Life after Life by Kate Atkinson

After the hush-hush excitement of last month’s book, we returned to normality this month, and were pleased to welcome Steph into our midst too.

And so we finally got to Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life – officially our most postponed book ever, and I do know at least two of its fans were sorry not to be able to join us this month.  It was a long book, and had defeated a few members, but amongst the rest of us it found considerable favour, although in true Book Group tradition we all seemed to like and dislike different things!

Many found it an engaging and easy read, enjoying the way it played with words and ideas, and its great imagery and details.  The parts set in the Blitz were particularly highly praised – there were some disturbingly graphic images but many felt it painted an effective picture of the relentless horror of the nightly attacks.  There was less agreement about the other parts set in WWII – for example, some felt the part where Ursula met Hitler was far-fetched, but others disagreed.  There was also disagreement on whether the fragmentation of the story made it harder to care for the characters – it did for some, but not others.

(Spoiler alert) We were somewhat unsure about how aware Ursula became of her multiple lives and then, with that knowledge, started to manipulate them.  Also, the opening section of the book has her attempting to kill Hitler, but a section at the end would seem to suggest  she hadn’t, or at least hadn’t succeeded…

At the end of the meeting, I suggested that from September onwards we might like to start using a star system to rate our books, and that we could perhaps use the same system as Goodreads.com, because it gives each star rating an explanation:

1* = “didn’t like it”

2** = “it was OK”

3*** = “liked it”

4**** = “really liked it”

5***** = “it was amazing”

All voluntary of course, and thoughts are still very much more important, but it could be interesting, given the amount of talk provoked by just the idea of it!

We meet next on Wednesday 10th September, when we’ll be looking at Donna Tartt’s The Secret History.  It seems a few of us read it when it was first out, so it will be interesting to see how, or if, our thoughts about it have changed, and to see how many have also read The Goldfinch, which I admit is very near the top of my summer to-read pile.

Happy summer reading everyone!

Cathy

The Dig by Cynan Jones

Now that the names of the winners have been announced, I can reveal that our secret project for June was to review one of the eight winning titles selected for this year’s Jerwood Fiction Uncovered prize.

“Fiction Uncovered helps develop wider audiences for emerging and deserving British writers … of outstanding work, looking beyond the debut novelists and the bestsellers.”  The book we were given to read, Cynon Jones’s The Dig, fitted this brief perfectly. Of the 17 of us who met to discuss the book, only one had heard of it through reviews in the press, and everyone said it was a book that on the face of it they were unlikely to have read otherwise, and yet the response to it was overwhelmingly positive and enthusiastic.

(please note – spoiler alert for what follows!)

Most, if not all, agreed it was a challenging read, with its intertwining narratives of an unnamed badger baiter, and a farmer grieving for his recently deceased wife. It’s a slender book, with sparse prose and short paragraphs, but which packs an incredible emotional punch.

First and foremost, there was considerable praise and admiration for the beauty of the language. Poetic, visceral, harrowing, clever, vivid, moving and engaging were all words echoed time and again by members. The structure of the book – lots of often very short paragraphs – was problematic for a few, at least at first, but most felt it was a structure that worked and enhanced the stark, simple telling of the story. A few members cited some expressions that were less successful, and felt that at times the language felt a little over-written and self-conscious, but the majority felt the pull of the language was stronger than any misgivings over the graphic descriptions of animal cruelty.

The cruelty that the un-named Big Man inflicted on animals was indeed too much for some, but there was general consensus that he was a repulsive but nonetheless believable character, and we wondered about his motivations and background.

Everyone felt tremendous empathy for Daniel. It was not until page 21 that we are told his wife had recently died, and for most, it was a profound shock that had several returning to re-read the preceding pages. All agreed it was a very moving and touching exploration of grief, the loss not just of a woman he so clearly loved deeply, but also of the life they’d shared, and expected to continue to share.

There were many themes and issues to explore within the book. We talked about whether Daniel or the Big Man were the more lonely – the one increasingly isolated by circumstances and grief, the other ostensibly part of society, but a society that perhaps tolerated him only as a necessary evil.

We also talked about the fact that Daniel is the only named character in the book; the effective (if sometimes also rather graphic) portrayal of life on a farm, and the difficulties facing some farmers today; and the theme of sacrifice running through the book, which came to a head with Daniel’s demise at the end of the book.

In fact, the ending of the book provoked the most differences of opinions: for some it felt rushed and abrupt; some felt the analogy of the badger caught in the sett and the Big Man at home when the police arrived was overplayed; others were simply caught up in wondering how it would play out.

Overall, not all of its fans felt able to say that it was a book they loved or enjoyed, but the vast majority of the group greatly admired it, particularly its stark, poetic language, and were glad we’d been given this chance to discover it, so thank you Fiction Uncovered!  Further details on Fiction Uncovered, and the eight winning titles can be found here: www.fictionuncovered.co.uk.

Next month we will finally get to talk about our much-postponed Life after Life by Kate Atkinson – hopefully it will be worth the wait!

Cathy

11 June meeting

 

We have a special project for our June meeting, and so for one month only we are going to have a “by invitation only” meeting.  Any existing members who haven’t been contacted separately, or new members who were thinking of coming along, are asked not to attend in June, but all will be very welcome at our meeting on 9 July, when we’ll be talking about Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life.

For those members who are attending the 11 June meeting, please remember to keep the details of the special project under you literary hats for the moment.

Thanks,

Cathy

Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death by James Runcie

Firstly a warm welcome to Helen P, trying us out for the first time, and it was good to have Joy back in the fold again too!

Secondly, it was great to see that quite a few of us had been out and about at author events since our last meeting.  Some of us had been to Newcastle library to see the author of last month’s book, Susan Elliot Wright, and Rebecca Muddiman, talk about their books as part of the Read Regional campaign.  Others had made it all the way out to Hexham, where the author of this month’s book, James Runcie, was taking part in the Hexham Book Festival.

We haven’t done a book of short stories before, and some members had read them one at a time, interspersed with other writings, whereas others had read them straight through.  Whilst they did have their fans, several members felt that the short story structure didn’t give each crime enough time to develop.  Those used to reading crime felt the absence of red herrings and the details involved in Sidney’s thought processes when solving the mysteries.   For some the stories were pleasingly light and “cosy”, others missed the darkness, suspense and sheer gruesomeness of most crime writing – one member described the book as the very opposite of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, for some this was a good thing, and for others bad!

Opinions on Sidney himself ranged from liking his quiet thoughtfulness, and enjoying his theological and moral musings, to a few who found him boring and perhaps prematurely “fuddy-duddy”.

We talked about the planned TV series based on the book which is expected to air on ITV in the autumn, and most felt that the stories would translate well to TV and looked forward to seeing the series.

There’s a slight change of format next month, details to follow in a separate post, and things will be back to normal in July when we’ll (finally!) be looking at Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life.

Cathy

The Things We Never Said by Susan Elliot Wright

It was good to see so many at our April meeting – it’s difficult when it falls so close to Easter – and great to welcome back Rebecca after quite a gap!

Last month’s much-loved book, the Pulitzer-prize-winning A Thousand Acres, was always going to be a tough act to follow, but nonetheless The Things We Never Said was generally popular and we found much to like and talk about.

Most people liked the structure of the book, and found it an easy, engaging and even gripping read.  The majority much preferred Maggie’s story, and found the depiction of her 1960s world, particularly of the social attitudes and the mental hospital, to be effective, interesting and moving.  Some would have liked even more details about the hospital and the treatment of patients.

Many members were less keen on the sections with Jonathan – several found him rather dull and boring, and didn’t sympathise with him or with Fiona.  Others found the description of the pressures facing the couple – her first pregnancy and his issues at work – to be a believable portrayal of how relationships can easily founder in such circumstances.

A few criticisms were raised, but overall most had found it a good read.  There are opportunities to see both the author of this and next month’s books coming up on Thursday 24th April:  Susan Elliot Wright will be at Newcastle City Library as part of the Read Regional campaign (further details on 0191 277 4100), and James Runcie, the author of Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death, will be at an event at the Hexham Book Festival (hexhambookfestival.co.uk).

Cathy

A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley

How interesting – we haven’t been such a big meeting since this time last year, and there were 16 of us then too – a reflection on the book each time, or the fact that Spring has sprung and we’re all coming out of hibernation, I wonder?  In amongst our number this time we welcomed Helen G and Jude to their first meeting, and welcomed back Vicky S who hadn’t been able to join us for a while.

After last month’s less than popular book, it was great to find that this book was universally liked, even loved!  We found it a well-written, absorbing, multi-layered and substantial, even epic story, although given the subject matter it was perhaps hard to say that it was a book we enjoyed.  Half of us had also been able to make it to the Tyneside Cinema the Sunday before, to hear Jane Smiley and to see the film of the book – both of which informed our discussion.

For some, the story was a little slow to get going, but we felt that the landscape itself, the isolation of the setting, and the role of the family within the community were all so integral to the story that they needed to be, and were, clearly and beautifully described from the beginning.  Many noted the sense of claustrophobia that came from living in such a small community where everyone relied on each other for company, and yet were also competitors and subject to many jealousies, petty or otherwise.

Much of our discussion focussed on the main characters and their relationships with each other – despite the beauty of the writing and the scale of the setting, at the heart of the story it was still a character study of the tragic relationship between Larry and his three daughters, all of whom we felt were very well drawn.  Larry evoked very little sympathy from the group, although we recognised that we didn’t know his own background, which may have explained, but not excused, his actions.  Whilst there was some sympathy for Caroline, again we recognised that we knew less about her than either Rose or Ginny.  Some found Rose to be the most interesting character, she too manipulated those around her, but also showed the awareness of and regret for her actions that Larry lacked.

We also talked about the many themes in the book including the privacy of human suffering, public persona and private actions, the relationship between farming communities and the land they farmed, and forgiveness where the perpetrator shows no remorse or regret, and also whether the ending could be regarded as a happy one for Ginny and her two nieces.

Given that the story is a re-working of King Lear, we did touch briefly on the play, although it was not known in great detail to any of us.  A few members are planning to watch the live broadcast from London of the NT’s current version of King Lear, being shown both at the Tyneside and Silverlink cinemas on 1st May, so we may yet come back to A Thousand Acres again!

Our next book is a choice from this year’s Read Regional campaign, Susan Elliot Wright’s The Things We Never Said, and hopefully we’ll be able to attend one of the author events that link in to the book – full details here:

http://www.readregional.com/events.

Cathy

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

Thank you to everyone who braved the wet and windy night for book group on Wednesday, and a warm welcome to our lovely new members, Linda, Amy, Emily and Jen!

We haven’t done a “Young Adult” book before, and our occasional foray into fantasy has met with mixed reactions, so I really wasn’t sure how this book would be received.  The short answer is not very well…

Most members had finished the book, although it turned out that one who hadn’t finished it had been lent the graphic novel version by her local library instead.  This added a whole new dimension to the experience, and the book was passed round to see how the story looked as a graphic novel.  Those who had read the book on e-readers all reported that the photos and particularly the hand-written letters had not come out well, which was a shame as many of us with paper copies had really liked the overall look of the book, the different background papers used for chapter headings, and the photos, both in and of themselves and the way they were used in the book. Some also enjoyed Jacob’s relationship with, and the portrayal of his grandfather.

But we found many faults….  The use of modernisms, inappropriate Americanisms spoken by the islanders and swearwords all jarred. Some felt the use of the photos was too contrived, and that several characters were only included because they were a reason to use a particular photo (a few members would even have left the photos out completely).  The lack of background to the peculiars meant there was no depth or emotional link to them.  Their arrested development was not explored, and there was considerable discomfort about Jacob’s relationship with Emma (and confusion about her age – one photo shows her as a young girl, another as a young woman).

The description of the islanders was rather stereotypical, and with no real sense of “Welshness”.  Many had expected (and wanted) the book to be much darker and creepier than it actually was.  Several members had thought that more would be made of the Jewish angle, but we acknowledged that perhaps this would be explored (and some of the many apparent plot holes explained) in the book’s sequel.

However, only two members said they were likely to read the sequel – for too many this was a book that looked great and had a good concept, but which, for lots of reasons, was a disappointing read.  Those who had read other YA books felt it was far inferior to, for example, the Harry Potter and Hunger Games books, and particularly Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy.

We also voted on the list of suggested books that I’d circulated earlier, and we now have books to take us to November, which is rather (scarily?) organised.  The titles are shown opposite, and further details on any events that they tie-in with will follow in due course.  Please note that our next two books link to events which have determined when we do them and as a result Life after Life has had to be postponed again, and we will (finally!) be doing it in June – apologies to any caught out by this.

Our next book, A Thousand Acres, ties in with an author event at the Tyneside Cinema on 9th March, together with a screening of the film of the book – hopefully when we meet on 12th March at least some of us will have made it to the cinema and can report back both on the author and the film!

Cathy


Meetings

Wednesday 10 September
The Secret History by Donna Tartt

Wednesday 8 October
The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín

Wednesday 12 November
The Crooked Maid by Dan Vyleta
Our book links in to an author event at the Durham Book festival, details to follow

Wednesday 10 December
Christmas meal - details tbc (no book)

Wednesday 14 January
The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan

Meetings take place on the second Wednesday of the month from 7.30pm until 9pm with reader in residence Cathy McCracken.

We meet in the Windsor Hotel on South Parade, Whitley Bay. Come into Reception and go through the double doors in front of you - our meeting room is the second door on the left, down a couple of steps and a short corridor.


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