Boys Book Club – 2012 results

We’ve just had our last book club meet of 2012 – in January – due to overfull diaries and just too much Christmas stuff happening.

Our tradition is to meet over a meal and this year we dined at the rather fantastic Create Leeds which proved to be a most conducive venue. The format is to review the December book, which this year was Great Expectations, and then we take a look back over the year and vote on our top three books. It’s not BBC Sports Personality of the year, but it’s a big deal for us.

2012 has been quite a year for the unique and resilient boys book club: we’ve read probably what is our most consistent dozen books ever, one member has taken a sabbatical, we’ve had guest members (one of which was female) and as of January 2013 and we now have three brand-new full-time members. I have to say at the mid-point of the year we did wonder what would become of the book club. With a couple of founder members no longer in the club, we had to think long and hard about what we wanted the club to be.

Book Club for me has always not just been about the book. That may sound odd but it was always about what a disparate group of men would talk about when they met, over copious amounts of alcohol, in some of Leeds’ finest drinking establishments. So we thought it was worth fighting for and we had to think differently – the club will have been together eight years this year and that’s a tough environment for new members to enter. But I think we’ve pulled it off and our new members seem to be finding their feet if recent meeting are anything to go by.

As I mentioned earlier, 2012 has been one of our most successful years. I’d count a successful year on the number of books that have excited, challenged, rewarded and made me look forward to picking it up every time. Our scores this year have been consistently high and our evolved selection process is getting better and better (it was a little iffy earlier on in our life).

So – without further ado, I’ll unveil the top 3 books of the year – in reverse order of course along with an excerpt from my original review…

Number 3 — Master and Margerita by Mikhail Bulgakov

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Wow. Wow. Wow. What an incredible book. I almost don’t know where to start; such was the impact it has made upon me.

I had left a lot of pages to read this week to hit book club deadline but Bulgakov took me on a breathless journey through the natural and supernatural, effortlessly mixing magical realism, horror, comedy, satire and social commentary. I don’t recall a book so bold in its ambition for some time. Here’s the thing: I certainly didn’t expect this journey from this book but it has so many facets and functions on a narrative level incredibly well – rolling along at a rollicking pace, twisting and turning.

First up, I absolutely loved the interplay between Stalin’s Moscow and biblical Judea – at first I thought this was just an enjoyably random flourish but as the story unfolded about the master’s book about Pontius Pilate, it was a touch of genius. The intimate portrait of Pilate and Yeshua (Jesus), the subsequent execution and beyond were powerfully written and provided a poignant counterpoint to the chaotic shenanigans going on in Moscow when Satan comes to town.

Number 2 — American Gods by Neil Gaiman

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American Gods is based around an elegantly simple and highly original premise that the global diaspora that gravitated to America over the last 200 years all brought their gods with them. These gods became as much a part of the birth and growth of the United States of America as the people did. Then, as generations passed, these traditional gods became more and more marginalised and discarded when ultimately new gods took their place – gods of television, machinery and the internet.

What an idea.

These forgotten gods then continued to live amongst men, as men, forlorn and desperate to find relevance in a world that has moved on. The Norse gods loom large and are central to the development of the narrative leading to the perhaps inevitable battle between good and evil. As the story unfolds, we encounter all manner of mythical beings –  from ancient Egyptian gods to Irish leprechauns. It sounds bizarre and it is.

Gaiman’s visual style of writing suits this subject matter beautifully and he brings alive the characters in vivid detail. If you were to pigeonhole this book it would be in the fantasy horror genre but to do so would be a huge disservice to the ambition of the author. It’s more than a cult title for geeks – it delivers brilliantly original storytelling to a wider audience.

Number 1 — Feast of the Goat by Mario Vargas Llosa

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Every so often, book club delivers a book that is bolt out of the blue and this book is certainly that. In fact we’ve done well recently with books that I really didn’t have much of an idea about that turn into classic book club books. A classic book club book for me is a controversial read – it might be easy to read or a complete nightmare to finish in the time and the result is a great discussion on the night. Goat did just that.

Although we were depleted due to illness and we had another guest member for the evening – resulting in a new dynamic in the group – it resulted in a classic discussion. The book itself centres around the assassination of The Dominican Republic dictator Trujillo in 1961 and weaves around this momentous act a tangled web of characters and plot lines. Llosa employs an intriguing narrative ploy flitting between tenses which builds, sustains and at times neutralises the tension he cleverly creates, making it almost impossible for the reader to not turn the page.

This author is another clever exponent of the ‘what is fact and what is fiction’ brigade, carefully weaving complex fact and characterisation amidst what is clearly a factual account of the bloody episode in South American history. In fact when I finished the book I couldn’t wait to find out more about what actually happened in the Dominican Republic, such was its grip on me.

The book is unflinching in its portrayal of the brutality of the regime and there is a genuinely shocking secret at the heart of the story that’s possible to see coming but even suspecting this might be the case doesn’t dissipate the power of it. It’s not often I actually gasp reading a book but this was one of those occasions.

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