Saturday 26 December 2009

Top Books of 2009

I'm not good at self-discipline, obviously, because I haven't managed to cut my top books of the year down to ten. This is always my intention, but I have failed - and so I have a Top 15. Obviously I could just have listed the top ten on this list, but I didn't want to ignore the others...

As always, I don't include re-reads in my list, or more than one book by each author. So some wonderful books (like Henrietta's War) are missing, because I preferred other books by the author. And I was a little surprised to see that no male authors made the list - at least six were quite close.

Do put a link in the comments to your own Top Books of the year, or if you don't have a blog, feel free to list your favourite books in the comments.

15. Life and Death of Harriett Frean (1922) - May Sinclair
A short Virago Modern Classic about the life of
Harriett, touching most often on themes of spinsterhood and moral choices. More here...

14. Oxford (1965) - Jan Morris

Our Vicar gave me this book about the history of Oxford back in 2004, and I've finally read it - though still not got around to writing about it on here. In turns bizarre, affectionate, unlikely, and (being from the 60s) often a historical piece itself, the book is endlessly interesting and characterful.

13. Love's Shadow (1908) - Ada Leverson

The best thing to happen in publishing this year, in my opinion, was Bloomsbury's set of reprints, The Bloomsbury Group. This hilarious, wry novel from one of Oscar Wilde's pals was a wonderful find on their behalf. More here...

12. Straw Without Bricks (1937) - EM Delafield
Also published as The Provincial Lady in Russia, this book is in fact non-fiction about EMD's time in Soviet Russia - very much split into two halves, and a bit confusing - some very funny, some very serious. More here...

11. Manservant & Maidservant (1947) - Ivy Compton-Burnett

Of the three ICB novels I've read this year, this was my favourite - I don't know how she controls dialogue and characters so excellently, and though the density of her writing means I have to ration her books a bit, she's becoming one of my favourite writers. More here...

10. The Enchanted April (1922) - Elizabeth von Arnim

One of those novels I've had on my shelves for years, and finally read. Manages to be delightful and optomistic without being saccharine - a really lovely book. More here...

9. Lolly Willowes (1926) - Sylvia Townsend Warner
An excellently written novel which begins with showing the plight of a spinster in her brother's home, but turns around when she moves to the countryside and becomes a witch... More here...

8. The Return of the Soldier (1918) - Rebecca West
Brief but very striking, the best of the many books I read for various book groups this year (and the only one to make my top 15, in fact). An excellent look at shell-shock, as well as a biased narrator, and class wars. Bafflingly, I don't seem to have blogged about it - I'll try to do so at some point in 2010.

7. Say Please (1949) - Virginia Graham
A very amusing faux-etiquette guide, with excellent illustrations by Osbert Lancester. More here...

6. The Runaway (1872) - Elizabeth Anna Hart

I read ten Persephone Books titles this year, and this is the first of two to make my top 15 - a charming and unusual children's story, with Gwen Raverat's beautiful accompanying woodcuts from the 1936 edition. More here...

5. The True Deceiver (1982) - Tove Jansson

One of my favourite writers, I wait eagerly for Thomas Teal to translate more of her atmospheric, wintery, stark novels and stories. More here...

4. Cheerful Weather For The Wedding (1932) - Julia Strachey

The other Persephone title - short but hilarious and memorable - though this tale of the problems and characters surrounding a wedding day has rather divided the blogosphere. More here...

3. The Heir (1922) - Vita Sackville-West

Short books are doing well... A man becomes, unexpectedly, the heir of a rambling house Blackboys. This novella charts his growing love for the place, and was so good that I read it twice this year. Hesperus' beautiful edition didn't hurt either. More here...

2. Economy Must Be Our Watchword (1932) - Joyce Dennys

I hadn't heard of Joyce Dennys before the Bloomsbury Group reprinted her fictional war diaries, Henrietta's War - but it was this gem, of a foolish, selfish and utterly un-self-aware woman trying to do war work which was my favourite Dennys book this year. I haven't blogged about it because it's impossible to find... for the moment... A little bit more here....

1. Howards End is on the Landing (2009) - Susan Hill
ot often does a book win me over so completely - Susan Hill's non-fiction book about her year of reading from home is a beautiful paean to books. Whether or not you agree with her opinions, it would be hard not to fall for a book as delightfully bookish as this one. More here... This also marks the fourth year in a row where a non-fiction book has been my favourite read - quite surprising, given how much novels outweigh non-fiction in my reading... perhaps 2010 will be the year of non-fiction for me?

That list again, for clearer reading - and don't forget to link to your own lists.

15. Life and Death of Harriett Frean - May Sinclair
14. Oxford - Jan Morris

13. Love's Shadow - Ada Leverson

12. Straw Without Bricks - EM Delafield

11. Manservant & Maidservant - Ivy Compton-Burnett

10. The Enchanted April - Elizabeth von Arnim

9. Lolly Willowes - Sylvia Townsend Warner
8. The Return of the Soldier - Rebecca West

7. Say Please - Virginia Graham

6. The Runaway - Elizabeth Anna Hart

5. The True Deceiver - Tove Jansson

4. Cheerful Weather For The Wedding - Julia Strachey

3. The Heir - Vita Sackville-West

2. Economy Must Be Our Watchword - Joyce Dennys

1. Howards End is on the Landing - Susan Hill


  1. Simon, are you aware that "The True Deceiver" is the new "Book at Bedtime" on the Home Service (BBC Radio 4) from Monday?

  2. Oh! I wasn't, thanks for telling me... I will have to investigate...

  3. Here is my list:

  4. Oh and, Return of the Soldier didn't make my top 10, but it did make Honorable Mention.

  5. t least you have the self discipline to make the list in the first place, which I have not managed to do. The only book on your list I have read is The Return of the Soldier. If I had a list, and if I had read it in 2009 (can't actually remember when exactly I did)it would definitely be on mine.

  6. PS -- of course I have also read about half of Manservant and Maidservant, at your behest. I stopped not because I didn't like it, but rather because it was so dense and rich (a bit like the Christmas cake) that I put it aside for a while and have not got back to it. Maybe I should.

  7. Always interesting to see what people have enjoyed. My list has only one Persephone book on it!

  8. A very interesting list and definite fodder for 2010 exploration! Starting with "Howards End is on the Landing" which I have just impulsively purchased! :)

  9. What a lovely list, I am not sure I have read any of the books you mentioned bar Susan Hill so thats many more for me to look out for.

    Well done on whittling it down to fifteen, I am having to do twenty and thats tough, they will be up on Thursday though.

  10. I'm so intrigued by all on your book list. "H.E.i.o.t.L." is not printed in US. and Rhode Island Public Library only has one copy of 'The Heir' in circulation Must order both promptly!

  11. I loved reading your top books post. hope 2010 is just as great for you.

  12. I love seeing Lolly Willowes made your list of favourites, but did she end on 8 or 9? You have reversed the order of STW and Rebecca West in your list at the end.

  13. Oh, so I have lethe, thanks for pointing that out! To be honest, most of the middle of the table are in interchangable order, but I think Return of the Soldier just beats LW

  14. Interesting list. So many books I'll have to look up...
    Just posted my best of the year at my blog.

  15. What a splendid list - and I love that you can't reduce it to 10! Happy New Year, Simon.

  16. I can never narrow it down to only ten either! My list is here:
    I'm contemplating starting the Leverson book right now as a matter of fact (can I squeeze it in before Monday??). And The Enchanted April is one of my favorites...maybe it's time for a reread!

  17. You look to have a wonderful list here - containing a few books that I am going to look out for now :) Not sure whether you are aware that the Bloomsbury Group will be publishing the sequel to Henrietta's War this year ( - I can't wait!


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