My Top Eleven Books of 2016

 

Last year was the best reading year, numbers wise, that I’ve had in quite a while. I read 66 books (6 over my goal) and am pretty content with the mix of contemporary novels and classic novels that I completed. A lot of my reading was generated by the two “book buzz” presentations that I gave at my library, one in the summer and one in the fall, where I presented 10 buzzy books of those seasons. I’ve not chosen very many of those books, however, as favorites for the year. Most of them were really good and very enjoyable, but not memorable. Classics and books by favorite contemporary authors (like Hilary Mantel) will still always be my favorites.  I was originally only going to have 10 books on my list, but I finished Terms and Conditions by Ysenda Maxtone Graham at the end of December and had to add it to my favorites – it is a little gem. Also, I intended to publish this post around the end of the year, but I had some pesky health issues going on and everything (reading included) fell by the wayside so I am only now sharing my favorites.

Here are my Top Eleven Books of the Year:

Charlotte Bronte: A Fiery Heart by Claire Harman – I really enjoyed this well-written, novelistic biography of the quietly passionate author. It is very detailed about her writing life and about the life of the entire Bronte family – definitely a must-read for Bronte fans.

Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell – I listened to Cranford on my phone and I think it is the perfect classic to enjoy on audio – episodic, funny and heart-warming. It is one of the favorite books that we read in my book club this year.

The Fortnight in September by RC Sherriff – This beautiful novel about a family’s vacation to Bognor Regis was a highlight of my summer. It’s a book that’s not really dramatic or plot-driven – it quietly describes the relationships between parents and their children and the traditions of their yearly trip. Simple and lovely.

Giving Up the Ghost by Hilary Mantel – Mantel’s childhood is opaquely recounted in this dazzling memoir. I always find Mantel’s writing to say as much in what she doesn’t say then in her devastating observations. The combination is so chillingly good. I hope 2017 is the year her third Thomas Cromwell book is published!

LaRose by Louise Erdrich – LaRose is a marvelous book about redemption and justice set on a Native American reservation in North Dakota. Full of wonderful characters and really sensitive writing it moved me to tears several times and made me think so much about forgiveness. I just loved it.

The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard – This is the first novel in the Cazalet Chronicles, the most perfect family saga series. I devoured this book and am now almost finished with the second in the series, Marking Time. I’m sure I will read the entire chronicles this year.

My Antonia by Willa Cather – My Antonia is another book club book and one that I’ve read before. I also listened to this on my phone and appreciated how beautiful Cather’s writing sounds spoken aloud. I find her books, especially this one, to be achingly nostalgic and gorgeous.

News of the World by Paulette Jiles – This short, adventurous novel is what I would call a “literary Western”. It has lovely writing, suspense, great dialogue, a journey, and a heart-warming relationship. I really enjoyed this and recommend it if you are looking for something gripping yet well written to break you out of a reading slump.

The Past by Tessa Hadley – I read this way back at the beginning of 2016 but it has stayed with me throughout the year. I find Hadley’s writing to be so lyrical and the story of a family deciding whether to sell their grandparents’ home or not is riveting. I hope to read more from Tessa Hadley.

Swing Time by Zadie Smith – Reading Swing Time was my first experience reading anything by Zadie Smith and I was stunned by her writing. It’s so vigorous, intelligent and perceptive. And also very moving. I loved this story of two friends and the different paths they take from their childhood on a housing estate in North London.

Terms and Conditions: Life in Girls’ Boarding Schools, 1939-1979 by Ysenda Maxtone Graham – As I mentioned above, I think this is a gem. It is very funny, fascinating and really engrossing. I want to read more about girls’ boarding schools so I’d love if Maxtone Graham next wrote a book about finishing schools (as she mentions she might). I would be first in line for that book!

I hope you’re all having a great start to the new year!

Cover Collection: Mansfield Park

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Yesterday I bought a Jane Austen themed coloring book and I’ve been having so much fun coloring scenes from all of her novels, choosing colors for Elizabeth Bennet’s dresses, Miss Bates’s ribbons, and Fanny Price’s wallpaper. This diversion reminded me that Mansfield Park is the last of Austen’s novels I have left to read. Though I’ve started it many times I seem to always stall out somewhere around page 80 and never go on. I was so inspired by my coloring, so wrapped up in Austen’s world, that I resolved to start and finally finish Mansfield Park. So last night I found my copy and began reading it before bed – and it is a lovely bedtime companion.

I own the Penguin copy in the upper left, which I think is my favorite out of this collection, though I also like the cover in the upper right.

Have you read Mansfield Park? Which of these covers do you prefer?

Margaret Kennedy Day: Together and Apart

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FIrst off, I have to say that I’m very proud of myself for remembering that Jane was holding her Margaret Kennedy Day and for having a Margaret Kennedy book on my shelves and for making the time to read it! With all of the reading I’d been doing for the presentation I gave a few weeks ago I thought that I’d never have time to join in any reading challenges again – but here we are and I actually completed one. So, I’m just happy for that.

And I’m even happier that the book I happened to read is an absolutely wonderful novel. Published in 1936 (and dedicated to Rose Macaulay) it is essentially the story of a divorce and how it subsequently affects each member of the Canning family. As the novel begins they’re at their summer home in Wales where relations between the parents, Alec and Betsy, are tense and strained. Betsy wants a divorce, but Alec doesn’t. The children know nothing of the negotiations between their parents until Alec suddenly leaves one Sunday morning – for good.

The oldest boy Kenneth passionately sides with his mother, refusing to speak with his father ever again. Eliza, the middle child, secretly prefers to go with her father. And the youngest girl, Daphne, doesn’t really care. As the next year passes all of the children are changed by the breakup of their family especially when their parents find other spouses and seem to move on with their lives. And of course Alec and Betsy are changed too.

It’s a heartbreaking depiction of how awful divorce can be, even when it may the best thing to do. The characters are intensely real, faulted and, at times, not very likeable. But always believable and worthy of our sympathy – even when they’re being appallingly stupid.

One of the amazing things about the book is that it hardly feels dated. I felt I could have been reading about a modern family – the same struggles, fears, financial concerns, and child custody and neglect issues as written about in contemporary family dramas appear in this novel.

Kennedy is very observant of human nature which is one of my favorite traits in a writer. I love books that tell the same story from each character’s different viewpoint and she is so good at getting into the mind of every member of the Canning family (except for Daphne – she’s a bit of a shadow).

In a way, this reminded me somewhat of Noel Streatfeild’s Saplings, with a similar look at how trauma shatters the lives of an entire family.

All in all, I really enjoyed Together and Apart and am glad to have finally read Margaret Kennedy.

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie

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After reading so many contemporary novels over the past few months, last week I wanted to read something old fashioned, comforting and familiar – so I turned to Agatha Christie. It seems odd to say that a book about a murder is comforting, but there is something about Christie that is so routine and recognizable and that makes her novels a nice reprieve from modern life. And haven’t we needed an escape lately?

This novel is narrated by a Dr. Sheppard of King’s Abbot, a small village to where Hercule Poirot has retired to tend to his garden and retire from society. But as everyone there knows he is a lauded detective he gets asked to help when Roger Ackroyd, a wealthy businessman, is found stabbed to death in a locked room. With the assistance of Dr. Sheppard, Poirot goes through his usual logic-based investigations, relying on village gossip and speculation to fill in the blanks.

It all smoothly hurtles along until the reader is snapped to attention by the completely astounding ending. It’s an ending that I certainly didn’t see coming and it is so admirably clever that I sat in silent admiration for Christie’s skill after the last page had been turned.

I’ve read a lot of  contemporary mysteries lately and I have to say that this novel trumps them all. I’d forgotten what a skillful writer Christie is and how you can get lost in her books like nothing else. After finishing this I ordered a few more Poirots to read over the summer and I’m looking forward to spending a few lazy afternoons  reading about the Belgian detective and his little grey cells.

*Thanks to Simon and Rachel for mentioning The Murder of Roger Ackroyd on their “Tea or Books?” podcast and inspiring me to read it.

The Village by Marghanita Laski

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After having enjoyed Little Boy Lost last summer I knew I had to read another book by Marghanita Laski so I decided to buy myself The Village by the same author for Christmas. I think I expected something with the same tone and feel as Little Boy Lost, but this novel is quite different from that excellent novel. However, though the feel is not the same I enjoyed it for its view of a changing village in the years after WWII.

The novel revolves around the story of a secret romance between young Margaret Trevor, a girl who comes from an upper/middle class family and Roy Wilson, a veteran from a working class family. Their mothers worked together in a Red Cross Post during the war, but once the war is over there is no question of them socializing with each other ever again. This knowledge is unquestioned by Wendy Trevor, Margaret’s unsatisfied, bitter, highly critical mother. She sees Margaret as a failure because she’s shy, reserved and hasn’t done well in school like her younger sister has. Everyone in their social circle agrees that the only path for Margaret to take is that of wife and mother – and Margaret has no objection to this as it’s exactly the life she wants for herself. But of course they all see her with someone of their own class and not with someone like Roy Wilson.

Roy is kind, hard-working, ambitious and wants a family. He and Margaret quickly fall in love after meeting at a dance, but their romance is conducted very stealthily as Margaret knows that her parents would never consent to her marriage with someone from such a different background from herself.

This is all conducted against a background of an altered economic climate with the working class making money and the middle class living in genteel poverty. There’s also a definite sense that the middle class citizens in the village feel threatened by the new confidence the working class has gained since the war.

The young romance can’t stay hidden forever and there is an inevitable clash at the end of the novel – between the old and the new, the traditional and the modern, the young and the old. Laski skillfully uses the classic plot of star crossed lovers to play up all the ways that England was changing in the fifties. Her characters are perhaps not so complex, but they do powerfully portray the various factions in this new world.

The Village is a fascinating post-war novel yet I think Mollie Panter-Downes’s One Fine Day, which shares similar themes to The Village, is a superior post-war book – I’d recommend it highly if you’re interested in this time period.

Now I’ll move on to To Bed With Grand Music by Laski – another Christmas present to myself!

#Emma200th: Volume 1

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This is the first post on my Emma thoughts for the readalong this month. Unfortunately, I read the first volume about two months ago and sadly have no vivid, charming comments that are floating to the surface of my aging brain right now. So, these will have to do:

  • Emma is a wonderful, entertaining, frustrating, amusing character. It’s hard to dislike her even when she is being so insufferably obtuse. Yet, when you step back from the humor and the sheer confidence she displays you realize that her actions, though cloaked in a tone of lightheartedness, really do have serious consequences that could ruin lives. Her sense of her own rightness borders on the dangerous.
  • How endearingly annoying is Miss Bates? We have many Miss Bates’s at the library – men and women (though mostly men these days) who spend their entire days in the library and take advantage of any slow times at the desk to bombard the staff with their thoughts, descriptions of their small daily outrages and pleasures and complaints about their health. I admit to feeling very Emma-like toward them some of the time and am very relieved when someone needing help approaches the desk and I can turn away. If I have time I do try to give them attention (except for the creepy ones…but that’s a different story) and these Miss Bates’s are always grateful, but they do try our patience.
  • Austen is really skillful at building up interest in and curiosity about Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill, isn’t she? By the time they arrived in Highbury I was so dying to know if they were really as described by the various characters and by their letters.
  • The amount of walking the characters do is impressive! And it also seems that a lot important of thoughts and conversations are had by them while walking.
  • I love the scenes at Randalls on Christmas Eve. The snow worries of Mr. Woodhouse, the cheek of Mr. Elton, Emma’s confusion about his lack of concern about Harriet and then the scene in the carriage on the way home – fabulous.

This week I’ll immerse myself in volume two and very happily. After an unfortunate experience attempting to read Jonathan Franzen this weekend I need something that is more of my taste to brighten my days.

Are you reading Emma this month?

What Matters in Jane Austen? by John Mullan

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This delightful book is written by a Jane Austen expert, but it is in no way dry or academic. It examines twenty ‘puzzles’ or themes or curiosities that run through all of Austen’s novels, things such as ‘Is there sex in Jane Austen?’ and ‘Why is it risky to go to the seaside?’ The chapters are very in depth and use lots of quotes from the novels, yet they are short and snappy to read. I breezed through this book and really enjoyed the discussions that draw from each of Austen’s works. I definitely felt a desire to reread all of her novels with this new information in mind. Reading this feels like attending a class with that funny, warm, wonderfully brilliant favorite professor from college. I could listen to him all day.

Even if you’re not a rabid fan of Austen or a Janeite you’ll find much to like in this book. It delves into the history of social customs during this time period and also discusses aspects of her own life and experiences that affected her books. I found it to be insightful, witty and very entertaining.