My top books of 2016

I planned to write this post last week, but somehow it didn’t happen. However, although time is going at snail’s pace this cold, wet January, it’s still only the 16th day of 2017, so I don’t think it’s too late to come up with my favourites of the sixty odd books I read for the first time last year.

The Year of Living Danishly by Helen Russell

I’m not normally much of a non-fiction reader, but this memoir of a British journalist’s move to Denmark and what she learnt about the Danish culture and way of life was absolutely fascinating. Apart from the cold and dark, it all sounded pretty idyllic and made me want to up sticks and move to Copenhagen pronto. Failing that I’ll just make another batch of cinnamon buns.

The Cazalet Chronicles Elizabeth Jane Howard

This is actually five books, but I couldn’t possibly choose between them. I found this epic saga of four generations of a large upper-middle-class family’s experiences of the sweeping changes of the 20th century simply mesmerising. The characters continue to live in my head nearly a year after I finished reading, and I know they will be books I return to again and again as well as recommending ad nauseum to anyone and everyone I think might listen.

How to Find Love in a Bookshop  by Veronica Henry

You know when you go into a restaurant and there’s a dish the menu which combines all your favourite foods? For me this is on the brunch menu at Bill’s and it’s their veggie special – mushroom, and guacamole, and houmous, and tomato, and chilli, and toast, with poached eggs to top it off. Anyway, this book was the literary equivalent. A small town, a variety of people with secrets, problems, heartache, all finding comfort and resolution through the books they read and the friends they make in the local independent bookshop. Heaven!

Who Do You Love by  Jennifer Weiner

Jennifer Weiner writes sharp, funny, observant and moving novels. She’s one of my absolute favourite authors, and this was one of her best novels in my opinion. A bit like One Day in its theme but *whispers* far, far better.

The Girls by Lisa Jewell

Another favourite author of mine, and the kind of writer I aspire to be when I grow up. The Girls is a darker subject matter than many of her other novels, and it was absolutely gripping. She writes with such vivid immediacy, taking you straight into the head of the character she’s describing. This was absolutely unputdownable.

What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty

This was the first novel I’ve read by Liane Moriarty, and if they’re all this good I’m so looking forward to reading some of the rest in 2017. This story of a woman who loses her memory after a head injury and wakes up believing she is 28 and happily expecting her first child with her husband when in actual fact she is nearly forty and a soon-to-be divorced mum of three, is totally compelling. It’s a really thought-provoking read, forcing you to consider how the tiny niggles or compromises that affect you every day can actually end up ruining your life if you allow them to.

So there’s my round-up of the year. I’ve decided to carry on with my monthly book reviews on the blog, with a rough aim of reading around fifty new books again this year. That feels like a realistic number, stretching me to try new things, but at the same time allowing me plenty of time to enjoy my favourite comfort reads when I feel the need.

 

 

My December Books

I did’t get much of a chance to read during December due to lots of cooking/wrapping/shopping/preparation, but I did manage two new books, bringing my total for the year to 63, which I’m very pleased with. At some point I’ll be doing a post of my top ten books of the year, but for now I’m still very much in Christmas mode – lots of cooking, lots of eating, a fair amount of wine and lots of time hanging out with friends and family, but not a lot of anything else.

A Christmas Feast by Katie Fforde

I picked up this book of short stories on the book stall at the school Christmas Bazaar, and it obviously couldn’t be more perfect for a feel-good comfort read at this time of the year. I couldn’t photograph it as I’ve already lent it to a friend – which is always a good sign! I’m not normally a huge fan of short stories as I like to really get stuck into a book, but it was actually the perfect reading for very busy days and snatched 5 minutes to read while I waited for the pasta to cook or before I fell asleep each night.

The Rose Revived by Katie Fforde

Not one which counts towards my total, as I’ve read this book hundreds of times before, but it is my must-read Christmas countdown book. Actually a lot of the novel is set in autumn and spring too, but some of the key action takes place over Christmas, and it always gets me in the festive mood!

Gone West by Carola Dunn

I’ve been reading this series of detective stories set in the 1920s throughout the year, and just happened to spot this one in the library a couple of weeks ago. A very successful library visit, as I also managed to get Spot’s Christmas and Spot’s Birthday Party for a certain little girl who loves Spot and was about to turn two just ten days before Christmas. And, an even greater triumph, these books were all due back on Christmas Eve when I definitely didn’t have time to get to the library, but I managed to remember to renew them in time. I’m awarding myself a silver star for that, to be upgraded to gold if I actually manage to remember to take them back the first week in January.

Hens Reunited by Lucy Diamond

This was another find at the Christmas Bazaar, and one I was really looking forward to. I’ve read a fair bit of Lucy Diamond this year, and have really enjoyed the books. This one followed the stories of three women – Katie, Georgia and Alice – who met at university and had all been bet friends at each other’s hen nights as they made fairly disastrous marriages during their twenties. As the book is written they are in their mid-thirties, and still trying to cope with the fallout of those marriages, and the effect they have had on their future romantic relationships and their friendships with each other. Not deep and meaningful, maybe, but likeable characters and really good fun.december-books

 

 

My November Books

nov-books

In an unprecedented move I’m actually early with this month’s post rather than late. November has not been the greatest. I had a heavy cold when it started, and the cold became sinusitis and a chest infection, then the chest infection became suspected pneumonia, a diagnosis downgraded to bronchitis only after spending six hours having all sorts of fairly unpleasant tests in hospital. You can tell I’ve been really ill, because I haven’t even felt like reading, and if I have read I’ve wanted a well-thumbed comfort read rather than something new.

However, despite  a sluggish month, my grand total of new books read for the year is now 61! Back in January I set myself the target of 52 new books in 52 weeks, and so I thought I should go back through these posts and count up how I’m doing, and see what I have to manage in December. But I’ve smashed it already. It’s been a really good resolution, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the push to try new things rather than just relying on my favourite comfort reads, although of course there’s been a lot of that too.

Anyway, my November reads:

Five Go Parenting by ‘Enid Blyton’

You’ll probably have seen these spoof Enid Blyton books around in the last couple of months. This one arrived as a fantastic surprise for me one rainy afternoon because my parents thought I needed cheering up and sent so sent me a little treat. It was accompanied by a notecard instructing me to read it while Sophia had her nap, with my feet up on the sofa and with a mug of hot chocolate to hand. Well, everyone knows you have to do what your mother tells you…

I did just that, and I really enjoyed it. I was a huge Famous Five fan as a child, and hugely enjoyed re-discovering them with Anna as we read the entire 21 book series together over the last year or so.

The vintage-style illustrations in these editions are absolutely perfect, and the gentle satire on the difficulties of modern parenting (favourite moment: Julian and Anne pretending to be Catholic in order to get the child they’re looking after into the best local school!) absolutely suited my need for amusing distraction without intellectual exertion!

The Nonesuch by Georgette Heyer

If you want comfort reads you have to go a long way to beat Georgette Heyer’s Regency romances. Sparklingly witty dialogue, loveable heroines, devastatingly attractive heroes, hilarious and achingly romantic plots. I thought I’d read all of them, but I was browsing around looking for something to read, and The Nonesuch caught my eye. It’s one of a number of lovely hardback books I inherited from my great-aunt a couple of years ago – mostly book club editions from the 1950s and 1960s.

The first treat about this book was that when I opened it, my aunt had written her name and the date (1964) on the inside cover. This is one of the things I love about books, and why my Kindle, with all its convenience, could never replace them in my affections. In 1964 my dad was still at primary school. The Beatles were at the start of their career. Mary Quant was just pioneering the mini skirt. The death penalty was yet to be abolished in Britain, homosexuality was still illegal, and the contraceptive pill had only been available for three years. The internet was still a generation away.

I can imagine my great-aunt coming home, maybe having been to tea at her sister’s and read a story  or played a game with her little nephews and niece, looking forward to the new Georgette Heyer that arrived from her book group that morning. She opens it and writes her name and the date, begins reading and is instantly transported into Heyer’s magical Regency world. Fifty-two years later, I come downstairs after putting her nephew’s grandchildren to bed, and open the same book, begin reading, and am transported to that self-same world. And because this is 2016 I then blog about it!  The word and naught else in time endures…

Living Dangerously by Katie Fforde

Katie Fforde, my other comfort read heroine! I have no idea how many times I have read this book, but I love it every time. Bizarrely I have now caught up with the heroine, Polly, in age terms. When I first read Living Dangerously I was about fifteen, and thirty-five seemed absolutely ancient.

At one point in the book an unpremeditated night of passion leads to her considering whether she could be pregnant, and I remember genuinely thinking that of course she couldn’t be, she was far too old. And feeling a little sad for her that, although she ends the novel in romantic bliss, she probably wouldn’t be able to have a baby because of her age. Now, thirty-five myself, I have a (still, just) one-year-old, and a very high proportion of my mid-thirties friends and contemporaries are up the duff or have new babies. I sometimes can’t believe I was only 27 when I got pregnant with Anna as it seems so…young!

But even though I read this first as a teenager, living with my parents, studying for my GCSEs, as footloose and fancy-free as it’s possible to get, I still love it just as much twenty years later when I read it as an escape from the responsibilities of a house and mortgage, two young children and a novel of my own waiting to be completed.

 

 

My October Books

I am on Day Twelve of a horrible cold and cough, and getting very fed up of not being able to breathe through my nose, and feeling like my head is full of cotton wool and my limbs are full of lead. So this might not be the most sparkling blogpost ever, but hey, it’s the first day of November, so it’s time to review my October books.

october-books

The Secrets of Wishtide by Kate Saunders

My mum saw this book reviewed and suggested I might like it too. She was right! This is, hopefully, the first of a new series of mysteries, featuring middle-aged Victorian widow Laetitia Rodd as the sleuth. Her brother is a famous barrister, and has taken to asking his Miss Marplesque sister to help him out with discreet enquiries in some of his cases. As she is living in genteel poverty, she is only too happy to oblige.

In this case, the discreet enquiries quickly lead to multiple murders. This novel was extremely well written, with more than a knowing nod to Dickens in both plot and style. Letty Rodd is an extremely engaging and pleasingly unlikely heroine, the plot was superbly constructed, and the atmosphere of Victorian upper middle-class life compellingly realistic. I’m looking forward to the next in the series being published!

What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty

Back at the beginning of October, I was chatting with one of my friends, and she mentioned how much she loved Liane Moriarty’s books. I was pretty sure I hadn’t read any, but the name rang a vague bell. After  bit of rummaging on my bookshelves I remembered why – I had a Liane Moriarty novel which my sister-in-law passed on to me with a pile of other books she’d read with her book group, but which inexplicably I hadn’t got round to reading.

So I started straight away, and it was one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read all year. Alice suffers a head injury which is fairly minor, other than for the fact that it wipes out her memory of the last ten years. She comes round believing that she is 29, happily married and pregnant with her first baby, so it comes as a shock to realise that she is now a mother of three schoolchildren, separated from her husband and estranged from her beloved sister.

This book is about how the things which shape our lives often aren’t big decisions, they are just an accumulation of tiny little ones, all seemingly insignificant, but which when taken together can drive our lives way off course. Most of us won’t have a brain injury to force us to take stock, but it made me want to pause and think seriously about my life decisions, what I really want to be doing and what I get funnelled into accidentally or because I feel it is somehow expected.

My friend described Moriarty’s books as being the kind that leave you feeling bereft when they end because you don’t want to leave the characters you’ve got to know. I found exactly the same, it was a book I didn’t want to end but equally couldn’t read fast enough.

Afternoon Tea in the Sunflower Cafe by Milly Johnson

A Spring Affair and The Yorkshire Pudding Club by Milly Johnson are two of my all time favourite comfort reads. I have enjoyed all her books, but they are the ones I have read again and again. Afternoon Tea in the Sunflower Cafe was a fun, light read, but I don’t think it will go down as an all time favourite.

The Year of Taking Chances and The Secrets of Happiness by Lucy Diamond

Two absolutely cracking ‘chick lit for grown ups’ books. They’re not perhaps books to make you think particularly deeply, but they are well-written, uplifting and all round feel-good reads.

The Cheltenham Square Murder by John Bude

Another in the brilliant crime classics series being re-published by the British Library. This is definitely a murder mystery in its pure puzzle form. I didn’t enjoy it as much as some, including some by John Bude, as I felt the characters were somewhat superficial, and there to make the plot work, rather than the characters leading the plot. Having said that, it had interesting and original twist, was very cleverly and tightly plotted, and I managed to guess whodunnit, which is always satisfying!

 

July and August Books

I’m cheating a bit and doing a joint post for July and August, using the summer holidays as my excuse. Back to school tomorrow though, so back into all our usual routines as well, including a book blog each month!

summer books

The Hive by Gill Hornby

I have had this book for absolutely ages, bought on impulse on a Waterstone’s BOGOHP offer a couple of years ago. Somehow, though, I never quite got round to reading it until July. I’m so glad I now have, because I really enjoyed it – far more than I was actually expecting to. I knew from the blurb and a couple of reviews I had read that the ‘hive’ in question is a group of school-gate mums, all buzzing around the ultimate Yummy Mummy Queen Bee. To an extent this is my life, although I’m glad to say that school gate politics at my daughter’s school are either nothing like as complex and all-consuming (or they have passed me by completely!), and so I was a bit concerned that the satire in the novel would feel personal. I am generally very happy with my decision to be a stay-at-home mum and fit my very part-time writing around my young children, but I have had to fend off the odd nasty comment from acquaintances who have suggested I am wasting my education and training, missing out on the fulfilment of work and failing to provide a strong role-model for my daughters by making this choice, and I think I was worried that the whole novel might feel like fending off that kind of criticism.

Happily, it didn’t. The satire was biting at times, but rightly or wrongly I felt that the target was pushy mums and cliquey mums rather than stay-at-home mums who were the target. The characters were well-drawn, and while many of them were instantly recognisable deliberate caricatures others were better rounded and developed protagonists with whom you could feel a real rapport. It was well-written, engaging and thought-provoking and definitely deserved better treatment than a couple of years gathering dust on my shelf. I’d definitely recommend giving it a try.

How to Find Love in a Bookshop by Veronica Henry

My mum bought this as a present for me at the beginning of the summer, and she chose very well, because everything about it from the title onwards it is pure catnip for me. I love Veronica Henry’s books anyway (so much so that I even forgive her for beating Two for Joy to secure the RNA Contemporary Novel of the Year award a couple of years back!), and I love bookshops, and I love love stories, and so a Veronica Henry love story set in and around a bookshop could have been written for me.

As with many of Veronica’s books, there are several different characters and story lines depicted, with a common thread to link them all – in this case the link is a beautiful independent bookshop in a pretty Oxfordshire town. Emilia has been left the bookshop on the death of her father, and is trying against the odds to bring it back from the brink of bankruptcy. The novel also follows the stories of others in the town to whom the bookshop is important – the rich lady of the local manor and her daughter, a lonely teacher obsessed with food writing and cookery books, a new mum struggling to adjust to life in the countryside away from her busy London career. The characters are warm and believable and you are are instantly engaged with them, and the author has a magical gift for evoking a sense of place and making you want to pack your bags and move in immediately. This is a total feel-good, comfort read which I know I will come back to again and again. Thanks, Mum!

Superfluous Women, Death at Wentwater Court, The Winter Garden Mystery, Requiem for a Mezzo, Murder on the Flying Scotsman, Damsel in Distress, Styx and Stones by Carola Dunn

I have my mum to thank for all these as well! When I went to stay recently, she lent me the latest in the series of Carola Dunn’s  historical detective novels featuring Daisy Dalrymple. She thought I had read the entire series, and I vaguely thought I had as well. I read, and thoroughly enjoyed, Superfluous Women, which is the latest book, but as I was reading I decided that the characters weren’t all that familiar. I did a bit of research on Amazon, and discovered that I’d actually only read one or two of Carola Dunn’s previous twenty-odd books in the series, and hadn’t fully realised there were others. Luckily for me, the first four were available in a Kindle omnibus, so I bought those and raced my way through them while we were on our staycation, and I’m now systematically adding them to my Kindle collection as I work my way through the whole series.

They are modern novels set in the 1920s. As I have mentioned before, I am a sucker for a cosy crime type novel, and a sucker for anything set in the 1920s/1930s/1940s/1950s, so this series is a bit of a winner for me and I’m really enjoying them. They’re page turning  and totally enjoyable to read, whilst not being too intellectually or emotionally demanding, which has suited me perfectly over this summer. I’m absolutely racing through the series as well, which is good for my 52 books in 2016 target. The only thing which might stand between me and the whole series in the first half of September is the limitations of my Kindle budget!