Yes! It’s that time of year again. I used to write my Best Books list right before New Year’s, but I enjoy other people’s so much as guides for possible Christmas presents that I offer mine up in the spirit of festive helpfulness too.
I thought that 2012 hadn’t been such a good one for reading, but when I began to look back over my blog posts, I realised that there have been all sorts of excellent books. I think this year there have been more ‘meh’ books than usual. Very few outright disasters, but quite a lot that barely left an impression. Still, with no more ado…
Best literary fiction
Web of Angels by Lilian Nattel – a mother with DID finds the courage to intervene when the behaviour of a local family raises her suspicions. Beautiful psychological portrait and gripping tale.
State of Wonder by Ann Patchett – a trip down the Amazon to find out what is really going on in a remote research location raises all sorts of questions about scientific research. Wonderful writing and storytelling.
The Forrests by Emily Perkins – an unusual family story told in a series of detailed, profound vignettes, each a snapshot of a different moment in the ongoing saga of life. Exquisite writing.
The Truth About Marie by Jean-Philippe Toussaint – the best innovative novel I’ve read lately, about a man whose obsession with his ex-lover leads him to imagine her life in extraordinary detail.
The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters - a brilliant haunted house ghost story that’s high on psychological thrills and social comment, with everyone’s favourite, the unreliable narrator.
Best crime fiction
The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz – a ‘new’ Sherlock Holmes story on prose that glides like silk; great characterisations and clever plotting in this modern update of the classic stories.
The Obsession by T. V. LoCicero - gorgeous Italian professor of literature spends a sabbatical term on an American campus and finds her life turned upside down by a stalker in this gripping novel.
Best comfort reading
The Hypnotist’s Love Story by Liane Moriarty – a romance novel with a twist, in that the hero is being stalked by an ex-girlfriend; this novel treats the situation with great humour and compassion.
The Women in Black by Madeleine St John – life in the ladies’ frocks department of an Australian store in the run-up to Christmas; four women find their lives changed by surprise events; touching and funny.
Greenbanks by Dorothy Whipple – the glorious Whipple in family saga territory focuses on the relationship between the matriarch of a family and her granddaughter as they grow through the tempestuous early years of the 20th century.
Dream Story by Arthur Schnitzler – a German couple confess their sexual secrets to one another, provoking the jealous husband to start out on an erotic odyssey that will last a day and a night, from which both tragedy and reconciliation will blossom.
Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner – the lone female in her family endures half a lifetime as the spinster aunt before setting off on her own as a witch. Wonderfully written with such quirky humour.
Best foreign language book
The Mandarins by Simone de Beauvoir – a group of intellectuals engage in turbulent post-war politics as they try to put the integrity they found in the Resistance to use in creating a better world.
(This is such a cheat because I only read two – but they were even better second time around.)
My Mortal Enemy by Willa Cather – this bittersweet novella tells the story of a mismatched marriage from the point of view of a young woman both fascinated and repelled by the couple.
Ladder of Years by Anne Tyler - a middle-aged woman walks away from her family on a crowded beach and finds herself starting a life in a small town elsewhere. With all Tyler’s characteristic insight and humour.
Best General Non-Fiction
Deep Country by Neil Ansell – gorgeous account of bird-watching in the Welsh countryside by a man who decides to take his life back to basics. Gentle, serene and inspiring.
Willful Blindness by Margaret Heffernan (review to come) – why is it that tragedies occur that could so easily have been prevented? Compelling account of why people ignore what’s staring them in the face.
Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace by Kate Summerscale – an Edwardian Madame Bovary and the dynamite diary that turned her into a sensational trial case in new divorce laws.
What To Look For In Winter; A Memoir of Blindness by Candia McWilliam (review to come) – a novelist who was considered a hugely promising talent describes her relationship with alcoholism and the strange illness that afflicts her eyelids, making her functionally blind. Fascinating and complex.
Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal by Jeanette Winterson – Winterson tells the story of her crazy early life in a deeply religious community and the homosexuality that made her an outcast from it. She then brings the story up to date with her search for her birth mother.