Bookhound Review of the Year 2015
I was thankful for the support of friends, my remaining dog, Alfie Spaniel, and work for getting me through what's been a remarkably horrid year.
Perhaps because of this, the number of books read this year is down slightly on last (104 rather than 111), though this might also be partly because I read some bumper Victorian novels(!). The To-Be-Read challenge was a great way of finally getting to grips with books that had been sat on my shelves for far too long. I didn't make it to the 36 that I had aimed for, but I did read 27, all of which I enjoyed, and some proved to be real surprises. I'm definitely staying with this challenge for next year, as I discovered some new favourite reads that had been neglected for far too long.
I read rather more non-fiction than last year - walked to the end of Patrick Leigh Fermor's journey, crossed the ocean on a raft with Thor Heyerdahl, and read the disturbing story behind Donald Crowhurst's attempt to sail round the world, I raised lions with Joy Adamson, and was a medieval and Elizabethan lady. I learned all kinds of things I never knew about medieval graffiti, and was moved when discovering the history of an English village through its war memorial.
Of new reads this year I read some real blockbusters of Victorian novels including Les Miserables and Vanity Fair, both of which I loved; discovered many new (to me) thriller writers including Robert Galbraith and Clare Chase. I also finally read some Terry Pratchett; particularly poignant in the year that he passed away. It was a good year for sci-fi too from the chilling On the beach by Nevil Shute to Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven.
Of the 104, just 13 were re-reads, a significant change to previous years. As ever libraries were incredibly important (66 reads), making yet more closures and shorter opening hours even sadder. And although there weren't a huge number of e-reads, I am using my Kindle more.
As far as foreign fiction was concerned - Scandinavian crime continued to feature heavily. Perhaps most surprisingly was the amount of fiction that I read that had originally been in Japanese, including discovering the brilliant Haruki Murakami. Altogether there were 19 translations from a variety of languages including French, German, Norwegian, Swedish, Icelandic, Finnish, Russian, Japanese and Turkish. They also included my first ever book by an Uzbek author.
And so on to this year's Bookhound Awards. As well as Book of the Year, there's also Top Fiction, the I never knew that before award for non-fiction, New read, Impact Award, Crime of the year, True original award, So compelling I missed my dinner award, Lifetime achievement award, and the dreaded Stinker of the year.
It was a particularly good year for fiction - I finally finished both the His Dark Materials sequence, and The Barchester Chronicles. There were writers I'd never heard of before with original voices. It's very hard to pin down a favourite, but two Victorian novels had a great impact - Hugo's Les Miserables and Thackeray's Vanity Fair. I loved the Booker prize winning The narrow road to the deep north by Richard Flanagan, beautifully written and incredibly poignant. And then there was the very different voice of Haruki Murakami with Kafka on the shore. I remember you marked a significant change in the writing of Yrsa Sigurdardottir, moving away from contemporary crime to horror, she out-kinged Stephen King.
I really struggled to pick a winner but the winner is Les Miserables with a very honourable mention to the beautiful, wistful Narrow road to the deep north.
I never knew that Award for Non-fiction
Medieval fiction by Matthew Champion did so much more than it said on the front cover. It wasn't just an examination of graffiti to be found in the UK's medieval churches. It also told the story behind the graffiti, of turbulent centuries torn apart by the horsemen of the apocalypse - war, famine, plague and death. Behind dramatic stories though lay human lives made immortal in the graffiti that they drew at the time.
I also loved Paul Ehle's original look at how the music of Bach has been re-invented and expanded into the modern world - Re-inventing Bach is both a tribute to the composer, and a paean to the joy of music, and its impact on contemporary life.
Several non-fiction books this year re-invented the genre, using non-fiction in a different way. Top among these were Clive Aslet's War memorial - social history told through the names on a war memorial, and Ian Mortimer's entertaining Time travellers guides. Medieval and Elizabethan history told as a guidebook. I found this particularly effective in the Elizabethan history, where the paranoia of the period hit me as never before.
The I never knew that Award goes to Ian Mortimer's Time Traveller's guide to Elizabethan England with honourable mention to Matthew Champion's Medieval Graffiti.
There were so many new reads this year that it's particularly difficult to pin down a winner. In contention again are Les Miserables, The narrow road to the deep north and War memorial. Joining them are Robert Galbraith's The silkworm and Tokyo Year Zero by David Peace.
And the winner is The narrow road to the deep north.
This is for a book that had a real impact on me throughout the course of the year. Narrow road to the deep north and Les miserables feature again. On the beach was stunningly horrible, a truly chilling read and completely unforgettable. I remember you was also chilling though in a rather different way, while Alexander McCall Smith's The dog who came in from the cold was one big bundle of joy. The award goes to the unforgettable, if terrifying On the beach by Nevil Shute.
Crime of the year
There were some great crime reads in 2016 from Robert Galbraith's Jacobean inspired The silkworm to that most modern of crime novels, Clare Chase's You think you know me. I loved Kate Atkinson's One good turn, though remained confused as to whether it was a comedy crime, or a crime comedy. Tokyo Year Zero had a voice like none other, and I loved Lindsay Davis' Flavia Albia mysteries. Re-reading I start counting surprised me both by the power of the narrative, and its darkly delicious humour,
This is a particularly tough category, but the novel that had the most impact was I start counting with honourable mentions to The silkworm, Tokyo Year Zero and You think you know me.
True Original Award
Surprisingly a couple of non-fiction books make it onto the shortlist - War memorial for its original take on social history, and Ian Mortimer's Time travellers guides. Very different in the way they're presented to War memorial, but both made you look at social history in a new way. Xavier de Maistre's travel guides around his room were also fascinating, showing how you don't need to go to exotic locations to be able to look at your surroundings completely differently.
I also loved the new world of Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven. And the world of Haruki Murakami and Kafka on the shore.
For me though, there was one book that shone out and that was Clive Aslet's War memorial. It was such a simple yet original premise - pick an English village at random, and follow the lives of those commemorated on its war memorial. Simple, and yet brilliant.
So compelling I missed my dinner Award
Vanity Fair very nearly did make me late for work so has to be included. You know a book must be good when you're more at the Battle of Waterloo than in 21st century Cambridge. Timeri N. Murari's The Taliban Cricket Club held me engrossed, and was swallowed in two easy sittings. As was the re-read of Audrey Erskine Lindop's sadly neglected I start counting. Les Miserables looked scarily huge, but for the week or so that I was reading it, it was unputdownable, I had to be physically separated from it to stop dipping in.
Another tough category, but the winner this time is Vanity Fair. Honourable mentions to Taliban Cricket Club and Les Mis.
Lifetime Achievement Award
I was so sorry to hear of the death of Patrick Leigh Fermor in 2014. Doubly saddened as it appeared that his long walk to Constantinople was never completed. The delight of discovering that it was and that much of the final book in the story of his travels had been published was unforgettable. For sheer beauty of travel writing it doesn't get much better than the trilogy A time of gifts, Between the woods and the water, and The broken road. Some of his beliefs and attitudes are outdated, but that doesn't change the fundamental joy of these books. They're a constant reminder of what it's like to be young, and to think that you really can change the world.
I love Leigh Fermor's spirit, and have loved the first two books since I was in my 30s when I first discovered them. In what's often a very dark world, his travel writing and the optimism embedded in them needs to be read more often.
Stinker of the year
I try to avoid them, but inevitably in any year there are stinkers. Books that are truly awful, ones that leave a nasty taste in the mouth, the ones that you thought were going to be good and are disappointing.
Most horrid book this year was The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco. It was truly foul. A novel about anti-semitism proved to be anti-semitic itself. It was so horrible that it has made me very reluctant to read anything further by Eco. Why did I read it to the end? I honestly thought that at some point there would be a change in the narrative suggesting that it was ironic or an allegory. Sadly this never happened.
Not horrid, but disappointing was the third volume of Michael Palin's diaries - Travelling to work, in which Michael seemed to have lost much of the good humour that had made the earlier diaries such a joy. There were moments of insight (particularly around the illness and death of Graham Chapman) that made you remember how good the previous diaries had been; but sadly Travelling to work failed to deliver.
The fishing fleet by Anne de Courcy came highly recommended. Although it wasn't a bad social history, I found it extremely irritating. There were errors, and a concentration on one level of society which I don't think was accurate. One of those books that you just manage to restrain yourself from throwing out the window.
Neither of the latter two books though are anywhere near the true rancid stinkiness of The Prague Cemetery, which I am more than happy to consign to the Room 101 of books, along with its Stinker of the Year Award.
Bookhound Book of the Year 2015
So many good books this year, but the winner has to be Les Miserables. It proved that being a large tome doesn't mean that you're unreadable. With a cast of memorable characters and a great historical background it was a fabulous read. Please don't be put off by the size of Hugo's novel, once started it becomes all engrossing.
Very honourable mentions go to The narrow road to the deep north. Richard Flanagan's beautiful writing and a story set in one of the darkest parts of the Second World War made for a compelling powerful read. Also to War memorial for a novel re-telling of history, and turning vast conflicts into very human stories. The silkworm for clever play on the tropes of Jacobean theatre, and The dog who came in from the cold for being one of the most heart-warming reads of the year.
Thank you to all the writers who made my life feel better last year, for enabling my mind to travel to places I've never been (some of which I really wouldn't want to visit!), for making me laugh and occasionally cry.
For all followers of the blog may you have a wonderful 2016 filled with happiness, health and love. And may your bookshelves never grow shorter. Happy 2016!