Moving into 2012 and all the lovely new books coming in daily that are now toppling my reading pile, it’s always a good moment to look back and think about those books I read in 2011 that I remember most fondly.
Tricky (almost impossible) to pick one book above all others that I enjoyed last year, because you always enjoy books for different reasons and comparing them seems very unfair. But I have done a selection of those which have particularly appealed.
A Vision of Loveliness by Louise Levene (£7.99)
All right, I admit, this is a total guilty pleasure (up there with Kate Atkinson) as an utterly indulgent read, with lines so wonderful I can go to them again and again.
It’s a dark comedy that will transport you to late 1950s London and a grim suburb where dinner was ‘a tinned steak and kidney pie, soggy King Edwards, and Surprise dried peas – the surprise being that anyone bought them’.
If, like me, you adore a wallow in a bit of extremely fine observation, then you will also find plenty to love about this story of a young suburban shopgirl determined to claw her way to a more glamorous life, using men along the way, with little more than a Pan-stick, 21-inch waist and a pair of false eyelashes 'fluffy nylon fringes to create all those killer glances' – (by the end Jane’s eyelashes almost have a life of their own).
Chance brings Jane into contact with Suzy – and Jane is certainly a girl who knows how to make the most of a chance. Soon she is in possession of a modelling assignment, a room in a shared Mayfair flat, a sapphire bracelet, a hermes alligator bag and a collection of dinner dates.
Clothes matter a lot to Jane (now Janey). 'Ballerina length might be all very well Down South but they wouldn't let you through the door without a long frock in Wilmslow, apparently'.
Through clothes she makes instant judgments about people. Clothes are detailed so much they are practically an additional character in the book ‘It was a dogtooth check sort of a day.’
She also acquires a very desirable boyfriend and a worldly-wisdom ‘Crepes suzette 'involved setting fire to pancakes on a trolley in rather a flashy way but they tasted quite nice'.
Enough to steer her through meeting his posh mother and a dinner party in Roehampton with his superior friends ‘she was giving them ‘her’ coq au vin: ‘hers’ in the sense that nobody else’s was made with half a bottle of sweet cider and burned to a crisp’. Janey successfully parries every attempted put down, while at the same time despising their lives (just keesh and Kingsley Amis from now on).
It's the sort of book that really gets other people annoyed when you are reading it as you can't help but keep sniggering.
In fact there is very little that is lovely about Janey’s journey. Even she starts to notice her dead eyes and wonders if there is more to life. But the only serious alternative is marriage to ‘wear a cheap black frock (home made even, People did), or attend poxy ‘mmm-did-you-make-these-yourself?’n coffee mornings.. And Janey reflects that in her life men are expected to pick up the cheque, but at least she isn’t expected to do much in return.
Her triumphant return to Norbury is one of Janey’s high points. In a Bentley and with a mink hat, is pure joy as her friends try to keep discussions to candlewick bedspreads and brushed nylon sheets (they Saved Work). They had to keep talking about themselves in case one of the unasked questions slipped out – Did it hurt? Did they respect you afterwards? Did you have to keep the lights on? How did she stop the eyelashes falling off?
My book group queried the chick litty cover and a quote from Joan Collins. But overlook that and just enjoy what’s between the covers.
It’s a story of a journey that’s pretty grubby underneath – tawdry finery and false hope, learning how to stetch a yawn into a smile. Enough to make you want to bring out the Liquid gumption. But definitely a step-up from Norbuy.
The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides (£20)
Pulitzer-prize winner, Eugenides, has written very few books, but his latest is a timely reflection on the lives of three college students in the1980s – a decade that gave birth to the very modern angst – the quest for meaning in lives where choice is seemingly limitless, and commitment need only be fleeting.
Three college students trying to find their futures in 1980s America. Madeleine with her unfashionable interest in English Victorian literature, when everyone around her is starting to worship Nietzche.
Mitchell, seeking spiritual enlightenment in India. And golden boy Leonard and the damaging secret of his brilliance and already sewing the seeds of his downfall. Eugenides makes us care for them all. But which will ultimately find the satisfaction they seek?
We meet them when they are all enjoying their last years of freedom, while considering their futures. With loving detail, Eugenides creates the period, the uncertainties. Madeleine is delighted when the brilliant Leonard chooses her. Leonard’s ambition is to ‘become an adjective’ – (Faulknerian, Kafkaesque, Checkovian).
He is the one who looks like having a vocation and a scientific career – someone who will discover something and make something of himself. But when Leonard’s secret unfolds and we get a vision of how precarious is his brilliance, his leadership qualities, Madeleine is left with complex decisions.
If this had been a Victorian novel, she would have had to make the best of it, take her damaged husband and try to repair the tatters and secure what future for themselves she can.
But this is the eighties, when you can be madly in love with someone one minute, and the next, see the chance of a rewarding career of your own and a better prospect. Do you still need a mate? And one who will only bring you down at that?
An absorbing tale of how slippery it can be to find a role in life when love, money, success are becoming such throwaway commodities.
Other People's Money by Justin Cartwright (£12.99)
A novel set in the world of ultra-rich bankers fighting to save their skins following the banking crisis sounds like the makings of a grim read peopled with unsympathetic characters.
But Justin Cartwright’s ‘Other People’s Money’ is a stunningly good read. A romp and a comedy, a thriller and a thoughtful piece for our times on the ramifications of the unseemly scrap for easy money.
In the balance are the future and fortunes of a long-standing family-run bank, creaking under the weight of its hedge fund losses. And, at the other end of the world (in Cornwall) are others seizing their last chances for glory.
Julian Trevelyan-Tubal is trying to cover up his bank’s losses. He has to find several hundred million in a hurry. Julian may be aware that he is already morally bankrupt. That it is only by wrestling back the Matisse from a loyal employee, selling the yacht under the nose of his dying father, and using his clients’ money in dubious ways one last time, he may just pull it off.
He is aware that he is becoming as single-minded and unlovable as his father.
And there are other good characters who stand to lose if everything fails. Artair MacCleod, playwright and actor-manager, now mounting productions of Thomas the Tank Engine ‘for the little, obese, pig-faced kiddies of Cornwall’, is the story’s touchstone – the ancient playwright who has never lost sight of the beauty and relevance of art.
And the ancient editor of the Cornish Globe and Mail, his Fleet Street days long behind him, like an old retriever, he sniffs on the air one last chase, even if his facts are faulty and his motivations flawed.
It’s a chase to the finish, will the lovable or the ludicrous get to the finish line first? And will anyone still have their morals intact?
Inheritance by Nicholas Shakespeare (£7.99)
Publishing pen-pusher, Andy Larkham is late for everything. In a life where nothing is going right he even embarrassingly stumbles even into the wrong funeral. But this leads to a reversal of fortune – and enormous and sudden wealth?
To unexpectedly come into another man’s money, someone like Andy Larkham might be expected simply to go with the flow, spend it on a hideous nouveau riche flat, exotic holidays, showering his friends with gifts that only make them feel in adequate.
But the prospect of money (a vast fortune) undeserved sits uneasily with our hero. In particular he worries why his mysterious benefactor who should have had everything, died alone. He is motivated to explore - is the money is tainted? Instead, he discovers not a person who exploited others, but an injustice that Larkham feels compelled to try to put right and a truth and a personal history that couldn’t be more different from what he expected.
A wise, funny and moving tale of an unexplained inheritance and its consequences.
A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness (£12.99)
One of my ‘best reads’ of the year, but not one I find myself recommending very often. Not because it isn’t beautifully written. Not because it isn’t a great story. Not because it doesn’t have the makings of an absolute classic in your hands.
But because everyone I know who has read it has cried bucketloads.
It’s a wonderfully touching story of love and dealing with loss. Conor’s mother has been undergoing treatment for cancer, which has been going on so long 13-year-old Conor is used to putting himself to bed, making his own lunch, taking responsibility for getting all his homework done. But everyone at school knows he is the boy whose mother is going to die. And everyone treats him differently because of it.
Conor has another secret, but this time it’s one that not everyone knows. He has a terrifying monster who visits him regularly. But as Conor tells the monster that a monster that looks like a tree is really the least of his problems.
As his situation becomes increasingly desperate it is to the terrifying monster he turns for answers.
The craftsmanship of the storytelling draws you right up to the edge with Conor, desperately wanting someone to come in and take away his pain. His loneliness. His terror.
Written for children, Patrick Ness completed the story from an original idea from the brilliant writer Siobhan Dowd, who died of breast cancer at the age of 47 before completing her fifth novel. It has deservedly been snowballing prizes and nominations for top children's book awards, including for the illustrations by Jim Kay – a children's illustrator and was previously Assistant Curator for the Illustrations Collection at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew.
It’s such a beautiful and powerful and poignant story and is really, really worth a read. Just have tissues handy. Have several. This one should come with an emotional health warning.
Small Change for Stuart by Lissa Evans (£10.99)
There is nothing like a really quirky mystery when you are looking for some fun bedtime reading with your children.
The opening of a mysterious money box and a cache of old threepenny bits is the start of a magical adventure for Stuart Horten (10, but looks younger).
Stuart has just moved to a new town with his crossword-puzzle-compiler father, and busy working mother and longs for his old friends. What he has is next door’s nosy triplet girls (April, May and June – tall with glittery hairclips and a love of investigative journalism), who quiz him about everything and dog his every step.
What Stuart doesn’t know is that he is on the brink of solving a mystery that has been covered up for years. He is soon on the trail of a mysterious ancestor and an even stranger mythical magic workshop and must work through a series of puzzles and clues – to find the truth, and of course, discover the workshop before the baddie gets there first.
Lovely illustrations – great cover. The compact gift format of this book is part of its delight. I could not have been more pleased when this was on the Costa shortlist of the children’s book of the year as I thought something that such good clean, nostalgic fun would surely get overlooked for all the big prizes.
Old fashioned storytelling at its very best.