The new year got off to an inauspicious start yesterday, when the Old English Thorn and I found ourselves unexpectedly on a coach from Edinburgh to Heathrow after gale force winds meant that the aeroplane we were supposed to be on was unable to take off. What should have been a one hour twenty minute flight turned into an eight and a half hour coach journey, followed by the tube across London and then a train back out again. Door to door we were travelling for a little over fourteen hours.
Thankfully, I have the day off today to recover, providing me with the ideal opportunity to reflect on the year gone by before launching myself into the new one tomorrow.
In 2011, I met (exactly!) my goal of reading 150 books totalling 40,659 pages. I slowed down an awful lot after getting married and halving my commute time, so I’m pleased I still managed to get to 150. The full list with links to my reviews can be found here.
I discovered some fantastic new authors, including E. F. Benson, Winifred Holtby, D. E. Stevenson, Margery Sharp and Michel Faber who I know I’m going to enjoy reading more of in 2012. There were so many of them, not to mention old authors that I revisited, that it has been difficult to select the top ten books that I read in 2011, but these would be the ones that I would most heartily recommend. In the interests of fairness, I haven’t included rereads, or two of these spots would be occupied by the ever wonderful Miss Austen.
I read this book quite early on in the year, but it’s stuck in my mind ever since. I was instantly drawn into the world of the fictional Yorkshire constituency and its inhabitants, utterly entranced by its impressive combination of detail and breadth. Winifred Holtby introduces such a range of characters from all walks of life, but they are each described so well, however briefly, that I felt I knew each and every one of them. It’s a rare talent for an author to be able to make me care so deeply about so many characters but Holtby manages it with consummate skill. I was reluctant to finish the book and I’m treasuring up the rest of Holtby’s work to read when I need to treat myself. Review
Although Cranford is less than half the size of South Riding, it is in many ways a similar type of book, focusing as it does on the mundane issues of a small community and yet somehow making them utterly fascinating. With each episode I found myself becoming more and more involved in town life as though the book were gossip being related directly to me. As with South Riding, I wanted to move to Cranford and live there with its community of brave, humorous, kind and gentle ladies. It made me smile even when it made me cry. It’s a delightful little read, surprisingly touching and highly recommended.
Margery Sharp was one of my discoveries this year. She writes the sort of humorous, gentle novels which seem to fit into the Persephone canon perfectly. While this particular novel displayed the same wit, charm and light touch that I expected, it was nowhere near as breezy and flippant as The Nutmeg Tree which was my introduction to the author. It had a wistfulness and sadness about it which I thought actually made it even better. The humour was set off by the seriousness and I liked the way that everything couldn’t be wrapped up perfectly and sorted out in a fairy tale ending. I was impressed that Sharp was brave enough to do that, and it’s made me look forward even more to discovering the rest of her work.
This remarkable book got 2011 off to a fantastic start for me. The story of a misguided missionary who moves his family to Africa during the 1950′s but utterly fails to connect with the locals on any level was something of a departure from my usual reading fare, but I was completely drawn in by the narrative style. The voices of the four daughters and their mother as they tell the story of their struggles are engaging both intellectually and emotionally, weaving a rich tapestry of opinions, viewpoints and voices. My heart ached for each and every one of them as they tried their best to survive and to integrate in spite of the preacher’s inability to understand either the natives or his family. Exceptionally written. Review
If it weren’t for the rather risque subject matter of this book about a prostitute’s attempts to make her way in the world, it would almost be possible to believe that it were actually a Victorian novel rather than a novel about the Victorians. The writing is elegant and mesmerising; it even made me appreciate the advantages of present tense narration and books which address the reader directly, both of which I usually dislike intensely. Faber writes brilliant, diverse female characters and Sugar, Agnes, Sophie and Mrs Fox are some of the best that I’ve encountered this year. I’m not convinced about the rest of Faber’s work as it looks to be mostly modern in its setting, but I have two of his other books sitting on the shelf and 2012 is the year to give them a try. Review
This is the second book in a trilogy, so it feels rather odd to have this one on my top ten list and not the first one. Often the middle book can fall into the trap of being mediocre filler between the interesting exposition in book one and exciting denouement in book three. Not so in this trilogy. I liked the first book well enough, but in Before They Are Hanged the trilogy really comes into its own. Start with The Blade Itself and discover an exciting, bloody fantasy novel. I can’t wait to finish the series. It’s also reminded me that I used to read a lot more fantasy than I have done recently. I must rectify this if it’s all going to be this good.
If a book were ever to be written specifically for me, it would be an awful lot like Human Croquet. This book was bizarre, but very definitely my kind of bizarre. It had all the elements that I love in a book: word play, humour, clever time shifts and twisted fairy tale tropes. I doubt it will appeal to everyone because of its odd structure and peculiar style, but it’s definitely worth a try because there’s every possibility that you’ll love it as much as I did. Read it and discover that Atkinson writes more than just the detective fiction for which she seems to be best known. Review
The Wedding is possibly the most thorough and insightful explorations of racism in America that I’ve read since I first encountered Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor when I was twelve. It surprised me by how different it was to what I had expected. There were no lynchings, violence or hate crimes, just assumptions, opinions and social conventions which are insidious and pervasive. In many ways it’s like reading an Austen novel, but here people are discriminated against ever so politely based on the shade of their skin rather than their class. It also shows how complicated the issue is, with people who consider themselves coloured but have pale skin being looked down on by some as not black enough and by others as all too black and indeed vice versa. It’s a very interesting and thoughtful book.
I’m a little bit surprised that this is the only non-fiction book to make it onto my 2011 list, as I’ve read a few excellent memoirs this year. However, Jung Chang’s story of her grandmother, her mother and herself growing up over a period of huge change in China wins in scope, in detail and in the sheer remarkable nature of the story being told. Through Chang and her family, we see China change from a land of imperial warlords and their concubines to one in the iron grip of Mao’s dictatorship. It provided a compelling insight into a world that is completely alien to me and I found it utterly fascinating. Review
Ever since I was first introduced to it by my parents while listening to the radio on a long car journey, I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue has been one of my favourite comedy shows. I enjoy every round, however silly, but I particularly love listening to the ludicrous yet ever so clever new definitions for words that the teams come up with in the round called Uxbridge English Dictionary. This book is a compendium of the best of those definitions and it had me crying with laughter on every page. If you like the radio show, you’ll love this book. If you’ve never heard it, I insist you go forth and do so immediately, but anyone with an appreciation for the peculiarities of language should enjoy this regardless.
So, 2011 was a really good reading year for me. I’ll be looking at tmy plans for 2012 tomorrow. I’m excited already!