My favourite books of 2014

Books-of-the-yearSo, as 2014 draws to a close, it’s time for me to choose my favourite reads of the year.

I didn’t read as many books as I normally would in the space of 12 months, but that’s because I had other things taking up my time — I went back to study part-time (I graduated in October with a distinction), started walking five miles every day (thanks to my FitBit, which means I’m now 10kg lighter than I was this time last year — although I might have put a sneaky 2kg back on over the Christmas break), trained for London NightRider (your sponsorship helped me raise more than £400 for Arthritis UK) and then bought a road bike to take part in a 64-mile non-competitive sportive. And, of course, I transferred (and cleaned up) 10 years’ worth of content to Reading Matters’ new home, which took three months of hard graft! Oh, and I worked full-time (on a freelance basis) for the entire year. It’s a wonder I had any time for reading at all!

Still, taking all that in to account, I read some pretty amazing books. My 10 favourite books comprises a mix of old and new (with a self-confessed antipodean bias), covering all kinds of themes and subject matter. What these novels have in common — aside from the fact that I read them in 2014 — is that they entertained me, educated me, intrigued me and moved me.

They have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s surname. Hyperlinks will take you to my full review.

Academy Street

Academy Street by Mary Costello (2014)
My favourite read of the year, this extraordinary debut novel charts one woman’s life from her childhood in rural Ireland to her retirement in New York more than half a century later. It’s a deeply moving story about an Irish émigré who struggles to find her place in the world. I fell in love with this book from the first page. It’s written in that lovely lyrical style reminiscent of the best Irish fiction — think a cross between Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn and Sebastian Barry’s On Canaan’s Side — but has a distinctive voice all of its own.

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The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan (2014)
I’ve read all of Flanagan’s previous novels (some are reviewed here) but this one moved me more than anything else he’s written. In fact, it moved me so much I struggled to write a review and in the end I didn’t bother. But this story, which is largely set in a Japanese POW camp on the Burma Death Railway, explores what it is to be a good person and looks at the ways in which those who survived such horror and brutality coped with normal civilian life after the war. It’s also a beautiful love story — and was the deserved winner of this year’s Man Booker Prize.

Soon
Soon by Charlotte Grimshaw (2013)
This New Zealand best seller is one of those gripping accounts of a holiday gone wrong. But the holidaymakers are not your usual every day people; it’s the prime minister of New Zealand no less and his elite group of friends and their families. Part political novel, part psychological thriller, it’s an exhilarating and intelligent read, perfect if you like fast-paced novels with a dark, unsettling edge.

The-tie-that-binds
The Tie That Binds by Kent Haruf (1984)
Kent Haruf’s debut novel, first published in 1984, has a bright ring of truth about it. Set in rural Colorado, it traces the life story of Edith Goodnough, an 80-year-old woman, accused of murder. But this is not a crime novel: it’s a grand sweeping drama tempered by gentle humour, little triumphs and quiet moments of joy. Like Haruf’s much-loved Holt trilogy — PlainsongEventide and Benediction — this is a deeply affecting tale, written in precise yet gentle prose, about living on the land. It’s bittersweet, heartbreaking and uplifting — all at the same time.

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The Dinner by Herman Koch (2012)
A pretentious group of people eating a pretentious meal in a pretentious restaurant has all the makings of a pretentious novel, but The Dinner is a rip-roaring read. It’s a disturbing morality tale of the finest order, the kind of novel that makes you marvel at the writer’s ingenuous plot, filled as it is with unexpected turns and eye-opening revelations, all carefully structured and perfectly paced to keep the reader on tenterhooks throughout. It’s bold, daring and shocking, but it’s also bloody good fun.

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TransAtlantic by Colum McCann (2013)
This accomplished, intricately crafted novel explores the connections between North America and Ireland over the space of 150 years. It comprises three main narrative threads at key times in Ireland’s history — and while there are connections between the storylines and the characters, these are largely superfluous. In many ways, each thread could be read as a standalone story, but McCann chops them up and interleaves them so that the novel, as a whole, occasionally jumps backwards and forwards in time, while the locations — Dublin, New York, Belfast — also shift. This results in a hugely ambitious novel which shows how — as one character puts it — “the tunnels of our lives connect, coming to daylight at the oddest moments, and then plunge us into the dark again”. I found it an entirely absorbing read and loved its compelling mix of truth and fiction.

Spider
Spider by Patrick McGrath (1990)
This novel, first published in 1990, sadly appears to be out of print. Goodness knows why, because it’s one of the best depictions of a man grappling with mental illness that I’ve ever read. It’s set in London, mainly before the Second World War, and tells the story of Spider, who returns to the East End after 20 years living in Canada. His account of coming to terms with his troubled past is so vividly drawn and so filled with pain, confusion and a distrust of all those around him, that it’s hard not to feel for his situation, particularly as his narrative becomes increasingly more paranoid and confused as the novel unfolds. It’s a brilliantly powerful book — and certainly the best one I read this year that was published prior to 2014.

Us-Conductors
Us Conductors by Sean Michaels (2014)
This turned out to be my surprise read of the year. Who would think a book about a Russian scientist who invents a weird musical instrument could be such a terrifically enjoyable romp? Ambitious in scope and theme, it’s a story about music, invention, emigration, science, love, espionage, money, fame, crime and punishment. It’s part New York novel, part prison memoir, part espionage tale, part romance. But, most of all, it’s epic, life-affirming — and fun. It was my pick for the Shadow Giller and I was delighted to see it win the (real) Giller Prize, too.

Eyrie_UKedition
Eyrie by Tim Winton (2013)
I loved this book so much I read it twice — and I thought it was even better the second time around. It tells the story of a middle-aged man who has lost his high-flying job and is now living like a recluse in a flat at the top of a grim high-rise residential tower. When he meets a woman from his past, things become slightly more interesting — and dangerous. It’s a wonderful novel about redemption, helping others less fortunate than ourselves and doing the right thing — whether for yourself, your family, the people in your community or the environment.

Animal People
Animal People by Charlotte Wood (2011)
C
harlotte Wood deserves to be far better known outside of her native Australia. This novel, published in 2013, is an extraordinarily rich family drama come black comedy written in pared back language. It’s another Australian book about a middle-aged man who’s lost his way. It deals with big themes, including consumerism, social prestige and climbing the career ladder, but it’s done with a lightness of touch and a good dose of humour. I loved it.

Have you read any from this list? Or has it encouraged you to try one or two? Care to share your own favourite reads of 2014?

Finally, before I pop open the champagne, many thanks for your support — emails, blog visits, comments, clicks and links — over the past 12 months, and here’s wishing you a fabulous book-filled New Year! See you back here in 2015 for more ‘readerly’ inspiration!

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54 thoughts on “My favourite books of 2014

  1. A great selection, Kim. Interestingly the ones I haven’t read I mostly have in the house so will make sure I read them during my buying ban. When it’s over though, I’m keen to read the Charlotte Wood, it sounds just my thing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Unfortunately, Charlotte Wood is not published outside of Australia — which is a travesty. Honestly, she’s far better than some of the big-name American white males that get so much attention and yet she’s barely known in her own country, let alone in the UK or US. I’ve read three of her books now and absolutely loved every one… Do hunt her stuff out if you can.

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  2. Interesting mix of books! This year I’ve found myself increasingly unable to read dark books so ‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’ was too much for me, but I can see why you loved it. I thought ‘The Dinner’ was a fantastic read and am loving other books in the same genre (eg. The Cook, The Last Banquet) Us Conductors sounds intriguing, although I’ve avoided it so far as I tend not to enjoy books with a musical theme. I do love good science in literature so that is swaying me towards it (along with your recommendation) I’ll give it a try some time soon. I hope you have a wonderful 2015!!

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    • I’m sure you’d love Us Conductors, Jackie. It’s not really about music … it’s about the theremin and a plan to make it so popular in the US that it becomes as common as the TV. Along the way lots of other interesting stuff happens, some of which is ludicrous. But it’s such an enjoyable read you don’t mind. And the main character is just fabulous, you kind of fall a little bit in love with him.

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  3. Only read the dinner of your list Kim the Flanagan has been on a lot of people’s list so I may get round to that one at some point next year all best and happy new year

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    • I’m delighted that Flanagan’s made so many end-of-year lists – that doesn’t happen very often with Australian writers. I’m sure you’ll be just as impressed when you get around to reading it, Stu.

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  4. I’ve had Animal People on my TBRpile for over a year now – thanks for the prompt to read it sooner rather than later.
    Normally I love a new Winton & Flanagan but both their books left me feeling a little ‘meh’ this time round. The writing was great, but the characters ….but so many people rave about them, that maybe I read them with expectations too high?
    Great list. Mine has to wait til I return from holidays 🙂
    Happy New Year!

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    • Interesting you didn’t like the Winton and Flanagan… They are both very “male” books and you are right, the central characters are hard to like, but they appealed to me because they were both so very flawed.

      I’ll look forward to seeing your list when you publish it.

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  5. Hi Kim what a great selection!! I have added several to my wishlist and I hope to track down the McGrath. We have rated our top tens at my online group ANZLitLovers@yahoogroups.com and Coal Creek by Alex Miller popped up on everyone’s list. Here are mine for the year and my new discovery was W. Somerset Maugham and pleased to discover Gutenberg has several works free for download.

    Coal Creek by Alex Miller
    Of Human Bondage by W Somerset Maugham
    Lost Voices by Christopher Koch
    The Painted Veil by W Somerset Maugham
    Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
    Fly Away Peter by David Malouf
    My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff
    The Dinner by Herman Koch
    When God Was A Rabbit by Sarah Winman
    All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

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    • I have to admit that Coal Creek almost made this list; it’s certainly one of those stories that has stayed with me.

      I’ve read quite a few on your list – I think Fly Away Peter made my top 10 a couple of years ago.

      And delighted you’ve discovered Maugham. Human Bondage made my top 10 last year (I never reviewed it) and I’ve stocked my Kindle and shelves with several more of his books to explore. I’m keen to read The Painted Veil after I saw the film, which is rather exquisite.

      I must read Christopher Koch, seeing as I’ve never done so and I know how much Lisa from AnzLitlovers admires his work. David, who comments here regularly, is also a fan.

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  6. I am reading Us Conductors right now, and completely agree with your assessment of it. And, Academy Street has definitely been bumped up the list. Great list! And, Happy New Year!

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  7. I’ve read a few on your list, but Soon totally passed me by…and I love a bit of political intrigue! Thank you; a great list. And any Antipodean authors I’ve read previously have been excellent, so any new introductions are very welcome!

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    • I try to read at least 10 antipodean novels a year and host an ANZ lit month, usually in May, so you’ll find quite a few recommendations here. For lots more I recommend checking out my friend Lisa’s blog: AnzLitlovers.com

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Fantastic list Kim – I’ve added Soon and Us Conductors to my wishlist. You’ve also given me the nudge I needed to bump Animal People up in my reading list for the Aussie Author Challenge this year, I’ve been browsing Charlotte Woods’ titles for quite sometime.

    As an Aussie I’m ashamed to say that I have not read Flanagan’s award winner as yet – perhaps after all the war-related TV we’re being shown here in Australia surrounding the Gallipoli anniversary dies down its subject matter may have more pull for me.

    Happy reading in 2015!

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    • Please do read Charlotte Wood; she’s such a great writer and deserves to be read widely. And Flanagan will always be there waiting for you when the Gallipoli centenary stuff fades away.

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  9. A great list. I have read the Winton (made my top ten in 2013) and Flanagan (I didn’t like the first half of the book as much as the second, which means it didn’t make my top 10). I have the Koch, McCann and McGrath on my tbr and will hopefully read them all in 2015. My top ten for 2014 were:

    The Orenda by Joseph Boyden
    Madness: A Memoir by Kate Richards
    Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Ann Jacobs
    Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth
    The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
    This House of Grief: The Story of a Murder Trial by Helen Garner
    Magda by Meike Ziervogel
    Journal by Helene Berr
    Whisky Charlie Foxtrot by Annabel Smith
    The Girl with all the Gifts by M R Carey

    Surprisingly, 4 of these books were non-fiction which surprised me considering I only read 12 non-fiction titles all year. It makes me wonder whether I should read more non-fiction.

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    • I go through non-fiction phases – I read several this year but didn’t review them as I had too much other stuff going on at the time, but I do recommend Anna Krien’s Night Games (it reminded me a lot of Helen Garner’s work), as well as another football related title, Black and Proud: The Story of an Iconic AFL Photo.

      I also read the new Helen Garner (watch out for a review soon) and it would have made the cut if I’d made my list 12 books instead of 10. The other book would have been Alex Miller’s Coal Creek.

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    • I like the idea of reading 12 non-fiction titles a year, I might try that. There have been some great non-fiction books out in the last couple of years. I’m going to investigate the Helen Garner and Magda. And Madness:A Memoir sounds interesting. Great list!

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  10. I have not got round to the Flanagan yet and will def do so this year ….an aussie friend tells me he is a fab writer and on the stregnth of tbat i bought The Sound Of One Hand Clapping for my son for Xmas.

    Well done on your health regime too ….what an inspiration ! Happy New Year to you x

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    • Thanks, Helen. This year shaped up pretty well for me fitness wise given I’m such an old bird! Who else buys themselves a racing bike for their 45th birthday??

      Will be interesting to see what your son thinks of The Sound ofOne Hand Clapping; that book really divides opinion. I loved it, but it’s a challenging and confronting read.

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  11. Firstly, happy new year! Great choices, Kim – Flanagan was one of my top reads of 2013 and I loved the Haruf when I read it several years ago. ‘The Eyrie’ I liked a lot, though it isn’t my favourite amongst Tim Winton’s books. I agree Charlotte Wood deserves to be better known – three years after reading I still sometimes find myself thinking about ‘The Submerged Cathedral’. I have ‘The Children’ (which I think ‘Animal People’ is a sequel to) and really must get around to it soon. Speaking of ‘Soon’ I have that one on the tbr too, as well as ‘Academy Street’. I came up with two top ten lists yesterday – one for novels, one for short story collections – but since I know you’re not much of a short story lover, these are my ten favourite novels read in 2014:

    All The King’s Men – Robert Penn Warren, 1946
    The Young Desire It – Kenneth Mackenzie, 1937
    Highways to a War – Christopher Koch, 1995
    How Green Was My Valley – Richard Llewellyn, 1939
    Juanita Wildrose: My True Life – Susan Downe, 2013
    Great Expectations – Charles Dickens, 1861
    Em & The Big Hoom – Jerry Pinto, 2012 (UK edition 2014)
    Fair Stood the Wind for France – HE Bates, 1944
    Nobody is Ever Missing – Catherine Lacey, 2014 (UK edition due 2015)
    Border Country – Raymond Williams, 1960

    Two Australians on there, though either of the other two Christopher Koch’s I read in 2014 could have made my top ten in a different year. Likewise ‘My Brother Jack’ and Alex Miller’s ‘Prochownik’s Dream’. Funny that Jenny above should mention discovering Somerset Maugham in 2014 – I read his novella ‘Up at the Villa’ yesterday and loved it: I’ll definitely be reading more by him in 2015.

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    • Thanks for such a super list, David. Plenty on there for me to explore!

      Charlotte Wood’s The Children is a prequel to Animal People, even though they are completely standalone novels. It’s just that the main character in Animal People is the loser brother, a subsidiary character, in The Children. I’m guessing Wood wanted to flesh out his story more because he wasn’t very central to the first book, if that makes sense.

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  12. I also read fewer books in 2014 thanks to a return to study and a FitBit obsession!
    A couple of the ones you’ve mentioned are in my TBR list but totally agree about Charlotte Wood’s Animal People – a fantastic story and years after reading it, particular scenes are still fresh in my mind.

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    • Thanks, Kevin, I admit I did think about adding Frances Itani’s Tell to this list… but in the end I only had 10 slots and think this list is a good reflection of the past year.

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  13. Happy New Year, Kim! This is a great list and a reminder to pick up Koch’s The Dinner from the library soon (before someone else gets to it).

    I’m having a tough time picking a top ten this year. Some that definitely stood out were Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda and Calum McCann’s TransAtlantic and This Side of Brightness. Philippe Claudel’s Monsieur Linh and His Chis Child was short but I think about it to this day and I enjoyed Norah Lofts Town House trio of books. Towards the end of the year, I really enjoyed Margaret Atwood’s collection of short stories (Stone Mattress) and Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. I liked Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake and Tishani Doshi’s the Pleasure Seekers. I read a lot of graphic novels this year, some of which were great and some of which were just so-so.

    This year, I am going to read some Kent Haruf and some more of Jhumpa Lahiri and Margaret Atwood, but I’m sure to get distracted by other things at work and on my shelves at home! Happy reading in 2015!

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    • Hi Kinga, email me your address and I’ll pop The Dinner in the post to you sometime next week — it’s currently sitting in a bag by the front door waiting to go to Oxfam, so I’d be delighted to give it to a reader who I know will appreciate it.

      Glad you liked The Orenda (my favourite read of 2013) and Transatlantic. I have This Side of Brightness on my Kindle, so I must read that too.

      Thanks for all your other suggestions. I must investigate them further!

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      • Wow, thanks very much for your offer, Kim. I’ll send you my mailing address later on, if the offer is still there.

        I had a long discussion with a customer at work today about Tim Winton’s Eyrie and she raved about it. It’s another one to add to the wishlist then!

        The Orenda is one of those books that I will read again. There’s so much there and I loved the three perspectives it gave on that time in Canada. The tipping point, before everything changed. The violence was a bit heavy, but it was so well written. I’m looking forward to exploring more of Joseph Boyden’s writing in the new year. I would recommend This Side of Brightness. It’s good, but not as good as TransAtlantic or Let the Great World Spin. I’d strongly recommend the Philippe Claudel; it’s a short read but one that was stuck in my mind for many months after I’d finished it.

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        • I was also very excited to notice that we’ve ordered 3 copies of the Mary Costello book, which I can’t wait to read after your review. I’ve put myself down on the waiting list.

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  14. Well done you on such an amazingly productive year! And very good wishes for 2015
    Loved this list, brimming with treasures, I totally agree with your evaluation of Charlotte Wood. Such a writer. Many scenes from that novel have lodged happily in my literary memory
    Can’t wait to read Costello after your encouragement
    Jane Smiley’ s Some Luck was a pleasure for me as was Rakoff’s My Salinger Year.

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    • Thank-you. Hope this list provides some inspiration.

      I haven’t read My Salinger Year, but I do have a proof copy of Some Luck in my massive pile and had hoped to have read it by now. Too many books, not enough time!

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  15. Us Conductors would have made my Top 15 for the year. Very difficult to limit yourself to just ten books.

    By the way, I wanted to thank you for leading me to Arnaldur Indriðason’s series. I was poking around your archives after you relocated to WordPress and found your reviews for his books. I started with Tainted Blood (or, Jar City for US readers) before quickly reading through four more in the series. Discovering Indriðason’s books was a highlight of my 2014 reading year.

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    • Oh, that’s great you discovered Arnaldur Indriðason. He has a new series now… when Erlunder was much much younger. I admit to feeling a bit cheated when I received a proof in the post because I had read right until the end of the Erlunder series and figured my relationship with him was now over. That said, I hope to get to this new book soonish…

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      • Hmm, I have not heard about the new series. I still have four more or so in the adult Erlendur series, and I will probably wait for your review before picking up the young Erlunder books as I rather like him being a curmudgeon, bitter old man haunted by his past.

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    • Oh, it’s very dark and twisted, but a great read. I read the author’s second book to be translated into English (Summer House with Swimming Pool) later in the year and enjoyed that too

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  16. I’m intrigued by your list. I haven’t read any of those but Richard Flanagan’s book is high on my list. Some of them sound really interesting. My top 10 for 2014…
    (in no particular order)
    Eleanor & Park
    Lost & Found
    The Outliers
    The great zoo of china (okay – not exactly a brain stretch but a fast paced, ridiculous tale!)
    My story (Julia Gillard)
    Big little lies
    Gold (Chris Cleave) & Incendiary
    Light between the Oceans
    The Uglies
    Quiet a different list to yours but I’m inspired and it’s great to share reading ideas.
    Thanks

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  17. I love your “best of” lists and rely on them when it’s time to make my own Christmas list. I don’t manage to read as much as you do, and I’m only now getting to The Narrow Road to the Deep North. It’s terrific. Thanks for your suggestions all these years!

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