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    Along for the Ride by Sarah Dessen (review)

    I’ve been reading Sarah Dessen books for a while, but for some reason Along for the Ride passed me by.  It’s pretty standard Dessen, in so far as a slightly awkward teenage girl who is a bit of an outsider spends a summer learning about herself and falls in love along the way.  But why mess around with a tried-and-tested formula that works?  That’s the beauty of Dessen’s novels, the charming way she shows the transformation of the main character coming of age and the undeniably sweet romance.

    Along for the Ride is no different – studious Auden spends the summer with her father, his new wife and baby, where she learns about female friendships, experiencing life as a care-free teenager and crushes.  Throw in some insomnia, late night drives and a boy who is guilt-ridden over the loss of a friend.

    And it’s delightful.  Auden is, like all of Dessen’s main characters, instantly likeable and easy to identify with.  The love interest Eli is initially mysterious but once Auden knows more the more likably he becomes – particularly as he helps Auden capture a sense of youthfulness she missed trying to be the perfect daughter to an academic mother.  The development from Auden as a solitary character to one who gets to know the girls who work at her stepmother’s store is well executed, particularly the move from grudgingly interacting with them to eventually appreciating that she had judged them on stereotypes.  But it really is the late night jaunts and the transformation of Auden, who moves from being unsure of herself and a bit lost, to someone who seems to find a place for herself amongst the chaos of her family.

    A delightful uplifting read, particularly for anyone who ever felt like they just didn’t quite fit in enough.

    EDIT: Talking of similarities of Dessen’s characters, I came across this brilliant flow chart of the boys in Dessen’s novels by Karen Healey (via The Sarah Dessen Diarist). Utterly brilliant!

    Birmingham, Books

    Birmingham Book Bloggers and Tweeters

    Just over a couple of weeks ago I attended a meet up for Birmingham Book Bloggers (#brumbookmeet), hosted by the lovely Jen (@BhamLibrarian) and Zoe (playingbythebook) at Cafe Blend.

    The basic idea was a loose one – a meet up for people who are interested in books and bookish things who blog, tweet or review them online and are near the Birmingham vicinity (here‘s the original blogpost at playingbythebook).  As someone who occasionally blogs about the books we read at book club and a few other book reviews I figured I could justify popping along.

    Six of us turned out for the first meeting and had a great chat about Birmingham, books and bookish things in Birmingham.  From that we’ve created a Google calendar to collect together bookish things in Birmingham.  I’ve added the events from the Waterstones website, a couple of book groups and some other events.  But I’m sure there has to be more events in Birmingham about books and bookish things.  So if you know of any please let me know (comment or email).

    Next meet up is Sunday 24th July from 6-8pm at The Victoria, John Bright St.  Join us?

    Birmingham, Books

    Asked to write my first ever guest blogpost!

    I completely forgot to mention it here, but I’ve written a guest blogpost over at Urban Coffee Company‘s website on how to survive a book club.  Its about what to look out for if you’re new, have been going to book clubs for a while or are running one yourself – as well as trying to dispel the idea that book clubs are just retired old ladies discussing stuffy historical romances.  Kind of apt timing really, given my previous post here was about attending another book club.

    It has been up since last Wednesday, but check it out here and let me know what you think.

    Birmingham, Books

    Infiltrating another book group

    Not quite as exciting as the title makes it out to be, but earlier in the week I attended another book club other than the one I currently run.  I’ve attended two book clubs a month before, which is a bit of a struggle reading two books chosen for you, rather than the ones you want to read.  At least it is for me.

    We read A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole.  Personally I was fairly apathetic about the book, which surprised me as usually I come down on one side of the fence, but this was pretty meh.  I just didn’t care about the characters, I didn’t hate the supposed annoying main character, and I thought the book could say more about the environment it was set in.  But I just didn’t get the humour, which I’d say is fairly integral to whether you like the book or not.  This is a modern classic and yet somehow I managed to miss it whilst studying American literature for two years.  That said if Wikipedia is anything to go by publishers rejected the book during Toole’s lifetime for being fairly pointless, which was my summation before I’d discovered that piece of trivia.

    Anyway, the book club is The Birmingham Book Club and Popular Culture Meetup Group, which has over 700 members, thankfully about 30-40 people attend the book discussions – which is still twice as many people than any other book club I’ve ever been to.  That said it runs smoothly and pretty much like most book clubs; whilst everyone introduces themselves and their feelings on the book at the beginning, the main contributors to the discussion number about 15 – or at least did do at this meeting.

    The discussion did feel a bit more akin to English Lit seminars at university rather than a chatty informal discussion about books, which certainly makes this book club different to the one I run – both of which I really enjoy.  It’s nice to know if I can manage to read two books a month of someone else’s choosing without distracting myself with my own to-read pile that I can have the best of both worlds.

    They’re meeting on Tuesday 12th June at 8pm in The Victoria Pub to discuss The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories.  I’ll be at the University of Birmingham’s annual happiness lecture, but you should go.


    UrbanCoffeeCo bookclub: The Bell by Iris Murdoch (review and bookclub questions)

    So, the book club choice for March (The Bell) has been decided for ages, as we agreed to be the guinea pigs for my friend Liz’s research piece into how book clubs respond to Iris Murdoch.  I have to admit I was a little concerned by this, as I thought it was going to be a bit of a tough read.  Turns out I was really wrong.  The book is very readable, or as I exclaimed to Liz early in the month “I’ve started it and I don’t hate it”.  And as a bonus for me, this counts towards the British Book Challenge!

    The Bell is one of those books where not a lot happens until the end and then there’s a little bit of a plot, but is more about the characters than a traditional beginning-middle-end resolution novel.  If I tried to explain what happens in the book, I would do it no favours and wouldn’t really do justice to it.  But the characters, from Dora, flighty girl trapped in a marriage with a controlling older man to Michael, leader of the community who is struggling with his sexuality, are complex and interesting.  And the themes; repression, goodness and attitudes to faith, are all really really interesting and make for a fantastic book club discussion.

    That said, whilst I’m glad I read it and for the most part enjoyed it, I read it in three sections, as it wasn’t one of those books that made me go back to it, but once I was reading it I sped through quite quickly.  And at times there was a little too much description for me.

    As this was part of a research piece, we already had a few questions I was asked to put to the group, but there were a few of my own and ones that cropped up:

    • What did you think of the book?
    • What did you feel was the book’s message – did it have a point?
    • What did you think were the main themes?
    • What did you think of Dora’s character? And Toby‘s?
    • Did you see a parallel between any of the characters relationships?
    • Did you have any expectations before reading the book?
    • Had you read any Iris Murdoch before?
    • Would you read any more now?
    • Would you recommend this to a friend and/or another book club?

    Next month we’ll be reading Solar by Ian McEwan – another book that will count to the book challenge!


    UrbanCoffeeCo bookclub: Never the Bride by Paul Magrs (review and bookclub questions)

    I know it’s midway through March, but the book club choice for February (Never the Bride by Paul Magrs) counts towards the British Book Challenge I’ve signed myself up to. Plus, I wanted to write a bit more than the general review I do for the coffee shop it’s hosted at.

    Although some people in the book club really hated the book, I found it quite a pleasant book to read. It’s very easy to read, which meant that I managed to finish it without really feeling like it was a lot of effort. It read to me very much like a Sunday afternoon show on the BBC. It’s quaint, fun, a little dark, but in a wholesome kind of way. To the point where I was a bit shocked when one of the characters swore – it’s very middle England by the seaside, with a bit of a Doctor Who spookiness going on.

    The chapters weren’t really chapters, and more a way of splitting up episodes of short stories. This works and doesn’t, as the short story nature of the book meant not everything was resolved. Being a fan of the monster-of-the-week type shows, I know they usually show the monster rising from the dead or something, but this didn’t feel wrapped up enough.

    Not really sure who the book is aimed at either. But would say if you want a nice, light-hearted book to read and enjoy a bit of supernatural mystery, then this is probably for you. Suspect it would make a good holiday read.

    • Questions for a book club/group on Never the Bride by Paul Magrs:
    • What did you think of the book, would you recommend it?
    • Did you finish it?
    • Who did you think it was aimed at? There have been some suggestions it’s teenage fiction, does this fit with the characters and could you see teenagers reading it?
    • What did you think of the Christmas Hotel and its owner?
    • What did you feel about the chapters, did they feel like episodes?
    • The book is the first in a series, would you read the others?
    • Did you like the pop-culture like Manifest Yourself (we thought it was like Most Haunted) ?
    • … and the literary references and Whitby & Bram Stoker and Frankenstein?

    The book for the end of this month is The Bell by Iris Murdoch. My friend Liz is doing a piece of research into how book clubs respond to Murdoch and we’re her guinea pigs. She’s got some other groups signed up to read it too – if you’re interested, check out her blogpost on it.