Best books lists, sensation of the year music lists, top news events lists, cutest YouTube video lists – you name it, all I’ve been seeing are lists, lists, LISTS! They’re everywhere this week. I wasn’t going to personally play this game, but there’s something about the dawn of a new year that demands a look back at the ups and downs, highs and lows, bests and worsts of the 12 months previous.
So I’ve caved in to temptation to add to the plethora of lists. Musing about the books of the last year and which ones really stood out, for various reasons, I hereby offer the first of three “Top Ten” book lists from the Leaves & Pages blog for 2012.
It’s not a full year’s worth of reading, as I only started blogging in April 2012, but I did manage to post something about almost all of the books I read in those eight and a half months. Some are on hold because I just didn’t get around to putting in the time their reviews deserved; at this point I may need to re-read these ones before reviewing them, so I may just bump them over to the 2013 list.
So this Most Unexpected 2012 list, and the two to follow, Most Disappointing 2012 and Personal Favourites 2012, will be drawn from only those books I reviewed for the blog.
It was much easier than I had expected to pick out the books in these three categories – the choices jumped right out at me, though order of preference has been a tough one, which I’ll avoid, at least with this first list.
MOST UNEXPECTED READS 2012
In order of publication.
These are all “keepers”.
1. An American Girl in London (1891)
by Sara Jeannette Duncan
Miss Mamie Wick heads to England on a solitary holiday, where she enthusiastically tourists and hob nobs with the high and mighty, even capturing the romantic interest of a lordship. We are all surprised by the twist at the end – well, the lordship and his relations and society chums perhaps more so than the reader, who has been gaining a great appreciation of innocently friendly but far from naïve Miss Wick while happily following her through this gently satirical travelogue.
2. The Jasmine Farm (1934)
by Elizabeth von Arnim
A social satire concerning the fabulously wealthy and sexually “pure” Lady Midhurst and what happens when her apparently virginal daughter quite calmly announces that she has been carrying on a most physically passionate affair for the past seven years with Lady Midhurst’s trusted financial adviser. Many emotional walls come tumbling down, with unexpected results. Some decidedly sophisticated characters and situations; I was just a little shocked by the author’s boldness in this one – check out the publication date!
3. Bedelia (1945)
by Vera Caspary
Vera Caspary has written a study of a psychopath as fluffy as eiderdown, a kitten whose claws were steel.
Bedelia was everything to please a man – and she pleased many. She was small, cuddly; she smelled nice. She never argued or lost her temper. Her house, like her hair, was shining, her food delicious. She loved to cook, and she adored the gadgets of housekeeping. How strange that a passion for percolators and copper pans should help solve the curious riddle of her past!
A femme fatale meets her matrimonial match. Mer-ow! An odd little thriller, a bit stiff in style, as I’ve noted in the review, but surprisingly memorable. Definitely unexpected.
4. Guard Your Daughters (1953)
by Diana Tutton
I wasn’t quite sure how I’d react to this family saga concerning the five Harvey sisters, their successful mystery-writer father, and their very odd mother. Some reviewers found it a charming and quixotic tale; others focussed on the darker, more disturbing elements. I’d hoped to be charmed, but while I could definitely see what attracted so many to this sharply humorous and occasionally poignant story of a family of self-admitted eccentrics, I ended up seeing more of the underlying shadow than the surface shine. An interesting read, for itself and to compare notes with other reviewers. I’d like to read more by this author, and I’ll definitely read this one again, to see if my first impression holds true.
5. The Martha Trilogy
The Eye of Love (1957)
Martha in Paris (1962)
Martha, Eric and George (1964)
by Margery Sharp
‘Why should it always be the woman,’ asked Martha, ‘who’s landed with the little illegit?’
Putting principle into practice, she thus deposited a two-weeks-old infant on the paternal door-step and returned carefree to her proper business of painting masterpieces: vanishing so successfully, indeed, from the lives of both lover and son, that ten years elapsed before the consequences of her misbehaviour caught up with her…
Martha is one of the most verbally stoic, goal-oriented, and single-minded heroines I have ever met among the fictional pages. Martha wants one thing from early childhood onward: to paint pictures. How she succeeds most magnificently is the thread that binds these three unusual romances together. The infant referred to appears some way along in Martha’s personal journey; before we meet young George we make the acquaintance of numerous other unique individuals, cleverly set out for our amusement by Margery Sharp’s exceedingly well crafted word pictures. A rather strange and consistently amusing narrative, with a decided sting in its tail. Not what I’d expected, but a very welcome surprise.
6. Mexico Unknown (1962)
by Lorna Whishaw
On October 4, the day of the sputnik, we left the sanitary tranquility of the American way of life, and in total ignorance of things Mexican we plunged into the uneasy atmosphere where anything goes, where yes and no are as high as the sky and as deep as hell, and where nothing you can conceive of is impossible.
A fictionalized autobiography of a mother and her young daughter’s journey by car from their home in Canada to surprise their mining engineer husband and father working somewhere in the Sierra Madre wilderness. They find the mine, and for a while join in the lives of the miners and their families, adjusting their standards to meet the no-standards of the primitive living conditions, until disastrous events force a move southwards further into Mexico and into central America. Absolutely fascinating. An unusual traveller’s tale told in a very individual voice.
7. The Long Winter (1962)
by John Christopher
A dystopian post-apocalyptic love story-thriller-social satire. This one gives John Wyndham’s similarly themed novels a run for their money. Fifty years old, and could have been written yesterday, if one were to swap our current preoccupation with rising sea levels for 1962′s “new ice age”.
When the end came to him, in however strange and incalculable a form, it would be irrelevant, as irrelevant as the pneumonia or heart attack or cancer which would otherwise have rendered his seat vacant. Soon all the seats would be vacant together until, as must happen, marauders broke in to rip up the wood and carry away the books that were left for fuel. Some of the rarest books had already gone, to the libraries in Cairo and Accra, in Lagos and Johannesburg, and more would go in the next few weeks; but there would still be enough to draw the mob. The people reading here were not so foolish as to expect a reprieve – for the library or for themselves.
8. Let’s Kill Uncle (1963)
by Rohan O’Grady
This was a weird little book – heaven help the innocent reader who thought they were picking up a mild children’s tale! Nothing innocent here; chock full of the darkest human flaws and emotions; the humour (of which there is a lot, all intentional) shades from gray to ebony black.
An orphaned 10 year-old-boy, a misleadingly frail 10-year-old girl, a one-eared outlaw cougar, and a very wicked uncle are the key characters of this exceedingly unusual tale set among te ferns and cedars of a British Columbia Gulf Island.
by Eric Newby
We were captured off the east coast of Sicily on the morning of the twelfth of August, 1942, about four miles out of the Bay of Catania. It was a beautiful morning. As the sun rose I could see Etna, a truncated cone with a plume of smoke over it like the quill of a pen stuck in a pewter ink-pot, rising out of the haze to the north of where I was treading water.
British Special Forces officer Eric Newby’s autobiographical account of his WW II months in rural Italy after a submarine and kayak sabotage mission against a German airfield near Sicily went very wrong. A mass exodus from a prison camp was followed by a series of temporary hiding places as the Italian villagers and peasant-farmers hid, fed and assisted the British escapees as they sought to evade capture by German forces. Eric’s travels were complicated by a broken ankle, but greatly aided by a lovely Slovenian woman, Wanda, who became Eric’s wife after the war was over. An unusual and moving memoir.
10. The Complete Knowledge of Sally Fry (1983)
by Sylvia Murphy
Oh, what a fine kettle of fish is this very funny, poignant, sarcastic and exceedingly unusual story of Sally Fry: single mother, behavioural therapist and college lecturer. All she wants is to get her PhD thesis finished, but ex-lovers and the people all around her, most notably her family and their assorted hangers-on, keep derailing her precarious train of thought. There are dictionary-style autobiographical snippets throughout – absolutely marvelous. What a happy and most unexpected find.