Happy New Year! I hope you all had a wonderful Christmas and New Year break, and are feeling ready and raring to go for 2017…which must surely be a cheerier year than 2016, otherwise we’re all in trouble!
Sidestepping neatly away from wider world issues to discuss gentler pursuits, it’s been an interesting, and varied year in reading for me. Starting my MA course in Victorian Studies in September added a huge amount of non fiction and nineteenth century literature to my reading pile, and I also developed quite an addiction to detective fiction, aided in no small part by the fantastic reprints produced by the British Library. I received a six month gift subscription to Persephone Books in the summer, which led to me rediscovering their wonderful back catalogue, and mine and Simon’s attempts to find common reading ground for our podcast, Tea or Books? (if you haven’t listened yet, where have you been!? Come and find out what you’re missing here) has led me to branch outside of my usual preferred authors and genres. I have found new favourite novels, discovered new authors, and come to really enjoy reading non fiction. I have also failed to whittle down my pile of unread books and not read many books I meant to get around to, but that will be for 2017, especially as I’ve decided to join in with Simon’s Project 24, and restrict my book buying from the seeming hundreds I purchase every year down to just 24…
So, without further ado, here is my top 10 books of 2016, in reverse order:
10. The Poisoned Chocolates Case by Anthony Berkeley
One of the British Library Crime Classics, I loved this murder mystery that had so many potential endings to choose from, and an intriguing crime to solve. Clever, stylish and full of period detail, this is one of the best of the many Crime Classics I’ve read. A wonderful light read for when you need a couple of hours to escape!
9. A Far Cry from Kensington by Muriel Spark
This is another novel Simon asked me to read for the podcast, and having only read The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, I was keen to explore more Spark. This witty, wonderfully wry novel set in the publishing world of post war London had me laughing out loud, and the characterisation is second to none. A much more acerbic Barbara Pym, Spark is a fantastic observer of human behaviour, and this is a book I could hardly bear to put down. I can’t wait to read more Spark in 2017.
8. Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner
Simon asked me to read this for Tea or Books? and knowing it was going to have a fantastic element to it made me not overly keen on picking it up. However, what I found inside its pages was not at all what I expected; a brilliantly, lyrically written exploration of the life of a spinster in early 20th century Britain, which surprises the reader with an intriguing and utterly unique source of escape from her narrow, stifled existence. A daring, powerfully feminist novel, it is half a richly detailed glimpse into the world of the early 20th century middle class, and half an almost dream-like invention of an alternative state of being for those who have been excluded from the normative structures of polite society. I enjoyed it far more than I thought I would, and it reminded me how important it is to step outside of my reading comfort zone in order to discover such gems as this.
7. Bricks and Mortar by Helen Ashton
Another Persephone, this novel about the life of an architect in 19th and early 20th century London was a real discovery for me. Helen Ashton’s writing is stylish and evocative, and her eye for architectural detail is wonderful. This, like Sherriff’s Greengates, is very much a chronicle of an ordinary life, where moments of wonder, fulfilment and immense joy are intermingled with petty frustrations, deep griefs and quiet despair, drawing the reader in to the world of the characters and leaving you richer for the experience as you ponder on similar experiences in your own life. I couldn’t put it down; Helen Ashton is an author I definitely want to read more of in future.
6. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie
I was totally shocked by the ending of this brilliant murder mystery, which had me hooked right up until the last moment. A real jewel in the crown of Christie’s oeuvre, it’s perfect Sunday afternoon reading.
5. Greengates by R.C.Sherriff
A fairly new Persephone Book, this reprint of a 1930’s novel by Sherriff, who is mostly well known today for his First World War play, Journey’s End, is an absolutely enchanting account of a retired couple who find a new lease of life after a buying a house in the country. Sherriff is the master of making the ordinary extraordinary, and drawing wonderfully realistic, everyday characters whose stories open your eyes to the magic hidden in the reassuring routines of our workaday lives. This was pure and simple comfort reading; the best kind for troubled times, and a book I know I will delight in sinking into any time I want to be reminded of the many wonders of my distinctly ordinary existence. Don’t let it pass you by!
4. The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles
I’ve been meaning to read this for years, so when I found a copy in a charity shop, I finally picked it up and gave it a go. I hadn’t expected what I found at all; an intriguing postmodern take on the Victorian novel, which was both incredibly literary and fantastically entertaining, alongside being a brilliant, impeccably researched evocation of the nineteenth century. The characters are subtle and compelling, and both sympathetic and maddening, making you want to jump into the book and give them a good talking to. Moreover, the structure of the novel itself, with the frequent insertions of the authorial voice to remind us that we’re reading a fictional construction, adds a pleasurable novelty to what could have otherwise been a straightforward historical novel. If you’re looking for a more intellectually challenging read in 2017, this would definitely be my recommendation.
3. The Victorians by A.N.Wilson
If you thought history books were dull, then let this be the one that disproves your theory. Though it’s long and incredibly detailed, this fascinating account of the Victorian period, taking in the great and good as well as the insignificant and trivial, opened my eyes to so much and had me glued to its pages. I thought I knew so much about the Victorians before I opened this book; by the time I had finished, I realised how little I had truly understood about them.
2. London Belongs to Me by Norman Collins
Prewar London comes vibrantly alive in this rich, almost Dickensian account of the lives of the various tenants of 10 Dulcimer Street. The private triumphs and tragedies of these individuals are played out against the seedy glamour of a world on the brink of war, and Collins weaves you effortlessly into the inner lives of each of them, their voices completely distinctive and so vividly drawn. I loved every second of reading it, and particularly enjoyed Collins’ marvellous sense of place in bringing to life a not often recorded period of time in London’s history. I can’t recommend this highly enough.
1. The Cazalet Chronicles, by Elizabeth Jane Howard.
It would be impossible for me to choose between the five wonderful books in this series, which chronicle the lives of the various members of the Cazalet family from the 1930s to the 1950s. It’s fantastically well written, brilliantly characterised, and utterly addictive. I can’t imagine why it hasn’t won every prize under the sun; to manage as many characters as Howard does, over so many years, and make each of them so completely alive, and their world so realistic, is truly awe-inspiring. If you want to get lost in another world, and forget your own completely; if you want to enter into a vanished society that yet still feels real enough to touch; if you want to laugh out loud and cry your eyes out, you will find everything you need within these five remarkable, irreplaceable books. I am devastated to have finished them, and already can’t wait to read them all over again. If you read nothing else in 2017, these have to be the books you choose.