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A graphic comic strip book aimed at elder children would not necessarily be our first choice, but Persepolis was recommended to us by a Den reader, and has been a wonderful surprise hit which we would highly recommend. ‘Persepolis The story of a childhood’ is a memoir by Marjanee Satrapi about growing up as a young girl in Iran during and following the Islamic revolution of 1979. A unique and inspiring story about the spirit to fight and survive against persecution.
Satrapi describes her life as an only child (Marji), living in a well-educated and privileged liberal family in Tehran, whose lives are turned upside down when the Shah is overthrown and fundamentalism takes hold. Marji watches members of her family disappear, her parents attend demonstrations, families like her own leave the country whilst trying to understand her own feelings, those of a gutsy and spirited young girl. As she herself says, she was privy to political discussions of the highest order, especially when her uncle is released from jail in 1979. She has a particularly close relationship with her uncle who enlightens her with stories from prison and from his time in Russia.
There are many parallels to what is happening today. Everything they had built over a lifetime is lost, education becomes censored and despite their liberalism the family find themselves wearing veils and hiding alcohol. Satrapi also opens our eyes to their Persian origins, Persepolis referring to the ancient capital of the Persian Empire. She writes “Our country has always known war and martyrs, so, like my father said: ‘when a wave comes, lower your head and let it pass!”. She tells us this is a very Persian view – the philosophy of resignation.
The beautiful black and white comic strip pictures add humour and darkness to the narrative. The speech gives the story a directness. When some rich friends arrive on their doorstop with their two young boys having lost their wealth and home, the picture is of Marji leading the two boys away with the simple dialogue
‘I don’t like it
C’mon boys, I’ll fix you some hot chocolate’
One picture and simple language powerfully create normality in the darkest hours.
This book will surprise you. It combines storytelling with political history and the very personal impact the effects of revolution and war had on the daily life of a young person in her most formative years of growing up. The book is also heart-breaking and demonstrates the sacrifices parents will make for their children and shows us how important uncensored education is for everyone.
Den tip – both our elder teenage children loved this book and if you enjoyed it, the second book “Persepolis 2 The Story of a Return” is also out.
'Still Life' by Sarah Winman must surely be a contender for a book club favourite. Whisking its reader away to Florence, from the east end of London and back again, this bestselling novel is a mesmerising read. With a cast of wonderful characters in search of love, excitement and friendship 'Still Life' is set against the beauty of Florentine life and its rich art and archipelago. Beautifully crafted, funny and totally absorbing.
The story begins in 1944 in Italy with a young Cockney soldier, Ulysses Temper and his superior, Captain Darnley who are waiting to enter Florence. Thanks to Captain Darnley, Ulysses’ eyes have been opened to the beauty of Italy and its rich history. They meet the remarkable Evelyn Skinner, a renowned art historian (and possible spy) in her 60s who has been commissioned to rescue masterpieces from the war. Together they spend an evening in the ruins of an undiscovered wine cellar where they share a bottle of fine Italian wine appreciating the moment. Evelyn and Ulysses’s lives are changed by this unlikely meeting of minds and unrequited love: Evelyn for a young maid she fell in love with on her first trip to Florence, and Ulysses for Peg, a wife back home in London. Ulysses’s connection with Italy further deepens when he rescues a local Italian, Arturo, from a moment’s madness, for which he is richly rewarded.
The story moves to an East London pub where we meet the other important people in Ulysses’ life; Cressy, Pete, Col and his parrot Claude. This eclectic group of people are Ulysses’ real family. Over the next four decades we follow Ulysses’s life as the friends and family of his London life inevitably merge with a different life in Florence. New friends are woven into the story and the 1966 floods in Florence bring a moment of horror when the beautiful buildings of Florence are tragically submerged for days beneath thick mud. But at this moment Sarah Winman reunites his characters in a show of support.
If it reminds you of E M Forster's 'A Room with a View', this is for good reason and provides another delightful layer of appreciation of the novel. Whilst there are plenty of 'sliding door' moments, coincidences and improbable connections the storytelling is exquisite and witty and you won’t fail to be immersed in Winman’s world of love, art, and everything Italian. If your book club is looking for an uplifting read, this novel should tick all the boxes!
DID I SAY THAT OUT LOUD?
Notes on the chuff of life
‘Did I Say That Out Loud’ is a collaborative book that brings together the ‘Fortunately’ podcasters Fi Glover and Jane Garvey who decided in lockdown to turn their conversational meanderings about life into a compilation of amusing reflective essays. The presenters take turns to lead each chapter’s topic which is presented to its audience as a book or as an audible broadcast which has extra material and exchange between the two that you won’t find in the book.
The witty duo cover essential conundrums and observations on life covering a multitude of experiences including the forgotten password (!), ‘Slipping into Middle Age’, the perils of judging women, battling new technology, good hair days as we remember them, the hierarchy of broadcasting, cashing in on domesticity and lessons in lockdown. The two compare notes on their differing backgrounds and memories of growing up but generally find plenty of common ground.
Both Fi Glover and Jane Garvey are successful, experienced and entertaining broadcasters in their own right and their discussions on the ‘chuff of life’ (described as the bits we find in the cutlery drawer!) provide an amusing and lively debate that you expect to find in a book club meet in which 20% is about the book and 80% is about the minutia of life which glues us together!
Whilst neither claim to know the answers, the authors are happy to shoot the breeze with wise wit and commentary that either rings true for some or garners an opinion for others.
The Den were divided on the audible format as whilst it seems the most natural fit for these talented presenters, the written word (in which the book was developed) is more satisfying. Perhaps this is because we enjoy the interjections of their podcasting style. Whichever version works better for you, it’s a wonderful slice of life all seasoned book clubbers will appreciate.
‘The Alchemist’ is a short magical tale about a young Andalusian shepherd who dreams of finding treasure at the foot of the Egyptian pyramids. First published in 1988, the novel has been studied in literature and as an established international bestseller it makes an uplifting and philosophical book club choice.
After consulting a gypsy woman, the shepherd boy, Santiago, is surprised to discover that he has a mission, described by the author as a 'Personal Legend' to journey to Egypt. He is in no doubt that he wants to fulfil this dream which leads him to the exotic markets of Northern Africa and then onto the Egyptian desert where he finally meets the alchemist who reveals his fate.
As well as omens there is plenty of philosophising and words of wisdom. Entrusted to balance a spoon of oil, the wisest of all wise men imparts. “The secret of happiness is to see all the marvels of the world and never forget the drops of oil on the spoon”.
His journey is not without challenges and encounters - wise men, female distractions and street rogues, but Santiago is not put off his mission and we the reader are willing him to journey on because like the young shepherd we want to believe in following dreams!
Santiago learns to “speak the language of the desert and the winds”. He becomes in tune with nature and through him the reader discovers how nature and the animal kingdom are also intuitive guides connected to Santiago’s world and his destiny.
The alchemist’s words are life affirming “Don’t give into your fears. If you do, you won’t be able to listen to your heart.” For the Den we appreciate the simplicity of the story but the complexity of the author’s philosophical notions. It’s a novel you would happily pass on to friends and other book clubs. Den readers enjoyed the pace of the story and the opportunity to ponder on the purpose of life.
This modern classic which ignited celebrity traction in the '90s including Bill Clinton, Madonna and Will Smith, has recently been signed by the later to produce a film adaption with his wife Jada Pinkett Smith, although this has been rumoured to be on hold (!).
Published posthumously, ‘Persuasion’ by Jane Austen is a short and accessible classic that is an optimistic love story, written at the end of the author’s lifetime. A wonderful opportunity to get ahead of the Netflix adaptation starring Dakota Johnson as the lead heroine - out later this year.
Set in the West Country at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, ‘Persuasion’ follows Anne Elliot’s story who is persuaded by her family friend Lady Russell to break her engagement to Frederick Wentworth. Returning some 8 years later as a wealthy and eligible navy captain, old feelings are reignited between Anne and Captain Wentworth who are forced into the same social circles. Whilst Anne is perceived as gentle and dependable and a useful aunt, her friends and family are now eager to attract the attention of the eligible Captain Wentworth. As the story unravels Wentworth shows interest in Louisa Musgrove and Anne is encouraged to consider William Elliot, a distant cousin and heir to the Elliot's Baronet title and Kellynch Hall.
Now older and wiser, Anne has to confront her heartache and her own missed opportunities. In pursuit of love and happiness Anne also reflects on her own family’s attitudes to status and class and reconsiders her own position and views. ‘Persuasion’ explores the role of women at this time and there is an inner voice throughout the novel that provides a commentary to the social status of women and the extent at which they can be independent and lead a fulfilling position.
Jane Austen’s story is preoccupied with the heroine finding her own voice. The Den found it interesting that the author had been romantically involved with a young man who had been persuaded by his own family to not pursue the relationship with Jane. Whilst Austen remained single it is clear that she believed love could conquer in fiction, even if she knew she could not achieve this in her own lifetime.
William Boyd is one of the Den’s favourite authors and 'Trio' is a thoroughly enjoyable page turner. Set in 1968 Brighton, the story centres round three characters involved in the shooting of a ridiculously long titled film called “Emily Bracegirdle’s Extremely Useful Ladder to the Moon”.
The trio in question are Talbot Kydd, Anny Viklund and Elfrida Wing – all 3 have a public persona hiding the inevitable personal secrets which Boyd’s charming and sensitive story-telling beautifully unravels. Talbot is the middle-aged, ex-army producer who deftly manages every set back a film in production has to offer yet is unable to acknowledge his own identity. Anny is the famous American actress and film’s lead who is typically neurotic, lives off pills and begins an affair with the leading man. Her life is further complicated when her ex-husband with a dubious past turns up in Brighton. Elfrida Wing is married to the film’s director Reggie (or Rodrigo as he now wants to be called!). Previously a successful novelist, she now has writer’s block, drinks too much and has become trapped in an unhappy marriage. Boyd cleverly builds up the momentum for our trio who have to face their demons and secrets – will their self-deception be revealed and what will be the outcome?
Boyd also weaves in an array of somewhat stereotypical but beautifully observed side characters including Troy - the pop star turned actor from Swindon who falls for Anny; Kenneth Kincade the razor-sharp private investigator hired by Talbot and cameo roles such as Dr Ingham, the strong Irish GP. These skilfully perceived personalities add wit, sensitivity and honesty to the story. All this is set against the backdrop of Brighton in the 60s just as homosexuality has been legalised (following the '1967 Sexual Offences Act').
The only criticism the Den had about this book, is that as a reader you may feel Boyd has played it safe, there is never a real sense of jeopardy or menace and there is a certain sense of predictability with some of the storylines. However, it is a charming and warm hearted read.
HAPPY SEXY MILLIONAIRE
Written by the youngest dragon, Steven Bartlett (of Dragon's Den), ‘Happy Sexy Millionaire’ is a self help book for those seeking ‘fulfilment, love and success’. It’s written primarily for millennials but it’s also beneficial for those of us who are trying to support and understand our offspring better. Brimming with common sense and a refreshing Wild Card choice for book clubs.
Bartlett introduces himself as ‘a 28 year old, black, insecure, university drop out, from a bankrupt family’. We learn about his early years and then back to his goals that he sets out for himself in his diary aged 18.
“My personal goals
- Technical millionaire by 25
- Range Rover will be my first car
- Hold a long term relationship
- Work on my body image”
This is the starting point which Bartlett then paraphrases ‘to be a very sexy millionaire by 25’. He then goes on to share philosophical insights, truths and advice on how he set out to achieve these goals. Don’t expect the author to divulge how he created his own marketing agency Social Chain. It is more about the ‘mindset’ for being successful and some of the core principles that set Bartlett apart from his competitors.
The Den enjoyed listening to Steven tell his story on audible. As well as understanding young people through their lens and social landscape in which they work and socialise in, the book also inspired readers about ways to stand out in business, what it takes to achieve a competitive edge - such as ‘skill stacking’ and 'invisible consistency’.
Like all good self help books, it makes perfect sense. At the same time he encourages the reader not to equate monetary success with happiness. In pursuit of this he is refreshingly upbeat and optimistic.
Makes an alternative Wild Card choice for book clubs as well as a book you might share with aspiring millennials. Also check out Steven Bartlett's popular podcast 'The diary of a CEO'.
THE SHEPHERD'S HUT
‘The Shepherd’s Hut’ by Tim Winton is a story of a young man’s survival in the arid vast saltlands of Western Australia. A raw, original and powerful wild card choice and a novel that will get under your skin from the outset. Some books never leave you and this is one.
Described as a feral rat-bag, Jaxie Clackton is fifteen and on the run leading him to the barren wilderness of Western Australia. Written in the first person, the reader has nowhere to hide in this story of survival in a landscape where he is in the most part alone, hoping to reach the next town which becomes a treacherous journey on foot with very few provisions and kit to keep him alive.
When the reader first meets Jaxie he is living with his abusive alcoholic father. Then one day he returns home to find his father dead. In an instant he realises he must run. This is also a coming of age story and it is an original addictive read that has a strangle hold on its readers from start to finish. There is a roughness of language, a strange vernacular that at times is challenging, at other times poetic. On his journey he meets an Irish priest, Fintan MacGillis who is also an outlaw and seeking penance in his wilderness. An unlikely friendship blossoms and through Fintan we discover a kinder heart and spirit in Jaxie.
Having a troubled upbringing and not much of an education makes this all the more powerful. The reader is consumed by Jaxie’s wilderness but also in two minds about his destination - to meet his sweetheart Lee in the next town. The descriptions of the landscape take centre stage in the novel making this a mesmerising and compelling story that won’t leave you. The Den were swept away by the all-consuming nature of the narrative.
Special thanks to one of our Den readers for recommending this novel, we always love suggestions and this was a truly gripping read. Wild and raw.
THE BONE PEOPLE
"O all the world is a little queer, except thee and me, and sometimes, I wonder about thee."
'The Bone People' by Keri Hulme was her debut novel which won the Booker Prize in 1985. Some of us in the Den remember reading the book over 30 years ago and with the sad passing of the author in December 2021, it is our worthy Missed Opportunity. Whether you are revisiting the story or reading it for the first time, this book is sure to cast its magic.
Set in New Zealand, the story is centred round a small autistic boy called Simon. One day Simon turns up at the eccentric home of Kerewin, a fiercely independent woman who lives alone, at one with nature, in a remote tower where she unsuccessfully tries to paint. When Simon’s father Joe comes to collect his son, they form an unlikely bond and Simon and Joe become regular visitors to Kerewin’s home. Over time this relationship develops into one of friendship and loyalty as these two adult misfits struggle to cope with the pain and love they share for Simon whose struggles are all consuming. He is mute, risk averse, steals, experiences nightmares and knows no boundaries but against the odds finds solace with Kerewin and together, although by no means perfect, they try to establish some stability to his life. The question is will they succeed and how far will their lives be damaged along the way?
The Den found this book utterly compelling. It is both beautiful and harsh. Set against the backdrop of the New Zealand wilderness and Maori heritage, it is a poetically told and an extremely powerful novel with a unique individual voice. It is also heart-breaking, frustrating and shocking. You will be sucked into the rhythms of the writing and beauty of the language, which at first you may find hard to follow, but persevere as it won’t be long before you are carried along by the verse. Despite some of the upsetting scenes, it is a book that is sure to stay with you.
Den tip – when you have finished the book, don’t forget to go back and re-read the beginning again!
‘Small Pleasures’ by Clare Chambers was Longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021 and is a bitter sweet novel set in post war Suburbia and a popular book club choice.
The novel opens with a newspaper cutting describing a train crash report in December 1957. It then rewinds back to the summer of the same year when the reader is introduced to Jean Swinney’s story. She is a features editor on a local paper with a curious new brief to investigate a reader’s letter from Gretchen Tilbury who claims her daughter, Margaret, is the result of a virgin birth. Up until this point Jean appears disappointed with her own life. She is single, in her late thirties and living with her mother trapped in a life of duty and the mundanities of life. The reader quickly observes her appreciation of small pleasures, her favourite being enjoying a cigarette alone at home whilst her mother is otherwise preoccupied washing her hair.
The investigation for this new feature is an exciting new chapter for Jean. It allows her to get close to the Tilbury family who have agreed to a series of medical tests to prove the virgin birth. Very quickly Jean’s life turns around as she spends more time with the Tilburys as well as meeting Gretchen’s friends from childhood who she met in a nursing home whilst being treated for rheumatoid arthritis. Suddenly friendship, love and happiness all seem real possibilities. This is an easy read with some clever revelations, unexpected twists and compassionate observations on life.
If you enjoyed ‘The Keeper of Lost Things’ or ‘Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine’ this touching and gently humorous novel is in the same genre.