So another reading year is coming to a close and I've been having fun looking back at my book choices. It's always interesting to see where I started out early in the year and where I ended up and often the two bear little resemblance to each other. I didn't seem to begin the year with any set plans, though I do have some ideas for 2013 that I'll share tomorrow.
I've read a couple really exceptional books this year, and some really good ones. It wasn't quite as hard choosing as I was expecting. Some of my favorites might be surprising to other readers, but for me these books simply clicked. Whether they are classics or not, literary or comfort reads they have all been memorable, made me sigh with satisfaction or floored me by the story or writing style. The latter eight books are listed in order that I read them (impossible to rank all of them), and I have a few tacked on at the end as honorable mentions, as ten favorite books are just too few.
Two exceptional reads:
The Way the Crow Flies by Ann Marie-Macdonald: This is a story that reads like the best thriller, has elements of a mystery about it but is complex and sophisticated in what it sets out to accomplish. It's a morality tale of sorts and an exploration of the memory of not only the individual but of the collective memory of a society. I recently mentioned that books often make me feel all tingly. Well, this particular book made me feel all tingly because what Ann-Marie MacDonald managed is such an impressive feat.
The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller: For me it was a pitch perfect story that had all the right elements in just the right measure--beautifully written, poignantly (and I mean that in a good way) told and perceptively presented. She even inspired me to pick up Edith Hamilton's Mythology and read it cover to cover last summer.
Other favorite reads:
Oleander Jacaranda by Penelope Lively: I really enjoyed reading this and as much as I loved the bits about how memory works, it is perhaps reading about this very exotic place and this particular period that I found utterly fascinating.
The Gastronomical Me by M.F.K. Fisher: It's part memoir and part travelogue, though not wholly either, and with food at its heart. It is a series of essays presented mostly chronologically that shows the making of a true gourmand, which is what Fisher was. Her writing is exquisite and sensual and often very witty. I want to read all her books now!
At Mrs. Lippincote's by Elizabeth Taylor: Elizabeth Taylor is a master of characterization and one of her great skills as an author is in her ability to create interesting characters with depth and feeling. They may not always be likable, but they always seem believable and multifaceted. She explores their interior lives so well, particularly her female characters. And she's so skillful in her prose--intelligent and sophisticated. You'll be reading along and then she'll deliver some damning or enlightening morsel that you're floored by her observations. Her books are the sort you read once for the story and then again and again to see how she makes it all work and to understand how it all works below the surface. She's really brilliant.
The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas: The Three Musketeers has it all--suspense, romance, loyalty, deception, revenge, great villains, even greater heroes, a superb villainess, sword fights, breathtaking escapes, chases across the Channel, war, intrigue and more than a few bottles of fine Spanish port. Dumas is my 'if I ever get stranded on a desert island I want one of his books with me' authors. He may be wordy, but I do love his stories and I must read something else by him next year!
The Black Spider by Jeremias Gotthelf: This is a story rich in meaning and symbolism, and even with some moments of heavy handedness, I was still hugely impressed when I finished reading. He gives you much food for thought and riffs on a number of different themes--rich vs poor, men vs women, piety vs secularism, greed vs generosity. I was especially interested in his take on the collective responsibility of one village vs the actions of one person as you could easily apply it to the early wars of the twentieth century. This was a total surprise read--it was a bookclub book which I initially was dragging my feet to read, and then was so impressed by the story. Talk about an underdog of a book!
Hetty Dorval by Ethel Wilson: With barely a hundred pages to flesh out a story, Wilson does a masterful job of it creating one of great depth and subtlety. I loved Hetty Dorval. It is a completely engaging story--so much so that once you start reading you won't want to stop. And I just realized that I did indeed read a Persephone title--Persephone Books reissued Hetty Dorval, but I happened to read a New Canadian Library edition of the book.
A Childhood in Scotland by Christian Miller: This is an absolute gem of a book. It's a wonderful look into a vanished society. Her life was difficult, but she looks back it all quite fondly--I was quite impressed by it. It had been hidden in plain sight on my bookshelves for at least a decade. (Another reason to read more from my own bookshelves). A Childhood in Scotland is absolutely fascinating reading, and I only wish the book had been twice as long.
The Blackhouse by Peter May: The Blackhouse is an exceptionally well done crime novel where setting and story come together in all the right ways. Crime novels are often all about the plot, but in this case the plot and the personal, as in the personal lives of the characters, are tightly intermingled. The dark, broody cover illustration captures perfectly the feel of the story--forbidding and atmospheric. And while the pacing may not be edge of your seat in a traditional crime novel way, I found it to be almost unbearably suspenseful.
Best comfort read:
A tie! Two entirely different books but both hugely enjoyable in different ways: Mary Stewart's Touch Not the Cat and Ashcombe by Cecil Beaton. I like just about anything by Mary Stewart and quite enjoyed the romantic suspense of Touch Not the Cat. Maybe not her best work, but the timing was just right for me. Ashcombe is simply charming and I want to know more about Cecil Beaton now.
Black Rain by Masuji Ibuse. I'm glad I read it, but it was profoundly sad and terribly disturbing.
Book I can't believe I waited until 2012 to finally read:
Ghost Story by Peter Straub. I've owned the book for years (years and years actually). It has ended up on more than one ('intending to read') book lists. Creepily atmospheric. Not sure I'll read another book by him, but this sure was a good one!
Book that sat on my night table (and on my sidebar to right) longest unread:
Mad Puppetstown by Molly Keane. I swear I'm going to read it next year. Really. (This gets a special prize since it has appeared twice now in this category). Yikes. (Maybe this is the year I'll plow through the rest of her books, though, right?).
Book I had no clue was going on:
Ragnarok by A.S. Byatt. It was good but challenging. Had I been more familiar with Norse mythology I would have done better with it I suspect.
Most interesting character:
Denham Dobie in Rose Macaulay's Crewe Train. She is equal parts appealing and maddening. Rose Macaulay's characters often seem quite interesting concoctions.
Book I wish I had finished but sits languishing:
Marking Time by Elizabeth Jane Howard. This is a reread for me. I finished The Light Years (almost a year ago to the day actually) and was well on my way to rereading the rest of the books that make up the Cazalet Chronicles, but I hit a bump somewhere along the way. Now I discover that not only has the series become a radio program (airing today in the UK) but Howard is working on a fifth book! I'm off to move it back onto my night table.
Best new find of the year:
Roger Deakin and nature books in general. Will be reading more of both in the new year. What a charming man he was and I bet it would have been interesting to go on a walk with him. He had such an amazing way of looking--not just looking but really seeing. There's something I want to learn how to do--be more observant of the world around me.
And now onwards to 2013!
Happy New Year everyone. Very best wishes for a happy, peaceful year filled with many good books!