2014. A year and a half or more of stuff has happened this year. Not much of that stuff reading or blogging though, unfortunately. Instead, an unanticipated and involuntary house move, a £1.6m project at work, my second year of PhD, a new dog, ridiculous levels of stress. Which translates into only 28 books read (possibly 30 by year end if I crack on), most of them in the beginning of the year, and not a single post here since April. All of my best reading intentions devastated.
Every year a new year and 2015 will be different again, hopefully better.
And despite the tangleweed blowing across Alexandria for 7 months, I still got the annual urge to share my favourite books of the year. And so...
The Dig by Cynan Jones
One of the first books I finished in 2014, and absolutely, undoubtedly, the best. I reviewed it here in January.
I wrote then that it was: 'Short, brutal, bloody and uncompromising; chilly and haunting and disconcertingly raw. All these things, and wonderful.' This story of badger baiting, senseless death, violence, grief and the Welsh hills has stayed with me all year with an extraordinary clarity.
Wake by Anna Hope
I was expecting to be overwhelmed with First World War novels this year, the first of the four year Centenary, but there wasn't the glut I anticipated and in the end the only one that I read was this lovely intimate understated post-war tale. I liked it very much (and here is my review).
It it one of those books that sounds cliched in the paraphrasing: three grieving women yearn after what they have lost or have yet to find. The writing - and the vignettes that puncture the POV - lifts it so that it isn't sentimental or elegiac and I felt very attached to narrators Hettie, Ada and Evelyn by the end.
We are Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
The one with the big twist on page 77. Booker Prize shortlisted and on many a best of the year list, this has been a marmite book amongst my friends. I am in the pro camp. I thought it a deftly written, almost comic book that explored some serious questions about free will, loyalty, guilt and sibling rivalry. It's sometimes histrionic, occasionally twee, but there is a dexterity to the way Fowler skips and hops across emotional registers that made it work for me. Rosemary, the narrator, is self-indulgent and frustrating and yet quite lovable. I never wrote about it anywhere, because I didn't have the energy to properly engage with it. I'd love to read it again to test my response.
Longbourn by Jo Baker
I so enjoyed this; so so much. A retelling of Pride and Prejudice from below stairs that was sweet, charming, romantic and ended happily. It's an escape to a familiar world made unfamiliar with an interesting perspective on the systems of service and slavery that made the lives of Lizzie, Darcy, Jane and Bingley possible.
You know a book has worked for you when you can barely sit still enough to finish it and you make involuntary little whoops and squeaks for the final few pages. I was desperate to see Sarah and James come together downstairs in the way that Lizzie and Darcy do upstairs.
A Storm of Swords (Part II) & A Feast for Crows & A Dance with Dragons (probably) by George R. R. Martin
I say I haven't read much this year, but these three together are almost 2500 pages and equivalent to 7 or 8 normal sized books. I have been trying to finish A Song of Ice and Fire (insofar as that is currently possible) for years and years but struggled with maintaining momentum through so many pages. This despite the fact that I do really love reading these books. The world building, the dynastic intricacies, the history of Westeros and beyond is almost peerless in my experience. Yes, it's slow, and yes, it's unwieldy, and yes, it has its share of dead spots (Bran anyone? Sam Tarly? Brienne's endless featureless journeying?), but I still find it incredibly rewarding.
I think I've said before that it's the dialogue that floats my boat most. If you're going to do portentous then you have to do it like GRRM does. There is nothing like a Lannister face-off, or Jon in honour mode, or Daenerys getting her dragon on. The later books have a deserved reputation for bloat and distraction, and of course the Big POV Three of Tyrion, Daenerys and Jon are scandalously missing from A Feast for Crows. But - and this makes me an exception to every rule - I actually liked it that way, enjoying the focus on Cersei, Jaime and the Greyjoys for a change. I'm with this series for the long haul, whatever happens.
The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters
Confession: this isn't my favourite Waters novel by a long stretch. I thought it was baggy in parts, and over-precise in others, but a less-than-perfect Waters novel is still an almost-perfect novel. There were lots of things I admired about it. Frances is a new kind of Waters' character, repressed and morally ambivalent but self-assured in her sexuality, while Lil is a masterpiece of indecision, weakness and survival instinct. The setting is perfectly done - you wouldn't expect anything less would you? And those middle 50 pages? Astonishingly tense and horrific. I stayed up till 1am sick with tiredness after a long long day to read it through to the end. And the latter part of the book delivered on the deliberate and slow stage setting of the first part. I think it will reward re-reading. I always think that Waters' books talk to one another, despite standing alone, and so perhaps The Little Stranger/The Paying Guests back to back is in order.
There are books I wanted to read that I didn't get around to even from my modest list of most-anticipated of 2014, including Gwendolen by Diana Souhami and Cuckoo Song by Frances Hardinge. And I still haven't read The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber or (shock, horror) How to be both by Ali Smith.
There are also some books I read this year that left me deflated and disappointed. I thought David Mitchell's The Bone Clocks was overblown and sometimes ridiculous. It started so well with a flavour of Black Swan Green (my favourite of his novels) and then got silly. I could say the same of Val McDermid's Northanger Abbey retelling, which I read so soon after Longbourn, and which left a really sad taste in my mouth. I keep trying McDermid and failing miserably. Am I missing something? I flew through The Rosie Project by Graeme Simison but thought the whole was lacking; and the same could be said of The Dynamite Room by Jason Hewitt, except that was both hard-going and lacking.
Writing this post has only convinced me (as if I needed convincing) that 2014 isn't going to be the best reading vintage. There is as much I would happily forget as remember. As always though, this is the time of year when I rediscover my love of books. I have lots of time to relax and read at my parent's house, and I love exploring the best of year lists on blogs and building my wishlist back up again. Soon it will be time to put together my most anticipated of 2015 post and think about resolutions.