My Year in Books: 2015

Just thought I’d take a moment to summarise last year’s reading. I set myself an informal goal to add real diversity to my reading – mixing both fiction and non-fiction from a range of authors and settings. See if you think I achieved that goal . . .

Fiction

Of the 33 books I read, 13 were fiction with geographical settings as diverse as Afghanistan, Africa and America with plenty of locations in-between! In fact, only three of these novels were set in my home country – and one of those dealt with growing up in a family with immigrant parents and grandparents! The historical settings included the Biafran war, WW2, the Turkish invasion of Cyprus, the Taliban years in Afghanistan, 19th century Canada, the civil rights era in the US southern states and early 20th century Ireland. Most were stories of family life – some based on real-life and others more fictional – and, to single just one of them out, Elizabeth is Missing was a fascinating exploration of living with dementia and its progression.

Here’s the list of fiction titles: Half of a Yellow Sun, Perfect, Stone Diaries, Almost English, A History of Loneliness, Kabul Beauty School, All the Light we Cannot See, Little Coffee Shop of Kabul, The Sunrise, Elizabeth is Missing, Gone Girl, The Secret Life of Bees, Ghana must Go

Non-fiction

So, 20 of my books of 2015 were non-fiction. Of these, 11 were real ‘vicar’s books’ – books I read either to help me grow in my Christian faith and personal discipleship or to help me become a better vicar. The other 9 included 3 personal memoirs/autobiographies, 1 language, 4 were about life/culture/history of other countries, and 1 taught me how to doodle creatively and productively.

So this is the non-fiction list: Outcry, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Ishmael’s Oranges; Lingo; Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking, The Year of Living Danishly, 1989 The Berlin Wall, The Warmth of Other Suns; The Doodle Revolution; Leaping the Vicarage Wall, The Contemplative Pastor, Storytelling, Ignatian Lent, The Journey, Supervising a Curate, Forming a Missional Church, We Make the Road by Walking, Re-ignite, Soul-Keeping, The Meaning is in the Waiting

Thoughts on this list . . . 

As I’ve typed up this summary, I’m struck by several things:

  • Unsurprisingly, non-fiction wins out over fiction
  • Other countries, cultures and languages figure prominently
  • A third of my reading was faith-related
  • Just four of these books belong to my favourite narrative non-fiction genre about lives in other times and places
  • Almost all of my favourite reads of 2015 are on the non-fiction list
  • I only read 33 books and my to-be-read shelves continue to groan under the weight of all that remains unread – and the new gifts and purchases!

Book of the Year

imageI usually struggle to whittle the list down to just one – but I so loved Isabel Wilkerson’s Pulitzer-prizewinning The Warmth of Other Suns, that I’m making an exception for this year.

So, time to get on with reading through 2016 then . . .

A Perfect Book

imageThe perfect book review of this Perfect book by Rachel Joyce needs to say little more than: Read it now!

It’s been such an enjoyable read. At first sight, it seems a simple and straightforward story that weaves together past and present in the lives of two boys during one particularly eventful summer and its repercussions for their later lives.  But the book has a very skilfully woven plot and I wouldn’t dream of saying too much here so as not to spoil it for anyone who might come across this post before reading the book.

It’s funny, but I only bought the book because I needed to return a duplicate Christmas present and there were complications with the three-for-two offers.  I rather grudgingly agreed to have less money back and get another book from the deal.  And I grabbed Perfect because I had just recently finished reading and had really enjoyed the two Harold Fry stories by the same author.

Perfect works for me because the boys are about the same age as me. This means I identify with a lot of the detail setting the scene for their 1972 lives – it’s very realistic for this kind of English childhood in that era.  The characters are developed well, eminently believable, and quickly became people I cared about. I had to keep reading to discover what would happen to them next or to understand what had gone before.

Perfect is not an edge-of-the-seat gripping thriller of a book, but it’s definitely a real page turner as the author skilfully draws the reader into the story to keep on finding out what happens next. It’s generally a quiet book with a gentle pace, but don’t let that put you off, because this is a story with some big surprises too.  And I really can’t say any more than that right now, or you’ll be missing out on the Perfect reading experience.

Reading Africa: Nigeria

imageBeing a vicar in two parishes with people from all over the world, I’ve decided to be much more intentional about reading the world in the year ahead.  Since quite a number of our church family come from various countries in Africa, and I realise I’ve read very little from Africa, I loved discovering Kinna Reads’ Africa Reading challenge and have signed up. The challenge is simply to read 5 books from, or about, different African countries in the course of a year. Now that must be manageable, especially as I’ve just finished my first and February isn’t quite over yet.

imageI started in Nigeria (or should I say Biafra?) with a book by an author I discovered last year who immediately joined my favourite authors’ list. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun is her 2007 Orange Fiction prizewinning second novel set in the late 1960s at the time of the Nigerian-Biafran war.  It tells the story of the build-up to the war and of the conflict itself through the eyes of three main characters: a young Igbo woman from an elite background, her young houseboy, and a white British male university professor.  Each of them passes through various experiences that reflect the particular horror of those years, but their stories also feature love, family life and the day-to-day normality of life, albeit in a context of conflict.

The author has such a wonderfully readable style.  She captures details in such a way that a reader like me, who has never set foot in Nigeria, can picture the settings in which these events unfold.  And she builds detail into her characters – not only the main characters – so the reader develops real empathy and concern for all that is happening to them.

I came away from this book having enjoyed, but also been challenged by, a very good story.  The challenge came because, although it is a work of fiction, I’ve no doubt it draws on real experiences lived by those who lived through those years of Nigeria’s history.  And so I came away better informed too.  That gap in my historical knowledge – I knew the name Biafra but knew nothing of what it stood for.  And I hope I now better understand the different tribal groupings in Nigeria and the sensitivities that will still be present in that community today.

I think anyone with any kind of interest in reading about lives lived through real historical events would enjoy this book.  And I think many of us would benefit from a better understanding of the history of a great country like Nigeria.

As for my next African read, I’ve got a few possibilities lined up.  I could stay in West Africa and move across to Ghana with Taiye Selasi’s Ghana Must Go. Or perhaps I’ll head north to read Alifa Rifaat’s Distant View of a Minaret. There are also some South African books on the list and others too.  And I’m keen to visit Malawi, Cameroon and Uganda because we have parishioners from each of those countries in our church family here.

So where would you suggest I head next?

My year in books: 2014

Since I started blogging back in September, I’ve loved discovering a whole world of book blogs and reading challenges out there in the blogosphere.  It’s meant I’ve come across books I hadn’t heard of before – or might not have thought about reading – so my TBR list is now longer than it ever was (not that I knew I had a TBR list – or even what one was – before I entered the book blogging world!). I even began to wonder if my own blog should be just for books – but this vicar has way more thoughts than just those about books so it will go on being a place of random musings for the foreseeable future.

But perhaps the best outcome of starting to blog is that I’ve read far more books in the months since I started blogging than I’d been reading in the months before I did.  And having the blog has given me a space to keep a record of my reading – something that never quite worked before.

I’ve tried to put a list of my 2014 reading together – both fiction and nonfiction.  It’s not been easy with no written records before September, but I think I’ve remembered most of what I’ve read this year.  All the books listed with an asterisk* are books read on the Kindle I got as a Christmas present a year ago.  Given what I’ve said before about struggling with e-reading, I’m amazed just how many I did read on a screen rather than on paper.

  • The Casual Vacancy* J K Rowling
  • Bridget Jones – Mad about the Boy* Helen Fielding
  • One Night in Winter Simon Sebag Montefiore
  • The Sweetest Hallelujah* Elaine Hussey
  • The Lie Helen Dunmore
  • A Possible Life Sebastian Faulks
  • Chestnut Street* Maeve Binchy
  • The Last Runaway Tracy Chevalier
  • Purple Hibiscus* Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  • Americanah* Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  • The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry* Rachel Joyce
  • The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy* Rachel Joyce
  • Your Church in the News* Robbie Lane
  • Beyond Busyness: Time Wisdom for MinistryStephen Cherry
  • Pilgrim: A Course for the Christian Journey Stephen Cottrell (et al)
  • How to Write Great Blog Posts that Engage Readers* Steve Scott
  • Productivity Ninja* Graham Allcott
  • One Summer: America 1927 Bill Bryson
  • Red Love: The Story of an East German Family Maxim Leo
  • Born in the GDR: Living in the Shadow of the Wall Hester Vaizey
  • Italian Ways: On and Off the Rails from Milan to Palermo Tim Parks
  • Reading Lolita in Tehran Azar Nafisi
  • I am Malala Malala Yousafzai
  • Travellers of the Heart: Exploring New Pathways on our Spiritual Journey Michael Mitton
  • Making Disciples in Messy Church: Growing faith in an all-age community Paul Moore
  • The Challenge of Change: A Guide to Shaping Change and Changing the Shape of the Church Phil Potter
  • The Book of Boaz Dave Smith
  • Walking Backwards to Christmas Stephen Cottrell
  • Lingo: A Language Spotters Guide to Europe  Gaston Dorren

Well, those are the ones I can remember. There are a few more that I started but haven’t finished, so I’ve left them off the list. I love the final list and can see it’s very ‘me’. There’s a good mix of fiction and nonfiction and coverage of a fair few countries along the way as well as some ‘how-to’ type books and those that connect with my Christian life and ministry.

I’ve just skimmed the list to pick out some favourites, but I just can’t single any out as there were good things about most of them. Looking forward to getting down to some more reading in 2015.

Happy New Year!

What Great Divide?

Here goes with a ten-minute freewrite to answer the question:   If I’m reading for fun, do I usually choose fiction or non-fiction?  Well I can’t avoid what will sound like the worst kind of totally non-committal answer: Both/And – because that’s how my reading habits actually are and always have been.  It only takes a very quick glance at my bookshelves to see how a huge range of classics and modern fiction – novels and short stories – rubs shoulders with non-fiction titles covering theology, language learning, psychology, business and management, travel books, and hobby guides to a whole range of pursuits.

No divide here

As I noted in describing my Ten Favourite Books, I almost always have both fiction and non-fiction on the go at any one time – my current pairing is Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate (all 800+ pages of it as a bedtime read!) and Brian D McLaren’s We Make the Road by Walking (subtitled A year-long quest for spiritual formation, reorientation and activation).  

Doing the 10 books thing and looking at my current, recent and next-to-read books list, makes me realise that, even when I’m reading fiction, it tends to be quite true to life.  I’m not into fantasy or science fiction, and I’m not all that keen on crime or detective novels and really dislike anything wildly futuristic.  My kind of fiction is the sort of story that could be – or could have been – someone’s real life.  So most of the novels I read and enjoy the most are those based on an actual historical event – like my current novel, set at the battle of Stalingrad during World War II.  A recent novel I particularly loved, and read at a single sitting, was Tracy Chevalier’s The Last Runaway: emigrating to the USA, slavery and quilting – a story that someone might actually have lived in that era.

imageAnd then there’s the Bible – a daily read through some small portion of its vast and varied library of 66 books covering just about every literary genre there ever was. I have my favourites, but they shift over time.  I’m currently loving being back in the amazing adventure of the early Christian church as described in the New Testament book of Acts.  And I want to spend some time slowly re-reading some of the Old Testament prophets.  Perhaps now I’ve got the blog going, I could challenge myself to blogging my way through one of them.  That might stir up discussion that would go way beyond the fiction/non-fiction preference debate.  Watch this space!