Leeds Book Club: read it and woop!

Niamh Foley - Leader of the readers
Niamh Foley - Leader of the readers

2012 is a year of big change for Leeds Book Club with new sister groups starting up around the city after a highly successful year of meetings in Headingley. Wendy Denman took a cosy seat by the fire with the heroine of the tale – Niamh Foley to reflect on the past 12 months and find out what happens when we turn the next page…

Along with running the blog, social media, various reading challenges, podcasts (not to mention a demanding day job!) – all these meetings are going to keep you very busy indeed. I would have lost the plot a while ago! What motivates you to bring people together around books?

I’m clearly out of my mind.

The simple answer I suppose is that I passionately enjoy reading. It can be tricky to meet like-minded folks, especially when everyone is so busy all the time. This seemed like the perfect opportunity to extend the group of people I could be book mad with!

What is the first rule of book club?

There are no rules. No restrictions. Just come along. Have a laugh. Say what you really think.

Perhaps the only etiquette is not to pretend to have read it. We’ll almost certainly catch you out at some point and the teasing would be merciless!

A recurring theme seems to be that the meetings are conveniently held in pubs and bars…do you think this creates a more relaxed and sociable atmosphere than if it was in a bookshop, library or home? Can you describe these venues for people who might not have been before?

Books and booze – tis a natural winning combination.

On a serious note, these bars and café allows us central and easily accessible locations where people feel comfortable and expect to relax and have fun. Some might feel an almost academic pressure about joining a club in a distinct literary environment – though with the closure of so many book stores these are fewer and further between now.

I certainly think that for a flexible and open group, it takes the pressure off inviting people home. No one has to tidy anything but their thought processes before they arrive and even that’s not always essential!

Please talk us through the format of a typical meeting. I’ve heard a rumour that if you don’t finish the book in time you have to dress up as a Hobbit for the whole meeting as punishment…

Don’t be ridiculous. The rule is *any* fictional character…

I’d far rather people come down regardless and enjoy the atmosphere and the chatter than not because they hadn’t the time or inclination to finish the chosen book. There are always a few people worried about spoilers, but hey, for good company and great conversations it’s a small price to pay!

We’ve been incredibly fortunate that our four venues have always been prepared to set aside some proper space for us. While we do have a ‘format’ we’re pretty informal to be honest. Usually we help ourselves to a drink and a comfy seat before getting stuck into the chat. Either I or the person who chose the book do a brief introduction and then everyone just gets stuck in. To choose the book, those who haven’t had a book picked in the past will provide options – one of which will be plucked out of a tankard!

At Arcadia, we’ve been spoiled with some very creative members who treat us with various cakes and buns after the chat.

Some would say a great book club is just as much about the people as the books. There’s quite a mixed bunch of characters that regularly come to the book club – can you describe the personalities in the group?

We have such a variety of people attending now – different ages, genders, from different areas of the country, even a few couples who attend together.

I don’t like to pigeonhole people but I have to admit we have a great mixture of personality types – one definite comic, some outgoing, some who were initially quite shy. All friendly, enthusiastic and adventurous when it comes to reading.

We seem to have attracted a fair few librarians which is just wonderfully convenient, especially when it comes to locating more scarce book selections!

Describe the best thing about the transition into ‘real life’ meetings and how big a part does the online side of things still play in the club?

Meeting people, making friends and the variety of books that I’m reading now – the book club has changed all that.

As for the online side – it’s a whole other world – an author (met originally on twitter) recently contacted me to say that she was at a talk in Canada and met someone who had listened to her LBC podcast with me. That’s just staggering!

As we are looking to expand across the city (Headingley, City Centre and Horsforth), the blog allows me to let people know about arrangements very quickly. Twitter is also a great way of getting in touch with people about a whole range of local events.

And the blog is huge in Russia…if our stats are anything to go by…

How to stay in the good books
How to stay in the good books

Many people prefer to keep their reading as a private pursuit, yet the social aspect of a book club will also appeal to more casual readers who go because they wish to meet interesting people. Has the book club triggered other get-togethers for non-book related activities?

We’ve had a few literary film jaunts – most recently attending a screening of the recent Jane Eyre film. I’m looking forward to seeing other things – most particularly The Hobbit in December of this year – though I’m hopeful that we might head off and see other films or maybe a play before then!

As members share their interests – be it crafts, gaming, music or films – our scope becomes ever greater!!

Which books have led to the best discussions so far?

It’s so interesting – there have been a few books that you’d really expect people to enjoy that just don’t click at all, then others that were tossed into the pot without any real thought that gripped us utterly!

In general I prefer a book that divides us, contrary as that may sound. If we all love or hate a book, we just say so…which doesn’t take long at all! But if it’s contested between those who adore a book and those who detest it…well, it leads to a much better discussion. Thankfully we’ve a very decent group – there is never any nastiness. Everyone is allowed a say and in the end, we know that we’re there for fun – to agree to disagree, not convert people to a side.

Without a doubt the most in-depth (and longest) natter we’ve had was about The Great Gatsby by F.Scott Fitzgerald. To be honest, most of us really enjoyed it. However, there were so many different aspects and themes to be considered that we could have talked about it for days! Proof positive, I guess, that it truly is a classic!

Who would you love to have in your dream book club (apart from us of course)?

What a question?!? We have such a great mix.

I mean, sure, it wouldn’t hurt to have Hugh Jackman or Benedict Cumberbatch’s perspectives…for their intellectual prowess of course…

What do you think would make Leeds a more reader friendly city? More book shops? More book swaps? Book shops with bars (Such as Waterstones in Manchester and London)? Book shops in bars?

In general, I think we are making those changes we want to see. Despite, or perhaps because of the current financial climate; the city is becoming more imaginative. Leeds is finding ever more creative ways to enhance herself.

Arcadia provided a decently stocked bookshelf for patrons long before LBC started up there, as does Café 164 in Leeds City Centre. The White Swan is a brand new pub – and already it has invited in artists, musicians and crafts people to help it become part of the community in a more meaningful way. Similarly, Medusa Bar wanted a book club because the area had a long literary tradition with no clear location to carry it on in.

Personally, I’d love to see more independent book stores. I can’t resist a book swap myself and we have very strong links with the Travelling Suitcase Library, which is tremendous fun.

I was just reading about an Espresso Book Machine – where you can choose a book to be printed off. It’s great for self-publishing and rather than having a permanent site for books (which, don’t get me wrong, I love), it allows them to be created anywhere for any taste!

Can you recommend a good read for Leeds in 2012? Ideally it should involve a gripping start, full of exciting characters, twists, turns and challenges culminating in a happy ending!

Well…I can’t guarantee happy endings…some of the best books are quite miserable!

I’ve just finished The Book of Human Skin by Michelle Lovric, which is a fantastic romp set in Venice and Peru during the 1780’s. It has all the hallmarks of a classic gothic tale – murder, mayhem, and romance…

It’s impossible to overstate how fantastic the Canongate Myth Series is. There are sixteen novellas written by a variety of authors, in a variety of styles. I’ve already read eight and am really looking forward to getting round to the next one!

If you fancy something set in Leeds, I would recommend the Richard Nottingham series by Chris Nickson. Chris writes about Leeds in the 1730’s and has created an elaborate and vibrant cast of characters. Each book is very different in terms of style and tone and I just love them!

I can personally recommend checking out Leeds Book Club if you fancy challenging yourself to read more this year, and perhaps read books you may not have discovered by yourself. It’s also a great way to meet new people and a very gentle way to practise speaking in public. One of the best things I’ve tried in Leeds!

Details of the next book club meetings are as follows:

  • #WSwanLBC – The White Swan in Leeds City Centre. Held on the 2nd Sunday of the month, the next one is on the 8th of January 2012 from 6pm – 8pm, chatting about Suttree by Cormack McCarthy.
  • #MedusaLBC – Medusa Bar in Horsforth. Held on the second Wednesday of the month, the next one is on the 11th of January 2012 from 7pm – 9pm discussing Ragnarok – the end of the gods by A.S. Byatt.
  • #ArcadiaLBC – Arcadia Bar in Headingley. Held on the 3rd Sunday of the month. The next one is to be held on the 15th of January 2012 from 5pm – 7pm and the book is The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint by Brady Udall
  • www.leedsbookclub.com