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 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.

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