Books of the Year 2017

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I had a real bumper of a reading year in 2017; I read a whopping 78 books, far more than I’ve read in years, and across a wide range of subjects, periods and genres. Part of this is due to me doing my MA in Victorian Studies; I’ve been forced to read some books I would never have otherwise read, and found new areas of interest that have widened my reading far beyond its usual parameters. I have also read a huge amount of books for work purposes, as I like to keep up to date with what my students are (or should be) reading, and found some fabulous new young adult classics in the process. Working in close proximity to the largest branch of Foyles, an amazing London-based independent book shop, has also massively widened my reading in its creative displays highlighting new books to me that I wouldn’t otherwise have come across. Simon over at Stuck in a Book has also been a big influence in encouraging me to read and re-read books I wouldn’t have otherwise picked up for our podcast, Tea or Books?, which has been excellent fun too. I’ve really rediscovered my love of reading this year, and been making reading much more of a priority than I have in recent years. The more I read, the happier I am, I find, and there is no greater pleasure than discovering a new author whose books I know will provide plenty of exciting adventures to come.

Having read so much this year, I found it impossible to narrow it down to just ten favourite books. Therefore, I have a list of fifteen, and I hope that you will give some of these a try if you haven’t already! In no particular order, here they are!

A Pin to See the Peepshow by F Tennyson Jesse – Simon and I read this for our podcast (you can listen here), comparing it with E M Delafield’s Messalina of the Suburbs, which are both reimaginings of the Edith Thompson and Frederick Bywaters murder case in the 1920s. It’s a gripping, thought provoking and quietly moving novel that I found unsettling and yet utterly compulsive reading. Tennyson Jesse’s prose is beautiful and her psychological insight into her characters absolutely brilliant – I can’t recommend it highly enough. I was excited to see that a non fiction book about the case, which was very controversial, is coming out in March – it would probably be very illuminating to read these two alongside one another!

The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope – for a Victorianist, I have read very little Trollope, despite thinking him a genius, largely because his books are so inordinately long! However, this has to be one of his best  – a disconcertingly modern look at the corruption behind the scenes of high society in the mid Victorian period, it’s a fantastically written, incredibly well characterised novel that is witty, astute and utterly unputdownable. Definitely one to while away the long winter evenings!

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert – I was not expecting to be so swept away by this marvellous novel of a nineteenth century female botanist, finding a way for herself in a world that offers little opportunity for a clever woman. Gilbert is an excellent writer who brings Alma Whittaker and her world brilliantly alive – if you just think of Gilbert as a self-help guru, then think again. This is a masterpiece, and one I know I’ll read again in future.

Tom Tiddler’s Ground by Ursula Orange – I was delighted to discover Dean Street Press this year, and their fabulous collection of middlebrow mid century reprints. This funny, heartfelt and highly entertaining novel is an exploration of the changes war makes to a small country village, and I loved every moment of it. Ursula Orange is definitely an unjustly neglected voice and I can’t wait to read more of her books.

A Child of the Jago by Arthur Morrison – I had to read this for my MA; it’s a not particularly widely known novel about the London slums in the 1890s, and one child’s attempt to escape from them. I wasn’t anticipating enjoying it very much, but I absolutely loved it. It’s a heartbreaking book in many ways, but there is so much still to enjoy within its pages; Morrison has a wittily acerbic take on the world, and his matter of fact portrayal of the often absurd lives of the slum dwellers offers a new insight into nineteenth century life. If you love nineteenth century fiction and want something a little different, this is well worth reading.

Idaho by Emily Ruskovich – a modern novel that explores the fallout from a shocking murder of a child by her mother, this is an exquisitely written, hauntingly melancholic novel that is probably, if I had to make a choice, my novel of the year. I haven’t read such a good debut novel in years; it’s one that stays with you for days, and I won’t say much more about it other than that you have to give it a go.

Arthur and Sherlock: Conan Doyle and the Creation of Holmes by Michael Sims – I love both Michael Sims’ writing and that of Conan Doyle, so this was a dream combination for me. I found it fascinating to read about the creation of Holmes and all of Conan Doyle’s influences, and Sims writes with such affection, style and wit that every word is a pleasure to read. He wrote one of my favourite biographies of all time – that of E B White – and this is just as good. I highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in Sherlock Holmes!

Pax by Sara Pennypacker – I read this just a couple of weeks ago and was utterly blown away by it. I was expecting it to be quite a twee, moralistic story, but it’s a beautiful and original tale, half of it told through the eyes of a fox, about the destruction war brings and the power of love and friendship. It’s designed for children of around 11 or 12, but it’s such a beautifully written, moving story that I think it’s certainly still suitable for an adult audience. I was wiping away the tears at the end!

Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves by Rachel Malik – I loved this story, inspired by the life of the author’s grandmother, about two women who meet during WWII and their struggle to maintain a life together in the face of misunderstanding and prejudice. There is a huge plot twist half way through that adds a great deal of intrigue and complexity to the story, and I couldn’t put it down. This is Malik’s first novel, and she’s such a fantastic writer that I can’t wait for the next one!

Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk – I read this as part of the Carnegie Shadowing Scheme I run at school, when a small group of students and I read the shortlist for the prestigious Carnegie children’s fiction award, and it was easily my favourite, though it didn’t win. It’s a beautifully written, incredibly moving story about Annabelle, a young girl living in rural postwar America, who is bullied at school by new girl Betty. However, Annabelle’s attempts to fight back against her bully take a terrible turn when Betty goes missing and Toby, a local loner who Annabelle has always been kind to, is blamed for her disappearance. The town’s prejudices are revealed as the tragedy of Toby’s life is uncovered, and as the hunt for Betty intensifies, Annabelle’s world is irrevocably shattered as she tries to protect Toby from the accusations being thrown at him. This is such a powerful and haunting novel, and I was in floods of tears by the end – again, this is not just for children, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

The Semi-Detached House by Emily Eden – Simon and I just read this for our podcast, and we both loved it – an early nineteenth century piece of social comedy, it’s hilarious and charming and rather like a light Trollope novel mixed with Austen. How it has fallen by the wayside, I don’t know – I laughed out loud throughout and loved every minute. It also has a very good companion novel, The Semi-Attached Couple, and they are often published together. Currently out of print, which is a crime, it is possible to pick up cheaply second hand.

News of the World by Paulette Jiles – I was recommended this book by my friend Ellen, and what a joy it was – set in post-war Texas, it tells the story of an old man and young girl’s journey across the lawless state to return her to her family after having been stolen by a Native American tribe. Both are struggling with grief and pain, and the gradual growth of their affection and loyalty to each other throughout their hazardous journey is wonderful to read. Jiles’ writing is so beautifully sparse, and I felt utterly transported to the rough and ready Texas she brings to life so brilliantly on the page. This was a real discovery for me, and not normally a topic I would ever read about, so it was a timely reminder of the importance of branching out occasionally!

Thrush Green by Miss Read – the first in a series of wonderfully comforting, hot water bottle reads about the gentle everyday life of a Cotswold village in the 1950s and 1960s, these delightful books have been the ones I’ve curled up with on evenings when my brain is too tired to think and I just want to be wrapped up in a blanket of niceness where everyone is happy and the world is a lovely place. Definitely what’s been needed in 2017!

Period Piece by Gwen Raverat – I absolutely adored this tale of a Victorian childhood by the granddaughter of Charles Darwin. If you love childhood memoirs, reading about the day-to-day minutiae of nineteenth century life, or just love being immersed in the idyllic surroundings of the pre-twentieth century British countryside, this will be a book you’ll love. Raverat is a wonderfully funny and wise companion, too, and her illustrations to the text are utterly charming.

The Brother Gardeners by Andrea Wulf – I developed a real fascination with the history of botany after doing some research on the topic for an MA essay, and this absorbing, entertaining and very well written and researched book about the 18th century British merchant Peter Collinson and his American correspondent John Bartram tells the story of how the Western world was propagated with the plants we have today, and how the garden as a concept was created through their hard and often frustrating work to collect plants from around the world and get them growing in alien environments. Their passion sings through the pages, and I was astounded by how much I didn’t know about how the floral and arboreal landscape of Britain was formed by these eighteenth century pioneers. If you have any interest in the natural world, I promise you’ll find this fascinating!

I wish you all a wonderfully happy New Year – thank you so much for reading along with me in 2017 and I look forward to your continued company in 2018!

 

 

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The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

 

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It’s been a while since I read any sensation fiction, and as the weather started to turn increasingly wintry in the evenings over the past couple of weeks, I decided the time had come to pull The Woman in White off the shelf once more and delve in to the wonderful world of Victorian melodrama. Simon over at Stuck in a Book also agreed to read alongside me, and we have discussed our opinions on our podcast, Tea or Books?, which you can listen to here if you feel so inclined. We compared it with Possession by A.S.Byatt, a neo Victorian novel that also has an intriguing mystery at its heart, though of a very different kind, and is another brilliant novel…yet, I digress.

The novel starts with Walter Hartright, who is that perennial Victorian favourite: a poor yet talented artist, down on his luck, walking home across Hampstead Heath on a summer’s evening. He is minding his own business when suddenly, out of the darkness, appears a woman, dressed all in white. She is nervous and awkward, and looks like someone who has suffered much. She asks the way to London, and Walter points her in the right direction. Before long, Walter is stopped by anxious men in a cab, who are looking for a woman dressed in white, just escaped from an asylum. Walter pretends to have no knowledge of her, out of pity for the poor woman, but the mystery of who she is and why she had escaped continues to preoccupy his thoughts. Shortly afterwards he leaves London for Limmeridge House in Cumbria, where he has been engaged as a drawing master to half sisters Laura Fairlie and Marian Halcombe, who are the wards of Laura’s hypochondriac, nervous uncle, Frederick Fairlie, an immensely wealthy aesthete who spends all his time with his art and none with his nieces. Laura Fairlie is extraordinarily beautiful, and she and Walter obviously fall in love immediately. However, the appearance of the woman in white in the village shocks Walter soon after his arrival; not only does she bear an uncanny resemblance to Laura, but she also has a connection to Laura’s mother, and to Limmeridge House. Her name is Anne Catherick, and she is known to be mentally deficient, but she seems to have a morbid obsession with Laura, and with trying to prevent her upcoming marriage. For, Laura, despite being in love with Walter, has long been engaged to Sir Percival Glyde, on the wishes of her deceased father. Much older than her, she does not love him, but feels obliged to marry him out of loyalty to her father. Despite everyone’s misgivings, the marriage must go ahead, and Walter, broken hearted, leaves England for Honduras. However, Sir Percival is not the gentleman he has always made himself out to be, and the woman in white’s warnings prove to reveal the true terror of what he is capable of…

There is much more to the plot of this long, complex and incredibly peopled novel, which is told from a number of different perspectives using the common Victorian device of amassing a collection of ‘genuine papers’ from the main actors in the story. There are some brilliant, vivid characters, including Count Fosco, who is an evil Italian villain who is married to Laura’s aunt and just so happens to be Sir Percival’s best friend, and it’s easy to imagine him strutting around, twirling his moustache and cackling evilly every time he appears on the page. Collins is not a subtle writer, and much of the plot depends on coincidences that to a modern reader appear laughable, but if you sit back and accept everything as read and just allow yourself to be entertained by the many twists and turns and improbable events, then you’ll have a wonderful reading experience. Collins was a master of suspense, and knew just how to keep the reader dangling at the end of every chapter, desperate for more; his careful plotting, using clever moments of occlusion to make us think we are just getting to the answer before snatching it away from us again, keeps the tension consistently high and one’s curiosity constantly at boiling point. I know some find sensation fiction too ridiculous to enjoy, but for me, every moment is a pleasure, and I love the melodrama of it all. I also very much enjoy how Collins very much reflects the contemporary concerns of when he was writing – there is much to think about in this novel when it comes to women’s rights, and when you consider that the 1850s was a decade in which the vulnerability of women due to having no right to retain their own property once married was a key topic of debate, it is clear to see from Collins’ plot that he recognised the need for women to be able to have independence over their affairs to prevent them from being cruelly used by the men who were supposed to be looking after them. I now want to dig deeper into Collins’ back catalogue, as I haven’t read that many of his books – any recommendations for his best ones?

Question Time

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For those of you who don’t know (where have you been?!), Simon at Stuck in a Book and I have been doing a podcast called Tea or Books? for a whopping 49 episodes…and to celebrate our super special 50th episode, we are going to open ourselves up to questions from listeners (and readers who have not yet listened!) on any aspect of our reading lives (though personal questions are welcome too!). If you’ve got a burning question for either or both of us, please do pop it (or them- you can ask more than one!) in the comments below (or email me at booksnob at hotmail.com) – we’ll answer every one!

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

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I’ve been meaning to read this for ages, because I heard a lot of hype about it back when it won the Booker in 2011, and then when the film came out this year, I thought there must be something in it to warrant a read, as there’s not many Booker prize winning books with plots good enough to make a decent film, being as they are so frequently style over substance (see mine and Simon’s Tea or Books? podcast on precisely this issue here). So, when my university was giving away a pile of these for free thanks to an upcoming talk by Julian Barnes, I thought now was my chance. I snapped up my free copy and proceeded to read, and found something quite different to what I expected. A wry, thoughtful, interesting voice unfolded on the page, and I found myself strangely absorbed by the tale of sixty something Tony Webster, and the memories of his unexceptionable and yet life-shaping school and university days. However, as the book progressed and it became clear that the promises of intrigue hinted at earlier on were not going to come to anything I would term remarkably realistic, satisfying or surprising, I became increasingly frustrated. As I finished the last page, I wanted to throw it across the room. Was that it? A google search proved that many others had felt the same way, and some, unsatisfied with the prosaicness of the most logical conclusion to the story, have woven all sorts of interpretations, from the events of the whole novel being a figment of the narrator’s imagination, to everything that happens being a lie and so serving as a metaphor for the fact that we all create the version of our lives we wish others – and ourselves – to believe – and so on. Either way, whether the ending is what it is or whether it is a meditation on the fallacy of all our lives, it was still a rubbish ending. Let me tell you why. Be warned: this has spoilers.

The book starts with Tony reminiscing about the friends he had at school, and one of them in particular, Adrian, who was ridiculously intelligent and far more mature than the rest of their group. Tony was fascinated by him, and a little possessive, too; though when the boys all went off to different universities, gradually they drifted apart and contact was reduced to occasional letters and a few reunions during the holidays. While at university, Tony dated a girl called Veronica for about a year; she was enigmatic, elusive, difficult to understand. Tony’s most vivid memory of her is a visit to her parents’ house for the weekend, where he was fascinated by her cryptic, beguiling mother, and unsettled by her boorish father. Not long afterwards, they broke up; a letter from Adrian came some months later, letting him know that he was now dating Veronica, and asking for his permission to do so. Tony says he wrote back to say that of course he did; there were no hard feelings. They didn’t meet again; Tony went to America after university on a gap year and on his return found out that Adrian had committed suicide. Ever the philosopher, he had simply decided that life was not worth living. Tony has been somewhat haunted by this ever since, and when he receives a letter from a lawyer some forty years later to tell him that Veronica’s mother has died and left him £500, along with a letter telling him that she owes him an apology, and Adrian’s diary. However, Veronica still has Adrian’s diary and doesn’t want to give it up. This starts Tony off on an obsessive desire to reconnect with Veronica and claim back the diary, though Veronica is intent on making life difficult for him, and as he begins to reconnect with his past, he realises that the version of his younger self he has believed for so long might not be quite as accurate as he would like to believe.

All this is quite intriguing, as the question of why Veronica’s mother had Adrian’s diary and what on earth any of this has to do with Tony is one that keeps the pages turning in quest of an answer. However, as the plot develops, Veronica’s behaviour becomes more and more maddeningly incomprehensible, and as the pieces begin to click into place, the disappointment starts to settle, slowly at first, and then thicker and faster as the absurdities pile ever higher. Veronica keeps telling Tony that he doesn’t get it, and he never will get it, but the problem is that she’s given him absolutely no information to enable him to get ‘it’, and when we finally get it too, at the end, which is that Veronica’s mother had an affair with Adrian and bore his child, which apparently is Tony’s fault because he wrote a nasty letter to Adrian (which he had, incidentally, forgotten all about writing until Veronica showed it to him) telling him to go and see Veronica’s mother in order to get the measure of Veronica, we don’t really understand why Veronica is so angry with Tony about it. Essentially, Veronica blames Tony for Adrian’s death and her own presumably unhappy life, because if he had never advised Adrian to visit her mother in the aforementioned nasty letter, the affair would never have happened. Because obviously he would never have met the mother of his long term girlfriend otherwise. So this is not only totally unconvincing as the premise for a plot, but also, from a rational basis, utterly nonsensical. I couldn’t believe that any normal person would hold themselves accountable for such a chain of events, and Barnes doesn’t convince us why we should. I completely understood his points about the unreliability of memory, of the consequences of our actions and so on, but to suggest that Tony was in any way responsible for decisions other people willingly made and would believe himself to be so is ridiculous, and choosing to base his philosophical ponderings on such a paper thin plot was rather a mistake, in my opinion.

So. Another Booker Prize winner, another feat of style over substance. This book purports to be far deeper than it really is, and the ideas it contains are far too heavy to be held by the flimsily constructed story and characters. It’s well written, of course, but the writing can’t atone for a cast of characters I couldn’t care less about and a plot that was ultimately absurd. I’d love to hear what other people thought. If I missed the point, please do tell me!

Autumnal Ambles

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I love autumn. It’s my absolute favourite season. Nothing beats kicking piles of golden, crunchy leaves, watching the sky fade from watery blue into pearlescent pinkness as the afternoon light ebbs away, the smell of woodsmoke and leaf mulch, and the softening of the landscape into the burnished bronzes and browns that make the world seem as it if is slipping into a haze of sepia. When not frolicking amidst the glories of a nature raging brilliantly against the dying of the light, the natural tendency to hibernate as the weather gets colder and the days get shorter suits the introvert in me very nicely as I hunker down indoors with plenty of tea and books, pies and crumbles, duvets and Netflix. It is a time for winding down, for relaxing, for the pursuit of comfort.

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I always ache to get to the countryside in autumn, for London, wonderful as it is, cannot quite provide the sights and smells of nature I crave at this time of year. I love the tunnels of golden leaves made by the overhanging trees in the lanes around my sister’s house, and foraging in the woods for conkers and acorns with my nephews. I love seeing the piles of leaves burning gently in the newly shorn fields, sending up great puffs of delicious smelling smoke into the air. I love kicking my way through enormous drifts of crisp leaves, and wandering across fields full of hay bales, admiring the subtle shifts in colour palette of the surrounding trees, smouldering away at the edges of the horizon. I was invited to spend a weekend with a friend who’s moved to the countryside in Hertfordshire a few weeks ago; we had a marvellous time walking all around the fields and lanes, taking in the beautiful range of brightly coloured maple trees and accidentally wandering onto the grounds of an amazing Elizabethan house, whose mellow red bricks seemed perfectly suited to the autumnal surroundings. Last week I was in the Lake District, which was fittingly damp and misty, its beautiful red and gold hills reflected smudgily in the flat grey surface of the lakes. I could hardly bear to tear myself away from the landscape, which so takes me out of myself and fills me with a sense of peace and awe.

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Back in London, the air is smokier, the sky greyer, the pavements littered with leaves. At the edges of the roads and in the parks, the trees are yellow, amber, bronze, softening the surrounding buildings with their golden glow. At night, the sky is always lit up with some form of fireworks display; we love celebrating Guy Fawkes’ Night so much that one night just isn’t enough! Though I know some hate the fact that they leave work in the dark now the clocks have gone back, I love it – the comforting glow of neon and the brightly lit-up shop windows take on a festive air, and walking around London on a crisp, dark evening makes me feel wonderfully Dickensian. In the evenings of late I’ve taken to curling up in my armchair with a very nice new anthology of ghost stories, published by Vintage, which has plenty of Victorian favourites inside – there’s nothing like a spooky story to make me feel ready for the onset of winter.

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