Big Read 2015

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Grantham NWR Book Group chose these eight books with our 2015 theme in mind: Democracy, Liberty and Human Rights. Groups were invited to choose at least one book and forward their reviews to the NWR Office for inclusion in the autumn issue of NWR Magazine. You can now also read the reviews on the website. 

But first, the synopses...

I Am China by Xigolu Guo

In a flat above a noisy north London market, translator Iona Kirkpatrick starts work on a Chinese letter: Dearest Mu, The sun is piercing, old bastard sky. I am feeling empty and bare. Nothing is in my soul, apart from the image of you. I am writing to you from a place I cannot tell you about yet…

In a detention centre in Dover exiled Chinese musician Jian is awaiting an unknown fate. In Beijing his girlfriend Mu sends desperate letters to London to track him down, her last memory of them together a roaring rock concert and Jian the king on stage. Until the state police stormed in.

As Iona unravels the story of these Chinese lovers from their first flirtations at Beijing University to Jian’s march in the Jasmine Revolution, Jian and Mu seem to be travelling further and further away from each other while Iona feels more and more alive. Intoxicated by their romance, Iona sets out to bring them back together, but time seems to be running out.


Small Island by Andrea Levy

The 'today' of the novel is 1948, when Queenie Bligh has given up waiting for her husband Bernard to come back from his service in the Second World War, and to make ends meet has let rooms in her house out to immigrants from Jamaica, among them Gilbert Joseph and his wife Hortense. And that is Small Island in a sentence. But it takes us back through the four main characters' lives before and during the war, each speaking to us in their own voice. The ventriloquism is elegant and brilliantly managed, making us sympathetic to all the characters in turn, and gripped by their flowingly told stories; so much so that when they come into conflict at the end of the novel, we are as torn as they are, and don't know which way to turn.

There is tragedy and comedy everywhere in Small Island, and Levy seems incapable of misjudging the tone, whether she wants to depict casual racism, tender young friendship, cold middle-class romance, or the numb relentlessness of twentieth century warfare. The writing is frequently beautiful, and she has a way of approaching a new scene sidelong, rather than head-on, that brings the reader into it with freshness and curiosity. Minor characters come alive.


No Place to Call Home: Inside the Real Lives of Gypsies and Travellers by Katharine Quarmby

An honest insight into the lives of Gypsies and Travellers. This book at last gives a real account of the struggles faced by these communities as they strive to live in the modern world faced with ongoing prejudice intensified by the media. By building trust and strong relationships with travelling communities Katharine has been able to report from a fully informed viewpoint, giving a balanced narrative on the positive as well as the negative aspects of their traditions and everyday lives. This book is compassionate in approach and allows the reader to understand how vulnerable these communities are and how they are failed by the settled community. This book comes at a point when the media has created either a demonised view of the lifestyles of Gypsies and Travellers or a very superficial view based on the glamour of their wedding traditions, and feels like the first step in building bridges between the settled and Traveller communities. Although desperately sad at points the book left me feeling positive that in time these communities will find a stronger voice, understanding and acceptance in this country.


The Hero's Welcome by Louisa Young

The Hero's Welcome is the incandescent sequel to the bestselling R&J pick My Dear, I Wanted to Tell You. Its evocation of a time deeply wounded by the pain of WW1 will capture and beguile readers fresh to Louisa Young’s wonderful writing, and those previously enthralled by the stories of Nadine and Riley, Rose, Peter and Julia.

LONDON, APRIL 1919.

THE GREAT WAR HAS ENDED.

In a flurry of spring blossom, childhood sweethearts Nadine Waverney and Rilery Purefoy are married. Thos who have survived the war are, in a way, home. But Riley is wounded and disfigured; normality seems incomprehensible, and love unfathomable. Honeymooning in a battered, liberated Europe, they long for a marriage made of love and passion rather than dependence and pity.

At Locke Hill in Kent, Riley’s former CO Major Peter Locke is obsessed by Homer. His hysterical wife, Julia, and the young son they barely know attempt to navigate family life, but are confounded by the ghosts and memories of Peter’s war. Despite all this, there is the glimmer of a real future in the distance: Rose Locke, Peter’s cousin and Riley’s former nurse, finds that independence might be hers for the taking, after all.

For those who fought, those who healed and those who stayed behind, 1919 is a year of accepting realities, holding to hope and reaching after new beginnings.

The Heroes’Welcome is a brave and brilliant evocation of a time deeply wounded by the pain of war. It is as devastating as it is inspiring.


The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd

Lily has grown up believing she accidentally killed her mother when she was four. She not only has her own memory of holding the gun, but her father's account of the event. Now fourteen, she yearns for her mother, and for forgiveness. Living on a peach farm in South Carolina with her father, she has only one friend: Rosaleen, a black servant whose sharp exterior hides a tender heart. South Carolina in the sixties is a place where segregation is still considered a cause worth fighting for. When racial tension explodes one summer afternoon, and Rosaleen is arrested and beaten, Lily is compelled to act. Fugitives from justice and from Lily's harsh and unyielding father, they follow a trail left by the woman who died ten years before. Finding sanctuary in the home of three beekeeping sisters, Lily starts a journey as much about her understanding of the world, as about the mystery surrounding her mother.


The Good Terrorist by Doris Lessing

A group of squatters rebel against Mrs Thatcher and erupt into violence in this politicised novel from the author of ‘The Golden Notebook’.

In a London squat a band of bourgeois revolutionaries are united by a loathing of the waste and cruelty they see around them. These maladjusted malcontents try desperately to become involved in terrorist activities far beyond their level of competence. Only Alice seems capable of organising anything. Motherly, practical and determined, she is also easily exploited by the group and ideal fodder for a more dangerous and potent cause. Eventually their naïve radical fantasies turn into a chaos of real destruction, but the aftermath is not as exciting as they had hoped. Nonetheless, while they may not have changed the world, their lives will never be the same again…


The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

It is 1866, and Walter Moody has come to make his fortune upon the New Zealand goldfields. On arrival, he stumbles across a tense gathering of twelve local men, who have met in secret to discuss a series of unsolved crimes. A wealthy man has vanished, a whore has tried to end her life, and an enormous fortune has been discovered in the home of a luckless drunk. Moody is soon drawn into the mystery: a network of fates and fortunes that is as complex and exquisitely patterned as the night sky. The Luminaries is an extraordinary piece of fiction. It is full of narrative, linguistic and psychological pleasures, and has a fiendishly clever and original structuring device. Written in pitch-perfect historical register, richly evoking a mid-19th century world of shipping and banking and goldrush boom and bust, it is also a ghost story, and a gripping mystery. It is a thrilling achievement and will confirm for critics and readers that Catton is one of the brightest stars in the international writing firmament.


The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier

The stunning new novel from the bestselling author of Girl with a Pearl Earring.

When modest Quaker Honor Bright sails from Bristol with her sister, she is fleeing heartache for a new life in America, far from home. But tragedy leaves her alone and vulnerable, torn between two worlds and dependent on the kindness of strangers.

Life in 1850s Ohio is precarious and unsentimental. The sun is too hot, the thunderstorms too violent, the snow too deep. The roads are spattered with mud and spit. The woods are home to skunks and porcupines and raccoons. They also shelter slaves escaping north to freedom.

Should Honor hide runaways from the ruthless men who hunt them down? The Quaker community she has joined may oppose slavery in principle, but does it have the courage to help her defy the law? As she struggles to find her place and her voice, Honor must decide what she is willing to risk for her beliefs.

Set in the tangled forests and sunlit cornfields of Ohio, Tracy Chevalier’s vivid novel is the story of bad men and spirited women, surprising marriages and unlikely friendships, and the remarkable power of defiance.


Read the reviews of these titles by our members.

If you are a member, you can also enjoy discussing the books on the NWR website Booklovers Forum or on the NWR Bookworms Facebook group. We look forward to hearing your views!

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