It’s that time of year again, my blog anniversary and the post in which I pick the ten best books I’ve reviewed this year. As always, it’s a difficult choice. Basically, it usually comes down to the ten books that are most memorable to me.
This year, most of the books were historical novels. There are lots of good ones around lately, but also I think maybe I’ve been reading more of them. No nonfiction, I’m afraid, although I have read some good ones.
So, with no further ado, here they are, in order of my reviews:
- Crow Lake by Mary Lawson
- Golden Hill by Francis Spufford
- Minds of Winter by Ed O’Loughlin
- Transcription by Kate Atkinson
- The Greenlanders by Jane Smiley
- The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton
- Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift
- Washington Black by Esi Edugyan
- The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanigihara
- Milkman by Anna Burns
Dreyer’s English was recommended to me by a friend, and it proved to be so popular at the library that I had to wait two months for my hold to come through. As I worked as a writer for more than 30 years, not too much of what Dreyer has to say is a surprise to me, but his facetious style is refreshing.
This book is a familiarly organized writing reference, but it’s easy to simply read it, because it’s fun. Dreyer got on my good side almost immediately by citing Words into Type, a book that was my editing bible for years. I noticed in later years that young writers were rather sneery about it (“That’s out of date, isn’t it?”), or I more frequently met with a blank stare when I recommended it. Now I feel vindicated.
Most interesting to me was the expansion of the “easily confused” list from that included in Words into Type. I was surprised at the increase in the number of simple items being confused.
From its Intro to its Outro, Dreyer’s English contains useful information for even the most casual writer. I think I’m going to buy a copy.
The Adventure of English: The Biography of a Language
The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them
Daniel Sullivan is about to leave Ireland for a business trip when he catches a segment of a radio broadcast more than 20 years old. He hears the voice of Nicola Janks, his old girlfriend. When he learns she died in 1986, the year he last saw her, he becomes obsessed with finding out what happened to her, fearing he was responsible for her death.
Unfortunately, he is unable to explain this concern to his wife, Claudette. Instead, she hears from his family about his erratic behavior. He is supposed to visit his 90-year-old father in Brooklyn but stays only a few minutes before abruptly leaving to visit his children from his first marriage.
These are the first events in a series that will change his life. But O’Farrell is interested in more than these events. In chapters ranging back and forth over 30 years and switching point of view among the characters, she tells about the lives of many of them, of Claudette, the reclusive ex-movie star; of Daniel; of Daniel’s children and Claudette’s children; of Daniel’s mother; even of some of the novel’s secondary characters.
I came late to O’Farrell and so far have only read two books by her, but I’ve enjoyed them immensely. She catches you with her complex plots but keeps you with her characterizations.
After You’d Gone
Where’d You Go, Bernadette
Miss Elinor MacFarren is dismayed to realize that something must be done about her finances. With World War II just past, there has not been much recent demand for her beautifully illustrated books on botany. She decides, with the London housing shortage going on, that she must find someone to share her lovely family home, filled with treasures.
When she interviews Mrs. Bankes, whose husband is an American journalist, she has some misgivings, but Mrs. Bankes agrees to all her conditions, and she relies upon the warm recommendation of her friend, Harriet Greenway. It’s not too long after Mrs. Bankes moves in, though, that the house is noisy and disorganized. Miss MacFarren’s precious objects are being mistreated, and Mrs. Bankes is using up all the time of the shared housekeeper. She is even taking Miss MacFarren’s food from the kitchen.
Mrs. Bankes proves to be a manipulator and a liar, willing to do or say anything to get her way. The situation is complicated when Mr. Bankes arrives, because he is so nice and appreciative of the house. Miss MacFarren can’t bring herself to give them notice while he is there.
This domestic comedy is thoroughly enjoyable as Miss MacFarren gets out of her rut, meeting new people and re-evaluating old acquaintances. With their help, she tries to figure out how to eject her unwelcome lodger.
I received this book from the publishers in exchange for a fair and honest review.
All Done by Kindness
A Winter Away
The Old Man’s Birthday
Milly Bott, a plump little woman like a dove, is suddenly a widow after her husband Ernest’s accident. The respectable Botts gather around her to commiserate, but she appears to be stunned. Then comes the fateful news. Her husband has left her only £1000 of his huge fortune, giving the rest to a home for fallen women and ending his will with “she will know why.”
Of course, the family assumes that Milly has had an affair. They decide that the only way to avoid scandal is to rally around her. But Milly has other ideas. She decides to run off to London to get her legacy and then travel to Switzerland to stay with her sister, Agatha. For, the only other scandal in the Bott family was created when Agatha eloped with a Swiss. Milly decides she will confess her sins to Agatha and go on to live a life of expiation, for she has indeed had an affair.
But naïve and sweet-natured Milly is in for many disillusions, beginning with her first meeting with her sister in 25 years, for Ernest forbade the association. Milly has been writing to her sister secretly and encounters her in London.
Expiation is a social satire that is sometimes hilarious and sometimes touching. As the virtuous characters jump from one conclusion to another and behave with less Christian forgiveness the more religious they are, poor silly but penitent and unfailingly kind Milly unwittingly turns their lives topsy-turvy.
I received this book from the publishers in exchange for a free and fair review.
Our Spoons Came from Woolworths
Cakes and Ale
Love in a Cold Climate
The Best Book for this period is Milkman by Anna Burns!
Audrey Hart arrives on the Isle of Skye to take up a position as an assistant to a folklorist in 1857. She has fled her family because of a situation that occurred during her volunteer work and because her father doesn’t believe a girl of her upbringing should work. She has taken a job on Skye because her mother, who died when she was a child, loved it there.
Upon her arrival in Skye, Audrey notices a croft girl who appears to be ill. The local people believe she was taken by fairies. The Buchanans, her employers, aren’t interested in what happens to a girl of her class. The minister thinks even Miss Buchanan’s story-collecting activities encourage superstition.
Audrey is worried, because she hasn’t been able to get the locals to tell her any stories so can’t do her job. But then she begins hearing about other young girls who have disappeared. No one seems to want to listen to her ideas that the disappearances may be related, not even the kind nephew of Miss Buchanan, Alec. While all this is going on, Alec’s father is enclosing his land and evicting tenants.
This is an atmospheric novel that nicely blends the folklore of the area with more sinister themes. Although I almost immediately figured out what was going on, if not the motive, I enjoyed the journey. This is an entertaining historical suspense novel.
The Good People
The Sea House
At the Water’s Edge