Books of the year lists are a bit of a departure for me but I thought I’d give it a go, indeed I meant to do it for the first of December but didn’t get organised in time – which is why lists like this generally are a departure for me. However it’s the season to look back on things and having looked back at books it feels like it’s been useful – and slightly surprising. I’ve not perhaps read as much as I hoped I might this year but that’s par for the course (damn having to work for a living and its constant getting in the way of more entertaining things) but although there have been a lot of good books – this is after all the year that I finished Trollope’s Barchester chronicles, read my first Walter Scott, and worked through Mrs Oliphant’s Carlingford series – I don’t feel that it’s been a vintage year. It’s not a struggle to come up with ten books I’d happily recommend, anything I’ve written about I’ve been enthusiastic about, but it’s been quite hard to identify the ones that really stood out – the books which might make it to my fire shelf.
Somehow though I managed, and so in no particular order here they are – all read between December 1st 2010 and December 1st 2011. First up is Matthew Sweet’s ‘West End Front’ from a couple of weeks back. The more I think about it the more time I have for this book. It’s a lot of the dirtier side of war which we do well to remember, it’s also a lot of stories that deserve to be told, thoroughly entertaining, and at times desperately moving. All good.
Another recent read was Constance Maud’s ‘No Surrender’ from Persephone books. Not the best novel ever written but possibly a contender for the most passionately heartfelt. It has an enthusiasm for a cause that’s infectious. It’s also a book that makes you question how much things have changed, and how much has stayed the same. The answers aren’t entirely encouraging for anyone of a feminist persuasion and again these are things which should be thought about otherwise nothing will ever change for the better.
Mark Girouard’s ‘Enthusiasms’ also makes the list, partly because it’s a lovely thing in itself, partly because it’s entertaining, but mostly because it’s a showcase for the virtues of good scholarship – whatever they’re being applied to.
A.S Byatt’s ‘Ragnarok’ was easily my most anticipated title of the year, it didn’t disappoint. I read it months ago but there are still bits that run through my head. I think Byatt is at her best when she writes short stories and novellas; she’s pretty bloody good when she writes epic doorstops as well but I find her shorter books perfectly polished jewels – or something like that anyway. She’s just very, very, good.
Preparation/anticipation for ‘Ragnarok’ featured Kevin Crossley-Holland’s ‘The Penguin Book Of Norse Myths’ which I approached in the manner of a chore. It wasn’t, and good intentions to read far more saga’s feature for next year.
John O’Hara’s ‘A Rage to Live’ was a great big messy compelling wonderful book – I love vintage for reprinting him (and so many others). He’s a slight departure from my normal middle brow women – rather less tea and a nice sit down with a scone, more dirty martinis and a few too many of them.
Sticking with sleazy was Mae West’s ‘The Constant Sinner’ – not just an eye opener. I have more Mae West to read which is something to look forward to. She’s everything I hoped in the way of one liners and wisecracks but underneath that there’s a veracity that makes the heroine Babe Gordon stick with you.
I’m a big fan of Victorian literature and if I’d read Lady Audley this year she would be a shoe in, but I didn’t and I also really love Mrs Oliphant so I’m going with ‘Phoebe Junior’ the last of the Carlingford chronicles. I think it stands well alone, has a cracking good plot, and rips of Trollope with style. That’s virtually the perfect Victorian novel in my world.
The last two books on my list are both a little bit Noir. Vera Caspary’s ‘Bedelia’ which had a twist I didn’t see coming and which turned something run of the mill into something extraordinary. Dorothy B. Hughes ‘In a Lonely Place’ was even darker – and nothing like the film which is good, but an entirely different story. Dorothy B. Hughes was a Persephone find and since then I’ve come across a few of her other titles. Persephone’s ‘The Expendable Man’ is so far the best; ‘In A Lonely Place’ is a very close second.
Now I need to go and get a head start on next years list.