Follow the Yellow

A Year in Books

Back in January 2010, I decided that I wanted to keep a list of all the books I read for a year, and since then, I’ve been faithfully recording my reading. Keeping the list has proved quite a fascinating process, and I think I’ve ended up learning a whole lot more than I ever anticipated about my reading habits – not to mention myself.

Lots of things I discovered about my reading surprised me: for example, how many more books by women I read compared to books by men; how little poetry and non-fiction I read; and just how many children’s and young adult books I read, – even considering that it’s fairly essential for my job. And also, just how much I read. I’ve always been a pretty avid reader, but I hadn”t expected to discover I read over 100 new books in a year.

Keeping a list of just the books that were new to me – first reads, if you will – was a deliberate strategy. I’m absolutely not one of those people who can only read a book once. In fact, I frequently revisit favourite books over and over again, and certain moods may draw me towards particular titles, so I decided there wasn’t any point listing every single book I read, but only the new ones.

I also set myself some other rules, for example: I wouldn’t list any books that I didn’t actually finish, and I wouldn’t include anything that I simply ‘flicked through’ rather than reading cover to cover. So art books I skimmed wouldn’t count, but a graphic novel I sat down and read properly would; recipe books I dipped into wouldn’t count but a biography or collection of essays that I read from beginning to end would.

Twelve months and over 100 books later, I thought it would be fun to revisit my completed list, and take a look at some my highlights from a very interesting year of reading. First up I thought I’d focus on the adult books I read this year – I’ll have to revisit the children’s and teen books later as there are so many of them!

My favourite new fiction:

  • The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters: a crumbling country house in the unsettled post-war society of 1947 is the setting for this compulsive, intense page-turner with a hint of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw.
  • The Children’s Book by AS Byatt: spanning the period from the end of the 19th century to the conclusion of the first world war, this sweeping, highly-charged, multifaceted novel is the best Byatt I’ve read since Posession. Probably my book of the year.
  • Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel: In spite of all the hype, I wasn’t disappointed by Mantel’s latest novel. Focusing on the fascinating figure of Thomas Cromwell and his place within the complex, richly-evoked world of the Tudor court, Wolf Hall is a slow burner: it took a little while before it grabbed me, but once it did, I was hooked.
  • On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan: I was in two minds whether or not to include this as in general, I’m not a huge fan of McEwan. However, I did rate this slender, understated tribute to misunderstanding and disappointed love, which was to me at least, more compelling than most of his books that I’ve read
  • The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood: Surprise! I do read something other than literary fiction with a historical setting! This companion volume to Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, set in a dystopian bioengineered future is an incredible feat of imagination: fascinating, startling and moving by turns.
  • The Night Bookmobile by Audrey Niffenegger: from the author of the hugely popular The Timetraveller’s Wife comes this surprisingly understated graphic novel. And it’s about compulsive reading, so of course it struck a chord with me. My review of it on the Booktrust website is here.
  • Corrag by Susan Fletcher: I wasn’t sure what to expect from this story of the Jacobite rebellion, told in part through the eyes of a young woman imprisoned and condemned as a witch, but was soon impressed by Fletcher’s luminous, lyrical evocation of the Scottish highlands.
  • Coconut Unlimited by Nikesh Shukla: All right, so I know this one is by my buddy Nikesh, but all the same it is genuinely deserving of its place amongst my best books of the year. I have enormous admiration for any book that can make me laugh out loud, and this book didn’t just do that, it actually made me laugh out loud, many times, on public transport. Now that really is pretty cool.
  • Mr Chartwell by Rebecca Hunt: Another surprise entry: a book about a giant, gin-swilling dog? And Winston Churchill? Huh? But this promising debut novel is actually an unexpected pleasure: bold, witty and well-crafted.

My favourite new-to-me fiction (otherwise known as the ‘how come I hadn’t read this before?’ list):

  • The Collector by John Fowles: I re-read The Magus on holiday in Croatia this year and enjoyed it so much I had to seek out the other Fowles titles I hadn’t read, including this, his first novel, the tale of a sinister butterfly collector. Compulsive, fascinating and incredibly clever, it didn’t disappoint me.
  • Case Histories by Kate Atkinson (and indeed the entire Jackson Brodie series): Simply brilliant. I’ve been a fan of Kate Atkinson’s other books for years, so why did it take me so long to discover Jackson Brodie? I’m recommending these to everyone I know.
  • The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Schaffer: Much more than just a whimsical love story, this charming and nostalgic wartime tale is a delightful, heartwarming read.
  • Snobs by Julian Fellowes: Like everyone else on the planet, I loved Downton Abbey this year, and so I thought I should seek out more of Fellowes’s writing. It’s no Gosford Park but this entertaining satire of upper class life is great fun: a little bit E.M. Forster, a little bit Nancy Mitford, with maybe a touch of the Jilly Coopers thrown in.
  • Diary of a Provincial Lady by E.M. Delafield: The other book that made me laugh out loud on the tube a lot this year. This one is going straight onto my all-time favourites list. Quite simply brilliant.

Best non-fiction:

  • So Much to Tell by Valerie Groves: For anyone who knows their children’s book onions, the name ‘Kaye Webb’ has a little bit of magic about it. This fascinating biography of Webb’s odd and extraordinary life had been on my must-read list for ages, and it didn’t disappoint
  • Home by Julie Myerson: I’m always fascinated by the history of old houses – thinking about all the people who might have lived there in the past. Julie Myerson takes it a step further in this readable ‘biography of a house’, researching the story of everyone who has ever lived in her Clapham home.
  • Mrs Keppel and her Daughter by Diana Souhami: I’m reading a lot about the Edwardian era at the moment, and this vivid biography, focusing on the King’s mistress Mrs Keppel and her difficult daughter Violet, is one of the best things I’ve discovered.

What were your most memorable reads of 2010?

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