‘Our favourite reads!’ by Woodbridge Browsers book group
- Credit: Archant
Does The Grapes of Wrath do it for you? What about Catch 22?
If you’re passing Browsers Bookshop in Woodbridge Thoroughfare, a glance at the window tells you what title its book group is reading currently.
The discussions, and the book choices, have for more than eight years been led by events manager Catherine Larner and have generated a loyal following – but on one night in December, members are invited to bring their favourite book and sing its praises.
“The recommendation evening in Browsers is always well supported. There’s something very special about hearing someone speak passionately about a book and what it means to them. And there are usually some surprises!” says Catherine.
Here are the books that were the talk of the town this Christmas.
A Man Called Ove, by Fredrik Backman
This is just a delightful story.
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It’s set in Sweden: about a grumpy old man who has given up on life. His wife has died and he just wants to be left alone, but the members of his community, his neighbours, won’t let him remain alone.
As the story moves on we come to understand totally why he has this cranky exterior.
It’s funny and it’s moving. There are so many wonderful passages in the book, and descriptions of his relationships. In his marriage, he says, he was black and white, while his wife brought colour.
There has been a film made of the book but I don’t think I want to see it – I prefer to see the characters in my head.
I’ve read the book three times and each time it leaves me uplifted, full of joy. You want to get to the end of the story to find out what happens, but I also wanted to remain in it, to be a part of that community.
The Versions of Us, by Laura Barnett
I wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t met my husband when I did: if we hadn’t had our children, if we didn’t choose to live where we did...
I’m fascinated by stories like Life after Life, by Kate Atkinson, or the film Sliding Doors, and this is a book with a similar theme.
It’s set in 1958 and sees the lives of two young people converge in a road accident, then follows three different versions of their future.
I love the period of the ’50s and I’d cruised the bestseller lists for something to read – trying to avoid all the thrillers – so this was perfect.
Red Dog, by Louis de Bernieres
I picked this book up off the counter in Browsers because I liked the cover! Then I found it was set in Australia and I’m visiting next year, so I thought it might be interesting; but I’m not an animal lover and this is also aimed at the “young adult” market! I think it has universal appeal, though.
The author saw a memorial to a dog in a small town in Australia and started to collect stories about it. The characters are well drawn and the description of the mining community is vivid and atmospheric.
You can feel the heat of the landscape. There is humour and sadness. It is touching, engaging and charming.
The Rings of Saturn, by WG Sebald
This is a modern classic which bookshops tend not to know how to categorise – it’s a history, a memoir, a travel piece and an exploration of the relationship between Britain and Germany.
Sebald took a walk around East Anglia, popping in on friends along the way, and this is an account of that journey and all that he was thinking at the time.
It’s rather melancholy (don’t read it when you’re feeling down!) but it also has lots of humour in it. I’ve read it over and over again, after my brother first recommended it to me, and I’ve found something new each time.
Maya’s Notebook, by Isabel Allende
I’m a huge fan of Isabel Allende and thought I’d read all her books, so I was thrilled when I found this in a bookshop. It’s about addiction, poverty, grief and being drawn to “the wrong crowd”.
Maya is a teenager living with her grandparents. When Maya is pursued for her links with the criminal underworld, her grandmother sends her to a remote island called Chilote. Here the people have remained untouched by the material world. Maya embraces this new life but has to deal with the scars of the past.
It’s easy to read and I find that Allende writes astonishing books. The House of the Spirits and Paula are my favourites.
The Garden of Evening Mists, by Tan Twan Eng
This is a Malaysian writer who was longlisted for the Man Booker prize a few years ago.
There’s a great deal going on in this book exploring identity and community with a young man who is half Chinese and half British. He is befriended by a Japanese diplomat and introduced to martial arts. Then, in the war, he is torn by loyalty to different communities.
I read this several years ago and very much enjoyed it. I thought there was beautiful and evocative language about an island and different cultures. It was easy to read but gave me an understanding of the Japanese actions in World War II.
I like to find a new author but he has written only two books!
Catch 22, by Joseph Heller
This is a book I go back to again and again. I’ll pick it up to dip into and suddenly find I’m still reading, hours later.
I think Slaughterhouse-Five, The Naked and the Dead and this book are the three finest war novels and, of the three, this is the best. I love it because it’s very funny, warm, compassionate and absolutely engaging, but it’s not chronological and it’s quite puzzling at first.
Each time I read it I learn more about it.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson
There’s been lots written about this author lately, and there’s a film of this book coming out next year, but it was my son who recommended it to me. He thought it was just my sort of thing – an American woman writing horror!
It’s a Gothic tale, not supernatural but very atmospheric, quite dark and unsettling. It reminded me of The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.
Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
This was given to me on Mothering Sunday by my daughter and I thought “Oh dear, I’m never going to read that”, but she insisted I try it. And I’m so pleased I did.
It’s an intriguing book discussing what it is to be an immigrant and also explores the concept of racial prejudice.
It’s not particularly plot-driven, and the story unfolds in flashbacks, but I very much enjoyed it. There’s a contemporary feel and the book looks at the challenges facing the characters living in London and Nigeria. It looks at how people suffer, living in another country.
Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck
This isn’t short and it isn’t easy, and it’s not the best-written book I’ve ever read, but it’s the most moving and powerful. I read it several years ago, but I still feel it here, in my heart.
It was published in 1939 and set during the Great Depression. Farms are repossessed and the tenants left with nothing. They emigrate to California with hopes for a better life. The last passage of the book is astonishing.
The Huntingfield Paintress, by Pamela Holmes
I’ve lived in Suffolk more than 30 years and this is the first time I’ve come across this story.
The book is fiction but based on a true account of a woman who lived near Heveningham Hall. Mildred Holland was frustrated by her husband’s posting to the tiny village of Huntingfield but decided to use her creative talent to paint the ceiling of the church.
After reading this book I went to visit St Mary’s Church. You put a pound in the meter and the ceiling lights up. It’s extraordinary.
I am so pleased to have read about this woman, but the book left me wanting to know so much more about her life, and what happened to her after she completed the painting.
All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr
I think of the books we’ve discussed this year, my favourite was All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr. We were almost unanimous in our praise for this book ? it is beautifully written, with intriguing ideas and wonderful characterisation.
It’s set on the island of St Malo and tells of a blind French girl and a German boy whose lives converge during the devastation of World War II. There is a sense of magic and mystery, puzzles and romance, technology and community, and it is both poignant and full of hope. A wonderful book!
* It is always a challenge to decide on the book group title each month. I want something that is well written, with a good plot to keep us turning the pages, but also with characters, themes or structure that causes us to ponder, relate or respond to, and ultimately to debate.
Occasionally a book might disappoint, but it is fascinating to hear different reactions and the conversation is always warm and lively.
The titles we have discussed in 2016 have included The Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence, Burial Rites by Hannah Kent, Lying Under the Apple Tree by Alice Monro, The Long View by Elizabeth Jane Howard, Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf, A Suspension of Mercy by Patricia Highsmith, The Infatuations by Javier Marias, I am China by Xiaolu Guo, Tepper Isn’t Going Out by Calvin Trillin.