Fiction, Non-Fiction, Reviews

The best books of 2015

My apologies for the mixture of photos in this post – I have lent out some of the books featured so wasn’t able to take a nice photo of them and had to find images of the covers online. Not ideal, but there you go…

 

Somehow 2015 is over, and I have naturally been thinking about all the books I’ve read this year, and which was the best, and the worst, and which ones were in between. According to GoodReads I red 34 books in 2015 (one off my target of 35!), which is less than I usually read – I blame the new, busier job I started half way through the year!

I read a couple of super dupers early in the year, namely Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan, and Tracks by Robyn Davidson. Two very different books, but I loved them both. Bonjour Tristesse is sort of a coming-of-age tale, but it’s also about love and relationships and jealousy, and it is beautifully crafted. Tracks could also be seen as a coming-of-age tale, though it is about the author finding herself in the desert, which is a bit different to a posh holiday by the sea. It is fascinating, engaging, emotional, and just brilliant. It also proves why dogs are better than people.

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One of my very favourite books this year was The Blue Tattoo by Margot Mifflin. It was a random book I heard about on Twitter, but it was just wonderful to read. It is the story of the life of Olive Oatman, who was captured by Native Americans in the 1800s and lived with them for a few years before being ‘returned’ to ‘her people’. There are many other stories like Olive’s but this is a good place to start with this genre.

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The next amazing book I read was The Mighty Dead by Adam Nicolson. I was umming and ahhing about this one, but then Carolyn’s amazing post convinced me I must read it. And it was wonderful! Even thinking about it now fills me with hope and wonder. It celebrates everything about Homer and demonstrates why The Odyssey and The Iliad are so integral to the development of Western literature, and why we should all appreciate them more.

(image: goodreads.com)

(image: goodreads.com)

Since then I’ve mostly liked the books I’ve read (with one notable exception), so I’m just going to pick out a few…

I adored Forgotten Fatherland by Ben McIntyre. It popped up in my GoodReads recommendations, and it is one of the weirdest and most brilliant books I have ever read. It tells the story of Elisabeth Nietszche (sister of the philosopher) and the Aryan colony she set up in Paraguay with her husband. They were essentially early versions of Nazis, and in later life, when she returned to Germany, Elisabeth was a friend of Hitler and his party. He even came to her funeral. It has to be read to be believed.

(image: goodreads.com)

(image: goodreads.com)

I also very much enjoyed the three Shirley Jackson books I have read this year: Hangsaman, The Haunting of Hill House, and We Have Always Lived in the Castle. They are all weird and strange and brilliant, and I loved all of them a lot. I am now on a mission to read everything Shirley Jackson ever wrote, and she has set a lot of wheels in motion in my head with my own writing. If I could be a modern-day version of her as a writer, I’d be happy. More Shirley in 2016!

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I must recommend the two books about mental health that I read this year: The Last Asylum by Barbara Taylor and Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen. The former is quite dark and a bit bleak, though with a hopeful ending, and was really fascinating. I preferred reading Girl, Interrupted as it was less matter-of-fact and more about a very personal experience. These two books work in different ways, but both are illuminating, moving, and very well-written.

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And lastly I want to mention the book I recently posted about, Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood. It is the first book of Atwood’s I have read, and I think it was a good place for me to start. This is more my kind of thing than her science fiction/fantasy novels, and I will definitely read more of her work – just not all of it. I loved Alias Grace for a lot of reasons – I loved the setting and the atmosphere, the descriptions of daily life in Victorian Canada (and learning about that country’s history), and I loved the ambiguity and nuance of Grace and her story. Read more in my recent post here.

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So there you have it! The best books I have read this year. I am looking forward to many more fantastic reads in 2016.

What have been your best books of 2015?

 

 

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Non-Fiction, Reviews

Tracks by Robyn Davidson

Identity is a theme, or issue, that I think becomes part of all autobiography or memoir; to write about oneself it to write about who you are and why. This is certainly the case with the wonderful Tracks by Robyn Davidson. She not only writes about her own experience – it is a singular, personal experience that she undertook largely on her own. There is therefore plenty of time to muse on her own sense of who she is, was, and might perhaps be. That said, she is not an especially introverted writer – the exploration of her own identity comes through the ways in which she relates to and thinks about other people, the landscape around her, and the journey she is on.

2013 Bloomsbury UK paperback (image: goodreads.com)

2013 Bloomsbury UK paperback (image: goodreads.com)


Perhaps some context. Tracks is Davidson’s account of her journey, alone, across the Western Australian desert, which she completed in the late 1970s. She knows that camels will be the most suitable animals to travel with, and to carry her things, and so the first few chapters cover the two years she spends in the town of Alice Springs trying to learn as much as she can about camels, and to get hold of some that she can take with her on her trip. This section is hugely eventful and entertaining in itself, but it is also fascinating because Davidson dedicates plenty of time and space in Tracks to examining the lives of the local Aborigine people, and the ways in which they are maligned and marginalised. She also examines the deeply sexist nature of many, if not all, men she encounters during this time. She is an intelligent and deft writer, and has a great gift for social perception and analysis. She continues to muse on the plight of the Aborigines as she continues her journey, some of it through a huge reservation, and she is hugely engaging and passionate, and I could have read her thoughts and theories, as well as the cold hard facts she presents, for hours. Before reading Tracks I did not know much about the social history of Australia, and modern society’s attitude to it, and Davidson is a great source for this. She writes not as an academic or a journalist, but just as a real, normal woman, encountering these things, and speaking about that state of her native country. It is greatly fascinating.

Also fascinating is the day to day life experienced on her trek. Her relationships with the camels are emotional, difficult, rewarding, draining, and many other things besides. As an animal lover it is difficult for her to be tough with them, but her time in Alice Springs taught her that sometimes that is the only thing that works. She learns how they operate, and in turn how she must behave in order to keep them under control. She is forced to become their master, their controller, to be strict and mean when necessary, and to take care of them when they are hurt (which seems to happen very easily). Her relationship with the camels has already challenged Davidson’s view of herself – she is forced to toughen up in order to live with these animals, and to force herself through all the hardships in order tor reap the rewards.

It is fascinating to read such eloquent descriptions of the spectrum of emotions she goes through on the trip, through the ups and downs – Davidson’s writing is so vivid, so personal, so completely there that you are captured and feel the emotions too, as much as you can as a reader. The fact is, as with all memoir, that we cannot ever really know what happened, how it felt, the details of life, the real experience – we can only know what is related to us. But Davidson excels in making it seem as if, when she wants us, we are there with her. She was ambivalent about having others document her trip at the time – she reluctantly allowed a photographer from National Geographic, Rick, join her for sections of the trip. His photos are reproduced in the Bloomsbury paperback edition that I have, and they really are beautiful. But Davidson resented that he was part of the outside world intruding on her experience, and that the publicity meant people she met along the way would hound her with questions and cameras. So, for me, it seems that reading her book, written by her alone, is the best way to learn about her trip. It is what she wants to tell us.

There is so much more that I could say about this wonderful book. I feel like I learned a lot about what it is to challenge yourself, and be brave, and to be alone, and to be part of the world. It is a book about Robyn Davidson at that time in her life as much as it is about her journey. Her psychological and emotional journeys are as important as the physical. I was drawn to Tracks after having loved Wild by Cheryl Strayed, and while the two books do have things in common, reading them brings two very different experiences with two different women – but I hugely admire both of them.

I’d say that Tracks is the more rewarding of the two. I particularly loved Davidson’s relationship with her dog Diggity (I am a mad dog person), and the exploration of the society and history that she travels through, as well as the fascinating and beautiful landscape. I just loved it, and I would recommend it to anyone.

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First published in 1980 by Jonathan Cape, and by several publishers since. The movie adaptation of Tracks was released in 2013.

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