My Best Books of 2014

Hello!

This is what happens when you draft a blog post and forget to publish it! A bit late for this but hey, I still adore all these books :)

I've been reading a lot more last year than I have the year before and I've been really pleased with how varied  my reading has been. 

I've done some stats over my reading year like the big geek I am and out of all the books I've read in 2014, more than 60% were by women writers. I've read more YA this year than I have last year (roughly 40%) as well as literary fiction (35%) and Fantasy/SF (25%). I've been reading more French books (and Italian) and have also been very interested in reading non-fiction titles so I'm really glad about that. What I am unhappy about is how diverse my reading was... only 25% of the books were diverse. Not great at all, considering diversity in books is something I'm extremely passionate about. There'll definitely be some improvement on that this year.

On to my favourite books of the year. I don't know if you're following me on twitter or not but I've been banging on about The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton since last January and this is definitely my favourite book this year. It is one of the best books I've ever read and I want to reread it soon. I loved the characters and the plot and the writing. You really really have to read it. None of this "too long" nonsense. Take a long weekend to read through the first few hundred pages and then you'll be hooked.


A special mention goes to the French book Charlotte by David Foenkinos. It's not (yet!) translated in English but I would urge you to read it if you can. So wonderfully written and Charlotte Salomon is a wonderful artist to read about. It was such an honour and a pleasure to discover her story and her work.


Other books which I've loved last year: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi, The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan and Burial Rites by Hannah Kent.


          

My absolute favourite discovery last year was the fantasy author Brandon Sanderson. He might be my new favourite fantasy author and I am planning to read all his books! The Mistborn trilogy is utterly wonderful and mind-blowingly good. Do read it!



In terms of YA, I think my favourite in 2014 is Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan, I loved the writing and the perspective from the generation before. 


I also loved Far From You by Tess Sharpe and Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo.

  

I've also discovered some AMAZING French YA books that the amazing French bloggers I've met have been recommending and these two are quite possibly some of my favourite YA books of all time: Frangine by Marion Brunet and Le Faire ou Mourir by Claire-Lise Marguier. Both books have LGBT characters (lesbian moms in Frangine and queer/questioning main character in Le Faire ou Mourir) and are FANTASTIC contemporary YA.

 

Favourite non-fiction book is Men Explain Things To Me by Rebecca Solnit. An author I kept seeing everywhere and hadn't read before. I love the writing and the topics of the essays and I'll be looking out for her backlist titles.


And then various backlist titles that I've discovered last year and that I can't believe it took me all that time to read.

   


The Art of Being Normal by Lisa Williamson - Interview on Queer YA

Hi all,

I'm just posting here to send you over to Queer YA where I've posted my interview with Lisa Williamson, author of the wonderful book out this month The Art of Being Normal about a transgender teen. I've adored the book and I think it's a brilliant addition to LGBT YA books. Head over [here] to read all about her inspiration for the book, how she researched for some of the scenes and her bookish recommendation.

Caroline x

A Song For Issy Bradley - Carys Bray


Summary:

This is the story of what happens when Issy Bradley dies.
It is the story of Ian - husband, father, maths teacher and Mormon bishop - and his unshakeable belief that everything will turn out all right if he can only endure to the end, like the pioneers did. It is the story of his wife Claire’s lonely wait for a sign from God and her desperate need for life to pause while she comes to terms with what's happened.
It is the story of the agony and hope of Zippy Bradley’s first love. The story of Alma Bradley’s cynicism and reluctant bravery. And it is the story of seven-year-old Jacob. His faith is bigger than a mustard seed, probably bigger than a toffee bonbon and he’s planning to use it to mend his broken family with a miracle.
Incredibly moving, unexpectedly funny and so sharply observed it will make you feel as if you could pick the woodchip off the bedroom wall, A SONG FOR ISSY BRADLEY explores the outer reaches of doubt and faith. But mostly it’s a story about a family trying to work out how to carry on when their world has fallen apart.

~~~

Becky's review:

Family, Religion, Faith, Grief, Loss and Life are all at the heart of this captivating read by Carys Bray. Each member of the Bradley family has to come to terms with the loss of their beloved Issy and the book shows how the process of grief is as unique as the person experiencing it. 

Each member of the Bradley family is vividly portrayed with individual characters taking up their own highly believable voice within the narrative. Ian, the head of the family and a Bishop in the Mormon Church, draws strength from his faith, while his wife Claire struggles to gain the same stability from her family’s religious foundations. Their children Zippy, Alma and Jacob also strive to find a way to carry on after their sister’s death in a world that suddenly feels like it has fallen apart.  

The narrative is subtle, sensitive and at times unexpectedly humorous when dealing with such complex themes. Huge questions about life and human existence are asked, and yet no answers are ever given, the reader experiences the character’s pain, agony and contemplates life’s big questions along with them, ultimately drawing their own conclusions along the way. An extremely moving and enthralling read.

Shadow of the Wolf - Tim Hall


Summary:
Robin Loxley is seven years old when his parents disappear without trace. Years later the great love of his life, Marian, is also taken from him. Driven by these mysteries, and this anguish, Robin follows a darkening path into the ancient heart of Sherwood Forest. What he encounters there will leave him transformed, and will alter forever the legend of Robin Hood


~~~


David Fickling Books has always been one of my favourite publishers in the UK and I was very much looking forward to reading their first titles released as an independent publisher. Shadow of the Wolf didn't disappoint. This retelling of Robin Hood is one of the boldest books I've read in quite a while.

The story starts with Robin Loxley being left alone in Sherwood forest and having to fend for himself. He soon meets Marian, a young girl his age and together they have incredible adventures and plan a fantastic future together. But their fate will be completely changed by the Sheriff of Nottingham. Tim Hall takes aspects of the Robin Hood myth (locations, characters (Robin, the Sheriff of Nottingham, Will Scarlett, Marian...), Robin's archery skills...) and creates a setting that takes a lot from local myths and folklore and links the story to nature and fantastical creatures. Tim Hall's take on Robin Hood is quite simply unique and reading it you forget all about foxes and Kevin Costner.

The story doesn't shy away from darkness and the reader can see the true cruelty of the Sheriff of Nottingham and Robin's full transformation into something not quite Robin-like in the forest of Sherwood. Reading this book really reminded me of when I read Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials. Both stories share a similar darkness, loss of innocence and depth as well as well-rounded characters. There is no sugar-coating of events happening in the book and I felt compelled to continue reading. 

YA has been very much discussed lately. Is it too dark? Is it not "literary"/ ambitious enough or a bit too simplistic/easy? Shadow of the Wolf is a book about fate, freedom and also love. It is about how sometimes your fate and your future may be stolen from you and you will need to fight for your freedom but also for who you love. A lot of times you might fail, but isn't trying already a step forward? I can't think of a more timely book to read, than that of a classic story showing how history repeats itself. You might be a Palestinian child whose future has just been blown to pieces. You might be a European child, slipping into poverty. Either way, the future you were planning for yourself may just have been taken away from you and you might need to fight (not literally, of course) to get what you want. Darkness is a part of life and there is a place for it in fiction for young people.

Shadow of the Wolf is by far one of the most exciting books I've read this year. It transported me all the way to Sherwood forest and quite frankly, I'm not sure I want to leave.


~~~

To read a preview, head over to the David Fickling Books website.

Thanks to Phil Earle for the proof copy!

Recent reads (featuring: Joel Dicker, Deborah Levy, Charles Dickens, Margaret Atwood, Jenni Fagan and Angela Jackson)



The Truth About The Harry Quebert Affair, Joël Dicker
August 30, 1975. The day of the disappearance. The day Somerset, New Hampshire, lost its innocence.
That summer, struggling author Harry Quebert fell in love with fifteen-year-old Nola Kellergan. Thirty-three years later, her body is dug up from his yard, along with a manuscript copy of the novel that made him a household name. Quebert is the only suspect.
Marcus Goldman - Quebert's most gifted protégé - throws off his writer's block to clear his mentor's name. Solving the case and penning a new bestseller soon merge into one. As his book begins to take on a life of its own, the nation is gripped by the mystery of 'The Girl Who Touched the Heart of America'.
But with Nola, in death as in life, nothing is ever as it seems.

This book has been a massive hit in France since September 2012 when it first came out. My mother loved this book and sent me a copy a while ago but it's only this year - after it was published in English - that I ended up picking up my French copy. I have to say, I read the book in just a few days (so brownie points for that, I guess) but I've been a bit underwhelmed by it. I was expecting great things (since it won prestigious awards in France and has been translated worldwide) but for me it was a fairly typical crime novel. There were so many twists and turns that it kept me reading but I didn't find it as exceptional as the buzz is making it out to be. The story within a story about the main character's writing life and his relationship with his publisher could have been brilliant but I felt it was rather tedious to read and rather unrealistic. (I won't mention the main character's parents or some badly drawn characters because they made me pretty cross). All in all, a good page-turner, perfect for the summer, but not particularly life-altering. 
If anyone has read it in English - do let me know how you found the translation! I found several oddities (cultural and even factual) in the book, in particular about its American setting, so would love to know if these were kept in the English language version (just because I'm nosy)!

~~~



Swimming Home, Deborah Levy
As he arrives with his family at the villa in the hills above Nice, Joe sees a body in the swimming pool. But the girl is very much alive. She is Kitty Finch: a self-proclaimed botanist with green-painted fingernails, walking naked out of the water and into the heart of their holiday. Why is she there? What does she want from them all? And why does Joe's enigmatic wife allow her to remain?
Profound and thrilling, Swimming Home reveals how the most devastating secrets are the ones we keep from ourselves.

This will undoubtedly sound odd, but I've been reading this book for the past two years. It is super short and yet it took me two years to read it. (I know, weird). I started the ebook after it was shortlisted for the Booker in 2012, and didn't quite fall in love with it so I stopped reading it. Normally, I would have forgotten all about it and moved on to other books, but I could actually remember the story vividly. So when I left the book I was reading at home and wanted to read on the bus a couple of months ago, I started reading it again. I knew exactly where I left off in the story which made me realise how memorable the writing was. I have finished it and even though I didn't entirely love the book, I am so glad I persevered. I loved the cast of characters and their personalities and since the story is set in my neck of the woods in France, it really resonated with me. 

~~~



A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens
Charles Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities portrays a world on fire, split between Paris and London during the brutal and bloody events of the French Revolution. This Penguin Classics edition of is edited with an introduction and notes by Richard Maxwell.
'It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...'
After eighteen years as a political prisoner in the Bastille the aging Dr Manette is finally released and reunited with his daughter in England. There, two very different men, Charles Darnay, an exiled French aristocrat, and Sydney Carton, a disreputable but brilliant English lawyer, become enmeshed through their love for Lucie Manette. From the tranquil lanes of London, they are all drawn against their will to the vengeful, bloodstained streets of Paris at the height of the Reign of Terror and soon fall under the lethal shadow of La Guillotine.


I had never read any Charles Dickens before, and I was never sure where to start. When I wanted to teach myself English by reading English language books, I printed off this "100 books you should read in your lifetime" type of list and obviously there were quite a few Dickens on it. A Tale of Two Cities is my wife's favourite and I'm happy to say I absolutely adored it and will be reading some more of his books. I didn't find the writing as hard as I thought it would be and the story in both Paris and London during the French revolution was fascinating.

~~~



Surfacing, Margaret Atwood
A young woman returns to northern Quebec to the remote island of her childhood, with her lover and two friends, to investigate the mysterious disappearance of her father. Flooded with memories, she begins to realise that going home means entering not only another place but another time. As the wild island exerts its elemental hold and she is submerged in the language of the wilderness, she sees that what she is really looking for is her own past.

I read this book as part of my book group. I had never read a Margaret Atwood book before and I thought I would absolutely love it. Sadly I just couldn't get into the story. The book is said to be "one of the most important novels of the twentieth century" and I just couldn't get into the story. Nor did anyone else in the book group. Having been published in 1972, I wondered if the story may have lost some of its power and relevance over the years. Even though I didn't quite connect with this book, I really do want to read other Margaret Atwood novels (notably, The Handmaid's Tale and The Blind Assassin).

~~~



The Panopticon, Jenni Fagan
Fifteen-year old Anais Hendricks is smart, funny and fierce, but she is also a child who has been let down, or worse, by just about every adult she has ever met. Sitting in the back of a police car, she finds herself headed for the Panopticon, a home for chronic young offenders where the social workers are as suspicious as its residents. But Anais can't remember the events that have led her there, or why she has blood on her school uniform...

This is one of my favourite books of the year. I started reading it last year but got a bit intimidated by some of the writing being in Scottish and only came back to it this year with my (other) book club. Despite having put the book down after reading the beginning, I read the rest of the book quickly and fell in love with it. I absolutely loved the writing and the story and the characters. The book felt so real and raw and new. I'd like to read more books with heroines like Anais and I'll be looking out for Jenni Fagan's new book!

~~~



The Emergence of Judy Taylor, Angela Jackson
Judy Taylor married the first man who asked her. She lives in the neighbourhood where she spent her uneventful childhood. She still has the same friends she first met in primary school. But everything she once knew is about to be turned upside down.
Judy might be ready to start a new life in vibrant Edinburgh, if she's prepared to accept what it means to change. First she has to ask herself if it's ever too late to make up for lost time.
The Emergence of Judy Taylor is a story about first loves and second chances. It's about love and life and sex and starlings. It's about Judy and Oliver and Paul and Fabiana and Rob and Min and Lily and Harry and a French siren called Isabella.

This is a very short book which packs a punch. I feel it goes against the grain and tells the story of a woman's life in a way I'd like to read more of. Judy Taylor is a bit lost, she doesn't have the answers to the questions going through her mind, but she decides to take control of her life, throw financial safety out the window, and get ready to find herself. The novel is set partly in Edinburgh and you can't fail to fall in love with the city alongside Judy. A very promising debut.