Here’s the promised follow up to my post of a few days ago on my reading during 2016. Of the 58 books I read, 36 were on my Kindle with a decent 40% of physical books. I find the Kindle Paperwhite is easier to read in bed as I don’t need to have lights on and it’s lighter to hold in my hands. It’s also invaluable when I am travelling. But there’s nothing like a real book in the hand. So here’s the rest of my top picks from 2016 – all except Tony and Susan were Kindle reads. Like my earlier posting these are in no particular order.
Jo Baker’s Longbourn was another book I read in preparation for HNS Oxford as she was a keynote speaker discussing the whole upstairs downstairs thing with Fay Weldon. I loved this tale of downstairs life happening while Pride and Prejudice went on upstairs. I loved the gritty portrayal of the often harsh life of servants and was very happy that we were given little about what was happening between Elizabeth and Darcy – it is the servants who occupy centre stage.
I had no idea what to expect with The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley as the fact that it had won the Costa Prize had passed me by and I can’t remember why I bought it. Maybe it’s my Catholic upbringing but I was fascinated by this dark tale set on a religious retreat. I have met so many versions of “Muther” – every Catholic parish has one, idolising the priest and pushing everyone out of the way in her rush to be first in line for confession. A scary, creepy, atmospheric tale that reminded me of The Wicker Man.
The next three books are all sagas and all have a bit of an unmarried mother vibe going on. First up is Jane Steen’s The House of Closed Doors, set in the Mid West in the 19th century. I really enjoyed this well-written tale of a young woman who refuses to name the father of her child and insists on raising it herself, despite the rage of her politician step father. I did think the unbridled feistiness and independence of the heroine was a bit out of step with 19th C mores – but this was presumably to satisfy a 21st C readership.
The heroine of Margaret Kaine’s Ring of Clay is a strong character but behaves in a manner that reflects her time (1950s) and upbringing. When she is the victim of rape at a party where someone has spiked her drink, she is faced with an unwanted teenage pregnancy and decides to deal with it on her own as her mother has recently been widowed. This is the first of a 2-parter but both work as standalones. It’s easy to understand how Margaret Kaine has built such a following as she knows how to tell a story. Set in the Potteries.
The third troubled teenager is Amy, a farm girl in 19th C New Zealand, in Sentence of Marriage by Shayne Parkinson. I read this as I had heard this indie author has had huge success and I was interested to discover why. She writes beautifully and this was an involving tale with a very sympathetic heroine. It is the first of three parts and I can imagine readers rushing to read all three. Amy is trusting and easily betrayed when swept off her feet and it is hard not to feel empathy for her. I also enjoyed the New Zealand agricultural setting.
Eva Flynn’s (no relation) The Renegade Queen is the tale of a woman I had never heard of – Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to stand for President of the USA and I enjoyed reading about the weird and wonderful life of this eccentric and not always likeable American. I thought the book worked better in some parts than others – at times it got bogged down in detail and lost pace – but for me as an introduction to this oddball woman and her crazy life it was an interesting read. One of those lives so bizarre “you couldn’t make it up”!
Jane Davis is going to be a guest on my blog later this month so I decided to read one of her (always beautiful-looking) books. An Unchoreographed Life takes its wonderful title from the words of Margot Fonteyn (one of my childhood heroines) and is the story of a single mother who sacrifices her career as a ballerina in order to raise her daughter and makes her living as a prostitute. The book is told partly through the words of the six year old daughter – who was perhaps a little too wise for her years. Brave and engaging – a difficult subject matter, handled sensitively and beautifully written.
Liz Harris’s The Lost Girl is a beautifully written love story. It is a familiar story in an unusual setting – Wyoming in the nineteenth century, where racial tensions arise between the white settlers and the Chinese, who were seen as taking the jobs and undercutting the pay. The heroine Charity straddles the two worlds – looking Chinese but speaking “American” so she is rejected by both communities. Orphaned as a baby, she is found by a young boy who battles with his parents to persuade them to take her into their home and bring her up.
Tony and Susan by Austin Wright is the novel on which Tom Ford’s film Nocturnal Animals is based. I confess I saw the film first and was equivocal about it (Ford is so enamoured of beautiful people and turned Wright’s schoolteacher Susan into a mega-rich contemporary art dealer) so read the book straight after. It is a book within a book and I found it very thought-provoking – perhaps I’d have felt differently if I hadn’t seen the film. The eponymous Tony writes his revenge on his ex-wife Susan in his novel “Nocturnal Animals”, a violent and disturbing story. I’m not saying more since you may want to see the movie – but I’d recommend you do both! I’m going to watch the film again now.
I had so many other interesting reads last year but I can’t cover them all as it will take up too much time I want to spend reading my 2017 quota – and of course finishing my next book, The Chalky Sea. But I hope this and Part 1 have given you a flavour.
Clare Flynn is the author of four historical novels. Her latest, The Green Ribbons, is available from Amazon or can be ordered from your local bookstore.