Top 10 Books Of The Year 2019 – The Top 5

Right, let’s crack on with this.  Here is the rest of the countdown.

5. The Meaning Of Night – Michael Cox (2006) (Read and reviewed in July)

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Amazingly the only book I re-read this year, just a couple of years ago I had read enough re-reads to give them their own separate Top 10 but I cannot ignore this book and so my Book Of The Year from 2007 makes it into the Top 5 for this year.  It is a strange one, I read it and totally love it but after I finished it the events in the novel seem to rapidly fade from my memory and I struggle to remember what it was about even when I can remember books I enjoyed much less in greater detail.  This has happened twice which makes me think there is some kind of ethereal quality to this which causes it to dissipate once finished.  It’s a great Victorian revenge novel and I said of it “On completion the feeling was of total satisfaction for a high quality reading experience. This novel does seem to have faded from public consciousness but I can’t help feeling that a sensitive tv or film adaptation could bring it back to the top of bestsellers lists.” Maybe that will happen in 2020.

4. Shadowplay – Joseph O’Connor (Harvill Secker 2019) (Read in December not yet reviewed)

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I highlighted this in my earlier 2019- What I Should Have Read post and managed to squeeze it in before the end of the year.  A full review of this will follow but this is a splendid historical novel, shortlisted for Best Novel at the Costas, with Bram Stoker, the creator of Dracula the main character and here part of a long-lasting love triangle with actress Ellen Terry and actor and theatre impresario Sir Henry Irving.

3. Sanditon – Jane Austen and Another Lady (Corgi 1975) (Read and reviewed in December)

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I can’t say I’ve ever been tempted to read a novel which has been finished by someone else after the original author had died before completion, particularly one that was completed 150 years later.  This was all changed by the ITV adaptation which was one of this year’s television highlights as far as I was concerned and a recommendation from my friend and colleague Louise who felt I should read how it should have ended (well how “another lady” wanted it to end anyway).  I always thought the joins between the two authors would be obvious but I thought this was done seamlessly and ended up enjoying this more than when I re-read “Pride And Prejudice” a couple of years back.

2. Little – Edward Carey (Gallic 2018) (Read and Reviewed in June)

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Another splendid historical novel with that added bit of quirkiness which I so often find appealing.  This is a fictionalised account of the early life of Madame Tussaud.  Punctuated throughout with little pencil drawings which adds much to the experience.  I said of this “Through a first-person narrative Carey has created an enthralling character I will probably remember forever.  Written with gusto and an eccentric energy “Little” will not be beaten down however bad circumstances get.  There’s a naivety and optimism which fuels this novel- she is certainly no “Little Nell” yet the skill of storytelling here will suggest comparisons to Charles Dickens.”

1.Swan Song – Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott (Hutchinson 2018) (Read and reviewed in April)

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This sublime account of the later years of Truman Capote and an act of literary betrayal towards his friends was always going to be in with a strong shot of being at the summit this year.  Debut author Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott’s position was further cemented when I went to see her talk about this book at this year’s Isle Of Wight Literary Festival following its publication in paperback.  I said of it “I was hooked from the moment I saw printed on the back cover; “They told him everything.  He told everybody else.”  It is a novel fuelled by gossip which makes it sound tacky but it is so beautifully written and every word seems considered and measured.”  I can’t remember ever falling for a book written in the third person (by a chorus of the betrayed women) but here it worked just brilliantly.

So Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott joins my Hall Of Fame for producing the book which has given me the most pleasure this year.  She becomes the first American author to do since 2014.   Here is my list of my favourite books going back to 2008.

2019 – Swan Song – Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott (2018) (USA)

2018- The Count Of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas (1845) (France)

2017 – The Heart’s Invisible Furies – John Boyne (2017) (Ireland)

2016- Joe Speedboat – Tommy Wieringa (2016) (Netherlands)

2015- Alone In Berlin- Hans Fallada (2009 translation of a 1947 novel) (Germany)

2014- The Wanderers – Richard Price (1974) (USA)

2013- The Secrets Of The Chess Machine – Robert Lohr (2007) (Germany)

2012 – The Book Of Human Skin – Michelle Lovric (2010) (UK)

2011 – The Help- Kathryn Stockett (2009) (USA)

2010- The Disco Files 1973-78 – Vince Aletti (1998) (USA)

2009- Tokyo – Mo Hayder (2004) (UK)

2008- The Book Thief – Markus Zusak (2007) (Australia)

Happy New Year and let’s hope there’s lots of great reading in 2020!

Sanditon – Jane Austen & Another Lady (1975)

 

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I thoroughly enjoyed the recent Andrew Davies adaptation for ITV and was fascinated to find out more about what was actually just a fragment of a novel.  Jane Austen probably intended it to be her seventh novel beginning it in early 1817 and of which the first approximately 26,000 words survive.  Midway through Chapter 11 she became unable to continue due to ill- health and passed away in July of that year.  It took until 1925 for the unfinished work to be published for the first time.  It is this fragment which Andrew Davies chose to finish for television, in his style.  He was not the first to do this.

No further plot outlines or developments were left but in the mid 1970’s the anonymous “another lady” who was “an established author in her own right” had a go at completing the work and has done a remarkably good job.  This “lady” was later revealed to be Marie Dobbs, an Australian-born author who lived and worked in many countries yet gained most fame for her version of the small, minutely observed world of Jane Austen and her creation of the seaside town of Sanditon.  There have been other continuations since, the most recent being the 2019 novelisation of the TV series by Kate Riordan, but this first version is for me thoroughly satisfactory.

Charlotte Heywood is spared by her family to spend the summer at the developing seaside settlement.  (Austen based it on Sidmouth but placed it geographically near Peacehaven) under the care of the Parker family led by Tom, a keen supporter of and investor in the town.  Here she meets the somewhat fierce Lady Denham (played brilliantly by Anne Reid in the TV version) living with her favoured relation Clara Brereton, whose presence threatens the inheritance of two other of Lady D’s kin, Sir Edward Denham and his sister Lucy.  Other visitors to the town include the heiress Miss Lambe, from a West Indian family and the rest of Tom Parker’s brothers and sisters, a bunch of hypochondriacs apart from the dashing Sidney who Austen had most likely earmarked for the hero and eventual love interest for Charlotte.

From here the TV adaptation went for Sidney emerging naked from the sea (not too many complaints with Theo James in the role), another working class man interested in Charlotte, a furtive relationship between Miss Lambe and her beau (complicated further with her being Sidney’s ward) and an odd relationship with the younger Denhams which looked incestuous but wasn’t.  “Another Lady” went for much gentler fare- a trip to a neighbouring seaside town and a Ball but there is much talk of elopement and a probable upping of Austen’s original plan in the drama stakes with a little more forthright flirting than we might have anticipated and an abduction which actually happens rather than being reported which was how Austen sometimes dealt with her more dramatic twists.  But having said this, I for one thought it was continued seamlessly and couldn’t see any joins (some of the later continuations dispense with Austen’s opening altogether) and I actually enjoyed myself more than I did when I last re-read “Pride And Prejudice” which may surely have Austen fans clutching at their corsages in horror but I totally relished this joint effort and it is one of this years’ reading highlights which I never would have discovered without ITV taking a chance on it.

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This continuation of Sanditon was first published in 1975.  I read the 1976 Corgi paperback edition.

Being Elizabeth Bennet – Emma Campbell Webster (2007) – A Female Fiction From A Male Point Of View Review

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Sometimes a book idea seems so odd you just have to go with it.  I spotted this volume lurking, not totally appropriately, on the Historical shelves of my local library.  Needing a historical book for a square on my Book Bingo Card I pulled it out and discovered it was a “Create Your Own Jane Austen adventure”.  Having had a soft spot in the 8o’s for those Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone “Fighting Fantasy” books and others of the choose your own adventure ilk, I thought I’d give it a go.

The plot follows, with some digressions of incidents from other novels, “Pride and Prejudice”.  (Unsurprising, given the title).  You  are given 200 Intelligence and Confidence points, 50 Fortune points and no Accomplishments nor Connections and sent off in a non-consecutive way to skip backwards and forwards through the book with the aim of snaring Mr Darcy.  A stickler for rules, I played just as Webster intended and had very soon slipped into a negative fortune (why does that not surprise me?)  I had a limited number of accomplishments and a lot of personal failings (rather like your average Jane Austen character then). Readers’ paths will deviate in the book through some random choices (“Will you go left or right?”) and by answers to quiz questions but these choices are not as frequent as I was expecting, suggesting that the structure is not as complex as some of those old “Fighting Fantasy” titles.  You will not need any dice but there is a lot of adding and subtracting points over which the reader has no control or influence.

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What would Elizabeth Bennet do?

I stuck with it by thinking “What would Elizabeth Bennet do?” and this fair-enough strategy worked up to a point and I felt I was working through the book successfully and that Mr Darcy would fall for my charms! I’d got to Stage 3 and admittedly the novelty was wearing off, somewhat, and I was getting a little, dare I say it, bored with the lack of variety in the game play.  Introducing sub-plots taken from incidents in the other novels or Jane Austen’s life are sent to trip the reader up  and in Stage 3 I rather randomly ground to a halt after an evening at Hartfield Hall.when my carriage crushed poor old Mr Elton, from “Emma” to death

I felt somewhat cheated as I thought I had been playing an exemplary game and carried on reading the book only to face death myself in Stage 4, before managing to get Mr Darcy up the aisle in Stage 5.

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Goal reached!

It is an interesting concept (perhaps one that has been superceded in strangeness by linking Jane Austen with zombies) but it is overlong and it would probably be more likely to be sit on an Austen fan’s shelf rather than devoured in full.  It’s quite a fun bit of nonsense and kept me occupied for a day or so.  Its tongue is firmly in cheek which will endear it to some and irritate others.  It might be more of a book bought as a gimmicky gift for a Jane Austen fan than one chosen by the fan herself.

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Being Elizabeth Bennet was published by Atlantic in 2007

Pride And Prejudice – Jane Austen (1813) – A Female Fiction From A Male Point Of View Review

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And here we have the original blueprint for many a chick lit novel. Girl meets man, girl doesn’t like man, girl is not sure if man likes her, man makes his attentions known and is rebuffed, girl decides she does like man after all and has to wait for the catalyst which brings girl and man together. Along the way, family and friends both help and hinder the eventual outcome. Sounds simple, yet when carried out with the subtlety, wit and craftsmanship of Jane Austen the whole thing reaches another level.

I re-read this to see if it was my favourite Austen novel. It isn’t. That is still “Emma” (I think although I may have to re-read this soon to confirm this). There the vivacity and machinations of the main character raise it up to a slightly higher plain. I am also a great fan of the “Gothic” influenced “Northanger Abbey”, her first novel (but only published posthumously) one of the greatest expositions on the power of books (especially on an impressionable mind). I recently had another go at “Mansfield Park”, which I felt like I virtually knew off by heart when I was at college, where I read it of necessity and found it all rather solid and indigestible. I did think age and experience would mellow my opinion but it still lacks the sparkle of her best. I think it’s because of Fanny Price, probably literature’s most passive character and the less than captivating love interest, Edward. “Persuasion” and “Sense And Sensibility” were read too long ago for me to carry out any comparison but I think they might not challenge the big three of which “Pride & Prejudice” is one.

It’s hard not to recall the BBC series when reading this and picturing Colin Firth as Darcy (I know quite a few of my readers would like to now picture Colin Firth) and Alison Steadman superb as the silly Mrs Bennet but I did feel that the Darcy in the novel does not have quite the presence that later visual interpretations have given him. (Controversial point) but Mrs Bennet is just as silly, daughter Elizabeth just as likeable and the sense of propriety just as important.

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This novel probably has the greatest range of memorable characters, the pompous Mr Collins, who first makes a play for Elizabeth; her too laid-back father; the scheming Miss Bingley; the other sisters, especially the too ready to grow up youngest, Lydia and the pretty ghastly Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Unlike the best of Dickens or the Brontes, I do not find myself hanging onto every word of the novel and my concentration does have the tendency to dip in and out, but when it’s good it is very good indeed. From Lydia’s disappearance onwards it does become more consistently engaging.  For me this is a book I am very happy to have sitting on my shelves, until the next time I decide to give it another go, but it just misses out on being an all-time favourite.

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