Welcome to Smugglivus 2011! Throughout this month, we will have daily guests – authors and bloggers alike – looking back at their favorite reads of 2011, and looking forward to events and upcoming books in 2012.
Who: Michelle Paver, award-winning author of young adult fiction and newly minted author of adult horror.
Recent Work: The massively awesome horror novel Dark Matter, which both Thea and Ana loved. (Seriously, it is one of the best works of new horror we’ve read.)
Give a warm round of applause for Michelle, folks!
Some time after the millenium, I started keeping a list of every book I’ve read over the year. It’s only for fun, and I don’t write critiques or anything; nor do I include all the books I read in order to research my novels. I simply scribble down the titles and authors of whatever I’ve read for entertainment – for no other reason than that I quite enjoy glancing back at it in the New Year, and idly trying to match what I was reading to whatever was going on in my life at the time.
Sometimes I can see no connection at all between the two, but sometimes there does seem to be some sort of trend. For instance, a couple of years ago when I was having difficulty meeting a deadline, I took refuge in Anthony Trollope’s Barchester novels – in which, whatever else might be going wrong in the characters’ lives, trains and postal services do generally seem to run on time.
As for 2011, I’d expected it to be a quiet year, but in the end it hasn’t quite worked out that way. For one thing, I’ve been hard at work on the first book in my new Bronze Age series, GODS AND WARRIORS, as well as doing publicity for the paperback edition of my ghost story, DARK MATTER, and for my Stone Age series, CHRONICLES OF ANCIENT DARKNESS. Added to which, I moved house. And I’m very much hoping that I’ll never have to do that again. Ever.
Put all this together, and you’ve got an unfulfilled desire for order and a quiet life with no administrative hassles – and having just cast an eye over my book list for this year (which is in the region of a hundred books), that seems to come through loud and clear.
For a start, I read a lot of books set in the 30s and 40s, an era which – provided you were upper middle class and not involved in a World War – moving house seems to have meant telling the servants the date, and letting them get on with it. So for instance, I re-read all six of EF Benson’s delightful LUCIA novels, about the petty goings-on in provincial English middle-class society; although that description doesn’t begin to do justice to stories I find consistently entertaining, endearing, perceptive and hilarious, no matter how many times I read them.
I also re-read W. Somerset Maugham’s short stories; and I can’t help noticing that many of them concern journeys in faraway places: a welcome escape from the grim reality of hanging on the phone for hours trying to tell your electricity supplier that you’re moving house. (And yes I know it’d probably be quicker if I went online, but then I’d have to have the internet at home, and people might email me, which I’d hate and which would involve a far greater waste of time, so for now I’d rather stick to the phone, thanks.)
I also seem to have spent several weeks reading about the quietly desperate lives of women in the preceding two centuries. Examples of these include Hermione Lee’s magnificent biography of Virginia Woolf; also THE RECTOR’S DAUGHTER by FM Mayor – which describes in curiously compelling prose the savagely restricted and mind-numbingly tedious life of the eponymous heroine; MAIN STREET by Sinclair Lewis – which dissects with forensic precision the disillusionment of a young bride in small town America; and THEY WERE SISTERS by Dorothy Whipple, which details the unsatisfactory marital experiences of three sisters in a middle-class England which has gone for ever, and yet is only a few decades away. I think I read these out of curiosity, and to remind myself that I’m lucky to be living now, and not then.
After that, I seem to have had something of a reaction to all this cramped domesticity, with a spate of books about stripped-down lives in remote places. Highlights include Tove Jansson’s THE TRUE DECEIVER, a strange, snowbound book about an isolated writer and a guileful village girl; THE WINTER BOOK and THE SUMMER BOOK by the same author – for the lapidary beauty of their prose and their masterful evocation of Finnish seascapes, and IN SIBERIA, Colin Thubron’s enthralling account of his journey across that vast northern wilderness.
But there are some books which, through their sheer brilliance, cut right across whatever you happen to be doing or feeling at the time; so I’ll end my lightning review of my year’s reading with my undisputed favourite of all the books I read this year, (be they fiction or non-fiction), and that’s Andrew Graham-Dixon’s biography, CARAVAGGIO: A LIFE SACRED AND PROFANE. It’s amazing. Beautifully written and hugely readable, utterly compelling and strangely haunting. It stayed with me long after I’d finished it, and I’m already looking forward to re-reading it. Even if you’ve never read a biography of an artist, or don’t know much about Caravaggio, please don’t be put off. You really are in for a treat.
So what am I looking forward to reading next year? Well, on my kitchen dresser I’ve got an ever-growing sheaf of reviews cut out from the weekend papers, but I usually forget to take these when I go to a bookshop, and end up with impulse buys instead (although that’s no bad thing; the CARAVAGGIO was one of the latter). However in the New Year lull before I get started on Book 2 of GODS AND WARRIORS, I’m very much hoping to read some of the following: Claire Tomalin’s biography of Dickens, and Rosamund Bartlett’s of Tolstoy; Alan Garner’s COLLECTED FOLK TALES; Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84; also THE RISE AND FALL OF ANCIENT EGYPT by Toby Wilkinson, and DECIPHERING ANCIENT MINDS: THE MYSTERY OF SAN BUSHMAN ROCK ART by David Lewis-Williams and David Challis. (The last two are also research for GODS AND WARRIORS, but I’m including them here, as I’d read them anyway.)
As I write this in early December, it’s 3.45 in the afternoon and already getting dark. I read in today’s paper that Merkel and Sarkozy have only one week to save the euro. Again. And Sir Mervyn King has just said that we’ve never had it so bad; or something like that. But. My new gas stove is hissing gently away in a corner of the study, and downstairs, the Murakami lies temptingly on the sofa. So life could be worse.
Whatever you’re doing over the next few weeks, and whether you like or loathe Christmas, I hope you’re able to enjoy a bit of a break at the end of the year, and that you’re lucky enough to find and enjoy a good book that you haven’t read before.