Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie

I was impressed that so many people had come out on such a cold and dark November evening for our meeting this week, including Rosie, who came along for the first time.

We talked about Kamila Shamsie’s Burnt Shadows, an ambitious and multi-layered story which opened in Nagasaki on the day the bomb dropped, and ended in New York shortly after 9/11, with the intervening sections set in India, Pakistan and Afghanistan.  It covered many big themes, the legacy of empire, especially the British empire, the impact of international politics, gender, race, generational relationships and cultural politics, and yet also introduced a small cast of characters whose intertwined lives were described in sufficient detail for us to get to know each one.

Its fans enjoyed the beautiful writing, imagery and descriptions; the strong female characters, especially the feisty and adventurous Hiroko, and their relationships with each other; the strong sense of a shared humanity; and the fact that the book challenged common assumptions and stereotypes.

Several, tho not all, felt it was a book of two halves, and that the second half, being rather more political, was less interesting and involving, altho it was noted that the refugee experience was very movingly described.  Some felt the male characters were generally not as strong, nor as likeable as the female ones, with the exception of Sajjad. A couple of members also felt that the book was too strongly anti British and American.

Many members said they would have liked the book to have been longer, so the issues it raised could have been explored in even greater depth.  Overall it was a popular book, and came away with a rating of 3.6 out of 5*.

Next month we are meeting elsewhere for our Christmas meal, and the booking details have now been finalised.  Normal meetings will resume in January, when we will talk about Andrew Michael Hurley’s The Loney, and decide on our next set of books, which, when chosen, will take us up to the summer break – what a thought!



My Name is Leon by Kit de Waal

It was lovely to meet Jenny, who joined us for the first time on Wednesday evening, for what turned out to be a rather emotional meeting to discuss Kit de Waal’s debut novel, My Name is Leon.  (Beware of spoilers.)

I don’t think we’ve ever discussed a book whose subject matter touched so many of us, either through our own professional or personal lives, or through those close to us, and the shared details of those experiences added such depth to our discussion of the book.  The most repeated comment was simply “heartbreaking” and several members found it a difficult read that, had it not been a book group book, they would have probably have avoided.  However even the two members who didn’t really like the book rated it well, leading to a star rating of 3.7 out of 5.

There was much praise for the simple, clear writing, the likeable characters, the effectiveness of Leon’s voice and how it allowed us to understand more of what was actually happening around him (altho a few times it was felt it was used as a device to explain or move along the plot).  We also talked about the many perceptive and poignant details, such as references to smells, the importance of his backpack and few remaining possessions to Leon, and how the simple gift of a bike had expanded his life.

Beyond that there were some differences of opinions: some felt that the sub-plots involving Tufty’s friends, and the passage on the riots, didn’t add anything, and for some (though not all) the late 7os/early 80s were not particularly well evoked, altho it was pointed out that this also made the story timeless, given that the issues it dealt with are still very much with us today.  The ending in particular seemed to split the group, some seeing it as rather too neat and convenient, whereas others felt not that much had actually been resolved and they found the loose ends unsettling.

Some members had been able to go and see the author at the Durham Book Festival, and they added much valuable detail and background, including the fact that the author is planning at least one more book about Leon, which I am sure we will all be keen to read!

We also discussed plans for our Christmas meal out, which replaces our regular meeting in December.  Booking details will be finalised at our November meeting, when we will also be looking at Kamila Shamsie’s Burnt Shadows.


On Beauty by Zadie Smith

What a lovely start to our first session back after the summer break – not only do we welcome three newcomers, Craig, Dot and Fran, but we welcome back Rebecca after a long absence too!

Zadie Smith’s On Beauty proved to be a real Marmite book, with most members either really liking, or really disliking it.  Our star ratings ranged from 1s to 4.5s and came out at 2.5 out of 5.

Even those who were less enamoured of it mostly still thought it was beautifully written though, and its fans enjoyed a strong, engaging narrative, warm and vivid descriptions, and the interactions between the characters.  The characters of Kiki, Jerome, Levi and Carl were singled out as being the most interesting or engaging.

The sheer number of characters, however, was a common complaint amongst those who disliked the book, as well as the fact that so few of them (if any, for some) were likeable, and several members felt it was simply much too long.

It was a thought provoking read, and did give us plenty to talk about.  Some found the issues raised unsettling, particularly those relating to race.  We also talked about the artificiality of the academic world it portrayed, summed up at the end in a moving part where it seemed that Howard, who had devoted so much of his life to a study of Rembrandt, was, when faced with his paintings, apparently no longer able to see the beauty in them.  We also talked about the different layers and meanings of beauty in the book, and the fact that it seemed that Carl was the only character who was genuinely talented, and able to appreciate true beauty.

Next month our book, My Name is Leon by Kit de Waal, ties in with an author event at the Durham Book Festival a few days before our meeting.  Further details can be found here: http://www.durhambookfestival.com.  Members booking tickets over the phone should mention they are part of a NWN Book Group to qualify for reduced tickets prices.  Copies of the book can also be bought from the NWN website for £6.50 + £1 p&p: http://www.shop.newwritingnorth.com.


The Woodcutter by Reginald Hill

We were a slightly smaller group than usual this month, and I’m not sure if the less-literary-than-normal title put people off, or t’was the lure of the summer sun, now that it’s finally arrived.

Nonetheless, The Woodcutter proved an enjoyable and fairly popular read, with star ratings ranging from 2 to 4 out of 5, arriving at an average of 3.1.  Beware of vague spoilers below.

Amongst the elements we liked about it were: that it was an engaging read; the depiction of the Cumbrian landscape; the characters of Wolf and Elf, and their developing relationship; Elf’s self-analysis; the humour; the clever plotting and slow revelation of the truth; seeing how power worked at the upper levels of society; and the many fairytale elements and references.

Some of the criticisms inevitably contradict the compliments: some disliked Elf, finding her narcissistic and egotistical; there were several plot holes, and for some members there were too many sub-plots, which tended to veer into Bond-esque territory, diminishing the power of the main story; a lack of belief in Wolf and Imogen’s relationship; and the denouement, which many found rushed, melodramatic and unsatisfactory.

We also voted on the latest selection of suggested titles, and now have a list that takes us into next year – full details on the bar on the right.  We break now for the summer, and meet again on Sept 14th, when we’re back in our more usual literary territory with our first Zadie Smith title, On Beauty.

see you in September!



The Redemption of Galen Pike by Carys Davies

In what I hope is becoming an annual tradition, we again welcomed the author of our Read Regional book choice to our meeting – this time Carys Davies, whose collection of short stories The Redemption of Galen Pike was a slender volume that packed a huge punch.

We haven’t looked at short stories before, and we were all so impressed and fascinated by the range and diversity of the stories, both in terms of setting (geographical and historical) and length – one of the most memorable and moving was a half-page paragraph.

We very much enjoyed learning more about how some of the stories came into being, and about the craft of short story writing.  Many of us came away with a much greater understanding of, and respect for them, so many thanks to Carys for joining us!

Next month’s book is Reginald Hill’s The Woodcutter, and we will also be voting on our books for September onwards – details will be posted on the right here after the meeting .


The Year of Reading Dangerously by Andy Miller

It was lovely to welcome Jean and Katherine to our May meeting, and to welcome back Amy and Emily, who had both been away having babies.

Since we mostly read fiction, our choice for this month was an unusual one: Andy Miller’s The Year of Reading Dangerously, his account of a year of reading from his self-created List of Betterment.  We didn’t spend that long discussing the book, but it did (as hoped) provide an excellent springboard for a great discussion on all things book related: why do we read and what; do we lie about reading books we feel we “should” have read; how did we come to reading; how do we define well-read, and much, much more.

Next month is also unusual in that, for only the second time, we will welcome an author to our meeting.  Carys Davies is the author of The Redemption of Galen Pike, which we are reading as part of this year’s Read Regional campaign.  Excitement is mounting!


A God in Ruins by Kate Aktkinson

We welcomed newcomer Louise to our meeting this week, when we talked about Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins, described as a companion piece to her earlier book, Life after Life. Be warned, this post does contain spoilers all the way thru!

Like Life after Life, this book was written in an unusual way – in this case, the narrative continually jumped not just backwards and forwards in time, but swopped points of view too, mostly Teddy’s, but also those of his daughter Viola and grandchildren Sonny and Bertie.  This very much divided the group – some enjoyed the challenge it presented, others were simply annoyed by it.

Where I think we had pretty much unanimous agreement was over the details of Teddy’s wartime role in the bombing campaign over Germany.  Several members said that normally this might have been something they would have been tempted to skim over, but the way that Atkinson so skilfully interwove the technical details and stats with the experience of the bomber crews themselves had us all absolutely hooked, fascinated and horrified in equal measures.

We also generally agreed that it was a well written, and very well crafted book, which many of us found an easy and very engaging read.  We talked quite a bit about the main characters, Teddy especially of course, but also his grandchildren, and his daughter Viola.  We struggled to understand why Viola was quite such an awful person, and most felt that her mother’s early death, and Teddy’s role in it, were not enough reasons for it, altho some were pleased, even relieved, by her apparent redemption by the end.

And so we came to the end of the book, and a revelation which for some (tho not all) turned the rest of the book on its head, to a very mixed response – some appreciated it, and others very much did not.  Some felt it was emotional trickery and manipulative, others found it thought-provoking – about history as fiction, fiction as history, and most of all, about the power of the 60 million lives, lost through the war, which were not lived.  Our 1-5 star-ratings were rather mixed on this book, but overall it came out with 3.9.

Next month’s book is quite a departure for us – Andy Miller’s The Year of Reading Dangerously, his account of his “expedition through literature: classic, cult and everything in between”.  See you on 11th May.



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, then turn left and follow signs to the Conference Room.

If you would like more information about what the group is reading, please visit www.newwritingnorth.com/submit/join-whitley-bay-book-group/