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Top ten Tuesday: book club recommendations

The Broke and Brookish this week is looking for suggestions for book club reading.

This wouldn’t be an easy one for me since our book club has rather wide ranging tastes – each person chooses a book so it reflects their taste rather than necessarily what the club as a whole likes. We went down the path of chick lit for a while turned me off but I’ve been introduced to some new authors in other month so it’s almost balanced out. For me a good book club read is one that has plenty of issues and dimensions that can lead to a good discussion – I want more than someone saying “I picked this because I thought it would be fun” and that’s all they can say about the book (believe me it has happened). The book choice doesn’t have to be particularly weighty but something to at least get your teeth into.

If I had my wishlist it would include:


I’ve gone for a mixture of styles, subjects and country of origin of the author (too many book clubs seem to focus only on Western literature).

  1. The Many by Wyl Menmuir reviewed here. A Booker long listed title from 2016 that I thought superb. It keeps you guessing about what the main message is.
  2. Another Booker 2016 candidate – and one I would dearly have loved to see win – is Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing which traces the effect of Communist rule on three musicians. It’s an epic that stretches across centuries and countries. Not always easy to grasp it had tremendous emotional power. Reviewed here 
  3. The Snow Kimono by Mark Henshaw. Set in Japan, a wonderful elliptical story in which a professor of law tells a story about his father’s fascination with traditional Japanese jigsaw puzzles.It’s a metaphor for how our lives are constructed by fragments. Reviewed here 
  4. The Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien. Set in a remote Irish village it examines what happens when a dictator on the run from atrocities he committed in his country attracts the attention of a lonely housewife. This book will have you thinking about actions and consequences and forgiveness.  Reviewed here 
  5. From Korea comes a book that was a knock out bestseller and not just in Korea. Please Look After Mom  by Shin Kyung-sook looks at the mother-child relationship which is thrown into question when an elderly mother goes missing in an underground station while on her way to visit her children. As they search for her they discover secrets about her life and uncomfortable truths about their own attitudes.Reviewed here 
  6. Possession by A. S Byatt was my choice when I joined the book club. I wasn’t sure I had make the right choice until the meeting but surprisingly we had a great discussion about the different forms possession can take -whether for artifacts f the past or for another individual. Reviewed here
  7. Holiday by Stanley Middleton.Who is he I can hear you asking. Not surprised really.Despite having written more than 40 novels he has more or less disappeared from our radar. A pity. This is a short novel from 1974 in which a middle aged man facing a crisis is his marriage takes a spur of the moment holiday at the seaside. It’s the same resort he visited year after year as a child when his parents took him for their annual holiday. Reflections of those times  days mingle with more recent and more bitter memories. Good for discussions around nostalgia and relationships. Reviewed here 
  8. L’Assommoir by Emile Zola. It’s not the first book in Zola’s Rougon-Marquet series of 20 titles but this doesn’t matter too much. Read it for its superb rendition of life on the breadline in nineteenth century Paris. You can, if your book club is of an academic mind, get into all kinds of discussion about Zola’s theory of naturalism and inherited conditions. Reviewed here
  9. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Chances are that your club has already read Half a Yellow Sun which is an earlier novel by Adichie. Americanah gives a view of life for a girl who leaves Nigeria – one of the people who achieves the dream – only to find its not what she expected. Can she make a new life or do the ties that bind back to the homeland prove stronger? It’s a novel about choices you make to fit in with a new way of life and how experience changes you. It might sound rather sombre but there are some outstandingly funny scenes in a hairdressing salon. Reviewed here
  10. Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan: We hope this never happens to anyone. But it does. What if you were one of the passengers in a ferry or cruise liner that is sinking. You’ve got yourself into a lifeboat and are now waiting for rescue. But days go by, water and food supplies dwindle. Who gets to live in those circumstances?  Who deserves to die?  And who has the right to make those decisions?  Those questions lie at the heart of Charlotte Rogan’s debut novel. This isn’t the best written novel I read in 2013 but it was one that stimulated a lot of discussion in our book club meeting. Reviewed here 

Those are just some of the books I’d suggest. What would your recommendations be?

Sunday Salon: Not the greatest of weeks

sundaysalonThe end of January was one of those weeks when all you want to do is hide under the duvet. After the relief on Monday of learning that I wasn’t going to be out of a job, came the shock of learning which of my colleagues would not be so lucky. There isn’t any good way to tell someone they are being made redundant. It doesn’t matter how rationale the explanation, there’s still that feeling of ‘why me?’. And for the ones left behind, a touch of guilt that they somehow survived, and their friend didn’t.

With all of that going on, I really couldn’t summon up a load of enthusiasm for reading or blogging. It didn’t help that one of the books I’m reading has turned out to be a disappointment. I chose Peter Ackroyd’s Clerkenwell Tales to represent England in my Reading along the Prime Meridian challenge on the basis that it’s set in London which is where the Prime Meridian is deemed to begin. I also knew from reading Hawskmoor many years ago that Ackroyd is very skilled at conveying the spirit and history of the  city.

But it’s turned out to be not as riveting as I’d hoped. It’s great at conjuring up the smells and atmosphere of the place towards the end of the fourteenth century and conveying details about the attitudes of its citizens. It’s meant to be about a plot to destabilise the country which is already in crisis with the threat of civil war, a story told in fragments by multiple participants. The character list is the same as that found in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales except that Ackroyd’s figures never really go anywhere. Problem is that this device means we don’t really get to know any character in depth so its hard to feel engaged with them. I’ll finish it (it’s not a very long book) and hope that the other Ackroyd I plan to read – English Voices – is a more rewarding experience.

In other news……

I did manage to finish A S Byatt’s Possession well ahead of the Book Club meeting middle of this month so that gives me plenty of time to think of some discussion topics. I’m confident we’re going to get some very mixed reactions to the book. You can find my thoughts in the review I posted.


Review – Possession by A.S. Byatt

When a writer dies, should their private lives die with them? Or should they become the  possessions of academics and enthusiasts, to be collected, catalogued and analysed like laboratory specimens. Possession in all its manifestations — physical, spiritual, emotional — is the focus of  A S Byatt’s 1990 Booker winning novel. The more you read it, the more forms of possession become apparent: legal ownership of correspondence and creative work; obsession with words; control of one’s history;  exertion of influence; emotional disturbance.


The first example comes only a few pages into the story when a postgraduate researcher uncovers some letters which hint at a secret relationship between the Victorian poets Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte. He steals them and also hides his discovery from his boss. Instead he teams up with another academic Maud Bailey, who has devoted years to dissecting LaMotte’s work. Together they embark on a quest to discover the truth, piecing the story together from a vast array of sources, including letters, journal entries and field trips to Yorkshire and France.

But they are not the only ones in pursuit. From across the Atlantic come Professor Leonora Stern, an avid feminist who is possessed by LaMotte’s supposed lesbian tendencies and Mortimer Cropper, a scholar-collector who is hell-bent on acquiring everything once owned by Ash and shipping it to the USA.  In the background there is Cropper’s arch rival Professor James Blackadder, editor of Ash’s Complete Works who is determined to preserve all of Ash’s work in England. Ranged against them all is the determination of Ash’s widow to preserve her husband’s secret. What ensues is a cross between the tradition of the romance adventure with its battle between good and bad and the tradition of a mystery story where the characters have to follow a trail of clues to find the solution.

Byatt skillfully weaves these (or to use Byatt’s own description of ‘a piece of knitting’)  into two parallel stories. The painful Victorian love story of Ash and LaMotte, retold through their poems and letters, has its counterpoint in the present-day story of Mitchell and Bailey, whose academic partnership slowly grows into love. Their stories are intertwined so objects from one era reappear in the other — a Victorian jet brooch that Maud wears for example —  and the two pairs of lovers share similar behaviours; so Roland’s admiration for Maud’s hair parallels Ash’s fascination with LaMotte’s tresses.

A S Byatt

A S Byatt

Byatt’s versatility as a writer is evident in the multiple narrative styles found in Possession. She wrote all the poems herself, a task which required her to adopt different voices and styles for each of her Victorian poets – so successful was she that many readers apparently believed Ash and La Motte were real. Her publishers were not so convinced, fearing that  readers would find the the inclusion of so many poems too intrusive and a distraction from the mystery story.

I didn’t find them distracting so much as tedious. I’m not a fan of poetry which relies on my knowledge of myths and legends, nor do I enjoy poems which use over-blown language. Both Ash and LaMotte were guilty on both counts – many of their poems were just so dire I skipped them. Nor did I appreciate the long, and frankly often very tedious, passages in the letters between these two poets in which they discussed layers of meaning in Nordic myths. If this is how writers in their era talked to each other, I can’t imagine I’d enjoy spending much time in their company. Was Byatt making fun of them in the same way she  ridiculed the academic world for its dogged pursuit of apparently trivial knowledge? I still wasn’t sure by the time I finished reading.

I can’t say that reading Possession was a deeply enjoyable experience. I admired Byatt’s command of language and her ability to tell a story but never felt her contemporary characters came alive in the same way as the Victorians did or that the inclusion of so much poetry really enhanced the book.

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