My Books of the Year 2016

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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.

Merry Christmas!

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Well, another year has flown by, and once again I haven’t been as regular a blogger as I’d like, but I very much appreciate each and every one of you who takes the time to read my posts, and also those of you who listen to Simon and I rambling away on our podcast, Tea or Books?. Thank you so much for your support! I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about my adventures in life and reading, sporadic as my postings are. Next year I am going to do my best to give you a little more variety; I want to write about some of the topics I’ve been learning about as part of my Victorian Studies MA, and also return to my ‘Notes from the Classroom’ series. I’m also thinking about experimenting with posting some excerpts from my fiction writing…but we’ll see how brave I’m feeling!

For those of you wondering about the picture I’ve used to illustrate this post – as always, London has provided a cornucopia of beautiful Christmas displays, but my favourite this year was Liberty’s gorgeous Nutcracker inspired windows. The above image is a glimpse of one of them, but they are all marvellously inventive and if you have the chance to pop by and have a look over the holiday, make sure you do!

I hope you all have a marvellous Christmas, eating lots of delicious food, reading plenty of exciting new books, and spending quality time with your family and friends. See you in the New Year!

Greengates by R C Sherriff

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When Persephone Books announced that they were reprinting another R C Sherriff this year, I was delighted. The Fortnight in September, a wonderful novel about a family’s trip to the seaside and the quietly transformational effect of a holiday away from their ordinary lives, is one of my absolute favourite Persephones, and the promise of another Sherriff along similar lines filled me with anticipation. As it turns out, I was right to be excited, as Greengates is a lovely, life-affirming book that I could hardly bear to put down. It’s just the sort of thing to curl up and read on a cold winter’s evening, and I can see it becoming a perennial favourite.

When Tom Baldwin retires from his insurance clerk job in the city, and returns to his sooty semi in Brondesbury Park, he is initially filled with joy at the prospect of no longer having to form one of the homogenous mass rushing to and from suburban stations and trudging their weary way through the streets of the city, forever bound by the ticking hands of the employer’s clock. As he sits in the train on his final journey from the office to his home, clutching the meagre retirement gift handed to him by his colleagues, he has wonderful visions of years stretching ahead, full of a new epoch of purpose and achievement. At not yet sixty, he thinks, there is still so much he could do. Not for him the pipe and slippers by the fire that the office seems to think he will be sloping off to enjoy; no slow, gradual descent into the grave with nothing to show for himself. No, indeed; Tom intends to become a historian, discovering new ways of interpreting England’s fascinating history for the masses. He and his wife Edith will go on tours of historical sites, spending their days rambling across the countryside and having enlightening conversations on all manner of subjects. When not immersed in his writings, Tom will also enjoy the healthful occupation of tending his garden, and finally get around to all of those pesky jobs in the house that he has been ignoring for years. Retirement, he is sure, will be the making of him. By the time he returns home from the office for the last time, Tom feels a changed man; a man for whom retirement holds nothing but glorious promise.

It is not long before this vision proves to be far from reality, however. Tom soon finds that his dreams of becoming a historian are nothing but a fantasy, and he becomes irritable and argumentative as he broods on his failures. Edith, her tranquil routines upset by Tom’s presence in the house all day, despairs at the prospect of spending the next twenty years with a man with whom she now seems to have nothing in common. The cosy chats they used to enjoy at the end of their respective days, sharing the news of their separate worlds, have disappeared, and with little else to tie them together, all seems lost and utterly hopeless. That is until Edith suggests a walk to a favourite spot in the countryside they enjoyed on weekends before the war. The fresh air and happy memories of times past invigorate them, and they are thoroughly enjoying themselves until they are shocked and appalled to find the magical valley views they were so looking forward to spoiled by the building site of a new housing estate. Indignant, they go down to take a look at the works, and find themselves convinced by an eager young sales assistant to take a look at the sparkling show home. Unexpectedly entranced by the clean, modern lines of the house and its blissfully peaceful setting, they find themselves starting to dream of a different life. But will they have the courage to take the plunge, and will this dream offer them the meaning to their later years that they have so far sought in vain?

This is a truly wonderful book that I raced through, so caught up was I in the lives of Tom and Edie. They are both very real and sympathetic characters, whose ordinariness makes them recognisable and irresistibly endearing. I loved the descriptions of life in their suburban semi; Sherriff is excellent at finding the perfect turns of phrase to capture the pleasures of quiet, comforting routines and the smells and sounds of domesticity, and the details of 1920s furniture and home decoration fashions are fascinating to read about. Sherriff is a remarkable creator of characters who are well rounded and touchingly true to life; his sensitive exploration of the disappointments and disillusionments that can crush the spirit are quietly moving, just as the moments of sheer joy and exhilaration when inspiration strikes and all seems golden send a thrill down the spine.I couldn’t bear it when I got to the end; I felt that I was being forced to say goodbye to dear old friends. Greengates is such a truly delightful story; I can’t recommend it highly enough.

The Lake District

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Over half term, I finally achieved a long held dream of visiting the Lake District, which I have somehow taken thirty years to get around to doing. I absolutely loved every minute and already can’t wait to go back; I have never seen such beautiful scenery and met such friendly people. Though I will never tire of the view of the London skyline from my window, there is something truly profound about the rise and fall of mountains, the deep luxuriousness of glistening lakes, of blazing autumnal woods and hillsides covered in rust coloured bracken and the smell of peat and smoke and animals that somehow speaks to your soul and takes you utterly out of yourself in a way that manmade scenery never can. We were talking on my MA course about the cult of the sublime in the late 18th century a few weeks ago, and that idea of nature providing you with a transcendental and almost, in some ways, destructive experience, felt quite pertinent when I was standing on the shore of an enormous lake and contemplating my own insignificance in the grand scheme of the sands of time.

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Aside from self indulgent philosophical thoughts, I also had a marvellous time exploring the huge range of historic homes and pretty towns and villages that are scattered throughout the Lakes, which has been a place of artistic inspiration for centuries. You can’t go anywhere in the region without finding connections to Wordsworth or Beatrix Potter, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that Ruskin spent his last days here, and that the Arts and Crafts movement had a real stronghold, inspiring people artistically as well as domestically, with plenty of very fine Arts and crafts houses to be found nestled on the shores of the Lakes. We went on a real whistlestop tour of all the sights, starting off in Cockermouth, right at the northerly tip, where we visited the birthplace of Wordsworth. There isn’t an enormous amount to see, but just being where he grew up was amazing, and the drive through the Lakes to get there, taking in the magnificent scenery, was absolutely incredible. I was gasping at every turn of the wheel, and it was actually a pain to be the one in the driving seat, as I just wanted to stop and stare at the mountains and the beautiful, vibrant autumnal colours that were so much more vivid than anything we get in the south. On the way back from Cockermouth we stopped at Lowther Castle, a wonderful mock Gothic ruin that has beautiful gardens and an amazing tea room, which was much needed after our long drive.

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The following day we began our adventures at Wray Castle, a recently opened National Trust property that is rather unique in being a Victorian attempt at building a medieval castle. It is unbelievably hideous, but has magnificent views of the lake in front (sadly it was foggy when we were there!) and is good fun to explore. It is also, interestingly, where Beatrix Potter had her 16th birthday, and apparently inspired her love for the Lake District, which she would go on to make her home and use as inspiration for her books, so even though it was considered by some when first built to be a blight on the landscape, it certainly wasn’t considered to be so by Beatrix! After Wray we drove on to Ruskin’s house, Brantwood, which has been kept much the same as when he lived there, and has stunning lakeside gardens looking over Coniston. It’s packed with fascinating objects and paintings, and was a real feast for a Victorianist like me. I was also delighted to actually be allowed to play Ruskin’s piano – I love historic properties that don’t rope things off and enable you to truly experience them as the former inhabitants would have done. We then finished our day by popping into another quite unique National Trust property, Townend, which was the home of the same farming family for generations and is remarkable for containing four hundred years’ worth of ordinary possessions and one of the country’s most valuable libraries in representing what middle class people would have read from the 17th to the 20th centuries. It’s a fascinating insight into how more normal as opposed to aristocratic people would have lived and has some wonderfully quirky features that were brought to life by the very knowledgable local volunteers. Even though it’s not a typical National Trust property, it’s well worth the visit for the social history it contains, and I loved it.

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Our adventures continued the next day in Grasmere, where Wordsworth lived for the early part of his married life. It’s now a bustling town that caters very well for tourists with a wide range of shops and cafes, but you can still get a sense of what it would have been like in Wordsworth’s day. The views across the countryside are breathtaking, and we loved the walk to Allan Bank, which is a beautiful Georgian villa nestled in the folds of hills, with amazing vistas from its huge windows. It was nearly destroyed by a fire a few years ago, and so the National Trust has now made it a ‘home from home’ – a place where people can come and paint, read, knit, play and relax in the most beautiful of surroundings, and it really is a wonderful, magical place. The gardens run down to the lake, and the trees are full of red squirrels, which was the first time I had ever seen them, as they don’t live in the south of England at all.Wordsworth rented the house for a short time, but it is most known for being the home of one of the founders of the National Trust. I adored it and wanted to move in instantly; I don’t think I’d ever tire of its views! From Allan Bank you can walk to Grasmere church, where Wordsworth is buried, and then you can walk on a little further to Dove Cottage, where Wordsworth wrote much of his early poetry, including Daffodils and The Prelude. It’s a tiny, dark and rather claustrophobic cottage and reveals the reality of early 19th century country life – certainly not the idyll you’d imagine! I can’t say I felt particularly inspired by it, but Wordsworth apparently adored it, so there must have been a magic to it I could not detect.To round off our literary day, we drove on to Hill Top, home of Beatrix Potter, which was charming. As it is exactly as she left it, it’s possible to really see how she lived and also to see what she was copying when she drew images for her books; the house and its furniture are possible to spot in several drawings that have been placed around the house, and it was wonderful to see the images I loved from childhood literally come alive around me, including Mr McGregor’s vegetable patch! As the sky darkened we began to make our way back to Lancaster, where we were staying, and we stopped off in Morecambe, a seaside town, to visit the Midland Hotel, famous for its art deco building that was once decorated by Eric and Tirzah Ravilious. Sadly the Ravilious mural is now long gone, but the Ravilious Rotunda Bar was a lovely place to sit and have tea and cake while watching the sun go down over the mudflats.

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Our final day in the Lakes was taken up with visiting a wonderful Arts and Crafts house, Blackwell, which was built by Baillie Scott for a prominent Manchester businessman. It’s a breathtakingly beautiful house where everything is still in place despite it having been a school for much of the 20th century, and the detailing is magnificent. The views over to the lake are also stunning, and I could have curled up in one of the window seats and stayed there forever if I had the choice!

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I was absolutely overwhelmed by how wonderful the Lake District is, and how much there is to see and do. For many people it is a place to go walking and hiking, and while I would love to be of that disposition, sadly I am more of a stroller than a hiker. If you are more like me and enjoy a cup of tea while looking at beautiful mountains rather than climbing up them, then there is plenty of inspiration to be found in the architecture of the Lakes as well as its natural beauty, and you’ll be spoiled for choice of things to do. I already can’t wait to go back and if you haven’t visited, I can’t recommend it highly enough!

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Princes in the Land by Joanna Cannan

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I am loving my Persephone six month subscription; it’s such a treat to have a surprise book dropped through my letterbox once a month (as I’ve completely forgotten which books I chose!) and if anyone is already starting to think about Christmas presents, I can highly recommend it as a gift idea. You can find more information about it here.

This month’s book was Princes in the Land, and I sat and read it in one indulgent reading, utterly absorbed by the life of Patricia Crispin, who begins the novel a wayward, impish child, romping across the countryside on a horse and caring nothing for the opinions of others. After the early death of her useless, aristocratic father, her snobbish, small-minded mother is invited to take her two daughters to live with her father in law, Lord Waveney, in his Norfolk stately home, Hulver. Patricia, who is everything that her mother deplores, is her grandfather’s favourite, and she grows up wild yet indulged, with every whim catered for against the background of thoughtless Edwardian privilege. When Patricia comes to marriageable age, she rejects all notions of marrying well, as her sister has done before her; she will not be shackled to a brainless young aristocrat who cannot share her own restless, curious soul. One day, she meets awkward young scholar Hugh Lindsay on a train, and falls hopelessly in love at once. He promises to be everything her heart longs for, and they are quickly married, despite her mother’s disapproval. Patricia, despite knowing she will have little money, is not fazed at the thought of a change in the only life she has ever known; confident in her love for Hugh, she looks forward to a life of adventure with the man she adores.

However, as time passes, it becomes clear to Patricia that her marriage is not going to be the adventure she had hoped for. Hugh, embittered by his impoverished childhood and ever conscious of the gulf between his and Patricia’s backgrounds, is obsessed by appearances and finances, and constantly criticises Patricia’s attempts at housekeeping, for which she has never had the slightest training. Absorbed in his academic career, the two drift apart, with Patricia focusing all of her energies on her three children and slowly learning to forget the life she had once dreamed of, and the passions she once had, as she takes on the role of the urban housewife. When Hugh finally achieves his dream of a professorship at Oxford, Patricia takes her chance to go back to the rural life she longs for; they buy a house in the countryside, and she is once more able to have a horse, and introduce her beloved children to the rural pursuits she loved as a child. She brings them up to love nature, simple pleasures, adventure and romance. She pours everything into them, considering them her life’s work; they are her inheritance, her ‘princes in the land’, as the Bible tells her. Despite the disappointments life has dealt her, her children are her solace and her recompense; she may have few friends, few interests, and a husband who is practically a stranger to her, but her children give her life meaning and purpose, and she holds on to them as to a life raft in an increasingly stormy sea.

However, as the children grow up and develop interests of their own, Patricia realises with great sadness that all she has done for them, all she has given up for them, has been largely fruitless. None of them take the paths she had hoped for, and none of them appreciate what she has done for them. She is a stranger to them, and as they drift off to live their lives, leaving her behind, Patricia cannot help but wonder what it was all for, and whether there is any semblance of the old Patricia  left inside of her to reclaim as she looks to a future where there is nothing to hold on to but herself.

This is a beautifully written novel that is really rather searing in its brutality towards its protagonist, and is remarkably interesting in its treatment of the role of motherhood. The cult of the mother has been in place for a good couple of hundred years, and there is still a widely held belief in society that a woman who is not a mother is something less of a woman for not having brought a child into the world and nurtured it. Here, Joanna Cannan questions this belief, by showing how Patricia actually becomes less of a woman for becoming a mother; her true self is stripped away in the process of giving herself so fully to her children, and it is only at the end, when she accepts that her children have gone from her and will never be coming back, that she can begin to recover her true identity. For there is a great danger, Cannan seems to suggest, in a woman placing all of her hopes and dreams onto her children, who are not, after all, ‘hers’, but their own people, with their own dreams and desires, who will not necessarily become the people their mothers had hoped they would become. Children can disappoint, hurt and betray you; if everything you are is built around them, then as they move away from you, your life falls away with them. At the end of the novel, when a surprising event changes Patricia’s perspective on life, she realises this, and decides it is time she stopped living for her children and started living for herself. As such, Cannan is calling for women to not blindly subsume their selves beneath the role of mother, to not be content to sacrifice their dreams and desires in order to become nothing but a bland, benign presence in their children’s lives. For, in my reading of the novel, Cannan is not criticising motherhood; she shows clearly what a joy it is to have children, and how wonderful the experience of bringing up a child can be. What she criticises is Patricia’s style of motherhood; she is disappointed in her children not because they are cruel or unkind but because they are not what she wanted them to be, and this matters so deeply to her because she allowed her life to become too dependent on what her children chose to do with theirs. She becomes, in many ways, her own mother, who she as a child could also never really love, but there is hope in the knowledge that Patricia can see this by the end of the novel, and is determined to change her future, knowing only too well that there is no opportunity to go back.

I found Princes in the Land a truly thought provoking novel, that questions and challenges and isn’t afraid to raise the quiet fears that lie in all of our hearts about the decisions we have made and the people we have allowed ourselves to become. It’s the sort of book that would be perfect for a book club, and I wish I had a group of people from different stages and walks of life to discuss it with, and be able to see whether Patricia’s experiences echo their own. I can’t recommend it highly enough, and I’d love to know what other people who have read it thought of it, so please do share your opinions!