This is a post that has been in my drafts section for ages.....I can only keep using the holiday in Oz as an excuse for a little while longer though, can't I? After that the finger is going to be pointed squarely at my time management skills!
As you all probably know, I love to read. I read everything, and everywhere. But when asked to name my favourite book I am stumped, because there are so many. It often depends what mood I'm in. I enjoy some books purely because they are so beautifully written, and the story telling is so magical; others I marvel at the techniques the writer has cleverly used and analyse the structure, pulling it apart piece by piece to understand and learn; others are simply feel good, comfort books that I have read probably once a year since I discovered them, and each time I enjoy them for different reasons and get something else out of them. Others I turn to when I need inspiration, or when my soul needs the literary equivalent of a super green juice. For me there is a book for every season, mood, whim, need and occasion.
Books are everywhere in our home. Tom has got used to the little towers that start appearing next to my laptop, near my seat at the dining table, next to my side of the bed. I'm sure it drives him a little bananas.
Last year, I read some amazing books - some that were recent releases, and others that have been around for years, perhaps decades, and that I read for the first time. I thought I'd share with you my top 10, not necessarily in the order that I rate them, and I'd love to hear what yours were!
One Day by David Nicholls
In case you haven't heard of it, this book follows the lives of two people, Emma and Dexter, who meet for the first time just before they graduate from university. They have one day together, and then go their separate ways and into all the trappings of adult life. The story checks in with them on the same day, every year, for twenty years. I loved this book for its readability, the magnificent one-liners that are peppered through it, the crystal-clear portraits of a London I know quite well, and the heartbreaking twists. Much as I would have liked a happy ending, I liked being genuinely shocked and sad by the turns the plot took. A lot of discussions about the book have mentioned that it does not fit neatly into a genre - not quite literary fiction, not quite chick lit, but I liked that it skirted the edges of both. A very pleasurable, if occasionally tear-jerking, read.
I watched the movie on the plane home a few weeks ago, and to my surprise, I didn't hate it - which I expected to! It was surprisingly faithful to the book.
I've put Joanna Trollope as a whole down, as I discovered her work in 2011, and what a discovery! I listened to an interview with her on the now sadly mourned Book Show, which was produced by Radio National in Australia, and I used to download the show each day to listen to while I walked to work. Trollope was interviewed about her latest book, but I couldn't find that at the library, so I grabbed a handful of her others (there were many!). My favourite by far was The Rector's Wife. I have often been curious about the lives of vicars families, this gave a very convincing window in. I like how Trollope is concerned with the intricacies of English society, particularly in rural communities. One thing she said in the Book Show interview, which endeared me to her, was the thing she's learned overwhelmingly about life is that most people don't get things wrong out of malice, they get things wrong because they have misunderstood or got into a muddle. I think that's what I like most about Trollope, how she gets down to the nuts and bolts of how human beings interact with each other. Reading her books really is like being a fly on the wall, and I love that kind of writing - it's hard to do well without it becoming tedious (I know, I've tried!) but hers is sumptuous and always interesting. As well as The Rector's Wife, I read A Village Affair, Friday Nights, Second Honeymoon and The Other Family.
Little White Slips by Karen Hitchcock
I had been wanting to read this book for about two years, and finally got it for Christmas in 2011! I read it in two days, so it counts as a read in 2011 book! It only seems to be available in the UK as a Kindle edition, so if you have a kindle and like edgy, interesting short fiction, I'd recommend checking this out. But if you're in Australia, you should be able to find this at a book store.
As mentioned, the way I've stayed in touch with happenings in literary circles and found out about new authors in Australia is mostly through the wonderful world of radio and podcasts. I listened to an interview with this author at the Sydney Writers Festival which was broadcast on ABC Brisbane, which found its way on to my iPod. Karen Hitchcock is a doctor, but also a writer and a triathlete. Hence you can probably imagine why my interest was piqued! But more than that, the tales she told about her life in the interview, and finding out how she arrived in her current situation, as a mum, triathlete, part time doctor and part time writer, was captivating and I found I could really relate to it - some of us don't know what we want to do with our lives when we're 18, or maybe we do but we're scared. So we hop on whatever train happens to be passing through at the time....and we end up somewhere completely different than what we imagined :)
Little White Slips is a collection of 13 stories, which appear simple at the outset, but as you read on there is a darker edge to them; common situations and feelings we all know - feeling depressed or jealous when a friend loses weight, for example! - elevated to something more visceral. The writing draws you in with its familiar yet deeply personal and quite painfully honest observations. A lot of her stories are themed around medical things, unsurprisingly, and with my background in medical editing I found it really interesting. Her stories always have a resolution that I would hesitate to call happy, but certainly things turn out in a realistic fashion. There is a satisfying resolution, even if you're left with stark images of a trainee doctor burrowed in her study, cramming for specialist exams; or a woman in a clothing store change room, her collar bones protruding.
I really like Hitchcock's sense of humour as well. Her characters are often thrown into situations where the people around them agitate them, and the way they react to this is very interesting indeed....and often very funny too.
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
This is one of the best books I've ever read, and that's saying something! I can't believe I am a double English major, and did an Honours year to boot, and I waited until I was 30 to read it! The classics are classics for a reason. Pride and Prejudice, The Great Gatsby, Great Expectations, Jane Eyre, To The Lighthouse.......it's when you read these books that you realise where writing and literature as we know it today came from.
If you find yourself alone on a cold, rainy afternoon and want to cuddle up on the couch or in front of the fire with a blanket, a cup of tea, and a book.....this is the book.
I'm sure most people know the plot, but just in case you don't - the narrator of the story, a young woman who is never named, marries a man she has only just met, Max de Winter, a wealthy and recently widowed much older man. They go to live at his estate, Manderley, in Cornwall. However, the happiness of the newlyweds is permanently tainted by the mysterious death of his first wife, Rebecca, who is kept very much alive by the retention of the decor, furniture and regime that was present in the house while she was alive. The sinister housekeeper, Mrs Danvers, is particularly unwelcoming to the new Mrs de Winter. The narrator walks constantly in the shadow of her predecessor, and as the plot unfolds, she begins to uncover the secrets and devastating truth about what really happened to Rebecca.
I almost missed my tube stop a few times while reading this to and from work, it was so enthralling. When I got home, I would just throw down my bags and start reading again. It was a particularly rainy July, and so curled up on my sofa with the lamps on while the summer rain thundered down felt most appropriate. If you've never read it, then you simply must. It's a spine tingling page turner, to put it mildly!
Tender II by Nigel Slater
I love all Nigel Slater's cookbooks but this one was simply exquisite. While nothing will ever beat The Kitchen Diaries, I must admit this one came very close. I love it when people turn everyday things - like a garden and cooking - into a story. Nigel Slater has the vocabulary and touch of a poet, he always somehow manages to capture the essence of a dish or an ingredient. And then there's the photographs, which are sumptuous. This is the second in a series about Slater's home-grown fruit and vegetables; the first is wholly dedicated to vegetables and while I enjoyed part one, I think Tender II is the far superior volume. It's worth reading for the apple and walnut chapters alone! If you love cookbooks, you won't be disappointed. It's almost a work of art.
Room by Emma Donoghue
Tom got me this for my birthday. I'd heard a lot about this book, and had been picking up a few of Emma Donoghue's lesser known works and collections of short stories from the library to prime myself. It turned out I need not have done such groundwork, as Room was a total departure from her other books, in a very good way.
Despite the rather harrowing premise the story is built upon, and I grew increasingly horrified in the first couple of chapters as I realised what was happening, the book is charming and beautifully written, and very, very gripping. Told entirely from the point of view of a five year old boy, the innocence is almost heartbreaking but ultimately what makes the book so readable. I think if it had been told through the eyes of his mother then the book probably wouldn't have worked so well. Room was very useful for my own work too, because it reminded me that the choice of narrator is crucial.
Probably not one to read over and over, but definitely one of the top reads of the year.
Savvy Chic: the art of more for less by Anna Johnson
I think I'd read a book about paint drying if Anna Johnson wrote it! I've been a huge fan of hers since she released her first book, Three Black Skirts. I got it for Christmas the year it came out, I was 17. It has kind of been my bible ever since. Savvy Chic is a gorgeous follow up to TBS, kind of picking up with Anna where she left off. It's not just a "how to" guide to live a luxurious life for less, but part memoir as well. She writes beautifully about her first love, a sculptor, and how he retained the milky stench of the hotel kitchen he worked in no matter how many baths he took; about her wedding that she organised once she found out that the date 22nd September 2004 was a lucky one for her starsign (!); and her nomadic and colourful childhood.
People who want more of a "how to" kind of book might not love it, although it has a few bullet point lists and suggestions in each chapter. For me, the charm of the book lay in the rich narrative of Johnson's life and the generous window she gives into her world and experiences. I was so impressed by how she has lived her life so fearlessly and still lives it with hardwon pride and principles, but she is philosophical about the fact that in choosing freedom, artistic or otherwise, other more material things have had to go by the wayside. This book reminded me that there is a huge difference between being wealthy and being rich.
My Life in France by Julia Child
This was a wonderful book. I was surprised by how much I loved it. I had only ever heard of Julia Child through reading modern American literature and magazines, and I had never known much about her or her work, only that she was a celebrity chef of sorts. I read Julie and Julia when it came out in 2005, which filled in more of the blanks, but I didn't feel particularly intrigued to learn more. Years later, around the time the film Julie and Julia came out (which I hadn't yet seen - but I have now and think it's lovely), I was reading a blog where the writer had asked readers for book recommendations, and I always like to see what people recommend, so I started leafing through the comments. Water for Elephants came up a lot, which I duly read, but My Life in France was an oft repeated entry in the readers recommendations too. I bought it on a whim on Amazon. Oh, I'm so glad I did!
It tells the story of how Julia and her husband Paul came to live in France in the late 1940s, and how a passion for food and cooking was awakened in her as a result. We follow her from the Cordon Bleu cooking school to her teaching cooking classes of her own, and follow the journey of the writing and publication of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. It's funny, warm and delightful, but also so very inspiring to see how she persevered in the face of utmost adversity at times. It shines with humour, determination, and her love of food and cooking, and her love for her husband. The Valentines Day cards they used to do are so clever, and cute! I can relate so much to her story, being something of a late bloomer myself. Her travels were so influential in her discovering her true self, as it has been for me. Her story reminded me that it's never too late to do what you want to do in life, and sometimes what you are destined to do might not reveal itself until a bit later than you thought, but it's important to be happy, passionate and engaged with life and living it to the full in the mean time, while never losing sight of what you want to achieve. It is all the more rewarding when you get there.
I think I need to read it again :)
The London Marathon: The History of The Greatest Race on Earth by John Bryant
This was one of my reads of the year for obvious reasons! For anyone running London for the first time, I heartily recommend it. This was the book that made me hungry for race day, and that made me realise exactly how lucky I was to be running that race. The book also gave a brief but captivating history of the marathon itself, particularly the involvement of women in the race, which was very moving. It made me feel very privileged and proud to be running, with my gender not even an issue, which certainly wasn't the case for women who wanted to run these major races even as recently as forty years ago.
Before reading this book, I didn't realise what a rich history the London marathon has, and how the race has grown from such humble origins to the world class event that it is today. My London marathon medal is one of my proudest possessions, for many reasons, and after reading this book I realised that, in a very small way, I am now a part of that great race and its history. No matter what else might happen in my life, I ran the 2011 London Marathon and nothing and no one can ever take that away from me. An empowering thought indeed!
What were your favourite books of last year?
What are you reading at the moment? Anything you'd recommend? :)
NB: In the interests of full disclosure and all that, I am an Amazon Associates member, which means if you click on one of the links to the books I've mentioned and end up purchasing it, I receive a small commission. Thanks for supporting me in this way, I appreciate it :)