Friday, 3 January 2014

Hates, Highlights, and Loves....

Today I am listing. Not as in sinking ships, or leaning towers. No, I am talking about  producing ‘a number of connected items, names etc, written or printed together usually consecutively, to form a record or aid to memory’… so says my Oxford English Reference Dictionary, a reliable but weighty volume which provides invaluable advice about words. All of which is a long-winded way of introducing a compilation of my ‘Best’ and ‘Worst’ Books of 1913.  I know many of you have already posted similar pieces, but you know me, I’m invariably lagging behind everyone else, and it’s only January 3, so the New Year’s only just started.

I’ll start with my ‘Most Hated’ titles, and work my way up to the ones I loved, loved, loved, stealing bits from my original reviews along the way! And at the very end are two Bookish Highlights which made me happier than I can say. Anyway, books I didn’t like. On the whole I’m not very adventurous – I read for pleasure, and I tend to stick with books I think I’ll enjoy, so there aren’t many books that fall into this category, just four which failed to live up to expectations, and left me bitterly disappointed. There were others I didn’t rate very highly, but these the ones I didn’t like the most, if that makes sense.

Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes was one of my favourite stories when I was a child (indeed, I still read it from time to time), and I had high hopes of A Vicarage Family, the first volume in her fictionalised autobiography. However my hopes were dashed within a few pages. It was interesting to see how her childhood influenced her writing, but overall, as I said in my review, I felt something was lacking, and couldn’t put my finger on what that something was. I think it has to do with the fact that is not quite an autobiography, and not quite a novel: it falls somewhere between the two, and doesn’t quite come off. 

Jeanette Winterson is another of my favourite writers, and her biography Why Be Happy When You Could be Normal, is brilliant. But The Daylight Gate, about the Pendle Witches, is horrid, which is a shame, since she presented a fascinating programme about them on Radio 4.  Nothing pleased me about this novel and Winterson’s prose lacked its usual power and dexterity.

I bought Stella Gibbons’ The Matchmaker because I love Cold Comfort Farm, but this was tedious and irritating, and I struggled to finish it. But I persevered, even though there times when I could happily have hurled it across the room. It lacks the sparkle and wit of that first novel, as well as its charm and humour, and Gibbons seems to have lost her youthful disregard for literary and societal conventions.
Buying a book  because it has a
dancing penguin on the front is
a bad idea!
The worst book, without a doubt, was Mr Petre, by Hilaire Belloc. I was attracted by the dancing penguin logo, which I never can resist (I wish it was still in use). But it was a silly reason to buy a book, because this novel is truly, truly dreadful – I abandoned it in the end, and I don’t often do that with a book. All I can say is that it’s a forgotten novel that’s best left undisturbed. It sounded interesting, because the central character has lost his memory, and it’s supposed to be a satire on the world of finance, but it was so dull and boring, and the characters were flat and lifeless, so I gave up.

Now for the best of the ones I did like! I read so many good books this year it was quite difficult whittling them down to a manageable list – since there were four ‘hates’ I thought there should be four ‘likes’… Just to balance things out. But I didn’t quite achieve that!

A Month in the Country, by JL Carr, may be a slender novel, but it’s a perfect gem and anyone who loves quiet, understated, between-the-wars, English novels, where the focus is on thoughts and feelings rather than action, will enjoy it. The period feel was spot-on, the characters totally believable, and the writing absolutely faultless.

The Enchanted Places, by Christopher Milne (son of AA), was every bit as enchanting as the title suggests. It’s an autobiography which gives a fascinating glimpse into a vanished world. But it also shows how his childhood toys and games inspired his father’s stories about Pooh, and all those wonderful rhymes. But the creations, in turn, influenced the child. It was an almost symbiotic relationship and, for a time, Christopher hated the stories, but he comes across as being a remarkably well-adjusted adult.

I love this quirky and poetic book
I hardly ever buy new books, especially not hardbacks, but I made an exception for Things That Are, Encounters with Plants, Stars and Animals, by Amy Leach. I picked it up in a bookshop, started flipping through, just to see what it was like, and ended up sitting on the floor reading it! Since I couldn't stay there all day, I bought the book. It’s a series of essays on Life, the Universe and Everything, where Leach reflects on the natural world and makes observations which could just as easily be applied to people. She’s quirky (I like quirky), and attracted by oddities, and meanders from topic to topic, as one thing leads to another… and another… another… And she uses words like a poet, valuing them as much for their sound and rhythm as for their meaning.

Crime fiction isn’t usually one of my enthusiasms, but I loved A Red Herring Without Mustard, by Alan Bradley. This was my first encounter with child sleuth Flavia de Luce, who has many fans, and I can quite see why. If you’ve never read any of the mysteries featuring the 11-year-old prodigy and her trusty steed (a bicycle called Gladys) then I suggest you do so.

And I couldn’t resist including Baroness Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel, which I hadn’t read for years and years. In theory it’s got little going for it. It’s certainly not great literature, it’s ideologically unsound and extremely biased (in favour of the aristos). But it’s such fun, and such a great read - I sat up into the early hours of the morning reading this, because I couldn’t put it down. It’s a real romp of a book, a love story and an adventure yarn, that could even be described as a mystery thriller I suppose.

Trailing just behind my Books of the Year are my tw0 ‘slow reads’ which I’ve been dipping in and out of during the year. The links are to the first post on each, which explains why I’m not racing through them in my usual fashion. If, like me, you’ve read many short stories, then The Persephone Book of Short Stories, would be a good place to start. I’ve had mixed responses to the tales – some I absolutely love, while others are not to my taste at all, but they all made me think.

Just ahead of this is Few Eggs and No Oranges, the wartime diaries of Vere Hodgson, which is brilliant, and has set me off reading all sorts of other things about the Second World War. Vere’s voice comes across loud and clear. She’s chatty and informative, juxtaposing major national and international events with the everyday and personal. It makes for fascinating (and compelling) reading.

This is one of the most extraordinary  novels
I've ever read  - I just wish someone would
republish it.
Joint honours for 2013 go to Novel on Yellow Paper, by poet Stevie Smith, and Mr Fortune’s Maggot, by Sylvia Townsend Warner, which were both absolutely outstanding.

Novel on Yellow Paper, by poet Stevie Smith, is difficult to describe. It is one of the most extraordinary novels I’ve ever come across. There’s no plot or storyline, it doesn’t slot easily into of the usual pigeon holes, and the central character is as hard to pin down as a will o’ the wisp, flitting from thought to thought and scene to scene. I thought it would a difficult read, but it wasn’t – it was like listening to someone talking, and I just loved it. I think this should be republished, so everyone can read it.

Then there’s STW, who can’t put a foot wrong as far as I’m concerned. She’s quirky, slightly macabre, and very sly writer, who turns the world upside down in just a few words. This is the tale of the Reverend Timothy Fortune, who ends up on a remote tropical island where he converts one person – who turns out not to have been converted at all! There are questions about the nature of belief, and it’s very funny, but the humour is very dark indeed. And the notes about how STW came to write this, and how she felt when it was finished, moved me to tears.

Finally, the Bookish Highlights!!! I was thrilled when Simon T, over at Stuck in a Book, asked me to take part in his My Life in Books series, and I had great fun putting a piece together about books that mean a lot to me (you can read it here). Then Jane and Briar, at Fleur in Her World, featured me in their Shall We Play (a Who Reads these Books quiz, answers here). I was so touched and pleased that Simon and Jane included me, as they both have a huge following, and are both much more erudite about books than I am. So another huge thank you to them both events (can I call them events?) are way up there in my Memory List for the year, along with my Surprise Birthday Treat, when my Daughters took me to Oxford for the day! And a huge thank you to everyone who has read and commented on my somewhat erratic posts - I write for myself, but it's so encouraging, and so rewarding to get such a positive response. Please keep reading!


  1. I think pretty much all of January is still countable as the New Year (at least, I hope so!). I recently read the 4th Flavia de Luce and it won me back over to the series, so I need to catch up the next one soon. And I still have both of those Persephones on my TBR - really looking forward to them.

    1. I do hope you enjoy the Persephones. You read those, and I shall read more Flavia de Luce!

  2. Happy new year, Christine! I love these listy posts and summings up of the year, and I enjoyed yours very much.

    A Novel on Yellow Paper is one of my favourite books of all time and I really must reread the STW as I remember loving that too, but so long ago. I have no idea where my copy is any more, bother.

    As for erudition, please don't sell yourself short. You always have something interesting and thoughtful to say about what you read, and that's why we all come back here.

    1. Thank you for the kind comment Helen - and I am so glad someone else rates Novel on Yellow Paper as highly as I do. I just wish Virago would reissue it (or any other publishing company) so it would be available to more people!

  3. I am always shocked that a dreadful book can get published. There are so many wonderful books out there. You have just reminded me that I have A Few Oranges and good Eggs sitting there waiting to be read. I like the spine so much I do not want to crack it.

    1. Esme, I always feel like that about brand new books! It's one of the reasons I like old, second-hand volumes - they are so much more comfortable to be with!

  4. Happy New Year, Christine! I enjoyed reading your list of loves, hates and highlights for the year gone by. The only thing that is stopping me from getting a copy of the STW is because of its title - I can't bear to see the word 'maggot' in it. I know it's a silly reason, but the word reminds me of one of my greatest 'phobias' and I get goosebumps just thinking of it!

    1. I know exactly what you mean about maggots Michelle, they make me feel the same way. But there are no maggots in the story - I'm not sure I could have coped with that!