Friday, 15 January 2016

2015 in books

I am no longer in a  Book Club, so no-one else has chosen my this year's reading, except for those who commission reviews, of which more anon. And I have dropped out of this year's Italian Literature Class, though I might go back in October. I have done thirteen years of it and this year had just too much else to do.

I've kept a reading journal for decades so I know I notched up 56 titles last year but that doesn't - usually - include books read for research.

One of the strangest coincidences was that I took to Toronto and Chicago in January Nancy Mitford's Love in a Cold Climate, to read on the plane. My travelling companion was the gifted illustrator, writer and cartoonist Ros Asquith. We were headed for the Ontario Librarians' Association's Winter conference in Toronto to sign copies of The Great Big Green Book and other titles.

As we settled into our seats and took out our books, Rose produced - yes - Love in a Cold Climate. I had been given a new copy for Christmas as mine had mysteriously disappeared from my bookshelves. Ros's was an ancient Penguin, which the representatives of that publisher pored over with a mixture of delight and horror when we showed it to them in Chicago.

A cold climate. Niagara Falls January 2015
But what are the odds? Of all the books in all the world .... It happened to my husband once too. Going to a concert years ago, he met the friend he was going with as they queued to get in. They were both holding copies of Henry James' Portrait of a Lady with bookmarks in almost identical pages.

This was the year I started reviewing adult novels for the Independent and the first one was Kate Atkinson's A God in Ruins. That necessitated re-reading Life After Life, to which it is described as a "companion piece." So that kept me busy for a while; you can read my review here.

I enjoyed Life After Life a lot more the second time around. It felt so frustrating the first time; in every version of the story, I'd be getting so into Ursula's narrative and then it would just stop. But by contrast, the second volume felt a bit flat. However, virtually everyone disagreed with me, culminating in A God in Ruins winning the Costa Novel Award.

Kate Atkinson is one of my favourite writers and I wanted to think more highly of it than I did.

The devastating illness of a close family member meant that I acquired some more books, perhaps ones I wouldn't have explored otherwise. These included the three memoirs by Jennifer Worth that form the basis of the successful TV series Call the Midwife. Worth was a born storyteller and in the second book in particular, Shadows of the Workhouse, she had some really appalling stories to tell.

And in New Zealand I bought in a secondhand bookshop, Barbara Kingsolver's most famous book The Poisonwood Bible. I had previously read only The Lacuna, which a friend gave me. I didn't love TPB as much as the later book, mainly because I hated the minister so much and his insistence on making his family live in such circumstances in Africa.

But my two big discoveries of the year have both been by self-published authors. They have both been what we are now calling "Traditionally published" in the past but such is the state of the industry that these fine, accomplished and experienced writers can't get contracts when many a young début author can.

I am not going to waste time lamenting this but do want to introduce Frances Thomas and Ann Swinfen to a wider readership.

I first met Frances when she was going by the surname of Rathbone and we were both involved in looking at children's books from the perspective of the Women's movement in the early 70s. By the end of the decade she was publishing books for children and teens and has since written for adults too.

By the time she had the idea for the "Girls of Troy" trilogy, publishers were firmly of the opinion that historical fiction for teens didn't sell. So Frances published them herself. You would never be able to tell. These elegant paperbacks are well-written, carefully edited and - most importantly - ripping narratives that would entrance any (probably female) reader with an interest in classical history. And surely there are more of these than the Big Five publishers recognise. All those adults who love Hilary Mantel were teenagers once.

You can read all about "Girls of Troy" here.

The other big discovery was an adult novelist, Anne Swinfen. Unlike Frances, I have never met Ann but she is a member of my joint blog The History Girls, which is updated every day (unlike this one!) Here is a bit of her biography: "She read Classics and Mathematics at Oxford, where she married a fellow undergraduate, the historian David Swinfen. While bringing up their five children [she studied] for an MSc in Mathematics and a BA and PhD in English Literature."

Exhausting isn't it? Polymath doesn't begin to cover it.

I had read one of Ann's books The Testament of Mariam, the story of Jesus told retrospectively by his sister. This was the first of her historical novels that had to find a home under her self-publishing enterprise Shakenoak Press.

Then I saw that her three present day novels were available at a bargain price for Kindle and I laid them down for reading when I had time. That was last year and The Anniversary, The Travellers and A Running TIde kept me entranced for many days. They are not a trilogy, each having a different setting and cast of characters, but they are each in their different way little masterpieces.

I can't understand why Ann Swinfen isn't a household name.

By the time I had read all these and her historical novel, Flood,  set in the Fens in the time of the "other" Cromwell, Oliver, it was time for my next two Independent Reviews:

William Boyd's Sweet Caress and Sebastian Faulks' Where my Heart Used to Beat also struck me differently from other reviewers, with fewer liking the Boyd than I did and more rating the Faulks.

But then I went on a late holiday to a beach in Italy, taking my Kindle, and I discovered Elena Ferrante. "Have you been hiding in a hole for the last few years?" I hear you cry. Yes, of course I had heard of the reclusive Neapolitan writer and her book My Brilliant Friend. But I timed my reading of that and the two books that followed so that I finished the third just as the fourth and final book of the "Neapolitan Quartet" came out.

I practically inhaled these four books but not with unqualified admiration. I wrote about them for The History Girls here.  And then, perhaps unwisely, I read Ferrante's three "novels" that preceded the Quartet: Troubled Love, The Lost Daughter and Days of Abandonment. 

And that confirmed all that made me uneasy about the more famous sequence. The recurring motifs of difficult relations between mothers and daughters, sudden, irrational acts and bitter divorce are all laid down in the earlier books. If Ferrante is an autobiographical novelist, we can piece together her life from the pieces in the novels.

The writer I read most in 2015 was M.C. Beaton. I am neither proud nor ashamed of having read eleven of her Agatha Raisin detective stories just last year! Agatha is not a particularly likeable character: a heavy smoking, microwave cooking, adept liar with a penchant for tall handsome men (who doesn't), she is always getting herself into scrapes and often narrowly missing death at the hands of the murderers she is trying to catch.

But the novels - definitely "cosies" - are set in the Cotswolds and I know a lot of the places Agatha visits with one of her many male companions. They certainly have to have something to reel me in to compensate for the dreadful editing and sloppy authorial checking, in which Wednesdays follow Saturdays and the opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk is mistitled "of Minsk" and attributed to the wrong composer! (Prokofiev instead of Shostakovitch).

Once of my favourite books read last year was Robert Harris's A Gentleman and a Spy. Not a new book but such a skillful reconstruction or fictionalisation of the Dreyfus Affair, from the point of view of the officer who uncovered the injustice done to Dreyfus. Before, I had known of "the Affair" only through reading Proust and never really understood it.

The really big book event of last year was the progress of the independent publishing house I am setting up with my husband, The Greystones Press. We registered the company in October 2014 but there was so much to do that our first books won't be out till April this year. Here is the cover of my YA novel coming out on 23rd April:
My own published books of last year were: The Great Big Green Book (Frances Lincoln), illustrated by Ros Asquith and Queen Guinevere (Frances Lincoln), illustrated by Christina Balit. This last is a re-issue of Women of Camelot, now a "Classic"!

As for what I wrote in 2015, not as much as some years, owing to the family illness mentioned before, but I've been working on the story that forms the basis of an educational app for Time Travellers Tours and Tales. It is called In the Footsteps of Giants and is closely connected with my YA novel, David.

I also wrote a new picture book called Pirate Baby, of which more in due course. And guest-edited the summer issue of Mslexia, which was a lot of fun and a lot of work!

This year, as well as Shakespeare's Ghost, there will be The Great Big Body Book in August and The Ravenmaster's Boy in October.

I got a goodly haul of books for Christmas, including The Miniaturist and a Kate Granville. Maybe I'll still be reading them this time next year, as I have only just finished Dan Jones' The Hollow Crown. By a nice accident, this is now being serialised on Channel 5, as England's Bloody Crown.


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