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THE HANDMAID'S TALE

THE TESTAMENTS

REBECCA

‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.’

The first line of this romantic gothic thriller will hopefully excite the senses this summer. 'Rebecca' by Daphne Du Maurier is an exquisitely written classic and makes a wonderful book club novel, whether it’s your first reading, a re-read or because you’ve heard about the new Netflix remake starring Lily James, Armie Hammer and Kristin Scott Thomas – coming to our screens soon. So reading with your club or on your summer break be it a staycation at home or by the sea – 'Rebecca' is a delicious tonic that will keep you on your toes and provide lots of fizz and sparkle!

Written in 1938 'Rebecca' is a classic that captures the experience of first love written from the perspective of a young unnamed narrator. We never know her name but we certainly learn plenty about Rebecca, the book’s namesake. Whilst working as a lady’s companion the narrator has a chance meeting with the troubled and handsome widower Maxim de Winter in a grand hotel in Monte Carlo.

After a speedy marriage they return from the Riviera to de Winter’s Manderley, an English stately home by the Coast that lives and breathes the previous Mrs de Winter. The reader is introduced to Manderley’s household of staff each with their own relationship with Rebecca, including the sinister housekeeper, Mrs Danvers, ‘a madwoman, a fanatic’ who adores her Rebecca.

Through the story-telling we live out the narrator’s dreams, hopes and fears and because the protagonist is ‘young inexperienced and not of his (de Winter’s) world’ the narrative creeps around Manderley exploring the landscape and discovering its dark twisted secrets.

Nature is a strong force in the novel setting the tone and pace. It is also rich in drama and action with ship-wrecks, murder, jealousy and unrequited love.

We loved this novel in the Den and discovered many scenes to unpick and discuss. Definitely a novel that gets better with discussion.

MY SUNSHINE AWAY

This debut novel submerges you into Baton Rouge so gracefully that you can feel the sweltering heat, taste the southern food and feel part of this wonderfully tight-knit community. 

The story begins in the summer of 1989 when the narrator, at the time a 15 year-old high school boy, is consumed by his infatuation with Lindy – an outgoing athletics superstar who lives across the street. One hot night, Lindy is raped and this changes the dynamics within the community irreparably forever. As various suspects are eliminated and no one is brought to justice for the crime, so the pressure increases on those closest to the event.

Twenty years on, now married and about to be a father, the narrator recalls his teenage childhood during this life-changing period with compelling nostalgia. The story is a cathartic process for him as he looks back on this time of coming of age and unravels his feelings, what happened to him and his family and how they emerge, not unscathed, but with a future to look forward to. The story’s main theme is guilt, but it also covers grief, love, embarrassment and suspense whilst never forgetting the stunning nature and backdrop of Louisiana. 

The author also touches on Baton Rouge’s image as home to 'second-rate citizens' compared to their outgoing lively neighbours in New Orleans and how the dynamics of this relationship changed after hurricane Katrina. 

The Den found the story-telling so genuine that you felt you were reading a memoir. The tension builds beautifully throughout the novel and the ending is particularly compelling as the narrator dramatically explains his actions. Although the story has a serious subject matter, it never feels dark or austere which is a credit to the beauty of Walsh's writing. Hopefully more in store from this author.

MEN WITHOUT WOMEN

Haruki Murakami has written seven delightful and imaginative stories about isolated men, and their particularized relationship with or without a woman. During a time when we are all coping with our own individual experiences of isolation, the Den loved these idiosyncratic snapshots of lonely men and their varying and unusual connection with a female presence in their lives. The stories are moving, witty, often dark and unpredictable – perfect for those of us who are currently finding it hard to jump into a big read.

An old-timer actor confides in his young female chauffeur, an exemplary plastic surgeon is overcome with love sickness, a misunderstood and unfulfilled youthful relationship and whether it be through a gift of storytelling or running a jazz bar with a mysterious guest, these wonderfully eclectic reads are a joy.

It is not always just the man we hear about, Scheberazade recalls breaking and entering into the house of a boy at school who she was besotted with but who never noticed her. She takes one of his pencils and hides a tampon in return in one of his drawers. This glimpse into her adolescence is funny, dark and you long to hear more.

The Den found the last two stories the most “off the wall.” Samsa in Love is Kafka’s Metamorphosis in reverse. In the final title story Men Without Women (the same title incidentally used by Ernest Hemingway for his book of short stories) our nameless married man receives a phone call at 1 am from a stranger announcing the death of his wife. The woman was an old girlfriend, only it turns out this woman was the third woman he’d gone out with who’d killed herself – as he himself observes, “an extremely high fatality rate.”

The seven short stories have been beautifully translated by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen so none of the nuanced humour or surrealism has been lost. Overall, a pleasure to read.

SILVER SPARROW

Silver Sparrow is Tayari Jones’s next book after the highly acclaimed American Marriage (reviewed in Den’s library). From the monumental opening sentence, Jones’s powerful storytelling once again brings us a rich and luminous narrative told through the opposing eyes of two sisters living in 1980’s Atlanta.

Dana and Chaurisse have the same father, but different mothers – Gwen and Laverne respectively. Both women are married to James Witherspoon, an unlikely bigamist who runs a limousine business with his ‘brother’ Raleigh, himself entwined in the deception. James’s marriage to Laverne is openly more legitimate than the other as this is the relationship he puts first to the public eye. For most of their childhood lives, Gwen makes bigamy work for James as she and Dana , his secret child (Silver Sparrow) live in the shadow of Laverne and Chaurisse who know nothing of their existence.

Jones writes from the heart of both Dana and Chaurisse with equal measure. Your empathy with each sister and mother constantly changes as the back story of the families is revealed. For many years, Dana accepts her upbringing as the only life she knows and the moment she unwittingly explains the family picture she has drawn to her teacher is heart-breaking. However, as the sisters reach adolescence so Dana begins to question her anonymity. There are the inevitable chance and manipulated meetings which result in a heart-rending and desperate climax.

The Den were deeply moved by this story of misplaced love and loyalty – it will take your breath away.

TALKING HEADS

‘Talking heads’ is a synonym in television for boredom but this is by no means a boring read and as the talented Alan Bennett explains each monologue is a ‘stripped down version of a short story, the style of its telling is austere.’ But his choice of words, pauses and reading between the lines is simply brilliant. As we have all been challenged for months in a bubble or maybe alone, this is the definitive Book Of The Moment. Watching the episodes on TV first (if you can find the time) is the best way to enjoy the collection as you can appreciate Bennett’s enlightening commentary. Either way, 'Talking Heads' is razer sharp and a delight to read.

There are 13 monologues in 'Talking Heads' covering the two original television series (plus a one off) which was first aired in the '80s with a further series commissioned in the '90s. Not all of the monologues have been revisited by the BBC this summer but the scripts with commentary from Bennett add wonderful ‘behind the scenes’ texture to the characters and the stories.

Everyone will have their favourite story be it ‘A Lady of Letters’, ‘Her Big Chance’, ‘Miss Fozzard Finds Her Feet’, ‘A Chip in the Sugar’ and so forth. We will also have our own preferred star actors whether it’s Jodie Comer or Julie Walters in ‘Her Big Chance’, Lesley Manville or Maggie Smith in ‘Bed Among The Lentils’, Kristen Scott Thomas or Eileen Atkins in ‘The Hands of God'. The star-studded productions (the original vs the new) and Bennett's acerbic wit and humour in his storytelling of the 'everyday moments' is what makes it the perfect book club read. Whilst the scripts remain fresh and relevant with so many touchstones, we can also recognise a very different Middle England with vicars and cardigan clad pensioners and repressed housewives. You’ll need an extended meet with your friends to dissect and enjoy the moments. All of this provided huge talkability in book club, as well as a nostalgic wonder down memory lane. Perfect for those who have lost their appetite for the ‘big read’.

STONEMOUTH

Iain Banks has the wonderful ability of hooking you into the world he creates, in this case that of Stewart, a successful young Scot living in London who is returning home to Stonemouth in Scotland to attend the funeral of Joe Murston, head of the powerful and influential Murston family. It quickly emerges, that this visit has serious underlying tensions, the reason for which gradually unfolds as he meets up with old school friends, family and finally his ex- fiancé Ellie, the love of his life.

As Stewart recalls childhood memories so begins an almost cathartic unravelling of his adolescence. Has the town moved on? At first it seems as if everything is the same and Stewart quickly slips into the old habits of drinking and hanging out with his old mates. Yet as he meets various people from his past you realise, like in any small town, there are those who get away and move on, those who make the best of themselves and those who get left behind.

We are witness to moments of shocking trauma, the awkwardness of first relationships and the regrets of impulsive decisions. Banks’s characters are raw and genuine with their flaws and awkwardness laid bare. All this is set against the backdrop of Banks’s hypnotic descriptions and observations of human nature.

This book does not have the dystopian nature of The Wasp Factory which is one of the Den’s Dozen top reads, rather it is a combination of a gripping rollercoaster with moments of pure tenderness thrown in.

The book was also made into a two part BBC drama in 2015.

WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING

Immerse yourself in the mysterious, wild beauty of the North Carolina marshlands in this absorbing and magnetic story of Kya Clark, a young girl who grows up alone in this remote wilderness and yet finds herself accused of a serious crime. The Den is sure you can’t fail to be moved by this remarkable debut novel from Delia Owens – 9/10 from everyone.

Aged only 6, Kya finds herself abandoned by her elder siblings and mother who are unable to cope with their drunken, depressed father, before he too ups and leaves. Growing up alone, she survives by establishing a rare and special bond with the nature surrounding her. The nearby small town are intrigued and fearful of this wild and beautiful young woman whom they name 'the marsh girl'. As Kya reaches adolescence, she yearns for company and love so when two young men enter her life, she is intrigued and allows herself to be manipulated and hurt with devastating consequences.

Delia Owens is a wildlife scientist and her love of nature shines through this novel. This is a magical read and the Den enjoyed the lyrical descriptions. You feel and breathe the marshlands with Kya and are on tender hooks as the gripping story unfolds, mesmerised by this compelling heroine. Nothing below a 9/10 in the Den. Only downside - it ended too abruptly for some!

'Where The Crawdads Sing' has been a number one bestseller since 2018 and unsurprisingly the film rights have already been bought by Reese Witherspoon. Seems to be making its way into book clubs for a reason so worth your consideration as a Missed Opportunity. We loved it.

THE TOBACCONIST

This beautifully paced coming of age story set in Vienna just as the second world war is looming. Seethaler’s portrayal of human nature against a subtle backdrop of political turmoil is both tender and powerful.

Aged 17, Franz is sent away from his rural upbringing in the Austrian lakes by his mother to work as an apprentice for an old friend, Otto Trsnyek, who runs a tobacconist shop in Vienna. Franz is a naïve, un-streetwise, and lonely young man. Through the shop, he meets Sigmund Freud with whom, despite their considerable age difference, he develops a touching relationship. In search of love, he falls under the spell of Anezka, a Bohemian girl. In the background, the Nazi movement is rising and ominous prejudices are emerging.

The conversations between Freud and Franz are wonderful to behold, so often resonating with our current times. This is particularly true when Franz asks Herr Professor what justification there is for all his stupid little worries, with all the crazy events happening in the world. Freud replies We could turn the question on its head: what justification is there for all these crazy world events, when you have your worries?

When one day, Otto Trsynek is arrested by three men in grey suits under the guise of possessing and distributing pornographic material, Franz finds himself left in charge of the shop. As Franz becomes a man, so we begin to recognise the inevitability of his fate.

This novel is a continuous stream of consciousness. At times, it is unbearably sad, but there are also moments of joy and dark humour. Every moment of seriousness is offset with a beautiful aside, whether it be trembling daddy long legs, or a falling glowing geranium head, stopping the reader and its subjects in their tracks.

The Den were drawn in by Seethaler’s attention to detail, dry but never mocking sense of humour, sad yet at the same time uplifting portrayal of this innocent and thoughtful young’s man life during this important period of history.

UNORTHODOX

‘Unorthodox’ has been a recent Netflix blockbuster in lockdown leading to book clubs and readers clamouring to buy the memoir. In the absence of bookshops the tables have turned on literature, as the inspiration to read this in the Den sprung from its Netflix success. Den readers were blown away by Deborah Feldman’s incredible and brave retelling of her escape from a religious sect of Hasidic Judaism. Starting and finishing in New York the memoir is quite different from the film series. But there was no debating on the book scores. 9/10 all round.

First published in 2012, the author’s story is a compelling account of a young women’s escape from her ‘closed’ community in Williamsburg New York that followed a strict code of enforced customs governing everything from what she could wear, to whom she could speak to and how (only in Yiddish), to what she was allowed to read. It was her love of reading and its literary characters that helped the writer to escape her life –‘if only I could have books all the time’. Trapped as a teenager in a sexually and emotionally dysfunctional marriage to a man she barely knew, the tension between Deborah’s desires and her responsibilities as a good Satmar girl grew more explosive until she gave birth at nineteen and realised that, regardless of the obstacles, she would have to forge a path to happiness and freedom.

Although from a loving family, the author recognises she is different from the community in which she was born into. Deborah gets a lucky opportunity when she is allowed to attend Sarah Lawrence College where her education and friendships offer her a life-line.

It may be difficult to buy in paperback (a bit like flour this year!), but it’s a chance to explore ebooks, because we are all learning new ways to adapt! We urge you to find time in your club to read this book. It is definitely a WOW read.

MY DARK VANESSA

'My Dark Vanessa' by Kate Elizabeth Russell is not an easy read but there is no denying it promotes interesting conversations, especially in this #metoo era, which is why we have made it our Wild Card choice this month.

The book is written in the first person by Vanessa. Whilst boarding at Browick High School in Maine, Vanessa is groomed by her English teacher, Strane (she always refers to him by his surname) and so begins a dark and controlling relationship. From this point on, this dangerous relationship defines her every being and the trauma it causes her can be quite overwhelming to read at times. Strane draws Vanessa in by seeking her out, praising her writing and choosing texts for her to read. When he selects 'Lolita', Vanessa becomes fixated with it and starts comparing their relationship to the book. Interestingly, Russell admits that reading 'Lolita' had a huge impact on her and she still reads the book regularly.

As the relationship develops, so Vanessa’s peers and teachers begin to suspect but whenever an opportunity arises to hold Strane accountable, Vanessa fails to accuse him. She never believes she is the victim, but rather seeing their relationship as something she wanted and found empowering. She tells her flatmate at college “He worshipped me. I was lucky”. However, you only need to judge from her life beyond college, when in her thirties her potential has not been realised; she lives in a messy apartment drinking and smoking too much and is unable to form a long-term commitment.

There are so many dimensions to this book around the issues of grooming, dehumanisation, abuse of power from both sides and manipulation by a predator. Parallel to this is the failure of the school and Vanessa’s parents to understand the severity of the situation and what is the right course of action.

Oprah refused to allow this book in her book club as she feared the unwelcome controversy around it. But surely constructive debate about difficult topics is what makes a good book club choice and after all – even if some of the story may have had autobiographical influences – this is a book of fiction.

A LONG PETAL OF THE SEA

‘A Long Petal of the Sea’ is an emotionally charged historical novel written by the bestselling and internationally acclaimed author Isabel Allende who was born in Peru, raised in Chile and now lives in the USA. Bursting with historical detail this beautiful translation is a wonderful treat for book clubs. This turned out to be a satisfying diversion read for lockdown and one that informed us, as well as touched our hearts.

Released earlier this year, ‘A Long Petal of the Sea’ takes the reader on an epic journey starting in Spain where the country is gripped by civil war, circa 1938. The reader follows a young family who take on a treacherous journey over the mountains to the French border to escape Franco. Among them is Roser, a pregnant young widow, who finds her life intertwined with that of Victor Dalmau, an army doctor and the brother of her deceased love. In order to survive, the two must unite in a marriage neither of them desires.

Together with two thousand other refugees, they embark on the SS Winnipeg, a ship chartered by the poet Pablo Neruda, to Chile: “the long petal of sea and wine and snow.” As unlikely partners, they embrace exile as the rest of Europe erupts in world war. Starting over on a new continent, their trials are just beginning, and over the course of their lives, they will face hardship and setbacks. Their hope of returning to Spain keeps them going whilst they witness the battle between freedom and repression in Chile. Home might have been closer than they thought all along.

This novel gripped us all in the Den. Whilst some in the group hankered for more characterisation, others enjoyed Allende’s Hemingway-esque style of writing – because it was still a raw story, routed in unavoidable pain. As well as historically fascinating we were able to acknowledge our own ‘freedoms’ in the new world order of lock-down and appreciate the ever-changing geo-political landscape.

AMERICAN WIFE

This was chosen as a lock-down read when we were all yearning for a taste of ‘normal’. At over 600 pages you need to invest some time to pick up Curtis Sittenfeld’s ‘American Wife’ but it was warmly received in the Den as the perfect Missed Opportunity especially as it’s election year in the USA. Plus Sittenfeld is about to release her new novel ‘Rodham’ this July.

‘American Wife’ is a word-of-mouth bestseller about the marriage of an American First Lady whose early life is based on the story of Laura Bush, wife of Republican George W Bush.

'My favourite book of the year' - Kate Atkinson.

On one of the most important days of her husband's presidency, liberal leaning Alice Blackwell considers the strange and unlikely path that has led them to the White House, and that has landed an ordinary girl from a small town into the most public of roles. Weaving race, class, wealth and fate into a brilliant literary reimagining of the life of a reserved woman not unlike Laura Bush, American Wife is a remarkable novel that lays bare the pressures and contradictions of a marriage exposed in the global spotlight.

The Den enjoyed comparing this fictional novel with Michelle Obama’s much acclaimed memoir ‘Becoming’. Some found the length wearisome, whilst others felt we really could reimagine a human face behind the First Lady’s back-story because we had invested in her narrative. The length was worth it!

With the forthcoming release of ‘Rodham’, that reimagines Hilary Clinton’s life if she had not married Bill Clinton and the effects on politics, we feel certain this will be a novel worth reading in your Den.

SUCH A FUN AGE

This is a funny, poignant debut novel about parenting, race and class. Reid’s writing has a fresh and insightful quality which exposes these topics with humour and truthfulness. Worthy of making the Booker longlist 2020 and your pile.

Alix has recently and reluctantly moved from her high profile, social media life as a feminist blogger in New York to Pennsylvania with her news presenter husband and two young girls. She employs Emira, a young black girl with seemingly little purpose in her life as her sitter, who forms a close bond with the eldest daughter Briar.

The story revolves around an incident in a late-night upmarket grocery store when Emira is confronted by the security guard for kidnapping the "white baby" and the incident is filmed by an eyewitness, Kelly Copeland. The repercussions of the evening change the dynamics of the relationship between Alix and Emira, particularly when Emira and Kelly start dating. A shared connection between Kelly and Alix is perhaps too much of a coincidence, but nevertheless gives rise to an excruciating and hilarious Thanksgiving Dinner from which everything quickly unravels.

Reid's writing carefully challenges race, privilege and class. She subtly condemns the likes of Alix and Kelly’s behaviour whilst at the same time recognising their willingness to try to empathise and understand Emira. The message of trying to force your own aspirations on someone else is both hilarious and heart-breaking and underneath it all, is the faultless love and strong bond Emira has with Briar. Briar was perhaps the Den’s favourite character. Reid captures this slightly difficult, extremely inquisitive and exhausting child who because she doesn’t necessarily fit in with Alix’s life and image is overlooked by her mother, but unconditionally loved and cared for by Emira.

Overall, the characters, particularly Alix, are rather too stereotypical, which is a shame, as the book would have been even more powerful if we could feel greater empathy with all the characters. But the dialogue is quick witted and Reid touches on these important topics without forcing the message.

BENEATH A SCARLET SKY

We always love it when other book clubs recommend us one of their top reads, and this book came highly recommended by another Den club. It tells the true story of a young man’s remarkable and unique experiences as a spy for the Allies during German’s occupation of Italy so is a timely choice as it coincides with the 75th anniversary of VE Day this month.

Giuseppe “Pino” Lella lives in Milan where his family run a successful leather business and live a comfortable middle class life. It is not until he is aged 17 that Germany's occupation of Italy truly affects Milan. Initially Pino is sent away by his parents to escape the danger and live in the Alps under the care of Father Re at Casa Alpina. Under his guidance he uses his knowledge of the Alps to help Jews escape across the border into Switzerland. However when Pino is about to turn 18, to save him going to the front line, his parents persuade him to return to Milan and enlist with the Germans for the Organization Todt.

A chance encounter with General Leyers results in him unexpectedly becoming Leyers’s driver.  General Leyers was the Plenipotentiary to the Reich Minister for Armaments and War Production in Italy, who had the power to do whatever was necessary for the sake of the Nazi war machine working with the full authority of Albert Speer and reporting directly to Hitler. Pino’s uncle can’t believe this stroke of luck and tells Pino he must be their spy. From this point on, Pino, who is party to several key meetings with Moussilini, Colonel Walter Rauff and Cardinal Schuster reports back on what he sees and learns.   

The story follows Pino’s life, as he serves under General Leyers right through until the end of the war. He witnesses horrors, death, shame, but at the same time finds precious moments of love and happiness. It is a moving, heart-breaking and almost unbelievable account of a young man’s experience of war.

A film of this book is planned in the future starring Tom Holland so a good book club choice.

THE SALT PATH

As we all seem to be kicking into survival mode and rationing our food, it seems highly appropriate that our missed opportunity should be The Salt Path, a couple’s true tale of survival when they unexpectedly find themselves homeless and penniless in their fifties. It is a unique story of change, hope and fresh beginnings.

Following a bad business investment, Ray and Moth (it does take a while to get used to his name!) lose their beautiful farm in Wales. Moth is also diagnosed with a terminal degenerative disease and is for the most part in excruciating pain. With everything lost, they make the remarkable decision to walk the 630 mile South West Coastal Path. 

Living wild, they endure the heat, storms, hunger, all set against the stunning backdrop of this unique coastline, much of which will be familiar to many of us. The book is honestly written as Ray has time to contemplate, reflect and reassess their lives. Living on a diet of noodles, pasties, fudge and making a cup of tea in a pub last all evening, they encounter both hostility and random acts of kindness along the way. More importantly, through the healing power of nature they enjoy a renewed strength of love for each other.

This book did divide the Den. Whilst some of us saw it as a remarkable achievement of survival against the odds, others were frustrated by some of their actions and questioned how such a grounded couple would have ended up homeless, without any support from family or friends and how their choices resulted in their misfortune of circumstance. 

Shortlisted for both the 2018 Costa Award and The Wainwright Book Prize.  Raynor Winn’s second book The Wild Silence is due for release later this year.

THE CACTUS

We all definitely need some light-hearted relief during these difficult times, so the Den has chosen The Cactus this month for just that reason. If you enjoyed Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine and/or The Rosie Project, then we are sure you will enjoy this entertaining and delightful story about a quirky misfit by Sarah Haywood.

Susan Green leads a seemingly perfect, well ordered life living in a small flat in South London working for the civil service. This is unexpectedly thrown into confusion and turmoil when her mother suddenly dies and she discovers she is pregnant aged 45. Whilst she tries to keep order and maintain routine into her ever unravelling life, it becomes clear she will have to adapt and emotionally let go.

Susan is exasperating in her 'controlling' traits, direct in her no-nonsense approach to life and has an immense dislike for people not so ordered who celebrate life, occasions and everyday frivolities. She particularly dislikes her younger brother Edward who she sees as a needy ‘waste of space’ who, she always believed, was disproportionally favoured by their mother. Required to communicate with him over their mother’s will only highlights this difficult relationship. Combined with her unanticipated pregnancy, Susan is forced to spend more time with family members including her over-bearing but well-intentioned Aunt Sylvia.

Susan learns to accept help from outsiders including her neighbour Kate and Edward’s friend Rob. As well as insights into her troubled upbringing, we begin to learn that this self-contained front is perhaps not as strong as it appears as self-doubt and emotion creep into her very core – and - just like her unforeseen pregnancy, so Susan starts to bloom!

A fun, warm and moving portrayal of life with a few unexpected twists along the way – the Den is sure you will find this a welcome respite during these isolating times.

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