It’s that time of year! And what a great reading year it’s been.
Special Award of the Year – Willa Cather
I realised that if I didn’t single her out somehow, she would dominate the lists. Every so often you come across an author who is important to you in a way that transcends discussions of whether their books are good or not. Willa Cather was my find of the year, my jewel, my little star. I realise I didn’t even review most of the novels I’d read by her for fear of not doing them justice. But A Lost Lady, The Professor’s House and My Mortal Enemy go straight into my all-time greats.
Best New Fiction
Ali Smith – There But For The
Miles, a dinner guest, locks himself into the spare room of his host’s house and refuses to come out. The narrative shifts through the perspective of four different commentators on his life. Bold, imaginative, playful and profound.
Anne Peile – Repeat It Today With Tears
If you’d told me I’d love a novel about incest, I wouldn’t have believed you. But this gracefully written, vivid and moving narrative was a surprise hit of the year. A quick read but by no means slight.
Vanessa Gebbie – The Coward’s Tale
Dark and emotional storytelling here that traces the effects of a coal mining disaster on the generations that followed. Poetic, unique and accessible, the story works to heal the legacies of old wounds in a way that is unusual and completely unsentimental.
Michelle Latiolais – Widow
I’m not much of a one for short stories but these blew me away. Just so brilliantly written, they are sharp and entertaining and occasionally devastating. The topic of mourning is handled with elegance and dignity, and I particularly loved the way each story revolved in my imagination as I read it to release all sorts of unexpected perspectives.
Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum – Miss Hemple Chronicles
Wonderful writing in this series of interconnected stories of a young teacher making a bit of a pig’s ear of her first job but learning to love it, and her unruly disciples, regardless. Such marvellous descriptions of pupils and teachers alike and an oh-so-vivid portrait of the unpredictable yet unchanging environment of the classroom.
Best Classic Fiction
Virginia Woolf – Orlando
Virginia lets her hair down and romps through the ages with her parodic biography of Orlando, first a boy, then a woman, an adventurer and explorer, a failed poet and finally a successful lady novelist. No one does it quite like Woolf.
Graham Greene – Our Man In Havana
The ultimate spy story, as failed vacuum seller, James Wormold, agrees to a bit of espionage on his Cuban island to raise money to meet his daughter Milly’s expensive tastes. Only Wormold doesn’t know what he’s doing and simply fakes his reports. Imagine his horror, then, when his fictitious events start to come true.
Shirley Jackson – The Haunting of Hill House
Four strangers assemble in a notoriously haunted house to observe the ghostly phenomenon as part of a research project. But Hill House is used to seeing off unwelcome visitors and winds its eerie coils around the unfortunate inhabitants with fatal consequences.
Sara Paretsky – Hardball
Bit of a squeeze here, but I think I can just about claim Paretsky as a modern crime classic! Her private eye, V. I. Warshawski, may be getting older, but she’s still up for a fight as she takes on the corporate fat cats of Chicago to track down an old and ugly story of murder dating from the days of civil rights marches. Powerful stuff.
Stephanie Staal – Reading Women
Married and a new mother, her life failing to provide her with the satisfaction she craved, Stephanie Staal returns to college to resit her old feminist texts class. As she reads the work of pioneering women through the ages she considers the changes that have happened in her life and the ideals she had fostered for so long. I loved this – clever, enlightening and so very true.
Katie Roiphe – Uncommon Arrangements
The stories of seven unconventional marriages in the period between 1910-39, Roiphe reveals the emotional machinations of a generation who believed they could manage relationships better than their ancestors, with often alarming results. Fascinating and absorbing, the tales of Elizabeth von Armin, Vera Brittain, Vanessa Grant, Radclyffe Hall, Katherine Mansfield, Ottoline Morrell and H.G. Wells have to be read to be believed.
Truman Capote – In Cold Blood
Grisly and unsettling, this literary experiment gets into the minds of convicted killers, Perry Smith and Dick Hickock after they murdered a family in their remote farmhouse for nothing more than a few dollars. Capote nearly tipped himself over the edge writing it, and he does manage to bring the madness, resentment and irrationality of Smith and Hickock to vivid life.
Anne Lamott – Bird by Bird
If you have ever thought of doing anything creative with words, then Anne Lamott’s book is a must as she offers advice to fledgling writers from the moment of conceiving the desire to write through to the end of the publication process. So very funny, so very wise, her unique voice is a delight and her sensible words about creative motivation are grounding. Do it because you love it, she says, not because you want to get published. Absolutely.
Rosemary Dinnage – One to One
An old publication this one, and not a well-known one, but so gripping and so very intriguing. Dinnage allows 20 witnesses tell their own stories of their time in therapy. Some emerged changed and empowered, some left resentful and disillusioned and some are still there, in limbo. This gives the best portrait of psychotherapy, it’s perils and its possibilities, that I’ve ever read. But it’s also fascinating about human nature and the dreadful things our emotions do to us.
Dinah Roe – The Rossettis In Wonderland
Best straight biography of the year, this detailed portrait of the four Rossetti children – among them the famous Christina and Dante Gabriel – and their parents brings Victorian London to life, as well as the worlds of painting, poetry, literary criticism and Anglican nuns. Who could resist?
Having finished my list I note that the women vastly outnumber the men this year! Ah well. That’s just the way it turned out.