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‘Good Material’ is Dolly Alderton’s second novel, after ‘Ghosts’, and she has stolen our hearts yet again with a story of a ‘break-up’ wrapped up in gentle humour, touching moments about heartache and a true and deeper understanding of love.
“Andy loves Jen. Jen loved Andy. And he can’t work out why she stopped.
Now he is …
1. Without a home
2. Waiting for his stand-up career to take off
3. Wondering why everyone else around him seems to have grown up while he wasn’t looking”
‘Good Material’ tells the story of an unexpected break-up of a well established 30something couple, told to us from the perspective of Andy who is trying to process the how, the why and the what if he was able to win her back. Written loosely as journal entries - the days, weeks and months unfold before us sharing Andy's devastation and how he gradually attempts to come to terms with ‘the break up’. As readers we can all relate to the friends who rally round to form ‘WhatsApp - let’s help Andy’ groups. We also recognise the switch to anger, resentment and then a concerted effort for reinvention of a better self. A new diet and new fitness regime, experimenting with a dating app - and maybe even a new personal trainer.
Full of warmth and humour the Den loved listening to this novel as an audiobook because the writing is effortless and as a reader we all enjoy the chatty style of Alderton’s storytelling. There are also plenty of humorous twists and entertaining cameo scenes that lighten the pain of a 'break up'. A bit like life!
Other books by Dolly Alderton in the Den's library include 'Ghosts' and her recent 'Dear Dolly - on love, life and friendship'.
MOLLY & THE CAPTAIN
‘Molly & The Captain’ by Anthony Quinn is a delightful and absorbing novel about three families spanning 3 centuries whose lives are interconnected revolving around art and love. An immersive novel for December and a thoughtful gift for any lover of art and historical fiction.
The first section of the novel sets up the story of a successful artist, William Merrymount in Georgian England whose private painting of a double portrait, that of his daughters ‘Molly and the Captain’, becomes a treasured and intriguing centrepiece. Through a series of diary entries and letters written by the eldest daughter, Laura shares her perspective of her celebrated father in whose footsteps she follows, her ambition as an artist and her fear of failure living in his shadow. Laura accompanies her father from Bath to London and is immersed in the vibrant city. Her diary entries provide a window into life in the West End and later joining her sister in Kentish Town, looking back at her own misfortune in love, family secrets and how her own passion for art leads her to an unexpected masterpiece of her own making, ‘Portrait of a Young Man’.
Rolling forward into the next century readers find themselves in Kensington Gardens observing another artist, this time a young man, Paul Stransom, whose creative energies are consumed by the park’s vista and its line of elm trees that captivate and demand his attention. The subject of his painting is interrupted by a mother playing with her daughters which he paints setting off a mystery in his own mind about who they are and why they are there. Whilst preoccupied by these events his sister Maggie has becomes embroiled with Paul’s artist friends and the auction of a painting that captures her eye, that is the ‘Portrait of a Young Man’. The painting becomes a token of love and entangled in a proposal, followed by some unexpected courting.
Just as the reader comes to terms with the end of the novel’s second romantic rollercoaster and family drama, we are thrust forward to ‘80s London and back to Kentish Town in which a retiring painter and her two grown up daughters discover an ancestral link to William Merrymount and the missing double portrait. Set against a political backdrop of an election and the cultural evolution of punk we are further entertained by Billie a successful actress (a character who appears in one of Quinn's earlier novels) who discovers the Merrymount journals that we the reader have been privy to.
The three families and 3 stories make wonderful talking points in book club as we looked back in the Den at generational themes of behaviour, talents and misgivings. It was also interesting to appreciate the struggles of talented artists, the sacrifices made within families to benefit their survival and the strong bond of love.
Quinn fans can look forward to some ‘Eureka’ moments and nods to historical London artists and celebrities. A wonderful ambitious novel that you may never want to end.
Other books by the same author in the Den include ‘London Calling’, ‘Our Friends in Berlin’, 'Transcription' and ‘Curtain Call’ the later being made into a film starring Colin Firth and Gemma Arterton (anticipated release date - 2024).
THE PERSONAL LIBRARIAN
For lovers of historical fiction based on a true story, this is a joyous read. 'The Personal Librarian' is a collaboration from Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray about an African American woman who helped J. P. Morgan build his prestigious and famous manuscript and art collection during the early 1900's, all the while passing as a white woman.
In order to succeed in the world as an African American woman in America during this period, Belle’s mother tells her she cannot and must not reveal her heritage. So, being of pale skin, Belle and her siblings pass themselves off as white, much to the disappointment of their principled father, Richard Greener who fights for racial equality and consequently feels compelled to abandon his family. Belle Greener becomes Belle da Costa Greene which to the outside world stems from her Portuguese grandmother. When Belle lands the top job of Personal Librarian to the eminent and extremely powerful J. P. Morgan in New York, it becomes even more essential that she doesn’t reveal her true identity. Gradually she forms a close working bond with J.P. Morgan and consequently she is allowed to procure valuable pieces of art and rare manuscripts for his growing library. But as Belle’s success and fame begins to spread across different continents and her relationship with J. P. Morgan deepens so it becomes harder to keep her true identity secret. To succeed as an African American woman in the upper echelons of society at this time was virtually impossible so to know this story is based on the real Belle da Costa Greene adds to its appeal.
This is a fascinating read which opens the reader’s eyes to the decisions young African Americans had to make to leave behind their heritage to further their careers and on achieving success the lengths and sacrifices they endured to not reveal their past. It was a life constantly lived on tender hooks and this story beautifully shares the impact such a double life had on Belle and her family which meant she could never really totally enjoy and embrace her achievements or form long lasting relationships. The reconnection with her father is particularly poignant.
This book scored a solid 7-8 out of 10 in the Den. A few of us sometimes thought Belle was portrayed as too perfect and therefore it was initially hard to be on her side. But others thought this merely highlighted that she always had to bring her best performance to the table and made them empathise with her more. Certainly plenty of material to talk about in your book club made all the more easier with the readers’ guide questions for discussion included at the end of the book! We have even added a few of our own too in the Den’s IB questions for this month!
‘That distant stretch of sea where sky and water merge. It’s called the offing.’
Dulcie Piper had always been expecting Robert Appleyard. Sixteen year old Robert has wandered into the gardens of her small cottage overlooking the North Sea. ‘Oh, there you are.” says this tall, eccentric elder woman as if she had been expecting him to walk into her life that very second. And so begins this beautiful story of a remarkable relationship. WW11 has just finished and the resulting hardships and rations are very much still in place. Robert has completed his school exams and decided to explore the country before returning to follow his father’s inevitable path down the mines when he stumbles into the idyllic, overgrown grounds of Dulcie’s home.
Decades apart in age, Dulcie opens Robert’s eyes to a world beyond the collieries awaiting him. Through nature, good food, plenty of alcohol and most importantly literature she uncovers his potential. In return for her hospitality, Robert renovates a small cabin which clearly holds secrets from her past. Dulcie is plain speaking and opinionated but also generous and intelligent. She revels in shocking Robert with her views on Germans, famous people she has met such as Noel Coward and D H Lawrence and delights in his ignorance of good food and wine. Despite her cantankerous, abrupt manner, she nurtures this young man and allows him to see an alternative future for himself. At the same time Robert exposes Dulcie’s vulnerability, unravelling her past and allowing her to finally emerge from her buried secrets and tragedy.
Myers appreciation for the beauty and healing power of nature and the countryside of North East England compliment this unlikely friendship and it is hardly surprising this touching story is due to be made into a film starring Helena Bonham Carter and directed by Jessica Hobbs.
COLDITZ - PRISONERS OF THE CASTLE
‘Colditz - Prisoners of the Castle’ is Ben MacIntrye’s latest true story of the most infamous castle in WW2 where dangerous daredevil and defiant allied prisoners were held captive. Perfect read to bunker down with this November. And now in paperback!
This new and real Colditz story comes from the skilled and best selling historian, Ben MacIntyre bringing together what we think we know of the mythical castle and more. Colditz was a huge historical gothic castle in East Germany that became the highest security prison, set up in the 3rd Reich, for captured officers of all nationalities made up of Brits, Poles, Dutch, French, Belgians and laterally Americans - who all distinguished themselves for escaping from other prison camps.
Everyone has a favourite character. Be it the eccentric ‘Clutty of M19’ (the model for James Bond’s Q) who created secret gizmos such as false passports in board games, secret inks and hidden compasses in walnuts. Or double-amputee Douglas Bader the famous pilot who became a ‘poster boy’ in Germany’s propaganda. And then there is Eggers, the German officer and head of security at the castle whose earlier profession as a school master (teaching in Cheltenham no less) and an Anglophile treated his prisoners as naughty school boys, confiscating their escape booty and leading the ‘cat and mouse’ game that appeared to exist at the castle. Or the irrepressible Pat Reid who was one of the few British officers to escape.
The book exposes how and why Colditz saw more attempted escapes than any other prison camp. Readers discover how the old castle provided scope for tunnels within its cavernous design, hidden staircases and medieval locks. In fact, Colditz was an escape academy in which the officers colluded but also thrived in international rivalry- resulting in 18 different tunnels being built at the same time. We also appreciate how the prisoners were encouraged and allowed to blow off steam - either in the Colditz Olympic Games or in the theatre which staged regular plays and shows.
There are plenty of remarkable and stand out stories but one that touched the Den was the Indian doctor, Birendra Mazumdar, who was the only Indian officer serving in the British Army Royal Army Medical Corps. This didn’t serve him well at Colditz. He was mistrusted and excluded from all escape plans on the grounds of his colour and his identity as an Indian national which was at odds with his loyal allegiance to the Crown. His hunger strike forced a transfer to an all-Indian camp in France from which he successfully escaped to Switzerland in 1943. But even then the allies suspected he was a spy!
All these stories build up a fascinating picture of life for inmates at this seemingly impenetrable castle. A great book club choice especially for history lovers and readers who enjoy the accounts of those imprisoned and attempted an escape.
THE BEE STING
Shortlisted for this year’s Booker Prize, 'The Bee Sting' by Paul Murray is a scintillating piece of storytelling revolving round the lives of four members of an affluent Irish family as their comfortable lives come tumbling down around them. A luminous and exhilarating read.
We soon discover that life for Dickie Barnes is not going as planned. His car business is failing due to the economic downturn. His teenage daughter Cassie who hopes to follow Dickie’s own path and go to Trinity University seems to be going off the rails and drinking and 12-year-old PJ, his not particularly cool son, is being bullied and ostracised. Even his beautiful and loyal wife Imelda seems preoccupied and angry with him for spoiling their comfortable life. Having grown up in poverty and an abusive environment she certainly doesn’t want to return to her previous existence of shame and insecurity.
The book becomes tragically comical as it seems the whole family live in terror. Dickie’s life further unravels as Murray introduces his and Imelda’s back story and why are there no photos of Dickie and Imelda’s wedding? Dickie’s answer to his own predicament and the family’s imminent crisis is to spend every minute of every day building an apocalypse proof bunker with the local oddball handyman called Victor, even roping in poor helpless PJ on the basis that when the impending climate change judgement day arrives they will take retreat to their underground bolthole. Meanwhile Cassie dislikes everyone and everything (including her own boyfriend!) with the exception of her best friend Elaine, a rich good time party girl. This destructive relationship takes on a pivotal role later in the book.
As the relationship between Dickie and Imelda worsens, PJ dreads being sent to boarding school and so seeks refuge in an online friend who invites him to stay in Dublin. As for his faithful wife Imelda, she is haunted by ghosts from her past, which all seems to stem from the death of Dickie’s brother Frank, and the infamous bee sting on her wedding day. But it is the ghosts from the past which cause their paths to converge with horrifying consequences.
Murray has a gift for impressive storytelling, often finding humour in the darkest moments of tragedy. He also has a wonderful knack of switching the rhythm of his writing using different punctuation. The sections told through Imelda contain no fullstops and are like a stream of consciousness, illustrating her lack of education and impulsive actions. The last section of the book switches to third person. It is a nail-biting finish and certainly has a sting in the tail as the Barnes family’s past comes to a head and they hurtle towards their dramatic finale. It makes for a tense and brilliant climax and is sure to leave you and your book club with many questions.
At 643 pages long it is an epic story but Murray has certainly created a highly entertaining rollercoaster of a read which will make you laugh and cry in equal measure.
NORMAL RULES DON'T APPLY
‘Normal Rules Don’t Apply’ is a collection of interconnected short stories by one of the Den’s favourite story tellers Kate Atkinson. Returning to this format after 20 years, Atkinson’s imagination is on fire fusing fantasy with the everyday. A feast for all book lovers and Atkinson fans - as well as a lovely present for forward thinking gifters.
The collection kicks off with ‘The Void’ a despotic tale imagining how the end of the world might happen for Ted and his family - when the outdoors is literally plunged into darkness and it becomes a dangerous place for all living creatures. Recently widowed the reader takes a peak into Ted’s life and his family as they experience this inexplicable ‘void'. Whilst the story is short Atkinson quickly gains our full attention. We are invested in her characters, even though we know it might not be for long!
The stories are varied, magical and upside-down in which normal rules definitely don’t apply - with talking dogs, racehorses, a riches to rags fairytale, a blithe spirit looking down on her own post mortem, death and life and ‘the void’ that no one can escape from not even Princess Anne!
Atkinson fans will be pleased to see the return of Franklin a recurring character in many of her novels, this time working as a producer for a TV soap ‘Green Acres’. The characters and the soap pop up throughout the book providing extra nods and threads that unite the stories in a captivating tapestry of life.
The author is not afraid to have fun with her readers, looking at the madness of the world now and how it could be. Even as we see and feel the collection coming to a close, readers can delight in the tales as they are beautifully composed, funny and sanguine, with plenty of clever twists and light-hearted humour. Even in Gene-sis the author takes us aside with her character Kitty. Whilst the world is imploding around them we sit in on an advertising scene as creatives meet at ‘Edge (Hedge spelt with 'E) to discuss the launch of a new smoothie, Humble. ‘So I am thinking clean and wholesome’ Ewan said ‘A milkmaid, a dairymaid’. We the reader know this is clearly very unlikely but we are equally happy to enjoy the directness and pithiness of Kitty who points out ‘It should be called Poison, in my humble opinion’. One of Kitty's many witty commentaries about a world that doesn't make sense.
The Den enjoyed this book in audio, providing ample opportunity to revisit the stories and enjoy the collection. Whilst critics wanted more from the author, book clubbers enjoyed the ability to dip into and return to the collection, whether listening on the move or reading as a night time treat.
THE SEVEN HUSBANDS OF EVELYN HUGO
‘The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo’ (2017) is a popular historical fiction with modern twists, set in the glamour years of old Hollywood. A bestseller in the US and the UK this novel by Taylor Jenkins Reid, has also been a smash hit on Tik Tok with a Netflix adaptation in the pipeline. No surprise to find this is an enjoyable book club choice and one the Den recommends as a Missed Opportunity, ahead of its next wave of hype! Perfect novel for escapism, especially as the nights draw in.
At the start of the novel we meet Monique, an ambitious but unknown magazine writer, keen to secure herself a scoop and get noticed at the top New York magazine, Vivant. Unexpectedly Monique is invited to give an exclusive interview with the 79 year old Hollywood star, Evelyn Hugo, to promote a charity auction of some of her most iconic gowns. Monique is unclear why the actress has chosen her and visits her apartment, only to discover Evelyn Hugo, now a recluse, wants Monique to write her life story (to be published after her death). Although suspicious, Monique agrees to meet with Evelyn and undertake this career changing opportunity.
The book is divided into 7 sections, each one dedicated to one of Evelyn’s husbands. Through the chronicle of Evelyn’s life with her husbands, the reader discovers how and why her marriages and love affairs evolved and ended along with her own story of how she rose to fame through these relationships. Her own retelling of events is set alongside newspaper articles, which present an alternative ‘fairy tale’ narrative providing further intrigue for the reader, especially as their accounts differ.
‘The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo’ looks back at the nostalgic periods of Hollywood’s history from the '50s to present day, challenging the reader to consider hidden scandals for young ambitious women (like Evelyn Hugo) and the price they were prepared to pay. It gave us in the Den plenty to talk about, segued with relevant and recently uncovered scandals - of which there are many!
This Missed Opportunity read will set you questioning the nostalgic sparkle of Hollywood as well as challenging what we are presented with by the press and social media.
"We are together all day but we never have time, if you know what I mean?"
Claire Kilroy throws the reader into the depths of those overwhelming and often isolating first few months of first time motherhood with her sharply observed and brutally honest narrative. 'Soldier Sailor' resembles a stream of consciousness, a jumble of wonderful observations and terrifying insights of those early, unfamiliar first weeks when the realisation of looking after a totally vulnerable and dependent human being strikes like a bolt of lightning.
Written in the third person, the narrator, Soldier, is a first-time mother. The story opens when she is beyond exhaustion and seemingly beaten - is she really going to abandon her baby son, her Sailor, on a cliff path in the cold and give up, believing the most loving act she could do is to end her life and set him free? “Should I remind you again how lonely I was, Sailor, how terribly lonely? I didn’t know my own mind. I certainly did not know it that night.” This is not meant to be morbid, far from it, it is an illustration of how the insanity of tiredness can lead to recklessness.
Grappling with both overwhelming love and resentment, Kilroy addresses the strain early motherhood puts on a marriage as bitterness sets in due to the never-ending exhaustion and exasperation Soldier has with her ‘useless’ husband. There are so many recognisable, extremely funny moments, none more so than when the couple are spending a Saturday in IKEA to buy Sailor’s first bed on his, but apparently not her, 'day off'. There are those moments when her fury at her husband's badly timed tips on parent advice become irrational to those more tender moments when she messages him loving pictures of their baby son.
The book also touches on the effects that motherhood has on the role of women as she begins to lose her identity. It is when Soldier unexpectedly meets an old friend, someone with whom she can recall her fun past and share tips on parenthood, that life begins to take on meaning again. Yet even as she emerges from this sleep deprived relentless period of being a mother, Kilroy reminds us that the love for a child will forever be all consuming. A powerful acknowledgement that motherhood is a job you are perhaps never qualified for and one that never ends.
There are so many wonderfully observed gems that any mother or parent in charge of a child will recognise, from walking out in the night in her pyjamas, the lengthy routines to get food down, the ridiculous car seat straps for which two hands are never enough to the humiliation of mother and toddler clubs when your own child doesn’t conform. What stands this book apart though, is the way Kilroy merges all these moments into one long stream of consciousness so you can feel and share the tiredness, overwhelming love and resentment as vividly as she does. The prose is truthful and charged and will either bring back strong memories for some or show any new mothers that they are not alone.
‘Dr No’ by Percival Everett is the author’s latest quirky comic satire, inspired by Bond’s supervillain Dr No with a mission intent on revenge and the hunt for literally ‘nothing’. A truly wild card choice for any book club.
The novel revolves around Kitu, a brilliant maths professor and expert of nothing who is employed by the aspiring billionaire villain John Sill who wants to break into Fort Knox to steal its hidden treasure. Just like Bond’s supervillains, this is all part of his master plan for domination and mass destruction. However Sill knows the ultimate outcome will be nothing and Kitu is the perfect partner for his madcap plan.
The novel employs oodles of humour in Kitu’s world of academia along with his mismatched pairing with Sill. Den readers enjoyed Kitu’s playful word games around nothing, juxtaposed with Sill’s bizarre fantasy outlook and his own playbook which embraces a Bond lifestyle taking Kitu (and us the reader) to shark invested waters, on private jets and surrounding us with a cast of dangerous manservants, goons and scantily clad beauties.
As Sill and Kitu move closer to the treasure, the reader is never far away from Sill's own story to avenge his father’s death which he suspects is connected to the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
Everett’s inventive style of writing has a uniqueness and absurdity that captures the imagination and will carry you to the last page. In spite of knowing how the story ends it is the journey that provides a wonderful escapist read for book clubs. Lots to unpick and talk about!
'Dr No' follows Everett's shortlisted Booker novel ‘The Trees’ - enjoyed by Den readers and book clubs.
ALL THE PRETTY HORSES
With the passing of Cormac McCarthy earlier this year, the Den revisited one of our favourite books from his collection, the first of his border trilogy 'All The Pretty Horses'. Reassuringly, we loved this contemporary classic just as much as second time round. Mesmerising prose, melodic rhythm combined with a love for fauna and the desert this American West adventure is a work of compelling and understated splendour.
John Cole is 16 when his grandfather dies and he finds himself adrift from his Texas ranching upbringing. Cole’s relationship with his mother is detached so when she decided to sell the family ranch, he re-evaluates his life and with his friend Lacey Rawlins, the pair head on their horses for the wilds of Mexico. Complications ensue when they agree to help a young runaway called Jimmy Blevins capture back ‘his’ stolen horse and are branded horse thieves. In their flight, they separate from Blevins and so, begins a remarkable coming of age story as these two young men journey on horseback through the dramatic landscapes of this striking, unforgiving terrain. It is a journey of survival, danger, proving their ranching skills and forbidden love so exquisitely portrayed through McCarthy’s absorbing tempo.
This is a book to be enjoyed for its lyrical prose and hauntingly rich narrative which brings this harsh rugged landscape and his characters so captivatingly to life. You feel and breathe the American West. And central to McCarthy’s writing is the understated pairing of the dramatic sequences with his rich descriptions of nature and the barren yet beautiful landscape.
'All the Pretty Horses was made into a film in 2000 with Matt Damon and Penelope Cruz.
This is the first of the trilogy ('The Crossing' and 'Cities of the Plain' follow).
Den tip – we read the book this time on the kindle which is a real help to look up and appreciate unfamiliar vocabulary.
This award winning novel (Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2023 and Women’s Prize for Fiction 2023) by Barbara Kingsolver is a gripping modern retelling of Charles Dickens's 'David Copperfield' set in the Southern Appalachia in the United States during the '90s opioid epidemic and a sensational 'Book of the Moment' for book clubs!
Demon Copperhead’s childhood in Lee Valley is harsh and unforgiving. Born to a teenage drug addict, orphaned on his 10th birthday, rejected by his step father, he moves from one exploitive foster home to another. Thrown into a world of drugs, poverty and homelessness, Demon finds it impossible to stay on the straight and narrow. But Demon is nothing if not charismatic, with his striking ‘copper’ hair, natural talent and a dream to reach the ocean.
Demon has several lifelines, one being the wonderful caring Mrs Peggot (Dickens ‘Peggotty’) who despite showing him love and generosity is ultimately unable to provide him a secure home. Also his paternal grandmother who arranges for him to live with Coach Winfield, a well-regarded school football coach and his determined tomboy daughter known as ‘Angus’ (Dickens ‘Agnes Wickfield’) who live in a dilapidated mansion in Jonesville. Suddenly the focus of his life is given to education, art and success on the football field. However the unnerving creepy presence of the coach’s assistant U-Haul (Dickens ‘Uriah Heep’) hovers in the background. You always sense through Demon that he knows this new life is too good to be true. When he falls in love with an equally damaged teenager Dori, who has left school to look after her sick father the two of them spiral out of control.
The key to this mesmerising story is Demon’s narration whose voice is so real and funny. Kingsolver brilliantly captures his childlike innocence coupled with his savvy intelligence and ability to survive. He is sharp, spirited, pragmatic and occasionally vulnerable but at the same time there is such humour with an understated irony given to his desperate situation and continual knock backs. He describes himself and his friends as “Four demons spawned by four starving hearts” and concludes "The wonder is that you could start life with nothing and lose so much in between.”
It is uncomfortable to think that this story is relating to 1990’s America. Kingsolver is a masterful storyteller and by setting the story in her own community of Appalachia, she cleverly intertwines the opioid crisis of these deprived areas with her desire for recognition for the need for change and support. It is a forgotten part of American society, not deprived of food, space, or countryside, but of education, opportunities, and support, where it becomes too easy for vulnerable young people to be caught up in an unforgiving and corrupt child welfare system. Kingsolver has successfully used an English classical novel to highlight a modern American equivalent and achieved a wonderful balance, of providing a page-turning addictive read with a message not to neglect this forgotten and poverty stricken generation.
For those who enjoy audio this story is excellently brought to life Charlie Thurston.