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 September Books

Is it just me, or has September been a very, very long month? I think it’s because it encompassed the tail-end of the school holidays, the back-to-school rush, a mini-heatwave complete with lovely day trip to the seaside which made it feel like we were back on holiday, and then this last week alone has lasted at least a month as I’ve been at home with poorly off-school seven year old and teething toddler whilst battling extreme PMT!

I also seem to have managed to read a lot more than usual as well, so my September book list is quite long (even though a couple are missing from the photo because I had to take them back to the library!).

september-books

Die Laughing, Gunpowder Plot, Heirs of the Body, The Case of the Murdered Muckraker, Mistletoe and Murder, The Black Ship, Sheer Folly by Carola Dunn

As last month, I have been racing through this detective series set in the 1920s. It was getting a slightly expensive Kindle habit, but luckily our local library has a good selection, so I’ve been able to feed my addiction. I’ve now read almost the entire series, which is probably just as well, because I’m reaching a stage where I’ve come across so many literary bodies in unexpected and theoretically innocent scenarios, that I’m starting to feel slightly surprised that my average day doesn’t encompass a murder or two. It might be time to take a little break from the crime, but I have thoroughly enjoyed my binge while it lasted.

The Girls by Lisa Jewell

Lisa Jewell is one of my absolute favourite authors, but I somehow missed this book when it was out new. I was thrilled to discover it in a charity shop a couple of weeks ago when I was searching out Rainbow Magic fairy books for my daughter (don’t ask; if you’re a seven year old girl these are A Big Thing). Now I’m an author I always feel slightly guilty about buying books in charity shops because the author doesn’t benefit at all. However, on the positive side, the purchase (along with a stack of the fairy books) was a donation to the Marie Curie Hospice in Hampstead, which is a very worthwhile beneficiary.

I gobbled up the book in 24 hours, reminding myself why these days I often choose to re-read old favourites rather than tackle something new. The thing is, I am slightly addicted to reading, and when in the grip of a new book by an author I love, I do tend to let everything else in my life slide. Which includes neglecting my children a bit. Nevermind, at least I read quickly, so they didn’t have long to put up with burnt toast, a lack of home-made cooking and distinctly absent-minded responses to their chatter. And I remembered to pick Anna up from school on time and everything.

The book is set in modern day London, following the lives of the families living in the houses set round a pretty shared garden over the course of one intense and eventful summer. Lisa Jewell’s overwhelming strength is her characterisation. She is able to get inside the heads of alcoholic single mums, disillusioned forty-something dads, bereft teenage girls, neglected teenage boys and many more totally convincingly. Even the most minor characters are beautifully drawn and contribute to the overall verisimilitude of the story. As with all her novels, I would absolutely recommend it.

Who Do You Love by Jennifer Weiner

Jennifer Weiner is another favourite author of mine. She is American, and I always find it interesting to spot the differences and similarities in culture, identity and social mores between Britain and America when reading her books.

Who Do You Love has something of the feel of One Day by David Nicholls about it. Controversially, I’m not a big One Day fan – to get on my feminist high-horse, if it had been written by a woman it would have gone utterly unremarked upon by most critics; dismissed as chick-lit. Because it was a man venturing into the world of love and relationships it was deemed worthy of critical note. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t hate One Day, and Nicholls is a talented author, but I just think that authors like Lisa Jewell and Jennifer Weiner are writing wonderful novels with stunning emotional depth, vivid characterisation and wittily detailed social observation, but that because they are written by women they get lumped into ‘women’s fiction’ genre rather than being treated as mainstream literature. Which is a pity. Rant over.

Who Do You Love follows the lives of a bi-racial boy from a poor area of Philadelphia and an upper-middle class Jewish girl from Florida over the course of three decades. The book is their love story, but it is also the story of how who and what and how we choose to love is the biggest influence on all of our lives. A brilliant read, unfortunately leading to a little more benign child neglect. Although apparently the biggest factor in whether a child grows up to love books and reading is how often they see their parents enjoying books, so perhaps I have actually been a model parent after all this month.

How to be a Heroine

I’ve just finished reading How to be a Heroine by Samantha Ellis, and my head is so full of it that there’s no point even attempting to blog about anything else. Or, indeed, to do what I ought to be doing and work on my edits for To Have and to Hold – that June publication date which seemed such a long way away is fast approaching, in publishing terms at least.

Ellis’ memoir is of a woman in her thirties reflecting on the books she’s read, from earliest childhood onwards, and on the heroines of these books who have all contributed to making her the person she is. It’s a fabulous idea, and before I started reading it I had to overcome my jealous resentment that someone else had the idea first. Now I’ve finished it I’m having to restrain myself from turning stalker, finding Samantha Ellis, and begging her to be my new best friend. She articulates so brilliantly the feeling I have always had  – that characters from the books I’ve read and loved are real people in my life, with just as much influence as actual friends.

The reviewer on the Domestic Sluttery website was surprised to learn that she wasn’t the only person who’d loved the Emily of New Moon books, L.M. Montgomery’s lesser-known and less conventional heroine. I’d always thought the same, but apparently there’s a whole generation of bookish girls who grew up in the eighties and nineties reading about Emily’s attempts to resist fitting in and to pursue her dream of becoming a writer. Like Ellis, I’m sure that the seeds of my own desire to be a writer were sewn when I read these books.

One of the things I found most interesting was how Ellis’ perceptions of the heroines have changed as she’s re-read the books. Applying her adult feminist sensibilities often leaves her horrified – at, for example, Katy Carr in What Katy Did, or even the March sisters in Little  Women. This kind of literary criticism is right up my street- analysing not just the text itself, but its social and historical context, and the author’s own personal circumstances. When I was doing my English degree in the late nineties and early noughties, the critical theory most in vogue was post-structuralist, with Roland Barthes, declaring ‘the author is dead’, as its poster boy. I just couldn’t get my head round that; for me the author and the context was integral to the book itself, and I couldn’t see how you could hope to understand one without the other.

It’s not as simplistic as that, though. The relationship between reader and character is symbiotic; their story helps to form us, but we also bring our own experiences to bear on them, meaning that a book can be read in entirely different ways depending on your own situation when you read it. As a young teenager I loved Gone With the Wind, and was so wrapped up in the story of Rhett and Scarlett that the fairly horrific portrayal of slavery as a necessary function of a civilised society basically passed me by. It was only when reading To Kill a Mockingbird a few years later that realisation dawned. Not my finest hour, and Gone With the Wind is one of the few books I loved aged 13 which I haven’t re-read as an adult because I still feel an insidious shame that, emotionally speaking, this book placed me on the wrong side of the civil war.

Ellis quotes a former boss who told her, when she was in her early twenties, that she might enjoy white wine, milk chocolate and Shakespeare’s tragedies now, but when she was properly grown up she would love red wine, dark chocolate and the comedies. At thirty-two and fifty-one weeks I still prefer white wine and milk chocolate (although, in extremis, will take them both however they come), but I’ve definitely shifted from a predilection for gothic tragedies to an appreciation of social comedies, typified by my loyalties shifting from Bronte to Austen. Partly I feel it’s because I have more of an appreciation of how difficult life can be and want to shield myself from that by reading something uplifting, but paradoxically it is perhaps also because I have grown to realise that there is usually a lighter side to the darkest situation, and that finding this perspective is the key to retaining our sanity.

One of Ellis’ criticisms of the books she re-reads is that they have a horrible tendency to end with marriage as a full stop, as though that is the ultimate goal for women. Or, in the few cases where the heroine’s story continues to be told after marriage,Ellis sees her as diminished by it, for example Anne Shirley in the later Green Gables books. Ellis explores novels where a woman can remain single, independent and a heroine, and finds them sadly few and far between. Since having my daughter, I’m hungry for books with heroines who are mothers, and who are struggling to combine their role as a parent with their sense of self and individuality. Not easy. There are loads of books in the ‘mum lit’ genre, but they often seem either to focus exclusively on the woman’s role as a mother, sending her off for a facial or manicure in the middle of it as a sop to the idea of her having an independent life, or the children scarcely seem to impinge at all, and you’re left with the feeling that the heroine must have a team of round the clock carers to protect her from the exigencies of day-to-day parenting. Jennifer Weiner manages it in Little Earthquakes and Certain Girls. Lisa Jewell does it in After the Party, showing Jem, the heroine of her first novel, Ralph’s Party, having made a difficult transition from single, carefree girl-about-town to a harassed mother-of-two trying to combine work, childcare and her partner’s desire for a sex life. If Ralph’s Party presents an idealised picture of life as a twenty-something Londoner, then After the Party should probably be prescribed as a contraceptive.

Ellis’ book has sent me headfirst into a lake of introspection, pondering on the heroines who have formed me, and it’s also made me desperate to re-read some of my favourites from my current life perspective. And to look forward with huge excitement to seeing what my daughter makes of these heroines in a few years time, and how they shape her journey into womanhood. And in the shorter term, to compose as list of my top ten literary heroines to go with my my Desert Island Books lists. Who would yours be?

My desert island fiction

I am a compulsive, addicted reader. My osteopath bemoans my habit of never leaving the house without a book (or three), although the advent of Kindle has helped this a bit, and I am never relaxed if I don’t have a good book on the go. I think my tastes are fairly eclectic; I probably read commercial women’s fiction and crime fiction most frequently, but I also love the Victorian classics,  Renaissance and Restoration drama, the poetry of Carol Ann Duffy, John Betjeman, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Robert Browning, Sylvia Plath, accessible history by authors like Alison Weir and Antonia Fraser, anything by Alan Bennett, anything by George Orwell…and so on.

I had a hugely enjoyable day yesterday compiling my top thirty books for my website. It was agonising to decide, and there are many authors – Maeve Binchey, Adele Parks, Thomas Hardy, Sebastian Faulks, Wilkie Collins – to name but a few, who didn’t quite make it, despite being some of my absolute favourites. I can definitely feel more lists coming on in the near future.

For now though, check out my Desert Island Books selection, and let me know what you think. Agree? Disagree? Inspired to try a new author? I’d love to hear your views.