Shakespeare’s Landlord by Charlaine Harris

The book, appears, at the outset, to resemble the feisty female protagonists of two series that revolve around solving murder mysteries: Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum and Nancy Atherton’s Lori Sheppard.

However, this book plays fast and loose with the usual genre limitations of crime novels, which is what it originally purports to be: there is also the simultaneous narrative of Lily Bard’s own back story. The crime elements mean the books of the series stand alone, but the development of Lily’s own story requires sequential reading.

The dual narratives are accompanied by multiple tones: from the brutally sombre (when Lily’s history is suddenly laid bare) to the earnest (the moment in the karate class when the women share a moment of vindication that their efforts in the class have real world survival implications) to the charming (Claude’s unexpected offer to take care of Lily/ the doctor’s silent provision of medication to a broke Lily) to the injected with dry levity (Lily’s succinct explanation of the threatening visual reminders of her past neutralises the threat).

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The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett

The book club’s reaction to this book was unanimously positive, combined with pleasant surprise that such an apparently slight book threw up so many points of discussion.Even though the protagonist was such an uncommon reader, her reading journey struck chords with all the ‘commoners’ reading.*

Her foil – if he can be called that – Norman, was a favourite character. Even though his reading material could sometimes be suspect, the process of his promotion to Queen’s amanuensis was cited as a laugh-out-loud part of the book. His dismissal to the University of East Anglia, and subsequent triumphal return at the end of the book, symbolised the Queen’s reading journey coming full circle.

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Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson

For those of the book club returning to this book, it retained its ability to be simultaneously sad but funny. There was a general consensus that it was a worthwhile if sad/downbeat read.

The discussion turned to the fact that all the parent–child relationships depicted were dysfunctional, and even the close sibling relationships depicted were not enough to keep them together, or even in contact, were things that the discussion repeatedly circled back to. Especially poignant against the background of these distant, unsatisfying relationships was the fact that her two surviving daughters rallied around Bunty’s death bed, allowing themselves the closure that the affection that they had craved would never materialise now. In an interesting cycle of conjunctions, the nurse attending Bunty seemed likely to have been the daughter Doreen had had to give up earlier in her life – Doreen who provided the single week of something most closely mothering that the sisters (Bunty’s daughters) are shown to have had. It is sadly fitting that Doreen is one of George’s mistresses; the only moments of happiness Bunty is shown to experience in her marriage are whilst she is having an affair. Some of the depictions of family life especially hit home since they seemed familiar to the readers’ own experiences.

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Grimm Tales for Young and Old by Philip Pullman

The overwhelming reaction from the book club members was that they were disappointed that the familiar tales had somehow lost their magic/colour in the hands of a master storyteller. The stories all had a sameness to them, which made them difficult to tell apart, or be interested in. The tales felt more like folktales, which suffered from being taken out of the oral tradition.

Comparing the first line of ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ between this version, and an edition of 1949, showed a lyricism in the ordering of the words, which arguably mimicked the cadences of how people tell stories, that is entirely missing from the retelling. That the lyricism can be retained even without sacrificing the uninflected language that appears to be one of the most obvious stylistic choices of the book is shown in one of the best stories in the collection – ‘The Juniper Tree’. It uses the elements that best mimic oral storytelling such as the repetition and the rhymes.

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Pies and Prejudice by Stuart Maconie

This was the first nonfiction book the book group had done, and it was interesting to see the two camps opinions were split into: those who related to the book and shared memories with the author, and those who had serious misgivings about sections, whilst loving other parts.*

The group also included those who knew the author’s prior work (as a music journalist, notably with NME, as a broadcaster with the BBC, etc), and those whose first introduction to his body of work was through this book. Those who knew his work agreed that his ‘voice’ came through in his writing. Those who didn’t still liked the way historical ‘fact’# was blended into personal narrative, peopled by memorable ‘characters’. Some of the histories that came up specifically were those of sport (especially football and rugby, working men’s clubs, and of course, given the title of the book, pies).+

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Toby’s Room by Pat Barker

Due to the subject of the book – the First World War, and its treatment – drawing extensively on real people’s experiences, and turning them into characters, whether under their own names (Henry Tonks, Ottoline Morell) or other names (Kit Neville, Paul Tarrant), this was the first book club discussion that looked at resources outside of the book.

Jacquie (W) had looked up Kit Neville (aka C.R.W Nevinson) and his work, and her research led her to the Wolfsonian Library, and its book club discussion. Very valuably, the notes contain resources contained in the library’s archives, and provide a fascinating look at some of the war paintings discussed at length in the book.

Henry Tonks’s surgery–art synthesis takes up a lot of the book too, so I wondered if some of his work was available online. I thought this article might be an interesting starting point for learning more about this –

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A Week in Winter by Maeve Binchy

The discussion opened with everyone agreeing that this book was definitely the easiest read so far; a comfort read with ends coming neatly together at the end.

For some members of the group, this was their first introduction to Binchy, whilst others were revisiting a favourite comfort read author. This formed one of the main threads of the conversation. The two other main themes, which are linked to this one, were the structure of this novel (and therefore the notion of time), and the characters.

A 'typical' Binchy novel sees a group of disparate people come together, whether to learn something, eat somewhere, follow a dream or go on a trip. This group transforms into a community as the book progresses, and their back stories are revealed. There are usually two or three narrators who pass the narrative baton amongst themselves. This novel is similar in theme – a bunch of people show up at a guest house in rural Ireland – but differs from Binchy's other novels structurally – it was agreed that it felt like a novel in short stories, and therefore a bit more disjointed than the group would have liked. (Perhaps it would work better as a radio novel?) However, this novel was appealing enough that readers new to Binchy were interested in going in search of her earlier work.

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The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

This book had mixed reactions from the group.

On the one hand, people struggled with finishing it, didn’t like many of the characters, and there seemed to be superfluous details and characters (why for example, is Clara’s role so drawn out, given her part in the narrative?), and a lot of repetition.

On the other hand, the overall idea/story was interesting. Once again, this was a book that most members of the group would not necessarily have picked up on their own, and so, it was a good experience to go outside reading comfort zones.

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The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

The informal discussion at the book club quite interestingly coalesced into four specific themes.

  • Everyone agreed that this book was not something they would have picked up ordinarily, whether because the genre is outside usual reading patterns, or because the narrator (a 15-year old boy) is not an usual narrator. Interestingly however, everyone really liked the book.
  • Everyone also found the book sad. For some people it was due to the abandonment of Christopher by his mother, whilst others felt disconnected from Christopher himself. A repeated refrain was the sense that he ‘wouldn’t get better’, even as everyone acknowledged both that the (understandable) ‘betrayal’ by his mother probably emotionally resonated more with the reader than him (due to personal experiences) and that he seemed fairly upbeat at the end of the book … in so far as he had an emotional response to anything.

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