I managed to read lots of excellent books during the last few months of the year – finishing my reading year in 2014 off in style. I didn’t quite make my target to read a book a week though. Must do better this year!
The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova. About the search for Dracula – or rather the real life historical figure of Vlad the Impaler – this book did not do it for me. Even though I’m a Librarian and apparently Dracula loves Librarians in this retelling, it was a bit overly long and I found it a struggle to get through. I do know other people who rave about this book though, so I’m perfectly willing to admit that it’s probably personal taste. I did enjoy the descriptions of Eastern Europe and Istanbul, and taking the Dracula legend back to its origins is a good idea (ie, go away Twilight).
Comfort and Joy by India Knight. I loved this book as a perfect light and fluffy pre-Christmas read. I found it much better than Knight’s first book in this trilogy following our narrator, Clara. I laughed out loud and by the end felt a bit soft in the middle in a perfect Christmassy way.
Good Evening Mrs Craven: The Wartime Stories of Molly Panter-Downes by Molly Panter-Downes. I hadn’t heard of Panter-Downes until I picked up this book secondhand. I mainly bought it because it is published by the wonderful Persephone Press, and thought it was worth a try based on this. It was not only worth a try but a wonderful, happy, surprise. Persephone republish books that have gone out of print but shouldn’t have done, mainly by women, and thank goodness they do based on this book. Panter-Downes was the British correspondent for The New Yorker magazine throughout the Second World War. This collection is made up of both her journalism and short stories, and follows the chronology of the War. The stories are all focussed on the home front, so obviously a lot of the focus is on women and how the war affected them, the characters are beautifully drawn, sometimes in just a few pages. As she was writing for an American audience, a lot of the stories could be described as self-consciously British, but I think this is how we now think of people at that time (stiff upper lips and all), so it didn’t jar with me. This collection also contains my new favourite title for a short story ever: ‘Literary Scandal at a Sewing Party’. They are quite different from anything I’ve ever read, but I enjoyed them so much and would thoroughly recommend this book, and Persephone Press more generally.
Fatherland by Robert Harris. A very different book touching on the Second World War, this is a detective novel set in a parallel Berlin, where Hitler won the War and the Nazis are still very much in power in the 1960s. This is a horrifying concept, especially as Harris explores both the evil and the humdrum element of a Nazi state both of which seem pretty unpleasant. I’m not usually a great one for detective novels, but this kept me gripped to the end, mainly because of the central concept.
The Invisible Woman by Claire Tomalin. I find Charles Dickens’ attitude to women endlessly fascinating, both in his novels and in his life, which this biography explores. The famous writer of happy families and exposer of poverty and injustice had a much more complicated personal life than he presented to the Victorian public. Dickens pretty much banished his wife, and, as this book explores, started an affair with actress Ellen Ternan, but almost completely successfully hid his relationship and her from the public. Tomalin gives Ellen her correct place in Dickens scholarship with this book, and the detail of the early nineteenth century life of actresses, how few choices were available to Ellen are fascinating to explore. I want to read a few more of Tomalin’s literary biographies now.
The Good, the Bad and the Furry by Tom Cox. Tom Cox is back on wonderful form with this book of tales (or tails) of his cat menagerie. It’s laugh out loud funny and The Bear seems more real a personality than a lot of characters in novels I’ve read, even if he is a cat. The only trouble I had was that I had to really restrain myself from running out and adopting a kitten!
Mutton by India Knight. The third in Knight’s Clara series, this was better than the first, but not quite as good as Comfort and Joy. It is still laugh out loud funny though, so very much worth a read. Reminds me of the sillier side of Nancy Mitford’s humour, which I love, so I will be looking out for any more in this series.
The Jane Austen Book Club Karen Joy Fowler. I picked this up second hand and really didn’t know what I’d think as it’s really not my ‘usual’ type of novel, but I actually really enjoyed it as a quick read. It is fascinating how Jane Austen seems to inspire such love in so many people after 200 years, and on different continents and very different cultures (this is set in California). It did send me scurrying back to the real Austen though as reading about people reading and discussing the novels made me want to read Austen again myself.
Which brings us neatly to Mansfield Park by Jane Austen. I have to confess I didn’t actually finish this until the first few days of 2015, but as it leads straight on from the previous book I wanted to include it here. I think Mansfield Park is still my favourite Austen, although this is quite subjective depending on my mood! Although I think to some Fanny Price is the least likeable Austen heroine, I feel she is an excellent study in the lack of power women without money had within 19th century. She is treated almost as a servant when she is sent to live with her Uncle’s rich and aristocratic family. This, along with hints about Imperialism, slavery and poverty, makes it a novel with more to think about then some of Austen’s other books. It still has the cutting wit though, which I always forget about until I start re-reading again.