Some people make year-end lists, but I prefer to pack a box of books as each year draws to a close. I have loved lists – writing them, reading them, studying and analysing them – since I was a child; but now I find it more interesting to approach things a little differently.
I assemble a virtual box of books to remember my reading year. And I 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.
Some of them will be books that I can say quite objectively were the best books I read, but others are books that spoke to me for particular reasons, and books that did a particular thing rather well.
I try to finish with a box that holds 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 years box is a little smaller than usual, because life knocked me sideways and it took time for me to find my feet as a reader again, and because I’ve done a good bit of rereading this year. Books that I re-read aren’t in this year’s box, because I pulled them out of the boxes of the years when I read them for the first time.
The books I re-read and that I loved most of all were:
‘The Eye of Love’ by Margery Sharp
‘Love’ by Elizabeth Von Arnim
‘Emma’ by Jane Austen
I must add that 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 – here are the books!
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The Quincunx by Charles Palliser
‘The atmosphere is wonderful, and this really is the perfect book for dark winter evenings. Imagine that Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens sat down together with all of the time in the world to create a masterpiece, drawing on their own greatest works and the great works of their contemporaries, each writing to their strengths and reining in the other’s weaknesses, and trying things they has never tried before, to wonderful effect. This feels a little like that.’
Winter: A Wildlife Trust Anthology for the Changing Seasons
‘The pattern that this anthology follows is wonderfully familiar to me now. It holds a wealth of short pieces. There is fact and fiction. There is old and new. There are nature writers and writers who just happen to write about nature. They all sit happily together, because they all saw the same natural world around them and captured different aspects of it when they say down to write.’
The Trespasser by Tana French
‘Every character who passed through this story was well drawn. The dialogue, the settings, the atmosphere – every element in this book worked, and that allowed the story to live and breathe. I loved the way that themes were repeated through the stories of the detective and the victim. Each of those stories held some improbabilities, but they were credible and they said much about the issue and the choices that young women can face in the world today.’
Fidelity by Susan Glaspell
‘The title of this book was very well chosen. It is underpinned by the question of who or what we owe fidelity. Our spouses? The standards of society? Our families? To our dearest love? Or our selves? There are no easy answers, but the asking of the question allowed Susan Glaspell to make a wonderful exploration of the possibilities and the problems that it presents.’
Together & Apart by Margaret Kennedy
‘Margaret Kennedy weaves a wonderful plot from these and other threads; drawing in enough to give a clear picture of the world around the different members of the Canning family as they spilled out of the family home. She spoke clearly about how quickly events can run out of control, about how decisions can have so many repercussions, and about how vulnerable children are, even – and maybe particularly -when they are very nearly grown up.’
The Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett
‘That plot is labyrinthine; and as I found my way through that labyrinth I saw so many different scenes, and I realised that there were so many different aspects to this story; there were twists and turns, shocks and revelations, tragedy and comedy, high drama and quiet reflection. Some things became clear, other things remained opaque, and often it was revealed that things were not as they seemed at all.’
Poum & Alexandre by Catherine de Saint Phaille
‘This is a strange and bewitching book: a memoir of Catherine’s Parisian childhood with her unconventional parents, Marie-Antoinette (Poum) and Alexandre. I could never doubt that I was reading the impressions and memories of a real eight-year old girl, and yet there were times when I might have been reading a fairy tale. A tale that was both flooded with light and overcast by dark clouds.’
The Farm in the Green Mountains by Alice Herdan-Zuckmayer
‘It is clear that Alice – I call her Alice because I feel that I know her very well after reading her book – did a great deal of reworking of her material. The book had a beginning and an ending, there is some progression, but most of the chapters are written around a particular theme rather than a particular period of time; and it is clear that she has thought back over her years in America, adding more memories and more consideration of what she has to say.’
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War & Peace by Leo Tolstoy
‘Tolstoy created a whole world, mixing fictional characters with real historical figures, and setting their lives against major events in their nation’s history. He did that so very well, showing the effects of great events that influence countless of lives; on the masses and on the particular families and characters whose stories he chose to tell. I came to know those families and those characters so well that I can’t draw a line between the historical and the fictional, and now that I look back at people and places and events, both big and small, I don’t doubt the reality of any of it.’
The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley
‘I was drawn into this story from the very beginning – I loved the way that the fictional Tremaynes were insinuated into the family history of the real Tremayne family that used to live at Heligan – but even if I hadn’t known that very real place, where the lost gardens are open to visitors, I still would have been captivated. I loved the way that Natasha Pulley told her story, and the way she held me at Merrick’s side as he made his extraordinary journey.’
Janet’s Repentance by George Eliot
‘When the plot does emerge it is is profoundly moving; revealing a story of abuse and unhappiness, of salvation and hope. I felt so much for Janet as she was in despair, as she was rescued by the compassion and friendship of her neighbour and the love of her mother, as she acknowledged that she had been wrong and publically gave her support to Mr. Tryan, as she struggled with the demon drink …. There are complex emotions here, there is a wonderful depth of feeling, and the story plays out wonderfully well.’
Hostages to Fortune by Elizabeth Cambridge
This was my last completed book of the year, I haven’t pulled my thoughts together year, but I can share a quotation:
‘She opened her eyes. Nurse was standing over her, the baby held upright against her shoulder, like the bambino on a Della Robbia Plaque. Catherine stared. So that was her baby. Baby? Babies were sleepy amorphous, unconvincing and ugly. This creature was not amorphous, it was not even ugly. It stared at life with bright unwinking eyes. Its underlip was thrust out tremulous indignant. ‘My word’ Catherine thought ‘that’s not a baby. It’s a person.’ ‘
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Now tell me, what would you put in your box for 2017?
And what do you plan to read in 2018?