I feel like I didn’t get an awful lot of books read just for my own pleasure this year. The majority of my reading, when I look down the list I’ve kept, is made up of books I’ve taught, books I’ve read for school book clubs, and books I’ve read to learn things from that I then had to teach. Of the handful of books I chose myself, not many made a lasting impression. I was particularly disappointed by Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping; as an adoring fan of her Gilead trilogy, I was very surprised and not a little deflated to find that her first novel left me so cold. I’ve dabbled in a fair few of the British Library Crime Classics reprints, but none have matched up to the first one I read, Murder Underground, by Mavis Doriel Hay (what a name!) and unless someone fervently recommends another title to me, I don’t think I’ll read any more of them next year. They might have ridiculously pretty covers, but I can’t help but think there was probably a good reason none of those writers became another Agatha Christie.
So, negatives out of the way, what books did light my fire this year? Well, in actual fact, there were quite a few, and they are a very random selection that, when I think about it, does sum up my year uncannily well. The first is a book I have just finished, and am yet to review. It’s been sitting on my bookshelves for probably a good decade, ignored and unappreciated, and I feel quite ashamed for having abandoned it for so long. Rosamund Lehmann is a novelist I went through a binge read of just after I left university, and I found her a refreshing, interesting and beautifully lyrical writer whose words just danced on the page. For some reason, I decided to save Invitation to the Waltz for another day, however, and sadly that day took an absurdly long time to come. Never mind, because it has come at last, and I was absolutely enchanted by this brilliantly poetic, wonderfully atmospheric account of a girl’s first ball, and all of the attendant hopes, dreams and emotions that come with it. It’s exactly the sort of book I love – absolutely nothing happens, but within that nothingness contains everything that life is really all about. You must read it. I’m currently reading the sequel, The Weather in the Streets, which is just as marvellous, and I’ve fallen in love with Rosamund Lehmann all over again.
The second and third are Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies – no need for me to tell you what they’re about, I’m sure – only that they’re amongst the best written books I’ve ever read, and absolutely compulsive reading material. I was utterly sucked into the world she created, and the characters possessed my mind for weeks after I’d finished. If I could write like Hilary Mantel, I’d die a happy woman. If you haven’t tried her yet, you need to! Fourth on the list would be The Chateau by William Maxwell – a beautiful account of a long summer spent in post war France that is fully representative of the stunning prose and empathetic heart of Maxwell. He is such a fantastic writer, and though my favourite of his books will probably always be They Came like Swallows, The Chateau is superb, and a real treat for the mind.
Fifth and Sixth are two books about the First World War – the first a contemporary novel, The Happy Tree by Rosalind Murray, reprinted this year by Persephone Books. Not actually all that much about the war, as it turned out, but instead a very powerful book about regrets and hopes and learning to be content with what life hands you, and it has a stunningly written portrayal of a childhood home that took my breath away. I haven’t been enormously enamoured with Persephone’s choice of new books of late, but this one really reminded me of how superb their selections can be. The second book about the war was Pat Barker’s modern take on the war, Regeneration, which I inhaled over the course of a few days and found absolutely compelling. Barker’s writing style is so fresh and readable, and she chose a fascinating angle to explore in this account of Craiglockhart war hospital. If you’ve never read it, you must!
Two historical books take seventh and eighth place. I loved reading My Own Story by Emmeline Pankhurst after watching the powerful and moving Suffragette at the cinema. It is preachy and hyperbolic in places, and certainly not an unbiased account of affairs, but still an eye opening and passionate revelation of the hideous treatment of women in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and it really should be required reading for those who think that feminism is unnecessary. I was also amazed by what I learned from reading Neil Oliver’s A History of Ancient Britain – I may have had to read this for work, but I loved every moment of it. Who knew how sophisticated Stone Age Britons were? I certainly didn’t, and it gave me a real education. Neil Oliver writes with such zest, and he really manages to bring history to life. I’ve already got more of his books lined up to read.
Finally, my ninth book of the year is a YA novel, read for work, but again, a surprising delight and one that actually moved me to tears. I’d never read any Neil Gaiman before, and fantasy most certainly is not usually my cup of tea at all, but The Graveyard Book is a wonderfully imaginative, inventive and emotive exploration of a boy’s journey to young adulthood, in a very unusual setting, and it’s most definitely not just for kids. I’d really encourage you to give it a try.
So that’s my books of 2015. I have no reading plans at all for 2016, because I know from experience that there is no point, as I won’t stick to them anyway. I shall simply read whatever I feel like. Hopefully I’ll get through a fair few of the books I’ve had hanging around on my shelves for years, but with Oxfam’s biggest second hand book shop right next door to where I work, I wouldn’t bet on it…
Happy New Year everybody, and thank you once again for reading! See you in 2016!