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.