Books of the Year 2014: Part 3

The Confabulist The last of my ‘books of the year’ posts begins with one of my two September favourites, Steven Galloway’s The Confabulist which tells the story of the man who killed Houdini not once, but twice. Far from a straightforward reimagining of the Houdini story Galloway’s novel is a very clever bit of business which didn’t get nearly the attention it deserved. A very different kettle of fish, Matthew Thomas’s richly textured portrait of a marriage We Are Not Ourselves is a fine debut, one of the best I’ve read this year. Don’t be put off by its length – once begun Thomas’s compassionate characterisation and quiet, considered yet compelling writing carries you along without even thinking about its 600 pages.

In October Daniel Kehlmann’s F told the story of a very different family: three brothers, all Cover image unhappy in their own way, and their father for whom a hypnotist’s performance turns his life upside down despite his emphatically professed scepticism. There are many pieces of Kehlmann’s narrative puzzle all of which click snugly into place partly due, of course, to Carol Brown Janeway’s excellent translation. October also saw the second of my non-fiction titles, Phillipe Claudel’s sometimes smelly, often fragrant, Parfums, made up of vignettes of a life remembered through smells. Claudel’s prose has a lovely, elegant expressiveness to it, trimmed of the flourishes and curlicues that some writers indulge in and translated beautifully by Euan Cameron.

Surprisingly, the often dull November turned out to be an excellent reading month. Mary Costello’s Academy Street is another very fine debut written in that pared back elegant style that I admire so much. Suffused with melancholy, it’s a heat-wrenching, beautifully written book in which Tess Lohan lives an attenuated life, marked by a deep yearning for an affinity, becoming ‘herself, her most true self, in those hours with books’. Delighted to see this one on the Costa First Novel shortlist. A new novel by Jane Smiley is always something to look forward to but the premise of Some Luck is a particularly attractive one. It’s the first in a trilogy which tells the story of an American century reflected and refracted through one family – the Langdons – beginning in 1920.  It ends in the When the Night Comes Cold War years with a crisis in the heart of the family leaving you wanting much more just as the first in a series should. The next two instalments have already been written and I’m fascinated to know how Smiley has imagined the years between when she finished writing her trilogy and its end in 2020. And finally Favel Parett’s When the Night Comes surprised me with its captivating story of a crewman who cooks aboard a supply ship for an Antarctic research station and a thirteen-year-old girl recently arrived in Tasmania after her mother’s marriage breaks down. It’s also the story of the Nella Dan which sailed for twenty-six years in the service of the Australian government.  A beautifully expressed book, far more moving than I expected and one I hope won’t be overlooked.

And if I had to choose one out of the twenty-one? Not possible, I’m afraid. Last year it was a tie between The President’s Hat and The Last Banquet. This year it’s a three-way – Shotgun Lovesongs, With a Zero at its Heart and The Miniaturist – with Sedition just a smidgen behind. Waterstones, it seems, are more decisive than me: they’ve plumped for The Miniaturist alone.

Honourable mentions to Amanda Hope’s Wake, Jill Dawson’s The Tell-tale Heart, Emily Gould’s Friendship, Esther Freud’s Mr Mac and Me, and Linda Grant’s Upstairs at the Party.

If you missed the first two ‘books of the year’ posts and would like to catch up here’s the first and here’s the second.

What about you? What are your 2014 favourites?

30 thoughts on “Books of the Year 2014: Part 3”

  1. I was leant Mary Costello’s book of short stories this month – The China Factory – and am working my way through them. They’re excellent and I’ll look forward to reading her novel. I’m also really curious about the Miniaturist.

    1. I have to confess to not being a short story fan but I’m prepared to make an exception for Mary Costello! Such fine writing. Lots of brouhaha around The Miniaturist but thoroughly justified, and a great winter read.

    1. Aren’t they! I’m looking forward to trawling through some of my favourite bloggers’ lists now all mine are up.

  2. Mary Costellos is next on my TBR ( once I’ve broken the back of Middlemarch!) and I’m so looking forward to starting …sounds to be right up my street , no pun intended! I loved Matthew Thomas’ book and Jane Smiley too .

    I was surprised to see your comments re Presidents Hat . I read that when it came out in Fr and enjoyed but thought it would never get translated …a French curiosity !!!
    Mind you I thought that about Harry Quebert so what do I know ???

    1. She’s a fine writer, Helen. I’m sure you’ll enjoy her.

      I think the team at Gallic did a joint translation of The President’s Hat. I’m so glad it was translated, an absolute delight which I gave to several people who needed a bit of cheering up last year.

  3. lonesomereadereric

    It’s both exciting and dismaying that I’ve been involved with reading so heavily this past year but still some of these I’ve not heard of! I very much agree with We Are Not Ourselves as a fantastic sweeping debut. While I think it’s a clever cover, I’m slightly turned off from reading Kehlmann’s novel because looking at the cover gives me a headache. Your description makes it sounds like a really interesting story though. I’ve really wanted to get to reading both Costello’s book and Jane Smiley’s novel.
    I have yet to write up my favourites of the year yet, but Oates’ book of short stories Lovely Dark Deep, Galgut’s Arctic Summer and Hustvedt’s The Blazing World will most definitely be there.

    1. I know what you mean about that cover, Eric. I think it there should be a Rubik’s cube on it instead but you’ll have to read the novel to find out why. Looking forward to reading your list.

  4. So many reads, though with my rate of a book a week, I know why many of those you mention have been missed.

    Stand outs off the top of my head for me were Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, a surprise in that it was so much accessible than I imagined, it had been gathering dust for years! Prayers for the Stolen by Jennifer Clement, The Bees by Laline Paull, the Elena Ferrante Neapolitan novels (all 3 of them), Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk and Carmen Laforet’s Nada.

    1. I do rattle through them, it’s true. That’s a very interesting list, Claire. I must check your titles out, although I already know there’s a great deal of love out there for the Macdonald.

      1. They’re a mix of old and new, English and Translated, Fiction and Non-Fiction, a bit of Nature Writing and Prose Poetry, pretty much sums up my literature loves, I guess its been a good reading year after all!

  5. It seems you’ve read some fascinating books this year many of which I confess I haven’t heard of. I read so few new things in comparison with the number of old books I read. So many books, so little time.

  6. Thank you for pointing us in the direction of these fine reads over your last three posts. Wonderful! I’m adding Academy Street, We Are Not Ourselves, and Shotgun Lovesongs to my very long TBR list.

    1. Wait until you get to the end, Tanya, and you’ll see what I mean about a clever bit of business – although you may have already guessed it! We’ll have to keep it to ourselves, though….

  7. Great choices! I’ll be posting mine next week because just recently I read two of the best novels of the year: The Bone Clocks by David MItchell and The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins.

    1. Thanks, Elena. I’ll look forward to seeing your list although I have to admit I didn’t get on with the Mitchell very well.

      1. I hated Cloud Atlas, so the expectations where quite low except for a thought that TBC was a crime novel. Ok, it partly is, but had I know what it was really about, I’m not sure I would have read it. Anyway, I’m glad I did, because now I have read one Mitchell that I liked and another that I didn’t. I’m excited for the next one!

        1. He’s never quite matched Ghostwritten, for me. And I agree about Cloud Atlas. I think I’m in the minority with TBC – it seems to be in lots of reviewers’ ‘books of the year’ roundups. Glad to hear that you enjoyed it. It’s always a pleasure when a book exceeds your expectations.

  8. I thought we’d had similar reading schedules, but in fact you read all sorts of different books to me – lots here (again!) that I would love to read, too. And delighted to see Jane Smiley made it onto your list. I did pick up a copy of Sedition recently, and must try and squeeze that in before Christmas.

    1. According to my partner I’m an eclectic reader. I’m also greedy – my word not his! I think you’ll love Sedition – a clever piece of female subversion, stuffed with sly humour and bawdy with it.

  9. It’s always interesting to see these end-of-year lists. Mary’s Costello’s Academy Street is the one I’m most likely to read and I hope to find time for it early next year. The Matthew Thomas sounds wonderful too, although a bigger commitment and I’ve been veering towards short and focused books of late!

    1. Given the last part of your comment Academy Street is definitely the best bet of those two for you, Jacqui, although the Thomas would make an excellent holiday read.

  10. Got Sedition today, oddly enough, so felt gratified to see it on your list. I was eyeing up Mr Mac And Me on Amazon the other night too. I’ve got We Are Not Ourselves, which I want to read but the size IS intimidating – similarly The Truth About The Harry Quebert Affair. Add in The Goldfinch and that’s been a lot of hefty books recently! And The Miniaturist intrigues me, as I especially love the new cover that I assume is only available in Waterstones. Argh! So many wonderful books – and I’m still on a lot of last year’s titles!

    1. Nice little selection there. I was appalled by the size of the Thomas when it arrived but it flew by so I hope you aren’t put off too much. Happy reading!

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