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

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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

The Blind Assassin – Margaret Atwood

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Chosen by Rachel

A novel within a novel within a novel. Set in a fictional Canadian town it recalls the life events of an ageing lady. It won the Booker Prize in 2000.

“The Blind Assassin opens with the following sentence: ‘Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove her car off a bridge’, making it clear there are mysteries to be solved.

“The make up of the book is puzzle like, with four interweaving narratives. The main story is of the Chase family from World War I through the end of the 1990s. Laura Chase, the sister who drives her car off the bridge, has a published novel which is dictated, also entitled The Blind Assassin. In it, two unnamed lovers pursue an affair. The man – some kind of political subversive – is on the run, while the woman has reason to want the relationship to remain secret. During their meetings are fragments of a third narrative, a science fiction fable that the man tells the woman. Interspersed among these three narratives are fragments of a fourth narrative: newspaper and magazine stories of Toronto society in the 1930s and 1940s.

When you’re young, you think everything you do is disposable. You move from now to now, crumpling time up in your hands, tossing it away. You’re your own speeding car. You think you can get rid of things, and people too—leave them behind. You don’t yet know about the habit they have, of coming back.

“The Blind Assassin is about storytelling. Storytelling within storytelling within storytelling. Clearly a book for those who love books! I could say it is about an ageing woman recalling her life in the 30s and 40s and the death of her sister, who drives her car off a bridge in the opening sentence. But this is merely just the beginning and it is becomes so much more than that. Layer after layer of intrigue is uncovered in this rich and uniquely rewarding reading experience. There are many tiers to this book, and I became instantly engrossed in all the stories being told, in the characters and their lives. It takes a little to get into rhythm with the various settings, timeframes and beats of the stories, but once you’re there, you’re living the book, and all its stories and it’s hard to put it down. Margaret Atwood is a master and I’m always apprehensive to start another of her novels knowing it will only have to end.” – Rachel

“Despite my initial confusion with The Blind Assassin it was definitely worth persevering with!  A stunning novel, one of my all-time favourites.  In conversations about books, I’m always surprised about the number of people who know of it but who haven’t read it.  Resulting in me shoving my copy in their hands and saying aggressively “SERIOUSLY YOU HAVE TO READ THIS BOOK”.  Margaret Atwood is one of my heroes.” – Suzy

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Published 2000
McClelland & Stewart
536 pages

To Kill A Mockingbird – Harper Lee

to-kill-a-mockingbird2

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Chosen by Nadine

A 1960 novel which won the Pulitzer Prize and has been named one of the best novels of all time. The young narrator’s warmth and humour are offset by the racial and societal injustices she observes.

“To Kill a Mockingbird replays three key years in the life of Scout Finch, the young daughter of an Alabama town’s principled lawyer. Scout relates how she and her elder brother Jem learn about fighting prejudice and upholding human dignity through the example of their father, Atticus Finch, who has taken on the legal defence of a black man falsely charged with raping a white woman.

“Lee’s story of the events surrounding the trial portray Southern life during the 1930s, examining the causes and effects of racism, and creating a model of tolerance and courage in the character of Atticus Finch. A regional novel dealing with universal themes of tolerance, courage, compassion, and justice, To Kill a Mockingbird combined popular appeal with literary excellence to ensure itself an enduring place in modern American literature.”

“Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”

“I loved this book. I think as with a lot of the classics as soon as you start reading them you realise why they are a classic. And also you ask yourself why you haven’t read it until now!” – Nadine

“A great read – can you say anything but?  I also really enjoyed the research on Harper Lee & her mystique.  Also interesting was the controversy around whether the story was in fact written by Truman Capote.” – Suzy

“This book should be read by everyone without exception. There is much to relate to and learn from, especially the message of morality and the search to be free – whatever it is you are searching to be free of. It focuses on the idea of right and wrong, and this is portrayed in every character, from the courtroom trial to the young children playing freely around the neighbourhood, to the mysterious Boo Radley. And it’s these themes that make the book accessible and affecting for every reader. This book teaches us to learn from history and to never forget. It is timeless and will have an important message for every generation to come.” – Rachel

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Published 1960
Grand Central Publishing
384 pages

The Bone People – Keri Hulme

Featured image

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Chosen by Suzy

A New Zealand book which is an unusual love story, depicting a utopian unity between Maori and Western culture

“Kerewin Holmes is a reclusive painter who is trying to pick up the pieces of her life. Joe Gillayley is a widower who maintains a love-hate relationship with his adoptive son and is searching for human companionship. Simon Gillayley is a mute seven-year-old who is loveable but notorious for his sudden outbursts of violence and theft.

“When the three first come together, their lives are blissful; spending their nights drinking and enjoying their friendship. As time goes on, Joe’s violence towards Simon is revealed, prompting Kerewin to become more involved in the Gillayley family. Their lives are shattered one fateful evening when Joe’s aggressive nature takes over.

“The Bone People is a twisting saga of broken families and the path toward individual redemption.”

“A family can be the bane of one’s existence. A family can also be most of the meaning of one’s existence. I don’t know whether my family is bane or meaning, but they have surely gone away and left a large hole in my heart.”

“I felt uncomfortable for most of the time I was reading The Bone People. A lot of the content is grim – chick-lit it ain’t.  A stunning read though. And winning the 1985 Booker Prize is way more significant and exciting than the 1987 Rugby World Cup, okay?!” – Suzy

The Bone People really got under my skin. Although it was disturbing, I felt a strange connection to this book that just wouldn’t leave me.” – Nadine

“The beautiful NZ coastlines, Maori myth and legend and the startling storyline are captivating in The Bone People, and so well done it was as if I was standing on a desolate West Coast beach as I reading. A desperately moving story that captures not only what it means to be Maori but what it means to be Maori in changing times. Its use of faith and fables as a foundation for the modern story gave the story a solidity and strength which I imagine gave this very NZ tale its universal appeal. I also enjoyed hearing about the author and the story behind the story, which made the final result more of a masterpiece in my eyes.” – Rachel

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Published 1985
Penguin Books
450 pages

Life of Pi – Yann Martel

LifeofPi

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Chosen by Nadine

A fantasy adventure in which the protagonist, Pi, is shipwrecked and must endure life at sea with a Bengal Tiger.

Life of Pi explores questions around faith, friendship and fiction in the tale of a religious Indian boy nicknamed Pi who becomes stranded on a lifeboat with a 450-pound Bengal tiger. Pi draws upon his life experiences with a zookeeper father to establish peace between himself and the tiger, which he sees as his only possibility for survival.

“The novel is a unique blend of religious exploration, a meditation on the nature of truth, and the shipwreck survival tale. It won both the 2002 Man Booker Prize and the 2001 Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction.

“Life of Pi was inspired in part by a story written by Brazilian author Moacyr Scliar. In Scliar’s Max and the Cats, a young Jewish man flees Nazi Germany on a ship bound for Brazil, but when the boat sinks, he finds himself sharing a lifeboat with a jaguar from the Berlin Zoo.”

“I had to stop hoping so much that a ship would rescue me. I should not count on outside help. Survival had to start with me. In my experience, a castaway’s worst mistake is to hope too much and to do too little. Survival starts by paying attention to what is close at hand and immediate. To look out with idle hope is tantamount to dreaming one’s life away.”

“I really enjoyed Life of Pi, especially the twist at the end. Although, I still have some unanswered questions like who was the Frenchman?!” – Nadine

“I have solidly resisted watching the movie, despite it’s fantastic reviews.  Would much rather keep the story’s amazing imagery firmly slotted into my own imagination.  I found this book uncomfortable reading at the best of times, but overall I thoroughly enjoyed it.  A classic.” – Suzy

“I love a seemingly simple story with a twist. But I adore a book that makes me turn back to page one immediately upon completion for a re-read! Martel writes as if combining fact and fiction, with a narrator who is likeable and believable. The zoo animals and Pi’s ringmaster type control of them lends the book a fable type atmosphere that kept me spellbound. A clever and interesting story.” – Rachel

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Published 2003
Mariner Books
236 pages

The Catcher In The Rye – J D Salinger

catcher-in-the-rye-2READ FOR BOOKCLUB

Chosen by Suzy

A native New Yorker named Holden Caulfield leaves his prep school in Pennsylvania and goes underground in New York City for three days

Although The Catcher in the Rye caused considerable controversy when it was first published in 1951, the book—the account of three disoriented days in the life of a troubled sixteen-year-old boy—was an instant hit. Within two weeks after its release, it was listed number one on The New York Times best-seller list, and it stayed there for thirty weeks.

“It remained immensely popular for many years, especially among teenagers and young adults, largely because of its fresh, brash style and anti-establishment attitudes—typical attributes of many people emerging from the physical and psychological turmoil of adolescence.

“It also was the bane of many parents, who objected to the main character’s obscene language, erratic behaviour, and antisocial attitudes. Responding to the irate protests, numerous school and public libraries and bookstores removed the book from their shelves. Holden simply was not a good role model for the youth of the 1950s, in the view of many conservative adults.  The clamour over the book undoubtedly contributed to its popularity among the young: It became the forbidden fruit in the garden of literature.”

I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff—I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all.

“I have read this book every 2-3 years since I was a teenager and Holden Caulfield is still one of my all-time favourite anti-heroes.  Many of the book’s characters & their traits are so recognisable.  I heart you Holden, although it worries me that as I get closer to 40 years old I still find you so relatable xx.” – Suzy

“An advantage of reading a classic some decades after it’s been written is the ability to recognise the influence said work has had on many modern day novels. Felt like I had known this story all my life and absorbed it fully and willingly. I especially enjoyed the use of time and timelessness. Holden wanders through the hours without the normal human requirements for sleeping and eating, Rather the world is revolving around him (as every teenager of every generation feels it should!) and I felt pulled into his dreamy world. A must read.” – Rachel

“A classic for good reason, loved it!” – Nadine

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Published 1951
Little Brown & Co
224 pages

Vernon God Little – DBC Pierre

VGL

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Chosen by Rachel

A satirical novel that details the aftermath of a school yard shooting in America.

“Vernon Gregory Little is a 15-year-old who avoids being killed in a schoolyard shooting by being on the toilet. His best friend Jesus Navarro shoots 16 of his classmates before turning the gun on himself. In the wake of the tragedy, the townspeople seek both answers and vengeance. Because Vernon was the killer’s closest friend, he becomes the focus of their fury. Vernon finds himself  on the run, being charged with deaths of people across the country. 

“The book is an absurdly humorous look at the serious topic of  America’s history of mass shootings. The book tackles many aspects of modern American society, including consumer culture, the death penalty, the media casting tragedy as entertainment, plus the craving for fame some people have.

“Don’t be lookin’ up at no sky for help. Look down here, at us twisted dreamers”. He takes hold of my shoulders, spins me around, and punches me towards the mirror on the wall. “You’re the God. Take responsibility. Exercise your power.” 

“Startling satirical comments regarding a school yard mass murder was initially a difficult concept to grasp. War satire has been done to death (pun intended) but school shootings, at a time when they were leading the news, was another story. But once Vernon sucked me in, there was no going back and I had to hear his story, prepared to be entertained but also shocked. A powerful book that has stayed with me.” – Rachel

“I remember this was the very first novel our bookclub looked at.  I still remember Nadine’s insights too, picking up so much that I had missed!  A sad, angry, entertaining read.  Interesting author information too for Dirty But Clean Pierre.” – Suzy

“I really liked this book. For me it sparked my love of reading again. Yay! I enjoyed the dark humour and found it very refreshing.” – Nadine

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Published 2003
Faber & Faber
288 pages