I have loved to read since I was very young. I can’t remember the last time I didn’t have a book going, even if I only had time to read a bit before falling asleep at night. Since 1998, I’ve kept a list of books as I’ve finished them, just listing the author and title and a few words to jog my memory of the story or characters. Some books have made indelible imprints on me and I can remember the stories, characters, and/or how they made me feel. Others are fleeting; even the few words I wrote don’t bring back the book in full, or sometimes at all. My daughter reads more voraciously than I do, and she publishes a book roundup monthly on her blog (anjviola.com). For some reason, I feel drawn to share a few of my favorite books of the past year on this blog. So read on or not, depending on your interests!
One of my favorite authors is Alexander McCall Smith. I love how his simple story-telling veers off into thoughts on a wide range of issues of life. He creates wonderful characters. I am happy whenever a new book in the Ladies No. 1 Detective Agency series comes out; reading more about Precious Ramotswe and the other characters is like a visit with old friends. I usually don’t remember much about the actual mysteries she solves, but it doesn’t matter. I like his Sunday Philosophy Club series even better. Isabel Dalhousie is the editor of a philosophy magazine and has a loving relationship with her husband and child, as well as others in her life. The 44 Scotland Street series is very different, yet lots of fun. The characters have flats in an apartment building in Edinburgh. Bertie, age 6, is one of the leads and you will never find a more wonderful child.
I am drawn to family sagas and recently read three trilogies that captured my imagination. The first is by Sarah Lark: In the Land of the Long White Cloud, Call of the Kiwi, and Song of the Spirits. The setting is New Zealand, the two main characters are young women from England who emigrate to be married, one to a wealthy landowner and the other to a poorer farmer. Their intertwined stories follow their families to the third generation. Another trilogy I enjoyed is by Petra Durst-Benning: The Glassblower, The American Lady, and The Paradise of Glass. Three sisters in a small German town in the early 20th century continue their father’s glass-blowing business against the village tradition.
A long-time favorite author is Nevil Shute. I read a couple of his books every year. My favorites are Trustee from the Toolroom and A Town Like Alice. This year I read The Rainbow and the Rose and The Far Country. Shute writes about ordinary people doing extraordinary things. I even belong to the Nevil Shute Norway Foundation (nevilshute.org). He was an aviation engineer and there is often information about airplanes. A number are set during and after WWII.
Memorable books of the year (in no particular order):
Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. This highly recommended book was indeed great. But it was so difficult that I had to stop halfway through, take a quick read of Pride and Prejudice, then go back and finish it. Reading about torture in the Japanese prisoner-of-war camps is not for the faint-hearted.
The Dressmaker by Kate Alcott. A young seamstress manages to get hired by a woman who sails on the Titanic and gets embroiled in the scandal of her mistress’s handling of a lifeboat.
Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline. A young girl is sent west to be adopted; at age 91 her story is uncovered by a foster child helping her go through memories in the attic.
The Unlike Pilgrimage of Harold Fry and The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy by Rachel Joyce. The first book is an amazing account of a salesman who hears that a former colleague is dying in the north of England. He decides to walk many miles to keep her from dying. It’s hard to describe the wonderful feelings in this book. The second is a sequel and companion novel that tells the story from the woman’s side. As often, it is not quite as stunning as the first, but does help fill out the story.
The Light Between Oceans by M. L. Stedman. A childless couple who keep a lighthouse off Australia’s west coast find a rowboat with a dead man and a live baby. They love the baby but the mystery of the child’s origins hangs over them.
A Room with a View by E. M. Forster. I had to reread this in Florence in August. We didn’t have a view of the Arno, but we saw many of the other sights and sounds of the story.
A House Called Askival by Merryn Glover. This was a re-read, as I read it so quickly when I first got it that I couldn’t remember a lot of the details. Merryn graduated from Woodstock School in India, where I lived for some time. She was in my son’s class. The story focuses around an aging missionary who has his own secrets and demons and his daughter who has been estranged but returns in her 40s. It takes place in Mussoorie. The book is outstanding and has been nominated for several awards in Britain. (Merryn lives in Scotland.) Even if you've never been to India or don't know about Woodstock, it is an excellent read.
The Lake House by Kate Morton. This was a Christmas gift from my daughter, who knows very well what I like! A wonderful weaving of a missing child in the 1930s, a modern policewoman who is on forced leave, a famous author and the home she loved.
Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear. This mystery series was recommended to me by a friend and I am totally hooked! There are 11 books in the series and I have just finished the 8th. Maisie starts out as a maid, is caught reading in the library in the middle of the night, and is taken under the wing of her employer, who gives her the gift of education. Her teacher and mentor becomes like a second father to her. She is a nurse in World War I, falls in love, is wounded, goes back to school, works for her mentor, and eventually opens her own business as a psychologist and private investigator. She has to be one of the best characters out there. The author has done a lot of research about WWI, especially regarding shell shock (now called PTSD). Her cases are complex and well-thought-out.