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    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.


    UrbanCoffeeCo bookclub: The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories by H.P. Lovecraft (review and book club questions)

    Call it pathetic fallacy, but sat enjoying a warm coffee on a cold, dark night was the perfect setting to discuss this month’s book club choice; H.P. Lovecraft’s The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories.

    Even though most people struggled to read more than a few of the short stories, the discussion was lively and everyone had plenty to say.  It seemed a mix of reasons why people hadn’t finished the book – some don’t like short stories, others aren’t fans of horror, some didn’t like the writing style and others just ran out of time.  But everyone recognized the importance of Lovecraft to the horror genre today – the documentary style reminded me of the X-Files, the lack of women brought us on to talking about Buffy the Vampire Slayer and I’m sure at one point someone mentioned Start Trek.

    I’m genuinely glad I attempted to read some of Lovecraft’s work.  I’ve been meaning to for years, and whilst I didn’t really get into it in time for the book club, I suspect it’s the kind of thing I might try and dip into every so often.  Sure the language wasn’t what I’m used to and some of the stories felt a little like the interesting stuff had happened off page, but they were worth a read – and definitely a notable classic, I’m sure.

    The usual questions asked at most of our book club

    • Did you enjoy the book?
    • Would you recommend it to others?
    • Did you finish it?

    More specific questions for The Call of Cthuhlu and Other Weird Tales:

    • How did you feel about reading short stories?
    • How did you feel about reading horror?
    • The writing style – did it feel older than the 1920s?
    • Could you see how Lovecraft influenced the horror genre today?
    • Did the device of the documentary style put you off or did you like it?  Do you think it made it feel more real – would audiences at the time feel the same?
    • Did anyone notice the lack of women and how foreigners were treated in the stories?

    Next month the book club is reading Never the Bride by Paul Magrs.  It’s not chicklit, despite what the title suggests (my friend Liz described it as ‘mad old lady lit’).  And double-points, because it’ll count towards the British Book Challenge!

    *This was originally posted on my old blog Sisyphean Solutions*


    Artichoke Hearts – Book review (British Book Challenge)

    After a year of trying to read proper books, I’ve cracked and gone back to reading what I know and love: Young Adult novels.  The first of which was one I saw recommended on a few YA blogs (including Wondrous Reads) and my first read for the British Books Challenge – debut novel by Sita Brahmachari, Artichoke Hearts.

    And what a novel.

    I could feel myself welling up from page fifty when the main character’s dying grandmother goes to visit the art-shop for the last time.  Towards the end of the book I was in tears.  There is something so touchingly simple about this book that you cannot help but wonder what will happen to twelve-year-old Mira, her grandmother and Mira’s burgeoning interest in her classmate Jide Jackson, a boy with more to him than meets the eye.

    The main arch of the novel is the way Mira deals with grief for the first time, but Brahmachari gentle description of other new eye-opening experiences, like Mira’s discovery over the genocides in Rwanda is dealt with in an honest and un-patronising manner, something which sadly is not always the case (particularly in YA novels).

    I slowed down the speed I usually read in order to savour this book, I was that taken with it.  And I’ve already recommended it to three other people.  It’s a truly delightful, subtle yet powerful read.  Highly recommended.



    British Books Challenge 2011

    I’m not really one for new years resolutions, but I realised that last year I read less novels than I’d have liked.  I joined a couple of book clubs (one at my previous job and one I’ve ended up running), but the guilt of having to read to monthly deadlines stopped or discouraged me from reading outside of this.

    Well enough of that. So I’m signing up to the British Books Challenge 2011 over at The Bookette’s website (not longer seems to be active).  I stumbled across this after late night searches for my first-literary love, Young Adult novels.  And after testing myself out with picking a book because it’s British and having loved it, I think I can squish in another 11 amongst the book club (and guilt).

    I’ve just finished Artichoke Hearts by Site Brahmachari and am aiming to read Never the Bride by Paul Magrs as part of the Challenge too.

    Bring on the books!
    (recommendations gratefully received)

    *This was originally posted on my old blog Sisyphean Solutions*