2017 – 12 reading highlights

Image credit: UMagazine http://urdu-mag.com/blog/

Well the minutes are ticking down on 2017. It was an odd sort of reading year in many ways. I read for comfort a lot more than I normally do, which meant that my final tally features less reads that one might consider challenging or those that ask for a more sizeable emotional or intellectual commitment. Perhaps that’s a reflection of the rather tough year that it’s been, both personally and on a global scale.

For me, comfort reading often features books from series (i.e. familiarity), books targeted at young adult readers or books set in a rose-tinted past. I read through almost the entirety of Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce mysteries over the course of the year and discovered Lemony Snicket’s series All The Wrong Questions, which is brilliant and I urge you to read it, particularly if you’re already a fan of A Series of Unfortunate Events. A major highlight was discovering Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising quintet, of which more below.

I’ve skimmed through my 2017 reads – 102 in total – and highlighted 12 books that I’m most glad I read over the last few months. They’re books I read this year, not necessarily those published this year (I’m always slower on the uptake with those). They appear in the order in which I read them and (by complete and pleasing coincidence) are an even spread between fiction and non-fiction. Although the poor blokes don’t get a look-in – just one male author, who I promise is not a ‘token’! Oops.

  1. Penelope Lively – Ammonites and Leaping Fish: A Life in Time: Penelope Lively is one of my favourite authors and this had been languishing on my ‘to read’ shelves for far too long. It was as wonderful as I hoped. No one writes about the juncture where history, memory and time meet in quite the same way as Lively. Thanks to the Waterstones sale, her new book Life in the Garden is on its way.
  2. Jessmyn Ward – Men We Reaped: A Memoir: In five years, Ward lost five young men who were close to her to suicide, drugs and accidents. This is not an easy read but it’s a searing indictment of what life is still like if you’re a young black man living in poverty in the USA.
  3. Joyce Carol Oates – My Sister, My Love: The Intimate Story of Skyler Rampike: Loosely based on the death of 6-year-old beauty pageant winner JonBenet Ramsay, who was found murdered in her own home in 1996, Oates’ story about ice-skating champion Bliss Rampike is told from the perspective of her older brother, Skyler. I picked this up on a whim and wasn’t sure how I’d get on with the subject matter, but I was blown away by how immense an achievement it is. It’s enormous, epic, incredibly well plotted and structured, with material presented in many different forms. You can’t help but tip your hat to Oates’ superior skills and her masterful handling of the complex effects of trauma, grief and guilt.
  4. Mary Roach – Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in Space: A great blend of science, fact, story-telling and ‘what??’ moments, all wrapped up in an accessible, engaging read. As the blurb says ‘space exploration is in some ways an exploration of what it means to be human’ and this book makes that crystal clear. Plus it answers the questions EVERYBODY always asks!
  5. Sue Gee – Trio: An impulsive library grab led to an unexpectedly beautiful, elegiac and nuanced story about grief, music and the tremulous connections between gentle, quiet people. Beginning in Northumberland in 1937, the book follows history teacher Steven Coulter as he tries to find his way following the death of his wife.
  6. Donald Sturrock – Storyteller: The Life of Roald Dahl: With unprecedented access to Dahl’s archives, Sturrock’s biography is an absorbing, detailed and balanced read. Despite being a 600+ page chunkster, I motored through this surprisingly quickly and learned a great deal about the complex character and fascinating life of Dahl. Although I’ll never read Boy in quite the same way!
  7. Oriel Malet – Letters from Menabiliy: Portrait of a Friendship: I read this because of the connection to Daphne Du Maurier, who fascinates me. But I came away extremely pleased to have ‘met’ writer Oriel Malet, who I can now only ever imagine in her houseboat home on the banks of the Seine. Malet and Du Maurier’s correspondence offers a fascinating glimpse into the lives of two unique and thoughtful authors, with a pleasing insight into the behind the scenes of a writing life.
  8. Barbara Pym – A Very Private Life: an autobiography in letters and diaries: Pym! Pym! And in her own words! Lovely and moving. You can see my review here.
  9. Amy Sackville – The Still Point: I guessed that I’d still be thinking about this cleverly written book a long time after finishing it, and I was proved right. Find out more here.
  10. Laura Purcell – The Silent Companions: A recent read with a generous dollop of gothic spine tingle. You can read my review here.
  11. Helen Dunmore – Your Blue-Eyed Boy: A gripping read from a truly great writer who so sadly died in June of this year. Based on the outpouring of love and respect in book blogging circles, I’m probably not the only one trying to fill personal reading gaps in her back catalogue. I’ll not say anymore about this particular book here as I’m planning to write a proper review in the new year. If you wanted a reminder of just how wonderful a writer Dunmore was, just click here.
  12. Susan Cooper – The Dark is Rising: This book is significant in two ways. Firstly, it’s an absolutely cracking read. Secondly, it taught me (finally) what twitter is for. Thanks to Robert McFarlane and Julia Bird, I’ve been taking part in my first shared reading experience, enjoying TDIR alongside a few thousand others. It’s been a wonderful way to discover a ‘classic’ that I missed as a child and has given me such a wonderful variety of perspectives on the story and it’s universal themes. Having always been a bit phased by Twitter, and a bit distracted by its negatives, I’ve discovered that it’s all about finding your tribe.

Hope you all have a wonderful time seeing in the new year; I guess some of you might already have started! I’ll be back in the next few days with a look ahead to 2018 and a bit of literary bingo…

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Seeing double with Flavia Leng’s ‘A Daughter’s Memoir’

After lining up my library pickings, I went and left them all downstairs the other night and found myself tucked up in bed without a library book in reach, and too lazy to go downstairs. So, instead, I rifled through the TBR pile of charity shop findings by my bed, which I’ll show you sometime. Now that it’s as tall as my bedside table, it’s in danger of becoming a reserve bedside table.

A while ago I was thrilled to stumble on a copy of Flavia Leng’s memoir of her childhood, growing up Daphne Du Maurier’s middle daughter in the eponymous Menabilly. So thrilled in fact, I forgot all about the last time I was thrilled to find a copy of Flavia Leng’s memoir of her childhood, and so on. So I have two, both with distinctive red spines, side by side in the leaning tower of TBR.

I figured it was high time to read one of them.

Daphne DM is one of my reading obsessions. Like the Mitford sisters, the Brontes and a few others, I will happily squirrel away any and every book I come across that even mentions them in passing. I have Forster’s chunky and well-researched DM biography and somewhere, as yet unearthed in the book boxes that remain sealed while house renovations happen, is a copy of Letters from Menabilly, a glorious collection of correspondence between Daphne DM and her friend, the writer Oriel Malet. Growing Pains, Daphne’s own notes on her life, features in my new header image. I found that in Hay-on-Wye and a patient bookseller had to climb into the window display to retrieve it for me.

I’ve tried before to explain to people the attraction of reading about the same thing over and over again. I suppose it’s a little like visiting a much loved garden. If you go in the spring, it’ll look quite different to how it does in the blaze of autumn. Picnicking by the flowerbeds and listening to the thrum of the bees will be quite a different experience to hiking up to a high vantage point and looking out over the whole.

I suppose it’s all a matter of perspective. And I’m really drawn to the idea that, whether you’re talking about a person, an event or a whole historical period, there are really just multiple truths. Reading around the topic will allow you to see a bigger picture or colour it in a little more vividly, but it can (and should) never be definitive.

Forster obviously says a lot more than Leng in her book. If you want an analysis of Du Maurier’s works in relation to her life, then it is to Forster you should turn (although with a weather eye always to the influence of how interpretation is a mirror that reflects both author and subject). Leng, understandably, really only mentions the books in the sense of their having been written at particular times and omits much of the exploration of DM’s more private motivations. Leng’s book is ultimately about how Daphne DM’s life pertains to Flavia Leng herself, which is exactly as it should be. But it’s no less valuable an insight for that. It’s often what each writer chooses to emphasise or leave out entirely in their respective books that speaks about both them and Daphne Du Maurier herself. I love the whole process of reading in this way; it’s almost like trying to do a jigsaw puzzle only to find that pieces from two different pictures have been mixed up in one box. But it’s not at all frustrating; more fascinating. Each book adds a little more detail but the final image is mine to determine. I kind of want to go for the full immersion now, re-read Forster and Letters, then read Growing Pains for the first time.

In fact, hang the potential library fines. I might do just that.