I love reading bookish reviews of the year, but this year I have struggled to write one of my own.
A list – be it a top ten, a top twenty, a list by categories – felt too stark, too cut and dried. And I couldn’t find a questionnaire that worked for me.
But then, yesterday, inspiration struck.
I would assemble a virtual box of books that would speak for my year in books. They would be books that had offered something to my heart, my mind, or my soul, in what has been a difficult year.
And I would stick a virtual post-it note to each book, either my thoughts when I read it or a quotation that had picked up to remind me why that book was in my box.
I found that I had twenty-five books. I think that’s just about viable for a single box, as a few of them were little Penguin books and one of them was even littler than that. Though I wouldn’t want to have to carry it any great distance …
Before I show you what is in my box, there are people I really must thank – authors past and present, publishers, sellers of books both new and used, fellow readers – who have all done their bit to make the contents of my box so very lovely.
And now all I have left to say is – Here are the books!
Diving Belles by Lucy Wood
Often the books you love are the most difficult to write about. How do you capture just what makes them so very, very magical? Diving Belles is one of those books.It hold twelve short stories. Contemporary stories that are somehow timeless. Because they are suffused with the spirit of Cornwall, the thing that I can’t capture in words that makes the place where I was born so very, very magical.
The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman
In 70 C.E., nine hundred Jews held out for months against armies of Romans on Masada, a mountain in the Judean desert. History records that only two women and five children survived the siege … An extraordinary story. And the foundation upon which Alice Hoffman has built an epic novel. An extraordinary novel.
The Last Summer by Judith Kinghorn
“I was almost seventeen when the spell of my childhood was broken. There was no sudden jolt, no immediate awakening and no alteration, as far as I’m aware, in the earth’s axis that day. But the vibration of change was upon us, and I sensed a shift; a realignment of my trajectory. It was the beginning of summer and, unbeknown to any of us then, the end of a belle époque.”
Monogram by Gladys Bronwyn Stern
“Mental collections can be as dearly prized as those we keep behind glass, like snuff-boxes, fans or china cats; or the collection of a man who assembled everything that happened to be the size of a fist. I have a mental collection of moments on the stage, moments of horror, irony, beauty or tension …”
Tom-All-Alone’s by Lynn Shepherd
I read such wonderful prose: compelling storytelling mixed with vivid descriptions. The sights, the sounds, the smells assaulted my senses. And I learned terrible things that I might rather have not known, but that I never for one moment doubted were true. Nothing is more frightening than the evil that men do. I heard wonderful echoes of more than one great Victorian novelist; and I saw knowledge, understanding, and great love for their works.
The City of Beautiful Nonsense by E Temple Thurston
“You’ve got to see Venice. You’ve got to see a city of slender towers and white domes, sleeping in the water like a mass of water lilies. You’ve got to see dart water-ways, mysterious threads of shadow holding all those flowers of stome together. You’ve got to hear the silence in which the whispers of lovers of a thousand years ago, and in the cries of men, betrayed, all breathe and echo in every bush. these are the only noises in Venice – these and the plash of the gondolier’s oar or his call ‘Ohé!’ as he rounds a sudden corner. “
Alys Always by Harriet Lane
This is a story that brings a clever mixture of influences together beautifully. It could be Patricia Highsmith writing with Barbara Pym. Or Anita Brookner writing with Barbara Vine perhaps. But no, it’s Harriet Lane, and she has created something that is entirely her own. She writes with both elegance and clarity, she balances suspense with acute observation, and she understands her characters, their relationships, the worlds they move in absolutely perfectly.
Harriet by Elizabeth Jenkins
I read ‘The View from Downshire Hill,’ Elizabeth Jenkins’ sadly out-of-print autobiography a few year ago and so I was familiar with the story of ‘Harriet’ before I was able to read the book. I knew exactly what would happen, but still I was captivated. Because Elizabeth Jenkins wrote so beautifully, and with such understanding of the characters she recreated, and of their psychology.
The Colour of Milk by Nell Leyshon
The prose is sparse, the story is short, and yet it holds so much. Every character is simply but perfectly drawn, and each and every one is important. Just a few words of description, a few words of dialogue painted wonderful pictures of lives and relationships. And of a place and time.
The One I Knew the Best of All by Frances Hodgson-Burnett
“The Small Person used to look at them sometimes with hopeless, hungry eyes. It seemed so horribly wicked that there should be shelves of books – shelves full of them – which offered nothing to a starving creature. She was a starving creature in those days, with a positively wolfish appetite for books, though no one knew about it or understood the anguish of its gnawings. It must be plainly stated that her longings were not for “improving” books. The cultivation she gained in those days was gained quite unconsciously, through the workings of a sort of rabies with which she had been infected from birth. At three years old she had begun a life-long chase after the Story.”
The Painted Bridge by Wendy Wallace
A carriage pulled up outside. Mrs Anna Palmer, the young wife of an elderly clergyman arrived. She thought she had come to meet friends of her husband, but she was wrong. She had been very cleverly tricked, and she found herself incarcerated in Lake House, a private asylum for gentlewomen. First she was astonished and then she was outraged. But she was utterly trapped. By the power of a cruel husband, by the strictures of Victorian society, and by her own nature.
White Ladies by Francis Brett Young
“And then, of a sudden, the trees seem to fall back on either side, disclosing with the effect of a fanfare of trumpets breaking through a murmur of muted strings, above, an enormous expanse of blue sky, and below, a wide sward of turf, most piercingly green within the woods’ dense circlet. And in the midst of the green sward stood a house.”
Snake Ropes by Jess Richards
“I am reading reading reading, locked in the stories. I am a wicked daughter, a drunken witch, a terrible scientist, a king with a severed hand, a resentful angel, a statue of a golden prince, the roaring wind, an uninspired alchemist, a fantastic lover who has only one leg, a stage magician with glittery nails, a shivery queen with a box of Turkish sweets, a prostitute wearing poisoned lipstick, a piano player whose hands are too big, a raggedy grey rabbit, a murderer with metal teeth, a spy with an hourglass figure … I am eighteen years old and my real life is here locked inside these books.
Catherine Carter by Pamela Hansford Johnson
It is a love story, set in London’s theatre world in the latter days of Queen Victoria’s reign. And it is a tour de force, balancing the recreation of a world, a cast of utterly real characters, and a perfectly constructed plot quite beautifully.
Mistress of Mellyn by Victoria Holt
“There are two courses open to a gentlewoman when she finds herself in penurious circumstances,” my Aunt Adelaide had said. “One is to marry, and the other is to find a post in keeping with her gentility.” As the train carried me through the wooded hills and past green meadows, I was taken this second course; partly, I suppose, because I had never had an opportunity of trying the former.”
Shelter by Frances Greenslade
Forty years ago, two sisters were growing up, in a small town, set in the wild countryside of British Columbia. Maggie and Jenny Dillon lived in an unfinished cabin home with their quiet reliable father, Patrick, and their imaginative, free-spirited mother, Irene. A happy family. Maggie tells their story. And she tells it beautifully. Her voice rang true and she made me see her world, her sister, her father, her mother. I understood how the family relationships worked, I understood what was important to them. And I saw enough to understand one or two things that Maggie didn’t.
Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell
“All Hollingford felt as if there was a great deal to be done before Easter this year. There was Easter proper, which always required new clothing of some kind, for fear of certain consequences from little birds, who were supposed to resent the impiety of those who do not wear some new article of dress on Easter-day.’ And most ladies considered it wiser that the little birds should see the new article for themselves, and not have to take it upon trust, as they would have to do if it were merely a pocket-handkerchief, or a petticoat, or any article of under- clothing. So piety demanded a new bonnet, or a new gown; and was barely satisfied with an Easter pair of gloves. “
The Fortnight in September by R C Sherriff
They settled into their holiday routine. Mr Stevens secured a beach hut, and they would bathe, play ball on the sand, watch the world go by. They would visit familiar attractions too. And journey out into the surrounding countryside. There was time and space to think too. Mr Stevens worried about his position in the world. Dick wondered where he was going in life, what possibilities were open to him. Mary fell in love. And Mrs Stevens broke with convention to sit down with he landlady, to offer a sympathetic ear when she spoke of her concerns about the future. Lives were changing, and the world was changing.
Kind of Cruel by Sophie Hannah
Amber Hewerdine was losing sleep, and it really wasn’t surprising. Her best friend died in an arson attack, the arsonist had never been identified, and now Amber and her husband, Luke, were bringing up her friend’s two young daughters. An incident that happened at a family Christmas spent in a holiday cottage was still troubling her. Luke’s sister, her husband and their two young sons disappeared on Christmas day, not returning until the next morning when the refused to give any explanation of what had happened. And things got worse …
The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
I’ve been terribly torn over the question of whether of not to re-read Wilkie Collins. You see, I fell completely in love with his major works when I was still at school, and I was scared that I might tarnish the memories, that his books might not be quite as good as great as I remembered. I’m thrilled to be able to say that my fears were unfounded. The Woman in White was better than I remembered. A brilliantly constructed and executed tale of mystery and suspense, written with real insight and understanding.
Thérèse Racquin by Émile Zola
Thérèse was the daughter of a French sailor and a native woman. Her father her to took his sister, a haberdasher, to raise with her son. Camille, a bright but sickly child. It was expected that Thérèse and Camille would marry, and marry they did. Not because either one had feelings for the another, but because it didn’t occur to either of them to do anything else, or that life could offer anything more than they already knew. Zola painted a picture of dark and dull lives, and yet he held me. Somehow, I don’t know how, he planted the idea that something would happen, that it was imperative that I continued to turn the pages.
The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher
The very, very best novels leave me struggling for words, quite unable to capture what it is that makes them so extraordinary. The Home-Maker is one of those novels. It was published in the 1920s, it is set in small town American, and yet it feels extraordinarily relevant. It is the story of the Knapp family – Evangeline, Lester and their children, Helen, Henry and Stephen. A family that was unhappy, because both parents were trapped in the roles that society dictated a mother and a father should play.
The Other Half of Me by Morgan McCarthy
As I read The Other Half of Me, Morgan McCarthy’s first novel, I heard echoes of many other stories. Stories of lives lived in grand country houses. Stories of troubled families harbouring dark secrets. Stories of privileged, but troubled, lives … and yet, through all of that, I heard a new and distinctive story.
The Heir by Vita Sackville-West
Blackboys was home, and its faded grandeur gave him beauty, comfort, and a place in the world, a point in history. He came to realise that slowly, as he walked through galleries full of family portraits, as he looked across beautiful gardens towards rolling hills, as he sat, peacefully in his wood-pannelled library.
The Uninvited by Liz Jensen
“Mass hysterical outbreaks rarely have identifiable inceptions, but the date I recall most vividly is Sunday 16th September, when a young child in butterfly pyjamas slaughtered her grand-mother with a nail-gun to the neck. The attack took place in a family living room in a leafy Harrogate cul-de-sac, the kind where no-one drops litter, and where you can hear bird-song…”
And now tell me, what would you put in your box for 2012?