Books 2004

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Book for January:  The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler

I've only read one Tyler book (Ladder of Years) and wasn't particularly impressed but had higher hopes for this one, which was made into a film starring Kathleen Turner & William Hurt. It's about a man addicted to routine - a man who flosses his teeth before love-making. How does he cope with the chaos of everyday life? His son dies, his wife leaves and he meets a crazy dog-trainer. It was OK but it's not really the sort of book I enjoy. I suppose it was funny but I'm not keen on this sort of comedy which always seems to me to be rather forced. However, I think I was in the minority - I was unable to attend the chats during which this was to have been discussed so am unsure as to the general consensus other than that most people liked it. Having now read two of Tyler's books, I have decided that she's not for me. 

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Book for February: The Soldier's Return by Melvin Bragg 

When Sam Richardson returns in 1946 to Cumbria from the war in Burma, he finds the town little changed. However, war has changed him, broadening his horizons but leaving him with traumatic memories. His 6 year old son barely remembers him and his wife has gained independence through her wartime jobs. They strive to adjust but bonds of loyalty and love are stretched to breaking point. This novel captures the experiences of millions in the aftermath of WW2. 

Most of us enjoyed this book although some more than others and we were mixed on which characters we empathised with the most. We did agree that the events in the book must have been familiar to many people who found themselves in a similar situation. Some people were surprised at how well Bragg writes and I for one am keen to read the next books in the series to find out what happens to the family. 

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Book for March: Unless by Carol Shields

This is an excellent book that has provoked mixed reviews on Amazon. Don't let the more negative ones put you off. Reta, a novelist, suddenly experiences loss for the first time in her life when her daughter renounces her secure and seemingly happy life in search of 'Goodness'. This is a deceptively simple novel that poses many questions but is skilfully written and easy to read. You can find a reader's guide here. I had mixed feelings reading this for a second time. Although I still enjoyed it, I didn't like it as much. As a group we generally thought it pretty good but perhaps not up to her usual standard. I have attempted to answer the questions posed in the reading guide in the books forum here where you can find comments from several of us. 

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Book for April: My Lover's Lover by Maggie O'Farrell 

I read this one when it first came out and wasn't disappointed. She's done it again, produced a book that you just cannot put down. It's similar in style to her first novel, with much of it written in the present tense, then later on she introduces new narrators, in the present and past. I'm not entirely sure what the appeal is - I guess she has a way of writing that really sucks you in. Like After You'd Gone, there's a mystery, and you have to keep reading because you're desperate to know what really happened. It's very descriptive, I have an extremely clear picture of the settings - in fact even more than with the characters. Brief synopsis - Lily meets Marcus and moves into his flat which is haunted by his ex lover, Sinead. What happened to them? I can say no more! Well worth buying. We had a good discussion about this one, and whilst we all tended to agree it wasn't quite as good as 'After You'd Gone', it was still very enjoyable. But we had all interpreted the 'clues' in different ways. Some of us thought Sinead had been murdered, some thought she really did appear in the flat and some thought Lily was imagining her presence. 

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Book for May: Time's Arrow by Martin Amis

This is a good one, very original and not like anything else we have discussed in the group. It tells the story of the life of a Nazi war criminal - but with a twist - it's told in reverse. The doctor is dying and his consciousness escapes from his body and relives his life backwards. It's fascinating stuff and reminds me of a short story J G Ballard once wrote. We enjoyed discussing this one, and were all impressed with how well Amis presented his case. Most of us admitted to having to re-read some of the conversations backwards to make complete sense of them and also to finding bits of it rather unpleasant. Of course, because it was told in reverse, our sensibilities were offended by commonplace acts, such as eating and bodily functions! The relationships, backwards, were fascinating, but the main point of the book is to talk about what the Nazis did in the concentration camps. This was an incredibly powerful way in which to do it.  

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Book for June: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon

If you haven't heard about this book by now - where have you been? I tend to steer clear of books that are as high profile as this one, but is deserves all its plaudits and awards. It's the story of an autistic boy who sets out to discover why a neighbour's dog has been killed. I have discussed it with several people who have experience with children suffering from autism and they all believe it to be a very accurate depiction of the condition. His adventures are so beautifully described and I think just about all of us will be able to identify with some of his little 'quirks'. Unfortunately I missed the chats about this book but know that everyone who read it enjoyed it and found it very interesting.

For an unusual and entertaining review of a bookworm's impression of the book, please click here.

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Book for July/August: Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks

This is now a classic and several of us had already read it, but were happy to read it again. We all agreed it is an excellent book, which gives a very moving insight into what happened to individuals during WW1. What we didn't agree on was the love story that runs through the book and also the involvement of Elizabeth as she tries to uncover the facts of her grandfather's life. I was happy with both, feeling that we needed to know about Stephen and Isabelle to understand his personality during the war, and also quite welcomed a bit of 'light relief' in the shape of Elizabeth. But I was in a minority, with some people feeling Faulks is unable to write convincingly about women. The book has a very old-fashioned feel about it, not only because of the era it depicts, but also in the formal way in which it is written. I didn't notice that too much on my first reading, but that was some years ago and very recent novels (of which I read a lot) often have a much looser structure. My grandfather fought in the trenches and he used to talk about it so much that it drove me crazy as a child. I had no idea...........It seemed to dominate his life but in fact he didn't really say anything about it at all. He said little about what actually happened, preferring to almost glamourise it (it seemed to me at the time).  Having read this book, I can understand him a lot more and I feel quite guilty at the 'oh no, here we go again' thoughts I used to have! 

You can find a Readers Guide here

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Book for September: The Paperchase by Marcel Theroux 

Synopsis from Amazon: Damien March hasn't thought of his eccentric uncle, Patrick, for almost twenty years, so he is shocked to learn that he has inherited his ramshackle house on Ionia, an isolated island off the coast of Cape Cod. But his new future means moving circuitously into his family's past; rummaging through his uncle's possessions, he finds letters and writings that provide scattered clues to Patrick's solitary life. And when he discovers a fragment of an unpublished novel, The Confessions of Mycroft Holmes, which seems to hold a sinister meaning, the stakes in the chase become dramatically higher. 

So what did we think of it? Well, reactions were mixed but we almost all agreed that the Mycroft Holmes bit wasn't really necessary and that the book might have been better without it. The setting was good and we all enjoyed that aspect of it. I was curious about the place and felt I'd like to go there. There were some interesting characters and perhaps more emphasis could have been given to that rather than the rather ridiculous Confessions novel. There is a discovery made towards the end of the novel and we felt that was handled well but the very end was a bit 'tacked on'. It was OK but not something I'd rush to read again.

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Book for October: Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides  

The book's first line is arresting: "I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974." Pretty attention-grabbing, isn't it? The narrator is Cal, a Greek American who is born with a hormonal deficiency due to the incestuous relationship of his grandparents. This is a fantastic book and we all enjoyed it very much. One or two bookworms felt keen to hurry it along a bit in the middle, anxious to know more of Cal's story, but more of us enjoyed the slow process of discovery. It's a long book, but it needs to be as it encompasses the lives not only of Cal, but also of his parents and his grandparents. They emigrated to Detroit from Smyrna when it was invaded by Turkey. There is a huge amount of history told in this novel - I'm assuming most of it is historically accurate, although it's not something I knew anything about prior to reading this book. Highly recommended. You can read more about this book here

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Book for November: The Summer Before The Dark by Doris Lessing 

This book tells the story of Kate, who is freed from her grown up children and otherwise occupied husband for a summer. She travels abroad with a younger lover and discovers herself. But at what cost? Well, for me, and most of us - the cost was a few hours spent reading this when we could have been reading something far more enjoyable. I think the book suffers from being very much of its time - i.e. the 70s, describing a 'newly liberated' woman. It's terribly dated and we didn't find any of the characters to be particularly interesting or even likeable. I was only able to bring myself to finish this because it was short. Perhaps I'm being overly harsh, and not all of us were quite as antagonistic towards it. It did sound as if it would be a good read but the literary style was very off-putting. I think it would benefit from a re-write!

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Book for December: Life of Pi by Yann Martel

This is the fascinating story of a young Indian boy and his love of all religions, and his voyage across the Indian Ocean in a lifeboat - with only a tiger for company. Sounds strange? Well, yes, it is, but is very convincing. I wasn't sure when I started it but was soon captivated by it, and it's very easy to read - and conveniently features extremely short chapters. There's a lot of information about animals and religion which some of us found very interesting, aside from its relation to the actual story. Most people really enjoyed this book, one or two found bits of it very unpleasant, but it was certainly thought-provoking. You can find a good reading guide here although it's best not to read the guide first unless you don't like surprises.

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