Books, Reading and the 2015 Goodreads Challenge

I’ve never written much about my personal love of books and reading on this blog. It’s partly because, in many ways, it’s a private passion. In keeping with the general flaw in my personality that cares far too much what other people think of me, I’ve often found myself afraid to profess too much love for a given book or given author in case it goes against the popular grain, or is scorned by those whose opinions I value. I know it’s daft, because these things are personal. But still. I’m afraid to write or share book reviews, even of books I’ve adored, in case they accidentally reveal that I’ve missed an important subtext that the rest of the world grasped easily, and thus reveal myself to be a bit of a fool. Equally as crazy. But still.

I do love to read though. And I always have. The bookshelves lining my loft room groan under the weight of hundreds of books. Yet more sit in boxes, too loved to be given away, but not quite making the cut for permanent display. Initially I was sceptical of e-books, but now I’m so pleased to be able to carry a hundred paperbacks in my pocket, to never run out of reading material on the go and to not have to relegate further titles to the boxes in the loft. I still buy and read real books, but they are mostly either from the library or have some particular value in being paper copies – usually non-fiction titles. Books are everywhere in my house, and everywhere in my life.

Looking back I can chart particular periods of my life by the types of books I read. I went through a “coming of age” fiction phase, appropriately in my early twenties. I had another period where everything I read was some sort of social commentary. Yet another time in my life was defined by classic chick-lit. Easy reads that worked as pure escapism when I was under immense stress. And of course, last year was the year of infertility related reading, from practical facts through infertility fiction to tough personal memoirs.

It may sound dramatic, but at times books have absolutely saved my sanity. They’ve kept me from utter boredom during drawn out hospital stays. Passed long journeys by in the blink of an eye. They’ve been a simple comfort on lonely nights after the break up of my first long term relationship. Books have been there as a cover and a confidence boost when waiting alone to meet people, or simply marking time until a particular event. Books were also there as a stable part of my previous life when motherhood changed everything. Thomas spent a good portion of the time he was breast feeding in those early months with a book perched above him and those books kept me grounded during the madness. And of course, books have taught me so much from actual facts to ideas which have helped form the basis of my personal belief system and what sort of person I am or want to be.

So it’s about time that I shared some of this little love here, and nevermind what you think of me. It really shouldn’t matter if you think my reading choices are shallow, or you hate the books I like, or you got something completely different out of a story than I did. Because at the end of the day reading is a very personal thing. And after all, if we didn’t all love something different, there wouldn’t be half as many successful books out there as there are. And being a “reader” or a lover of books is not simply about analysing the classics or decouring only high-brow literary fiction. It’s much more simply enjoyment of the written word and the tales woven with it.

As a first step, I’ve decided to give Goodreads another go. I’ve been keeping personal records of the books I read for many years – a habit learned from my father. But in this day and age it makes sense to record this digitally in a place where I can also get further recommendations based on what I’ve already enjoyed – although at the moment I’m in danger of having an overwhelming long list of potential “next books”!

As a motivation – not so much to read, as I do that anyway, but more to keep up with the online records – I’ve also set myself a target in the 2015 Goodreads Challenge to read 65 books this year. This exceeds the loose “book-a-week” aim that I generally adhere to, but based on recent years which have also exceeded this, it should be readily achievable.

January has got off to a good start, with a few new authors discovered and some great reads. The month’s book choices have been somewhat coloured by what is available through the Kindle Unlimited subscription, which I decided to run for this month. In general I’m not hugely impressed by the Kindle Unlimited selection for the price, although this is probably a discussion for another time. (All I will say is that I know you should not judge a book by its cover, but these days self-designed covers for self published e-books stick out a mile – because cover design is actually a difficult skill. And whilst there is nothing wrong with self publishing, sadly almost anyone can do it, and sorting the wheat from the chaff is bloody hard work!) However I started the month with a desire to re-read the first two Hunger Games books and finally read Mockingjay. And since they are available through Unlimited, it made a month’s subscription worthwhile.

So here’s what I’ve been reading:

The Hunger Games, Catching Fire and Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

2767052 6148028 7260188  If you haven’t heard of the Hunger Games trilogy by now, then I’d be inclined to wonder if you have been living under a rock. I’d previously read the first two but wanted to read the final installment before watching the Mockingjay Part 1 film. To be honest, I’m not sure why I’ve not read it before. I know that opinions on both the films and the books are divided, but personally I find them pacy and well structured, even if the prose itself lacks a little something.

 

 

The Photographer’s Wife by Nick Alexander

23153467 This was a Kindle Unlimited find, and a new author to me, but one I have already earmarked to read more from.

Barbara – a child of the Blitz – has more secrets than she cares to admit.
She has protected her children from many of the harsh realities of life and told them little of the poverty of her childhood, nor of the darker side of her marriage to one of Britain’s most famous photographers.
With such an incomplete picture of the past, her youngest, Sophie, has struggled to understand who her parents really are, and in turn, Barbara sometimes worries, to build her own identity.
When Sophie decides to organise a vast retrospective exhibition of her adored father’s work, old photos are pulled from dusty boxes. But with them tumble stories from the past, stories and secrets that will challenge every aspect of how Sophie sees her parents.

It’s an epic tale, set in both the past and the present, that explores how previous experience and family dynamics can shape your life and identity. It is above all a human, character-led story and the author combines the different times and viewpoints with some skill and an easy, almost lyrical prose. I was completely drawn in by the main characters and whilst the plot twists weren’t exactly surprising to me as the reader, it was their effects on the characters that really made the story what it is. Impressive characterisation, attention to detail and a sensitive and realistic portrayal of complex emotions left me wanting more.

One Breath Away and These Things Hidden  by Heather Gudenkauf

131120239166559I picked up a set of three Heather Gudenkauf books in The Bookpeople sale, having never read any of her books before. I was intially drawn by One Breath Away because the plot sounded reminiscent of one of my favourite Jodi Picoult titles: Nineteen Minutes.

An ordinary school day in March, snowflakes falling, classroom freezing, kids squealing with delight, locker-doors slamming. Then the shooting started. No-one dared take one breath…

He’s holding a gun to your child’s head. One wrong answer and he says he’ll shoot. This morning you waved goodbye to your child. What would you have said if you’d known it might be the last time?

I can see where the Picoult comparisons come from – similarities in subject matter, the multiple viewpoint style ans small town American settings – but overall I feel Gudenkauf’s writing lacks the depth and complexity of many Picoult novels. That’s not necessarily a bad thing (Picoult’s plots can be irritatingly overworked and overtold) and I found this book both engaging and quite quick to read without a great deal concentration required. This was perhaps fuelled by the setting contained almost entirely within a single day. It’s fair to say that the conclusion became obvious from fairly early on, but there was satisfaction in seeing how the characters discovered what I had already deduced.

These Things Hidden is based around the story of a child left at a safe haven at a few weeks of age.

Imprisoned for a heinous crime when she was a just a teenager, Allison Glenn is now free. Desperate for a second chance, Allison discovers that the world has moved on without her…

Shunned by those who once loved her, Allison is determined to make contact with her sister. But Brynn is trapped in her own world of regret and torment. Their legacy of secrets is focused on one little boy.

And if the truth is revealed, the consequences will be unimaginable for the adoptive mother who loves him, the girl who tried to protect him and the two sisters who hold the key to all that is hidden…

Like One Breath Away it was a short and engaging read, but of the two books it felt more inconceivable and there was an element of unbelievability about the facts underpinning the entire plot. At it’s heart, however, it’s a book about relationships and what we will do for those that we love.

Glasshopper by Isabel Ashdown

7089884I discovered Isabel Ashdown this time last year, when I read Hurry Up and Wait which was  deeply satidfying read full of accurate 1980s nostalgia. Somehow Glasshopper appealed to me less. perhaps because the central character is male. Perhaps because the setting is slightly earlier. However I now wish that I’d read it sooner.

Portsmouth, 1984. Thirteen-year-old Jake’s world is unravelling as his father and older brother leave home, and his mother plunges into alcoholic freefall.

Despite his turbulent home life, Jake is an irrepressible teenager and his troubled mother is not the only thing on his mind: there’s the hi-fi he’s saving up for, his growing passion for Greek mythology (and his pretty classics teacher), and the anticipation of brief visits to see his dad. When his parents reconcile, life finally seems to be looking up. Their first family holiday, announced over scampi and chips in the Royal Oak, promises to be the icing on the cake — until long-unspoken family secrets begin to surface.

It’s an impressive and moving tale of a family in crisis told from two viewpoints on two timescales which eventually intertwine and is perhaps most striking because of the completely unpretentious, utter normality. It’s full of growing pains, and sibling and family relationships and their difficulties. The characters absolutely walk off the page and their lives are painted vividly without losing believability or becoming over sentimental or sterotyped. I’ll hold my hands up and admit that I did not see the ending coming, despite the early primer and as such it’s a book that stayed in mind long after I finished the final page.

Watch Over Me by Daniela Sacerdoti

12996846Another new author, through Kindle Unlimited.

Eilidh Lawson’s life has hit crisis point. Years of failed fertility treatments, a cheating husband and an oppressive family have pushed her to the limits. Desperate for relief, she seeks solace in the only place she’s ever felt at home – a small village in the Scottish Highlands. There, Eilidh slowly begins to mend her broken heart but soon learns she is not the only one in the village struggling to recover from a painful past. Jamie McAnena, Eilidh’s childhood friend, is trying to raise his daughter Maisie alone. After Maisie’s mother left to pursue a career in London and Jamie’s own mother, Elizabeth, passed away, he has resigned himself to being a family of two. But sometimes there is more to a story than meets the eye. Despite their reluctance, curious circumstances keep bringing Jamie and Eilidh together. For even when it seems all is lost, help can come from the most surprising places. But sometimes there is more to a story than meets the eye. Despite their reluctance, curious circumstances keep bringing Jamie and Eilidh together. For even when it seems all is lost, help can come from the most surprising places.

There is a bit of a theme in my January reading that much of it has been based around family relationships and the effect of past actions on the present! I’ll admit that the “failed fertility treatments” may have been a bit of a hook for me. I can’t honestly say that that this has been my favourite read. I felt the “supernatural” element was a little unecessary and actually the plot would have worked just as well without the need for a ghost character, who almost felt like a bit of an afterthought and a way to explain away any implausible moments. Stripped back, this is really a simple love story but it felt just a little too neat and, at times, cliched, to really engage me.

The Memory Child by Steena Holmes

18706032 Also a Kindle Unlimited find, this took a bit of getting in to.

When Brian finds out that his wife, Diane, is pregnant, he is elated. He’s been patiently waiting for twelve years to become a father. But Diane has always been nervous about having children because of her family’s dark past. The timing of the pregnancy also isn’t ideal—Diane has just been promoted, and Brian is being called away to open a new London office for his company.

Fast-forward one year: being a mother has brought Diane a sense of joy that she’d never imagined and she’s head over heels for her new baby, Grace. But things are far from perfect: Brian has still not returned from London, and Diane fears leaving the baby for even a moment. As unsettling changes in those around Diane began to emerge, it becomes clear that all is not as it seems.

A woman’s dark past collides head-on with her mysterious present in this surreal and gripping family drama.

Initially I found this quite a jarring read, but some of the difficulty is explained by the eventual plot twists. It has an interesting premise which I’m sure has been done many times before, but I’ve not read anything similar personally. As such it took me a good while to figure out what was going on, and it’s very much a mystery with multiple unanswered questions being the driving force. Sadly I feel that the basis of the plot, and the need to not overdisclose, prevented really good characterisation but ultimately the need for answers to all the questions kept me turning the pages. The ending, when it came, however, felt somewhat rushed, and Diane’s response to discovering her truth of her situation could actually have been a novel in itself.

The Lie of You by Jane Lythell

18690719I initially saw this as a Goodreads recommendation, and then discovered it was also available through Kindle Unlimited, so gave it a go.

One woman’s fear is a another woman’s weapon…

”When I look back on my relationship with Kathy I marvel at how naive she was, how little she knew.

But then, she always thought she had everything: the job; the baby; the friends; and him. She thought she was safe. She thought that nothing could touch her perfect world.

She should never have trusted me.”

A woman sets out to destroy a female colleague in this chilling psychological thriller.

It certainly took me a while to warm up to the writing style, which felt rather more stilted that I would prefer. You can no doubt see by now that I place quite a lot of importance on characterisation and that it’s the people that really make or break a lot of novels for me. In this case I found it hard to warm to, or identify with, any of the characters, although whether this was because of the characters themselves or the way they were written I’m still not entirely sure. Perhaps a combination of both. The contrast between the characters felt rather contrived and cliched, and the complete lack of mystery surrounding the characters lead to an absence of the sort of tense suspense I suspect the author might have intended. That said, I still wanted to find out if my assumptions were correct, and I didn’t identify all of the detail at the end of the book. Had I really cared about the characters, I suppose the ending may have changed the way that I thought. Overall let down by a lack of attention to detail and character development.

Hidden by Catherine McKenzie

 18819296My final Kindle Unlimited choice for the month
While walking home from work one evening, Jeff Manning is struck by a car and killed. Two women fall to pieces at the news: his wife, Claire, and his co-worker Tish. Reeling from her loss, Claire must comfort her grieving son as well as contend with funeral arrangements, well-meaning family members, and the arrival of Jeff’s estranged brother, who was her ex-boyfriend. Tish volunteers to attend the funeral on her company’s behalf, but only she knows the true risk of inserting herself into the wreckage of Jeff’s life.
This is another story told from multiple viewpoints, but with accomplished style. It’s a novel at its heart about family, love, responsibility and choices. The choices we make and the consequences are actions, whether active or passive, can have. My major criticism is that it perhaps didn’t portray grief in a very three dimensional way, although I appreciate that this would have taken away from the main plotline, it also left some areas of the book feeling a little superficial. Yet overall this was a captivating read that identified some hard truths about human nature.
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