I read 133 books, of which sixty-eight were by men and sixty-five by women. The balance between men and women writers has evened out this year. I haven’t done many monthly lists this year, partly because of so much re-reading. Below the cut are some books I enjoyed or found particularly interesting. All links to my reviews.
Square Haunting, Francesca Wade
I was given this for my birthday and no sooner had I finished it than I found references to it all over the place. It’s a good idea for a book: looking at the lives of five women who lived at one time in Mecklenburgh Square. As soon as I started, I took against the poet HD (previously unknown to me) because she seemed quite mad. The classicist Jane Harrison was already into her seventies when she moved to the Square so I don’t really count her (although her life is interesting). Nor do I count Virginia Woolf as she lived there for such a short time. I was very interested to read about the historian Eileen Power as I knew her work but nothing about her life.
The star of the book, for me, is Dorothy L Sayers: sympathetic, realistic, never posing. The other women seem high minded but wrong-thinking in comparison. Gaudy Night, described by Wade as Sayers’ ‘greatest novel’, is referenced so often in the text that it almost becomes a leitmotif. This is because, to the author, the Peter/Harriet relationship seems the perfect answer to all those questions about how women can marry while continuing their intellectual work. Peter respects Harriet’s need to write and, later, ensures that it’s made easy for her. I found odd the author’s use of the word ‘interrogate’, not in the sense of interrogating a person, which is how I understand it, but ‘interrogating’ ideas. Is this some modern form of lit.crit. of which I was previously unaware? Every time Wade writes ‘interrogate’, I want to cross it out and replace it with ‘question’. A very interesting book.
The Unadoptables, Hana Tooke
This is a children’s book, set in The Little Tulip Orphanage, Amsterdam, in the late nineteenth century. The fearsome Matron, Elinora Gassbeek has strict rules about how babies should be left at the orphanage. Five children arrive ‘wrongly’ delivered and turn out to be highly individual. All the children in the orphanage are cold, hungry and forced to work. They hope to be chosen for adoption and are sometimes lined up so that visitors can choose a child. Since none of the ‘different’ children is a cute, blonde little girl, they are never picked. But one day it seems that they are wanted, and by a man with a very sinister purpose. When ‘the five’ realise that they will be sent to sea and probably to their deaths, they find a way to escape, each of them having a special gift which makes this possible. Can they stay free and out of the villain’s clutches? This all makes for a good story, which reminded me of much older ‘orphanage’ tales but brought up to date with modern ideas. Charming.
Berlin: the Downfall , Antony Beevor.
Lady in Waiting , Anne Glenconner. I don’t usually read ‘royal’ books but this was riveting. No wonder it was a bestseller.
Leonard and Hungry Paul, Rónán Hession
This was recommended by Kate Macdonald
. I liked it very much but found it difficult to put my finger on just why. Possibly because it’s a kind of anti-achievement book, showing that there are different ways of living a ‘normal’ life, all equally valid.
The Son & Heir, Alexander Münninghof
This is very good and gives a completely new perspective on the war and the post-war years; for me, anyway. ‘The Old Boss’, the narrator’s grandfather, made a fortune in Riga but insists on his Dutch heritage. His eldest son despises everything Dutch, speaks only German and eventually joins the Waffen SS, believing that he will be fighting bolshevism. What an inheritance! And who would want to live in one of those border countries in Europe which have been fought over for centuries? Sometimes you realise you’re quite lucky to be English and part of an island race. This book, translated from the Dutch, gave me a whole new perspective on the war and the post-war years and a very new idea about what happened in the Netherlands.
V for Victory, Lissa Evans
The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman was light relief, as were T E Kinsey’s Lady Hardcastle Mysteries, which I discovered this year. I read Peter May for the first time and enjoyed the first two China Mysteries very much as they were real page turners and I liked the characters. Then I read the first book in the Lewis trilogy and found it very slow in comparison. I also read a lot of books newly reissued by Dean Street Press and Agora books. Many thanks to them for reviving long out of print books and for sending some to me as e-books.