In compiling the list, I was surprised to find that, despite the recent increase in my leisure time and contrary to my intention at the start of 2010, I haven't actually read more than I have in previous years. I blame my general despondency of the last few months for that failure.
01) Diana L. Paxton, Ravens of Avalon
Ravens of Avalon is the type of fantasy novel that also falls into the realm of historical fiction. The tale is a sequence of events about the Roman invasion of Britannia, threaded together with a cast of characters focused on Boudica, the Iceni Queen who led a bloody, short rebellion against the Roman invaders of Britain. Unfortunately, IMO it fails to engage mostly because of the neo-pagan beliefs superimposed on what little is known of Celtic religion. Too much sex, not enough substance -- I didn't like it at all.
02) Anita Shreve, Testimony
At a New England boarding school, a sex scandal breaks and through mishandling of the situation by parents and faculty leads to a life lost and a career in tatters. Well-written and well-plotted, I enjoyed reading this book.
03) Norah Lofts, Crown of Aloes
A sympathetic biographical novel of Isabella of Castile, La Reina Católica.
04) Marguerite Duras, The Lover
Rather Lolita-esque, and apparently based on the author's own experience, this novel relates the story of an affair between a young girl from a rather dysfunctional family background with a rich Chinese man in French Indo-China during the thirties, when interracial relationships weren't socially acceptable. Despite it having been hailed as Duras's masterpiece since its first publication, to be honest I can't see what makes it stand out.
05) Paul Auster, Travels in the Scriptorium
A day in the life of a bewildered Mr. Blank, who doesn't know where or who he is, or why he seems to be locked up (but is he?) in a cell where the tags that name objects move around of their own accord and where he is visited by a steady stream of people who seem to know a great deal about him but aren't telling...Magical-surrealism at its best.
06) Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall
The test of historical fiction, I suppose, is, “Does it convince? Does it feel ‘true’?” In the case of Wolf Hall, which deals with the rise and fall of Thomas Cromwell, I found the answer to be “Absolutely.”
07) Kate Grenville,The Lieutenant
Spellbinding. The story of a young officer serving in the first penal colony in New South Wales who forms a friendship with a native girl. A sparsely yet beautifully written narrative.
08) Mary Beard, Pompeii. The Life of a Roman Town
Excellent read, but then, since it's written by Mary Beard, that's hardly a surprise. A great introduction to Pompeii to those who want to delve a little deeper into the history of the place than the average guidebook will provide. Reading it, it felt almost as if I were back there, working on site as I did in 1989...Happy days.
09) Alexandra Potter, Me and Mr. Darcy
Fluff. No one will be reading this a hundred years from now, but it'll serve as a fun and easy read on a long train or plane journey while it's in print.
10) Peter Ackroyd, The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein
A retelling of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein by respected historical fiction writer Peter Ackroyd, detailed and imaginative. I enjoyed reading this.
11) Graham Robb, The Discovery of France
An interesting collection of facts and anecdotes of a France that existed as little as 200 years ago and is a million miles from the France we think we know. Though to be honest, it got a bit tedious toward the end.
12) Ben van Baalen, Irritaal
The author's pet peeves with regards to how the Dutch language gets mangled and corrupted in its everyday usage, sort of on a par with David Mitchell's objections to the commonly heard expressions "I could care less" and "hold down the fort"...although it must be said, he's much wittier.
13) Karen Slaughter, Martin Misunderstood
Fairly average whodunnit. I knew who did it before I was even halfway through the book.
14) Joost Zwagerman, Duel
This year's Boekenweekgeschenk (every year in The Netherland an established author gets invited to write a novella for Book Week, which is then handed out to everyone who buys a book during that week). Very good - the director of the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam finds out a switcheroo has taken place, and one of his priceless works of art is now touring the world as part of a young artist's project to bring art to the masses; and rather than lose face by notifying the authorities goes on a quest to retrieve the work himself.
15) John Waller, A Time To Dance, A Time To Die. The Extraordinary Story of the Dancing Plague of 1518
In July 1518 a terrifying and mysterious plague struck the medieval city of Strasbourg, which led to hundreds of men and women dancing wildly, unable to stop, day after day, in the punishing summer heat. By the time the epidemic subsided, heat and exhaustion had claimed an untold number of lives, leaving thousands bewildered and bereaved, and an enduring enigma for future generations. Drawing on fresh evidence, John Waller's account of the bizarre events of 1518 explains the psychological reasons why Strasbourg's dancing plague took place.
16) Tracy Chevalier, Remarkable Creatures
As with the other books by this author I have in my possession, once I started reading this one I couldn't put it down. Well-researched and well-written, this novelised portrait of the early 19th-century fossilist Mary Anning who discovered and assembled the first complete ichtyosaur and plesiosaur fossils in Dorset leaves one full of admiration for this plucky, unconventional girl and her equally plucky and unconventional older friend and champion Elizabeth Philpot.
17) Leanda De Lisle, The Sisters Who Would Be Queen. The Tragedy of Mary, Katherine and Lady Jane Grey
I thought I knew as much of the story of Lady Jane Grey as I needed to. However, this latest study has actually offered up some remarkable new insights, and by telling the story of her two less well-known sisters as well, makes it clear how the Greys posed a very real threat to the Tudor crown.
18) John Banville, The Infinities
Hmmm...I'm not sure about this one. I liked the idea, of the Olympians watching and interfering with the lives of the members of an English family while they gather around the deathbed of their pater familias, but I'm afraid the execution left something to be desired.
19) Sheila Kohler, Becoming Jane Eyre: A Novel
The book tells the story of the Brontë sisters, shortly before and after the publication of Jane Eyre, and focussing on Charlotte while she writes her book and looks after her father in Manchester after he underwent an eye operation; is dashed in her hopes for the publication of The Professor; and travels to London to clear up the mystery of Acton, Ellis and Currer Bell. An enjoyable read.
20) Anne Brontë, Agnes Grey
Based on her own experiences, Anne Brontë describes the life and hardships of a governess. Unfortunately, her Agnes Grey is no Jane Eyre, in the sense that she's utterly conventional...and subsequently, quite boring.
21) A.S. Byatt, Possession
Two literary scholars stumble upon the secret correspondence between two Victorian poets, which leads to a kind of treasure hunt involving more members of academia, who in their single-minded pursuit of the truth, aren't above a bit of graverobbing in a storm-tossed churchyard. A fantastically intricate, slow-paced novel complete with long, epic poems slightly Pre-Raphaelite in flavour, purporting to be by the two dead poets.
22) Margaret Drabble, The Red Queen
Utterly engrossing. Telling the story of an 18th century Korean princess, it's one of those novels where past and present histories interweave.
23) William Fiennes, The Music Room
A vivid portrayal of the author's childhood, in which growing up in a castle with a brain-damaged older brother is nothing out of the ordinary. Very moving and lovingly written.
24) D.C. Pierson, The Boy Who Couldn't Sleep and Never Had To
Two teenage boys let their imagination run riot on the world, and suddenly it's all too real. Not like any story I've ever read before, but marvellously entertaining nonetheless.
25) Bee Rowlatt & May Witwit, Talking About Jane Austen in Baghdad: The True Story of an Unlikely Friendship
A human interest story told through the emails the authors exchanged after one of them, a researcher with the BBC World Service Radio contacted the other, an Iraqi lecturer in Baghdad, for a series of background stories on the invasion. The random contact develops into a deep friendship, and when Ms. Rowlatt begins to understand how difficult Ms. Witwit's life is in Iraq, she decides to do what she can to help May and her husband escape the country. Although quite engaging in the beginning, it gets a bit bogged down in the second half.
26) John Boyne, The House of Special Purpose
While keeping vigil at his wife's deathbed, the octogenarian Georgy Daniilovich Jachmenev, a Russian emigré, tells the story of their love and the difficulties of their life together, spent in exile and dominated entirely by the political upheaval of the Russian revolution. Utterly spell-binding.
27) Jean Plaidy, The Rose Without A Thorn
Easy to read historical novel centering on Katherine Howard, who shortly before her execution looks back upon her life and sees where she and it went wrong.
28) Elizabeth Berg, The Handmaid and the Carpenter
Despite their long years together and the miracles that he witnessed, on his deathbed Joseph can't refrain from asking his wife what really happened to cause her to fall pregnant with Jesus. Quite touching.
29) Benjamin Markovits, A Quiet Adjustment
Fictionalised portrait of a marriage: that of the poet Lord Byron and his wife, who he lived with for barely a year.
30) James Robertson, The Testament of Gideon Mack
The CoS minister of a small town falls into a river and spends 3 days in the company of the Devil. Shunned by his parishioners and friends after relating his experience to them, he writes down his memoirs, and disappears. I thought the book was very well-written and contained a fantastical, and very entertaining story.
31) Sharon Waxman, Loot: the Battle over the Stolen Treasures of the Ancient World
A well-researched, in-depth examination of the contemporary issues associated with the pillaging of Greece, Turkey, Italy and Egypt, well worth reading.
32) John Harwood, The Seance
A delightful tale of murder, mayham and mystery in Victorian England. Constance Langton inherits a dilapidated estate and in attempting to unravel an old family puzzle brings danger upon herself and others.
33) David Gibbins, The Lost Tomb
A marine archaeologist and parttime sleuth, while investigating the shipwreck of St. Paul stumbles on a centuries old conspiracy of Vatican priests, who have no qualms about killing anyone who might uncover the truth about Jesus's marital status and the gospel he originally dictated to the future emperor Claudius while the two were taking a boattrip on the Sea of Galilee in the early 30s AD. Echoes of Holy Blood and Holy Grail and The Da Vinci Code, hardly original and highly implausible, but a fast-paced read nonetheless. Oh, and while he's at it, he also discovers the long-lost burial place of Boudica.
34) Angus Donald, Holy Warrior
The sequel to Outlaw, which I read last year. Robin Hood, now Earl of Locksley, and his men accompany Richard Coeur de Lion to the Holy Land, and on the way, several attempts are made on his life. Alan a Dale, who narrates the story, is given the task to find out who the culprit is. Not as good as the first book in the series.
35) Christopher Kelly, Attila the Hun: Barbarian Terror and the End of the Roman Empire
Explains the political and military failings of 5th-century Rome and Byzantium very well.
36) William Napier, Attila (re-read)
37) William Napier, Attila: the Gathering of the Storm
38) William Napier, Attila: the Judgement
Having read and enjoyed the first book in the series 4 years ago, it's a little strange that I didn't get around to reading the sequels sooner; which meant I had to speedread the first book again to remind myself of what it was about. Attila, in this series, bears little resemblance to the one we know from history, except in his enigmatic status. Characterised as a man of vision, boundless energy and charisma, as he must undoubtedly have been, he does come alive as few heroes based on historical personages do given the dearth of accurate historical information that is available for him and his people. The trilogy offers a wonderfully entertaining and imaginative story, but it is good to bear in mind that it is a work of fiction and not a biography or a history book.
39) Louis de Bernières, The Troublesome Offspring of Cardinal Guzman
I really enjoyed this book. Even if it's the third in a trilogy, the story, which deals with the fairly bizarre lives of the inhabitants of a fictional South American town set in a violent and corrupt South American country, works well as a standalone too.
40) Paula Byrne, Mad World. Evelyn Waugh and the Secrets of Brideshead
Brideshead Revisited is one of my favourite books. Therefore, a biography of Waugh concentrating on the germination of this novel over a number of years in the 20s and 30s of the last century, immediately appealed. The biography doesn't disappoint; it's well-researched, well-written, fast-paced and reads like an adventure story. Excellent.
41) John Julius Norwich, Shakespeare's Kings (re-read)
Norwich's work begins with an excellent introduction to the most fascinating of the English royal lineages, the Plantagenet Kings. It sets the context of the historical plays of Shakespeare, from the death of Edward II to the anticipated ascendancy of Henry VII. The author includes Edward III, a work recently attributed to Shakespeare, which in itself is a treasure. The ensuing chapters cover the events, politics, everyday life, and perspectives of each King's reign. In chronological order, each reign is examined in the context of the play(s) and the author notes when Shakespearian license has been used to perfect a play, albeit at the expense of historical accuracy. The writing is crisp, novel-like in its presentation, and certainly assertive in stating a position, pointing out an anachronism, or dissecting a motive of the monarch or the Bard.
42) Peter Carey, Parrot and Olivier in America
During the July Revolution of 1830, the young aristocrat Olivier de Garmont is sent across the ocean by his fearful parents still taumatised by the Terror to study the American penal system in which he has no real interest, and suspects the servant they send out with him to be their spy. Unsurprisingly, their relationship is strained from the beginning. John Larrit, aka Parrot, is just as reluctant to leave France as his travelling companion and has his own demons to fight. Yet while they are condemned to stay together through the financial arrangements made by Garmont's mother, gradually a better understanding develops between the two men.
43) P. Robert Smith, Up A Tree In The Park At Night With A Hedgehog
Hilariously funny, I finished it in one sitting...just couldn't put it down until I found out how the protagonist found himself up a tree in the park at night with a hedgehog. I doubt it will become a classic of literature, though.
44) Simon Young, Farewell Britannia: A Family Saga of Roman Britain
Interesting...but Edward Rutherfurd, it's not. He does the family through the ages thing much better.
45) Michael Marshall Smith, The Servants
In 11-year old Mark's life, everything has changed: in the space of a year, his mum and dad divorced, his mum re-married, and her new husband has taken them to live in Brighton, where Mark doesn't know anyone. Worse, his mum has changed, and hardly leaves the house anymore. Then one day, he discovers there are ghosts in the basement...An okay coming-of-age novel.
46) Richard Blake, The Terror of Constantinople
A young Saxon nobleman is sent on a diplomatic mission to Constantinople just at the transition between late antiquity and the medieval period (i.e. 610 AD), and finds himself embroiled in a hotbed of conspiracy and murder. A fast-paced historical action/detective novel/thriller, which I enjoyed quite a lot.
47) Philip Pullman, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ
IMO, it doesn't add anything (no new insight, no poetry, no nothing) to the Gospel story of Jesus's ministry and the origin of the Christian faith. As a story, it stays close to the narrative found in Mark, Matthew and Luke; but the characters of the good man Jesus and his twin brother Christ are pretty cardboard and the result is the most boring retelling of the New Testament I have ever read.
48) John Irving, A Son of the Circus
Bombayite orthopedic surgeon, Canadian immigrant, and Bollywood scriptwriter Dr. Daruwalla stumbles on the trail of a serial killer. A rambling story, and in my opinion, not John Irving's best.
49) Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell
A cross between historical (the story is set in early 19th century England) and fantasy novel (dealing with magic and wizards!), written in a style that reminds one of Thackeray and Austen, this is a highly original and pleasurable read. For a while, Mr. Norrell is secure in the knowledge that he is the only practical wizard in the country, but then he meets Jonathan Strange, a young man with a remarkable aptitude for learning, adapting and pushing the boundaries of English magic.
50) Ken Follett, The Pillars of the Earth
Years ago, during a two-day stay in hospital, I devoured Jean Gimpel's The Cathedral Builders. When the blurb for this book informed me that it was that book had given the author the idea for what would become The Pillars of the Earth, I simply had to read it, even if the author also warned in his preface that historical fiction isn't his strong suit (he is apparently better known as a detective story writer). This shows in places, but for once, I don't mind it (much); the story is fast-paced and, although a tad predictable, interesting enough to keep reading to the end. I don't think I'll bother with the sequel, though.
51) Junot Díaz, The Brief Wondreous Life of Oscar Wao
A delightful and colourful tale of a sweet, fat and nerdy Dominican American who can't get a girl, set against the backdrop of his family's and country's 20th century history.
52) Michael Chabon, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay
Published in 2000, the book won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction the following year. It follows the lives of two Jewish cousins shortly before, during and after WWII as they become successful comic book artists. However, one of them is very much preoccupied with trying to get his family over from Czechoslovakia to the States, while the other wrestles with his homosexuality, and the partnership breaks up. I quite liked it to start with, but lost interest about halfway through when the narrative became rather predictable.
53) Karen Armstrong, The Case for God
Eloquently and interestingly, Karen Armstrong takes the reader through a history of religious practice in many different cultures, arguing that in the good old days and purest forms they all come to much the same thing. They use devices of ritual, mystery, drama, dance and meditation in order to enable us better to cope with the vale of tears in which we find ourselves. Religion is therefore properly a matter of practice, comparable with art or music. However, since the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, the practice has been steadily intellectualised and made into a matter of belief, argument, and ultimately dogma. It debases religion into a matter of belief in a certain number of propositions, stops it from being a practice and turns it into a theory - in particular the theory of the divine architect, which reduces God to a being rather than Being itself. Armstrong advocates a return to the silence of the apophatic tradition in which God cannot be defined and nothing about him can be put into words.
54) Livy, Ab urbe condita libri (re-read)
Livy's 'history' of the city of Rome and the Roman Empire from its foundation by Romulus and Remus in 753 BC to the reign of Augustus and the death of Drusus (9 AD). It had been 25 years since I last read it and I just wanted to remind myself of certain passages again.
55) ir. Peter Escher, drs. Bert Wams, mr. Frans Looise, ing. Wobbe A. Vlug, 100 Succesvolle Sollicitatiebrieven
What it says on the tin: how to write a successful letter of application. Although I have my reservations about how successful these clichéd examples can actually be, at least they can serve as a guideline...
56) Jude Morgan, The Taste of Sorrow
A fictionalised account of the lives of the Brontë sisters (and their brother), which reads like a dream.