Meeting the Second

Tonight is the second meeting of our new book group and it will be interesting to see if the enthusiasm has carried over and we get as good an attendance this month as we did last.  I’m also looking forward to seeing whether people will be a little less conservative in the choice of books they bring for discussion.  The whole idea is that you talk about what you have read since our last meeting, but I was aware last time that some members of the group had selected on the basis of what they were prepared to admit to having read rather than what their real preferences might have been.  With that in mind, I am going to take along two very different books in the hope that it will encourage wider tastes to emerge as the group grows in confidence.

One of these is the first in a new crime series, The Puppet Show, by M W Craven, a writer who has previously published as Mike Craven.  This is one of the best police procedurals I have read this year and I am already looking forward to Black Summer due out next June.  His chief character, who goes by the wonderful name of Washington Poe, is called back from suspension from the National Crime Agency to help in the investigation of a series of particularly nasty killings in the Lake District, an area of the country he knows well.  Prominent people are being burnt alive in prehistoric stone circles, but other than their standing in the community nothing else appears to link them.  With no evidence left after the immolations and without any obvious connection between the victims, it is difficult for the police to get a lead on who the murderer might be or to predict where he or she might strike next.

Poe has many of the features readers have come to expect in the protagonists of crime fiction.  He has little regard for authority, the rules or those who stick too closely to them when he feels a short cut might catch the villain of the piece sooner, so I suppose you could say he is a bit of a cliché.  But, you know, clichés are clichés because they work and I liked Poe’s style.  I also loved Tilly Bradshaw, the young statistical genius, who has never been out of the office before but who, finding herself carted off to the Lake District to crunch the numbers and try to predict the killer’s next move, comes good in a big way.  Tilly does literal like nobody else and given my Aspergers I really appreciated that. Reassuring her after a particularly nasty occurrence in a bar, Poe praises her reaction and advises her to look on the whole incident as a glass half-full kind of thing.

Bradshaw removed her glasses and polished them with a special cloth she kept in her bag.  When they were back on, she tucked some hair behind her ear and said, ‘The glass isn’t half full, Poe. And neither is it half empty.’

‘What is it then?’

She grinned. ‘It’s twice as big as it needs to be.’

Oh yes, Tilly Bradshaw is my sort of person.

The other novel, I’m taking along is very different; it’s Pat Barker’s Costa nominated The Silence of the Girls.  What with moving house and bouncing in and out of hospital over the last few months, I’m late coming to this, but managed to give it my full attention over the weekend and I have to say that I am in two minds about it.  I’m sure anyone reading this will be aware of the premise behind the book.  It is a retelling of the same time period as is covered by The Iliad, but in this instance narrating the story of the last two years of the Trojan Wars from the point of view of the women involved, with Briseis, the nominal source of the quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon, as their mouthpiece.  It highlights the way in which women were treated as spoils of war and passed out to their conquerors like any other captured asset.  And, although I’ve used the past tense there, as I read it always in the back of my mind were those instances where school girls in various parts of the African continent have been kidnapped and taken captive by militant forces opposed to the education of women.  What happened in Troy should not be seen as history.

The point that Barker appears to be trying to make is that that is precisely what the Trojan War always has been – his story and that this is her attempt to set that straight.  My trouble with the novel was that despite her foregrounding of the horrors that Briseis and her fellow captives face what moved me most was still the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus and the horror of the killing of Hector.  I simply didn’t engage to the same degree with any of the women.  Is this a fault in me?  Is it because if Barker had written in the same sort of detail about the evil handed out to those women the book would have been unbearable?  I don’t know.  I just know that for me, while the book allowed the women to have a voice it still wasn’t the voice that came through loudest.  As soon as this is available in paperback it will be up for discussion in one of my other book groups, probably both, and I am looking forward to having a reason to give time to read it again and to the opportunity to discuss it with others who have read it in detail.


Catching Up

Well, it is a fortnight since I last wrote and you were all so enthusiastic about the new book group, so first of all thank you for such positive comments and my apologies for not coming back sooner to tell you how it went.  I do have a legitimate excuse for my tardiness, having been in and out of two different hospitals three times in the intervening period. These have been my first hospital visits since I moved and so a whole new set of medics have had to get used to the idiosyncrasies of my body. I spent last Sunday reassuring the nurse who was monitoring my vitals that if you were me a pulse of 53 was perfectly normal and the following day engaging in a round of that ever popular parlour game, Hunt the Kidney, with a radiographer who needed a lot of reassuring that if she looked round the back and under the rib cage she would eventually find my left one.  As Joe Gargery would have said, ‘What larks!’.

But, back to the book group.  I wasn’t certain how many would turn up and was only definitely expecting three but in the event nine people arrived.  As I think we can only really accommodate twelve in the time that we have and as I have already had at least one more enquiry there is a possibility that the group may very soon be oversubscribed.  It seems that there are a good number of people who are very keen to talk about books but who don’t want the discipline of having to read a specific text each month.  I think I can stretch to a membership of fifteen because not everyone will come every time, but if it rises above that then I shall look to start a second group, because apart from the actual meeting time it wouldn’t demand anything else in the way of preparation and commitment.  For the most part people had brought what I might label ‘safe’ books to talk about, books that they were happy to be seen reading, but I got them to talk more generally about what they liked to read, admitting to reading a good number of crime novels, fantasy works and some children’s fiction myself and I think we will probably have a truer sense of what they each enjoy next time round.  Inevitably, given my teaching background, I have already begun to pick up on a couple of people who will need to be ‘encouraged’ to be more aware of group dynamics. There is the one (there is always one!) who is ‘right’ about a book and won’t brook any opposition and the one who wants to take more than her fair share of the time.  The latter is easier to work with than the former, but it is more important to keep an eye on the first of those two because someone like that can discourage less confident members from voicing their opinions or even from coming at all.

Because of the way the dates fall, our next meeting isn’t for another three weeks. It will be interesting to see if anyone has read something as a result of hearing about it at the last gathering.  I did have an email the following day from someone who had attended and then gone out and bought the new Shardlake novel, Tombland, first thing the next morning because she couldn’t wait for the library copy to be available.  I take that as a success, although I’m not sure how the library would feel about it.

New Book Group

Having settled into my new surroundings one of the things that I wanted to do was expand my circle of local friends.  I chose where I was going to move to quite deliberately because I already knew a good number of people living here, but they are all  from within a certain circle and I thought it would be good to broaden that out.  The obvious way forward was to join a(nother) book group, but there were certain problems with that.  Firstly, the local library group already has sixteen members, which I consider too many for a decent discussion, and secondly, I belong to two groups which read and discuss specified novels and having two books a month dictated by other people’s tastes is quite enough, thank you.  So, I approached the library about starting a different sort of group, although one that I have had experience of before, and this evening we are to have our first meeting.

The idea is very simple.  We (no more than a dozen or it becomes impractical) will meet once a month to each talk briefly about what we have read since the last time we got together.  There are all sorts of benefits to this sort of group.  No one feels any pressure to read something they are not enjoying.  There isn’t the problem of everyone trying to get hold of limited library copies of the same book.  (The librarians particularly like that aspect!) You can come along even if you are still struggling with whatever you were trying to read last month and simply comment on your progress or lack thereof.  It doesn’t matter how you have accessed the book; there is one young woman interested  who is blind and always uses audiobooks. And, perhaps most importantly, you get to ‘meet’ new authors that you might never otherwise have thought of reading.  This is how I first came across writers like Patrick Gale and Richard Russo, now both ‘must reads’ as far as I’m concerned. This latter point can mean that even though we don’t set out to be a discussion group discussion will often arise because over time a number of people will have read the same book and inevitably have a variety of views about it.  (Note to self: don’t damn anything outright, it might be someone else’s favourite ever book and you may never see them again.)

I have no idea how many are going to turn up this evening.  We have advertised the group in the library and in the local newspapers.  (The Bears were very aggrieved that only my picture turned up in the Bromsgrove Standard; they thought it would have been much more effective if they had been included as well, probably quite rightly.) I am expecting at least four but the librarians say they have had several enquiries from people who haven’t spoken to me so it could be that we are full from the word go.  I shall just have to wait and see.  Further reports as the week progresses!

Spitting Against the Wind ~ The Sequel

thelampSo, after all my angst, I thought I’d better post and tell you about what happened at the library group on Monday.

As most of you predicted everyone was very pleasant and there didn’t appear to be anyone whose views were always right even if everyone else in the group thought differently.  (I’ve come across this before in library groups, where to a large extent the members are self-selecting.  Bit by bit the group disintegrated as people drifted away no longer able to take the animosity.) So, from that point of view, it was a success.  However, there was another difficulty.  Clearly, the group hasn’t been going very long and no one, including the leader, has much experience in talking about books.  When you add to this the fact that the book chosen didn’t exactly lend itself to much beyond ‘I liked it’ or ‘I didn’t’, it wasn’t surprising that conversation ran out after about fifteen minutes.  I know the ‘popular’ image of book groups is ten minutes talking about the book followed by a couple of hours putting the world to rights, but that isn’t what I’m used to from my other meetings and I don’t think, in the long term, it is going to satisfy other people, especially as being in a library there isn’t even so much as a cup of tea on offer.

So, I have a cunning plan.

To fill out the hour, the librarian asked us to talk about something else that we’d recently enjoyed.  I wasn’t prepared for that on Monday, but next time I am going armed.  I’m going to take a book that in someway or another contrasts with the one we’ve been asked to read.  I have a list of elements within a book that might make it interesting to talk about.  For example, we might talk about the narrative voice, the chosen tense, the use of flashback, the importance of setting.  Whatever seems of particular interest in the chosen book, I’m going to make that the focus of my comments and then, when I’m asked to suggest another book, pull out one that allows me to take that discussion further through contrast.

I know, once a teacher, always a teacher, and it might not work, but if I can introduce new ideas that will help the group develop handles to feel their way through to being able to express why they like or dislike a text then I hope that might be something they would enjoy.  After all, if they don’t like it they can always send me packing.

Typically, one of my other groups where we talk about the book for a couple of hours at a time has had to be cancelled this evening.  We all live locally and we’re very high up here.  Consequently, it has been extremely cold and the weekend snow has turned to ice, making the roads and pavements treacherous in the daylight and suicidal after dark.  I think in eleven years this is only the second time the weather has defeated us but there are times when even the delights of book talk have to give way to self-preservation. Drat it!

Spit Against the Wind ~ Anna Smith

511Q1EBRZ6L._SL500_AA300_I’ve recently been invited to join a reading group at one of my local libraries and my first meeting will be on Monday.  While I welcome the opportunity to meet a new group of fellow readers, I do have some concerns about groups based around a library system, the most pressing being the choice of books.  Like many libraries, this one has a collection of sets of books kept specifically for reading groups and so rather than the members having any say as to what is read they simply have to take the book that is offered.  The results can be very mixed. As a consequence, this past month I’ve found myself reading a book that I certainly wouldn’t have selected by preference and one whose qualities are at best ‘iffy’.

Of course, it’s often the case in my other groups that I’m reading a book that sits outside my reading comfort zone, but I can normally rely on its having being chosen because of its quality rather than its plentitude.  Also, the other groups are so well established and founded on respect for each other as readers that any concerns can be voiced without fear of them being taken the wrong way.  Coming to this group of readers completely fresh, knowing only the librarian who invited me, I have to say that I am approaching tomorrow with some trepidation.  If everyone else has loved the book, then I am going to have to shape my criticism very carefully.

The book in question is the first novel by Anna Smith, Spit Against the Wind, and to be fair, it has much to recommend it.  Set on the west coast of Scotland, not far from Glasgow, in the late 1960s, it tells the story of four ten and eleven year old children from the point of view and through the voice of, the only girl in the group, Kathleen Slaven.  One of the things that I think Smith does get right is that voice.  I believed in Kath and I found the dialogue convincing, whether it was that of the children or of the adults they observe.  I also thought she captured the tremendously harsh conditions that pertained in Scotland at that period.  What work was to be had was hard, with long hours and poor pay and many families lived in a poverty it is difficult to equate with the idea of ‘the swinging sixties’ that held sway further south.  As a result many of the adults resorted to drink as a way of hiding from their misery and the resulting violence is also not hard to believe.  Two of the four children, Jamie and Tony, live in constant fear of what the men in their household will do when they return every evening and even Kath knows that her father is as likely to drink his pay as bring it home to her mother.  Reading this it isn’t hard to see why, a decade and a half later, when Margaret Thatcher’s government tried to impose the Poll Tax it was in the west of Scotland they met their strongest opposition.  These people had nothing with which to pay the charge and certainly weren’t seeing anything in the way of benefit from it.

The other aspect that I think Smith gets completely correct is the antagonism in the west of Scotland between the Catholics and the Protestant.  We tend to think of this issue as an Irish one and if we associate it with Scotland at all it is likely only to be in relation to Glasgow and the rivalry between Celtic and Rangers football supporters.  But, as the composer James McMillan pointed out quite recently, this is a much wider problem and certainly, on that west coast, where many families originated from Ireland, religious hostility is as much a fact of life as it is in Belfast.

So, if I liked that much about this novel what’s my problem?  Ah, well, that comes with the plot, which I have to say would do one of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five  books proud.  Not that I don’t think some of the events wouldn’t have happened; the daughter being sent to Ireland to have her illegitimate baby, the abusive priest, the humiliation of the hated teacher, the beloved elder brother emigrating to Australia, these are all perfectly acceptable, but when you then throw in the terrible pit accident, the suicide of the despised loner, the near death experiences of three of the four children, not to mention the Nazi Concentration Camp guard disguised as a Polish immigrant, all in a period of about nine months and two hundred and fifty pages – well, even my credulity begins to be stretched.  I don’t think there’s a plot cliché she hasn’t run with.  And yes, the children do run away to camp, although with less than Famous Five success.

So, what am I going to say tomorrow?  Well, I think I am going to try and keep very quiet, at least to begin with, until I’ve tested the temperature of the other members of the group’s taste and opinions.  But if I’m asked directly then I’m just going to have to find a way of suggesting that it would be fascinating to see how Smith developed, given that certain aspects of her writing showed such interesting promise and hope that I can indicating that there are other facets of the work that are not so promising without causing too much offence.