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 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.
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 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 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 — Plainsong, Eventide 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.
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.
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 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 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 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 by Charlotte Wood (2011)
Charlotte 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!