NW by Zadie Smith

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NWbookcoverFor the first Waterloo Library book group meeting we chose a controversial book – NW by Zadie Smith. I thought that a character focused story set in London would be a good way for a group of Londoners, who until now have been relative strangers, to get to know one another. I overlooked the fact that North West London, where this book is set, is nothing at all like Lambeth. Luckily the rest of the reading group was there to remind me!

Once this was cleared up, we could safely proceed to look at the way Smith has built the characters in NW. The book is divided into three sections, each building a picture of a period of time in North West London from the perspective of a different local resident. The two main characters are Leah and ‘Natalie Blake’ (the way the character refers to herself gives a clue to the way she relates to the world). Childhood best friends who grew up on the same estate, Leah and Natalie follow very different paths; Leah’s life choices tie her into an awkward relationship with her neighbourhood, while Natalie’s propel her into new cultural surroundings, in the process distancing her from the people and places she grew up with. Leah is not entirely comfortable in her home, while Natalie does not.

Zadie Smith has used very different writing styles for each character; these styles show Leah and Natalie each build a very different identity in relation to the city they live in. The group consensus was that the downside of this experimentation was that NW was meandering and confusing – it was hard to get to the end of the book, and we had to repeatedly backtrack to make sense of a plot built from multiple perspectives. Leah’s part of the book, with its train-of-thought delivery, was particularly difficult to get into, while we agreed that the section of the book which brought in the perspective of the third major character, Felix flowed better than the other sections. There was some debate about the open-ended structure of the book; like the characters in NW, some of the Waterloo reading group enjoyed being lost more than others.

The book transpired to be a great framework around which to have an interesting discussion about the city and in particular about social mobility. Natalie’s determined transition from Keisha Blake (her childhood name) to lawyerhood sparked discussions about how easy it can be to lose ties with where you come from, and how important – but difficult – it is to retain those ties. The journey of the character of Nathan from hopeful youngster to violent adult led to conversations about how social stigmas can hinder or stop a person’s journey towards achieving their dreams.

Perhaps if more of the group had been able to make a strong connection with this meandering book we would not have meandered so much ourselves, but in this case the meandering was interesting and thought provoking. This month’s reading group was a good example of how shared views on a book can connect to many other interesting topics – and how a book can spark good discussion even if not everyone has finished it!

Samantha, Waterloo Library Book Group

Prophecy by S. J. Parris

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Prophecy by S. J. ParrisProphecy by S. J. Parris was this year’s Cityread title and we discussed it in April. The discussion started with a comparison of Parris with C. J. Sansom, who also writes historical crime fiction set in the Tudor period.  Sansom was the victor in that comparison as those who had read novels by both asserted he was the superior writer of the two.  Nonetheless, overall Prophecy entertained us and was considered a rollicking read.  The scene in which Queen Elizabeth I enters the musical concert at Richmond Palace whilst courtiers fawn and vie for attention was particularly memorable and, although some of the “action” scenes were considered somewhat ludicrous by some (e.g. Bruno escaping Howard’s home via a chimney flue or being suddenly spared death when his would-be killer is pierced by an arrow loosed by an unknown saviour), the historical detail seemed accurate to those in the know.  We were interested in Parris’s choice of Giordano Bruno as her detective and considered whether this was because of his foreignness and otherness, i.e. he didn’t subscribe wholly and tidily to any particular political or religious mind-set, which meant he could traverse the different factions.

We scored Prophecy by S. J. Parris a slightly above average 5.5 out of 10.

Rita, Upper Norwood Library Book group

Grahame Greene’s Our Man in Havana

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41l-O6Hd4nL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Grahame Greene’s Our Man in Havana follows Jim Wormold, a Havana-based vacuum salesman who takes on the life of a spy in an attempt to remedy his financial woes. However, Wormold finds himself in trouble when the fake intelligence reports he’s been filing begin to resemble real goings-on. At our last Carnegie Book Club meeting, Greene’s primary story line certainly provoked different responses as some book-clubbers saw Our Man in Havana as wonderfully tongue-in-cheek, while others found the book to be verging on absurdity. Our Man in Havana is noted to be one of Greene’s “entertainments” alongside his other mystery/thrillers like Loser Takes it All and Ministry of Fear. But even with that in mind I think that the majority of the Book Gang didn’t quite warm to the characters and setting. Although we were all in agreement that Greene’s depiction of Havana was pleasant, it was unfortunate that the characters seemed to spend most of their time drinking in nightclubs. Similarly, even after accepting the farcical plot, Greene’s characters were seen to have lacked depth. I think I’m even right in remembering (spoiler coming!) that nobody really felt too bad when Hasselbacher met his untimely demise? No matter on which side of these arguments people fell, everyone was in agreement that Wormold did not make an effective spy. However, his bumbling mishaps were certainly comical and perhaps it could be argued that he did pull-off some effective espionage leading up to the novel’s climax? Some of us were shocked by his ingenuity, while others were amazed by the fact that he did actually shoot Carter . . . or was that by accident? So, in the end, Our Man in Havana hit a pretty reasonable average score of 5.5/10.

Adam, Carnegie Library Book group

The Greatcoat by Helen Dunmore

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The Greatcoat by Helen DunmoreIn the winter of 1952, Isabel Carey moves to the East Riding of Yorkshire with her husband Philip, a GP. With Philip spending long hours on call, Isabel finds herself isolated and lonely as she strives to adjust to the realities of married life.

Woken by intense cold one night, she discovers an old RAF greatcoat hidden in the back of a cupboard. Sleeping under it for warmth, she starts to dream. And not long afterwards, while her husband is out, she is startled by a knock at her window.. Outside is a young RAF pilot, waiting to come in…

Billed as a ghost story, The Greatcoat was generally a disappointment for those of us who had read other novels by Helen Dunmore. (Try The Lie, A Spell of Winter, or The Siege).

Rather lightweight, the ‘ghost’ stretched our credulity, by drinking Scotch and possibly fathering a child or two. On a more positive note, comparisons were drawn to The Turning of the Screw, (Henry James), and some of the descriptive passages were more representative of the author’s talent – the sound of the Lancaster bombers surging heavily overhead.. and the period detail of the post-war years – the poor quality meat still rationed, the eking out of coal to last a Yorkshire winter.

Sara, Clapham Library Reading Group, Thursday 30th March

Capital by John Lanchester

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CapitalJohn Lanchester’s Capital details the events and past history of several families in Pepys Road, Lambeth from late 2007 to late 2008. Although the topics of wealth and money feature heavily in almost all of the novel’s plotlines, book-clubbers were all in agreement that “Capital” is a reference to the city of London as the nation’s capital. Our first point of contention was therefore the structure of the book. Some book-clubbers enjoyed how Capital interwove the lives of the inhabitants of Pepys Road – drifting from house to house, checking in on developments in the lives of Petunia, Zbigniew, the Kamals and a handful of others. Other members, on the other hand, noted that Lanchester’s narrative sometimes seemed to be rambling and that he perhaps prioritised character development over plot. Still we all agreed that the characters were fascinating, with the Younts (Roger, Arabella and their two sons) being keenly observed if not at times cartoonish. A portion of our meeting was then subsequently spent discussing the parallels between Lanchester’s London and present-day London. It was mentioned that the issues concerning house prices and gentrification were quite reflective of current real estate trends. Also, after further reflection, I think we were all able to think of friends or acquaintances who are actually quite similar to a Pepys Road native. All in all, I believe everyone found it an enjoyable, easy read – ultimately scoring it a 4/5.

Adam, Carnegie Library book group

Goodbye to Berlin, by Christopher Isherwood

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51gfV5rDqzL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Goodbye to Berlin is an insightful collection of stories on the decline of Berlin society in the years leading up to the fall of the Weimar Republic and the rise of the Nazis in Germany. Christopher Isherwood uses his own experiences in Berlin as a basis for this novel.’

A re-reading of the book for most of us. My memory of the book was confused with my memories of the film – Cabaret; I’d forgotten it was more a collection of short, overlapping stories, than a novel. One group member “loved the book, especially the fact that each section could be read as a short story, but that they were linked by common characters and threads”.

In general I think we expected more from the book, the fact that it was written before the outbreak of World War II should have made it more historically interesting than it was. It was also felt that Isherwood’s position of observer, was a rather difficult one, we wanted him to be more emotionally/morally involved in what was going on.

Clapham Library Reading Group meet on the last Thursday of the month.

Lambeth Reading group *special offer*

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SJ Parris and Tracy Borman in conversation at Lambeth Palace Library

Wednesday 19 April, 6.30pm
Lambeth Palace, Lambeth Palace Rd, Lambeth, London SE1 7JU

Join us for this Cityread festival highlight as Prophecy writer Stephanie Merrett (aka SJ Parris) swaps Elizabethan stories with historian and author of The Private Lives of the Tudors Tracy Borman in the glorious setting of the Great Hall at Lambeth Palace.

Tickets £10 in advance from www.cityread.london

Early bird rate £5 for Lambeth book group members available until Friday 10 March on Eventbrite.