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!