Wednesday 12 December 2018

Reading for pleasure

by Antonia Senior

I was a bookish child who became a bookish teenager. I was not entirely the introverted stereotype - there was a sociable wildness as well, and a fondness for boozing, smoking and boys. But always with a book, just in case.

Always. I would leave parties early to read; or if I couldn't escape, hide behind a sofa with a book. I would abandon the dancing, and read in the toilets of dodgy nightclubs, waiting for my friends to be ready to leave. My college boyfriend once almost dumped me when he caught me reading my book underneath the table during lunch with friends. 'But it's A Suitable Boy!' I argued, to little effect.

I'm telling you this to remind myself of that girl - the one who curled into the corners of loud rooms to read; the one who was never, ever bookless. About 60 per cent of the time, the book was historical fiction: Mary Renault and CS Forester, Patrick O'Brian and James Clavell. Some people used those nightclub toilets to shag someone or snort something - I was on a frigate rounding the Horn, or standing shield by shield with my lover against the advancing Spartans.

My shelves of best beloved books I have carried round with me for twenty odd years. Minus my lost, much lamented copy of Last of the Wine.

Sometimes, I need reminding of that girl because the downside of reviewing historical fiction is that it has turned my passion into something which can feel a little joyless. A compulsory TBR pile is daunting. A chore. But it also a privilege, and when I look askance at my 2019 pile building up, book by book, I imagine turning to that girl and telling her that she will one day review historical fiction for The Times. She would swear, and leap for joy, and down a shot of something.

My TBR Jenga
There are books which still make me excited. Books I would hide in toilets to read, in the unlikely event I ever again find myself in a nightclub in Hoxton at 2AM. These are the ten books I loved best in 2018, which appeared in The Times' Christmas pics:

Top Ten 2018
The Black Earth, Philip Kazan (Allison & Busby, £14.99)
Mr Peacock’s Possessions, Lydia Syson (Zaffre, £12.99)
Only Thieves and Killers, Paul Howarth (One, £16.99)
The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock, Imogen Hermes Gowar (Harvill Secker, £12.99)
Frieda: The original Lady Chatterly, Annabel Abbs (Two Roads, £14.99)
Little, Edward Carey (Aardvark Bureau, £14.99)
The Poison Bed, EC Fremantle (Michael Joseph, £12.99)
A Treachery of Spies, Manda Scott (Bantam Press, £16.99)
Smile of the Wolf, Tim Leach (Head of Zeus, £18.99)
Dark Water, Elizabeth Lowry (Riverrun, £16.99)

There are plenty of upcoming books that are making my pulse quicken. Top among these is Philip Kazan's The Phoenix of Florence, out in February from Allison & Busby. Kazan's The Black Earth was one of my favourite books of 2018, a love story set in WW2.  He is back on his usual ground of Renaissance Italy in this one. Kazan writes beautifully - and has a rare knack of conjuring joy as deftly as sorrow.

I'm also looking forward to Wakenhyrst, the new adult novel from Michelle Paver, out in April from Head of Zeus. Her previous horror-laced stories were mesmerising. My daughters love her children's books as well, and they have entertained all of us on more than one long car journey, which makes me well disposed towards her.

Blood & Sugar, a debut from Laura Sheperd-Robinson, out in January from Mantle, looks tasty; as does A River in the Trees by Jaqueline O'Mahoney, also out next month from Quercus. I'm hearing good things about The Binding by Bridget Collins, from HarperCollins. What are you looking forward to reading in 2019? What have I missed.

When the TBR jenga gets too high, or I get eye-rollingly irritated by the deluge of books with ghosts in them, or historical celebrities investigating murders (fashions come and go in publishing) I need to imagine a conversation with the young me. 'When you are old and saggy, you will get to review historical fiction for The Times.'

'Fuck me, you're not serious,' she'd say, drawing deep on a B&H. 'You get sent a load of books for free, and you get to review them in a national newspaper, and champion the ones you really, really love. And you get paid for that? And she'd whoop, and cheer, and crack open a beer and settle in the corner of any room for a celebratory read of HMS Surprise. 



Marian said...

Thanks for this list.....can’t wait to start on it.

AnnP said...

Yes, thank you for a very interesting list. I've read a couple and have reserved some from the library. And I'm hoping Father Christmas will bring a book token.........