Twelve books for 2018

30-12-2018 21:12


Here we have twelve books for twelve months – I am currently reading my 120th book of the year, but I won’t finish it till the New Year.

I finished my A Century of Books though, what a brilliant challenge, and I might do it again in a year or two. The full list of what I read is here.

I never read all that many new publications, as I am more comfortable with more vintage/classic books. So, no modern books appear in my top twelve this year – and weirdly no books in translation, despite having read far more than I usually do.

I usually limit myself to one book by any particular author, well I have broken that rule – twice. Here they are in reverse order this year.

12 Symposium by Muriel Spark (1990) – I have really come to appreciate Muriel Spark this year, much more than I had expected. This is a very clever novel, beautifully textured, I loved the way the narrative moves back and forth in time, gradually revealing a little bit more about a group of wealthy, privileged people. It is a novel about what happens when certain types of people come together, about the thin veneer of respectability that might exist in such circles. We are though in typical Sparkian territory, and there is also robbery and murder on the agenda and more than a few surprises.

11 Home Life by Alice Thomas Ellis (1986) In 1985 Alice Thomas Ellis began producing a weekly column in the Spectator called Home Life. These short pieces were collected together in four volumes of which this is the first. This book was an absolute joy. These articles about the author’s own family life are full of fun, tongue-in-cheek observations and ruminations – a (not so) Provincial Lady of the 1980s perhaps.

10 The Bachelor by Stella Gibbons (1944) The Bachelor of the title – Kenneth Fielding, and his sister Constance own Sunglades; a large seven-bedroom house not far from London, though far enough to protect them from the worst of the bombing. With them lives a spinster cousin Frankie Burton, who nurses the memory of her one romance when she was a young woman. To prevent being landed with more strangers from London, Constance decides to fill up her empty bedrooms with people of her own choosing.

9 The Doves of Venus by Olivia Manning (1955) Eighteen-year old Ellie leaves her home in the provincial seaside town of Eastsea in search of independence. Having done a night school art class at the technical college Ellie has her sights set on the art world. In London, Ellie takes a small bedsit in Chelsea and manages to get a job at a furniture studio – initially in packing – but soon she is moved to the ‘antiquing’ room where she paints bits of furniture. She also acquires a middle-aged lover.

8 Loving and Giving by Molly Keane (1988) Molly Keane’s final novel published more than sixty years after her first is utterly superb. On the surface it may sound like so many other Keane novels – it isn’t, it is a more mature work – beautifully written and with a brilliantly unexpected ending. The novel opens in 1914, Nicandra is eight years old, life is good at the family’s grand Irish home; Deer Forest. This is a place where everyone has his or her place, above stairs the family live comfortably, below stairs or in the stables, the maids, butler, grooms and steward have a different kind of life. Nicandra runs between the stables, and the house with a freedom few modern children ever experience.

7 The Diviners by Margaret Laurence (1974) A modern classic in Canadian literature; The Diviners is the story of Morag Gunn, a fiercely independent writer, her difficult relationships with her Métis lover Jules Tonnerre, and her daughter Pique. The story moves back and forth between Morag’s present – where she struggles with her work and her relationship with her daughter, and the past as she grows up more and more desperate to escape the town of Manawaka.

6 The Pumpkin Eater by Penelope Mortimer (1962) This is a novel about the pitfalls of marriage and motherhood, Mortimer’s simple prose is wonderfully immersive, dreamy and intimate. We only ever know our narrator as Mrs Armitage, her husband, Jake is a screenwriter – he has a rich, creative, rewarding life, filled with travel and acclaim. Jake’s wife is part of his home life – an attractive feature of his home, an accessory. The couple live in London but are building a glass tower in the country – with the intention that it will one day, become the family home. Mrs Armitage proudly tells her doctor about the tower. We sense immediately this happy ever after is an unrealistic expectation, that fairy tale ending perhaps, that we so often strive for.

5 Mad Puppetstown by Molly Keane (1931) Mad Puppetstown is a wonderful evocation of an Irish childhood in the early twentieth century, before the First World War. The writing is extraordinarily beautiful, the opening page is really quite poetic. Into what Molly Keane calls ‘those full-blooded’ days young Easter Chevington is born and raised. She is eight as the novel opens, living in her father’s country house of Mad Puppetstown with her father, Great-Aunt Dicksie, her two adored boy cousins Evelyn and Basil and their beautiful widowed mother Aunt Brenda. The children live a charmed life – running free, and slightly wild in the Irish countryside, surrounding the house.

4 The Juniper Tree by Barbara Comyns (1985) Barbara Comyns is stunning, and this was a novel I could not stop thinking about afterwards. The setting, the London of the 1980s – albeit the 1980s viewed by Comyns. The 80s of Comyns’ fiction is fairy-tale like – everything exists somewhere outside the usual realms of time and space. There is an odd timelessness to much of The Juniper Tree, the modern world is present glimpsed through piles of dusty antique furniture and ageing knick-knacks of a little antique shop. Comyns’ novel The Juniper Tree is based on a Grimm’s fairy-tale of the same name.

3 Young Anne by Dorothy Whipple (1927) A new Whipple in the Persephone list is always a treat, and this was one of the books which tempted me away from ACOB. Dorothy Whipple’s first novel – published when she was in her thirties – was very autobiographical. We follow the growth, education, life and loves of Anne Pritchard from the time she is just five years old through to a time when she is finally settled.

2 The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark (1963) Quite definitely my favourite Muriel Spark novel of this year. Every word, every scene is brilliant. Set in 1945 – ‘when all the nice people were poor’ at the May of Teck Club where the girls of slender means live together and share a taffeta Schiaparelli dress.

1.The Montana Stories by Katherine Mansfield (2001) – this is an extraordinary collection, even though some pieces are unfinished, and some pieces I did like more than others, something about the writing of Katherine Mansfield has stayed with me throughout the year. The stories were written in 1921 – but this collection was only put together by Persephone in 2001. In 1921, Katherine Mansfield, very ill with TB went to stay in a chalet in Montana, Switzerland for her health. This period became one of her most creative periods – and the pieces in this collection are presented chronologically – which is often such an interesting way to read a writer’s work. There are stories in this collection, like The Dolls House, and The Garden Party I could happily read again and again. This book set me on a mission to read more Katherine Mansfield. Although this wasn’t my first book by Katherine Mansfield – it was my first for several years. Thanks to this book I will definitely be reading or rereading more by Mansfield in the coming year.

So, there we are. Twelve books for 2018, and yes, they’re all women (and I don’t do that deliberately). Some of these books will help inspire my reading in 2019 – and I would love it if they inspire you too.

To all of you, of course I wish a very happy, healthy New Year – filled with wonderful books.
Happy reading!