Some people make year-end lists, but I prefer to pack a box of books as each year draws to a close.
I have always loved lists – writing them, reading them, studying and analysing them – since I was a child. And yet I find it difficult to sum up a year of reading in a list or two. And so I approach things a little differently.
I assemble a virtual box of books that would speak for my year in books. And I would stick a virtual post-it note to each book, with my thoughts when I read it, to remind me why that book was in my box.
I try to pick my favourites; and I also try to pick a cross-section of what I’ve read, so that when I look at a box I know where I was in my life as a reader that year. This hasn’t been my best reading year, but I’ve come to realise that my tastes have changed a little and I think I have a clearer idea now of what I want to read in the future.
This year’s box holds twenty books. I think that’s just about viable for a single box, though I have to say I wouldn’t want to have to carry it any great distance …
Books that I re-read aren’t there, because of course I know I will find them in the boxes of the years when I read them for the first time. And I only allow an author one book a year, because I have to draw a line somewhere.
Before I show you what is in my box, there are people I really must thank – authors past and present, publishers, sellers of books both new and used, fellow readers – who have all done their bit to make the contents of my box so very lovely.
And now all I have left to say is – Here are the books!
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The Curiosity Cabinet by Catherine Czerkawska..
“This was the beginning of a very real love story, complicated because each had their own history and complications in different parts of the country.
That story was told beautifully, with sensitivity and understanding. These people and their lives were real; they were fallible and they were fragile.
I was so very taken with that story that I was disappointed when I realised that it was going to be told with another story, set on Garve many years earlier. But I was soon every bit as interested in that story.”
The Prime Minister by Anthony Trollope
‘Plantagenet Palliser, the Duke of Omnium, was Prime Minister! He headed a coalition government, and he had risen not so much as the result of his own charisma and ambition, more because there was no other candidate acceptable to all of the parties and willing to do the job. Now to rise to such a position is a great thing, but I feared for the new Prime Minister. He was too honest, too sensitive, and too unwilling to compromise his principles. Wonderful qualities in so many ways, but qualities you would want in a right-hand man, that would make you want to pick him for your team or hold him up as a role model; but not qualities that would make him a great leader of men.’
Weathering by Lucy Wood
“The world that Lucy Wood creates lives and breathes; and it’s a world where nature is very, very close. I could feel the rain; I could hear the river. The river and all of the life in and around it has much of a place as the people who move through the story.
The story ebbs and flows, it moves backwards and forwards in time, and it works beautifully. One every page there’s an image, an idea, or a memory, and this is a book to read slowly, so that you can pause and appreciate every one. And so that you can appreciate how profoundly this novel speaks of mothers and daughter, how our relationships and the roles that we play evolve, how our understanding of each other and the world around us change overtime.”
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
I loved this book – the story, the structure and the writing – and I meant to write about it, but I never did. I plan to read it again, and to write about it them. For now though, here are its opening words:
“The twelve men congregated in the smoking room of the Crown Hotel gave the impression of a party accidentally met. From the variety of their comportment and dress – frock coats, tailcoats, Norfolk jackets with buttons of horn, yellow moleskin, cambric, and twill – they might have been twelve strangers on a railway car, each bound for a separate quarter of a city that possessed fog and tides enough to divide them; indeed, the studied isolation of each man as he pored over his paper, or leaned forward to tap his ashes into the grate, or placed the splay of his hand upon the baize to take his shot at billiards, conspired to form the very type of bodily silence that occurs, late in the evening, on a public railway – deadened here not by the slur and clunk of the coaches, but by the fat clatter of the rain.
Such was the perception of Mr. Walter Moody, from where he stood in the doorway with his hand upon the frame. He was innocent of having disturbed any kind of private conference, for the speakers had ceased when they heard his tread in the passage; by the time he opened the door, each of the twelve men had resumed his occupation (rather haphazardly, on the part of the billiard players, for they had forgotten their places) with such a careful show of absorption that no one even glanced up when he stepped into the room.”
Girl in the Dark by Anna Lyndsey
“This might be the most astonishing, the most beautifully written memoir that I have ever read.
Anna Lyndsey was a civil servant when light began to affect her. What began as irritation when she worked in front of a computer screen grew into a condition where she had to live in darkness, in a room completely and utterly blacked out, wrapped in dense, heavy clothing, because even the faintest hint of light – natural or artificial – would cause her agonising pain.
As her sensitivity increased she tried different things – an indoor job as a piano teacher, any number of therapies – but the progress of her condition was inexorable.”
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The Flowering Thorn by Margery Sharp
“Margery Sharp’s 1933 novel – her fourth – is light, bright and witty, and it’s thoughtful, emotional and profound too. Not many authors can do all those things, and I don’t think anyone but Margery Sharp could wrap them up in a book as engaging and readable as ‘The Flowering Thorn.’
‘The Flowering Thorn’ tells the story of Lesley Frewn. She was a Londoner, and you could probably call her a bright young thing. She had private means – not enough to make her fabulously wealthy, but more than enough to give her a very nice lifestyle. She had a lovely flat, her wardrobe was full of the latest fashions; she loved, art, music and theatre and partying with her circle of friends and suitors. But one day something went wrong.”
Broken Harbour by Tana French
Though Broken Harbour is a classic police procedural, the quality of Tania French’s writing and her depth of understanding of her characters make it much more than that. I might call it a state of the nation novel. I might call it a wide-ranging human drama. I might call it a psychological study.
But maybe I should just call it a very, very good book.
The Dead Duke, His Secret Wife, and the Missing Corpse by Piu Marie Eatwell
‘In 1898 a widow named Anna Maria Druce applied for the exhumation of the grave of her late father-in-law, Thomas Charles Druce. Her claim was that he had faked his death 1864 death, because he had been the eccentric 5th Duke of Portland, who had chosen to live a different life under a different name.
Under that name the Duke had worked as a furniture dealer, married, and raised a family. Eventually he decided to end his double life and return to the ducal seat, Welbeck Abbey in Worksop, Nottinghamshire until his death some fifteen years later.’
Marianne Dreams by Catherine Storr
“Marianne is confined to bed with an illness that will keep her their for several months. Bored, she starts to draw to pass the time, using an old pencil she found in her grandmother’s workbox. She draws a house, with a garden, set in rough moorland.
When she falls asleep she dreams that she is standing outside the house she drew. She goes to the door but she finds that she can’t get in, because she didn’t draw a door knob. She adds that the next day, and after the next night’s dream she adds a staircase, so that she can go upstairs to meet the boy she drew looking out of a window.”
The Far Cry by Emma Smith
‘The early pages of this novel were an intriguing character study, so well done that even seemingly unsympathetic characters became interesting, but in India there would much more. Through Teresa’s eyes I saw the wonders of India, and I was as smitten as she was and as Emma Smith had been. She caught so many impressions so very, very well.
“Teresa’s head was full of sound and colour. Her head was a receptacle for tumbled rags of impression, rags torn from exotic garments that could never be pieced entirely together again; but the rags were better.”
The sea voyage, the journey though India, the feelings of strangers in a strange land are caught perfectly; every detail, every description feels so right.’
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Song of the Sea Maid by Rebecca Mascull
‘This is a beautifully written story, it speaks profoundly, and I know that I am going to go on thinking about it for a very long time.
It begins in the middle of the eighteenth century, with a girl child who lives on the streets. She and her brother had only their wits to live on, stealing what ever they could to survive from one day to the next. I was captivated by this child, by her life and her spirit, by her utter reality, before I even knew her name. And I knew that I had to follow her story before I understood why.’
Jam Today by Oriel Malet
‘Oriel Malet was a success in the literary world at a very early age. She was just twenty when her first novel, ‘Trust in the Springtime’, was published and she was only three years older when her second book, ‘My Bird Sings’, won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize. Her prize money bought her a motorcycle, and a trip to Paris.
‘Jam Today’ tells the story of the six months that the author spent in that city, with her good friend Flavia. The pair had no need to work or to study – though they take a few art classes and do a good bit of reading, for their own amusement and to impress their families – they were there to enjoy life, to explore the city, and to meet the people.
It’s a lovely book; light as air; made buoyant by youth, love, and charm.’
The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley
‘This story is beautifully and intricately crafted, and it’s clear that attention has been paid to every little detail of character, setting and plot. It rewards slow careful reading, because all of those details are important, they work together, and they draw you right into this finely wrought world.
The plot so cleverly constructed. Sometimes I could see where it was going, sometimes I couldn’t, but in the end it all made wonderful sense.
This is a book that asks questions about life; about how predictable, how predetermined, how comprehensible it might or might not be. You might chose to consider those questions, or you might want to simply enjoy the journey through this lovely book.’
The Usurper: An Episode of Japanese History by Judith Gaultier
‘I saw echoes of other stories in this one; some older stories and myths and some literature from closer to the authors own era. And though the setting is seventeenth century Japan there is much in her story that is timeless and universal. This is a very human story; a little predictable in places but well thought out and constructed.
I have to say though that the story was secondary to the world and the culture that the author wanted to illuminate. My own background in her subject is minimal, but I felt that she used her knowledge well, and that it must have been quite wonderful for her contemporaries, who didn’t have the possibilities for travelling and acquiring knowledge that we are blessed with now, to learn of history and culture on the other side if the world like this.’
Doctor Serocold: A Page from his Daybook by Helen Ashton
‘I found that this is one of those books that captures the story of a single day in the life of its protagonist, and that in doing that illuminates his whole life and the world around him. It’s one of those books for people like me who marvel at the fact that every person they see, every person they pass in the street, has a whole life story; and wonder what some of those stories might be.
Doctor Serocold is an elderly doctor in a small country town. His day begins early, when he is called to the deathbed of his partner, the man who had been his mentor and who has become a dear friend; and it ends late as he watches over the birth of a child, and the start of a new life. The events of the day, and his awareness of his own mortality as he waits for the results of his own medical tests, draw out a rich seam of memories and emotions’
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The Fountain Overflows by Rebecca West
”The Fountain Overflows’ was Rebecca West’s first book in twenty years; and it was to have been the first volume of a trilogy that would tell the story of her century. She didn’t live quite long enough to complete that story, but after reading this book I am eager to read the next book and to read the final, unfinished work.
This is a story that draws on the authors own life, without being entirely autobiographical; and it tells of growing up in a creative, musical family, from the perspective of one of the children of that family; a girl named Rose.’
Knock, Murderer, Knock! by Harriet Rutland
It’s lovely to be living in a golden age for reissued golden age crime fiction, but sometimes it’s tricky to decide which books to choose from so many lovely possibilities.
I found many reasons to pick up ‘Knock, Murderer, Knock!’ by Harriet Rutland, and it proved to be an excellent choice. It was a very well told story, and so many things were done so very well that I would have quite happily read on – and looked for the author’s other books – even if there hadn’t been a mystery to be solved.
The writing is witty and literate; the characters and the settings are acutely observed; the plot is very well managed; and the author balances an understanding of convention with a distinctive style of her own to make this country house murder mystery – set in a run-down spa resort – one of a kind.
The Golden Age of Crime Fiction by Martin Edwards
The discussion of specific titles told me that the author had a wonderful depth of knowledge of subject; and he made me want to read any number of books again in the light of what I had learned as well as reading many others for the first time. I was fascinated as I learned how the authors used their books to refer to each other, and so many interesting details that I really don’t know where to start.
The narrative moved slowly and steadily through time, but I was so caught up with everything in this book, with the interplay of true crime, social history, lives lived and crime fictions, and with the wealth of wonderful detail, that I hardly noticed. That speaks volumes for the author’s depth of knowledge, for his love of his subject, and for the craftsmanship he deployed in the building of this extraordinary book.
The Book of Human Skin by Michelle Lovric
‘A wonderfully wide-ranging plot, rich with details, taking in European and Latin American history, art and culture, religion and convent life, and a wonderful cast of supporting characters, each with their own story, twists and turns so cleverly until every one of those five narrators has told their story.
That story was theatrical; it was utterly believable – on its own terms – but it was just a little bit larger than life. The shifts between characters who stood for the light and characters who stood for the dark were very effective, and it was only when the narrative stayed with one side or the other for too long that it lost its hold, just a little.’
Pointed Roofs by Dorothy Richardson
I have to think about this a little more before I start to write, but I can say now that I am so taken with the new way of writing that Dorothy Richardson found and I am eager to continue my journey with Miriam trough the thirteen volumes of ‘Pilgrimage’.
This is how her story begins:
“Miriam left the gaslit hall and went slowly upstairs. The March twilight lay upon the landings, but the staircase was almost dark. The top landing was quite dark and silent. There was no one about. It would be quiet in her room. She could sit by the fire and be quiet and think things over until Eve and Harriett came back with the parcels. She would have time to think about the journey and decide what she was going to say to the Fraulein.
Her new Saratoga trunk stood solid and gleaming in the firelight. To-morrow it would be taken away and she would be gone. The room would be altogether Harriett’s. It would never have its old look again. She evaded the thought and moved clumsily to the nearest window. The outline of the round bed and the shapes of the may-trees on either side of the bend of the drive were just visible. There was no escape for her thoughts in this direction. The sense of all she was leaving stirred uncontrollably as she stood looking down into the well-known garden.”
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Now tell me, what would you put in your box for 2015?
And what do you plan to read in 2016?