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 do something that no other book in my array if boxes does.
This year’s box has a story set so close to home that I can believe I might have passed the characters in the street, a book by my favorite literary raconteur, a book that introduced me to a marvellous Victorian heroine who was both wonderfully modern and utterly of her time …
I surprised myself by leaving out certain favourite authors, because I know I have books I like as much – or maybe more – in earlier boxes.
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.
I have a book in progress that I suspect should go in a box, but as I won’t finish it for a few days it will be a candidate for next year’s box and I can put the lid on this year’s box.
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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‘There were so many wonderful moments, so many perfect details, that I really could feel that I was walking through a world that had a history that had begun long before I arrived and that would go on long after I left. Anthony Trollope made that world spin, he managed all of the characters and stories in that world wonderfully well. He seemed a little less chatty than usual; maybe because there was so much going on.’
Rough-Hewn by Dorothy Canfield Fisher
‘The story of each life was told quite beautifully, with sensitivity, with intelligence, with empathy, and without one single drop of sentimentality. There is no plot as such, but I was captivated by the unfolding of each life. I noticed that they were told rather differently. Neale’s story was told in a straightforward way, always from his point of view; while Marise’s story was often told through the accounts of people around her. That reflected the different nature of the stories, and while I found Neale’s story easier to read I was more anxious to follow Marise’s story.’
‘The pictures of Island life that Emily Lawless draws are wonderfully vivid. She conveys the unforgiving nature of the landscape and the ongoing struggle for poverty that trapped so many of the islanders; she understands the beauty of the island, and the strong sense of identity felt by the islanders. She sees the joys and the sorrows of their lives. Her characterisations are rich and complex, and I can believe that this community existed and that these people lived and breathed.’
‘That is just the beginning of a wonderfully rich tale of love and adventure in times and places where the world was undergoing great change. I had worried that it would be a tale of a great love lost, but of course in Elizabeth Goudge’s hands it was much more than that: it was a story that illustrated that the journey to grace so often begins by accepting that we may not be able to have what we want most and by finding strength to do what we must.’
‘An author who can set a book in a place close to home that I know very well and at a time when I could have been there, when I could have brushed shoulders with one of her characters, and hold me through the whole story without ever doubting that her characters lived and breathed, that the events she writes about happened, is an author I am very glad to have met. It takes more than authenticity to make a good book of course, and this book has much more than that. It has a wonderful understanding of character and relationships and it has an absorbing story where there is always something in the air; something like a great storm at sea moving closer and closer to the Cornish coast ….’
‘Monica, her family, her friends, and her suitors were all trapped by ridiculous social conventions; and the range of characters and different experiences reinforced that point. Making herself attractive and appealing to men was the sole object of her life; because marriage was the only career opportunity for a woman of her class and anything other than that would constitute failure. Her failure meant that she remained in her mother’s care, she continued to be a child and she never learned to understand her own feelings or make decisions for herself. No woman ever needed to, because she would pass form her parent’s charge to her husband’s!’
‘G. B. Stern refers to a party she hosted for seventy literary figures, and I would love to know who they were. Maybe Somerset Maugham, as she was a guest at one of his house parties. Maybe H G Wells who was at the same house party and gave her a writing case for Christmas. Maybe Elizabeth Von Arnim. The author went on a picnic with her and imagined that she was a character in one of her books. Certainly Sheila Kaye-Smith, who was a close friend and co-author of two books about Jane Austen.’
‘I thought that this book might sink under the weight of its complexity but it didn’t; and I had a wonderful time caught in the moment with the narrator and his many hosts. I loved the different perspectives, and though I didn’t make a significant effort to see if all of the pieces of this gloriously complex puzzle fitted together I can say the things that I spotted did; and that said puzzle and its the myriad overlapping and intertwining story-lines can only have been the work of a brilliantly inventive mind.’
‘Each chapter is devoted to the story of one of these characters. The story-telling is immaculate, and I couldn’t doubt for a moment that Winifred Holtby had considered every detail of the different people, lives and relationships. They were beautifully observed, they were gently satirised, and the different stories spoke about so many things: class, race, faith, prejudice, family, loss, philanthropy, ambition …. Each chapter was absorbing, and could have been the foundation of a different novel.’
‘Her story is very well told, by her in the first person. Her voice was lovely, the story flowed beautifully. It was simple, but it was profound, and the things that it had to say felt utterly right. The post-war generation is caught perfectly, the period detail was pitch perfect, and that made it so easy to be drawn onto Lou’s life. I found it was so easy to identify with her, I loved seeing that story though her eyes, and everything that she felt, everything that she said, everything that she did rang true.’
‘One of this books greatest strengths is its youthful energy and fervour. There is passionate advocacy of a woman’s right to set the course of her own life; and a very clear light is shone on the unhappy consequences of marriages contracted for reasons other than real love. There is righteous anger at social injustice, at moral weakness, and most of all at men – and women – who stand in the way of what the author has the wisdom and foresight to advocate. I had an idea how the story would be resolved I really didn’t know how it would get there until it did.’
‘The story moves slowly and it rewards slow reading. The writing is gorgeous, there are so much many stories within the story to read and appreciate, and it is lovely spending time with all of the people who are part of those stories. Every detail was right, every note rang true, and the world of this book felt utterly, utterly real. It was a wrench to leave, and I can’t quite believe that I couldn’t go to the Swan Inn and listen to the descendants of the people I have been reading about telling tales of them, telling the tales of this book, telling tales of their own ….’
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Now tell me, what would you put in your box for 2018?
And what do you plan to read in 2019?