It’s been a strange reading year.
Round about July, I was beginning to think that I’d somehow lost the ability to enjoy my reading. Much of what I was reading was relatively enjoyable but nothing I was really taking to heart. Then, in the second half of the year, I started loving almost everything, finding writers I now love and writers I adore.
If you wish to see the full list of this year’s reading, I have a link to a booklist here.
Now…here are the countdown on 10-6 of the best books I have read this year…
Death’s Jest Book by Thomas Lovell-Beddoes.
A play that was never performed (though it would make a great creepy stop motion) and a plot involving mistaken necromancy, suicide practise kits and a host of sudden but inevitable betrayals Death’s Jest Book does not score high in realism. However, as an amped up Jacobean tragedy seen through the eyes of a late-romantic depressive, it’s surprisingly good fun.
The version I read was the ‘fool’s tragedy’ version of 1829 (which incidentally didn’t include the poem ‘dream pedlary, which was the main reason I wanted to read it). This version tones down the poetry and songs, making the plot a fairly tight and followable affair, at least when comparing to other Jacobean tragedies - it’s no less plausible then ‘The Revenger’s Tragedy’.
Aside from the wonderful whiplashes of betrayal; the changes of Isbrand from fool, to revolutionary leader, to dictator, to fool, to dead person, and the subplot where Mandrake believes he has died:- the most remembered part of this play are the sombre poetry of it. Whether it’s a man describing himself as a ‘murder-charged thunder cloud’, death’s scythe punctuating lives with a ‘?’, having revolutionaries described as, ‘holding the latch string of the new world’s wicket’ or a duck’s feet as having, ‘webby mud-patted toes’ - the writing is often surprising.
I particularly like the discussion of how we may love a soul, but we love the soul through their body and however we should be pleased about the soul’s ascension into heaven (if we blow that way) we can’t separate soul and body utterly.
Macabre pleasure at it’s dark/bitter chocolatey-est.
The Troublesome Priest: Harold Davidson, Rector of Stiffkey by Jonathan Tucker
Strange that a man’s life should feel that it inexorably leads to being savaged by a lion live on stage, in Skegness.
This book is a clear, reasoned (and it feels to me) very fair look at Davidson’s life. It doesn’t shy away from his faults; that he was an incorrigible egomaniac, made no efforts to follow rules of propriety or punctuality and with no thought to the consequences of his actions. He is a complete idiot; visiting a nudist camp the day after being convicted of immorality, allowing himself to be photographed with semi-nude women the day before that trial… But at the same time, I don’t believe he was exactly what he was accused of being.
The big problem seems to be that he had a taste of theatre and theatrical life and took it into his clerical life, with all his kissing and hugging and suchlike. Did he revel in his infamy? I’m not sure, but it seems only right and just for his end to be as strange as it was (and for his actual end to probably be caused by a mistaken insulin injection).
As for the writing, it is very sober and clear with an officious use of footnotes and many quotes from letters, trial transcripts and later reflections. The book allows the reader to think and decide for themselves what Davidson’s faults were and weren’t.
A fascinating man and book to match.
The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford
I find that many books are full of build-up and consequence to end in an entirely inconsequential manner - this book felt like it was doing little but entertain until the ending hit like a sledgehammer.
Fanny is our narrator, Fanny is boring. Let’s have no more about Fanny.
But her monstrous, whimsical, passionate Uncle Matthew is a brilliant character (and like most of the people in the book, based on people Nancy Mitford knew, in this case, her Father). A man who hunts children with dogs, is deeply xenophobic and utterly prejudiced should not be as endearing as he is. He is one of many fascinating characters and there is a real feeling of family at the heart of the book, as odd as it may sometimes be.
I loved Davey, with his faddy food but genuinely good heart. I love Lord Merlin (basically Lord Berners) who creates elaborate practical jokes and wears sunglasses abroad because his ‘kind eyes’ are too alluring to beggars.
Then there are the jokes. The one about finding a book on duck rearing more useful on sex then the sex textbook made me laugh. The joke about Moira, a not particularly loved child, being so dull that she doesn’t even imagine air raids, made me wince.
This book is packed with entertaining characters, good jokes and semblance enough of a plot to keep it going. I wasn’t particularly enthralled to the loves and bolts of Linda. She was an interesting enough character and I liked the way her three loves were different to each other and was invested enough to see her find love in the end.
Then the war comes, the jokes still play out and the family tighten together to tough it all out. And Linda is killed in childbirth in one sentence. A paragraph later and the book is over.
The laughs, the fun and the very inconsequential nature of the book then take on a certain dismal quality and in one short sentence the whole book becomes retroactively like an old photo or a fading dream - something lovely that is now lost.
I also read ‘Love in a Cold Climate’ but I didn’t find that book as charming or ultimately as moving.
A book with more than meets the eye.
The Moving Toyshop by Edmund Crispin
Fun, daft and silly, the reader is reminded before the book begins that of course the events in this book are fiction, they are too unlikely, even in Oxford. I was charmed even by the chapter titles, which are described as ‘The Case of….’ followed by something in the chapter.
It starts off with a poet going for a trip to Oxford to get some adventure and within twenty-four hours includes a murder, a toyshop in the wrong place, a weird will where everyone is given a monicker from Edward Lear, an army of drunk undergraduates and a shootout on an out of control carousel - all of which was served up with clever, snarky and literary jokes.
The characters were all eccentrics in a very literary way, I particularly liked Wilkes, who turned up and tagged along for no real reason but to drink all the whisky. I liked Fen’s coldness beneath the jolly facade and I liked the ludicrousness of the mystery.
There are also a number of fun literary games, brazen fourth-wall jokes, some Jane Eyre bashing and little bit of Samuel Johnson fandom.
I also read ‘The Case of the Gilded Fly’ which was fun but not as sparkling as this book.
A whodunnit with a wit and class.
The Virtue of this Jest by James S Montgomery
I’ve already talked about this book at length here. For almost half the year this book was top of my list. Needless to say I recommend it if you can find a copy... Also, I should have guessed there would be a Jacobite element to the book - the S in James S Montgomery stands for Stuart.
A fun romp as fun romps should be.
Next week I shall reveal the top five books I’ve read this year. Looking at the book-list, can you guess what it might be? Which books would you choose as the best?