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July 2018

Greetings everyone and welcome to our July Book Club! I can’t believe it’s July, we’re part way through summer already. Where is 2018 going?

 

So up on the block this time around we have Katherine Heiny’s Standard Deviation, which stands out as one of the funniest books I’ve read in the last year, and one that manages to be fantastically entertaining despite the fact there isn’t a huge amount of action.

 

At its heart Standard Deviation is very much about main characters Graham and Audra’s marriage. This is really the sun around which the whole novel rotates, so let’s start there and work our way outward. but interestingly isn’t a story about a marriage in crisis.

 

Novels that focus on relationships tend to capture a big event or take a snapshot of a significant moment in time. That’s why romance novels often cover the courtship or why some of the more prominent novels focused on the intricacies of a relationship centre on a marriage in crisis; both events have the capacity to be filled with tension and drama.  

 

In every novel, there’s a catalyst that makes the story worth telling – in stories fixated on relationships a couple need to meet and fall in love, or a relationship needs to crumble so that we have something to read about.

 

Movies and books often ignore the middle bits of long relationships because they don’t necessarily make for entertaining reading. So in this sense, Standard Deviation is already offering a unique perspective.

 

Graham and Audra are more than a decade into their marriage and are neither particularly happy or unhappy. They’re just getting on with the business of living, and the narrative is zoomed all the way in on the miniature daily dramas that make up a life.

 

On the surface, these two characters couldn’t be more opposite, and their differences are all the more glaringly obvious when Graham’s ex-wife, Elspeth, comes into the picture. (We’ll come back to her in a minute.)

 

So Audra and Graham are living in Manhattan and raising their 10-year-old son, Matthew, who has Aspergers. How Graham and Audra think about Matthew is where we really come to understand their differences in personality. Audra is determined to clear a path for Matthew to make his way into the world, while Graham mourns the fact that Matthew will never get to be ‘normal’.

 

Normal is an interesting idea in and of itself. Is being normal good or bad? At times all you want is to be normal, to fit the mould, to be like everyone else. Other times, being normal is the worst thing in the world, you want to be seen as an individual, not like everybody else. This question of normal says a lot about Graham and Audra’s worldview. When Audra thinks she might be pregnant, Graham worries their child might not be normal. Audra worries that they will be.

 

In the year or so we follow the family, there’s a few different things that could have easily turned into major issues – Audra’s emotional affair with the mysterious Jasper, as well as Graham’s growing closeness to his ex-wife Elspeth. Both have the opportunity to stray from the marriage, and both turn back at the last second. They weather the storm and move on.

 

I loved both these characters – by the end they felt like members of my own family – and something I particularly admired about the writing was how authentic they both felt.

 

They were likeable but distinctly imperfect. They said the wrong things and made mistakes. Audra could be tactless, Graham could be cold, and though they were each walking contradictions you ultimately came to like and accept them for who they were.

 

Their son Matthew was equally wonderful, and the scenes that revolve around him – his origami club, their trip to the origami convention, his visit to camp, the fishing expedition – were often charming, life-affirming and bittersweet.

 

My single favourite moment in the novel is when Matthew arrives home from camp, breathlessly announcing: “Camp–was–fantastic!”

 

I could vividly imagine Matthew bursting into the apartment and loved how beautifully the author captured this moment. Before Matthew arrives home Graham is restless, irritable. But that’s completely forgotten the second Matthew runs in, happy and disheveled – Graham’s joy is an extension of Matthew’s joy. And isn’t that always the way with the people we love? Their highs and lows become our own by association.

 

The final piece of the puzzle is Elspeth, Graham’s ex-wife. I have mixed feelings about her and the role she played in the story. She was the source of several plot twists – when she enters into their lives, when she invites Graham to have an affair, when she suddenly dies – but we’re still very disconnected from her.

 

Graham and Audra manage to spend more time with Elspeth and Bentrup than I do with several of my good friends, but we’re never privy to these interactions. We see snippets of conversation but the rest is told to us in summary.

 

Elspeth is actually very vividly rendered, we do get a sense of who she is – for example, when she abandons her cart in the grocery store because she doesn’t want to deal with running into Audra and Graham. That small interaction spoke volumes.

 

What bothered me about her is how little lasting impact she left on Graham and Audra. Graham is deeply shocked when she dies, but to call either him or Audra heartbroken would be a huge exaggeration. When they go into her apartment so Graham can choose one of her possessions, he’s more fixated on keeping score, spooling back through old arguments, than he is grieving her loss (though you could make the argument those two things are one in the same). And Audra seems not to care at all – she’s really just there to snoop around.

 

So if I was going to make one criticism of the story that would be it. Why after the story has spent so much time invested in Elspeth does no one seem to care when she’s died? She is a huge source of plot in the novel, then exits with a whimper rather than a bang.

 

There are dozens of small moments that pack huge emotional punch in this book. That’s what made it so fun to read; you feel the full force of Audra’s personality and all the people she brings into her orbit.

 

There is a very clear editorial decision being made here; there’s plenty of potential tension but the edges are always dulled, quickly passed over to make room for the novel’s true strength, which is observing family life and pulling at the things that are universal. The characters and their situation are unique, but also deeply relatable – we recognise the emotions they encounter, even if the experience itself is very different to our own situation.

 

There’s so many other things I could touch on – Graham’s assistant, the origami club (and the symbolic meaning of origami in general) – but it’s time for me to hand it over to you. What did you think of Standard Deviation? What bits stood out for you?

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June 2018

I am very excited to talk about the Upstairs Room – I’ve been patiently waiting for everyone to finish this one so we could talk about what happened here. It’s all so subtle that even weeks later I’m not entirely sure.

 

In the introduction to this month’s book I told you that how you felt about this book would depend on if you believe ghosts are real, and I want you to be ready to share your opinion – and whether your opinion changed as you read The Upstairs Room.

 

Modern ghost stories aren’t that easy to pull off because it’s often difficult to make them seem realistic.

 

Ghosts feel at home in historical novels – there’s room for plenty of misunderstandings without technology like the internet and telephone, and any era where there’s room for superstition is fertile ground for ghosts and hauntings.

 

So in this sense I found The Upstairs Room very satisfying – it managed to genuinely creep me out several times without my brain going screaming at me that would never happen.

 

The other great thing about the mysterious events in The Upstairs Room is you could argue they aren’t mysterious at all. Is something strange about the house or simply the people who live in it?

 

Let’s look at our two main characters and where they are; Richard and Eleanor are are both suffering from a bit of individual disillusionment as the gap between who they are and who they want to be gets wider.

 

Richard has dreams of being an academic, but can’t motivate himself to get there. Eleanor is married to someone she knows she doesn’t really love and is finding motherhood challenging and understimulating.

 

Her strategy with big decisions seems to be to simply choose the path of least resistance; we see this in real time when she agrees to buy a house she privately hates, and also through memories when we learn more about her ambivalence towards her marriage.

 

So when she starts feeling mysteriously ill, but the doctors can’t find anything wrong with her, it does raise the question (and Richard certainly raises it several times): are you ill or is this something else? Is this simply a case of her unhappiness, anxiety and stress manifesting in a very physical way?

 

That’s where Zoe becomes an interesting addition to the household. Unbeknownst to Eleanor, Zoe is also finding the house a little bit off, which makes it harder to simply shrug Eleanor off.

 

But then again, Zoe is also in the middle of an enormous upheaval; she’s left her long-term relationship and has basically decided to start over in the hope that she can build the life that she wants, even if she’s not sure yet what she really wants or how to get it.

 

You could very easily make the argument that it’s not the house or some supernatural force that’s causing it – it’s just Zoe working her way through a weird time.

 

And the let’s not forget Richard – Richard is completely oblivious to the weird goings-on of the household. He’s not feeling ill or having weird dreams or feeling oppressed by the house in any way (aside from feeling oppressed about how he’s going to pay for it). How is it that Eleanor and Zoe are struggling and he’s not?

 

As readers we also know that some of the creepy things aren’t creepy at all – Zoe doesn’t realise that some of what is freaking her out is just Richard rifling around in her room. And likewise, Zoe’s visit to the upstairs room is the cause of the door being open rather than it opening on its own. So we know at least some of what’s going on has a very straightforward explanation.

 

But then again there’s the dozens of other strange little things happening that aren’t as definitively explained – the name Emily scrawled all over the walls, objects moving around the house, the dead bird that falls from the ceiling, Rosie’s changed behaviour, comments from the neighbours, the fact that the real Emily keeps returning. Eleanor’s bizarre conversation with the woman that used to live there. What do we file all that under?

 

It’s also made more complex by the fact that Richard and Eleanor are on completely opposing sides – and that their confirmation bias is preventing them from considering other possibilities.

 

Every strange thing that happens reinforces Eleanor’s conviction that there’s something wrong with the house – as the book goes on it becomes an obsession with her.

 

For Richard, every strange thing that happens has a reasonable explanation – it reinforces his conviction that the problem starts and ends with Eleanor.

 

In all honesty, I hated Richard – he never listened to Eleanor. He didn’t really make the effort to try and believe her or come to any reasonable, helpful compromise. Telling her over and over that she’s just tired or would feel better after she rested drove me bananas.

 

And let’s not forget he also does eventually feel weird about the house too – in time he notices that something feels off and is also incredibly freaked out when the dead bird drops onto his desk.

 

So the fact that he still refuses to have an honest conversation or believe Eleanor when she tells him what’s happening was even more unforgivable. Because really, at the end of the day, whether you believe in it yourself or not – if it was so important to Eleanor, couldn’t he have simply got on board with bringing a medium into the house? Would that have been so hard?

 

And yet, when I really think about it, I wonder if I would behave much differently in his shoes? If you sunk all your money into a house that your wife swears is making her sick, yet the doctors say she’s fine and there’s nothing wrong with the house, what would you do? And if she became obsessed with the idea – how would you handle it?

 

Remember, this isn’t taking place over a weekend – Eleanor is on this for months. Even though I think Richard is wrong, I have to also admit that sustaining that much patience and empathy would be an extreme challenge.

 

And what about Eleanor? As readers, should we take Eleanor at her word? Or like Richard should we search for another explanation?

 

As a reader I was inclined to believe Eleanor, but as the book goes on the author makes it harder for us to stay on Eleanor’s side.

 

Just when you’re starting to feel like maybe this place is truly haunted, we get another glimpse into Eleanor’s psyche. As we learn more about how passive she’s been in all her biggest decisions, the idea that maybe she’s just having a panic attack about her life seems more plausible.

 

Is this the story of a haunted house or of a woman feeling suffocated by the decisions she’s made?

 

For example, let’s think about the (horrible, horrible) incident with the baby. It would be very difficult to argue that this is anything more than an accident, but for Eleanor this is the absolute last straw.

 

Unlike other incidents – like when Emily appears in front of the house – when Eleanor spills hot coffee on the baby what happened wasn’t really up for debate.

 

At the end of the day the single most tangible, terrifying thing that happens in the entire book had nothing to do with Emily or the house or Eleanor’s illness. Is this place haunted at all?

 

The characters are so preoccupied with the possibility of some malevolent force in the house that they’re missing the really scary things happening to them in reality.

 

Their unhappy marriage has the power to do a lot more damage, but they’re not paying attention enough to even realise it.

 

This is what I loved about The Upstairs Room. There’s something so clever and subtle going on here. I spent the entire novel terrified, reading with my shoulders tensed, wondering what was coming around the corner, but for most of the book the possibility of the supernatural was much more powerful than any actual supernatural events. I’m not even sure any supernatural events took place.

 

But then I think: how much proof does someone have to give to be believed?

 

Because this is a major theme in the book; proof and belief. Zoe is ultimately the only person who believes Eleanor and who treats Eleanor’s explanations with respect and openness.

 

Like Richard, she isn’t really sold on the whole exorcism thing – she wants to pull out – but she doesn’t. She believes Eleanor with very little proof. Which is more than we can say for Richard and more than I could say for myself at times too.

 

Is Eleanor entitled to be believed? Because if you believe Eleanor from page one, The Upstairs Room is very much a ghost story. If you don’t, then it’s a little less clear – for example, how do we account for the fact that everything went happily back to normal as soon as they moved?

 

Those are my thoughts – now I want to hear yours. Are ghosts real, yes or no?

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May 2018

I’ve been so excited to share Julie Buntin’s Marlena with you all this month – there are lots of Rare Birds out there who were looking for something a little darker and I knew this book would fit the bill.

 

The subject of female friendship, particularly teenage friendships and coming-of-age stories are enjoying a real moment right now in the book world.

 

I hesitate to call this a trend – stories about friendship will never truly go out of fashion – but nevertheless, Marlena is one of several books with a similar hook that have been published in the last little while.

 

It’s not hard to understand why; there’s so much to say about intense female friendships and how they shape our lives.

 

There were a few things I liked about this book in particular though that I think give it the edge over others in the same vein.

 

First, the writing style. The author does a brilliant job here of creating atmosphere and the way in which the story was told I thought was incredibly impressive and really added to the story overall.

 

Though it’s called Marlena, this novel is actually the story of Cat and what she defines as the most significant chapter in her life thus far.

 

The title alone tells us everything we need to know. This is Cat’s story – but the memory of Marlena looms so large that it literally eclipses everything, even at times, Cat’s identity.

 

The entire story is told in the present tense, but we alternate in time between the now, where she’s a 30-something self living in New York, and the memory of back then, when she’s a 15-year-old girl living in rural Michigan.

 

Cat begins at the beginning. She’s a lonely teenager in the midst of a family crisis, and it’s at this pivotal moment that she meets Marlena, the beautiful and mysterious girl who lives in the dilapidated barn next door.

 

At first it seems as though the book will wheel out the same old well-worn cliches about the Manic Pixie Dream girl; Marlena is beautiful, mysterious, damaged. And no one is more attached to the idea than Cat – she is completely enthralled by Marlena and drawn to the danger she represents.

 

But then as the story begins to move forward, we realise we’re not getting the ultra-romanticised story of a bright star that burns out rather than fades away.

 

Instead, the book establishes the cliche so that it can dismantle it piece by piece by showing us the bleak reality underneath. By the end Marlena’s death doesn’t read like a senseless tragedy but rather a sad and predictable conclusion that was already in motion long before Cat entered the picture.

 

Even though on the one hand Cat seems to know this, as an adult she wrestles so much with how to remember and represent Marlena, even to herself.

 

Her memories are steeped in a powerful combination of guilt and devotion. She tries again and again to avoid or forget the inconvenient truth about who Marlena was – first depicting her one way before forcing herself to fill in the blanks and acknowledge what was there in front of her all along.

 

It really made you think about memory and how we can manipulate memories to tell different stories by adding or leaving out a few details.

 

Cat is constantly remembering – amplifying certain moments, minimising others – and each time she does, she alters the truth slightly until how things were and how she remembers them are two very different things.  

 

Take her first real day of school as an example – on first telling, she and her friends seem like normal teenagers. Greg, Tidbit, Marlena and Cat have an uneventful day – what really strikes us is how happy Cat feels to have found a small sense of belonging. It’s touching and sweet.

 

But then with Omissions, Cat comes back and fills in all the other parts she left blank, forcing herself to share the things she’d prefer to forget.

 

Really, the whole novel is a drawn-out episode of Cat combing back through her memories and searching for a neater version of events. A sequence that makes sense. A happy ending. Some tangible cause and effect.

 

In telling her story she’s looking for the order she finds on the pages of the novels she reads. But real life doesn’t offer her a simple beginning, middle and end. She can never quite find that one definitive moment that could have changed everything.

 

What she really has are a series of memories she’s been able to go back and attach extra significance to. In each one she sees the foreshadowing and the part she played – the mistakes she made and how she contributed to Marlena’s demise.

 

Cat sees this period in Michigan as the beginning of her life, but often fails to recognise it wasn’t the beginning of Marlena’s. Marlena didn’t move into town; she’s been there all her life.

 

She was already into drugs and alcohol before Cat showed up – in fact, the only thing that really changed for Marlena is that she now had a close confidant to navigate and experience life with.

 

The question of how much Cat is to blame is also an interesting one, I think. How accountable should we hold Cat for what happened to Marlena?

 

She kept quiet when she could have helped and instead of using her privilege to steer her friend in a more positive direction, she leaned into the fantasy of rebellion and cast herself in the role of devoted spectator.

 

But then – can we really hold a fifteen year old girl responsible for being someone’s savior? Cat is painfully aware of each wrong turn she takes, and as a reader there were moments I wanted to hurl the book across the room in frustration.

 

But then again – she was also just a scared and lonely teenager trying to figure herself out and her place in the world. As an adult, Cat relays each story implying that deep down she knew she could and should behave better.

 

But how true can that really be when you’re 15? There’s a difference between knowing when something is wrong and really understanding the consequences. Both she and Marlena just didn’t have the tools to navigate the incredibly adult situations they found themselves in.

 

Addiction in particular isn’t something you can just wish away – it’s not as simple as turning to your friend and telling them to stop. Whether or not Cat made different decisions, she couldn’t ultimately control what was so much bigger than her.

 

Think about the guilt she feels about that pillbox pin – when she recalls giving it back to Marlena she also implies this is the moment that derailed her recovery.

 

She was on the road to becoming clean and sober and on some level Cat – still, as an adult – truly believes that her actions interfered with that. She might be right; maybe the pillbox tempted Marlena back to using prescription pills on some level.

 

But had she simply given her, I don’t know, say, a cardigan instead, can it honestly be said Marlena would have never touched a drug again in her life? Probably not. That’s the thing Cat misses when she sentences herself to a lifetime of guilt. She can change the details as much as she likes; the outcome is always the same.

 

The weight of the burden Cat is carrying has huge ramifications on the rest of her life. The trauma of Marlena’s death means Cat isolates herself instead of making new friends.

 

As an adult, she uses it to quietly justify her alcoholism, chasing the feelings from her teenage years. She also carefully guards Marlena’s memory as her own private secret – even her husband barely knows who Marlena was or what she meant to Cat. And then the one person who could truly understand and help Marlena heal – Jimmy – she keeps at arms length.

 

I want to talk about Jimmy in general, because of all the characters I think he deserves more than what he got from his sister.

 

Cat eventually comes to understand and value her mother for who she is, and recognises how reliable her mother is. Though she’s not perfect, Cat comes to realise her mother is the one who never leaves.

 

But let’s look at Jimmy in contrast. There’s four years between them but when the story takes place he’s also still a teenager – his life is also not going to plan. He puts his future on ice to take a job in a factory instead because he feels a huge sense of duty to support his mom and sister. This is not an easy reality for a kid of 19.

 

Both then and now Cat never truly bothers to know him – she disengages and pushes him away even in moments where he’s trying to connect.

 

The two of them are both very close to Marlena and her death shatters their lives in different ways. By sharing their pain openly the two had an opportunity to help each other heal. Instead, she’s fixated – again, possessive, even years later – about knowing Marlena’s last movements.

 

What she wants is to crawl inside that relationship and observe it, rather than respect that what unites them is that they each knew and loved Marlena in their own way.  

 

That even as an adult Cat can’t answer the question about whether or not Jimmy is happy is one that bothered me – I was attached to him and felt he deserved a lot more than what he got, both in life and from his relationships with his family.

 

If you were a fan of this one and are looking for something similar, let me point you in the direction of Emma Cline’s The Girls. This one follows a similar trajectory, but instead of rural Michigan it’s set in California in 1969 – the story is imagined right alongside the Charles Manson murders.

 

If friendship is a topic you like reading about, Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend is very much worth your time. Don’t let the slightly lacklustre cover of that one fool you; there’s lots to sink your teeth into.

 

There’s a ton more I could say on Marlena one but I’m going to leave it there and turn it over to you. What did you think of Cat and Marlena? Did you recognise any of your own teenage friendships in theirs? What about the topics of addiction, privilege, and memory? What stood out for you?  

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April 2018

Conversations With Friends has been on my radar for a long time – I was really excited to share this one and am excited to hear what you all think!

 

There’s a couple of reasons I picked this one. The first is that it’s incredibly readable; as a narrator Frances is just straight to the point. There’s no time wasted on detailed descriptions – you launch straight in and very quickly there’s a lot going on.  

 

The second reason I knew this would be a great book club pick is because it challenges how we think and points out all sorts of absurdities about people and relationships both in large and small ways. This book is a masterclass in sharp observation, and I don’t just mean the observations Frances makes directly.

 

I loved the small passing ironies – like how at a dinner party our characters end up talking about the evils of society and capitalism, yet they’re all wealthy, privileged and benefitting hugely from many of the things they claim to hate.

 

Or the bigger themes that we confront again and again.

 

Take communication for example. This book has a lot to say about how we have conversations and how what’s left unsaid can often be just as strong a form of communication as speaking directly.

 

In the novel, technology facilitates communication between characters – many of the most important conversations happen not face to face but through a phone or a screen.

 

This is especially true of Frances and Nick.

 

Without email and text their affair wouldn’t have been a possibility – a huge chunk of their relationship is spent chatting or emailing back and forth. Technology allows them to communicate but eventually also prevents them from communicating honestly.

 

From behind their screens they’re each able to present a version of themselves and leave out anything that’s messy, inconvenient, or doesn’t fit with their portrayal of themselves to each other.

 

Think about what Frances is doing when she’s talking to Nick. She feels deeply about Nick – it’s almost an obsession – but uses technology as her shield to pretend she doesn’t feel anything at all.

 

In this form her conversations with Nick aren’t just words; they’re keepsakes. She scrolls through texts and emails again and again, analysing and re-analysing the things they’ve said.

 

I love this idea – it’s so relevant. How many times have you had an argument with a friend over text or tried to squeeze every last drop of meaning out of an ambiguous text from a love interest?

 

We hold on to emails and texts and use them as clues, momentos, evidence. When we speak in person words are spoken, then forgotten; they evaporate. When we speak to each other through a screen they can be memorialised and revisited again and again, interpreted each time in different ways.  

 

Or let’s look at it from another angle. Frances struggles to communicate using her voice yet can powerfully communicate using her words. Her relationship with Bobbi is unbalanced because Frances can rarely find a way to communicate what she’s thinking and feeling – their friendship fractures because Frances is able to write about Bobbi but not share any of that information with her directly.

 

Or how about how a lack of communication can also be a powerful weapon. Bobbi knows how to use secrets to keep the upper hand in their friendship, and Frances also eventually follows suit. The two of them both use secrets to show their power over the other.

 

I’m just scratching the surface here. Appearance and the body are other interesting themes you could explore. Think about how Frances thinks of her body, and how she uses it. She harms herself in an effort to control her body; her body controls her actions by desiring Nick.

 

Or take the fact Nick is so good looking. He’s not described in terms of anything else. For the fact he’s such an important character in the novel we know comically little about him. That he’s handsome seems to be his defining characteristic. We’re reminded of it again and again and again.

 

When Frances is talking to Nick she relentlessly looks up photos and videos of him. For much of the book he’s closer to a fascinating object than an actual living, breathing (and flawed!) human being.

 

The biggest theme though, of course, is relationships. There’s just so much to unpack here.

 

Let’s start with what we accept as good, bad and normal when it comes to relationships.

 

In broad strokes: affairs are bad. Close friendships are good.

 

Now let’s look at how the novel manages to turn these ideas upside down.

 

Nick and Frances more closely fit the profile of what we’d traditionally call a dysfunctional relationship – they’re having an affair, after all, and that by definition is ‘bad’.

 

Yet by the time they’re dating openly their relationship is actually very functional and stable.

 

Contrast this with Frances and Bobbi. On the surface these two present like best friends and creative partners, and are treated by almost everyone who knows them as a unit. We see this as normal, healthy, good.

 

Yet the dynamic between the two of them is completely dysfunctional. They’re jealous and possessive of one another and Frances really struggles to relax and show her true self to Bobbi most of the time.

 

They’re both obsessed with being clever and having intellectual conversations, yet are never really able to discuss the things that are actually most important to them.

 

Or take at how the book approaches the concept of marriage.

 

Nick and Melissa are married, but Bobbi and Frances both see this relationship as dysfunctional and failing.

 

Whether it is or not is a point we could argue – the number of times they’ve had affairs or been on the brink of separation certainly suggests their marriage is a mess.

 

Yet in other ways it does seem to work for them. Frances and Bobbi’s take on their marriage is naive; it doesn’t make many allowances for the complexities of adult relationships.

 

When sifting through the evidence even Frances is eventually forced to acknowledge that they clearly love each other. Nick’s loyalty is ultimately to Melissa even when he’s having the affair. And if you want to take it one step further – it was only when Melissa found out about their affair and ultimately granted Nick permission that him and Frances began to thrive.

 

Is this a marriage that’s failing or a snapshot of a complicated couple working through a difficult time?

 

So jump forward to the end of the book and it feels a bit like we’ve hit the reset button in a way. Nick and Frances are finished. Nick and Melissa are still together and moving forward as a unit of two.

 

When Frances hits rock bottom, it’s Bobbi who is there, and the two of them start turning a corner. They’re back together and for a minute it feels like everything is as is should be.

 

But then Bobbi refuses to acknowledge that the two of them are back together, and before Frances has an opportunity to make meaning of that she finds herself back on the phone with Nick.

 

The two of them have their most honest conversation in the book ever – notice how Frances is able to confide in him and in return how vulnerable he ends up being with her.

 

We end on a bit of a cliffhanger – I actually found myself yelling out nooooo when Frances asks Nick to pick her up.

 

I liked Nick – but ultimately as a reader my loyalty is to Frances. And by the end of the book I firmly felt that Frances needed to get away from both Bobbi and Nick. These relationships weren’t healthy for her.

 

And she has some incredibly complicated and unresolved issues to deal with by the end of the book – with herself, with her health, with her family.

 

I couldn’t help but feel the best thing for Frances would be to go and get herself a job somewhere else and figure out who she is on her own.

 

I have now said more than enough – it’s over to you! What did you think of Conversations with Friends? And, more importantly – do you think Nick picked her up?

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March 2018

There were moments earlier this month when I wondered if we were going to ever make it to our March book discussion after the bad weather delayed your book deliveries, so I’m really happy we’re finally here to discuss Jane Steele.

 

I know a lot of you waited two weeks before your book arrived and I really am sorry for that – the so-called Beast from the East and then Storm Emma really threw a spanner in the works. At least it was worth the wait. (right?)

 

This book was actually one of the first titles I knew I wanted to send with the book subscription. It’s exactly the kind of book I’m always looking for; one that’s smart and fun and interesting but was never going to get the kind of attention that would propel it to the bestseller charts.

 

Some of that comes down to snobbery – so often critics and booksellers reserve their praise for really highbrow literary fiction, that anything that doesn’t fall into that category ends up overlooked, forgotten or ignored.

 

Part of what I’m here to encourage you to do with this book club is branch out and enjoy all different types of reading. We all need variety – if we get stuck in a rut reading only one genre or only one type of book we miss out on all the wonderful things happening elsewhere.

 

In my opinion you don’t need help finding what’s on the bestseller lists – Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine is a brilliant book, but also one that’s in just about every window at every bookstore around the country. It’s getting plenty of attention. I’m here to bring some balance and offer attention to the Jane Steeles of the world instead.  

 

So we’ve established Jane Steele is a book close to my heart. Now let’s get into what it’s all about.

 

Strictly speaking this isn’t a retelling of Jane Eyre – it’s a pastiche. What I mean by that is that this book imitates the style of Jane Eyre and is also a (loving) parody of it. By changing the story the author also draws attention to what’s ridiculous about it, and actually there is a lot that’s ridiculous about Jane Eyre.

 

Charles Thornfield’s big skeleton in the closet is pretty much literally a skeleton in the closet – he’s running a morgue from his basement.

 

In contrast, Rochester’s big dark secret is that he’s hiding his mad wife in the attic in solitary confinement and attempting to consign her to history by marrying his governess instead. (Which, I think we can all agree, is way worse)

 

Jane Eyre is so often depicted as a romantic story, and Rochester is right up there with Mr Darcy in terms of brooding, highly fanciable leading men.

 

But a lot of his actions are pretty inexcusable, and it wasn’t until I was thinking about Charles Thornfield in comparison that I realised just how problematic he can be. (but that’s a conversation for another day)

 

The two heroines are alike in some ways – both resourceful – but also very different.

 

Unlike Jane Eyre, who is rigidly bound by the rules of society, Jane Steele lives on the fringes of society and makes her own rules.

 

This book also plays with all the same themes present in Jane Eyre – both Janes grapple with identity, guilt and goodness. Both are called wicked, both eventually come to realise why they aren’t.  

 

But of course the original Jane Eyre isn’t a murderer, and Jane Steele is – five times over. I’m not sure I ever truly had an opinion on whether or not I enjoyed reading about murder before, but in this book I loved it.

 

One of my favourite scenes is when Jane kills her headmaster Vesalius Munt. She tells us that he had been ‘felled by a strangely skillful blow, as if i had studied the act, when in fact I had simply decided he should stop being alive.’

 

The way she matter-of-factly describes how he came to be dead was one of the things I liked best about this character and what made her a charming narrator I could go the distance with.

 

Jane Steele certainly borrows elements of mystery and thriller, but it’s not really accurate to call it a thriller as such.

 

Even in its most climactic moments it didn’t really feel like all that much was at stake – as a reader I was always pretty confident that everything would work out in the end, even if I wasn’t sure how it would work out. It’s written to entertain us rather than make us truly nervous.

 

This is a clear decision on the part of the author and one I mostly agreed with – what it sacrifices in nail-biting tension it makes up for with energy, wit and plot.

 

But looking back on the story, there is a crucial moment where we need more tension and we don’t really get it – and that was when Jane confronts Garima Kaur.

 

The mystery of the missing jewels was becoming more fraught – we knew we’re building up to something. And that something is a confession.

 

In the space of a few pages Garima Kaur moves from being a barely noticeable secondary character to being the person that connects every single mystery in the book.

 

The reason we never truly know her better makes perfect sense – the reader can’t have the opportunity to figure it out too soon – but it also meant that in this case when it does all come together it all felt a little flat.

 

In the space of a short conversation the mystery is solved. Did Jane even solve it? Not really. She was just around to hear the confession.

 

Kaur’s revelations should be like a punch to the gut. She has been overlooked, ignored and betrayed by the people who she believed should love her.

 

Kaur’s hurts are real, but they don’t have much emotional impact for us as readers because we barely know her.

 

Through Jane we’re told to consider Kaur’s point of view, but never really have the chance to feel it.

 

That’s not to say the confrontation isn’t pacey – the scene with Jane and Garima leads to Sardar losing his hand and Sahjara being kidnapped. The only piece that was missing here was heart.

 

We don’t know Garima well enough to feel empathy for her, and without it, when she falls from the horse and dies it almost didn’t matter.

 

She was a shadow, and then a crucial character, then a shadow again. As a plot device, Garima is very important, but as a character, she’s poorly rendered.

 

While I’m pointing out things that didn’t work for me, the other one I’ll highlight is the dialogue.

 

That the author was American, and not British, felt really obvious to me on more than one occasion. Some of the turns of phrase just weren’t quite right.

 

For the most part, it was something I noticed and then forgot. But once or twice – usually when Charles Thornfield was talking – the language felt so off that it took me right out of the story and really didn’t do justice to a book that for the most part I felt was very strong.

 

Dialogue aside however, once I got into this book – and it didn’t take long – I didn’t want to put it down. 400 pages felt like half that length and I flew through it in just a couple of days. I hope you had a similar experience.

 

Now, tell me: what did you think of Jane Steele? Did you like the book, and the character it’s named after? And what about Charles Thornfield? Smouldering hero or uptight glove-wearing weirdo?

 

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February 2018

It feels like Christmas morning over here at Rare Birds HQ – I have been patiently waiting for the day we could finally discuss the Girl in the Tower and that day is finally here!

 

The Girl in the Tower is the second installment of a fairytale fantasy series set in Medieval Russia starring Vasilisa Petrovna.

 

The book has been carefully marketed by its publisher both as a sequel and a stand-alone novel, and I’ve put that claim heavily to the test this month by tossing us in part way through the series.

 

It’s not usually my practice to read a series out of order, but I think it’s a good way to test how strong a story really is.

 

Can you start part way through and understand it? Does it feel like you’ve missed something? And crucially – does it feel like this story is just a waiting room before the real story takes place in the next book?

 

In my opinion, this book works – you can pick up The Girl in the Tower and read it on its own.

 

If you loved it, The Bear and the Nightingale (ie. the book that comes before GITT) is also a compelling and atmospheric read – but with mostly a different cast of characters and a completely different focus.

 

That disclaimer over, let’s get into the book.

 

There’s a huge amount of information to take in when you start reading, and a large glossary at the back of the book to help explain many of the words and ideas that feature in the book, so I’ll focus mostly on what’s actually going on in the story rather than dig any deeper into the background.

 

I don’t often read in this genre and I already know from your feedback that this was pushing many of you to the edge of your comfort zone with what you usually choose for yourselves. I hope though once you got into it you found it rewarding – I quickly went from a skeptic to a firm fan of this series.

 

Long-standing members of our book club will have heard me mention my ambivalence to the prologue before. As a plot device, it offers a bit of foreshadowing, usually at the expense of dramatic tension later on.

 

Prologues seem to be extremely fashionable in publishing at the moment, so I can’t say I was entirely surprised to see it used here.

 

I’ll allow it – I think it serves its purpose. Part One lays the foundation for much of the action to come, and our heroine Vasya naturally isn’t included in this yet.

 

The prologue introduces us to the two most significant characters (Vasya, Morozko) before quickly moving us along so we can start to understand the wider world the story will take place in.

 

The opening chapters are confusing but effective – it’s sort of like when you go swimming and plunge your head underwater for the first time.

 

You’re cold, you’re flailing around, trying to get used to the sensation of water all around you. Then suddenly you’ve acclimatised and you’re not freezing and shocked – you’re simply swimming.

 

By the time we meet Vasya again we know where the conflict is coming from; there’s a group of bandits raiding villages, we’ve met Kasyan, we’re starting to understand the dynamic between Sasha and Dmitrii and we’ve caught a glimpse of the developing relationship between Vasya and Morozko.

 

And in fact, the moments in the forest with Vasya and Morozko were among my favourite scenes in the book.  I am all about the Winter King; his begrudging admiration for Vasya and his inner turmoil as he realises he’s falling in love with her. I loved every moment of their star crossed love and how she demands things of him no one else would dare.

 

Vasya’s bravery is evident on pretty much every page, and something I liked about the book was that it always showed us the cost.

 

And a lot of what happens in the book is trouble of her own making. She’s not a victim of circumstance (the way you might argue Olga is, for example) – her arrogance and selfishness leads her into trouble that could have been easily avoided if she made different decisions.

 

This is what makes her a great heroine – she’s not perfect. She’s brave and resourceful, but she’s also often wrong and misguided.

 

You feel all the turmoil of her transition from childhood to adulthood – she makes decisions and has to live with the consequences of her actions, both good and bad.

 

She assumes that the life available to her – Olga’s life – will be unbearable, choosing an alternative path, but that one doesn’t necessarily bring with it the freedom she hoped.

 

We wouldn’t exactly accuse her of having a good time when she’s travelling through the forest, and when she arrives in Moscow, living as a boy is nearly as restrictive. The decisions she makes for herself have ramifications for others; in suiting herself she often puts her brother, sister, niece and even Morozko in danger.

 

The contrast between Vasya and Olga’s lives is stark. And on my first read of Girl in the Tower, I didn’t like Olga. I felt she lacked spirit. But as the story goes on the more you’re made to realise that she also exhibits a great deal of courage herself, albeit in a different way.

 

Olga took the road Vasya refused to travel – instead of running away from home as a teenager, Olga dutifully got married and learned to live within the restricted confines of what is expected of her.

 

By the time Vasya meets her again, a lot more is at stake for Olga. She is making decisions and sacrifices too, and with a lot more care for others than Vasya often shows. Where Vasya is selfish, Olga is much more controlled – Vasya is willing to risk her life but Olga is willing to make a sacrifice of it.

 

While the whole book is incredibly pacey, everything really turns on the final four chapters.

 

So to recap: Kasyan has exposed Vasya’s secret and asked Vasya to marry him. Olga nearly dies in labour until Vasya intervenes and chooses that the baby should die instead. Vasya discovers she’s wearing a piece of Morozko’s soul and rejects it (Call me, Morozko – I’ll wear it…).

 

Elsewhere, Sasha figures out what’s going on and sets off to save Dmitrii, and possibly Moscow, and the two of them eventually make up and and are fighting side by side again. Vasya releases a Firebrand that proceeds to set fire to Moscow.

 

Meanwhile, Kasyan kidnaps Olga’s daughter for his evil schemes, reveals himself as a powerful sorcerer who once loved a woman called Tamara. Her ghost appears, there’s a bit of a chat, Kasyan dies, Vasya rescues Marya then runs back into the burning city to drag Morozko into the land of the living, make it snow and save the city.

 

I devoured the entire book, but these last chapters in particular I barely blinked. When Vasya ran back into the burning city to summon Morozko I was riveted, and very nervous. And then suddenly it’s over – Morozko is gone, Olga offers forgiveness to her sister and we’re sort of left wondering: is that it? (spoiler: no, the sequel is published next year)  

 

We spend the entire book building up to what happens in the last few chapters and the fact that everything just seemed to clear itself up was a little frustrating.

 

Because so many major events were packed in together so tightly, combined, they almost felt a little minor.

 

We have zero time to process what is going on between Vasya and Morozko. We never really return to the consequences of Olga’s lost baby.

 

The threat of being exposed as liars to the Grand Prince is a source of tension throughout most of the book – yet when the worst happens, it turns out not to be such a big deal after all.

 

That criticism aside, I loved the Girl in the Tower. It was clever, absorbing and packed with detail and action. I loved Vasya. If I could, I’d keep a framed photo of Morozko beside my bed. If you feel similarly attached to the story, I highly recommend you go and give The Bear and the Nightingale a read, too – you can buy it in our bookstore.

 

Now. Over to you – what did you think of this one? Anyone else shipping Vasya and Morozko or is that just me?

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January 2018

It’s our first book club of 2018 and we’re kicking the year off with Rebecca Mascull’s The Wild Air.

 

There were a few reasons I chose The Wild Air, one of them being that it offers lots of food for thought. Whether you loved it or it drove you mad I knew there would be plenty we could find to talk about.

 

Before I jump into the plot and characters, I want to point out what I think is the strongest element of this book: the details. A ton of research clearly went into the making of The Wild Air and it shows.

 

The same way they say you can tell a great restaurant by the way you don’t notice the staff at all, you know a novel is working when the research comes together to make the experience seamless for the reader.

 

There are hundreds of tiny details sprinkled throughout the book that add up to give us a vivid sense of the world Della lives in. I have almost no interest in flying or aviation, yet the novel managed to make it interesting and deliver up enough detail that it all felt real.

 

Della herself is a completely fictional character, but many of the other pilots we meet and hear about in the novel – Hilda Hewlett, Melli Beese, The Wright Brothers to name but a few – are all real people in history.

 

It’s these little things that anchor us to the story and create a world that feels like it could easily be real.

 

And it’s a good thing, because within the first three pages we know that the novel is going to span, at the very least, the better part of a decade. The prologue opens in 1918, but chapter one starts in 1909.

 

For a novel that’s less than 400 pages that’s pretty ambitious. We’ll come back to whether or not the story bites off more than it can chew in a minute or two.

 

Let me begin with Della. I love Della, I loved her pretty much from page one. I have a huge soft spot for quiet heroines – Jane Eyre and Persuasion’s Anne Elliot would be two other notable examples – because I typically relate to them more so than the bold, fearless characters we tend to bring to mind when we use the word heroine.

 

And for all that Della doesn’t see herself as clever or special or brave, she still is. She has the courage and conviction to follow her dreams despite the fact that the idea of a woman flying  makes her pretty much a laughing stock.

 

She’s strong-willed but rarely forceful. She gets on with it in spite of some pretty strong opposition – from her father, from her instructors, from other pilots – and kept at it even when working towards her goal was tedious, mundane and frustrating.

 

Della could both love flying but also find the sacrifices she made to do it boring at times – she wasn’t universally grateful for what she was doing and had to face down loneliness and self-doubt despite the fact that she was a talented pilot.

 

That the novel didn’t gloss over this to make the ‘adventure’ seem more exciting for the reader was another reason I chose this one to kick off the year. So often when we talk about pursuing dreams we use a glossy, Instagram-worthy version of the truth that ignores just how unpleasant the journey can be at times.

 

As a reader we get to experience the joy of her triumph but must also learn to stick it out when things aren’t going to plan.

 

For me, the Meggie Magpie years are definitely a highlight of this novel. I loved watching Della mature and rise up to meet her ambitions and had huge sympathy for her as she had to learn to navigate her relationships with the men around her.

 

Look at her relationship with Claude Grahame-White for example; she admires and believes she has fallen in love with him at first, only to later realise that the two would never be equals. She gives him too much credit, and he doesn’t give her enough.

 

And of course, Dud. It was only a matter of time before I got to Dudley – he becomes more and more important as the story goes on.

 

Though their relationship features heavily in this book I still wouldn’t necessarily call it a love story. That’s not where the tension comes from – once they decide to be together we never have cause to question the strength of their relationship again. Dud’s loyalty and devotion is simple and obvious.

 

So Della’s career is going on well, and then the war arrives and obliterates pretty much everything. After spending so long touring around Europe, Della is at home and grounded, left to kick her heels and wait.

 

At first, the excitement is palpable – the naive belief that the war will be over and done with before anyone sees any real action is perfectly captured through Della’s brother Puck, and even, to an extent, Dud’s botched proposal.

 

And then reality starts to creep in. The war drags on, Puck is killed and the family is plunged into grief. Dud returns battered and shell shocked and Della is really fearful he might be lost to her for good.

 

We get a brief respite from this when she teaches him to fly, but once Dud’s training is finished the honeymoon is over – he’s sent back to the war and she’s once again left behind in anxiety and frustration.

 

Notice how we share that frustration as readers – we have little more to do than wait for news through Dudley’s letters for a huge chunk of the novel’s second half. I found myself impatiently reading through this section because, like Della, there’s really not much else we can do.

 

Thanks to the prologue we know that something serious happens to Della in 1918, and I was busy anticipating that while we wait as the war unfolds.

 

In general I’m not a huge fan of a prologue – it seems to rob us as readers of the dramatic tension. For example, until Della went across the Channel to rescue Dudley, I never once truly worried whether or not he’d be alright – I had been told as much on page one.

 

Which brings us to what I anticipate will be a key sticking point for many of us  – Dudley’s rescue.

 

For a book that was so rooted in reality her rescue of Dudley felt ridiculously far fetched. When I first read it I didn’t find it believable in the least – there were so many potential disasters and everything was just fine.

 

Is it truly plausible that Della would just fly over to France, find Dudley on the run despite having no real information to go on, and face no opposition getting him home? Too much fell into place too quickly and too easily.

 

But then later I had to acknowledge an uncomfortable truth as a reader: would I have found it as unbelievable if the tables were turned?

 

What if it was Dudley who went off and rescued Della? He says it himself – wives shouldn’t be rescuing husbands – and though I thought this scene could have played out much better in general, I wonder if it would have jarred me as much if the shoe was on the other foot.

 

There are several books in our Rare Birds bookstore that feature more ridiculous rescues than this and I accepted them without a second thought. It’s not lost on me that the rescues are usually the hero going after the heroine.

 

It’s an interesting question to grapple with, especially considering the novel directly and indirectly questions the role of women and what’s considered acceptable again and again and again.

 

We see it in Della’s treatment by the other pilots she encounters, but there are also dozens of smaller, subtler ways the author puts the question to us as readers. Even when I felt the plot wasn’t working – like in the rescue scene – I can admire the fact that it forced me to acknowledge that even as a reader (and a woman!) this was a moment I was all too ready to believe this was a bridge too far.

 

The other major criticism I have for this book was the treatment of Betty.

 

Betty, who helped bring Della out of her shell. Who introduced her to flying and encouraged her to pursue it, and believed in her and showed her a model for what a woman could be. Betty who was responsible for encouraging the friendship between Dudley and Della.

 

Secondary characters are notoriously tricky, and this is often true with novels of this length – we don’t have enough time and space to round them out. They end up as two-dimensional plot devices that enter the story to get our heroine from A to B.

 

This is where covering so much ground in one book can come back to bite you – Betty deserved better than to be treated as a plot device, and considering we spend so much time with her at the start of the novel it felt hugely unfair that she just disappears.

 

We learn about Betty’s death in a letter, and though Della explicitly acknowledges how hollow she feels at not being there, it takes her little more than a paragraph to come to the conclusion that the greatest tribute to her is to continue flying, and that’s Betty consigned to history.

 

I really felt like we could have dispensed with many of the war chapters and instead spent more time exploring Della and her Great Aunt’s relationship and how both women see an ambition achieved as Della begins to fly professionally.

 

That’s plenty from me – it’s your turn. What did you think of the Wild Air? Did you like our heroine Della? Did you fall for Dudley?

 

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December 2017

I’m always up for a ghost story, but around Christmas is the best time to read books with the supernatural – it’s just inherently a magical time.

 

Every decision the author makes in the Silent Companions is to create tension and it starts building from page one.

 

The Victorian era is one that we generally associate with the supernatural and the superstitious on a cultural level – have you ever noticed ghosts are often depicted as Victorian children? So as soon as we find ourselves in that era the conditions are right for a very spooky time.

 

It’s also set just out of reach of technology – something like a phone line would have made it easy to get the message out when strange things start happening at The Bridge.

 

Finally, the use of three interweaving storylines means there are always holes in our understanding. Each chapter manages to throw up a bunch of questions and never gives us enough time to puzzle them out.

 

We open at St Joseph’s Hospital and this is the only part of the story taking place in real time. Elsie has spent much of the last year in a drug-induced fog avoiding the trauma she’s experienced. Her new attending Dr Shepherd is a progressive doctor and proposes to help piece together what happened to her by writing down her story.

 

The second important thread is Elsie’s time at The Bridge, the dilapidated country estate she moves into after her husband dies and where almost all the haunting takes place. Her story is what we’re reading in the past tense – this is an important thing to note and we’ll come back to it in a minute.

 

Finally, the third part of the story is the diary of Anne Bainbridge, who writes about the happenings at The Bridge in 1635 in the months before and after the family receives a visit from the King. Sarah begins reading the diary as a way to learn more about her family history, and eventually both she and Elsie use the events of the past to explain what’s happening to them in the present.

 

Though most of the story reads like a third person narration – meaning the narrator is not in the story, but outside of it, simply telling us what happened – the most important chapters, where all the action takes place, are effectively a first-person story.

 

What happens at The Bridge is Elsie’s version of events. These are the facts according to Elsie.

 

So do we trust Elsie?

 

As first there’s no reason not to – she’s sensible and deeply skeptical of what seems to be taking place around her at The Bridge, even as things become more and more unsettling.

 

But as the story goes on we also learn just how difficult Elise’s life has been and how much she’s repressed up until now, it doesn’t seem as simple.

 

It could just as easily be the complicated story of a fractured mind – as Dr Shepherd suggests – rather than a true telling of her being haunted by an evil we can’t quite understand.

 

Is Elsie truly being haunted by the silent companions or did she kill her brother in an act of self preservation when she learned he had betrayed her? When you remember that the doctor is using the story she tells to make recommendations about her guilt or innocence, you realise a lot is at stake for Elsie.

 

Though she appears not to have a stake in it, how she tells her own story could be the difference in her living out her life in relative comfort or being charged and hung for murder.

 

What I loved about the Silent Companions is just what a whirlwind it turned out to be. I had so much fun reading every creepy moment as it happened.

 

When Elsie returns to The Bridge and sees Hetta’s eye move when she’s looking through the window I genuinely felt my skin crawl.

 

It felt like the literary equivalent of Pin The Tail on the Donkey. It’s as if you’re blindfolded and spun around, and then at the end you’re left trying to pinpoint what was real and what wasn’t. Which details were most significant?

 

Weeks later I’m still going back and forth about how to explain everything that went on at The Bridge.

 

Did Anne Bainbridge really conjure her daughter from dark magic – was Hetta evil or had she been corrupted by something else? What is the significance of Elise looking like the companion?

 

And for that matter – what’s the significance of the companions? Are they enchanted to begin with or are they enchanted because of the evil that inhibits them after Anne murders her own daughter?

 

What does it mean that the man who sold them disappeared afterwards as if he never existed at all? Was Rupert’s mother haunted by the same evil – and if yes, why was the housekeeper safe and happy at The Bridge for all those years?

 

When Rupert returns, does he stir the evil back to life by finding the necklace or simply by showing up? And what happened to Sarah? What happened to the desk at the asylum – did evil follow Elsie there or did she tear it to shreds herself in a fit?

 

The answers are all very slippery – nothing fits together neatly as you sift back through the details and there is deliberately some ambiguity on the part of the author.

 

You’ve heard my thoughts – now I want to hear yours. What happened at The Bridge?

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November 2017

Welcome back to our book club this month – and for our new joiners, hello, so happy to have you here.

 

It’s time to discuss The Madwoman Upstairs. Where to begin?

 

So the book opens and we’ve got Samantha, who is at times a painfully socially awkward student starting her first year at Oxford. And then of course there’s her suspiciously young, cranky tutor Timothy James Orville III, the best looking and worst named professor in the history of literature.

 

Though this is a contemporary story, it heavily borrows gothic elements – if you’re familiar with Jane Eyre as soon as you met Orville you’d have smelled an opportunity for a deeply repressed courtship (which I am obviously 100% here for).

 

There are many nods to classic literature in here, but that said, you don’t need to catch every single one to thoroughly enjoy this book.

 

The plot on its own is enough to keep you turning the pages right to the end, and that’s probably what I enjoyed most about Madwoman Upstairs. It’s got a pacey story but also some smart and interesting things to say about the Brontes and literature in general. There’s plenty of food for thought on these pages.

 

As with any novel where a character tells their own story, your enjoyment of this book really hinges on how well you can get along with the narrator. Samantha is smart but inexperienced, and this combination can be both endearing and annoying at the same time.

 

There were moments I loved and related to Samantha, and others where I felt like the title of the book might actually be referring to me rather than Jane Eyre’s Bertha Mason because Samantha was driving me crazy.

 

Along with trying to cope with an unreliable narrator, to really get into The Madwoman Upstairs as a reader you need to accept a few – in my opinion – fairly fantastical things.

 

The first is that Samantha’s connection to the Brontes – when they don’t even share a last name – would be enough to make her a minor celebrity around campus to the point someone finds her interesting enough to put in the paper.

 

Thinking back to my first year of uni I don’t know if I would be aware of or care that someone was related – distantly – to a famous literary family. If anything her relationship with the university’s youngest and hottest professor would be a bigger source of gossip, and I suppose ultimately, it is.

 

Her complicated relationship with both her parents was the biggest risk of the book and not one that paid off in my opinion. Much longer novels have been devoted to simpler family dynamics than Samantha’s relationship with her estranged mother and dysfunctional alcoholic father.

 

That Sam is so disconnected from her mother that she’d go to boarding school rather than live with her when her father died, yet visit her in Paris when the going gets tough felt just a little too convenient, even accounting for the fact that we’re seeing her mother through the prism of Samantha’s own version of events.

 

And then there’s Rebecca. This character was also hugely problematic for me. Expecting me to believe this woman is simultaneously so loyal to Sam’s father that she’d keep her promises and so brutal in the final turn was maybe just a bridge too far.

 

Their altercation in Orville’s office and then again on the quad just seemed insane to me – we don’t know enough about Rebecca or her relationship with Sam’s father to justify her bitterness and without it the tension here just felt a little artificial.

 

While I can sympathise over her anger at the break in, it’s not as if she wouldn’t instantly know who broke in and stole her bookmark. Has this woman really been quietly toiling away in the mathematics department waiting for Sam to show up so she could ruin her? As a prestigious mathematician surely she’d have something better to do?

 

Samantha’s mother, father and Rebecca should make for incredibly complex reading, but these characters felt more like chess pieces; their behaviours help move the plot forward but if you try to examine them and their motivations, make almost no sense.

 

Problematic plot points aside, what I loved about the The Madwoman Upstairs is it made a nice point about the dangers of being stuck in your own story.

 

Samantha, her father, Sir John and Rebecca all are caught up in their own stories – and their versions ultimately prevent them from living their lives.

 

Sir John is so caught up in believing his version of the truth he loses his job and family. Rebecca wastes years of her life to extreme bitterness. Samantha jumps into a dirty well. In each instance the character is more attached to the idea of the story they’ve invented than living with the reality right in front of them.

 

And who among us hasn’t been guilty of creating our own version of events once or twice. How many times have you made something about you only to realise later it had nothing to do with you at all? In that sense, The Madwoman Upstairs resonated.

 

Last but not least, there’s Orville. Samantha’s older-but-not-so-much-older-that-it’s-weird-professor does his best to be the brooding Mr Rochester we all want him to be and he sort of is.

 

Again, we don’t really know what’s going on with Orville most of the time because all we have is Samantha, and she is not exactly the most perceptive narrator in history. But actually for the most part I loved Orville. Hot and grumpy is always a winning combination.

 

His relationship with another student, though you can very much argue it wasn’t like that, makes things with Sam very tricky. Their relationship is already at best completely inappropriate and to add in the fact that he’s dated a student before muddies the waters even further.

 

The author throws the revelation about his past relationship with a student in the latter half of the book as a big oh shit moment and never really gets resolved. It really took away from the triumph you should feel at these two characters getting together – instead I felt very much on the fence about whether this was a good thing or not.  

 

Orville does his best to hold strong but love wins in the end, career be damned. Considering he was a child genius and worked very hard to get to where he is that he’d just give it all up and move to Ireland didn’t quite fit with his character.

 

Again, it felt more like a convenient ploy to shoehorn in one last Jane Eyre reference (if you remember, Jane was going to *maybe* be shipped off to Ireland when Rochester decided to get married) rather than something that would actually happen. That he’d be fired and disgraced or Sam would switch to a different college would have been a lot more plausible.

 

For the fact that there’s so much back and forth about authorial intent it’s slightly ironic that a lot of the action towards the end felt very heavy-handed by the author.

 

And – last rant, I promise – the epilogue was just a firm no. A firm, firm no from me. Again, fans of Jane Eyre will recognise exactly why it’s there. But to me the story would have been a lot stronger if we’d resisted the urge to tie everything into a neat little bow.  

 

The thing is, even in spite of a few major plot problems, I really enjoyed the Madwoman Upstairs. I tore through it in just a couple of sittings and it stayed on my mind long afterwards. You can’t ask much more than that from a book I think.

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October 2017

Vinegar Girl is our first ever book club pick and if you’re reading this it means you’re part of a forever-VIP group known as the first ever book club subscribers for Rare Birds. I am very excited to have you here.

 

So, let’s talk about the book.

 

Now, before we dive in, we need to have a little discussion about the play that inspired it, Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew.

 

Vinegar Girl was essentially commissioned as part of an extended marketing exercise to reimagine Shakespeare’s works to mark the 400th anniversary of his death. If you’re vaguely a fan of the Bard of Avon, it’s a series worth your time – Margaret Atwood recently published her take on the Tempest (called Hagseed) and Gillian Flynn of Gone Girl fame is currently working on her retelling of Hamlet.

 

Now, like 10 Things I Hate About You, Vinegar Girl is a pretty charming take on a comedy that people mostly agree is pretty brutal.

 

The play starts out with a weird framing device that we’re going to completely ignore for the purposes of this review and tells the story of Kate and her sister Bianca, both daughters to the Baptista Minola, who is a lord in a place called Padua.

 

In a nutshell, Bianca is beautiful and popular, and Kate is the complete opposite. Bianca can’t get married until Kate does, and quite a few men are interested in marrying Bianca, so the scheming begins.

 

Along comes Petruchio, who decides he’s up for marrying Kate because he a) wants her dowry and b) he likes a challenge. He wins her over by pretending all the mean things she says are lovely – Kate decides he’s probably the only man who can keep up with her and the two of them get hitched.

 

Where the play takes a bit of a turn for the worst is after the wedding – Petruchio essentially takes her off to his country home and subjects her to all sorts of weird tyranny to transform her from a shrew into an acceptable wife.

 

For most readers, even making allowances for things being different back then there’s just too much misogyny at work here for this to truly be a feel-good happy-ending kind of piece, so it should surprise no one that Vinegar Girl stops at the wedding rather than wade into such tricky territory.

 

So the book begins and we meet Kate, who is trying not to get herself fired from a nursery school job she doesn’t seem to want anyway. Her dad is acting a little strangely and suddenly his formerly-unknown lab assistant starts popping up all over the place. We soon find out why.

 

What I loved about this book how Kate likes Pyotr in spite of herself. She sets out to hate him – and there is truly no reason why they should hit it off – yet oddly finds that he’s the only person in her life that seems to pay attention long enough to understand her.

 

They get engaged, and surprisingly – married. Am I the only person who was surprised the wedding actually went through? And in the end it was one of my favourite scenes in the book; Kate doesn’t want to get married but finds herself oddly let down when he doesn’t show.  

 

From the outside, Kate pretends not to care – and the writer does a really great job of describing the weird swing from hope to disillusionment and then back again that Kate feels before, during and just after the wedding.

 

The reason this book made the cut for me is because the point in life where Kate finds herself felt very familiar. Most of us know what it’s like to feel stuck – not happy, but not specifically miserable either.

 

At the start of the book Kate’s whole life is stalling; she doesn’t like what she has but doesn’t know what she wants either. Pyotr appears, and though it’s ridiculous to marry a stranger, it’s also an exit strategy – finally, something is going to change for her.

 

As she gradually starts falling in love with Pytor the way she starts to see him is also very touching. In her eyes he slowly transforms from an oddball into someone who feels just as lonely, scared and lost as she does at times.

 

The whole thing is handled very gently; it manages to be touching without feeling overly sappy or sentimental. I made it through the whole book without ever really rolling my eyes – which, if you love a rom com as much as I do, is rare.

 

Now, that’s more than enough from me – I want to hear your thoughts. This book club is a forum for us to chat about whatever we want, so don’t be shy. If you’re not sure what to say, let’s start simple: how did you feel about the ending?