Emilybooks of the year

As 2015 comes to a close, it’s time to look back at the books I’ve read over the year. And, of course, as I look back over the books, so I remember the circumstances in which they were read: grabbing half an hour on a park bench while Vita snoozed in her pushchair, snatching a few pages in the bath before falling asleep from exhaustion, sitting in a cafe round the corner from the nursery trying to distract myself from thinking about her ‘settling in’ a.k.a. screaming her head off. I suppose these are all rather fraught circumstances for reading, and so it’s to be expected that I’ve read and posted far less than I would have liked. But when I think that the lack of books has been due to an abundance of Vita, I don’t feel quite so sorry about it as I might do otherwise. Besides, at least I’ve got to read such delights as Peepo, The Tiger who Came to Tea, Meg and Mog and Lost and Found again, and again, and again.

The Fishermen by ObiomaWhile I may not have written about books on Emilybooks quite so much, I have at least been writing about them elsewhere. I adored Melissa Harrison’s nature-novel At Hawthorn Time, which I reviewed for The Times Literary Supplement, and I also enjoyed Lucy Beresford’s compelling novel about India, Invisible Threads, which I wrote about for The Spectator. I also read two books by Thomas Harding – Hanns and Rudolf, which I wrote about here, and his recent history of a house outside Berlin, The House by the Lake which I reviewed in the Christmas edition of The TLS here. (Quite a big piece!) I hope to have a review of Helen Simpson’s beautifully observed, funny and life-affirming new collection of short stories, Cockfosters, in The TLS early next year too. The best newly published book I read of the year was Chigozie Obioma’s The Fishermen – an extraordinary debut novel, with such a powerful mythic voice. I wrote about it when it first came out, and then was pleased as punch when it went on to be first longlisted and then shortlisted for The Booker Prize, hurrah!

The Good DoctorEmily’s Walking Book Club has become something of a reading lifeline to me. Knowing that I will read one good book a month and then talk about it with such clever, kind and interesting people while stomping across Hampstead Heath – while all thoughts of nappies and bottles etc. are blown away for an hour or so – has been invaluable. Particular highlights have been Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski – a beautiful Persephone Book about a father searching for his missing son after the Second World War in France; Iris Murdoch’s The Bell about a load of endearing oddballs living beside an Abbey; The Good Doctor by Damon Galgut – about life in a defunct hospital in the wilds of South Africa, and optimism versus cynicism, lies, race and gosh SO MUCH; and All the Birds Singing by Evie Wyld –  a horrible book about a very damaged young woman and what she’s running away from, which is also horribly good.

A Christmas Party by Georgette HeyerFor our last walking book club of the year, we discussed Georgette Heyer’s A Christmas Party (originally published with the title Envious Casca), and it seemed at first to split people into two camps – those who loved it for all its silliness, and those who found it too silly to love. Within about ten minutes, we were comparing it to Downton Abbey, but our discussion then moved on to encompass Shakespeare, acting, family and much more and by the end of the walk we had all grown rather fond of the book and its cast of eccentric characters. It’s a vintage Christmas murder mystery, one of many which have been republished this year – I wrote about this publishing phenomenon and what it tells us about our reading habits (and ourselves!) for Intelligent Life here.

There have been other excellent older books that I discovered this year. Fred Uhlman’s Reunion – which takes about five minutes to read, only that five minutes will be one of the most intense five minutes of your life; Elizabeth Jane Howard’s The Light Years – sheer bliss for when you need something a little indulgent; Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown – ballsy and loud and inspiring; and The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers, which was funny and brilliant and clever and actually made me hold my breath for an entire page and a The Uncommon Readerhalf. I also jumped on the Elena Ferrante bandwagon – is there actually anyone who reads, who hasn’t read her? – and read the first book in the Neapolitan quartet, My Brilliant Friend. It was brilliant, of course it was. I can’t quite place why though – Was it that the town was so well described, and the characters so recognisable? Was it that we all relate to the pain and the joy of that kind of intense unequal female friendship? I don’t know, I hope to read the rest of them in 2016, then think hard and then write about them altogether, but in the meantime the LRB bookshop has a podcast of a ‘Ferrante fever’ event which looks potentially illuminating – you can download it here. Also, I must urge everyone to read The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett over Christmas – it is a true delight, short, funny, life-affirming: all about The Queen discovering a love for reading. It will make you chortle while you sit there on the sofa groaning after too many mince pies, and apparently laughing is basically the same as exercise, so there you go, it’s a certain win.

the secrets of the wild wood by tonke dragtI shall skip through the two real disappointments of the year. The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt – the first and worst book of the year, and The Narrow Road to the Deep North which won the Booker Prize in 2014, which certainly wasn’t terrible, but it just wasn’t as good as all that, certainly not as good as Ali Smith’s How to be Both which was on the shortlist, and I suppose maybe I feel childishly cross about that. (Incidentally, Ali Smith has a fantastic new collection of short stories out this year too – Public Library.) Anyway, plenty of people disagree about both of these, so no doubt they are good books, just not good Emilybooks. Should you get stuck on a similar big long boring book, and find your reading slowing down as you begin to dread picking it up – JUST GIVE IT UP! Life’s too short. There are so many other better books you could be reading, rather than essentially not reading. To get back on track, I would suggest picking up a very addictive and exciting children’s book, such as one by Tonke Dragt: Pushkin published The Secrets of the Wild Wood this year and it is terrific – the husband adored it too.

Peking Picnic by Ann BridgeSo, fanfare please, what is my Emilybook of the Year, if I had to pick just one? A difficult choice, but I think I would have to opt for Peking Picnic by Ann Bridge, recently republished by Daunt Books. It is wonderful escapism, but has bite too – a dark edge that stops it being too airy and daft. Set in 1930s Peking, our heroine, the marvellous Laura Leroy suffers from acute ‘inhalfness’ – torn between the glamour of her life in China as a diplomat’s wife, while thinking about her children growing up without her in England. Though she seems wistful at first, she is in fact a dab hand at using a brick as a hammer, surprisingly realistic about love, and expert a cool head in a crisis, even a life-threatening one. Top heroine; top book!

 I wish you all a very happy Christmas and New Year. I’d love to know your thoughts on any of these books, or indeed your own books of 2015, if you feel like commenting below. So, what will I be reading over Christmas? Alas I won’t be curling up by the fire with a Christmas murder mystery (though to be fair, I have just read half a dozen of them for the Intelligent Life article) … but I will be seeking help in civilising the ahem ‘spirited’ little one from Pamela Druckerman’s life-changing (let’s hope) parenting book French Children Don’t Throw Food. Wish me luck!

French Children Don't Throw Food

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13 Responses to “Emilybooks of the year”

  1. Ben Shiriak Says:

    How To Be Both is so far superior to Road to the Deep North I don’t understand how the two could be competitors for the same prize.

  2. Alice Says:

    The Fishermen has to be one of the best books I’ve read this year, I loved it.

    Merry Christmas and have a wonderful New Year, Emily! 🙂

    I’ll be spending my Christmas Day with Jamaica Inn (and the family of course, but mainly Jamaica Inn haha).

  3. seule771 Says:

    Lovely reads from when I view in briefly at times. Stay well and happy holidays.

  4. pooja@falcon1925 Says:

    Thanks a lot my dear friend for sharing your experience as a reader. I will order Peking picnic & The good doctor today itself. Have you read some Indian writers & their work? Try Ashwin Sanghi & Amish. I’m sure you must be aware of them. Happy reading.

  5. Cosy Books Says:

    Hand up as someone who has yet to read Ferrante, but so many of my library customers have and adore the books. This is one of my favourite times in the blogsphere for discovering titles at the top of the list. I’d like to reread Little Boy Lost as it’s been years since my discovery and who can resist Peking Picnic after your recommendation?
    And yes, sharing children’s literature with Vita is worth cutting into your own reading time. I miss having a toddler to read to but that doesn’t stop me from enjoying them myself at the circulation counter!

    • emilybooks Says:

      Ah, I’d love to hear your thoughts on Peking Picnic – I think it’d be right up your alley … Vita and my latest discovery is the very sweetly titled Wow said the Owl. I am longing for her to say wow.

  6. preferreading Says:

    I’ve just discovered your blog & am enjoying reading the archive although it seems a little odd to be commenting on your best books of 2015 when it’s almost time for the 2016 list. I also enjoyed Peking Picnic & can recommend Bridge’s series of thrillers starring Julia Probyn. Always set in gorgeous locations & I found them addictive. I’m another who hasn’t read Ferrante but I bought the first book for my sister last year & she loved it. We have quite different tastes so I know that she will often love books that don’t appeal to me. I also love Golden Age mysteries, especially wintry ones to read at Christmas as it’s always hot in Melbourne & I begin wishing for winter as soon as summer begins! Also enjoyed your thoughts on Terms & Conditions, Nicola Beauman’s biog of Elizabeth Taylor & Persephone Books in general, Tiger who came to tea & Reading Lolita in Tehran which I haven’t read but am now intrigued & will get hold of a copy. Best wishes for the New Year & I hope by now the baby has made an appearance & you’re getting ready for a family Christmas.

    • emilybooks Says:

      Oh thank you so much for this – and also the spur to try to get around to an Emilybooks of 2016… Still waiting for the baby, so it might be the perfect way to fill the time. How funny to be reading those Christmassy wintry murder mysteries in the Aussie sunshine, and thank you so much for the tip on the Ann Bridge thrillers – I will endeavour to track them down as they sound extremely intriguing. Thanks for all of this!

      • preferreading Says:

        The Julia books were released as eBooks by Bloomsbury a few years ago (maybe POD as well?) & I read them over a few months. Looking forward to your 2016 list whenever you have time to think about it!

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