2014 – a year in books

390890378Although I’ve only been blogging for a short while, a year end summary gives me an opportunity to look back at some pre-blog books that are worthy of a mention.

Plus I love the completeness of a wrap-up.

And lists.

Isn’t it funny how many book lovers are also great lovers of lists and the analysis of reading habits? I’m not going to create pie charts but I can tell you – thanks to my list keeping – that I read 104 books this year. I’m bothered that it isn’t 105 (for the same reason that the volume on the TV remote control must always stop at a multiple of five) but given that my target for the year was 100, I do feel pretty pleased. I also know that I read just under 29,500 pages (29,470 to be exact). Now this doesn’t serve any purpose whatsoever but I find it interesting. It’s an average of 80.7 pages a day. Will this change my life or influence my future reading plans? No. But I’m pleased I know it. I suspect I should probably stop now or my tendency to become horribly competitive with myself (although never anyone else, oddly) will kick in and I’ll be stuck in a terrible spiral of targets.

Top 10 books of 2014 (6 fiction and 4 non-fiction, in no particular order):

  • Richard Yates, Revolutionary Road: I read this all the way back in January. While some elements of the story have faded, my absolute conviction about the quality of the book is still very strong. I was toying with the idea of starting a book blog when I read it and I took some notes, extracts of which are included below:

“Set in 1950s America, Frank and April Wheeler are living the life that so many aspired to. The glow of their suburban idyll frames two attractive, intelligent people with two perfect children – one boy, one girl – and a life of mod cons, prospects and security. But we see quickly that all is not perfect in paradise. As the story develops, we see the tarnished truth behind the Wheeler’s suburban lives. They thought they were destined for more; they thought their potential would shine through and lift them above their friends and neighbours. Their destiny, their ambition, was to be doers and not talkers.  And haven’t we all felt like that? Haven’t we all talked about something that we’ve never done? Buckled it when faced with real risk or the potential for greatness?

I’ve read few writers with the perception and understanding that Yates shows. There’s a cloying sense of inevitability about the way the story develops that echoes the claustrophic routines and familiar patterns of their suburban lives.

Yates is also brutal in his insistence that we look at the Wheelers lives as they really are and understand how we collude in the lies we tell ourselves. If the book is, in part, about our ability to curate our own image and present our best selves to the world at large, Yates’ task is to ensure that we see Frank and April without the benefit of rose-tint or soft-focus. Bludgeoned as we are by their sharp-edged reality, we can’t help but turn inwards and look at ourselves a little more closely. It’s not comfortable but it’s achingly insightful.”

  • Kate Forsyth, The Wild Girl: With a fascination for fairy tales and a soft spot for doomed love affairs, this book called my name. It’s a fictionalised exploration of the relationship between fairy tale scholar, Wilhelm Grimm, and one of the women who contributed stories to his collection, Dortchen Wild. Set in 19th century Germany, amidst war, terror and tyranny, this is a dark, full-blooded book that left me emotionally overturned and with a head full of the richness, sensuality and colour of the world Forsyth has created.
  • Molly Keane, Good Behaviour: Easily one of the best books I’ve read in a long while. I’ll be reviewing it separately so I’ll keep it short here. I’ll just say that it is amongst the darkest of the black comedies I’ve read and Keane has a masterful eye for detail, both in her perfect, perfect turns of phrase and her absolute grasp of human nature, from its highest manifestations to its very lowest.
  • Barbara Pym, Excellent Women: I read Pym for the first time this year and then I went on a little spree. I wholeheartedly adore her and her character-led ensemble books with an emphasis on the simple interactions between ordinary people. Excellent Women is singled out here because it’s so quintessentially Pym-like. And in Mildred Lathbury, Pym has created the epitome of the excellent women that are a hallmark of her writing: as Goodreads puts it “the smart, supportive, repressed women who men take for granted.” If you like your humour gentle and English, with a suppressed helping of razor-like wit, you must give Pym a try.
  • Graham Rawle, Women’s World: This is something I’d had on my to read list forever and a day. I thought a little about how to approach describing it and decided that less is more. It was first published in 2008 so many people will be familiar with the premise but if you aren’t, you must pick this one up. Just open it at random and you’ll see what I mean. It’s novel as art project on an absolutely epic scale. In Norma Fontaine, Rawle has created one of the most memorable characters I’ve encountered in fiction and found a truly remarkable way to evoke a bygone era.
  • Lucy Wood: Diving Belles: This is the book I wish I’d written. Wood’s collection of short stories meld Cornish legend, magic, myth and the complex relationships between people in a spine-tinglingly beautiful way. I think I’ll write it up separately so I can wax lyrical about it in the way it deserves.
  • Rebecca Skloot, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks: This book is probably the reason I decided to do a list of ‘top reads of 2014’. I think it’s a book everyone should read. I’m working on a review at the moment, which I won’t even pretend will do it justice, but if I had to sum it up I’d say it’s a book that asks every question you can think of about what it means to be human. It’ll leave you staring at the ceiling at 2am with a very full mind indeed.
  • Mindy Kaling, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?: A witty, frothy, joy of a book that I laughed out loud at multiple times and quoted from at such length that my husband eventually gave in and read for himself. We both agreed. If Mindy Kaling would consent to be our best friend, the world would be a better place. There can’t be many people out there who are as funny, honest and refreshingly real.
  • Shereen El Feki, Sex and the Citadel:If you really want to know a people, start by looking inside their bedrooms.” Ignore the obvious nudge-nudge, wink-wink connotations because this is a well-researched, insightful and studious book about the people and culture of Egypt. It’s also personal – El Feki has her own experiences and family history to draw upon. I grew up in the Middle East, only moving back to the UK when I was 15. The Muslim community has suffered unduly in the intervening years because of a comparatively small number of people with uncomfortably extremist views and this book is a wonderful way to understand more fully this fascinating and complex part of the world. There’s religion, politics, economics and culture, of course, but in filtering them through the distinctly personal, El Feki makes it easier to grasp their impact.
  • Dr. William Bass & Jon Jefferson: Death’s Acre: Inside the Legendary Body Farm: I work, and have always worked in publishing. With a few exceptions, the people I spend most time with are also in publishing or teaching. So I find other jobs fascinating and it’s certainly the reason why I’m always drawn to books about unusual career paths. They don’t come more unusual than Dr Bill Bass, one of the world’s leading forensic anthropologists and creator of the Body Farm – a site where donated human bodies could be studied as they decayed under a variety of conditions. I won’t pretend the book isn’t gruesome in parts and if you’re not keen on creepy crawlies perhaps give it a miss. But I was also surprised at how engaging, funny and emotionally affecting the book was. Bill Bass is an exceptional human being and it’s clear from his narrative that, while he spends his days amongst the dead or murdered, his focus is always on how his research impacts the living, whether that’s bringing justice to the families of victims of terrible crimes or solace and closure to those who are left behind to carry a heavy emotional burden.

Happy reading for 2015!

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3 thoughts on “2014 – a year in books

  1. I do love the end of year reading lists! Though they lead me astray… I’ve now added Lucy Wood and Kate Forsyth to my TBR pile. And one day I really will get around to reading Rebecca Skloot – I’ve heard such good things about it. A very happy 2015 to you – may it be full of bookish delights!

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    • It’s so true. My TBR list swells to alarming proportions at the end of the year and I temporarily forget that I still have only 365 days in the next one… The Rebecca Skloot is such a great piece of writing. That and the Lucy Wood are the two titles that seeped into my bones – the kind of books you still think about weeks and months after reading. So I think those are wonderful choices to add to your own TBR mountain! And happy 2015 to you too – thanks so much for visiting the site.

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