Thursday, December 4, 2014

Top Ten Books of the Last Twelve Months.

It's that time of year again... I've been savaged by cardboard boxes (fast aproaching death by a thousand paper cuts), overwhelmed by a tsunami of wine, and seem to have directed every second person I speak to towards the mulled wine. The only things missing to make it truly begin to feel a lot like Christmas are increasingly fraught conversations about an item we categorically do not stock/does not exist/the customer can only identify as being 'a wine with a whitish label, I think...' (It rarely ends well) and end of year lists.

December is a bit of a lost month for me (I assume this is common) between work, birthdays, Christmas related chores (enjoyable or dutiful) it disappears, so although my top ten list runs from November to November it didn't look like I did any meaningful reading last December at all. This one is shaping up to be the same.

I haven't read as much this year as I would have liked but there have been some amazing books. My long list had quite a few cookbooks on it which I've regretfully knocked off in favour of (mostly) fiction. If I get organised they'll get a post of their own. There might also be a post of the 10 books I wish I'd got round to by now (there time is coming).

First on a list which is basically chronological are L M Montgomery's Emily books. A bit of a cheat as there are 3 of them, but I'm sure they must have been published in a single volume some time and they're more than the sum of their parts. 'Emily of New Moon', 'Emily Climbs', and 'Emily's Quest' gave me a whole new view of a beloved childhood author. I'm sorry I didn't meet Emily as a child, she would have been a great role model, but I'm delighted Virago have reprinted these so they're easily available for a UK audience. It's Emily's uncompromising ambition for her chosen career along with Montgomery's love of Prince Edward Island, and her sense of humour that make these books so special.

Next is 'Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives' a collection of short stories edited by Sarah Weinman. Lots of authors I already loved in here along with more to look out for. Just a brilliant collection of suspense filled stories that I can't recommend highly enough.

Emile Zolas 'The Fortune of the Rougons' was a bit of a revelation. After 20 years skirting round him this turned out to be a brilliant read. I like books that give me really strong visual images and even now, months later, I can picture scenes in the old graveyard, or of moonlight marches as if they were places and things is seen. I plan to work through the whole cycle, realising how much I'm going to enjoy doing it was definitely a highlight of my reading year.

Eliza Granville's 'Gretel and the Dark' was an unexpected Joy.I read it because I was interested to see how the fairy tale element would work. Far better than I could have hoped for was the answer. Granville taps into something fundamental about the nature of fairy tales and story telling and creates something wonderfully dark in the process.

Stefan Zweig's 'Beware of pity' is the sort of book I feel I ought to read but rarely do. Once I'd settled down to it I felt like whole reading avenues were opening up for me. Of all the things to say about the most important is that it was utterly absorbing from start to finish.

Peirene books are always interesting and generally provocative. I was tempted to choose Hanne Orstavik's 'The Blue Room' (which is brilliant) but on balance Hamid Ismailov's 'The Dead Lake' had the edge. The environmental cost of the Cold War seems almost forgotten now but this book perfectly captures the paranoia I felt growing up in the 80's as well as the weird elements of places on the periphery of human habitation.

'Mystery in White' is the Christmas offering from the British Library's classic crime series and it's brilliant. Undoubtedly the perfect stocking filler for anyone who's as much as mildly enjoyed an episode of Miss Marple. The biggest mystery based on this is how Farejeon's work ever disappeared so completely.

'The Rabbit Back Literature Society' would have been a very easy book not to read (the title gave me an entirely inaccurate idea of what to expect). Anything with a mythic or fairy take element hooks me in, this has it in spades. It's also a book with a strong sense of terroir (to borrow a wine term) and I loved that about it too.

Helen Macdonald's 'H is for Hawk' is every bit as good as everybody says it is. I love it for the way it does, or is, a number of different things and works as all of them. If I had to pick a specific strand it would be how Macdonald tackles her reaction to her fathers death. Crippling grief followed by depression - it can't be unusual but I'm not particularly aware of people talking about it in the way Macdonald does. She shares enough to be helpful, but is not I think overly confessional, but in the end that's only part of a rich tapestry of a book which I look forward to reading many more times.

Last on my list is John Sutherland's 'How to be Well Read'. This is another one that is perfect stocking filler material for the reader in your life. I'm a big fan of Sutherland's books, it's the mix of humour and learning that I find irresistible (and maybe the list aspect too). This one didn't disappoint. I've been reading his books since I picked up a copy of 'Is Heathcliffe a Murderer?' In 1998 and keep going back to them.


  1. Thanks for the post. How fascinating, I nearly borrowed "The Rabbit Back Literature Society" from the library yesterday, but was put-off by the title. After your recommendation will take it out next time. And I bought "H is for Hawk" today. I'd heard lots of good reviews of it, but couldn't resist when I heard a conversation about it by an elderly couple in the bookshop. "What's it about then?" "It's about 'awks." "What, birds?" "'Awks is birds" "Are they?" Both sigh and shuffle off....

  2. What an interesting list. I have the Emily books & Mystery in White on the tbr shelves. Unlike you, I'm too cautious (& probably not as busy) as you so I won't be posting my Top 10 until the end of the month. You never know what might be around the corner...

    1. Theoretically this list takes in last Decembers reading as well but truthfully I don't read much at this time of year anyway so it's academic in the end.

  3. I would love to see your list of cookbooks too, if you find time. And Mystery in White is going to be my 'Christmas read' this year - looking forward to some vintage crime. I hope it doesn't influence my management of the family though... ;-)

  4. I also planned to read all of the Rougon-Macquart novels, but ground to a halt six years ago. The Fortune of the Rougons is good and the Conquest of Plassans -the fourth book - is a great sequel to it, but some of the others (particularly the Sins of Father Mouret) were very hard going.

    I also read Beware of Pity this year and loved it. The image of the tower with the lift was particularly evocative.

    1. I'm not putting any sort of time frame on the Zola thing and might re-assess when I've worked through the ones in print, quite apart from quality issues I don't enjoy ereading as much as books.