As the last hours of 2015 draw to a close it is time to look back on my reading year and think about which books have astounded me and which, unfortunately, have disappointed. When I consider the year as a whole one thing that I do regret is how much valuable time I spend re-reading, but this is inevitable given that of the three book groups to which I belong I run two as well as a Summer School and all of them tend to rely on my recommendations. I do try and make sure that what we tackle are books that will not simply bear a re-read but actually benefit from it, but even so, it is time that could be given to new works and I’m afraid I do rather resent that.
Where I have read books for the first time they have by no means always been books published this year. So, best and worst of 2015 means best and worst in relation to what I’ve actually read rather than of what are new publications. Besides, even if they had all been 2015 publications, I am not deluded enough to think that I have any sort of grasp on the entirety of what the publishing world is producing. My ego isn’t that far developed!
So, let’s start with the worst and get them out of the way. The book that I read for the first time which disappointed the most was Laura Barnett’s The Versions of Us. I know that a great many of you loved this novel but it was one of the very few books this year that I gave up on. While I thought the conceit was really interesting I was simply bored rigid by the characters and honestly couldn’t have cared less what happened to them regardless of which reality they inhabited. I decided life was too short to spend time with them once, let alone three times, and sent it back to the library for someone in the long line of reservations who would appreciate it better than I could.
The re-read that didn’t live up to my expectations, much to my surprise, was Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time. When I first encountered this I was an impressionable teenager ready to swallow whole any arguments put forward that would exonerate Richard III. This time, coming to it with a rather more cynical eye, I was annoyed more than anything by Tey’s insistence that any rumour relating to Richard has to be explored thoroughly while accepting those about Henry VII without so much as a second thought. Heaven knows I am no apologist for Henry, but this lack of even-handedness really irritated me, especially as it was precisely what she was complaining about in respect of previous chroniclers of the period.
However, at least I could understand what these two writers were aiming to achieve. The prize for the most incomprehensible book of the year has been won hands down by Richard Flanagan’s Gould’s Book of Fish. This turned up on one of my book group lists and I have no more idea now than I did after reading it what Flanagan’s purpose was in writing as he did. I think the most appropriate way to describe how I got to the end would be to say that I gouged my way through it. I am clearly not clever enough to appreciate what I was assured was a very literary novel.
On then to happier experiences. I’ve read and enjoyed a lot of crime fiction this year but in general I wouldn’t say that any of the authors I read regularly have produced stunning novels. However, one series that is gaining power with each new book is Harry Bingham’s Fiona Griffiths sequence. The fourth book, This Thing of Darkness came out during the summer and it was one of those occasions when everything came to a halt until I had read it from cover to cover. However, if you haven’t yet encountered Fiona and her work out of the Cardiff Police Force then don’t start here. Go back to the beginning with Talking to the Dead, not simply because there are strands that you need to follow through the series but because all four books are excellent. Not unlike Sara Paretsky, Bingham is concerned with the way in which those with access to power are able to manipulate the law to their own ends. I live in hope that in the fifth novel, The Dead House, due next July, some of those smug so-and-sos will finally get their comeuppance.
Where more general fiction is concerned 2015 proved to be the year when I caught up with novels that others had been appreciating for, well in some cases, decades. Having admitted that I had never read To Kill A Mockingbird two of my book groups immediately scheduled it just so that I could finally be shown the error of my ways and I will happily admit to having loved it and being completely unable to understand why I had never picked it up before. But, perhaps surprisingly, I did not become an Atticus fan. I definitely had reservations where he was concerned. So I am going to be interested to see how I get on with Go Set A Watchman when we read it next summer. Maybe I won’t be as distressed by the way his character is portrayed there as so many other readers seem to have been.
My book of the year, however, with no possible competitors in sight, was Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. I read this three times in the course of a matter of months, once for each book club, and it grew in my estimation every time. I could eulogise about the novel yet again but this post is already too long and you can read what I had to say when I first encountered the book here. For me reading this was one of those rare experiences when I just wanted to enter into the world of the book and walk hand in hand with the characters for the rest of my life. I am certain that I haven’t read it for the last time and confident that I will never grow weary of it. If, this time next year, 2016 has provided a novel that comes anywhere near that it will have been a year worth waiting for.