. I have told people about this book and will be doing so for some time.

About the Author

Chris Cleave's website is largely a blog, and its frontpage is devoted to his Guardian column. If you dig around you can find this brief biog:

Chris Cleave is 35. He is a novelist and a columnist for The Guardian newspaper in London. He is only 5'7" tall.

His debut novel Incendiary won a 2006 Somerset Maugham Award, was shortlisted for the 2006 Commonwealth Writers Prize, won the United States Book-of-the-Month Club's First Fiction award 2005 and won the Prix Spécial du Jury at the French Prix des Lecteurs 2007.

Inspired by his childhood in West Africa and by an accidental visit to a British concentration camp, Chris Cleave's second novel is entitled The Other Hand in the UK, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. It is entitled Little Bee in the US and Canada.

Chris Cleave has been a barman, a long-distance sailor, a teacher of marine navigation, an internet pioneer and a journalist. He lives in London with his French wife and two mischievous Anglo-French children.

Review

All in all we decided that this is yet another novel by someone trying to be cleverer than he really is. The "voices" of Sarah and Little Bee are distinct enough, with the latter perhaps being more entertaining than the former, but we found little to sympathise with in either of them, with Sarah especially coming in for some harsh criticism on account of her behaviour towards anyone who isn't herself. Most agreed that the story started well, and the detention centre scenes were well-drawn, but it suffered a high dose of "so what" from about a third of the way through, and many people suggested it would have been more interesting had we picked up the stories of the other detainees - especially Yevette - at some stage. The ending didn't sit well with anyone, being in many respects literally incredible, from the presence of Sarah and Charlie on the plane back to Nigeria, to the fact of the soldiers still being so keen on apprehending Bee two or more years later.

The scores from the two groups revealed that the group I'd been in had perhaps given The Other Hand too easy a ride, even though we thought our scores were on the low side. The damage lines up as: 6.5; 6; 6; 6; 7; 2; 7; 8; 5; 6; 6; 7; 5; 6; 4; 3; 1; 5; and 1 resulting in an average of 5.13 and a rather disappointing 38th place (fourth from last), above only The Riders, Running with Scissors, and The Full Montezuma.

 

Book choice for November 2009

The Go-Between [suggested by Ash Davies]

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Resembling both McEwan's Atonement and Frayn's Spies in its plot, this 1953 novel, recently reprinted, tells of a pre-adolescent's naive meddling in the love lives of elders, with disastrous results. Set in the summer of 1900, when the hopes and dreams for the century were as yet untarnished by two world wars and subsequent horrors, this novel is quietly elegant in style, its emotional upheavals restrained, and its 12-year-old main character, Leo Colston, so earnest, hopeful, and curious about life that the reader cannot help but be moved by his innocence.

Leo's summer visit to a friend at Brandham Hall introduces him to the landed gentry, the privileges they have assumed, and the strict social behaviors which guide their everyday lives. Bored and wanting to be helpful when his friend falls ill, Leo agrees to be a messenger carrying letters between Marian, his host's sister, and Ted Burgess, her secret love, a farmer living nearby. Catastrophe is inevitable - and devastating to Leo. In descriptive and nuanced prose, Hartley evokes the heat of summer and the emotional conflicts it heightens, the intensity rising along with the temperature. Magic spells, creatures of the zodiac, and mythology create an overlay of (chaste) paganism for Leo's perceptions, while widening the scope of Hartley's focus and providing innumerable parallels and symbols for the reader.

The emotional impact of the climax is tremendous, heightened by the author's use of three perspectives - Leo Colston as a man in his 60's, permanently damaged by events when he was 12; Leo as a 12-year-old, wrestling with new issues of class, social obligation, friendship, morality, and love, while inadvertently causing a disaster; and the reader himself, for whom hindsight and knowledge of history create powerful ironies as he views these events and the way of life they represent. Some readers have commented on Leo's unrealistic innocence in matters of sex, even as a 12-year-old, but this may be a function of age. For those of us who can remember life without TV and the computer, it is not so far-fetched to imagine a life in which "mass communication" meant the telegraph and in which "spooning" was an adults-only secret. [Review by Mary Whipple on Amazon]

Naturally the book has a Wikipedia page.

About the Author

L.P. Hartley was an English novelist, short-story writer, and critic whose works fuse a subtle observation of manners traditional to the English novel with an interest in the psychological nuance.

After he got his degree at the University of Oxford (1922), Hartley wrote criticism for the literary reviews and published short stories, many of them fantastic or macabre. A collection, Night Fears, appeared in 1924. His novella Simonetta Perkins (1925) was a light exercise in cosmopolitan manners, with a plot that recalls Henry James's "international" stories. The Killing Bottle (1932) was another collection of stories. The Shrimp and the Anemone (1944), his first novel in 19 years, was the first part of a trilogy about a brother and sister, Eustace and Hilda. The first volume treats their childhood. The Sixth Heaven (1946) and Eustace and Hilda (1947) follow them in adulthood. Adept at depicting childhood, Hartley focusses the action of another of his novels, The Go-Between (1953; filmed 1971), on a 12-year-old boy who inadvertently causes a tragedy through his ignorance of the complexity of adult relations.

Relations between brothers and sisters were further explored in My Sisters' Keeper (1970). Hartley's most complex and fully realized novel is The Boat (1949), in which he explores the struggles of a crowd-avoiding individual in England during World War II, when group effort and identification were the norm. A volume of essays, The Novelist's Responsibility, appeared in 1967 and The Collected Stories of L.P. Hartley in 1968.

The above is taken from Hartley's biography on the Britannica Online Encyclopedia; he also has a Wikipedia entry.

Review

This space available to hold a review of November's novel by someone who read it (as once again, and shamefully, I didn't).

The scores at the meeting revealed a definite bias to liking The Go-Between: 7; 9; 7.5; 9; 8; 8; 4; 9; 9; and 8 giving it an average of 7.85 and a very creditable 6th place, two hundredths behind the Book Thief and an even smaller margin ahead of Rebecca. At Ash's suggestion I have now included the "league table" at the top of this page.

 

Book choice for October 2009

Brave New World [suggested by Uzma Ali]

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Aldous Huxley's novel "Brave New World" is both one of the best science fiction books and one of the most brilliant pieces of satire ever written. BNW takes place on a future Earth where human beings are mass-produced and conditioned for lives in a rigid caste system. As the story progresses, we learn some of the disturbing secrets that lie underneath the bright, shiny facade of this highly-ordered world.

Huxley opens the book by allowing the reader to eavesdrop on a tour of the Fertilizing Room of the Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre, where the high-tech reproduction takes place. Into this seemingly advanced civilization is introduced John, a "savage" from a reservation where old human culture still survives. Thus, BNW is also a tale of "culture shock" and conflict.

Huxley creates a compelling blend of bizarre comedy, serious character study, futuristic extrapolation, and philosophical discussion. His writing style is crisp and witty, and cleverly incorporates references to canonical works of literature. Probably the scariest thing about BNW is the fact that, in many ways, humanity seems to be moving closer to Huxley's dystopian vision. [review on Amazon by Michael J. Mazza]

This famous work not only has its own Wikipedia page but is another of those works big enough to warrant its own website. If you wish, you can also read the whole thing online.

About the Author

Aldous Leonard Huxley (26 July 1894 - 22 November 1963) was an English writer and one of the most prominent members of the famous Huxley family. He spent the later part of his life in the United States, living in Los Angeles from 1937 until his death in 1963. Best known for his novels including Brave New World and wide-ranging output of essays, he also published short stories, poetry, travel writing, and film stories and scripts.

Aldous Huxley was a humanist and pacifist, and he was latterly interested in spiritual subjects such as parapsychology and philosophical mysticism. He is also well known for advocating and taking psychedelics.

By the end of his life Huxley was considered, in some academic circles, a leader of modern thought and an intellectual of the highest rank.

The above Wikipedia article continues with a more detailed biography, or try here for a shorter version that I don't want to reproduce as they seem a bit tetchy about copyright.

Review

This space available to hold a review of October's novel by someone who read it and/or attended this month's meeting (as I did neither).

The scores went: 7.5; 8.5; 7.5; 6; 8; 8; 8; 8; 7; 7; 7.5; 9; 9; and 8 resulting in an average of 7.79 and 8th place, two hundredths ahead of Notes on a Scandal and a hundredth behind Perfume.

 

Book choice for September 2009

The Leopard [suggested by Gill Smithson]

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I think this may be the nearest thing to a perfect novel. It's set in Sicily around the time of the '100 days' - the beginning of Garibaldi's campaign to unite Italy (and extend the franchise along the way). The central character is an aging aristocrat. He is at once admirable, contemptible and pitiable. He is more aware than his peers that the power of his class is crumbling, along with his own previously formidable powers. His loyalty - to his family, his class, and a king whom he personally despises - dominates his actions, even while he knows the inevitability of failure. Yet his personal relations with his family are distant.

The book is a great work of art. Much is understated, implied, ambiguous. The revolution has bittersweet consequences: it is obvious what was gained, but something was lost (the author was also a count). So much is said in so few words. Occasionally the peaks of human artistry inspire awe: how can a person do this? This is such a peak. Paragraphs, pages even, are perfect.[review by Jonathan Ward on amazon]

A much longer and more erudite review is available here and naturally the book has its own Wikipedia page.

About the Author

Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa was born in Palermo into one of the oldest families of Sicilian aristocracy. His father was the duke of Palma, and his grandfather was the prince of Lampedusa. The family had once been very rich, but had lost most of their property. Little is known about Lampedusa's private life. He lived a wild youth and only his mother could keep him under control. Likewise the family did not approve of his enthusiasm for literature - in the family library he read books of all kinds in several languages. During World War I Lampedusa served in the Italian army as an artillery officer, but was captured and imprisoned in Hungary. After escaping he returned to Italy on foot. His plans for a diplomatic career were ended by a nervous breakdown. The influence of his mother, with whom he spent much time abroad, hindered his literary aspirations. After she died, Lampedusa was free to devote himself to culture and write for his own pleasure.

The above is just the start of a much longer biog at that link, and he too has a Wikipedia page.

Review

Many of the 15 assembled in the face of the darkness and the rain to discuss The Leopard appeared to agree with the reviewer above that this book is a perfect read. From the sumptuous descriptions to the languid pace; the solidity of the characters to the inspiring and suggestive look at a fascinating period of history, it certainly provided plenty of food for thought. Food of a more traditional kind was also on offer, as Gill had thoughtfully provided a good supply of home-made Garibaldi biscuits to help the discussion along!

With only a few dissenters in the group, and even them admitting to an appreciation of di Lampedusa's language, the book looked destined for the Chorlton Chapters' top ten, but when the scores came in, 9; 9; 7; 6; 7.5; 7; 7; 8.5; 7; 7; 6; and 8 only gave it an average of 7.42 and 13th place, two hundredths ahead of Catcher in the Rye and a little way behind In Cold Blood.

 

Book choice for August 2009

The Book Thief [suggested by Michelle Nithsdale]

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The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak was the best-selling debut literary novel of the year 2007, selling over 400,000 copies. The author is a prize-winning writer of children's books, and this, his first novel for adults, proved to be a triumphant success. The book is extraordinary on many levels: moving, yet restrained, angry yet balanced - and written with the kind of elegance found all too rarely in fiction these days. The book's narrator is nothing less than Death itself, regaling us with a remarkable tale of book burnings, treachery and theft. The book never forgets the primary purpose of compelling the reader's attention, yet which nevertheless is able to impart a cogent message about the importance of words, particularly in those societies which regard the word as dangerous (the book is set during the Nazi regime, but this message is all too relevant in many places in the world today).

Nine-year-old Liesel lives with her foster family on Himmel Street during the dark days of the Third Reich. Her Communist parents have been transported to a concentration camp, and during the funeral for her brother, she manages to steal a macabre book: it is, in fact, a gravediggers' instruction manual. This is the first of many books which will pass through her hands as the carnage of the Second World War begins to hungrily claim lives. Both Liesel and her fellow inhabitants of Himmel Street will find themselves changed by both words on the printed page and the horrendous events happening around them.

Despite its grim narrator, The Book Thief is, in fact, a life-affirming book, celebrating the power of words and their ability to provide sustenance to the soul. Interestingly, the Second World War setting of the novel does not limit its relevance: in the 20th century, totalitarian censorship throughout the world is as keen as ever at suppressing books (notably in countries where the suppression of human beings is also par for the course) and that other assault on words represented by the increasing dumbing-down of Western society as cheap celebrity replaces the appeal of books for many people, ensures that the message of Marcus Zusak's book could not be more timely. It is, in fact, required reading - or should be in any civilised country. [review by Barry Forshaw on amazon.com]

About the Author

Australian author Markus Zusak grew up hearing stories about Nazi Germany, about the bombing of Munich and about Jews being marched through his mother's small, German town. He always knew it was a story he wanted to tell.

"We have these images of the straight-marching lines of boys and the 'Heil Hitlers' and this idea that everyone in Germany was in it together. But there still were rebellious children and people who didn't follow the rules and people who hid Jews and other people in their houses. So there's another side to Nazi Germany," said Zusak in an interview with The Sydney Morning Herald.

At the age of 30, Zusak has already asserted himself as one of today's most innovative and poetic novelists. With the publication of The Book Thief, he is now being dubbed a 'literary phenomenon' by Australian and U.S. critics. Zusak is the award-winning author of four previous books for young adults: The Underdog, Fighting Ruben Wolfe, Getting the Girl, and I Am the Messenger, recipient of a 2006 Printz Honor for excellence in young adult literature. He lives in Sydney.

The above taken from his entry on Random House's author pages, Zusak also has a Wikipedia page.

Review

19 members arrived to discuss The Book Thief and in general reaction was very positive: to the characters, the prose and the style. One or two people thought Death didn't make a believable narrator, or were irritated by the bold, centred "asides", but those who finished it found it both moving and relevant in its depiction of ordinary people coping with extraordinary circumstances, and even some who were only halfway through had already reached a deep connection with the story. Most notably, a sizable majority would recommend the book to friends.

This month's scorecard goes: 10; 9; 8; 7; 9; 8; 10; 5; 9; 8; 6; 8; 5; 7; and 9 resulting in a creditable average of 7.87, giving The Book Thief 5th position out of 37, behind A Prayer for Owen Meany and nudging Rebecca into 6th.

 

Book choice for July 2009

Stranger in a Strange Land [suggested by John Beresford]

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Stranger in a Strange Land, winner of the 1962 Hugo Award, is the story of Valentine Michael Smith, born during, and the only survivor of, the first manned mission to Mars. Michael is raised by Martians, and he arrives on Earth as a true innocent: he has never seen a woman and has no knowledge of Earth's cultures or religions. But he brings turmoil with him, as he is the legal heir to an enormous financial empire, not to mention de facto owner of the planet Mars. With the irascible popular author Jubal Harshaw to protect him, Michael explores human morality and the meanings of love. He founds his own church, preaching free love and disseminating the psychic talents taught him by the Martians. Ultimately, he confronts the fate reserved for all messiahs.

The impact of Stranger in a Strange Land was considerable, leading many children of the 60's to set up households based on Michael's water-brother nests. Heinlein loved to pontificate through the mouths of his characters, so modern readers must be willing to overlook the occasional sour note ("Nine times out of ten, if a girl gets raped, it's partly her fault."). That aside, Stranger in a Strange Land is one of the master's best entertainments, provocative as he always loved to be. Can you grok it? [Review from Amazon]

The book has its own Wikipedia page.

About the Author

Robert Anson Heinlein was born on 7 July 1907, in Butler, Missouri, the third son of Rex Ivar Heinlein and Bam Lyle Heinlein. At the time of Robert's birth, the family had been living with his maternal grandfather, Alva Lyle, M.D. A few months after Heinlein was born, his family moved from Butler to Kansas City, where he was to grow up.

His consuming interest, from the 1910 apparition of Halley's Comet, was for astronomy. By the time he entered Kansas City's Central High School in 1920, Heinlein had already read every book on astronomy in the Kansas City Public Library.

Heinlein has said that he read all the science fiction he could lay hands on from the age of 16. The cosmic romances of Olaf Stapledon affected him particularly. He read the first series of Tom Swift books, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Jules Verne, and H.G. Wells.

The above taken from the biographies page of the Heinlein Society website, RAH also has an entry on Wikipedia.

Review

With two notable exceptions, the group reaction to Stranger was surprisingly (to me!) favourable, although it was a smaller-than-usual group of 12 who gathered for the discussion this month.

Overall it came across as an interesting story which started well, lost its way a little in the middle, and ended... well... rather strangely. A book very much of its time, much of both the characterisation and the social commentary now seems very dated, and those who managed to find an abridged copy (something like 160,000 words) probably had a better time of it than those who struggled through the full text of 220,000.

In more detailed discussion, it was apparent that our modern audience didn't think the characters particularly believable, found it strange how Mike could get away with "disappearing" so many public figures and police without any comeback, and were for the most part amused by Heinlein's blatant wish-fulfilment in his descriptions of the Nest. Given all these shortcomings Stranger received a subdued scoreline of: 8; 7; 2; 7; 7; 7; 5; 5; 6.5; and 6 giving average of 6.05, which translates to 29th position, behind Slaughterhouse 5 and ahead of Panic.

 

Book choice for June 2009

The Barrytown Trilogy (The Van) [suggested by Gabby Evans]

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Note for Chapters members: Gabby originally proposed The Van as her selection, and there was then some debate about whether we should read the whole trilogy. In the end it was decided members should read The Van first (which stands on its own as a novel) and the other two books later if they have time.

Though Doyle never intended to write a trilogy, his first three novels are so true-to-life and so representative of north Dublin that it is easy to see why they are now grouped as a "trilogy." All are set in the same blighted neighbourhood, an area of overcrowded tenements, unemployment, and hardscrabble living, but also an area full of life, dreams for the future, rowdy friendships centred around the pub, and close families. Focusing on various members of the Rabbitte family, the novels show life as it is really lived here, with moments of high humour and often hilarious interactions alternating with moments of sad realisation and broken dreams.

The Van focuses on the father, Jimmy Rabbitte, Sr., now unemployed, who goes to work with his best friend Bimbo, who has bought a "chips" van for selling burgers, fish and chips at sporting events, an experience that tests the friendship.

The dialogue throughout these novels is lightning-fast, filled with local dialect, crude profanities, witticisms, and can-you-top-this insults. In this neighbourhood, survival is based on toughness and the ability to think quickly on one's feet, and the dialogue often resembles a stage play more than a novel. Characterisation, which is thin in The Commitments gradually becomes more complex in later novels. With The Van, Doyle develops into a real novelist, using dialogue to depict the complex tensions which evolve between two best friends who eventually find themselves at each other's throats.

The Rabbitte family is both individualised and symbolic of the neighbourhood, and the three novels together show their need for dreams, along with their attitudes towards education, sex, factory work, and the church. We see their "escapes" from the workday, their physicality, and their amusements and humour. Here, in his Barrytown novels, Doyle shows the vibrancy of life in one blighted area and celebrates the small successes and the love which give meaning to their lives. [Review by Mary Whipple at Amazon]

The novel has a Wikipedia page.

About the Author

Roddy Doyle was born in Dublin in 1958.

His novels are The Commitments, (originally published in Dublin by King Farouk, thereafter London, Secker & Warburg, 1987); The Snapper (Secker & Warburg, 1990); The Van (Secker & Warburg, 1991), which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize; The Barrytown Trilogy [The Commitments, The Snapper, and The Van] (Secker & Warburg,1992); Paddy Clarke, Ha Ha Ha (Secker & Warburg, 1993), which won the 1993 Booker Prize; The Woman Who Walked Into Doors (Secker & Warburg,1996); A Star Called Henry (Secker & Warburg,1999); Oh, Play that Thing (London, Jonathan Cape, 2004); and Paula Spencer (Jonathan Cape, 2006).

The above taken from Irish Writers Online, where the rest of his "biography" consists of further lists, of his short stories, drama, TV series, books for children and awards. Follow the link if you're interested. Doyle, naturally, also has a Wikipedia entry.

Review

A gradually increasing crowd eventually numbering 24 crushed into the Lounge's beer garden again this month to take advantage of the sunshine (and watch our papers blowing away).

Splitting into two groups, there was a generally positive response to the book in the larger group, with everyone appreciating how Doyle's prose kept to the point and didn't waffle about. We felt the characters were real and well realised; three-dimensional and that Doyle "got us on their side" very easily by dumping us in the middle of their conversations and showing their lives how they really were: alternately funny and sad, encouraging and discouraging, blighted and blessed. Pretty much like real life, then.

The smaller group, although I wasn't privy to their discussions, gave generally lower marks to The Van, so we ended up with a scoreline that looked like: 7; 8; 8; 7; 6; 9; 6; 10; 10; 9; 8; 5; 7; 5; 6; 8; 6; and 5 giving average of 7.22, and conferring 15th place on The Van (just behind The Great Gatsby and ahead of The Outsider).

 

Book choice for May 2009

The Full Montezuma [suggested by Ellie Liddle]

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Peter Moore is a travel journalist and radio broadcaster from Sydney; this side of the globe he's probably best known for The Wrong Way Home, a lively narration of his quixotic attempt to semi-circumnavigate the globe without stepping on a plane.

Moore's book The Full Montezuma is a moderately likeable, mildly intriguing first-person account of his travels in Mexico, Cuba, Jamaica, and neighbouring countries, accompanied by - the Girl Next Door - a "spunky blonde in a chamois bikini". Together, and sometimes apart, the two of them bus, boat and taxi around the principal sites of central America and the Caribbean, enjoying and enduring a six-month long low-budget mini-Odyssey that variously involves hurricanes, civil wars, and insurgencies, as well as the more predictable Mayan cities, Aztec ruins, drunk American students, and importuning mariachi bands.

Stylistically, it has to be said Moore is not averse to the odd cliché. "The zocalo has it all", "the highlight was the video", "the rest, as they say, is history", all occur in the opening chapters. Moore also fails to pull any "writerly" muscles trying to provide fresh information on the historical and political background. However, if all you require is an enthusiastic, undemanding, amiable companion on your armchair journey around a fascinating part of the world, this book could be just the ticket. [review from amazon]

The novel has a dedicated page on Moore's website.

About the Author

Peter Moore has a much better developed website than Alex Garland (*cough*) wherein the following amusing biography notes begin with:
The short version
Born 1962.
The long version
After a happy and carefree childhood on a five-acre farm on the outskirts of Sydney I attended Hurlstone Agricultural High School. Like most graduates of the Class of 1980 I still think about the pig we had to slaughter in Year Nine. Daily.

Read more on said biography page and/or check out his Wikipedia entry.

Review

Peter Moore graciously added a "welcome to Chorlton Chapters" note on his Full Montezuma page on learning (somehow) that we were reading his book this month. He may not be so gracious when he learns what we thought of it, although elsewhere on his website he says he stays away from critics and reviews generally, so if you're reading this Peter... look away now.

There was general antipathy to the book, with many people disliking his treatment of "the GND" (or even his referring to her as the GND in the first place). As a travel novel the book doesn't really reveal much about the places they visit, preferring to concentrate on the travelling involved. Whether this is because the act of travelling is supposed to be more exciting, or just because Moore's descriptive abilities are not up to the task of painting word pictures of exotic locations is unclear. The group (19 of us this month) thought his writing was generally lazy (an accusation that has been levelled before, according to his website) and some had an even stronger negative feeling about it, calling it clichéd and woefully in need of a stronger editor. The "Annoying Habits" feature at the start of each chapter struck a chord with many travellers (in partnerships) but was disappointing as it was never really followed through in the rest of the chapter.

With a scoreline that looked like: 0; 4; 2; 4.5; 5; 5; 2; 4; 5; 3; 4.5; 4; 5; 4; 5; 5; and 4 it was already obvious on the night that this was going to turn out to be our lowest scoring book ever simply because the previous lowest - Running with Scissors - had an average of 5.00 and TFM didn't manage a single score GREATER than 5. Sure enough the average turns out at 3.88, putting The Full Montezuma very firmly in last place out of the 34 books we've read so far.

 

Book choice for April 2009

American Pastoral [suggested by Lorraine Southern]

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In his 22nd novel, Roth shows his age. Not that his writing is any less vigorous and supple. But in this autumnal tome, he is definitely in a reflective mood, looking backward. As the book opens, Roth's alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman, recalls an innocent time when golden boy Seymour "the Swede" Levov was the pride of his Jewish neighborhood. Then, in precise, painful, perfectly rendered detail, he shows how the Swede's life did not turn out as gloriously as expected. How it was, in fact, devastated by a child's violent act. When Merry Levov blew up her quaint little town's post office to protest the Vietnam war, she didn't just kill passing physician Fred Conlon, she shattered the ties that bound her to her worshipful father. Merry disappears, then eventually reappears as a stick-thin Jain living in sacred povery in Newark, having killed three more people for the cause. Roth doesn't tell the whole story blow by blow but gives us the essentials in luminous, overlapping bits. In the end, the book positively resonates with the anguish of a father who has utterly lost his daughter. Highly recommended. [Barbara Hoffert, "Library Journal" ©1997 Reed Business Information, Inc.]

The novel has a Wikipedia page.

About the Author

Philip Milton Roth was born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1933, the son of American-born parents and the grandson of European Jews who were part of the nineteenth-century wave of immigration to the United States. He grew up in the city's lower-middle-class section of Weequahic and was educated in Newark public schools. He later attended Bucknell University, where he received his B.A., and the University of Chicago, where he completed his M.A. and taught English. Afterwards, at both Iowa and Princeton, he taught creative writing, and for many years he taught comparative literature at the University of Pennsylvania. He retired from teaching in 1992.

His first book was Goodbye, Columbus (1959), a novella and five stories that use wit, irony, and humor to depict Jewish life in post-war America. The book won him critical recognition, including the National Book Award for fiction, and along with that, condemnation from some within the Jewish community for depicting what they saw as the unflattering side of contemporary Jewish American experience. His first full-length novel was Letting Go (1962), a Jamesian realistic work that explores many of the societal and ethical issues of the 1950s. This was followed in 1967 by When She Was Good, another novel in the realistic mode that takes as its focus a rare narrative voice in Roth's fiction: a young Midwestern female.

Roth has a Wikipedia entry and his own society from which the above biog is extracted (there is more).

Review

Fifteen people gathered to discuss American Pastoral - a group size that wouldn't normally require splitting into two groups, but as Manchester United were battling Arsenal in the back room, to the raucous cheers of a couple of dozen supporters, we decamped to the front bar and STILL couldn't make ourselves heard across the table. Full review notes will have to wait until someone else offers to write them, because I didn't read the book this month, so for now you'll have to make do with the scoring, which went: 6; 7; 2; 7; 5; 3; 1; 9; 6; 10; 9; 10; 8; 8; 8; and 7 (including a couple of votes from absent members) giving American Pastoral an average score of 6.63 and 21st place in our list, behind Picture of Dorian Gray and slightly ahead of The Many-Coloured Land.

 

March 2009

The Wrong Boy [suggested by Esmé Caulfield]

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The Wrong Boy is the debut novel of Liverpudlian playwright Willy Russell, famed for his plays-turned-films Educating Rita and Shirley Valentine, and the West End musical stalwart Blood Brothers. Both Rita and Valentine were star-making roles and if (and when) The Wrong Boy makes it to the screen, the main character Raymond is likely to have the same effect on one lucky young actor.

Teenager Raymond Marks has not had a charmed life. His profligate, instrument-loving father made an early exit, leaving him with a struggling mother and doting Sartre-fan grandmother. Fifteen minutes of potential glory when he saved a boy from drowning are cruelly compromised when it's discovered that the boys were near the canal indulging in what they called "flytrapping", and Raymond becomes "the precocious pervert, the evil influence, the filthy little beast". Eventually packed off to "Gulag Grimsby" at the suggestion of his despised Uncle Jason, Raymond pours out his life's woes in a series of missives to his idol, one-time Smiths' star Morrissey.

Writing his letters with improbable speed, Raymond is ingratiating, unstoppable and superbly miserable, as befits a Morrissey devotee - and lucky enough to be surrounded by a bevy of gift-wrapped Northern character parts. Russell's genius is to take situations and characters that are firmly placed in the banally familiar - and then push them to their comic limits. In The Wrong Boy those limits are tested to the full. [review from amazon.com]

The novel has a page of Russell's website devoted to it.

About the Author

Russell was born in Whiston, Lancashire and grew up in a working class family in Liverpool, England. After leaving school with one O-level in English, he first became a ladies hairdresser and ran his own salon. Russell then undertook a variety of jobs, also writing songs which were performed in local folk clubs. He also contributed songs and sketches to local radio programmes. At 20 years old, he returned to college and became a teacher in the Toxteth area of Liverpool. Around this time he met his later wife, Annie, and became interested in writing drama.

His first success was a play about The Beatles called John, Paul, George, Ringo and Bert commissioned for the Everyman Theatre, Liverpool and transferring to the West End in 1974. Three of his later plays became outstanding successes: Educating Rita (1980); Blood Brothers (for which Russell also composed the music), first produced in 1983; and Shirley Valentine, which first opened in Liverpool in 1986. Russell received BAFTA and Oscar nominations for Best Adapted Screenplay for both Educating Rita and Shirley Valentine.

He published his first novel, The Wrong Boy, in 2000.

Russell has a both a website and a Wikipedia entry.

Review

Although there was quite a large crowd for a single group this week, everyone got involved in a lively and penetrating discussion. On the whole the book was enjoyed, although sheer irritation at many of the frustrating characters and events threatened to spoil it for some. Opinions varied on Russell's comedic accomplishment, though with general accord that there are some excellent set-pieces and well-written comic characters. The style of writing, in using letters to tell the story, was regarded as an unusual and effective device, although the style of writing struck some as artificial and unconvincing - a fault perhaps of the author's background in script writing. The conversation developed into some interesting ideas around the perils of individualism and flaws in social care programmes, and the issue of childhood alienation drew comparisons with last month's book. Ultimately, total agreement was reached on one issue, which was the desire to have the character of Gran in our families! [review by Ben Monk]

There were 16 people at the meeting who voted, and their votes went: 9; 8; 7; 5; 6.5; 4; 8; 8; 9; 8; 3; 7; 8.5; 9; 8; 10 giving The Wrong Boy an average score of 7.38 and 13th place in our list.

 

February 2009

Never Let Me Go [suggested by Paula Hyder]

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Kathy, Ruth and Tommy were pupils at Hailsham - an idyllic establishment situated deep in the English countryside.  The children there were tenderly sheltered from the outside world, brought up to believe they were special, and that their personal welfare was crucial.  But for what reason were they really there?  It is only years later that Kathy, now aged 31, finally allows herself to yield to the pull of memory.  What unfolds is the haunting story of how Kathy, Ruth and Tommy, slowly come to face the truth about their seemingly happy childhoods - and about their futures.  Never Let Me Go is a uniquely moving novel, charged throughout with a sense of the fragility of our lives.

The novel has its own Wikipedia entry.

About the Author

Kazuo Ishiguro is the hugely acclaimed author of five previous novels: A Pale View of Hills, An Artist of the Floating World, The Remains of the Day (1989 Winner of the Booker Prize), The Unconsoled (1995 Winner of the Cheltenham Prize) and When We Were Orphans (2000, shortlisted for the Booker Prize).  He received an OBE for Services to Literature in 1995, and the French decoration of the Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Letters in 1998.

He has a Wikipedia entry.

Review

Another bumper meeting this month, with even larger numbers attending that last month, and another six new members.

We split into two groups for discussion, but Never Let Me Go effectively divided us into three groups. Some loved it, some hated it, but the overwhelming majority stuck to the middle ground, wherein there were aspects of it we liked (mainly the social questions around cloning humans to harvest their organs, the well-realised interactions between the students, the accurate depiction of life in an institution like Hailsham and the behaviours it engenders), but it was held back from being a classic by Ishiguro's cold, bleak prose (apparently a feature of most of his other work, and really only effective in The Remains of the Day), his lack of any clear explanation of the donations, or why the students remained complicit in the face of their fate. In the end, the novel raised more questions than it answered and while this may have been the author's intent, it made for quite an unsatisfying read.

Its combined voting pattern of: 8; 8; 9; 9; 7; 7.5; 7; 2; 9; 7; 5; 6; 9; 6; 3; 3; 7; 6; 6; 6; 7; 7; 7; 6; 5; 6; and 6 resulted in an average score of 6.46 putting it 21st in the popularity list (out of 31).

 

January 2009

If This Is A Man / The Truce [suggested by Richard Layfield]

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The author was imprisoned in Auschwitz from March 1944 to January 1945.  Of the 650 Jews who entered the camp with him, 525 went to the gas chamber.  He survived, and here describes his experience during those ten months.  He explains the writing of this book as a need felt by all the survivors; 'the need to tell our story to 'the rest', to make the rest participate in it; the book has been written to satisfy this need: first and foremost, therefore, as an interior liberation.'  He writes simply, elegantly, precisely about his experience.  It is utterly matter-of-fact - not a hint of sensation, self-indulgence, or self pity.  And the effect upon the reader is exactly that which he sought for himself in telling the tale; an interior liberation.  To look at the worst that man can do, and know that the best cannot be destroyed by it.  [Review by Jane Rogers at Amazon]

Wikipedia entry.

About the Author

Primo Michele Levi (July 31, 1919 - April 11, 1987) was a Jewish-Italian chemist, Holocaust survivor and author of memoirs, short stories, poems, essays and novels.

He is best known for his work on the Holocaust, and in particular his account of the year he spent as a prisoner in Auschwitz, the death camp in Nazi-occupied Poland.  If This Is a Man (published in the United States as Survival in Auschwitz) has been described as one of the most important works of the twentieth century.

Wikipedia entry.

Review

Were people looking for a cheap night out in the depths of both January and the credit crunch, or is Chorlton Chapters becoming the go-to group for the readers of South Manchester? Whatever the reason 25 of us turned out to discuss If This Is a Man - one of the largest groups ever, which included NINE new members.

Unusually, too, most people had finished at least one of the two books, and opinions were divided between those who found it depressing and hard going (a significant minority) and those who believed it to be a work of literary genius from a man who survived the horror of Auschwitz through a combination of dogged determination and pure good luck.  A deep insight into the human condition when every civilising influence is stripped away, and yet men still find ways to segregate themselves and impose a meaningless hierarchy to everyday life, no matter how degraded that life becomes.

With a combined voting pattern of: 6; 7; 8; 6; 10; 8; 9.5; 9; 7; 10; 9; 8; 6; 7; 10; 10; 10; 9; 9; 9; 8; 9; 7; 8; and 8, Levi's work hit the high score of 8.30, giving it equal 2nd place with The Reader, behind our favourite book of all time To Kill A Mockingbird.

 

November 2008

One Big Damn Puzzler [suggested by Myra Bordon]

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Is be or is be not, is be one big damn puzzler...  On the day the plane brought the white man to the island, Managua was, as usual, preoccupled with his translation of Hamlet.  As the only islander who could read, let alone write, he felt the burden of his culture rested plenty damn heavy upon his shoulders.  The plane's arrival meant he'd have to put aside his work, strap on his leg and make his way to the landing beach to greet the newcomer.  The island had welcomed visitors before, of course.  The British had been there, rather noncommittally, but they had bequeathed their language, half a hotel, the small pigs that now ran wild in the jungle, and Shakespeare.  Then the Americans with their military base, its soldiers and guns.  That had not been a happy time - as the many landmine casualties testified - apart from the Coca Cola.  And there was Miss Lucy, who had embraced island life and its traditions, even if she did over-indulge those silly She-Boys.  But what to make of this new arrival, this young lawyer from America with his strange nervous gestures and his fervent belief in doing the right thing and winning reparation for the Islanders?  Managua sensed that William Hardt's coming to the island would change everything.  And he would be proved plenty damn right...  This achingly funny, rich and supremely moving novel confirms John Harding as one of contemporary fiction's most entertaining and observant chroniclers of the human condition.

About the Author

John Harding was born in a small Fenland village in the Isle of Ely in 1951.  After local village and grammar schools, he read English at St Catherine's College, Oxford, where he once sat next to Martin Amis during a lecture.  He worked first as a newspaper reporter, then as a writer and editor in magazines, before becoming a freelance writer.  His first novel was the acclaimed and bestselling What We Did On Our Holiday.  He lives in Richmond upon Thames with his wife and two sons.

Amazingly, John Harding has neither a website nor a page on Wikipedia, but there is some material here.

Review

An even larger group than last month - 23 - gathered to discuss "Puzzler" and the size of the turnout once again mandated a split into two groups.  While quite a few members didn't finish the book, there were three distinct reactions: Loved it; Hated it; Thought it was "OK".  The believability of the islanders abandoning their own language in favour of pidgin was called into question; the flashbacks were overlong and too numerous; and so on.  In contrast the books champions agreed with many of the online reviews: that it was a funny, life-affirming read that challenged many Western assumptions about societal values and cultural responses.

With a combined voting pattern of: 9; 5; 5; 7; 6; 7; 7; 5; 9; 7; 9; 4; 7; 7; 5; 7; 8; and 8, Puzzler enjoyed an average score of 6.78. giving it equal 16th place with Life of Pi (out of a total of 29 books read).

 

October 2008

Brideshead Revisited [suggested by Chloe Brew]

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The most nostalgic and reflective of Evelyn Waugh's novels, "Brideshead Revisited" looks back to the golden age before the Second World War.  It tells the story of Charles Ryder's infatuation with the Marchmains and the rapidly-disappearing world of privilege they inhabit.  Enchanted first by Sebastian at Oxford, then by his doomed Catholic family, in particular his remote sister, Julia, Charles comes finally to recognize only his spiritual and social distance from them. [from amazon.com]

The book has its own Wikipedia page.

About the Author

Evelyn Waugh was born in 1903 and was educated at Hertford College, Oxford. In 1928 he published his first novel, Decline and Fall, which was soon followed by Vile Bodies (1930), Black Mischief (1932), A Handful of Dust (1934) and Scoop (1938).  In 1945 he published Brideshead Revisited and he won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 1952 for Men at Arms.  Evelyn Waugh died in 1966.

Naturally, he too has his own Wikipedia page.

Review

Despite the bitterly cold night, a bumper attendance at tonight's meeting - 22 people including five new members - split into two groups to discuss Bridie.  Once again this was a book that polarised its readers.  Was the first half better, or the last half?  Were the characters lively and entertaining, or were they tedious upper-class ciphers?  Was Marchmain's death scene just a death scene, or an allegory?  And why did everyone end up so lonely and unhappy?  The debate lasted a full hour and although quite a few members clearly did not enjoy the read at all, there's no doubt that books like this make for much more interesting meetings!  

Voting (amalgamated from the two discussion groups) went like this: 7; 4; 8; 8; 8; 2; 6; 5; 7; 6; 8; 7; 6; 7; 4; 9; and a final 4, giving an average of 6.24 and placing it 21st (out of 28), between Northanger Abbey and Slaughterhouse 5.

 

September 2008

In Cold Blood [suggested by Kate Bermingham]

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"Until one morning in mid-November of 1959, few Americans - in fact, few Kansans - had ever heard of Holcomb.  Like the waters of the river, like the motorists on the highway, and like the yellow trains streaking down the Santa Fe tracks, drama, in the shape of exceptional happenings, had never stopped there."  If all Truman Capote did was invent a new genre - journalism written with the language and structure of literature - this "nonfiction novel" about the brutal slaying of the Clutter family by two would-be robbers would be remembered as a trail-blazing experiment that has influenced countless writers.  But Capote achieved more than that.  He wrote a true masterpiece of creative nonfiction.  The images of this tale continue to resonate in our minds: 16-year-old Nancy Clutter teaching a friend how to bake a cherry pie, Dick Hickock's black '49 Chevrolet sedan, Perry Smith's Gibson guitar and his dreams of gold in a tropical paradise - the blood on the walls and the final "thud-snap" of the rope-broken necks.

In Cold Blood is considered the originator of the non-fiction novel and the forerunner of the New Journalism movement.  It details the 1959 slaying of Herbert Clutter, a wealthy farmer from Holcomb, Kansas; his wife, and two children.  When Capote learned of the quadruple murder before the killers were captured, he travelled to Kansas to write about the crime.  With his childhood friend and fellow author Harper Lee, he interviewed local residents and investigators and took thousands of pages of notes.  The killers were arrested not long after the murders, and Capote ultimately spent six years working on the book.

The story weaves a complicated psychological story of two parolees who together commit a mass murder they were not capable of individually.  Capote's book also details the lives of the victims and the effect the crime had on where they lived.
[adapted from amazon.com and the book's Wikipedia page.]

About the Author

Truman Capote, best known for his extravagant, celebrated, and outrageous lifestyle as much as his famous works Breakfast at Tiffany's and In Cold Blood, reached a level of success few writers, celebrities, and socialites dream of.

Capote's professional career exploded with the literary acclaim of several short stories published in Mademoiselle and Harper's Bazaar and his first novel Other Voice, Other Rooms.

Shortly after critical acclaim for his nonfiction novel In Cold Blood, Capote hosted his famous Black and White ball in NYC.  This was the height of his social climb and he soon began his descent into drugs, alcohol, and reclusivity as his friends sharply rejected his thinly veiled portrayal of them in Answered Prayers.

The above taken from the homepage of Capote Bio. Naturally, he has his own Wikipedia page.

Review

A lively debate among the thirteen attendees at the club meeting generally agreed that In Cold Blood was an excellent piece.  Discussion covered Capote's life, his attitude to the killers and to the murder in general, the fact that he waited for them to be hanged to give him "the ending he wanted" when he could have used his research to give them a fairer trial, the ground-breaking nature of the first "faction" novel ever, and the question of how much of it was pure fiction.

Voting illustrated how highly regarded the book was, scoring as it did 7; 8; 8; 7; 7; 7; 8; 7; 8; and 8 resulting in an average of exactly 7.5 and placing it tenth, between Cloud Atlas and Catcher in the Rye.

 

August 2008

A Million Little Pieces [suggested by Wendy Williams]

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When he entered a residential treatment centre at the age of twenty-three, James Frey had destroyed his body and his mind almost beyond repair.  He faced a stark choice: accept that he wasn't going to see twenty-four or step into the fallout of his smoking wreck of a life and take drastic action.  Surrounded by patients as troubled as he, Frey had to fight to find his own way to confront the consequences of the life he had lived so far, and to determine what future, if any, he has.  A Million Little Pieces is an uncommon account of a life destroyed and a life reconstructed. [from amazon.com]

About the Author

James Frey is an American writer and the author of the current bestseller, Bright Shiny Morning.  He graduated from Denison University and also attended The School of the Art Institute of Chicago.  His first memoir, A Million Little Pieces, was published by Nan Talese/Doubleday in spring 2003.  Its follow-up, My Friend Leonard (also a memoir) was published by Riverhead in summer 2005.  Both books became New York Times #1 bestsellers.  In late 2005 and early 2006, investigators discovered that elements of his memoir, A Million Little Pieces, were untrue.  Frey, along with his family, currently resides in New York City.

The above is adapted from Frey's Wikipedia entry.  Many of the Google references to the "fabrication" of this month's chosen novel, including statements from both the publisher and the author, are suspiciously broken, but you can read more here, or on the book's own Wikipedia page.

Review

Another healthy attendance this month with 14 existing members and one new joiner turning up to discuss A Million Little Pieces.  In general the style and writing in the book were well liked and there was general agreement that they accurately and vividly portrayed the thoughts of an addict.  The issue of the veracity of the tale was debated at some length, with most people agreeing it didn't matter much, while a few picked out areas they thought didn't ring true (examples being the character of Lilly, the feast before the boxing match, and the fact that so many strata of society were represented in the clinic.

As with last month's book, the discussion continued for well over an hour and in the end the book earned Wendy the first ever Chorlton Chapters round of applause for the selection.  Unfortunately scoring was not quite so enthusiastic, the results being 10; 8; 8; 7; 9; 9; 6; 8; 7; 7; 7; 7; 6; 8; and 9 giving it an average of 7.73.  This puts it in eighth place (out of 26) just one one-hundreth of a point ahead of Cloud Atlas and a little behind the joint sixth place 'Notes on a Scandal' and 'We Need to Talk About Kevin.'

 

July 2008

The Riders [suggested by Kathy Macdermid]

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Fred Scully has gone to Ireland, where he is restoring a dilapidated cottage and waiting for Jennifer, his wife, and their seven-year-old daughter, Billie, to arrive from Australia.  But on the appointed day, Billie arrives without her mother, too traumatized to explain what happened during their last stop at Heathrow.  Thus begins a mad search through Greece, Italy, France, and Holland, always just missing the elusive Jennifer.  Though action-filled, this is primarily a study of the psychic price paid by an open-hearted man who loves deeply, if not wisely.  The novel's strengths lie in its richly detailed settings and in the archetypal fury of its portrait of psychic dissolution. [from amazon.com]

About the Author

Tim Winton began his first novel, An Open Swimmer (1982), at the age of 19, while on a Creative Writing course at Curtin University, Perth.  It won the Australian/Vogel National Literary Award, and he has since made his living as a full-time writer.

Born in Perth, Western Australia, in 1960, he is the author of several novels for adults, including Shallows (1986), a novel set in a whaling town, and Cloudstreet (1991), the tale of two working-class families rebuilding their lives, both won prestigious Miles Franklin Awards in Australia.  A theatrical adaptation of Cloudstreet toured Australia, Europe and the USA to universal acclaim.  His novel That Eye, the Sky (1986) was adapted for theatre by Justin Monjo and Richard Roxburgh, and also made into a film.  A second film adaptation was made of In the Winter Dark (1988), featuring Brenda Blethyn.  The Riders (1995) was shortlisted for the 1995 Booker Prize for Fiction, and also won a Commonwealth Writers Prize.  Many of his books are set in his familiar landscapes of Western Australia.

More information on the Contemporary Writers website, or the inevitable Wikipedia page.

Review

A slow burning meeting - by 7.35 only 5 people had turned up and yet within the next 15 minutes another 12 joined us, making a respectable 17 in all.  The Riders proved very much a "marmite" book, splitting the group unevenly into a majority of haters and a small number of lovers.  Even some of the haters appreciated Winton's prose style, although even this eventually irritated some of the more militant of that ilk.  Almost everyone despaired of the books total lack of plot, or meaning, and the (effective) child abuse of Scully's daughter Billie.  Various theories abounded regarding the meaning of the ghostly riders, whether Scully's wife ever existed, or was dead (possibly killed by him), what Irma was doing there at all apart from as an utter counterpoint to the character of Jennifer.

For all its faults, The Riders generated more debate than we have had for many months, the main discussion lasting well over an hour and sub-groups continuing to debate the novel while fetching more beer or even longer.  But when it came down to it, the scores tell their own story: 8; 4; 5; 6; 7; 4; 4; 4; 8; 8; 4; 4; and a final 0, with a large number of abstentions from those who hadn't finished or ever started. The average of 5.08 puts The Riders in second-to-last place just barely ahead of Running With Scissors.

 

June 2008

Rebecca [suggested by Siobhan Fitzmaurice]

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A young, naive woman who is the paid companion of an obnoxious rich woman is taken along to Monte Carlo.  While she smarts under the rudeness and gauche behavior of her employer, she meets the dark, handsome widower Max de Winter.

What follows is a love story and a ghost story of a woman haunted by the powerful presence of the former mistress of Manderley.  We never learn the name of the heroine as she marries Max, moves into the rigid but elegant life at Manderley and tangles with Mrs. Danvers, Manderley's fearsome housekeeper.  What unfolds is not only a mystery but a story of obsessions and evil.

Du Maurier creates an unforgettable atmosphere of decaying beauty, frightening spirits and horror mixed with love and death.

This month's read also has its own Wikipedia page from where the above synopsis is borrowed.

About the Author

Daphne was born in 1907, grand-daughter of the brilliant artist and writer George du Maurier, daughter of Gerald, the most famous Actor Manager of his day, she came from a creative and successful family.

She began writing short stories in 1928, and in 1931 her first novel, 'The Loving Spirit' was published.  It received rave reviews and further books followed.  Then came her most famous three novels, 'Jamaica Inn', 'Frenchman's Creek' and Rebecca'.  Each novel being inspired by her love of Cornwall, where she lived and wrote.

Further information on her website, or Wikipedia page.

Review

A bumper meeting of 19 members old and new had to split into two discussion groups - possibly the first time this has happened at The Lounge?  A very popular read, with no real dissenters, which is unusual for this group.  Maxim was generally disliked as a character, Mrs. Danvers was everyone's favourite villain (with a lot of speculation regarding the true nature of her relationship with Rebecca) and quite a few suggested they would have liked to see the girl get together with Frank.  The scoring this month was very uniform: 10; 7; 8; 7; 7; 7; 8; 8; 8; 9; 7; 8; 8; 8; 8; 8; 8; 7 and 8, which brings the average to 7.84 - not quite as high as everyone expected and only enough for 4th place - just ahead of perfume but a long way behind A Prayer for Owen Meany.

 

May 2008

The Name of the Rose [suggested by Rowena James]

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Along with his apprentice Adso of Melk (named after the Benedictine abbey Stift Melk), the Franciscan friar William of Baskerville journeys to an abbey where a murder has been committed.

As the plot unfolds, several other people mysteriously die.  The protagonists explore a labyrinthine medieval library, the subversive power of laughter, and come face to face with the Inquisition.  It is left primarily to William's enormous powers of logic and deduction to solve the mysteries of the abbey.

This month's read also has its own Wikipedia page from where the above synopsis is borrowed.

About the Author

Eco was born in the city of Alessandria in the region of Piedmont.  His father, Giulio, was an accountant before the government called upon him to serve in three wars.  During World War II, Umberto and his mother, Giovanna, moved to a small village in the Piedmontese mountainside.

Son of a family with thirteen children, and urged by his father to become a lawyer, he entered the University of Turin.  But, as what seems to be the fate of many great writers, he abandoned his studies of law; and against his father's wishes he took up medieval philosophy and literature, writing his thesis on Thomas Aquinas and earning his doctorate of philosophy in 1954.

After this, Eco worked as a cultural editor for Radiotelevisione Italiana and also lectured at the University of Turin (1956-64).  A group of avant-garde artists - painters, musicians, writers - that he had befriended at RAI became an important and influential component in Eco's future writing career.  This was especially true after the publication of his first book in 1956 Il Problema Estetico di San Tommaso, which was an extension of his doctoral thesis.  This also marked the beginning of his lecturing career at his alma mater.

Further information on his website, or Wikipedia page.

Review

A smaller meeting this month (9 members) and a very sparse review.  Basically the book was generally liked but several people felt it was an effort to read, especially the first part.  It was thought to be a very clever book with everything there for a reason but this made it very important to take in all the details which was one reason why it wasn't an easy read.  The Chorlton Chapters scorecard resulted in votes of 7; 8; 5; 8; 6; 4; 7; 8; and 5 giving an average of 6.44 and 16th place in our overall reading list.

 

April 2008

The Picture of Dorian Gray [suggested by Amy Gregg]

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A lush, cautionary tale of a life of vileness and deception or a loving portrait of the aesthetic impulse run rampant?  Why not both?  After Basil Hallward paints a beautiful, young man's portrait, his subject's frivolous wish that the picture change and he remain the same comes true.  Dorian Gray's picture grows aged and corrupt while he continues to appear fresh and innocent.  After he kills a young woman, "as surely as if I had cut her little throat with a knife," Dorian Gray is surprised to find no difference in his vision or surroundings.  "The roses are not less lovely for all that.  The birds sing just as happily in my garden."

As Hallward tries to make sense of his creation, his epigram-happy friend Lord Henry Wotton encourages Dorian in his sensual quest with any number of Wildean paradoxes, including the delightful "When we are happy we are always good, but when we are good we are not always happy."  But despite its many languorous pleasures, The Picture of Dorian Gray is an imperfect work.  Compared to the two (voyeuristic) older men, Dorian is a bore, and his search for ever new sensations far less fun than the novel's drawing-room discussions.  Even more oddly, the moral message of the novel contradicts many of Wilde's supposed aims, not least "no artist has ethical sympathies.  An ethical sympathy in an artist is an unpardonable mannerism of style."  Nonetheless, the glamour boy gets his just deserts.  And Wilde, defending Dorian Gray, had it both ways: "All excess, as well as all renunciation, brings its own punishment."

[review from amazon.com]

Naturally this book is so famous it has its own Wikipedia page.

About the Author

Oscar Wilde needs no further purple biographising prose on this humble website.

Here is an extract from the biography on his "official website"

Oscar Wilde's rich and dramatic portrayals of the human condition came during the height of the Victorian Era that swept through London in the late 19th century.  At a time when all citizens of Britain were finally able to embrace literature the wealthy and educated could only once afford, Wilde wrote many short stories, plays and poems that continue to inspire millions around the world.

Read more here, or see what Wikipedia has to say.

Review

14 members again this month, split (rather unevenly) into lovers and haters of the book, with both points of view being robustly defended.  The Chorlton Chapters scorecard resulted in votes of 9; 8; 8; 7; 8; 6; 8; 1; 1; 8; 7; 7; and 9 giving an average of 6.69.  The two dissenters therefore succeeded in keeping Wilde's work away from the top spot, its score translating into overall 14th place behind Life of Pi (and only just beating The Many-Coloured Land!).

 

March 2008

The Great Gatsby [suggested by Rachel Johnston]

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In 1922, F. Scott Fitzgerald announced his decision to write "something new - something extraordinary and beautiful and simple and intricately patterned."  That extraordinary, beautiful, intricately patterned, and above all, simple novel became The Great Gatsby, arguably Fitzgerald's finest work and certainly the book for which he is best known.  A portrait of the Jazz Age in all of its decadence and excess, Gatsby captured the spirit of the author's generation and earned itself a permanent place in American mythology.  Self-made, self-invented millionaire Jay Gatsby embodies some of Fitzgerald's - and his country's - most abiding obsessions: money, ambition, greed, and the promise of new beginnings.  Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us.  It eluded us then, but that's no matter - tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther...  And one fine morning - Gatsby's rise to glory and eventual fall from grace becomes a kind of cautionary tale about the American Dream.

It's also a love story, of sorts, the narrative of Gatsby's quixotic passion for Daisy Buchanan.  The pair meet five years before the novel begins, when Daisy is a legendary young Louisville beauty and Gatsby an impoverished officer.  They fall in love, but while Gatsby serves overseas, Daisy marries the brutal, bullying, but extremely rich Tom Buchanan.  After the war, Gatsby devotes himself blindly to the pursuit of wealth by whatever means - and to the pursuit of Daisy, which amounts to the same thing.  "Her voice is full of money," Gatsby says admiringly, in one of the novel's more famous descriptions.  His millions made, Gatsby buys a mansion across Long Island Sound from Daisy's patrician East Egg address, throws lavish parties, and waits for her to appear.  When she does, events unfold with all the tragic inevitability of a Greek drama, with detached, cynical neighbor Nick Carraway acting as chorus throughout.  Spare, elegantly plotted, and written in crystalline prose, The Great Gatsby is as perfectly satisfying as the best kind of poem.

[from amazon.com]

About the Author

Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald was born in St. Paul, Minnesota, on September 24, 1896, the namesake and second cousin three times removed of the author of the National Anthem.  He attended the St. Paul Academy; his first writing to appear in print was a detective story in the school newspaper when he was thirteen.

From 1911-1913 he attended the Newman School, a Catholic prep school in New Jersey.  Fitzgerald joined the army in 1917 as a second lieutenant in the infantry.  Convinced that he would die in the war, he rapidly wrote a novel, "The Romantic Egotist" which was rejected by Charles Scribner's, who praised the novel's originality and asked that it be resubmitted when revised.

After meeting eighteen-year-old Zelda Sayre, the youngest daughter of an Alabama Supreme Court judge, Fitzgerald had high hopes for the success of his revised novel, but it was again rejected by Scribners.  After the war he took a job, but the small salary was not sufficient to support the socialite Zelda, so Fitzgerald quit in July 1919 and returned to St. Paul to rewrite his novel as This Side of Paradise, which was then accepted by Scribners and published on March 26, 1920.  It made the twenty-four-year-old Fitzgerald famous almost overnight.  There followed a second novel, The Beautiful and Damned, after which the Fitzgeralds took their first trip to Europe in 1921 and then settled in St. Paul for the birth of their only child, Frances Scott (Scottie) Fitzgerald, who was born in October 1921.

They travelled to France in the spring of 1924 where Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby during the summer and fall in Valescure near St. Raphael.  Revisions followed during the winter of 1924-1925 while in Rome, and the novel was published in April.  The Great Gatsby marked a striking advance in Fitzgerald's technique, utilizing a complex structure and a controlled narrative point of view.  Fitzgerald's achievement received critical praise, but sales of Gatsby were initially disappointing.

[abridged and adapted from "A Brief Life of Fitzgerald" by Matthew Bruccoli, found on the Fitzgerald Society website.  Don't forget Wikipedia!]

Review

A good turn-out this month including our occasional Canadian tourist and two new members swelling numbers to 14 enjoyed one of the most prolonged discussions of recent months, lasting a full hour.  In general the book proved a popular glimpse of life in the 1920s, of which it was considered an accurate portrayal, even though the characters were generally regarded as unsympathetic and, to a degree, one dimensional.  This month's voting went: 7; 8; 9; 8; 7; 9; 8; 5; 6; 7; 8 and 6 resulting in an average of 7.33 and giving it overall 9th place of the 21 books read so far.

 

February 2008

Our Kid [suggested by Louisa Morgan]

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It was on a Sunday night in 1928 that Billy Hopkins made his first appearance.  Billy's tenement home on the outskirts of Manchester would be considered a slum today, but he lived there happily with his large Catholic family, hatching money-making schemes with his friends.  This book recalls an upbringing and an environment now vanished.

About the Author (in his own words)

I was born in 1928 in Collyhurst, Manchester (not a stone's throw from Les Dawson's stalking ground, also the birthplace of John Thaw, the actor.  There must be something in the water).  I attended St William's Infant School and St. Chad's Elementary School.  I passed the "scholarship" in 1939 and went to Xaverian College, (a grammar school), Victoria Park, Manchester.

In 1941, I was evacuated with the rest of the school to Blackpool where I had some pretty bizarre experiences, I can tell you.  At the age of fifteen, whilst still at school, I worked as a shoe-shine boy at the American Red Cross in St. Anne's Square, Manchester where I earned fabulous sums of money in tips from the American doughboys who gave me my first detailed sex education.  I left school in 1944 and went to work at the then Manchester Guardian as copy boy.  I had hopes of becoming their star reporter but when I saw that without an Oxbridge education there were few prospects, I moved on to become a pen-pushing clerk in the Inland Revenue.  The hum-drum routine was driving me slowly mad and so before this could happen, I decided to become a teacher and went to the College of St Mark & St John, Chelsea (1945-47).

I took up my first teaching post at a Secondary Modern school in Manchester in 1947.  I was put in charge of the top class - I was 19 and my pupils aged 14/15 and they bitterly resented having to stay on an extra year.  They gave me a hard time but my Collyhurst training had taught me a trick or two and I finally brought them round to their senses.

[Taken from the author's (home-grown) website, where there's a deal more of this].  What? No Wikipedia entry?

Review

A relatively small gathering enjoyed a lively discussion on this interesting book, ably aided and abetted by Louisa's prepared questions.  A few people really enjoyed the book, but many said either it wasn't as good as they expected, or had not done anything for them.  The language polarised many, the characters were not engaging enough, and there were no really memorable moments, although most expressed surprise at the amount of paedophilia Billy encountered.  As a historical "family saga" style narrative it worked well enough, but a small majority didn't enjoy this kind of book, and this was reflected in the voting: 7; 5; 6; 4; 6; 6; 5; 8 and 3 - an average of 5.56 (position 19 out of 20).

 

January 2008

The Life of Pi [suggested by Lorraine Southern]

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Some books defy categorisation: Life of Pi, the second novel from Canadian writer Yann Martel, is a case in point: just about the only thing you can say for certain about it is that it is fiercely and admirably unique.  The plot, if that's the right word, concerns the oceanic wanderings of a lost boy, the young and eager Piscine Patel of the title (Pi).  After a colourful and loving upbringing in gorgeously-hued India, the Muslim-Christian-animistic Pi sets off for a fresh start in Canada.  His blissful voyage is rudely interrupted when his boat is scuppered halfway across the Pacific, and he is forced to rough it in a lifeboat with a hyena, a monkey, a whingeing zebra and a tiger called Richard.  That would be bad enough, but from here on things get weirder: the animals start slaughtering each other in a veritable frenzy of allegorical bloodlust, until Richard the tiger and Pi are left alone to wander the wastes of ocean, with plenty of time to ponder their fate, the cruelty of the gods, the best way to handle storms and the various different recipes for oothappam, scrapple and coconut yam kootu.  The denouement is pleasantly neat.  According to the blurb, thirtysomething Yann Martel spent long years in Alaska, India, Mexico, France, Costa Rica, Turkey and Iran, before settling in Canada.  All those cultures and more have been poured into this spicy, vivacious, kinetic and very entertaining fiction.

(Review by Sean Thomas from amazon.co.uk)

Yann Martel was born in Spain in 1963 of peripatetic Canadian parents.  He grew up in Alaska, British Columbia, Costa Rica, France, Ontario and Mexico, and has continued travelling as an adult, spending time in Iran, Turkey and India.  After studying philosophy at Trent University and while doing various odd jobs - tree planting, dishwashing, working as a security guard - he began to write.  He is the prize-winning author of The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios, a collection of short stories, and of Self, a novel, both of them published internationally.  He has been living from his writing since the age of 27.  He divides his time between yoga, writing and volunteering in a palliative care unit.  Yann Martel lives in Montreal.  See also his entry on Wikipedia.

Review

A three-way split this month:  1. Those who either hadn't read it, or hadn't managed to get past that first milestone that everyone recognised was a "hump" in the book.  That tedious first 25-30% of the book meant that quite a few never made it as far as the lifeboat.  2. Those who'd read most or all of it and didn't think it worth the candle.  3. Read it and liked it.  The last section, with the Japanese shipping guys, threw a lot of people.  Was the story of the tiger really an allegory, and the "alternative" story the real one?  Or were both of them just a young boy's fantasy?  A way of coping with the extraordinary stress of being alone in an open boat for 227 days?  And how sad was it that the tiger never really "said" a proper good-bye?  There are innumerable on-line reviews for this work, and many of the points you'll find there were expressed during the discussion.  This month's scores reflected the three-way split referred to above.  They were: 7; 5; 9; 5; 5; 9; 7; 7 and 7, which gives an average of 6.78 (position 12 out of 19).

 

November 2007

We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver [suggested by Rachel Johnston]

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Two years ago, Eva Khatchadourian's son, Kevin, murdered seven of his fellow high-school students, a cafeteria worker, and a popular algebra teacher. Because he was only fifteen at the time of the killings, he received a lenient sentence and is now in a prison for young offenders in upstate New York. Telling the story of Kevin's upbringing, Eva addresses herself to her estranged husband through a series of letters. Fearing that her own shortcomings may have shaped what her son has become, she confesses to a deep, long-standing ambivalence about both motherhood in general and Kevin in particular. How much is her fault? Lionel Shriver tells a compelling, absorbing, and resonant story while framing these horrifying tableaux of teenage carnage as metaphors for the larger tragedy - the tragedy of a country where everything works, nobody starves, and anything can be bought but a sense of purpose.

Lionel Shriver is a novelist and has written for The Economist, the Wall Street Journal and the Philadelphia Enquirer, among other publications. She writes a weekly column for the Guardian. Born in the US, she has lived in Nairobi, Bangkok and Belfast. She is married to a jazz drummer and is based in London and New York. Her earlier novels include The Female of the Species, Ordinary Decent Criminals, A Perfectly Good Family and Game Control. We Need to Talk About Kevin is her seventh novel.

Review

An even better group for this month's discussion (15 and one new member) and from the scores it's a fair conclusion that most people who read it enjoyed it.  The debate touched on a number of aspects of both the book and the issues it raised.  Would you want to have children?  Can you be certain of developing a natural bond with a child?  There was praise for Kevin's mother for seeing her job through even though he's a monster, but questions whether his credentials as a monster were exaggerated by being told through her eyes alone.  How much was Franklyn to blame?.  Does Kevin pick up on his mother's constant antipathy towards him, and is this the cause of his madness?  Was it realistic for him to turn to murder with the fairly minor provocation he endured, when real murderers are often much more atrociously abused?  Many readers saw Kevin as an unrealistic, one-dimensional character and at least one person felt that there was much more to the book than a simple diatribe on how horrid children can be, examining as it does issues of society, weapons, education and responsibility.

With scores of 9; 8; 8; 8; 9; 8; 7; 8; 7; 7; 8; 6; and 8 giving an average of 7.77, We Need To Talk About Kevin matches the CC score for Notes on a Scandal and therefore finds itself in joint fifth position.

 

October 2007

Slaughterhouse 5 by Kurt Vonnegut [suggested by Kathryn Berzins]

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Now the most-nominated book (this is the third time it's been presented for selection and the second time by Kathryn, although this time she drafted Rebecca in to do the honours) we basically selected it because we knew it would keep coming back until we did.

Kurt Vonnegut's absurdist classic Slaughterhouse-Five introduces us to Billy Pilgrim, a man who becomes unstuck in time after he is abducted by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore.  In a plot-scrambling display of virtuosity, we follow Pilgrim simultaneously through all phases of his life, concentrating on his (and Vonnegut's) shattering experience as an American prisoner of war who witnesses the firebombing of Dresden.

Don't let the ease of reading fool you - Vonnegut's isn't a conventional, or simple, novel.  He writes, "There are almost no characters in this story, and almost no dramatic confrontations, because most of the people in it are so sick, and so much the listless playthings of enormous forces.  One of the main effects of war, after all, is that people are discouraged from being characters..."  Slaughterhouse-Five (taken from the name of the building where the POWs were held) is not only Vonnegut's most powerful book, it is as important as any written since 1945.  Like Catch- 22, it fashions the author's experiences in the Second World War into an eloquent and deeply funny plea against butchery in the service of authority.  Slaughterhouse-Five boasts the same imagination, humanity, and gleeful appreciation of the absurd found in Vonnegut's other works, but the book's basis in rock-hard, tragic fact gives it a unique poignancy - and humour.

The book is so famous it has its own Wikipedia page

Most readers interested in the fantastic in literature are familiar with Kurt Vonnegut, particularly for his uses of science fiction.  Many of his early short stories were wholly in the science fiction mode, and while its degree has varied, science fiction has never lost its place in his novels.  Vonnegut has typically used science fiction to characterize the world and the nature of existence as he experiences them.  His chaotic fictional universe abounds in wonder, coincidence, randomness and irrationality.  Science fiction helps lend form to the presentation of this world view without imposing a falsifying causality upon it.  In his vision, the fantastic offers perception into the quotidian, rather than escape from it.  Science fiction is also technically useful, he has said, in providing a distance perspective, "moving the camera out into space," as it were.  And unusually for this form, Vonnegut's science fiction is frequently comic, not just in the "black humor" mode with which he has been tagged so often, but in being simply funny.

All the above information is lifted from Kurt Vonnegut's website which then goes on to discuss his graphic art at great length.

Review

A good group for this month's discussion (12, including three new members) with opinions fairly evenly split between those who liked it and those who didn't.  The "nays" were generally of the opinion that the book was irritating (especially in its use of "so it goes") and plotless, jumped about too much and was hard to get into.  Strangely, these were precisely the qualities that endeared the book to the "yays," who agreed with the received wisdom that Vonnegut was a genius especially in his juxtaposition of narrative (for instance where the nestling of jewellery between breasts sits beside a description of bombed Dresden, or where the aloof behaviour of the Tralfamadorians is used as a counterpoint to humans' attitude to war), wit and multi-layered prose.  This month's scores were 9; 6; 4; 3; 9; 6.5; 8; 4; 4; 6; and 8 delivering an average of 6.14 and beating only Panic, Northern Lights, To The Lighthouse and Running with Scissors.

 

September 2007

To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee [suggested by Lisa Williams]

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Set in the small Southern town of Maycomb, Alabama, during the Depression, To Kill a Mockingbird follows three years in the life of 8-year-old Scout Finch, her brother, Jem, and their father, Atticus - three years punctuated by the arrest and eventual trial of a young black man accused of raping a white woman.  Though her story explores big themes, Harper Lee chooses to tell it through the eyes of a child.  The result is a tough and tender novel of race, class, justice, and the pain of growing up. Like the slow-moving occupants of her fictional town, Lee takes her time getting to the heart of her tale.  We first meet the Finches the summer before Scout's first year at school.  She, her brother, and Dill Harris, a boy who spends the summers with his aunt in Maycomb, while away the hours reenacting scenes from Dracula and plotting ways to get a peek at the town bogeyman, Boo Radley.  At first the circumstances surrounding the alleged rape of Mayella Ewell, the daughter of a drunk and violent white farmer, barely penetrate the children's consciousness.  Then Atticus is called on to defend the accused, Tom Robinson, and soon Scout and Jem find themselves caught up in events beyond their understanding.  During the trial, the town exhibits its ugly side, but Lee offers plenty of counterbalance as well - in the struggle of an elderly woman to overcome her morphine habit before she dies; in the heroism of Atticus Finch, standing up for what he knows is right; and finally in Scout's hard-won understanding that most people are essentially kind "when you really see them."  By turns funny, wise, and heartbreaking, To Kill a Mockingbird is one classic that continues to speak to new generations, and deserves to be reread often. [review by Alix Wilber - the first of 1660 customer reviews on Amazon.com]

Nelle Harper Lee was born on April 28, 1926, to Amasa Coleman Lee and Frances Cunningham Finch Lee.  Harper Lee grew up in the small southwestern Alabama town of Monroeville.  Her father, a former newspaper editor and proprietor, was a lawyer who also served on the state legislature (1926-38).  As a child, Lee was a tomboy and a precocious reader, and she enjoyed the friendship of her schoolmate and neighbor, the young Truman Capote, who provided the basis of the character of Dill in her novel To Kill a Mockingbird.

Lee was only five years old in when, in April 1931 in the small Alabama town of Scottsboro, the first trials began with regard to the purported rapes of two white women by nine young black men.  The defendants, who were nearly lynched before being brought to court, were not provided with the services of a lawyer until the first day of trial.  Despite medical testimony that the women had not been raped, the all-white jury found the men guilty of the crime and sentenced all but the youngest, a twelve-year-old boy, to death.  Six years of subsequent trials saw most of these convictions repealed and all but one of the men freed or paroled.  The Scottsboro case left a deep impression on the young Lee, who would use it later as the rough basis for the events in To Kill a Mockingbird, her first and only novel, which was published in 1960 after a two-year period of revising and rewriting under the guidance of her editor, Tay Hohoff.  To Kill a Mockingbird won the 1961 Pulitzer Prize despite mixed critical reviews.

See also her Wikipedia page.

Review

Although only a small group (8 eventually) gathered to discuss this book, with only one exception it was loved by everyone who had read it.  The characterisation; the nuances; the perspective of the narrator Scout; the slowly unfurling ambivalences of life in rural America - everything about the novel came in for praise and generated much discussion about the various prejudices displayed by most of the inhabitants of the novel, the lessons (both literal and figurative) and the inevitability of the outcomes. The voting, at 10; 10; 9; 9; 9; 10; 5, gave the novel an average of 8.86 making it the runaway favourite Chorlton Chapters book so far, a full half a point ahead of its nearest rival, The Reader.

 

August 2007

Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller [suggested by Rowena James]

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Pottery teacher Sheba lets herself be talked into an affair with 15-year-old pupil Connolly; part of what is admirable about this novel is that there is no real attempt to extenuate this - it's wrong and she knows this from the start, enough to lie to herself and others about it.  It's an abuse of her very limited power - he is one of the few of her pupils interested in art, not interested in perpetually disrupting her lessons.  Sheba is not alone in abusing power, though, and Heller forces us to confront this unpleasant truth about the moralising, managerial headmaster, the husband freed by Sheba's action to seduce his own very slightly older students, and the relatives who never liked her much and can now disown her.  Above all, she devotes most of the novel to Barbara, the older colleague who becomes Sheba's confidante and slowly manipulates the situation to make Sheba entirely dependent on her.  This is a brilliantly gloomy study in obsession - and the obsession in question is not actually Sheba's with her underage lover. [review from amazon.com by Roz Kaveney]

Zoe Heller was born in London in 1965 and educated at Oxford University and Columbia University, New York.  She is a journalist who, after writing book reviews for various newspapers, became a feature writer for The Independent.  She wrote a weekly confessional column for the Sunday Times for four years, but now writes for the Daily Telegraph and earned the title 'Columnist of the Year' in 2002.  She is the author of two novels: Everything You Know (2000), a dark comedy about misanthropic writer Willy Miller, and Notes on a Scandal (2003) which tells the story of an affair between a high school teacher and her student through the eyes of the teacher's supposed friend, Barbara Covett.  It was shortlisted for the 2003 Man Booker Prize for fiction, and was recently released as a feature film, starring Cate Blanchett and Dame Judi Dench.  She lives in New York.

See also her extremely sparse Wikipedia page.

Review

I would welcome some input from the group for this review, but in the absence of that, or more time to write it myself, this month's discussion will be restricted to a record of the voting, which gave it: 9; 8; 9; 8; 8; 7; 7; 7; 6; 7; 9; 9; 7 - an average of 7.77, which makes it our fourth most popular book ever, just below Perfume.

 

July 2007

The Many-Coloured Land by Julian May [suggested by John Beresford]

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Although having achieved some success with short fiction, Julian May seemed to leap from nowhere into SF major status with this initial sequence of four books (The Saga of The Exiles).  The Many-Coloured Land is one of those wonderful books in which the narrative refuses to provide explanation of its own internal history.  In the first chapters, tantalising hints are given about "the Intervention" and "The Metapsychic Rebellion" and the reader gradually picks up the pieces of human history throughout the text although some references are not explained until much later in the novel sequence.  It is not clear whether the entire overall saga (which comprises eight books) was initially designed as such, but as the full narrative is in the form of a time-loop, the final novel comes back to almost the point at which The Many-Coloured Land starts.  Deftly manipulating a multi-character storyline, May starts us off in a near future in which human colonists are being set up on hundreds of ethnically-streamed fresh planets; many humans are developing metapsychic operancy with talents such as psychokinesis, telepathy, the transformation of matter, illusion spinning and mental coercion.  Five alien races, members of a kind of superpsychic gestalt, have made themselves known and are helping Humanity along the road to Coalescence.  Meanwhile, Madame Guderian, a French hotelier, is custodian of an odd piece of Earth history.  Her late husband had constructed a machine which interfaced with a unique geological and temporal anomaly within the Earth's crust.  He had built, in effect, a time portal, but one which led only one way, back to Earth's Pliocene past.  After a traveller paid handsomely for the privilege of escaping the modern world into Exile, Madame Guderian began a trade in transporting `misfits', those discomfited by the strange complex place their society had become.  Once in the past, however, the travellers find themselves enslaved by the Tanu, an oddly humanoid race.  The aliens had fled to earth from their own world where they were being forced to abandon certain traditions which their enlightened brethren deemed barbarous.  We follow the fortunes of several travellers, all of whom got to know each other in the orientation and survival training sessions before they left.  May's characters are an eccentric bunch: a "blinded" Grandmaster Metapsychic lady; a disgraced space captain; a neurotic Viking; a psychotic lesbian sports player; a recidivist trickster; a lovesick sociologist; a bereaved palaeontologist; and an "old school" nun.  It sparkles with wit and a depth of character and background research which is refreshing and breathtaking.  It is by far one of the best series of books of the late Twentieth Century, and is compulsory reading for fans of SF.  [Review from amazon.com by Rod Williams]

Julian May grew up in Chicago, and became involved in science fiction fandom in her late teens.  She sold her first professional fiction, a short story called "Dune Roller", in 1951 to John W. Campbell's Astounding Science Fiction.  She met her future husband, Ted Dikty, later that year when he requested permission to reprint the story in his anthology series; they were married in 1952.  She chaired the Tenth World Science Fiction Convention in Chicago that same year.  After selling one more short story, "Star of Wonder" (to Thrilling Wonder Stories in 1953), she dropped out of the science fiction field.  During the 1950s, May wrote thousands of science articles for the World Book encyclopedia.  In 1957 she and her husband founded a production and editorial service for small publishers, specializing in children's non-fiction.  Between 1957 and 1981 she wrote more than one hundred books for children and young adults, all non-fiction, and two stories under her own names and a variety of pseudonyms.  In 1981 she returned to science fiction with the Saga of the Exiles.  In 1987 she continued the series with Intervention followed by the Galactic Milieu Series: Jack the Bodiless, Diamond Mask and Magnificat.

The above short bio is taken from Julian May's Wikipedia page, which also contains an extensive bibliography.

Review

Holiday season, varied other overt excuses and, I suspect, a less popular choice than most months meant that our group discussion this month was confined to a small but select group of 7, two of whom had not read the book.  Of those who had made some progress, most were either surprised to be enjoying it, or expected to, although May's rather tenuous development of her characters, and her penchant for describing scenes externally rather than through the minds of one or other character, came in for some criticism.  The ideas were widely seen as strong and interesting, even if their execution lacked conviction.  More than one person suggested that the text showed signs of immaturity as a writer, with plot holes, shifts of perspective and failure to follow up interesting ideas all cited as evidence.  Overall there was agreement that the major story lines could have been accommodated in any "world" but both the future and the past conjured up by May were full of fascinating detail.  The majority of readers thought they would complete the trilogy given the chance.  The (very short!) scorecard for this month reads: 2; 9; 6; 7; 9 - an average of 6.6 putting it below Buddha Da and above Northanger Abbey in the ratings, slightly below the mid-point of the table.

 

June 2007

Running with Scissors: A Memoir by Augusten Burroughs [suggested by Ben Monk]

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There is a passage early in Augusten Burroughs's harrowing and highly entertaining memoir Running with Scissors that speaks volumes about the author.  While going to the garbage dump with his father, young Augusten spots a chipped glass-top coffee table that he longs to bring home.  "I knew I could hide the chip by fanning a display of magazines on the surface, like in a doctor's office," he writes, "And it certainly wouldn't be dirty after I polished it with Windex for three hours."

There were certainly numerous chips in the childhood Burroughs describes: an alcoholic father, an unstable mother who gives him up for adoption to her therapist and an adolescence spent as part of the therapist's eccentric extended family, gobbling prescription medicines and fooling around with both an old electroshock machine and a paedophile who lives in a shed out back.  But just as he dreamed of doing with that old table, Burroughs employs a vigorous program of decoration and fervent polishing to a life that many would have simply thrown in a landfill.  Despite her abandonment, he never gives up on his increasingly unbalanced mother.  And rather than despair about his lot, he glamorises it: planning a "beauty empire" and performing an a cappella version of "You Light Up My Life" at a local mental ward.

Burroughs' perspective achieves a crucial balance for a memoir: emotional but not self-involved, observant but not clinical, funny but not deliberately comic.  And it's ultimately a feel-good story: as he steers through a challenging childhood, there's always a sense that Burroughs' survivor mentality will guide him through and that the coffee table will be salvaged after all. [this review from amazon.co.uk]

Augusten Burroughs was born in 1965 and raised in Western Massachusetts.  He is the author of the memoirs Running with Scissors (2002) and Dry (2003), and the essay collections, Magical Thinking: True Stories (2004) and Possible Side Effects (2006), all of which were instant bestsellers both in hardcover and paperback.  The #1 New York Times bestseller, Running with Scissors, has remained on the New York Times bestseller list for over two-and-a-half consecutive years.  He is also the author of the novel, Sellevision (2000), which is currently in development for film.  His books are published in over 25 countries.  The film of Running with Scissors, written and directed by Ryan Murphy (creator of Nip/Tuck) and executive produced by Brad Pitt, will be released on October 10th, 2006.  Critics have raved about the film in private press screenings and Oscar buzz is building in the national media.  The picture stars Annette Bening, Alec Baldwin, Brian Cox, Jill Clayburgh, Joeseph Fiennes, Gwenyth Paltrow, Evan Rachel Wood, with newcomer Joe Cross portraying Augusten.  Augusten himself is featured in the film at the very end.  The film version of Sellevision is in pre-production, to be adapted for the screen and directed by Mark Bozek.

The above rather out of date bio is taken from the Augusten Burroughs website.  As usual he also a Wikipedia page.

Review

Despite the inclement weather 13 of us gathered in the Lounge Bar to discuss this month's read.  A surprisingly large number had finished the book this month and once again discussion was very animated.  No-one had much sympathy for any of the characters, although Augusten became quite likeable during the read.  The book was episodic in its latter half, we felt, as if there hadn't been enough material to maintain the narrative.  No-one could understand why the effective child abuse had been allowed to continue, and Kathryn pointed out that many of the more outrageous scenes (living outside, the hole in the roof, pooing on the floor, etc) were either completely fabricated or wildly exaggerated according to the "real" Finch family, who had taken action against the author for invasion of privacy and libel.  A lengthy article containing interviews with the surviving family members can be found here. To the extent that anyone had a "favourite" character it tended to be Hope or Jeff, but the general mood of antipathy to all the characters prevailed and although so many of us finished it, no-one admitted to really enjoying it (even though it may have made us laugh out loud a few times).  The scorecard for this month reads: 5; 6; 6; 7; 6; 6; 4; 4; 2; 3; 6; 5 - an average of exactly 5 and making it our lowest scoring book ever, by quite a large margin.

 

May 2007

The Outsider by Albert Camus [suggested by Lynsey Rodger]

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Meursault leads an apparently unremarkable bachelor life in Algiers until he commits a random act of violence.  His lack of emotion and failure to show remorse only serve to increase his guilt in the eyes of the law, and challenges the fundamental values of society a set of rules so binding that any person breaking them is condemned as an outsider.  For Meursault, this is an insult to his reason and a betrayal of his hopes; for Camus it encapsulates the absurdity of life.  In "The Outsider" (1942), his classic existentialist novel, Camus explores the predicament of the individual who refuses to pretend and is prepared to face the indifference of the universe, courageously and alone.

The Outsider (also known as The Stranger) has its own Wikipedia page.

Born November 7th, 1913 in Algeria son of French 'pied-noir' settlers Camus grew up in poverty in the proletarian neighbourhood of Belcourt in Algiers.  His natural talent was spotted by teacher Louis Germain who helped the young Camus win a high school scholarship.  Camus would later dedicate his 1957 Nobel Prize acceptance speech to Germain.  While at school Camus developed a love of football and played well in goal.  He wanted to play professionally but tuberculosis, a disease that would plague him for life, ended these dreams.

The above is the first section of an extensive biography that may be found on the pages of the Albert Camus Society.  Naturally he also has his own Wikipedia page.

Review

Another small turnout this month - 11 of us, including a visitor from Toronto, gathered once again in the Lounge Bar to discuss May's book.  Three of those attending hadn't read the book, but for such a small book it generated a very animated discussion among those who had read it.  Lynsey had prepared a list of searching questions for the audience, who felt that Meursault had no sympathy for anyone and was almost completely disconnected from the world - almost autistic.  It was felt that we shouldn't pity him but it was hard not to: he is the way he is and can't help it.  The original French title was L'�tranger, which can be translated as the outsider, or the stranger, or the foreigner, and there was a lengthy debate about how the original slipped easily between these meanings whereas the translation had to use one or another and as a result put Meursault in a box.  It was felt unfair that his lack of grief over his mother's death was used to prove he was a bad person simply because there was no motive for the murder (except for his explanation of "the sun").  On the question of transparency, we debated what it means to "be yourself" when most people put on different personae for their work life, home life, and being with friends.  The Outsider was voted the #1 "milestone" book for men, and the group felt this was probably because at that age women are more inclined to communicate and conform, whereas men don't communicate and try to be different.  The scoresheet results for this month were: 6; 8; 5; 7; 6; 9; 8; 8 - an average of 7.13 which puts The Outsider firmly in the middle of the scoring of our past reads.

 

April 2007

Northern Lights by Philip Pullman [suggested by Lisa Williams]

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Lyra's life is already sufficiently interesting for a novel before she eavesdrops on a presentation by her uncle Lord Asriel to his colleagues in the Jordan College faculty, Oxford.  The college, famed for its leadership in experimental theology, is funding Lord Asriel's research into the heretical possibility of the existence of worlds unlike Lyra's own, where everyone is born with a familiar animal companion, magic of a kind works, the Tartars are threatening to overrun Muscovy, and the Pope is a puritanical Protestant.  Set in an England familiar and strange, Philip Pullman's lively, taut story is a must-read and re-read for fantasy lovers of all ages.  The world-building is outstanding, from the subtle hints of the 1898 Tokay to odd quirks of language to the panserbjorne, while determined, clever Lyra is strongly reminiscent of Joan Aiken's Dido Twite.

Read an alternative (much longer) review of Northern Lights here.

Pullman was born in Norwich in 1946, and educated in England, Zimbabwe, and Australia, before his family settled in North Wales.  He received his secondary education at Ysgol Ardudwy, Harlech, and then went to Exeter College, Oxford, to read English.  He started teaching at the age of 25, and taught at various Oxford Middle Schools before moving to Westminster College in 1986, where he spent eight years involved in teaching students on the B.Ed. course.  He has published nearly twenty books, mostly of the sort that are read by children, though the natural audience for his work spans many ages.

Pullman's first children's book was Count Karlstein (1982, republished in 2002).  That was followed by The Ruby in the Smoke (1986), the first in a quartet of books featuring the young Victorian adventurer, Sally Lockhart.

The above is abridged from his website but don't expect it to be updated much.  His home page bears the legend: "Welcome to my website.  I hope you'll find it interesting and easy to find your way around.  I shall be updating it regularly, so do keep coming back to see what's new." but then has a "January message" (at the end of March) which continues: "The trouble with intending to say something regularly is that I haven't always got something to say.  How in the world do newspaper columnists find 600 words without fail every couple of days?  And these people who fill cyberspace with their blogs day after day after day?  Or preachers coming up with a sermon every week?  It's not like writing a novel.  I know how to keep going at that.  But most of the time I'd rather read than write, and rather listen than talk..."

Review

Probably owing to uncertainties about the venue, 12 members turned out to the Lounge Bar to discuss April's book.  The majority enjoyed it as a fantasy yarn, but there were a few dissenting voices, claiming that the story didn't engage them, that Pullman had an annoying habit of talking down to his audience, and obvious plot points were laboured ad nauseam.  While this would be OK for an exclusively young readership it was felt that this made for a less enjoyable read as an adult.  The much vaunted "betrayal" was seen by many as a damp squib - either because they had forgotten about it, or because it was telegraphed too early, or its impact was lessened through being unintentional rather than deliberate.  The concept of Dust and what it might be did not exercise anyone's mind in the main, the group was evenly split on the question of whether they liked the idea of a daemon, and a sizeable group thought the bears were the best creatures.  The commonest criticism of the work was that it was too derivative and while many enjoyed reading it, only three people said they intended to read the rest of the trilogy.  The scoresheet for this month read: 3; 6; 5; 6; 4; 5; 8; 7; 7; 7; 5; 8 - an average of 5.92 - equal second from bottom place with To The Lighthouse.

 

March 2007

The Reader by Bernhard Schlink [suggested by Susan Owens]

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Originally published in Switzerland and gracefully translated into English by Carol Brown Janeway, The Reader is a brief tale about sex, love, reading and shame in post-war Germany.  Michael Berg is 15 when he begins a long, obsessive affair with Hanna, an enigmatic older woman.  He never learns very much about her and when she disappears one day, he expects never to see her again.  But, to his horror, he does.  Hanna is a defendant in a trial related to Germany's Nazi past and it soon becomes clear that she is guilty of an unspeakable crime.  As Michael follows the trial, he struggles with an overwhelming question: what should his generation do with its knowledge of the Holocaust?  "We should not believe we can comprehend the incomprehensible, we may not compare the incomparable...  Should we only fall silent in revulsion, shame, and guilt?  To what purpose?"

The Reader, which won the Boston Book Review's Fisk Fiction Prize, wrestles with many more demons in its few, remarkably lucid pages.  What does it mean to love those people - parents, grandparents, even lovers - who committed the worst atrocities the world has ever known?  And is any atonement possible through literature?  Schlink's prose is clean and pared down, stripped of unnecessary imagery, dialogue and excess in any form.  What remains is an austerely beautiful narrative of the attempt to breach the gap between Germany's pre and post-war generations, between the guilty and the innocent and between words and silence.  (Synopsis from Amazon.com)

The Reader has been an Oprah Winfrey book club choice

Bernhard Schlink was born in Germany in 1944.  A professor of law at the University of Berlin and a practising judge, he is the author of the major international best-selling novel The Reader as well as several prize-winning crime novels.  He lives in Bonn and Berlin.

For more information see his Bibliography at fantastic fiction or his Wikipedia entry.

Review

17 members, old and new, attended March's meeting.  We had been unable to find alternative premises so once again we braved the noise in the Polar Bar (caused this time by the crowds rather than the jukebox) and once again we split into two groups to discuss the book.  The Reader generated more discussion than any other book we've read so far.  The relationship between Michael and Hanna, her character, control of him, overweening reluctance to reveal her illiteracy even when it cost her her freedom, the potentially abusive affair, his guilt, his unwillingness to reveal Hanna's illiteracy to the judge, her suicide, all were scrutinised and debated at great length - far longer than for any previous choice and beating even the record set last month for the longest discussion.  The difference this month was that the popularity was reflected in the scoring, the results being: 7; 7; 8; 9; 9; 8; 8; 9; 8; 10; 9; 8; 7; 9; 9; 8; 8.5 - an average of 8.3 beating A Prayer for Owen Meany into second place!

 

February 2007

Catcher In The Rye by J.D.Salinger [suggested by Mair Morgan]

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The Catcher in the Rye was first published in the United States in 1951, and the novel remains controversial to this day for its liberal profanity and portrayal of sexuality and teenage angst; it was the 13th most frequently challenged book of the 1990s according to the American Library Association.  Despite this censorship, or perhaps due to it, the novel has become one of the most famous literary works of the 20th century, and a common part of high-school curricula in many English-speaking countries, such as the United States, Canada, Great Britain, and Australia.  Around 250,000 copies are sold each year, with total sales over 10 million.

The novel's protagonist, Holden Caulfield, has become an icon for teenage alienation and fear.  Written in the first person, The Catcher in the Rye relates Holden's experiences in New York City in the days following his expulsion from Pencey Prep, a university-preparatory school.

The novel covers a few important days in the life of Caulfield, a tall, lanky, highly-critical and depressed sixteen-year-old who decides one night to run away from Pencey Prep, just before Christmas vacation.  Because he is so critical of others, and points out their faults only to exhibit them himself later, Holden is widely considered to be an unreliable narrator, and the details and events of his story are apt to be distorted by his point of view.  Nonetheless, it is his story to tell.

(Synopsis from Wikipedia)

Jerome David Salinger (born January 1, 1919) is an American author best known for The Catcher in the Rye, a classic novel that has enjoyed enduring popularity since its publication in 1951.  A major theme in Salinger's work is the strong yet delicate mind of "disturbed" adolescents, and the redemptive capacity of children in the lives of such young men.  Salinger is also known for his reclusive nature; he has not given an interview since 1974, and has not made a public appearance, nor published any new work (at least under his own name), since 1965.  In the mid 1990s, there was a flurry of excitement when a small publisher announced a deal with Salinger to bring out the first book version of his final published story, "Hapworth 16, 1924", but amid the ensuing publicity, Salinger quickly withdrew from the arrangement.

For more information visit Salinger's entry on Wikipedia or his fan-created minipedia.

Review

February's meeting boasted 14 members but we still had to break into two groups owing to the noise in the Polar Bar.  Catcher polarised opinion, a few people hating the story, but nevertheless grudgingly enjoying reading it, the others being swept along by the compelling first-person narrative with its uniquely idiosyncratic style and its painfully accurate portrayal of teenage angst in general, and of being an outsider in particular.  Of all the books read by the club so far, this generated the most debate, the multi-layered telling seeming to offer endless opportunities for interpretation, speculation and empathy.  Despite its apparent popularity, the voting left Catcher with an average score somewhat below the record, the results being: 8; 6; 7; 7; 7; 6.5; 7; 9.5; 8; 7; 7; 7; 7; 9 - an average of 7.4.

 

January 2007

Perfume by Patrick Suskind [suggested by Linda Wong]

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Survivor, genius, perfumer, killer: this is Jean-Baptiste Grenouille.  He is abandoned on the filthy streets as a child, but grows up to discover, he has an extraordinary gift: a sense of smell more powerful than any other human's.  Soon, he is creating the most sublime fragrances in Paris.  Yet there is one odour he cannot capture.  It is exquisite, magical: the scent of a young virgin.  And to get it, he must kill.  And kill.  And kill.

(Review from amazon.co.uk)

Patrick Suskind was born in Ambach, near Munich, in 1949.  He studied medieval and modern history at the University of Munich.  His first play, The Double Bass, was written in 1980 and became an international success.  It was performed in Germany, in Switzerland, at the Edinburgh Festival, in London, and at the New Theatre in Brooklyn.  His first novel, Perfume became an internationally acclaimed bestseller.  He is also the author of The Pigeon and Mr. Summer's Story, and a coauthor of the enormously successful German television series Kir Royal.  Mr. Suskind lives and writes in Munich.

Review

A bumper crowd of 19 members broke into two groups to discuss Perfume.  Everyone enjoyed the novel, despite the fact that almost no-one had any sympathy for the main character Grenouille or indeed any of the other characters.  Suskind's language, especially the descriptive sections, were widely praised even if on occasion it went on too long.  Several people commented that the first half, and the expectation of the murders, was better than the second half and the reality of them.  It all seemed a little rushed towards the end.  A few people had seen the movie and warned off the rest of us!  Another high vote this month, the results being: 8; 8; 8; 8; 6; 7; 8; 7; 7; 7; 7; 9; 9; 8; 8; 9; 9; 7.5 - an average of 7.8.

 

November 2006

A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving [suggested by Caz Kemp]

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Owen Meany is a dwarfish boy with a strange voice who accidentally kills his best friend's mum with a baseball and believes - correctly, it transpires -that he is an instrument of God, to be redeemed by martyrdom.  John Irving's novel, which inspired the 1998 Jim Carrey movie Simon Birch, is his most popular book in Britain, and perhaps the oddest Christian mystic novel since Flannery O'Connor's work.  Irving fans will find much that is familiar: the New England prep-school-town setting, symbolic amputations of man and beast, the Garp-like unknown father of the narrator (Owen's orphaned best friend), the rough comedy.  The scene of doltish Dr Dolder, Owen's shrink, drunkenly driving his VW down the school's marble steps is a marvellous set piece.  So are the Christmas pageants Owen stars in.  But it's all, as Highlights magazine used to put it, "fun with a purpose".  When Owen plays baby Jesus in the pageants, and glimpses a tombstone with his death date while enacting A Christmas Carol, the slapstick doesn't change the fact that he was born to be martyred.  The book's countless subplots add up to a moral argument, specifically an indictment of American foreign policy - from Vietnam to the Contras.

The book's mystic religiosity is steeped in Robertson Davies' Deptford trilogy, and the fatal baseball relates to the fatefully misdirected snowball in the first Deptford novel, Fifth Business.  Tiny, symbolic Owen echoes the hero of Irving's teacher G�nter Grass's The Tin Drum - the two characters share the same initials.  A rollicking entertainment, Owen Meany is also a meditation on literature, history and God.

(Review from amazon.co.uk by Tim Appelo)

Review

Quite a short debate this month as (a) the group started off quite small at 12; (b) two of the group hadn't started it (*cough*); and (c) only two of the group had finished it.  Nevertheless most people agreed it was brilliant and then went very quiet in the face of Caz's long list of hard GCSE questions.  The voting, when it came, went: 10; 8; 8; 9; 8; 9; 7; 8; 7; 8 - an average of 8.2, which as predicted is by far the highest the club has scored.

October 2006

To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf [suggested by Lisa Taylor]

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This novel is an extraordinarily poignant evocation of a lost happiness that lives on in the memory.  For years now the Ramsays have spent every summer in their holiday home in Scotland, and they expect these summers will go on forever.

The most autobiographical of Virginia Woolf's work, "To the Lighthouse" is based on her own childhood experiences, and while it captures the intensity of childhood longing and delight, it also explores the shifting complexity of adult relationships, marriage and the changing class structure of its time.

(Review from amazon.co.uk)

Review

Quite a lively debate this month, despite the fact that only 7 out of the 15 people at the meeting had come close to finishing the book.  Reactions varied from "fantastic," and "I enjoyed it" through "middling" to "found it hard to get into" and "gave up halfway through."  Most readers found the extraordinarily long winding sentences with their alternative viewpoints, melodic style and convoluted structure which seemed to evoke music while at the same time rendering the reader incapable of completing a sentence within the space of a bus journey or indeed without returning to the beginning (often on the previous page!) and recommencing the almost impossible task of gleaning any fragment of meaning or character or description before being lost again in a swirling vortex of verbs and nouns until one started to feel ones life literally ebbing away only to find, there at the very edge of torment the blessed relief of an eventual full stop. :o)  This is, apparently, Woolf's most autobiographical novel and written when she was in the pit of depression.  Readers liked the "sense of something coming" (the Lighthouse, presumably) but found it hard to cope with the frequent subject/object shifts and to work out some of the relationships.  We also liked the way we could hear what each character is thinking in a scene, and much of the descriptive text, particularly the bit about the painting.  In the main the characters were seen as believable - the stereotypes are still alive and well today! - and someone likened it to the "Famous Five."  Opinion was divided on whether we would want to read anything else by the same author, and voting went 6; 5; 3; 9; 6; 3; 8 giving an average of 5.7 (the lowest so far).

September 2006

Buddha Da by Anne Donovan [suggested by Mair Morgan]

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Anne Marie's Da, a Glaswegian painter and decorator, has always been game for a laugh.  So when he first takes up meditation at the Buddhist Centre, no one takes him seriously (especially when his pursuit of the new lama ends in a trip round the Carmunnock bypass).  But as Jimmy becomes more involved in a search for the spiritual, his beliefs start to come into conflict with the needs of his wife, Liz.  Cracks appear in their apparently happy family life, and the ensuing events change the lives of each family member.

Review

A healthy turnout this month, including four new members - the most we've had in one night since the second meeting.  Buddha Da didn't evoke a strong negative or positive reaction from the group.  While most people said they enjoyed it (and more seemed to have finished it than usual!) its lack of highs or lows of emotional response was reflected in the scores: 7; 8; 6; 7; 7; 6; 7; 7; 6; 7; 7; 6; 7; 7; - an average of 6.79.  Quite a few people thought that the central characters were well sketched, even if Jimmy was a bit self-centred.  Poor Barbara came in for a lot of stick, seen variously as a home-wrecker, not a very good Buddhist, lonely, or simply someone who found it hard to get hold of a good decorator.  The short space of time in which a marriage breakup and reconciliation occurred was seen as unrealistic by Simon, who also pointed out that having Buddhism as the pivot for the plot was irrelevant - it could just as easily have been Rugby Union, flower arranging, or any other activity that might cause a man to go off and spend copious amounts of time away from his wife and family, to the detriment of both.  OK, maybe not flower arranging.  Amy wondered whether the author would write another book around the theme of Buddhism, since she appeared to know so much about it

Chorlton Chapters Scorecard

This is getting beyond a joke, although members can now register their votes online in our forum, Chapters Chatter, and discuss the finer points of books past and present.

August 2006

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

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It's hard not to become ensnared by words beginning with the letter B, when attempting to describe Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell's third novel.  It's a big book, for a start, bold in scope and execution - a bravura literary performance, possibly.  (Let's steer clear of breathtaking for now.) Then, of course, Mitchell was among Granta's Best of Young British Novelists and his second novel number9dream was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.  Characters with birthmarks in the shape of comets are a motif; as are boats.  Oh and one of the six narratives strands of the book - where coincidentally Robert Frobisher, a young composer, dreams up "a sextet for overlapping soloists" entitled Cloud Atlas - is set in Belgium, not far from Bruges.  (See what I mean?)

Structured rather akin to a Chinese puzzle or a set of Matrioshka dolls, there are dazzling shifts in genre and voice and the stories leak into each other with incidents and people being passed on like batons in a relay race.  The 19th-century journals of an American notary in the Pacific that open the novel are subsequently unearthed 80 years later on by Frobisher in the library of the ageing, syphilitic maestro he's trying to fleece.  Frobisher's waspish letters to his old Cambridge crony, Rufus Sexsmith, in turn surface when Rufus, (by the 1970s a leading nuclear scientist) is murdered.  A novelistic account of the journalist Luisa Rey's investigation into Rufus' death finds its way to Timothy Cavendish, a London vanity publisher with an author who has an ingenious method of silencing a snide reviewer.  And in a near-dystopian Blade Runner-esque future, a genetically engineered fast food waitress sees a movie based on Cavendish's unfortunate internment in a Hull retirement home.  (Cavendish himself wonders how a director called Lars might wish to tackle his plight).  All this is less tricky than it sounds, only the lone "Zachary" chapter, told in Pacific Islander dialect (all "dingos'n'ravens", "brekker" and "f'llowin'"s) is an exercise in style too far.  Not all the threads quite connect but nonetheless Mitchell binds them into a quite spellbinding rumination on human nature, power, oppression, race, colonialism and consumerism.  

Review

A small turnout this month resulted in the group discussion being once again united.  Cloud Atlas scored 9; 9; 5; 7; 7.5; 8.5; 8.5; 6; 9 - an average of 7.72.  While this is the highest score so far it must be noted that only 9 out of the 13 attendees voted, the rest not having finished it either because of lack of time or a conscious decision to stop (or not start) because of antipathy towards the book.  No-one disputed the cleverness of the book, both in its structure and language, but several people said that this was not enough - there was not enough payback from the investment in reading time.  Of those that liked the book, most agreed that they didn't like every section.  There was some debate about the running themes in the book: what was the meaning of the comet tattoo?  Were all the characters in fact the same spirit reincarnated?  Why were some earlier stories referred to as fiction in later ones?  Were the obvious parodies of modern-day icons (MacDonalds, for instance) meaningful to the overall plot?  Of those who finished the book, people who liked it thought the end satisfying whereas those who didn't thought it was a "so what" ending and didn't tie up the stories in an way that explained what it was all really about.

Chorlton Chapters Scorecard

Sooner or later, definitely.

July 2006

Panic by Jeff Abbott

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Things are going well for young film-maker Evan Casher - until he receives an urgent phonecall from his mother, summoning him home.  He arrives to find her brutally murdered body on the kitchen floor and a hitman lying in wait for him.  It is then he realises his whole life has been a lie.  His parents are not who he thought they were, his girlfriend is not who he thought she was, his entire existence an ingeniously constructed sham.  And now that he knows it, he is in terrible danger.  So he is catapulted into a violent world of mercenaries, spies and terrorists.  Pursued by a ruthless band of killers who will stop at nothing to keep old secrets buried, Evan's only hope for survival is to discover the truth behind his past.  An absolute page-turner, Panic has been acclaimed as one of the most exciting thrillers of recent years.

Review

This month, once again, the group remained together for the discussion.  Scores out of ten (from an attendance affected by the holiday season) went 7; 7; 5; 3; 4; 5; 8; 8; 8; 3; 5; 8 with one abstention - an average of 5.92.  The low score reflected the fact that the group were almost totally polarised into likers and dislikers (an even split of those voting).  Broadly speaking the likers treated it as a light "holiday read" and were prepared to overlook its many failings, whereas those that hated it really did hate it, citing the two-dimensional characters; massive plot holes and inconsistencies; unbelievability of a young director being asked to take over The Deeps with no training; disturbing and graphic violence; lack of even basic research into espionage (or anything else!) and so on.  But it wasn't all bad news.  Even the book's detractors managed to find some redeeming features, two that spring to mind being Ben's enjoyment of some minor characters and Mair's appreciation of the descriptive passages.  Overall only two people said they would want to read more work from this author.

Chorlton Chapters Scorecard

Err, yeah.  Next month?

June 2006

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

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With its lovable, impressionable heroine and its themes of growing up and learning to live in the real world, "Northanger Abbey" remains one of Jane Austen's most irresistible and up-to-date novels. Catherine Morland is the very ideal of a nice girl from a happy family, but she is blessed with an overactive imagination. She is also obsessed with Iurid Gothic novels, where terrible things happen to the heroine, which gets her into all sorts of trouble...When Catherine meets funny, sharp Henry Tilney, she's instantly taken with him. But when she is invited to his home, the sinister Northanger Abbey, her preoccupation with fantasy starts to get in the way of reality. Will she learn to separate out the two in time?

Review

This month the group remained together for the discussion.  Scores out of ten went 7; 9; 9; 7; 8; 6; 2; 5; 4; 7; 3; 7; 9 with one abstention - an average of 6.38.  With a couple of people hating it and a couple indifferent, the majority really loved it, even those who had not expected to.  Only one or two people were aware that the book was intended as a parody of similar novels of the time.  Simon singled out General Tilney as the most interesting character, on account of his largely unexplored darkness.  Most of the rest of the group agreed that the most well-realised characters were John Thorpe ("everyone knows someone like him!") and Henry Tilney, with Catherine being seen as a very lacklustre "heroine" who didn't really do anything to deserve all the nice things that happened to her.

Chorlton Chapters Scorecard

Still not available this month, but we should have it for next month, honest!

May 2006

26a by Diana Evans

front cover

Identical twins, Georgia and Bessi, live in the loft of 26 Waifer Avenue.  It is a place of beanbags, nectarines and secrets, and visitors must always knock before entering.  Down below there is not such harmony.  Their Nigerian mother puts cayenne pepper on her Yorkshire pudding and has mysterious ways of dealing with homesickness; their father angrily roams the streets of Neasden, prey to the demons of his Derbyshire upbringing.  Forced to create their own identities, the Hunter children build a separate universe.  Older sister Bel discovers sex, high heels and organic hairdressing, the twins prepare for a flapjack empire, and baby sister Kemy learns to moonwalk for Michael Jackson.  It is when the reality comes knocking that the fantasies of childhood start to give way.  How will Georgia and Bessi cope in a world of separateness and solitude, and which of them will be stronger?

Review

A large attendance at the meeting split the group for the discussion.  Our half scored the book 7; 7; 7; 7; 9; 5; 6 - an average of 6.86 out of 10.  Just about everyone enjoyed reading it, most did not foresee the ending although one of our number had known it would end like that from the very beginning having understood the message of the photos on the front and back covers.  The time the girls spent in Nigeria was highlighted as the best part of the book for many.  The collapse of the embryonic flapjack empire, the foreheads, the stiff-gelled hair and the chicken bums were variously quoted as the most humorous parts.  Several people wondered if the author had another book in her, since this was so obviously autobiographical.

Chorlton Chapters Scorecard

Not available for this month because we haven't invented it yet.

April 2006

The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger.

This extraordinary, magical novel is the story of Clare and Henry who have known each other since Clare was six and Henry was thirty-six, and were married when Clare was twenty-two and Henry thirty. Impossible but true, because Henry is one of the first people diagnosed with Chrono-Displacement Disorder: periodically his genetic clock resets and he finds himself pulled suddenly into his past or future. His disappearances are spontaneous and his experiences are alternately harrowing and amusing. The Time Traveler's Wife depicts the effects of time travel on Henry and Clare's passionate love for each other with grace and humour. Their struggle to lead normal lives in the face of a force they can neither prevent nor control is intensely moving and entirely unforgettable.

Review

A mixed review from the group - several people didn't finish the book, either because they didn't like the format, or couldn't relate to any of the characters. A straw poll of the bar-ward group gained scores varying from 4 to 9 out of 10. Two people really liked it as a straightforward love story, quite a few enjoyed Niffenegger's writing style if not her content and would be happy to read more by her. Several people mentioned getting to the end and feeling "so what?"

Chorlton Chapters Scorecard

Not available for this month because we haven't invented it yet.