Kate's Greats - 2022 so far...
With my 'to be read' stack threatening to topple over and suffocate me in the night, sometimes it feels like my reading rate could do with a turbo charge. For the most part I try to read three or four books a month but sometimes life gets in the way and there are so many brilliant titles out there and more being released on a weekly basis!
So I wanted to take a moment to reflect on what I have got around to reading and my favourite reads of 2022 so far. Not always the newest release or trendiest choice but these are the ones that have really stuck with me....
Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr
I'm going to pre-empt this one with a statement about the subject choice. If someone explained this book to me in detail beforehand, I'm not sure I would have ever picked it up. There are several characters, and the time and locations range from fifteenth century Constantinople, a small town in present-day Idaho, and on an interstellar ship decades from now. The common thread that links all the characters is the ancient mythical story of Aethon, an ill-fated man who dreams of becoming a bird and flying to Utopia... I know, I get it it, that wouldn't have necessarily appealed to me either.
I blindly selected this book, partly because there was so much buzz about its release from the publishing world but mainly because I LOVED Doerr's Pulitzer Prize winning book All the Light We Cannot See, released in 2014. It was a book club choice a few years back, about a young, deaf girl in Nazi occupied Paris. It is so moving and beautifully written, with complex characters and a story that grips you throughout.
So back to Cloud Cuckoo Land, it took me a little while (thirty or so pages) to get a grasp the characters, as they switch around from chapter to chapter, but it wasn't long before I was fully invested in the story.
Doerr weaves an beautiful tapestry through time with incredible attention detail when describing each era. I fell in love with all the characters and spent most of the book switching who was my favourite. It is an unusual subject choice but I found myself totally suspending belief and losing myself in each of the characters worlds. Not often does a book move me to exclamations, audible gasps and tears but this one did. Not only a favourite of this year but definitely one of my top five books of all time.
Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus
I literally picked this book up on a Friday afternoon and had it finished by Sunday! On the surface, Lessons in Chemistry is an easy weekend/beach read, but there is a lot more depth to discover when you dive into the story.
Brilliant scientist Elizabeth Zott, deals with rampant sexism, condescension and abuse in the heavily male dominated field of chemistry in 1960's America. Elizabeth is not the average woman and has to overcome male counterparts do everything in their power to grind her down and stop her from studying and working in the career that she loves. The only man that does believe in her (despite initially mistaking her for a secretary) is the Nobel Prize winning scientist, Calvin Evans. A match of brilliant minds - and of course 'chemistry' - spawns a love affair that is the disbelief and envy of their colleagues. Their relationship has its challenges and struggles but, importantly, it's always played on an even and equal playing field.
Events out of her control, cause Elizabeth's life to take some strange and unplanned twists and turns, and she soon finds herself the host and star of a nationally watched and loved TV cooking show...
Elizabeth's tenacity, self belief and pure grit, sees her through the toughest life challenges and you can't help but root for her from the bottom of your heart. There are so many well thought-out characters in this book - even the ones you love to hate! And the icing on the cake is the intelligent, articulate, long-suffering, loyal and lovable dog called Six Thirty!
Bonnie Garmus's book is not only a Lesson in Chemistry, but also one in feminism, courage, love, friendship and hope.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
We chose this classic for book club earlier in the year and I was surprised to find I'd never read it before. I was sure it was on the GCSE curriculum many moons ago but it was a delight to discover this story for the first time and it's definitely one I will revisit again and again.
To Kill a Mockingbird is essentially a coming-of-age story, following the adventures of young Scout Finch as she negotiates life in 1930's Alabama. This book tackles many controversial issues from incest, racism and rape, to mental illness and addiction. But viewed through the eyes of the ever curious Scout, there is a certain innocence and naivety that carries through the story.
My favourite character is Scout's mentor and hero, her father, Atticus Finch. Oh my goodness, we all need an Atticus in our life! Humble, impeccably moral, brave and somehow, always says the right and wise thing with never ending patience and honesty.
Intertwined with the cast of relatable, endearing characters is a story of mystery, curiosity, compassion and themes that are as relevant today as they were when the book was first published in the 1960's. So deserving of its American classic status - I really loved it.
The Comfort Book by Matt Haig
I've been a fan of Matt Haig since I devoured How To Stop Time a few years ago. I love his ability to create a gripping and unique story, with beautiful characters - always with an underlying theme of mental health.
A long-term struggle with his own mental health have dictated his other books, Reasons to Stay Alive and Notes from a Nervous Planet. The Comfort Book consolidates all Haig's tips and tricks to calm and comfort in times of struggle and darkness.
Each lesson is bite sized and deliciously consoling. This is one you'll want on your bedside table to dip in to whenever you feel the need for a literal warm hug.
The Story Teller by Dave Grohl
Ok, full disclosure, I was the queen of grunge music in the nineties and LOVED Nirvana with that kind of passion that only teens with a lot of time on their hands and some big feelings to process can relate to. Judging from pictures of my teenaged years I wore the same stained, ripped jean dungarees for about 3 years straight! Later in life, I discovered the Foo Fighters and quickly lapped up all their albums. Grohl's music has been the accompanying soundtrack throughout my life so it was with keen interest and anticipation that I opened it up as soon as I could get my hands on it.
Dave Grohl is often referred to as the nicest bloke in rock and roll, and after reading this, it's hard to believe that is not true. The story is told chronologically, with the odd jumping forwards or backward in time to dwell on an anecdote. Of course the obligatory sex, drugs and rock and roll high jinks are ever present, but you come away from this book feeling like Grohl's idea of contentment is a couple of beers, some good friends and of course, his lovely Mum!
A borderline obsession with his bands is not a prerequisite for appreciating The Storyteller. Any reader will love diving into Grohl's incredible world, full of humble beginnings, self-deprecating humour and mind-blowing interactions with the planets most influential and iconic people.
The Salt Path by Raynor Winn
I love picking up a memoir that tells the story of a 'non-celebrity' - an ordinary person doing something extraordinary. The Salt Path definitely ticks this box.
Raynor Winn and her husband Moth are dealt pretty much the most devastating hand that life could deal them. After losing their home and receiving life-changing medical news, it would be understandable if they just simply gave up. But Raynor and Moth decide to turn their situation into an opportunity and walk 630 miles of the sea-swept coastal path from Somerset to Dorset.
This is not your average luxury walking and 'glamping' holiday, they travel with extremely limited resources, and with just the essentials for survival strapped to their backs. Walking weathered, steep terrain, foraging for food and sleeping in the wild in everything from extreme heat to raging storms, the narration is sometimes so unflinching and raw, it's uncomfortable to read. However, like most harrowing journeys, this one changes them forever in unexpected and life-affirming ways.
I really enjoyed Winn's description of the landscape and their encounters along the way - you really felt like you had achieved this journey alongside them. It's a great testament to the human spirit and the healing power of, when all else fails, just putting one foot in front of the other.
The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams
Another one of our Book Club's choices and this was unanimously loved by our group. This is the story of Esmé Nicholl - motherless and irrepressibly curious, she spends her childhood in the 'Scriptorium', a shed at the end of her garden, where a group of lexicographers collate words for the first Oxford English Dictionary.
As she hides beneath their table (recognising the wordsmiths at work above only by their shoes!) she overhears the all-male team deliberately omitting some words relating to women's experiences from the Dictionary as they feel they are not as important and therefore rendering them obsolete. Shocked that words could be so carelessly discarded and forgotten, Esmé begins her life-long obsession with collecting 'lost words' for her secret dictionary.
With the Great War looming and at the height of the suffragette movement, Esmé discovers the way language can 'elevate or repress' and leaves the comfort and safety of her university to meet the people whose words will fill the pages of her dictionary. This cast of characters are the heart of this novel and are beautifully crafted by author Pip Williams. Great fun was had at our book club meeting imagining the actors that would play some of these in a movie, from Esmé's long-suffering, cautious nanny and best friend, Lizzie to the eye-wateringly outrageous trinket seller at the market, Mabel O'Shaughnessy.
Based on true events, you can tell that Williams did her research into this era and the team behind the first Oxford Dictionary. The importance of language, communication and the ever-evolving world of words are the backbone of The Dictionary of Lost Words', but the real joy are the beautiful love stories and friendships threaded through. It's a heartwarming read.
Still Life by Sarah Winman
This book was my introduction to Sarah Winman (it is shallow of me to admit I was very taken by the cover, which is stunning by the way!) but I loved it so much, I have devoured several of Winman's books since then.
Although there is so much to love about this book, the real heroes are Winman's characters. She has a way of portraying the complex, uncomfortable, often messy aspects of authentic human relationships, but also the joy and beauty from everything to an unexpected meeting to a life-long love affair that almost happens... but not quite.
The story follows the lives of Ulysses, a young British soldier and Evelyn, a middle-aged art historian who meet briefly and by chance during the second World War. And although their unusual friendship is the central theme of the book, for majority of the story, they lead their lives separate from one another. So many excruciatingly close near-misses (there is a running after a train incident that breaks your heart) mean they don't meet up until much later in the book, and by that time the reader is fully invested in both of their lives.
Set in both England and Italy, Winman has a way of putting you right in the middle of the scene through her characters so you really feel you are there. I was properly bereft when I finished this book! I really loved Ulysses, Evelyn, Claude the talking parrot and the fantastic cast of this book, and miss being involved with their stories. Oh, and after reading this I'm thinking of moving to Tuscany...
Born a Crime by Trevor Noah
Born a Crime has been on my TBR list for years, winking at me seductively from my bedside table. This memoir is so clever, witty and moving, it's hard to not fall instantly in love with Trevor Noah.
His childhood in South Africa, in the grips of apartheid, is harrowing to say the least and some of the events he and his family endure are unbelievable. With a black mother and a white father, Noah is caught between these two, very separate worlds, not feeling a sense of belonging to either. During that time, relationships between blacks and whites were forbidden by law, making Noah's exsistance a literal crime, and he spent much of his early childhood locked away from sight for fear of being persecuted. However, Noah finds a world within his own imagination, and although fraught with some pretty disturbing experiences, the tone of this book is always hopeful and full of joy.
From his polyamorous deaf dog to cringe-worthy teenaged attempts at love, Noah's self-deprecating humour is the common thread running through all his anecdotes. It's an insightful look into what life was like in South African during and following apartheid and how the events of that time shaped the man he became. And ultimately, it's a love letter to his mother and the women who raised him. It may be the most perfectly crafted memoir I have read.
Malibu Rising by Taylor Jenkins Reid
There was a lot of buzz about Malibu Rising when I first considered it for the book shelves at NOOK. Taylor Jenkins Reid has achieved international acclaim with her previous books The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo and Daisy Jones and the Six, so her fans were avidly awaiting the release of this one in late 2021.
Malibu Rising does not disappoint. Cleverly told in hour by hour real time of four famous siblings in the 1980's, leading up to an epic end-of-summer party. In between chapters, the story switches back to their parents story, interweaving the years from heady romance to marriage breakdown.
It's a great family saga, and is unflinching in its portrayal of how family relationships are fraught with complications, flaws and crippling duty and responsibility. Malibu Rising is a sexy, fast-paced, action-packed drama but with more substance and backbone than your average beach read. You'll devour it quickly but the story and characters will stay with you long after closing the book.
So until I figure out a way to download a book to my brain in a couple of seconds, 'Matrix-style', I will just keep plodding through my TBR list and anticipate all the fabulous books yet to be read. So many books, so little time...