Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Books of 2011

 Frangonard - A Young Woman Reading (1776)

I was so close to achieving my annual goal of reading 52 books (one book a week) this year!  I managed 51, which is a vast improvement on last year's total of 44.  I also read 10 books from the 1001 Books to Read Before You Die list, which is not really enough, but better than none.

I keep a notebook of the books I read, with the details of the title and author, a brief description of the book (so I remember what it's about), my comments, and a rating out of five stars. For 2010, these were the five star books:

Under the Skin by Michel Faber (2000)
This was the year I discovered Michel Faber.  Under the Skin is on the 1001 Books list, and I knew nothing about it before reading.  It's a wonderfully dark tale set in the Scottish highlands about a woman who picks up hitchhikers, particularly strong, male hitchhikers.  From there on in, it gets weird in a way you just can't imagine, but the writing is so seductive that you find yourself completely drawn into the plot.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (2009)
This is what historical fiction should be like! Beautifully written and devoid of the usual romance that plagues so many novels set in this period.  Thomas Cromwell, who rose from humble origins to become a clerk to Cardinal Wolsey and later chief advisor to Henry VIII, is a wonderfully rounded character, at once ruthless and charming, a political genius.  It's quite a dense, complicated read, and I was glad of my fairly good grasp on Tudor politics and history, but if you read it you will never look at historical fiction the same way again.  

The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber (2003)
So continues my love of Michel Faber.  This book is incredibly different from Under the Skin, a great romping novel set in Victorian London.  William Rackham, a self-important perfume magnate, becomes enamoured with Sugar, a beautiful and educated teenage prostitute, neglecting his fragile wife.  The reader is drawn into this dark world of upper-class hypocrisy and sordid secrets.  Wonderfully authentic, it's a book you can really immerse yourself in, and which captures the imagination wholly.

Tess of the D'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy (1891)
It took me three months to read this book, partly because it was so heartbreakingly sad, and partly because the writing was so evocative that I had to stop every few pages and just enjoy the glorious sentences.  Tess is such a vulnerable character that it was sheer torture watching her wandering towards her certain doom.

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (1966)
Capote is credited with inventing the genre of the "nonfiction novel" with this book.  Covering the brutal slaying of the Cutter family by two would-be robbers, Capote manages to keep the reader's interest right up until the end - despite the fact that the facts of the murders are known fairly early on in the novel - by exploring why these men killed as well as how it happened. 

The Cook by Wayne Macauley (2011)
Zak is one of several under-privileged teenagers chosen to go to Chef School, a Jamie Oliver-esque institution where they will be taught to be chefs.  Zak takes to his studies with single-minded determination, chasing the dream of being a celebrity chef with his own restaurant.  When he is employed as the live-in cook for a wealthy family, his quest for the perfect dish takes on a sinister focus as he begins to lose touch with reality.  This is a darkly comic novel, a satire on the celebrity cult and food worship.  (I do have to admit that I work with Wayne Macauley and he is a very nice person, but I actually did enjoy his book immensely!)

The Group by Mary McCarthy (1963)
A novel about eight young women who graduate together from Vassar in 1933 , and the different courses their lives take between then and the beginning of WWII.  The characters are different from each other without being caricatures, and the insight into everyday life in the 30s is fascinating. 

Some other books I enjoyed were:

George R R Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series
Somehow I missed reading these when I was a teenager, although it transpires that almost everyone I know read them at some point, including my father and brother.  Although set in the fantasy world of Westeros, the series has more in common with Renaissance history, with all it's power-plays and political machinations, that the elves and dwarves world of Tolkien.  There's plenty of sex and violence, but the characters are skillfully drawn and the plot is so intriguing that it's impossible not to be drawn in to the story.

They've also made a very faithful television series of the first book which I highly recommend.  I read the first four books in the series: A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, A Storm of Swords, and A Feast for Crows. The fifth book just came out this year, and is sitting on my bookshelf waiting to be read.

Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates
April and Frank Wheeler are a seemingly happy young couple living a comfortable 1950s suburban life.  However, both feel unfulfilled, and believing that they are somewhat superior to their suburban neighbours, they resolve to move to France to pursue their artistic dreams.. As their relationship deteriorates, the trip and their dreams of finding meaning in their lives begins to slip away.  An interesting period piece and also a look at suburban malaise and the price of following your dreams.

The Red Queen by Philippa Gregory
Ok, so after reading Wolf Hall, this seems a bit of an easy read, but I do love these lets-take-history-and-show-it-from-a-woman's-point-of-view novels as much as the next romantic history nerd.  This one is about Margaret Beaufort, the grandmother of Henry VIII. 

The Story of Lucy Gault by William Trevor
Set in 1920s Ireland, the Gaults must abruptly leave their family home to escape anti-English violence.  Their young daughter, Lucy, horrified at the idea of leaving, runs away and cannot be found.  The repercussions from this act spread throughout the whole of this incredibly sad and moving story.

Silas Marner by George Eliot
The story of a weaver, who, turned out of his home-town for a crime he did not commit, finds solace in his hoard of gold.  When this is stolen, his life seems devoid of meaning until he receives something that becomes more precious than his gold ever was.  A charming tale that gently reminds the reader of the value of human companionship without ever being preachy or sentimental.

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini
An incredibly powerful story of two generations of Afghani women, and the way their lives are shaped by thirty years of war and patriarchy.  

Kraken by China Mieville
A wonderfully complex tale from the master of urban fantasy.  The giant kraken from the Darwin Centre goes missing, and curator Billy Harrow is drawn into a world of gods and kraken-worshippers, gunfarmers, Londonmancers and all things occult and mysterious.  More of a straightforward thriller that The City and the City, it still has some concepts that will stretch your mind.

Harbour by John Ajvide Lindqvist
Another of my favourite authors, Lindqvist specialises in supernatural horror of a very quiet and disturbing kind, made all the more believable by his ability to write about ordinary events and make them interesting.  In Harbour, set around a group of Swedish islands, Anders and his wife take their 6 year-old daughter on a skiing trip where she inexplicably disappears.  Two years later, after his marriage has dissolved, Anders returns to the islands to confront the past.  Slowly, he begins to believe that the locals know more about his daughter's disappearance than they have let on. 

The Forger's Spell: A True Story of Vermeer, Nazis and the Greatest Art Hoax of the Twentieth Century by Edward Dolnick
The title pretty much explains this book, which looks at an art forger who faked Vermeers (badly) and sold them to the Nazis, in the process fooling major Vermeer experts and scholars.  Some really interesting stuff about the psychology of a forger, and also the techniques used on the paintings.

Delusions of Gender: The Real Science Behind Sex Differences by Cordelia Fine
An excellent and thoroughly well-researched book on the science of sex difference, and a rebuttal to all that ridiculous 1950s type stuff being published about men and women's brains being inherently different.

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