Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Best Books of 2009

I read a total of 64 books this year which is a good number for me. I think I increased my speed after I started my book blog. I read many wonderful books and in fact, I confess that many of them were Persephone books (seventeen to be exact). Its really been a Persephone year and I suspect the next one will be the same. I really tried to have a wider range of books on this list so I thus limited the list to three Persephones and I didn't repeat any authors. Indeed, it wasn't easy to come up with a final list of the best ten of 2009 but here it is in no particular order. The top ten are....(drum roll)....


They Were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple
I discovered Dorothy Whipple this year and I read six of her books. If I could list most of them here, I would. They are all wonderful. However, I limited myself to only one Whipple for this list and my absolute favourite is still the first one I read which is They Were Sisters. The story follows the married lives of three sisters and though it's a domestic story it's a page-turner. I simply couldn't put it down.

 
The Age of Innocence of Edith Wharton
I can't believe it took me so long to read this book. A beautiful and devastating novel about love and loss set against the backdrop of old New York. Gorgeous and unforgettable.


The Shuttle by Frances Hodgson Burnett
This was my first FHB book having never read any of her children's novels. A thoroughly engrossing read. I was actually surprised to find out that the Persephone version I read was abridged. You can read my posts on that here and here.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
I loved this book although I wasn't quite sure at first. It got better by the second half at which point it was unputdownable. I think it makes you look at people quite differently because really nothing is what it seems. A dowdy, middle-aged, uneducated, aloof concierge in a Parisian apartment building who reads Tolstoy, listens to classical music, loves Dutch paintings and classic Japanese movies. Who would have thought there was a an intelligent mind lurking there? But of course, it took two quite special people to see it.


The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer
What an absolutely delightful read! I loved it! Loved every character in the book and all the stories they had to tell. You can read my more detailed review here.


The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
This might be the oddest book on a list like this but I had to put this in because I was completely riveted by this young adult novel from start to finish. I devoured it as I did the second book in the trilogy. I'm eagerly anticipating the third book which will be released in August 2010.


Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
I wish I had read this as a child or a young teenager. But it's also a joy to read now as a wife and mom. It contains a wealth of valuable life lessons for daughters, wives and mothers. It's a truly special book and I think it should be required reading for every young girl.


 Mariana by Monica Dickens
This is one of those Persephones that some people didn't enjoy but I thoroughly did. A very cozy, warm, enjoyable and satisfying novel about a young girl coming of age in England in the 1930's. Since it was written in the same period it gives an accurate picture of life in England at that time.



Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
Atwood is brilliant. I was completely blown away by this novel. An excellently constructed book about the devastating effects of genetic engineering with a love triangle thrown in. More here.

A Homemade Life by MollyWizenberg
Molly's food blog, Orangette was one of my inspirations to enter into the world of blogging. Molly writes wonderfully about food interspersed with stories about important events in her life and meeting her soul mate through her blog. She ends every chapter with a recipe. My own copy is filled with purple post-it notes of recipes I've tried or have yet to try. This book has been lying around my house for most of the year...in the kitchen, by the couch and even in the car. So in a way, I really identify this book with the year 2009.

So what do you think of my final list? Have you read any of these novels? This will be my last post for 2009 so I'll sign off for now. I wish you all a Happy New Year and I'll see you in 2010!

Books Read in 2009

1. The Enchanted April by Elizabeth Von Armin
2. Past Imperfect by Julian Fellowes
3. Jane and Prudence by Barbara Pym
4. The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West
5. The Victorian Chaise-Longue by Marghanita Laski
6. Into the Wilderness by Sara Donati
7. The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
8. My Antonia by Willa Cather
9. The Face of a Stranger by Anne Perry
10. American Wife by Curtis Sittenfield
11. The Lacquer Lady by F. Tennyson Jesse
12. The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
13. The Far Cry by Emma Smith
14. The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
15. The Girl Who Played With Fire by Stieg Larsson
16. Chess by Stefan Zweig
17. The Summer of Katya by Trevanian
18. The Gentlewomen by Laura Talbot
19. Mariana by Monica Dickens
20. The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson
21. Beware of Pity by Stefan Zweig
22. The Blank Wall by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding
23. They Were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple
24. They Knew Mr. Knight by Dorothy Whipple
25. The Shuttle by Frances Hodgson Burnett
26. Down River by John Hart
27. Because of the Lockwoods by Dorothy Whipple
28 The Sybyl in Her Grave by Sarah Caudwell
29. A Homemade Life by Molly Wizenberg
30. Family Roundabout by Richmal Crompton
31. The Priory by Dorothy Whipple
32.  The Spiritualist by Megan Chance
33. Someone at a Distance by Dorothy Whipple
34.  My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin
35. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society by Mary Ann Shaffer
36. The Greengage Summer by Rumer Godden
37.  The Expendable Man by Dorothy Hughes
38. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
39. Lady Rose and Mrs. Memmary  by Ruby Ferguson
40. A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray
41. Mudbound by Hilary Jordan
42.  Fidelity by Susan Glaspell
43. Hons and Rebels by Jessica Mitford
44. Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn
45. Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins
46. We Have Always Lived in a Castle by Shirley Jackson
47. The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness
48. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte
59. Sorcery and Cecelia or the Enchanted Chocolate Pot by Patricia Wrede
50. Nation by Terry Pratchett
51. The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher
52. Crown Duel by Sherwood Smith
53. Consequences by E.M.Delafield
54. Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger
55. The Pyramid by Henning Mankell
56. All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West
57. The Closed Door and Other Stories by Dorothy Whipple
58. The Yellow Paper by Charlotte Perkins Gillman
59. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley
60. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
61. Saplings by Noel Streatfield
62. Hetty Dorval by Ethel Wilson
63. The Queen of the Tambourine by Jane Gardam
64. Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Oryx and Crake


What if mankind as we know it was almost completely eliminated because of a virus that was created by humans? This is the theme Margaret Atwood explores in her Maddaddam Trilogy. Oryx and Crake is the first book in the series and it opens with a man named Snowman scavenging among what is obviously the leftovers of civilization. He may be the only human left alive and the world now abounds with genetically modified animals and subhumans. As Snowman explores what is left of mankind, we see his life unfold in a series of flashbacks as he recalls a time when his name was still Jimmy.

I confess that I actually picked up this book years ago when it was shortlisted for the Booker, and gave up after a few pages. I should have continued. It's a bit confusing at first and even disconcerting but the moment Crake, Jimmy's Machiavellian-like friend, was introduced in the narrative, I was hooked. Orxy then appears and then you are completely ensnared in this love triangle which is also a futuristic and ultimately catastrophic story. 

I don't want to give away more of the plot as it's best not to know too much if you plan to read it, but I honestly cannot gush about this book enough. Atwood is pure genius. I'm totally in awe of her. How come this woman hasn't won the Nobel Prize yet? Oryx and Crake is brilliantly constructed and written in excellent prose. It's a thought-provoking book and in fact, Atwood prefers the term speculative fiction rather than science fiction because through this novel she is actually contemplating about where our current world is headed based on the scientific trends such as genetic engineering. Atwood describes speculative fiction as "a slight twist on the society we have now." It's a very scary yet believable prospect and I do admit this book isn't for everyone because it's shocking and disturbing. However, I did enjoy it immensely and I'm so looking forward to part two of the trilogy that was just released this year, the Year of the Flood. Apparently you don't actually have to read the books in order.

It's amazing how much range Margaret Atwood has, because all her novels are different and unique. I  feel like rereading all her novels that I've read in the past. 2010 will definitely be the year I revisit and rediscover Atwood.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Happy Holidays!


I just wanted to wish all of you dear readers, a Merry, Merry Christmas! Thank you for stopping by my blog and thanks for commenting or just reading what I have to say. Thank you to all of you who have book blogs of your own for inspiring me and giving me excellent book recommendations. May the new year bring us lots of joy and of course, more books! Happy Holidays!!!

*card from www.cafepress.com

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Saplings



Noel Streatfield is best known for her children's books, especially Ballet Shoes. Although Saplings (published by Persephone) is written for adults, it's a novel about children during war time. Its main theme is the importance of stability and routine in a child''s life.

The saplings referred to in the title are the four Wiltshire children who come from a happy and ordinary middle-class family but due to world war two, the parents and siblings are forced to spend time apart. The background of this novel is actually based on true events. In London and other major towns, many parents chose to evacuate their children to the countryside to keep them safe from the threat of bombing that was looming over the cities. The posters below are actual ones from that era.  


A September 1939 government poster urging women to register their children for evacuation (from the Persephone Post)



A propaganda poster  (from the Daily Mail website)

About 3.5 million children were evacuated from the cities and had to endure gas mask training, rationing and living with strangers. Many of them had traumatic experiences because of being separated from their families. 

Noel Streatfield worked as an air raid warden during the war and often made visits to London's southern areas to help organise the evacuation of families. She must have had close contact with children to have such an extremely realistic insight into their thoughts and feelings. Their confusion, anger and homesickness are very well portrayed. Although the Wiltshire children didn't have to endure living with strangers, they were still shuffled from their home, schools and relatives several times during the war. We see how they deal with the instability of their home lives and how the death of a parent throws their small world into further chaos.

What is actually surprising about this novel is that it was written in 1945 when the psychological effects of war on children hadn't yet been closely studied but Streatfield shows she is definitely in tune with her subject matter. According to Dr.Jeremy Holmes who wrote the afterword in the Persephone edition, "Streatfield's supreme gift was her ability to see the world from a child's perspective."

I didn't find this an easy read and actually started it a few months ago. I put it aside and read other novels and recently picked it up again. This is not a happy book but it's an interesting one nonetheless. Saplings isn't one of my favourite Persephones but it's still a very good one.

Have you read this book? What did you think of it?

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Another Persephone Surprise



Receiving a Persephone book is always a joy but imagine my surprise when I received my second one this week from my Virago Secret Santa, the lovely Danielle (noodlejet) from  Leaning Towards the Sun. I was surprised to receive a Persephone and one that's been on my wishlist for ages, the Making of a Marchioness by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Danielle also included a super cute penguin bookmark!




Isn't this such a lovely cover? Thank you so much Danielle! It's such a wonderful choice. And thanks again to Christina and Laura at Library Thing for hosting this wonderful gift exchange. Merry Christmas to all of you!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

A Little Reminder



It's now December 17th so I'd just like to remind everyone joining the Greengage Summer by Rumer Godden group read to post your reviews/thoughts during the first week of 2010 (January 4 to 10). Leave a link on my blog or at Bookheaper's site to your review and we'll compile everything at the end of that week.

For those of you who've just heard about this, there may still be time for you to participate. It's a pretty slim book at 222 pages so we hope more people can manage to join in. For more background on the book, check this post.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Little Women


I've just finished Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. What can I say about this book that hasn't already been said? I adored it and I wish I had read it as a child or a young teenager. But having said that, it's also a joy to read now as a wife and mom. It contains a wealth of valuable life lessons for girls, daughters, wives and mothers. It's a truly special book and I think it should be required reading for every young girl.

I saw the film a number of years ago and I loved it. I plan to see it again, so I thought I'd join the challenge hosted by C.B. James,  Read the Book, See the Movie (see post below) . This would be a wonderful choice for it. I'll keep this short for you'll be reading more about  Little Women in this blog in the coming year.

Have you read Little Women? If you haven't, it's never too late for it.

*Since many of you commented that you plan to read Little Women, I'm editing this post to add that you must read the unabridged version. This is the one with two parts.

Read the Book, See the Movie Challenge


I'm excited to join this challenge hosted by C.B. James, Read the Book, See the Movie. It sounds like a lot of fun. Its premise is simple -read a book, see a movie based on the book, include both in your review.

You don't have to write full reviews for both the movie and the book. There are no stringent rules. You can see films you've seen before or read a book again.

For how to join, check out C.B. James' blog here.
 
I'll probably join at the Saturday Movie Marathon level, four books and four movies. I haven't decided yet which ones they'll be. But one will definitely be Little Women.

Have you heard of this challenge? Are you participating and what books/movies have you chosen?

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Teaser Tuesdays


Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

Quote two or more sentences from the book you're currently reading:

Turkey, Afghanistan, Nepal, China - all this was done by Victorian women, Joan. There is no need for us to follow the intrepid trail again. It is the interior, spiritual trail that the new liberated woman has to work at now, and there is no need to go to the East for that. There are splendid meditation classes to be had in Woodlands Road.

The Queen of the Tambourine by Jane Gardam, page 19

A Persephone Surprise



Thank you so much Claire from Kiss a Cloud for your wonderful Persephone Christmas present! I was a bit worried that my package didn't have a card so I was wondering who my Santa was but luckily Claire dropped me a note yesterday to let me know.

My Persephone present is the New House by Lettice Cooper. It's a Persephone that was also published by Virago so this is a doubly special present for me and it's a complete surprise. It's a terrific choice Claire!

From Amazon:
"All that outwardly happens in The New House is over one long day a family move from a large imposing secluded house with beautiful gardens to a small one overlooking a housing estate. But all the characters and their relationships with each other are so lovingly portrayed that one cares passionately what happens even to the unpleasant ones. "


(endpaper of the New House)

I'm so looking forward to reading this. Thank you so much Secret Santa and thank you to Stacy at  Psmith for organising everything.

My giftee was Sarah, at What We Have Here is a Failure to Communicate. You can check out my gift to her at her blog.

Did you participate? What did you receive from your Persephone Secret Santa?

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie



I mentioned in a previous post that I was reading The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, the wonderful debut novel by Canadian author, Alan Bradley. Thanks Kyusi reader for recommending it. It's a delightful little book though it did drag a bit towards the end. Although the first half of the book was more enjoyable, I still think it's a fun read mostly because of its quirky and precocious 11-year-old protagonist, Flavia de Luce. She's a mix of Harriet the Spy, Nancy Drew and Sherlock Holmes.

The setting is the English countryside in 1950. Flavia, a budding chemist, lives with her reclusive widowed father and two sisters in a crumbling country manor. She  sets out to solve a murder mystery after discovering a dead body in her garden and  a dead bird with a rare stamp impaled on its beak. What follows are red herrings, clues, chemistry experiments, poisons, bumbling villagers and interesting factoids about philately (the study of stamps). Though you can guess the murderer a mile away, all is forgiven because the book is so original. Bradley also uses a generous amount of similes and metaphors and from any other writer this would be considered quite weak or pretentious but he somehow makes it all work in a charming way.

I remembered a piece of sisterly advice, which Feely once gave Daffy and me:
"If ever you're accosted by a man," she'd said, "kick him in the Casanovas and run like blue blazes!"
Although it had sounded at the time like a useful bit of intelligence, the only problem was that I didn't know where the Casanovas were located.
I'd have to think of something else.

This is a very refreshing and enjoyable read and the good news is there's more Flavia de Luce mysteries to come. Have any of you read this and what did you think? Are you looking forward to the next one?

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Vote for Best Cover of 2009



Amazon is holding a Best Cover of the Year Competition. You can vote  here .

I was surprised at how many of the finalists were actually bad covers. In fact some of them were hideous. Is this all they could come up with?  I finally voted for the above, Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork. I thought this cover was the best of the bunch. It also sounds like a good read. From Amazon:

"Marcelo Sandoval hears music no one else can hear--part of the autism-like impairment no doctor has been able to identify--and he's always attended a special school where his differences have been protected. But the summer after his junior year, his father demands that Marcelo work in his law firm's mailroom in order to experience "the real world." There Marcelo meets Jasmine, his beautiful and surprising coworker, and Wendell, the son of another partner in the firm. He learns about competition and jealousy, anger and desire. But it's a picture he finds in a file--a picture of a girl with half a face..."

Doesn't that sound interesting? I'm surprised I've never heard of this book.

Which book cover are you voting for? Are there any other covers that caught your eye this year that are not included in the competition?

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Teaser Tuesdays



Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

Quote two or more sentences from the book you're currently reading:

 "That's bad; you ought to make a dive, and go visiting everywhere you are asked; then you'll have lots of friends, and pleasant places to go to. Never mind being bashful, it won't last long if you keep going."
Laurie turned red again, but wasn't offended at being accused of bashfulness; for there was so much good-will in Jo, it was impossible not to take her blunt speeches as kindly as they were meant.

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, page 77

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Recent Acquisitions




I bought four books this week. I hope these will be enough to sustain me during the holidays as I don't want to buy more this year. I've still got a cache of books I ordered from the internet on the way but it appears they won't get here till January...aargh!

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley - I'm currently reading this and loving it. Review to come soon.

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood - Its been years since I read an Atwood novel. I loved Alias, Grace and I also thought Cat's Eye and the Handmaid's Tale were brilliant. With many recent reviews of her latest novel, the Year of the Flood, I decided to purchase this which is supposedly the first part although it's not compulsory to read the books in order.

Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel - I'm now regretting this. I'm not sure I'm going to like it. It was an impulse buy because Mantel recently won the Booker prize. But on closer inspection and after checking it out on Amazon, it sounds like it's also a bit bizarre. A medium plagued by nasty spirits? Hmmm...any thoughts?

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott - This is beloved by many of you and I loved the film. I figure it's about time I read the book and it seemed like an appropriate choice for the season. I know there are abridged copies out there so I hope I got the right one. There seems to be two parts so I do think this Puffin edition includes Good Wives. I hope so!

So, what do you think? Have you read any of these books? And...what books have you bought lately?

Friday, December 4, 2009

The Yellow Wallpaper and My Other Viragos



I've been ignoring my Viragos lately. I haven't read one for a while and I've been feeling guilty about it. About a year and a half ago I started collecting Virago Modern Classics. VMCs are books published in celebration of  frequently neglected women writers mostly from the early part of the twentieth century. I love the green-spined versions with beautiful cover art, most of which are now out of print. I currently own 62 Viragos which I acquired through bookmooch, through the wonderful Virago group at Library Thing and through the internet. They're not available where I live and I've had to rely on trips abroad to find them. Last summer, I drove Mr.B. nuts because I wanted to stop at every second hand bookstore in Amsterdam. But I must say, there is a certain thrill in finding these little green-spined books. And if you're wondering...no, I didn't purchase every Virago I saw. There are surprisingly a lot in Holland.

I'm ashamed to say though that of the Viragos I own, I've only read 15. There have been some duds among them but there have also been some marvelous discoveries. The ones that standout are The Tortoise and the Hare by Elizabeth Jenkins, Mary Lavelle by Kate O'Brien, A Woman of My Age by Nina Bawden, The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Armin, Good Behaviour by Molly Keane and All Passion Spent and No Signposts by the Sea by Vita Sackville-West.

I now have a new Virago to add to that list,  the Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. It's such a slim little novella at 37 pages that I finished it in one sitting. It's a powerful and chilling masterpiece about a woman forced into confinement in the upstairs nursery of an isolated house. The room has barred windows and yellow wallpaper with a maddening pattern. We see her slowly go insane from idleness and lack of mental stimulation. She spends her days staring at the yellow wallpaper which winds itself into her mind and slowly drives her insane.

"I believe and follow that pattern about by the hour. It is as good as gymnastics, I assure you. I start, we'll say, at the bottom, down in the corner over there where it has not been touched, and I determine for the thousandth time that I will follow that pointless pattern to some sort of a conclusion."

Highly recommended. A chilling portrait of a the helplessness of a woman trapped in a Victorian marriage.

Have you read this? What did you think? Do you like Virago Modern Classics and if so, which ones did you like best?

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Whipple Cures the Book Slump



'Wet Winter Evening and a Book Lover in Bloomsbury' from the Persephone Post

I had a book slump last weekend. Don't you hate having one of those? It doesn't matter that I have 99 books on my TBR pile. Yes, you read right. 99 books. (Thank god for Library Thing for helping me keep track).

I'm sure you know the feeling. I picked up several books at random and I quit after a few pages. Nothing seemed to satisfy me. I even picked up old favourites but soon abandoned them. Do you want to know what I really felt like reading? A Lord Peter Wimsey mystery by Dorothy Sayers. However, the few copies I own seem to have (Poof!) magically disappeared. Don't you hate it when that happens? I then glanced over my shelves and spied a Persephone book by Dorothy Whipple that I haven't read, The Closed Door and Other Stories. I've actually had this since May of this year. I've hesitated picking it up because it's a short story collection and I'm definitely not a fan of those. Well there was certainly no time like the present so I read one story on Monday, The Closed Door. Its 75 pages long and though it's not the best Whipple, it's still a Whipple and definitely worth reading if you're a fan.

The Closed Door is about a daughter who lives with her stifling and controlling parents and feels powerless to break free and live her own life. As always Dorothy's....oops I mean Whipple's writing is absorbing and so readable. I almost wrote Dorothy there because she surprisingly feels like an old friend. After reading a number of her books, her writing is so familiar that it's so easy to just sink right in.



There are a total of ten stories in the book and I'm controlling myself from reading the rest. I think I'll save them for when I have another reading slump. Whipple is clearly the best cure for them.

Have you ever had a book slump? Can you recommend a good book to cure it?

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Teaser Tuesdays



Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

Quote two sentences from the book you're currently reading:

Suddenly she felt a hand close over her own under the table. Her eyes flew wide; she almost exclaimed aloud. The hand was withdrawn, but in her palm she felt a small, flat object - a folded piece of paper; a note. 


The Closed Door and Other Stories by Dorothy Whipple, page 40.
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