Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Post Number Five: The Hand That first Held Mine by Maggie O'Farrell

Book Stack with Coffee and ArmchairI love December 31st!  You will invariably find me in an armchair somewhere frantically finishing the last book of the year so that I can tally it with the rest. Then I tot up how may tomes I have devoured and compare with previous reading years.  I'm going to keep you in suspense as to my results, as I am excited about writing my next blog: the definitive review of 2014...namely what has Karen read and which books will make her top 10?!

In the meantime, sit back, get a cup of tea and a leftover Christmas biscuit and indulge in a bit of Maggie O'Farrell.  She is an exquisite author whose main fault is that she doesn't write anywhere near as quickly as I can read!  So true is this, that I owned Instructions for a Heatwave for several months before I actually read it.  The anticipation is definitely part of the joy of a favourite author.

So, as the year turned, I allowed myself the luxury of a re-read of one my favourites, The Hand That First Held Mine.
I began my blog in September, and those of you who have been with me from the outset might remember that I waxed lyrical about Dickens' ability to draw interesting, credible and amusing characters.  O'Farrell exhibits the same skill, but with modernity, creating characters who tug at the inner you and make empathy compulsory.

Image result for the hand that first held mineThis book won the Costa Novel Award in 2010; this rewards UK and Irish writers. More details can be found at I have enjoyed many of the shortlisted and winning authors from this competition, perhaps none more so than O'Farrell.

Those who know me may well reckon me to be practical, logical and not-at-all sentimental. I hate gush of any kind! But, I am not cold, and real emotion is what connects us as people, to one another. In The Hand That First Held Mine, two sets of lives are interwoven, with the connection between them moving from subtle hints of possibility, through to tentative conviction that the past offers something to the present and finally to a full and convincing revelation. And through it all is the bond of love between a mother and her child, beautifully depicted and devoid of sentiment. The creation of Elina in the modern story and of Lexie in 1950's London is the creation of an expression of maternal love. The backdrop for this is passion and affection for a soulmate; with both Ted and Innes created as soulmates for the female characters.  The coherence for the stories is provided by a key character...but no spoilers will find their way into my blogging!

It is interesting to note response to the stories as they develop.  I was more eager to hear of Elina and Ted as I started the book, but then the balance tipped, and it was Lexie whose story I wanted to immerse myself in. As the book draws to its climax, the distinction between the lives blurs and disappears, and the result is a satisfying, coherent read whose ending is not disappointing.  The characters stay with you as you imagine their story continuing beyond the pages, and the resounding emotion is that of love. Not a sentimental, unreliable depiction, but the bread-and-butter love that binds us together and makes us who we are.

Maggie O'Farrell is adept at characterisation and is highly skilled at the depiction of moments.  She writes expressively, with enough description to transport you but not so much that it overwhelms.

Without a doubt, one of my favourite modern authors, maybe even the number one spot....
A delightful way to end the year.

Please stay with me in 2015, and look forward to my reading review of the year...coming soon!

Saturday, 27 December 2014

Post Number Four: Case for Christ by Lee Strobel

This was a timely read in time for my Christmas entry.  What more appropriate than to re-examine whether or not there is a case to argue for Christ's existence, his claims of Godly identity and his resurrection from the dead?                                                                                                                                                       I set my cards out here; I have been a Christian for many years but when my 16 year old son began questioning the basic tenets of faith, it seemed like a very good idea to reinvestigate a logical rather than a theological approach to Jesus Christ.                                                                                                                           The background to the book is interesting, and was certain to appeal to my son.  Lee Strobel was a non-believer who has an academic background.  He is a journalist and has qualifications in law too.  This intelligent and enquiring mind was exactly what I needed to read.

Strobel became interested in the claims of Chistianity after his wife became a Christian and her new faith had a positive influence in their lives. He took the experience of his work, rigorous investigation with an onus on burden of proof, and applied it to Christ.

The book follows three main strands of faith: the credibility of the gospels, the identity of Christ and the plausibility of the resurrection. He cross examines experts and communicates logical objection to key areas. The book is easy to read and each chapter is introduced with a secular example of what he is trying to prove, whether that is the significance of an eyewitness or the necessity and reliability of circumstantial evidence in securing a conviction. These anecdotes are interesting and relevant, and work very well as an introduction to an equivalent point based on evidence for Christ.

Strobel did his own painstaking research from books, testimonies and papers over a period of more than two years.  Since then he has secured interviews with leading bible experts and corroborated his findings.  This book is an account of his discussions with those experts. In the need to be scrupulouly fair however, I acknowledge that though he cites secular and atheistic writers, he doesn't interview them for a full counter viewpoint.  The counter is considered, but not thoroughly investigated.

The whole text is fair, reasoned and logical. It is persuasive without seeking to persuade.  It is the honest rendition of an atheist who felt compelled by evidence to believe what he had always dismissed as legend.

It is a book worth reading.  Everyone should consider who Christ is.  It was C.S.Lewis who first wrote that either "this man was, and is, the Son of God: or a madman or something worse." Deciding for ourselves is important. It could change your life.

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Post Number Three: The Hidden Cottage by Erica James

Firstly apologies for the length of time it has taken me to get round to logging my reading recently.  Blame Christmas preparations! I must confess, that this year I have succumbed to some frantic last minute  present buying. I was going around Sainsburys with my trolley and my list, and my hand kept going to the shelves, independently of any will that I may have set out with! I found myself in a battle over the necessity for yet more crackers, chocolate biscuits, gifts....
so, deep breath; I'm taking the chance of the lull between mad dash purchasing and mad dash eating to catch up with my blog.

What have I been reading?  Well, I took the chance of a train trip to Sheffield to do some indulgent reading of gentle, non-demanding fiction.  Having liked much of Erica James' work for this purpose, I was happily ensconced with the kindle and Handel's Messiah in my headphones to block out any passenger chit chat.
This novel, published in 2013, is a predictable romance between two forty-somethings who have either missed the relationship boat, or who have been in an unhappy marriage.
This is the first time that I have been annoyed by the written style of James' novels.  I found myself editing it as I went, rather than allowing myself to be absorbed into the plot line. Its very predictability was tiresome, and though there were some interesting characters, none have really stayed with me; so much so, that just three weeks later, I can't even remember the main characters' names!
Basically, rich man tired of rat race buys a hidden cottage in the English countryside next to a lake.  It is a house with childhood significance and this childhood story is intended to create empathy for him. He falls for married woman; marriage unhappy and husband thinly drawn and lacking credibility. She has moral high ground, but the ending is inevitable.  A tragic death mid way through merely serves to add more guilt to the equation.....
Suffice it to say, this is not a recommendation.  It was a disappointment, especially considering that I chose the text as an indulgence.  Its stilted dialogue, flat characterisation and frankly unconvincing plot line left me with much material to use as an example of how not to write.  My A Level students may even benefit from an editing and improving exercise on certain passages.
Erica James can write; some of her novels, though always light, are not badly constructed; this however, was not her finest hour.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Post Number 2: Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe

Great to see so many of you read my first post.  Please feel free to comment on the books, the review or to recommend what I might read next :)

This next book was shared by a colleague of mine as we decide what we might offer for the curriculum next year. (Don't let this put you off!) I hadn't read any of his works before, so it was with no expectation that I approached this new read.

November 2014: Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

Egwugu; African ancestral mask
This makes uncomfortable reading for the white man. Categorised as a post colonial novel, it explores the impact of the white missionaries who populated much of Western Africa in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
The story is set in Umuofia, a fictional African village in Nigeria. At the opening of the novel, the village is steeped in cultural history that has been unchanged for generations.
The protagonist, Okonkwo, has gained respect and power in his clan, managing to obviate the shame of his lazy and drunken father. Worshipping the Gods of their ancestors, villagers participated in ceremonies that invoked the ancestral spirits, a collusion that recognised that "[his]wives, and perhaps other women as well, might have noticed that the second egwugwu had the springy walk of Okonkwo."
Perhaps it was this recognition that part of what they colluded in was an obvious falsehood, that the spirits they invoked were clearly the elders of the village in ceremonial garb, that made some of the inhabitants of Umuofia and the surrounding villages open to the preaching of Christianity.
Christianity came hand in hand with education, which many willingly grasped hold of.  But the heart of this book is not promise of redemption or an evaluation of tribal lives; it is a story of personal tragedy.
Okonkwo is defined by his clan. His identity is subsumed within tribal practice and tradition. Chinua Achebe draws him with clarity, but with little embellishment.  This succinct writing style manages to convey highly emotionally charged content as if it were blandly factual.  Thus the fate of Ikemefuna is decided by the clan and "The Oracle of the Hills has pronounced it." That Okonkwo reacts emotionally is clear, "He did not sleep at night," but it is also clear that he soon began "to feel his old self again" as the rhythms and traditions of the clan took over once more.
The tragedy lies in his return from exile to find that the white man has a foothold in his village. Okonkwo cannot reconcile his life to the alien demands and morality made on him by the missionaries. He struggles to maintain his identity and that of the clan, and the end is predictable and tragic.
This is the first of a series of three short novels that chart the progression of colonialism in the area. This is a first generation story, and I am left torn and confused.
Did we ever have a right to impose our lifestyle, our culture on another land?  Morally not.  But do I baulk at the practices of death and retribution endorsed by the tribal culture? I do. Did the white man bring the gospel or did they seek to overpower? Perhaps a mix of both, but the latter certainly seems to dominate.
Chinua Achebe was a Nigerian who benefited from the education that colonialism brought.  His words communicate the complexity of that time and convey the fact that the consequences were (and are) far reaching. The simple, unemotional writing style adds depth and leaves readers with many more questions than answers.
I am reminded of the writing of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and can recommend Purple Hibiscus as another novel set in Nigeria that explores the clash of cultures post-colonialism.

So, from no expectation, I found a worthwhile and challenging read from a book that expresses itself with no pretension. I am encouraged to read the following novels of the trilogy: No Longer At Ease and The Arrow of God.

Please feel free to comment and make suggestions.
My current reading is twofold, The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel and a much more lighthearted dip into one of my comfort authors, Erica James!
Reading should be for pleasure.  A good reader is an eclectic one!

I look forward to sharing my next post with you.


Sunday, 16 November 2014

Day 1 November 16th 2014 Great Expectations


I have kept a reading journal for a number of years, much to the amusement of my teenage children and their friends.  It is seen as something twee and a little archaic!  So, I suppose my attempt at blogging my reading is, in some ways, a nod to the 21st century that my notebooks have been so stoically avoiding...

I was going to wait until the New Year to begin my blog; there is something tidy about a new start in January, something promising, something that awakens great expectations.  But my husband couldn't see the tidiness, he could only see prevarication.  His logic has won out, and so here I am.

My remit is to blog about what I have read.  I will give opinion and reaction, but I won't be a plot spoiler.  I want you to be inspired to read some of the titles for yourself, and to share some of your favourites with me.

And so to begin:

November 2014; completion of a re-read of Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

Prompted by one of my students to dust down my old copy of this classic, I was immediately excited to revisit it.  Pip is an endearing character, thwarted by his own naivety and his inability to recognise the desirable from the fundamental.  It is a bildungsroman novel, taking the reader through Pip's childhood and into his adult persona. He is vulnerable and eager, endearing qualities that never quite leave him, despite the arrogance and stupidity of some of his later actions.

File:Pumblechook, Pip and Mrs Joe, John McLenan.jpeg
Pumblechook, Pip and Mrs Joe by John McLenan (1860)
Made popular by television renditions, most people cannot remember past chapter one and the terrifying ordeal with Magwitch the convict on the bleak and misty marshes.  And yet the novel is so much more than this.  It explores an essential human need to excel, to be approved of and to fit in with society.  The corollary to this is Joe Gargery, Pip's loving stepfather who wears humility as if it were a well fitting jacket. And this is the hub of the story; how Pip readily moves away from the safe and loving environment of the lowly blacksmith, lured by the promises of the rich and wealthy and willingly walking into a trap of self delusion.

Characterisation provides humour and depth to the novel, from the stereotypes to the fully formed. Uncle Pumblechook is never more than a comical puff of arrogance whilst Jaggers conveys the superiority of the wise with exacting expectations of others, tinted with just enough humanity to appeal to the reader. Miss Havisham has to be one of the most famous literary creations in the English canon, and rightly so.  Her bitterness envelops her and taints everyone she is connected with.
Do read Carol Ann Duffy's poem Miss Havisham to enjoy a modern interpretation of her miserable existence.
Estella is a flat character; never much more than an effective plot device, but nonetheless, someone who exhibits the consequences of being infected by Havisham's particular brand of bitterness.
My favourite characters are two who might score well on a game of Pointless; Wemmick is amusing in his ability to compartmentalise, and his reference to his old father as Aged Parent is one that has humorous resonance in my husband's family life with fond reference to his own, now sadly departed, parents. My second choice is Hebert Pocket who is simply charming in his inability to dissemble.

I would recommend that everybody should have a go at some of the classics of English Literature, and this is no bad place to start.  It is pacy and the plot is comprehensive. The characters stay with you long after the final page is turned.
And there is redemption for Pip in the closing pages. Dickens is a master in drawing loose ends to tidy conclusions.

And so we are back to tidiness; it may not be January 1st, but I have enjoyed making my first entry in my blog, Karen Martin Reads. I hope I can write regularly and share the love of reading for pleasure. I anticipate a variety of fiction, both lofty and not-so!

And so that you can anticipate entry number two, my current read is Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe.