Books of the Year 2014 (Part 2)

As promised yesterday when I posted my Books of the Year (Part One) – those published pre-2014, here’s part two with those published this year.

There are two things I dislike about doing this sort of post; the first is I’m very aware of the books that people I trust rate highly and I haven’t got to yet – Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation; Miriam Toews’ All My Puny Sorrows; Ali Smith’s How to be both, and Suri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World are all high on my TBR. And then there are the books I really enjoyed but didn’t quite make the cut because I want to highlight those books that didn’t garner as much attention as I think they should have. Honourable mentions therefore to The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton; The Lemon Grove by Helen Walsh; The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessey by Rachel Joyce, and Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel.

Here they are then, the books published this year that entertained me the most, made me laugh (to the point of tears sometimes), cry, gasp and look on in wonder and admiration at the writer’s skill. The books I want to thrust into your hands and say ‘Read this!’. (Click on the titles for the original reviews.)

 

House of Ashes – Monique Roffey

A coup d’état on a island that might be Trinidad and Tobago. A bookish man named Ashes who gets caught up in the idea of revolution; a teenager called Breeze who thinks it will lead to a better life for him, and Aspasia Garland, Minster for the Environment and a hostage. A powerful book about power, poverty and leadership. My book of the year.

 

 

The Enchanted – Rene Denfeld

An unnamed prisoner on death row; an attorney investigating whether a prisoner can be saved on appeal; the fallen priest; the prison warden; a guard; a white haired boy. Abuse, control, freedom. Who’s good and who’s bad. Breathtaking prose. I have no idea why this book isn’t being raved about everywhere.

 

 

H is for Hawk – Helen Macdonald

A book that is being raved about everywhere and deservedly so. Macdonald’s memoir of training a goshawk, Mabel, following her father’s sudden death, using her own experience to reflect upon that of T. H. White. Beautiful prose and an absorbing story.

 

The Incarnations – Susan Barker

Someone’s leaving letters in Wang Jun’s taxi. Letters that say they’re from a soulmate he’s had for over a thousand years, a soulmate who will take us on a journey through China’s history and lead Wang Jun to question his family and his friendship. A bizarre omission from the Booker Prize list, I have high hopes of this being on the Bailey’s Prize list.

 

 

In Search of Solace – Emily Mackie

Interesting voice, interesting structure, interesting themes, heartbreaking story. How Jacob Little goes in search of Solace (a woman he lived with and loved at university but he’s also searching for inner peace). It’s clever and thoughtful but also a good story. Longlisted for The Green Carnation Prize but I’ve seen very little about it elsewhere, another one I’m hoping to see on the Bailey’s Prize list.

 

 

Academy Street – Mary Costello

The story of Tess, from being a young girl in a big house in Ireland when her mother dies, through the rest of her life in New York as a nurse. A small life, quietly told in beautiful, considered prose. Heartbreaking.

 

 

 

 

Animals – Emma Jane Unsworth

Laura and Tyler are best friends, flatmates and drinking buddies, but Laura’s getting married to Jim who’s just gone teetotal and Tyler’s not happy about the changes afoot. There’s always time for one last bender though, isn’t there? Absolutely hilarious but with many thought-provoking moments about what it’s like to be a woman in your late 20’s/early 30s railing against society’s expectations.

 

 

Thirst – Kerry Hudson

An unlikely love story between Dave, a Bond Street shop security guard and Alena, a Siberian woman, trafficked to the UK and caught stealing shoes. Dave and Alena’s stories are heartbreaking enough but their attempts to forge a relationship through the walls they’ve built up and the cultural differences has moments I found completely devastating.

 

 

After Me Comes the Flood – Sarah Perry

John Cole, lost in a heatwave, arrives at a house in which the inhabitants are expecting him. He soon realises he’s not their John Cole but stays anyway. There he begins to discover what both he and those around him are capable of. Eerie, disconcerting and unusual.

 

 

A Song for Issy Bradley – Carys Bray

The story of the Bradley family, a family of Mormons, coming to terms with the death of their youngest member, Issy, from meningitis. We move between the family members – two teenagers, Zippy and Alma, seven-year-old Jacob, and parents Ian and Claire as they question their faith and work out how life can go on. Unexpectedly full of humour with great characters.

 

 

The Woman Who Stole My Life – Marian Keyes

Stella Sweeney’s back in Ireland trying to write a follow-up to the best-selling novel that saw her move to New York. Her yoga loving son who hates her is in tow; her artist ex-husband, Ryan, is giving everything he owns away in the name of art, and whose phone calls is she avoiding? Funny, smart and a cracking love interest.

 

 

Crooked Heart – Lissa Evans

When Mattie starts forgetting things and then disappears, her godson, Noel is evacuated to St. Albans and Vee Sedge. Vee and her son, Donald, are both taking advantage of the outbreak of war in their own ways. Noel ends up drawn into both. A novel about survival with crooked characters you can’t help but fall for. Funny, acutely observed and heartwarming.

 

 

Wake – Anna Hope

The return of the unknown soldier to Westminster. The story of three women whose lives have been affected by the war. Hettie, a dancer whose brother, Fred, has PTSD. Evelyn, who lost a fiancé and a finger in the war. She’s also losing her brother who’s returned a different person. Ada, whose son Michael died but who she continues to see on the street. Their stories are connected although they’ll never meet. Devastating.

 

 

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves – Karen Joy Fowler

Rosemary Cooke tells the story of her family, quite an unusual family and the events that took place when she was sent to stay at her grandparents. Did it happen as she remembers or is she fooling herself? An unusual take on what it means to be a family.

 

 

 

Lila – Marilynne Robinson

The one that converted me to Marilynne Robinson. Lila is a prequel to Gilead and tells the story of his second wife prior to and including their meeting and marrying. It’s about loneliness, not being able to see yourself clearly and fighting the urge to run away. The prose is beautiful and the story is heartbreaking.

 

 

2a.m. at the Cat’s Pajamas – Marie-Helene Bertino

Christmas Eve Eve in Philadelphia. Nine-year-old Madeline’s mother is dead from cancer and her father can’t get out of bed. She’s desperate to sing – at school initially but, better still, at a jazz club. Madeline’s teacher, Sarina, has dinner with her ex-boyfriend to contend with after school ends and Jack Lorca, owner of the Cat’s Pajamas, jazz club, has a relationship with his son which is in need of repair and a police fine that he can’t pay. The day that awaits all three of them is skilfully interwoven in a story that’s equal amounts grit and heartwarming.

 

2a.m. at the Cat’s Pajamas – Marie-Helene Bertino

‘It is a dark, dark seven a.m. on Christmas Eve Eve’ in Philadelphia. As it snows outside, Madeline Altimari practises shimmying in the mirror and grades herself on her performance. She ‘is two days away from being ten’. Her mother, recently dead from cancer, was a dancer and singer; Madeline also wants to be a singer but has been scuppered at school by an event at last year’s Winter Assembly which has led to her unofficial ban from ever singing in church or assembly again. However, Claire Kelly, ‘Student of the Week, Month and Year’, is struck by a bicyclist at 7.10am and it looks as though Madeline will finally get to sing.

Madeline’s teacher, Sarina Greene, is out buying caramel so her class can make caramel apples that afternoon. While she’s purchasing the caramel, she’s invited to dinner by an old school friend, a dinner at which her high school boy friend will be present; her ex-husband telephones, and so does her grade partner to inform her of the situation with Claire Kelly. By 7.30am, it already looks as though it’s going to be a bit of a day.

The third key character is Jack Francis Lorca, owner of the jazz club The Cat’s Pajamas. His day begins at 9am with a visit from the police.

The cop pulls a notebook from his blazer pocket. “I’m afraid we’ve gotten several calls about your club. Over capacity, use of pyrotechnics, excessive smoke…Consistent refusal to abide by the city’s law of no smoking inside the premises…Consistent refusal to stop serving alcohol at two A.M. I stopped in last night around three and saw fifty or so people cheering on a drummer dousing his drum set in lighter fluid.’

Lorca’s served a fine he can’t afford to pay. As he tries to find ways to get the money together, sort out his relationship with his son and come to terms with his partner leaving him, Madeline’s having a spectacularly bad day of her own.

Just as Madeline’s about to sing, Claire Kelly arrives on crutches and takes over. By 11.10, Madeline’s being sent home by the Principal after the nurse has discovered nits in her hair. Sarina arrives to give her a caramel apple but Denny Pennypack, hall monitor, karate-chops it out of her hand.

“She threw her apple against the wall!” Denny exclaims. “The lice must be making her crazy!”

Madeline balls up her fists. “This is fucking bullshit!” She glares at Principal Randles. “This turd did that on purpose, are you blind?”

The principal’s mouth falls open. Madeline is still going. Bitch rag, she tells her. Colossal prick munch.

“Expelled,” Principal Randles chokes.

Denny snorts with pleasure. Madeline bridges the distance between them in two steps. She remembers to bring her arm back like a slingshot and to keep her thumb out of the fist she plants on Denny’s mug. Denny’s nose explodes and releases admirable waves of blood.

Madeline’s a fantastic character. Streetwise but vulnerable, she’s been left well cared for by her mother’s friends – she knows where to go for food and a haircut – but while her father lies in bed, depressed, she’s working towards her dream and taking advantage of any opportunities that arise.

2a.m. at the Cat’s Pajamas takes place in 24 hours but it’s structure’s more complex than it sounds, moving principally between the three main characters but also weaving in moments – sometimes fleeting, sometimes a little longer – where these three characters’ days overlap with someone else who is important to their story, in however small a way.

The title of the novel initially made me think that this would be a whimsical book, which in one sense I suppose it is, but it’s also so much more than that. It considers relationships – the legacy left by a dead mother for her young daughter; a divorcee and her childhood sweetheart; a father and his teenage son – and what people will sacrifice to fulfil their dreams. As I tweeted when I finished reading it, 2a.m. at the Cat’s Pajamas is ‘bloody marvellous’.

 

Thanks to Picador for the review copy.