(Two of my titles are missing from the pictured pile, one was read on my kindle, one I borrowed so don’t have a copy of)
It’s always difficult to sum up an entire year in one blog post. I’m going to pointedly ignore all other external things and just talk books.
Of course, 2016 was the year of my #Woolfalong and that turned out to be a thoroughly illuminating reading experience. I was tempted to put three or four of my Virginia Woolf reads on my best of list … but instead I have stuck to my usual rules. No re-reads, and only one title per author. How to judge one book against another? You can’t and I haven’t – my choices are purely based on the what they meant to me, some of my choices are obviously literary – others perhaps less so – but I just loved them. At the end of the day that’s the only way I can judge. All but one of my choices are fiction – though three non-fiction books were in contention, only one made the final list – as fiction is my first love eleven works of fiction seem about right. So here they are: eight novels, three collections of short stories and one superb essay collection. Typically, only two of my choices were published in 2016. (Clicking on the title of each book will take you to my original review).
In alphabetical order.
My favourite Cather novel is A Lost Lady, but I didn’t read that this year, and Death Comes for the Archbishop comes only just behind that beautiful book now. I had had it on my shelf for ages, the premise didn’t particularly appeal – oh how wrong I was. I was captivated by the landscape, the story of a friendship – perhaps unlike any other I have read. It was a book which totally took me over, and I found myself thinking of it a lot after I had finished.
I love short stories, and every story in this collection is brilliant– five long short stories, that are brilliantly fleshed out and satisfying. For sheer readability and tension – this collection is superb – I was sorry to finish it.
This is a book about books, it is also a work of feminism, literary criticism and memoir. I enjoyed meeting up with my own literary heroines, and encountering new ones or ones I had forgotten about. This was a book chosen by my very small book group, I loved our discussion of it, I had borrowed my friend’s copy to read, so I will now, certainly be buying my own edition to keep.
This was that rare thing – a book that made me cry. Created by Birmingham author Kit de Waal – who I was lucky enough hear speak alongside the brilliant Jackie Kay at the Birmingham literature festival. Leon is one of the most unforgettable child characters I have met in a while. Set in the 1980s – this is a story about love, identity and family, it explores the bond which exists between siblings and reminds us how home may not always be where you expect.
In a way, this novel stands for all my Woolf reading in 2016. To the Lighthouse and Mrs Dalloway were re-reads, and I loved them hugely, but I hadn’t expected much of this one. I don’t think I had ever read a review of it or heard people talk about it much. I loved the fact it was more conventional – for me it is a kind of perfect English novel, and one which has stayed with me.
A title I had been aware of for a long time, yet had overlooked – one review I read of it somewhere made me give it a try. It is now firmly one of my favourite Persephone books. I can’t think why I managed to overlook it so long. An exquisite examination of family life that shows with brilliant honesty and some poignancy that parents can’t live their children’s lives for them. Another of those books that was over too soon.
Another collection of short stories, and an author that was new to me. Sandlands is a collection of stories very much rooted in the Suffolk countryside, among its people, villages and wildlife. The images these stories evoke will live and linger long in my mind. A white doe, appearing suddenly in the dark woods, blue winged butterflies, a barn owl watching over a decades old Oxo tin of love letters, bell ringers, the spirits which exist within a four-hundred-year old house. Rosy Thornton celebrates the flora and fauna of the county she must dearly love, the stories link subtly by landscape, and by the past and present which weaves in and out of these wonderful stories.
Although not published till 1980, Maxwell wrote this beautifully poignant novel in the 1930s – it is utterly perfect. The novel concerns a murder, a suicide, an adulterous relationship, and the loneliness of two boys who come together briefly in the midst of a series of terrible events.
I don’t read enough Women in translation, this book showed me that I should read more. Magda Szabo hasn’t published that many books in English, so I am saving the other I have Iza’s Ballad, hoping it is as wonderful as this. The Door is the story of ‘the lady writer’ and the long and stormy relationship with her housekeeper Emerence.
Elizabeth Bowen would definitely take one of the top spots in my favourite author list. I loved The Little Girls because it is about the reunion of three friends in their sixties, it is funny, moving and exquisitely written. I could easily imagine it as a film – I really think it should be a film. It isn’t an easy read – but it more than rewards the attention it requires. The Little Girls is a novel about the past, ageing and friendship, it is about those things that we bury and how we carry them with us. There is a wonderful atmosphere to this novel. I read a tatty old paperback copy of this, suffering a very heavy cold while on holiday in my favourite Devon town, a few weeks later I found a much nicer hardback copy and snapped it up.
Pamela Frankau is the author of one of my favourite ever Virago books – The Willow Cabin – The Winged Horse is very nearly as good as that one. Set in both England and America it is a brilliantly compelling novel of power, truth and dishonesty. Pamela Frankau is someone I will be reading much more in the coming year.
My third short story collection, and another offering from Persephone. Diana Gardner lived near to Virginia and Leonard Woolf during the second world war, sadly she published very little, a novel by her that I want very much is almost impossible to find. I need to know if it’s worth spending nearly £20 on. Many of these stories were originally published in the 1940s, but this collection, adapted from that earlier collection, was put together by Persephone, and it is superb. I loved how Diana Gardner sometimes leads us down the garden path – we think we know where we’re going – but in fact we don’t. Her writing is subtle, clever and wonderfully atmospheric.
So, that’s it – twelve books for twelve months. What’s on your list?
(A picture of my happy place)