Thursday, December 27, 2012

Top Ten Books of the Year

It’s been great fun (not to mention provided a good many new entries for my TBR list!) to read everyone’s lists of their favorite books of the year.  After much agonizing, because I read a lot of really wonderful books and marked more than ten favorites, here are mine, in no particular order and introduced with completely made-up categories:

Favorite classic children’s book: Magic By the Lake by Edward Eager
Actually the third in the delightful series beginning with Half Magic, this book was even better!  Combine children’s summertime adventures with a talking turtle and a lake full of magic for them to use, and add Eager’s highly creative and witty prose that often had me laughing out loud: recipe for a perfect way to spend an afternoon!

Favorite new children’s book: The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy by Jeanne Birdsall
Actually very similar in style and premise to Eager and the other greats of classic children’s literature, Birdsall’s Penderwicks series is at once nostalgic and relevant and utterly charming.  Rosalind, Skye, Jane, and Batty are some of the most believably characterized group of children I’ve read about in a long time.  There will be five books in all, and I can’t wait for the final two to come out.

Favorite children’s book which works even better for adults: Daddy Long-Legs by Jean Webster
This is a darling gem of a book that I wish I'd found ten or fifteen years ago so that I could grow up with it. An epistolary novel (swoon!), this book is a series of letters written by orphan and would-be author Jerusha Abbott to the man who has anonymously sponsored her college education. Judy, as she decides to call herself, is spunky and thoughtful, and absolutely delighted to encounter a whole new world of education: "I didn’t know that Henry the Eighth was married more than once or that Shelley was a poet. I didn’t know that people used to be monkeys and that the Garden of Eden was a beautiful myth. I didn’t know that R.L.S. stood for Robert Louis Stevenson or that George Eliot was a lady. I had never seen a picture of the Mona Lisa and (it’s true but you won’t believe it) I had never heard of Sherlock Holmes." Absolutely enchanting.

Most life-changing novel: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
This book really needs no explanation or introduction.  On a strange whim I still don’t understand, I checked it out from my public library when I craved something new, different, and more relevant than the young adult books I’d read and re-read countless times but could no longer enjoy as an adult.  Amazing in itself, Jane Eyre got me started reading great literature and will always occupy a special place in my heart (and on my bookshelf!)

Best seasonal read: Elizabeth and Her German Garden by Elizabeth von Arnim
There’s no better way to read this diary of a German noblewoman’s quest to find herself through socially-unacceptable gardening than outside.  I was fortunate to read most of this book in a nearby park over the summer, surrounded by sunshine and flowers – the perfect location for the perfect summer novel!  My review can be found here.

Favorite book about the search for love and marriage: Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell
Extremely long but worth every second!  Wives and Daughters is a masterpiece: quiet, touching, clever, beautifully written…and unfinished.  As I wrote in my reviews here and here, it’s still worth the time to tackle this exquisite novel.

Favorite book about marriage: Greenery Street by Denis Mackail
The story of a first year of marriage, Greenery Street is about the place (Greenery Street: full of small homes inhabited by newlyweds, but only until they start having children and need more space) and the institution of marriage with all its joys, arguments, misunderstandings, and shared experiences as much as it is specifically about Ian and Felicity.  I’m only a year and a half into my own marriage; this book gets it right so often that I frequently read out passages to my husband and was even more frequently compelled to laugh out loud.

Favorite book about life after marriage: All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West
This book immediately leapt onto my list of new favorites. Tender, elegant, witty, amazing. After the death of her politician husband, elderly Lady Slane finally takes control of her own life. Shocking her grown children, she chooses to spend her last days renting a small house in the country, spending her time not with family but quietly, with a few gentle and artistic friends. Sackville-West's prose is beautiful, but the real triumph is this book's pacing. The contrast between contented Lady Slane and her more worldly, greedy children is illustrated through the drastically different pacing of these alternate scenes. I can only dream of aging as gracefully as this remarkable and insightful woman.

Favorite book from the world of book blogging: Guard Your Daughters by Diana Tutton
While it’s true that nearly all of the books I read this year came recommended by various book bloggers, this one had the most interesting introduction.  Many thanks to Simon for finding this lovely, quirky little novel and rescuing it from obscurity!  I still regret not buying a copy immediately; now it’s nearly impossible to find online for a decent price.  I consider it easily as wonderful as I Capture the Castle and hope to find my own copy someday.

And last, but most certainly not least,

Absolute favorite book of the year: The Summer Book by Tove Jansson
The best book I've read all year, hand's down.  I read this novel over winter break in a single sitting, shivering on my couch under a thick blanket with morning light streaming in through my living room window.  This may sound like a strange way to read a book about the summer adventures of a young girl and her grandmother, but somehow, this setting was perfect!  The Summer Book is at once beautifully simple and full of meaning, asking questions about life and offering glimpses of answers.  Sophia’s explorations of the island with her grandmother serve as a vehicle for discussion of life and death, family and relationships between people, God, tolerance, change, and wisdom.  This book sparkles, and I’ve recommended it to countless people over the course of the year.


  1. What a wonderful list of books, Samantha! Some of these I've never heard of (the first two children's books), a couple I hate (Jane Eyre and Guard Your Daughters), but the rest I adore. Wives and Daughters is an almost perfect book as far as I am concerned and it is one I return to practically every year. I missed it this year because of an ambitious 20th Century-focused reading project but I felt its absence keenly and plan to pick it up early in the new year.

    1. Well, if you're ever looking for a quick and enjoyable read, I would recommend Eager's "Half Magic" series and Birdsall's "Penderwicks" - both are truly delightful!

      I keep hearing about people who re-read Wives and Daughters and as much as I would LOVE to, I have to wonder - how do you find the time? It took me months to get through that book, and I loved every minute, but now I feel as if I perhaps should become acquainted with other very long classics before giving myself the luxury of returning to one. Or is it a quicker re-read? Perhaps we could put together a Wives and Daughters readalong next year. I'd love to hear other thoughts on it than merely my own. :-)

    2. I am a fast reader so it usually only takes me three or four days to read Wives and Daughters - less if I'm reading it over a weekend when I'm not working. It takes me more time to reread than it did to read it the first time, mostly because I like to pause and really savour my favourite sections. I never get tired of laughing at Hyacinth and my love for the Squire increases every year!

  2. Wonderful list. We seem to share very similar reading tastes. I totally concur about the Penderwicks. All three have been in heavy rotation in our house as everyone reads and re-reads. Can't wait for the next two!

    1. Any idea when they'll come out? I'm so eagerly anticipating them!

    2. Each of the Penderwicks were published three years apart so I'm guessing 2014 for the next one. That seems a very long time to wait, doesn't it!

    3. That does seem ever so long! Luckily there are a lot of other children's books I still need to catch up on, so I suppose I can fill the time until then. :-)

  3. I've been wanting to read "Half Magic" to my kids, but I'm not sure if they're quite old enough yet. And I definitely agree with you about the Penderwicks (your review of it was the first post I read of yours!). I really want to reread "Jane Eyre" this year. And now you have made me really want to read "The Summer Book." I hadn't even heard of it before you mentioned it! Thanks for the great list! I'm guessing you're getting back to your studies and research and papers now, so good luck!

    1. I think I read Half Magic when I was really young - I remember each chapter seeming almost interminably long. I'm so delighted to pass along the great books I've read this year. Somehow recommending them to others seems like the perfect way to celebrate a book that I've truly enjoyed. You know, someday if/when I have kids, I'll come to you for recommendations!