Sunday, November 25, 2012

Ten books from the last twelve months

Last year was the first time I did this (it's quite likely I was procrastinating over organising a Christmas card list then too), it was interesting to look back and assess what books really stood out - looking at that list again tonight I wonder how many would have made the cut pitted against this years books. There were plenty of good books last year but it was quite hard work to pick ten that really stood out. This year couldn't be more different, the difficulty has been in narrowing it down to only ten - whatever else has been less than satisfactory on the last twelve months the books have been tremendous.

So once again in no particular order here are my favourites - the ones I've actually buttonholed strangers in bookshops over and tried to persuade them to buy, or bought to press on friends with utterly evangelical fervour, and if you're not already acquainted with these books you really should be...

John Sutherland's Lives Of The Novelists was a birthday present from my sister, it's great for dipping in and out of as well as for reference. I don't read much biography generally being more interested in the writing than the writer but sometimes curiosity gets the better of me. What I love about this book is that you have the basics of a career, a few key dates, a recommendation for the must read text of each author, and quite a lot of gossipy detail - everything I want in short. 

Ford Madox Ford's 'The Good Soldier' was my first successful foray into modernism, I liked it so much that it really shocked me to find that not everybody is a mad keen fan. Personally the conversational nature of the book, the narrator's chronic unreliability, and the way it bends itself to any number of interpretations were all irresistible. I'm really curious to see what I make of this book when I get round to a re-read, I have a feeling that I'll hardly recognise it and that's an exciting thought too. This has also been the year that I overcame my prejudices regarding Dickens and read 'Great Expectations' I have no idea how it compares to the rest of his oeuvre but this just totally hooked me in - what more can I say?

Shirley Conran's 'Lace' did much the same sort of thing, hands up the writing can be pretty dire, but it all bounces along in the most encouraging way and when you strip away the trash there's plenty of substance. It's not everyone who could deal with child exploitation, alcoholism, and rape in the way Conran does. There's an energy about this book that really brings the eighties back to life as well as a passionate manifesto for female friendship and saying when something just isn't good enough. 

Somewhere between 'Great Expectations' and 'Lace' lies Elizabeth Jenkins 'Harriet' (probably not entirely the company she's entirely used to keeping). There's a gothic quality to 'Harriet' that puts me in mind of 'Great Expectations' as well as a burning sense of social injustice which ties all three books together. 'Harriet' is an extraordinary book - despite knowing better I tend to think of Persephone as being a source of cosy books - this one really isn't cosy. It's shocking and provocative; almost a horror story this is a subtle examination of how ordinary enough people can find themselves doing terrible things without ever really noticing they've crossed a line until far to late. 

My love affair with Trollope continues, I'm by no means blind to his faults but I still adore him. 'Can You Forgive Her' comes with it's frustrations but it's also glorious. The heroine can't make up her mind about who to marry which leads her into all sorts of bother; honestly she's quite annoying, so happily that's not the only story line. Where Trollope excels is in creating thoroughly human and nuanced characters, whilst I'm reading his books I really feel like I'm living in his world - I just think he's wonderful. 

Back in the spring I replaced my disintegrating copy of 'Ring of Bright Water' which lead me to discover Little Toller books, from there I found first Frank Fraser Darling's 'Island Years Island Farm which felt like a book I'd been looking for for something like thirty years (ever since I grew out of Enid Blyton's island books) and then onto so many others. Islands draw me in, this account of family life in tents and huts speaks of adventure without ignoring the more mundane aspects of life on a deserted island. Gavin Maxwell's Harpoon at a Venture probably shouldn't be on this list. This is a favourite from way back, it's also out of print at the moment, but it's worth tracking down - it was Maxwell's first book and to me is probably his best. There is a rawness about that it that creates a real bond between reader and writer. It could have been all boys own adventure but I think it's a far more significant book than that. It touches on what life was like for the many ex service men who struggled with peace, and for boys who perhaps weren't quite ready to grow up. It's also a brilliant, visceral, read.

  'Findings' was a serendipitous discovery off the back of my island reading, reading it was an unexpectedly profound experience; It's one of those books that quietly encourages you to look at the world around you again and find new patterns in it. There's nothing flashy about it, it's simply a beautifully crafted piece of art that should on no account be overlooked.

Finally, and this might not come as a surprise, there is Diana Henry's Salt Sugar Smoke, in a vintage year for every sort of book that's crossed my threshold this is the One, something really special. I've mentioned it a few times but will say again; it's given me a huge amount of satisfaction already. The kitchen shelves are groaning under the weight of preserved goods waiting to go out as Christmas presents, soon the post man will be groaning under the weight of copies of 'Salt Sugar Smoke' destined to be yet more Christmas presents. Promise me you'll look at it...


  1. I am slightly horrified that we've already come to the top ten lists time of year. How is it already the end of November?

    You clearly had a great reading year and, thanks to you, a few of these titles are already on my TBR list. I did have the chance to peak at Salt Sugar Smoke a few weeks ago (it was on the fast reads shelf at the library just before I left for a holiday, otherwise I would have checked it out immediately) and I cannot wait to get my hands on it for a more thorough reading. I think I spotted a grapefruit marmalade recipe that, given the excess of grapefruits I brought back from California, sounds like an excellent idea right now.

  2. Where does the time go? Salt Sugar Smoke is a great book - lots of good ideas in there - easily my favourite cookbook of the year.