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 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, the books that stay with me and the books that call me back; 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.
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!
* * * * * * *
The Call by Edith Ayrton Zangwill
I think that the best books are the ones that capture all or part of a life – or lives – with real insight and beautiful expression, and that the very best books do all of that and say something important to its first readers and to readers who come to it years and years later. This is one of the very best books; telling the story of a pioneering young woman scientist who becomes deeply involved in the campaign for votes for women.
A House in the Country by Ruth Adam
It was a plain hardback book without a dust jacket, sitting on a shelf waiting to catch somebody’s eye. Many people would have passed it by but I recognised the name of an author who has been published by both Virago and Persephone. It had a title that I was sure I had read about, and that suggested the book might well be my kind of book. It was.
Business as Usual by Jane Oliver and Ann Stafford
The story of this year in Hilary’s life is charming, and it is clear that its authors understood the workings of a big department store, and how it would strike a newcomer to that kind of world. Her voice is wonderful. She is bright, she is witty and self-deprecating, and she is wonderfully interested in the people she meets and the world around her.
Pawn in Frankincense by Dorothy Dunnett
The journey through this series of book is for the faint-hearted; but for those prepared to commit time, heart and intellect, they are richly, richly rewarding. The quest in the first book was to find justice and the right place in the world; while the quest in this book is to find an infant, hidden away far from the place he should know as home, and in the power of a ruthless, devious and very clever enemy.
* * * * * * *
A Welsh Witch by Allen Raine
Anne Adaliza Beynon Puddicombe – who wrote under the name Allen Raine – was a popular novelist in her day, selling more than two million books and seeing some of them turned into very early silent films. I can understand that success, because this book was beautifully written and the story it told was captivating.That story tells of the lives of four young people who have grown up in a sea-side village of Treswnd on the Cardiganshire coast.
The Flower of May by Kate O’Brien
I can think of few coming of age stories more profound than this one. It moves from immature feelings about love and life, though loss and grief, to an understanding that acceptance of responsibility without sacrificing ambition would bring both security and spiritual grace.
The Happy Tree by Rosalind Murray
The writing in this book is so honest and so insightful that Helen’s feelings and experiences were palpable, and though there were times when I felt so sad for her that it was difficult to read I couldn’t look away. Her story speaks profoundly for the generation of women who lived through the Great War, and it does more besides.
China Court by Rumer Godden
The narrative moves back in time to tell stories of previous generations who lived there, not in the way of most novels that have stories set in different points in time, but in a way that feels completely natural and right. Sometimes a thought, a sound, a sight can spark a memory can stir a memory; sometimes of just a moment of time and sometimes of a whole story of people, places and incidents long past.
* * * * * * *
Mad Puppetstown by Molly Keane
I loved the arc of the story, and I loved the different arcs of the lives of the different characters. The country house and the people who lived and worked there came wonderfully to life; and their stories spoke profoundly, about family, about home, and about Irish history. I’d love to know what happened next; but I’m happy to be left to wonder, and to think about those halcyon childhood days at Puppetstown.
On Chapel Sands by Laura Cumming
This account of the uncovering of the past that was hidden to the author’s mother for much of her life has been much lauded, and I can only add to the chorus of praise. I loved the writing, the delicate unraveling of the mystery, the importance given to images, and the illumination of love between mothers and daughters.
Miss Carter and the Ifrit by Susan Alice Kerby
Susan Alice Kerby had the knack of using the fantastical to enhance and enrich a story set in the real world, rather than writing a fantasy, in the same was that Edith Olivier did in ‘The Love Child’ and Sylvia Townsend Warner did in ‘Lolly Willows’. This story might not be as deep as those, but it has other attributes that make it a joy to read.
Rhododendron Pie by Margery Sharp
It was lovely to spot themes and ideas that would echo through Margery Sharp’s novels. Many of those novels are more accomplished than this one, but ‘Rhododendron Pie’ is a particularly accomplished first novel. There could have been a little more subtlety, a little more sophistication in the way that Ann determined her future ; but this book is beautifully constructed, the quality of the writing and the use of language is sublime, and that carries the day.
* * * * * * *
I am wishing for reissues of ‘A House in the Country’, ‘The Flower of May’ and ‘Rhododendron Pie’; and I am eagerly awaiting the reissue of ‘Business as Usual’ by Handheld Press next March, as I really didn’t want to return my library copy.
Now tell me, what would you put in your box for 2019? What do you plan to read in 2020?
And please let me wish you the happiest of New Years!