Someone in my on-line book club suggested we compile a Top Ten list of the fiction, and the non-fiction books we read this year – and re-reads counted too, if the re-read was this year. This gave me much happy thinking time, though I was pleased that we were satisfied with just the two lists, rather than ranking WITHIN those lists, else the arguments with myself and the shufflings up and down could have taken me into daffodil time next year. All, being books I loved, were reviewed on here, follow the links for those gushy, enthusing reviews
So, in no particular preference order but more or less the ‘as I read and reviewed’ order here are, Ta Daa………..The Fictions
1) The Wall. Marlen Haushofer. This has nothing to do with Pink Floyd, though it was also made into a film!
Marlen Haushofer was an Austrian author who wrote this rather extraordinary post-apocalypse book in the 60s, later made into an equally wonderful movie, prompting the welcome reissue of the book. It has been mis-described as an eco-feminist Utopian novel. Eco-feminist it may well be, but some people have a remarkable idea of Utopia, is all I can say!
2) Dark Matter by Michelle Paver. This is a chiller/thriller set in the far far North. And how I love books with a setting in the freezing cold of Nordic isolation. Beautifully written, Madness, class and utter isolation and things which can’t be named, set in the 30s. Genuinely terrifying, a one for the short days as long as there isn’t a power failure!
3) Night Film Marisha Pessl What to say! Donna Tartt’s michievous younger sister (not really, but that is what her writing is like) She has Tartt’s intelligence, but is infinitely more playful. Here are noir god games and solving a mystery all hooked in with indie film making
4) Anthony Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot See is a beautifully written book, with some ‘magical realism’ touches, set in the second world war in Paris and Berlin The central character is a young blind French girl, and a rather gentle young boy in Germany who is swept up by the Nazi machine, into being part of the invading army. The story is told in alternate chapters by the two protagonists, and is wondrous, heart wrenching and stunning
5) The Magus John Fowles I have been reading and re-reading this every 5 or 10 years. This year was one of those years, as reading the Pessl sent me enjoyably back to it. Iconic book, hugely influential. A literary page-turner, I recognised its influence in the Pessl book. Yes it has the flaws of the time, a rather patriarchal elitism but Fowles a novelist who was absolutely extending the literary form, whilst creating a page turner. This was also made into a film. A dreadful one.
6) Bodies of Light Sarah Moss. I’d read her earlier Night Waking, with some reservations, but she had fallen off my radar, till a book club member raved about this one. Which grabbed me without any reservations. Indeed it sent me on to further Moss reads. Stunning. Feminism and much more 1850s-1880s and the fierce women who fought for us to get education
7) The Visitors Rebecca Mascull This might almost be my favourite of the year because it took me so by surprise. Nearly missed it as the dust-jacket makes it look a bit marshmallow. Anything but. Set mainly in Kent and South Africa, at the time of the Boer war, the central character is a wonderfully fierce deaf-blind girl, and how. I’m chomping at the bit for Mascull’s second book to come out in 2015. With this book, she joins the ranks of writers whom I find myself on literary crusade for. I was so impressed by Mascull that offered the chance to interview her by the publsiher, I jumped
8) The Bone Clocks David Mitchell Not his best, but I can never pass a Mitchell book by, and he always leaves me thinking hard. Some real pyrotechnics, a mash-up of times, places, genres and some absolutely stonking writing A writer who seems to have a whole army of voices inside him. A huge novel in scope, style and genre-bending. Some of the sections miss the mark, but others are extraordinary. He hits the bulls-eye so unerringly that the fact that sometimes he clumsily breaks things is forgiveable
9) The Narrow Road To The Deep North Richard Flanagan The Booker this year, and one of those lacerating reads about war – this time Australian POWs in Japanese camps, and the building of the Burma railway, but there is much more to it than that, despite the real horror there is a huge sense of humanity and tenderness rolling through it. Curiously, though I have no stomach at all for the inventions of gore, I continue compelled to read books about the evidence of our atrocities. Writers making us look into the mirror of who we are, for good and ill.
10) This is Life Dan Rhodes As a complete break to my preferred diet of heavy lit fic, this is a delightful bubble, set in the art and performance world in Paris. it’s some kind of romantic fantasy, fabulously written, audacious, utterly joyful and good-humoured and I grinned, smiled and laughed my way through it, which makes a change from weeping my way through a book!
I was fairly shocked to see that I hadn’t read that much non fiction this year – and a lot of the books I had read (or re-read) were biographies or autobiographies, particularly – most of which were written by fiction writers. Even so, I did have to work hard to whittle down to 10 specials. I think the autobio subject matter reflects the fact that I am inveterately curious about individual stories, and the way one life can illuminate many. I need to be grabbed by the warmth and immediacy of heart, and the felt sense of in-the-gut truth, as well as the wrestles and weighings up and judgement of mind. So, reflections and stories written by writers, about aspects of their own lives are more likely to engage me than a more academic and distanced study. It also probably illustrates that though i have been through academia, I lack the intellectual rigour of academia, and remain greedy for the subjectivity of individual story
1) To The River Olivia Laing A combination of nature writing (which I love) and writing about literature (which I also love!) Laing walked the length of the River Ouse (where Virginia Woolf drowned herself) there is a lot about Woolf, and other writers and artists with a connection to the area, but also the history, geography and culture of those connected to where the river runs. And as with my love of the immediate story of the author within the subject (providing you resonate to the authorial voice) I like Laing’s relationship to her subjects
2 A Spy Among Friends Ben Macintyre This is the closest I get, in this list, to conventional biography, where the author does not engage in relationship with his subject matter but tells a story (Kim Philby’s) via traditional journalistic research, whilst standing outside the subject (which of course we can never completely do, as the writer/researcher of course arranges material and writes from their own subjectivity
3) Foreign Correspondence Geraldine Brooks Brooks is an Australian author who sets out to discover the penpals she had corresponded with from the 60s, some 30 years later. Lots about history and culture across the world. Its a bit of a detective investigation into her own past, and the lives of those penpals. Full of individual life stories.
5) My Salinger Year Joanne Smith Rakoff. Rakoff worked in an old fashioned literary agent’s – Salinger’s agent and this is a lovely meander around the changing face of publishing, a great book for someone who loves reading about writing, publishing, and all things bookie.
6) Listening to Scent – An Olfactory Journey Jennifer Peace Rhind Okay, a brilliant book about an area I specialise in, lots of stuff about chemistry and developing olfactory skills. I was delighted to find a book which taught me a huge amount of new information in an area I think I know quite a lot about! Probably not so compelling for wider audiences though
7) The Spirit In Aromatherapy Gill Farrar-Halls. Another ‘with my professional hat on’ This time, it’s actually more about the nature of the therapeutic relationship than anything else, even though the title says its about the oils. She’s been a Buddhist most of her life, and there’s a lot of very pertinent stuff about how that has profound effects on how the client/therapist relationship cab be handled. I do like books written from a Buddhist perspective which are not overtly ‘about’ Buddhism
8) Limonov Emmanuel Carrere Back to the territory I normally keep for fiction – disturbing ambiguity. Limonov is an extremely complex,Russian political activist, criminal and writer, often deeply unattractive in some of his actions and ideologies. Carrere is a campaigning French journalist, of Russian ancestry, and uses Limonov’s life to explore Russia in the twentieth century – and also approaches his subject matter from a Buddhist perspective. It’s not a traditional biography, since the writer inserts his own autobiography into the mix
9) How to be a Heroine Samantha Ellis Wonderfully witty account by Ellis, a playwright, of the fictional women who shaped her. It’s another book about reading, the power of literature and would make a great book club read, as you can’t help arguing with Ellis about YOUR favourite heroines which she missed out!
10) Cider With Rosie – Laurie Lee (this was a re-read) In some ways reading the Olivia Laing sent me back to Lee, who also later set out on an epic walk, this is about the Gloucestershire he left, and is one of those wonderful books where the connection to ‘what it means to be English’ is passionate and beautiful, a sense of landscape and culture, a recording of ways of life and community which were already dying when Lee recorded them, in the 30s. A pride and ownership of the roots to time and place, without jingoism
So…………did any of these make your ‘best reads of the year’ lists? And, as pertinently, will any of them have a chance of making your 2015 lists!