Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Post Number Nine: Us by David Nicholls

Now I feel a confession coming on...I have spurned electronic reading devices since their inception, after all books are beautiful and tactile; but I have weakened and my last two books have been read on a Kindle© app. So now I feel I have to justify myself to my readers!

I think impatience is the key (plus the delightful surprise from hubby of an iPad© for Christmas). I like to keep up with contemporary fiction and I have an aversion to hardback books.  The wait for my favoured authors to come into paperback has been the key prompt to the switch to electronic readers.  The other advantage (and here, hubby will, I'm sure agree) is that I can read as late into the night as I want to without having to put on the bedside lamp.

But as I sit here and survey my living room, (approx. 6m by 5m by my not-so-great spatial awareness), there are as many book cases as there are soft seats...It is a small space and it is dominated by books.  A friend of my daughter recently commented that the latest bookcase might have been one too many, but, you see, I really like it.

Books say home to me.  From the shelf in my childhood bedroom that kept breaking free of its brackets to support an ever increasing collection, to the six bookcases I have managed to squeeze into our three-bed semi; books are a comfort blanket.  They are reassuringly there, saying that there is a multiplicity of worlds that I can escape into when the real one is too much!  I used to keep every book that I had ever read, but I have grown out of that!  The result is that all the books in the house are ones I would (and do) read again.

My latest reads, Elizabeth is Missing and Us have been electronic. They deserve a place on my shelves, they deserve to be lent to my friends....so I will buy them both as hard copies eventually, probably from a charity shop in six months or so.  (My love of charity shops may well work its way into another post)!

Cover picture from Amazon UK
So, part of the major releases of popular contemporary fiction just before Christmas, I was eager to read Us by David Nichols. Listed for the Man Booker Prize 2014 and following his success with One Day, this title was bound to have a wide readership.  I enjoyed One Day, given to me by a colleague as a gift some years ago, but I enjoyed this one more.  I think, as part of my new year's resolution to make reading a priority for my leisure time, this book has benefited from being read quickly.  It meant that I could fully enjoy the characterisation and the narrative.

Now you know by now that I like narratives that are not fully linear.  This one wove together two stories, the unfolding of a family on holiday in Europe, attempting to follow the Victorian Grand Tour of cities and galleries and that of the protagonist's past where he documented how he and his wife first met and fell in love.

This is an honest novel.  The central character Douglas Timothy Petersen is self effacing and really rather wonderfully ordinary.  He is flawed and this is fundamentally explored through his attempts to communicate with his teenage son Albie. Humour and pathos are created as the novel develops and you realise that he has always been a little awkward with his child. The anecdote of Lego© models glued together so that they would never break illustrates his lack of understanding of his son's needs from an early age.

The premise is depressingly modern and commonplace. On page 1 Connie announces "I think our marriage has run its course.  Douglas, I think I want to leave you." He is blindsided by this announcement and the rest of the novel follows their path both up to and beyond this point. No spoilers as to the ending however; you need to read it to find out!

The humour and characterisation, plus the easy way a reader can relate to Douglas make this an enjoyable read. The backdrop of European cities gives the novel a summer feel, despite its autumn release date!

This is not a book about moral judgement.  It is about people navigating their way through modern life.

Entertaining light contemporary reading.

Coming up as book three of 2015...The Children Act by Ian McEwan.

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Post Number Eight: Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey

New year, new resolutions.  Well, I have shared my ambitions to read more this year, and whilst I hesitate to put a number on it, I would love to reach 40....The logistics of reading almost a book a week though have not escaped me.  I think January has started well; one book finished and another nearly done, but even that is not really enough to reach the "target".  The reason I hesitate to put a number on it, is because reading needs to be a pleasure.  My whole working life is target obsessed, turning education into a data crunching exercise that can remove some pleasure and meaning from it.  I do not want to remove pleasure and meaning from my books.  So, I have a goal, but I am likely not to reach it and I'm happy with that!  Still, I like to think of myself as an avid reader, so I'm confident that 24 is a good base.  Two a month, a sound rate.  That seems like I am giving myself time to indulge but also giving my time to other people too.

Product Details
cover picture Amazon.co.uk
And so we begin. The new reading year has definitely started very well indeed.  I was attracted to this book, Elizabeth is Missing by the original idea; a novel with a dementia sufferer as the narrative voice. I must confess to being a bit of a fan of different narrative stances, and this one touches my heart.  It gives a voice to a silent minority.  Dementia is debilitating, but it does not remove humanity, and all humans need to be heard, to be listened to, to know love. And so it is with Maud Horsham, an elderly protagonist who is descending into dementia, but who still has a grasp of who she is; "Helen sighs again.  She's doing a lot of that lately.  She won't listen, won't take me seriously, imagines that I want to live in the past.  I know what she's thinking, that I've lost my marbles, that Elizabeth is perfectly well at home and I just don't remember having seen her recently, but it's not true.  I forget things - I know that- but I'm not mad. Not yet.  And I'm sick of being treated as if I am." (Penguin Books)

This stage of dementia is a hard one; many times during the book, I found myself urging Maud's daughter Helen, just to tell Maud, (and the reader!) exactly what had happened to Elizabeth.  I wanted to ease Maud's distress. But dementia sufferers forget what they have been told, and the flawed narration cannot bring you the world unless through their own imperfections.  Emma Healey communicates this with sensitivity and humour. The climax of that story strand is near the resolution of the book, and is handled beautifully.

The second strand is an equally compelling story about Maud's childhood, but the narrative voice remains the same.  Recollection of the past however is more cogent, again mirroring the uncanny ability of a dementia sufferer to be able to be lucid and reliable about their past.

My very good friend has Alzheimers.  My Granny and my Great Granny also had it. This book gives Maud humanity; through her confusion, her personality shines through.  It is her Granddaughter who perhaps reaches her the most successfully, loving her, coaxing her and gently teasing her where appropriate. I saw my friend in Maud and the dedication at the beginning of the book "To my Grandmothers" is suggestive of personal experience, and is, at the very least, indicative of the beautiful empathy for the elderly that is communicated so ably throughout this novel.
emma healey
 Photograph: Katherine Anne Rose for the Guardian

Emma Healey is a deserving winner of the Costa debut novelist award, announced earlier this month.
I will allow myself a slight smugness that I picked the winner from this category as my reading choice before the announcement!

Make time in 2015 for this novel, and watch out for great things from this novelist.

Saturday, 10 January 2015

Post Number Seven: Reading Review of 2014

As January turns its days into double figures, I thought I'd better get my act together and finally get around to writing my review of 2014.

Do you find yourselves interested in top 100 lists?  Places to go, things to see, experiences to have, books to read, films to watch? I can usually ignore them, except when it comes to reading.  And as an enthusiastic reader I expect to have read most of those top lists...but I rarely have! So, I am quite enjoying making a list of my own.  My list of 2014 follows, with a ratings system! Any indicated with a running reading man (thank you Harris County Public Library for the symbol) is one I think should be a must read!

So this is what I read:

1.  The White Dove, by Rosie Thomas
This is an author who has never yet disappointed me.  Arguably a lighter read, Rosie Thomas always writes well.
This was set between the wars and shows how the main character, Amy Lovell, embraced modernity by moving out of her privileged, aristocratic circles and into nursing.  The context is complex; mining, strikes, economic unrest and the appeal of communism takes the novel from London to the Spanish Civil War. Compelling and very well constructed.  One of my top reads of 2014.

2. The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde
Now for this I have to thank a couple of previous students... MJ and RG. These rising stars of past A Level Language and Literature classes both contacted me to say that I must read this novel.  Jane Eyre had been an integral part of their coursework studies and they both found this novel witty, clever and compelling... Well, sorry to disappoint such proteges, but I endured the text from beginning to end.  Suspension of disbelief never fully arrived at my door, and the surreal plot merely served to perplex me.  I think you might need appreciation of the Hitch Hiker's Guide To The Galaxy style humour to make the most of this one...maybe being male might help........

3.  A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley
This is a text transformation of King Lear and is set in the American plains. It involves three sisters, a drunken father and dispute over land and property! Thus, it works well with its base text, but I found it a little slow, and perhaps a little too contrived. That said, I was teaching multiple exam classes at the time of reading and so I read it very slowly. Perhaps I lost a little in my inattention...

4.  Purple Hibiscus by Chinamanda Ngazi Adichie
This was a re-read, and any book that is as good or better with the second reading has to find a place on a top 100 list. Written for a teenage audience, this text reaches beyond that and is a well crafted, pacy novel with characters that are convincingly drawn.  Exploring colonisation of Nigeria, the tension between native religions and imposition of Catholicism, this novel does not shy away from complex issues. The family at its heart is respectable, intelligent and fundamentally flawed. Patriarchal dominance spills into abuse and the plot follows what happens to this family through the eyes of the children. Tension is evident throughout and the resolution is well constructed.

5.  The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman
Prompted to read this after a foray into counselling as a potential career ( not my forte as it turns out!), I must admit that what I had though might be wishy-washy was actually a very good read, and a refreshing approach to relationships. I have since recommended to friends, and would place it with Care for the Family books as a sensible read with a quietly Christian moral code.

6. A Voice for the Voiceless: Baroness Cox by Andrew Boyd

Not going to put a must read symbol here, as the book is harrowing and a little bleak.  It is however an amazing testimony to the work and life of one of our unsung modern heroines.  I hadn't heard of Baroness Cox until she spoke at a Word Alive conference I attended. She is an incredible woman who fully embraces her mantra, "I cannot do everything but I must not do nothing." This book communicates the suffering endured in Sudan, Burma, Russia and Nagorno Karabak and the efforts taken by Baroness Cox to relieve that suffering. A humbling read.

7.  Sing You Home by Jodi Picoult
If you ignore the fact that Jodi Picoult's books are a little formulaic, you can't get away from the fact that they are a good story! This one has frozen embryos as its moral and ethical dilemma and the plot is compassionate, exploring faith and prejudice.  It culminates in a court battle between gay rights and evangelical puritanism and certainly gives food for thought.

8. Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
A unique narrative perspective that explores "what if?" It continually returns to February 1910 and gives different scenarios to a child born then.  The war is significant to the novel but its richness lies in its complex narrative form and the exploitation of possibilities.  Literary, compelling.  Excellent.  A definite recommendation of 2014.

9,10,11,12,13,14,15. Harry Potter and The Philosopher's Stone, The Chamber of Secrets, The Prisoner of Azkaban, The Goblet of Fire, The Order of the Phoenix, The Half Blood Prince and The Deathly Hallows by JK Rowling!
I had never read them quickly and consecutively, so this was my summer mission, reading alongside my son and my husband. We all really enjoyed the re-reads and hats off to JK Rowling; they are excellent stories, well conceived and beautifully cohesive across all seven books.  Wish I had thought of it! I think everyone should read them!

16.  Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O'Farrell
As readers of my blog to date will know, she is one of my top authors.  This story contains the characterisation I have come to expect from O'Farrell with a highly convincing depiction of the culture of 1970s Britain. The plot revolves around the uncovering of deep family secrets and beautifully and convincingly explores adult sibling relationships.  As an only child married to the-youngest-of-six I found this even more compelling!

17. The Soldier's Wife by Joanna Trollope
I really enjoyed this book which explores the complexity of emotion that surrounds a serving soldier and his family when he returns from a conflict zone.  Characters were convincing and empathy was created for all of them despite the tensions evident between them. An honest but ultimately hopeful story.

18. And The Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini
Another one of my favourite authors, with A Thousand Splendid Suns being one of my all-time greats. This one is perhaps not as compelling as his previous two novels, but is nonetheless a satisfying read. Centred around siblings separated whilst young, this simplifies a complex plot that draws a whole cast of rounded characters and cultures.

19. Lighthousekeeping by Jeanette Winterson
This is poetic in quality and contains some lovely narratives. It explores the significance of storytelling and the need to be ready to "begin again" in life.  It became increasingly surreal and disembodied towards the end of the novel. Its clever construction reminded me of my undergraduate read of James Joyce's Ulysees; both texts perhaps a little too clever for me!

20.  The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith
Recommended by my son as a must-read, I picked this one up out of curiosity.  Writing under a pseudonym, JK Rowling ventures into adult crime fiction.  I enjoyed the central character, detective Cormoran Strike and I didn't manage to guess the outcome! The story felt a little laboured in the middle, but the resolution was good.  Curiosity whetted, I'll probably read the second one too!

21. Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
Another re-read of Atwood's dystopia; I've read this and The Year of the Flood and I now really want to get my hands on the third in the trilogy! This is the first title in the series and is at once macabre, disturbing, plausible and gripping.  Atwood never loses sight of the vulnerability and kindness of humanity even in the midst of destruction and depravity.  She is an excellent writer and this is another example of her accomplishment in the genre.

22. The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender
This was a present, bought more for the title than its content! I do love cake almost as much as I like reading. ( I also need to visit the gym on a regular basis to support these habits)!
This book was weird! Taste buds, extraordinary powers of smell and people turning into furniture! Picoult says "beautiful", I say "bizarre!"  Not one I will re-visit!

23. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
24. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
25. The Hidden Cottage by Erica James
26. Case for Christ by Lee Strobel
27. The Hand that First Held Mine by Maggie O'Farrell

The above five titles have all been reviewed as part of my blog, so I won't make you sit through a re-run! The READ symbol would be awarded to numbers 23, 24 and 27.

And so I look into 2015...my next blog will be on the brilliant read by Costa award-winning debut author Emma Healey for her book Elizabeth is Missing.

Thanks for reading.  Please feel free to offer recommendations for me to read and review in 2015.

Saturday, 3 January 2015

Post Number Six: KarenMartinReads Review of 2014

My facebook post from Penguin http://penguinblog.co.uk/2015/01/01/penguinspo/  heralded a flurry of comments that have got me thinking.  I read 34 books in 2013, 30 in 2012 and 34 in 2011....so 27 as my grand total for 2014 seems a little paltry.  However, it transpires I still manage to imbibe more texts than my fb friends.  Some cite time as an issue, others that they are "rubbish" at reading. So  I am going to use this post to try to inspire a little more reading in 2015.

Reading is indulgent. It is, by its very nature, individual, and if you are anything like me, when immersed in a book, you don't even hear conversations around you. My Dad used to tell me off for being rude when, in fact, I had no idea that anyone had even been attempting to reach across the fictional world I was happily inhabiting and drag me back to reality!

So reading has therefore to be escapism. For a few short hours, you can be more interested in someone else's life than your own.  But it is more than that.  You are not a voyeur as a reader, you are an empathiser.  You become part of the fabric of the story.

Whilst reading may be viewed as intrinsically  antisocial, the reviews, debates and discussions that reading sparks are clearly not.  Reading can bring you into conversation with someone whom you may before have regarded as having little in common with you.

Heathcliff by oh-marvelous-things at deviantart.com
Reading raises the emotional tempo.  I'll never forget a former colleague being totally crushed by a student's re-working of the end of Wuthering Heights. For me, it was a brilliant re-working, improving on the original by providing insight into Heathcliff's viewpoint, retelling the final days of the novel through his eyes.

For him, however it was a sacrilegious act that threatened to spoil the reverence and regard for Charlotte Bronte's creation. And this did indeed, spark lively comment and debate which we fondly re-open at regular intervals!

The time problem is a sticky one.  We make time for what we need to do, but often sacrifice what we want to do. For me, life without books is a poor one. When first married, I felt that I had to ask permission to "disappear" into a novel, fully knowing that the act of reading removes me from the world.  I quickly learnt however, that I am a nicer person if I allow myself time to be just me.  That involves reading.  So, even in the midst of nappies, in the interminable hours of marking, in the conflicting demands of work, family, faith and life, I ensured that I ended each day with a book. No matter how late I fold into the duvet, I read.  Sometimes my heavy lids only permit me a couple of pages, but I never stop reading.

Now that my work is part-time and my eldest child has flown off to University, I am trying to give myself at least an hour of curl-up-in-the-chair-in-daylight time at the weekends.  Do I always succeed? No, but I do love it when I do!  Loving husband sent me in the lounge to read in the post- Christmas zone, whilst he made dinner.  Indulgence.

I recognise that piecemeal reading of a few pages or the odd chapter here and there can ruin the coherence of a story. But it teases you and gives you a taster of what you've been missing.  Reading gives your imagination a reign that no other medium provides.  You have to fill in the blanks, you have to dress the protagonist and imagine his environment.  This is why film adaptations are often disappointing.  And whilst I am a fan of the Harry Potter Warner Brothers franchise, it is with some sadness that my picture of Harry has forever been turned into Daniel Radcliffe...

And for those of you who think you're rubbish at reading....firstly well done for getting down this far of my post! And secondly, don't condemn yourself to a lifetime without books.  Read reviews, find a genre you like and start there.  Don't be intimidated by feeling you have to read the classics or the modern classics.  read what is out there for you.  My reading list is very varied, you can probably see that just from my first few posts, and there is no shame in easy reading!

www.chicago tribune.com

When I met my husband, he confessed that he had read very little since he had stopped having to read for school. He wasn't averse to the notion but he had never developed the habit.  I introduced him to some new reading ideas, and despite my encouragement into reading, he certainly hasn't just followed my tastes.  His reading preferences are definitely his own!

See if you can make 2015 a year to develop your own tastes.  There are so many worlds out there for you to inhabit.

This started off as an intention to review the books I had actually read in 2014; it seems to have become a new year's resolution and, hopefully, encouragement to you all.

Stay with me for reviews of the 27 of 2014, coming up next.

Happy New Year to you all.