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The Tenderness of Wolves by Steph Penney

T’was a fittingly cold, albeit rainy rather than snowy night when we met to talk about Steph Penney’s The Tenderness of Wolves (and to welcome to Maureen to her 1st meeting, and Katrina who, tho just visiting another member, was equally welcome).

The reaction to the book was unusual.  It was generally a much-liked book, garnering 3.6 out of 5*, and no score below 3*, but yet much of our talk centred on what we saw as the book’s faults and flaws.

The good bits first, and there were many: an unusual but effective narrative structure; powerful sense of time and place; beautiful descriptions of the cold, desolate landscape; nuanced, strong characters; spare but effective writing; well-built tension, and interesting historical insights.

Conversely however, the main fault cited by many members was that they felt the book was overwhelmed by too many characters and plot-lines, making it hard to concentrate and engage with any one of them.  (One member suggested it would have been better to have had a hierarchy of say 5 or 6 main characters.)  Some did not like the narrative structure, told in the 1st person by one character, and in the 3rd person by several others, finding it disjointed and confusing.  There was also some criticism of plot holes, the use of co-incidences, and anachronisms.

As is often the case, reactions differed on the ending – satisfactory for some, too abrupt for others.

The central themes of the book – particularly belonging, being outsiders and journeys – all gave us much to talk about.  Many of us were reminded of Burial Rites and A Place called Winter.

Next month’s book is Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins.  It centres on one of the characters, Teddy, who we first met in her earlier book, Life after Life, altho A God in Ruins is not a sequel to that book, and stands as a read on its own.  See you on 13th April.



We are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

It was lovely to welcome newcomer Margaret to our meeting this month.  We met to talk about Karen Joy Fowler’s We are All Completely Beside Ourselves, and please be aware that this post does contain (vague) spoilers from the outset.

I am always keen, when a book has as big a twist as this one does, to see if anyone else spotted it in advance.  This time however, no-one had worked out the true identity of Rosemary’s sister in this disturbing and intriguing tale of memory, grief and loss, the nature of families, and what has been done in the name of science.

Whilst the book had only one enthusiastic fan amongst the 11 of us, we did find a lot to talk about, especially once we moved to a more general discussion about it.  Most found it a book of two halves, with the second half becoming more philosophical in tone, with much more scientific detail and discussion.  Many of the details of the experiments, especially those based in homes, were fascinating (and raised questions about who was actually being studied), but many found the second half harder to read, and some felt it became rather preachy.

We talked a lot about all the family members, including Fern, and the impact of both the experiment and her abrupt departure, on all the family.  Much as the science was interesting, we felt the book was also a study in how the different members of the family were separately grieving for Fern, having all been changed irrevocably by the experiment.  Several people commented that they would have been keen to know more about Lowell in particular, as well as the parents.  We also talked about the (un)reliability of memory within a family setting.

We did talk a little about how the book was written – some disliked the narrative structure, and felt it was rather self-consciously wordy.  The ending also drew a certain amount of criticism, being rather too neat for many.

Overall I think that many of us found it a hard book to love (with only 2.8 on our 1-5* scale), but at the end of our discussion we had found much to talk about, and perhaps more to admire than we had thought at the beginning.

Next month we are off to Canada in the winter of 1867 for Steph Penney’s The Tenderness of Wolves – see you on 9th March.


Stoner by John Williams

It was lovely to see so many who had braved the wet and ‘orrible weather for our 1st meeting of 2016.  We talked about Stoner by John Williams, and be warned that there are plot spoilers in this post.

As is usually the case, we had a wide range of opinions on the book, but unusually the star ratings went all the way from 1 to 5, and altho the majority were 4, it ended up with a star rating of 3.35.

One thing we all agreed on was that it was very beautifully written.  In concise and clear prose, the author conjured wonderful descriptions of place, especially the university, time, including unusual details about WWII, and characters.

For most, tho not all, the characters of Stoner and Edith were particularly vivid, altho members were conflicted about whether they liked, or sympathised with either of them.  Some felt considerable frustration with both characters’ passivity at different times.  No-one really understood why Edith was so mean and unhappy, and we wondered if the key lay in her past, particularly in her relationship with her father. All had sympathy for Grace, a sad pawn in her parents’ war.

It was a portrait of a small and ordinary life, if such a phrase can ever be true. Perhaps most of all, for those who loved it best, it was a love story between one man and his love of a place where he had finally found a home, in the university, and a passion, for literature.  For some this love and passion rang loud and clear, but not for all.

We moved on to vote on the books that will take us up to the summer break, and the titles will shortly appear on the right hand bar.  Our book for February is Karen Joy Fowler’s We are All Completely Beside Ourselves – see you on 10th Feb.


Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey

A warm welcome to Iolene who joined us for the first time this month.  We were looking at Emma Healey’s much-lauded Elizabeth is Missing, and be warned there are spoilers in this post.

Whilst we did have criticisms about the book, unusually all star ratings were between 2 and 3 (out of 5), resulting in an overall rating of 2.5.

We generally thought it was a well written book on a difficult subject, with wonderful, perceptive attention to details.  It drew us in quickly, and we felt engaged with, and sympathetic towards the characters.  In particular we liked the portrait of the role reversal relationship between Maud and Helen.  We saw how Helen was conflicted in trying to care for her mother and do the right thing for her, and also, inevitably, frustrated at times by the effects of the disease on her mother, which we felt was generally well described.  We also liked the relationship between Maud and her granddaughter.

Whilst some really enjoyed the split story lines, and the way a memory of Maud’s in the present would catapult her back into the past, others felt there were too many plot inconsistencies, and for a few it was rather predictable.  In particular, some found the end unsatisfactory, unrealistic, or too abrupt.

We did spend quite some time debating our central issue with the book – what had happened to Elizabeth.  Unlike with the fate of her sister, all had been expecting one of only a couple of possible straightforward answers.  We found it frustrating that for all her notes, Maud did not have one telling her what had happened, and that we never saw Helen explicitly telling her, until near the end.  Obviously this was for narrative reasons, but it was just too artificial and unsatisfying for many members.  It was pointed out by some who had direct experience of dementia, that the family may have been advised to tell her only once, and not to keep repeating it, and also that had she had a note telling her what had happened it would have upset her each time she read it.

Overall we found it an imperfect but brave book with much to recommend it.

We moved on to finalise arrangements for our pre-booked Christmas meal, which replaces our December meeting, and to talk about possible future books.  I will put all the suggestions into a list and we can vote on them at our January meeting.



A Place called Winter by Patrick Gale

It was good to see a bigger group this month, and to welcome Christine and Steve into our midst.

Please be aware this post contains plot spoilers!

Reactions to Patrick Gale’s A Place called Winter were generally positive, with 7 out of the 12 present giving it 3 out of 5 stars, altho a few were less keen, resulting in only 2.8 overall.

I think the most praise came for the strong sense of time and place, be it Edwardian England or settler Canada, and the wealth of historical details, from Harry’s journeys, to the farming itself, which several admitted finding surprisingly interesting.  Many found it an easy read with good storytelling and strong, engaging characters, and thought Troels was a believable tho repellant villain.

Some, however, found it less easy to engage with; felt too many of the plot devices were predictable; and disliked the sections set in Bethel, which, it was felt, interrupted the main narrative.  The dream sequence towards the end also baffled many, and none of us really understood why it was included.  The end also provoked disagreement – unsatisfactory and too neat and predictable for some (several members thought the wrong sibling died, for example), whereas others were happy with it.

At our next meeting, on 11 November, we’ll look at Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey, and we’ll also finalise arrangements for our Christmas meal, which replaces our formal December meeting.



Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

We were a rather small group for our first meeting back after our summer break – we’d been moved at the last minute into the restaurant, but the hotel had put up signs up redirecting people, so I hope everyone was able to find us on the night. Newcomers Lesley and Alison did find us, and a warm welcome to them!

As is often the case, reactions to Americanah were mixed, although I think we all agreed that it was well written.  It’s a long and ambitious book, told mainly by Ifemelu, but also occasionally by her teenage sweetheart Obinze as they travel through life, first in Nigeria, then the US and the UK respectively, and back to Nigeria. It has a huge cast of characters, many of whom only appear briefly, and is interspersed with excerpts from Ifemelu’s blog, written about her experiences of race and immigration while she is in the US, issues that are discussed in other ways all through the book.

For some, this was their main problem with the book – they felt too much of the plot and the characters were there solely as a mechanism to discuss issues, and that overall the book felt too “preachy”.  Others really enjoyed the blend of love story and issues.  I think most, if not all, found the issues themselves very interesting – for example, we were all intrigued by such a seemingly simple subject as hair, and how even the way you wore it could have political connotations.

The discussion broadened out to our own perceptions and experiences, both of having moved around the UK, and in some cases having travelled or even lived abroad.

Our book for October is Patrick Gale’s A Place called Winter.  It links in to an author event at the Durham Book Festival on 10th October – further details below, although please note that a specially reduced rate for book group members is available, but only via phoning the Gala Theatre box office on 03000 266 600.

Our meeting to discuss A Place called Winter is the following Wednesday, the 14th October.


The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

It’s been a while since we’ve had new members trying us out, so it was lovely to welcome newcomers Tessa, Sharon and Alison to our July meeting, the last before our summer break.

Our book this month was Sarah Waters’ The Paying Guests, and I need to say now that this post contains lots of spoilers, as there are plot twists all the way thru the book.

It was a long book, and it had its passionate supporters and a few equally passionate detractors, and with just about every score in between, we finally arrived at 3.15.  We did however spend pretty much the whole meeting talking about the book, so it was a success on that front!

Many of its fans were immediately hooked into the story, enjoying the atmosphere, the beautiful writing, the vivid descriptions, and period details about everything from the house and how it functioned, to the class structure and society generally.  There was a slow, palpable build-up of tension, and the burgeoning relationship between Frances and Lillian was sensual and well conveyed.

Several members, however, found the pace uneven, and many (tho not all) agreed that the section after the murder could have been edited down.  For a few it was all too predictable, flat, full of stock characters (particularly Lillian’s family), the dialogue was unconvincing, and it was simply much too long.

There were many areas where we all, irrespective of whether we liked the book or not, disagreed.  Most notably was about the central relationship between Frances and Lillian: for some Frances was naive and Lillian more worldly-wise and confident; others felt it was exactly the opposite.  Many could not decide how much sympathy they deserved, especially towards the end of the book, which was rather ambiguous – would their relationship really have survived?  We also couldn’t agree about Len: was he just an out and out cad; was he trying to make a move on Frances?  The murder and its immediate aftermath was effective and chilling for some, but somewhat melodramatic for others.

We found Frances’ mother to be an interesting character and wondered whether she knew and understood more about what was happening than she let on.  We also noted how the lives of all the women were so shaped and constrained by society at the time – Lillian in particular we thought could have made so much more of herself in a more liberated time.

Overall, I think it was more popular than its score suggests, and it certainly kept us talking!  Hopefully we will find our next book, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah just as interesting – we are back on 9th September.

Our meeting ended on a very sad note, with the news that one of our members, Tim, had passed away earlier in the week.  Although Tim had been with us for less than a year, in that time he had become a valued member, and we will miss his kindness, wit and great sense of fun.  Our sincere condolences go out to all his family and friends.



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