I have gone through my reading notebook for this year and, as already mentioned on an earlier blog, I do seem to have discovered or rediscovered an awful lot of detective stories in 2006 and, as I have taken on board recommendations from other bloggers, I still have a lot more to go. Difficult to pick out the best as I very seldom read a book I don't enjoy (if I am not enjoying it, I stop immediately) and I could give you a list of 100, but I have narrowed this down and set below books that have been among my favourites reads in 2006. They are in no particular order whatsoever:
House of Mirth - Edith Wharton. Re-read after a gap of some ten years and affected me as powerfully as it did first time round. The story of Lily Bart who cannot live without being part of Society even though she knows it is shallow, hypocritical and ruthless, her undeclared love for Selden and his for her and its ultimate tragic end, is quite superb. Better than Age of Innocence, better than any of her others, this is a book that should be on every reading list.
Gaudy Night - D L Sayer. I only discovered the incomparable Lord Peter Whimsey this year and so far have read half a dozen with lots more treats in store. Everyone I have spoken to says this is her best and I have no argument with that so far. Set in a women's college in Oxford where a nasty practical joker is at work and the discovery of his/her identity hinging on the falsification of a thesis and the suppression of evidence that proved this particular piece of research to be erroneous, it is densely written, very wordy but in the most elegant and agreeable way, and pure delight.
The Thirteenth tale - Diane Setterfield. This book has divided opinion right down the middle. Some readers thought it was a load of rubbish and ridiculous, others simply loved it as a rattling good yarn. I fall into the latter category but the test of these hyped books is to read them again later when all the articles, press releases etc have died down and see what you think of it then. Should be an interesting test.
Adam Bede - George Eliot. For some reason I cannot fathom I have never read this particular George Eliot masterpiece though she is one of my favourite writers, Middlemarch being on my list of best reads EVER, but having picked up AB and settled down with it one weekend, I found I was unable to do anything at all until I had finished reading it. The tragic tale of Hetty Sorrell and Adam, who loves her in vain, is writing of such strength and insight that my critical faculties cannot express how much I loved this book. After finishing it and sitting quietly for half an hour to recover and ponder about it, I think this is now probably edging ahead of Middlemarch in the appreciation stakes.
Ladies Delight - Emile Zola. I have blogged about this gorgeous book at length so will not repeat myself here save to say that this book is a total assault on the senses with its description of the sumptuous contents of the department store, Ladies Delight, in Paris. When you have finished reading this you will feel as if you have gorged on a large box of chocolates in one sitting and need a nice slice of cheddar cheese to balance it out. Will be reading more Zola this year.
The Various Haunts of Men, Risk of Darkness, Pure in Heart - Susan Hill. I am cheating by putting all these three together but as I read them all straight through in one weekend, I am treating them as an omnibus edition. We are introduced to Simon Serrailer, the commitment phobe detective who treats women badly and yet loves his sister and her family, who provide the warmth and love in their household that he lacks. Brilliant plotting and marvellous writing and no neat and tidy ending a la Christie, just real true to life stuff. Looking forward to the next one in 2007.
Woman in Black - Susan Hill. Another SH book and on my list as the book of 2006 that scared me witless. Reeking of the atmosphere of dread and menace I read this late at night tucked up in bed and finished it at 2 am in the morning. This was a huge mistake as I was then dying to (a) go to the loo and (b) needed a drink but was too scared to get out of bed and lay there and suffered until the morning.
Death at la Fenice - Donna Leon. This was the first of the Donna Leon oeuvre that got me started. Murder at an opera house in Venice. Who could want more? The victim was a charismatic, arrogant conductor with a much younger wife and from the description given it was pretty clear to me that this character was based on the late Herbert von Karajan, not by all accounts the nicest man on the planet, which might explain why this book was not published until after his death. After reading this and making the acquaintance of the wonderful Commissario Guido Brunetti, I was hooked and in one month read all 15 of these novels. Cannot resist a binge and now I have to wait for the next one in 2007.
If I have to name a book or books, that have impressed me most in 2006, then it has to be The Blind Assassin and Alias Grace - Margaret Atwood who I 'discovered' early this year. This author cannot be taken lightly, you cannot pick up one of her books and dip in and expect a relaxing read, total concentration is vital and a notebook to hand is probably also a good idea. I am not going to attempt to tell you anything about either of the above except they are full of depth, twists and turns, writing that gets hold of you and will not let you go, and when you have finished reading one of her books you will know that you have had a great experience.
Other discoveries this year have been John Dunning, an American writer with his main character Cliff Janeway, a cop turned bookseller, so you have the best of both worlds with a gritty style just crying out to be filmed, and Andrew Taylor with the Lydford Mysteries set in a small town in the 1950s with its prejudices and hypocrisy, beautifully written and conjuring up the grayness and bleakness of this period.
I have also read Anne and Charlotte Bronte, Trollope, Elizabeth von Arnim, Harriet Martineua and Mrs Gaskell so you can see that, as usual, I am not exactly up to date and au fait with modern fiction.
I have managed to read some (three cheers all round) and mention Lying Awake by Mark Salzmann (story of a nun who discovers that the visions she experiences which validate her faith are not spiritual manifestations but caused by a form of epilepsy and once this is cured, the visions will vanish) and The Extra Large Medium by Helen Slavin (the story of a Medium who sees ghosts all dressed in chocolate brown. At first you will think this is just an amusing story, but it is not. Read on and it gets darker). Another read, which some may find disturbing, is A Lifetime Burning by Linda Gillard. This is a multi-layered, time shifting book and centres on an incestous relationship between brother and sister. As I said, not an easy subject to tackle and, not having been overly impressed by her first novel Emotional Geology, I approached this with some misgivings. Totally hooked from the first page, this second work is a huge step forward for this author and I read it straight through in one sitting.
I have read non-fiction as well but I think this post is long enough so will save that for another day. A lot of my reading has come about because of recommendations from fellow bloggers and reading groups, so can I say a big thank you to everyone for this and I look forward to a happy and absorbing 2007.