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.


House of Ashes – Monique Roffey

Ashes, nicknamed ‘Books’, is a quiet, studious man with a wife and two children. The novel begins with him at prayer in the commune which he visits for this purpose. The commune is led by ‘the Leader…a huge man, six foot six, with a broad and powerful back and a muscular neck’. He has ‘…three wives, nine children and a hundred fostered sons…’, boys he has rescued from the streets and a life of poverty and crime. He’s also brought together a whole range of people who wouldn’t usually associate with each other, ‘…people from all walks of life’. He tells them that during times of slavery, their spirituality was stolen from them, so rather than converting people, they are being reverted back to the path they should have followed.

This reversion is about to branch off in the form of a revolution, a coup d’etat, performed by the men of the commune.

‘The time has come, my brothers, to rise up and change our fate and the fate of this small country. We will be fighting for the oppressed and for a New Society, a fairer, more civil world. We will be liberating the poor man in the street, poor men like us. Common sufferers. And they will rise up and join our struggle. And this is the will of God.’

The Leader has telephoned Ashes, personally, the previous week, counting on his support by referencing Ashes’ brother, River. River had been part of a group called the Brotherhood of Freedom Fighters, a group who had continued to rebel against the government following a failed coup in 1970. He was shot dead in broad daylight. The doctor who examined him removed 28 bullets from his body.

Ashes and the other men are armed and taken quickly in trucks to the House of Power where they storm the building and take a number of ministers, including the Prime Minister, hostage. It is violent and bloody and Ashes finds himself wondering what he’s got himself involved in.

It soon becomes clear that the Leader and his group aren’t as well organised or supported, as they believed. An hour later, when the army arrive on the scene in support of the government, it seems as though it’s all over:

The air around him became smoky and peppery with gunfire and a brother next to Ashes, one of his fellow revolutionaries, was shot straight through the head. His skull split open and his face splattered into pieces and his tongue was shot out of his mouth. The tongue landed on the red velvet carpet.

It’s not the end though, it’s the beginning of a standoff that will last six days, during which the lives of those inside the building will be irrevocably changed.

The House of Ashes is based on real events in Trinidad and Tobago, though Roffey has chosen to place them on the fictional Sans Amen which she says is ‘located in the northernmost part of the Caribbean archipelago and was once a British colony’.

Roffey’s version of events is told through a dual narrative – a third person subjective from Ashes’ point of view and a first person narration from Aspasia Garland, Minister for the Environment, who is one of the hostages. This allows Roffey to explore the issues that have brought about the coup and their consequences from both sides. She also uses a third character, a fourteen-year-old boy nicknamed Breeze, who’s one of the Leader’s rescued street children. In one of the best pieces in the novel, Breeze challenges Aspasia over the ideas that he’s been fed, her responses leading him to think for himself for perhaps the first time in his life.

Houses of Ashes is a powerful book. Roffey’s writing is unflinching both in its description of events and its reasons for them. She explores themes of violence, politics and the role of parenting in light of both of them. It is a book I want to give to every person who tells me that women write differently to men – both in terms of style and of subject. It’s the best 2014 published novel I’ve read so far this year.


Thanks to Simon & Schuster for the review copy.