Upstairs at the Party by Linda Grant focuses on the experiences of a group of students at a new university in the 1970s. It’s well observed and felt spookily familiar, even though most of us were students in the 90s. We liked the nostalgic re-creation of recent history and also the idea – central to the plot – that small decisions can change the course of your life. But we felt it hard to relate to the characters, especially narrator Adele, and the plot was confusing at times as it jumped between the present and events in the early 70s. An interesting and evocative read, then, but not one of our favourites. Next month’s meeting is at 10.30am on 12 February and we’ll be discussing Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple. Hope to see you then.
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Our final read of 2015 – The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters – took us to early 1920s London. After her father’s death, Frances and her mother must take in lodgers: the ‘younger and brasher’ Lillian and Leonard Barber. What follows, as Frances and Lillian begin an affair, is part love story, part thriller: a tale that had us mesmerised. Why did we like it? Partly because it’s beautifully written. Partly because the period – and Frances’ position – is brought so vividly to life. But also because we sympathised with the protagonist. We liked how Frances rolled up her sleeves and kept going despite her circumstances. That she was prepared to take a chance on Lillian. We were less sure of Lillian’s motives. Perhaps – as one member observed – we had to make the same leap of faith as Frances? A brilliant read to end our year with in any case.
To 2016 now and more books to look forward to:
8 January: Upstairs at the Party by Linda Grant
12 February: Where’d You Go Bernadette? by Maria Semple
11 March: The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout
8 April: The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
We’d also like to attract some new members so it would be great if you could spread the word about our meetings. You don’t have to be a ‘new’ parent to attend and it’s fine not to have finished (or even started) the book. And if you’ve any ideas or suggestions for books, or anything else, please let me know here or on our Facebook group page: “New Parents’ Book Group (run by New Writing North)”.
Summer holidays and the start of the new school year have resulted in a quiet couple of months for the New Parents Book Group. Actually, when I say ‘quiet’ what I really mean is ‘nobody could make it’. So we didn’t get to talk about Hannah Kent’s debut novel, Burial Rites (Icelandic, historical, claustrophobic) or Her Beautiful Career, Rachel Cooke’s biographies of ten professional women of the 50s (vivid, witty, astonishing). Hopefully we’ll get to catch up at our next meeting: 10.30am on 9 October when we’ll be discussing All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld. Look forward to seeing you then.
I was away in June, so another of our members, Sarah Hudspeth, led the meeting. Here’s her excellent summary of the discussion:
For our June meeting, we read Us, by David Nicholls. Everyone enjoyed the book; it was accessible and easy to read, with a storyline that engaged us. Inevitably, we talked a little about Nicholls’ previous novels, particularly One Day. Where many of us found One Day annoying or frustrating, this wasn’t the case with Us. One common thread, however, was the feeling that we were reading a film script. Nicholls’ background as a screenwriter and the successful adaptations of other novels have perhaps led to him writing with one eye on the film deal.
We felt that Nicholls’ characters were complex, rounded and believable, with elements of their personalities that we liked and disliked. Most of the group agreed that Douglas was the more sympathetic of the two main characters. We appreciated his vulnerability and his naivety, although this often left us impatient with him. Some people also related to Connie’s creativity and independence, but not to her cruelty. As parents, we identified with Douglas’s strained relationship with Albie, noting how easily it could be to slip into that habit of confrontation if the parent/child bond was broken. Whatever our feelings about Douglas, we saw an element of the ‘outsider’ narrator in this book, similar to other books we’d read recently. How much of Douglas’s factual and scientific nature, his organisation and meticulous planning, and his difficulties in connecting emotionally, were down to his personality and the people around him and how much (if any) of this was to suggest characteristics of autism?
The group was split over the ending; was it hopeful and, therefore, happy, or poignant and almost too sad? We discussed attitudes towards male and female authors. We weren’t convinced that a female writer would generate the same critical acclaim for this type of book. It is somewhere between literary and light, but we thought that had it been written by a woman it may have been classed as ‘chick lit.’ As an unintentionally all-female group, we’d have loved to have had a male reader’s perspective on the book. Any book-loving new parents, regardless of gender, would be very welcome to join us in future.
Our next meeting is at 10.30am on Friday 10 July where we’ll be talking about Burial Rites by Hannah Kent.
We chose The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins to fit in with an event at the Hexham Book Festival. But, reading the blurb, we were concerned. A troubled heroine who gets overinvolved in the lives of strangers. Wasn’t this another one of those unreliable narrators we’d sworn to avoid? Well, yes. But this novel was genuinely gripping, with a clever plot that subverted the standard thriller format. And one of us read it on a long train journey too – perfect.
May’s read was Mrs Hemingway by Naomi Woods, a fictionalised account of Ernest Hemingway’s four marriages told by each of his wives: Hadley, Fife, Martha and Mary. We loved it. My notebook is full of words like, ‘fascinating’, ‘evocative’, ‘decadent’, ‘distinctive’, and ‘vivid’ and we agreed it’ll stay with us for a while. Some of us also confessed to having a ‘favourite’ wife (or was that just me?). Anyway, we’re on the lookout for more on this fascinating era. Here’s our list so far:
Villa America, Liza Klaussman
Tender is the Night, F. Scott Fitzgerald
Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of The Great Gatsby, Sarah Churchwell
The Paris Wife, Paula McLain
Between Two Women: Hemingway in Love, AE Hotchner
Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, Therese Anne Fowler
After a run of similar books, March’s choice proved very different. Ali Smith’s How to be Both was shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize and won the novel award in the 2014 Costa Book Awards. It’s in two parts. One is set in contemporary Cambridge where George, a 16 year old girl, is dealing with the sudden death of her mother. Francesco, an Italian Renaissance painter, narrates the other.
Two editions of the book have been published, each starting with a different story. In our experience, this made a difference. The modern day story was more accessible and those whose copies began here were more likely to persevere. The Renaissance story is harder work although we liked the atmosphere it evoked. Have we become lazier readers now we can Google instead of re-reading, we wondered. Or do we try more challenging fiction because there’s help available? We’re not sure but we liked this quote from George’s mother on the subject of art:
‘I don’t know much about it. It was quite hard to find out anything. But I’m finding it quite enjoyable, not knowing.’
Next month, we’re looking at The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins. Paula will be at a special event for book groups at the Hexham Book Festival on 29 April.
February’s book was Kiss Me First by Lottie Moggach. Leila, the narrator, agrees to post online content on behalf of Tess – a warm but troubled thirty something who wants to disappear without hurting friends and family. But will the reclusive and socially awkward Leila be able to pull it off? And just how involved will she have to get in Tess’ life? We weren’t convinced. Perhaps it’s because we’ve read too many books – The Rosie Project, The Universe versus Alex Woods, The Humans – with outsider narrators recently. What we did like was the questions raised about social media. How do we really know what lies behind our screens, whether an impossibly perfect Facebook life or something more sinister? A fascinating subject and we agreed we’d like to read more by the author.
Slightly disillusioned with modern fiction, we turned to the past for inspiration. Members have been rediscovering classic books, especially on their eReaders. Whether electronically or by dusty old charity shop find our favourites were Madame Bovary, The Moonstone, Wuthering Heights and My Ántonia.
In December we read Graeme Simsion’s bestselling romantic comedy, The Rosie Project. We liked it. Amusing and thought provoking with an endearing hero, it generated some interesting discussion. One member stayed up late to finish it – the highest praise possible from anyone with small children.
January’s book was Alys Always by Harriet Lane. It’s narrated by Frances; a sub editor whose life changes when she witnesses the aftermath of a car accident. We had mixed views on this one, and about Frances. Some of us enjoyed her ‘everyday badness’ while others thought she needed to be a bit more evil. A mostly entertaining page turner though.
Because it was January, we nominated some favourite reads of 2014. From our book group choices we liked The Rosie Project, The Shock of the Fall, and Appletree Yard. Members also recommended:
How to be both, Ali Smith (our March 2015 book)
When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, Judith Kerr
The Quincunx, Charles Palliser
A Bunch of Fives, Helen Simpson
Ghana Must Go, Taiye Selasi
Poetry by Carol Ann Duffy, Liz Berry and Dylan Thomas
At our February meeting, we’ll be looking at Lottie Moggach’s digital age thriller, Kiss Me First. Hope to see you then.
It was 2010. I was a new mum. Lost in a mysterious world of playgroups, muslin cloths and sitting in a circle with strangers to sing Wind the Bobbin Up. But then a friend told me about the New Parents Book Group. You could bring your children! And talk about BOOKS! This was exciting news.
My first meeting passed in a haze and I don’t remember what we thought of Alexander McCall Smith. But I do remember how lovely it was join such a friendly and interesting group. A group which has led me to some great books: I particularly loved Gillespie and I, Can Any Mother Help Me?, Dark Matter and How to be a Woman and rediscovering classics like The Bell Jar and Billy Liar. And even if I’d not enjoyed – or finished – the book it was good to talk about it and find out what others thought.
So, I’m delighted to take over as co-ordinator. Thanks go to Laura Fraine, who set the group up and has run it brilliantly for the last four years, and to New Writing North for their support. Here’s looking forward to many more years of bookish, and non-bookish, chat. Our next meeting is at 10.30am on Friday 12 December when we’ll be discussing The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion. New members are always welcome. Hope to see you soon.
Happy new year everyone. Between poorly babies, imminent births and midwife appointments, our first meeting of the year had us firmly in the New Parents camp. Book group, less so.
For those of us who have read Iain Banks’ Espedair Street, we will discuss it alongside Apple Tree Yard by Louise Doughty at the February meeting. If you haven’t picked it up yet, I noticed it for sale in a ridiculous cheap Iain Banks bundle through The Book People. I had never read any Banks before and somehow expected him to be gritty, lean and hard-hitting. It must be all those steely grey covers. Not so, at least as far as Espedair Street is concerned. It’s quite a sweet, funny, romantic tale in fact, and was a total surprise to me.
Apple Tree Yard is also on offer – I just picked one up in WH Smith where it is currently Book of the Week and on sale at half price. And thanks to Fiona who is organised enough to be thinking of our May book choice, she has found The Things We Never Said by Susan Elliot Wright on Amazon for £1.95 paperback or £1.85 Kindle. Bargain! There’s hardly a better reason to curl up with wooly blanket and a good book this month.