2016: My year in books

This weekend 2016 drew to a close. It was a year of change and confrontation in the world at large and personally it’s a year that’s been heading towards great change for me as well with the takeover of the company I have worked for at the end of June and my subsequent (and not unexpected) redundancy at the end of November.

I’ve been determined to use this year to explore, expand horizons and experience some new things and I have also applied this philosophy to my reading. My commitment was to read one book a week (that’s 52 books) this year and in an effort to broaden my horizons, I signed up for the Pop Sugar Reading Challenge on Good Reads. It’s a list of 40 prompts – stuff like a novel that takes place in summer, a YA (young adult) award winner, a book recommended by someone you just met, a dystopian novel, a book more than 100 years old etc – designed to encourage exploration outside your normal habits. I discovered new favourites like Veronica Roth’s Divergent (a romance set in the future) and The Keeper of Lost Causes by Jussi Adler-Olsen (a book translated into English) as a direct result of using these prompts to search for books I might not have found otherwise.

With much more time to read than expected towards the end of the year I well and truly overshot my target, ending the year with 75 books under my belt. Of these nine (or 12% for the mathematically-inclined among you) received a ‘coveted’ Gidday 5-star rating.

January started promisingly with three – March Violets by Philip Kerr, A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute and Mr Mercedes by Stephen King. Uncovering the next three was done at a much steadier pace with 5-stars awarded to Ferney (James Long) in May, Divergent in August and Child 44 (Tom Rob Smith) in November. And then just as it began, the year ended with another 5-star trifecta in December – Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian, The Keeper of Lost Causes and The Wonder by Emma Donoghue.

At the other end of the scale, I only awarded one 1-star rating – Snowpiercer vol. 1 (my first, and most likely last, graphic novel) – and six 2-star ratings (which basically means that I finished them and they therefore avoid the ignominy of a single star) which totals just over 9% of my 2016 reading.

When you add those two percentages and consider that almost 80% of the books I read sat in the 3-4 star region, I’d say that rates as a pretty entertaining year.

I also learnt a few things from this year’s literary exploits:

  • I don’t think graphic novels are for me although given this was a survey of one, this is probably not the most well-researched opinion I’ve ever held.
  • I like Le Carre much better on screen than in print with my reading of The Night Manager getting a 2-star rating vs my absolutely loving the BBC adaptation.
  • The two Man Booker prize winners I read this year – 2016’s The Sellout and 2015’s A Brief History of Seven Killings – were not a patch on 2014’s winner, Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Far North which remains one of my all-time favourites.

(If you want to have a sneaky peek at all 75 reads from 2016 and what I thought, you’ll find it all on Good Reads here.)

And last but not least, stretching my reading habit has reaffirmed my love for it. The opportunity to experience the worlds of others whether real, fictional or somewhere in between is an absolute joy. It’s also an awesome privilege and I am incredibly grateful to my parents for the many bedtime stories, the constant encouragement to read out loud and for letting me take a book everywhere we went, the latter being a habit that remains with me to this day.

Anyway, on to 2017.

I’ve upped my annual target to 60 books.

I have signed up to the Pop Sugar Reading Challenge again, am already halfway through ‘a book about an interesting woman’ (The Cavalier Queen by Fiona Mountain) and have identified my next on the list as ‘a book with one of the four seasons in the title’ (The Winter Over by Matthew Iden).

I will also be continuing with my lovely V&A book group so need to read Rudyard Kipling’s Kim by the time we meet in February and am seeing author Michael Chabon interviewed later this month so am keen to get his Kavalier and Clay under my belt before that.

So I’m off to tackle all of these new literary adventures before time gets away from me.

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Sand sculpture from Sand Sculpting Australia‘s Lands of Imagination on the Frankston Foreshore from December 2016

But in the meantime I wish you a 2017 filled with many joys and wonderful adventures, whether they be literary or otherwise.

Five star wordsmith-ery

Last time I posted I was settling into a week of beach and books on the beautiful island of Mauritius.

Reading is my favourite thing to do so while others g0t immersed in the smorgasbord of all-inclusive resort activities or booked in for day trips involving dolphins and catamarans, I found myself a spot on the beach and spent the days – whether basking in the sun or relaxing in the shade – reading. And I read all sorts of things – old favourites, Kindle daily deal finds and even an autobiography that I’ve been meaning to read for quite a while. It was the ultimate indulgence.

I always rate and review my reads – reviews from others help me to choose – and while I love to share an absolutely cracking read, I will also share when my experience is not so great. I don’t go into the detail of the story like most reviewers – I like to discover the story and its characters for myself. Instead I share the experience of reading it and how I’m left feeling at the end.

A lot of my reads rate 3 or 4 stars – I love reading, can be quite eclectic in my choices and like to think that I lean towards being magnanimous in my reviewing – although perhaps I’m not the best judge of this.

There are few that dip into 2-star territory (where I’m left feeling pretty dissatisfied) and even fewer 1-stars where I feel like I’ll never get back the hours I spent wading through the pages or just don’t finish. The latter is rare – I don’t ever want to be tempted to revisit a rubbish read by someone saying ‘oh but it got better in the end’.

And there are the 5-star reads. These are the ones that, when I read the final page, make me go wow. They leave me excited, reflective, profoundly moved and they are the ones I will get evangelical about, saying to whoever will listen ‘you must read this’.

2015 started well with 5 stars awarded in January to C.J. Sansom’s sixth in the Shardlake series, Lamentation. Since then, the wows have come in threes – March/April saw a trilogy of 5-star ratings awarded to The Girl on a Train, The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Labyrinth and then it was August before I was successively thrilled by The Devil’s Star, Far from the Madding Crowd and The Taxidermist’s Daughter.

Books 2015

I returned from Mauritius relaxed and happy, having soaked up a goodly dose of sunshine whilst devouring a book a day, six of which I gave 4-star ratings . But I felt like something was missing and when I thought about it, I realised what it was – a cracking 5-star read.

It’s been three months since The Taxidermist’s Daughter and by my calculations, it’s time to up the ante with a 5-star read again. I have a Kindle full of choices but what I’m really interested to hear is what you’d recommend. What’s taken your literary fancy of late? What have you read that has had you gripped, delighted, missing your train/tube/bus stop or staying up way too late because you just have to read one more chapter?

I would love to finish the year on a literary high so let me have it peeps – whose wordsmith-ery made you go wow this year?

A contract of invention

In a few weeks time, this year’s Man Booker Prize winner will be announced.

The last two years have seen the prize awarded to antipodean writers with epic tales: New Zealander Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries in 2013 and Australia’s Richard Flanagan with The Narrow Road to the Deep North the following year. It is the latter who will pass the winner’s baton to Marlon James, Tom McCarthy, Anne Tyler, Hanya Yanagihara, Chiozi Obioma or Sunjeev Sahota on 13th October.

I have not read any of this year’s books so cannot offer a view as to who my ‘vote’ would go to, although I have been an on and off fan of Tyler since reading Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant as part of my high school English curriculum. And dipping into prior short lists for reading inspiration in recent years has given me the beautiful prose of Tan Twan Eng (The Garden of Evening Mists was short-listed in 2012 and I then discovered The Gift of Rain) and sent me back to 1982’s winner, Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s Ark, following my visit to Krakow some 30 years after.

But I will say this: the 2015 winner will have big shoes to fill.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North is one of the most extraordinary books I’ve read in a long while. It’s a story that cuts right to the heart of what it is to be human and left me profoundly moved. So I was thrilled to come across an opportunity to see Flanagan interviewed last week as part of The Guardian Book Club.

Flanagan talked thoughtfully and easily for about 90 minutes, answering a myriad of questions with his antipodean twang and laconic Aussie style. I was struck by his open-ness in answering, whether it was his views on books vs movies (thumbs up for books) or research vs invention (the creativity in ‘making it up’ is what he loves).

(Actually, now I think about it, he’d make a great dinner party guest.)

Despite his father’s experiences in a Japanese prisoner of war camp during World War II and his coming face-to-face with his father’s captors during a recent trip to Japan, Flanagan was at pains to say that this was not a researched book and certainly not based on his father’s particular experiences. He talked about daydreaming, imagining the horror of the death railway or catching the moment when the sun caresses a lover’s shoulder as he sat at his table and then setting out to describe what he was seeing in his mind rather than telling the reader what to see or think.

A novel is an invention of the human spirit….a contract between the writer and the soul of the reader who connects to give the story its meaning and depth.

Flanagan described the book as something he tried to escape writing, likening it to ‘a boulder on his chest’ that made it difficult for him to write anything else…since its completion, he mentioned the writing being ‘released’ and that he has a couple of projects in the pipeline.

It was difficult to write that last sentence without making it sound like some melodramatic realisation on Flanagan’s part. I’m not sure I succeeded but it didn’t come across that way at all – it was understated and sincere and I was left with a quiet feeling of admiration for this articulate Australian…and maybe just a little bit of national pride.

There is nothing left for me to say except that in The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Richard Flanagan has created a story that is poignant, unyielding and richly-drawn.

Read it – it will touch your soul.

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