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; but 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.
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 – here are the books!
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“She’s a girl who never does anything that’s exactly wrong; but she’s also a girl who never really does anything that is usual or expected. She simply follows her heart; oblivious to the strictures that hold most people back.One day she took herself out to tea at the Ritz; another day she stayed in bed, eating oranges, because she read in a magazine that it would give her vitality.”
Landfalls by Naomi J Williams
“I knew nothing at all about the history, I resisted looking it up, and I’m very glad that I did; I’m sure that I would have loved the book even if I had foreknowledge, but coming to this narrative as I did made it an enthralling voyage of discovery.”
“The plot is beautifully constructed and controlled. I was particularly taken with the way that the author gradually opened out different stories, with the way she set her story very firmly in its period, and that her story was always a very real human story set in a very real world. It would have been so easy to add a drop of melodrama or a dash of the gothic, but she didn’t and her story is so much better, and so much more distinctive for it.”
“I was swept away by their story; it was so very richly told and so very engaging. And Crosbie Garstin captured my part of Cornwall – the people, the places, the speech patterns, the way of life, everything – absolutely brilliantly. I couldn’t doubt for a moment that he loved his world, his story and the telling of it.”
“Oh, what a book this is! It has a wonderfully diverse cast of characters, it is full of drama and intrigue, it has plenty to say, and every single thing in it is so cleverly and vividly drawn that I found myself living and breathing the story.”
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Honeycomb by Dorothy Richardson
“I have loved walking through life with Miriam Henderson, sharing in her perceptions and emotions, and appreciating that maturity and experience were helping her to form ideas and steadily grow as a woman in her world. And I have loved seeing Dorothy Richardson grow as a writer, honing her craft, and making each of the first three novels of this saga distinctive and yet still part of the same whole.”
“The story begins as a young man named Evan Jones arrives in England for the first time. He had been born in China, the son of Welsh missionaries, and since they died he had travelled the world, living off his wits and his charm. Now he was coming home, to see the place that his parents had always called home, and he was very taken with what he saw. He had no money, he had nowhere to go, but fortune favoured him again and he prospered.”
“Arthur Bryant and John May met in London in November 1940. Both young men were assigned to the PCU – the Peculiar Crimes Unit – to deal with the strangest of crimes and, though they were young and had little experience, they found themselves pretty much running the place while so many resources and so many men were caught up in the war. Years later, when they were both quite elderly and much had changed they were still working together at the PCU.”
“Most of all though I loved Septimus Harding. He loved his daughters, he loved the old men who were in his care, he loved the work he had been called to do, he appreciated all of the good things he had in his life; and when finally decided what was the right thing to do he proved to be as tenacious, in his own quiet way as his formidable son-in-law. The sequence of events, as he travelled to London and found his way to the people he needed to see – very much an innocent abroad – was beautifully judged and a joy to read.,”
“Fox was a wonderful narrator and I loved coming to know him as a young and an old man. He drew me into his story, he made me care about him and about what would happen, and I came to understand his hopes and his dreams, his loves and his fears. I saw his world and the people whose lives touched his so very clearly.”
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“A short conversation inspires him to leave his job and to travel deep into the English countryside to Combe Hall; a lovely house that had been built in the 1600s, that was still a family home, and that housed a private library holding more than eighteen thousand books and three centuries of correspondence.”
Pendower by Marianne Filleul
“I’ve read many novels that consider the reformation at court, and in the light of the marriages of Henry VIII, but I don’t think I’ve read one before that considered its impact on the country. Marianne Filleul caught the fear and the confusion perfectly, and presented the question in its simplest form. Should mass be said in Latin, that sounded beautiful was not understood, or should it be said in plain language for all to understand?”
“There are so may highlights that it is almost impossible to pick favourites. I loved bat watching with Jacqueline Bain. I was taken by surprise by some lovely writing that I would never have guessed was by Charles Dickens. I was pleased to climb a hill in the Cotswolds with Vivienne Hambly; I was delighted that Jo Cartmell wrote of replacing her lawn with meadow flowers, reminding me that I have a plan a little like that for part of our garden …”
“The arc of the story was perfect. It moved from a manse in the Lowlands to a cottage in the Highlands, to London, to London society, across to continental Europe, and then back to London for the war years and thee years that followed. All of the times and places were beautifully evoked. The mixture of romance and intrigue worked beautifully; and is woven into the story so well that it is difficult to say very much without giving much too much away.”
“The writing was wonderful. I knew that this was crime novel, but it could have turned this story into anything it might have wanted to become. And it quickly became clear than the story would be both distinctive and meaningful.”
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“Sophie was a young teacher, in love with the natural world, when she met Lieutenant Colonel Allen Forrester. He was intrigued by the young woman who was completely unflustered when she was caught up a tree; and she was captivated when he took the time and trouble to find and lead her to the nest of a hummingbird. I was very taken with them both as individuals, and I loved them as a couple. I have found many things to love in this novel, but it was this marriage that I loved most of all.”
“When work, life, and other things conspire to keep me at home, surrounded by visitors, at the height of the season there is only one thing to do. I turn to my bookshelves and I look for a Virago Traveller, knowing that those books can take me on wonderful journeys in the best of company.”
“This book caught me by surprise. I’ve read some of Ann Patchett’s work but it’s been a long time since our last encounter; because I’ve liked what I’ve well enough to want to read more, but not quite well enough for months and years to slip by before a book landed that I thought I really must read. I expected it to be good, of course I did; but I didn’t expect it to have such depth and yet be so easy to read, and I didn’t expect it to preoccupy my thoughts during the days I spent travelling through its pages.”
“The writing was perfectly controlled, and the skill of the author drew me right in and made me think so much of the situation of each woman. That control, that skill, and an extraordinary clarity made every story fascinating. It was the clarity that really struck me; I can only compare it to the feeling you have when you have new glasses and you see the world just that little more clearly than you did through the old pair.”
“Saraband is a beautifully wrought and sensitively told coming of age story, set in early 20th century London.Louie is a quiet and imaginative child, growing up in her grandmother’s house, surrounded by aunts and uncles. She loves being out in the world, and her story is scattered with her feelings about the world as the seasons change.”
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Now tell me, what would you put in your box for 2016?
And what do you plan to read in 2017?