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What better recommendation than hearing this month’s wild card choice was the book Maggie O’Farrell would take to her desert island (Desert Island Discs 26th March 2021). Selected Stories by Alice Monro (winner of the Man Booker International Prize) is a treasure chest of literary treats, each story exquisitely serving up a slice of life - portraying intimate moments and unexpected twists.
With Canada as the backdrop, we are transported from rural wilderness to Toronto city life, from casual labourers to highly qualified academics. As a reader we can only delight in these windows of precious moments, whether it be pants being held together by a pin in The Ottowa Valley; afternoon tea being left out too long so the sandwiches curl in ‘Dance of the Happy Shades’ or working on a turkey farm in The Turkey Season
‘Notice about Herb – he always walks like he had a boat moving underneath him’.
As we peek into failed relationships, life-changing moments, love, and the totally expected, the Den cherished every story. We all had our own favourites and each story can be savoured in one sitting – perhaps a story a night or a story a commute! A worthy vintage classic from an outstanding writer.
IF IN DOUBT, WASH YOUR HAIR
A manual for Life
Whether you are starting out in life with dreams and passions or looking back on it and taking stock, ‘If in Doubt Wash, Your Hair’ – A Manual for Life’ by Anya Hindmarch is a refreshing and personal account that will ignite your raison dêtre and provide comfort to all women (not just the fashionistas and embracers of style). Written in lockdown our Wild Card read is filled with inspiring ideas and practical advice for life.
Famous for her exquisite handbags and her imaginative and memorable campaigns such as ‘I’m Not A Plastic Bag’ (2007) and ‘I Am A Plastic Bag’ (2020), in this book we discover the Anya behind the mother of five, a successful entrepreneur and a globally renowned businesswoman.
At the right side of fifty, with over 30 years as a working woman, Anya shares her story of family life as a young ambitious mother juggling a career, marrying a widow with three young children (and then having two of her own) and setting out in life with ‘doubts’ and insecurities. We discover her roots and coping strategies – some definitely worth pinching such as ‘beat the clock’ and ‘the Christmas contract’. It may not work for you but her enthusiasm for embracing fear and being ‘true to yourself’ is infectious and a comfort.
The title, ‘If In Doubt, Wash Your Hair’ may appear curious, flippant and even trivial, but at the heart is Anya’s story. Her story of doubt, presented with a raw honesty, connects with the reader and with this she invites you to join her journey to designing and building ‘fashion with purpose’.
The book delights the reader on many levels. We have a taste of her creative process and mind, we find out what really gives her the biggest buzz at work (is it the love of craft and workmanship in her products or is it the journey to bring her designs to life?). We also find out what really makes her happy and what drives success – ambitions that we all aspire to.
Her honest appraisal of self, which she assesses and reassesses in the recent year of lockdown, is enlightening. As readers we are reassured that it is okay to doubt, okay to fail (sometimes this is a good thing) and then guided through Anya’s own worries to work out what the pursuit of true happiness is for us all.
In the Den we loved her for her kindness, baring all and finding new truths as well giving us time to appreciate ourselves. As one book clubber in the Den shared – ‘Anya saved me in quarantine – a blessing at 2am last night, good to be a girl, am treasuring every moment, and enjoying the now!’.
A LADDER TO THE SKY
You’ve heard the old proverb… about setting a ladder to the sky. A pointless waste of energy’.
Not this story, though…
'A Ladder to the Sky’ is a wonderful summer tonic about the darker side of ambition and the lengths that might be taken to acquire and exploit them. Written by the talented and wonderful storyteller, John Boyne, this is an addictive and intoxicating page turner that will help book clubbers find their reading mojo!
‘A Ladder to the Sky’ starts in Berlin, 1988, just before the wall comes down. A chance encounter in a Berlin hotel opens up an opportunity for the young English man, Maurice Swift, who at this time, is an ambitious writer waiting on tables to get by. The strikingly handsome Maurice attracts the distinguished author, Erich Ackerman’s attention, who offers him a job as an assistant on his planned book tour around Europe in exchange for Maurice's company. Erich is an award winning author but is lonely and happy to help Maurice with literary introductions and insights into his own career and how to find a good story. His advice includes ‘Everyone has secrets….There’s something in all our pasts that we wouldn’t want to be revealed.’.
Unfortunately for Erich, he confides his darkest secret with Maurice who identifies this as the ‘story’, ‘the secret’ that he will tell the world in his debut novel.
In true Boyne style, his story-telling is effortless. The reader is guided back to Erich’s younger days as a teenager and then forwards to Maurice’s own literary encounters with Gore Vidal in the Italian Riviera and later chapters in his own life in London and New York where he hunts down his next prey.
From the author of ‘The Boy in the Stripped Pyjamas’ and ‘The Heart’s Invisible Furies’ this is another heart racing Missed Opportunity read (2018) welcomed by Boyne fans with a bounty of talking points for your book club about the literary world, the coveted awards and the origins of a good story. Summer is the perfect time to catch up on favourite reads from this imaginative writer and there are plenty to choose from. 8 and 9s from the Den this time around and a worthy spot in our recommendations.
The Den eagerly awaits Boyne's new novel ‘The Echo Chamber’ - to be published in August 2021.
THE FOUR WINDS
A riveting rollercoaster of a read, Kristin Hannah’s engrossing story follows one woman’s fight to survive the devastating Great Depression suffered by the American farming community working the Great Plains in the 1930’s. A heart-breaking story of courage and determination to keep going against the odds for the people you love.
The Den don’t want to give too much away, suffice to say the story follows the life of Elsa and her family during the harrowing period of the Great Depression also known as the Dust Bowl Era in Texas during the 1930’s. It was a time when families were left with the agonising decision of whether to leave their failing livelihoods working the land in search of a better life in California – the land of hope and dreams.
Hannah guides us through this distressing period of history when the drought took hold, the fields dried out and the frightening dust storms ravaged the land leaving families poverty stricken and fearful for their lives. Should Elsa fight to stay on the land she loves and has known all her life, or go west before it is too late?
'The Four Winds' is a wonderful story of human survival and bravery. A compelling read that should leave your book club on the edge of your seats!
Although this is the first of Hannah’s books that the Den have read, she is an international best seller whose other works include ‘The Nightingale’ which has been made into a movie for future release and ‘Firefly Lane’ which premiered on Netflix in February of this year.
A perfect book club page turner read for your summer vacation!
THE WATCHMAKER OF FILIGREE STREET
The Watchmaker of Filigree Street is an enchanting read which embodies a wonderful mix of genres. Imagine a historical fiction ‘whodunit’ converging with fantasy, magic and science held together by fascinating characters and a page-turning conclusion. This debut novel by Natasha Pulley has it all in abundance!
Its 1883 - Nathaniel (Thaniel) Steepleton is the archetypal civil servant working for the Home Office’s telegraphy department, where he monitors and sends telegrams. When a gold pocket watch mysteriously appears on his pillow and saves his life from a bomb explosion at Scotland Yard, he begins the search for its watchmaker with the hope of finding the bomb maker. This leads him to Keita Mori, a bastard son of Lord Takahiro who has fled his home country of Japan and now works and resides in Filigree Street, London as an expert watchmaker. We soon discover that Mori has an uncanny knack of predicting the future which he is able to use to change the course of events.
Meanwhile, Grace is desperately trying to finish her scientific research into proving the existence of ether at Oxford. As a woman with a passion for science, she is socially awkward and has no interest in being married and having a family as is expected of women at this time.
As their paths converge, we are sucked into this surprising illusory thriller. Who cannot fail to be drawn to Katsu, the delightful handcrafted clockwork octopus who seems to preside over everything at Filigree Street!
The Watchmaker of Filigree Street is a fun read packed full with curious twists and turns. If your book club is looking for something a little out of the ordinary but with a mix of everything, then this imaginative debut won’t disappoint. If you particularly don’t like fantasy then perhaps this is not the best choice for you.
What happens when the life you have known for 51 years turns upside down and everything you believed in turns out to be a lie – how do you survive and carry on? ‘Unsettled Ground’ by Claire Fuller is an astonishing story about just that and a worthy shortlist contender for this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction.
Twins Jeanie and Julius, despite being 51, live with their over protective mother Dot in a small cottage on a country estate owned by Spencer Rawson. Due to a heart condition diagnosed in childhood, Jeanie has never been properly educated or had a job, instead she tends the garden and vegetables accompanied by her adored dog, Maude. Julius flits between badly paid casual labouring jobs, with much of the money he earns going on pints at the local pub. When Dot dies – exquisitely portrayed by Fuller in the opening scene - Jeanie and Julius’s lives unravel as everything they have known turns out to be a sham. They have no alternative but to try and survive and in doing so discover how ill equipped they are for the ‘real’ world.
Fuller has created an extraordinary and believable story about a family ultimately existing under the radar. Jeanie is socially awkward and unfamiliar with modern society. Julius, whilst being more in touch with the village, is still unable to carve out his own life. It seems as if Pat has kept her children to herself and with the exception of teaching them to be excellent musicians, made them outcasts to the outside world. Yet this is also a wonderful story of hope and fortitude. Fuller carefully balances the shocking incidents of ruthlessness and ridicule with extraordinary moments of kindness and love against a backdrop of nature and rural wilderness.
The Den were immediately drawn into this gripping page-turner. Jeanie and Julius have few redeeming features but you can’t help root for their determination to maintain their rustic separation from the modern world. Fuller is surely asking us to question whether it is still possible to resist the lure of phones/TV’s/cars, the irony of Julius never having his phone charged and not being able to travel any distance in a moving vehicle does not go unnoticed. Could today’s society ever go back to a traditional and basic existence of simply living off the land and making one’s own musical entertainment – a fascinating concept and a thought-provoking subject matter for your book club discussion.
THE THURSDAY MURDER CLUB
We put it to you. ‘Should The Thursday Murder Club’ by the popular TV ‘Pointless’ star, Richard Osman, be in the Den? Our Instagram jury said yes! (80 per cent in fact). It won’t be to everyone’s tastes, but for those who love an English murder mystery, a slice of Morse or Lewis (with sprinkles of humour) this is a comforting fun book club choice and a ‘record breaking number one bestseller’ for good reason!
Set in a peaceful retirement village in Kent, four unlikely friends meet up once a week in The Jigsaw Room to investigate unsolved murders. But when a brutal killing takes place close to home they find themselves investigating their first live case.
The reader comes to love the cast of characters, Elizabeth, Joyce, Ibrahim and Ron - all pushing eighty whose boldness, tenacity and joie de vie (with no filters) make this an entertaining and hilarious whodunit.
‘The Thursday Murder Club’ is indeed a book club pleaser that we all yearn for from time to time. With its short digestible chapters that make it easy to pick up and its straight talking storyline with a strong driving pace this novel can be read in many forms. For the Den the audible version ready by Lesley Manville worked brilliantly. With two more instalments in the pipeline and film rights secured with Steven Spielberg we are confident book clubs will relish this read, especially as it’s now in paperback with a follow up in September. A loveable whodunnit.
Richard Osman has recently won Author of the Year By British Book Awards.
CAPTATIN CORELLI'S MANDOLIN
It’s over twenty years since this historical epic novel, ‘Captain Corelli’s Mandolin’, was made into a film starring Nicholas Cage and Penelope Cruz. Although it received mixed reviews at the time, disappointing the novel’s popular and literary success, this wonderful island story is a perfect book club choice for summer time, whether you are yearning for that Greek island getaway or simply want to lose yourself in a beautifully written classic.
Written by Louis de Bernières ‘Captain Corelli’s Mandolin’ is the English author’s best-known novel, written in 1995. Appreciated today as a modern classic you can expect to see this novel being studied in schools and on top 100 must read book lists.
Set in war-time Greece, it’s 1941 on the island and Captain Antonio Corelli is a young Italian officer and part of the occupying forces. After a frosty reception from the islanders it soon becomes apparent that Corelli prefers to have a peaceful war and far from being a fanatical soldier proves in time to be a civilised, humorous and consummate musician.
The central love story revolves around Pelagia, the local doctor's daughter, who finds her letters to her fiancé go unanswered. Antonio and Pelagia are drawn together. But can this fragile love survive as a war of bestial savagery gets closer and the lines are drawn between invader and defender?
There are several stories and voices in the novels, perfectly pitched by de Bernières and woven beautifully into this rich epic drama. Whilst you will fall in love with the plethora of characters, reimagining island life in war-time, you can also enjoy the political and darker backdrop with cameo scenes and storylines featuring Mussolini and the Greek dictator, Mataxos.
A NET FOR SMALL FISHES
“We are all caught, from the highest to the lowest, in nets of custom and propriety; those that cut themselves free do not swim away but are destroyed.”
Lucy Jago draws us into the rich tapestry of the Jacobean Court in this gripping story of two women trying to better themselves in this unashamedly man’s world. Set in the English court of King James I, Jago has woven a heart-breaking story based on the “Overbury Scandal” when Frances Howard and Anne Turner were accused of poisoning the courtier Thomas Overbury, two years after his supposed “natural” death in The Tower of London” in 1613.
Frances Howard (Frankie) comes from wealthy catholic nobility with close ties to the court. Frankie is beautiful, vivacious and curious. At 15, her family marry her to Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex. An insipid debauched individual he is unable to consummate their marriage so mercilessly begins to beat and humiliate his wife. Frankie forms a close friendship with Anne Turner, a reputable doctor’s wife, 15 years her senior with six children. Anne has gained a notoriety for her fashionable yellow starch lace and has a fine eye for dressing women for court. Anne sets about dressing Frankie powerfully to enhance her presence in court and to encourage the Earl of Essex to notice her and hopefully give her a much desired heir. As Frankie is continually rejected by her young husband these two women resort to obtaining powerful medicinal potions from undesirable sorcerers and Frankie inevitably seeks solace with another man, in this case Sir Robert Carr, a handsome Scottish knight who has become the King’s favourite, a relationship inevitably fraught with danger.
As these two forward thinking women navigate their position in this unashamedly man’s world, they commit wrongdoings with far reaching consequences. Jago doesn’t set out to challenge their innocence, rather she sets out to show the immorality and prejudices of a corrupt English court together with the fragility of women’s position within society and the fickle nature of the King’s favourites. This book has everything for a lively book club discussion, with much to compare with what is still happening today.
The writing sometimes becomes a bit stilted, because perhaps Jago is more at home with her non-fiction and documentary work. However, it builds up to an excellent and moving finale and the Den can see this being made into a drama for screen in the future.
Reading Den tip – it is hard to remember all the different names at court so the list of principal actors at the start is an important reference point.
KLARA AND THE SUN
“Can you learn someone’s heart – not the organ, but something that makes us individual”
“Never Let Me Go” written in 2005 is a favourite in the Den (reviewed in the Den’s Library) – it is an exceptional dystopian novel which has also been made into a film and become a GCSE text. With Kazuo Ishiguro’s new book “Klara and The Sun” this award-winning author has returned with a bang, leading us into an imagined yet possible future - once again asking those difficult questions. The book is a masterpiece.
What instantly sets this story apart is that it is narrated by Klara who is an AF (Artificial Friend). Klara has been created to prevent teenagers from becoming lonely. Whilst on display at a department store, she is chosen by a young girl called Josie to be her companion. We soon discover that Josie is sick. Josie lives with her mother and housekeeper in almost total isolation, apart from her lessons which are given virtually by onscreen professors (how that resonates with what our own children have been doing!). Her only friend before Klara arrives, has been Rick. Rick has not been “chosen” like Josie.
Ishiguro is an expert of the ‘unsaid' and having Klara as the narrator allows us to focus on aspects of our lives from a fresh perspective. The reader is left to wonder what has actually been done to Josie, to her sister before her and why Josie’s father no longer lives with them. As the story unfolds, we understand Josie and others have been ‘lifted’ but why and for what purpose is unarticulated and the reader is required to add their own interpretation. We also learn that Klara has also been chosen for a purpose. Then there is the nod to the environment. Klara wants to stop the impending heartbreak and believes in the natural power of the sun. If she can destroy the Cootings Machine, which emits pollution, she will save Josie – and maybe all of us?
Alongside this futuristic imagined world, are the moments of love and pure friendship. When Josie is too sick to get out of bed, she draws child-like sketches of people to which Rick adds the word bubbles. This is a totally private moment between these two very different friends with very different destinies.
The beauty of “Klara and the Sun” is that as a reader, you don’t always understand what is going on. You are left to guess and wonder what is real, what is unsaid and what is perhaps never possible. A plethora of wonderful discussion points for your book club. 10/10’s from everyone in the Den.
THE KEEPER OF LOST THINGS
They say never judge a book by its cover but with this novel we think it’s about right. ‘The Keeper of Lost Things’ by Ruth Hogan was voted a ‘feel good novel’ of the year in 2017 and is definitely a timely Missed Opportunity choice for book clubbers right now. As the cover suggests it’s ‘charming’ and ‘wonderful’ and for those who have ever lost something personal, trivial but precious it’s a story that will resonate. As a debut novel ‘The Keeper of Lost Things’ isn’t a polished literary masterpiece but it is a touching, nostalgic and a delightful easy read choice in book clubs. The book we sometimes all need to reach for!
The ‘keeper of lost things’ is an English country gentleman, Anthony Peardew who has spent his life collecting lost objects at his home in Sussex, to atone a promise he made to his fiancé many years before. Realising he is running out of time, Anthony leaves his lost treasures to his assistant, Laura, who is bequeathed his house and estate provided she dedicates her life to returning the lost ‘treasures’. But the final wishes of the Keeper have unexpected consequences that wake up the ghosts of the past and reveal an array of human emotions – not always welcomed!
As part of the nostalgic theme, there is also a fitting dual narrative taking the reader back to the vibrant ‘70s in London with a young Eunice working for a small fun-time publisher, Bomber, who become the best of friends and have a literary and literal link to Anthony’s quest as well as a story of unrequited love and serendipity.
The Den loved the comfy heart-warming and comic undertones of this novel and it definitely ignited conversation around lost ‘moments in time’ and the importance of the ‘missing pieces’. It is also deals with the impact of loss of memory, dementia amongst loved ones, as well as connecting lonely hearts so plenty of conversation starters. Whilst book clubbers may critique its lack of literary finesse most can still enjoy the book club banter. A bright sunshine read.
If you enjoyed 'The Cactus', 'Eleaonor Oliphant' or 'The Rosie Project' this could be one for you!
For Hogan fans, her most recent novel 'Madame Burova' was released earlier this year.
THE MIDNIGHT LIBRARY
'The Midnight Library’ is a fantasy fiction novel by the award winning Matt Haig. This popular read has been a No 1 bestseller for some time and as we reunite and embrace family and friends, this could be the essential Missed Opportunity choice for your book club.
On the brink of death, young Nora Seed is given a life-line by her childhood librarian, Mrs Elm, who in this modern fantasy presents a library of lives and outcomes.
‘Between life and death there is a library’, she said. ‘And within that library, the shelves go on forever. Every book provides a chance to try another life you could have lived. To see how things would be if you had made other choices… Would you have done anything different, if you had the chance to undo your regrets?’.
Although at the start the novel finds Nora in a very dark place, the Midnight Library offers her the chance to imagine her life if she had pursued a road ‘less travelled’. A rock star, an Olympian swimmer, a country publican, a glaciologist.
By exploring ‘the what ifs and the whys’ ‘The Midnight Library’ tackles some of the issues around depression and mental health. As an author whose early work includes children’s fiction, Haig harnesses his wonderful storytelling skills along with his own experiences of fighting anxiety in this life-affirming novel. He tells us it’s okay to ‘howl’ and expresses the upside of having no regrets. His writing style is comforting so whether you are feeling fragile or caring for those who have suffered in the pandemic you are not alone and this novel provides some accessible coping strategies.
Although there were conflicting opinions on the some of the situations and the characters in the Den, overall we were impressed with the conversations the book elicited. As well as being a quick and easy read, ‘The Midnight Library’ is guaranteed to alight your book club discussions! Hopefully it will be a great way to bring you all back together and looking forward!
From this popular and best-selling author of ‘How to Stop Time’, the Den also enjoyed and reviewed ‘The Humans’ (see Library).