2010

JANUARY

The Wind Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

Toru Okada’s cat has disappeared and this has unsettled his wife, who is herself growing more distant every day. Then there are the increasingly explicit telephone calls he has started receiving. As this compelling story unfolds, the tidy suburban realities of Okada’s vague and blameless life, spent cooking, reading, listening to jazz and opera and drinking beer at the kitchen table, are turned inside out, and he embarks on a bizarre journey, guided (however obscurely) by a succession of characters, each with a tale to tell.

One member summed the book up as ‘completely doolally’ which seems a fair enough way of describing Murakami and this surreal doorstep of a book. Due to snow, it wasn’t the biggest group meeting, but those of us who were there really enjoyed it and were glad to read it (or re-read it as many of the members had). We found the fact that Murakami could create such a grand book from a simple case of a wife leaving her husband incredible. We all enjoyed the surrealism and the fact that it didn’t all tie up nicely. Despite the fact we generally felt the final third part of the book lacked something, we would recommend this for great discussion and would more likely than not read him again!

The choice of: Linda

Group Rating: 7.8

FEBRUARY

Les Liaisons Dangereuses (Dangerous Liaisons) by Choderlos de Laclos

The complex moral ambiguities of seduction and revenge make Les Liaisons dangereuses (1782) one of the most scandalous and controversial novels in European literature. The subject of major film and stage adaptations, the novel’s prime movers, the Vicomte de Valmont and the Marquise de Merteuil, form an unholy alliance and turn seduction into a game – a game which they must win. This new translation gives Laclos a modern voice, and readers will be able a judge whether the novel is as ‘diabolical’ and ‘infamous’ as its critics have claimed, or whether it has much to tell us about the kind of world we ourselves live in.

Overall, the group really enjoyed the evil doings and wicked plottings of Merteuil and Valmont. Sadly one member hated it, did not finish it and only gave it 1 our of 10!! (The rest of us averaged about 8 out of 10!) Those of us who finished it agreed that while it did drag somewhat in the middle, we loved the characters and all the mischievous goings on enough to continue through to the end, which paid off dividends. The ending was marvellous! We also agreed Laclos wrote brilliantly and we loved how every letter could instantly put you in the head of its author. The book proved great for group discussion, recommended!

The choice of: Polly

Group rating: 7.5

MARCH

July’s People by Nadine Gordimer

For years, it has been what is called a ‘deteriorating situation’. Now all over South Africa the cities are battlegrounds. The members of the Smales family – liberal whites – are rescued from the terror by their servant, July, who leads them to refuge in his native village. What happens to the Smaleses and to July – the shifts in character and relationships – gives us an unforgettable look into the terrifying, tacit understandings and misunderstandings between blacks and whites.

Not what any of us expected when we had read the blurb, especially once we all discovered it was Gordimer’s vision of the future, not fact. Unusually written, this is an interesting story of role reversal as the whites flee the cities in South Africa and one man saves his former employers. This results in a struggle of power and change of life ensues. All in all, a great book for generating discussion, not only about the book itself but also our own reading habits and expectations. We didn’t all love it (most of us liked it) but we would recommend it for a book group choice.

The choice of: Anne-Lise

Group rating: 7.5

APRIL

The Weight of a Mustard Seed by Wendell Steavenson

If you are unable to protect yourself from a tyrant, how can you protect your family? And how does a proud man live with that knowledge? Reminiscent in part of “Stasiland” and “The Bookseller of Kabul”, this is the story of one family’s struggle to survive the iniquities of Saddam Hussein’s savage dictatorship. It is a career-defining book for Wendell Steavenson. In “The Weight of a Mustard Seed”, Wendell Steavenson tells the story of General Kamel Sachet, a decorated hero of the long Iran-Iraq war and a favourite of Saddam Hussein’s. As Steavenson reveals the emotional and psychological scars the Sachet family suffer as a result of decades spent living with war and repression, she reaches towards the heart of a previously unspoken story of Iraq: a once prosperous nation, reduced by Hussein’s megalomania and paranoia to bankruptcy, corruption and impotence. The result is an intimate, startling and gripping account of the slow destruction of Sachet, his family and his country.

This was the Riverside Readers first foray into non-fiction — after the discussion it created we are pretty sure it won’t be the last. This was a thought-provoking (and in quite a few cases emotional) read, which caused us to look at reliable sources, credibility and the fact that such an awful situation is still going on while we all have a glass of something alcoholic and can natter about the book carefree whilst this still goes on. We did wonder about Wendell’s motives (which made some people less keen on the book), her sources and if what was translated to her was often the truth. We then went on to talk at some length about dictatorship and if social media is free from dictators, so a great discussion was had by all.

The choice of: Kim

Group rating: 7.5

MAY

I Am The Messenger by Markus Zusak

Meet Ed Kennedy—underage cabdriver, pathetic cardplayer, and useless at romance. He lives in a shack with his coffee-addicted dog, the Doorman, and he’s hopelessly in love with his best friend, Audrey. His life is one of peaceful routine and incompetence, until he inadvertently stops a bank robbery. That’s when the first Ace arrives. That’s when Ed becomes the messenger. . . Chosen to care, he makes his way through town helping and hurting (when necessary), until only one question remains: Who’s behind Ed’s mission?
I Am the Messenger is a cryptic journey filled with laughter, fists, and love.

We were all a little mixed in our feelings about this book. Most of us really enjoyed reading it and yet at the same time didn’t think it was in danger of being the best book we had ever read. The ‘I am a bit clever me’ ending from the author sort of ruined it all for us a bit — we would rather have been left in mystery. We also had an interesting discussion on ‘young adult’ fiction and what makes a ‘cross-over’ book.

The choice of: Simon

Group rating: 6.5

JUNE

Red April by Santiago Roncagliolo

This is an internationally acclaimed political thriller by one of Latin America’s most important and exciting young writers, the winner of Spain’s coveted Alfaguara Prize. Translated by one of our most celebrated literary translators, Edith Grossman, “Red April” is quite simply a must read for anyone who loved Roberto Bolano’s “The Savage Detectives and 2666″. “Red April” evokes Holy Week during a cruel, bloody, and terrifying time in Peru’s history, shocking for its corrosive mix of assassination, bribery, intrigue, torture, and enforced disappearance – a war between grim, ideologically driven terrorism and morally bankrupt government counterinsurgence. Mother-haunted, wife-abandoned, literature-loving, quietly eccentric Felix Chacaltana Saldivar is a hapless, by-the-book, unambitious prosecutor living in Lima. Until now he has lived a life in which nothing exceptionally good or bad has ever happened to him. But, inexplicably, he has been put in charge of a bizarre and horrible murder investigation. As it unfolds by propulsive twists and turns – full of paradoxes and surprises – Saldivar is compelled to confront what happens to a man and society when death becomes the only certainty. Remarkable for its self-assured and nimble clarity of style, “Red April” is at once riveting and profound.

Half of the group thought this was a thriller and half of the group thought that this was more a novel about the political /religious/cultural climate in Peru. Either way, on the whole, we were all agreed that it was a very interesting and intriguing read that we probably wouldn’t have read if it hadn’t being a Riverside Readers choice. It’s not an easy read, both being gruesome and having a rather bizarre narrator, but it’s one that’s worth giving a try!

The choice of: Armen

Group rating: 6.5

JULY

Dead Babies by Martin Amis

Blitzed on uppers, downers, blue movies and bellinis, the bacchanalia bent bon-vivants ensconced at Appleseed Rectory for the weekend are reeling in an hallucinatory haze of sex and seduction. But as Friday melts into Saturday and Saturday spirals into Sunday and sobriety sets in, the orgiastic romp descends to disastrous depths.

Definitely not the book for a feint-hearted book group… which luckily the Riverside Readers are not! The shocking nature of the story was interestingly something that none of the group found that offensive by today’s standards; some of it was unpleasant, true enough, but not to the point any of us put the book down. It did make some of the group question the substance of the novel — was there much more to it than to shock? All enjoyed the loathesome characters, especially Giles and Keith (we all wanted more of Keith and his past), which can be really hard for authors to pull off. Great discussion ensued on how books from before the 1960s, which may have been ground breaking, can have less effect and even that ‘we’ve read it before’ feel because of books that follow afterwards and pay homage and occasionally do it better.

The choice of: Dom

Group rating: 6.5

AUGUST

Couples by John Updike

This is an intoxicating yet sensitive novel about the sexual experiences of ten couples from Tarbox, New England. Well-to-do, sociable, articulate but dangerously unfulfilled; they play word games in the evening and adultery all year round.’Couples’ is the book that has been assailed for its complete frankness and praised as an artful, seductive, savagely graphic portrait of love, marriage and adultery in America.

A deceptive doorstop of a book which most of us had rather to rush as book group came round sooner than we all expected (we know, we know you have a month to read a book) and yet had impressed us all both by its language, its subject matter and insight into the start of the post-pill ‘swinging’ sixties era and women’s roles at that time. Those who hadn’t read Updike before were incredibly impressed by his writing (though some weren’t sure it was the best introduction to him – interesting) and would definitely be reading much more of his works.Those who had read him before rated it. A good book for discussion and worth the effort you have to put in to read it.

The choice of: Claire

Group rating: 8

SEPTEMBER

The Lonely Londoners by Sam Selvon

We could only find this quote which summed the book up…

Reading Sam Selvon’s THE LONELY LONDONERS is precisely like being on a long bus journey with a talkative, eccentric and charming elderly black man. It’s written entirely as the West Indian characters speak (‘by and by he drift down to Whitelys. Suddenly he stand up and look back’), which gives the book an odd charm as Selvon (or Moses, the main narrator) rambles on about various colourful (in both senses of the word) immigrants in 1950s London. There’s no real plot, just anecdote after anecdote, but the writing style carries you along.

The group found this a most interesting book in the fact that they all loved and didnt love things about it which of course makes for great discussion. On the whole we were all quite blown away with how evocative the book was in terms of time and place, you can see the smoggy streets of 1950’s London and Selvin does it simply and effortlessly. However some found the creolized voice hard to get used to initially and then loved it, others started off loving it and then found the jumping narrative in no exact voice hard to get a grip on, emotionally engage with and just ended up being confused before loving it again at the end. An interesting book and one that will cause some great discussion, one discussion about the cover picture and author picture went on for ages!

The choice of: Linda

Group rating: 7

OCTOBER

On The Beach by Nevil Shute

After the war is over, a radioactive cloud begins to sweep southwards on the winds, gradually poisoning everything in its path. An American submarine captain is among the survivors left sheltering in Australia, preparing with the locals for the inevitable. Despite his memories of his wife, he becomes close to a young woman struggling to accept the harsh realities of their situation. Then a faint Morse code signal is picked up, transmitting from the United States and the submarine must set sail through the bleak ocean to search for signs of life.

On the Beach is Nevil Shute’s most powerful novel. Both gripping and intensely moving, its impact is unforgettable.

On the Beach was for most of the group, a book that crept up on us. Shute’s cool, calm language made shocking events seem almost ordinary (to the point of being a little dull in parts), but as the book continued, a sense of unease formed. Some parts of the book were found to be comically implausible and over-dry which left a couple of members cold, but we all loved one character in particular – the brandy-soaked floosy Miss Moira Davidson. Overall, clever character development and cinematic scene-setting laid the foundations for a deeply moving story about how people behave when they know they are living on borrowed time.

The choice of: Polly

Group rating: 8

NOVEMBER

If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller by Italo Calvino

You go into a bookshop and buy If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller by Italo Calvino. You like it. But alas there is a printer’s error in your copy. You take it back to the shop and get a replacement. But the replacement seems to be a totally different story. You try to track down the original book you were reading but end up with a different narrative again. This remarkable novel leads you through many different books including a detective adventure, a romance, a satire, an erotic story, a diary and a quest. But the real hero is you, the reader.

The whole book group agreed that If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller was an incredibly frustrating read due to the way that it is structured. Essentially a collection of unfinished stories with a post-modern narrative running through as the main theme, we were torn between feeling that Calvino’s ambition was impressive and also feeling that his style was a little pretentious and verging on patronising. We did give it credit for it’s originality and think it an interesting, and in parts, beautifully written –  for example we loved the first chapter which was all about the experience a book-lover encounters when entering a bookshop. We were all a little surprised at the final group rating being higher than we thought it would be! Challenging, irritating and intriguing all at the same time.

The choice of: Anirban

Group rating: 6.5

DECEMBER

Middlesex by Jeffery Eugenides

‘I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day of January 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of l974. My birth certificate lists my name as Calliope Helen Stephanides. My most recent driver’s license records my first name simply as Cal.’ So begins the breathtaking story of Calliope Stephanides, and three generations of the Greek-American Stephanides family who travel from a tiny village overlooking Mount Olympus in Asia Minor to Prohibition era Detroit, witnessing its glory days as the Motor City, and the race riots of l967, before they move out to the tree-lined streets of suburban Grosse Point, Michigan. To understand why Calliope is not like other girls, she has to uncover a guilty family secret, and the astonishing genetic history that turns Callie into Cal, one of the most audacious and wondrous narrators in contemporary fiction. Lyrical and thrilling, “Middlesex” is an exhilarating reinvention of the American epic.

For most of the book-groupers, Middlesex was an epic but enjoyable read, telling the story of the American Dream from a totally new angle. We found it sad in parts but also uplifting, with wonderful characters that we felt we really got to know. The unique narrative voice we all agreed was enjoyable although at times the odd comment seemed a little too omniscient to be believed, given the context (how did you know that had happened – you weren’t there!?). Overall though the group had an almost unanimously positive response to Eugenides spellbinding storytelling.

The choice of: David

Group rating: 8.5

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