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Books to Vote On

These are the books that bookclub have nominated for next years reading list. There is a summary of each book taken from Goodreads. Choose your favourite 15 books and vote for them. This will form our final reading list for 2023-2024. To get the link to vote go to the HWC facebook page or email me at You must be a member of HWC to vote. Voting closes on the 20th May.

  1. Remarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van Pelt 369 pages

Taken from Goodreads ‘For fans of A Man Called Ove, a charming, witty and compulsively readable exploration of friendship, reckoning, and hope, tracing a widow’s unlikely connection with a giant Pacific octopus.

After Tova Sullivan’s husband died, she began working the night shift at the Sowell Bay Aquarium, mopping floors and tidying up. Keeping busy has always helped her cope, which she’s been doing since her eighteen-year-old son, Erik, mysteriously vanished on a boat in Puget Sound over thirty years ago.

Tova becomes acquainted with curmudgeonly Marcellus, a giant Pacific octopus living at the aquarium. Marcellus knows more than anyone can imagine but wouldn’t dream of lifting one of his eight arms for his human captors–until he forms a remarkable friendship with Tova.

Ever the detective, Marcellus deduces what happened the night Tova’s son disappeared. And now Marcellus must use every trick his old invertebrate body can muster to unearth the truth for her before it’s too late.

Shelby Van Pelt’s debut novel is a gentle reminder that sometimes taking a hard look at the past can help uncover a future that once felt impossible.’

2. This Is How It Always Is by Laurie Frankel 338 pages

Taken from Goodreads ‘This is how a family keeps a secret…and how that secret ends up keeping them.

This is how a family lives happily ever after…until happily ever after becomes complicated.

This is how children change…and then change the world.

This is Claude. He’s five years old, the youngest of five brothers, and loves peanut butter sandwiches. He also loves wearing a dress, and dreams of being a princess.

When he grows up, Claude says, he wants to be a girl.

Rosie and Penn want Claude to be whoever Claude wants to be. They’re just not sure they’re ready to share that with the world. Soon the entire family is keeping Claude’s secret. Until one day it explodes.

This Is How It Always Is is a novel about revelations, transformations, fairy tales, and family. And it’s about the ways this is how it always is: Change is always hard and miraculous and hard again, parenting is always a leap into the unknown with crossed fingers and full hearts, children grow but not always according to plan. And families with secrets don’t get to keep them forever.’

3. The Echo Chamber by John Boyne 432 pages

Taken from Goodreads ‘What a thing of wonder a mobile phone is. Six ounces of metal, glass and plastic, fashioned into a sleek, shiny, precious object. At once, a gateway to other worlds – and a treacherous weapon in the hands of the unwary, the unwitting, the inept.

The Cleverley family live a gilded life, little realising how precarious their privilege is, just one tweet away from disaster. George, the patriarch, is a stalwart of television interviewing, a ‘national treasure’ (his words), his wife Beverley, a celebrated novelist (although not as celebrated as she would like), and their children, Nelson, Elizabeth, Achilles, various degrees of catastrophe waiting to happen.

Together they will go on a journey of discovery through the Hogarthian jungle of the modern living where past presumptions count for nothing and carefully curated reputations can be destroyed in an instant. Along the way they will learn how volatile, how outraged, how unforgiving the world can be when you step from the proscribed path.

Powered by John Boyne’s characteristic humour and razor-sharp observation, The Echo Chamber is a satiric helter skelter, a dizzying downward spiral of action and consequence, poised somewhere between farce, absurdity and oblivion. To err is maybe to be human, but to really foul things up you only need a phone.’

4) Trespasses by Louise Kennedy 304 pages

Taken from Goodreads’ Set in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, a shattering novel about a young woman caught between allegiance to community and a dangerous passion.

Amid daily reports of violence, Cushla lives a quiet life with her mother in a small town near Belfast. By day she teaches at a parochial school; at night she fills in at her family’s pub. There she meets Michael Agnew, a barrister who’s made a name for himself defending IRA members. Against her better judgment – Michael is not only Protestant but older, and married – Cushla lets herself get drawn in by him and his sophisticated world, and an affair ignites. Then the father of a student is savagely beaten, setting in motion a chain reaction that will threaten everything, and everyone, Cushla most wants to protect.

As tender as it is unflinching, Trespasses is a heart-pounding, heart-rending drama of thwarted love and irreconcilable loyalties, in a place what you come from seems to count more than what you do, or whom you cherish.’

5) The Man on a Donkey by HFM Prescott 640 pages

Taken from Goodreads ‘ A powerful novel of England during the reign of Henry VIII. When the King’s men despoil the monasteries and divide the wealth among the royal favourites, rebellion begins to brew in the north–and for a few weeks, the leader held the fate of a nation in his hands.’

6) The Paris Apartment by Lucy Foley 360 pages

Taken from Goodreads ‘From the New York Times bestselling author of The Guest List comes a new locked room mystery, set in a Paris apartment building in which every resident has something to hide…

Jess needs a fresh start. She’s broke and alone, and she’s just left her job under less than ideal circumstances. Her half-brother Ben didn’t sound thrilled when she asked if she could crash with him for a bit, but he didn’t say no, and surely everything will look better from Paris. Only when she shows up – to find a very nice apartment, could Ben really have afforded this? – he’s not there.

The longer Ben stays missing, the more Jess starts to dig into her brother’s situation, and the more questions she has. Ben’s neighbours are an eclectic bunch, and not particularly friendly. Jess may have come to Paris to escape her past, but it’s starting to look like it’s Ben’s future that’s in question.

The socialite – The nice guy – The alcoholic – The girl on the verge – The concierge

Everyone’s a neighbour. Everyone’s a suspect. And everyone knows something they’re not telling.’

7) 1876 by Gore Vidal 362 pages

Taken from Goodreads ‘The centennial of the United States was celebrated with great fanfare—fireworks, exhibitions, pious calls to patriotism, and perhaps the most underhanded political machination in the country’s history: the theft of the presidency from Samuel Tilden in favour of Rutherford B. Hayes. This was the Gilded Age, when robber barons held the purse strings of the nation, and the party in power was determined to stay in power. Gore Vidal’s novel 1876 gives us the news of the day through the eyes of Charlie Schuyler, who has returned from exile to regain a lost fortune and arrange a marriage into New York society for his widowed daughter. And although Tammany Hall has faltered and Boss Tweed has fled, the effects of corruption reach deep, even into Schuyler’s own family.’

8) Sword Song by Bernard Cornwell 336 pages

Taken from Goodreads ‘The year is 885, and England is at peace, divided between the Danish kingdom to the north and the Saxon kingdom of Wessex in the south. Warrior by instinct and Viking by nature, Uhtred, the dispossessed son of a Northumbrian lord, has land, a wife and children—and a duty to King Alfred to hold the frontier on the Thames. But a dead man has risen, and new Vikings have invaded the decayed Roman city of London with dreams of conquering Wessex… with Uhtred’s help. Suddenly forced to weigh his oath to the king against the dangerous turning tide of shifting allegiances and deadly power struggles, Uhtred—Alfred’s sharpest sword—must now make the choice that will determine England’s future.

9) A Possible Life by Sebastian Faulks 287 pages

Taken from Goodreads ‘From the critically acclaimed, bestselling author of Birdsong, new fiction about love and war—five transporting stories and five unforgettable lives, linked across centuries.

In Second World War Poland, a young prisoner closes his eyes and pictures going to bat on a sunlit English cricket ground.

Across the yard of a Victorian poorhouse, a man is too ashamed to acknowledge the son he gave away.

In a 19th-century French village, an old servant understands – suddenly and with awe – the meaning of the Bible story her master is reading to her.

On a summer evening in the Catskills in 1971, a skinny girl steps out of a Chevy with a guitar and with a song that will send shivers through her listeners’ skulls.

A few years from now, in Italy, a gifted scientist discovers links between time and the human brain and between her lover’s novel and his life.

Throughout the five masterpieces of fiction that make up A Possible Life, exquisitely drawn and unforgettable characters risk their bodies, hearts and minds in pursuit of the manna of human connection. Between soldier and lover, parent and child, servant and master, and artist and muse, important pleasures and pains are born of love, separations and missed opportunities. These interactions – whether successful or not – also affect the long trajectories of characters’ lives.

Provocative and profound, Sebastian Faulks’s dazzling new novel journeys across continents and centuries not only to entertain with superb old-fashioned storytelling but to show that occasions of understanding between humans are the one thing that defines us – and that those moments, however fluid, are the one thing that endures.’

10. Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart 430 pages

Taken from Goodreads ‘Shuggie Bain is the unforgettable story of young Hugh “Shuggie” Bain, a sweet and lonely boy who spends his 1980s childhood in run-down public housing in Glasgow, Scotland. Thatcher’s policies have put husbands and sons out of work, and the city’s notorious drugs epidemic is waiting in the wings.

Shuggie’s mother Agnes walks a wayward path: she is Shuggie’s guiding light but a burden for him and his siblings. She dreams of a house with its own front door while she flicks through the pages of the Freemans catalogue, ordering a little happiness on credit, anything to brighten up her grey life. Married to a philandering taxi-driver husband, Agnes keeps her pride by looking good–her beehive, make-up, and pearly-white false teeth offer a glamourous image of a Glaswegian Elizabeth Taylor. But under the surface, Agnes finds increasing solace in drink, and she drains away the lion’s share of each week’s benefits–all the family has to live on–on cans of extra-strong lager hidden in handbags and poured into tea mugs.

Agnes’s older children find their own ways to get a safe distance from their mother, abandoning Shuggie to care for her as she swings between alcoholic binges and sobriety. Shuggie is meanwhile struggling to somehow become the normal boy he desperately longs to be, but everyone has realized that he is “no right,” a boy with a secret that all but him can see. Agnes is supportive of her son, but her addiction has the power to eclipse everyone close to her–even her beloved Shuggie.

A heartbreaking story of addiction, sexuality, and love, Shuggie Bain is an epic portrayal of a working-class family that is rarely seen in fiction. Recalling the work of Edouard Louis, Alan Hollinghurst, Frank McCourt, and Hanya Yanagihara, it is a blistering debut by a brilliant novelist who has a powerful and important story to tell.’

11. The Magician by Colm Toibin 498 pages  

Taken from Goodreads ‘Colm Tóibín’s new novel opens in a provincial German city at the turn of the twentieth century, where the boy, Thomas Mann, grows up with a conservative father, bound by propriety, and a Brazilian mother, alluring and unpredictable. Young Mann hides his artistic aspirations from his father and his homosexual desires from everyone. He is infatuated with one of the richest, most cultured Jewish families in Munich, and marries the daughter Katia. They have six children. On a holiday in Italy, he longs for a boy he sees on a beach and writes the story Death in Venice. He is the most successful novelist of his time, winner of the Nobel Prize in literature, a public man whose private life remains secret. He is expected to lead the condemnation of Hitler, whom he underestimates. His oldest daughter and son, leaders of Bohemianism and of the anti-Nazi movement, share lovers. He flees Germany for Switzerland, France and, ultimately, America, living first in Princeton and then in Los Angeles.

The Magician is an intimate, astonishingly complex portrait of Mann, his magnificent and complex wife Katia, and the times in which they lived—the first world war, the rise of Hitler, World War II, the Cold War, and exile.’

12. Every Man for Himself by Beryl Bainbridge 224 pages  

Taken from Goodreads ‘The sinking of the world’s greatest luxury liner, the invincible and magnificent S. S. Titanic, has captured people’s attention ever since that tragic April night in 1912, when 1500 people lost their lives. And no one has better dramatized this memorable event than Beryl Bainbridge in Every Man for Himself.’

13. Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises  by Ernest Hemingway 216 pages

Taken from Good reads Paris in the twenties: Pernod, parties and expatriate Americans, loose-living on money from home. Jake is wildly in love with Brett Ashley, aristocratic and irresistibly beautiful, but with an abandoned, sensuous nature that she cannot change. When the couple drifts to Spain to the dazzle of the fiesta and the heady atmosphere of the bullfight, their affair is strained by new passions, new jealousies, and Jake must finally learn that he will never possess the woman he loves..

14. Winter Solstice by Rosamunde Pilcher 262 pages  

Taken from Goodreads ‘Raise one last glass with the Quinn Family at the Winter Street Inn.

It’s been too long since the entire Quinn family has been able to celebrate the holidays under the same roof, but that’s about to change. With Bart back safe and sound from Afghanistan, the Quinns are preparing for a holiday more joyous than any they’ve experienced in years. And Bart’s safe return isn’t the family’s only good news: Kevin is enjoying married life with Isabelle; Patrick is getting back on his feet after paying his debt to society; Ava thinks she’s finally found the love of her life; and Kelly is thrilled to see his family reunited at last. But it just wouldn’t be a Quinn family gathering if things went smoothly. A celebration of everything we love–and some of the things we endure–about the holidays, WINTER SOLSTICE is Elin Hilderbrand at her festive best.’

15. Sorrow and Bliss  by Meg Mason  352 pages

Taken from Goodreads ‘ This novel is about a woman called Martha. She knows there is something wrong with her but she doesn’t know what it is. Her husband Patrick thinks she is fine. He says everyone has something, the thing is just to keep going.

Martha told Patrick before they got married that she didn’t want to have children. He said he didn’t mind either way because he has loved her since he was fourteen and making her happy is all that matters, although he does not seem able to do it.

By the time Martha finds out what is wrong, it doesn’t really matter anymore. It is too late to get the only thing she has ever wanted. Or maybe it will turn out that you can stop loving someone and start again from nothing – if you can find something else to want.’

16. The Promise by Damon Galgut 293 pages  

Taken from Goodreads ‘The Promise charts the crash and burn of a white South African family, living on a farm outside Pretoria. The Swarts are gathering for Ma’s funeral. The younger generation, Anton and Amor, detest everything the family stand for — not least the failed promise to the Black woman who has worked for them her whole life. After years of service, Salome was promised her own house, her own land… yet somehow, as each decade passes, that promise remains unfulfilled.

The narrator’s eye shifts and blinks: moving fluidly between characters, flying into their dreams; deliciously lethal in its observation. And as the country moves from old deep divisions to its new so-called fairer society, the lost promise of more than just one family hovers behind the novel’s title.

In this story of a diminished family, sharp and tender emotional truths hit home. Confident, deft and quietly powerful, The Promise is literary fiction at its finest.’

17. Children of Paradise by  Camilla Grudova 200 pages  

Taken from Goodreads ‘When Holly applies for a job at the Paradise – one of the city’s oldest cinemas, squashed into the ground floor of a block of flats – she thinks it will be like any other shift work. She cleans toilets, sweeps popcorn, avoids the belligerent old owner, Iris, and is ignored by her aloof but tight-knit colleagues who seem as much a part of the building as its fraying carpets and endless dirt. Dreadful, lonely weeks pass while she longs for their approval, a silent voyeur. So when she finally gains the trust of this cryptic band of oddballs, Holly transforms from silent drudge to rebellious insider and gradually she too becomes part of the Paradise – unearthing its secrets, learning its history and haunting its corridors after hours with the other ushers. It is no surprise when violence strikes, tempers change and the group, eyes still affixed to the screen, starts to rapidly go awry…’

18. Cursed Bread by Sophie Mackintosh 304 pages

Taken from Goodreads ‘From the Man Booker-nominated author of The Water Cure comes an elegant and hypnotic new novel of obsession that centres on the real unsolved mystery of the 1951 mass poisoning of a French village.

Still reeling in the aftermath of the deadliest war the world had ever seen, the small town of Pont-Saint-Esprit collectively lost its mind. Some historians believe the mysterious illness and violent hallucinations were caused by spoiled bread; others claim it was the result of covert government testing on the local population.
In that town lived a woman named Elodie. She was the baker’s wife: a plain, unremarkable person who yearned to transcend her dull existence. So when a charismatic new couple arrived in town, the forceful ambassador and his sharp-toothed wife, Violet, Elodie was quickly drawn into their orbit. Thus began a dangerous game of cat and mouse – but who was the predator and on whom did they prey?
Audacious and mesmerising, Cursed Bread is a fevered confession, an entry into memory’s hall of mirrors, and an erotic fable of transformation. Sophie Mackintosh spins a darkly gleaming tale of a town gripped by hysteria, envy like poison in the blood, and desire that burns and consumes.’

19. Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver 546 pages  

Taken from Goodreads ‘”Anyone will tell you the born of this world are marked from the get-out, win or lose.”

Set in the mountains of southern Appalachia, this is the story of a boy born to a teenaged single mother in a single-wide trailer, with no assets beyond his dead father’s good looks and copper-coloured hair, a caustic wit, and a fierce talent for survival. In a plot that never pauses for breath, relayed in his own unsparing voice, he braves the modern perils of foster care, child labour, derelict schools, athletic success, addiction, disastrous loves, and crushing losses. Through all of it, he reckons with his own invisibility in a popular culture where even the superheroes have abandoned rural people in favour of cities.

Many generations ago, Charles Dickens wrote David Copperfield from his experience as a survivor of institutional poverty and its damages to children in his society. Those problems have yet to be solved in ours. Dickens is not a prerequisite for readers of this novel, but he provided its inspiration. In transposing a Victorian epic novel to the contemporary American South, Barbara Kingsolver enlists Dickens’ anger and compassion, and above all, his faith in the transformative powers of a good story. Demon Copperhead speaks for a new generation of lost boys, and all those born into beautiful, cursed places they can’t imagine leaving behind.

20. Fire Rush by Jacqueline Crooks 352 pages

Taken from Goodreads Set amid the Jamaican diaspora in London at the dawn of 1980s, a mesmerizing story of love, loss, and self-discovery that vibrates with the liberating power of music

Yamaye lives for the weekend, when she goes raving with her friends, the “Tombstone Estate gyals,” at The Crypt, an underground dub reggae club in their industrial town on the outskirts of London. Raised by her distant father after her mother’s disappearance when she was a girl, Yamaye craves the oblivion of sound – a chance to escape into the rhythms of those smoke-filled nights, to discover who she really is in the dance-hall darkness.

When Yamaye meets Moose, a soulful carpenter who shares her Jamaican heritage, a path toward a different kind of future seems to open. But then, Babylon rushes in. In a devastating cascade of violence that pits state power against her loved ones and her community, Yamaye loses everything. Friendless and adrift, she embarks on a dramatic journey of transformation that takes her to the Bristol underworld and, finally, to Jamaica, where past and present collide with explosive consequences.

The unforgettable story of one young woman’s search for home, animated by a ferocity of vision, electrifying music, and the Jamaican spiritual imagination, Fire Rush is a blazing achievement from a brilliant voice in contemporary fiction.

21. Glory by NoViolet Bulawayo 416 pages

Taken from Goodreads ‘From the award-winning author of the Booker-prize finalist We Need New Names, a blockbuster of a novel that chronicles the fall of an oppressive regime, and the chaotic, kinetic potential for real liberation that rises in its wake.

Glory centres around the unexpected fall of Old Horse, a long-serving leader of a fictional country, and the drama that follows for a rumbustious nation of animals on the path to true liberation. Inspired by the unexpected fall by coup, in November 2017, of Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s president of nearly four decades, Bulawayo’s bold, vividly imagined novel shows a country imploding, narrated by a chorus of animal voices who unveil the ruthlessness and cold strategy required to uphold the illusion of absolute power, and the imagination and bullet-proof optimism to overthrow it completely.

As with her debut novel We Need New Names, Bulawayo’s fierce voice and lucid imagery immerses us in the daily life of a traumatized nation, revealing the dazzling life force and irrepressible wit that lies barely concealed beneath the surface of seemingly bleak circumstances. At the centre of this tumult is Destiny, who has returned to Jidada from exile to bear witness to revolution–and focus on the unofficial history and the potential legacy of the women who have quietly pulled the strings in this country.

The animal kingdom–its connection to our primal responses and resonance in the mythology, folktales, and fairy tales that define cultures the world over–unmasks the surreality of contemporary global politics to help us understand our world more clearly, even as Bulwayo plucks us right out of it. Glory is a blockbuster, an exhilarating ride, and crystalizes a turning point in history with the texture and nuance that only the greatest of fiction can.’

22. Homesick by Jennifer Croft 356 pages

Taken from Goodreads ‘The coming of age story of an award-winning translator, Homesick is about learning to love language in its many forms, healing through words and the promises and perils of empathy and sisterhood.

Sisters Amy and Zoe grow up in Oklahoma where they are homeschooled for an unexpected reason: Zoe suffers from debilitating and mysterious seizures, spending her childhood in hospitals as she undergoes surgeries. Meanwhile, Amy flourishes intellectually, showing an innate ability to glean a world beyond the troubles in her home life, exploring that world through languages first. Amy’s first love appears in the form of her Russian tutor Sasha, but when she enters university at the age of 15 her life changes drastically and with tragic results.’

23. I’m a fan by Sheena Patel  207 pages

Taken from Goodreads ‘In I’m A Fan, a single speaker uses the story of their experience in a seemingly unequal, unfaithful relationship as a prism through which to examine the complicated hold we each have on one another. With a clear and unforgiving eye, the narrator unpicks the behaviour of all involved, herself included, and makes startling connections between the power struggles at the heart of human relationships and those of the wider world, in turn offering a devastating critique of access, social media, patriarchal hetero-normative relationships, and our cultural obsession with status and how that status is conveyed.

In this incredible debut, Sheena Patel announces herself as a vital new voice in literature, capable of rendering a range of emotions and visceral experiences on the page. Sex, violence, politics, tenderness, humour—Patel handles them all with both originality and dexterity of voice.

24. Memphis  by Tara M Stringfellow  252 pages

Taken from Goodreads A spellbinding debut novel tracing three generations of a Southern Black family and one daughter’s discovery that she has the power to change her family’s legacy.

Summer 1995: Ten-year-old Joan, her mother, and her younger sister flee her father’s explosive temper and seek refuge at her mother’s ancestral home in Memphis. This is not the first time violence has altered the course of the family’s trajectory. Half a century earlier, Joan’s grandfather built this majestic house in the historic Black neighbourhood of Douglass—only to be lynched days after becoming the first Black detective in the city. Joan tries to settle into her new life, but family secrets cast a longer shadow than any of them expected.

As she grows up, Joan finds relief in her artwork, painting portraits of the community in Memphis. One of her subjects is their enigmatic neighbour Miss Dawn, who claims to know something about curses, and whose stories about the past help Joan see how her passion, imagination, and relentless hope are, in fact, the continuation of a long matrilineal tradition. Joan begins to understand that her mother, her mother’s mother, and the mothers before them persevered, made impossible choices, and put their dreams on hold so that her life would not have to be defined by loss and anger—that the sole instrument she needs for healing is her paintbrush.

Unfolding over seventy years through a chorus of unforgettable voices that move back and forth in time, Memphis paints an indelible portrait of inheritance, celebrating the full complexity of what we pass down, in a family and as a country: brutality and justice, faith and forgiveness, sacrifice and love.

25. Pod by Laline Paul  272 pages

Taken from Goodreads ‘An astonishing and immersive new novel, Pod takes the reader into the depths of the ocean—and into the world of its fascinating inhabitants—through the eyes of the beautiful Ea, a spinner dolphin.

Laline Paull returns with an immersive and transformative new novel of an ocean world—its extraordinary creatures, mysteries, and mythologies—that is increasingly haunted by the cruelty and ignorance of the human race.

Ea has always felt like an outsider. As a spinner dolphin who has recently come of age, she’s now expected to join in the elaborate rituals that unite her pod. But Ea suffers from a type of deafness that prevents her from mastering the art of spinning. When catastrophe befalls her family and Ea knows she is partly to blame, she decides to make the ultimate sacrifice and leave the pod.

As Ea ventures into the vast, she discovers dangers everywhere, from lurking predators to strange objects floating in the water. Not to mention the ocean itself seems to be changing; creatures are mutating, demonic noises pierce the depths, whole species of fish disappear into the sky above. Just as she is coming to terms with her solitude, a chance encounter with a group of arrogant bottlenoses will irrevocably alter the course of her life.

In her terrifying, propulsive novel, Laline Paull explores the true meaning of family, belonging, sacrifice—the harmony and tragedy of the pod—within an ocean that is no longer the sanctuary it once was, and which reflects a world all too recognizable to our own.’

26. Stone Blind by Natalie Haynes  373 pages

Taken from Goodreads ‘A fresh take on the story of Medusa, the original monstered woman.

They will fear you and flee you and call you a monster.

The only mortal in a family of gods, Medusa is the youngest of the Gorgon sisters. Unlike her siblings, Medusa grows older, experiences change, feels weakness. Her mortal lifespan gives her an urgency that her family will never know.

When the sea god Poseidon assaults Medusa in Athene’s temple, the goddess is enraged. Furious by the violation of her sacred space, Athene takes revenge–on the young woman. Punished for Poseidon’s actions, Medusa is forever transformed. Writhing snakes replace her hair and her gaze will turn any living creature to stone. Cursed with the power to destroy all she loves with one look, Medusa condemns herself to a life of solitude.

Until Perseus embarks upon a fateful quest to fetch the head of a Gorgon…

In Stone Blind, classicist and comedian Natalie Haynes turns our understanding of this legendary myth on its head, bringing empathy and nuance to one of the earliest stories in which a woman–injured by a powerful man–is blamed, punished, and monstered for the assault. Delving into the origins of this mythic tale, Haynes revitalizes and reconstructs Medusa’s story with her passion and fierce wit, offering a timely retelling of this classic myth that speaks to us today.’

27. The Bandit Queens by  Parini Shroff  352 pages

Taken from Goodreads ‘Geeta’s no-good husband disappeared five years ago. She didn’t kill him, but everyone thinks she did–no matter how much she protests.
But she soon discovers that being known as a “self-made” widow has some surprising perks. No one messes with her, no one threatens her, and no one tries to control (ahem, marry) her. It’s even been good for her business; no one wants to risk getting on her bad side by not buying her jewellery.

Freedom must look good on Geeta, because other women in the village have started asking for her help to get rid of their own no-good husbands…but not all of them are asking nicely.

Now that Geeta’s fearsome reputation has become a double-edged sword, she must decide how far to go to protect it, along with the life she’s built. Because even the best-laid plans of would-be widows tend to go awry.’

28. The Dog of the North Elizabeth McKenzie  336 pages

Taken from Goodreads ‘From the National Book Award-longlisted author of The Portable Veblen

Penny Rush has problems. Her marriage is over, and she’s quit her job. Her mother and stepfather went missing in the Australian outback five years ago; her mentally imbalanced father provokes her; her grandmother, Dr. Pincer, keeps experiments in the refrigerator and something worse in the woodshed. But Penny is a virtuoso at what’s possible when all else fails.

The Dog of the North follows Penny on her quest for a fresh start. There will be a road trip in an old van with gingham curtains, a piñata, and stiff brakes. There will be injury and peril. There will be a dog named “Kweecoats” and two brothers who may share a toupée. There will be questions: Why is a detective investigating her grandmother, and what is “the scintillator”? And can Penny recognize a good thing when it finally comes her way?

This slyly humorous, thoroughly winsome novel finds the purpose in life’s curve balls, insisting that even when we are painfully warped by those we love most, we can be brought closer to our truest selves.’

29. The Marriage Portrait Maggie O’Farrell  355 pages

Taken from Goodreads ‘The author of award-winning Hamnet brings the world of Renaissance Italy to jewel-bright life in this unforgettable fictional portrait of the captivating young duchess Lucrezia de’ Medici as she makes her way in a troubled court.

Florence, the 1550s. Lucrezia, third daughter of the grand duke, is comfortable with her obscure place in the palazzo: free to wonder at its treasures, observe its clandestine workings, and devote herself to her own artistic pursuits. But when her older sister dies on the eve of her wedding to the ruler of Ferrara, Modena and Reggio, Lucrezia is thrust unwittingly into the limelight: the duke is quick to request her hand in marriage, and her father just as quick to accept on her behalf.

Having barely left girlhood behind, Lucrezia must now enter an unfamiliar court whose customs are opaque and where her arrival is not universally welcomed. Perhaps most mystifying of all is her new husband himself, Alfonso. Is he the playful sophisticate he appeared to be before their wedding, the aesthete happiest in the company of artists and musicians, or the ruthless politician before whom even his formidable sisters seem to tremble?

As Lucrezia sits in constricting finery for a painting intended to preserve her image for centuries to come, one thing becomes worryingly clear. In the court’s eyes, she has one duty: to provide the heir who will shore up the future of the Ferranese dynasty. Until then, for all of her rank and nobility, the new duchess’s future hangs entirely in the balance.

Full of the beauty and emotion with which she illuminated the Shakespearean canvas of Hamnet, Maggie O’Farrell turns her talents to Renaissance Italy in an extraordinary portrait of a resilient young woman’s battle for her very survival.’

30) Souls  Wandering by  Cecile Pin 240 pages 

Taken from Goodreads  ‘A luminous, boldly imagined debut novel about three Vietnamese siblings who seek refuge in the UK, expanding into a sweeping meditation on love, ancestry, and the power of storytelling.

There are the goodbyes and then the fishing out of the bodies—everything in between is speculation.

After the last American troops leave Vietnam, siblings Anh, Thanh, and Minh begin a perilous journey to Hong Kong with the promise that their parents and younger siblings will soon follow. But when tragedy strikes, the three children are left orphaned, and sixteen-year-old Anh becomes the caretaker for her two younger brothers overnight.

In the years that follow, Anh and her brothers resettle in the UK and confront their new identities as refugees, first in overcrowded camps and resettlement centres and then, later, in a modernizing London plagued by social inequality and raging anti-immigrant sentiment. Anh works in a clothing factory to pay their bills. Minh loiters about with fellow unemployed high school dropouts. Thanh, the youngest, plays soccer with his British friends after class. As they mature, each sibling reckons with survivor’s guilt, unmoored by their parents’ absence. With every choice they make, their paths diverge further, until it’s unclear if love alone can keep them together.

Told through lyrical narrative threads, historical research, voices from lost family, and notes by an unnamed narrator determined to chart their fate, Wandering Souls captures the lives of a family marked by war and loss yet relentless in the pursuit of a better future. With urgency and precision, it affirms that the most important stories are those we claim for ourselves, establishing Cecile Pin as a masterful new literary voice.’

31) Enchantment awakening wonder in an anxious age by Katherine May  212 pages

Taken from Goodreads ‘From the New York Times-bestselling author of Wintering, an invitation to rediscover the feelings of awe and wonder available to us all.

Many of us feel trapped in a grind of constant change: rolling news cycles, the chatter of social media, our families split along partisan lines. We feel fearful and tired, on edge in our bodies, not quite knowing what has us perpetually depleted. For Katherine May, this low hum of fatigue and anxiety made her wonder what she was missing. Could there be a different way to relate to the world, one that would allow her to feel more rested and at ease, even as seismic changes unfold on the planet? Might there be a way for all of us to move through life with curiosity and tenderness, sensitized to the subtle magic all around?

In Enchantment, May invites the reader to come with her on a journey to reawaken our innate sense of wonder and awe. With humor, candor, and warmth, she shares stories of her own struggles with work, family, and the aftereffects of pandemic, particularly feelings of overwhelm as the world rushes to reopen. Craving a different way to live, May begins to explore the restorative properties of the natural world, moving through the elements of earth, water, fire, and air and identifying the quiet traces of magic that can be found only when we look for them. Through deliberate attention and ritual, she unearths the potency and nourishment that come from quiet reconnection with our immediate environment. Blending lyricism and storytelling, sensitivity and empathy, Enchantment invites each of us to open the door to human experience in all its sensual complexity, and to find the beauty waiting for us there.

32) The Island Of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak 368 pages  

Taken from Goodreads ‘A rich, magical new book on belonging and identity, love and trauma, nature and renewal, from the Booker shortlisted author of 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World.

Two teenagers, a Greek Cypriot and a Turkish Cypriot, meet at a taverna on the island they both call home. In the taverna, hidden beneath garlands of garlic, chili peppers and creeping honeysuckle, Kostas and Defne grow in their forbidden love for each other. A fig tree stretches through a cavity in the roof, and this tree bears witness to their hushed, happy meetings and eventually, to their silent, surreptitious departures. The tree is there when war breaks out, when the capital is reduced to ashes and rubble, and when the teenagers vanish. Decades later, Kostas returns. He is a botanist looking for native species, but really, he’s searching for lost love.

Years later, a Ficus carica grows in the back garden of a house in London where Ada Kazantzakis lives. This tree is her only connection to an island she has never visited – her only connection to her family’s troubled history and her complex identity as she seeks to untangle years of secrets to find her place in the world.

A moving, beautifully written and delicately constructed story of love, division, transcendence, history and eco-consciousness, The Island of Missing Trees is Elif Shafak’s best work yet.’

33) The Paper Palace by Miranda Heller 400 pages

Taken from Goodreads ‘It is a perfect July morning, and Elle, a fifty-year-old happily married mother of three, awakens at “The Paper Palace”—the family summer place which she has visited every summer of her life. But this morning is different: last night Elle and her oldest friend Jonas crept out the back door into the darkness and had sex with each other for the first time, all while their spouses chatted away inside.

Now, over the next twenty-four hours, Elle will have to decide between the life she has made with her genuinely beloved husband, Peter, and the life she always imagined she would have had with her childhood love, Jonas, if a tragic event hadn’t forever changed the course of their lives.

As Heller colors in the experiences that have led Elle to this day, we arrive at her ultimate decision with all its complexity. Tender yet devastating, The Paper Palace considers the tensions between desire and dignity, the legacies of abuse, and the crimes and misdemeanors of families.’

34) The Flight Portfolio by Julie Orringer 576 pages

Taken from Goodreads The long-awaited new work from the best-selling author of The Invisible Bridge takes us back to occupied Europe in this gripping historical novel based on the true story of Varian Fry’s extraordinary attempt to save the work, and the lives, of Jewish artists fleeing the Holocaust.

In 1940, Varian Fry—a Harvard-educated American journalist—traveled to Marseille carrying three thousand dollars and a list of imperiled artists and writers he hoped to rescue within a few weeks. Instead, he ended up staying in France for thirteen months, working under the veil of a legitimate relief organization to procure false documents, amass emergency funds, and set up an underground railroad that led over the Pyrenees, into Spain, and finally to Lisbon, where the refugees embarked for safer ports. Among his many clients were Hannah Arendt, Franz Werfel, André Breton, Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp, and Marc Chagall.

The Flight Portfolio opens at the Chagalls’ ancient stone house in Gordes, France, as the novel’s hero desperately tries to persuade them of the barbarism and tragedy descending on Europe. Masterfully crafted, exquisitely written, impossible to put down, this is historical fiction of the very first order, and resounding confirmation of Orringer’s gifts as a novelist.

35) Gilead by Marianne Robinson  247 pages

Taken from Goodreads ‘Nearly 25 years after Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson returns with an intimate tale of three generations, from the Civil War to the 20th century: a story about fathers and sons and the spiritual battles that still rage at America’s heart. In the words of Kirkus, it is a novel “as big as a nation, as quiet as thought, and moving as prayer. Matchless and towering.” GILEAD tells the story of America and will break your heart.

36) Housekeeping by Marianne Robinson 219 pages

Taken from Goodreads ‘A modern classic, Housekeeping is the story of Ruth and her younger sister, Lucille, who grow up haphazardly, first under the care of their competent grandmother, then of two comically bumbling great-aunts, and finally of Sylvie, their eccentric and remote aunt. The family house is in the small Far West town of Fingerbone set on a glacial lake, the same lake where their grandfather died in a spectacular train wreck, and their mother drove off a cliff to her death. It is a town “chastened by an outsized landscape and extravagant weather, and chastened again by an awareness that the whole of human history had occurred elsewhere.” Ruth and Lucille’s struggle toward adulthood beautifully illuminates the price of loss and survival, and the dangerous and deep undertow of transience.’

37) The Feast of the Goat by Mario Vargas Llosa 475 pages

Taken from Goodreads ‘Haunted all her life by feelings of terror and emptiness, forty-nine-year-old Urania Cabral returns to her native Dominican Republic – and finds herself reliving the events of 1961, when the capital was still called Trujillo City and one old man terrorized a nation of three million people. Rafael Trujillo, the depraved ailing dictator whom Dominicans call the Goat, controls his inner circle with a combination of violence and blackmail. In Trujillo’s gaudy palace, treachery and cowardice have become the way of life. But Trujillo’s grasp is slipping away. There is a conspiracy against him, and a Machiavellian revolution already underway that will have bloody consequences of its own. In this ‘masterpiece of Latin American and world literature, and one of the finest political novels ever written’ (“Bookforum”), Mario Vargas Llosa recounts the end of a regime and the birth of a terrible democracy, giving voice to the historical Trujillo and the victims, both innocent and complicit, drawn into his deadly orbit.

38) Silence of the Girls by  Pat Barker 325 pages

Taken from Goodreads ‘The ancient city of Troy has withstood a decade under siege of the powerful Greek army, which continues to wage bloody war over a stolen woman—Helen. In the Greek camp, another woman—Briseis—watches and waits for the war’s outcome. She was queen of one of Troy’s neighbouring kingdoms, until Achilles, Greece’s greatest warrior, sacked her city and murdered her husband and brothers. Briseis becomes Achilles’s concubine, a prize of battle, and must adjust quickly in order to survive a radically different life, as one of the many conquered women who serve the Greek army.

When Agamemnon, the brutal political leader of the Greek forces, demands Briseis for himself, she finds herself caught between the two most powerful of the Greeks. Achilles refuses to fight in protest, and the Greeks begin to lose ground to their Trojan opponents. Keenly observant and coolly unflinching about the daily horrors of war, Briseis finds herself in an unprecedented position, able to observe the two men driving the Greek army in what will become their final confrontation, deciding the fate not only of Briseis’s people but also of the ancient world at large.

Briseis is just one among thousands of women living behind the scenes in this war—the slaves and prostitutes, the nurses, the women who lay out the dead—all of them erased by history. With breathtaking historical detail and luminous prose, Pat Barker brings the teeming world of the Greek camp to vivid life. She offers nuanced, complex portraits of characters and stories familiar from mythology, which, seen from Briseis’s perspective, are rife with newfound revelations. Barker’s latest builds on her decades-long study of war and its impact on individual lives—and it is nothing short of magnificent.’

39) Family Lexicon by Natalia Ginsburg – 294 pages

Taken from Goodreads ‘Natalia Ginzburg wrote her masterful, Strega Prize winning novel Family Lexicon while living in London in the 1960s. Homesick for her big, noisy Italian family, she summoned them in this novel, which is a celebration of the routines and rituals, in-jokes and insults and, above all, the repeated sayings that make up every family.

The father, Giuseppe Levi, is a Jewish scientist, consumed by his work and a mania for hiking. Impatient and intractable, he is constantly at odds with his impressionable and wistful wife Lidia – yet he cannot be without her. Together they preside over their five children in a house filled with argument and activity, books and politics, visitors, friends and famous faces. But as their children grow up against the backdrop of Mussolini’s Italy, the Levi household must become not only a home – but a stronghold against fascism.

Intimate, enchanting and comedic, Family Lexicon is an unforgettable novel about memory, language, and the lasting power that family holds over all of us.

40) A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseni  372 pages

Taken from Goodreads ‘Mariam is only fifteen when she is sent to Kabul to marry the troubled and bitter Rasheed, who is thirty years her senior. Nearly two decades later, in a climate of growing unrest, tragedy strikes fifteen-year-old Laila, who must leave her home and join Mariam’s unhappy household. Laila and Mariam are to find consolation in each other, their friendship to grow as deep as the bond between sisters, as strong as the ties between mother and daughter.

With the passing of time comes Taliban rule over Afghanistan, the streets of Kabul loud with the sound of gunfire and bombs, life a desperate struggle against starvation, brutality and fear, the women’s endurance tested beyond their worst imaginings. Yet love can move people to act in unexpected ways, lead them to overcome the most daunting obstacles with a startling heroism. In the end it is love that triumphs over death and destruction.

“A Thousand Splendid Suns” is a portrait of a wounded country and a story of family and friendship, of an unforgiving time, an unlikely bond, and an indestructible love

41) Free Food for Millionaires’ by  Min Jin Lee 577 pages

Taken from Goodreads ‘The daughter of Korean immigrants, Casey Han has refined diction, a closeted passion for reading the Bible, a popular white boyfriend, and a magna cum laude degree in economics from Princeton, but no job and an addiction to the things she cannot afford in the glittering world of Manhattan. In this critically-acclaimed debut, Min Jin Lee tells not only Casey’s story, but also those of her sheltered mother, scarred father, and friends both Korean and Caucasian, exposing the astonishing layers of a community clinging to its old ways and a city packed with struggling haves and have-nots.’

42) Sea of Tranquillity’ by  Emily St John Mandel 259 pages

Taken from Goodreads ‘A novel of art, time travel, love, and plague that takes the reader from Vancouver Island in 1912 to a dark colony on the moon five hundred years later, unfurling a story of humanity across centuries and space.

Edwin St. Andrew is eighteen years old when he crosses the Atlantic by steamship, exiled from polite society following an ill-conceived diatribe at a dinner party. He enters the forest, spellbound by the beauty of the Canadian wilderness, and suddenly hears the notes of a violin echoing in an airship terminal–an experience that shocks him to his core.

Two centuries later a famous writer named Olive Llewellyn is on a book tour. She’s traveling all over Earth, but her home is the second moon colony, a place of white stone, spired towers, and artificial beauty. Within the text of Olive’s best-selling pandemic novel lies a strange passage: a man plays his violin for change in the echoing corridor of an airship terminal as the trees of a forest rise around him.

When Gaspery-Jacques Roberts, a detective in the black-skied Night City, is hired to investigate an anomaly in the North American wilderness, he uncovers a series of lives upended: The exiled son of an earl driven to madness, a writer trapped far from home as a pandemic ravages Earth, and a childhood friend from the Night City who, like Gaspery himself, has glimpsed the chance to do something extraordinary that will disrupt the timeline of the universe.

A virtuoso performance that is as human and tender as it is intellectually playful, Sea of Tranquility is a novel of time travel and metaphysics that precisely captures the reality of our current moment.’

43) ‘Hello Beautiful’ by Ann Napolitano 416 pages

Taken from Goodreads ‘From the New York Times bestselling author of Dear Edward comes an emotionally layered and engrossing story of a family that asks: Can love make a broken person whole?

William Waters grew up in a house silenced by tragedy, where his parents could hardly bear to look at him, much less love him. So it’s a relief when his skill on the basketball court earns him a scholarship to college, far away from his childhood home. He soon meets Julia Padavano, a spirited and ambitious young woman who surprises William with her appreciation of his quiet steadiness. With Julia comes her family; she is inseparable from her three younger sisters: Sylvie, the dreamer, is happiest with her nose in a book and imagines a future different from the expected path of wife and mother; Cecelia, the family’s artist; and Emeline, who patiently takes care of all of them. Happily, the Padavanos fold Julia’s new boyfriend into their loving, chaotic household.

But then darkness from William’s past surfaces, jeopardizing not only Julia’s carefully orchestrated plans for their future, but the sisters’ unshakeable loyalty to one another. The result is a catastrophic family rift that changes their lives for generations. Will the loyalty that once rooted them be strong enough to draw them back together when it matters most?

Vibrating with tenderness, Hello Beautiful is a gorgeous, profoundly moving portrait of what’s possible when we choose to love someone not in spite of who they are, but because of it.’

44) The Hummingbird’ by Sandro Veronesi 304 pages

Taken from Goodreads ’Marco Carrera is “the hummingbird,” a man with an almost supernatural ability to remain still amid the chaos of an ever-changing world. Though his life is rife with emotional challenges—suffering the death of his sister and the absence of his brother; caring for his elderly parents; raising his granddaughter when her mother, Marco’s own child, is no longer capable; loving an enigmatic woman—Marco carries on with a noble stoicism that belies an intensity for living. As the years pass and the arc of his life bends, Marco finds himself filled with joy for the future as the baton passes from him to the next generation. 

A beautiful and compelling journey through time told in myriad narrative styles, The Hummingbird is a story of suffering, happiness, loss, love, and hope—of a man who embodies the quiet heroism that defines daily life for countless ordinary folk. A thrilling novel about the need to look to the future with hope and live with intensity to the very end, Sandro Veronesi’s masterpiece—eminently readable, rich in insight, and filled with interesting twists and revelations—is a portrait of human existence, the vicissitudes and vagaries that propel and ultimately define us. ‘

45) Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow’ by Gabrielle Zevin 416 pages

Taken from Goodreads ‘In this exhilarating novel, two friends–often in love, but never lovers–come together as creative partners in the world of video game design, where success brings them fame, joy, tragedy, duplicity, and, ultimately, a kind of immortality.

On a bitter-cold day, in the December of his junior year at Harvard, Sam Masur exits a subway car and sees, amid the hordes of people waiting on the platform, Sadie Green. He calls her name. For a moment, she pretends she hasn’t heard him, but then, she turns, and a game begins: a legendary collaboration that will launch them to stardom. These friends, intimates since childhood, borrow money, beg favors, and, before even graduating college, they have created their first blockbuster, Ichigo. Overnight, the world is theirs. Not even twenty-five years old, Sam and Sadie are brilliant, successful, and rich, but these qualities won’t protect them from their own creative ambitions or the betrayals of their hearts.

Spanning thirty years, from Cambridge, Massachusetts, to Venice Beach, California, and lands in between and far beyond, Gabrielle Zevin’s Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow is a dazzling and intricately imagined novel that examines the multifarious nature of identity, disability, failure, the redemptive possibilities in play, and above all, our need to connect: to be loved and to love. Yes, it is a love story, but it is not one you have read before.

46) One Hundred Years of Solitude’ by Gabriel Garcia Marquez 416 pages

Taken from Goodreads The brilliant, bestselling, landmark novel that tells the story of the Buendia family, and chronicles the irreconcilable conflict between the desire for solitude and the need for love—in rich, imaginative prose that has come to define an entire genre known as “magical realism.”

47) Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner 256 pages

Taken from Goodreads ‘A memoir about growing up Korean American, losing her mother, and forging her own identity.

Michelle Zauner tells of growing up one of the few Asian American kids at her school in Eugene, Oregon; of struggling with her mother’s particular, high expectations of her; of a painful adolescence; of treasured months spent in her grandmother’s tiny apartment in Seoul, where she and her mother would bond, late at night, over heaping plates of food.

As she grew up, moving to the East Coast for college, finding work in the restaurant industry, and performing gigs with her fledgling band–and meeting the man who would become her husband–her Koreanness began to feel ever more distant, even as she found the life she wanted to live. It was her mother’s diagnosis of terminal cancer, when Michelle was twenty-five, that forced a reckoning with her identity and brought her to reclaim the gifts of taste, language, and history her mother had given her.

48) Nightcrawling’ by Leila Mottley 277 pages

Taken from Goodreads ‘Kiara and her brother, Marcus, are scraping by in an East Oakland apartment complex optimistically called the Regal-Hi. Both have dropped out of high school, their family fractured by death and prison. But while Marcus clings to his dream of rap stardom, Kiara hunts for work to pay their rent–which has more than doubled–and to keep the nine-year-old boy next door, abandoned by his mother, safe and fed.

One night, what begins as a drunken misunderstanding with a stranger turns into the job Kiara never imagined wanting but now desperately needs: nightcrawling. Her world breaks open even further when her name surfaces in an investigation that exposes her as a key witness in a massive scandal within the Oakland Police Department.


The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

Anne-Marie has provided the forward for this week’s Blog. She writes:

Sylvia Plath’s classic novel, The Bell Jar was written in Primrose Hill in north London after her husband, poet Ted Hughes, left her. Published in England under a pseudonym, Victoria Lucas, to mostly tepid reviews (“girlish” “amateur”- the New Yorker), in January 1963, a month before Plath took her life on Feb 11. The novel is a young woman’s coming of age, with ambitions that reject the confining ideals of the 1950s housewife, and struggles with crippling mental illness, which afflicted Plath and others in her family. Plath didn’t live to enjoy her colossal literary stature. Her book was cancelled by her American publisher, Harper & Row (“disappointing, juvenile, overwrought”), and rejected by many others.

In 1971, it was finally published in America. Its reputation gradually grew, far beyond the still-disdainful reviews of male critics. The BBC has listed it as one of 100 Most Inspiring Novels. Hughes was forever shadowed by Plath’s suicide. He was a serial philanderer, and he left Plath for a woman who bore him a child, then killed herself in 1969. Plath told her therapist Hughes beat her, and some suspected that her accounts of abuse was his motivation for destroying her final diary. In the words of a 1979 Bell Jar film poster: “Sometimes just being a woman is an act of courage.”

Please do take a look at Anne-Marie’s Instagram page #hampsteadbookclub

So what did bookclub think?

This book is clearly divided into two parts. The first part of the book deals with Esther’s life in 1950’s New York, the second part deals with Esther’s decent into madness and her time in a psychiatric hospital.  

Most of the bookclub preferred the first part of the book before the protagonist Esther fell into a deep depression. In fact, Rebecca said that she found the second part of the book so depressing she could not finish the book and preferred to read work documents rather than the book.

The first part of the book contains some funny and light moments, Madeleine particularly liked the lunch scene and the relationship with Buddy. Jan too enjoyed the first part she found the depiction of 1950’s New York fascinating. She kept wanting more of the first part. Stephanie loved all the descriptions of the outfits she said it was like ‘Emily in Paris’ and was full of nostalgic charm. Millie said it reminded her of the Netflix series The Marvelous Mrs Maisel; it was full of romanticism of New York more than the reality of how it probably was.  

Most of us agreed even if it was depressing the second part of the book was exceptionally well written. Jan felt that Plath gave a wonderful description of what it was like to be depressed. She felt that this was enriched my Plath’s own experiences with depression. We all agreed that the trigger for Esther descending into depression was not getting on the writer’s course, but as Jan said it might have come out some other time.

There was some discussion on electric shock therapy and it was noted that it is still used today and can be very helpful with depression but nowadays people are given proper anaesthetics.

Anne-Marie commented on how hard it was for female writers to publish in the 1950’s and how harsh the critics were. Rebeca asked if the book was such a classic why did it get such bad criticism?  Anne-Marie said that sexism played a huge role in the 1950’s. Lots of female authors were ignored. She mentioned the writer Ann Petry who wrote ‘The Street’, the book sold over one million copies but it was ignored completely. For an idea of how women were treated Anne-Marie suggested watching the movie The Wife with Glenn Close

There was some discussion about Ted Hughes and how much he contributed to Plath’s depression. It was generally agreed that he was probably an awful person, but Jan loved his birthday letters. There was also some discussion of how grim it was to live in a post war Britain with having to put coins into the meters to keep the heaters going. It was in this climate, in a small rented flat in London with two young children and a husband that had just left her for another woman that Plath wrote The Bell Jar.

There was no doubt that Ted Hughes was an attractive man and as Stephanie pointed out it was important to Plath in her book that men were attractive. Anne-Marie said it was interesting to Americans Ted Hughes is simply Plath’s husband; it is only in the UK that he has a big stature.

Many felt that The Bell Jar was an iconic book and was part of the history of feminism. They could remember reading it as they grew up. Madeleine wished that Plath had been born twenty to thirty years later so she could have benefited from the women’s rights movement. Millie was in her late teens when all her friends went through a Sylvia Plath period. She avoided the book for many years but finally read it. She loved the first part but found the second part hard to follow as she felt it was jumbled, but that was probably because Esthers thoughts were jumbled as she descended into madness.

Rebeca asked why it was called ‘The Bell Jar’. Madeleine said it was because The Bell Jar was something claustrophobic coming down on her but she could see through it.

If you are finding the book depressing, persevere it all works out in the end. It’s a pity the same can’t be said for Sylvia Plath’s life.

If you are interested in finding out more about the life of Sylvia Plath I would strongly recommend the movie Sylvia staring Daniel Craig and Gwyneth Paltrow it is available on Amazon Prime.

Movie Recommendations in relation to the book:

Sylvia – available for purchase on Amazon Video

The Wife – available for purchase on Amazon Video.

Future books:

  • 15 March – Do No Harm by Henry Marsh
  • 29 March – Once Upon A River by Diane Setterfield
  • 12 April – The White Tiger by Avarind Adiga
  • 3 May – Never Split the Difference by Christopher Voss and Tahl Raz

Other movie recommendations:

Lupin on Netflix.

Les Miserables on Netflix – a modern take on the classic.

I Care a Lot – available for purchase on Amazon Video.

American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld

American Wife is a fictionalised account of the life of Laura Bush. Like many fictionalised accounts of real people, it can sometimes be hard to decipher the truth from the fiction. It tells the story of Alice (Laura Bush) and Charlie (George W Bush) from Alice’s early ears growing up in Wisconsin (Texas) to Charlie’s years in the white house as president.

Many people are put off reading this book because of their dislike of the foreign policy of George W, particularly the war in Iraq, however the part of the book dealing with the presidential years is only in the last 100 pages and this is a 600 page book. Don’t let your dislike of George W put you off this book. Sittenfeld is a wonderful writer, her characters are well drawn and the book is a fascinating read of a very interesting and conflicted character. Laura is a moderate and very sensible. I immediately liked her when I heard that she wore flat shoes to the inauguration of Biden– knowing that she would be on her feet all day. I thought to myself what a sensible woman – here is someone who puts practicality above fashion. The book just made me like her even more.

Because the book was so long book club discussed it in two meetings over a month. The first meeting dealt with part one and two and two weeks later we met to discuss parts three and four.

So, what did book club think?

Parts One and Two.

Like many of the book club attendees Anne-Marie was put off reading the book because of the fact it was about the Bush family. She also mentioned the Bush’s connection to the Walker family who were notorious slave traders and segregationists in St Louis. However, after reading the book, like other members of book club, she was pleasantly surprised. She was glad that we had picked this book and said that Curtis Sittenfeld was a particularly good writer. She also said that she had read Rodham also by Sittenfeld which she also enjoyed.

Rebeca said that the first two sections of the book focused on Alice’s relationships and friends. It was an engaging read. She did feel however that it was all about ‘finding a husband’ and did little for the liberation of women. Madeleine said she identified with Alice as they were about the same age and had gotten married about the same time. Alice’s liberal outlook appealed to Madeleine and she thought the Andrew and Pete Imhoff relationships were very well described.

Curtis Sittenfeld

Michelle also loved the first half of the book. She had read the book some time ago and when she finished it she went on to read Rodham. She liked the way that Sittenfeld had re-imagined the past. It didn’t really bother her that a lot of the book was not factually true although it was true that Laura Bush did have a car accident resulting in her boyfriend’s death when she was seventeen (Andrew in the book). She said she became much more interested in fact checking in the second half of the book. Michelle had also read Eligible, Sittenfeld’s take on Pride and Prejudice.

Rebeca said it was interesting to see how times had changed and that no one talked to Alice about Andrew’s death, nowadays there would be lots of therapy to discuss feelings. Madeleine said that abortion would also be less common in those days.

Both Rebeca and Madeleine commented that they loved the grandmother. Madeleine admired her for saying what she thought, particularly about Charlie’s family. She had integrity. Michelle thought that the grandmother was the type of character that Alice aspired to. She wanted to be as brash and open as her and almost revered her.

Jan felt it was a wonderful story although she too initially was put off by the fact it was about Laura Bush. She loved listening to the first two parts of the book and loved how Alice’s feelings about the prom and her family and grandmother were described. She also loved the depiction of Charlie’s Halcyon house were all the clan met with all the bedrooms and one toilet. Madeleine agreed and said the story about her pulling the toilet chain four times was very funny. Jan could remember the story of a New York millionaire who took his girlfriend to a summer house in the Adirondack’s which was a bit like Halcyon but only worse with intermittent electricity and how she had seen a boat and asked for help.

Madeleine thought that Ms Ruby was a nice vignette, and it was interesting how when Alice took her to the theatre Priscilla became enraged. Anne-Marie said that the Bush’s had a good relationship with the butlers at the White House and when the book on White House butlers came out, the favourite president was George W.

We discussed why no one had sued Curtis Sittenfeld for taking any liberties with the truth. Anne=Marie said that as public figures it is difficult to sue, you have to show malice. Libel laws are set up to favour the artist. Michelle said it must be interesting to be a public figure who was alive and written about in this way. She said Rodham would be the book that would be more likely to the subject of a libel case.

Michele loved the way that Alice’s friendship with other wives was portrayed. She also felt it was interesting how Alice forgave Charlie’s short comings. Madeleine wondered whether she was right to leave him because of his drinking and wondered if she would have done the same thing. Anne-Marie said it was more of an Americian thing to leave, the advice was not to put up with it or enable it. Madeleine agreed saying it had the right effect in the long term. Michelle said there were other issues than just merely drinking, he had a DUI and he had taken the babysitter out. There was some discussion on how things like that were covered up, for example the incident with Ted Kennedy and Mary Jo Kopechne.

Madeleine felt that Alice got off lightly over the Andrew Imhoff affair. Michelle said that it had really happened but that the abortion was probably fiction. Michelle mentioned that Laura had written her own autobiography in 2010. Anne-Marie said that Curtis Sittenfeld made it clear that the book was fictionalised. Michelle said it was similar to the Crown. It was obvious that a lot of it was fiction but it was easy for people to become confused about what is fiction and what is not.

Michelle said that Curtis Sittenfeld wrote this in 2008 and that no one liked the Bush’s at the time, but over time people had forgotten how much they hated them and the critical acclaim for the book was growing.

Part Three and Four

Most people including Madeleine preferred the first two parts of the book to the second two parts. I think this was in part because they didn’t like Bush’s presidency. Rebeca, however felt that the second part was quite good and pointed out that the book didn’t mention the presidency until the last 100 pages.

Madeleine hated how Alice compromises her principles so much in her marriage. Rebeca again saw it differently and said that Alice had tried to make things right with Dina and Pete and with Edgar Franklin. She thought the fact that she had gone to try and make amends with Dina and Pete showed she was a well-rounded character.

As Madeleine pointed out Alice had a lot to put up with, but she was disappointed she didn’t stand up to him more, even if she didn’t vote for him as president. Stephanie said it reminded her of how Hillary stood by Bill even though he was a philanderer. Stephanie loved the book and said she couldn’t say anything against it.

There was some discussion about the Halcyon home. Many felt it was a sign of the privileged life that the family lived, but Diana pointed out it was much more common to have second homes in America and you didn’t have to be rich to have one. Stephanie said even if that was the case that this particular summer home oozed an upper class feel despite only having one loo. Madeleine said it was like second homes of the British aristocracy that didn’t have heating.

Anne-Marie felt that she had trouble sustaining her interest in the book because the book was about the Bush’s but she did find the writing of a high standard.

There was some discussion about what was truth and what was fiction. Stephanie didn’t think Laura Bush had an abortion in real life and pointed out she actually had two daughters. She was a librarian but was from Texas. It was also true about George W’s alcoholism and finding religion.  He was also the part owner of a baseball team.

Rebeca gave this book four out of five and said she couldn’t put it down when she started it and was often reading it past midnight. Stephanie agreed that Sittenfeld was a very good writer and Madeleine wondered what she was currently working on. Stephanie recommend her short stories and said her book Prep was also very good.

Michelle felt that Sittenfeld wrote about women and female friendships particularly well. In this book her struggles with Dina were particularly well written. Michelle felt that Sittenfeld made you contemplate your own situation and your own marriage and ask if you are culpable for the sins of your spouse even if you’re not first lady. Should a spouse have culpability for policy issues even if she wasn’t elected and should she have any role?  She questioned whether Alice (Laura) really had any say in the picking of the vice president.

Stephanie felt that Sittenfeld skirted away from political issues. But she did feel that Alice (Laura) must have felt conflicted if she was a progressive. Rebeca said she knew what she was getting into from the outset.  Stephanie said she probably thought she could take a back seat but was drawn in. Jo who hadn’t read the book asked if it was the case in America that the First Lady had to be involved. Michelle said that they were not supposed to have a role in policy. Hillary however was very involved. Stephanie felt that it didn’t seem as if Alice was after fame or notoriety or was overly ambitious. Rebeca agreed and said she didn’t seem like a gold digger. She was a small town librarian. Anne-Marie agreed but said in Texas success was measured by your ability to marry an Alpha male and that Bush was from an important dynastic family. Michelle said he married him despite those things. She also said it was interesting that she married him when she was in her thirties.

I would recommend this book whether or not you like George W. It is a superbly written, interesting, fictionalised account of a fascinating woman.

Interview with the author

Future Books

1st March The Bell Jar By Sylvia Plath

15th March –Do No Harm by Henry Marsh

Movies to See

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings on you tube.

The Autobiography of Ms Jane Pitman – you tube

Ted Lasso on Apple TV – an Americian football coach moves to the UK to manage a soccer team

Children of Men staring Clive Owen and Michael Cane a science fiction thriller – to purchase on prime movies

The Dig– The story of the Sutton Hoo find on Netflix

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

Man Booker Prize Winner 2019

This  a story about women, lots of black women. They are all connected in some way be it daughters, work colleges, friends or family. At times it does become difficult keeping track of who is who such is the number of characters and the number of links between them. But it is astonishingly well written with well drawn characters and it is a page turner.

It is inter-generational and provides a good social commentary on the treatment of black people  and women in the UK through out history up to the present day. But I think it makes the point that the black experience is not homogeneous.

It is not a dry book and is modern in its style of prose.  Men feature only tangentgently in this book, only in terms of their connection to the women, it is a book just as much about gender as it is about colour.  

I loved this book and would thoroughly recommend it. What did book club think of it?

Initially the writing style put Anne-Marie off, as it did with a lot of book club members. The lack of punctuation and prose style reminded her a bit of Jack Kerouac’s ‘On The Road’ initially, but she started re-reading it and now loves it. She felt the characters were great and felt she really got to know them. Madeleine is also re-reading the book and felt that all the characters were so different. She loved the book not only because of the fun language in it but because she felt Evaristo was a very good writer. She really loved Anna and her connection with the National Theatre. She felt that the rape of Carol was particularly well done, you could really feal the trauma. The impact was incredible.

Caroline felt that the lack of punctuation reminded her a bit of ‘Milkman’ by Anna Burns which we read at an earlier bookclub. Yulia felt that you quickly got used to the writing style. What was interesting Yulia said is how she made it possible for us to feel experiences very different from our own.

Michelle listened to the book on Audio. Like Anne-Marie she didn’t immediately warm to the book but soon loved it.

Madeleine felt that although there were twelve characters a lot of detail was given to each one and the book was engaging. Yulia felt that the writer was good at portraying different generations. Madeleine said she heard an interview with Evaristo where she said she felt she ‘got’ the younger voice because of her experience as a teacher.

Jan felt that she could read the book again. She too became engaged with the book after the Dominque story. Jan felt that there were too many characters you needed a map to see the connections between them. Michelle said this was easier to do if you read the book rather than listened to it as it was easier to take notes. Jan felt that each story was very well told and that her favourite character was Shirley.

Stephanie was one person who didn’t like the book. She felt that there were too many characters and that the book attempted to tick too many boxes. It was full of stereotypes and did not have rounded characters. She felt that some of the characters were cartoonish and played into our prejudices. We didn’t learn enough about the characters and it wasn’t nuanced enough. However, she felt to do justice to so many characters the book would have to be of Dickensian length. Stephanie admitted she wasn’t a social scientist but she flet that Evaristo made characters more extreme than necessary. She asked if anyone was not defined by their colour or gender? And said that there is a life to be lived outside of race.

Jan loved the different pictures painted of different people. She said it was a montage with some characters more vivid than others.

Shelia felt that the book did a good job of showing different ways to live as a woman and a person of colour but also felt that there were too many characters and themes. Shelia said more isn’t always better. She felt because of the lack of punctuation and stream of consciousness writing, it was better listening to it on audible rather than reading it. Shelia didn’t like the way that Shirley was portrayed. She said as someone with teaching experience herself, it was wrong to think teachers were only in it for the thanks they got. Teaching came from somewhere deeper. It was like throwing wildflower seeds out and you just hoped some would grow. She would be happy for Carole’s success.

Yulia felt that you got to know parts of London well like Peckham. Anne-Marie also felt that it gave her insight into parts of London that she did not know about. Anne-Marie said she had low expectations of the book and it had exceeded them.

Lisa liked the book, although she too warmed to it slowly. She initially thought it would be formulaic but was pleasantly surprised when it wasn’t. She loved the characters blind spots. She did however feel that the end ‘surprise’ was not necessary, it was a loop that did not need to be closed. It made the story less complex and more like an Agatha Christie. She also felt that it was superficial to make the racist turn into a non-racist by giving her black heritage.

Michelle liked that that there were such different stories and all were unique. Anne-Marie said it was like quick brush strokes that left you wanting to know more. Yulia felt that she was saying here is the character you deal with it, but sometimes it left her wanting to know more. She particularly liked the character of Bumi and felt a whole book could be written about her.

Anne-Marie said it is interesting that this was a Man Booker winner as it shows how the Man Booker Prize is trending towards more experimental novels.

Next books

1st February American Wife part one by Curtis Sittenfeld

15th February American Wife part two

1st March The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

15th March Frist Do No Harm by Henry Marsh

Television recommendations

Virgin River – on the strength of recommendations made on here before I started watching this and I was hooked every episode leaves you on a cliff hanger, perfect binge watching material. Available on NetFlix

Staged – brilliant lock down conversations over zoom between Michael Sheen and David Tennant. Great comedy series. Available on BBC Iplayer

Videos to make you smile and think

Book Club Bash

The blog is a little different this week. Instead of discussing a particular book we had a fantastic book club bash last night where we all talked about our best and worst books. I thought I would post a  the list in case you are looking for books to read or avoid in Lockdown.

Books to read or avoid in Lockdown

Madeleine really liked The Mirror and the Light by Hillary Mantel – it is the third in the Wolf Hall series. She couldn’t get into the first one and started on this one and loved it. She also loved Silver Sparrow which was written by Tayari Jones the same author who wrote the suburb American Marriage which we have read in book club. The one she hated was Leaving of Atocha Station which seemed to be a common thread amongst attendees.

Anne-Marie loved The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett which tells the tale of two sisters separated – one who can is passed off as white and one who is brought up Afro American. She also loved Dancing in the Mosque – An Afghan Mother’s Letter to Her Son by Homeira Qaderi written by a refugee after fleeing Afghanistan. She also thought that Leaving of Atocha Station was the worst book she had read this year.

Marilyn said the best books she had read this year were The Midnight Library by Matt Haig – where a girl is stuck in purgatory and can choose books with different life paths and the Switch by Beth O’Leary about two people from different generations who change places. Very sensibly Marilyn said that she didn’t finish books she didn’t like so she didn’t have any worst books she had read.

Jane’s favourite was Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens. This is one we have read in book club and everyone loved it. She also loved another book club read – The Beekeeper of Aleppo by Christy Lefteri. Other books that she suggested included Let the Great World Spin by Colum  McCann and Crow Lake by Mary Lawson. The worst read was Little Fires Everywhere but as most said the TV series was much better than the book.

Rebeca’s best read of the year was Overstory by Richard Powers which was a book club read, she described it as ‘a piece of US history’. Like Jane she also loved Where the Crawdads Sing. Her worst was Gayle’s Secret by Michelle Harris.

Caroline as always had a wealth of books to recommend. They included, The Imortalists by Chloe Benjamin. A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara, Unsheltered by Barbara Kingslover, The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben (mentioned in Overstory supra) and that great 80’s classic Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe. Her worst and I am sensing I was the only one who liked it was Leaving Atocha Station by Ben Lerner.

Yulia like many loved Maya Angelou’s I know why the Caged Bird Sings. She also recommended two of Elif Shafak’s books 10 minutes and 38 seconds and 40 Rules of Love. Her worst was Leaving Atocha Station (supra) and Three Women by Lisa Taddeo.

Jo’s favourite was Three Women by Lisa Taddeo which just shows the diversity in the group. It can be someone’s worst and someone’s favourite. She also loved Normal People by Sally Rooney which I hated. I thought the lead character needed to be shaken into action. Books she hated included Leaving Atocha Station (supra), Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Broadesser- Akner which we all mumbled agreement to,  Queenie by Candice Carty Williams and finally the Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. Jo doesn’t like parting with her books but all of those are to go out to the charity shop.

Stuti like me loved  I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou. She also Loved our recent read Manual for a Decent Life by Kavita A Jindal. Another one she loved which we read a long long time ago in book club was Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Her worst book was Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts. I loved Shantaram but it is a very thick book, it is about shanty towns in India.

Lisa’s favourite was Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman. For discussion purposes her favourites were Three Women (supra) and Flieshman is in Trouble (supra). Her least favourite was American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins which Lisa described as ‘trauma porn’. She also could not get into Jane Fallon’s Queen Bee which is set in Hampstead. She would love book club to read more Anne Pachett and also Fates and Furies by Lauren Croff.

Millie’s favourites were American Marriage by Tayari Jones, and The Beekeeper of Aleppo (supra).  She would also recommend the Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini which we all agreed we wanted on next years book list.

My three favourites where From a Low and Quiet Sea by Donal Ryan, Atonement by Ian McKwan, and I know Why the Caged Bird Sings (supra). My least favourite were Overstory (supra) and Fleishman is in Trouble (supra).

Recommendations of TV shows

Recommended TV shows to watch included The Restaurant, Ethos, Trapped and Virgin River and Borgen, I think these are all on Netflix.

Clothing recommendations

Millie also recommended the Uniglo fleece lined leggings if you are getting cold on your walks.

Pilates Recommendation  

If you have stacked on the kilos over Christmas my friend Olivia is offering very reasonable online Pilates classes see She was bridesmaid at my wedding, is godmother to my children and is the nicest person you will ever meet. I think her classes are only about £8 a class for an hour. She is a fully qualified instructor.


The Ugly Dumpling can deliver frozen dumplings around Hampstead and London, they can be frozen for up to 6 months.  There are great flavours including desert ones.  The menu can be found here:  

Gin and Whiskey

For great gins and Whiskeys with free delivery in North London or to organise a virtual tasting contact Mike from Artisan Drinks on

Find Humour in the horror

A Manual for a Decent Life by Kavita A Jindal

Bookclub were very lucky to be joined by the author Kavita A Jindal to discuss her book Manual for a Decent Life.

I loved the book. It tells the story of Waheeda and her relationship with Monish. Waheeda is an Islamic woman from the providence of Uttar Pradesh, India who is separated from her husband and lives with her daughter Hira. Originally a university lecturer she becomes involved in politics when her stepfather who heads a political party, puts her name forward after her two brothers are killed in a bombing. In the meantime, she falls in love with a Hindu Monish. 

The book is highly topical given the recent Jihad love laws that have been passed by the nationalistic Hindu government in Uttar Pradesh which prevent marriages from being arranged to convert Hindu women into Muslims (see articles at the end of this review).

Kavita A Jindal

The book makes one think about gender issues, religion and politics and what it truly means to live a free life. Waheeda has all the trappings of freedom, it looks as if she is truly independent, standing for parliament and forging a career, but she is not, her life is very circumscribed and she is in fact trapped.

The characters in the book are beautifully drawn and the pace is fast and it keeps you turning the pages, especially towards the end of the book where the pace picks up leading to a shocking and unexpected climax.

Kavita was asked what inspired her to write the book. She said that as a young adult she had campaigned in villages for a woman candidate in Uttar Pradesh and left India shortly afterwards. After she left India she continued to follow the trajectory of women who entered politics. She found that if a woman ran for a seat it was usually dynastic. She wanted to meld political issues with romance. Although the book is set in the 1990’s she doesn’t see it as a historical novel, but it is before the digital era. Her book has been called historical fiction or a political thriller, but it is not really either. It is the story of a woman which encompasses wider issues.

I asked her about the new Love Jihad laws, she was unaware they had actually been passed but said that the novel ends before the rise of Hindu nationalism and the religious agenda became as dominant as it currently is. The tensions between Muslim and Hindu is something that has become worse in the last decade.

Madeleine felt that the story was well told and was moving. She thought the relationship between Monish and Waheeda was particularly well described, but she was jolted by the last 40 pages.  Kavita said that many people had told her to have an uplifting ending but the reality was that many women candidates get punished and can’t escape unscathed.

Rebeca also found it a fabulous book but was also surprised by the ending. She found the frequent use of Indian phrases a bit difficult to grapple with whilst reading. Madeleine agreed and said the book needed a glossary. Kavita said that she had asked her publishers to include a glossary, but was dissuaded from doing so. The reason why so many phrases were included were because she wanted the book to be authentic to her Indian readership. She said that when she did use an Indian phrase she tried to explain it in the following sentence.

Stuti said that that she appreciated that her exposure to Indian culture gave her extra depth when reading the book. She did wonder how the use of Hindu language came across to people who did not speak it. She did feel, as Kavita said, that it was adequately explained in the following sentences.

Rebeca was surprised with the book as she thought India was very traditional. Kavita said she wanted to show the difference between those who lived in the town and those who lived in the country and how having resources changed things for you. But she said even in Delhi, even among the wealthy, the ending would not be shocking. Things like that are an everyday occurrence in India and the book was realistic in that sense.

Kavita said that the book was available in India and the reaction was good. An anthropology and politics student from SOAS had stated that she wished there was more politics in the book and that the book had not concentrated on the elites. But Kavita said the point of the book is that politics for women in India is largely dynastic. You couldn’t really enter politics as a poor woman, the women who do enter have their families behind them pushing them forward.

Jan asked Kavita if she would release the book on audio – Kavita said it was a big project to do but it would be lovely if it happened.

Jo asked if she would ever translate her book to Hindi. Kavita said she wouldn’t do it herself as she hadn’t really used Hindi for the last 15 years. She said that the book is very expensive in India and many cannot afford it. It is currently only really available to the elites in India but she is keen to find out what the wider community would think of the book when it is available in a more-affordable Indian edition.

Rebeca asked if someone like Monish and Waheeda would ever have a future. Kavita said that Monish had tried to arrange one for them but it would have required Waheeda to remove herself from her ambitions-  she had to be willing to follow his lead – it spoke to the gender inequality. She reiterated that there was no reason you could not have a happy marriage if you had the resources.

Jan asked what her next novel was Kavita said she has published a set of short stories set in London.

Madeleine asked Kavita how long Manual for a Decent Life had taken Kavita to write. Kavita said it had taken seven years. This surprised Madeleine who said the book flowed so well.  Madeleine also asked Kavita about her publisher Brighthorse. Kavita said it was a small indie publisher in the US, but her UK publisher was Linen Press a feminist publisher.

Madeleine loved the book so much she is giving it to her daughters as a Christmas present this year.

Rebeca said that the first 100 pages were difficult particularly with the establishment of characters but as soon as she had read the first 100 pages she got really into the book and couldn’t put it down. She felt it was harder because with so many characters she couldn’t tell immediately if they were male or female.

Stuti asked about the title – she felt it was something she would be told by older Indian ladies. Kavita said she chose the title at the final edit. She liked the title because it raised the question of ‘what is decent?’ It had different meanings for different people. It was up to the reader to fathom. The issue is raised in the novel when Monish’s father says that Kiriti is not decent. Kavita wanted people to think about who was decent and who has the right to say someone is decent.

Anne-Marie said that she was relieved that at the end of the book Waheeda’s husband accepted that things were not Waheeda’s fault. She felt it redeemed him and she was heartened by how both men in Waheeda’s life helped her in the end.

Kavita said the book had twists and turns but at the end of the day had redeeming qualities. She said one young person who had read the book was annoyed that all the men around Waheeda were telling her what to do. This is easy to say from London. In small villages in India this is the reality. Kavita would like the role of women in society to be different but she writes social realism.

Anne-Marie asked about the writer’s groups that Kavita belonged to.

Kavita said that she belonged to three writers’ groups the first one was the Collier Street writer’s group, she also belonged to a South Asian writers group called The Whole Kalani and there was a fiction group that meet in Bloomsbury.

Post script – After the meeting Kavita sent me a lovely email saying she had looked it up and a Love Jihad Law had been passed in Uttar Pradesh but it is not a national law although the Indian population seem to be heading that way. She still maintained that if a couple had enough resources they could still have a relationship or marriage as they could be influential enough that politicians or police would not touch them. It seems to be that the law is used to deter inter faith marriages between Hindu women and Muslim men, only Muslim men would get charged with a crime and it does nothing to stop Christian or Buddhist men from marrying Hindus.

I will leave you with the last words in her email  ‘it does make my book very topical, but my views are probably out of favour at the moment. But that is exactly what writers are there for – to not let the authorities do the thinking for them’.

I would like to be in a world were two people who loved each other like Monish and Waheeda could be together. Thank goodness we have writers like Kavita who see the possibilities of inter faith relationships. Thank you Kavita for writing such a moving and beautiful love story and for taking the time to come to talk to us about it.

Articles on the Love Jihad Law:

Future books

18 January Girl. Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

1st and 15th February American Wife by Curtis Sittenfield

To make you smile


Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner

The language in this book is beautiful, as is the writing style. Whilst some have stated that it is short on plot, (and it is true, the narrative meanders rather than races along), the prose is stunning.

It tells the story of Adam a young American who is in Spain on a foundation scholarship to write poetry. He is full of all the neurosis and insecurities of youth compounded by an incomplete grasp of the language. My daughter who has Asperger’s often says to me that for her it is like everyone is speaking a different language, she has the dictionary, but she has to decipher everything everyone says to understand what they mean. Socially she is adrift. I got the feeling that in addition to being young naive and insecure Adam had a little bit of what my daughter Charlotte has. That he too was somewhere on that spectrum. Gifted, a genius, but unable for the life of him to work out what to do in social situations and resorting to various drugs to help him deal with the anxiety they provoke. Not I hasten to add that my daughter does drugs.

Ben Lerner

The book deals with various relationships he has and his experiences in Spain from walking through galleries to seeing the aftermath of an Al Qaeda bombing at Atocha Station. If I try to describe the plot to you it is going to be a very short paragraph. Books however can be more than just plots. This one stands out above other novels I have read because of the beauty of the writing and the sensitivity with which Adam is portrayed. A poet, a thinker, who constantly reflects on his life and his surroundings, who searches for meaning. His exaggerations and little lies only serve to endear me to him. He is awkward just like any teen, just like my daughter, and I love him all the more for it.

So what did Bookclub think of it ?

To be honest they weren’t enamoured of it. Universally reviled is probably a better description. Short on plot, unlikable protagonist and sesquipedalian (that is a long word for use of long words and being long winded).

Madeleine found it difficult to read and said he used the most ridiculous words. It was obviously meant to be funny, but it just wasn’t. The only reasonable bit was when he was describing his trips. The self-analysis and self-reflection was boring.

Caroline said the book made her fall asleep.

Jan listened to it on audio book and found it melodic to be read to, but said it was just sad the way he lied to so many people. It left her wondering how the mother had messed him up so much.

Anne-Marie liked the character. His learning of the language resonated with her. She had a similar experience of learning the language when she was learning Spanish. She would just guess at meanings and just get the gist of things. She felt his description of being young was good and he captured the insecurities of youth quite well but agreed there was not enough plot.

Shelia said she could only read it in small doses. She listened to some of it on audio book but had to listen to it at 1.4 times the speed as it was too slow for her. She felt it read like a poem. It did make her a bit nostalgic for her time in Spain when she was a student. She can remember how they too did not have phones. She felt it captured the American student in Spain well. She also felt that it captured the mood of the Spanish well. Adam was so pretentious and he was always worried what others would think. Shelia pointed out that the Spanish are simply not hung up about things, it wouldn’t occur to them to make an issue of things. Rebeca agreed and also  felt that the Southern Europeans were generally more spontaneous. Diana pointed out that it was much easier to be spontaneous when you didn’t have to worry about the weather.

Rebeca felt the protagonist Adam certainly wasn’t a high achiever. Anne-Marie said he wasn’t motivated and obviously had a mood disorder.

Jo recommended the book as it was one of her sister’s favourites. She hadn’t read it at the time. She wanted to apologise as she hated it and found it excruciating. She felt that there was a clumsy insertion of prose and felt like Madeleine that there was an over-use of obscure words and phrases and that he perversely put words in that no one understood.

Everyone agreed the second half of the book was better. Diana felt that this contained some very funny observations.

As far as Adam’s character was concerned, Shelia probably spoke for most of the group when she said he was such a horrible guy you couldn’t like him and you just didn’t want to laugh at him. She said in the first part of the book she would read five pages, give up and do laundry.

Its safe to say despite my personal thoughts on this book, it was not loved or even remotely liked by book club.

A review of the book

Next books

We have changed the schedule of books. Due to the length of American Wife we will now be discussing it over two book groups in January / February.  I will be having a break next week and there will be no bookclub. There will also be a break from bookclub on the 28 December so people can spend time with their families.

The new schedule therefore is as follows:

14 December-  Meet the author event Manual for a Decent Life by Kavita A Jindal.


11 January- Girl, Women, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

25 January and 8 February – American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld

Virtual Events

Join this digital discussion with this year’s winner of the Booker Prize with Bernardine Evaristo Tickets are £5 see

Purchase tickets to Tim Minchin’s Apart Together on the 19 November, you have until the 21 November to watch the live stream

Three Women by Lisa Taddeo

I read this book about a year ago when it first came out. It was so heavily hyped. I walked into a Waterstones and the sales lady positively jumped out at me and said, ‘This is a book you have to read. It’s amazing.’ I read it, staggered through it. I didn’t really love it. I couldn’t see what the fuss was about and I promptly forgot it.

I started reading it again for book club but honestly, I couldn’t get through it a second time. I felt like a voyeur of Lina and Stone’s life and I felt like I was abusing Maggie all over again by pouring over the nuance of her life.

Let me back track a bit here perhaps I should tell you what Three Women is all about. Firstly, its non -fiction. Secondly it is about the sex lives of three women. Maggie is a student who has been raped by her teacher. That’s what it is, you can fluff around it with adjectives all you like. She was underage and he raped her. You can’t consent as a minor. He’s on trial for it and we go through the entire court case and the train wreck of her life with her. Lina is also raped by three men and then forms a loveless union with her husband Ed before having a torrid affair with her high school lover Aiden. Slone has threesomes with, and in front of, her partner Richard.

All of them are damaged people. Taddeo apparently started interviewing a number of people until they dropped out and she was left with three. I can’t help feeling this book is exploitative rather than celebrating sex and desire in women. With Maggie she didn’t even change her name. Taddeo seemed to feel that somehow screaming out about the crime internationally in print would make it less hurtful, that somehow it would be redemptive. I don’t buy it. I know you can’t be silent on sexual assault and I agree with the ‘me too’ movement in principle. But Maggie was a child who Lisa Taddeo exploited to sell books. It sickens me how we are pulled into the most private areas of these very damaged women’s lives in the name of entertainment or enlightenment. I don’t find it liberating, I find it profoundly sad.

Not only do I have problems with the premise of this book, I have a problem with the writing style. Its crass and its poor. Her similes are something a 4th grader would come up with. ‘The wine felt like a cold sneeze’,  she ‘mated for life like a penguin’, his ‘tongue was like a wet water slide’,  are a few that spring to mind.

So, I am sitting here, its midweek, I still have a week to read it before book club. I know I could get it finished. I have a hard copy I bought in Waterstones and an audible version to listen to while I walk. I’m thinking it’s not just that I can’t be bothered, it’s that I don’t want to be sullied by it. I don’t want to be part of the three ringed circus that pervades this book. I don’t want to ogle at Slone, gawp at Lina or relive Maggie’s trauma with her. I’m not a prude. I like sex as much as the next person. But this is not a story I’m wasting any more of my time on. I just don’t want to pry.

So, what did book club think?

This book really divided book club, some loved it, some hated it and some sat on the fence.

Diana said it was good to have a novel where we could hear other woman’s stories. Anne-Marie felt since the 1970’s there was a move to talk more about female sexuality and not cover it up. Yulia felt that although it was now fashionable to talk about female sexuality this author victimised her characters, she didn’t empower them, her writing was just to sell books.

Rebecca felt that the book said a lot about mother daughter relationships and how they affected a women’s sexuality. Debra also thought that the book said that women look for the love in relationships that they didn’t get from their parents. She also said that it was Maggie’s vulnerability that drew the teachers to her, that predators often look for the vulnerable.

Anne-Marie felt that the book said a lot about dissonance and misogyny and how those things project on sexuality. Michelle felt it also revealed a lot about how women treat other women. Diana agreed and felt that the book was an attempt to make women be more empathetic.

Debra read one character at a time, starting with Maggie, Madeleine and Diana both though this was an excellent idea.

Lisa said that over writing did make you doubt the veracity of the story. She didn’t feel that the book was exploitative but felt that it gave a voice to those who didn’t have a voice. Maggie probably needed a voice. Lina had no empathy from the women she was speaking to. Taddeo, Lisa felt, was making the invisible visible. Lisa did wonder what three men would look like. She felt it would be one page linked to a Linkedin profile. She did agree however that the book had a journalistic feel and was not great writing.  

Michelle felt that we were meant to compare the stories of the women, to see what each was missing.

Yulia said that not enough was made of the rape of Lina – it would have had a profound effect on her, and it was not dealt with sufficiently. It made it unrealistic. Some people felt that Taddeo was telling the story as the protagonists told it and maybe Lina herself was dismissive of the rape as she was trying to supress it. As Lisa said it was the narrative of the victim. Maybe Lina was trying to say the rape didn’t define me – Aiden was my true love.

I talked about my objections to the similes used which I mentioned above. Some in book club felt that maybe these were the similes used by the women and reported on and not created by the author. I must admit that is an interesting thought.

Many at book club liked the psychological exploration of the women, some found it sad and empty. The best discussions we have in book club is where the room is divided, some love it and some hate it – this was no exception. I hated the book but loved the discussion.

Interview with the author:

Reviews of the book:

Next books

Monday 16 November ‘Leaving the Atocha Station’ by Ben Lerner.

Monday  30 November ‘American Wife’ by Curtis Sittenfeld.

Exciting authors event

I am very happy to announce that we will be having a ‘meet the author’ event with Kavita A Jindal an author of Manual for a Decent Life on the 14 December. It is a well reviewed novel about politics and gender in India. Michelle Roberts in her review on Amazon writes ‘a gripping story featuring family dynasties, violent death, conflicts between love and ambition, sex and betrayal and an original take on the absurdities of societal conventions in small towns and big cities’.

Movies to watch in lock down

My Octopus Teacher recommended by Anne-Marie. This movie is on Netflix, it tells the story of a friendship between a film maker and an octopus living in South Africa.

Bombshell  on Netflix  recommended by Anne-Marie.  The story of three women who were sexual harassment victims of Fox News CEO Roger Ailes, staring Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman and Margot Robbie.

Unforgotten on Netflix recommended by Claudine – a great series – kept me up to three in the morning. Focuses on historic murders and the search for justice. Fiction and incredibly well acted – won a couple of Baftas.

Other recommendations:

Jo recommends the How to Academy – this costs £17.50 a month plus VAT and gives you access to a number of talks from a number of famous people such as Pulitzer prize winners artists and thinkers who share their incites and ideas in live streams and live events. There is also a video library of past talks.

Recommendations of exercises online

My good friend Oliva Johnson does fantastic online pilates classes on zoom. They run every morning and Monday and Wednesday evenings and are only about £6 a class. She is a fantastic teacher and the classes are great fun. She is also doing on line personal training and I have lost 10 kilos in about 7 weeks and am feeling much fitter. Thoughly recommend her details can be found here

Recommendations of home delivery

Chop Chop

If you are having problems getting deliveries in lockdown, I thoroughly recommend the Sainsburys app Chop Chop you can get up to 20 items within an hour. Available from the app store.

Dim Sum

I strongly recommend deliveries from the Ugly Dumpling their menu can be found here  they are easy to cook and last for quite a while. Phone  07539 614694

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Pulitzer Prize winner 2017

I thought it was appropriate that in Black History Month we discuss this book. This book is a Pulitzer Prize winner and tells the story of Cora, a runaway slave from Georgia as she flees from the brutality of a Georgia plantation in a desperate bid for freedom. Along the way she uses an underground railroad system. This system is a figment of the author’s imagination. Although there were people who helped slaves flee, there was no actual subterranean system of railroads, but it provided a useful literary device for Colson Whitehead. The network of people who helped slaves flee was always referred to as ‘The Underground Railroad’. Whitehead just took it a step further and asked what would it look like if it was an actual rail network? How would it work?

It does intrigue me that the last author we discussed, Jeanine Cummins, encountered so much hostility for writing ‘American Dirt’ because she was not a Mexican and was white and privileged. Whitehead’s only connection with slavery is the colour of his skin. He lives in Manhattan, went to private school, had a summer house in the Hamptons growing up and attended Harvard. He is certainly part of the privileged elite. I don’t know, perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps just the colour of his skin qualifies him to write about the horror of slavery. Or perhaps as I said with Cummins, the colour of a person’s skin is not as important as the message they impart, or the stories they tell, or how they tell them.

The story does sometimes jump between timelines and places and it is not always linear, but I found it honest and candid in it is depiction of the brutality of slavery. It is gritty realism. As Whitehead said, ‘He wanted to make a psychologically credible plantation and that means thinking about people who have been traumatised, brutalised and dehumanised their whole lives. Its not going to be the pop culture plantation where there’s one Uncle Tom and everyone is just really helpful to each other. Everyone is going to be fighting for the one extra bite of food in the morning. Fighting for the small piece of property.’ (Interview with Colson Whitehead by Emma Brockes The Guardian 7 July 2017).

To be credible he trawled through oral history archives, in particular the 2,300 first person accounts of slavery collected by the Federal Writers Project in the 1930’s.  However, as Alex Preston writes in his review in The Guardian, ‘This is a book that wears its research lightly, but the suitably antique prose and detailed descriptions combine to create a world that is entirely convincing’ (The Guardian Alex Preston The Underground Railroad  9 October 2016).

The book is tense and suspenseful. Whitehead was asked whether he was ‘squeamish about deploying the customary tricks of the novelist when the subject matter is so traumatic.’ He replied ‘I was aware of the conventions of a suspenseful book and of withholding information, red herrings and distracting the reader. And I think the plot like humour, or what kind of narrator you have is just a tool you use for the right story at the right time. ‘(Interview with Colson Whitehead Emma Brockes supra).

Here again I have problems with the double standards. How Whiteheads book won a Pulitzer Prize despite its fictionalisation of elements of slavery for the purpose of narrative development and Cummins’ book ‘American Dirt’ was lambastestised for doing just that. As stated in the New York Times review ‘We begin to notice as readers slight departures from historical fact, places where The Underground Railroad becomes something much more interesting than just a historical novel. It doesn’t merely tell us about what happened, it also tells us what might have happened. Whitehead’s imagination unconstrained by stubborn facts takes the novel to new places in the narrative of slavery’.  (Is Colson Whitehead’s latest, The Underground Railroad more than a metaphor. Juan Gabriel Vasquez The New York Times 5 August 2016).

As much as I would love to, I don’t think I would recommend this book, not just because of my problems with American Dirt. I think there are better books about slavery. The writing to me just doesn’t make the grade.

So what did book club think?

Interestingly I wasn’t alone in my dislike of the book. Only Anne-Marie and Jennie liked it. Jan, Caroline and Madeleine hated it, with Caroline and Madeleine going so far as to say they struggled to read it.

Madeleine said it was not the  subject matter that bothered her, but it was like doing a complicated crossword. It wasn’t linear and new characters who you knew nothing about kept emerging. It was like the author was trying to trick you. She would go back and read parts of the book again to see if she had missed that character, but she hadn’t. Jennie suggested that the author was trying to emulate the confusion of the escape. Madeleine didn’t buy that – she felt she was being played with.  Jo also felt that it mirrored the real characters in the Underground Railroad – you didn’t know who they were. Madeleine also felt he was the sort of writer who would use ten words when one would do.

Others felt the character of Cora was poorly developed. Caroline said it was if she was just a vehicle to tell a story. Madeleine agreed and felt that she was like a stick that things were glued to. She didn’t have any real independence. Jo asked if that was the point. Cora didn’t know her own history herself.

A lot of people at book club felt, like I did, that the use of a real railroad was contrived. Jan said she liked her historical fiction to be historically accurate. She also said that although Whitehead had read the oral histories of Federal Writers project, he had a tendency to try and ‘jam everything in’ and that bothered her.

Caroline said that there were many other books on slavery which were better written. Ones she mentioned include The Kitchen House (Kathleen Grissom), The Book of Night Women (Marlon James), and Property (Valerie Martin).

We did discuss my concerns about American Dirt. Jennie  pointed out, and I think on this point I agree with her and I was wrong before, that Whitehead may be privileged but he would still be judged by the colour of his skin and he would still have trauma as part of his history and this gave him the right to write about slavery. Although I now feel that he had an authentic voice, it doesn’t detract from my view that Jeanine Cummins also had a right to write American Dirt.  

Most of us also felt it unfair that Whitehead was able to deploy literary techniques to heighten suspense and to bend the truth when Cummins was pilloried for it.  The vast majority of us preferred Cummins book.  As Jan said American Dirt had dark and light and was linear. With this one she was always wondering did I miss something?

I said it was interesting that this book won the Pulitzer. Anne-Marie and I have a theory that the Pulitzer is not always the best book as it is often a consensus choice. Much like the Oscars do not always go to the best movie. I certainly couldn’t see why The Overstory by Richard Powers won.  Jan said The Shipping News by Annie Proulx was an exception to this – it was excellent.

Even Jennie who I feel did enjoy this book pointed out that it was not one of Whiteheads best books and said we should try to read some of his other works. Jennie said for a more literal take on The Underground Railroad, the film Harriet, about Harriet Tubman was excellent and was available on Prime video.

Jennie did make me realise that I should check my privilege and that my earlier comments in this blog where disingenuous. She said, she doesn’t experience racism on a daily basis as Whitehead or other black Americans do, she can try to put herself in their position but she will never really understand what they are going through. Whatever she does it will never be enough.

Perhaps therefore this was a good choice for Black History Month, although not a great book, it has made me question my assumptions and made me more aware of inherent racism, even I hate to say it, my own and the importance of checking my privilege.

Reviews online

Interview with the author

Future books

Monday 2 November, ‘Three Women’ by Lisa Taddeo.

Monday 16 November ‘Leaving the Atocha Station’ by Ben Lerner.

Monday 30 November ‘American Wife’ by Curtis Sittenfeld.

Just because I can’t resist and I love Evita

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

This is a profoundly moving story of a perilous escape to El Norte (America) by a mother (Lydia) and her eight-year-old son (Luca) across Mexico. It deals with robberies, rape, dangerous journeys on the top of trains, through deserts all while being followed by members of a cruel cartel. Their journey is prompted by the massacre of Lydia’s family, including her husband Sebastian, a journalist who is trying to expose the cartel, at her niece Yenifer’s birthday party by the local cartel leader Javier.

The book moves at a dramatic pace and keeps you on the edge of your seat throughout. It has been described as a modern-day Odyssey (American Dirt – A Desperate Odyssey – The Guardian – by Beejay Silcox 15 January 2020). Don Winslow called it a ‘Grapes of Wrath of our times’, (Evening Standard – 31 March 2020 Katie Law).

There have also been a number of objections to this book. Firstly, along the lines of cultural appropriation and secondly because it is argued that it is inauthentic to the immigrant experience and poorly written. Those who argue it is inauthentic have often not even read the book or have read it with a preconception that it is poorly written or contrived.

The Latin American and Mexican community have argued it is wrong that a white woman’s version (Cummins is in fact of Puerto Rican dissent) of such an escape should garner so much attention whilst so many books by Latino authors with similar escape stories to American Dirt get ignored. One article quoted Latin works such as Enrique’s Journey by Sonia Nazario and The Beast by Oscar Martinex as being books that were not given the same attention. (American Dirt controversy explained article / American Dirt book- controversy explained). [NB I since found out at Bookclub that Nazario is in fact Argentinian not Mexican].

They also objected to Jeannie Cummins comments in her authors notes that ‘she wished someone browner than her had written the book’ and that she emphasised because her husband was also an undocumented illegal, when in fact he was actually Irish, not Latino.

I don’t think that she had no right to write this book because she was white. I think that is a kind of reverse racism. I do think her motives were good and I do think she tried her best to meticulously research this book. I think perhaps her authors note at the end of the book was clumsy and her wording could have been a bit better, but it was heartfelt.

It is wrong that Latino authors are underrepresented in the literary world and can’t get taken on by publishers because of structural racism but does that mean that she shouldn’t be published because she is white?  Especially as by all accounts Cummins motives and intentions are to humanise and personalise the struggle that immigrants face and put a face to their suffering in order to end prejudice and persecution. Objectors are shooting themselves in the foot – this book has raised the profile dramatically of the plight that immigrants face. Isn’t that a good thing?

This was a book I couldn’t put down. It kept me riveted from beginning to end.

So what did Bookclub think?

Jan started off the meeting by confronting the controversy head-on saying that Cummins had been accused of cultural liberties and of turning a serious immigration issue into a thriller. She agreed with me that it was great as a thriller and said that by turning it into a thriller it had allowed her to reach a wider audience.

We discussed Cummins’ cultural background and her husband’s.  Jan pointed out that Cummins was born in Spain to parents who were stationed there and she had no connection with Mexico. We talked about how her husband who was Irish and not a Mexican illegal and Anne-Marie said that the Irish were hardly ever deported as there were so many Irish in the INS and FBI.

We talked about Cummins motivation for writing the novel. Jan said that she had hesitated writing it from a Mexican perspective but that the grief over the loss of her father gave her the courage to write it from a Mexican perspective and that she had researched the book for over five years.

I asked why a white person couldn’t write the book and if that was a form of reverse racism? Michelle said no, it wasn’t so much an inditement of her, it was an inditement of the publishing industry. They were arguing that if you were not white you couldn’t get a publishing deal. It was a criticism of structural racism in the publishing industry.

Lisa asked why weren’t there other Mexican writers? She said it was probably because they had more at stake. Maybe they didn’t want to write their stories because they were scared there would be retribution to their families at home.

Anne-Marie said it was sad that sometimes people wanted a white face to tell the story. She said it was like ‘A Million Little Pieces’ by James Frey which turned out to be fake; if the story hadn’t been told by a preppie American maybe it wouldn’t have been so popular.

Lisa felt like many of us, that controversy had increased sales, even the use of barbed wire on the front of the book and her not going to a signing because of a security threat added to the publicity and sales of this book.

Many at bookclub felt like Michelle, that it didn’t feel authentic, that there were too many plot lines that didn’t make sense. Jan also asked ‘did all the stories need to me there’, for example the boy who broke his leg or the Marisol story. She felt some of the stories particularly the latter did not make sense.  

Michelle also felt it was implausible that they wouldn’t have believed they were in danger and they would have taken more precautions. She did however also feel that Cummins had done a lot of research and tried to ‘put every horrific thing’ into the story. She felt the Marisol story was added because it was a hot topic and that people who previously felt safe in America no longer did – and that was why it was added to the mix. Cummins was trying to achieve a purpose by including it.

Lisa also said that she liked the Guardian article that referred to this book as ‘Trauma Porn’ and she had also read a review that compared Lydia to a pearl bag clutching American tourist. Caroline felt it read like a movie.

LA Bestia

Anne-Marie said there were things that were implausible.  A women of comparative wealth like Lydia would never have ridden on La Bestia the train, only the poorest of the poor do, she would have got a friend to drive her to the border. She said it was easy to find people to take you across the border. Anne-Marie in her research as a journalist there had found someone in an hour once.  She said it was almost as if Cummins book was a pastiches of all the facts she had. Jan agreed it was implausible and said that she would have been able to download Lucas birth certificate from a website if she had wanted to. She just needed that as a plot device so she could talk about La Bestia. Yulia agreed and said she would have known she needed documents.

Caroline felt that Javier was implausible. Anne-Maire who had covered the cartels for a major American newspaper in Tijuana said it was not uncommon for drug cartel leaders to dress well or be well read. Jane said it was wrong to stereotype drug lords and that there must be some highly educated ones. Anne-Marie said that she liked what someone had said, that in a better society the narcos would be a Bill Gates, it was just because of lack of opportunity that they became narcos.

We talked about the cartels in Mexico generally. Anne-Marie said 60-80% of Mexico was controlled by cartels. Yulia said it was a good time to publicise the cartels. Michelle had said that she was smart to choose her setting as Acapulco which conjured up glamour. It was if she was trying to depict a fall. Anne-Marie said that Acapulco was beset by cartel violence. She told a true story about ten labourers who had all gone to Acapulco on holiday but who were all shot as they were mistaken for people in another cartel. Jane asked if any of the Americans in the group would still go to Mexico. Jan said she would, but she would wear a money belt and be careful. Anne-Marie said parts of Mexico are still fine, she would stay in the Yucatan but places like Acapulco and Puerto Vallarta are dangerous. There is extortion everywhere.

How true was it to the immigrant experience? Anne-Marie had a friend who was a journalist in Mexico who said the book was awful, but again she hadn’t read it. But as Anne-Marie said, this book is going to become a first reference for many in America and at least it publicises the issues. Others like Caroline thought it was probably a good representation of what was actually going on.

Yulia felt that adding Spanish words to the text was unnecessary. You knew they were Spanish, why add Spanish phrases? Anne-Marie agreed and said yes it did sound a bit cartoonish. It was like Ricky Ricardo saying Ay Caramba in a I love Lucy episode.

Jan felt the ending was an anti-climax in that she ended up as a cleaner in Maryland. Yulia hated it that in the end when she was struggling for money Lydia bought expensive books. She felt that was implausible. I didn’t understand how one of the books that she bought was ‘Love In the Time of Cholera’,  a book that Javier had talked to her about  – surely she wouldn’t buy a book that had a connection with him. Michelle had a hard time believing in their relationship from the beginning, let alone why she wanted a connection with him after all he had done.

Putting all the controversies aside Jane did feel it was well written. She said it was vivid and she was scared for them, particularly when they jumped on the train. Anne-Marie said it was very effective that it was written in the present tense.

For all the criticism Cummins has brought this important issue to the surface. As Michelle said – it gives you pause to think and makes you think about the stories.

It is interesting that Anne-Marie said that ‘The Pearl’ by Steinbeck was a better story of Mexican migration. He wasn’t criticised for not being Mexican.

Despite this we all wanted to know how it ended.

Reviews of the book online

This reviewer hasn’t read the book, but has interesting things to say about the controversy. Read the comments below where one commenter has said that decorating the room with barbed wire centre pieces at the function was akin to celebrating the release of ‘The Tattooist of Auschwitz’ by decorating a room as a gas chamber.

This is also an interesting clip on the controversy, all the authors on the panel say that her writing did not ring true, but they also all admit at various times that they haven’t read the book.

Up coming books:-

19 October Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead 

2 November Three women by Lisa Taddeo

Virtual activities:

There are some great talks being run by the National Gallery on Zoom. Many of them are free. My husband and I are going to one with Michael Palin which unfortunately is now fully booked. Details of other talks can be found here

If you still want to see Tenet but don’t want to risk going to a public cinema, it is playing this Friday at the Drive In in Enfield. All films are 50 % off in October.

There is also a heap  of interesting  events been run for Black History Month some of which you can find here:-