I always find it hard to know where to begin with this yearly post. I sit down and try to come up with a list of say ten or twelve books to represent my year. Looking back over the year I am reminded of lots of lovely bookish moments. I remember reading happily on my kindle while holiday in my favourite place, sitting peacefully in the park reading a Mary Hocking book – while nearby some children played on the grass. So am I remembering the happy moment? or the book – it gets confusing.
Before I get down to my final list, there some books which come highly recommended. All belong to two very different by equally brilliant series that I have read this year. The first of those is; The Forsyte Saga Chronicles – nine novels and a few associated interludes, I loved it all. The second series I read all of in 2015 was the Neapolitan series of novels by the much lauded Elena Ferrante. I know hype can be off putting (so can the covers of these novels to be frank) but they are rich, multi-layered novels, beautifully literary, I would urge anyone to give them a try. I find it hard to separate these two series into the individual novels – as I can’t help but think of them as a whole – which is why none made my final list.
For this year’s list – (my reading total between ten and twenty books lower than previous years will come in at just under 120) – I considered both new and old books, non-fiction, poetry and short story collections, the only things I didn’t consider were re-reads.
So I have finally narrowed my entire bookish year to these 12 beauties – and it was very difficult picking. In a change to my usual yearly roundups I give you them in reverse order. In the end all I could do was go for the books that I simply loved – they may not be the most talked about or the most literary – I simply loved them- and they lived long in my mind afterwards. Stealing an idea from Harriet Devine – I have added an extract from my own review of each book on my list.
12 The Evening Chorus – Helen Humphreys (2015)
“James Hunter is a prisoner of war, held with other officers in a German Army camp. The officers are not required to work and so must find other ways of occupying themselves. For as the letters from James’s wife Rose become rarer, James has found something to take his mind far outside the brutal confines of the camp; a family of redstarts are nesting nearby, and James begins to make a daily, detailed study of them. Rose is trying to make a life for herself in the isolation of the English countryside that she loves so much, but more and more she begins to feel it is a life that doesn’t include James, and now a couple of his letters lay unopened and unread – put aside to be forgotten about. The Evening Chorus is a stunning novel of hope and the natural world.”
11 A Time of War – Mary Hocking (1968)
“A Time of War gives a Wren’s eye view of war and the first tastes of freedom that it brings. A group of young women come together in hut 8 of Guillemot; a Fleet Air Arm training station in the West Country. These young women are not very long out of school, away from home for the first time, learning new skills while becoming a part of the services world.”
10 Our Hearts were Young and Gay – Cornelia Otis Skinner (1944)
Cornelia Otis Skinner, an American actress, writer and screenwriter co-wrote Our Hearts were Young and Gay with her good friend Emily Kimbrough, a memoir about their travels in Europe in the 1920’s. This hugely entertaining memoir with its hilarious illustrations is deliciously infectious and has quite definitely whetted my appetite for the two essay collections Nuts in May and Popcorn that I have waiting.
9 The Hopkins Manuscript – R C Sherriff (1939)
The Hopkins Manuscript is a brilliant imagining of the moon’s collision with the earth, and the eventual end of western civilisation. The novel opens with a foreword in which an Abyssinian scientist explains how the Hopkins Manuscript was discovered inside a flask by explorers examining the ruins of Notting Hill; working to understand the last days of that dead western civilisation. The document was written in the days before the death of that civilisation, and hidden away for men of the future to discover.
8 The Small Widow – Janet McNeill (1967)
“When Harold, her husband of thirty two years dies suddenly, new widow Julia is left struggling with her grief and her new role in the world. She isn’t entirely sure she is acting as she is supposed to, she watches people watching her, fussing round her, while getting on with their own lives.”
7 Summer – Edith Wharton (1917)
“In this exquisite novel, small town prejudices meet the sudden awakening of passions in a young woman whose life has been one of lonely, unhappiness in her isolated village home. Charity Royall lives with her hard-drinking adoptive father; a small town lawyer. One day, as Charity sits behind her desk at the library, young architect Lucius Harney appears out of the blue, sophisticated, educated and hailing from far beyond North Dormer. Visiting the area, making a study of some local buildings, Lucius is related to one of the key figures of the community, he is a young man of some standing, and someone a little beyond Charity’s reach.”
6 Vain Shadow – Jane Hervey (1963)
“The story in Vain Shadow is simple enough – a wealthy family gather at their country estate in Derbyshire following the death of the patriarch. Over a period of four days they mourn him, arrange his funeral and read his will. Here Hervey shows how well she understands families; there is black humour and astute observation in her portrayal of a family living in the midst of death.”
5 Nora Webster – Colm Toibin (2014)
Enniscorthy in the late 1960’s; as the novel opens Nora is struggling to cope with the newness of her widowhood – her grief still new. Nora Webster is a delicately nuanced, introspective kind of novel, it’s definitely a character driven narrative, and one which I found took slow, considered reading. It was such a pleasure spending quality time with Nora Webster over several days; I did become totally immersed in her world. Nora Webster is a novel about loss, discovery, friendship and the rebuilding of a life.”
4 The Young Pretenders – Edith Henrietta Fowler (1895)
“The Young Pretenders is the story of two imaginative siblings; five year old Babs and her older brother Teddy, whose parents are away in India, serving the Empire. Teddy and Babs have been sent home to be cared for by their grandmother. With their grandmother dead, it has been left to staff to care for the children until new arrangements can be made.”
3 The Happy Tree – Rosalind Murray (1926)
“The Happy Tree opens with the death of a young man, and told in retrospect by a woman who is slightly astonished to find she is now forty. Our narrator, Helen Woodruffe remembers her childhood with her adored cousins Guy and Hugo in the years before the First World War. We then witness the emotional toll the war takes on Helen, as it necessarily takes or changes the people she loves.”
2 Orlando – Virginia Woolf (1928)
“Orlando is an extraordinary, historical fantasy. Woolf’s prose is glorious, rich and endlessly quotable, the images she leaves us with unforgettably colourful. Frequently studied by scholars of gender, transgender and women’s studies, Orlando is a novel of complex ideas. Certainly there is a great deal of fascinating and often very funny social commentary on the changing roles for men and women throughout the ages.
1 To the North – Elizabeth Bowen (1932)
“Set mainly in London during the 1920’s To the North explores the lives of two young women, related by marriage. Recently widowed Cecilia Summers and her sister in law Emmeline share a house; they each rely on the presence of the other in the house though they live quite independently of each other. To the North is just the kind of novel that is actually very hard to describe to someone else – there isn’t an enormous amount of plot, yet there is so much packed into it, that it seems one can only ever skim the surface. There is a myriad of detail that is so wonderfully telling in this novel, nothing is wasted; everything appears to have some meaning – and weaves together in an effortless piece of artistry. The final line of To the North is utter perfection – resonating as it does in the mind of the reader long after the book is closed.”
So that’s it – my books of 2015 – what were your best books of 2015?