Friday, 18 January 2013

Those I have Loved in 2012

The view from where I write
I don't remember a time when books weren't important to me. I grew up surrounded by them, they are the pivot of my life, the one constant unchanging thing. I have passed that love on to my children. I read What Katy Did when I was seven and, when it was finished, I put it down and picked up another. I have been doing that ever since. My library is vast, and still growing. I talk about books, dream about books, write books. Therefore I have taken Amazon's veto on authors reviewing the books of other authors quite hard. 

Every day I see the reviews I have written of other people's books being removed, and the reviews of authors who have reviewed mine are also disappearing. Well, we all know that Amazon are not to be questioned but I have no desire to stop reviewing. As an author I know that reader feedback is the most rewarding thing about writing. When a reader bothers to email me to say, 'I loved your book,' it makes my day.
I don't want to turn my blog into a review site, I like to keep it varied and interesting but I thought since 2013 is just beginning, there is still time to sum up my reading of 2012.

I have lost count of the number of books I read last year and the following selection is just a few of the very best, the ones I think should not be  missed. They are not all newly published, some have been around for years but I have only just got around to discovering them.

The books I am discussing here are the ones that touched me personally, books that I was sorry to finish, books I couldn’t wait to tell my friends about, books that resounded in my mind long after I had turned the last page, book I will want to read again. I thought I would share them with you. And, rest assured, my reviews contain no 'spoilers.'

VIII -  H. M. Castor

When I picked this book up it was listed as ‘young adult’ and I almost passed it by but, by the time I was two or three pages in I was hooked. Ms Castor presents an insightful, unique (first person/present tense) view of Henry VIII. In fact it is more like a Henry ‘experience’ than reading a story. I 'became' Henry in this book, and witnessed his growth (or perhaps decline would be a better word) from a frightened little boy into a disappointed man on a downward spiral into mania. Ms Castor emphasised Henry's irrationality and, as his fevered paranoia and fear increased, so did the pace of the writing. I loved how, in the last chapters, he dipped in and out of reality in a thoroughly convincing depiction of the shifting perceptions of the clinically insane. The author has penetrated Henry’s psyche, looking at events from his point of view from early childhood to death.
An excellent read and highly recommended.

Of Honest Fame -  M. M. Bennetts

I downloaded this while it was on free promotion and consequently lost the next two days while I wallowed in the Georgian world created by M. M. Bennetts. The author’s vast knowledge of the era never becomes a history lesson. Instead the authorial skill allows you to share the harrowing events with the characters. This book will rob you of sleep until you know the outcome. I suspect that many foolishly pass the little gem by because the treasure within is a little let down by the cover – My advice is Don’t Miss This!

May 1812 - M. M. Bennetts

Just like Of Honest Fame, this one is easy to over-look. M. M. Bennetts is not an in-your-face author, she does not constantly pester you with 'read my book' on-line marketing. It is of equal stature and quality to the above and once more cost me a few days during which I should have been working. If there was any justice in the world M. M. Bennetts would be topping the best sellers list. Both May 1812 and Of Honest Fame are a snip to download at under £2 and only a fool will pass them by. Superb; triumphant; marvellous.

The Last Summer - Judith Kinghorn

A wonderfully written, beautiful war time love story. I was totally absorbed by this book from page one and I didn't want to do anything else but revel in Judith Kinghorn's wonderful turn of phrase, her powerful description and her honesty. Ms Kinghorn has illustrated this transitional period perfectly and the forbidden relationship between Tom and Clarissa is depicted with all the pathos you could wish for. It is sometimes harsh, sometimes wonderful, and always totally credible. If you crave escape then this is it. Perfect holiday companion. Beautifully done.

The Bones of Avalon - Phil Rickman

I’d not read any Phil Rickman books so the supernatural element took me a little by surprise. The thing that prompted me to buy it was the era (1560’s) and the main protagonist, Elizabeth I’s astronomer, Dr Dee. It was refreshing to step outside strict historical fiction and enter a more mystical place and I loved it. The days that I discover a new author are always the best sort.
It was delightfully refreshing to find Robert Dudley illustrated, not as a broad shouldered, devil-may-care, wife-killing braggart, but as an ordinary man, torn, confused, afflicted with sickness and, throughout it all, a stalwart friend to Dr Dee and loyal to his queen.
I am not a believer in the supernatural but Mr Rickman had me doubting my own sound good sense. An undercurrent of human evil runs through this book, illustrating mankind's capacity to destroy that which they don't understand as an evil far stronger than the supernatural. Although the author never infers that supernatural power truly exists, The Bones of Avalon is unsettling; it has you looking over your shoulder. It is a book to read with the doors and windows locked.

Star Gazing - Linda Gillard

Marianne Fraser has been blind since birth, was widowed young and is now facing a lonely future. Mariane is emotionally isolated. She lives with her sister, Louisa, a successful novelist although she longs for more independence. When Marianne meets Keir, she is delighted to have found someone unembarrassed by her condition. As the relationship develops he encourages her to experience new things. But when he invites her to visit to his home on Skye so that he can show her the stars Louisa is uneasy for her sister, believing it might be a step too far.

I recommend all Ms Gillard's novels but Star Gazing is my favourite. If you like well-rounded believable characters, vivid panoramic settings, deep insight into the human psyche and the sort of love affair that gives us all hope, then you will love this.
It is not often that I find a novel that totally satisfies me, there is usually some nit picking to be done, but this one, I have to say is quite ...perfect.

Emotional Geology - Linda Gillard

Haunted by her troubled past, Rose Leonard seeks refuge on a Hebridean Island where she can work and think, untroubled by the stresses and strains of the modern world. She finds however that no matter how far you run you cannot escape life. The healing does not start until she discovers friendship with a local man, a poet who also bears life's scars, and helps him to heal too.

Emotional Geology is a romance for grown-ups. It encompasses not just love, but the landscape we move in, the complexities of human emotion and the essence of art. Linda Gillard's ability to penetrate the human psyche is faultless and that understanding makes it impossible for readers not to share the trauma's of her characters. You will not just read this book, you will experience it.

The Crimson Petal and the White – Michel Faber

Don’t read this book if you are offended by disagreeable truths. It contains explicit, unpleasant sexual content and is not for the faint hearted. It is a stark view of Victorian London– a stark-naked view that is very different to the image that Victorian London wished to project. The author rips away the pretty drapes and shows us, not just the legs of the table but the filth that lies hidden beneath.
The narrator takes the reader by the hand and leads you through dark alleyways to the places where only the destitute or the criminal live. Here you become so involved in the lives of the people you meet that you will be implicit in the crimes witnessed.
This is not a pretty story of simpering Victorian girls who lift their petticoats for a penny; it is an honest, unflinching, often brutal perspective of the darker side of human nature. As others have said before me, Faber takes his reader to the places that Dickens and Wilkie Collins could only hint at.
Every character is superbly drawn, warts and all, twisted, tortured, selfish and very, uncomfortably human. You will meet rich punters and the poorest of working girls and they are so convincing that you might think you have met them somewhere before.

Sugar is not a stereotypical 'tart with a heart', she is an enigma, from her curious skin condition to her traumatised mind. One minute you will think she loves William, the next that she despises him and this keeps the reader hanging, on the edge of his seat, wondering what jaw dropping surprise she will reveal next.
Is she a champion of women or an anti-heroine? As a prostitute she is an object for the use of all men but she only really loses control of her own destiny when she ties herself to just one man – William Rackham; then her choices are taken out of her hands.
Sugar takes all her frustration and contempt for men and pours it into a hastily scrawled novel that is so overflowing with hatred, disgust and perversion that she knows she can never allow the world to see it, for they wouldn’t care to look.
Whether you want to or not, when reading this novel you will require all your senses. You will smell the shit, feel the cold; taste the hunger, hear the weeping of the destitute and scream with them, frustrated by the ignorance.
You will share the degradation that women like Sugar were subjected to and try as you might you will not be able to comprehend why so many prostitutes clung to their way of life. It is not possible for us to understand why they considered work in the factories to be so much worse. The choice was between a fast, gay life of sin and an early grave, or a life of drudgery and hunger that would end just as prematurely. For some women, things are not so different today.
Victorian London tried to conceal its darker nature beneath a fa├žade of respectability just as Agnes Rackham’s delicate beauty conceals a voracious tumour that is eating away at her brain. Sugar’s sexual allure conceals a deep, twisting loathing for the male species and everyone else is hiding something, pretending to be what they are not. Just as the broad leafy streets of the rich are a veneer on the crumbling tenements of the poor, so do the human residents of nineteenth century Notting Hill project a decent Christian face as they button their expensive waistcoats very tightly over soiled undergarments.

It is not exaggerating to say that Mr Faber takes all this ugliness and wraps it in the most beautiful prose I have ever read, and I have read many books. This novel is one to keep. It rests easily among the greatest novels of all time and will, without doubt, come to be a classic. The Crimson Petal and the White is not just a story, it is something real and that is why it makes such uncomfortable reading.

Wolf Hall – Hilary Mantel

Foolishly I was swayed by the mixed reviews of this book and the high price for a Kindle download. Consequently I have only recently picked it up. Despite winning the Man Booker Prize in 2009 some readers have complained about her grammar, structure, others have found it boring and ponderous. Yes, Mantel’s punctuation is traditional and her writing style unique but what some people see as ‘rubbish’, to me smacks of genius. It is not a quick fix Dan Brown style book that so many readers seem to demand these days, it is a feast to be savoured. Her knowledge and intelligence stand out a mile and it was soon clear to me that I was in the hands of a master. I am about half way through the journey and so far I am loving every moment. I would say Wolf Hall promises to be ‘Simply Superb.’

Judith Arnopp is the author of Peaceweaver, The Forest Dwellers, The Song of Heledd, The Winchester Goose and Dear Henry: Confessions of the Queens - all available in paperback or on Amazon Kindle.

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