On Chesil Beach – Ian McEwan

on-chesil-beach1

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In this novella a newly married couple reflect on their pasts and as a result question their marriage while honeymooning on Chesil Beach.

“The opening line of On Chesil Beach sums up the rest of the content: ‘They were young, educated, and both virgins on this, their wedding night, and they lived in a time when conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible.’

“It is 1962, the cusp of the sexual revolution, and two very English characters are contemplating the role of sex in their newly declared marriage. There are many factors that contribute to their differing views, not contained to the time and place, but also societal class systems and other goings on in their familial histories.

“The real-life Chesil Beach in Dorset, on the south-west coast of England, is alive and relevant to the storyline. The beach is one of the few shingle beaches in the UK. Its view of the ocean and rocky composition represent both openness but also difficulty/slippery footing associated with reaching that openness.”

A sudden space began to open out, not only between Edward and his mother, but also between himself and his immediate circumstances, and he felt his own being, the buried core of it he had never attended to before, come to sudden, hard-edged existence, a glowing pinpoint that he wanted no-one else to know about.

“While I am an Ian McEwan fan of the highest order, On Chesil Beach left me wanting. There was his usual mastery of prose but somehow it seemed too easy. I’m being critical, obviously, because even a bad Ian McEwen book would be better than most texts on the bookshop shelves!, but I guess being the huge fan that I am means I am being extra tough on him. Don’t get me wrong, it is still a great read, I just didn’t feel overwhelmed with fervour and emotion as I have with his other masterpieces. Edit: Now years later, I look back on this book with fondness and admiration. Without a re-read. I’m not sure what changed but it’s funny how hindsight and time to reflect can change one’s opinions.” – Rachel

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Published 2007
Jonathan Cape
166 pages

Mister Pip – Lloyd Jones

Mister_Pip_(Lloyd_Jones_novel)

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In the world of Mister Pip, reading Dickens represents salvation for a community ravaged by conflict.

“Lloyd Jones’s novel is set in a village on the Papua New Guinea island of Bougainville during the 1990s civil war. Jones covered it as a journalist, and in his novel he never shies away from the realities of daily life shadowed by violence. Matilda, the 13-year-old narrator, details how the helicopters circle, the generators are empty and all the teachers have fled.

“One white man remains. Mr Watts believes in the power of literature to set minds free. He reads the children Great Expectations and in it they find something just as vital as medicine and kerosene: ‘a bigger piece of the world’. Like many readers before her, Matilda falls in love with the fictional Pip, but ‘Pip’ is mistakenly assumed by soldiers to be a rebel fighter and then the boundary between fiction and reality dissolves.

I had found a new friend. The surprising thing is where I’d found him – not up a tree or sulking in the shade, or splashing around in one of the hill streams, but in a book. No one had told us kids to look there for a friend. Or that you could slip inside the skin of another. Or travel to another place with marshes, and where, to our ears, the bad people spoke like pirates.

“A clever, enthralling, devastating book.” – Suzy

“I enjoy books set in real life conflicts, to be educated/shocked and entertained all at once. Here Jones takes a little known conflict and into it inserts fabulous characters. The protagonist, Matilda, and the re-invented Pip are both fully developed characters who bring innocence and a harsh reality to the real-life conflict. I enjoyed not only the harsh differences but also the parallels between story telling and war. A touching and haunting book with snippets I had to read from behind my hands. An important book; one not to be forgotten.” – Rachel

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Published 2006
John Murray
256 pages

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