Books of 2010: The best of the rest

December 23, 2010 at 2:42 am (Best of 2010, books)

In late July, I listed my favorite books of the year thus far.

Here’s the second and final part of  that list:

FICTION

*Mrs Craddock – W Somerset Maugham
*Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand – Helen Simonson
Conspirata – Robert Harris
*Short stories by W. Somerset Maugham

MYSTERY

*The Pale Horse – Agatha Christie
The Labors of Hercules – Agatha Christie
Red Herring – Archer Mayor
The Dragons of Archenfield – Edward Marston
*Portobello – Ruth Rendell
Red Bones – Ann Cleeves
Bad Boy – Peter Robinson
*The Dark Vineyard – Martin Walker
A Question of Belief – Donna Leon
The Darkest Room – Johan Theorin
Babel – Barry Maitland
Long Time Coming – Robert Goddard
The Instant Enemy – Ross MacDonald
*Deliver Us From Evil – Peter Turnbull
*The Charming Quirks of Others – Alexander McCall Smith

Some day I’ll find another picture of Peter Turnbull. Meanwhile, this tried and true image will have to do: . Turnbull’s prose style is highly idiosyncratic. It may be an acquired taste. If so, I’ve acquired it. I find his procedurals utterly compelling; this latest is no exception:.

Two superb novels from Ruth Rendell this year: Portobello and The Monster in the Box (How do I love her; Let me count the ways...)

Some great reading courtesy of Donna Leon as well: A Sea of Troubles and A Question of Belief

NONFICTION

The Hare with Amber Eyes – Edmund de Waal
*The Fall of the House of Walworth – Geoffrey O’Brien
*The Last Empty Places – Peter Stark
*The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham – Selina Hastings

Comments and observation:

For the sake consistency, I placed an asterisk by certain titles I particularly enjoyed. I did this with the first post on my favorite books of 2010, but it seemed more difficult this time, as though I were making hair’s breadth distinctions between books when I got so much pleasure out of each of them.

Back in October I described a visit to Books with a Past and my purchase while there of a volume of works by Somerset Maugham. This acquisition was prompted by a conversation I had recently had with a library patron and my subsequent decision to read a new biography of this author:   At this writing, I have only some sixty pages left in this 549-page work. I’m dragging my feet about finishing it, as it is one of the most enthralling reading experiences I’ve had in years. (Am I always saying that? Well, but it’s really true this time!) As is bound to happen when you’re reading an author’s biography, that author’s works come under scrutiny as well as his or her life. Mrs. Craddock was Maugham’s second novel, written in 1900. I had never heard of it, but Selina Hastings’s praise of that work  made me want to read it. It was marvelous. (There’s a link to my review above.) As for the short stories, they too are terrific. Many critics believe that this was the form in which Maugham truly excelled. I’ll have more to say about the stories in a subsequent post.

Two of Archer Mayor’s Joe Gunther novels made the cut this year. This prompts me to recount my Archer Mayor story. The day after posting my review of Red Herring, I was scheduled to fly out to Chicago for the purpose of seeing (yet again!) this excellent small personage: . While browsing at an airport newsstand, I found myself standing next to a tall, slender man wearing a checked shirt and a knit vest. His brow was furrowed in concentration as he jotted down some notes on a scrap of paper. I looked at him – then looked again. Be darned, I thought, if that is not the spitting image Archer Mayor. Oh well, I thought, you watched a video of this author just yesterday. (See the Red Herring post, linked to above.) You’ve simply got Archer Mayor on the brain. And so I didn’t say anything to the gentleman at the time. But days passed and I couldn’t put the (alleged) sighting out of my mind. Finally I e-mailed Mayor from his website, detailing the exact time and venue, and asking him if he was in fact, at BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport at the date and time specified. Long story short: It was him, all right, on his way to an appearance at the venerable Poisoned Pen Bookstore in Scottsdale, AZ. (I took the opportunity to tell him how much I admire the Joe Gunther novels, for which he thanked me graciously.)

Archer Mayor

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Digression on the Subject of Travel Plans (Trust me – this is relevant): This coming May, I plan to return to Britain. I’ll be taking a tour entitled, “From Brother Cadfael to Lydmouth: The Welsh Borders through Time.” We’ll also be attending Crimefest 2011 in Bristol. Our culminating activity will be a visit to Greenway, Agatha Christie’s country home, where we’ll meet with John Curran, authority on Agatha Christie’s life and works and author of Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks. When Ron and I visited the south coast of Devon in 2006, Greenway was still being readied by the National Trust for viewing by the public. (This goal was achieved in February of 2009.) As we sailed up the Dart estuary, we gazed at the house from afar; ever since, I have longed to go inside. It is the opportunity to finally do so that the tipped the balance for me with regard to signing up for this tour.

Greenway, glimpsed from a distance in 2006

Naturally, a tour like this comes with a reading list. One of the titles on that list is The Dragons of Archenfield by Edward Marston. Though a mere 242 pages in length, I found the novel slow going. This was mainly due to the multiplicity of characters, the complexity of the plot, and the difficulty experienced by this reader in keeping track of the doings of the various warring factions. Despite all this, I liked the book, finding it an enjoyable romp through early medieval Britain. We all remember from our long-ago history lessons (not to mention Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe) that following the Battle of Hastings, there was considerable enmity between the victorious Normans and the defeated Saxons. But did you know that one of the reasons the former disdained the latter was that  they drank ale instead of wine? And were you aware that women were often in charge of brewing that ale? Soldier Ralph Delchard, an emissary from King William the Conqueror, tosses off the phrase “this disgusting English ale” when he first meets a lovely widow named Golde. Unfortunately for Ralph, Golde herself runs a brewery with her sister. No worries; a romance develops anyway. I wasn’t quite sure of its likelihood, but it certainly added spice to the proceedings!

Into the mix of Normans and Saxons, Marston adds the Welsh, who of course have their own claims to the land. And conflicting claims of land ownership are at the heart of the action in The Dragons of Archenfield.

In London, at the conclusion of the aforementioned 2006 trip – a Smithsonian tour, by the way – Edward Marston hosted a panel of authors. When I chatted briefly with him afterward, he was delighted to learn that I live in Maryland, the state in which one of his favorite authors, Barbara Michaels, also resides.  . We’ll be having lunch with Edward Marston, at which time he’ll talk to us about his novels set in the Welsh borders.

It will be a pleasure to once again encounter Mr. Marston.

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Finally, I have to say how much I’ve enjoyed my reading in nonfiction this year. Alas, I’ve never done a proper review of Lyndall Gordon’s eye-opener, Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and her Family’s Feuds. I loved this book so much I bought it. So perhaps at some point I will get around to writing about it in some depth.

I haven’t written about The Last Empty Places at all, though I also loved (and bought) that book. Peter Stark writes marvelously about places in this country that I thought I knew about and didn’t. He makes four richly described pilgrimages into the American interior; on two of those occasions, he wife and children come with him. What a great gift to give to your kids! More to come on this very special chronicle – I promise!

Peter Stark

2 Comments

  1. Michael DeSylvia said,

    I don;t know anything about you and your critique(s) of books; but Stark’s book on “empty/remote” places is wonderful and well done on all levels.

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Michael, I couldn’t agree with you more. I only wish more people knew about this beautiful book.

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