I’ve only just woken up to the fact that we’re a few days away from the end of a decade. It wasn’t until I saw Simon’s post on his favourite books of the decade that light began to dawn that soon we’ll be in the Twenty Twenties.
That got me thinking what I would include in my list of favourites.
I thought initially I’d choose one book for each year but that plan didn’t last long. Until I started this blog, I never kept track of what I was reading so there’s a black hole before 2012. There are a few books I’ve recorded in Goodreads for 2010 and 2011 but that’s probably guesswork on my part.
So instead I’m going to build a list of the 10 books I’ve enjoyed most from across all the years. Just one point to clarify though– they were not necessarily published this decade, just that I read them over the last ten years. My favourite book of 2019 may be in among the ten – but it might not be…..
I’ve gone for books that are not simply good, but outstanding. The principal test was whether it was a book I would want to re-read.
Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel
2012: Bring Up The Bodies is the sequel to Mantel’s terrific award-winning Wolf Hall, a book that breathed new life into the well-known story of King Henry VIII and his marital problems. It is the second part of her trilogy charting the rise and fall of the King’s right hand man Thomas Cromwell. I was blown away by Wolf Hall but Bring Up the Bodies is even more powerful. Now I’m counting down the weeks until the third episode The Mirror and The Light is published in March 2020
Cannery Row by John Steinbeck
2013: For years I thought I wouldn’t like John Steinbeck. Cannery Row changed my mind. The mixture of humour, the warmth and affection for his characters and lightens what is a fairly bleak tale of a motley gang of down and outs. I know this is not typical Steinbeck but it’s still encouraged me to give his more famous novels a go.
Harvest by Jim Crace
Another novel I read in 2013, the year in which it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Harvest is an exquisitely written novel about the threat to a village and a way of life. Grace doesn’t sentimentalise the countryside but he does shine a light on the human consequences of a rupture in a traditional way of life resulting from a pursuit of “Profit, Progress, Enterprise”.
L’Assommoir by Emile Zola
No surprise to find my favourite novelist making an appearance on this best of the decade list. L’Assommoir is a dark story; stark and emotional; that traces a woman born into poverty and how she tries to find happiness. She succeeds but this being Zola, you know it can’t last. It has some tremendous set pieces set in the working class district of Paris.
The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje
I read The English Patient in 2015 and it remains one of my favourite Booker Prize winners to date. Set in Italy during World War 2, it features four people who are scarred emotionally and physically by the war. They come together in a deserted villa, hoping there to find some peace. This is a novel to read slowly and to savour.
Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeline Thien
Canadian author Madeleine Thien takes us to China to show the effect of the Cultural Revolution on ordinary people, in this case three talented musicians. Thein covers a vast swathe of history but it never feels like she’s forcing the facts onto you. The book ends with the horrific standoff between the state and its citizens in Tianenman Square. It makes a great companion read to Wild Swans, Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang,
Cove by Cynan Jones
It’s hard to put into words just how special this book is. From the first page it hypnotises you with an intense and closely observed tale of a kayaker struck by lightning. Injured and adrift all he wants is to get back to to land and to his pregnant girlfriend.
The Vegetarian by Hang Kang
This was the most memorable book I read in 2017. It’s a really disturbing novel set in South Korea focusing on a young wife who decides she will no longer eat meat. It’s a decision that will lead to her mental disintegration. The final section of The Vegetarian is unforgettable.
The Salt Path by Raynor Winn
This is the only non fiction book to make it only my list. At the age of 50, Raynor Winn and her husband Moth lost their business and their home. Moth was diagnosed with a serious brain condition. With little money and no prospects they decided to embark on a 600 mile walk along a coastal path, sleeping under the stars. The Salt Path is a lovely blend of observations on nature and attitudes to homelessness but if the latter sounds bleak, rest assured that Raynor Winn has a great sense of humour.
All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville West
Older people often get stereotyped in fiction so it was a delight to come across a novel that rejects the idea you lose your ability to know your own mind when you age. The main character is a recently widowed 88 year old who rejects all her children’s plans and sets her own course. Its such a beautiful, elegant and thoughtful portrait I look forward to reading the novel all over again.
A Change of Climate by Hilary Mantel
I almost abandoned A Change of Climate but some part of my brain signalled that I should press on. Which was fortunate because, whereas the first half of the book is deceptively quiet and largely uneventful, Mantel more than makes up for it with a dramatic and emotional second half.
The story concerns Ralph and Anna Eldred, parents of four children, who live in a large and dilapidated house in Norfolk. They give the appearance of being selfless do-gooders, opening their home to drug addicts, homeless kids, waifs and strays; all of them beneficiaries of a religious charitable trust set up by Ralph’s father.
But there are clearly some tensions in this set up. The trust sucks up all their money and Ralph feels drained by the constant need to beg for funds. Although the problems of rural deprivation are as acute as ever, his level of satisfaction with helping its victims is on the wane.
He was torn, divided. The demands of the world dragged on his conscience; but did he do enough for his own family? … Today he had just one more letter to do …Yawned. But, he told himself, don’t despise these little things; they add up. A tiny series of actions, of small duties well performed, eventually does some good in the world. That’s the theory anyway.
Anna feels increasingly alienated from her husband. He spends all his time in meetings or on the phone solving the latest crisis while she’s left coping with a draughty house smelling of mice and mould. She and her children are worn down by the trail of ‘‘good souls and sad cases’ Ralph has brought into their lives to try and rehabilitate them – with little success.
Secrets From The Past
For a long time I thought this was a fairly typical story about a marriage in difficulty. But I was proved wrong because as the novel progresses, it becomes clear that the fragility of the Eldred’s relationship is the consequence of an event twenty years ago when they were missionaries at a remote station in South Africa.
It’s not until the second half, when the novel moves back to the late 1950s, that we discover the nature of the catastrophe that befell them and that has affected their lives ever since. From that point on, A Change of Climate was transformed into a novel about pain and suffering, betrayal and forgiveness.
The act of horror perpetrated on the Eldreds causes Ralph to lose hope that they will ever feel safe or to blindly believe in goodness. In a letter to his uncle he says prayers are futile because he no longer knows to what he would be praying.
Before now I have looked at the world and I have seen no compelling evidence of the goodness of God, but I chose to believe in it because I thought it was more constructive to do so. I thought here was order in the world, at least – a ind of progress, a meaning, a pattern. But where is the pattern now?
A Change of Climate is a cleverly constructed novel in which the revelation is delayed while Hilary Mantel steadily builds up the story of the couple’s life post Africa. The book moves backwards and forwards in time, introducing us to each of their children and Ralph’s unmarried sister Emma, a stabilising force for all the Eldreds.
A Climate of Change has a style vastly different to Hilary Mantel’s other novels, quieter in tone for much of the time, but no less emotionally affecting, particularly in the final section. This is a novel that asks about forgiveness and whether it is possible to escape the past.
It’s well worth reading, you just have to give it time to mature.
Reading Horizons: November 2019
What I’m reading now
I’ve been digging into my stack of “owned but unread” books in an attempt to bring some order to the chaos of the bookshelves.
A Change of Climate was published in 1994 and is nothing like any of the other books by Hilary Mantel that I’ve read. She never seems to write the same kind of book twice.
This one is focused on a couple living in Norfolk who run a charitable trust for homeless people; drug addicts and problem teenagers. In their early married life they worked as missionaries in South Africa at a time when restrictions are tightening towards the non white population. The couple’s liberal attitudes land them in trouble and they are arrested.
I’m half way through and while I’m enjoying Mantel’s descriptive style I think the book needs to move up a gear now.
By contrast I’m reading The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell, owner of the second largest second hand bookshop in Scotland.
It’s a journal which details the day to day events including the number of books ordered, the number of customers and total sales for the day (horrifyingly low!) Shaun’s comments on his often eccentric customers and his eccentric shop assistant Nicky are wonderful because he has a great eye for the absurd. This should be required reading for anyone thinking of buying a bookshop because while it sounds like great fun, the economic reality is sobering.
After a run of three books so disappointing that I abandoned them (one of them after just 5 pages) it was a delight to read Michelle Obama’s memoir Becoming. From start to finish it gave a fascinating insight into the character of a woman that stamped her mark on the White House. I loved her honesty and her humility – even with everything she achieved, she constantly asked herself “Will I be good enough.”
The Bowery Slugger was an experimental toe in the water of crime noir. Set in one of the most notorious neighbourhoods in New York in the early decades of the twentieth century, it traces the downward spiral into violence of a Jewish immigrant boy. The level of violence was disturbing but the book was redeemed by its depiction of New York gang culture and the Jewish community.
What I’ll read next
A friend keeps raving about the Australian author Jane Harper. I have two of her novels, The Lost Man and Force of Nature, both of which are appealing. But I’m also in the mood for some Trollope so might delve into the next in the Barchester Chronicles – Framley Parsonage.
That should keep me busy for a while.
Those are my plans. Now what’s on YOUR reading horizon for the next few weeks? Let me know what you’re currently reading or planning to read next.
This post is for WWW Wednesday hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words.
A few weeks ago the editors at Shiny New Books asked their team of reviewers (plus some friends) to reveal which book or books they’d like to give for Christmas.
I thought that was such a great idea I decided to do my own version but with a little twist. While we all enjoy giving we also enjoy the excitement of receiving. And so I asked bloggers, publishers, authors and avid readers based in Wales what book/s they’d most like to give as a Christmas gift but what book or books they secretly hoped Santa would bring them this year.
They’ve come up with an eclectic list incorporating a literary classic to a short story collection, a ‘clean eating’ cook book and, in one case, a novel that hasn’t yet been completed…..
Helena Earnshaw: Honno Press
Would love to give: Stranger Within the Gates by Bertha Thomas
“Obviously I love to give books published by Honno, and particularly from the Welsh Women’s Classics, hoping to introduce friends and family to these great women writers of the past! Stranger Within the Gates, by Bertha Thomas, is a favourite. Although written over 100 years ago, it has a contemporary appeal — it contains a witty pro-suffrage parody, as well as other sharply observed stories.
We’ve also recently brought out a new edition of The Rebecca Rioter by Amy Dillwyn, with a great new cover that makes a beautiful and interesting gift. ”
Hoping Santa will bring….
“I am torn between three books. I’m hoping for The Original Suffrage Cook Book, originally published in 1915 to help raise funds for the campaign for the vote for women. The Women’s Atlas, by Joni Seager also looks like a fascinating resource as does Y Lolfa’s Codi Llais by 14 Welsh women about what it means to be a woman in the 21st century.
“In fiction, I am hoping for Disobedience by Naomi Alderman. A bit of a well known choice, with the upcoming film, but a recent interview with the author was so moving and fascinating that I feel I need to read the book. ”
Cerian Fishlock: Publishing student
Would love to give: Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
“Of course you’d want to tailor a gift to your chosen recipient, but this is both my favourite book of all time, and the book I think everyone should read. It’s a phenomenal piece of literature, beautifully crafted, and causes you to question the basis of human nature. The Penguin Classics edition is a beautiful text, making it the perfect present for Stevenson fans and virgins alike.”
Hoping Santa will bring….
“I regularly buy myself a novel or work of fiction (thank you Waterstones for your buy-one-get-one-half-price offer), but very rarely pick up a non-fiction book for myself. Of course the New Year heralds the season of diet manuals and ‘get fit quick’ guides. Ignore those, head straight to Anna Jones’ vegetarian bibles instead. The Modern Cook’s Year and A Modern Way to Cook ignore all the jargon of current trends and offer realistic recipes which fit in with modern life — all wrapped up with mouth-watering photography.
An Edited Life by blogger Anna Newton, is an upcoming guide to getting your life in order (now available for pre-order in the UK). Whilst I’m not usually interested in social media stars turned authors, a quick peruse of Anna’s blog (The Anna Edit) will prove all the inspiration you need to overhaul your wardrobe/loft/kitchen/makeup… I could go on.”
Susan Corcoran: Blogger at booksaremycwtches
Would love to give: The Lion Tamer Who Lost by Louise Beech
“This is a dark, consuming drama that shifts from Zimbabwe to England, and then back into the past, The Lion Tamer Who Lost is also a devastatingly beautiful love story, with a tragic heart. It’s a joy to read, heart breaking and exquisite. For me, it’s her finest book to date.”
Hoping Santa will bring….
“The books I secretly hope Santa brings me are Pat Barker’s The Silence Of The Girls. Having fallen deeply in love with Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles, it would be fascinating to read the story from a female character’s point of view.
The other would be A Keeper by Graham Norton. I loved his first book and really want to read this one.”
Thorne Moore: author
“I’d give Albi by Hilary Shepherd, the best and most thought-provoking book I’ve read this year. It’s about real history and human nature in crisis.
I’d love to receive — from Santa, who is magical and can therefore achieve anything —volume 3 of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy, because I am itching for it, so it would make the perfect Christmas present.”
Kath Eastman: Blogger at The Nut Press
Would love to give: The Toy Makers by Robert Dinsdale
“I try and fit the book to its recipient and their interests but these are some of my go-to book gifts this year:
“The Toy Makers by Robert Dinsdale is set in a toy emporium which opens in London when the first frost appears and shows how magical the imagination can be but there’s also a darkness to it as well which I loved. I think it’s a perfect read for this time of year.
“I’m giving crime fans Amy Lloyd’s The Innocent Wife which is a really impressive debut looking at a woman who campaigns for, falls for and marries a death row prisoner, only for him to be released and for her to discover that’s when life gets interesting.
“My other choice would be The Unlikely Heroics of Sam Holloway by Rhys Thomas which is about an unlikely superhero: it’s geeky, humorous, heartbreaking and refreshingly different. I’d recommend it to fans of Eleanor Oliphant and comic book heroes alike.”
Hoping Santa will bring….
“I already have more than enough unread books to keep me going over the festive period, so I’d be happy with some book tokens for Christmas to put towards some of the terrific new releases coming in the New Year.
That said, I wouldn’t say no to finding the Costa shortlisted novel The Italian Teacher by Tom Rachman under the tree, or John Boyne’s A Ladder to the Sky, both of which really appeal to me.
Megan Farr: Firefly Press and Graffeg
Would love to give: The Clockwork Crow by Catherine Fisher
“A book I would gift to all children aged 8-12, as well as their parents, is this beautifully written and magical book by Catherine Fisher. It is the perfect read over the Christmas holidays, as the story is set in a snowy Victorian mid-Wales in the lead up to Christmas Day. When orphan Seren arrives as her new home she finds that the family is in mourning as their son has been missing for a year and a day. Seren sets off with the help of an enchanted Clockwork Crow to find him in this magical story of snow and stars from a master storyteller.”
Hoping Santa will bring….
“I am very much hoping to find Middle England by Jonathan Coe and Cassandra Drake by Posy Simmonds under the Christmas tree. I recently read The Rotter’s Club and very much look forward to revisiting the characters after the financial crash of 2008, following them to the present day, and seeing what Coe makes of the Brexit fall-out. I am equally excited to read Posy Simmonds’ first graphic novel in 11 years, being a huge fan. Her graphic novels are always a delicious mix of gorgeous drawing, brilliant characters and great societal observation.”
Anyone who was left begging for more when they reached the end of Bring up the Bodies, is in for a lengthy wait before they’ll be able to feast on the final part of Hilary Mantel’s trilogy about Thomas Cromwell. In an interview for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) she revealed that she won’t finish writing the book until late in 2016 or even middle of 2017.
Apparently her involvement as consultant for the stage production of the Man Booker-prize winning Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies have distracted her a little though she was able to use cast members as sounding boards for some of her plot ideas. When her work on the Broadway version comes to an end this summer she’ll be taking a holiday and then planning to get back to writing in earnest. it will take her between 18 months and a year to finish the book.
Until then we’ll have to be satisfied with the few crumbs of information she’s divulged. We now know the following about Part 3:
- It’s called The Mirror and the Light
- It features the short reign of Jane Seymour and the long awaited birth of a male heir.
- We will experience King Henry’s increasingly erratic behaviour.
- The book marks the demise of Thomas Cromwell and his disgrace
Those titbits are all we’re going to get for some time it seems but they have whetted my appetite even more. I know what’s going on my Christmas wish list for 2016.
Wolf Hall and
As we’re only a few weeks away from the end of the year, the blogosphere seems to have been very active with ‘favourite books of 2012’ articles. On my blog this week I featured two of these lists – I found them both interesting more from a perspective of what they didn’t include than what was selected.
This has been an eventful bookish week personally. After months of inquiries that just sent me down further dead ends. I finally tracked down a book club relatively close to where I live. There are many clubs around but they don’t advertise themselves – members join via word of mouth it seems. Our library service wanted to help but since most of the clubs are held in people’s homes, they couldn’t disclose personal phone numbers. Very frustrating. Eventually I found one based at a small independent bookshop called Nickleby’s (which has the added advantage of course that I can browse and buy at the same time).
My first experience was on Wednesday. It was an venture into the unknown for me – I had no clue what to expect; a highly erudite discussion or a ‘Janet and John’ level of chat. It was just at the right level thanks to good preparation by the peson The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje. You can see my review here. It’s fair to say this had mixed reviews – generally most people agreed it was a book of two halves but we didn’t come to an agreement on which half was the best. I got ‘persuaded’ to nominate the March read but it wasn’t easy coming up with something on the spur of the moment. In the end we settled for Posession by A. S. Byatt (selfishly, I chose it because its on my Man Booker prize reading list) ….
And in other news……
Have finally made a start on my backlog of reviews. I want to get these finished before year end and before the memory fades too much to write anything meaningful. First up was Bring Up the Bodies which won the Man Booker prize for Hilary Mantel this year which I’d read in August when it was on the long list. It’s as good, if not better than her earlier one about Cromwell (Wolf Hall).