Holiday Book Bonanza ’09:
The UK Book Bloggers, Part I
By Kirsty McHugh, OUP UK
It has become a holiday tradition on the OUPblog to ask our favourite people about their favourite books. This year we asked authors to participate (OUP authors and non-OUP authors). For the next two weeks we will be posting their responses which reflect a wide variety of tastes and interests, in fiction, non-fiction and children’s books. Check back daily for new books to add to your 2010 reading lists. If that isn’t enough to keep you busy next year check out all the great books we have discovered during past holiday seasons: 2006, 2007, 2008 (US), and 2008 (UK).
As well as authors, though, I’ve been asking some of my favourite UK book bloggers for their picks of the year. Below is the first crop, and check back tomorrow for more.
Jackie Hixon, one of the bloggers from the collective blog Vulpes Libris:
It may seem odd to say that one of the best things I read this year was a philosophy book about a dog. Instead of a toga-ed ancient, the catalyst for deep thoughts was a mixed-husky puppy named Ari. In Adventures With Ari, author Kathryn Miles spends a year trying to look at life from a dog’s point of view. This isn’t a tale of sugary cutesiness, rather an attempt to capture a more Zen-like existence. Miles calls Ari a “canine naturalist”, helping her to become closer to nature, though she and her husband already live quite a green lifestyle in a woodsy Maine location and teach at a nearby college. Leavened with literary quotes, scientific fun facts and dog training tips, it offers a well-rounded memoir a cut above the usual collection of anecdotes.
Not only does Ari turn a sharp focus on the beauty and harshness of nature, but also elements of Life such as friendship, grief and family dynamics. The author learns to live more “in the moment” and gains a new maturity in dealing with experiences, sometimes difficult ones. This understanding is laced with the humor an exuberant puppy brings to household, yet it never reaches the sappy manipulation that other dog tales often fall into. The reader is left with a raised level of insight into one’s own responses to dogs, nature and Life itself.
Lisa Glass, from Vulpes Libris:
Just occasionally I discover a new ‘voice’ in fiction that lingers in my mind for months afterwards. The voice of Denny in Trevor Byrne’s Ghosts and Lightning is one such haunting voice. After the unexpected death of his mother, Denny returns to Dublin where he reconnects with old pals and acquaintances and tries to figure out what he wants from life. The entire novel is narrated by Denny in a strong Dublin dialect peppered with colourful profanities and there is a backdrop of petty crime, youthful hijinks, Irish folklore and local history. Another factor that might account for my love of this book is that I have never before found a novel that so perfectly depicts my own experiences of adolescence within an economically-deprived council estate setting. Funny, poetic and wince-inducing, Ghosts and Lightning hits just the right notes and is therefore my book of 2009.
Moira Briggs, from Vulpes Libris:
I have to admit that I don’t read very many new books, so it’s quite an event when I do. Two I read this year had a major impact on me though. One is Emma Darwin’s A Secret Alchemy in which she bravely entered the choppy waters of the never-ending Richard III ‘did-he-or-didn’t-he?’ controversy from a unusual angle – that of the pro-Ricardians’ favourite hiss-boo villains, Elizabeth Woodville and her brother Anthony, 2nd Earl Rivers. She doesn’t offer any startling new theories about the fate of the Princes, but in the frequently over-heated world of the Ricardian debate , this thoughtful and elegiac book was a breath of fresh air.
My second choice is a very different creature – Jane Prowse’s wonderful debut YA novel Hattori Hachi – Revenge of Praying Mantis. It’s a real roller-coaster of a book that sucks you straight into the beguiling parallel universe that Hattie and her family and friends inhabit in the depths of solidly unglamorous Camden Town. Hattie and her mother are the last in a long line of renowned ninjutsu warriors (yes, really) and when her mother goes missing only Hattie, with her dormant ninja skills, can rescue her. It’s great stuff, with a real heart … and it’s not just for young adults.
Kim blogs about books at Reading Matters:
I’ve read so many wonderful books this year it’s difficult to choose one particular title that stands out, so I’ve cheated and chosen two. Both, by happy coincidence, are set in my homeland, Australia, and published by Penguin Modern Classics.
The first, The Shiralee by D’Arcy Niland, is set during the Great Depression and follows a swagman (an itinerant labourer), who travels the highways and byways of rural NSW in search of work. He’s accompanied by his four-year-old daughter, whom he initially regards as his “shiralee”, a slang word for burden, but soon grows to love very much. As well as being a fast-paced adventure story, it’s a wonderful and very moving look at the relationship between fathers and daughters.
The second, The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea by Randolph Stow, is set in Western Australia during the Second World War. It’s told from the point-of-view of six-year-old Rob Coram who idolises his older cousin, Rick. But when Rick joins the Army, Rob feels his absence most keenly. Then, when Rob’s family is evacuated to the countryside (to escape the possibility of being bombed by the Japanese), his idyllic childhood comes to an abrupt end. This is a beautifully written coming-of-age story that spans 8 years and shows the devastating impact of a war on a family and community living on the other side of the world. I loved it so much, I read it twice.
Victoria Hoyle, from Eve’s Alexandria:
If I tell you my favourite book of 2009 I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed. If you’re like me you enjoy these ‘Best of the Year’ lists precisely for the delightfully random and obscure recommendations you find there. Your eyes pass over the obvious and pedestrian, the bestsellers, headline grabbers and prize winners. So, I appreciate that stating unequivocally and unashamedly that your favourite book of any given year is the Booker Prize winner errs on the side of boring. As if you haven’t been recommended it enough already! But I can’t help it if Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall is the best book I’ve read in 2009. Accusations of hyperbole be damned. It is the most devilishly clever, deliciously readable, and historically provocative of novels. I know you already know the synopsis – Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s divorce, the break with Rome – but if you haven’t read it, what you don’t know is the insight and new detail which Mantel has brought to this overly written and overly analysed period of England’s history. Her characterisation of Cromwell is challenging and utterly compelling, the dialogue is quick and clean and her scene-making is strikingly original. More than that though, Mantel has written a novel about a notoriously difficult man living in a brutal age with humanity, grace and a wry humour. In fact, never mind 2009, let me call it one of the best books of the last decade and be done.