So in no particular order here are my top 10 books of the last 12 months starting with Sara Maitland's 'Gossip From The Forest'. Maitland was my introduction to feminist fiction and Virago books (many years ago) but this was the first one of hers I've picked up in a long time. It was inspirational. I've looked at trees and fairy tales differently since. As an older sister I was particularly taken with her theory that fairy tales were originally mostly told by older sisters but basically you can't beat a book that makes you look at something familiar with fresh eyes.
Amy Sackville's 'Orkney' got some mixed reviews but I loved her take on legend and folklore and the darker side of love. The older narrators obsession with one of his students becomes increasingly oppressive but also left me wondering if their marriage is imagined. The shifting light and landscape of Orkney is the perfect backdrop for Sackville's tale and I also thought she did an excellent job of catching something of the spirit of the place.
Rumer Godden's 'A Fugue In Time' is one of three of her books that I read this year, all of them wonderful and disconcerting in equal measure. I thought I knew Godden reasonably well but exploring the titles re-issued this year have made me reassess her. 'A Fugue In Time' is the least obviously shocking of the trio (no rape and no exotic Indian location) but still managed to unsettle me as a reader. It's the story of a family and their home through almost a century. For want of a better description the memories have an independent life within the house and document the small triumphs, tragedies, injustices, cruelties, and loves that go to make up a family history. It's the sort of book that begs discussion.
Helen Hull's 'Heat Lightning' was a book that far exceeded expectations, it also has a particularly good introduction. It's another multi generational look at family life (which as a description is exactly the sort of thing which will make me pass over a book) and marriage. Amy Norton's marriage has hit a rough patch and she's gone home to lick her wounds. It's the beginning of the great depression and whilst she's home her uncle and cousin come off the rails in a way that threatens to take the whole family with them, her grandmother also dies. It isn't a depressing book - Amy and her husband look like they'll be able to make things work and the family will manage to re group and carry on somehow. What's really stuck with me though is the rising sense of tension against a background of oppressive heat. This one is a real Persephone gem.
Lindsey Bareham's 'The Trifle Bowl and Other Tales' is still sitting in my books to be dealt with pile, I got nowhere near doing it justice when I wrote about it and still haven't spent much time looking at the recipes yet. One way or another (River Cottage Fruit, anything that Prospect ever choose to publish, and Fiona Cairns 'Seasonal Baking' are notable exceptions) I haven't found many really inspiring cookbooks this year. Maybe it's because I no longer have a good local bookshop to discover things in but far to many of the cookbooks I've seen this year have felt like more of the same. The Trifle Bowl stands out because it looked at equipment as much as recipes, I love my kitchen and all it's bits so a book that puts those bits front and centre really appeals to me. The kitchens we have define the way we cook, eat, and entertain, I don't like anybody else cooking in my kitchen (they do it wrong) but I loved reading about somebody else's kitchen.
Georgette Heyer's 'The Grand Sophy' probably shouldn't count in the same way that 'Pride and Prejudice' didn't count but re reading it was something of a revelation (as were all the Georgette Heyer's I re read this year). I knew she was entertaining but I'd forgotten what very positive female role models Heyer wrote. Sophy isn't conventionally beautiful, she has a temper, and she's prone to tears at inconvenient moments but she's also smart, capable, and independent. I'm very glad these were the books I was devouring when I was 14.
I'm half way through Trollope's Palliser series now and so far 'The Eustace Diamonds' is easily my favourite. Lizzie Eustace is by far the most interesting woman I've found in Trollope, had he sympathised with her just a little more the book would have been even better (in my opinion). I know it's not everybody's favourite Palliser but for once this was a moral dilemma that I could really sympathise with, one where doing the wrong thing would come very easily (I'm not to be trusted with valuable diamond necklaces) and so much happens that Trollope doesn't repeat himself as much as usual. Entertainment aside it also has a lot to say about the position of women in Victorian society and the attitude of decent but conservative men like Trollope.
When I'm next inclined to damn Christmas and all the crap that comes with it I should remind myself of how many good books appear at this tome of year - there have been some beauties in the last few weeks for which I'm truly grateful. The most hotly anticipated (on my part at least) was John Wright's 'Booze', it didn't disappoint. Wright is a charming presence on the page and the book is packed with useful and interesting things to know.
Philip Hook's 'Breakfast at Sotheby's' is the funniest thing I've read in a long time. For anybody with an interest in art this book deserves serious consideration. Looking at the art world through the art market puts a slightly different slant on things, it certainly underlines why the great public collections are so important as well as being an interesting indicator of taste.
And finally Michael Alexander's 'The Wanderer: Elegies, Epics, Riddles ('Micheal Alexander seductive is registering as a search term in my stats which I find slightly disconcerting). I expected this book to be interesting in a slightly dry sort of way so was mildly surprised at just how much I enjoyed it. I really liked Alexander's translations of Anglo Saxon poems and other fragmentary bits - there's some beautiful pieces in here, things that I'll go back to over and over (especially 'The Dream of the Rood'), it's reignited a long dormant interest in poetry and will make sitting through the second instalment of 'The Hobbit' somewhat more bearable.