Sunday, 11 January 2015

2014: Best of the Year

In previous years, I have chronicled my favourite books over the previous 12 months by counting down the top 10 over 3 entries. This year, I was going to opt for something a little different. I WAS planning to list it by best book for each month, but this has proved more difficult than anticipated - basically, some months I read only good or so-so books, whereas other months yielded a bumper crop of amazing reads. So, instead, I'm just going to list the best 10 books I read in 2014 - there's no countdown here, just the ones I loved best. Otherwise, usual criteria apply: all books listed have been read by me FOR THE FIRST TIME in 2014, but weren't necessarily published in 2014:

And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie - first published November 1939
This has a special place in my heart as it is the FIRST EVER Agatha Christie book I have read, and it was - to get all British on you - a ripping corker of a yarn. Ten complete strangers are mysteriously summoned to an island off the coast of Devon. Suddenly, during dinner on their first night all together, a record begins playing - revealing that each person present has been responsible for the death of another person, in one way or another. As the bodies start piling up - in eerily similar circumstances to a nursery rhyme, Ten Little Indians - the main question on everybody's lips is: who knows of their crimes and summoned them? And who will get out alive? It's a pacy, tense thriller with more than a few genuinely scary bits more akin to horror stories than crime novels, and you'll not fully know what's going on until the very last page. I haven't been this consistently misled by an author since reading Apple Tree Yard by Louise Doughty last year.

You by Caroline Kepnes - published September 2014
Many people describe books as 'unputdownable', but it's quite rare that I find one that actually is unputdownable; a book that you are almost surgically attached to from beginning to end. You can see where this is going now: You fits the unputdownable bill perfectly. From the moment I read those first few lines - 'You walk into the bookstore and you keep your hand on the door to make sure it doesn't slam. You smile, embarrassed to be a nice girl, and your nails are bare and your V-neck sweater is beige and it's impossible to know if you're wearing a bra but I don't think you are.' - I was instantly hooked: it's unusual to read a book that's addressed entirely to someone else in this fashion (I can only think of Dolores Clairborne by Stephen King as another example) and it is such a compelling and tricky thing to pull off. Yet Kepnes does it, and does it well, and suddenly you're inside a seriously disturbed young man's head as he pursues the girl of his dreams in a less-than romantic manner. It's surprisingly sexy, quite horrifying and whilst it does lag in a few spots, the pace picks up again pretty quickly. Can't recommend it enough.

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng - published August 2014
This was one of those books where you inexplicably avoid it for ages, then suddenly pick it up and wonder why you took so long. Lydia, the middle child of three and the eldest daughter, suddenly disappears one night and whilst we, the readers, know from the first line of the book that she is already dead, that's a horror the family have yet to deal with: first, they must endure the fear and sickening worry of finding their child and sister is missing. It reminded me of The Lovely Bones by Alice Seabold, in some ways: the reliable daughter suddenly gone, the family left behind to pick up their lives, a pentagon made into a square. It's also a fascinating insight into the life of a Chinese-American family in 1970's America, with prejudices confronted and dissected in a straightforward, no-nonsense manner. It's far less depressing and sad than I've made it sound, with some positive moments amongst the misery, but it is less of a thriller than I was expecting - I thought that the many things Lydia never told were going to be more exciting and inflammatory than they actually are (which, in a way, makes it more realistic, and so much more relatable). Nevertheless, it was one of those books that sticks with you long after you've finished it, and makes you question exactly what you'd do if you were put on a pedestal you never wanted.

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton - published July 2013
You've probably heard of this book for several reasons: it won the Man Booker Prize in 2013; Catton is the youngest ever recipient of said prize; it's structurally dazzling. So I'm just going to focus on the story, which is, at it's core, a whodunnit. In 19th century New Zealand, a wealthy man has gone missing, a drunk is found dead with a small fortune, and a prostitute is discovered near death's door, apparently by her own doing. These three events are all connected to each other, and to twelve men who congregate to piece their versions of events together to solve the mystery - and possibly absolve themselves. Into all this walks Walter Moody, a man who seeks to make his fortune in the nearby goldfields, with his own contribution to the narrative. Yes, this story does drag in places; yes, thanks to the various accounts from each of the twelve men, there is some repetition - but stick with it, after the first third it picks up massively: it's an ambitious novel that deserves your attention, and you will be rewarded.

The Lemon Grove by Helen Walsh - published February 2014
I bought this because it's set in Majorca, which is hot and sunny and a place I've been to on holiday, and because when I first read it in March 2014 it was cold and wet and I wanted to be on holiday. So if you want a book to help you escape to sunnier climes in your mind, well, this is not it. I mean, yes, it does have that holiday air to it - snoozes in the sun, late-night dinners in tavernas, drinking too much and not caring - but this idyllic setting just sets off the dark edges of the novel perfectly. When Jenn's stepdaughter brings her new boyfriend, Nathan, on the family holiday, Jenn begins to develop a dangerous, obsessive attraction to him, which appears to be reciprocated. It's unexpectedly thrilling, more than a bit sexy and looks into the motivations behind the attraction between an older woman and a younger man - this 'cougar' thing that seems to have started with Mrs Robinson, gained steam with American Pie's MILF and just hasn't slowed down. It's morally conflicting, with fascinating - if unlikeable - characters and is another one to add to the 'unputdownable' shelf. Plus, at a mere 225 pages long, it's a short, pacy read with hooks that keep on coming until the very last full stop.

The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton - published March 2014
Firstly, look at that cover. JUST LOOK AT IT. Ain't it pretty? That cover is Reason One I bought a print copy not long after reading this for the first time on my Kindle. Reason Two, of course, is that it's a beautiful story, a fairytale in so many ways. As the title suggests, the novel circles around Ava, but she is only barely the main character - her mysterious and unusual relatives also share top billing. It starts with an immigrant family arriving in New York at the beginning of the 20th century. Various misfortunes befall the rather extraordinary family, leading to one member moving as far west across the country as she can, to Seattle, where Ava is eventually born. I won't give away too much more from here but - seeing as it's revealed in the first few pages - I do feel it's important you know that Ava is born with wings, and these unexpected appendages are what lead to the strange and beautiful sorrows of the title. It's a mournful book (as you might expect), slow and flowing, but the language used - especially in relation to food and weather - is just lovely. I don't want to talk too much about this book in case I either don't stop or ruin the magic, but it is magical, and if you're the kind of person who loved The Time Traveller's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, or The Ocean At The End Of The Lane by Neil Gaiman, I reckon you'd like this.

The Girl With All The Gifts by M. R. Carey - published January 2014
You've probably heard of this, if you've not been living under a rock, because it was one of the bigger sleeper titles of 2014 (not so big as The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton or I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes, but big enough). It's going to be a tricky one to discuss because there's a lot in this that can be easily given away, but shouldn't be; however, I will do my best to avoid spoilers. Picture a school where the kids are all strapped to their chairs; where they're supervised by armed guards; where they're barely fed more than once a week. Sounds like a modern horror story, doesn't it? Well this is, in many ways - because what if the kids are treated like this, because the adults are scared - terrified - of them? This is exactly what's going on: Melanie, a young girl kept in such an establishment, is a source of fear and hatred for many of the adults around her, except Miss Justineau, her teacher, who tries to treat the children like they're people, despite her revulsion. The story follows - amongst many other things - the development of the relationship between these two characters, against a backdrop of a dramatically altered England. I don't really want to say any more now because I'm getting close to giving too much away, and ruining it for you, but I will say this: the myth of Pandora, with the box from which she loosed all the horrors of the world, is a recurring motif throughout the book, and the more you read, the more you realise just why Carey was so inspired by that legend.

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood - first published 1985
I genuinely don't know how to start talking about this book, so forgive me if I lapse into stream-of-consciousness here. Firstly, I'd just like to state for the record two things: I LOVE Margaret Atwood, and she scares the hell out of me. She scares me because she seems to have an uncanny ability to not just call out humanity on it's darker tendencies - things claimed to have been done in the name of something greater, or for progress - but does so in a way that makes it perfectly possible that such-and-such an outcome COULD occur. That's pretty much what happens in The Handmaid's Tale; an ultra-Christian religious sect stages a coup in America and seizes power, instigating their version of an ideal society that involves a strict hierarchy, particularly for women who have basically no rights in this society. It's a fascinating, compelling, horrifying book which asks all sorts of questions over consent, control, fanaticism, religion and women's rights - particularly in regards to their own bodies. I'll stop there before I say too much, but I will leave it with the line that scared me the most in the entire novel, when the main character visits a place where the bodies of executed criminals are displayed:
"They were doctors then, in the time before, when such things were legal...They've been turned up now by the searches through hospital records, or - more likely, since most hospitals destroyed such records once it became clear what was going to happen - by informants."

Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton - first published 1991
This is going to be a bit of a short one because you must know what happens in Jurassic Park - you've surely seen the film. Well, that's a pretty faithful adaptation - all the main points of the book are covered in the film (the arrogance of man, chaos theory, life always finds a way etc.), so I don't need to discuss the plot. But the reason I enjoyed this story so much is because, despite there being a LOT more of the convincing-sounding-but-really-dubious science in it than the film has, it's pacy, fun to read, with better-developed characters and a few twists and character endings (NOT necessarily deaths!) that the film didn't find time for. It is a long book (my copy has 399 pages in it, with quite small print) so don't be put off if you were expecting some printed version of the film - I can honestly say that this book is better, and I happen to think that Jurassic Park the film is great, so I can't give much higher praise than that.

Wonder by R. J. Palacio - published March 2012
The last book in this list is coincidentally also the last book I actually finished in 2014, and what a final book it was. It's the tale of Auggie, who is born with a face very different to everyone else's - so different, he has to be homeschooled for most of his life as he's been too ill to attend regular school, and there is a concern of how other children will react to him. However, when his various necessary surgeries peter out and his life becomes less of a medical rollercoaster, his parents decide to enrol him in Beecher Prep, a local private school, which is where the story begins. Auggie, who knows his face is different but otherwise is a normal ten-year-old boy, expects children to react badly to him - and in some cases, he's completely right, whereas in others he's pleasantly surprised. It's an uplifting tale, albeit not without it's harrowing moments - it's amazing how unkind and prejudiced children can be, when you consider they're born with no such tendencies - and there are a few moments that may cause tears (the kind of tears, I may add, that The Fault in Our Stars by John Green never wrung out of me), but ultimately it's beautiful, funny, sweet and a reminder that judging by appearances is never the way to go.

And finally, a mention for the other great books I read this year, but didn't quite make this particular cut:
  • Foxglove Summer by Ben Aaronovitch
  • Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk
  • The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton
  • My Salinger Year by Joanne Rakoff
  • The Table of Less-Valued Knights by Marie Phillips
  • The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith

Did you read any of these recently? What did you think of them?

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