helene hanff

my favourite reads of 2018

Books should always be accompanied by tea and homemade cake where possible.

Books should always be accompanied by tea and homemade cake where possible.

In true Phil tradition, I wait until it is quite embarrassing to have a blog post with “2018” in the title to divulge my favourite reads of the last year. Also in my usual style, some of the best books were discovered and read in the final days of December, hence the long mulling over. But now I have decided and I hope you will enjoy hearing about my choices and maybe even be inspired to read them yourself. As always, I’d love to hear what your favourite reads of last year were too.

The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart by Holly Ringland

Full disclosure, Holly is a friend and I had been eagerly anticipating this book for years but I bought my own copy (which is the best way to support a friend who publishes a book! Buy it! Buy two! I speak from experience here) and was under no obligation to say nice things about it in public. But that is neither here nor there because I have nothing but nice things to say about it!

Lost Flowers is a read you won't forget in a hurry. Exquisitely written, this is a compelling story of grief, heartbreak, love, magic, wonder and redemption, with Australia's beautiful landscapes (bush, sea and desert) as the backdrop. Despite very dark subject matter, Holly has crafted a truly beautiful story that reads almost like a fairytale and brings it alive with luscious detail, particularly when it comes to Australia's native flowers, the vehicle through which young Alice Hart learns to communicate again after a violent family tragedy. 

But flowers can only say so much and the book's ultimate, powerful message is that, no matter how hard you try, you cannot run away from grief, from pain and from your past because it will always find you. There are some very dark times for Alice as she ignores danger signals time and time again - which is so unsettling as a reader, because you end up caring so much about her! - but Alice's story is, in the end, a hopeful one as she realises that facing pain and owning your story is the only way to move forward and claim your rightful place in the world. 

Books don't often move me in the way this one did. The storytelling is truly spectacular and the character of Alice Hart is the lost, frightened child seeking love and belonging that I think speaks to that part of all of us. Holly is a magical writer and I'd say this book is destined to become something of an Australian classic.

Someone At A Distance by Dorothy Whipple

I mentioned this book in my post about my love affair with Persephone Books which was well and truly rekindled in 2018. Someone At A Distance has probably been my favourite Persephone so far, and that is saying something, because they are yet to publish something I don’t enjoy!

Described as "a fairly ordinary tale about the destruction of a happy marriage", I was quite unprepared for how compelling and absorbing this tale would be. It's a novel all about relationships, how they form and also how they fall apart. Sometimes all it can take is 'someone at a distance' for that to happen. The novel follows what happens to this family when the husband/father is unfaithful, and the emotional devastation that has on everyone - there’s no great twist, per se, but the book’s genius and charm lies in how it explores the emotional lives of the characters, and how compassionately Whipple manages to do this. And I think Louise (the other woman) is by far the most repugnant character I’ve ever come across in literature. Dorothy Whipple was an extraordinary writer and I now want to read everything she ever wrote.

The Tuscan Cookbook by Stephanie Alexander and Maggie Beer

Stephanie’s Journal is one of my favourite books (it’s one of my mate Veggie Mama’s too!) - it is the diary Stephanie Alexander kept in the year 1997, which turned out to be a momentous one for her. She closed her famous restaurant in Melbourne, opened the Richmond Hill Cafe and Larder, and held three residential cooking schools in Tuscany with her friend Maggie Beer. I have read the journal countless times - at least once a year since I bought it off the sale table in Fullers Bookshop in 2001 sometime - but I had never read the cookbook that Stephanie and Maggie put out the year after the cooking schools, which naturally were full! Of course, it was published 20 years ago and it wasn’t easy to get a copy in the UK - but an Amazon secondhand seller came to rescue and I managed to get a copy that was signed by Stephanie herself! (I shall have to hope I run into Maggie sometime now that I’m back in Oz so she can sign it too!) It was such a treat to read this book after many years of imagining the cooking school, in the magical Tuscan countryside, and all the mouthwatering food they cooked. It has not only added to my enjoyment of one of my favourite books but it was a sumptuous read in its own right, with so many delicious recipes and ideas. So many recipes for cavolo nero, my favourite vegetable!

Home Cook by Thomasina Miers

I could not leave this book out of my favourites of the year, primarily because I cooked so much from it in 2018. Every recipe from this book that I’ve tried is an absolute winner. My favourite was the marmalade breakfast muffins, which I must have made every week for a couple of months, I just couldn’t get enough! When you’re an experienced cook it’s very rare when a book comes along that gives you new ideas and fresh energy to get into the kitchen and try some different things. Highly recommended!

The entire works of Diana Henry but particularly How To Eat A Peach and Food from Plenty

Diana Henry is fast becoming my favourite food writer. Her words are so evocative and poetic, you can practically smell what she’s cooking. This is a woman who loves food and has lived it. So many of the milestones in her life have a food story linked to it somehow, and I find this so interesting to read. Stories behind food and dishes, when they are told well, add greatly to my enjoyment of a recipe. I made quite a few dishes from How To Eat A Peach (which Tom got me for my birthday) over the long, hot summer we enjoyed in the UK last year and they were all excellent. It’s a lovely summery book, evidenced in the great variety of recipes for ice creams and sorbets (and such inventive combinations!). Perfect to sit with a cold glass of something indulgent and plan a dinner party with. Towards the end of the year, I noticed that nearly all Diana Henry’s books were 99p on Kindle for a few weeks, so I bought all of them (apart from the one entirely devoted to chicken, seeing I don’t eat it!). As with Thomasina Miers, it is rare for me to encounter a food writer that makes me want to actually cook their recipes as opposed to just soak up their exquisite prose.

Miss Buncle’s Book by D.E Stevenson

Also mentioned in my Persephone post and one of my favourites of theirs. Written in 1934 and hence reflecting the concerns of women at the time, without the financial security of marriage, Miss Barbara Buncle finds herself needing to supplement her already meagre income. She does what many people think will bring certain fame and fortune - write and publish a book! She writes a novel based on her village and all the people who live in it, thinking that changing names and writing it under a pseudonym will be sufficient to hide their true identities. To her huge surprise, her book (or John Smith’s book!) is a huge bestseller and her publisher wants a sequel, but lo and behold, all the villagers have read it, recognise themselves and their village immediately (which says it all, as some of it isn’t flattering!), are outraged and determined to find out who ‘John Smith’ is and make ‘him’ pay. No one suspects the dowdy and quiet Miss Buncle for a second, which is where all the hilarity ensues - but also makes an interesting observation that people often do have hidden lives and assumptions we make about others can so very often be wrong. It’s absorbing, intelligent and very charming.

84 Charing Cross Road / The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street by Helene Hanff

“I used to go to English movies just to look at the streets. I remember years ago a guy I knew told me that people going to England find exactly what they go looking for. I said I'd go looking for the England of English Literature, and he nodded and said: ‘It's there.’” Oh, this glorious book. What a treat. I’d wanted to read it for years - and on one sunny Sunday in September last year I read it, the whole thing (my edition included the sequel, The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street), and adored it. Do you ever read a book and as you’re reading it you know you’ve found a new favourite you’ll read again and again? That was this book for me. If you love London and books, I highly recommend it. It’s as charming and delightful as everyone says.

The Fortnight in September by R.C Sheriff

Also a Persephone book and an unusual one in that it was written by a man! But this was one of the most accomplished, most finely observed novels I have ever read. The premise is so simple - we follow the Stevens family on their annual two week holiday to the seaside in Bognor Regis. They are a typical middle-class 1930s family and have been going to the same B&B run by the same people for a very long time. Their holiday is as well-planned and thought out as their daily lives in South London, Mr Stevens has thought of everything down to the packing of the suitcases, the timings of the trains and which beach hut to hire for the best perspective. The B&B isn’t quite as comfortable as it used to be - slightly shabby, the landlady a little older and dottier - but the Stevens family do what they’ve always done and make the best of things. It’s an absolutely fascinating novel and so finely and accurately observed. Like I said, such a simple premise but the novel manages to capture all the big concerns of life within it - love, hope, disappointment, home, family, the passing of the years. I also loved how the very feeling of being on holiday is captured in this book - how the arrival at one’s destination is so anticipated and exciting, and then the days begin to roll by faster and faster and before you know it, the holiday is over and it’s time to go back home, to normal life. Wonderful. Simply wonderful.

Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym

I had been meaning to read this book for years and it felt poetic that I read it in November, during my last autumn in London. I seem to be enjoying novels that are more character studies, perhaps reflective of the direction my own writing is taking. In Quartet in Autumn, we meet four people who are colleagues sharing the same office - two men, two women, all of whom are nearing retirement age. The setting is London in the late 1970s and it’s an interesting study of loneliness and friendship, and how people’s inner and outer lives can be poles apart. Pym’s ability to write about the humdrum existences of these people without losing the reader at any point is quite incredible. I am studying her techniques intently! A writer of great tenderness and humour. I loved it.

One Day in December by Josie Silver

Instagram friends raving about this book + 99p on Kindle + 23 hours of flying from London to Melbourne = done deal! I wanted an absorbing, fun read for the London to Singapore leg of our journey home to Australia in December (ha!) and I got that and more with One Day in December. Wow. Good thing I was able to read the entire thing in one sitting because it is such a sweet, compelling and emotional story that I would have found it hard to put down otherwise.  I won't say anything about the plot - all I will say is that is it very, very rare for me to be moved to tears by a book. I cried a few times during the reading, but by the end I was a sobbing mess! Maybe it's because I was sleep deprived and emotional about returning home, who knows! But if you want a romantic and unputdownable holiday read that will really make you think about love, friendship, life and fate, I couldn't recommend this more highly.

The Empress of Australia: A Post War Memoir by Harry Leslie Smith

Harry Leslie Smith sadly passed away just as I was discovering his work late last year. I would highly recommend watching his speech at the Labour Party Conference in 2014. A man who lived through the depression of the 1930s, the Second World War and enormous social change throughout his lifetime, in his eighties and nineties Harry became a passionate political voice, speaking out about NHS cutbacks, benefits policy, political corruption, food poverty, the cost of education – and how the world his generation helped to build out of the rubble of depression, social inequality and the terror of war is slowly eroding. “Don’t let my past be your future,” he warned. This particular memoir was about life in Britain after he was demobbed from service in 1948 and attempted to make a life back in his hometown with his German wife. The attitude towards her was quite shocking (but I was also shocked to realise that it’s not dissimilar to attitudes towards immigrants and foreigners in modern day Britain! Very little has actually changed. Even the scene that takes place at peak hour in Paddington station when Harry and Friede are trying to get home from Gatwick was hauntingly similar to my experiences! But that’s a post for another day) and Harry’s valiant attempts to make a home for her are so noble and heartbreaking, but sadly it all unravels as Friede simply can’t adjust to the culture shock of post-war austerity Britain and Harry’s hopes of making a good life in working class Halifax fade rapidly. Eventually the story has a happy ending as they decide to emigrate to Canada on the ship from which this memoir derives its title. I read this as part of research for my novel, also set in 1948, and will refer to it often. What a brave, extraordinary man he was. I’m so glad he wrote his stories down.

Any Ordinary Day by Leigh Sales

One of the first books I borrowed from the library on landing in Hobart! In this book, journalist Leigh Sales interviews several people who have suffered or been involved in high-profile tragedies such as the Thredbo landslide and Port Arthur (I found that one the hardest to read) and how they coped with the trauma and attention that followed. After all, the days that these tragedies took place were just another ordinary day, to begin with. They woke up that morning having no idea by evening their lives would be forever altered. The interviews are powerful and honest. And alongside these very courageous testimonies is Leigh exploring the idea that none of us know when something will happen that changes everything. We have no ability to control these kinds of events happening to us, or our loved ones. We are all vulnerable. And if the worst does happen, what do you do then? Any Ordinary Day is such a compelling book about human capacity for resilience, courage, kindness and endurance. I wouldn’t recommend reading it before bed (!) but any other time you need to feel reminded of the resilience of human beings, the ability of communities to rally round and support each other, or just to feel nothing but unbridled gratitude for your life’s many blessings, this is a great read.

What books did you most enjoy reading in 2018?

PS: As I mention every year, any links to Amazon are affiliate links. This means if you click on the link and end up making a purchase, I get a small commission. Many thanks for your support xx