Monday, 4 January 2010

I read much of the night, and go south in the winter...

Is everyone sick of the lists, round ups and reviews that litter book pages and websites at this time of year? I actually rather like them, they provide a chance to gather your own thoughts on the year and often unearth intriguing titles you may have missed. I'm not going to attempt a summary of my reading over the decade; the so-called noughties straddled my early teens to early twenties and included reading for an English degree slap bang in the middle. Certainly the first half of the decade was much more highly concentrated on 'the canon', and the second half has been almost exclusively focused on contemporary literary fiction (and Jilly Cooper).

So here are 9 of my favourite reads from '09. I'll be making an effort to read more genre fiction and non-fiction this year (there's a graphic novel gazing up at me reproachfully from the floor by my bed, I will open it this month...) - so any and all recommendations gratefully received! What were the books you loved last year?

9 for '09

Wolf Hall - Hilary Mantel

Booker Prize in 'worthy winner' shock, said the book world. And for my money, this re-evaluation of Renaissance 'fixer' Thomas Cromwell was a phenomenal achievement. Mantel is a consummate wordsmith and by focusing on the machinations at the edge of Henry VIII's court rather than the figures at the centre, she managed to bring a fresh perspective to the well-covered murky world of Tudor politics.

The Women in Black - Madeleine St John

A beautifully observed comedy of manners about a group of ladies who work in the 'frocks' department of a department store in 1960s Sydney. St John was born in Sydney but spent most of her life in London; this, her first novel, was published when she was 52, and the subsequent The Essence of the Thing was shortlisted for the Booker, making her the first Australian women to be nominated. Will ring especially true for anyone who has - now or ever - finished a festive season working in retail...

I Was Told There Would Be Cake - Sloane Crosley

A collection of essays from a very funny writer. They're basically about being young, single and a bit lost in New York, a sort of Sex and the City for slightly dysfunctional twentysomethings. The book was given to me by my own New York twentysomething pal (I won't say dysfunctional) and I loved it unreservedly. My only disappointment has been that having painted a very lovable portrait of herself as slightly chaotic, shambling artsy type, it turns out that she is one of New York's most well-known and respected book publicists, managing Dave Eggers, Toni Morrison, Jay McInerney and the like for Vintage. Damn her! I want to be her!

American Wife - Curtis Sittenfeld

An interesting one, this. I liked the American cover so much (compare and contrast)that I held off reading it until my own New York Twentysomething was able to bring the US edition to me in person but it was worth the wait. It's a fictionalised account of a First Lady, married to a President whose decisions have made him very unpopular, and it amounts to a monumental defence of not only her continued support for him but of the decisions she has made her entire life. Apparently it is clearly based on the life of Laura Bush - I wouldn't have known that, but it is a compelling look at what it means to really 'Stand By Your Man' and also at the American psyche which I think is continually fascinating to us Brits.

Vanessa and Virginia - Susan Sellars

I've always been drawn to Vanessa Bell, artist and sister of Virginia Woolf, as there have never been very many famous people with my name, and I latched onto her when I was young! This novel is a fascinating imagined look at the relationship, at once passionately loyal and corrosively jealous, between the sisters. To romanticise the bohemian lifetyle of the Bloomsbury group is to overlook how unhappy most of them seemed to be and the novel covers the many tragedies in Bell's life, such as the loss of her son Julian in the Spanish Civil War. Sellars ends with an audacious interpretation of Woolf's suicide, implausible in reality but heart wrenchingly 'true' in the context of the novel. It's published by Two Ravens Press, who are based in the Scottish Highlands.

Case Histories - Kate Atkinson

Crime for non-crime fans, I think, this one, the first in the Jackson Brodie trilogy. It's a complex detective story with a huge emotional pay-off that had me unsettled for days. And the beauty of it is, you can then pick up One Good Turn and When Will There Be Good News which are equally satisfying.

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde - R L Stevenson

Despite knowing the story inside out, I had never actually read this famous tale of the good doctor and his villainous alter ego and I was pleasantly surprised to discover that it had the power to cause a lights-on-all-night situation, in spite of its familiarity. Although set in London, it is of course usually taken to represent the duality of Edinburgh, with its staid, civilised new town, and dark, seedy underbelly but I think that kind of duality is common to any city, and certainly I can see it here in Australia. 'The Lucky Country' prides itself on its veneration of the 'fair go' and opportunity for all, but the beers, BBQs and mates joviality is undermined by, for example, a recent spate of racist murders and some extremely questionable policies on immigration.

Be Near Me - Andrew O'Hagan

We did this for Book Group in April, to coincide with the National Theatre of Scotland's production, and it was a slightly divisive choice. It's not a cheery read, examining the ugly truth about Scotland's racism and sectarianism, and in particular the odd brand of discrimination Scots often turn on other Scots who are perceived as 'English' or posh, in other words. Having an Edinburgh accent and an Oxbridge degree, it's a subject I feel quite strongly about and Andrew O'Hagan is a searingly brilliant writer.

Fraction of the Whole - Steve Tolz

I don't even know where to start describing this sparkling, labyrinthine, faintly hallucinogenic book, save to say that Steve Toltz has one of the most original voices I've ever read. It tells of Martin and Jasper, a father and son duo and their completely chaotic lives together - every other sentence is laugh out loud funny, and although its length is daunting, it never flags. It's a big, baggy, effervescent novel and I agree entirely with the cover pull-quote that says 'unlike any Australian novel - indeed, unlike any novel - I can think of'. It also has a brilliant cover design that complements the content perfectly, and there is an interesting piece by the designer, including early drafts, here.

So that's my lot, any more for any more?


  1. I just read Alistair MacLeod's No Great Mischief, having seen him at the EIBF, and loved, LOVED it. So tender and sad, and beautifully written. Please read it and let me know what you think. Wolf Hall has done the rounds of the library, and everyone has loved it, too. Nice to see you blogging again!

  2. Interesting list. I'd agree with the ones I've read. American Wife was so much better than expected. BTW LOVE the background!

  3. This is one of the many reasons why I love you! Wolf Hall is waiting patiently for me to finish "Adrian Mole and the Weapons of Mass Destruction" and I've heard of a couple of others. Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde is one of my all-time favourites - read it for English Lit 2nd year of uni.

    A couple of books spring to mind (which I've probably mentioned to you over a glass of vino) - The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson and Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller. The latter I had been meaning to read for ages as the film is one of my favourite films (I don't usually watch film adaptations if I've not read the book but couldn't resist!)

    I've also remembered another non-fiction book - The Past is Myself by Christabel Bielenberg. Fantastic. Written from the perspective of a British woman, married to a German, living in Berlin during the Nazi era - offers a rare insight into what it felt like living in the heart of the Nazi machine; only, Bielenberg's situation was slightly compromised given the fact she was British. Would highly recommend.