Darkmans – Nicola Barker

darkmans

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The reality of English families set over two days in a small town in England, with a hovering jester haunting every page.

“A jester haunts this book, possessing the characters at inconvenient moments, forcing broken language out of their mouths and “ducking and diving between the words … deceiving and then disappearing”.

“He haunts the lives of many characters, a collection of interesting folk living in Ashby, England. A erratic, embitted old man; a dealer of prescription drugs; a chiropodist with mysterious bruises; a husband with schizophrenia; and a gifted but eccentric boy building cathedrals of matchsticks. The jester is the weight of history bearing down upon them, he is the language that links past and present. He is prank puller and the instigator of many comedic moments in this book that celebrates life in all its glory, both uneasy and honest.”

“This book was a bit mad but I loved it.  It was a massive commitment during a Bookerthon due to the length but definitely worth it.” – Suzy

“This was an epic read and there was a lot going on, but it was quite different to most novels (right down to the font!) and that made it intriguing. As two families go about their daily business, which is identifiable to us all, there is a ghostly jester who haunts the book, forcing characters to say weird things and moving items about in true supernatural style. You certainly had to be invested in the 800-odd pages to get the most out of it. It was tough to give it the attention it deserved due to time restraints with our Bookerthon reading, so I’d recommend picking up this book when your reading time is ample.” – Rachel

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Published 2007
Fourth Estate
848 pages

Animal’s People – Indra Sinha

Animal's People

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Animal is a man trying to live an ordinary life about being deformed in the 1984 Bhopal chemical disaster.

“In 1984 Union Carbide released 40 tonnes of lethal gas from its pesticide factory into the city of Bhopal in India, killing thousands and contaminating drinking water. Indra Sinha writes of this atrocity in Animal’s People, replacing Bhopal’s with the fiction city of Khaufpur.

“He even creates and promotes in the book a website about “Khaufpur,” to which he allocates Bhopal’s history, where the residents are his characters and the journalist revealing events is a female version of himself. Such is his desire to educate people about this terrible tragedy.

“In the book Animal is a man who has been deformed from the chemical leak and as a result walks on all fours. Though cynical and bitter he retains many enjoyable and relatable characteristics including a romantic side. The history of the city and the people are detailed alongside the story of Animal who attempts to protect the woman he loves and also spy on American doctors whom many do not trust.”

At the end of time when God judges us humans, I just hope He remembers to judge Himself as well.

“This book was so evocative.  Years later, when I think of it I still feel overwhelmed with memories of the noise and colour.” – Suzy

“I had never heard of the Bhopal Disaster before reading this book. And it is so outrageous that even as I read I kept thinking surely this is not real? I appreciated how Sinha relayed the facts in a fictional style to give them more weight. I also enjoyed how he treated Animal as a normal person – with thoughts and desires, friends, enemies and love interests – despite his severe deformities and homelessness. It’s what made this book affecting and memorable. Not only does it educate people about the disaster but it reminds us that whatever our circumstances and outward presentation we are all the same inside.” – Rachel

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Published 2007
Simon & Schutster
374 pages

The Gathering – Anne Enright

The Gathering

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Irish woman Veronica takes a closer look at her family’s troubled history while at the funeral of her brother.

“Liam Hegarty has drowned himself a river. He wears high vis to ensure his body is easy to spot. He is one of 12 siblings who all like to drink, though he was afflicted more than the rest.

The Gathering refers to his extended family, a large, Irish kin, coming together for Liam’s funeral and subsequent events. His sister Veronica narrates the tale, grieving for her brother but also attempting to unravel the causes of the family’s dysfunction. She remembers a summer long ago when the children stayed at their grandmother Ada’s house, and attempts to reconstruct Ada’s life to make sense of her own.

There is something wonderful about a death, how everything shuts down, and all the ways you thought you were vital are not even vaguely important… and it is just as you suspected – most of the stuff that you do is just stupid, really stupid, most of the stuff you do is just nagging and whining and picking up for people who are too lazy to love you.

“For us both, the endless misery in The Gathering put a veil over the whole reading experience, making it impossible to see what distinguished this as a book worthy of Booker nomination. There is no sentimentality and no joy. If that’s what Enright was after, she has done well, but that didn’t translate into reader appeal for either of us.”

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Published 2007
Random House
272 pages

The Reluctant Fundamentalist – Mohsin Hamid

Reluctant_Fundamentalist

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Over one night, a Pakistani man tells an American stranger about his love affair with a woman and his forced abandonment of America post 911.

“Changez is a Pakistani man living in New York at the time of the terror attacks on the World Trade Centre. The resulting chaos, especially for men of his ethnicity, causes Changez to abandon his wish to pursue the American Dream. With shifting beliefs and loyalties he rushes home home, experiencing ideological and political inner turmoil.

“Changez tells his thoughts and his story to an American he meets near a café in Lahore. An embedded narrative depicts a suspenseful and ill-fated relationship between Changez and the American as the motives of both men are slowly revealed.

As a society, you were unwilling to reflect upon the shared pain that united you with those who attacked you. You retreated into myths of your own difference, assumptions of your own superiority. And you acted out these beliefs on the stage of the world, so that the entire planet was rocked by the repercussions of your tantrums, not least my family, now facing war thousands of miles away.

“This is an honest portrayal of a Muslim man living in New York when the towers come down. It offers new insights into the tragedy and offers reactions and consequences that I had not previously considered. It is an eye-opening and thought-provoking story, written in a personable way, as if we, the reader, are the American he is speaking with. Great characters, great plot, great read.” – Rachel

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Published 2007
Mariner Books
228 pages

The People’s Act Of Love – James Meek

The P Act of LoveREAD FOR BOOKCLUB

Chosen by Suzy

A renegade Czech army unit is stranded in a community of religious fanatics in a small, remote town in Siberia. 

“The People’s Act of Love is set in 1919 in Yasyk, Siberia, a small town on the Yenisey river about as far north as life can be sustained. It is built around three facts; thousands of Czech soldiers were left marooned in northern Russia by the collapse of the Russian Revolution; secretive, utopian communities of voluntary eunuchs flourished there throughout the 19th century; and there was a practice of taking a naive companion along on Siberian journeys with the intention of eating him.

“Meek has combined these facts with the fictional coexistence of a woman raising her son alone, a crazed Czech captain and his soldiers, and a group of religious eunuchs. Then a mysterious, charismatic stranger appears in their snowy village with a frightening story to tell, and their fragile societal balance is tipped off kilter. This is a heavily plotted book with many twists, turns and surprises.”

And you thought: they’re used to it. But that was how those who suffered less always thought about those who suffered more, that they were used to it, that they no longer felt it as you did. Nobody ever got used to it. All they learned to do was to stop letting it show.

“I certainly didn’t expect what I found when I first opened the book. A unique setting and idea, bringing together an army unit and religious fanatics in the harshest of climates, so that everything is a daily battle. This is a blindingly forthright story, one which poses many questions about the fragility of the human condition and makes you consider ‘what if’ over and over. The bleak frosty setting is well incorporated into the storylines and is almost a character in itself. I didn’t want to put this down.” – Rachel

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Published 2005
Cannongate
391 pages

The Red Tent – Anita Diamant

the red tent

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Chosen by Rachel

Dinah, daughter of Jacob and sister of Joseph, is a minor character in the Bible, but the author has given her a voice in The Red Tent.

The Red Tent tells the story of the biblical character Dinah, who, in the Bible is raped by an Egyptian prince. Simon and Levi, two of her brothers, avenge Dinah by killing all the men in the city. After that, Dinah is never mentioned again.

“Diamant wanted to give a voice to the character of Dinah as well as her mothers, to break the Biblical silence and give them strength and power and personality.

“Like Biblical stories and a lot of fiction, there is plenty of murder, vengeance, extramarital affairs and familial drama as Dinah’s character is explored and allowed the freedoms of a modern woman.

Death is no enemy, but the foundation of gratitude, sympathy, and art. Of all life’s pleasures, only love owes no debt to death.

“The intriguing aspect of this book was how the author could take this ancient aspect of story telling and turn it into something modern and relevant.  We were not disappointed and infact what it did show is as long as there are people involved, there is drama and adventure, excitement and sorrow; there is a story to tell. The Red Tent is plot heavy and tension filled with full bodied characters. We were all impressed by it.”

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Published 1997
St Martin’s Press
321 pages

She’s Come Undone – Wally Lamb

She's come undone

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Chosen by Nadine

The trials and tribulations of Dolores Price from age 4 to age 40 are detailed in this 1992 book with saw wide appeal after being chosen as an Oprah’s Bookclub book.

“Dolores Price has a harrowing life. Born in 1952 and the only daughter of dysfunctional parents she stumbles through the years from one hardship to the next. She is one of those characters who has great intentions and tries hard and you so want to like her, but to be honest in the end it is clear she has more issues than you can handle and she just gets you down.

“But for some reason I wanted to keep reading. She did go on many adventures, which were entertaining. Plus I was sure there had to be some hope for Dolores in the end and I wanted to be there to find the reason for all this suffering and craziness. Maybe there was going to be some dystopian reality that manifests and makes sense of everything. (There is not). But there are a lot of alternative realities inside Dolores’ head and that’s what the meaning of the book is: self awareness, mistakes and learning, coming of age, self betterment. It is a book that relies on emotion to get you through.

“It is not a story for the faint hearted. It covers off may big topics, such as abuse, suicide, death, rape, abortion … but luckily it has a dark and clever humour to it that offsets the grim realities.

“Though, to be honest, I’m not sure how I would feel about recommending this book.” – Rachel

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Published 1992
Simon & Schuster
368 pages

The Accidental – Ali Smith

accidental

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Chosen by Suzy

A 2005 novel which relays the consequences for a middle-class family when an uninvited visitor appears in their home while on holiday.

“Amber—thirtysomething and barefoot—shows up at the door of the Norfolk cottage that the Smart family is renting for the summer. She talks her way in. She tells nothing but lies. She stays for dinner.

“Eve Smart, the author of a best-selling series of biographical reconstructions, thinks Amber is a student with whom her husband, Michael, is having an affair. Michael, an English professor, knows only that her car broke down. Daughter Astrid, age twelve, thinks she’s her mother’s friend. Son Magnus, age seventeen, thinks she’s an angel.

“Each family member assesses her differently but ultimately all accept her a fixture. What she does is allow them to examine their own lives as they reflect off the stranger.”

Oh. To be filled with goodness then shattered by goodness, so beautifully mosaically fragmented by such shocking goodness.

“I was really looking forward to reading this book for bookclub as I’d read such amazing reviews.  I didn’t follow it easily and this has been a repeating theme with most other Ali Smith books I’ve since read (Hotel World being the exception).  Unfortunately this is a reflection of my intellect rather than anything to do with the author! ” – Suzy

The Accidental is unlike any book I have read before. In it a stranger, a young woman, plants herself in the middle of a family in their holiday home where her existence reveals more about the unwilling host family than herself. At first I quite enjoyed discovering the novel’s unusual flow but sometimes it was almost too clever, making following the storyline difficult. Fantastically developed characters and a satisfying conclusion, though.” – Rachel

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Published 2005
Hamish Hamilton
320 pages

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle – Haruki Murakami

Wind up bird

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Chosen by Rachel

This seemingly simple story of a Japanese man whose cat runs away is anything but. 

⚈ “Wow. Just wow.

“This is the kind of book I adore. One with much complexity that not only wows me as I read, but wows me further as I discover more stylistic techniques and deeper meanings to the text afterward. The book is 600 pages and there are so many characters and stories that there is much to analyse.

A Wind Up Bird is about a man called Toru Okada whose cat goes missing. He begins a search for the cat and then for his wife, who is now also awol. These searches introduce a raft of characters and lends him much time, voluntary time, down a domestic well. On a basic level he is there for the calm in which to consider his life, but at a metaphysical level he travels through the walls of the well and into other worlds that contain doppelgängers for the main characters and help him connect with his missing wife. 

“Hmmm this is not an easy book to review. 

“Murakami’s style fits into the magical realism genre so yes weird and wonderful things do happen. But the settings and characters and mundane day-to-day actives (boiling eggs, taking the train) are so normal they make the phenomena acceptable. It’s important to look beyond the strangeness and observe the commentary on social history that lies beneath.

“Murakami’s writing style, and that of his translator Jay Rubin is known as ‘simple’. The books’ sentences do not attempt grandiose statements or complex structure. Instead they simply state what has happened and what has been said. It is a testament to Murakami’s ability that he can make somethings seem so simple but actually be incredibly literary.

Maybe it’s been like that for you till now. But you’re not a kid anymore. You have the right to choose your own life. You can start again. If you want a cat, all you have to do is choose a life in which you can have a cat. It’s simple. It’s your right… right?

“As well as a clear fondness for the West, Murakami also injects his own love of jazz, of whiskey, of cats and raises some serious questions about Japanese history too. If it were a meal this book would be a ten-course degustation. There is so much depth and flavour that the moment you accept what is infront of you, the course suddenly changes and a new character and a new event inject their life forces into yours. But at the end of it, everything links together in an abstract way and if you think about it long enough you come to acknowledge and relish the links of every person, of every story to the wind up bird that slowly clunks through the moments of time for all the world to hear.

“I have read a few Murakami books before and loved their fearless and visionary style, hence why I chose this. But I have to say that this has expanded my brain and my being more than any other book before and as such I have to declare it as my favourite book of all time. Yes my number one. It’s an emotional moment.” – Rachel

“The only word that describes this book is ‘weird’. But definitely in a good way! The story line drew me in and held my interest, even though there were parts I didn’t understand.” – Nadine

“Don’t read my comments.  Anything I have to say will be done so with far more eloquence and insight by Rachel.  A superb introduction into the world of Murakami. Meticulously researched by Rachel for our bookclub that night and I still remember her revelation that “MAY KASAHARA IS US!!!”. A book club highlight.” – Suzy

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Published 1997
Shinschosha (Japan)
607 pages

Everything is Illuminated – Jonathan Safran Foer

EverythingIsIlluminated READ FOR BOOKCLUB

Chosen by Suzy

The author’s eponymous protagonist travels to the Ukraine, carrying a photograph of the woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazis. 

Everything is Illuminated is the transformation of the author’s own attempts to trace his Jewish-Ukrainian ancestry and the terrible truth about the fate of his extended family who stayed behind in the old country when the Nazis closed in.

“It tells how Jonathan traveled to the Ukraine in order to find the woman whose family helped save his grandfather during the war. Jonathan arranges through a travel agency to have a car, driver, and translator. The travel agent is booked, so asks his father and his son to act as driver and translator. The grandfather spends most of his time sleeping, the rest complaining. The son, Alex, does not know enough English to translate everything clearly. The three make a comedic pair as they travel through the countryside in search of answers.

I will describe my eyes and then begin the story. My eyes are blue and resplendent. Now I will begin the story.

“Beautiful/sad/haunting/memorable.  Discovering this author (who – ahem – is one of my top 5 favourite vegetarians by the way) was a revelation. He writes consistently good books and I would also highly recommend Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close – go straight to the book, don’t bother with the movie.” – Suzy

“Obviously there are autobiographical elements here, which make the story of Jonathan’s search to find the woman who apparently saved his grandfather from the Nazis extremely heartfelt. The cast of hilarious characters offset the seriousness of the quest. Not only is there is a one-eyed chauffeur guided by his seeing-eye dog, but also a translator who uses the thesaurus to comic effect. You’ll laugh, smile, cry and grimace all the way through this book.” – Rachel

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Published 2002
Houghton Mifflin
288 pages