"Miss Auras, The Red Book" by Sir John Lavery (1856-1941)
I got so close to my target of 52 books (1 book per week) last year, missing out by only one book! Each year I try to read some books from the 1001 Books to Read Before You Die list, last year was a pretty dismal effort, I only managed 8 books from that list.
I keep a notebook of the books I read, with the details of the title and author, a brief description of the book (so I remember what it's about), my comments and a rating out of five stars. I'm also on Goodreads. These were my standout, five star books from 2014:
The Bull from the Sea by Mary Renault (1962)
I read the first book, The King Must Die, in 2013 and loved it, and the sequel is just as good. It follows the adventures of the Greek king and legend Thesesus and covers his life after he escapes from the Labyrinth and becomes king of Attica.
A powerful and intensely readable book that explores the issues of race in America in a thought-provoking way. Ifemelu left her native Nigeria after highschool to study in America, where she experiences being "black" for the first time. Her teenage love, Obinze, hoped to join her, but in the post 9/11 security crackdown his visa is denied and he travels instead to England and works as an illegal immigrant. Years later Ifemelu, now the successful author of a blog about race issues in America, decides to return to Nigeria and makes contact with her former lover, now a successful businessman in the newly democratic country. Adichie skillfully weaves together narratives from the past and the present without it ever becoming confusing, and Ifemelu is such a "real" character - flawed but strong and likeable.
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson (2013)
Born on a snowy night in 1910, baby Ursula dies soon after her birth, but is born again and this time survives until an accident as a small child kills her. She is born again... and so it goes on, each time dying, and in each next life avoiding that death. It's a sort of alternate reality, Sliding Doors idea, that a simple choice can have drastic repercussions in how one's life pans out. I adore Kate Atkinson's writing, and this was so readable and fascinating.
Sophie's Choice by William Styron (1976)
I put off reading this book for years as I knew it was about a woman in a concentration camp and it sounded rather harrowing and gloomy. When I finally started to read it, I was so surprised as it was very different from how I imagined it to be, and Stingo, the narrator, somewhat reminded me of Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye.
A huge tome of a book that was such a pleasure to read. A teenage boy secretly comes into possession of a small but very valuable painting of a goldfinch in distressing circumstances. He becomes obsessed with the painting, unable and unwilling to return it to it's rightful owners but consumed with guilt about having it, and this colours his whole life as he grows into an adult.
The Queen of Subtleties: A Novel of Anne Boleyn by Suzannah Dunn (2004)
Suzannah Dunn is one of those writers who really raises hackles among readers for her use of colloquial language in a historical setting. I usually dislike it too, but she is such a great writer and I find that it gives a sense of immediacy and closeness to the characters. Her take on Tudor fiction (which is really a rather overdone genre) is fresh and witty.
Brilliant and real and heartwrenching. Set in a Yorkshire mining town in the 1960s, Billy is a lonely teenager with nothing much going for him. School is a struggle and his home life isn't much better. The only bright thing in his life is a kestral hawk called Kes which Billy raises from a chick and looks after devotedly.
The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters (2014)
I've enjoyed all Sarah Waters' books immensely, and this was no exception. Set in London in 1922, Frances and her genteely-impoverished mother are obliged to take in lodgers to make ends meet. The Barbers, a young married couple upset the steady routine of the house with their brash ways. But Frances soon discovers that they are not as happily married as they had first seemed.
These two books (the first in a series of five) follow the lives of various members of the Cazalet family, who spend their holidays with their grandparents in a large country house in Sussex. The first book is set just before the second world war, and what I really like about Howard's writing is that she writes from multiple characters' viewpoints, so often you see a situation from several people's perspective, and see how they sometime have no idea what other members of the family really feel. She also perfectly captures the fears and preoccupations that children have. Immensely readable.
Other books that didn't get five stars but I rather enjoyed were:
The Women in Black by Madeleine St John (1993)
Follows the lives of four very different women who all work in the dress department of an upmarket Sydney department store in the 1950s.
Servants: A Downstairs History of Britain from the Nineteenth-Century to Modern Times by Lucy Lethbridge (2013)
Fascinating and well researched.
The Strays by Emily Bitto (2013)
Set in an artists' colony in 1930s Australia which has similarities to Heide Circle, and John and Sunday Reed.
The Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe (1958)
A bit of a pot boiler but I loved the detail of everyday life in 1950s New York in this book about 4 young women who become secretaries.
Golden Boys by Sonya Hartnett (2014)
Another Australian writer, Hartnett never fails to impress, and this tale of suburban life is dark and disturbing.
I also read my very first book in French, Ma Maman est en Amérique, Elle a Rencontré Buffalo Bill (My Mother is in America, She Met Buffalo Bill) by Jean Régnaud (2007). Granted, it's a comic book for children, but it does have quite a bit of dialogue.