What I Read Last Year…

Happy New Year, readers!  Welcome back!  I hope you all had a glorious break.  I know January is the month of new beginnings, but let’s face it, some things need no changing, and losing entire days with your face between pages, being taken on adventures, your hand occasionally reaching out for your cup of tea, is one of them.

Last year I did something I promised myself I’d do for a while.  I kept a list of all the books I’ve read.  They ranged from Proper Literature (I tackled The Brothers Karamazov and emerged victorious but somewhat broken) to … Literature of Lower Standing (Susan Lewis). These are the ones that stood out.

All links are to the AOW Book Store.

Dracula, by Bram Stoker

My Dad bought me this for Christmas.  It is extraordinary.  It is terrifying.  It also wipes the floor with what passes for horror novels these days.  So much has been made of the story of Count Dracula that you can only read the opening scenes of the novel, where the young lawyer Jonathan Harker travels across the rolling hills of Transylvania to conclude a property deal with the Count, and learn of the faces of the villagers once they hear where he is going, with a terrible sense of foreboding.   Don’t read it alone.  There’s a scene in the castle where Jonathan, trapped in the castle, looks out of the window at dusk.  He hasn’t quite discovered what the Count is yet, and all he knows is fear.  He looks down and sees the Count  crawling down the sheer face of the castle in search of his prey.  Your insides twist.

What unfolds is a tale of quiet terror, of desperation, of religion and faith and science and love. And it’s a really, really brilliant story.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon

I’ve got Pensky to thank for buying me this one.  I’d never even heard of it, yet I had people approaching me on the Tube, sitting down next to me and telling me where they were at the exact point in time they read this book.  People would spot it on my desk at work, pick it up, and tell me their favourite parts.  Someone on my previous team told me he found the book lying around on his hotel on his honeymoon and couldn’t put it down, much to the joy of his new wife.  I felt, and still do, like I’d been let in on a secret.

The book is one long, unabashed adventure story.  Sam Clay, a writer from a Jewish New York family, is joined one night by his cousin, the escapist, magician and artist Joe Kavalier who fled Prague during World War Two.  Sam wants to get rich quick and seeks fame and fortune.  Joe wants to make enough money to get his family out of Prague.  What follows is the story of how they try to make it in the world, fired by their belief, their talent, their hard work and their sense of adventure.  You meet characters in  this book that tell you more about the human condition in any other.  And it’s funny.  So very funny.   I cannot think of anyone  who’s life wouldn’t be made just a little bit better by reading this book.

Cookery books

These included the astounding Smitten Kitchen (thank you Catherine!), How To Eat (fact, Nigella is much less annoying on the page than she is on screen.  Top TV quote that my family mocked over Christmas was “This is my recipe for cappucino pavlova, or cap pav, as my family call it“.  Oh, Nigella.  PLEASE.) and I’m part of the way into Mrs Beeton, who occassionally roasts her potatoes on the fire (Mr K is gonig to love Aisling for buying me this.  Because I will obviously have to do that.)

Enduring Love by Ian McEwan

Oh, Ian.  The problem is, you’re such a phenomenally gifted writer, but I just want to smack you.  How can you write the best opening chapter in any book I have read in thirty years, (and oh, it is), and then turn a book about passion and obsession and betrayal into something so irritating?  The problem is, and it’s the same problem I have in any McEwan book, is that he always makes me feel like he’s trying to tell me how clever he is.  He goes down intellectuial, learned paths that have absolutely shag-all to do with the plot, and serve only to remind the reader that he’s a great intellect.   And the story is brilliant, and dark, and frightening.  And it’s ruined, and could have been written in a third of the length.

The Future Homemakers of America by Laurie Graham

Rachel bought me this one, and it warmed my heart.  Peggy Dewey is an American Air Force wife stationed in Norfolk during World War Two.  The book follows her story and the stories of her best friends through the war and back in America through the decades that follow, through marriage breakups and hard times and how America changed.  It’s less twee than the Ya-Yas but reinforces that in every group of friends, their has to be one person that stitches everyone together, who relentlessly keeps in contact, because without them, friendships fall apart and stories get lost.  And that without your friends, you’re not half the person you can be if you let them in.

This Body Of Death by Elizabeth George

I love Inspector Lynley and Detective Barbara Havers.  I think they are brilliant and so is their relationship and the crimes they solve are always meaty and realistic (I assume this given my extensive experience of police work).  I get this from my mother, who also has a penchant for disturbing, dark, Scandinavian crime novels featuring oddball detectives and twisted, psychotic murderers.  I won’t give the plot away except to say it features schizophrenics, Abney Park Cemetary (if it’s possible to have a favourite cemetary, this one’s mine), the New Forest and alcoholism. Lynley and Havers also teach you things, in a non-infuriating McEwan manner.  This one is big, complex, sad, and you won’t want to sleep without figuring out the ending.

Moranthology by Caitlin Moran

I’ve already talked about Caitlin Moran too much for someone who pretends not to be a complete fangirl.  I’ll leave it at this – Moranthology is a collection of her Times articles.  Some will enrage you. Some will make you cry laughing.  Some are just technically brilliant.  Some will remind you what it’s like to feel alive.

In one of my favourite articles, she writes about how, as a family, how they visit Aberystwyth every summer. She writes about it in a way that is real, not with flashy pictures of boutique hotels, but of wet Welsh slate rooftops, and of playing Cluedo in the hotel bedroom, and of eating crisps halfway up the clifftop walk. “And then, when the weather breaks, the castle: a green hill overlooking the sea, with the rib bones of a 14th-century castle poking through. The view is the very best, the one I bone-ache for in London: Cardigan Bay from end to end; the full length of Wales visible in one long sweep“.  That makes we want to go to Aberystwyth more than any stupid hotel review ever would.

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson

I an anything but on the fence with Jeanette Winterson.  I’ve read The Passion more than twenty times and made endless notes in the margins, like I’m still at school.  Her sci-fi stuff leaves me cold.  I find her too strident, too hard, but I still read anything I can find about her.  She makes me deeply uncomfortable, but she’s still the kind of writer I’d love to become.

These are her memoirs, dealing with her search for her biological mother, and how she came to terms with the woman who raised her in Warrington in the 1960s and her overpowering religious belief.  “Why be happy when you could be normal?” is the real-life question asked by her foster mother, as Winterson is evicted, at 16, for bringing home a second girlfriend (the attempts to exorcise her sexuality after the first were unsuccessful).

This book is hard,  Not in terms of language, quite the opposite.  The first half, the childhood, i’s written tersley, in control, you believe what you are reading, you build up trust, you know you are reading about pain, but you believe that in reading about it like this you can control how much you feel.  Then when you read about her search for her real mother and the emotion comes, you are unprepared, you have nowhere to hide.  It’s a remarkable book by a skilled writer that doesn’t want you to love her.  You don’t want to either.  But you can’t not.

*****

There were others, but let’s face it, I’m not the Times Literary Supplement.  What books did you enjoy the most in 2012, readers?  What did you get for Christmas that you can’t wait to crack into next year?

Categories: Books, Written By Anna
25 interesting thoughts on this

25 Comments

  1. Posted January 1, 2013 at 7:46 am | Permalink

    Well it is STILL 2012 as I right this, being last on the dateline makes it quite boring, you just feel like the unpopular kid who’s last to adopt the new cool thing at school…

    Read a whole lot this year, favourites included The twenties, by juliet gardiner, who really brought a decade of extremes to life for this history geek, and The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, smart, patriarchy-challenging teenage fiction.

    Shall look forward to reading everyone’s lists: library card at the ready!

  2. Posted January 1, 2013 at 9:30 am | Permalink

    Somewhere during my degree and masters I began to only read simple to read trash. Quite probably in reaction to the rather difficult to read law books I had to make my way through each week. Then, on holiday, my 15 year old cousin, who I have never seen with a book in his hand, who I’ve never seen able to sit still long enough to read a book asked me “Did you bring books with you on holiday?”. When I told him I’d not, I had books on my kindle app, he shoved the Hunger Games at me and told me to read that. It was a lightening bolt moment where I remembered what it was like to discover new books and immerse myself in them. Since then I’ve read a lot less trash!

    When the Ladies Paradise began on BBC one, I had to read the book it was based on by Emile Zola. The way he descriptive way he described the store made me want to go back in time to when department stores first began, to feel the magic the first consumers must have felt. At the same time, I am now twice as cynical about the way stores try and get you to sell their products!

    I also read North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell after discovering the BBC series on Netflix. Again, set in a time of great change, the contrast between the North and South at the time, as well as the beginnings of things such as unions my inner historian found fascinating. I fell in love with John Thornton all over again (it helps when I have the image of Richard Armitage in my head as I read!) and found Margaret to be more of a rounded character than the series has time for.

    As a child born at the end of Apartheid, a time of great social upheaval that I, in my youth, noticed very little of, I decided last year I would start to read a few more books around it. I read Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Made a Nation by John Carlin. This is what the film Invictus is based on. I became a rugby fan during the 1995 world cup, we emigrated the day after we won, and I can’t explain how it felt to be there on that day, how important it was to the nation. This book comes close, though.

    I also read Country of My Skull by Antjie Krog. After Shake Hands with the Devil, by Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire, this was the most difficult book I have ever read. It is written by a journalist who reported on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. She takes you on the moral anguish she felt as she listened to the stories. She explains the issues and problems around the TRC. And she gives you an account of some of the testimonies given to the Commission. As I read them I sobbed, big ugly sobs. The book made me hurt, it still makes me hurt at the fact that people can treat other people like that.

    • Posted January 1, 2013 at 9:34 am | Permalink

      Also, I have a £20 book token voucher. Any suggestions about what I should spend it on?

      • Posted January 1, 2013 at 11:08 am | Permalink

        Have you read Wolf Hall or Bring Up The Bodies? You don’t have to be a history buff to love them…they’re set in one of the most exciting periods of England’s past, and she is a phenomenal writer.

        The Observer got a bunch of writers to name their books of the year here:
        http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/nov/25/books-of-the-year-2012

        The only one I have read is Zadie Smith’s NW which I found really hard going (unlike her other books, and despite being really excited about it!).

        • Posted January 1, 2013 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

          Just finished Bring Up The Bodies this morning in bed with a cup of tea and a chocolate orange. It was excellent (although the ending was rather predictable, Titanic-style). Better than Wolf Hall I thought, although you should read Wolf Hall first!

          Px

          • Beth
            Posted January 2, 2013 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

            Agree it’s even better than Wolf Hall.

            I love how funny Hilary Mantel is – Jane Seymour’s deadpan dimwit in Bring Up The Bodies is just excellent. It is also fascinating to get a feel for what it might have been like living at such a pivotal point in history with massive changes in commerce and politics and realising that when it comes down to it, it’s all about people and personality.

            If you get a chance to hear Hilary Mantel speak, go. I went to an event at the Southbank last year and loved every second of it. She reads like she’s telling you salacious secrets.

        • Posted January 1, 2013 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

          I haven’t read them. Just had a quick google, and they look good! I love historical novels, and that’s my favourite period of English history.

          I will see if my local Waterstones has them on Saturday.

    • Posted January 1, 2013 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

      Picking up on your SA theme have you read Nadine Gordimer? I’ve only read one & can’t remember which one nor locate it in the bookshelves, but I loved it for the story & way she challenged society.

      • Posted January 1, 2013 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

        I haven’t read her books, but I have heard of her. I’ll put on my list of authors to read.

  3. Mel
    Posted January 1, 2013 at 11:06 am | Permalink

    My favourite things I’ve read last year have been Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor, and its follow up, Days of Blood and Starlight. I loved them both so much I’ve read them twice this year and cannot wait for the final part.
    I also read all the Game of Thrones books last year and found them mostly brilliant. Suspect we’ll never get the next one in the series if the clerk at Waterstones is anything to go by.

  4. Posted January 1, 2013 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

    I got a Kindle for Christmas and now SO happy to have my favorites on there which don’t make my arm drop off holding them! Currently still devouring The Game of Thrones series but got the entire Sherlock Holmes collection on free download and cannot wait to start them. I am open to ALL suggestions because I really don’t know where to start otherwise! x

    • Steff
      Posted January 1, 2013 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

      How far through Game of Thrones are you? I was hoping to eek them out until the babies arrive but it’s looking unlikely since I actually seem incapable of putting them down!

      • Posted January 1, 2013 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

        I’m on part II of A storm of Swords – Blood & Gold. I keep getting upset as my favourite characters don’t live very long!

        • Posted January 1, 2013 at 6:52 pm | Permalink

          I get too impatient when one of my non favourite characters narrates, I get very attached to protagonists so when there are lots I get confused andhave to pick favourites…
          Still, I get pretty into them :-)

  5. Posted January 1, 2013 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

    Anna, I feel exactly the same way about Ian McEwan – I keep trying with him but each book feels like a lesson in how good Ian McEwan is. And yet some parts are genius.

    Will definitely be buying one of these for a certain husband for his birthday, exactly his sort of thing.

    So you’ve never been to Aber? Well, I happen to know it pretty well as most of my immediate family live there. I quite fancy stalking Caitlin Moran there next summer if you want a

    I am currently reading my way through Terry Pratchett’s back catalogue. It’s pretty good!

    • Posted January 1, 2013 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

      I have similar feelings about Ian McEwan. Up. Own. Arse. Sorry.

      Px

    • Posted January 1, 2013 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

      Ooooooooh! I have all Terry P’s discworld books, apart from his most recent. I’m waiting until after my birthday in case someone has bought it for me. I absolutely love his writing and characters. Although each book he releases comes with a twinge of sadness for the day he can’t write anymore.

      • Steff
        Posted January 1, 2013 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

        Hm, my next venture may well have to be back into the discworld stuff. I’ve read Diggers, Truckers and Wings when I was younger but never got into the rest of it really.

  6. Posted January 1, 2013 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

    This post made me really think back to the books I read last year, so thank you for encouraging me to do that. On a third re read I fell back in love with Jane Eyre. I finally read an Elizabeth Bowen & look forward to reading another of hers this year. Favourite new book read was The Snow Child, so beautiful & life affirming.
    On another book related note I’m off on Thursday to Bath to Mr B’s Emporium for my bibliotherapy session- can’t wait.
    Happy New Year everybody x

  7. Posted January 1, 2013 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

    Anna I love that you loved Kavalier, it is probably my favourite book and I knew you’d get it. I kept track of my books this year too and am surprised and slightly horrified to see so much Susan Lewis in there. Notable mention to the two Hilary Mantell books (as above) the reading of which has gained me kudos points with the mother in law (and my own mum, who hoovered them up immediately), also Tender Is The Night and Room by Emma Donoghue. Also finally read Anna Karenina, which I enjoyed very much but thought went on a bit.

    I’m interested to see your reading of Dracula! I read it at university and thought it was high camp and not scary at all. But still brilliant.

    This year I have resolved to read Middlemarch, my mum’s favourite book. It looks long.

    Px

  8. Rach M
    Posted January 1, 2013 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

    Chuffed that you enjoyed Homemakers…and are still a fan of the Passion all these years later. Agreed on McEwan. Am reading a book called Salvage The Bones by Jesmyn Ward at the moment, really good stuff, set in Louisiana in the run up to Hurricane Katrina. Happy reading in 2013 all!

  9. Posted January 1, 2013 at 4:58 pm | Permalink

    I read :
    Storyteller (the biography of Roald Dahl by Donald Sturrock), The Marriage Plot (Jeffrey Eugenides), The Help, The Prague Cemetery (Umberto Eco), A biography of Leonora Carrington (by Elena Poniatowska), The Help (Kathryn Stockett), Bright Young Things (Scarlett Thomas), The Invisible Circus (Jennifer Egan), The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake (Aimee Bender)… and that’s about all I can remember.
    This reminded me I should write a recap-post with reviews…
    Now you got me curious with Moranthology, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and The Future Homemakers of America.
    I wish I could read all of the time.

  10. Katie
    Posted January 1, 2013 at 7:18 pm | Permalink

    Slightly random, but I really enjoyed Consolations of Philosophy by Alain de Botton.

  11. Frances
    Posted January 1, 2013 at 9:17 pm | Permalink

    Likewise on Ian McEwan – loved the first chapter of Enduring Love and never got through the rest of it. It just annoyed me. We have his Solar somewhere which I keep meaning to read but keep putting it off.

    Dracula is one of my favourite books of all time; it’s so brilliantly creepy and cinematic, and yet there isn’t one film version which does the book justice. The last time I read Dracula I inexplicably kept staying up really late when home alone to read it and then scaring myself. I don’t enjoy horror films at all, but this is a brilliant read and not simply about the horror aspects.

    Just added several books to my ‘must read’ list – my bank balance is whimpering already…

    • Beth
      Posted January 2, 2013 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

      Share others mixed feelings about McEwan. I think Solar is worth a read though – a third of the way through I thought I hated it but somehow ended up sort of loving it. It’s so in your face and often preposterous but it really made me think.

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Hello! We're Clare, Aisling and Anna and welcome to a corner of the world where smart, flawed, real women talk about the bigger picture; about their experiences, stories and opinions on all aspects of being a woman today, from marriage to feminism to pretty, too.

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