I’m dropping in to this neglected blog as I wanted to look back on the past year’s reading and choose my favourites of the books I read in 2017. So, without further ado, here is my top ten…
1. Bad Dreams by Tessa Hadley. A wonderful collection of short stories by one of my favourite contemporary authors. Each story is different in setting, characters and time period, but all have a strong atmosphere and emotional power.
2. The Book of Dust, Volume 1: La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman. I am really glad that Philip Pullman has returned to the world of Lyra – and to his fantastical imagined Oxford. The first volume of the new trilogy is vivid and magical, and continues to explore the absorbing philosophical ideas and world of His Dark Materials. It was fascinating to find out more about Lyra’s history and I also loved the fact that Pullman created a main character like Alice, who is much more than she appears at first.
3. Hot Milk by Deborah Levy. Intense, complex and almost surreal, this novel explores psychological darkness and troubled characters but in a way that’s so full of life and spirit that you can’t help feeling hopeful. I was lucky enough to attend a talk by Deborah Levy at a local bookshop and it was very stimulating, with lots of ideas about psychology, writing, mythology and much more. She was a compelling speaker and responded to people’s questions in a generous, thoughtful way, which resulted in a very interesting discussion. I would definitely recommend going to one of her talks if you can.
4. A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin. I discovered a new author with this brilliant, original collection of short stories.
5. His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet. Set in nineteenth-century Scotland, this novel disguises itself as genuine historical documents describing a gruesome murder. The writing style sounds very authentic and is also witty, playful and surprisingly funny at times. I liked how the book collected a variety of documents so the reader has to try to piece together the truth. The novel very cleverly makes you change your mind and doubt your earlier theories and feelings. I also felt sympathetic towards the main character and his family, and the oppression they suffered. The novel is very passionate about the lives of the crofters and their little-known world. An absorbing and entertaining read.
6. Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel. This inventive and moving post-apocalyptic fantasy really captured my imagination.
7. The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain. A very poignant story of a friendship between two men, which lasted for decades. With a narrative that moves through twentieth-century Europe, this is my favourite book by Rose Tremain so far.
8. Three Daughters of Eve by Elif Shafak. This novel is set partly in modern-day Istanbul and partly in Oxford around the turn of the millennium. A thirty-something Turkish woman looks back on her university days and the charismatic tutor who taught her in an unconventional theology class. I really enjoyed the way the book explored religion, philosophy, the experience of university, friendships and growing up.
9. The Wonder by Emma Donoghue. A compelling page-turner about a young nurse in nineteenth-century Ireland who is employed to look after a child who can apparently live without eating, I found The Wonder very enjoyable and absorbing.
10. A Christmas Party by Georgette Heyer. I’d been put off Georgette Heyer’s novels as I knew she was mainly an author of romantic fiction and thought they would be too sentimental and not my cup of tea! However I was looking for something Christmassy to read so thought I’d try this detective novel. Well, I’d definitely got the wrong idea about her as A Christmas Party made me laugh out loud. I loved the wittiness of the dialogue and the characterisation. And it did have a side-plot of romance, but it was done with wit and style and wasn’t at all reminiscent of Mills-and-Boon.
My favourite new author of the year: Elif Shafak. I’ve now read a few books by Elif Shafak, having discovered her on Desert Island Discs, where she chose an intriguing mix of metal and Leonard Cohen and spoke in an interesting way about her life, religion, family and writing. I’ve particularly enjoyed reading her non-fiction essays and autobiographical writing, as I like her voice and the way she writes about her life as a woman and writer.
My favourite re-reads of the year: Philip Pullman (I’m currently re-reading the His Dark Materials trilogy after a gap of at least ten years and finding it even better the second time) and Jane Austen. When I went to Lyme Regis over the summer, I re-read Persuasion, which sets several dramatic scenes along the sea-front and the Cobb, followed by Pride and Prejudice, just because it’s my favourite Austen novel. I enjoyed seeing the displays about her at the museum in Lyme Regis (it is a lovely museum, which has lots of literary exhibits along with the geological and fossil collections for which Lyme Regis is known) and later in the year I went to an exhibition at the Bodleian in Oxford, Which Jane Austen?, which showed how, contrary to some images of Austen, she was very engaged in the world around her.
Reading resolutions: My new year’s reading resolution is to make more effort to search for books that I am really interested in, instead of just reading what’s lying around or happens to be in the library. I want both to be more adventurous and to follow my own tastes more.