Ragtime, E L Doctorow JJJJI read this ages ago and loved it, so bought the tatty old copy that being junked for pennies by the library of the last college I worked in. I first read it before I had ever taught creative writing, so on the second reading two days ago, the first thing that struck me was "Oh dear, this is an egowanky bloke book". Every creative writing class had a tedious bell end who produces overwritten pretentious tosh, and who invariably responds to criticism with a dismissive, "I don't want my writing to be accessible/commercial" roughly translated as "I am a misunderstood genius and you don't know what you are talking about". I am being horribly unjust to Doctorow, of course, but while this is, in places, gorgeously written and brilliantly American about America, in places the medium drowns out the message, and the writer in uncomfortably present on the page.
Shades of Grey,Jasper Fforde J I got this from the library and ditched it after a couple of chapters. I love the Tuesday Next books, have never been attracted by the nursery crimes ones, but just couldn't get on with this. It's a sort of sci-fi fantasy where people are hierarchised according to their ability to see colours, which makes it to me, one massively over-extended metaphor.
House of Mirth, Edith Wharton JJJJJ I love Edith Wharton. She can unveil a character in a line. Published in 1905, is about the snobbery of American society at the turn of the century, and the impossible choices faced by women of limited means in that society. She's deliciously sharp about the men and women who make hypocrisy work for them, and even the nominal hero is too weak and self-regarding to save the woman he loves. Vivid and engaging.
Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton JJJJJ Even better than the above. It's also about a woman on the periphery of society and once again the hero doesn't come off too well. This followed by the Doctorow would make a very introduction to American Hypocrisy 101 or Why They Make Such a Ridiculous Fuss if Someone Flashes a Nork at the Superbowel (I am aware of the preceding typo, but I am leaving it anyway).
Obstacles to Young Love, David Nobbs JJJJ This is rather good, and was written by the chap who wrote the book the Reggie Perrin was based on. It's about a pair of star-crossed lovers, taxidermy and growing up in England if you're about the same vintage as me. It's effectively a romance, but a fine and cynical one.
Next of Kin, John Boyne JJ A sort of thriller, a bit patchy but quite engaging as the 1930s setting is depicted very well. The characters are not sufficiently involving for one to give much of a toss about the eventual outcome, though.
Call for the Dead, John le Carre JJJJJ A Smiley novella. Vintage le Carre, and wonderful. George Smiley is the thinking person's Dr Who, really.
The Naive and Sentimental Lover, John le Carre ? I read this book in the early years of secondary school and it really resonated with me; it seemed to confirm some of my views of adulthood, or what it meant to be an adult. I didn't enjoy rereading the first few pages, and didn't want my cynicism and knowingness as an actual adult to colour my memory of the book, so I took back to the library.
The Birds Fall Down, Rebecca West JJJJJ This is a bloody magnificent book. It's phenomenally well-written, wise and strangely moving. It's about the human stories and the linking of characters in the period before the Russian revolution. If you are interested in Russia, or how European culture came to be the shape it is, read it. Appallingly, it is out of print. I read a library copy, bought a secondhand Amazon copy for perfectlyvague's Christmas present and was delighted to find a copy in a charity shop a couple of days ago for me.
Pride and Prejudice,Jane Austen JJJJJ I'd never read this before. yes, yes, I know. I'm an English teacher and I am supposed to rave about Austen, but I did Persuasion for A Level and detested it. I've always dismissed it as the thinking woman's chick lit. I enjoyed it enormously, however, and was astonished at the cracking pace. I love how it serves as a giant flashing warning not to make the wrong marriage - so anti-chick lit, really. As with Wharton, the women are much stronger, bolder and more sharply drawn than the men. I've said before that educated women either fancy Mr Darcy or Heathcliff. I still prefer Heathcliff (I doubt Darcy would be much fun in bed) but they are both pretty tiresome, really. Give me George Smiley any day.
Saturday, Ian McEwan JJ I've loved everything by McEwan except this and Amsterdam. This was bloody awful, frankly. It's a day in the live of a brain surgeon; a smug, wealthy, self-regarding, pathetically competitive brain surgeon. It's not stream of consciousness, as that would scare off the middlebrow, and it might be better if it were; all the while I was reading it I kept thinking how much better Mrs Dalloway - a day in the life of an MP's wife - is, compared to this. The plot and characters are equally unlikely, and the 'moral' clunkingly obvious.
The Apple, Michel Faber JJJJJ This collection of short stories is a companion volume to The Crimson Petal and The White and features incidents before and after the novel. As good as the novel and a delight for fans.
Wedlocked: How Georgian Britain's Worst Husband Met His Match, Wendy Moore JJJJJ This is a rollicking good read. I love posh historical celebs just as much as I detest the lowbrow living ones. Almost everyone in this book is ghastly, deliciously so, and the activities of the villain genuinely gasp-worthy.
A Proper Education for Girls, Elaine di Rollo JJJJ This is a darkly funny historical novel with nods to Evelyn Waugh. The female leads, a pair of sisters, are bright and very much the heroes of their own stories. If I had a teenage daughter, I'd give her this book. It would make a very good antidote to Twilight.
Wuthering Heights, Emily BronteJJJJJ I got my lovely Folio edition back, so spent an afternoon on the sofa with a bottle of claret, some cheese and this book. I know it very well and have always loved. The narrators are brilliant; the calm and rational voice of Ellen Dean, refusing to approve the lovers' folly and the thing that drew me into when I was a child, Lockwood pulling faces at Heathcliff's dogs.
The Unicorn, Iris Murdoch JJJJ I picked up six brand new Murdoch novels in a charity shop for a quid each. I like her novels. They are seldom credible, but intellectually satisfying and full of delicious little observations about human nature. I'm halfway through my third of the haul now, and am really struck by the vividness and significance of the settings, and how each novel has a figure at the centre who is a sort of lacuna. This is an odd, tense, creepy novel about a woman who is a sort of prisoner/princesse lointaine in a remote Irish mansion. She's a bit like a cross between Virginia Woolf, Alan Bennett and Dostoevsky.
An Unofficial Rose, Iris Murdoch JJJJJ I loved this. Almost everyone in it is like someone I know, and some of them are like people I wish I didn't know.
To The Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf JJJJ I struggled to reread this, and kept getting distracted. I think the tightness of the setting, which makes it very intimate means it loses something of the, for want of a better way of putting it, the universality of Mrs Dalloway.
Other books read this year: