Big Read 2016: Reviews

A hundred years since the publication of the general theory of relativity, the Big Read 2016 celebrates Einstein with the theme, It’s all Relative. Here’s what we thought…

Einstein’s Dreams – Alan Lightman


An imagined collection of stories by Albert Einstein. It explores different worlds, time, the connections between science and art, and the fragility of human existence.

These thirty fables cover consecutive nights in May and June, 1905. The theme of memory is odd and confusing as you don’t have any recollection of the day before and do not understand time. However, the stories are tied together by a book that the character carries – a good book for long journeys and different time zones. You need to read it to see what we mean! Each story is two to three pages in length, ideal for putting down and picking up again. – Durham City NWR

The Einstein Girl – Philip Sington


Two months before Hitler’s rise to power, a young woman is found naked and near death in the woods outside Berlin. She can remember nothing, not even her name. The only clue to her identity is a handbill found nearby, advertising a lecture by Albert Einstein: ‘On the Present State of Quantum Theory’.

This is a detective story and much more.Very evocative of time and place, the book beautifully illustrates family life between the wars, while Einstein is changing reality with his world-shaking theories on mass, energy, space and time.

We learn a lot about Einstein’s thinking, but also about VD – the sometimes barbaric treatment of mental illness – and the fear and stigma around hereditary disease, especially mental disorders.

There is a creeping sense of foreboding, a threatening, sinister feeling pervades, paranoia and fear, a lack of trust. Some of our group found the book difficult to get into but we found it thought provoking, complex, and very clever. – Deepings NWR

This story does not portray Einstein in the kindest of lights. It is described as a thriller, though we felt it didn’t quite achieve this. It is a good story but some of our group found the numerous sub plots irritating. – Horbury and Ossett NWR

Complex, compelling, absorbing, a page-turner, authentic, thoroughly detailed and especially well-researched with regard to Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. – Kenton NWR

The Book Thief – Markus Zusak


Death tells the story of Liesel, a nine-year-old girl living in Germany during World War II, describing both the beauty and destruction of life in this era.

The narrator is Death, which sounds odd but works well. Liesel is not able to read so her foster father teaches her and she becomes obsessed, stealing books to satisfy her obsession. Into the family comes Max, a young Jewish man. As he hides in the basement, Liesel describes to him the weather, the clouds and even brings him a snowball in the winter. She gives him small gifts such as pretty stones and leaves. This book is beautifully evocative and brings wartime Germany to life, making you realise the suffering that took place. We understand that this book is now being studied on the school curriculum, and we can understand why. – Durham City NWR

Trumpet – Jackie Kay


The death of legendary jazz trumpeter Joss Moody exposes an extraordinary secret. Unbeknown to all but his wife, Joss was a woman living as a man. This is a story about deception and devotion, and of the intimate workings of the human heart.

This story explores identity through each character’s reaction. From the grieving wife, to the angry adopted son, to the journalist whose focus is on getting a salacious story for her book.

This is the first novel by Scottish poet, Jackie Kay. Each chapter is from the point of view of a different character, with the wife’s reminisces developing throughout. The language is often lyrical, raw and compassionate.

I really enjoyed this book. It made me think. Do we see people in different ways once they are no longer in the box we had put them in? Are we defined by being male or female, by our raceor what we do and how we live our lives? – Josephine Burt, NWR Trustee

Having previously read Red Dust Road and her autobiography, both of which we enjoyed, Jackie Kay was known to our group. However, we had mixed reactions to this book. We enjoyed the story but felt it left us wanting to know so much more. How, why and when had Joss managed to transform himself? At what stage of this transformation had he visited his mother and why did he not visit again?

Because the book is set in a different time, we felt Millie’s total acceptance needed to be expanded on. We found the conclusion very disappointing. Surely, the characters involved would have been frustrated with so little explanation. We certainly were. – Hadleigh/Southend NWR

Links to Einstein in the loosest sense about relatives and relationships! A well written and intriguing story. The child’s relationships are interesting and complex. All our members who read it were full of praise. – Horbury and Ossett NWR

Intriguing, memorable and touching. We agreed that Trumpet is ahead of its time and challenges pre-conceptions. This is a book we would recommend. – Kenton NWR

Go Set a Watchman – Harper Lee


Featuring many of the iconic characters from To Kill a Mockingbird, Go Set a Watchman is set two decades later against the backdrop of the civil rights tensions and political turmoil that were transforming the South.

We were disappointed in this book and felt that it spoilt the original story. It tries to tie up loose ends and to recapture Jean Louise’s early life, now that she is living and working in New York. We would not recommend it. – Durham City NWR

Some enjoyed this more than others. Most of the group had read To Kill a Mocking Bird previously and felt that it argued with eloquence and clarity. But this novel rambles. At times it is confusing and even boring. The quality of writing was not what we expected. This book is not profound, as To Kill a Mocking Bird was, but is rather a laborious way of saying “it’s complicated”. – Hitchin NWR

My Name is Lucy Barton – Elizabeth Strout

A disappointment that did not live up to the promise of its synopsis. Self-indulgent, angst-ridden and unemotional. Tedious, too short and lacking in continuity. – Kenton NWR

Lovely, Dark, Deep – Joyce Carol Oates


A collection of stories that explore the terror, hurt and uncertainty that lurks at in the shadows of ordinary lives.

Our group did not like this book as we didn’t feel we got to know any of the characters. It seemed two dimensional, interesting to look at but not memorable. – Durham City NWR

A selection of short stories some of which were better than others. An unsatisfying read. – Horbury and Ossett NWR

Dark and bleak. Challenging. Powerful. Frustrating. This collection of 13 short stories was a lengthy read (420 pages) and not all of our members finished the book. Some ran out of time, but some were less than enthralled by the content. The general consensus was that each story was thought provoking and often quite depressing. Stories were predominantly from a female perspective and ranged from the relationship between an adolescent boy and his ill grandmother, a developing relationship between a couple which was strengthened by a vicious encounter with a dog, to the fear and unease experienced by a woman travelling with her boyfriend to an abortion clinic. A teenage boy who had died in a car accident narrated one story, Forked River Roadside Shrine, South Jersey. This story was felt to be very engrossing and had considerable impact. – Warwick and Leamingont NWR

There is a lot to feed you here and if you’re a member you can start a conversation on the Booklovers forum on the website or on our NWR Bookworms Facebook group.

Image by Jvleis