This month’s Half-Dozen is a special edition, veering gleefully away from our usual interview with a bookseller to present you with the literary picks of two very special bookworms: Kate and Laura, the presenters of the brilliant podcast The Book Club Review. These two enthusiastic readers met while working at a London publisher, and swiftly bonded through a shared devotion to their respective book clubs. Both were quick to profess their love for the way book clubs offer friendship and community, but also a safe place to debate – often, it’s not so much the books that change you, but the conversations that you have about them.… And so The Book Club Review came into being: the only podcast devoted to book clubs of every kind. Each episode, Kate and Laura sit down to discuss the latest title read by one of their book clubs. What did the group make of it? Did it spark debate? And – whether it was loved or loathed – their big question is always ‘was it a good book club book?’ If you’re not already reaching for your headphones, then you will be after reading Kate’s recommendations, which feature the podcast’s most memorable reads from the past year (and are slightly different from our usual book tips, as they are geared specifically towards reads that would suit a book club). Don’t be a mug: find The Book Club Review on iTunes and Spotify (or wherever you get your podcasts) and follow them on Instagram.
Her three ‘big hitters’ for bookclubs
‘Lincoln in the Bardo’ by George Saunders: Every year my book club reads whichever book wins the Man Booker Prize. That’s led to some hits and misses over the years (Howard Jacobson’s baffling Finkler Question being a real low point). In 2017, though, we loved reading and discussing George Saunders’ first novel that takes as its subject the death of Abraham Lincoln’s young son Willie. Saunders’ usual trademarks of humour, pathos and empathy are all here, as well as an original writing style that provides lots of brilliant fuel for discussion. A moving and enlightening read that will set your book club alight.
‘Days Without End’ by Sebastian Barry: What makes a good book club book? The best ones feature brilliant writing – the discussion then can move on from style and get into the ideas. Sebastian Barry writes with seemingly effortless grace and his narrator has a voice every bit as memorable as Holden Caulfield’s as you follow him through the events of the American Civil War. It’s also a touching love story, and Barry draws on unexpected themes of gender fluidity, ideas of family and community, while on a larger scale he explores the shaping of American national identity. A fascinating, highly enjoyable, page-turner of a novel that offers a very rich source for discussion.
‘The Snow Leopard’ by Peter Matthiessen: In 1978 Peter Matthiessen set off for the high Himalayas in search of spiritual enlightenment and blue sheep. It can be nice in a book club to mix things up occasionally, and this classic travel memoir made for some amusingly memorable discussion. We were much taken with Matthiessen’s elegant prose but not as persuaded by his qualities as an individual. A good discovery for anyone who hasn’t read him before, and lots of good elements for discussion – particularly given the current interest in mindfulness and meditation.
Her two contemporary titles to ensure your bookclub is cutting edge
‘Prophets of the Eternal Fjord’ by Kim Leine (trans. from the original Danish by Martin Aitken): Laura hated this one, but I loved it, always a good starting point. My book club chose it because it was shortlisted for my favourite book prize, the Dublin International Literary Prize (all the nominations come from libraries around the world). This is a historical novel of a decidedly visceral bent that follows a young Danish priest, Morten Falck, as he travels to Greenland to work as a missionary. There are some weighty themes here, from Denmark’s murky colonial past to horrible incidences of violence against women. Eighteenth-century Greenland is a pitiless environment in which nearly everyone suffers and often as not perishes. Yet I thought Leine did a brilliant job, sustaining the intensity and somehow having you root for his weak and unlikeable central character. It’s extreme and definitely not for everyone, but if your book club has read a few cozy things recently and feel you need to shake things up, I can’t recommend this book highly enough.
‘Border’ by Kapka Kassabova: Book clubs are great for getting you to read things you might not otherwise, and these days I read for Laura’s book club as well as my own so I get double the unexpected pleasure. Border by Kapka Kassabova was one of her book club picks and a great discovery for me. I loved Kassabova’s lyrical writing style and her fascinating subject matter, as she traverses the borderlands that for decades split the Eastern Bloc from Greece and Turkey. Kassabova has a gift for capturing people and places. For example, her description of a dingy roadside café with a sideline in people smuggling that read like Rick’s bar in Casablanca. An enjoyable, engrossing and enlightening read. (It recently won the Stanfords Travel Book of the Year award.)
The one on her ‘to read’ list
Loads!: One thing I love about our shows is that the books we discuss are chosen by our book clubs, not by us. So we’ve got an eclectic list coming up: East West Street, barrister Philippe Sands’ brilliantly absorbing memoir that focuses on the legal nuances of the Nuremberg War Crimes trials; Swing Time, Zadie Smith’s latest novel that traces the relationship between two girls growing up in a north-London housing estate; and Born To Run by Christopher McDougall, another non-fiction book by an ultra-runner (races of 100 miles or more) and his fascination with an obscure Mexican tribe reputed to be the best distance runners in the world. I can’t wait to discuss them with my book club, and then with Laura. And when the shows go out you’ll be able to listen in. Drop us a line, let us know what you think!
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