Category Archives: John Curran

Books of 2009

As the end of the year draws in I find that I become quite reflective. I have actually had a bit of an issue with reading this week and wonder if that is an end of year thing, more on that at some other point. 2009 has been a big year for this blog; it’s also been a big year for my reading. It seems a delightful coincidence that today as I wrap up my best reads of 2009 it is also my 500th post which I think deserves some fireworks…

My original idea of doing my ‘best of’ like I did last year with The Savidge Dozen just wasn’t working. I have read too many brilliant books and so I thought I would instead do two separate top ten’s. The first being my favourite books published or re-issued in 2009 itself which was hard and actually I got down to a final twelve but I had to cut the delightful books Notwithstanding and ‘The Earth Hums in B Flat’ and be tough to make the ten which are (click on each title for full review)…

10. Legend of a Suicide by David Vann – One of the most emotionally raw novels I have ever read. Fictional accounts of a father’s suicide, the events leading up to it and the effects of this tragedy on his son and others around him, based in parts on the authors own fathers suicide. Moving and masterfully written.  

9. The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood – The first of two Atwood novels that truly made my year. This dark (and often darkly funny) tale of the future of humanity starts off sounding like something out of a sci-fi novel yet disturbingly slowly reads as a not too distant possibility.  

8. After The Fire, A Still Small Voice by Evie Wyld – Without question the debut novel of the year for me. A book many are labelling as being a ‘War book’, I wouldn’t 100% agree with that as its so much more. The author calls it a ‘romantic thriller about men who don’t speak’ I would call it ‘a book about the dark truths behind the faces of those we love’ a compelling and moving read.

7. Howards End is on the Landing by Susan Hill – Some loved it some hated it, I revelled in it. Susan Hill’s thoughts on some of her books and the people she met who wrote them. And she popped by and made a comment or two.

6. The Taste of Sorrow by Jude Morgan – A fictional account of those famous Bronte Sisters which sadly didn’t get the Man Booker notice it should have. This brings the Bronte’s to life and you will think of them slightly differently. Made me want to read every Bronte book I could… as yet I haven’t started but a possible resolution for 2010, that or read all of Morgan’s prior works.

5. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel – The deserved winner from the Man Booker Shortlist and the one I guessed (though I was hoping a certain other book would win, see below). I thought that there had been Tudor fiction overload, I was wrong just as I was wrong that reading a book about Thomas Cromwell that was huge would bore me to death, I was enthralled and enwrapped.

4. Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie – The only way I can think of to describe this book which skips such a huge expanse of time is ‘a war torn epic’. I thought this was marvellous and was thrilled I got to hear her speak about it and even ask her a question; I was a bit in awe.

3. Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks by John Curran – Definitely the non fiction book of 2009, well published in 2009. Getting a glimpse into the private world of such a marvellous author and how her criminal mastermind brain worked and plotted was utterly fascinating.

2. Henrietta’s War by Joyce Dennys – Technically not actually released originally in 2009, but thankfully brought back from the past thanks to the wonderful Bloomsbury Group. The tale of Henrietta and the villagers she lives with during the war had me laughing out loud all over the place.

1. Brooklyn by Colm Toibin – A book I fell wholly in love with from start to finish. It might not have the biggest plot or be brimming with a huge cast of characters but its simplicity is what makes it so stunning. An interesting look at the life of a woman who is sent to be saved from the poverty in Ireland by being shipped to America, only not everyone wants to be saved. Utterly stunning and quietly intense.

***

Then I had the ridiculous task of finding the ten ‘best of the rest’ which in a year where I read such delights as The Secret Scripture (which lost a point or two for the ending I won’t lie) and the joy Miss Garnett’s Angel and had a Sensation Season was going to be tough. OK, so it’s not quite ten but it’s as close as I could get. The final ten (cough, eleven) are…

10. Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith – I wasn’t convinced that a thriller based on a child murderer in the time of Stalinist Russia would work for me. I was utterly wrong as I think for me it’s been the thriller of the year. Also thrilling was getting to go to Tom’s house for coffee and questions.

9. The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood – Proof that sometimes books can be hard work but all that hard work is definitely worth it. Opening with the suicide of the narrator’s sister, this becomes an epic novel of the lives of the Chase sisters and the effects of the Second World War. Also comes with an intriguing novel inside the novel and a sci-fi-ish novel inside that one, are you keeping up?

8. State of Happiness by Stella Duffy – I am a big admirer of Stella and her work and this to me is her best fiction yet (oh but wait for the next one in 2010) despite loving her latest book The Room of Lost Things in 2008. This is a tale about love and ultimately death and it broke my heart and made me cry quite a lot. If you are up for an emotional journey and wonderful writing you simply cannot miss this book.

7. Lady into Fox by David Garnett – Wonderful surreal and touching fable of a husband and how he deals with his wife randomly turning into a fox one day. This is may only be 96 pages long but each page is perfection.

6. Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – Most of the planet with have read this novel so I will simply say a modern classic masterpiece about a dystopian future where we are all under the watchful all seeing eye of Big Brother and should ever be fearful of Room 101.  

5. The Shuttle by Frances Hodgson Burnett – My first year of reading Persephone books and this one just took me on a journey that I wasn’t expecting. A sensational tale of rich American heiresses, one whom meekly marries an Englishman for a title and vanishes, the other a forthright woman who wishes to seek her sister out and solve the mystery of what has befallen her.

4. Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes – A total surprise hit of 2009 for me. I never thought that a ‘sci-fi’ book about a mentally handicapped man and a genius mouse would grab me let alone move me to tears and yet this frankly marvellous book did exactly that.

3. Small Island by Andrea Levy – Really this is a modern masterpiece. A tale of two completely different women brought together through war and adversity. Also a tale of forbidden love, war, racism and hope, a remarkable book I was glad Granny Savidge Reads recommended so strongly and so often.

2. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote – This book is what I may now consider the greatest nonfiction book I have ever read (so far – though unlikely to be beaten). A true tale of the ruthless killing of a family in America, and a thought provoking quite often disturbing study of their murderers. In parts bleak and horrific, it’s also emotional (I cried at this one too) and yet a darkly fascinating insight into the minds of killers.  

1. East Lynne by Ellen Wood/Armadale by Wilkie Collins – Technically I am cheating but I really couldn’t decide between these two. The epic scope, characters and thrilling plots of each of these was utterly remarkable. In a year where I rediscovered my loved of all things sensational I found these two new favourite books. Both of these are genuine gems of sensation novels and couldn’t have more mystery, twists, dramas or thrills if they tried.

***

I have to say I don’t think that minimal short snappy reviews are my fortes so do visit the full reviews, they are much better. Should you be really tough and ask me which out of this final twenty one would be my favourite of the year I would have to go with… Brooklyn by Colm Toibin. I know some people will be surprised after my sensation fiction love in and some of you won’t agree and that’s fine, though don’t push your negative comments below this post (ha, ha, ha), for me it was just wonderful and a true surprise delight in this years Man Booker Longlist read-a-thon. There will be much more Toibin to come in 2010 I promise you. Now I must dash as I have a party to prepare for (attending not hosting) and some resolutions to make… What have been your best books of 2009?

Advertisements

49 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Levy, Books of 2009, Colm Toibin, Daniel Keyes, David Garnett, David Vann, Ellen Wood, Evie Wyld, Frances Hodgson Burnett, George Orwell, Hilary Mantel, John Curran, Jude Morgan, Kamila Shamsie, Margaret Atwood, Stella Duffy, Susan Hill, Tom Rob Smith, Truman Capote, Wilkie Collins

Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks – John Curran

A theme seems to be occurring when it comes to my reading habits. I always say that I am not the biggest fan of non fiction and then I read one each year and it completely takes my breath away (well almost) with its brilliance and soon becomes on of my favourites if not my favourite book of the year. This happened last year with ‘The Mitford’s: Letters Between Six Sisters’ by Charlotte Mosley, I utterly adored it couldn’t put it down and yet at the same time didn’t want it to end. This has happened again this year with ‘Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks’ by John Curran.

I heard about Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks on one of the many book podcasts that I download each week. These notebooks were a recent discovery when Christie’s family allowed Greenway, Christie’s holiday home, to be taken over by the National Trust. They had never been on display, they were a mix up of several plots, daily to do’s, shopping lists, character ideas, lists of books (made me love Agatha even more) she wanted and other thoughts with no chronological order. That is where John Curran, an Agatha expert and friend of Christie’s grandson, came in and this book is the results of four years work trying to decipher some of Christie’s handwriting “often like short hand” and working out what notes related to what books and when.

The discoveries are really very interesting. It seems that Curran’s (and probably most readers of her work) image of Agatha sat endlessly typing murder after murder, book after book with the killer planned at the start isn’t quite so. In fact as you get to read her notes, which John has painstakingly transcribed, you find she would often chop and change the killer as she went. The idea for a book might ruminate for years and start from a simple observation as ‘a stamp’ the notes then look at how such an everyday item could cause someone to commit murder. Who knew that a certain famous Poirot scene was originally meant for Miss Marple? Which books didn’t have the endings you and I might have read? Which short stories then with new characters and a subtle plot twist or motive change became a play or a novel? You can find all these things out and much, much more.

The book isn’t just John’s transcriptions, there are some wonderful pictures (as you can see above)  of the notes she had written with crossings out (which actually meant she had used the notes not that they were rubbish. This book isn’t just about her notebooks, though naturally they are predominantly the subject of the book. He also interweaves her personal life from making hair appointments to having her grandchildren to say and being part of ‘The Detection Club’ a group of the finest detective fiction writers with a secret initiation ceremony. Her disappearance isn’t much mentioned but this is more about the process behind the books and what went on in Agatha’s head.

I have to say I don’t think you have to be a huge Agatha fan in order to read this, though if you are this book is pure gold. If you are interested in how the minds of authors work and in particular one of the great British authors (who has sold over two billion copies of her books worldwide) ever then this is also fascinating. There are a couple of glitches in the book. One, which you can overcome, is that it does give a lot of the books endings away. My thoughts on that are just leave those books a while before you read or re-read them as she has so many ‘you could read one a month for seven years’. The other small glitch for me is Curran’s slight case of repetition; I think in the first hundred pages I had read the same quote three times which seemed to be hammering a point home a little too much. This is minor though as I found Curran a really interesting and enjoyable guide through these notebooks, he was never too clever or condescending just very enthusiastic which we all know is highly contagious.

Ooh, I must mention, well show you, the delightful end papers which are a selection of the notebooks and look gorgeous (my Gran could remember lots of them) I think…

This is a wonderful book that I adored, and I freely admit that I am quite a hard person to please with non fiction yet this won me over almost instantly. This is undoubtedly one of my favourite books of the year It has also made my previous desire to read all Agatha Christie that I can a much bigger desire. I am quite tempted to read The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding next week! Oh, which brings me to the point that this book has finally won me over to Poirot and not just because of the notes, but also the two previously unpublished short stories he features in. A must read in my humble opinion.

17 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Books of 2009, Harper Collins, John Curran, Review