(How I wish I lived here!)


It’s that time again, and though I have plenty to keep me occupied throughout December, I thought I’d mention some of the books I’ve enjoyed most this past year, to nudge you as you hit the shops.

Because I chair events in shops and at book festivals, a good deal of my reading choices are dictated to me — which is not to suggest this is unenjoyable, just to point out that I am not always in the driver’s seat. Luckily a good many of the things I “had” to read were terrific.

I also urge you to scroll back through this blog, or to search “Book Review” for amplified thoughts about certain books. [I am still urging everyone I meet to read The Enchanted, by Rene Denfeld.] Bear in mind I call in more books from publishers than I review, because my blog policy is to only review a book I’ve liked, since I’m doing this for free. If the author is a real life pal I’ll signal that with: [F]. I leave it up to you whether you think friendship affects my judgement.

In no particular order, but starting last December, in case I missed any of these in my 2014 roundup, here are some recommendations:

Miss Ranskill Comes Home (Persephone), urged on me by author Vivian French, who wasn’t wrong about how much I’d enjoy it. (Then again, I’m a massive fan of the Persephone imprint.) Tale of a long-shipwrecked woman who returns to find Britain hugely changed because WWII has broken out.

Crooked Heart by Lissa Evans (Doubleday). Full of Heart should be the actual title of this funny, cockle-warming-but-never-twee story of an orphan and a con artist, set in war-torn London. I went on to devour two earlier novels of Lissa’s, Their Finest Hour and a Half, and Spencer’s List. [F]

An Impossible Marriage by Pamela Hansford Johnson. Apparently PHJ was pretty impossible herself, and her views are of the time (ie: not PC), but I thoroughly enjoyed this story of a May-December mismatch.

The Girl Who Had Everything, by Dorian Leigh. I’m endlessly fasciated by 1950s supermodels, and Leigh was up there in the stratosphere. This is the story of her life and loves. It came out ages ago and you’d have to hunt it down second-hand. She lived a life! It’s full untruths, but don’t let that put you off.

Diary of a Provincial Lady by EM Delafield. This needs no introduction. I laughed my ass off from start to finish, then devoured the subsequent volumes as if they were marshmallows.

I like to describe Neel Mukherjee’s novel The Lives of Others (Chatto & Windus) as Tolstoy goes to India. Full of rich, sometimes startling detail. An epic achievement. [F]

Death and Mr Pickwick, by Steven Jarvis (Jonathan Cape). Something of a curate’s egg, because I thought it could have been shorter, but in the main an absorbing recreation of the lives and preoccupations of the men behind The Pickwick Papers — but not, as you’d imagine, with an heroic Charles Dickens. This will reward your time investment, and appeal to anyone who loves lavish prose and, well, the Pickwick Papers themselves. Much here to admire. I cannot fathom how he held the shape of this book in his head.

The Giant’s House by Elizabeth McCracken. Simply sublime, like everything she writes. I also recommend Thunderstruck (short stories) and Niagara Falls All Over Again, which broke my heart.  [Twitter F]

City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg (Jonathan Cape). Transported me to my hometown, NY, in the late 1970s. Sure, the nostalgia factor enhanced my pleasure, and yeah, it’s another one I might have trimmed a wee bit, but mainly it’s a gripping debut.

Craving, by Esther Gerritsen. First English translation of a popular Dutch author, this tells the story of a wildly mismatched mother and daughter. Full of death and dysfunction. Compelling and assured.

This Should Be Written in the Present Tense by Helle Helle. Another first in English for one of Denmark’s literary superstars. I don’t normally warm to terse novels, but this worked its charm on me. Well, maybe charm isn’t the word, since it’s about bristly people. I recommend reading it twice. (It’s short, that won’t be tough.)

Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya Parmar (PP wasn’t an [F] when I read it but sure is now). Fascinating re-imagining of the lives of Vanessa and Virginia Stephens, poised to become the artists and wives at the heart of the Bloomsbury circle.

The Past by Tessa Hadley (Jonathan Cape) — one of Britain’s finest writers, here tackling the stresses and strains of family life.

Desire for Chocolate by Care Santos. Another first in English for a Catalan superstar, it’s a book in three loosely connected parts, set in the present and in the past, and it’s as delicious as the chocolate in its title.

Merciless Gods, by Christos Tsiolkas [F]. Short stories written over the past 20 years or so, in Christos’s trademark unsparing style. Often brutal, always fascinating dissection of people and their peculiarities.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson. This is as eerie and ethereal as they come and reminded me a bit of Caledonia, by Elspeth Barker, so if you liked that, and vice versa. Jackson has long been a favourite writer, and her books about her family, Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons, are comic masterpieces.

A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin — I cannot praise this anthology of short stories highly enough. I cannot wait to REREAD it. Breathtaking stuff here.

My new [F] Helen Walmsley-Johnson’s The Invisible Woman is a primer for, as the subtitle says, “Taking on the Vintage Years.”

Eve’s Hollywood by Eve Babitz is one I’ll be reviewing soon. Might not be to everyone’s taste, but I found it entertaining. More to follow.

Stuff I’ve reviewed elsewhere here and heartily recommend: The Green Road, by Anne Enright;The End of the Story by Lydia Davis; The Improbability of Love by Hannah Rotshchild; The Household Spirit by Tod Wodicka; Talk by Linda Rosenkrantz; autobiographies by Chrissie Hynde and Grace Jones.

Gladys Mitchell . . . I am on record (wrote about it here as a big fan of The Great Gladys and her Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley mysteries. I comfort read them. This year I enjoyed the hell out of: The Devil at Saxon Wall, Comes a Chopper, My Bones Will Keep.

If intelligently written crime is your passion, then be of good cheer because the Great Scots are out in force, with new books by Val McDermid (Splinter the Silence), Ian Rankin (Even Dogs in the Wild) and Chris Brookmyre (Dead Girl Walking and Black Widow). Talk about an embarrassment of riches! [FF and almost F]

I haven’t mentioned the Elvis Costello memoir, Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink, because circumstances beyond my control have prevented my reading it. But I’ve a train journey to make soon, and you’d better believe he’ll be my companion. I’ve heard some negativity about the book, but that doesn’t affect me. I’m a massive fan and Mr McManus would have to struggle to find a way to put me off. In other words I’m quite happy to recommend this without even reading it! I cannot wait to dive in.

I’m sure I’ve forgotten someone or some book and have caused huge offence. I apologise in advance.


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9 Responses to BOOKS OF THE YEAR

  1. I’m about halfway through The Past by Tessa Hadley, and although the story is slight, I can’t put it down – absolutely love it. And We Have Always Lived in the Castle is one of my favourite books ever. I don’t know Caledonia – so I’ll go and look that up. I always think Barbara Comyns is similar in style to Jackson, so you might like to look up The Vet’s Daughter, if you haven’t already read it.

    • Hi! I’m a massive Barbara Comyns fan — for about thirty years now! — and have nearly all her books, bar the elusive autobiography. She’s pretty terrific. Caledonia was suggested to me by an erudite friend and I really enjoyed it. Similar set up — slightly spooky young woman living in a massive house where peculiar things take place. It’s a short, potent bit of writing with a really difficult to love central character, which makes it all the more nuanced. I could recommend books all day and night and am making up a list for Waterston’s in Edinburgh of some all time favourites!

  2. HI – Stephen Jarvis, the author of Death and Mr Pickwick, here. Many thanks for including my novel in your list. You might like to take a look at the novel’s facebook page There is a real sense of a ‘fan community’ building there. As I always say – unlike most novels, the pleasures of Death and Mr Pickwick do not have to end when you reach the last page.

    Best wishes, and thanks once again


    • HI, we’ve already spoken via twitter, and your book is such an achievement and so enjoyable, I am happy to tell people that! I don’t do Facebook, though have looked at your website in the past.

  3. Oh I loved The Giant’s House. Such a great book.

  4. Diarmid says:

    Thanks for this list, which arrived just a I’m casting about for something to read after a few unsatisfactory books. I haven’t heard of most of these, because I’m useless, obviously, but there are at least two that seem EXACTLY my kind of thing. Very pleased.

    • Waterstone’s Princes Street has just asked me for a list of 40 all time favourites, which they will try to source and place on a table on the first floor sometime soon, i.e.: before Xmas. It is a fairly wide-ranging list of fiction and non. Could send it to you via email. Obviously it was hard for me to chose ONLY 40.

      Thanks for visiting the blog. Email me if you want the list sooner! Hope you’re settling into new place.

  5. Sandra says:

    I absolutely loved Crooked Heart. Have added a few of these to the ever growing Amazon wishlist.

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