The thing I hate most about new year is all the ‘best of…’ lists and TV programmes that engulf magazines, newspapers and TV schedules. I find it tedious and dull. This year has been worse than most, as it’s the end of a decade. So, in the name of hypocrisy, here’s my top ten of my reading year. Don’t bother to read it, it’s tedious. And dull.
10. The Hobbit, JRR Tolkein
Is it lame of me to start with a re-read? Surely not, when re-reading The Hobbit is one of my greatest pleasures in life. Always in the summer, for some reason. I think it is a summer book. I think I love it because, apart from it being an incredibly well written adventure with wizards and elves and dragons, it feels safe and cosy and warm, and reminds me of my childhood. I think we could all do with some of that from time to time.
9. Onyx and Crake, Margaret Atwood
I do love Margaret Atwood as a writer, but for some reason I’d never wanted to read this. Like everyone, I’m sometimes guilty of judging a book by its cover, and this never seemed like the sort of thing I’d enjoy. Then, I was leant it by a friend, and I ended up not being able to put it down. Atwood takes the now familiar idea of a dystopian future and makes it interesting again. And desperately relevant, considering the current debates over global warming. As well as a surprisingly detailed future-world, Atwood has also created an interesting protagonist, with a readable back-story. I’m definitely hoping that Atwood’s most recent novel, The Year of the Flood, a kind of companion but not quite sequel to Onyx and Crake, will make it into my ‘Best of…2010’ list.
8. The Historian, Elizabeth Kostova
This is a thriller like I haven’t enjoyed in a long time. Imagine that Dracula was actually real, and he was a bit of a scholar with a penchant for librarians and historians. Imagine a group of those historians getting together to track Dracula through the very medium by which he entrapped them- history. As a history geek I really loved the literary chase through archives in Istanbul, Oxford, Budapest and Bulgaria (and having just visited Budapest I was able to get extra excited at the lavish descriptions of that amazing city). Perhaps a little over-long at 600-odd pages, and perhaps the climax wasn’t as thrilling as I’d hoped, but I still very much enjoyed the ride.
7. The Sign of Four, Arthur Conan Doyle
I thought I’d left my Sherlock Holmes days far behind me, another relic of childhood, until I had to read this, the first Sherlock Holmes adventure, for a uni class. Before I knew it I was deep in the grips of a dangerous obsession, skipping classes to hide out in the library and read every Holmes story I could get my hands on. For a month I read nothing but Sherlock Holmes, until it got to the point where I thought I’ve read all of them. Now I’m hoping that a few stories might have escaped my binge, because I can no longer escape the fact that I love Sherlock Holmes very much, and hope to spend some more time with him some day.
6. Au Bonheur des Dames (The Ladies Delight), Emile Zola
If you’re thinking of visiting Paris at all in 2010, can I recommend this to get you in the mood? Au Bonheur des Dames in question is a department store designed to excite the ladies of Paris and to encourage them to part with as much of their money as possible. The frantic pace of the novel reflects the frenetic life of the shop workers, who live in the store and only venture out on Sundays. I believe it is also meant to be a salutary tale about greed and commercialism, but don’t let that put you off, it’s actually really good fun.
5. Our Mutual Friend, Charles Dickens
An odd one, this. I like to think I’ve read a respectable amount of Dickens for someone my age, yet I can’t help thinking I wasn’t ready for Our Mutual Friend, (In case you are interested, I’d previously read A Christmas Carol, A Tale of Two Cities, Hard Times and Great Expectations), and it came at me like a weighty 880 page smack in the face. For the first 600 pages, it was a struggle to force myself to read it. Something didn’t flow for me, and every page was an effort. Then, miraculously, at almost exactly page 600 I turned a corner and rolled downhill to the resolution, loving every minute. Thus, Our Mutual friend earned its place in this list, and the title of Most Extraordinary Book I Have Ever Read. I later read somewhere that Our Mutual Friend was Dickens’ final book, and he struggled with the writing process more than he was accustomed to. I felt cheered by this, and a certain connection to the great man, knowing that my lesser struggle reflected his own. I also feel that Our Mutual Friend was an appropriate final bow for Dickens, being an epic, sprawling love letter to his beloved city, cast with a range of characters to rival any he had written before. I know that this book deserves a re-read, and when I finally get around to that, I think I may fully be able to appreciate its greatness.
4. Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck
This is another novel that just blew me away with its sheer masterful power. Having been on my ‘to read’ list for an embarrassingly long length of time, I forced myself to read it. I’m pretty that anyone seriously interested in reading has, or intends to, read at least one Steinbeck novel. If you haven’t got around to it yet, make it your bookish new year’s resolution. I really felt like I learnt something reading this, and it kind of made me laugh in the face of the credit-crunch a bit, because I don’t think you know what recession is until you’re reduced to breast-feeding a starving old man in a flooded barn. Yes, I will warn you now, it is bleak.
3. Armadale, Wilkie Collins
My third ever Wilkie Collins novel. I loved it so, I couldn’t put it down, and I didn’t even try to guess what would happen like I often do, I just let the story take me. Predictably my classmates (I read it for an English Lit seminar) hated it, begging the question I often sigh in my head in their general po-faced direction- ‘Why do you study English when you all hate everything ever written?’ Personally, I feel myself genetically incapable of not loving anything vaguely classed as Victorian Sensation Fiction. I’ve often wondered where my obsession with books came from, but I generally imagine a fairly genteel Victorian lady somewhere in the Sheffield area, devouring the latest copies of Household Words (seriously, why does no such magazine exist today?) and resenting the interruption when decorum forced her to take tea with the vicar. Anyway, I digress. This novel featured a very interesting protagonist in the shape of the wily Lydia Gwilt. I don’t want to give any of the plot away, so I’ll just command you to read it (and The Moonstone and The Woman in White too).
2. War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy
So, 2009 was the year I finally read War and Peace. It was..interesting. Interesting because I thought that I’d enjoy the ‘peace’ bits and want to skip the ‘war’, but often it was the other way around. Tolstoy was amazing at writing about war, where others would have made it dull and incomprehensible to someone like me, who has no concept of that kind of warfare, beyond watching a few episodes of Sharp, he actually brought it alive before my very eyes. This was actually like reading several books, sometimes I was engrossed and couldn’t put it down, then I’d have a bad couple of hundred pages, before being revived by an image of riding in a sledge through the Russian winter so beautiful and vivid that I could almost feel the frost on the tip of my nose and hear the bells jangling. Maybe what Tolstoy really needed was a good editor. Maybe what I really need to do is to re-read this is about ten years time.
And finally…drum roll please…
1. Sylvia’s Lovers, Elizabeth Gaskell
Elizabeth Gaskell may just be one of my favourite writers. Ever. Anyone who’s enjoyed Cranford on the BBC this Christmas, can I draw your attention to Sylvia’s Lovers? This is a historical novel, a rare change of tone for Gaskell, is crying out for Andrew Davies to work his magic on it…I’m actually thinking of starting a petition to send to the BBC. This desperately sad, dramatic windswept tale is set around Whitby, and tells the mournful story of Sylvia, who definitely falls into the literary heroine category of ‘too pretty for her own good.’ Sylvia is beloved by her dull cousin, but is much more interested in a dashing young whaler. However, the latter gets press-ganged into the navy, and the former learns that lying to get what you want will often backfire horribly. And no one really has a happily ever after. Despite that, it is an astonishingly good read, and maybe should be prescribed to anyone who thinks that Mrs Gaskell only wrote dull socially conscious books about Manchester slums. She actually had a fantastic imagination.
So…that’s it folks…that’s the 2009 top ten. Though I’m sure the perceptible amongst you will have tutted over the fact that there’s barely a new release amongst them. Certainly nothing released in 2009. I’ll cry off with the excuse that I’m studying 19th century literature, meaning I can only make brief forays into the 21st. Don’t feel sorry for me though, I kind of like it that way.
Happy New Year…and good luck in all your reading-based resolutions!