Sunday, 21 January 2018

Post 68: Off to a slow and steady start

Matt Haig signing my
"forgotten" title at the
North Cornwall Literary
Festival in October.
I begin with an apology to Matt Haig. For some reason, I failed to write down his novel, How to Stop Time, in my reading journal and therefore didn't count it in my annual reckoning, (now at 42 and accurate!) or give it opportunity to make my top ten reads, (which it most certainly would have done)! So, if any of you are noting down my top ten as books to look out for this year, then please add Matt Haig to your list!  Hubby was very amused at my reaction once I realised my miscalculation! Woe was me for at least quarter of an hour after I had pressed "publish"!

Perhaps more woeful is that I have only managed to read one book so far in 2018...I'm going to have to step up if I'm going to complete my to-be-read shelf this year.  But, despite my tardiness, the book was excellent, and I am now a committed fan of Anthony Doerr.  Many of you will remember that All The Light We Cannot See was my number 1 read of 2016, and so I looked forward to reading About Grace. This was his first published novel, and so I steeled myself to expect something less than his award winning wartime epic. But I needn't have done; I don't think I would rate it as a top read of a lifetime, but it was a very sound start to my reading year. He writes evocatively and sensuously; in this novel he recreates the icy cold of Alaska juxtaposed against the Caribbean blue of a small remote island where the main character spends a quarter century running away from his former life.

I really liked this protagonist.  Named David Winkler, he is an unlikely central character.  He is basically very ordinary, maybe even bordering on dull (aren't we all?!) except for one particular quirk.  He sleepwalks.  Now I realise that readers who know me well are likely to be chuckling at this is well-known in my family that I have had some fairly spectacular episodes of somnambulism, a trait I inherit from my father and have graciously passed onto to Child 2.  My most famous sleepwalking has included, whilst at university, ripping down all the posters in a friend's bedroom, waking a whole corridor whilst screaming "help" and attempting to bang down my Yale-locked door, and perhaps more sinister still, upending everything on my bedside table, leaping out of bed and attempting to jump out of a sash window...I am forever grateful to my now-husband for a) staying over that weekend and b) grabbing hold of me and possibly saving my life!  It's amazing he ever walked me up the aisle really!  Child 2 has been known to put an entire school uniform down the toilet, and tear down a child safety gate on holiday in France before careering down a spiral staircase and landing in the lounge... and my Dad...perhaps less of a walker and more of a writher; his most famous was a nighttime wrestle with an you see, sleepwalking interests me!

The main character of About Grace sleepwalks in a manner comparable to my family, but with a twist.  He is convinced that what he dreams is a premonition of a life event.  This conviction followed his helpless response, when, as a child,  he watched a man lose his life under a bus. He had dreamt the whole scene, and as it unfolded before him, he warned his mother of the outcome, but not in enough time to prevent it from occurring.

When he dreams the innocuous scenario of picking up a magazine for a customer in a supermarket,we know that when a certain Sandy Sheeler drops her copy of the latest read out of her wire basket that she will become significant in David's life.  Indeed, they fall in love and despite complications, they become a couple and have a child: Grace. And it is indeed About Grace where David Winkler's life becomes a living, waking nightmare.  After dreaming of a flood engulfing their Anchorage home and "seeing" his own abject failure to rescue his baby daughter from the floodwaters, David becomes tortured by the seeming inevitability of his daughter's death.  He tries to avoid sleeping and when he does succumb, he is restless.  On several occasions Sandy finds him sleepwalking with Grace in the car, or in a parking lot, desperate to take her away from harm.

I'm not going to give any spoilers about the fate of Grace, suffice it to say that David became so terrified of what he might inflict upon her during his sleeping hours that he ran away, hostage to his fears.  He blindly took a ship and ended up on a remote Caribbean island. Here, he was befriended by a Chilean family exiled from their home country by political conflict.

The story builds on this premise and the reader gains an insight into David's thoughts, fears, loves and losses.  But this is literary fiction. It has a strong plot and characterisation. but it is also lyrically beautiful.  A meteorologist by profession, David Winkler's passion is the unique and beautiful patterning found in snowflakes.  This obsession enables him to engender a love of natural shapes and patterns in indigenous Caribbean species in Naaliyah, the young daughter of his Chilean family. The plot takes him to Kingston, Jamaica and then on a long journey across America from Miami and eventually back to Alaska.  The evocation of Caribbean tropical heat and beauty and the snow, ice and life in the depths of an Alaskan winter is breathtaking.

I have been "accused" of being unadventurous in my travels.  I love the UK and am happy to stay on terra firma, but we venture to France quite regularly and have been known to dabble in an Italian holiday or two.  In fact, the children famously informed me that there were more than 2 countries in mainland Europe, and maybe some others beyond that!  But, as my lovely bookish friend once said, I am content to travel through the voices and adventures of the characters I read about.  Perhaps a little sad, and a little unambitious, but it certainly felt true of this book.  The winter months trapped off-grid in a woodshed in Alaska were beautifully described: the sights, sounds and even tastes of the cold permeate the pages.

If you like good literary fiction, this is an excellent read. I like David Winkler!  His writer, Anthony Doerr is a master storyteller, who succeeds not only in telling a good tale, but he finishes it well, leaving behind a very satisfied reader.

Wednesday, 3 January 2018

Post 67: Happy New Year

Happy New Year to you all!  My final reading total for 2017 was 41, finishing with a re-read of Kate Atkinson's Behind the Scenes at the Museum. I wonder what were your reading highlights of 2017? And what is in store for 2018?

My resolution this year is to give, where possible, at least 30 minutes a day to reading. I'd love to reach 50...or even a 52 book total, so keep watching this space!

Hopefully lots of you got books in your Christmas stockings this year. I did my annual Mum-gift to the "children", adding an extra title for Child One's Significant Other. He has been around long enough to be persuaded that reading for pleasure is a joy waiting to be discovered by everyone...I'll keep you posted! And it is with joy that I report that since leaving uni, Child One has rediscovered reading! The fact that she says it fills an otherwise dull lunch hour is by-the-by. She has read 2 books since September and has willingly purchased a 3rd.  I call that a result!  Child Two continues to be  a willing and effective critic of my reading and writing, though no books for me under the tree this year (see note in #1 of my top 10)!

I'm not going to rank all 41 titles of  2017, but The Times recently published their  top 50 Novels of the past 50 years. I am ashamed to say that I hadn't even read half of them. In discussion with colleagues, we decided we could let ourselves off the hook if we had read other titles by the same authors!  Whilst these lists can be a great starting point to broaden horizons and introduce authors that we might have either dismissed or not otherwise heard of, they are to be read with caution.  We shouldn't feel guilty if we have never read a certain classic. There will, alas, always be more books than we have time-in-a-lifetime to read!

So with that in mind, I'm sure you are all waiting with bated breath to see my top 10 reads of 2017!

10. Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain by Barney Norris
Coming in at number 10, this was simply beautiful.  It is evocative throughout, and though I am not a fan of lengthy description, the use of setting was far more than a backdrop to events; in some ways it seemed to determine them.

9.  The Help by Kathryn Stockett
This was a re-read and was just as good second time round.  Challenging and honest...two qualities which stand out in my criteria for 2017.

8.  Anatomy of a Soldier by Harry Parker
This debut novel finds a place in my top ten for its originality of narrative voice.  Told through a series of objects, the different perspectives on warfare, injury and recovery are clearly communicated. The style may have reduced empathy in places, but I liked the premise.

7.  Zoo Station by Christiane F
Highly recommended literary non-fiction.  If you haven't tried this genre, I urge you to give it a
go.This personal account is open and wretched in places.  Its honesty replaces judgement with empathy... another example of the power of language to change its readers.

6.  This Must be the Place by Maggie O'Farrell
This fiction was saved up til my summer holiday and it didn't disappoint. I admit to a slight bias here: I am such a fan that I am loathe to be a critic.  Good story, great characterisation, excellent writing.

5.  All That I Am by Anna Funder
A highly complex narrative woven around real people and events but fictionalised to fill in the gaps.  A very interesting period of history from an original perspective.  Funder writes intelligently and with integrity.

4.  I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O'Farrell
This memoir is pithy and honest.  And it's Maggie O'Farrell, mistress of the written word...nothing more needs to be said!

3.  The Shock of the Fall  by Nathan Filer
Best newcomer award from me this year (a high accolade indeed!) I loved the story. The central character is crafted with empathy and the plot twists are ably handled.  Compassionate.

2.  The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid
This one has a top spot because it is quite simply the cleverest book I have ever read.  It is a title that is worthy of study beyond a simple read.  The voice is cleverly manipulated and every reference and allusion is loaded with meaning.  This novel is challenging and confronts stereotypes.

And now for the big reveal...KarenMartinReads Top Read of 2017 goes to:

1.  Half  of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche
This one is at number one because it was a compelling read that taught me about a country and a period of colonial history of which I had previously been ignorant.  Literature has the power to open eyes and change viewpoints.  Adiche achieves this with excellent fiction, well-rounded characterisation and a superbly complex and well-executed plot. I now want to read all her other novels (family members please note...only a few weeks til my birthday!)

Onto my most Unusual Read of the year:
Kafka on the Shore by Murakami
Another challenging one!  Not because of political or social issues, but because it was a real stretch for me.  Its genre - magical realism, is not one I am particularly at home with, but the surreal events and characterisation kept me reading!

And my Don't Bother Read of the year:
Porterhouse Blue by Tom Sharpe
All The Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy (With apologies to Mr Clark who recommended this for our nerdy book club!)

Me with Maggie...last excuse
 to post this pic!
And so I begin my reading of 2018.  I am genuinely excited to be starting again!  My first book of the year is About Grace by Anthony Doerr.  His All The Light We Cannot See was my top read of 2016, so let's see how I feel about this one.

Happy New Year to you all. Thank you for reading my blog; I am genuinely humbled by the numbers of you that wander onto my pages. Please feel free to get in touch, to recommend and keep the conversation buzzing about books!