My Books of 2014

I’ve read a lot of books that came out this year, for the first time in ages. Though, of course, there are still lots more I want to read. Amongst others, I wish I’d got around to Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood, Boy Snow Bird by Helen Oyeyemi and Matt Haig’s The Humans. But, without further delay, here are my favourite books published in 2014:

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald – Perhaps because it is fresh in my memory, or perhaps because it is excellent, I think this is my favourite book of the year. I just loved it.

Do No Harm by Henry Marsh – Continuing with non-fiction and top of my personal Guardian First Book Award list, I think this was heartfelt and intelligent. I love learning about the brain and to inform through memoir made this very readable.

How to be Both by Ali Smith – Ali Smith is wonderful. This is still in my head, having finished it about a month ago. It was sensitive and playful and awesome. I admire Smith because she experiments but she never seems to forget that people still want to just read a book when they’re reading a book.

The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane – When I finished this I was so annoyed at the ending that I went off it. But the interplay between the two main characters still comes back to me months after I read it. I love the way the reader isn’t sure what is happening; are we taken into the mind of a dementia sufferer or are tricks being played on the protagonist? Definitely one of the best of the year.

Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami – Having read a few Murakami novels, this felt familiar (an outsider, secrets and weird sex…). But I got through it very quickly. I like Murakami’s realistic but dreamy worlds.

Things to Make and Break by May-Lan Tan – The only book of short stories on here, even though I read a lot of short stories this year. The imagery is wonderful and the stories are sensitively told from a variety of persepectives, young and old.

Some books I thought would fare better are not listed here, obviously. I felt disappointed by some big names; and I read a lot of debut books. After years of doing a literature degree perhaps I was expecting too much of some of the debut books I read. Writing a book means doing an awful lot of things well.

Also, I read some wonderful books this year that were published prior to 2014. Some of these were Trumpet by Jackie Kay, Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche and Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart. But I’m just doing 2014 today, apparently.

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Seven Hours in London

When we arrived it was already dark. I hadn’t visited for four years and the rush hour traffic and mass of people on Euston Road – who seemed very sure of where they were going – felt incredibly disorienting at first. We disappeared down a quieter street and I remembered where I was going and I started to feel invigorated. We were looking for the British Museum and we must have come close but we didn’t find it. We walked through Russell Square and wandered around Bloomsbury, looking for the hubs of our favourite publishers.

We just wandered for a while, looking at the lights and the people and realising how much is actually happening in London on any given night. I love Christmas lights because they make everything in the middle of winter look less dreary and cold. We took whichever turn took our fancy and ended up in Trafalgar Square. In many ways, I think that London is almost a giant film set because everything is so famous.

Big Ben

We took a wrong turn looking for Downing Street but we eventually found it. I was more interested in Big Ben and took a lot of pictures of it, trying not to get in the way of locals who are probably sick of tourists doing the same thing every day. After taking pictures of the big clock we decided to head to New Oxford Street, for the reason we had come to London in the first place. We hadn’t come just to walk around in the dark for three hours; we had a party to go to. The Guardian First Book Award party!

I hadn’t been to a fancy literary party before, and this one was wonderful. We were 31 floors up and we had an amazing view of London; of more people going places, of the British Museum (we finally found it!) and other sights. There was an open bar and I was treated to a glass of Prosecco as I walked in. There were other drinks too and my head didn’t thank me the next day for trying most of them. Our reading group met up and marvelled, and I think that we all wanted this party to become a regular thing.

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The shortlisted books were dotted around the room together as decoration. We had three out of the five books on the shortlist we submitted as a group, which wasn’t bad. This made me realise how much personal taste can account for winners and shortlists – perhaps there never is truly a “best” book. I thought that the final shortlist was representative and I can see why those books were chosen. The winner was announced fairly early: it was Colin Barrett’s Young Skins, a selection of short stories set in small-town Ireland. Barrett looked very shocked to have won. But his stories were well-written, combining lyricism with gritty working-class life.

Then we circulated a bit and met the very lovely May-Lan Tan, author of one of my favourite books on the longlist, Things to Make and Break. I like that two books of short stories found their way onto the shortlist. I am a fan of short stories.

After that the evening gets a little blurry. We caught the underground and headed to the St Pancras hotel for one last drink before our train left. Luckily we could see the station from the bar. So clutching my Guardian goody bag, we caught the 11:15 home, which was busier than I would have thought. With only a big bag of Doritos and a massive bottle of water to keep us awake we finally arrived home, incredibly tired, at just after two. It was a great night! But it took me a few days to recover. I’m getting old.

Thoughts On Reading the Guardian First Book Award Longlist

The 2014 Guardian First #Book Prize longlist

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I was excited about being chosen for the Guardian First Book Prize book group at Waterstones Nottingham. Every year, five Waterstones stores form a group that reads all eleven books in eight weeks. I followed my usual act with prescribed reading: I was initially looking forward to reading everything and, as the weeks passed by, I started to resent having to read things I would not continue with if I were just reading for myself. At the moment I feel so happy and free because I can choose my own books to read; reading is my down-time and my down-time is my own again. All of this prescribed reading fell too close to the English degree I finished this year. Although on my degree, the standard was obviously higher because we weren’t looking exclusively at debut books.

I had always presumed that if a writer had a book published then they must know something about structuring books, but I discovered that this isn’t the case. The shortest book here is still just under 300 pages, and writing for that amount of time is difficult to maintain for first time authors. There are so many things a debut author has to do well, and they then have to sustain it for a massively long time. If they are not used to such big pieces of writing then, even if the rest of the book is very good, the books themselves could be very uneven.

Also, there were more non-fiction books here than I would normally read. I like subjectivity and subtleties and I think that fiction can say truer things sometimes. By the end I was struggling with the amount of non-fiction. And after I decided I was going to blog all of the books, that was the only thing I blogged about. That’s why this blog has only been books for the past couple of months.

Of all the books on the longlist, I would have read a few of them without the prize. And they ended up being some of my favourites. I did discover some gems and it has been an interesting process. I didn’t learn much more about the sort of books I enjoy, but I did learn about judging first books a bit more kindly than those written by established writers. There’s a reason writing is called a craft: writers who are good at some aspects of writing can’t be good at everything.

I am glad I did this group, but I don’t think I’ll be doing it again in a hurry. I read books I loved and books I really did not love. I’ve never been one to read something just because everybody else is, and I’ve never been somebody who can’t choose a book to read. I’ve got lots of books I want to read, and I hopefully will get around to blogging about the ‘other things’ I say I write about here.

After Me Comes the Flood by Sarah Perry

I #amreading After Me Comes the Flood by Sarah Perry

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After Me Comes the Flood is an eerie book. In it we meet John Cole who, during a long heatwave in London, leaves his bookshop to visit his brother unannounced in Norfolk. On his drive he becomes more dazed because of the heat and he stops near a forest. He stumbles upon a house, feeling faint, and is more than surprised to find that the residents there seem to have been waiting for him to arrive.

Sarah Perry is obviously very influenced by her childhood ‘immersed in classic literature’ (as noted on the cover), because our protagonist finds himself in a very old English house with a bunch of eccentric characters. At times the novel, especially at the beginning, reminded me of Ishiguro’s dreamlike The Unconsoled, where the narrator finds himself in strange situations and is often unable to speak up, as in a nightmare. But After Me Comes the Flood feels a little more forced than that, which is fair enough: The Unconsoled wasn’t a first novel. John Cole finds out that he isn’t the real houseguest, and that they just have similar names, by answering the phone to the real houseguest, which I found a little forced. John Cole is the one who has to answer the phone to go on living there and we have to know this for the story to progress, but I found it a few too many coincidences.

The prose alternates between John Cole’s diary and third-person narration. I found this rather jarring at first but it did offer a different perspective on John’s surroundings. The people who John is in this strange house with are themselves a strange bunch. The blurb promises that the book is psychologically complex, but apart from the short-lived intrigue after which we learn that these are people who used to be in a mental institution, there isn’t much probing into the minds of the characters. I would have liked more background on them because they were a bit more interesting than John, the protagonist.

The writing is fine: there was perhaps a little too much description for my tastes, but it flowed well. I just felt that After Me Comes the Flood was a little bland, a little tame; I wanted it to do more. But I would read more by Sarah Perry in the future. If reading so many debut novels recently has taught me anything, it’s that there is so much to get right when writing a book. Perry does well at many aspects but maybe the reason this fell flat for me is that I’m expecting too much from a first novel. But my longlist reading experience is over now and I’ll sum up my thoughts about this in my next post.

We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas

I #amreading We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas

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We Are Not Ourselves is a 620-page account of one woman’s life in New York City; the book details her impoverished childhood (with alcoholic Irish parents) and continues to find Eileen struggling with her husband’s dementia. It is a book that deals with the effects of Americans who aren’t able to live up to American Dream, even when they thought they would be rich and happy. From this perspective it is easy to see why the author thought it necessary to detail Eileen’s life in its entirety: we see her expectations and dreams slowly fading away. This effect is built up well throughout the book. But because I am not particularly interested in The American Dream and people who fail to live up it, this book falls a little flat; in other words, because Eileen’s life doesn’t live up to her expectations the book doesn’t really seem to go anywhere.

Thomas is an engaging writer. His prose flows well, and even though the book was often bleak I felt like continuing with it. He sensitively navigates Eileen’s husband’s descent into Alzheimer’s. This book is all about subtlety, all about how things can slip and how life can turn into something unexpected. And, of course, Alzheimer’s is notoriously unpredictable; but as a society we will have to get more and more used to it.

This book was written from a very close third-person perspective. Eileen is followed, her memories seen, but I felt that the reader doesn’t get enough glimpses into her mind. We get some painfully honest thoughts, but they were usually when she was speaking to somebody. There are snatches of lives here, some good characterisation, but I want books to do something different to film. I find at the moment that I want books to shock me with their honesty, and I felt as if I’d read this book before.

I can’t help but feel that if this were written by a woman it wouldn’t be as highly praised; it would be advertised, perhaps, as a run-of-the-mill family saga. Of course, this isn’t the author’s fault. If you like Jonathan Franzen then you will probably enjoy this, but I don’t find family intrigues used as metaphor for the state of the nation very interesting. We Are Not Ourselves also reminded me in part of Brooklyn by Colm Toibin: Irish immigrants in New York in the 20th Century had similar stories. Ultimately, I think that this book would have been much better if it were a lot shorter.

Do No Harm by Henry Marsh

I #amreading Do No Harm by Henry Marsh

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Do No Harm is one of the best books I’ve read in ages. Henry Marsh benefits from the fact that his career – in neurosurgery – is immensely fascinating, but one of the book’s achievements is that this intricate topic remains accessible. Each chapter is headed with the various medical terms discussed in that chapter (and the chapters tend to be short). I feel like I learned something about the human brain in this book, as well as the life of a neurosurgeon.

Marsh is unflinchingly honest. Perhaps it’s because he’s close to retirement, or perhaps it’s just who he is, but he tells the reader how he feels about the current state of the health service, as well as his thoughts about surgeries which were unsuccessful. He writes about the difficulties of training new neurosurgeons; how do you know if somebody is ready to perform certain surgeries? He writes about a young surgeon he thought was ready to perform a particular operation, and it went horribly wrong. Marsh then discusses how helpful it can be for surgeons it is when things go wrong. He writes in a way I think some would find callous, but this distancing is surely necessary for a successful career in brain surgery.

I find the brain fascinating to read about. There is so much that people have discovered in recent years – when Marsh started his career there weren’t many other neurosurgeons. There is still so much about the brain that is unknown, and Marsh reflects on the fact that all his thoughts and feelings are just his brain firing away. Our own consciousness is still so very mysterious.

Marsh weaves his career history with particular cases, his personal and professional life often overlap because neurosurgery tends to require everything from a person. He writes sensitively about his first marriage breaking down; it is easy to see with hindsight that he dedicated more time to his career than his marriage, but he writes about this sensitively. The reader also sees his perspective of being a family member worried about a sick child. I found this fascinating: when his son was very small he required brain surgery and Marsh talks about the worry and heartache that the people on the other side must face. And it is this worry and heartache that a person performing an operation cannot think about.

This probably isn’t the best book to read if you’re about to undergo surgery. Or, perhaps it is if you want to think of the neurosurgeon as a fallible human. But I don’t think that many people like to think that. Perhaps I enjoyed this book more because (thankfully) I don’t know anyone who has to undergo surgery at the moment. Do No Harm is written honestly, perhaps too honestly for some. I’d definitely read more of Marsh’s work if he publishes more books. Recommended for people who enjoy authors such as Oliver Sacks.

Young Skins by Colin Barrett

I #amreading Young Skins by Colin Barrett

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I find that Young Skins, rather than detailing the life of the young now, detailed the lives of any young person who ever lived in any small town from the 1950s onwards. Colin Barrett is a good writer; he can keep the story moving at a good rate and his prose is localised but universal. I didn’t understand some of the Irish words used but I could easily see what they meant. But, ultimately, I found myself a little disappointed by this collection.

Barrett’s prose reminded me of F. Scott Fitzgerald sometimes, with his violent asides being written so delicately that you have to reread to make sure that you understood it correctly. But mostly, this book reminded me of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning by Alan Sillitoe. All of the protagonists here are rather angry young men and aren’t sure how to direct this energy out into their limited societies, and these men really don’t understand women. The protagonists are in dead-end jobs and have no real hope of leaving their small towns. There are gangs, mammy stays in the kitchen cooking and nobody communicates via smartphones. There is no world outside the small town; even Dublin feels like a million miles away in most of the stories. Perhaps this unwillingness to change shows that young people are always the same, rebelling against whatever their elders ‘have got’.

I would like to read about contemporary masculinity but I don’t find it here. Or perhaps, I do. But I want contemporary literature to tell me more about modern masculinity than Sillitoe can. I want it to go deeper: I want to know why somebody would decide to break the jaw of the next person who comes into the pub, rather than simply being told that he did it.

The writing was good and the stories were well observed. I sympathised with Bat, for instance, in ‘Stand Your Skin’. Bat works in a dead-end job and doesn’t like to socialise anymore, since his jaw was randomly broken by somebody one night. He drinks far too much and he’s depressed. He can sense that there’s something going on between his co-workers: he’s a sensitive man. When the story’s perspective switches to that of Bat’s mother, we find out that ‘there is a part of her that hates her son. The enormous, fatiguing fragility of him.’ This story was my favourite because that fragility made it easier to be let in to Bat’s story. I want writers to hack away at their character’s pretensions.

Barrett can write sympathetically and it was this side of his stories that I enjoyed the most. When he let his characters be messy people who were confused, when the reader was allowed more into their headspaces I found the book to be more interesting. But when they were walking around causing light mayhem and talking about which girls they had had sex with because they had boring jobs I just felt like I had heard it thousands of times before. I was expecting a dissection of young contemporary manhood in small-town Ireland. Perhaps my expectiations were too high but I feel like, in this respect, the author has only scratched the surface.