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.
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 monthly discussion, then ‘The Memory Keeper’s Daughter’ by Jodi Picoult 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 have no doubt that there much to talk about with this story. and it is a perfect for book club heated discussions. 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!
"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 your New Year book club with lively conversations!
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.
After ten years, 'Olive Again' marks the return of the beloved fictional character 'Olive Kitteridge' which was a Pulitzer Prize winning book as well as a popular HBO mini-series. It's timely to seek out this novel as it touches on the increasingly invisible 'shielding' community and as a book club this couldn't have been more endearing. Written by Elizabeth Strout, 'Olive Again' takes the reader back to coastal Maine revisiting the touching human stories of ‘small town life’ in this wonderful collection in which Olive, now a cranky retired school teacher, headlines the narrative, and sometimes passes through as an insightful, blunt, observer. Published in 2019, it's now in paperback and makes a touching, nostalgic and popular missed opportunity for Olive fans. But you don't have to read her earlier adventures.
Praised for her ability to effortlessly capture human nature and the exploration of the individual through her cast of characters, Strout picks up on Olive’s world in the autumn of her life with new relationships and challenges of her circumstance and age.
It’s a breeze to read and every word, observation and commentary comes with an inner compassion and perception. "in February… if you really looked. You could see how at the end of each day the world seemed cracked open and the extra light made its way across the stark trees and promised. It promised, that light, and what a thing that was. As Cindy lay on her bed she could see this even now, the gold of the last light opening the world.".
It might make you sad – because it explores ‘end of life’ scenarios. It might remind you of your own family circumstances or it might make you enjoy Olive’s freedom of expression. Simply saying it how it is! The Den founds lots to talk about, triggering our own amusing tales of indiscretions and tackling our 'older' self. With family in mind, many living in isolation, the group were able to connect with the challenges of maturing into 'the twilight years, as well as appreciating Olive's boldness and her laissez faire attitude to living life to the full.
Love Olive or irritated by her actions, your book club should relish this novel, especially as this generation of our community have been 'out of reach' for too long in 2020. Time to reflect, appreciate and maybe laugh a little or lots as we did in the Den.
Some books can not be placed in a genre and ‘A Ghost is the Throat’ is a truly original read by poet and essayist Doireann Ní Ghríofa. Described as an autofiction this eloquently written debut novel explores two women’s lives as one hunts down the other in a quest to piece together a dark romantic tragedy. It is unashamedly described ‘a female text’ and if you enjoyed ‘Milkman’ by Anna Burns which divides book clubs, this could be your best Wild Card choice of the new year.
In the 1700s Eibblín is an Irish noblewoman who on discovering her husband has been murdered, drinks handfuls of his blood and composes an extraordinary poem. This lament for her husband, Art Ó Laoghaire, has been described as one of the greatest poems ever written in Ireland. Our modern day storyteller is a young homemaker and an articulate academic, who whilst overcoming her own personal tragedy, takes us on her adventure to translate and unpick the widow’s story and her plight.
The writing is poetic and fresh. Doireann Ní Ghríofa has a modern approach to telling her story with a wonderful command of language weaving the two stories together. Rich and lyrical, the author’s prose is a joy to read with so many memorable passages, sentences and moments that you will want to bookmark.
In the Den we loved the author’s forensic mind and urgency used in her descriptions. ‘Everyday I fall to my elbows and beckon more crusts from under tables and high chairs, crawling through banana goo, yoghurt and crushed grape’. Her storytelling as a young mother resonated with us and we loved her reading of the lament and her superstitious mind.
It’s the perfect winter’s tale - dark, beautiful and exciting and no surprise to the Den to find it the recent winner of the Foyles Non-Fiction Book of The Year 2020. One for now!
And if you enjoyed the poetic depth of Ní Ghríofa's narrative you may enjoy Jon McGregor's novels. Now on RD's pile for '21! Watch this space.
Daniel Mason transports us to the depth of winter in his gripping, skilful and inspiring portrayal of a young man’s experiences working in a remote field hospital in Poland during the first world war. Against the backdrop of the unspeakable horrors of war, The Winter Soldier is a beautiful love story, a story of regret and then salvation.
Lucius is the youngest son in an affluent family living in Vienna and training to be a doctor when World War 1 breaks out. Keen to further his surgical skills he enlists only to be posted to a remote field hospital in Lemnowice in Poland, situated in the mountains on the Eastern Front. On arrival he finds just one nurse, Sister Margarete in a requisitioned church full of desperately ill patients alongside a plague of typhus.
With the ‘matter of fact’ guidance of Sister Margarete, Lucius quickly has to adapt to the horrors of injured soldiers arriving in the depth of winter. One day József Horváth arrives, a patient whose mental state from the terrors he has witnessed and endured make him unable to communicate, however his pockets are full of drawings and as Lucius experiments new medication to alleviate his suffering, Horváth starts drawing again. Lucius becomes fascinated with Horváth’s illness and in his obsession to understand his state of mind, he goes against the advice of Sister Margarete and makes a decision which is to have far reaching consequences for all of them.
The story moves to post war, as Lucius is back working in Vienna whilst desperately trying to find the woman he loved and lost.
Daniel Mason is a physician and Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and clearly uses his expertise knowledge alongside his lyrical and compelling narrative to bring all aspects of the suffering of war to life. Against the backdrop of the unspeakable distresses of the men’s suffering, is a beautiful love story, a story of regret and then salvation.
'Seven Days of Us' gives us all the chance to get in the Christmas mood, even if our usual festivities have been affected by the 2020 virus. First published in 2017 this is an entertaining, light-hearted and thoroughly enjoyable read about a family who are locked down together for seven days over Christmas and New Year.
The Birch family’s eldest daughter Olivia returns home for Christmas from working as a volunteer aid doctor in Liberia coping with the Haag disaster, a highly contagious and dangerous virus. The family are forced to undergo seven days of quarantine, which inevitably leads to a variety of crises and interesting family dynamics. Join them on this rollercoaster of emotions as secrets unravel and relationships falter.
Written by Francesca Hornak, journalist and writer, this is a compelling, witty, heartfelt novel, and is the perfect “missed opportunity” for the festive season.
'Seven Days of Us' may ironically feel nostalgic and for some dated in 2020 but the Den found reading this book poignant and touching, providing plenty of talkability especially for those who have undertaken a 14 day quarantine. Fun with plenty of fizz. A family saga for all.
With the strangest of Premier seasons upon us and little else to provide entertainment in lockdown 'Klopp’ by Anthony Quinn, may well be the best gift for your footy family and friends this Christmas. The Den might appear to have gone seriously left field for book clubbers but this Wild Card read is a delightfully paced escape choice for those who have lost faith in the novel and are looking for an alternative. Definitely a +1 read or gift!
Who better to release a personal ‘Liverpool Romance’ about LFC manager Jürgen Klopp than the (almost) lifelong Liverpool fan and novelist Anthony Quinn. Destined to be written by Liverpool-born Quinn, the story of LFC in 2020 is undeniably special. With two wins away from winning their first league title in thirty years, as at March 2020 (and won later after the first lockdown), this story remains fascinating - ‘It’s football Jim, but not as we know it.’.
As a charming storyteller and novelist it is a rare treat, not just for Liverpool fans. Quinn’s wife, we are told, describes his Klopp interest as a ‘man crush’ and his narrative is so persuasive you can’t help agreeing that Klopp has proven himself to be ‘masterly; funny, mischievous, smart, charismatic’. The effortless wit and the ease of Quinn's light-hearted prose makes the narrative gallop apace and with its quirky interludes such personal diary entries, letters and ‘idea for a (theatre) sketch’ make it delightful and celebratory.
Klopp is held up as a motivational manager where the players get to play their best game, playing beyond their capabilities and not just to their limit, transforming ‘an ordinary player into a Klopp player’. Unlike traditional accounts Quinn uses his literary finesse and narrative devises to make this an enjoyable treat of a read.
Whilst this is an alternative Wild Card choice, Quinn’s novels provide perfect winter reads including period thrillers that are all beautifully crafted with plot twists. For a flavour consider 'Our Friends in Berlin' in our Den library or his theatrical murder mystery 'Curtain Call'.
Already a fan of Rupert’s Everett’s first two memoirs, the Den turned to his latest book, 'To The End of the World - Travels with Oscar Wilde' which documents Everett’s quest to write, direct, star in and produce a film about Oscar Wilde’s last years in exile. The resulting film “The Happy Prince” was released to wonderful reviews in 2018.
Everett is a brilliant writer. This book is a more of a diary as he records the challenging process of taking an embryonic idea to the screen. Trying to fulfil his ambitious dream about Wilde proves to require a bottomless pit of funding, constant compromises on locations, setback after setback, yet, against the odds he pulls it off. As a memoir, Everett is wholly honest about both his strengths and flaws in the process. When at last he is doing what he loves best, acting Wilde’s final moments, his accomplishment is emotional and inspiring “I have finally managed to make myself the complete centre of attention. After trying and failing all my life, here I am, tucked up on the deathbed, an expiring general and a regiment of strange mercenaries waging war on the tiny battlefield of Oscar’s bedroom. It’s my own mad world and it’s electrifying.”.
Everett’s writing is funny, intelligent, crude, sometimes shocking, but above all gives a fascinating insight into his extraordinary world and the interesting people he mixes with. The making of the film takes Everett on a rollercoaster ride through parts of Europe and through the process we witness his highs and lows - there are the inevitable episodes of excessive behaviour which all make for an exciting and entertaining read, but overall it portrays his tenacity to keep going which is inspirational to observe.
Into the mix, Everett recalls being thrown out of Central School of Speech and Drama, famously failing to turn up to dinner with Joan Collins and wonderful acting disappointments. If you are in the mood for a flamboyant, beautifully described, often touching and wonderfully amusing read, then this is the perfect book – sure to cheer up those lockdown evenings.
With the televised series of Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad” about to reach our screens, The Den decided to read this 2017 Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction. Telling the remarkable journey of one young woman’s escape from working on a southern cotton plantation in Georgia to try and make a new life in the north, the story is shocking but intensely moving and inspirational.
Cora is just 15, when she is convinced by Caesar to try the impossible – to run away from their life as slaves working on the Randall’s harsh cotton plantations in Georgia. Caesar had discovered an escape route via the underground railroad - a highly secretive, dangerous underground network which gave fugitives the opportunity to disappear and emerge in a different state further north. Whitehead uses this compelling fictional story to bring alive this period of American history in an emotive, powerful narrative.
Each time, as Cora starts her life over again and begins to feel contended with her life, so the slave catchers track her down, led by the unrelenting, ruthless Ridgeway, who has devoted his life to catching fugitives. Cora is forced to commit actions and witness scenes she could never have thought possible, but despite this, she never gives up the hope and dreams of leading a normal life.
This story lays bare the appalling injustices of slavery during this time and the white man’s capacity for evil. It is painful and the violence often takes your breath away, but Cora’s strength and determination shine through giving a personal and intimate narrative to this period of racial injustice. The current racial discriminations only too evident in America following the killing of George Floyd, make this book even more poignant.
The Underground Railroad directed by Barry Jenkins is in the making. Colson Whitehead’s latest book "The Nickel Boys" is also just out in paperback and has won him his second Pulitzer Prize.
Perhaps it isn’t surprising, as we try to imagine our uncertain future, that this brilliant award-winning story about a pandemic hitting the world has become a must read in the current climate. Emily St. John Mandel’s best-selling novel, first published in 2014, follows a group of actors and musicians as they tour North America 20 years following a devastating flu pandemic. The Den were sceptical about reading a book of this subject matter, but we promise you, you will be enraptured by this remarkable read which is both beautifully written and incredibly inventive.
Arthur Leander, a well-known actor, collapses on stage playing King Lear at the Elgin Theatre in Toronto. Kirsten, a child actor witnesses his fall and Jeevan, a young trainee paramedic, rushes from the audience to help him. That same night, the Georgia Flu, a deadly pandemic reaches North America and with it everything changes. The story moves forward 20 years to a new, post-pandemic world. Mandel has created a brilliantly imagined future of how the few disparate survivors have endured in a country with no electricity, no planes, no internet, no phones.
Kirsten is now a member of the Travelling Symphony, an eclectic group of artists who travel round North America’s post pandemic settlements performing music and Shakespeare. Jeevan settles in Severn City Airport. As a young man he can remember his previous life and sets up an impromptu museum of artifacts from the time before Georgia Flu. In the present day, Miranda, Arthur’s first wife gives him two copies of her meticulously hand-drawn comic book called “Station Eleven.” Dis-interested in the comic, Arthur sends one to his estranged son and gives a copy to Kirsten who sits with him in his dressing room before the performances. Mandel cleverly intertwines these moments into the future story as it moves between life before the pandemic to the current state of play.
The Den thought the beauty of the book came from its ability to show the value of life and that out of disaster and loss, people can come together and start afresh in an unrecognisable world. By not focusing on the immediate aftermath, but instead switching between the comfortable pre-flu era and Year 20, Mandel, with her brilliant storytelling has created a wonderfully gripping and alive read.
Dolly Alderton fans, who love her newspaper column and the phenomenally successful podcast ‘The High Low’ with Pandora Sykes, will be super excited to get their hands on ‘Ghosts’. Following ‘Everything I Know About Love’, an unflinching account of surviving her 20s, this is Alderton’s debut novel that is a millennial rom-com, but comes with this writer’s acerbic wit and humour. Hyped for some time now, thanks to social media and Alderton’s award winning reputation as a journalist, this is definitely our Book of the Moment for November and makes the perfect ‘escape’ read from our lockdown worlds. Time for something different!
‘Ghosts’ is Nina’s story. Thirtysomething, Nina is a successful food writer and author, a first time homeowner in a new neighbourhood who decides to brave a dating app to combat her singleton life. Much of the flirting is played out on the phone but remarkably she falls in love and everything feels like it is going to plan. But following a romantic declaration of love, Nina is unexpectedly ‘ghosted’ and beginning to feel abandoned by her friends and ex-boyfriends who are moving on and moving out. Whilst not a deliberate homage to Bridget Jones, it definitely has plenty of nods. Just like Bridget Jones there is trouble at home as her family are entering an unsettling phase. Nina discovers her mother in a second bloom of life, changing her name from Nancy to Mandy, living a busy schedule of ‘Pilatus’ and organising her literary salons ‘Reading Between The Wines’ where her friends gather to talk about ideas, not books. Sadly there is little solace with her loving father who is ‘confused, angry and vulnerable’ with the early onset of dementia.
Like her father, Nina clings onto her ‘ghosts’ of the past including the grandmother’s home that leads her back to her roots and her much loved childhood foodstuffs that become positive triggers for her father and the inspiration for her next book. And she looks in trepidation at the ‘ghosts’ of the future as played out by her friends.
Just like Bridget Jones, 'Ghosts' is a bittersweet novel filled with funny and tender observations that will resonate with the reader. The Den was torn between enjoying the farcical vignettes and scenes that weave together Nina’s story and finding it ultimately a predictable predicament in which happiness can only be achieved in a relationship. We loved her friendship with her best friend Lola and the ‘The Schedenfreude Shelf’ a collection of hilarious sleights of life and tales of misfortune. Lots to enjoy in this read even if it's just a moment in time!