The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood was a fantastic surprise. I studied Classics for higher education and as a result The Odyssey is as familiar to me as the back of my hand, however Atwood managed to teach the old dog new tricks. A timeless story wrapped in Atwood’s characteristically beautiful wordplay and imagery.
I also enjoyed Room by Emma Donoghue, despite the outrageous media hype surrounding it. Jack and his Ma live imprisoned in one room, although, of course, Jack knows no other life, and ‘Room’ is his whole world. This plot could easily have been gimmicky, the prose purple, and the five year old ‘narrator’ precocious, but in my opinion Donoghue handled it laudably.
Looking back at my Read list, February 2011 was full of quite dreamy, slow-burning novels. Across the Nightingale Floor by Lian Hearn, a beautiful young adult novel set in a pseudo-historical Japan really sucked me in with its legend of a floor in a black-walled fortress that sings out in alarm at the step of an assassin. I immediately hunted down the rest of the series, although writing this has made me realise I haven’t yet picked any of them up, something I will definitely remedy in 2012.
The Girl With Glass Feet by Ali Shaw is almost like a modern day fairy tale, tightly executed, immaculately paced and achingly romantic. Set on an isolated wintery island, the protagonist, reclusive Midas, falls in love with the mysterious Ida, a girl who is turning into glass from the feet up. Fantastic, original idea that stays with you longer after you’ve finished reading.
Unashamedly a love story, an epic one, with two souls finding one another lifetime after lifetime. They meet this time when the woman is a young newlywed, and the man aged eighty and slowly the latter leads the former in remembering all of their past lives together back hundreds and hundreds of years.
I love ‘magic realism’ stories (I particularly enjoy the works of Sarah Addison Allen), Of Bees & Mist follows Meridia, a remarkable child who grows into a remarkable woman in a house surrounded by strange coloured mists, where staircases change and move and ghosts appear behind her in mirrors. Meridia falls in love at 16 and marries, anxious to leave her childhood home, only to find that the grass isn’t any greener.
A story about love in all its forms, and the harm that people can do to one another, the prose itself is absolutely perfect, the characterisation top-notch. A forever favourite.
My favourite read of April was without a doubt, Birdsong: A Novel of Love and War by Sebastian Faulks. I am so glad that I got round to reading it before I heard about the BBC adaptation and been tempted to watch, not read. Birdsong had been on my ‘Must One Day Read’ list since I was doing my GCSEs, but I kept being put off by the fact it was such a brick to carry around; it didn’t look in the slightest bit accessible. However when I got round to trying it, I didn’t even have to persevere, I was instantly hooked. The war scenes simultaneously horrified and gripped me, it was almost as if Faulks was writing from first-hand experience. At one point I was in floods of tears on a night bus.
I’m glad I read this book at circa 25 instead of circa 15, as I don’t think I would have appreciated it as much as I did. This is a classic I want to revisit many times.
In May 2011 I re-read all ten Harry Potter books in sixteen days, whilst holding down a full time job – one of my proudest achievements in speed reading!
It was my first time reading Quidditch Through the Ages, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and The Tales of Beedle the Bard obviously I have read the seven novels many times. A series close to my heart, most of my teenage years I was exactly the same age as Harry and co as each new book was released. I really enjoyed reading them in quick succession (something that new readers can do now but a new experience for me!) and whilst I did it specifically in advance of Deathly Hallows Pt II being released, I might have to make it a five-yearly event!
For a reason that now escapes me, I didn’t do much reading in June 2011. A clear winner however is the whimsical Book of a Thousand Days by Shannon Hale which I loved so much I bought a gorgeous hardback copy for my sister for Christmas.
Based on one of the more obscure Grimm fairy tales, Lady Saren is locked into a tower for seven years for refusing to marry her father’s choice. She takes her maid, Dashti, who through necessity evolves into a wonderful heroine. The ‘baddie’ is truly menacing, very frightening, the love story written to feel real despite the fantasy of the setting.
I am an unashamed Boleynphile. I will devour everything about Anne Boleyn I can get my hands on and harbour a not so secret ambition to write a truly great young adult book about her. The Concubine by Norah Lofts is my favourite Anne read (Threads: The Reincarnation of Anne Boleyn by Nell Gavin, whilst not a ‘traditional’ Tudor novel, comes a close second). Lofts’ characterisation of Anne is the one that feels truest to me, the perfect antidote to the salacious harridan of Philippa Gregory infamy.
The Red Tent by Anita Diamant has been on my radar for a long time, however I am constantly told by reviews that I won’t ‘get it’ unless I’ve gone through childbirth or the menopause. In August 2011 I decided I couldn’t be bothered to wait for either and gave it a go.
The biblical story of Jacob and his many sons (most prominent of which is of course Joseph of technicolour coat fame) is well known, however The Red Tent focuses on the world of Jacob’s single daughter, Dinah, and her mothers, his four wives. Although Dinah’s story itself is gripping, the real magic of this book is the world building, which is so captivating it led me on to my own research on the ‘historicity’ of characters in the Bible (and lead to me reading Delilah by Eleanor De Jong shortly afterwards).
A controversial second favourite for August 2011, Delirium by Lauren Oliver; I was sufficiently impressed and effected to give this book five stars, however friends whose opinions I am normally on par with haven’t seen what it was that I saw!
Dystopian fiction is a well-known guilty pleasure of mine, whilst I never pretend these books can be considered great literature, they are fascinating and immensely readable. Whilst the five stars I gave Delirium was a five stars in relation to other young adult dystopian novels, rather than my entire read bank, looking back I still find the idea enthralling. In Oliver’s future, love or amor deliria nervosa is considered a disease and inoculated against accordingly. Lena, our protagonist, has the awful luck to fall in love just before her immunisation. Oliver is a master story-teller (evidence her debut, Before I Fall, where she recounts the exact same day seven times and still manages to hold the reader’s attention) and unafraid of a brave ending.
The second in the trilogy, Pandemonium comes out at the end of February 2012, however I must admit, I have read the first few chapters and it left me totally cold. I have my fingers crossed that Oliver will resist the temptation of a stereotypical young adult love triangle, but my hopes aren’t very high.
In September 2011 my friend forwarded me an article, “Twenty Books You MUST Read Before You Die” or something equally demanding. Deciding I was in no immediate danger, I mentally shelved the majority of the list, however as fate would have it, that evening I saw one of them, Love in a Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford on special display in the library.
I have read a biography of the infamous Mitford sisters so I was aware that Nancy Mitford had penned several novels that today are considered classics. I feared however that her writing would be dated and inaccessible. I was half right, Love In A Cold Climate felt extremely dated, but so much so that it has come full circle and feels delightfully retro. As for inaccessible, nothing could be further from the truth, some sixty plus years after publication, Love In A Cold Climate still had me snickering to myself with its delicious social satire of a thoroughly bored and boring English Upper Class between the wars.
Pipping it to the post as my favourite September 2011 read, and possibly the most original thing I read all year, was The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan. Everything I enjoy about dystopian stories – plus zombies. Yes, zombies! A truly tense and thrilling read, my heart was in my throat and genuine tears in my eyes on more than one occasion before the end.
A gift from my cousin who lives abroad, Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks arrived in the post in October 2011 and I dived straight in. Inspired by the true story of a real plague village, Year of Wonders follows housemaid Anna and her neighbours throughout the year 1666 as they isolate themselves to struggle against the plague and the superstition that surrounds it. A perfectly paced book that seems a lot longer than it actually is, with dialogue that feels contemporary to the time without feeling cumbersome or twee.
In any other month, Year of Wonders would have hit the number one slot, however in October 2011 I also read Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. Another lengthy tome I stupidly put off for fear of the weight it would add to my handbag, I raced through once I was brave enough to start and felt bereft when I was done. Wolf Hall is that rare book that is worth all the hype and industry awards.
Mantel has announced that Wolf Hall is the first of a Tudor trilogy, with the second book (with the delicious title Bring Up The Bodies, due for release May 2012) set to focus on my beloved Anne Boleyn. Cromwell’s story will be finished by the third novel, The Mirror & The Light – I literally cannot wait for both.
The end of October and the entirety of November 2011 was taken up by the abundant ‘Southern Vampire Mysteries’ series by Charlaine Harris, also known as the ‘Sookie Stackhouse’ series, or thanks to the television adaptation, the ‘True Blood’ novels.
My friend had lent me the first two and I’d had them earmarked for easy reading after surgery I had scheduled for mid-October. I certainly did not intend to get so hooked I’d spend most of my lunch hours in November travelling from one London library to another trying to get my hands on the next instalment. Sookie is a telepathic waitress, in whose world vampires (and eventually werewolves and other beasties) have been able to make themselves known due to the fact that the Japanese have helpfully created synthetic blood, meaning they no longer have to be a danger to humans in order to feed themselves.
Each novel is its own independent mystery, and Harris is certainly a master at plotting them, giving you just enough detail whilst managing to keep you in suspense. Sookie is a wonderful protagonist, warm and engaging (despite being a somewhat self-confessed dumb slapper), when I caught up with the series to date and had to take a breather from her world, I missed her like a friend. Book 12 in the series, Deadlocked, is due out May 2012 – in the meantime, I get my Sookie fix from the occasional episode of True Blood.
In the space of a week I devoured The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins, staying up dangerously late on worknights to do so, including the night before I had an important interview (I got the job, so no harm done!).
The trilogy, comprising of The Hunger Games, Catching Fire and Mockingjay is dystopian storytelling at its finest. In a vague future, in the ruins of America, twelve districts slave away in relative poverty to facilitate the decadent lifestyles of the people lucky enough to live in the Capitol. To keep these Districts in line, each year a boy and a girl between the ages of 12 and 18 is chosen at random and taken to the Capitol, where they are pitted against one another to the death on live television. The final survivor is the winner.
When her twelve year old sister’s name is called, our protagonist Katniss volunteers herself in her stead, competing alongside Peeta, the son of the District’s baker, with whom she has an uneasy history. To survive in this game you need to win the hearts of the audience, so Katniss and Peeta’s trainers’ strategy is to have them fake an epic romance; but even if this approach keeps them alive till the end, ultimately only one of them can be the winner.
Could it be that this series has everything? Politics, combat, hunting, bloodshed, romance, friendship and fabulous dresses! The movie adaptation is out in March 2012 and, fingers crossed, the trailer suggests spot-on casting and a sympathetic screenplay (watch the trailer here) – and try to at least get the first book read before watching the movie, or the experience will never be the same!