December 30, 2010

The Top 10 of 2010

The time has come to list my top 10 reads of 2010 - and the process wasn't actually as hard as I thought it was going to be. I did have to cull a few books to get the list down to only 10 but I think my top reads really stood out for me this year. My list is not necessarily a list of the "best" books or what would be considered literature - but they are all books that have stayed with me long after reading them.
So, my top 10 read of 2010, in the order in which I read them:

1. Mrs Dalloway - Virginia Woolf - My first Woolf read and I was captivated by her writing style and characterisation straight away.

2. The Hours - Michael Cunningham - Following on from my new found love of Woolf and Mrs Dalloway I was excited to read this homage by Cunningham - almost as good as the original for me.

3. The World Beneath - Cate Kennedy - The only Australian novel and author on my list this year.

4. The Help - Kathryn Stockett - I had stayed away from this book for a long time because of the hype surrounding it but I was pleasantly surprised to find that the hype and praise was well deserved.

5. The Hand That First Held Mine - Maggie O'Farrell - I have yet to read a book by this author that has let me down although I think this may be my favourite of hers so far.

6. Hearts and Minds - Amanda Craig - This is probably the book that has stayed with me the most this year - a brilliant story.

7. Great House - Nicole Krauss - I was eagerly awaiting this new book by the author of The History of Love and I was not disappointed at all.

8. Madame Bovary - Gustave Flaubert - This book opened my eyes to the importance of translation in literature - a beautiful edition of a brilliant book.

9. The Portrait of a Lady - Henry James - My first Henry James novel but definitely not my last.

10. The Age of Innocence - Edith Wharton - Another classic read that captured me this year.

Happy new year everyone - may 2011 be another fantastic year of reading!

The Portrait of a Lady - Henry James & The Age of Innocence - Edith Wharton

I don't know how I managed it but my last two reads of 2010 have not only been two of my best reads of the year but possibly two of my best reads of all time.

The Portrait of a Lady and The Age of Innocence have been two books I have been meaning to read for quite a while now and for some reason they both fell into my hands at about the same time. I was taken by the similarities between the two even though they were written at different times (Portrait was first published in 1881 and Innocence in 1920 - although it does focus on the era of the 1870's). Both stories have young, inexperienced heroines (although one seems to be clearly seeking the expected path of marriage and family while the other tries hard to steer a different course at first) and both focus on the society of the time and the way in which rules and expectations impact on the decisions and behaviours of the characters.

The Portrait of a Lady was my first experience of reading Henry James and it was pure bliss! How could I not have known what I was missing out on??! I have heard quite a few people list him as one of their favourite authors and I think I will become one of them now.

I was hooked from the very first line of the book;

Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.

I couldn't agree more! Of course the book does explore deeper topics than the joy of afternoon tea. The heroine of the novel, Isabel Archer is a young American woman brought to England by her aunt, Mrs Touchett, after the death of her father. Isabel becomes close friends with her uncle and her cousin Ralph and when Mr Touchett dies soon after Isabel's arrival in England he leaves her (at the request of Ralph) a considerable fortune to enable her to live out her life goals of exploration and travel. Isabel is approached by several young men with marriage proposals but she refuses them all - until the arrival of the older and more charming Gilbert Osmond. Isabel accepts Osmond's proposal even after the disapproval of her family and friends is voiced to her, especially Ralph's;

'You were the last person I expected to see caught'.

'I don't know why you call it caught'.

'Because you're going to be put in a cage'.

'If I like my cage, that needn't trouble you,' she answered.

Of course soon after the marriage Isabel realises that Osmond is not the person she thought he was but it is too late and her family and friends watch her turn from a bright, passionate woman into a faded version of her true character.

I loved Isabel but I was frustrated by her at the same time - when she agreed to marry Osmand I found myself yelling out loud "NO - Listen to Ralph!!!". But then the novel would not have been what it was without that decision. The second half of the book is painful to read as we witness Isabel's awful marriage and see Ralph's prediction come true - she is caught in a cage with no sign of release and yet she finds that maybe she doesn't like it so much after all.

I decided to read The Age of Innocence after finishing The Portrait of a Lady because I wanted to stay in a similar era with my reading (truth be told I really wanted to go back and start The Portrait all over again I loved it so much!). This novel again focuses on women characters and the impact of their decisions to marry certain people but told from the perspective of a male character. Newland Archer is a member of upper class New York society in the 1870's and as the novel begins his engagement to May Welland is just about to be announced - an event that coincides with the return to New York of May's cousin, Countess Olenska who has scandalously left her brutal marriage to a Polish nobleman.

Countess Olenska raises thoughts and feelings in Newland that have been rising for a while - why is society so structured and rule bound - why must women (and men for that matter) be constrained to act and behave in certain ways even when that goes against their natural instinct?

Newland begins to see the constraints of his upper class society and he himself begins to feel constrained by it - he falls in love with the Countess but marries May anyway because it is what is expected of him.

The novel is really about the games that the members of the upper classes played at this time to keep their society and it's structure intact - through Newland's newly opened eyes we are able to see these games for what they really are - and yet no one ever stops playing them!

It is the conventions of this society that stops Newland from following his heart - even at the very end.

I cannot recommend either of these two books highly enough - and I think I will be re-reading them again myself very soon!

December 28, 2010

The Start of the Lists

I love this time of year in the blogging world - so many people putting together so many lists for me to drool over and get more reading ideas. One list that I always look forward to reading is the one one of my favourite journalists, Leigh Sales, on the ABC website recommending her top reads for the year.
Leigh's top 5 fiction reads for this year were:

1. The World Beneath - Cate Kennedy. I loved this one too - my review is here.
2. Brooklyn - Colm Toibin - another one I loved when I read it last year.
3. A Gate at the Stairs - Lorrie Moore - I can't say I have heard anything about this one before now - has anyone read it??
4. The Imperfectionists - Tom Rachmann. Loved this one too!
5. Solar - Ian McEwan - I have started my Ian McEwan phase this year so this one might need to be next on my list from him.

December 26, 2010

Beyond Black - Hilary Mantel

I don't think I could have chosen a better book for my Christmas time reading than Hilary Mantel's famous ghost story - Beyond Black. I always find that this is a hard time of year to keep my head in a book - I want to read but there are so many other distractions going on around me that it is often hard to concentrate on a story. I didn't have that problem with Beyond Black as it kept me intrigued from start to finish.

The book tells the story of English psychic and medium, Alison Hart who meets up with recently divorced Colette at one of her shows at a local club and takes her on as her assistant/manager/carer. As Colette slowly begins to take over Alison's business and personal life we learn more about Alison's current life and career as a messenger for the dead and her past life and traumatic childhood that led to her being in this position. As Alison begins to let in memories of her childhood her connection with the spirit world changes and it begins to have a greater impact on her life in the here and now.

I found this book fascinating and engrossing without being too sensationalist - I can imagine that it is a hard task to achieve with this sort of subject matter. I became increasingly connected to Alison and her story as I similarly began to despise Colette and the control she was trying to exert over Alison's life. The story built tension beautifully and I was hooked to the very (satisfying for me) end.

December 24, 2010

Happy Christmas!

Happy Christmas to everyone!
We have had a lovely, quiet day at home opening presents, eating seafood, drinking wine and now eating chocolates and drinking cups of tea! The wet weather that was forecast for our area did not come through and we have had a bright, sunny and a very warm day - a perfect Australian Christmas.
I'm now relaxing with my new copy of the BBC edition of Pride and Prejudice on DVD while glancing over at our Christmas tree to admire the gorgeous decorations - especially the Royal Doulton tea cup and teapot given to me by my best friend and my boy - they know me so well!

Harbour - John Ajvide Lindquist

I have The First Tuesday Book Club Show on ABC to thank for my latest reading success. The host of the show, Jennifer Byrne, mentioned the book on the final show for the year stating it was one of the books she was looking forward to reading over the Christmas holidays and the way she described it made it sound intriguing.
Harbour is set in a small Swedish Island community called Domaro. The book starts with a day trip across the snow to the lighthouse at Gavasten by Anders, his wife Cecilia and their 6 year old daughter, Maja. While the family is visiting the lighthouse Maja disappears completely - one moment she is there and the next there is absolutely no sign on her.

The rest of the book focuses on Anders search for Maja and in the process the unravelling and discovery of the secrets of Domaro and the people who live there.

It is difficult to place this book in one hard and fast genre - there are certainly elements of mystery within it, it is dramatic and contains many scenes highlighting the impact of relationships on our lives and yet there is also a sense of the paranormal about it as well.

I was hooked by this story - it is not a book I would normally choose to read but I loved it and became completely absorbed in it, so much so that even when events occurred that would normally require me to suspend my beliefs about certain things I was able to run with it easily.

At times I did feel that the author was trying to possibly tell too many stories and introduce too many different characters but to his credit he did seem to bring them all together by the end.

I loved this one so much I am now going to start on the author's earlier book, Let The Right One In, although I have heard it is a lot scarier...

December 18, 2010

Persephone Secret Santa - 2010

This was my second year joining in the Persephone Secret Santa fun organised by Claire.

I have heard that some people are still waiting for their books to arrive due to the rather extreme weather the UK is experiencing at the moment but my secret santa must have been very, very organised as I received my package quite a while ago now and of course I was so excited that I opened it straight away!

A very big Persephone thank you to my santa, Natalie from Coffee and a Book Chick - I feel very spoilt as Natalie was extremely generous and sent me two books, The Victorian Chaise-Longue by Marghanita Laski and The Far Cry by Emma Smith. Both of these books sound wonderful and I am going to enjoy reading them over my Christmas break - thank you so much Natalie!

On a superficial note - I also adore the endpapers, and therefore the bookmarks, of each of these books too - right up my alley!!

December 17, 2010

Oprah Interlude

I have been a little absent from the blogging and general internet world over the past week or so. This week has been my last week at work before a two week break (yay!) so things have been pretty hectic and on top of that I also spent the first two days of the week in Sydney as I was one of the people lucky enough to score a ticket one of the shows being put on by Oprah on her recent trip to Australia.

I have been an Oprah devotee since my school and university days - and I've always been a close follower of her Bookclub and reading suggestions. It was an amazing experience to see her live on stage - she has such a presence and a warmth about her it is easy to see why some people go a little crazy when they see her (although I have to say as a mental health professional I was a little worried about the extreme reactions demonstrated by some people in the audience!!).

My best friend and I had a great time - and the diamond necklaces given out by Oprah as a gift to her audience was a very nice surprise!

I am also happy to see that Oprah's latest book club selections are two of Charles Dickens' most famous novels - A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations. One of my reading goals from this year was to read more Dickens and with only a few days to go in 2010 I am way, way behind on this goal - so thank you to Oprah for giving me the much needed kick to get started on my Dickens reading!

December 07, 2010

Summer is Here!

Summer has taken a while to arrive this year and while it is being predicted we are going to be having quite a rainy season at the moment the true summer weather seems to be kicking in - and bringing with it some of my very favourite things...

Time to read...

Fresh flowers inside...
And out

Summer fruits

And Christmas!

December 04, 2010

Reverb10 - One Word

I have come across this wonderful blog project today - Reverb10 - a way of reflecting over the year that has been and thinking ahead to the year that is fast approaching. Every day in December the authors of the blog will set down a prompt for a reflective blog post for that day. I think it is a great way to think about what has been my 2010 (I can't believe it is almost at an end!!) and plan for an even better 2011. This month has already begun to be crazy busy so I can't promise that I will be on board each day but I'm going to give it a go.

The prompt for the 1st December was; One Word. Encapsulate the year 2010 in one word. Explain why you are choosing that word, Now, imagine it's one year from today, what would you like the word to be that captures 2011 for you? (Author: Gwen Bell)

My word for 2010 would be balance - not necessarily because I have always achieved it but because I have at least tried to be more aware of it in my every day life. I have thought more than ever this year about reducing my work load and concentrating on other areas of my life that drain me less and bring me much more pleasure. Hopefully 2011 will keep that on track!

The word that I would like to be able to describe my 2011 would be accomplishment. I'm planning to take on new work and study projects in 2011 and I would like to be able to succeed in these - whilst still maintaining balance! I think this word is also something that can be applied to my personal life - and certainly my reading where I would really like to be able to challenge myself to read more widely and in areas I might not have thought of before.