Monday, 29 December 2014

2014 in review: My favourite books of the year

Best Books of 2014

The top ten nine best books published in 2014

Upstairs at the Party by Linda Grant Linda Grant's virtuosic novel is the life story of its protagonist, Adele Ginsberg. Moving from her childhood through a memorable university experience and far beyond that, it is a coming-of-age story and much, much more. Themes of identity, concealment, performance and artifice run throughout, personified by Adele's androgynous friend Evie, whose fate at the party of the title forms the backbone of the plot. Endlessly expansive and evocative.

After Me Comes the Flood by Sarah Perry Sarah Perry's debut takes a number of elements I'm guaranteed to find fascinating - a grand old country house, a group of eccentric misfits, a stranger in their midst, and surreal touches - and rearranges them into something strange, original and entirely unexpected. The controlled pace allows every nuance of behaviour to gather meaning, and the book is gripping, soaked in atmosphere, and has something of the fairytale about it. It's also haunting, but not in the way you might expect.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel A vision of the future like no other. Twenty years after a pandemic wipes out most of the population, a band of travelling performers wanders a ravaged landscape; Mandel's breakout novel follows a handful of characters in close-up detail, skipping back and forth through time. Station Eleven is the perfect blend of literary and genre fiction - driven as much by character as plot, it is effortlessly elegant and addictive.

The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt An absolute tour de force from one of my favourite authors. The Blazing World is an intelligent, intense and philosophical novel about identity, sexism and the art world. Told in fragments, it assembles a chorus of distinct voices to build a complex and surprising character portrait that is by turns playful and profound.

Her by Harriet Lane Following her brilliant debut Alys, Always, Lane has crafted another clever, slow-burning tale about two women whose fates are closely entwined, though only one of them realises it. It's tightly plotted and suspenseful, but also subtle and quiet; a rewarding character study disguised as a psychological thriller.

A Lovely Way to Burn by Louise Welsh Welsh turns her hand to dystopia with this, the first part of a trilogy. As a deadly virus sweeps London and society descends into chaos, a journalist fights an increasingly desperate battle for the truth about her lover's death. Vivid and surreal, it's an exceptionally readable book that's also full of strange, intriguing undercurrents.

Glow by Ned Beauman A conspiracy thriller which reads like a cross between David Mitchell, Jonathan Coe and DBC Pierre, this is Beauman's first foray into fiction set entirely in the present day, and something of a love letter to modern London. Colourful, funny and dirty, fantastically entertaining and exuberant, it's not only a return to form for the author, but probably his best yet.

Dear Thief by Samantha Harvey This painfully intimate and haunting story takes the form of a letter written to an old friend (or possibly enemy). Unnamed and of questionable reliability, the narrator spins a tale of obsession and betrayal. Dear Thief is a portrait of friendship as a love story, and it's totally hypnotic.

The Three by Sarah Lotz A mesmerising blend of sci-fi, horror and realism, The Three is terrifying, mind-bending and most of all unputdownable. Ostensibly the work of an investigative journalist, the story is about the aftermath of four simultaneous plane crashes, of which the only survivors are three (very sinister) children. It uses a patchwork narrative to great effect, building near-unbearable tension.

Yes, I know it's strange to have a top nine, but there were just too many books to choose between for the #10 spot, so instead I have a whole list of...

Honourable mentions

I wish How to be both by Ali Smith had won the Booker prize. Split between a present-day teenage girl and a fifteenth-century Italian artist, the book is one story and two stories at the same time, cleverly weaving together themes of love, grief, and the creation of art with playful language. I'd also have liked to see a nomination for A Bad Character by Deepti Kapoor, a vivid, memoir-esque debut about a young woman in Delhi who enters into a dangerous, doomed affair. There's another forbidden relationship in The Lemon Grove by Helen Walsh, in which fortysomething Jenn becomes unwisely involved with her stepdaughter's boyfriend. What unfolds is perhaps predictable, but also compulsive, sexy and intensely atmospheric.

It was a pretty good year for books that seemed to be tailored to my tastes. The Hundred Year House by Rebecca Makkai follows several different generations of the same family living in a grand manor house - the story unfolds by going backwards in time, with copious references to ghost stories. The Amber Fury by Natalie Haynes has life imitating art as Greek tragedies are taught to a group of troubled teenagers. The Secret Place by Tana French has more teenage students, this time in the deceptively luxurious environment of a boarding school; it's an unconventional, magical murder mystery, and the strongest entry in her Dublin Murder Squad series yet.

In The Lazarus Prophecy, author F.G. Cottam breaks away from his usual template with a story that's equal parts horror, mystery and thriller. Connecting the Jack the Ripper case to a series of modern-day London murders by way of a secretive order of Catholic priests in the Pyrenees, it works wonderfully well. I also really enjoyed The Gospel of Loki by Joanne M. Harris, a contemporary retelling of the rise and fall of the Norse gods that has a completely irresistible, funny and unpredictable narrative voice.

The best from before this year

The Moth Diaries (2002) by Rachel Klein A teenage vampire novel? Well, yes it is, but forget all the clichés of that genre. Intelligent, layered, woven with literary references, Klein's doom-laden first (and only) novel is the diary of a boarding school pupil who suspects her beloved roommate's new friend is hiding truly terrible secrets. Portraying female friendships and adolescent experiences with blistering accuracy, with a gorgeously gloomy gothic backdrop, it's an unforgettable masterpiece.

Ice (1967) by Anna Kavan Anna Kavan's surreal odyssey across ice is a book I have now failed to adequately describe on about 10 separate occasions. Nameless characters traverse frozen dreamscapes in pursuit of each other, in a fractured and surreal narrative which can be interpreted in any number of ways. 'Unreality' is the watchword, and this is an uncategorisable but absolutely unforgettable story.

The Blindfold (1992) by Siri Hustvedt It's almost impossible to believe that this was Hustvedt's debut. Extraordinarily accomplished, it's a riveting and beautifully written set of four stories with the same main character/narrator. A constant aura of something uncanny pervades protagonist Iris's life, lifting her narrative far beyond the ordinary.

Bonjour Tristesse (1954) by Françoise Sagan Written when the author was just 18, this classic novella positively sparkles with deft characterisation, clever plotting, humour and romance. It's a tale of decadent 'free spirits' sunning themselves on the French Riviera, until Daddy invites an old flame along and provokes the ire of spoilt 17-year-old Cécile. It's as fresh and cooling as a glass of iced lemonade, as lightly whipped as a meringue.

A Phantom Lover (1886) by Vernon Lee If you think Victorian ghost stories are all the same, read this. The narrator is an artist, summoned to magnificent Okehurst to paint portraits of a wealthy couple; but all is not quite right, and the wife of the artist's client turns out to have something of an unusual obsession. The story is so creative and downright strange that it's difficult to believe it was written in the 19th century.

Carmilla (1872) by J.S. le Fanu Another horror tale that's ahead of its time - predating Dracula by 25 years, Carmilla is famous for its lesbian overtones. The story of naive Laura, whose family take in the sinister Carmilla, is indeed saturated with sexual tension, hysteria and atmosphere; it's also deliciously melodramatic and very readable.

Cartwheel (2013) by Jennifer duBois A novel inspired by the Meredith Kercher/Amanda Knox case didn't initially seem like the most appealing prospect, but when I finally got round to reading duBois' debut, it turned out to be a) an exceptional character study and b) one of the most heartbreaking books I've read in years. What it's based on really doesn't matter - it is gripping and highly emotive in its own right and on its own merits.

The rest

Also in 2014, Erin Kelly delivered yet another fantastic crime thriller, The Ties That Bind; DBC Pierre added a gruesomely entertaining entry to the Hammer imprint with Breakfast with the Borgias; and Roxane Gay inspired with her essay collection, Bad Feminist, which despite the title is a diverse and wide-ranging, but very accessible, set of opinion pieces. They'll be included in loads of end-of-year lists, no doubt, but it's still worth mentioning that I was impressed by two books from big-name authors: Hilary Mantel's provocatively titled short story collection The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, and Ian McEwan's taut, elegant The Children Act. Compulsive comfort reads came from Deborah Lawrenson (The Sea Garden) and Lucy Clarke (A Single Breath). If you're looking for short, quick reads, I recommend Laura Lippman's masterful Five Fires and Susan Hill's memorable Hunger, both Kindle Singles. I made an effort to read more classics: some of those I really enjoyed were The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, For Esme—With Love and Squalor, and Other Stories by J.D. Salinger, The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and two novellas by Stefan Zweig.

Brilliant books to come in 2015

I can't pass up the opportunity to mention these books, which are out in the new year, but which I was lucky enough to read early review copies of.

The Well is the debut novel from Catherine Chanter, out in May. Virtually impossible to describe without outlining the entire plot, it is a unique mixture of genres as diverse as dystopian sci-fi, domestic saga and mystery/thriller, all centred on one woman and her remarkable home - a place that seems to be impervious to drought. The story is addictive from the first page, and the narrative voice is... well, it's unlike anything else. I've been recommending this to everyone and I really hope it will be one of the big debuts of 2015 - it certainly deserves to be.

Jonas Karlsson is a well-known author of novels and short stories in his native Sweden, but The Room is his first book to be translated into English, and will be published in January. This sublime, Kafkaesque novella follows the hilariously self-assured Björn as he discovers a mysterious hidden office at his place of work. Yet his colleagues seem intent on keeping him away from 'the room'. Is this a psychological drama, a satire, a comment on office culture? It's all of these and more, plus it's very funny - a cult classic in the making.

And finally...

There are some 2014 books I didn't get round to this year, but wish I'd found time to read: they include Outline by Rachel Cusk, The Dig by Cynan Jones, Animals by Emma Jane Unsworth, Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi, and Beastings by Benjamin Myers. I'll be carrying them all over to my 2015 to-read list.

I decided I would try my best to keep any negativity out of this post... so I wrote about the worst (or rather the most overrated) books of 2014 on Tumblr instead.

All in all, it's been a great year for books and particularly good for new fiction! What were your best (and worst) reads of 2014?

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1 comment:

  1. Great post! I also wanted to tell you that I love your new(ish?) layout; minimalism for the win!