“The Readers Of Broken Wheel Recommend” by Katarina Bivald (2013)

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There is a book for every person and a person for every book.

“The strange woman standing on Hope’s main street was so ordinary it was almost scandalous.”

Books are great, and books about books are even better. This blog already has a stack of reviews on it based around bookshops thanks to Veronica Henry, Penelope Fitzgerald and Robin Sloan, but there’s always room for one more. There’s something wonderful about bookshops; so much promise held in those shelves. Adventures await, romances are blossoming, and characters are waiting to tell us their stories. Here’s another excellent example.

Sara Lindqvist is a Swedish bibliophile who has just arrived in the small, notably un-notable town of Broken Wheel in rural Iowa. She has come to meet her penpal, Amy Harris, an old lady with whom she has been swapping books and letters for the last two years. Tragically, she arrives to find that Amy has died. Nevertheless, the townsfolk insist that she has to stay and that Amy would have wanted them to take care of her. They put her up in Amy’s house, and assign someone to drive her wherever she needs to go, despite the small size of the town.

Sara is shy, much prefers books to people, and is starting to wonder what madness gripped her to drop her into a situation so unfamiliar. Soon, she realises that no one is willing to accept her money. The shopkeeper, John, gives her free groceries. Grace, the diner cook, rustles up free dinners for her. Andy and his “very good friend” Carl at the bar refuse to take her money for beer. She becomes determined to do something to pay back the townsfolk for their kindness and soon hits on the very idea – Broken Wheel needs a bookshop.

Despite having a huge love of reading herself, Sara finds that no one else in the town much cares for reading, but she is determined to go through with her plan in Amy’s memory and to try and convince the residents that there is a book for everyone. The shop changes the town, and soon the locals are plotting a way to keep her around permanently before her visa expires.

It took a little while to get into, but once it has its claws into you, it isn’t letting go until the last page. Some of the plot points, such as Broken Wheel’s residents plot to keep Sara in town, are a bit madcap, but somehow still rather endearing, if not entirely believable. The characters themselves, however, are wonderfully deep and you really care about them and their happiness. The central plot eventually fell by the wayside for me, and I became far more interested in some of the more minor threads and what was happening with them, none of which I want to spoil here.

The book is packed with messages though, and the whole thing seems to be about the power of literature to change people. Those who have never picked up a book in their lives suddenly find themselves being given books that Sara thinks they’ll like, and many of them soon learn that they do indeed like reading, even if some of their tastes are a little bizarre. George, the old town drunk, develops a fondness for Bridget Jones and the Shopaholic series, and elderly Gertrude becomes hooked on the thrill of Steig Larsson. Sara is frequently to be found with her nose in a book, and her tastes are wide and eclectic, wonderfully often overlapping with my own. Indeed, I’ve never seen a character anywhere else read a Douglas Coupland novel.

There are also discussions to be had regarding religion, taste and decency, aging, family and community. One particularly notable scene has the very proper and Christian Caroline complain about Sara stocking gay erotica in her shop. Sara calls her out on judging something without trying it, and Caroline begins to thaw a little, sending her into a subplot that even she didn’t see coming.

Frankly, the whole thing is a little bit beautiful, and I found myself on the verge of tears more than once. It’s a love letter to books above anything, and I firmly believe its core message: there is a book for every person, and a person for every book. If you don’t like reading, you just haven’t found the right thing yet. A charming tale.

“Nina Is Not OK” by Shappi Khorsandi (2016)

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“The burly bouncer was holding me by the scruff of the neck.”

I like a drink. A lot of my friends like a drink. We are, however, generally capable of knowing when we’ve had enough. We don’t drink to black out, but whether that’s down to our age (hangovers are much worse in your late twenties than they were at university) and or an inbuilt sense of responsibility, I won’t state here. However, in Nina is Not OK, the first novel by the phenomenal British comedian Shappi Khorsandi, we meet a girl who definitely doesn’t know when to quit.

As the story opens, Nina is being kicked out of a nightclub where she has been engaging in, let’s say, a public display of sexual activity. Followed out by the man involved and one of his friends, the next thing she remembers is being in a taxi holding her knickers. Things don’t get any better from here. Still smarting from the sudden departure of her boyfriend Jamie, she is unable to remember quite what happened on this night. Knowing something bad did, however, she seeks to block any ideas out from her mind, sending her into a downward spiral of heavy drinking and sleeping with whoever comes her way.

Amongst all this, she discovers that her friend Zoe is now dating the guy she met at the club, her mum and stepdad are planning on moving to Germany, Jamie isn’t replying to any of her messages, she’s struggling to come to terms with her sexuality, and her exams are creeping ever nearer. Things reach a head, however, when she tries to hit on her best friend’s dad. Rehab seems to be the only option, but even that isn’t going to be the end of all the drama…

I find myself deeply conflicted about the character of Nina for much of the novel. The trouble is, she reminds me quite a lot of a girl I knew at school. She was perpetually drunk, sleeping with inappropriate characters, and generally struggling to keep her life together. But we were all seventeen – as Nina is in this book – and what on earth do we know about helping keep one another sane? She moved away eventually – none of us had been able to cope with her – and I happen to know that she is now healthy and happy elsewhere. This whole thing makes the character far more real and less of a stereotype than Nina may appear to others. However, the girl I knew didn’t quite go as far as this, and her life wasn’t quite as much of a soap opera. I did, however, find myself sympathising more with her friends and family who had to put up with her drunken antics than I did Nina herself though.

It wasn’t until later in the book when the truth comes out that I began to feel sorry for her. I found it hard to have any sympathy for her as she seems to be willfully destroying her own life, and because the incident from the opening chapter is left vague, I seemed to forget about its severity. She goes through a lot, and Khorsandi handles it all with compassion and skill. The characters are vibrant and real, if not always particularly pleasant, and there are some horrible but vital truths about our society and its treatment of men and women, rape victims and alcoholism. The scenes set in rehab are tragic and bring home the reality of the situation for many people.

It’s a dark and brave novel full of heart and horror. Emotional doesn’t even begin to cover it. I’m a big fan of Khorsandi’s comedy, and I always turn to a novel by a celebrity with trepidation as I’ve been burnt before, but this one came highly recommended, and I’m pleased to say that she’s written a wonderful, if shocking, novel.

“Vox” by Nicholson Baker (1992)

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“What are you wearing?”

I last stumbled into a Nicholson Baker novel two years ago, and admired The Mezzanine for its ability to hold together a clever and engaging narrative, despite the entire story taking place on one escalator journey. I don’t know if Baker picks small moments for all his stories, but he has done it again here. This time, we’re spending the entire novel in one phone call.

Two strangers are among the people who have called a sex chat line and, liking the sound of one another’s voices, they switch to a private chat line to get to know one another better. There, instead of launching into phone sex, they find themselves opening up, talking about past sexual experiences but also leading into conversations about wallpaper, circuses, tights, car washes, spontaneous human combustion and what to do with a fork when it gets damaged in the dishwasher. As their conversation becomes more and more intimate, it becomes more exciting, and it seems soon that they’ve both found something unexpected.

So, it’s obviously all about people on a sex line, and so I was expecting something sexy. Mostly though, it didn’t happen. I wasn’t seeking out a thrill from the book, but I thought it might be a bit full on. The characters talk openly about masturbation, sex and people they’ve had sex with, as well as describing in great detail several fantasies they have. There’s actually something oddly innocent about the whole thing. Towards the end though, it becomes incredibly explicit and phone sex is in full flow, which suddenly came as a surprise after so long.

Our strangers are engaging people though, both perhaps a little unused to these phone lines, or particularly meeting someone on them they have a genuine connection with. Baker’s command of the dialogue – and the book is mostly dialogue with only a couple of “he said”/”she said” tags – is wonderful and it feels very realistic, with them restarting sentences, repeating themselves, and stringing their thoughts together in long, pauseless streams, providing the reader with sentences sometimes a page or more long.

Did it turn me on? Actually, yes, a bit. No, I’m not going anymore specific than that, but it’s a really quite remarkable novella with in unusual form. There’s no real story, nothing much happens, but you grow to feel for the characters fairly quickly and it moves you in a way I can’t precisely put words to. Definitely one to check out.

As a final fun fact, it’s a book that gained notoriety after Bill Clinton received a copy while he was President from a young, up-and-coming intern called Monica. I wonder what happened to her…

“Man V. Nature” by Diane Cook (2015)

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manvnature“They let me tend to my husband’s burial and settle his affairs, which means that for a few days I get to stay in my house, pretend he is away on business while I stand in the closet and sell his clothes.”

The world is a weird place. The news is full of things that seem like they’ve been yanked from the pages of fiction, so when you stumble on a book now that seems weird, you know you’ve hit something good. Diane Cook’s collection of short stories, Man V. Nature, are smart and well-written, but above all are weird and unsettling in ways you can’t quite describe.

There are twelve stories here, and each of them is a weird mixture of superbly realistic, and insanely fantastic. More often than not, the backgrounds or specifics of what is happening in each world is never clearly explained. In “Marrying Up”, we are told only the world “got bad”. In “The Way the End of Days Should Be”, there are just two houses left and the rest of the world has flooded, but we don’t know how or why. The first story, “Moving On”, takes place in a world where widowed spouses are put into institutions until they’re wanted again by someone else, though they seem to have little say in who they get to marry. It’s reminiscent of works like The Handmaid’s Tale or Only Ever Yours, where women are still treated as chattel, although some men appear to be in the same position. In “Flotsam”, the oddness is more magical, as a woman begins to find baby clothes in among her washing, despite having no children.

“Flotsam” also seems to be about women’s sexuality, perhaps an acknowledgement of women’s body clocks. Similarly, “A Wanted Man” is about female sexuality too, although seems at first perhaps to be about male sexuality. It features a man who is irresistible to all women and will guarantee them a pregnancy with one fuck. All he wants is someone to love, and to love him back, and he seems to fall in love with every new woman he meets, though they are all uninterested in settling down.

“The Mast Year” is an interesting look at the world. In it, the main character finds herself promoted and engaged in quick succession, and people begin to gather around her home, setting up tents and caravans, burrowing into her lawn, and climbing her trees. Her mother says that she’s experiencing a mast year. This references when a tree produces more fruit than usual, so people gather around it. Jane’s recent luck works as a magnet and the people are gathered around her in the hope that some of that luck rubs off on them. It feels like an extreme version of how we advertise ourselves on social media when things are going well – if you go by Instagram, everyone is currently living their best life – and then what happens when things go wrong and we have to start revealing the truth behind the smiles.

The titular story, “Man V. Nature” is about three men stuck in a rubber dinghy on an endless lake, with barely any food left and no protection from the scorching sun. Pretending that their predicament is a TV show, their bodies, brains and sanity wither away and they turn on one another and begin to reveal harsh secrets, and one of them learns that he’s not considered “one of the gang”, despite his desperate attempts to fit in.

Children are also common to several of the stories. “Somebody’s Baby” brings to life the fear new parents have that their child is in danger by making that danger a man who stands in your garden and, if you lose concentration for just one second, will enter your house and snatch your baby. The main question you’re left with at the end of that story is, “If you could suddenly get back everything you’d already said goodbye to, would you want it?” In another story, “The Not-Needed Forest”, several boys who society has deemed unneeded are sent to be killed but survive in a forest together instead, until the food supply runs low and they begin to compete with one another for survival.

Diane Cook has conjured up a shockingly brilliant collection of tales, each of them slightly unnerving and leaving you slightly unsure as to what just happened. There aren’t many answers, but to provide them would be to ruin the magic. Her stories contain something familiar, but are also like nothing you’ve ever read before. Haunting.

“Who Cooked The Last Supper?” by Rosalind Miles (1989)

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last supper book

A woman’s work is never done.

“The story of the human race begins with a female.”

Quickly, without giving it too much thought, name ten famous historical women. Got them? Right. Probably you’ve all gone for the same ones. Joan of Arc, Elizabeth I, maybe Victoria, possibly Marie Curie, Jane Austen, Florence Nightingale? Emmeline Pankhurst?

OK, now name ten more. Who’ve we got this time? Cleopatra? Boadicea? Mary Seacole, Amelia Earhart, Harriet Tubman? Not so easy that time, was it?

Now do it again. Struggling? Horrendously, so was I. And yet if I’d asked you to name fifty historical men, you might not have even had to pause for a moment, reeling off a checklist of men from Alexander the Great to Winston Churchill. Why, then, is it so hard to quickly recall even a handful of history’s greatest women? Simply, because men wrote the history books and have edited them ruthlessly.

In Rosalind Miles’ book, Who Cooked The Last Supper?, she laments this lack of women throughout history, pointing out that wherever men were, women had to be there too, usually being treated far worse and often without much public outcry. Her story begins in the caves of old, where women gathered most of the food for their tribes and leads us through history up to the last century where women fought for their rights to suffrage, contraception and independence.

Along the way, she talks about the hypocrisy of men as they struggled to keep women under their thumbs, deciding almost arbitrarily that women are weaker and more stupid, making them unable to do the jobs that men could do, despite the fact that women had been doing them for centuries before. She covers every horror that women have faced over the advancing millennia, from rape and slavery, to genital mutilation and the punishments doled out for having the audacity to menstruate. Women had originally been worshipped as goddesses, creators who gave life to everything, but as soon as men realised that they had something to do with childbirth too, then that was that. Woman’s fate was sealed and the phallus was held up as the greatest thing on the earth.

There are tales of genuine horror in here, such as the trials of female coal miners, the sex slavery that most women endured, and the horrendous, almost vomit-inducing tortures forced upon those women who dared to step outside of the norm.

Miles pulls no punches here, never for a minute accepting that men weren’t at fault here. She is out to redress history and show that women have been there all this time, even if the history books so often don’t show that. There are stories of great women in history who worked as laborers, soldiers, teachers, scientists, writers and doctors, only to have most of their achievements blasted out of history by men. But women are responsible for some of the biggest leaps forward in humanity’s history. The first novelist was a woman, and so was the inventor of calligraphy, and thus the art of handwriting. Female gynecologists ruled the wards of Ancient Greece, and there’s always been women willing to go out and teach others.

It’s an interesting book and will make you look at history in a completely different way, but I warn you now that this is at heart an academic text, and Miles is an academic, so it’s fairly dry in some places. With such a seemingly frivolous title, I expected it to be a bit lighter, but it was not to be so. Also, there are a few tales of famous women who should be remembered better, but few of them are much fleshed out, and it would have been interesting to read more of these.

In any case, it’s a stark reminder that men did not build this world alone, and that some backwards thinking people may continue with their beliefs that women are lesser than them, but they are wrong. Of course women should have equality, but it’s been a long, torturous process to get to the point we’re at now, and we’ve still got further to go.

An important read for men and women alike.