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THE MIDNIGHT LIBRARY

The Midnight Library’ is a fantasy fiction novel by the award winning Matt Haig. Available in paperback this popular read has been a No 1 best seller for some time and as we creep out of a year of isolation with 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 offer 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 up ‘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 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 enjoyed and reviewed ‘The Human’ (see Library).

FALL: THE MYSTERY OF ROBERT MAXWELL

Ghislaine Maxwell and her tainted association with Jeffrey Epstein is one the most famous living Maxwells today, but her father, Robert Maxwell, the former media mogul is a fascinating enigma that John Preston investigates in his latest book ‘Fall: The Mystery of Robert Maxwell’. Preston’s story-telling makes an exciting and jaw-dropping tale. It's a pacy account and a great alternative Wild Card for book clubs.

To understand Maxwell’s ‘fall’, Preston takes us back to his humble and desperate beginning that appear to have shaped his life in business and politics, as well as relationships. Born an Orthodox Jew in Czechoslovakia we quickly learn about Maxwell’s drive to survive: imprisoned during the war as a child, lost most of his family in the Holocaust, fought in WW2 for which he was decorated with a Military Cross and was involved in espionage. Maxwell went on to become a Labour MP and a successful businessmen but it is his tales of survival as a young man and his personal tragedies that we as readers get the chance to reconsider his story and his ability to take risks, dupe his rivals and made him a tour de force.

Author of ‘The Dig’ and ‘A Very English Scandal’, John Preston interviewed and sourced a weighty number of individuals making this all the more credible and entertaining, presenting layers of character analysis of not only what he achieved but how he got there and why. We also get the chance to see how this successful and powerful individual deceived and played the establishment, the banking world, the media and even his own family.

Most of us remember how this story ends (falling off his yacht) but it the mystery of his life and the circumstances surrounding his death that provides a compulsive and fascinating read.

Presented in over forty bite sized chapters the Den enjoyed the narrative style and pace. A book that just kept giving.

THE ENCHANTED APRIL

Recommended by a Den subscriber, who could not be enticed by this charming armchair read? A Penguin Vintage Classic (1922), ‘The Enchanted April’ by Elizabeth Von Arnim, takes us to the Italian Riviera in spring time. A natural Wild Card choice for now.

Set between the wars, ‘The Enchanted April’ brings together four very different women looking to escape dreary London for the sunshine. Each independently take up the offer of an advertisement in The Times newspaper.

‘To those who appreciate Wisteria and sunshine. Small medieval castle to be let for the month of April’.

In the first half of the novel we learn the motives of the women who are attracted to the San Salvatore retreat. Lotty and Rose are fleeing their husbands, spending their secret nest eggs to escape their London lives. Meanwhile the widowed and beautiful Lady Caroline is seeking anonymity away from her social circles and awkward Mrs Fisher it transpires is more than ‘merely a woman with an old stick’.

A short charming novel with comic overtones, this is definitely a read for one sitting. As well as being transported to a beautiful place, the characters blossom in the warmth of the Italian spring with quite unexpected changes. There is a lot of emphasis on ‘getting away’ (something we can all relate to in 2021) but it is the eventual arrival at San Salvatore, as well as the introduction of additional guests that provides a pace changer in this novel. Suddenly the story begins to get interesting.

Don’t expect lots of plots and twists. This is a gentle tale from a post war era when holidaying was considered a novelty and travel a luxury. But for us lockdowners it’s an opportunity to appreciate the women’s stories as they discover their better selves and the freedoms of simple pleasures, whether it be being alone, sharing company with strangers or rekindling relationships with their husbands.

Although it appeared dated for many in the Den (and sometimes irrelevant to our lives today), the novel unleashed plenty of discussion points around women’s role in society - then and now.

Von Arnim’s detailed depiction of the setting and the beautiful grounds in spring time makes this a delightful read. You might also want to seek out the Oscar-nominated film adaptation (1991) starring Miranda Richardson and Josie Lawrence.

FRESH WATER FOR FLOWERS

“I close Irene’s journal with a heavy heart. The way one closes a novel one has fallen in love with. A novel that‘s a friend from whom it’s hard to part, because one wants it close by, in arm’s reach.”

This quote from the central character Violette, is how the Den felt about this book. ‘Fresh Water Flowers’ by Valérie Perrin may be a lengthy read, but it’s a read you won’t want to end. The story is a beautifully observed narration of life, death, love, grief and hope. The Den think this is the perfect heart-warming, seductive book to bring your book club out of lockdown hibernation!

Violette Touissaint is the cemetery keeper at Brancion-sur-Chalon cemetery in France and the first person anyone who walks through the gates of this cemetery are likely to meet. She leads a quiet, solitary life in the cemetery lodge where she tends the gravesides and cares for the vegetables and flowers in the garden. Violette’s front door is always open to the gravediggers Nono, Gaston and Elvis, the priest Father Cédric Duras, the undertakers - the three Lucchini brothers, plus any visitor to the cemetery who wants to learn more about her closest neighbours, the dead! Violette conscientiously keeps a register of the date of every funeral, those in attendance, the plague engravings, even the weather on that particular day but most importantly the eulogies. People confide in Violette as they know they can trust this quiet, beautiful lady who tends the cemetery.

As Violette shares her world with us, so her tragic backstory is revealed. Without giving the story away, when we meet Violette she is contended and kind but you immediately sense she has experienced great unhappiness. Violette meets three people who are to change her life, Celia, a stranger who becomes a lifelong friend, Sasha the previous cemetery keeper who teachers her about the healing powers of nature and Julien who needs to understand why his mother wants to be buried by a complete stranger in Brancion-sur-Chalon cemetery.

Perrin writes with captivating compassion and humility and leaves you with a multitude of wonderful observations about life and human nature. This is a read to treasure and couldn’t be a more poignant and timelier book to guide you and your book club to light after the months of lockdown. As the title of the book infers, you know you are healing when you give “fresh water to the flowers.”

LIGHT PERPETUAL

As huge fans of Francis Spufford’s first fiction story 'Golden Hill' (in the Den’s Library) RD was eagerly awaiting this new novel by the same author. Spufford doesn’t disappoint in this beautifully observed and touching portrayal which relishes the wonders of 'normal life'.

November 1944 - It’s Saturday lunchtime in Bexford South London when, in one ten-thousandth of a second, a V-2 bomb lands on a branch of Woolworths killing everyone in and around the store in Lambert Street including an eager crowd of women with their children hoping to get their hands on a new delivery of saucepans. In that one ten-thousandth of a second it is not just present lives lost, “It’s all the futures they won’t get, too. All the would-be’s, might-be’s, could-be’s of the decades to come.” Amongst the dead are five children; Jo, Valerie, Alec, Ben and Vernon. But Spufford imagines another future for these children, as if they had lived, as if the bomb had landed further afield and killed nothing but pigeons.

Spufford wondrously guides us through the everyday world of ‘what might have been’ for sisters Jo and Valerie, Alec, Ben and Vernon from their school days through to their twilight years. He expertly and brilliantly gives the reader glimpses through moments of time from 1949 to 2009, from which we gain a remarkable insight to the ups and downs of ordinary lives led through this time of great social change. Don’t think only having small snapshots diminishes the story, if anything it adds to the reader’s enjoyment as Spufford captures the highs and lows of these five working class South Londoners. Spufford’s meticulous attention to detail and character creation is spellbinding in bringing alive these imagined lives.

There are times when you don’t like some of the characters as Spufford carefully navigates the domain of property developers and the British Movement. There are other times when you are frustrated by bad choices and missed opportunities or saddened by the burden of suffering, but there is no doubt you become invested in the lives of Jo, Valerie, Alec, Ben and Vernon. The final chapter left the Den deeply moved.

This book has so much to talk about in your book club. It is thought provoking, original, and takes you through this period of social transformation, advances in technology and changes in the political landscape with warmth and humility. Interestingly, the idea for this novel came about from Spufford walking to work past the plaque dedicated to those who died when the 1944 V-2 bomb landed on the New Cross branch of Woolworths killing 168 people including several children. He hasn’t used their real names but if you were to walk past the memorial now, you are sure to stop and wonder what lives all those children who died would have had.

I AM AN ISLAND


“Transformation is regenerative, redemptive and comes with a struggle. For change to come, or to strike out differently, you have to let the rough edge of the pain of all that life throws at you graze your heart.” Tamsin Calidas.


The Den were divided by Tamsin Calidas’s memoir ‘I am an Island’ which is why, with its arrival in paperback this month, it is our Wild Card choice. On one hand, it is a beautifully written and amazing story of survival and fortitude, but with a slightly cynical hat on, it can appear to be a somewhat biased and rather critical judgment on a way of life from which, perhaps through some fault of her own, the author found herself at odds with. Yet this is all good news as it makes for an interesting and lively book club discussion!

Tamsin and her husband Rab give up their successful London jobs and home in Notting Hill, to move to a remote un-named island in the Scottish Hebrides, only 10 miles across. They buy a small derelict croft and slowly make it their home and farm the land. However, their idyllic dream gradually starts to unravel as local hostility, failed IVF, money problems and the harsh way of life take their toll. Eventually, after several years Rab heads back south but Tamsin decides to go it alone.

There is no denying this is an incredibly brave decision and Tamsin’s staying power and determination to live alone in this remote harsh wilderness are remarkable. Some of us were blown away by her story, being at one with nature and her inner strength to not only survive but persist and ultimately thrive. One of the ways in which she finds her salvation is when she starts to swim in the Atlantic every morning.

However, the Den would have liked to hear the other side of her story, as she always seems to bear the brunt of every misfortune and never takes blame herself. It would have been lovely to have heard Rab’s voice together with some of those islanders who were perhaps more on her side than she leads us to believe. She has declined to give her real name or the name of the island she says to protect the islanders, but perhaps also to protect herself.

BY GRAND CENTRAL STATION I SAT DOWN AND WEPT

This classic work of poetic prose about living for love has to be the perfect inimitable read for February and a wonderful Wild Card alternative for book clubs. Elizabeth Smart records her obsessional and passionate love affair with George Barker, whose writing she fell in love with after reading one of his poems in a book shop.

Elizabeth begins her affair with George after inviting him and his wife to California. The book transcends through her transforming emotions as their affair continues. This is not a book to be read for its storyline, it’s a book to be read for the remarkable, urgent, sensual, language revolving round the all-consuming love the writer feels.

The writing is intoxicating as mundane life takes a back seat to the uncontrollable love the writer feels for this man. Even when Elizabeth and George are arrested at the border, she is unable to reign in her feelings to help her situation, but rather when asked what relationship this man is to her she replies 'My Beloved is mine and I am his: he feedeth among the lilies' – such language merely making the guards’ treatment of her tougher.

The couple never married but continued their relationship and had four children together. Elizabeth recognises that their passion is special “I look homeward now and melt, for though I am crowned and anointed with love and have obtained from life all I asked, what am I as I enter my parents’ house but another prodigal daughter?”

If you are in the mood for a poetic love masterclass, rich in its language and imagery, then this extraordinary love affair makes the perfect February Wild Card read and will certainly liven up your book club discussions.

THE PURSUIT OF LOVE

We all need to immerse ourselves in moments of frivolous comfort and ‘The Pursuit of Love’ by Nancy Mitford, which is coming soon to our screens in a new joint BBC/Amazon drama, is the ideal escapism. It follows the ups and downs of the Radlett family during the world wars, in particular the gregarious protagonist Linda as she falls in love, each time more dramatically than the last. It is always interesting for your book club to compare and contrast a novel to a TV production and this new adaptation written by and starring Emily Mortimer should be no exception. Definitely a welcome choice for book clubs.

The Radletts live at Alconleigh, an old country estate in the Cotswold. They are a traditional landed gentry family living off the land who love animals, hunting and all outdoor pursuits. Lord Alconleigh is the rather formidable but ultimately harmless father, pompous and difficult and more importantly believing women have their place and education should not be wasted on them. At his side is his long-suffering wife Sadie and their seven children.

The story is told through Fanny, a cousin whose own wayward parents have left her upbringing to her Aunt Emily (Sadie’s sister) but who spends her holidays with this eccentric but loving family. As Fanny says, ‘The Radletts were always either on a peak of happiness or drowning in black water of despair; their emotions were on no ordinary plane, they loved or they loathed, they laughed or they cried, they lived in a world of superlatives.’ Fanny is the same age as one of her cousins Linda and together they share a loyal friendship. And so, we follow their pursuit of love, from teenage fantasies through to marriage, children and the arrival of war.

Linda and Fanny are preoccupied with sin, love, sex and ultimately finding a husband. Linda is strikingly beautiful, carefree and headstrong and not willing to abide by the rules of love laid down for her. She inadvisably marries twice before falling head over heels in love with the charismatic French Duke, Fabrice. There is no denying Linda is flawed but you can’t help being sucked into her enthusiasm for life and loving.

Mitford writes with a sharp wit and matter of fact honesty. Her dismissal of motherhood and misfortune is blunt and her perceptive portrayal on the frivolous lives of the aristocracy is both sharp and entertaining.

For those of you who haven’t yet discovered Nancy Mitford, the Den highly recommend ‘The Pursuit of Love’ as the perfect starting point and can’t wait for the upcoming TV series with its stellar cast including Lily James, Emily Beecham, Dominic West and Andrew Scott. A real treat is in store!

I FEEL BAD ABOUT MY NECK

Nora Ephron is synonymous with her bittersweet comedy film work, such as ‘When Harry Met Sally’, 'Heartburn' and ‘Sleepless in Seattle’ to name a few. ‘I Feel Bad About My Neck’ is a Wild Card treat for book clubs. Some may feel it is a frivolous read in troubled times - but there are so many words of wisdom in this collection of essays, still relevant for many of us. A book we enjoyed and to be cherished.

In essence, ‘I Feel Bad About My Neck’ is an accessible book of articles that shines a light on women facing the tribulations of getting older covering maintenance, accepting change whilst yearning for yesteryears, coping with menopause and empty nesting.

Ephron’s top tips…
Never marry a man you wouldn’t want to be divorced from.
If the shoe doesn’t fit in the store, it’s never going to fit.
When your children are teenagers, it’s important to have a dog so that someone in the house is happy to see you.
Anything you think is wrong with your body at the age of thirty-five you will be nostalgic for by the age of forty-five.

Nora Ephron is a privileged ballsy writer and her days as a female hack with a stint in the White House under JFK are bound to ignite or unite your Den. The collection is short, punchy and based on the Den’s book club experience bound to stir up conversations, especially for those who are happy to reminisce on their first taste of New York in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Whether you agree or agree to disagree there is definitely something for everyone in her writing.

For Nora fans it will be her acerbic wit and understanding of womanhood that appeals. Interestingly the dynamic podcaster and writer, Dolly Alderton, clearly still a young woman in her prime at 32, sums up ‘I Feel Bad About My Neck’ in the book’s introduction. Nora ‘takes her most distinct qualities as both a writer and a woman and neatly packages them into a pearls-of-wisdom jewellery box, that should sit on every woman’s bookshelf as a life guide.’.

The Den was divided in opinion about Nora. Some didn’t like her privileged lifestyle and opinion. This could set up the perfect book club storm.

To conclude with another wonderful observation that all book clubbers will appreciate;

‘Reading is everything. Reading makes me feel I’ve accomplished something, learned something, become a better person. Reading makes me smarter, Reading gives me something to talk about later on. Reading is the unbelievably healthy way my attention deficit disorder mediates itself. Reading is the escape and the opposite of escape; it’s a way to make contact with reality after a day of making things up, and it’s a way of making contact with someone else’s imagination after a day that’s all too real. …’

And there’s plenty more pithy thoughts but now over to you.

STRANGE FLOWERS

Set in 1970’s Tipperary, rural Ireland, Donal Ryan immerses us in this story about 3 generations of a family. Paddy and Kit Gladney’s daughter Molly disappears aged 20 without warning, only to return unannounced five years later, at which point their lives change forever. If your club is looking for a beautifully written story of love and redemption we are sure this compassionate novel will be the perfect ticket!

At first, the reason for Moll’s departure can only be guessed at as “still nobody knew what all the secrecy had been for, how she’d been able to put her poor parents through all.” As Molly refuses to say a word about her disappearance Ryan captures the insular, gossip enriched life of the village “all sorts of theories swirled about, fables and yarns and tall tales and fairy stories and lascivious conjecture in some cases, darkly delicious things that could be delivered only in a whisper, from behind a shielding hand and at the point of an elbow, and met with racking guilty laughter, that filled the void where the truth would be, if they could ever get to it.”

The Den doesn’t want to spoil your enjoyment by giving away the plot, but as with The Spinning Heart (reviewed in the Den’s library) the reader is given intimate glimpses into each character’s life as they narrate the story. There are strong religious undertones - the book starts with Genesis and ends with Redemption as is not until the end that we discover why Moll fled. There is also a re-written bible story shared by one of the characters.

This is a book to enjoy for its lyrical prose and poetic writing style as Ryan captures the prejudices and class divide of rural Ireland at this time. He touches on the shame of “feeling different” with a truthful compassion. But overall this novel particularly explores understanding different kinds of love in search for that elusive happiness. Ryan writes with a wonderful natural empathy which is a delight to share and feel.

THE MEMORY KEEPER'S DAUGHTER

If your book club are in the mood to be drawn into a gripping page turner about entwined family secrets with plenty of ethical and moral dilemmas to consider for your next meet, then ‘The Memory Keeper’s Daughter’ by Kim Edwards is just the ticket. First published in 2005 and made into a film starring Dermot Mulroney, Gretchen Mol and Emily Watson in 2008, it tells the story of two families torn apart when twins are separated at birth.

David and Norah are happily married and expecting their first child. When Norah goes into premature labour one winter’s night, David, a doctor himself, takes over the delivery. It is 1964, before the days of scans, so unexpectedly twins arrive. Recognising that the second baby, a little girl has Down’s syndrome, he makes the devastating decision to hand her over to his trusted nurse Caroline. He asks Caroline to drive baby Phoebe to a care home, telling his exhausted wife that although their baby girl died at birth, they still have a wonderful healthy boy, Paul.

On arriving at the institute, Caroline is unable to leave Phoebe and against character, runs away to Pittsburgh with Phoebe where they begin a challenging, but rewarding new life. The story follows the parallel but very different lives of these two families over the subsequent 25 years as both Paul and Phoebe reach adulthood until the inevitable truth is uncovered and the damage laid bare.

Whilst there are flaws in the story and the writing can seem a little contrived, The Reading Den has no doubt that there is plenty of talking points! Aside from the ethical and moral issues of David’s decision, the story raises questions of abandonment, grief, whilst also looking at the challenges and rewards of bringing up a child with Down’s syndrome – a perfect read for heated book club discussions!

A WOMAN IS NO MAN

"Any lingering hope that America would be better than Palestine fell away at that moment. A woman would always be a woman."

Etaf Rum’s debut novel 'A Woman is no Man' is a heart-breaking story about entrapment, loss of identity and loneliness. The story follows three generations of Palestinian women living in Brooklyn, New York. Rum highlights the struggle for young Arab women trying to find their voice in a modern western world. With so many important discussion points, this compelling story is sure to kick-start lively conversations in your book club!

Fareeda's story - Fareeda remembers how harsh life was in the refugee camps. Having persuaded her husband to move to America, she tries to uphold the role accepted for Palestinian women and instil its culture in her children and grandchildren with ruthless determination despite the tragedy it may cause. But over time, as heartbreak engulfs the family, she begins to wonder whether the djinn has cursed her family.

Isra's story - Isra’s life changes in 1990, when barely 18, she is forced into an arranged marriage in Palestine and sent to live with her new husband Adam in Brooklyn, watched over by her controlling mother in law, Fareeda. Within days her dreams of a different and new future similar to the fairy tales she loves to read about, disappear. When she produces daughters instead of sons it seems her fate and that of her children, is doomed.

Deya's story - It’s 2008 and Deya, the eldest of four girls, is struggling to remember her parents who she has been told died in a car crash. When a stranger secretly delivers a card requesting a meeting, she is forced to confront her fear, uncover the truth about her parents and be accountable for her future.

Rum painstakingly highlights the struggle for young Arab women trying to find their own voice within a strict traditional culture. She gives us a candid insight into that community and the necessity to keep up appearances at all costs. The ending is unexpected and adds another dynamic discussion in your book club conversation.

If you enjoyed this book, the Den suggests you try two memoirs reviewed in our library which also look at women being cut off and isolated within their strict communities in the US. 'Unorthodox' by Deborah Feldman and 'Educated' by Tara Westover are two equally compelling reads.

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