The sky was grey and featureless, and the wind lashed down the deserted streets of the city. Those that survived the plague huddled for warmth in their homes, and burned whatever they could in metal bins to provide heat. The electricity had finally failed months earlier after a protracted death in which the ailing substations died one after another, some in a shower of sparks and some with barely a whimper. The air smelled of burned metal, faeces and decay. A rat twitched in the gutter, its life nearly spent, as evil smelling water, iridescent with rainbow hues of green, pink and yellow, surged past it. The sickness seemed to have been more devastating to the rodent population than it had been to the human citizens so, whilst men and women could still be seen scurrying nervously between one shelter and another, rats were now a very rare sight indeed. There was good eating on a rat, it was said, but rats that showed signs of infection were wisely avoided.
On this evening though, the streets were not quite as deserted as they first seemed. One man strode briskly through the dead leaves and abandoned crisp packets that decorated the pavements. His hands were thrust deeply into the frayed pockets of his coat, and his collar was turned up against chilly evening air. A casual observer might have commented on his scruffy hair, or perhaps his handsome aquiline nose. When pressed, that un-named observer might have recalled the purposeful manner with which the man covered the distance.
Most buildings were dark, having neither candles nor oil lamps. One was different though, and a warm glow spilled out of its un-shuttered windows. A sign hung over the door, showing a ruddy faced, red coated, bewigged nobleman. Gold lettering named him as the Lord John Russell. It was into this building that the man walked, and greeted another man who was sitting in a prominent position, with a drink on the table by his side. “Hello, Jon”, he said, “How are you?”
“Mmph”, said the man sitting down, “mmph fine. Bu’ ’ve g’oh too fache. Ow’wer you, Pax?”
“I’m okay”, said the man with the aquiline nose. “Can I get you a drink?”
“Yes, but make it an orange juice and lemonade please”, said Jon, “and make it quick. I’m bored with all this tiresome dialogue. I thought that something exciting was going to happen with the diseased town and the rat. Incidentally, do you like the way my toothache has mysteriously cured itself?”
“No, no” Jon continued, as Pascal began to splutter out a reply “please don’t answer that. I don’t really care – and I’d much rather be reading the minutes…”
“I see”, said Pascal tersely. “These would be the minutes of the meeting we’re just about to have, would they? The minutes for a meeting that the others haven’t yet turned up to? Okay – but you can get your own drink, and I’m not responsible for any changes to reality that this will invariably cause.” With that, he turned in the direction of the door and pulled a ring out of his pocket. The ring was silver and fairly plain, ornamented only with strange runes that he claimed meant ‘Peace, Hope & Love’ in some strange and forgotten language. The truth was that he didn’t really know what the runes meant, and he was merely parroting the explanation given to him by his sister some years previously. He put the ring on his finger, gripped it with the other hand and purposefully twisted it through 180 degrees – and disappeared. There was nothing dramatic about his disappearance; he just ceased to exist. He ceased ever to have been and, as he did, the sun came out and the streets of the town bustled into life. In that instant, the electric lights came on and the candles went out without so much as a twist of smoke or the oily smell of burnt wax.
Jon was sitting at a table in the pub. He still had toothache – not all the side effects of the vanishing were good. The recently disappeared Pascal reappeared – but this time more conventionally, on foot and through the open door. Over the next half hour, others appeared to join them – first Sangeeta, then Sarah, and finally James. So claimed the minutes, at any rate. This is what else they said.
They commented on the absence of one time member Paul Frew. By general consent, his name wasn’t spoken – the others feared meeting the same fate. Paul had disappeared some months earlier on a clandestine mission to the library. Some feared that he had gotten lost in the labyrinthine maze of books – but others, the mysterious Pascal included, believed that he had been eaten by a ravenous librarian after trying to return a tome that was more than two years overdue.
Ilona was similarly missing, although she had been seen more recently. From her infrequent communications it was learned that she was fighting a losing battle with a particularly ill-tempered copy of Cloud Atlas, one that was determinedly trying to suck her brains out.
The reason for Claire’s absence was well known. She had nobly rendered herself immobile after running out of bookmarks. Rather than risk creasing the spines of her charges, she nibbled off one of her own feet in order to use her toes to mark pages. A medal of some kind will be shipped to her if we can get one struck before she bleeds to death through her leg stump.
Of the older members, and now honorary members, Sharon was also missing in action – believed buried under a massive pile of beach fiction, somewhere in Queensland. Vic bravely fighting her way through Waterstones, trying to decide which of the many books had the prettiest cover.
“I chose it”, declared Jon, talking about Cloud Atlas, “because I’d read two of the authors previous works. I really enjoyed David Mitchell’s other work, so this was too good to miss. It felt like a bit of a rewrite of Ghostwritten, but it was more structured and a superior story.”
The League’s resident art historian sipped thoughtfully from his glass of orange juice and lemonade. “I liked the way man’s cleverness and violence leads to his own downfall – and I loved the nuclear power station thriller.”
“That’s all very well”, retorted Sangeeta, making a welcome return to The League of Extraordinary Bookreaders after her recent absence, “but the journal at the beginning of Cloud Atlas was very dull.”
“Actually”, she confessed, “I haven’t finished reading it yet. Please could you hold up a sign warning me of any plot spoilers you plan to throw into the conversation?” The other members duly assented to this request. “I was gripped”, Sangeeta continued, “from chapter two onwards, and I particularly liked the subtle links between the stories and the huge jumps from one time to another. It’s a unique book and I’m looking forward to finding out where the story leads. I’m slooshing around Sloosha’s Crossing at the moment, but I keep needing to re-read earlier chapters to remind myself what’s already happened.”
“This is an excellent book,” she finished, “David Mitchell is clearly a very imaginative chap. Is he on drugs!?”
“It’s very influenced by pop-culture, isn’t it?”, said James, the Leagues resident intellectual wit. He pushed his half rimmed glasses up his nose, leaned back and harrumphed. “I mean, it rather reminded me of 2001 – A Space Odyssey, if you know what I mean. Mass extinctions and what-not.”
Sarah exchanged a sympathetic glance with Pascal. “I think his batteries need changing”, she said. “He often burbles when he’s low on power.”
“No, no”, said James, “I mean the way the book often went off at a tangent and became difficult to follow. It always explained itself in the end though”.
“It always explained itself, did it?” said Pascal irritably. “Well, I wish you would. You’re making no sense at all.”
Ignoring the rude interruption, James continued; “It’s like a jigsaw puzzle you see, where one randomly plonks pieces down and eventually builds up a picture. A bit like Magnolia, which is a very good film with Tom Cruise in.”
“I thought it was great”, said Pascal, the Leagues resident encyclopaedic brain. “I didn’t like the cover though. Once I got past that obstacle though, I was gripped from the first story to, well, the end of the first story! It’s a compelling novel from the first page to the last. The sub-plots were fantastic all the way through, but I couldn’t see the relevance of the birth mark and…”
“You cretin!”, said Sarah scornfully. “All the main characters in the book are the same soul – that’s what the birthmark signifies.” She sniggered in a self-congratulatory manner.
“Oh”, blustered Pascal. He stuttered as his brain attempted to digest this new information. “But”, he said, regrouping magnificently “how can that be true given that only one story can be guaranteed true in the ‘book universe’.” He held up a hastily scrawled sign warning of a plot spoiler. “’Sloosha’s Crossing’ is the top level of the story, and can be regarded as true. ‘An Orison of Sonmi’ is analogous to The Bible, and can be regarded as being about as factual. It all goes downhill from there. ‘Timothy Cavendish’ is a film that may or may not be factual, and ‘Luisa Rey’ is a thriller. The soul theory unravels.” He grinned, and secretly thanked his magic ring for giving him the ability to alter time in such a way that he could come up with a good riposte to Sarah’s criticism.
“I liked the way elements of the story seemed to be derived from other sources, greatly increasing its believability.”
“I liked the cover”, said Sarah, the Leagues most glamorous glider pilot, leaping to its defence. “I thought it was pretty, and it made me want to buy the book even before Jon suggested it for book club. I loved the style, the detail and the spellings. By the way, did I mention that I thought the cover was nice too?”
James interjected to agree. “I liked the way &c. was used instead of etc. in the first story”, he said. Pascal geekily pointed out that & is merely a ligature, a combination of e & t, or et.
“Fascinating,” said Sarah impatiently, and continued “I particularly liked the conspicuous branding throughout Sonmi. I found the unfinished stories a little confusing until…” She paused, and scrabbled for the ‘Plot Spoiler’ sign. Sangeeta hastily trust her fingers into her ears. “…until I realised that the endings of the unfinished stories would be revealed later in the book.”
“I can still hear you”, Sangeeta complained.
The others in the league smiled. There wasn’t a lot that could be done about that, after all. “I thought that all the stories were true in the context of the book”, said Sarah, “it was a very well constructed story, but all rather far fetched. I struggled with the journal and with Sloosha’s Crossing, but I raced through the other stories”.
The League all congratulated Jon on an excellent choice – again. As they did, the astral plane warped and twisted and all felt a presence speaking to them. “Sorry, sir”, the voice said, “next month I will be sure to complete my homework”. Ilona continued eerily, “Sorry, I found it really hard to get into – not helped by the fact that I had a fainting incident last month and so I gave up reading on the train. To show my dedication to The League I shall live dangerously and read on the train again, besides my blood tests came back clear. I will use your psychic emanations to decide whether Cloud Atlas is worth persevering with past page 50!” One day Jon will put a foot wrong but, on balance, it seems that that time has not yet come.
Sangeeta stood up impatiently. “Drinks anyone? Be quick – I’m dying to hear what books everyone read this month”. The orders were duly placed and, as if by magic, drinks appeared on the table.
“I didn’t think you’d be interested” said Jon, who’d been uncharacteristically quiet. The rest of The League suspected that discomfort caused by his toothache might be the reason for his silence. “Well, I read nothing. Nothing other than Printing as an Instrument of Change in the 14th Century – it’s a belter!”
Sangeeta had been rather busier in her reading. “I read South of the Border, West of the Sun by Haruki Murakami. It’s about a man who, as a child, is friends with a girl who has a limp. They’re both single children and this bonds them together. He is obsessed with the girl, but they move apart. The man marries someone else, and when he meets the girl again later in his life his family falls apart.”
“I also read a hilarious chick lit story, I think it’s called The Secret Diary of a Shopaholic, but I may be wrong because I’m psychically being told that there is no such book. Perhaps it’s called The Secret Dreamworld of a Shopaholic. It’s by Sophie Kinsella. It’s about someone who cures her problems with retain therapy – it’s a laugh, and I highly recommend it as a beach read.”
“Eleven Minutes by Paulo Coelho is about a Brazilian girl who emigrates to Geneva and becomes a prostitute, and meets a painter who she falls in love with. It’s alright, but not wonderful. It’s sexually explicit and not even slightly deep and meaningful, despite what the cover claims.”
“The Reading Group by Elizabeth Noble is about a group of women in a reading group, their lives and the books they read. They have no special superpowers though, unlike us. Their lives do end up mirroring the books they read. It’s very girly and the women’s husbands usually end up having affairs – so there is a bit of sex in it. Another beach read.”
“The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith is really good. It’s about a Botswanan woman who sets up a detective agency with her fathers legacy. It’s light, amusing and fabulous. I also read Tears of the Giraffe which is in the same series and about the same detective.”
James confessed that he hadn’t read as much as Sangeeta. Sarah needed to take over the minutes at this point as Pascal lost the plot completely, and with it the ability to breathe. There was a very good reason for it though – and it concerns a certain 12th Man.
This bloody obsession Tony has for sticking things into the wicket is really getting quite out of hand. As a matter of fact earlier this season, he borrowed a magnificent gold and onyx fountain-pen of mine and to this day it remains buried some six or eight inches somewhere under this fucking pitch, and now here today, we’ve seen the Australian batsmen having to contend with Tony’s bloody car keys sticking out of the turf just in front of the popping crease down at the Member’s end.
James continued on the Cricketing theme “I read Someone Who Was byBrian Johnston. It’s a great, great book about a lovely chap. It’s such a positive book – it’s about his life and, doubtless, Cricket. Pascal has Johnners CD’s – doubtless he’d lend them to anyone who’s interested.”
“The Smoking Diaries by Simon Gray gets bogged down in the little details. It’s stream of consciousness writing and all the stories are true. It’s written by a friend of Harold Pinter. Inner weaknesses are revealed as his 20 year old self interviews the 60 year old. I think this would appeal to Pascal and Jon – but I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone else.”
“By the way,” James said, “I haven’t read it recently, but Death to the French is also a good book!”
“Speaking of French,” said Pascal, “that’s my excuse for not having read anything this month. I’ve been too busy trying to learn the damn language. Stick a babel fish in my ear, please, I’m hopeless!”
“I read The Wonder Spot by Melissa Bank, and the best bit of it was the blurb which was written by my sister” said Sarah proudly. “It’s chick lit set in the Jewish community of New York. The pink dress that the heroine had to wear to her bat mitzvah stuck in my mind. It’s sort of well written, and it’s sort of enjoyable. It isn’t wonderful.”
“Citizen Girl by Nicola Kraus and Emma McLaughlin is even less interesting than The Wonder Spot. Actually, it’s an appalling book. It’s about an ill-tempered girl. I felt sorry for her boyfriend. It claims to be darkly feminist, but it isn’t. It’s just pointless.”
“I had better luck with my last book, I can highly recommend it. It’s The Chimney Sweepers Boy by Barbara Vine. It’s really well written, a real page-turner. A girl is asked to write a biography of her dead author father by his publisher. I was disappointed to find out subsequently that Barbara Vine is Ruth Rendell”
“Oh well,” Pascal sighed. “You see what happens when you mess with reality? You wanted more poetic minutes – and this is what you got. A mess. I might just have to give you them straight next month.” With that, he turned and began to leave the pub.
“Hey” said Sangeeta, “what about my book? It’s my turn to choose, remember?”
“Sorry, Sangeeta”, said Pascal contritely, “I forgot. I’d forget my own head if it wasn’t screwed on.”
“Well, okay” said Sangeeta, slightly mollified. “I choose Small Island by Andrea Levy.”
And with that, the League disbanded for another month – where and when they will meet again is a mystery. And as they faded into the cold night air a mysterious voice called out of the bitter emptiness “I am too embarrassed to admit to the trash I have actually read this month, so let’s assume that I was illiterate, see you next mo…”, and then melted into the night.
Silence. The streets were empty, and the night air warmed. A bird twittered with fear as a cat slunk along a branch towards its nest, heedless of the danger posed to its feline well being by the fox licking its chops at the bottom of the tree. After a while one last voice drifted across the sleeping city, a voice that sounded remarkably like James “well, I don’t think much of the minutes, there wasn’t any sex in them.”