Great discoveries, whether of silk or of gravity, are always windfalls. They happen to people loafing under trees.”
Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex.

I’ve read a lot of good books this year, tried bravely with a lot of books that I tried to like and couldn’t (but I’m not telling you what they are) and wanted to share with you the following results of my own loafing under trees.

Top of the heap, Kate Atkinson’s Case Histories. Its back cover blurb describes it as a literary detective novel, which I suppose it is. The book is about a group of people who you think at first have nothing in common, but as the book progresses, you see how their lives are linked together. Two murders are common threads, but there’s a lot more going on; at the end, you know more than the characters do, and it’s a pleasure to put the pieces together. Wonderfully written, wry, and funny. A sequel has just been released and I can’t wait to get my hands on it.

I was a bit nervous of Emma Donoghue’s collection of short stories, Touchy Subjects. I loved her first book, Slammerkin, and found myself wondering with her next full-length historical, Life Mask, how such a good writer could make such an interesting setting and group of characters so, well, boring. But I loved these short stories, ranging from the touching and mysterious to the ribaldly funny (hint: gentlemen, do not choose a hotel in Dublin where everyone knows you for an attempt at artifical insemination with your wife’s best friend).

Somehow I missed Jeffrey Eugenides’s brilliant, erotic, funny Middlesex when it first came out in 2003. We’ve been passing Middlesex around at work, and we’ve all been enchanted and thrilled by it. It’s hard to describe what this book is about, a huge, rich, rambling chronicle of a Greek-American family, a cross between Greek myth and Tristram Shandy, spanning decades and generations.

Another book I loved this year, because it had the power to take you into another time, was Kate Dolan’s Restitution. Set in eighteenth-century Maryland, it tells the story of ordinary people caught up in the tumultuous years before American independence; they’re not called upon to perform heroic acts, but they do have to make choices and sacrifices. Restitution blends both fictional and historic characters and paints a wonderfully vivid picture of colonial life.

And, guess what, I actually read some romances this year! And enjoyed them. First, Pam Rosenthal’s wonderful The Slightest Provocation–another book that blends fiction and history. This is a complex, challenging, adventurous read; Rosenthal blends the past and present of her characters, and her hero and heroine are annoying, frustrating, human people who don’t always behave well, but are completely convincing in their frailty. They have a strong sense of the ordinary about them, of people caught up in extraordinary events and times, and trying to make the best decisions. Read the Riskies interview with Pam here.

That’s what I also enjoyed about Eloisa James’s The Taming of the Duke–ordinary people (although more caught up in the trappings of the aristocracy than Rosenthal’s) dealing with ordinary, stupid, human tragedy. I loved the way James dealt with her Duke’s alcoholism–not a hint of modern theory of disease, but a thoroughly believable and moving account of his attempt to remake his life and confront his past. And chock full of literary and theatrical references, a real treat. A perfect romance–why can’t they all be this good?

And a couple of contemporaries, both written by smart Englishwomen (well, Julie’s from Maine, but she sounds English to me, and lives in my home town). Portia da Costa’s Entertaining Mr. Stone is a very funny erotic novel. It’s set, mainly, in a labyrinthine local government office where everyone, er, misbehaves. Imagine Kafka in a good mood letting his hair (or pants) down. A great naughty read. Again, ordinary people faced with the extraordinary. Is this a theme, class?

And Julie Cohen’s Delicious is, in a word, delicious. He’s a superstar chef, she’s a teacher–ordinary people again, more or less. It’s all about taking risks and allowing yourself to trust–nothing new, but beautifully written, and written from the heart, and with deep sympathy for the adolescent kids, who, in a lesser writer, would have been only wallpaper.

My best re-read of 2006 was Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend, which I blogged about a few months ago here.

Happy new year, everyone!