Posted by: Sarah | December 31, 2005

What I Read in 2005

The list below reflects several obsessions, none of which I had any inkling of when the year began. In fact, the only books I’d actually planned to read in 2005 were the Patrick O’Brian (I’d like to have read at least the next two as well), the Manda Scott and the Ian McEwan. Some (*) I read for review in The Historical Novels Review and hope to post all those reviews here soon. Some (Bleak House and Pride and Prejudice) were re-reads sparked by new film or TV adaptations. Some I read to see what all the fuss was about (the Philip Pullmans and The Da Vinci Code), while others were Richard & Judy recommendations, all of which were, incidentally, splendid reads. Oh, and Sword at Sunset is in my Top Ten List of Most Cherished and Re-Read Historical Novels, and its time had simply and sublimely come again.

Why, you may ask — four biographies of Jane Austen, a woman whose brother claimed she led a most uneventful life? Well, yes, up to a point. But there was plenty going on in her mind, some of it surprising. Each of these high-grade, intelligent and very readable biographies has a different take (literary, psychological, Jane as the subject of one of her own novels) and they all add up to what must be one of the most well-rounded portraits of any famous figure. The net result of my Janeite binge was that I felt I knew her personally and understood her. Park Honan’s book is the most perceptive but Carol Shields’ brief tome is particularly poignant as one author’s insights into another, each of them dying relatively young while at the height of their powers.

Northern Lights by Philip Pullman
The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman
The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman
The American Boy by Andrew Taylor
The Sixth Lamentation by William Broderick
The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
Boudica: Dreaming the Hound by Manda Scott
Pride of Carthage by David Anthony Durham
The Promise of Happiness by Justin Cartwright
Saturday by Ian McEwan
Staying On by Paul Scott
The Mark of the Horse Lord by Rosemary Sutcliff
Sword at Sunset by Rosemary Sutcliff
The Jewel in the Crown by Paul Scott
The Day of the Scorpion by Paul Scott
The Towers of Silence by Paul Scott
Treason’s Harbour by Patrick O’Brian
This Thing of Darkness by Harry Thompson*
Maps for Lost Lovers by Nadeem Aslam
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
The Egyptologist by Arthur Phillips
Bleak House by Charles Dickens
Martin Chuzzlewit by Charles Dickens

Cherry: A Life of Apsley Cherry-Garrard by Sara Wheeler
The Lost Quest: Scott’s Antarctic Sacrifice by Max Jones
Captain Scott by Ranulph Fiennes
Hadrian’s Empire by Danny Danziger & Nicholas Purcell*
Blondel’s Song by David Boyle*
Paul Scott: A Life by Hilary Spurling
Charlemagne: The Great Adventure by Derek Wilson*
Helen of Troy by Bettany Hughes*
A Personal History of Samuel Johnson by Christopher Hibbert
Samuel Johnson by John Wain
Jane Austen: A Life by Claire Tomalin
Jane Austen by David Nokes
Jane Austen by Park Honan
Jane Austen by Carol Shields

Books I Didn’t Finish And Why
The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown (I did sort-of finish this, insofar as I read the first half and skimmed the second. It breathlessly presses all the right How-To-Write-A-Thriller-in Leaden-Prose-and Daft-Dialogue buttons. I can’t believe some people think it’s fact. What happened to critical thinking?)
A History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Maria Lewycka (A series of scenes with a few characters, but where was the story?)
The Great Crown Jewels Robbery of 1303 by Paul Doherty (Shockingly careless. It read like a first draft)
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (pretty good pastiches but too clever by three-quarters — the three quarters I read, that is)



  1. I can well understand the various Austen biogs – useful to see what varying views they have on their subject. Know what you mean about Doherty – the one I read seemed a little slap-dash in places. Am still waiting to read a new book that blows me away with its brilliance!

  2. What do you think about Manda Scott’s Boudica novel? I’ve heard different things about it and am not sure whether to spend the money on buying it.

  3. Ah yes, the Da Vinci Code. I read the first chapter at a railway station bookstall to see what all the fuss was about, laughed for all the wrong reasons, and decided I’d rather spend the journey correcting page proofs. Did you see Tony Robinson’s Channel 4 documentary on the so-called ‘facts’ behind it? He took it to pieces, deservedly so. It seems to be a warmed over version of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, which I read at college in the 80s. But that was much better written.

  4. Gabriele, have you investigated e-books? They may be cheaper and/or quicker for you than the the printed editions. Random House has Dreaming the Eagle available as an e-book for $9.95, for example
    They want the outrageous sum of $17.95 for Dreaming the Hound, but that may because it’s new and the price may come down later. I don’t have any experience of e-books myself, but Lynne Connolly over at the Historical Novel Society email discussion group clearly knows a lot about them if you want to find out how they work.

  5. I’d be interested to know how you liked the Pullman trilogy. I’ve not read it, but I have a friend that loved it.

    I didn’t realize there was a fuss being made about it…was it related to his dislike of C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series?

  6. Wil

    The Pullman trilogy was so good in so many ways that I really need to spend some time marshalling my thoughts on it. That will be a good exercise in coherent thinking, so it may take a while! These are books fizzing with thought-provoking ideas all wrapped up in some of the most thrilling storytelling I’ve read in years. If you get the chance to read the books, don’t miss it!

    Some of the fuss was to do with Pullman’s dislike of the Christian message in the Narnia books, which is all bound up with what he sees as the pernicious influence of religion in general (a driving theme in His Dark Materials). The rest of the fuss mainly sprang from a speech he made about the aridity of much modern adult literary fiction, which in his view disdains the art of storytelling in favour of stylistic tricks and general clever-dickery (a triumph of style over substance, you might say). Pullman is convinced that as humans we have a fundamental need for stories as a means for us to make sense of ourselves. I’m with him on that.

  7. Carla

    Yes, I saw Tony Robinson’s demolition job on The Da Vinci Code, and I remember reading the Holy Grail book when it first came out(and wondering if there wasn’t something in it — erm, I must have been a lot more gullible then…). Oh well, we’ve got the Da Vinci Code film to look forward to now. Gulp.

  8. Now with two hearty recommendations behind it, I may just have to pick up the Pullman trilogy. I wondered if it might be too “young adult”, but it appears that is not the case…

  9. ‘Wondering if there wasn’t something in it’ isn’t gullible, it’s being interested in new ideas, surely? Holy Blood Holy Grail introduced me to the Merovingian kings, the Cathar heresy, the Knights Templar, the Nag Hammadi scrolls, the early Christian church and all sorts of other fascinating things I’d never heard of before. And their image of the bloodline uncoiling like a snake throug the generations, like Sherlock Holmes’ scarlet thread of murder, still sends shivers down my spine. But the religious conspiracy theory and the sinister secret society – er, no, I’m afraid you’ve lost me there, guys.
    The film sounds like one to watch on video with a group of like-minded friends and a case of wine.

  10. There’s a German trilogy about the Holy Grail theme by Peter Berling. He uses the motive about a sacred bloodline, too, throws the Cathars and some other heretics in, plus a nice amount of intrigues that spread as far as the land of the Mongol Hordes. It’s a fun read though I wished he had developed some of the characters a bit better. Berling treats the subject with the occasional twinkling of an eye that warns the reader not to take this as Historical fiction with a captial H.

  11. I thoroughly enjoyed “Pride of Carthage”. I’m happy to say that we will discuss it soon in our online book chat.

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