Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead


Underground railroadColson Whitehead writes about a fictional underground railroad complete with stations and train that conveys slaves on their escape from plantations in the South. Each station is in a new state and covers a different slant on American racism; whether blatant violence from the slave owners, traders and catchers in Georgia; apparent generosity but underlying birth-control measures, segregation and other degradation in South Carolina; annihilation of any black individuals or those who help them by despotic whites in North Carolina; to a black commune in Indiana where disagreement arises within the community and they are betrayed and then destroyed by surrounding whites who feel threatened by a large group of educated blacks nearby. Within this structural backdrop, Whitehead develops his main character Cora, with influences from her grandmother Ajarry, a first generation slave, and her mother Mabel, a previous escapee. Cora grows up on a cotton plantation, escapes on the underground railroad and we follow all her experiences in each of the states.

There was intense discussion in the reading group. Some did not complete the book because they could not cope with the violence described. Others loved it as a piece of writing though the subject matter revolted them. We all felt it was important to try to understand, and felt Whitehead portrayed the terrible realities and complexities of slavery and racism both then and now in an excellent manner. We gave the book 7/10.

Elisabeth, Upper Norwood Library Reading Group



Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee


Go Set a Watchman was written by Harper Lee, the author of To Kill a Mockingbird. Mockingbird, published in 1956, is one of those books which has made its way into collective discourse – those who haven’t read the book at school or seen the movie will likely know of Atticus Finch, the lawyer from Maycomb, Alabama who defended Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white woman. Mockingbird is written from the perspective of Atticus’ daughter Scout; Scout idolises her father, and stands up to the townsfolk intent on attacking Robinson. Scout is not the only one to idolise Atticus; he is a kind of cultural moral compass (at least in the UK and US), standing against his town on the basis that “you never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view” and that “the one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience”.

Go Set a Watchmen is again written from Scout’s perspective but this time she is in her twenties, lives in New York, goes by her formal name Jean-Louise, and is a young woman who trusts in her conscience and sees things from others’ point of view. As the story progresses, this trust is dissolved and the limits of this empathy are shown by events Jean-Louise cannot tolerate: her father is supportive of a local movement which opposed the actions of the NACCP. Her father is willing to oppress black people in favour of maintaining local customs.

As Jean-Louise discovers the limitations and logical difficulties of the set of values she clings to, she finds it harder to fight for what she has so far believed to be right. Her townspeople and her relatives continue regardless of her actions, explain her prejudices to her, and actively instil fear into her. She starts the novel assured and ends afraid, her ignorance revealed and her idol shattered. She is able to see the mechanisms behind the power she had taken for granted.

The story sparked difficult and interesting conversations in the group. Is Jean-Louise an example of privileged white youth who needs to be made aware, or is she a young woman being forcefully silenced? Is Hank a coward for being afraid of his town or is he fighting with a kind of courage? How much of Calpurnia’s treatment of Scout and Jem was down to love and how much a contractual obligation? We talked about obligation and the fear that goes with it, privilege and the assumption of righteousness that goes with it, oppression and the anger that goes with it. We spoke about how the power of To Kill a Mockingbird made the comments on power in Go Set a Watchman both potent and dangerous.

Finally we spoke about the story behind the publishing of Watchman.  The book, which was released in 2015, was in fact written several years before Mockingbird. The book released two years ago was Harper Lee’s draft, which was edited to become her bestseller. This explains the patchy writing, which some of us found slow-moving and vague. It also raises questions – why was the book published in this form, shortly before the author’s death? Was the author coerced into agreeing for the book to be published? What were the motivations of the author’s lawyer, and of publisher HarperCollins (part of the Murdoch empire)? The agency of Harper Lee in this story added further ambiguities to our conversation about power.

Samantha, Waterloo Reading Group

Pure by Andrew Miller


Deep in the heart of Paris, its oldest cemetery is, by 1785, overflowing, tainting the very breath of those who live nearby. Into their midst comes Jean-Baptiste Baratte, a young, provincial engineer charged by the king with demolishing it. At first Baratte sees this as a chance to clear the burden of history, a fitting task for a modern man of reason. But before long, he begins to suspect that the destruction of the cemetery might be a prelude to his own. Pure was the winner of the Costa book of the year award 2011.

One member of our group said they did not finish the novel as the subject matter put them off.  “It was all too depressing therefore I could not carry on reading.  I felt I could not connect with the protagonist – he was too superficial”.  Another one said they found the story mainly in a cemetery very depressing and the atmosphere a bit suicidal.  However after hearing other members’ comments they might finish the novel after all.

“The story was not believable at all and that was the theme in all the feeble plots. They were senseless unnecessary and came out of the blue.  There were no explanation as to why certain things happen. The characters were not developed enough.  We got hints of who they were and that was that.  It made me question their presence in the story”.

I usually do not like historical novels, however I would say that I really enjoyed reading this one.  It gave me the feel of being there in Paris during that period.  The story was very vivid, some of the people were quite interesting.  The story was well researched. It also gave you some clues as to what was brewing, what was about to happen during that period in French history.

Another member said this was the second time they read the novel and they enjoyed it on both occasions. The story was well written, the characters were of that period, you could visualise the people in the different streets and houses, you could “touch” the atmosphere, even have a sense of the smell. It was very well written.

Pure by Andrew Miller received a score of 3.5

Nicole, West Norwood Library Reading Group

The Children of Men by P. D. James


This book was published in 1992, a dystopian novel written in between P D James’s more famous crime novels. “Spare and disturbing….. more moving than her more famous crime novels” says The Independent.

The year is 2021. For 25 years no child has been born, nor will there be any more as infertility has spread like the plague and the human race faces extinction. England is ruled by a dictatorial warden and supervised by the State Security Police. The elderly are seen as burdensome, where families are rewarded if their elders commit suicide and ceremonies of mass murder are organised. The young from less affluent countries are imported to do the dirty work and sent back when they can no longer perform their duties. Criminals are stranded on the Isle of Man and left, mainly, to their own devices. The story is told through the diaries of a 50 year old Oxford Don who is content with his lot and plays by the rules until he meets a woman with a deformed hand who is a member of a rebel group called the Five Fishes.

This book created the most discussion of any books we have read. Some for the effects these circumstances have on the young and the services of health and education, some for the effect on the elderly, some of us are nearer this mark. We loved the descriptions although some felt the characterisation was more relevant to her crime novels. The relationships and political aspects made good reading although the emotional side was rather twee. The relevance to today’s social situation was very striking, crime, immigration and the drop in fertility.

Overall a good thought provoking book by a surprising, for the genre, author.

Carol, Streatham Library, Monday Morning Book Group.

The Dice Man by Luke Rhinehart


This month we read The Dice Man, the 1971 novel by George Cockcroft who writes under the name Luke Rhinehart.

The Dice Man is a book about choice and influence, chance and randomness, cause and consequence. It was written at a time when individualism was being popularised and various social experiments were being carried out to trial new and experimental ways of living, with an emphasis on individual choice. The book group talked about this period, with those who could remember it informing those who couldn’t. Personally I wasn’t around when this book was written and I found it tricky to understand some of the characters’ actions; our group chat gave these some context which was helpful. We had a great conversation about individual and group activity and how the psychology of the individual relates to the psychology of groups.

We also talked about how The Dice Man relates to society’s increasing use of computers. The book was also written at a time when early computer networks were being developed for use by a select few; the influence of computers on society can’t be underestimated. Though the author of Dice Man won’t have known this, it’s interesting to read a story which is also an in-depth speculation about what could happen if an indifferent, numerical agent (the dice) became an intrinsic part of social and psychological interactions. We decided that while the book is in many ways dated (and, some thought, egotistical) it brings up a lot of interesting questions about society, psychology, recent history and technology.

Sam, Waterloo Library Reading group

Win two tickets to the Young Adult Literature Weekender at the Southbank




Just answer this question to be in with the chance of winning two tickets to the Southbank’s ‘Young Adult Literature Weekender’, running on Saturday 28 and Sunday 29 October.

The competition is open to all aged 13 – 25 years old.

‘Writing Gender & Identity panellist Juno Dawson (UK Queen of Teen 2014) has written 6 YA books. Can you name 3 of them?’

Continue reading

Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch



Rivers of London begins as a fairly typical Metropolitan Police crime drama, until the main character and new recruit PC Peter Grant meets a ghost! At that point we realise this will follow no particular genre rules: Peter is brought to the attention of Inspector Nightingale, the last wizard in England, becoming his apprentice, he seeks to control the conflict between Father and Mother Thames and their colourful river offspring, and investigates a malicious and vengeful spirit that takes ordinary lives and produces something dangerous.

We had a lively discussion about Rivers of London. A couple of the group loved this book and will continue with the rest of the series. Some of us had mixed feelings, finding it a humorous, fast-paced read, but maybe finding a little too much packed in, particularly within the second half. Others could not stand the book! They felt it was plain silly, the language was too colloquial and they didn’t care what happened to any of the characters. We felt that the juxtaposition of the mundane alongside the magical elements and the personification of the rivers made it an imaginative storyline, but some felt there was too much squeezed in to produce fully developed characters.

Suffice to say it provoked a spirited discussion, so to that end Ben Aaronovitch has done a good job!

We scored Rivers of London a 5 out of 10 ranging from 1 to 9.

Elisabeth, Upper Norwood Library Reading Group