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Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Gone GirlWho are you?

What have we done to each other?

These are the questions Nick Dunne finds himself asking on the morning of his fifth wedding anniversary, when his wife Amy suddenly disappears. The police suspect Nick. Amy’s friends reveal that she was afraid of him, that she kept secrets from him. He swears it isn’t true. A police examination of his computer shows strange searches. He says they weren’t made by him. And then there are the persistent calls on his mobile phone. So what really did happen to Nick’s beautiful wife?

This is a book that I’ve been deliberating on using as a book group book for quite some time. When a book is talked about on such a scale it actually puts me off reading it. On this occasion the book was made into a film, which did look pretty good, so I decided to watch it rather than read it (yes, you heard me correctly, and I apologise profusely!), and I have to say that I was pretty disappointed. It was a good film, but I was expecting the plot of the century that would have me on the edge of my seat, but it wasn’t to be.

Although I wasn’t that taken by the film I did acknowledge that a lot of my friends thought that it would be a good read, so I decided to give it a whirl. I was pleasantly surprised that pretty much all of the group enjoyed it as a ‘rollicking romp’ and enjoyed it for what it was. We did discuss the possibilities of something like this happening in real life and came to the conclusion that most likely, it wouldn’t happen, or certainly wouldn’t be escalated to such a degree. However, as it’s set in America we did explore the possibility that yes, it could actually happen in this day and age – a very scary prospect indeed!

We also discussed the physiological aspect of the book and the possibility that Amy was in fact a sociopath. Some thought she was, but others were not so convinced. Personally, I think she was but this led us on to a discussion about whether her personality and mental troubles were actually caused by her parents and upbringing, or whether she really was a psychopath! Probably a bit of both, but one thing that we did agree on was the shear self-discipline she had to plan her own disappearance and death to implicate her husband was simply chilling and deeply disturbing.

Overall, we did enjoy reading it and certainly found quite a bit to discuss. However, there were a few areas that felt a bit unrealistic and we decided that the author really did stretch the boundaries of fiction to pull it off. If you don’t nit pick the police procedural aspect too much then you’ll probably find it to be a very good thriller, but don’t expect a fulfilling ending as we didn’t find it particularly credible.

Surprisingly enough I would say that I enjoyed the book more than I enjoyed the film and I’m pretty annoyed with myself for not reading it first. It really is a well-crafted physiological thriller with some unusual twists and a cleverly plotted storyline. The flipping between the two narrators, both past and present, really kept the excitement and intrigue and held my attention until the very last page. Worth a try if you like your thrillers but fancy something out of the ordinary.

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In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

CapoteThe chilling true crime ‘non-fiction novel’ that made Truman Capote’s name, In Cold Blood is a seminal work of modern prose, a remarkable synthesis of journalistic skill and powerfully evocative narrative.

Controversial and compelling, In Cold Blood reconstructs the murder in 1959 of a Kansas farmer, his wife and both their children. Truman Capote’s comprehensive study of the killings and subsequent investigation explores the circumstances surrounding this terrible crime and the effect it had on those involved. At the centre of his study are the amoral young killers Perry Smith and Dick Hickcock, who, vividly drawn by Capote, are shown to be reprehensible yet entirely and frighteningly human.

It was refreshing to read a non-fiction title for a change. The last one we read was years ago, and I think I should certainly refresh my choice of books in future. The beginning was a struggle for me as I was wondering where it was going (even though I knew exactly where it was going). However, once we hit the actual murders I was hooked on every word. We’ve all read a crime novel, and we’ve all read a real-life story at some point, but this was something different. The quality in both the writing and research was simply masterful, and I can honestly say that I’ve never read anything like it.

Capote takes the views from both the killers, the victims’ friends, the police, the witnesses and various others involved in this horrific crime. He than crafts his account in as accurate a way as he possibly can to ensure that a fully-rounded account is offered to his readers. The length at which he goes to deliver this novel is quite astonishing and I’m pretty confident in saying that the whole group thought so too. It was interesting to read about the killers both before and after the murders and it’s quite unbelievable how emotionless they appeared to be.

As a group we all felt that the way in which the actual murders was described was a credit to Capote’s thoughtful and tactful writing skill. We didn’t need to know about the blood spatter, gore and the minute details of every shot or knife slash. Less was more in this case and Capote managed to paint a hauntingly vivid picture of the scenes without showering the reader with the usual bloody detail that seems to be required in modern day literature.

The end of the book, where the killers await execution, was both eye-opening and quite disturbing in equal measures, which prompted the group to discuss the death penalty and how relevant we think it is in today’s society. Thankfully, it’s not something we have to worry about in the UK, but it was interesting to discuss people’s thoughts on the American justice system and it was also interesting to read Capote’s account of other trials that were running at the same time as Smith and Hickcock’s.

The group, as a whole, found this to be quite a remarkable read and I would certainly recommend this to anyone who is interested in real-life crime, or indeed, crime fiction. It’s an exceptional read on many levels and a wonderful example of a well-written, factual account of one of the worst crimes in American history.

Birds Without Wings by Louis de Bernieres

BirdsSet against the backdrop of the collapsing Ottoman Empire, the Gallipoli campaign and the subsequent bitter struggle between Greeks and Turks, Birds Without Wings traces the fortunes of one small community in south-west Anatolia – a town in which Christian and Muslim lives and traditions have co-existed peacefully for centuries.

When war is declared and the outside world intrudes, the twin scourges of religion and nationalism lead to forced marches and massacres, and the peaceful fabric of life is destroyed. Birds Without Wings is a novel about the personal and political costs of war, and about love: between men and women; between friends; between those who are driven to be enemies; and between Philothei, a Christian girl of legendary beauty, and Ibrahim the Goatherd, who has courted her since infancy. Epic in sweep, intoxicating in its sensual detail, it is an enchanting masterpiece.

After reading a blurb like that who wouldn’t want to read the book? The minute I started reading I had the immediate feeling of excitement. What I held in my hands was a piece of artwork and I was gripped from the onset. Admittedly, I was a little worried about the length of the book. Could it sustain my interest for the entire 625 pages? Thankfully, it held my attention for about 580 pages, which isn’t bad going to be honest.

I was pleasantly surprised at how comfortable I became with the characters, their surroundings and their culture. Louis manages to draw you into this unfamiliar territory and continues to subtly keep you there amongst the Muslims, the Christians and their natural way of living. Just as you become comfortable with the characters’ life style everything changes. Actions have consequences, war has consequences, and the people at the bottom end of the scale feel the full brutality of these choices.

As you can imagine, we had a lot to discuss in our meeting. Even though we only had a few attend we still managed to drum up some thought-provoking conversations with some split opinions on the novel. Some of us read the book from cover to cover – carefully and thoughtfully – and absorbed every last detail within the book. I tried very hard to have this approach but unfortunately I did skip some of the historical chapters, as did some other members of the group too. You can get away with skipping some chapters but I did feel guilty as they were relevant and informative, but I just couldn’t keep my concentration through all of them.

We had some interesting discussions on both the religious and political aspect of the book and found that, considering the content, we all very much enjoyed it. Yes, some did struggle with the length of the book (me included) but it was certainly a rarity in the world of books and agreed that it was definitely a novel worth reading. It made for a refreshing change and I would certainly recommend it to any reader looking for a challenging read (in length) but a wonderful read (in content).

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

Screen Shot 2015-02-03 at 14.30.12There is nothing hidden that will not be revealed . . . 

On an autumn day in 1686, eighteen-year-old Nella Oortman knocks at the door of a grand house in the wealthiest quarter of Amsterdam. She has come from the country to begin a new life as the wife of illustrious merchant trader Johannes Brandt, but instead she is met by his sharp-tongued sister, Marin. Only later does Johannes appear and present her with an extraordinary wedding gift: a cabinet-sized replica of their home. It is to be furnished by an elusive miniaturist, whose tiny creations mirror their real-life counterparts in unexpected ways . . .

Nella is at first mystified by the closed world of the Brandt household, but as she uncovers its secrets she realizes the escalating dangers that await them all. Does the miniaturist hold their fate in her hands? And will she be the key to their salvation or the architect of their downfall?

Beautiful, intoxicating and filled with heart-pounding suspense, Jessie Burton’s magnificent debut novel The Miniaturist is a story of love and obsession, betrayal and retribution, appearance and truth.

I was intrigued by this back in 2014 but didn’t really see it as a book group choice. After mentioning it to the group a majority wanted to read it, so I popped it down for our February read. I’ve already read a book about a miniaturist featuring ‘dolls-of-destiny’ called The Devil Walks by Anne Fine, and that was a fabulous book and exactly what I expected from reading the blurb. The Miniaturist, however, was probably one of my biggest letdowns I’ve had the misfortune to read. It promised so much but failed to deliver on every level. Well, for me anyway.

As for the group it seemed to be a bit of a mixed bag. A few really disliked it (including myself), some thought it wasn’t bad and a couple really enjoyed it. It seems that the idea and plot behind the novel was what drew everyone in, but the fact that the book didn’t live up to the blurb left you feeling a bit cheated. We expected the miniaturist, the dolls’ house and the dolls themselves to play more of a roll in the actual story. To a certain extent we felt that the miniaturist aspect of the novel could have been removed and the story wouldn’t have changed a great deal, which is baffling considering the story, but that’s how it felt.

Some of us felt that although this is a work of fiction it felt a bit unrealistic in some places. What the main character becomes and how she developes as a character felt a bit unbelievable. In fact, nearly all the characters lacked anything memorable about them and seemed very flat and uninteresting.

We were also left asking questions about the miniaturist as not all the ends were tied up. Was this because the author wanted to leave it open to a sequel? Did they want the reader to make up their own conclusion? Or was it yet another author that had great style and direction but no idea how the ending should be written? We hinted that maybe a spot of magical realism was involved but this wasn’t apparent, and certainly wasn’t answered by the author.

One of the main points that everyone could agree on was that we wouldn’t actually recommend the book. It was quite a forgettable read, and for some of the meeting I genuinely couldn’t remember some of the references that people were making. I desperately wanted to like this book (especially because the cover is an excellent design and looks great on my bookshelf), but I need more than a good cover to get me excited by a book.

We also felt that the book was a little disjointed in areas and if the author had focussed on one main aspect (rather than splitting off into a few directions) that this could have been a much better read. The historical aspect seems to be what saved this book because we genuinely thought that if it hadn’t been set in the 1700s then it really wouldn’t have worked at all. The appeal was there because it seemed intriguing, different and historical, but the intrigue waned, the ‘different’ aspect fizzled out and the historical content could have been better. To be fair, some of our readers enjoyed the atmosphere and information that was given for that period, but it still wasn’t good enough for some.

All in all it was an excellent book group discussion, with some interesting points and opinions, but the book itself was quite a letdown. I guess we just can’t see what others can, but hey, it would be a boring world if we all liked the same things now, wouldn’t it?

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Mock‘Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit ’em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.’

A lawyer’s advice to his children as he defends the real mockingbird of Harper Lee’s classic novel – a black man charged with the rape of a white girl. Through the young eyes of Scout and Jem Finch, Harper Lee explores with exuberant humour the irrationality of adult attitudes to race and class in the Deep South of the thirties. The conscience of a town steeped in prejudice, violence and hypocrisy is pricked by the stamina of one man’s struggle for justice. But the weight of history will only tolerate so much.

Well, I’m not sure where to start with this novel, and I’m not sure I’m aloud to describe it with the millions of adjectives I have in mind, so I’ll pick my favourite one and that should sum the book up nicely.

Outstanding. Simply, outstanding.

Why it’s taken me so long to get around to reading such a classical book I have no idea, but I’m thrilled I finally ticked it off my list. As a group we’ve recently read quite a few contemporary ‘book group’ reads and to be honest, we’re sick of them. Little originality, very few meaningful plots and writing styles that, quite frankly, should never have seen the light of day. We’ve also had quite a few that read as though they’ve just hatched out from a creative writing egg. Dull, dull, dull. So you can imagine our delight when we all thought that this book was wonderful.

It’s a very powerful eye-opener, and we all thoroughly enjoyed reading it, but it does have some very sad issues with a front row seat to an appalling miscarriage of justice. What makes it a difficult read is that these events and prejudices were genuine across America at the time. It’s just incredibly sad what humans will do to one another and it really does knock your faith in mankind.

Harper Lee manages to grab your attention from the word go with interesting characters and a perfect protagonist. Seeing through the eyes of a child really emphasises some of the incredibly deep points in the novel and is probably what makes it so meaningful. As a group we could have discussed this book for hours. For me, I became hooked when it came to the trial of Tom Robinson. Not only was I intrigued by the case, but I was also intrigued by the eclectic range of characters on both sides of the trial. As a group we discussed the implications and consequences of the verdict and it seemed that none of us could foresee the outcome. The outcome was indeed, heartbreaking, but the final few chapters manage to pull together some form of justice for the Robinson family.

I’ve never become emotional when reading a book but this nearly had me in tears. It is so beautifully crafted that you end up enjoying the read rather than feeling lost and empty by the end. Harper Lee has touched on such delicate issues, which don’t have a favourable resolution, yet still manages to allow the reader a sense of comfort and closure at the end. Everything knitted together perfectly. There were no loose ends and no wondering what happened next. We all agreed that the book was fulfilling and even the characters were aloud closure.

Overall it’s probably the best book we’ve read in book group. It has everything you would want from a great read and it’s such a sad shame that the author has never written anything else. I can’t recommend this book enough. Whatever your taste in books, this is definitely worth your time. It’s incredibly well written and considering the serious tone of the novel it still manages to be both warm and humorous in parts, so add it to your list – you won’t be disappointed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

51xeXD2W63LRosemary’s young, just at college, and she’s decided not to tell anyone a thing about her family. So we’re not going to tell you too much either: you’ll have to find out for yourselves, round about page 77, what it is that makes her unhappy family unlike any other. Rosemary is now an only child, but she used to have a sister the same age as her, and an older brother. Both are now gone – vanished from her life. There’s something unique about Rosemary’s sister, Fern. And it was this decision, made by her parents, to give Rosemary a sister like no other, that began all of Rosemary’s trouble. So now she’s telling her story: full of hilarious asides and brilliantly spiky lines, it’s a looping narrative that begins towards the end, and then goes back to the beginning. Twice. It’s funny, clever, intimate, honest, analytical and swirling with ideas that will come back to bite you. We hope you enjoy it, and if, when you’re telling a friend about it, you do decide to spill the beans about Fern – it’s pretty hard to resist – don’t worry. One of the few studies Rosemary doesn’t quote says that spoilers actually enhance reading.

I recently overheard a friend recommending this book to someone else. A few weeks later I heard another friend singing its praises. Another week later and it’s on the Man Booker Prize shortlist. Wowzer, I thought to myself, I better get this on the reading list. So, I blindly put this book on review with one of my book groups. I say blindly in that I simply read the blurb. It sounded promising, intriguing and certainly different from our recent reads, so I was quite excited to read a book which was: ‘Hilarious and heartbreaking’, ‘Irresistible’, and has ‘One of the best twists in years’.

Now, imagine my disappointment when I read this book and found no evidence of the above quotes. It had so much promise and yet I felt thoroughly disappointed. When it came to our meeting I was a little worried, however, if it’s one thing that our group can do it’s have a jolly good moan in a very professional way! From style to plot, to pace and ending, we just simply didn’t enjoy it. After a quick 15-20 minute discussion about what we didn’t like, what we didn’t like the most and what we thought was particularly unlikeable, I turned to our sparkly, new member and asked for her opinion.

She loved it.

Ah.

So, after a slight panic attack (worried that the poor soul would be eaten alive) I was pleasantly surprised that the group sat back and took in what she had to say. It turned out that she had worked in the industry in which the book is set, so maybe this was our reason for not enjoying the book. Maybe we were ignorant to the way in which it was written and didn’t stop to think that maybe it was written in a certain fashion and style to emphasise certain points? Possibly, but we have recently read various books with similar content and found that our knowledge and experience of a certain subject/area doesn’t necessarily play a big part in our enjoyment. What does play a part is the style as well as the plot. But that’s books for you. If we all enjoyed the same work it would be a pretty boring world.

Quite a few of us were disappointed in the twist. It had been hailed as a brilliant and unexpected twist but I (and a few other too) by-passed it completely. It wasn’t really a twist and we found it a bit of a let down. I know that twists come in all shapes and sizes, but I think we felt a little empty with this one. In theory it should have been a genius piece of writing, but it simply lacked on the wow factor unfortunately.

To conclude I think I can safely say that it was loathed by all (but one). However, we managed to drum up quite a bit of discussion and I can’t fault the book for not giving us enough to talk about. We went over our normal chatting time and we hadn’t even had chance to discuss the latest book-turned-film. We also managed to discuss the core plot of the book, which, to be fair, is very interesting and emotive.

This genuinely seems to be a ‘Marmite’ book: you either love it, or you hate it, which gives you a 50/50 chance of coming up trumps. Good luck!

 

The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer

Shock‘I’ll tell you what happened because it will be a good way to introduce my brother. His name’s Simon. I think you’re going to like him. I really do. But in a couple of pages he’ll be dead. And he was never the same after that.’

This book first came to my attention when it won the Costa Book Award. It sounded like a super book group read so I added it to my list and finally we did get around to reading it. Did it live up to my expectations? Sadly not – which was a great shame – and it didn’t quite live up to the group’s expectations either.

Pretty much the entire group disliked the book, however, we did have a new member join us for that meeting and she absolutely loved it. ‘Awkward’ I hear you cry, but not at all. In fact, it was a blessing because it allowed us to discuss the book rather than moan about it. The style and unusual way in which it was written did cause some readers (including myself) confusion, but our new member explained why that would be appropriate or why it was written in that way, which did drum up a good discussion and opened our eyes to things we hadn’t seen. However, we still felt that the story itself wasn’t strong enough and no matter how it was written it still wasn’t gripping enough to entertain us from start to finish.

None of us have any experience about the content in this book, but our new member had plenty, so maybe you have to really know and understand this type of situation to appreciate how well it reads. For us, we just couldn’t get into the disjointed and (at times) confusing fashion in which it was written. We have had a few books recently with similar content so maybe these stories are becoming a little repetitive, I don’t know, but it certainly wasn’t one of our better reads.

After reading reviews online, and after our hearty discussion, I think I can safely say that this book really is a ‘Marmite’ book – you’ll either love it or hate it – so give it a try and see how your taste buds react.


About the group

The Tees Valley Book Group meets at Stockton Central Library at 6.30pm on the first Tuesday of the month.

If you would like more information about what the group is reading, please visit www.newwritingnorth.com/submit/join-tees-valley-book-group.

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