Twelve Books of 2012

booksof2012

Well, 2012. It’s been an interesting year, both in terms of my actual life and my reading life. At the beginning of 2012, I was living in North London in a bachelorette flat, working in a boring office job and had oodles of free time to read. I had been back from my year in New York for four months, and was relishing being immersed in British culture again. As such, I was determined to make a concerted effort to deepen my knowledge of British literature and revisit some old classics. I also planned to not buy any more new books and make a big dent in my TBR pile, but the less said about that the better!

Half way through the year, everything changed. I got offered a job as a trainee teacher, and my time suddenly became submerged in finishing projects at work, packing up my flat, and starting to read the books I would be teaching to my soon to be students. I moved back to my mum’s house, and was able to unpack all of my books, some of which had been in boxes in the loft since I first left home at 18. So, while my time for reading was suddenly massively reduced, I had access to a whole range of old favourites plus some books I had been meaning to read for years. I was also encouraged to read some more modern novels in my quest to become as well rounded as possible in my knowledge of literature before becoming a teacher!

I’m delighted to have managed to re-read most of Austen’s novels this year. I was also pleasantly surprised by my rediscovery of Woolf, and I plugged a big gap in my knowledge of early 20th century literature by exploring some absolutely brilliant WWI memoirs. I very much enjoyed the opportunity to make a dent in my pile of Elizabeth Taylors thanks to the centenary celebrations organised by Laura, and I also cemented my adoration of Elizabeth Bowen by managing to get to two more of her novels that were sitting on my shelves. I was disappointed in some of the modern novels I tried towards the end of the year, but I was enthralled by both Birdsong and The Stranger’s Child, which reminded me of how much quality literature there is out there to read that was written in the last couple of decades, and made me promise myself to branch out a little more in future.

So, what of next year? Well, I’m definitely not going to be able to read the amount of books I have managed to in the past; lack of a train commute and a much more demanding job has reduced the free time I have to read to a depressingly narrow window of hours. However, on the plus side, this means that I am taking longer over the books I do have time to read, which is making me a more thoughtful reader, and I am choosing my selections carefully, which means I am invariably enjoying my choices enormously. As I have so little flexibility in my schedule, I don’t want to set myself any rules or targets; my life is full of enough of those as it is, without me imposing any on my leisure time! I do, however, have a couple of projects in mind this year. I have a good collection of Victorian children’s books that I loved as a little girl, and I would very much like to read these again and look at them from a more critical perspective to see what’s lurking under the surface that my childish self missed out on. Secondly, I would like to read some of the books that have sat unread on my shelves for a criminally long time. I’m going to disallow myself from buying any new books until I have read those dusty tomes that have been begging to be opened for far too long. I need to reduce the guilt in my life!

booksof20121

Well, with next year’s reading sorted, I can reveal what my real delights of 2012 have been. Looking through my archives, it never ceases to amaze me how much I forget about what I’ve read…if it wasn’t for this blog, I’d have no idea what I’d been doing this year! Some books, however, were incredibly memorable, and I’ve picked my top 12 below. Enjoy!

The Shooting Party by Isabel Colegate

An absolutely brilliantly written novel set during a weekend’s shooting party on an Edwardian estate. Both incredibly witty and desperately moving, it’s the finest depiction of pre war aristocratic life I’ve ever read. There aren’t enough hyperbolic words to describe how amazing this is, and if you’ve not read it, make sure you do in 2013.

The Great War and Modern Memory by Paul Fussell

This seminal work of literary criticism explores the impact of WWI on literature and culture. Intelligent, thought provoking and incredibly powerful, this will revolutionise your understanding of 20th century literature and make you desperate to read the work of the Great War memoirists whose books helped to create a new language for the modern age.

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

After not being particularly fussed by my first Barbara Pym a couple of years ago, this blew me away with how funny, poignant and well observed it is. I enjoyed it so much that I re-read bits as soon as I finished, and even my very fussy mum loved it – which is high praise!

Memoirs of an Infantry Officer by Siegfried Sassoon

The second of Sassoon’s three memoirs, it is a powerfully understated, engaging and illuminating expose of the conditions at the front during WWI, and a passionate plea for an end to meaningless conflict. Wonderful.

Harriet by Elizabeth Jenkins

One of Persephone’s Spring books, this is a startlingly brilliant, fictionalised account of the Penge Murders, which took place in Victorian Kent. Jenkins explores the psychology behind the events with an unsettlingly clarity and empathy that leads the reader to wonder whether there could be a murderer inside of all of us…a perfect novel to read by the fire on a cold winter’s night!

Between the Acts by Virginia Woolf

One of Woolf’s later novels, written during the war and saturated with nostalgia and sadness, this is both a beautiful paean to the glory of Britain as a nation and a landscape and a meditation on what it is to be human. If you’ve always thought Woolf wasn’t for you, this will be the book to change your mind. It’s genuinely one of the most hauntingly beautiful novels I have ever read.

A Favourite of the Gods by Sybille Bedford

Sent to me by the wonderful Daunt Books, I had never heard of Sybille Bedford before I read this account of three generations of an eccentric 20th century American-European family and their adventures in love and life. This is a sublime novel; heady, atmospheric and completely engrossing, it possesses you for weeks after you finish reading it. Bedford was a great discovery of 2012, and I look forward to reading more of her in 2013.

Romantic Moderns by Alexandra Harris

This is probably the best non fiction book I’ve read. It’s a compendium of everything you ever wanted to know about the literary, artistic and cultural history of mid century Britain, written in an intelligent, witty and highly engaging manner. It absolutely fascinated me and led me off in so many exciting directions. I felt so enlightened after reading it, as well as impassioned about this largely unsung period in British cultural history. It’s a must read!

The House in Paris by Elizabeth Bowen

What can you say in a few short lines about Elizabeth Bowen? Breathtaking, mesmerising…an education in the true art of manipulating language. This is a tour de force…once read, it will never be forgotten.

Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks

A modern novel attempting to recreate a realistic view of WW1? Normally, I’d be up in arms, but the fabulous characterisation and hanging on the edge of your seat plot had me a sobbing wreck by the end, terrified to turn the pages for fear of anything happening to the characters I had grown to love. This reminded me that not all contemporary novels are automatically charity shop fodder!

The Heir by Vita Sackville West

A lovely and enchanting depiction of a man falling in love with a house…it doesn’t sound like much, but it is one of those books that wraps its way around your heart and reminds you of what is important in life. A simply divine little gem of a novella.

Loving by Henry Green

Discovering Henry Green right at the end of 2012 has been a real highlight of my reading year. Like Bowen, he can play with language to create the most fantastically beautiful images, as well as creating characters who come to life purely by the way in which they utter a few mundane words. This is a spectacular, superb, sublime piece of literature that completely mesmerised me. Henry Green and I are going to be meeting with great frequency in future!

52 comments

  1. Well I am quite ashamed to admit that I have not read any of the 12๐Ÿ˜ฆ
    I also found it amusing that you said that “lack of train commute” has reduced your effective reading time ! I am glad to think that I am not the only person in the world who thinks that long commute to work is actually the “gift of personal time”.

    1. Well, you can always make sure some of these wonderful books are on your ‘must read’ list for 2013, Vipula! Oh I absolutely agree – I think a train commute is definitely a gift – some time to yourself in the day is rare!๐Ÿ™‚

  2. I haven’t read any of your 12 either! So many books, it’s true, with the time available more and more constricted. Have you read any Diana Athill books?

      1. Diana Athill is a former book editor. She came to writing quite late and is now in her nineties. She has written about her colourful younger life.

  3. Nothing I like better in the blogging world than a good end-of-year books review! Always such a good time to collect my own reading list for next year off of everyone else’s favorites๐Ÿ™‚. Merry Christmas!

  4. Great post! I love these end of year reviews because they are so thought provoking. I agree with you entirely with regard to Romantic Moderns, Between the Acts and Loving (Henry Green was a dazzlingly brilliant one-off and Loving is one of his finest) and I’ll definitely be hunting out copies of The Shooting Party and A Favourite of the Gods which are new to me but sound terrific.

    Good luck with the ‘not buying any more books for a while’ thing. I’ve been trying that for years and have failed in a spectacularly dismal and pathetic fashion on each occasion. I once set a New Year’s resolution not to buy any new books until April but emerged shame-faced from the bookshop on January 3rd. Hopeless …. Have a great Christmas!

    1. Thanks Greg! Glad you enjoyed it! I’m very pleased to hear you’ll be hunting down a few of the books I mentioned – I hope you’ll enjoy them as much as I did!

      January 3rd!! I hope I’ll do a better job than that – but I doubt it!๐Ÿ™‚

  5. Wow! What a great selection of reviews — I’m adding five of your recommendations to my Amazon cart. One can never have too many books. I’ve read most of Barbara Pym’s work, as well as Woolf and Bowen. Like you, I’ve read so many books over the years, that it would be impossible to remember all of them, so I started a reading list which notes every book I’ve read since 1969! It’s interesting to look back over the list periodically and be reminded of what was going on in my life at any given time, which is very often related to the types of books I read in a particular year. Needless to say, the caliber of the books changed and improved remarkably over time, as well. I try to re-read the Austen (my favorite author) novels every year. Just received my copy of the new bio of John Keats, and the letters of Fanny Burney, so, with the books you have suggested, my TBR pile continues to grow. Thanks very much, and happy Christmas!

    1. Five! Brilliant, Mary! I’m glad I’ve convinced you! I love that you’ve kept a list of your reading since 1969 – that’s so impressive and must be a very revealing document about your life over the years. Have a lovely Christmas and I hope you get some lovely new books under the tree!

      1. Hi! “The Heir,” “Snob,” and “The Shooting Party” arrived yesterday, so I’m all set for this week!
        A very Merry Christmas to everyone….

  6. I just received The House in Paris today via the Virago Secret Santa event, and I was so excited because I remember you waxing so poetically about it! Of your twelve books, Birdsong is one of my all-time favorites. And as for Barbara Pym, 2013 is her centenary year so we will have more to celebrate!

    1. Oh brilliant! What a perfect present! I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as I did. I am excited about the Pym centenary – I didn’t realise! I’ll definitely be taking part!

  7. It has been quite the year, Rachel. I always love reading end-of-year booklists but this one is particularly fascinating to me since it highlights all the ways our tastes don’t overlap! This is why you’re one of my favourite bloggers, because you always give me a new and interesting perspective on books I’ve either read and did not like (the Bowen) or books focused in on an area I have not yet developed an interest in (like Romantic Moderns). The Heir and A Favourite of the Gods are the only ones off your list that I’m desperate to read – thanks to your enthusiastic reviews – and I’m hoping to get to them in early 2013.

    1. It is interesting, isn’t it! In so many ways we love the same things…and in so many ways we diverge! The joy of the blogosphere! I’m glad you are interested in some of the books on my list…and I’m sure you’d love Romantic Moderns too, if you get time to read it…though be warned – it will cause serious Anglophilia! Have a wonderful Christmas, Claire! x

  8. Seven out of your twelve books are currently on my To Read list, thanks to reading your wonderful reviews of them over the past year. I’m looking forward to tackling them in the year ahead. I actually just bought Excellent Women, which has been highly recommended to me on a number of fronts. Like you, I had a lukewarm reaction to my first Pym novel, so I have high hopes that I’ll share your positive reaction to this one.

  9. Bedford, Bowen, Pym, Colegate and Green too
    some old favourites some were new
    but through your blog you sow the seeds
    of the most fantastic glorious reads

    Thank you and all the best for Xmas and may every nanosecond of your reading time in 2013 be inspiring and may your blog continue to shine.

    1. Lovely poem, Enid!๐Ÿ™‚

      Thank you very much Enid – I hope you have a wonderful Christmas and 2013 too, and thanks for being such an enthusiastic reader!๐Ÿ™‚

  10. I’m glad you liked The Shooting Party so much! I thought it was a really good book when I read it a few years ago, and I wished more people had heard of it. You’re right, it evokes that time period so incredibly well without ever being heavy-handed.

  11. How refreshing to read a “books of the year” list that, unlike those in newspapers, is not only about books published in the last twelve months. Although I count myself fortunate never to have held a gun or killed anything bigger than a spider I, like others who have commented, have been inspired by this post to add The Shooting Party to my “must read” list. Such is my loathing of guns that I would probaby be put off by the edition shown on GoodReads which has a close up of a weapon on the cover. Fortunately, I note that the current Penguin paperback edition has a less off-putting jacket. It also has an introduction by Downton Abbey writer Julian Fellowes.

    Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

    1. Oh David, you are funny! Definitely don’t let the gun image put you off – get yourself the nice Penguin edition and enjoy!

      Same to you, David – I hope you have a wonderful Christmas!

  12. Isn’t it odd that I have loved some of these novels – The Heir, The House in Paris, Between the Acts – but I found The Shooting Party such a big fat boring dud? (Sorry!) All adds to the variety of life!
    Like David, I love to see a list that doesn’t ground itself in 2012. I haven’t made mine yet, but I feel that it might be mostly non-fiction – except for the book at no.1, which I thought would make your list – Guard Your Daughters!

    1. Oh Simon! I still can’t believe that you didn’t love The Shooting Party! Guard your Daughters almost made it to the list…it would have been number 13!! Can’t wait to see your list!

  13. A great post, thank you I am inspired to read Between The Acts, which I’ve had on my shelf for ages. To echo others; it is great to discover new ‘old’ books.
    Happy Christmas.

  14. (Doh! Posted the following on the wrong thread.)

    Thanks for broadening my horizons this year although I failed to warm to A Favourite of the Gods. I have issues with Simon T’s verdict that Sybille Bedford does not do grotesques – Constanza’s husband is a monster of the old school.

    One resolution for 2013 is to give Elizabeth Taylor a try, probably starting with the short stories and Mrs Palfrey. If you can fit in another Barbara Pym next year (and continuing the oldie theme) I would recommend her come-back novel from 1977, Quartet in Autumn.

    1. Oh no, Bruce! I’m sorry to hear that! Maybe A Compass Error will suit you better?

      Oh yes you absolutely must give Elizabeth Taylor a try – she is magnificent. I have a Pym on my shelf waiting to be read…it might just be Quartet in Autumn, but if it’s not, I shall definitely look out for it – thank you for the recommendation!

  15. My copy of Loving, Living, Party Going arrived in the mail yesterday! The posts you wrote on the WWI memoirs were some of my favourite over the past year, Rachel, and I really enjoyed The Shooting Party. It’s always a pleasure to stop by here and come away with yet another suggestion for a good read.

    1. I’m so excited for you to give Henry Green a try, Darlene! I can’t wait to hear what you think! Likewise, Darlene – you’ve put me onto many a brilliant novel and I’m glad I returned the favour!๐Ÿ™‚

  16. A wonderful list. I read The Strangers Child last year and loved it – it made my top ten of 2011. I also read A Houise in Paris this year – prompted by your review of it, it is beautiful, either it or Death of the heart will almost certainly make it on to my list for top reads of 2012. I also read Harriet this year too- and loved it, it is a remarkable work, and I’m so glad Persephone re-issued it for us. I have Favourite of the Gods and The Heir on my TBR both of which I am looking forward to. Excellent women was the first Pym novel I read several years ago, I am looking forward to re-reading it in February, when it will be the 2nd book in a year long readalong of Barbara Pym in celebration of her centenary.

    1. It looks like our reading tastes align very well! So glad you loved The House in Paris and Harriet – and I am pleased that two of my books made it onto your TBR! I am excited about this Pym centenary – I wasn’t aware of it before and I will definitely be joining in!

  17. You’ve packed a lot of reading into your year and started a fabulous teaching career, too! Have a great Christmas and look forward to more posts in 2013.

  18. Thank you for all your blog posts this year. I intend to read The Shooting Party (I saw the film a long time ago) and I’m grateful for your Jane Austen reviews which were entertaining and illuminating. I will buy the John Mullan book it sounds very good.

    I still can’t enjoy Barbara Pym despite reading her books and I shall just have to say she is not for me – my loss.

    Happy Christmas to you and your family.

    1. Thanks for reading them, Sue! I’m glad to hear that about The Shooting Party and the John Mullan – you’ll be in for a treat!

      Well, everyone’s tastes are different – and life is too short to force yourself to read an author you don’t enjoy!

      Same to you, Sue – I hope you have a lovely and relaxing Christmas!

  19. I’ve had my eye on Romantic Moderns for a while now and can’t wait to read it. And a copy of The Stranger’s Child is sitting on my shelves too.

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