Here we are, my ten favorite new reads of the year! Mostly English novels, plus one that's American and one that's Japanese. And a YA novel too - I'm definitely not the only one to be singing Elizabeth Wein's praises this year. These are in order of when I read them, because goodness, it was hard enough picking only ten without having to rank them too!
The Constant Nymph - I Capture the Castle meets Elizabeth von Arnim meets modernist arguments about the value of music, with a beautifully-characterized family and a tragic end to an unorthodox love triangle. I know this sounds like a ridiculous mix of literary elements, but it somehow comes together to a cohesive and awesome whole. Margaret Kennedy's The Constant Nymph was the bestselling English novel of its decade, but is sadly unknown today. I highly recommend it, and you can read more of my thoughts at my original review here.
Silas Marner - I ran out of books on a trip to Chicago, and picked this one up at a Barnes and Noble so I'd have something to read on the airplane home. I'm ever so glad I did! Silas Marner is a beautiful, ethereal fairy tale full of Christian symbolism about a man whose life is changed by adopting a daughter. After this first taste of George Eliot, I'm dying to get to Middlemarch and The Mill on the Floss, both waiting patiently on my to-read shelf.
Cluny Brown - Cluny is a plucky young lady without appropriate ideas of what's proper, so her overwhelmed uncle, a plumber, sends Cluny off into service as a Tall Parlour Maid. We then get to follow Cluny's coming of age as well as the marital travails of the young heir to the house. I loved this one so much that I promptly ordered my own copy after reading the library's! An upstairs/downstairs tale, it's the perfect recommendation for anyone pining after Downton Abbey. I've been trying out some other books by Margery Sharp, but have been sadly disappointed after the charm of this one.
The Warden - The first in Anthony Trollope's Barsetshire Chronicles, The Warden isn't quite so epic as the next few (or so I'm told), but this quiet story about uproar caused when the meek Anglican priest Septimus Harding is publicly criticized for his substantial income (which he spends on musical endeavors!). The real villains in this story are the other priests, led by Hardin's son-in-law, the Archdeacon, who attempt all sorts of machinations to foil the legal proceedings. I adore stories about noble priests, and the advantage Harding has over the Bishop of Digne in Victor Hugo's Les Miserables is that while the Bishop is overwhelmingly good from start to finish, Harding really has to struggle to figure out what the right action is, and then decide whether he'll take it, for no matter which way he decides, somebody is going to be financially and emotionally harmed. It's a tremendously moving story.
Miss Buncle’s Book - An unmarried spinster writes an anonymous novel about her village (for Barbara Buncle holds fast to the maxim "write what you know"). When her neighbors start recognizing themselves in the characters, mayhem ensues, and a surprising number of the events Barbara predicted come true. No one will be the same, not even the author herself. Pure fun, from the first page to the last!
The Squire - So many of my friends are having babies! I read this book, largely the musings of an Edwardian gentlewoman expecting her fifth child, in order that I might have some idea how pregnancy and motherhood might be experienced and explained. It is a truly lovely, introspective novel as much about mortality as it is about maternity, and it unfolds just as slowly and peacefully as Vita Sackville-West's All Passion Spent (one of my favorite books last year). I was delighted to be recently given a copy from my sister, along with another of Enid Bagnold's books, The Happy Foreigner - I hope this one is as good!
The Alteration - One of two alternate universe books I read to accompany my independent study on Tudor and Jacobean England this semester. Both books asked, "What would twentieth-century England look like if the English Reformation had never happened?" I liked Kingsley Amis's The Alteration a LOT better than Keith Roberts' Pavane (even though Pavane is apparently a highly-lauded example of alternative science fiction). In Amis's take, the English Reformation never happened because Martin Luther agreed to go to Rome. Luther became Pope Germanian I, meaning that no reformation movements gathered steam. The novel was a fascinating view of society, culture, and politics, had the European world remained Roman Catholic. Governments remained religiously-oriented, class divisions grew even starker, and science and technology lagged to the point where the book's setting in 1970s England still feels much like the medieval period - electricity is banned, so the world is still lit by candlelight. And oddly, apparently if the reformations never happened, Mozart wouldn't have died early, but would have gone on to write over 800 compositions, including a second Requiem! Most of the greatness of this book is exploring the world, but the plot and characters are engaging enough. The "alteration" in question is the decreed castration of a highly skilled boy chorister, which would enable him to keep his beautiful voice and sing for the glory of God at the pope's chapel. When young Hubert decides he doesn't want to undergo the procedure, he finds himself in a hopeless struggle against church policy and cultural expectations.
The Snow Child - Eowyn Ivey's debut novel is an exquisitely-crafted and hauntingly beautiful retelling of a Russian fairy tale, in which a childless married couple longs so hard for a child that they may well have dreamed her up out of snow. I loved the hints of magic, I loved the setting in 1920s rural Alaska, I loved the friendship that Mabel and Jack struck up with the neighboring family, and I loved the ethereal snow child Faina herself, so unearthly that conversation with her has no quotation marks, so that Faina's words themselves blend into the surrounding snow. It's the perfect winter novel, but be aware that it's hard to put down, and hard to avoid a few tears.