A Box of Books for 2013

I have a love-hate relationship with year-end lists.

I have loved lists – writing them, reading them, studying and analysing them – since I was a child. And yet I find it difficult to sum up a year of reading in a list or two. I know that it’s for the best of reasons: I have learned that there are so many wonderful books out there, and so I have learned to read the books that call; the books I want to read, rather than the books I ought to read.

So I’m going to do what I did last year. I’m going to assemble a virtual box of books to capture all of the things that I’ve loved in this year’s reading. It might sound like a list, and maybe it is, but to me feels like I’ve pulled some great books from the shelves because those are the books I want to pull from the shelves right now. It’s not quite so definitive.

And here it is – in the order that I read them:

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Serving Victoria: Life in the Royal Household by Kate Hubbard

“What a wonderful idea: the story of the sixty something years when Queen Victoria reigned, told through the experiences of the men and women who served her. The experiences of high-ranking courtiers, who were close enough to see how the queen and her family lived, who were not overawed by the world they found themselves in, and who, of course, left letters and diaries to speak for them.”

The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham

“I must confess that, though I loved the recent film adaptation of The Painted Veil, I have been circling my copy of the book for a long, long time. Because for years Maugham lived in my box marked ‘A Great Author But Not For Me.’ Wrong, wrong, wrong!”

The Love-Charm of Bombs by Lara Feigel

“I was smitten with ‘The Love-Charm of Bombs’ from the very first time I read about it. The prospect of seeing London in the Second World War through the eyes of five remarkable writers – Elizabeth Bowen, Graham Greene, Rose Macaulay, Hilde Spiel and Henry Yorke (who wrote under the name Henry Green) – was simply irresistible.”

A Pixy in Petticoats by John Trevena

“Some people look at a hedgerow and see just that. A hedgerow. But others see more: a network of different plants, signs of the wildlife that live there, evidence of what the weather had been doing. John Trevena saw those things and he was able to bring that to life on the page, to pull his readers into his village and over the moors.”

The Pinecone by Jenny Uglow

“In 1869, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, staying with friends near Carlisle, reported in a letter to his mother that he had come across ‘some most remarkable architectural works by a former Miss Losh. She must have been really a great genius,’ he wrote, ‘and should be better known.’ She should.”

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Mariana by Monica Dickens

“Now it has to be said that Mary is not the most sympathetic of characters. She is often awkward, thoughtless, selfish even. But she was real, and for all her failing I did like her, I did want her to find her path in life, her place in the world. Sometimes fallible heroines are so much easier to love.”

Death of Lyndon Wilder and the Consequences Thereof by E.A. Dineley

“It’s a lovely period piece, full of lovely characters, pieces of history, references to beloved books, clever plotting, well-chosen details … and it’s utterly, utterly readable.”

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

“Barbara Pym constructed her story so cleverly and told it beautifully. There is wit, intelligence and insight, and such a very light touch and a natural charm. A simple story, but the details made it sing. It was so very believable. It offers a window to look clearly at a world that existed not so long ago, but that has changed now so completely.”

The Sea Change by Joanna Rossiter

“In ‘The Sea Change’, Joanna Rossiter spins her story around a mother and daughter, both caught up in life changing events – real, historical events – that are very different and yet have similar consequences. She does it so very well that I can scarcely believe it is her debut. But it is.”

The Young Clementina by D E Stevenson

“I was so sorry to have to say goodbye to Charlotte and her world, after being caught up in her life and her world from start to finish. That points to very clever writing and plotting. Charlotte’s world, the people in it, all of the things she lived through were painted richly and beautifully. Her story lived and breathed.”

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The View on the Way Down by Rebecca Wait

“That I felt so deeply for these three siblings, that I was so upset, is a measure of what Rebecca Wait has achieved in her debut novel. I never doubted that she really knew, that she really understood, and that her accounts of depression, of bereavement, of grief, were utterly, utterly credible.  And the simplicity and the clarity of her story and her writing allowed that understanding to shine.”

Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary by Ruby Ferguson (re-read)

“Lady Rose was the only child and the heir, thanks to the good graces of Queen Victoria, of the Earl of Lochule. She was pretty, warm, bright,  and her open heart, her boundless curiosity, her love of life, charmed everyone she met. And she grew into a proud Scot and a true romantic, inspired by the writings of Walter Scott, the history of Mary Queen of Scots, and, most of all, her beloved home and lands.”

The Golem and the Djinni by Helene Wecker

“Best of all, the story of the golem and the djinni spoke profoundly of humanity, of its strengths and weaknesses, and of what it is that makes us human.”

No More Than Human by Maura Laverty

“She set off for Madrid,  to become a ‘professora’ – a free-lance tutor and  chaperone. It was an independent lifestyle that suited Delia very well, but it wasn’t easy to establish herself when she was so young, and maybe her reputation would follow her. But Delia was determined, and soon she was setting her sights even higher …..

Lucy Carmichael by Margaret Kennedy

“There was no wedding: Lucy was jilted, and of course she was devastated. She knew she had to carry on, and she knew she had to get away. She hated watching people being tactful, knowing she was being talked about, seeing reminders everywhere. And so, when she saw on opening for  a drama teacher at an arts institute, she grabbed it with both hands.”

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The Vet’s Daughter by Barbara Comyns (re-read)

“Barbara Comyns tells all of this so well, at times painting pictures with every sentence, and balancing the commonplace and the highly improbable so well that I was completely captivated by a story that was somehow dark and colourful at exactly the same time.”

The Misbegotten by Katherine Webb

“I was captivated by ‘The Misbegotten’, a wonderfully readable, utterly compelling story, set early in the eighteenth century. It is story of dark secrets, terrible losses, devastating lies, of the lives that they affect, and of truths that may be brought to light at a very high price.”

Penmarric by Susan Howatch (re-read)

“The story is told in six volumes, by five different narrators: Mark Castellack, his wife, one of his illegitimate sons, and two of his legitimate sons who would, in their turn, be master of Penmarric. Sixty years pass – from the later years of Queen Victoria’s reign to the end of World War II full of every kind of family drama you could imagine. In the wrong hands it would be a mess, but Susan Howatch made it work.”

Nearest Thing to Crazy by Elizabeth Forbes

“It was all so horribly believable. And it was unsettling, seeing how easily a life could be knocked off course, a mind knocked off balance. The story built , slowly and steadily, never losing it’s grip, towards a very clever ending. An ending that I really didn’t see coming, but an ending that made perfect sense.”

Frost Hollow Hall by Emma Carroll

“Frost Hollow Hall is more than a ghost story; it’s a story that lives and breathes, and paint wonderful pictures, and it’s a story about love, family, loss, regret, and learning to let go, told beautifully, with both subtlety and charm.”

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The Sunne in Splendour by Sharon Penman (re-read)

“The story begins with Richard as a small child and follows him through the course of his life, in exile when the House of Lancaster is in the ascendancy, and at court when the House of York rises. He becomes a formidable battlefield commander; he becomes a trusted lieutenant of the brother, Edward IV; he becomes the husband of Anne Neville, daughter of Warwick the Kingmaker, who he has loved since child; and eventually, of course, he comes king.”

The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton (re-read)

“Now I find myself wanting to do what Alice did at the end of ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. I want to throw you in the air and say, “You’re just a fictional character!” But I can’t. Because you are so utterly real; not a heroine, not a villainess, but a vivid, three-dimensional human being, with strengths and weaknesses.”

The Goddess and the Thief by Essie Fox

“I loved the way that the story of Shiva and Pravati, and stories of her family, were woven into Alice’s own story. The contrast between India and England was very, very effective, and there were so many lovely things to notice along the way: bookish references, period details, real history – everything you could want.”

High Rising by Angela Thirkell

“It’s a simple story, but it plays out beautifully, because it is adorned with so many lovely dialogues, so many interesting incidents; and because everything works beautifully with the characters and their situations.”

Maidens’ Trip by Emma Smith

“It is a wonderful adventure for three young women  – Nanette, Emma and Charity – all from conventional, middle-class backgrounds, who have completed basic training and have been dropped into the very different world of the boating fraternity.”

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And that is very nearly the end of my reading year.

All that remains is to tell you about the very last book I read for my Century of Books, and to wind up that project …..

Sixes

It was Jo’s idea last year, and we’re doing it again this year.

Celebrate the first six months of the reading year by putting six books into each of six categories.

It’s not quite as easy as it looks. I tweaked the categories last year to suit my reading style, and I’ve tweaked them a little more this year to make sure that the right books got in.

Here they are!

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Six Books that tugged at my heartstrings

The Night Rainbow by Claire King
The Lonely by Paul Gallico
A Perfect Gentle Knight by Kit Pearson
The Blue Castle by Lucy Maud Montgomery
The Young Clementina by D E Stevenson
Letters from Skye by Jessica Brockmole

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Six books illuminated by wonderful voices from the twentieth century

The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham
The Fool Of The Family by Margaret Kennedy
A Pixy in Petticoats by John Trevena
Mariana by Monica Dickens
Excellent Women by Barbara Pym
The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton

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Six books that took me to another time and place

Serving Victoria: Life in the Royal Household by Kate Hubbard
This January Tale by Bryher
The Love-Charm of Bombs by Lara Feigel
In Diamond Square by Mercè Rodoreda
The Pinecone by Jenny Uglow
A Commonplace Killing by Siân Busby

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Six books that introduced me to interesting new authors

Death of Lyndon Wilder and the Consequences Thereof by E.A. Dineley
The First Book Of Calamity Leek by Paula Lichtarowicz
Telling the Bees by Peggy Hesketh
The Sea Change by Joanna Rossiter
Chaplin and Company by Mave Fellowes
The View on the Way Down by Rebecca Wait

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Six books I must mention that don’t fit nicely into any category

The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty
Yew Hall by L.M. Boston
Orkney by Amy Sackville
A Five Year Sentence by Bernice Rubens
The Asylum by John Harwood
Perfect by Rachel Joyce

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Six Books I started in the first six months of the year and haven’t quite finished … yet …

The Palace of Curiosities by Rosie Garland
The House on the Cliff by Jon Godden
Elijah’s Mermaid by Essie Fox
The Criminal Conversation of Mrs Norton by Diane Atkinson
Warpaint by Alicia Foster
The Rich House by Stella Gibbons

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Do think about putting your own sixes – it’s a great way of perusing your reading, and I’d love to read more lists.

Serving Victoria by Kate Hubbard

What a wonderful idea: the story of the sixty something years when Queen Victoria reigned, told through the experiences of the men and women who served her. The experiences of high-ranking courtiers, who were close enough to see how the queen and her family lived, who were not overawed by the world they found themselves in, and who, of course, left letters and diaries to speak for them.

And from those documents Kate Hubbard has built a wonderful story, vividly written, chock full of details, and utterly readable.

Lady Sarah Lytton was a widow with a family to support when she came, reluctantly, to court to become a lady of the bedchamber to a young, unwed Victoria, and later she would rise to become the superintendent of the royal nurseries. Charlotte Canning, a younger woman, with a fine mind and an artistic sensibility became a lady of the bedchamber some years later. Mary Bulteel was a maid of honour before she became the wife of the queen’s private secretary.

Henry Ponsonby was that private secretary, a job for life, and his path crossed with those of James Reid, physician in ordinary, and Randall Davidson, domestic chaplain.

Serving VictoriaSix very different characters, with different roles, and so the focus moves. From the life of the queen with her ladies; to her marriage and the raising of her children; to her homes – Windsor for duty, Balmoral for love, and Osborne for recreation – and her travels; to political crises and her varied relationships with her prime ministers; to the extended periods of mourning and seclusion that followed the death of Prince Albert; to her relationships with John Brown and Abdul Karim; to her slow decline, her death and finally to the laying out of her body.

It was all familiar, but the perspective made this such a very human story, with the lives of the queen’s courtiers set against their clear-sighted views of her life.

The daily life of the court depended upon the Victoria’s will, tempered a little by Albert while he lived, but becoming more rigid, more unthinking, and sometimes downright irrational in her later years. It might be sensible for maids of honour, single young women, to be restricted and chaperoned, but it seemed heartless that Lady Lyttleton was begrudgingly given so very little time to see her children and grandchildren, that James Reid was compelled to keep his engagement, late in life, to an eminently suitable lady-in-waiting secret …

There was always rules, conventions, proprieties that must be kept, and when the queen became a widow, as she grew older and frailer, she became more demanding and completely oblivious to the feelings of those around her. Henry Ponsonby struggled, as her sight failed, to make his writing bigger and clearer, to find heavier paper so that the ink would not show through …

But, in spite all of this, Victoria was an engaging human figure. She loved her husband, her home at Balmoral, her fresh air. She struggled with life as a widow. She was vulnerable, and sometimes she made bad choices, but she could never admit that she was fallible. I realised that she was a woman who knew no other life, saw very little of the world, and who maybe would have been happier if she had.

I felt as much, sometimes more, for the people around her. But I don’t want to say too much. Better to notice all of the details as you read. From details of meals to the Queen’s feelings about the prime minister of the day! From drunken servants to appointing bishops! And this is a book that I think will work for anyone who is interested, whether they’ve read everything or nothing about the period.

This is a book full of engaging characters, fascinating details of their lives, and fresh perspectives on familiar pieces of history.

The only thing it lacks are family trees and chronologies. With the shifting perspectives prime ministers, and princes, come and go, live, marry and die, and changes aren’t always noted.

But that’s a minor point, I was completely wrapped up in the lives of the Queen and her Court, and the story never lost its grip.

This really is a fascinating book – I could happily go back to the beginning and read it all over again – and one that I can recommend.