RESTLESS
We met up to discuss "Restless" by William Boyd. There were eight of us for the meeting and the book got 6 thumbs up and 2 horizontal thumbs. So a good read. Rob G led the book very well, bringing some valuable historical background to our discussions. We decided that it was interesting, well written and gripping. However we did have some issues about the modern (1970's) sections not helping the narrative much, but being interesting all the same.

ENGLEBY
Now, to last Monday's meeting - there were eleven present and the book up for discussion was Engleby by Sebastian Faulks which was introduced by Neil. In what was an incredibly, well chaired meeting, most found that, overall, the book was engaging although it slightly dragged or lost its way at times (different times for different readers). There were varying degrees of sympathy for Engleby ranging from Amy to Keith. In thumbometer terms, the book weighed in with an impressive 8 thumbs up and 3 sideways which puts it quite high up the list.

THE THREE MUSKETEERS
Last night we discussed Alexandre Dumas' "The Three Musketeers". Nine folk turned up with varying amounts of the book having been read. The book scored 5 ups and 4 sideways on the thumb-ometer but the experience seemed partially dependent upon which translation you had, with the new translation being fairly roundly panned. Steve Joseph has taken away various translations and is going to do something clever with them. Praise was heaped upon Dumas for his many-layered characters, his portrayal of strong feminine role models and attention to detail regarding historical timelines (I'm pretty sure that was an accurate summary :-) ). Mark then presented his choice of three books. Kiran Desai's "The Inheritance of Loss", Scarlett Thomas' "The End of Mr Y" and Stuart Maconie's "Pies and Prejudice: In Search of The North". The literary lot that we are, we got shot of Booker Prize winning Kiran Desai in the first vote. In the second vote, it was 5-4 to Pies and Prejudice, once Steve Beck got off the fence. Considerate sort that he is, both Mr Y and Pies and Prejudice are in Waterstones 3for2 at the moment (none of your out-of-print Mary Midgley's "Should we throw stones at cats?"). I've just looked on Amazon and they're selling Pies and Prejudice for £4.14 which works out better, so, if enough people want me to do a batch order, let me know - we'll need 4 or more to avoid postage.

PIES AND PREJUDICE
We met up last night for, I think, meeting number 26 of the book group. There were 14 of us present and the book up for discussion was "Pies and Prejudice" by Stuart Maconie. Mark opened things upon with a slight departure from the norm by using material not sourced from that font of all knowledge, Wikipedia - then everyone got their bovver boots and kicked seven shades out of the book. The general feeling was that the book was very poorly researched, the reader could only really engage with the parts about which they already had some knowledge and the it didn't really succeed in hitting any target audience. On the slightly more positive side, quite a few folk acknowledged that bits did make them laugh and, if the book weren't up for book club scrutiny, would have been a relatively enjoyable beach read. On the thumbometer, after counting in a lazy manner appropriate to the book's research, I figured that we got one thumb up, 6 sideways and six down which doesn't quite reach the depths plumbed by "Five People ...." but wasn't a million miles away. Si then put forward his high brow three books with a Booker prize winning, highlighting a Maconie-esque level of research (doesn't he know the sort of tosh that we normally read). Knocked out in the first round of voting was Margaret Atwood's "Blind Assassin" (winner in 2000) with just one vote. In the final vote, Peter Carey's "True History of the Kelly Gang" (winner in 2001) triumphed over J.M. Coetzee's "Life and Times of Michael K" (winner in 1983) by 8 votes to 6.

THE TRUE HISTORY OF THE KELLY GANG
We were slightly depleted last night with 9 attendees to discuss "The True History of The Kelly Gang" by Peter Carey but still managed a good, if slightly short, discussion. Simon introduced the book by summing up some of the critics' reviews. Most people had not managed to read the book for a variety of reasons, ranging from not enough time to no hook to compel the reader to continue. Despite that, everyone was still able to offer an opinion on the book. There was a bit of a split on the Carey's attempt to write from the point of view of a relatively uneducated man - some folk thought it contrived and the prose jarred in places whilst others found it was quite easy to accept the style. However, after reading the Jerilderie Letter (Ned Kelly's account of his family's treatment and his activities) it seemed, to me at least, the Carey's style was actually not so far from Kelly's own. Other criticisms of the book included its lack of plot and the way that one already knew the outcome (either from history or the introduction of the book). Despite most people having issues with the book, when it came to the vote, the book received a respectable 6 thumbs up (including Matt's proxy vote) and 3 sideways - Keith abstained having only read 14 pages. Amy then offered the choice of three books for next time - Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse 5 was voted out in the first round with just the one vote then Wicked by Gregory Maguire lost out 7-2 to Neil Gaiman's American Gods (weighing in at a meaty 640 pages). As it's a biggie, we decided that the next meeting should be on February 9th (usual time and place). Also, as a result of my lack of planning with asking someone to bring the books this time round, we've got the next three bringers sorted out. Simon Blakey will bring the choice for the next meeting then Caroline then Lizzy.

AMERICAN GODS
Now to the last meeting, now that everyone will have forgotten about it and will be unable to contradict me. There were 12 of us, I think, to discuss Neil Gaiman's "American Gods" which was introduced by Amy, who deviated from Wiki-research and turned up some newspaper interviews that the author gave about the book. Most folk enjoyed the book and found it pretty easy to churn through, although there wasn't really a consensus on the moral of the tale, if indeed there even was one. The level of fantasy in the book didn't seem to put off most, Lizzy excepted. On the voting front, there were 9 ups, 2 sideways and 1 down (correct me if I'm wrong), which puts the book up towards the high end on the thumb-ometer. Next came Simon Blakey's blinder of an offering in which the winner was the aformentioned "The Crying of Lot49" by Thomas Pynchon which, if I remember rightly, Simon sold by saying "I've tried to read this three times and never got past page 3". That says even more about the other two books on offer, which I've largely expunged from my memory - one about a bloke on a bike and other with sci-fi short stories.

Timothy's Story
A mere six of us met last Thursday to discuss/deride Timothy's Story by Verlyn Klinkenbourg and, although we did our best (well Rob Gaizauskas did) to give the book a fair hearing, it took a bit of a battering. Lizzy, whose friend (probably ex-friend by now) recommended the book, summed things up by saying that it was "dull, dull, dull". In terms of a vote, the book got five thumbs down and one sideways.

The mask of Demetrios
We met up a few weeks to discuss The mask of Demetrios by Eric ambler. This got a unanimous thumbs up from the eight of us who attended. We liked the writing, and the plotting, and also the world view shown by the author. We did find some of the actions of the "hero" rather unlikely.; DON'T DO IT, GET AWAY. But overall, a really good read.

Just So Stories
Various points arose including (as far as I remember) the observation that the prose could be a bit stilted to read but was easier to listen to, there wasn't one favourite story (although quite a few liked the cat one and quite a few liked the alphabet one), it was obviously aimed at kids and there wasn't any particular "lesson" in any of the tales and, if you were a cheapskate, you got shoddy Kipling illustrations in your book (although the clear ones weren't up to much in my opinion!). At the vote, the book received a reasonably respectable 5 thumbs up, 2 thumbs down and 7 sideways (correct me if I'm wrong).

Things Fall Apart
This time 10 of us met to discuss "things fall apart" by Chinua Achebe this was about the coming of white culture to traditional African culture. We discussed yams, religion and different viewpoints. We appreciated the warts and all approach, and overall the book went don well.
8 thumbs up + 1 from the bar staff.
1 thumbs down
1 horizontal thumb

A Fraction of the whole
A mere seven of us met up last night to discuss "A Fraction of the Whole" by Steve Toltz which, whilst certainly not the most popular book that we've read, was one that at least managed to get a wide range of responses and probably wins the title of most-given-up-on book . I introduced the book and some of the glowing reviews that the book received from the press along with a Guardian blog which basically described the book as over-long twaddle, full of attempts at being very clever.
Some of the group's thoughts on the book: Some couldn't give two hoots about what happened to the fairly unlikeable characters. The pace was uneven (sometimes it skipped along and sometimes it was like wading through treacle). Some people liked the humour a lot (Steve Beck) and others thought it was very depressing (Lizzy). The author introduced an idea then spent the rest of the page hammering it home. Even those that enjoyed the book felt that it could have done with a good editor and/or splitting up into several books.
Despite all of the above, when it came to the vote the book got a perfectly symmetrical two thumbs up, three sideways and two thumbs down. By the way, can I plug the book we should have read, The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid (despite me asking you not to choose the short one) - I thought it was great. The other book that I offered, Sarah Water's The Little Stranger was ok but not as good as Fingersmith, in my opinion.
Mark Tomlinson offered us his choice of three books which, considering he stood in for Benny at the last minute and he selected them under the influence, I thought were a pretty decent bunch. The first round of voting got rid of Richard Feynman's "Surely You're Joking Mr Feynman" with a solitary vote from Ville and Neil Stephenson's "The Diamond Age" just pipped Joseph O'Neill's "Netherland" 4-3 in the play-off. Then, for novelty's sake, we went for a curry and drunk some beer.

The Diamond Age
Last Thursday, a mere six of us met up to discuss Neal Stephenson's "The Diamond Age". Mark introduced the book and its many themes and ideas. Most of us struggled a bit with the book and the concensus seemed to be that the book was packed with loads of ideas, some interesting and some less so. The author seemed to drop ideas as quickly as he would introduce them and the plot was almost a loose "tieing together" of these ideas. Despite all that, the book received 4 thumbs up and 2 sideways. This vote may well have changed if those who didn't show up had had their say.

Dance of The Happy Shades
Eight of us turned up to discuss Alice Munro's "Dance of The Happy Shades" which was introduced by Steve Joseph. Most people had read all or most of the stories and we had a good discussion about many of them. Overall, the book got a very respectable six thumbs up and two sideways.

A Secret Scripture
Six of us (7 when Mark turned up) discussed "A Secret Scripture" by Sebastian Barry which I introduced in the usual Wikipedia-based fashion. We then let Steve Beck of his leash, shortly after which steam vented from his ears and he exploded - needless to say, he didn't much like the book. That did however have the effect of forcing any fence-sitters to dismount onto the "This is the best book I've ever read" side of the fence - ok, maybe that was a bit of an exaggeration. A robust discussion followed with the ending of the book coming in for particular scrutiny - it spoiled the book somewhat for people who were quite happy up to that point. Most people liked Roseanne's history and character but Dr Grene's fared less well. Steve Joseph found it a just too Irish but the rest of us Irish history ignorami quite enjoyed the history lesson. On the voting front, the book got a respectable 5 thumbs up, 3 sideways and 1 Beck thumb down (with some proxy votes thrown in, in case there are any arithmeticians reading).

The Prodigal Summer
I introduced Barbara Kingsolver in the usual fashion of Wikiblurb, stuff off her website (she thought the book was good) and two newspaper reviews of the book (they thought it was less good). We then discussed the thing - several people had favourites amongst the three main characters with Garnett probably being most popular and Deanna probably least popular. Quite a few people thought that the author spent far too much time banging on about a few simple ideas which didn't really need 400 odd pages - it seemed to depend upon whether one felt the stories had any merit apart from the scientific argument. Amy and Lizzy both felt disturbed by the moth love scene. Despite the book being misandrist (the word wot I learned that night) with virtually all of the male characters being portrayed as pretty backward, the book group males didn't seem to be offended (or were just too dumb to notice). Anyway, on the voting fron the book scored a very respectable 6 ups 4 sideways and 1 down. Three books were offered for next time - Steve Joseph's offering was Henning Mankell's "Eye of the leopard", Lizzy offered AS Byatt's "The children's book" and Amy offered Michael Chabon's "The amazing adventures of Kavalier and Clay".

The amazing adventures of Kavalier and Clay
Six hardy souls conquered the elements to make it to the University Arms (or possibly more accurately, six hardy souls made sufficient headway with the 600 page book to justify braving the elements). The book was The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon which was introduced by Amy in the standard Wiki stuff format. The book was then discussed for a little while. Some things that cropped up, if my memory serves me right, were that the book was overlong and needed a good editor, Steve Joseph was put off by the author trying to justify unlikely occurrences but instead just drawing the reader's attention to them and a few too many lists for those who weren't comic afficianados. That said, Keith who knows lots of that stuff found it all added to the overall book. Most people found the main characters interesting and believable (Steve Beck, I think, wasn't convinced about the portrayal of Sam's homosexuality though). Overall, it got a reasonably respectable 4 thumbs up, 1 sideways and 1 thumb down.

Michelle Paver's Dark Matter
Keith introduced the book with some Wikiblurb saying that Michell Paver has done a series of kids' books (George really likes them) and this was her first foray into adult fiction. We then had a bit of a discussion about the book. Some people found the book reasonably scary, especially when reading on a windy night in Lodge Moor, whilst others didn't find it very scary at all. Most agreed that the author did a convincing job of describing overwintering in Gruhuken. I seemed to be the only one who thought that it might all be in Jack's head (until he found Gus's papers) - everyone else thought the ghost was real from early on. Amy wondered why Jack didn't go with the trapper when he offered but this was thought to be connected with Jack wanting to impress Gus. Which brings us on to the relationship between Gus and Jack - there were various thoughts on whether Jack loved Gus or Gus loved Jack or was it just Jack's desire to impress upper-class Gus by saving the mission. I can't think of much else really. In terms of the vote, the book got a reasonably respectable 3 thumbs up, 3 thumbs sideways and 1 down. Stuart, Lizzy and Steve Joseph didn't vote due to not reading the book (or having enough of it very quickly in Steve's case).

Election by Tom Perrotta
We met at the Bath Hotel to discuss Election by Tom Perrotta - will say more later but the book got 5 thumbs ups, 4 sideways and 1 down.

The Testament of Gideon Mack
Nine of us, including Chuck Farrar who came all the way from Los Alamos especially, met last night in the Bath Hotel to discuss "The Testament of Gideon Mack" which was led by Lizzy. We had a good old discussion about the book including: did Gideon really meet the devil or was it all in his head (was there a counter-thesis)?, a lack of spirituality in the discussion between Gideon and the devil, how much of Gideon's testament was false (given his account of the affair with Elsie) and the flimsiness of the characters of Jenny and Elsie when compared to some of the other females. In the vote, the book got a very respectable 8 thumbs up and 1 sideways which went a long way towards restoring Lizzy's reputation (after Timothy the Tortoise).

Nature of Monsters
Again, no time to write-up last one - basically Nature of Monsters got 8 thumbs up and two thumbs down.

Homage to Catalonia
Three of us (where were you all?!) met up to discuss "Homage to Catalonia" by George Orwell. We had a good discussion, introduced by one of my (rare) polemics. We compared the different editions (with and without the appendices), the Spanish civil war, fascism, war, Orwell's disillusionment with socialism, and why both Steve Joseph and myself both read a lot of Orwell in our mid teens. The three of us -that's Andrew too- all gave it the thumbs up, along with a positive postal vote from Graham. So those of you who were unable to attend, read it! It's one of the great books of the 20th century (I told you I polemicised)

Candide
We met to discuss Voltaire's Candide or optimism, which as Mark rightly pointed out was, of course, for the best. Steve gave us a very nice introduction to Voltaire and his life before discussion got underway. I think the consensus was that it was remarkable how modern a feel the book had despite its great age (1758) and how relevant some of the sentiment still is today. Most found it an easy read and enjoyed the quick pace. Mentioning no names, my favorite quote of the night was "I liked it because stuff happened", which was certainly true - I only wish I had read far enough for people to start coming back to life. The votes came in at 8 up, 2 sideways, and 1 down, a very good result I think.

a question of blood
Many of us met last Thursday to discuss Ian Rankin's "a question of blood" along with a few guests, including the Rebus enthusiast Tom Slatter. This was our first foray into the world of crime thrillers, and it seemed that we liked it. The general consensus was that the book was entertaining and well written. Some had guessed early on how it would all end, others weren't as interested in solving the mystery, as of more interest was how Rebus reacted to the whole situation of sharing a number of similarities with the 'killer'. As for the vote, sound the trumpets please: everyone voted thumbs up (nine in total)!

The Shadow of the Wind
Last Thursday we met to discuss Carlos Ruiz Zafon's 'The Shadow of the Wind' (La sombra del viento) as put forward by Amy. The book was about a young man's quest to discover more about the life of the mysterious author Julian Carax. It seemed to me that the book went down really well - another page turner to add to the list! On the night some aspects of the discussion that I can still remember were on the very high quality of the translation, the modern feel of the book and the predictability of the plot (most of us had guessed who the man without a face was, but didn't see the plot line about Penelope being Julian's sister coming - oops should I have said 'spoiler alert' at the start of this email?). There was also some interesting discussion about the lack of depth to any of the female characters in the book (although Nuria was perhaps an exception to that). Overall it was all very positive though and the votes came in at ten thumbs up and three sideways

Snowdrops
On Monday night we met to discuss A.D(umpy). Miller's 'Snowdrops', which is a chilling story of love and moral freefall: of the corruption, by a corrupt society, of a corruptible young man. Ok, yes, I did paste that straight from amazon. Anyway, after deciding whether A.D. Miller is indeed dumpy or not, and an introduction from Mark, we got onto discussing the book, which caused a surprising amount of debate. A reoccurring topic was about why the protagonist went along with Masha and Katya's sordid plan, Stephen Beck certainly thought he was a SPINELESS individual, but there was some other discussion on whether he was simply going with the flow, following his heart (or something like that), or whether he was corrupted by Russia. I think the general consensus was that the construct of the book (being a letter to his fiancée) wasn't too believable, and people were certainly puzzled that this was shortlisted for the booker. Steve Joseph wasn't too keen as he felt that everything was spelled out for the reader, others found this quite appealing. Overall, the group agreed that the book was an easy read, but not necessarily an enjoyable one, the results came in at 4 thumbs down, 5 sideways and 3 up.

An invitation to the Waltz
Last week we met to discuss Rosamond Lehmann's 'An invitation to the Waltz'. It was a very gentle story, set in 1920s rural England, about a young girl's first formal dance. Having had a preview of Stephen's opinion of the book I thought it would be in for a bit of a bashing (something akin to how I imagine the discussion on Timothy the English country tortoise went). However the discussion was surprisingly positive and most people enjoyed the story. Bits of the conversation I can remember focused on Olivia being an unconventional but likeable character, on how well portrayed the different types of men she encountered at the ball were and how interesting the interaction between the different classes of people was. I think its fair to say that although most people enjoyed it, they also felt detached from the characters. My favourite aspect of the book was the language the young girls used - absolutely topping! Anyway, the votes came in at a very positive 6 up, 1 sideways and 1 down.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist
Seven of us at book group last night - all male! Decent discussion of book including lack of believability in the main character and his actions and Erica (who it turns out was a metaphor for the breakdown in America, hence her name). Most people liked the narrative style and it meant that one interpreted the book in a manner dependent upon one's own beliefs and prejudices. The ending was discussed and, while some of us would have liked the author to have given more on how he felt it should end, it was thought that the vagueness was necessary to allow for multiple interpretations of the story. On the vote it got 4 up, 2 sideways and 1 down.

Under the Greenwood tree
A select few of us met for book club last night to discuss Thomas Hardy's Under the Greenwood tree. It was Hardy's second novel and was originally published anonymously, it was also the first of his Wessex tales. The story starts by following a group of country church musicians but quickly becomes about one of the members' fascination with the school mistress (whose character is perhaps questionable). I think the mood of the people at the meeting was that they generally quite liked it, the book gave an interesting insight into rural England of that time, with some humorous observations. Most people were grateful that Hardy's usual approach of following the most depressing narrative possible was absent in this novel and most felt that it was a relatively easy read. I thought it was, ahem, dull. The votes came in at 4 thumbs up, 2 sideways, 1 down.

A case of exploding mangoes
Monday night there was a good turn out to discuss Mohammed Hanif's "A case of exploding mangoes", a darkly humorous book about the event's leading up to General Zia's death (former president of Pakistan). I think most found the book funny and quite easy to read, and importantly Steve Joseph read it the whole way through so it can't have been that bad! The book provided lots of topics for discussion including homosexuality and Islam, the history of Pakistan and the art of silent drills (complete with youtubing from Stephen). The book skims over some very horrible stuff quite lightly and gives an alternative view on the character of General Zia. Less positive comments; Stephen thought the whole thing was farcical (maybe that wasn't meant to be a criticism), and some people spotted a couple of discrepancies (something about the spec of a particular aeroplane, I may not have been paying a lot of attention at that point for some reason). The scores came in at a respectful 3 thumbs up, 3 sideways, 0 thumbs down.

Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage
Seven of us met up a couple of Thursdays ago to discuss Alfred Lansing's "Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage". As the proposer of the book, Steve Beck gave the usual Wikiduction which, due to Wikipedia having little to say on the subject, was, for Steve, uncharacteristically brief. We then had a largely complimentary discussion of the book much of which focussed on the amazing adventure itself and how on earth they all managed to make it back to Blighty with just the loss of a few digits and one limb. The overall feeling was that Lansing did a really good job in bringing the story to life by his considered use of the vast amount of material (explorers' diaries etc) at his disposal. The vote resulted in an unprecedented full house of 7 thumbs ups although several of us were considered changing our votes in order to allow Professor Beck's head to make it out of the pub door.

Pigeon English
A few of us met last Thursday to discuss Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman. It's a book about a young boy just moved to a (pretty rough) London estate from Ghana. At the start a local boy is stabbed and the story evolves from that point. The story is told from the perspective of the boy (Harri) and occasionally, you guessed it, a pigeon. From what I remember of the conversation (must make notes next time), most found the book an easy read and quite funny in places, it's also very short. I think it's fair to say that Harri was a very endearing character and most enjoyed his descriptions of the world (it is mostly bo-styles). Some criticisms were that the plot wasn't very involving and that it was hard to believe that the author could have any real insight into the lives of an immigrant family in that circumstance. The pigeon was universally disliked. The votes came in at 1 thumbs down, 4 sideways and 2 up. I think there were also three proxy thumbs up, but I got a bit delete happy with my emails earlier and can't be sure.

Why be happy when you could be normal
Last week (feels like last month – sorry I've been a tad busy) we met to discuss (IN GREAT DETAIL, despite what some guests might have thought!) Jeanette Winterson's 'Why by happy when you could be normal'. Through necessity (of a poor memory) I'll make this brief. The book is a memoire, mostly covering her childhood and her life more recently, during which she had been searching for her birth mother. It turns out that her life has been pretty horrible, and that this was a lot to do with her adoptive mother who is portrayed in the book as an absolute nutter. Cutting to the chase - the book went down really well, everyone seemed to enjoy it, it certainly didn't read like a traditional autobiography. Votes came in at 9 thumbs up, one sideways.

The Teleportation Accident
Steve Joseph introduced the book in the usual fashion, suggesting that many of the characters represented philosophical arguments and reporting that a number of characters who were mentioned in the but didn't appear were real people and all their escapades in the books were factual (even Voronov). After that everyone got stuck in. A few folk were either still struggling with the book or had given up early on for a variety of reasons (not what you want to read on your hols or had spoken to someone who had read it). The book took a bit of a kicking for its generally unlikeable characters, a plot that didn't really go anywhere (and when it looked like something interesting might be happening, the author quickly shut it down) and the feeling that the author was showing off how clever he was. On a more positive note quite a few liked the characters of Colonel Gorge and the conman in Paris with the monkey-testicle op escapade. Nevertheless that couldn't save the book in the vote with it receiving a measly 2 thumbs up and 6 thumbs down.

HHhH
A number of us met on Monday to discuss the latest book club offering, HHhH by Laurent Binet. The book tells the story of the assassination of Himmler's right hand man Reinhard Heydrich. Within the book is also the story of how the author researched and wrote the book (he is seemingly obsessed with the tale). Overall I think the book was well received, most were gripped by the story. There was some debate around the parts of book about the author himself. I think that the general consensus was that the author thinks quite highly of himself, to put it politely. After the vote it gained a very respectable 5 thumbs up, 4 sideways. Candice kindly brought along the selection of books for next time. I say kindly because I might have bullied her into it. The next book (our 60th book club book no less!) was selected and it is: Girl Missing by Tess Gerritsen.

Girl Missing
Last week we met to discuss Girl Missing by Tess Gerritsen (not be confused with Girl Gone, which I think we've also read). It was a good turn out and a surprisingly good conversation about a book that could be described as having very little substance. I can be rude about it because Candice who put the book forward said it was a pile of rubbish (or something along those lines). Stephen Beck said the book was laugh out loud funny (unintentionally), while most were merely bemused by the odd mix of romance and crime. The votes came in at 5 thumbs sideways, 5 down (is this a book club record? Apparently not)

Vieux chapeau
The book was about the hat of Francois Mitterrand (pause for Cecile to spit on the floor) and its effect on a few people's lives. It was a MAGIC hat that changed people's lives for the better before moving on. Actually whether it was magic or not was hotly debated. In general I think people found the book a very easy read, although those that had read the book in the original French did think that the translation was simplified somewhat. It was a bit noisy in the pub so I'm a bit hazy on the rest of the conversation. it did seem to go down quite well though; the votes came in at 8 thumbs up, 3 sideways. I can't remember the last time we panned a book, are we becoming a soft book club or just getting better at picking books?

Pig's Foot
Early last week we met to discuss Pig's Foot by Carlos Acosta. It's a tale of a boy's family in a remote village in Cuba. It was a bit hard going to start with (or maybe just a bit grim), which might explain why quite a few people gave up early doors. Mark couldn't make the meeting but did write a nice piece about his thoughts on the book, and conveniently it sums up our conversation on the night. I'm sure he won't mind me stealing, err sharing this....
"I'd give it a marginal thumbs up. I quite liked the history lesson about Cuba, but I was frustrated by the lack of depth to the characters. I suppose that given the 'twist' that may have been deliberate, but I can't help wondering if I am allowed to admit feeling short changed that the main story of a fictional novel was also a fiction. I think that before I disappear down a rabbit hole of fictions built on fictions, I should just say that I was hoping for a more satisfying way of getting to the present day than the 'Dallas-style' …and it was all a dream. It just felt like a convenient way to get around the fact that some bits of the story didn't work."

Rivers of London
Ten of us met up to discuss Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch. The book was introduced by Mark who stuck two fingers up at convention and did away with the usual Wikiduction (ok, his printer was broken). There then followed quite a lively discussion of the book. Most people enjoyed the characterisation of the various Rivers and generally thought the book chugged along pretty nicely. A number of people thought that the author tried to cram all of his ideas into the book resulting in a bit of a disjointed story and what seemed like a lot of pointless episodes and loose ends. Keith and Steve Beck, who have both read further into the book series, revealed that these issues turn out to be setting the scene for later books. We had a bit of discussion about the author's attempts to explain the science behind the magic and generally thought that he made a fairly decent fist of it. There was a little less praise for the believability of Peter Grant's ethnicity which many people didn't feel was very convincing. Overall though, the book didn't seem to manage to annoy anyone and the vote was 7 thumbs ups and 5 sideways

New Finnish Grammar

Last week on Monday we met to discuss New Finnish Grammar by Diego Marani. Unfortunately I neglected to read the book but here is a lovely introduction from the Guardian. It wasn't a great turn out this week, early on there were only four of us, none of whom had read/finished the book. Thankfully after a few minutes panic more people turned up and even better, they had finished the book and had some intelligent things to say (especially Mark who gave us a potted modern history of Finland). Opinion among those that had attempted to read the book was divided, some found the topic and surrounding history very interesting, others thought it was utter tripe (direct quote). I think there was a general agreement that the quality of storytelling was not excellent. Having said that, it did ok when the votes came in - 3 thumbs up, 1 sideways and 3 down.

A country doctor's notebook

Last Thursday we met to discuss 'A country doctor's notebook' by Mikhail Bulgakov. As it's intro week I have a brilliant excuse for keeping this brief (actually 230 reasons), so here we go: It was good and got an unprecedented thumbs up from all voters (8 in total). Well done Mikhail Bulgakov. Good, now that's done. NB There were different versions of this book: some of them were missing the last, rather special, story.

the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

We had an extremely lively debate/discussion at our book club meeting last Thursday. The epistolic book by Mary Ann Shaffer and her niece Annie Barrows follows the story of an author and her discovery of post-occupation Guernsey (yes I learnt a new word). It was a very gentle read and I think most people enjoyed it. I say 'I think' because the dissenters were shouting more loudly than the supporters, mentioning no names, Stephen Beck J (he wasn't really shouting - ). Complaints against the book included the fact that all of the letters seemed to be in same voice, questions over whether it was well written or not, on whether or not the characters were convincing/stereotypes, and accusations of overt Americanism (shocking + unfounded). Can't have been all bad because the votes came in at 3 thumbs down, 1 sideways and 7 thumbs up.

If on a winter's night a traveller

I must admit that I didn't read it, but from the discussion I could glean that it was a book made up of the first chapters of lots of different stories. Unfortunately most people found this quite frustrating, even if it was the intent of the author to make the reader feel like that. A few people found the book a little pretentious, while others had simply lost interest after a few chapters. In the interest of fairness at least one person (Stephen) loved it as you will see from the votes. Claudia, who had suggested the book, was disappointed that we didn't get to read some of Calvino's early work which is very different from this offering. The message is don't write Calvino off just yet! Now to the results of the vote (yes there was definitely lots of very intelligent discussion that went on that I should be reporting on, but in fairness to me Claudia's bike nearly got nicked and it was very distracting...) - votes came in at 1 thumb up, 1 sideways, 4 down.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog

Oops, our last book club (discussion of 'The Elegance of the Hedgehog' by Muriel Barbery) was a long time ago – apologies time has escaped me. Poor memory necessitates that I keep this brief: The gist of the discussion was that the book was hugely pretentious and no one liked it very much. I think that just about covers it. Votes came in at 1 thumb up, 5 sideways, 2 down.

The Magic Toyshop

In the meeting last week we discussed The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter (well, we sort of did). No one really had too much to say about it, although to be fair I was demob happy and did nothing to regulate the conversation. Here are some nice words from Steve Joseph about the book:
Melanie is entirely surrounded by characters that are infantile, withdrawn, absent, dead, old, fat, ugly, smelly, monolithically silent, dumb, violent, or several of these things. If this is the way a 15 year old girl saw her life in 1955, it is a triumph of self awareness. If not, not.
Votes came in at 4 thumbs up, 3 sideways.

The Crack in Space

Benny's peerless introduction led to a spirited discussion about novellas, brothels, Jiffy bags, Peking Man and black presidents. Interestingly enough, some of these things also appeared in the book so that all seemed to hang together nicely.
On balance, the book was fairly well received. There was a feeling that it read like a short story that had been beefed up by the addition of a few too many ideas and characters that were then dropped, often never to reappear. We were heartened that it didn't take until 2080 to get a black president in the U.S., and the list of people thought suitable to dispose of through a dimensional rift or consign to a state of suspended animation was both hotly contended and worryingly comprehensive.
The book received 4 thumbs up, three sideways, and achieved a rare zero downward digits.

An Officer and a Spy

A moderately fictionalised account of the story of the trial and retrial of Alfred Dreyfus and the military cover-up associated with it. The Wikipedia entry for the Dreyfus affair is almost as long as the novel, so Stephen Joseph spared us the traditional introduction, instead opting for a potted biography accompanied by rousing cheers and boos.
The unanimous thumbs up declared it worth ploughing through the 600 pages, even though you already knew whether he did it or not. The diamond geezer even managed to give it a positive endorsement despite concerns over the technological progress erroneously attributed to the French railway system and to the inflated estimation of Parisian traffic density in the early 1900's (which, according to his peerless research, constituted only 5 cars).
There was a feeling that not too many liberties had been taken with the historical facts, and the somewhat shaky characterisations were made up for by the driving plot. The novel was careful to couch the anti-Semitism of the military as a means to an end rather than the driving force it was portrayed through the media at the time, whether this was a true reflection or not wasn't known, but it would have made it harder to cast Picquart as the hero of the piece had it been more overt.
Other useful lessons learnt were: 1) Nottingham is neither in the north nor the south but is still an acceptable birthplace; 2) Attendances at 3D showings of Avatar will likely follow an exponential decay until they reach one man stroking an expensive white cat; and 3) Horse riding at the age of 59 is a high risk activity.

Us&Them

We took some time to identify what we liked about the book. In the end, we agreed the book was compiled using adequate words in an understandable order.
The story concerns Douglas, a 54 year old biochemist; his wife Connie, an artist turned curator; and Albie, their teenage son.
At the start of the book, Connie wakes Douglas to tell him that she thinks when Albie leaves home to go to university that autumn, she will 'probably' leave too.
Before all this though, they resolve to complete the 'grand tour' of European galleries they have planned during the summer. Connie says she still loves Douglas, but feels their marriage is at an end.
Douglas takes this as personal challenge to prove how much better all their lives would be if only everyone did as they were told and followed the schedule. Heartbreak, hope and hilarity ensue.
(Lovers of the book who were unable to attend, should probably look away now. - oh and there are spoilers)
Its fair to say, opinions of the book were mixed. On the one hand, some people genuinely seemed to like it; whilst on the other, some people had taste.
Depending on your preference it was either a heartfelt study of staggering emotional articulacy with a bright message of hope for life after divorce, or it was a depressing story about hateful people engaged in mutual abuse with the added nausea of a cloyingly saccharine finish.
No-one went along with any of the characters. Whilst its ok to have unpleasant people in books, we thought you should, at least, be able to believe in them. In this case, although many of the character traits were well rendered and convincing, they didn't add up to a whole person, and in some cases clashed to the point of DID. All the relationships were poisonous and bordering on abusive with the possible exception of that between Albie and his mother, which was sketchy and confused. The comic set pieces will do well in a Mr Bean meets Hugh Grant rom-com [perhaps that is the author's aim], but felt somewhat airlifted in to lighten the crushing experience of the 'grand tour' storyline.
Mystified as to why so many positive reports of this book exist, a couple of people took to reading five star reviews to find a unifying theme. It seems that people who liked the book largely sympathised with Douglas, disregarded the unreliable narrator premise and were happy to see him finally escape the flighty and pernicious Connie to find a woman who appreciated his more conservative and structured lifestyle. They were also heartened to see the rosy outcome of an amicable divorce.
To everyone else it was a tale of three horrible people who were entirely lacking in empathy. A woman who only valued her relationship when she needed the support it offered , a man who's joyless inflexibility blighted the lives of his family, and a manipulative selfish teenager with communication issues. Given that, it became hard to care what happened, but it might have been nice if they could have stayed together forever, if only to save anyone else from the misfortune of encountering them. It was the most depressing thing I have ever read - and I once picked up the Daily Mail in a doctor's surgery.
When the votes were counted it scored: 1 thumbs up, 3 thumbs sideways, 4 thumbs down.

Walking Home

A massive seven and a half people (the half being Tom, who showed briefly but left before the book-talk) showed up last night to talk about 'Walking Home'. Discussions didn't take long given that only three people had actually read the book and had fairly similar opinions.
Amy, having recently walked the Penine Way, found it difficult to read the book objectively, and found herself quite irritated with Armitage for being 'a bit of a wimp' about it all and not seeming to appreciate what he was doing and the beauty of where he was. On the positive side he had good attention to detail throughout the book, and was good at being self-deprecating and not taking himself too seriously.
Everyone agreed it was disappointing that he gave up so close to the end, with Steve J feeling this just reinforced his feeling that Armitage wasn't fully committed to it.
Pause for laughter as Steve points out the somewhat 'rambling' narrative throughout... The good Professor Beck also found it all a bit samey - not knowing the route in detail meant that to him every day was pretty much the same and became a bit boring. There were also some grumbling about the journey being presented as a wandering troubadour adventure and then turning out to be extremely well-organised in terms of where to stay and being ferried there and back.
The final result - a staggering 3 sideways thumbs...

Novel Brutalism

We met last week to discuss 'The Brutal Art' by Jessie Kellerman.
The story revolves around a New York art dealer who is alerted to hoard of drawings at an abandoned flat in building owned by his somewhat estranged father.
The drawings turn out to be a brilliantly disturbing work comprising of thousands of sheets which can joined up into an almost impossibly large single piece. Things get more complicated when a retired detective makes a connection between figures in the artwork and a series of murdered young men. Who was the artist, what was his involvement in the murders? How does this all connect?
In deference to Anne there will be no spoilers here, and seeing that both Steve Joseph AND Matt Carré finished it its obviously worth persevering with.
We thought the book was a well-paced and compelling read and gave what we hoped was an accurate depiction of the venal New York art world.
It also ranks as Lizzy's Dad's favourite book due to the intertwined past & present storylines and their neat resolution. Lizzy was less convinced of its uniqueness, but will at least be able to argue this from a position of knowledge in future. With the exception of a couple of clunky plot devices, we thought it hung together well and certainly tied up all the loose ends by the finish, thereby avoiding the spectre of a sequel and an increasingly diluted series of lacklustre movies.
The book achieved an impressive six thumbs up with only a single sideways digit.

The Miniaturist

The novel concerns the 18 year old Petronella (Nellie) Brandt, nee Oortman, as she arrives in Amsterdam following her arranged marriage to Johannes, a wealthy merchant. Johannes is very busy, often making trips overseas, and seems to pay very little attention to Nellie. The household has, thus far been run by Johannes' sister, the stern Marin and his two domestic staff, manservant Otto and maid Cornelia. Nellie begins to feel isolated and powerless. This isn't helped when Johannes presents her with a wedding gift of a miniature version of their Amsterdam house for her to decorate as she sees fit. The hidden story of these characters begins to emerge when magical items for the dolls house begin to arrive from the mysterious miniaturist.
We thought that there was probably more than one interesting novel struggling to escape from this book. It was well paced and built nicely to a finale that we all felt let us down a little, the revelations being delivered with only minor drama and happening to people who we had not fully engaged with. It would have been interesting to compare the extreme wealth inequalities promoted by the new economic system of the Dutch East India company, the Amsterdam Bourse to the 'modern' attitudes towards money, gender, sex and race displayed by several of the characters. It would also have been nice to hear more about the miniaturist's uncanny abilities and their effects.
At the end of the voting, and after a somewhat laboured joke about dikes from Reginald*, the scores came in at 3 thumbs up, two thumbs down and one abstention.

* Names have been changed to protect the comedically challenged

Hived off

As far as I remember from our meeting about "The bees" by Laline Paull, no-one found it as objectionable as Stephen Beck, which is usually a good omen. In general, some of the facts were fascinating, some were debated, and some of the anthropomorphism was roundly derided.
It got 5 thumbs up, 1 sideways and 2 thumbs down.

Sapiens

A month ago, we met to talk about Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. The book made such an impression, that its slipped my mind to post out the review. We seemed to think that on the occasions when he wasn't being either incorrect or polemical, Mr Harari had a few interesting anecdotes and covered 'Human History 101' with a fair degree of competence, if not too much insight or dynamism. The subject matter resulted in one of the most prolonged book discussions for recent months, but the book seemed to provide a start point for a number of threads (rants) rather than any answers. When the book moved from historical review to futurism there was a hope that things might improve. The author did attempt to limit expectations by arguing that the prediction of the future by analysing past trends was likely to be futile. It didn't, unfortunately, stop him from having a go. This most eagerly anticipated section of the book therefore turned out to be the most disappointing for most of us.
In the final analysis, it got 4 thumbs up, 4 sideways and 2 thumbs down.

Lucky Jim

We met on Thursday night to discuss petty jealousy and snobbery in academia and the merits of giving lectures whilst drunk.
We then went on to talk about 'Lucky Jim' by Kingsley Amis which has garnered much acclaim being included in TIME magazine's 100 best English language novels, and if you are minded to believe Toby Young, is the best comic novel of the 20th century (thanks to Wikipedia via Matt)
The book is the story of Jim Dixon, a probationary lecturer in an unnamed minor University (not far from Swansea). He has had an uninspiring start to his academic career and is intent in ingratiating himself with the head of department whilst trying to get his first paper published. He also has to navigate a couple of on-off relationships and conduct a losing battle with alcohol which we decided was so unremarkable for the time that it wasn't handled the way it would have been in a contemporary work.
The comparison of academia in the 50's to the present day was interesting. It was agreed that snobbery is still alive and well, but there were no clear conclusions as to how many sub-divisions of it were now required to maintain a sense of proportion. Similarly the 'track to tenure' which was then a proxy for a cushy job for life, seems more of a remote concept.
We enjoyed the comic set pieces, however inevitable, and since only heedless men had read the book, the sexual politics left us with a vague sense of unease, but largely passed us by.
The (male) thumbs came to rest with two up and two sideways votes.

How to set a fire, and why

The story concerns a fiercely intelligent and idealistic teenager who attempts to live by a simple code of questionable moral standing despite being handed a fairly rough deal in life. A significant proportion of the people who completed it (Stephen) were not enamoured of the central character and her jarring mixture of naivety and world weariness, or the somewhat haphazard writing style. The remainder of the readers (Amy & I) liked the character and her precocious ways and didn't feel the writing detracted from the narrative. Ball's method of working is apparently to prepare research ahead of time and to then quickly write a single draft in a matter of days to avoid getting bogged down in rewrites (and presumably grammar and facts - seems awfully popular these days). Anyway the book scored a healthy 67% approval rating with no abstentions.

1984

Here are the belated musings from our discussion on 1984 by George Orwell. You will be glad to read that, owing to our lack of political influence, our generally liberal outlook and the presence of Stephen, we weren't able form an oligarchical collective or oppress the masses, and we didn't need to invent a dangerous bogeyman. Joining the anti sex league was also ruled out, certainly in theory even if not in practice.

It was difficult to decide whether this book should be required reading for world leaders or whether it should be hidden from them.

The dangers posed by totalitarian regimes to personal freedom, the resulting social stratification and the entrenchment of abusive ideologies were agreed to be generally 'a bad thing'.

However - using an unending far away conflict to justify domestic privations; the deployment of sheer bluster to overcome impartial reporting; and the systematic oppression of liberalism do seem to be difficult to resist once you get into power.

There was a fair debate about the relevance of this novel to post-war Britain as written, compared to its relevance today, and I think we decided that it was still relevant, but in a different way. In some ways, its tempting to draw parallels with the UK, the US, and China but the rise of the consumer society is a notable exclusion from Orwell's future. Whilst its easy to Identify Winston's class of party members with a 'metropolitan elite' that needs to be suppressed so that the 'inner party' can continue to hold power, the indifference and acceptance of the Proles will be unfamiliar to anyone who reads below the line comments on the internet. We also thought that seeing as the only advantage of being a party member seemed to be the availability of gin, it was hard to understand why Winston didn't just decide to hide amongst the proles. Although Matt did put up a spirited defence in favour of gin.

The votes were probably 4 thumbs up and one sideways, but fortunately the mutability of the past means that I can declare it and huge success with fifteen thumbs up.

After a hard won battle, fought over a selection of printed summaries and therefore without the benefit of heft to guide us, our next choice is "The Handmaid's Tale" by Margaret Attwood. - We obviously haven't had our fill of dystopian fiction. This novel imagines a future New England overtaken by a totalitarian theocracy and the resulting subjugation of women and their struggle for independence. The extent to which this represents fiction will, I'm sure, be debated once the male majority of book club attendees and male chair have decided on a manly pub, time and date that suits them - am I right sisters?

The Handmaid's Tail

Our recent discussions took on an al-fresco motif as we decamped from the Bath Hotel to the beer garden of the University Arms. From this idyllic oasis we contemplated the dystopian conjurings of Margaret Attwood in The Handmaid’s Tale.

This novel portrays a future where declining birth rate, declining global influence and civil unrest leads to a theocratic revolution in the US which results in a fundamentalist regime where women are forbidden to hold property, vote or even read and the limited number of fertile women are ‘requisitioned’ as breeding stock for the ruling class. Other classes of women (and some men) are reduced to servitude of varying degrees. The story revolves around the testament of a handmaid plucked from ‘ordinary life’ during the transition of power, and examines the new society, the mechanism by which it arose and motivations of the main characters. The story then introduces her to a resistance movement and the hope of being re-united with her husband and daughter. The book ends at an academic conference, many years in the future, suggesting that the tale is of little historical value because it does not contain enough information to reliably identify the characters, and cautioning the reader not to judge the society by ‘modern’ standards.

We found it difficult to determine just how grim this book was. It certainly takes some commitment to get through. Attwood is at pains to point out that, in isolation, all of the terrible things portrayed in the book have happened in the world, and that the ‘trigger ideologies’ exist, or have existed in many cultures.

The novel was written whilst Attwood was living in West Berlin at the time of the Iranian revolution and the rise of Reagan and Thatcher and their conservative agenda. It can be seen as being aimed at American dismissal of the dangers of fundamentalism in the western world.

The neat ‘forwards, looking backwards’ final chapter is a good way of completing the circle for the incredulous reader who may have been struggling with extreme plot line to that point. The question of whether and how a ‘progressive’ society can be overturned into one where a strict ideology is maintained by subjugation is often viewed through a modern prism of “It couldn’t happen to us, we’ve come too far”. The explicit warning in the novel is that it doesn’t take long for that which exists now, to become ‘normal’. ...Having said that, popular uprisings do have to be popular at the time, and it is difficult to see what the vast majority of citizens would hope to gain from the structure offered by the land of Gilead.

The debate as to whether this is a feminist call to arms, a warning against the Christian right or a piece of indirect dodgy male wish fulfilment came to the conclusion that making people slaves was, on the whole, a bad thing not to be encouraged and that treating people as anything other than people was the mark of a despot.

The votes were 5 thumbs up and 2 thumbs sideways.

Rise again

Once assembled we leapt at the chance to discuss Graeme's offering of To Rise Again At A Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris. Decency forbids me to faithfully relate Prof Beck's opinion, suffice it to say, he isn’t looking forward to a sequel. There was general disbelief that this work had made it on to the Booker shortlist, unless it was a cunning plan to make sure that the newly allowed US authors wouldn't win.

We thought the sheer unlikeability of the main character really made it difficult to care what happened to him. His cynical use of those around him and lack of any redeeming features meant that the plot twists, such as there were, failed to spark any interest.

Perhaps it was written with a target audience in mind, but there can’t be many Judeo-curious, dysfunctional, baseball mad dentists out there desperate to be bored witless.

There was a constant theme of faith and belief through the book, which leaves it lacking only in narrative, truthfulness and purpose.

In all it garnered 6 thumbs down and one sideways from Matt, who is too nice to damn a book he managed to finish.

The Axeman’s Jazz

We met last week to discuss The Axeman's Jazz by Ray Celestin. This a fictional novel 'inspired by real events' as they say. The real events in question were a series of apparently unconnected victims were murderd in 1918 and 1919. The assailant generally killed the victims in their own homes, with their own axes and was never caught. The New Orleans Picayune printed a letter purportedly from “The Axeman” in 1918 claiming he would spare anyone who listened to Jazz music. Ray Celestin took the bare bones of this story and created a novel to 'explain' the links between the victims and threw in a good deal of New Orleans culture, society and a young Jazz legend for good measure.

We thought the evocation of New Orleans was well done and represented a very believable environment for the action to unfold within. Even Stephen Beck struggled to find glaring anachronisms, and we all thought it avoided the inappropriate transplanting of modern attitudes into a historical setting, instead creating seemingly genuine realism for a number of sub-cultures. (Even the New Orleans Italian and Irish sections that we were previously unaware of)

A couple of contrived coincidences aside, the story was well plotted and zipped along at a good pace despite the many characters and plot lines. The book received a unanimous four thumbs up, and would have had six if Matt and Greame hadn't waited until later to arrive for fear of spoilers.

I had originally proposed the next book in this series, but OCD got the better of us and we chose this one. Having read both, I think the second book set during prohibition in chicago, is a little stronger, but similar in style and tone. It continues the story of Michael and Ida, and Louis Armstrong, and also throws in Al Capone.