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So good they wrote it twice

Welcome to newsletter two, and if you're still with us you're now a loyal subscriber. You and us, we go way back! If you've just joined, welcome. This week we recorded our latest episode on The Mermaid of Black Conch by Monique Roffey, and had fun thinking coming up with fishy follow-on reads. Meanwhile Kate's book club met to discuss Americanah by Chimamanda Ngoze Adichie and Laura read a book Kate loved but doesn't feel the same way. Awkward? You'll have to wait for our next bookshelf episode, coming soon, to find out. 

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngoze Adichie
I seriously underestimated the time it would take me to read Americanah. Kindles can be deceptive, and I merrily picked it up three days before we were due to meet thinking I'd left myself ample time. After reading fairly solidly for about a day I noticed I was only at 19% and it dawned on me it was going to be a longer read than I'd thought. And so I hadn't finished it in time for book club – hey, even book club podcasters can get behind – but that didn't stop me hugely enjoying our discussion. The novel was published in 2013 and The Guardian review opened with the line 'There are some novels that tell a great story and others that make you change the way you look at the world. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Americanah is a book that manages to do both', which most people in my group agreed with. They cited its readability, the fact that it hooks you in from the first page, the structure, and the way so many interesting ideas about race were woven in to what is in essence a will-they-wont-they romance. Much of the story is narrated in flashback from a hair salon Ifemelu, the main character has visited in order to get braids. We all loved this setting and the consideration given to black hair and the way that highlighted so many small details about the way people interact around issues of race. 

Praise for the book wasn't unanimous, a couple of outliers found the characters flat and the novel hard to engage with emotionally. Particular criticism was reserved for Ifemelu's blog posts, which become a structural device once she becomes established in her American life. To some they felt too much like ‘lectures’ or ‘regurgitated thoughts’, hectoring one bookclubber who would have preferred to have found his own way to his conclusions. But for most, myself included, although the blog posts did feel a little like soapboxes, we were engaged and challenged by the author's observations, channelled through her main character.

And do you know what? It's a 600-page novel, but when I finished it a couple of days later I thought I could easily have read 600 more. I didn't want to leave Ifemelu's company and have been missing her ever since I put it down.
The Mermaid of Black Conch by Monique Roffey

Our latest episode is out, in which we discuss this year's Costa prize winner, The Mermaid of Black Conch. It made for a great book club book, beautifully written with a transporting sense of place that was particularly enhanced by the audiobook. It's a fantastical tale of a woman cursed to roam the seas as a mermaid for centuries before her capture and rescue leads to love and her transformation back into a human again. The invention is nicely offset by the realism Roffey brings to her descriptions. This is no idealised Daryl Hannah figure, this mermaid has crabs living in her ears and stinks of the sea. Other memorable characters include Miss Arcadia Raine, the island's principal landlord, a white woman whose family have lived on Black Conch for generations, her son Reggie, who is deaf and able to teach the mermaid sign-language before she learns to speak again, and Reggie's father Life, whose sense of pride drove him away from living off Arcadia's wealth. Laura and I loved this atmospheric novel and thought it perfectly fit the bill for the Costa award for 'the year's most enjoyable book'. If like me you feel a tiny inward sigh at the thought of having to read a prizewinner (because, you know, it won a prize) relax and trust us, this is one you'd have wanted to read anyway. Although that said, of course, opinion in my book club was by no means united – listen in for the debate. For follow ons, try Indigo by Marina Warner, The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway or The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar.

Rónán Hession, author of Leonard and Hungry Paul
I was already a big fan of Dublin due to the International Dublin Literary Award (my favourite prize, in which the books are nominated by libraries around the world), which I think I mentioned in my last newsletter. Now I have discovered that they have a city-wide book club in which everyone is encouraged to read the same book during April – could I love Dublin any more? The book is the intriguingly titled Leonard and Hungry Paul by Rónán Hession, apparently a gentle story of two friends and a celebration of everyday suburban life. Mairead Owens, Dublin City Librarian, says: 'The book is a treasure and will hopefully encourage many more readers to seek refuge and sustenance from reading.' It sounds perfect, and I'm definitely going to be reading along.

What to listen to:

Perfect Sunday listening (or, indeed, any other time), our latest pod on The Mermaid of Black Conch.

And not strictly an audio, but I often listen to things on YouTube, and serendipitously bibliotherapist Ella Berthoud has one of her book recommendation sessions on the subject of mermaids. So have a watch or listen as she flags up some brilliant books on the subject. And for more our interview with Ella will be out in a couple of weeks time.

Things to watch

The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr Morris Lessmore – promise me you’ll watch this. It’s just the most delightful and charming film about books I think I’ve ever seen. It made me cry – but I am generally a bit of a watering pot and it doesn’t take much to set me off. Anyway, have a look and let me know if you love it as much as I did – will take 15 minutes of your time, will warm your heart forever.

Accounts to follow

Dymphna Flynn produced BBC Radio 4's Bookclub for nearly 20 years and has now stepped back to focus on other things. Happily one of these is her Bookstagram account which is a treat, filled with thoughtful reviews of lesser-known titles and often suggestions to programmes she has worked on that can be found online. I loved listening to her programme on Edna O’Brien, who I didn’t know much about before, and recently she flagged up another gem on Muriel Spark. Find her on Instagram @dymphnaflynn

What Kate is reading

I'm currently reading Don't Touch My Hair by Emma Dabiri which couldn't be a more perfect follow-on read from Americanah. I'm also itching to start Owls of the Eastern Ice by Jonathan C. Slaght but am finding myself horribly tempted by that Sarah J. Mass fantasy House of Earth and Blood everyone is raving about on Instagram. I blitzed through the sample, but should I carry on?

What Laura is reading:

Laura just finished The Moth and The Mountain by Ed Caesar, one of my favourite reads ever but guess what? Laura says she's not sure it lived up to my rave reviews! A case of too much hype leading to overly high expectations? What can she not have liked about it? What? You'll have to listen in to our next Bookshelf where we'll thrash out our differences - episode coming soon. Next up for Laura is The Midnight Library by Matt Haigh, which her dad bought for her birthday and then read it himself first – thus, she says, disqualifying it as a legitimate birthday gift, but making for an excellent surprise loan.

Thanks so much for subscribing and we hope you've enjoyed these bookish ramblings. Do get in touch at or via our website. Let us know what you're reading – we always love to hear from you.

And if you enjoyed the newsletter do forward it on to a book-loving friend. Sign up link is here. Spreading the word is the best possible way to support us and we are so grateful when people do. But for now, until next week, happy reading.

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