It’s that time of year again, time to count the top ten books of the year. I’ve read around 100 books this year and I enjoyed most of them but the best books shone brightly, making it an easy choice.
If you want to see if you’ve read what I’ve read, here’s the list.
I’ve also been naughty and bought too many books and here’s that list.
In at 10
The Belly of Paris - Emile Zola
I wrote about The Belly of Paris here. I’ve read quite a few French books over the year, many of them were depressing and money-obsessed, though very engrossing reads. (As an aside, my big take away from Les Miserables is that it’s not about misery but about hope. It’s also let down by sheer size, the great parts get swallowed up by all the other parts, good or not).
The Belly of Paris contained some elements of joy, a sheer ebullience of detail, a frothing cornucopia of food that ferments as the book continues. The first chapter, in Les Halles Market, with the dew soaked fruit and vegetables piled up in the early morning gloom is beautifully evocative and the last line is a wonderfully sardonic joke.
At number 9
Hermsprong - Robert Bage
I shall shortly review this book. As a spoiler, it’s far more entertaining than it suggested itself to be, a sitcom more than a satire. The character of Hermsprong himself might be a bit dull but his impact on those around him is very funny.
I’m The King of the Castle - Susan Hill
I’ve read two Susan Hill books before, The Woman in Black and The Small Hand, both of them ghost stories. I’m the King of the Castle is far more haunting.
The Hoopers, father and son, live in a gloomy house in the country. Mr Hooper invites the widow, Mrs Kingshaw to be his housekeeper, though he’s hoping a relationship might come from it. She brings her son, the same age as Mr Hooper’s and they two single parents expect their sons will hit it off and become friends. That’s not exactly what happens.
Immediately, the strange and petulant Hooper send Kingshaw a note to inform him that he’s not welcome. He’s boastful and bullying, insisting on his mastery of the house over Kingshaw. When he discovers some of Kingshaw’s fears, he makes use of them, locking him in the room of dead insects and putting a stuffed crow in his bed. What’s impressive is that although Kingshaw is scared, and he grows to be very scared of Hooper, he fights back occasionally but, more impressively, doesn’t.
Kingshaw decides to run away and goes into the deep wood, Hooper follows him. In the wood, the roles are reversed, Kingshaw finds himself far more competent than Hooper, he also finds himself braver. When a thunderstorm hits the wood, Hooper wets himself in fear, but soon after, he’s trying to assert himself again. It’s a brilliant depiction of a bully, Hooper is scared of many things but at the times he isn’t filled with fear, he is on the attack. Kingshaw shows that he is a better person, helping Hooper when he bashes his head when trying to fish. There was a point when I thought the rest of the book would take place in the wood and it would have been an interesting book if it had. However, I think it was a better book to save them from the wood and show how quick the status quo resumes.
There’s a chapter later in the book which actually takes place in the ruins of the castle. Again, it showed Kingshaw’s decency and the fear that drives Hooper’s actions.
The boy’s war of attrition is contrasted with the growing romance of the single parents. Their actions also show how little they actually observe their children and their decision to become a family is the final push into tragedy. A tragedy that Hooper responds with ‘a spurt of triumph’.
This book is a chilling look at the a bully/bullied relationship, the weakness that drives the bully and the helplessness of being bullied. Forget ghosts, the real chills come from the people.
Memoirs of the Formosan Fraud - George Psalmanazar
I found George Psalmanazar fascinating and I was so excited to hear him in his own words. I got more than I expected. Not only did I get to find out the strange and thrilling story of a man from France who pretends to be Taiwanese and, for a time, succeeds; I also got a wonderful account of what it was like being a hardworking denizen of Grub Street. It’s possibly the fullest account of that hack life that I’ve read and it was a great bonus.
The Chase - Louisa May Alcott
Little Women was my favourite book the year I read it but it was interesting to find out that Louisa May Alcott thought it boring. She was more into her racier novels and when asked to write one for serialisation she wrote A Long, Fatal Love Chase, which was deemed ‘too sensational’ for publication. My copy, published in 1995 is more simply (and less spoilery) titled The Chase.
Eighteen-Year-Old Rosamund Vivien declares that she’s sell her soul to Satan for a year of fun and then essentially does just that, becoming the bride of Phillip Tempest, a sexy man in his mid-thirties who arrives at her island home on a boat and in a storm. She’s swept away by him and they have a glorious year together before she starts seeing cracks in his facade (other than the fact he’s always boasting about how evil he is). Realising her marriage is a fake and her not-husband is a murderer she runs away and he chases her, ending in a grand climax which proves fatal - the spoiler was in the title, or indeed in the vision he tells her in the second chapter.
The fun in this book comes from the whole ‘dun-dun-dunnnnn!!’ level of goofy the book frequently provides. Our first overtly evil action of Phillip is in the one chapter which we spend away from Rosamund, where he murders a man with a heart condition by making his take extreme exercise and then making him go in a stuffy church. The pattern of the book is that Rosamund does something fairly Loony Tunes (like crossdress or hide in a basket) to escape Phillip and he does something equally Loony Tunes (like crossdress or bribe a priest) to find her again. When he suddenly turns up, it’s handled as a cliffhanger of a cheap soap, a moment of shock but also a moment of lust. It’s not directly in the text but there’s a dual ‘oh-no’ and ‘hubba-hubba’ element to his reappearances - at least for the first few. After a while the reaction becomes a little more ‘oh, you again’ but the book ups the ante shortly after and ends with the cheesiest statement of possessive love I’ve ever read. This would make a wonderfully cheesy mini-series.
I principally enjoyed the book for the inventive escapes and captures and to laugh during the over-the-top moments, but I’m sure I was laughing with this book rather than at it. The heightened nature of it all invites a playful approach to the text and it certainly provided me with a lot of entertainment which is the core purpose of commercial, serialised fiction.
Next week I shall count down 5-1