For someone who finds making lists an utter joy yet who can never make them concise you may be surprised that there is only one list of my books of the year this year. Normally I will do two; the ten books that I have loved most published this year and the ten from previous years. Well this year I have decided to be a more savage Savidge and only have ten… well twelve. I cheated a little bit again. I was going to do fourteen for the year we are in but could see that might cause potential problems in 2033. So without any more waffle here are my books of 2014. (For full reviews click on the link in the title.)
- Mateship with Birds – Carrie Tiffany
Picador Books, 2013, paperback, 224 pages, kindly sent by the publisher
One of the first books I read this year and one of the ones which has stayed with me. On the outskirts of a town somewhere in Australia in the early 1950’s we join two neighbours. Harry owns a dairy farm and spends his days between milking his herd and watching the local wildlife, mainly a family of kookaburra’s, and looking over his past seemingly happy with and yet questioning his lot in life. Betty rents the house next door with her two children Michael and Little Hazel, often wondering what has become of her life and often wondering about Harry. We follow these two characters, Betty’s children, and their weird neighbour Mues over what I thought was a season – though it could be much longer or indeed shorter as Mateship with Birds has a sense of nothing and everything happening all at once, all in the grubby wilds of the countryside.
This book has everything I love in it; the wilds of the countryside (which you might see in a few of my choices), outsiders and a rather wonderfully grubby dirty edge. I will be going book shopping on Friday and will be hunting down a copy of Carrie’s Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living.
- The Dig – Cynan Jones
Granta Books, paperback, 2014, fiction, 156 pages, kindly sent by the lovely folk at Fiction Uncovered HQ
In The Dig we follow the lives of two men who live in the same remote countryside and who have met briefly once and who couldn’t be more different. Daniel is a farmer who is struggling both with keeping his farm profitable and running and also with a personal tragedy. I will not give away what because when you find out early on it is like a physical punch. I cried that is all I will say. The other character, who we only know as ‘the big man’ is a much darker kind of fellow; one who trains his dog to kill rats, catches badgers for baiting and has been to prison for something we are unsure of. The question is of course how and why might these two men meet up again?
I never imagined I would have a book about badger bating as one of my books of the year, it even has an evil horse in it, yet for the same reasons I loved everything about Mateship With Birds I loved The Dig (which was also one of Fiction Uncovered’s titles this year, Naomi Wood’s Mrs. Hemmingway would be book number 13 on this list, just saying – and cheating again). It is a book that wonderfully links the rawness of nature to the rawness of emotions and the savage nature of animals to those of men.
- The Night Guest – Fiona McFarlane
Sceptre Books, hardback, 2014, fiction, 276 pages, kindly sent by the publishers
Ruth is a widow who has been living by herself on the coast round from Sydney and for a little while and been coping quite well thank you very much. However on and off in the night she has felt pretty sure that there is a tiger who is roaming around her house. She doesn’t know where this tiger comes from or goes to after it visits her and yet while she doesn’t think it wants to harm or eat her, its presence is unnerving to say the least. Especially when she wakes up and wonders if it was ever really there at all, is she losing her marbles?
Another book that I loved very much at the start of the year (and possibly the most beautiful book of the year if you have the UK hardback) and was desperate to talk to anyone and everyone about as it is so twisty and unreliable in many ways – which of course is why I love it. I even made Thomas, my cohost on The Readers, read it and we had a mini book group which you can hear here, though be warned spoilers abound.
- A Kind of Intimacy – Jenn Ashworth
Arcadia Books, paperback, 2009, fiction, 283 pages, borrowed from Emma Jane Unsworth (who might never get it back!)
If the first two books had a link of the rawness of nature, these two have the link of the unreliable, dark and twisty. Annie Fairhurst has left her old lonely miserable married life with her husband Will behind her. She wants to start again and so has found herself a new home in the suburbs of a Northern town for herself, and her cat Mr Tips, to start a fresh. She wants to make new friends, have wonderful parties and maybe meet a man like her old love Boris, who rather liked the larger lady like Annie and twice gave her a glimpse of how life could be. She is full of hope for the future, especially when she meets her next door neighbour Neil who she is sure came to her aid once when she was a damsel in distress. Yet this unleashes two things in Annie, firstly the fact that her past is a mystery that keeps rearing its ugly head no matter how hard you try and cover it up, secondly Annie isn’t as stable as she might initially appear nor as truthful or lovely. The plot thickens…
This was loaned to me by the lovely Emma Jane Unsworth (whose Animals would have been joint number 14 with Kerry Hudson’s Thirst, cheating again) as she thought I would like it. Having read it I hope that is meant as a compliment of my tastes in fiction rather than to my style of friendship. Hmmm. Anyway it was a huge hit with me, Emma will never get this book back again and Jenn’s second novel, she is now writing the fourth, Cold Light will be one of my first reads of 2015.
- Under The Skin – Michel Faber
Canongate, paperback, 2000 (2011 edition), fiction, 320 pages, kindly sent by the publisher
This is one book I have loved but not actually reviewed yet, the reason for this is that there is a bog old twist that I don’t want to reveal. Here’s the blurb… Isserley spends most of her time driving. But why is she so interested in picking up hitchhikers? And why are they always male, well-built and alone? An utterly unpredictable and macabre mystery, Michel Faber’s debut novel is an outstanding piece of fiction that will stay with you long after you have turned the last page.
I knew the twist but I have to say that didn’t stop me from enjoying this book from start to finish. It is a book that looks at what it is to be a woman in society and what the true meaning of society and humanity are. I will say no more. I did see the film too… I will say no more on that either, ha! I do need to work out how to deal with books with big twists and spoilers in 2015 though as I have a few reviews pending of such books. Any ideas how to deal with this are much welcomed.
- Cover – Peter Mendelsund
powerHouse Books, 2014, hardback, nonfiction, 256 pages, brought by Santa for Christmas
The most recently read which is why it might end up being much higher up over time. Either way, Peter Mendelsund was initially a classical pianist, or a recovering one as his bio says, who after the birth of his first child realised he needed a more stable job with a regular income. But what? Well, as it happened he liked design and then his mother knew someone who knew someone at Knopf Books and after a chat, a viewing of his portfolio (which Knopf being pretty bowled over by what Mendelsund calls “shockingly wince-inducing” self taught designs) and some interviews he then became a junior designer. Now he is Associate Art Director there and his book covers are world famous, though you might admittedly not know they were by him. He is one of those wonderful people who make us want to pick up ALL the books, from Lolita to The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo literally. Well, if you live in America, though some have come here too. Cover is his story of how he came to cover books and what doing so means.
A book about books that every book lover should read or own, the end.
- Bitter Greens – Kate Forsyth
Allison & Busby, 2013, paperback, fiction, 544 pages, kindly sent by the publisher
My favourite fairytale, and indeed possibly story, of all time is Rapunzel. With Bitter Greens Kate Forsyth weaves a tale of three women to retell it and indeed to write a thrilling love story to it. First is Charlotte-Rose de la Force, who has been exiled from the court of the Sun King Louis XIV after a fall from grace too far (which in those times was saying something) and is banished to live in an Abbey with nuns. Second is Selena Leonelli, once one of the most beautiful women in Italy and even the muse of the Venetian artist Titian. Depicted forever in his paintings she has one fear, time, and how it will take her beauty something she will do anything to keep. Thirdly we have Margherita, a young girl trapped in a tower forever unless she finds a way to escape.
I was in book heaven reading this. I don’t tend to go for historical novels very much, and know very little about the court of Louis XIV but I revelled in it and want to know much more about it. All in all a wonderful, saucy, gripping, brilliantly written, literary romp – pitch perfect storytelling. You can hear me talking to Kate about this and more here.
- He Wants – Alison Moore
Salt Publishing, paperback, 2014, fiction, 192 pages, kindly sent by the publisher
Lewis is a man who seems to be stuck in a rut. He is at the end of middle age yet not quite on the cusp of old age. He goes and looks after his father, Lawrence, at the old people’s home and yet his daughter, Ruth, comes round every morning to look after him and deliver soup that he actually doesn’t want. He has recently retired as his role as an RE (religious education) teacher yet having been widowed sometime a go he has no one to share his retirement with, just time and his own thoughts. He spends most of his days at home apart from when he goes to visit his second favourite pub, and that is probably how he will go on spending it. What Lewis isn’t expecting is a blast from the past, in the form of an old friend Sydney, to turn up one day and Lewis’ comfortable, if boring from the outside, life is shaken up.
There are some books that leave you feeling both completely uplifted and utterly devastated, all at once. I know it sounds implausible, such a dichotomy of emotions, yet these books are often the ones that leave us feeling the most enriched by the experience. Alison Moore’s He Wants is such a book. I loved this, I loved The Lighthouse; I need to read everything Alison ever writes and will do so. You can hear me talking to Alison about this and more here.
- Trespass – Rose Tremain
Vintage Books, hardback, 2010, fiction, 272 pages, inherited from Granny Savidge
This was undoubtedly the year of Rose Tremain and I, even though she didn’t know it – well actually I got to meet her and then she did. Ha! (The American Lover would have been on this list but I thought a title per author was fair, and I promise that is my final cheat!) As it opens we follow a young, rather spoilt, girl Melodie who is struggling to fit in at her knew school and so on a trip out runs away into the countryside where she discovers something horrendous amongst the tranquillity. What she has discovered we have no idea because we are swiftly taken away from this moment into the lives of two pairs of siblings, soon beginning to realise that in some way one or both of these siblings have something to do with whatever it is that poor Melodie discovers, but what and how?
She was one of Granny Savidge’s favourite living authors and Gran always told me I should read her, interestingly saying this would be my way in, she was completely correct. It is such a shame I can’t talk to her about these as we would have had some corking conversations but Gran has certainly left me with a legacy of recommendations. You can hear me talk to Rose Tremain about her books and writing here.
- Elizabeth is Missing – Emma Healey
Penguin Viking Books, hardback, 2014, fiction, 288 pages, kindly sent by the publisher
This should have won so many awards. From the start of the novel we meet Maud who, when she is not repeatedly going to the corner shop and buying more (and more) tinned peaches, is always finding notes in her pockets that remind her that her friend Elizabeth is missing. She may sometimes forget the name of the women who come and make her tea or clean her house but with these notes everywhere possible she cannot forget this and she must find out where she went, why her house is empty and why Elizabeth’s son never seems to care. At the start of the novel Maud also discovers a compact mirror, where we are not initially sure, which suddenly brings back the disappearance and mystery of what happened to her sister Sukey 70 years ago.
I just love this book so, so, so much. Emma’s writing is incredible, the way she handles the theme of dementia is beautiful yet honest and so occasionally very funny. Cliché alert but it is really amazing this is her first book, no pressure on the next then? You can hear me talk to Emma about this and much more here. Oh and side note, she would be cross if I didn’t mention it, this is also one of my mother’s favourite books of the year – we discussed it a lot at Christmas. Read it.
- A Month in the Country – J. L. Carr
Penguin Modern Classics, paperback, 1980 (2000 edition), fiction, 112 pages, inherited from Gran
Gran left me with a legacy of authors to read and also a legacy of books of which this was one. In A Month in the Country Tom Birkin reflects several decades later on the summer of 1920 when he ended up in the village of Oxgodby for a single month. Here on a mission left by recently deceased spinster Miss Hebron he is being paid, begrudgingly by the Reverend Keach who is only allowing it as Hebron left the church money if he did, to uncover a possible medieval wall painting inside the church. Birkin reflects upon that summer, the place he was in mentally in his life at the time and thinks about the place he was in physically and those who peopled it.
It is really hard to say much about A Month in the Country, as it is essentially a very silent and still yet powerful book, other than it is pretty much book perfection. If I hadn’t had such a (similarily yet more epic) visceral reaction to the next book it would have been my book of the year. You can’t hear me discuss this with Mr Carr as he is dead BUT you can hear me discussing it with Gav, Kate and Rob (some of us might weep) here.
- The Narrow Road to the Deep North – Richard Flanagan
Chatto & Windus, hardback, 2014, fiction, 464 pages, kindly sent by the publisher
I never thought a Booker Winner would be my book of the year, especially after the last few years but Richard Flanagan just blew me away with this book. The Narrow Road to the Deep North is essentially the tale of one man’s life with all that befalls him. Alwyn ‘Dorrigo’ Evans is one of the survivors of the Death Railway in Burma where he was a prisoner of war. He was the surgeon, having the strange job of helping people escape death only to then have them healed and sent off to work that was likely to lead to death be it from sickness, exhaustion or torture. He is a man who has had a love affair with this uncle’s wife. It is really these two particular strands of Dorrigo’s life that this novel follows going back and forth developing a life lived, with it joy, despair, loss and love.
Easily the book I have loved the hardest (and therefore was the hardest to write about) this year and will more than likely be one of my all time favourite and most memorable reads. And guess what, yes, you can hear me chatting to Richard about it here (I was such a lucky sausage with interviews this year) and more. Richard’s back catalogue will be being bought by myself over the next few years and devoured.
So that is my list! If you have read any of these let me know what you thought of them. If you haven’t why on earth are you still reading and not running to a bookshop/library, no I don’t care what time it is or if it is a Bank Holiday, and getting them now? If you have made a list of books of the year do let me know, I will have a look at them in 2015. If you haven’t then please share some of your favourites in the comments below, or I will sulk which is no way to end one year and start the next is it?