It’s customary when making lists to round it up to ten. But today is the sixth of December, St Nicholas Day and my birthday, so here are half a dozen of my favourite reads this year.
The list includes a lot of non-fiction and there are two good reasons for that.
The first is because I’ve been writing. Two full-length Beatrice Stubbs novels this year, a related historical fiction novella and I just completed a first draft of something a little different. When I’m writing at such a pace, my reading suffers.
The second is rather less noble. I love gossip. Give me stories of the well-known or well-born up to no good and I am agog. (Auto)biographies or fictionalised life stories are naturally more episodic in nature, making it easier to read in small chunks before getting back to work.
Here are six of the best books I’ve enjoyed in 2019.
Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver
Through her novel about a family home crumbling, Kingsolver addresses many contemporary issues with subtlety and nuance. At the centre of the story is a house in New Jersey. Inherited by Willa Knox in modern-day America, it seems like a sanctuary for her family until she discovers it is collapsing. Her only hope is a grant, by proving how the house has 19th century historical value. Enter the second thread – a science teacher who believes in Darwin and his biologist neighbour.
The novel addresses social structure then and now, with some alarming parallels. Anti-evolution mobs baying for Darwin to be hanged versus political rallies chanting similar punitive measures. Willa is a middle-aged woman whose sense of confusion as to generational attitudes and shifting sands makes it one of those books you need to stop reading and think. My favourite kind.
Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg Jephcott
A fictionalised telling of Truman Capote’s friendship with a group of society women, to whom he referred as his ‘Swans’ was a revelation for me. This dry, witty and sharply observed set of stories is compulsive. Much of the book is rooted in fact and much extrapolated as fiction but the whole coalesces into a unique insight into the dramatic trajectory of Capote’s life.
Peopled by such larger-than-life characters as Ernest Hemingway, Lauren Bacall (another great biography – By Myself), Harper Lee and Jackie Onassis, it’s fascinating. Just like being transported into not only the salons but the heads of an extraordinary group of people, with Truman Capote as the supernova turned black hole.
War of the Worlds by HG Wells
Heard the radio adaptation, seen the TV series but I have never yet read the book. Time to correct that. Wells is an exceptional polymath with scientific vision, storytelling skill and an imagination that can sweep you to the moon and back (literally).
The story of the Martian invasion is tense, shocking and contains a twist so unexpected yet logical, it still gives me goosebumps. Struck by such fabulous use of language, I went on to read the entire science fiction collection, which was a delight. That said, War of the Worlds and its incredible authenticity will always have a special place in my heart.
The Mountbattens by Andrew Lownie
A master biographer, Andrew Lownie digs deep into the lives of his subjects. This adjunct to the British Royal Family has been written about before, but never with such candour as here. The golden couple – he a handsome young naval officer with royal connections and she a beautiful, wealthy heiress – looked set for a glittering future. Yet the marriage caused much unhappiness and to the chagrin of the Royal Family, a succession of scandals.
Edwina Mountbatten was restless and easily bored. Her infidelities and itchy feet while he rose through the ranks of the navy meant the couple spent more time apart than together. Louis came to terms with his wife’s inconstant nature and took his pleasures where he could find them. Nevertheless, they stayed together, served their country and each other’s careers, and left an undeniable legacy.
Part of my absorption in this book comes from knowing how my mother would have adored it. Royal gossip was her speciality.
Transcription by Kate Atkinson
One of my all-time favourite authors, Atkinson tells the fictional tale of Juliet, an MI5 employee during WWII. Working in British intelligence during wartime sounds glamorous and thrilling. The reality is dull transcription of conversations between Nazi sympathisers, an entertainment for the reader at least.
The narrative flits back and forth between the 1940s and the post-war period when Juliet is working for the BBC. Ghosts from the past reappear and she doubts she can ever truly escape. Each character reflects that wartime sense of no one being who they pretend to be and the façades are flimsy to the point of transparency. Everyone knows everyone else is lying, hiding and deceiving, but gets on with the job. Historical fiction with a contemporary point to make.
Me by Elton John
Possibly my favourite of the year. It has everything – name-dropping, fabulous stories, humour, glamour, honesty and moments to give you goosebumps and tears. Alex Petridis has done an excellent job of putting this immensely entertaining voice onto paper but at the heart of the story is a man with a clear-eyed vision of himself and the times he has lived through.
Out of so many glorious anecdotes, indiscretions and confessions, it’s tough to choose examples, although he shines a new light on Rod Stewart, Brian Wilson and Gianni Versace. I came away from this book with a huge smile and genuine admiration for an ordinary bloke sharing his exceptional life. Now I’m off to listen to Your Song – again.