OFF THE SHELF
by Nazir Afzal
Nazir Afzal knows a thing or two about justice. As a Chief Prosecutor, it was his job to make sure the most complex, violent, and harrowing crimes made it to court, and that their perpetrators were convicted. From the Rochdale sex ring to the earliest prosecutions for honour killing and modern slavery, Nazir was at the forefront of the British legal system for decades.
But his story begins in Birmingham, in the sixties, as a young boy facing racist violence and the tragic death of a young family member – and it’s this that sets him on the path to his ground-breaking career, and which enables him to help communities that the conventional justice system ignores, giving a voice to the voiceless.
A memoir of struggle and survival as well as crime and punishment, The Prosecutor is both a searing insight into the justice system and a powerful story of one man’s pursuit of the truth.
One of the book club members who recommended the book was fortunate to hear Nazir Afzal speak at a conference and was inspired by him and consequently recommended the book.
The book club members found this a refreshing read compared to some other books we have read. It was not always an easy read because of the content addressed, however the members appreciated that this needed to be discussed. We all thoroughly enjoyed reading the book and it was a great insight into the justice system and the author’s courage and conviction. It reminded us how important having the appropriate and correct evidence is vital in a trial. We overwhelmingly gave the book a score of 10/10 and would highly recommend it.
OFF THE SHELF
by Kate Sawyer
This book is about survival. The book flashes back to Ruth’s previous life and her decision to leave a toxic relationship to lead a new life in a whale sanctuary in New Zealand. On her arrival, it unfolds that some kind of seismic catastrophic event has occurred. On a deserted beach, Ruth survives along with an unknown man by climbing into the mouth of a beached whale.
Ruth and the stranger endure an amazing, new life together and through many hardships, fall in love, and produce two daughters. The story demonstrates how one can build a new and fulfilling life, even though everything is lost.
Although beautifully and emotionally written, some members were frustrated by the implausibility of events and had to supress concepts of reality to enjoy the book. The group rated the book as 7.5/10.
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Hadji Murat by Leo Tolstoy
This is the last book that Tolstoy wrote before his death, and it was posthumously printed. It is well regarded as a truly classic read but for our reading group it proved to be a ‘Marmite book’. A few found it not to their reading taste.
Those loving the book felt it a sad, intense, and beautifully written account of man’s struggle to come to terms with the psychological feelings during a war. Tolstoy was himself enlisted into the Russian army in 1851 and left for Caucasus to fight the Chechens. He witnessed many events leading to the death of this charismatic leader Hadji Murat, so the book is a partially fictionalized story. Tolstoy wrote with painstaking accuracy so future generations can come to understand the horror, nobility and destruction which inherently comes with war.
Hadji Murat was a great chieftain who broke with the Chechen leader Shamil and fled to Russia for safety. The book shows his struggle of this uneasy alliance with the Russian leaders and the difficulty Hadji Murat faced in trying to rescue his family from Shamil’s prison. His continual pursuit by those he betrayed was nuanced through the work and the shadows of danger was subtlety woven through the book. Unfortunately, we were never clear why Hadji Murat had fallen out with the Chechen leader, but he commanded respect from those in Russia who tried to support his cause and use him to deliver peace.
For those of us who loved the book it was considered an unforgettable and artfully written story. For those who struggled on, they were pleased it was a slim read.
We gave it 8 out of 10.
OFF THE SHELF
“The Boy with Two Hearts” by Hamed Amirii
There is so much press coverage around refugees and asylum seekers currently. It is interesting to read the perspective of a young boy and his family who have gone through the harrowing and often dangerous process to get to a safe country.
The narrator recalls his memories of himself as a 12-year-old schoolboy and his brothers, one of whom has a serious heart complaint (this had been treated in Iran previously, but now the Taliban were in power there was no way to legally leave the country). The three boys and the parents escaped a Taliban death threat from the small village in Herat, Afghanistan.
There were mixed feelings about the book and the discussion was lively. Most of the book club felt that the mother of the young boy put her family’s life in danger when she spoke to parents in their local school about not allowing their daughters to be denigrated by boys and men. It was this, thought by many of us, reckless speaking out that led to a death warrant being put on the parents. We have no idea why Hamid’s mother did this and it is not written about, we only have his recollections of events from Hamid himself, his parents refused to speak of it. What is clear from the book, is Hamid himself had huge respect for his mother and her actions.
The book does give the reader insight into the hazardous and often extremely dangerous undertaking to get to a safe country and the reliance on dangerous traffickers to deliver them to whatever country they could. In this case it was the UK, but it seemed to be on the whim and facilities of the traffickers and often, situational opportunities. It also gives insight into how ruthless the traffickers are with little or no thought of the vulnerable people who pay dearly (with everything they own and sometimes with their lives) to get them to their destination. It took this one family, everything they owned to pay for the trip and over a year to get to a safe country and new life.
The book was certainly thought provoking and insightful and made the reader think about how lucky we are to be in such a safe and, in the main, protected country where we will never need to make those decisions that Hamid’s parents made. We gave this book a score 7/8
OFF THE SHELF
“Taste” by Stanley Tucci
From award-winning actor and food obsessive, Stanley Tucci, comes an intimate and charming memoir of life in and out of the kitchen.
Before Stanley Tucci became a household name with The Devil Wears Prada, The Hunger Games, and the perfect Negroni, he grew up in an Italian American family that spent every night around the table. Taste is a reflection on the intersection of food and life, filled with anecdotes about growing up in Westchester, New York. Stanley Tucci writes about his treasured memories and stories in a very readable way. The impact his mother’s cooking had on him is very clear and his love for food is contagious.
Stanley writes in a very open and honest way and as a group we felt that sharing his experiences about his family during lockdown was refreshing, demonstrating that we all have the same challenges in life. His cancer diagnosis resonated greatly with some in the group because of the impact this had on his ability to eat and his great love of food; fortunately he has made a full recovery. There were some authentic Italian recipes in the book too which added something extra, and we felt that whether you are a foodie or not, this book had great appeal. We scored the book 8/10
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“The Heart is a Lonely Hunter” by Carson McCullers
Carson McCullers’ first novel is known as a modern-day classic. To an extent it mirrors her own background of growing up in a poor mill town in the Southern United States.
The story tells of the lives of some of the townspeople and how they all gravitate towards a deaf mute called John Singer. They each confide in him with their problems and aspirations. There is Biff Bannon the local café owner, a teenage girl Mick Kelly who dreams of making something of herself, Jake Blount a political activist and the town’s African-American doctor Benedict Copeland. This doctor, despite his efforts and position in the town, is unable to change the residents’ attitudes of racism.
John Singer is patient whilst they offload their problems; they are completely unaware that he has his own pain, mourning his friend Spiros Antonapoulos, who has been banished to an insane asylum. McCullers, writing beautifully, portrays a sad collection of hopeless characters; yet there is something haunting about this book which most of us found to be food for thought and a good read. We gave it a score of 7.5.
OFF THE SHELF
“Before the coffee gets cold” by Toshikazu Kawaguchi
I think we all found the idea of this book interesting. Who would not like to go back in time, even for a few minutes. The book provided lots of discussion. The writing at times was a little underwhelming and the stories felt superficial. This could have been because some of the excitement/tension/emotion was lost in translation. Still frustrated that we didn’t find out what happened to the ‘ghost’. However, we all enjoyed the book and gave it an overall score of 8.
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A Little Life – by Hanya Yanagihara
This is a long read that is beautifully written. Set in New York, it follows the lives of Jude and his three male friends after university. Jude is the main character and as the novel progresses the effects of his disability and the horrors of his childhood slowly unfold. He is alone in the world, consequently his friends, especially Willem, are particularly important. It is not a book for the faint-hearted. The extent of emotional and sexual abuse can make it a difficult and upsetting read. Jude is highly successful in his business life and with the loving support of his partner Willem, he is able to tell his story. It is both sad and happy, clearly important to an understanding of the life-time effects of childhood abuse.
Some of us found this a very hard read. Others thought it was upsetting but gripping and quite a page-turner. This is reflected in a score of 7.
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Shuggie Bain By Douglas Stuart- The 2020 Booker Prize Winner
Douglas Stuart’s avowedly autobiographical first novel is a story about poverty, addiction and abuse and therefore was seen by members of the group as a grim experience. However, Stuart portrays such an understanding of the relationship between a child and a substance abusing parent that the book was held in esteem by most of the book club members. Stuart definitely has the ability to combine love and deep sadness, giving equal weight to both. The book is set in the 1980’s in Glasgow’s filthy tenements and progresses to the exploration of life in a mining village just outside the City.
Shuggie’s mother, Agnes descends through the degrading stages of alcoholism, ever more vulnerable to ever more predatory men. Her only constant relationships are with her children, whose knowledge of her disintegration is therefore intimate and private. The oldest, Catherine, marries in her late teens to get away from her mother and moves to South Africa. Alexander, “Leek”, is a gifted artist who carries around with him a two-year-old letter offering him a university place, stays to try to teach Shuggie how to “act normal” – i.e., appear to conform to the norms of working-class Glaswegian masculinity, which does not come naturally. Leek also stays in faltering hope of saving Agnes, until one day she throws him out, leaving the young teenage Shuggie as her sole carer.
Stuart’s depiction of women is very harsh and as one member said it is a book that is ‘heavy on lines, with colloquial dialect and language’. The work shares a picture of a roller- coaster life with immense highs and lows. As the book draws ever nearer to the ending, we are left reeling with many emotions but there was no doubt in our minds how wonderful Shuggie is and how we all shone the light for his future.
The group scored the book 8 out of 10
OFF THE SHELF
More Than A Woman. by Caitlin Moran
The author of the international bestseller ‘How to Be a Woman’ Caitlin Moran returns with another hilarious feminist book. In ‘More Than A Woman’ Moran reflects on parenting, middle-age, marriage, existential crises and, of course, feminism.
A decade ago, Caitlin Moran burst onto the scene with her instant bestseller ‘How to Be a Woman,’ a hilarious and resonant take on feminism, the patriarchy, and all things womanhood.
As timely as it is hysterically funny, ‘More Than a Woman’ is brutally honest, scathingly funny, and a necessary take on the life of the modern woman – and one that only Caitlin Moran can provide.
However, our book club readers, apart from one reader, found the author opinionated and did not find the writing particularly insightful and generally found it an indulgent piece of writing. Having said this, it did generate a great deal of debate and discussion around feminism amongst many other things.