Ernest Hemingway, Lindsay Davies, Madeline Miller, Robert Radcliffe, Sarah Dunant, Sarah Turnball, William Boyd
One of the sites I really enjoy is Book Group Online which is exactly what it says on the label, an online book discussion group with intelligent, polite commentators and moderators who don’t have little Hitler complexes and as far as I know have only ever banned people for trolling and never for simply disagreeing with the site bosses. They also have a very useful section for listing what books you’ve read during the year which I find embarrassingly useful – I could complain about my ageing memory but I have a nasty feeling that it’s never been that good, but of course I can’t remember exactly. Sadly Book Group Online has disappeared during the last week, it’s even gone from Google and I’ve got a nasty feeling that might be the end of it. I’ll miss the site, and I’m really going to miss my book lists which go back several years.
So, without the aid of notes, here are some of the best books I’ve read during the last year – as they say on Strictly, in no particular order.
Almost French by Sarah Turnball, quite simply one of the best books I’ve read about living in France. It’s amusing too.
Mad World by Paula Byrne which I read only a few weeks ago. I re-read Brideshead Revisited afterwards and found having all the background information fascinating.
The Song of Achilles was a wonderful romp – there’s no other word for it – through the Illiad. It’s a deceptively easy to read book, a real page turner but one that stays with you afterwards, even the scenes which I knew well from studying Latin in at school still had the power to shock. And at long last I know why Achilles sulked in his tent.
Sacred Hearts by Sarah Dunant sat unread on my bookshelf for three years and when I finally picked it up I couldn’t understand why I’d deprived myself of this wonderful book for so long. Set in a convent in Ferrara in 1570, just as the council of Trent was starting to reform monastic and conventual life, it paints a picture of the life in enclosed orders, for women who hadn’t necessarily chosen to take the veil, that is completely unforgettable. It’s also got a cracking good plot. It’s not a faast read but that seemed to suit the leisurely pace of life in a convent. Definitely one the the best, and most memorable books of the year.
I wrote about Under An English Heaven when I read it, and looking back after eight months I can say it still deserves its place as a thoroughly memorable book. Everyone I’ve lent it to, male and female, young and, ahem, not that young have adored it too.
I freely admit that I loathed Hemingway, I caused a terrible storm in my book group by saying I didn’t want to read another Hemingway, For Whom The Bell Tolls had left me feeling queasy and I’d never have picked this up if Claire from Word By Word hadn’t said that in her opinion this was one of the best books about Paris she ever read. So I took this to read in Paris. Clare was right, I loved it. I’m still shying away from any of his books that have killing in them, be it bulls or people.
Amongst other great books I re-read Any Human Heart by William Boyd for the book group and it’s just as good the second time round, one of his best, if not his best book, in my opinion. English Passengers by Matthew Kneale is flawed, it’s too long especially the last part, but is still a terrific read. It’s set in Tasmania in the early nineteenth century and can be uncomfortable, especially if like me you’re half way through it and realise that your great-great grandfather was stationed in Hobart at the time so may well have been one of those persecuting the Aborigines. Before I Go To Sleep is riddled with plot holes and unliklihoods but I defy anyone to put it down for long enough while they’re reading it to analyse the plot and let the inconsistencies occur to them. Michelle Paver’s Dark Matter was a spooky atmospheric page turner, no I didn’t shudder like the book blurb promised but then I’m distressingly pragmatic, it was very good.
I have a feeling that I would have had Bring Up The Bodies and The Night Circus in this list as they were earmarked for my Christmas reading but I had to read a truly dire book for the book group so I could pass it on to someone else who needs it. All I can say is that I bitterly resent wasting two days of reading time on sentimental, badly written drivel and I’m not going to be able to say what I feel as the person who chose it is very nice and might well be hurt at an honest appraisal. I’d ploughed my way to the last page (reading one word in three), put it down with a sigh of relief and saw my daughter had left a copy of Nemesis by Lindsay Davies on the table. It was exactly what the book doctor ordered. She’s sharp, she’s funny, her characters are great, she can plot and it doesn’t matter in the slightest that my inner pedant is noting that senators’ sons in ancient Rome were hardly likely to say, ‘We’re stuffed,’; the world she’s created is so vibrant that my inner pedant doesn’t give a toss. What a good way to finish off 2012.