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.


The Woman Who Stole My Life – Marian Keyes

You know, if you glanced up at my window right now, you’d think to yourself, ‘Look at that woman. Look at the diligent way she’s sitting upright at her desk. Look at the assiduous way her hands are poised over her keyboard. She’s obviously working very hard…hold on…is that Stella Sweeney?! Back in Ireland? Writing a new book?! I’d heard she was all washed up!’

38-year-old Stella Sweeney wrote an inspirational, international bestseller One Blink at a Time which led to her touring America, but now her life has taken a dramatic turn and she’s back home trying to write book two.

She shares her home with her teenage son, Jeffrey who hates her so much he asked to be put up for adoption at fifteen. Her daughter, Betsy, has stayed in America. Unlike your typical teenager, Jeffrey’s a big fan of yoga and cooking.

Also very much in Stella’s life is her ex-husband and father of her children, Ryan. Ryan’s an artist who’s ended up doing commercial work on bathrooms which has made him successful in a way he didn’t want. He wanted to be Damien Hurst, instead he’s more of a working class Lawrence Llewelyn-Bowen. At the beginning of the book, he comes to see Stella to tell them about his ‘big artistic idea!’

I’m calling it Project Karma: I’m going to give away everything I own. Every single thing. My CDs, my clothes, all my money. Every television, every grain of rice, every holiday photograph. My car, my motorbike, my house – ‘

Jeffrey stares at him in disgust. ‘You stupid asshole…You’ll have nowhere to live!’

‘Wrong! Ryan’s eyes are sparkling (but the wrong sort of sparkling, a scary form). ‘Karma will see me right.’

When Stella tries to gently point out that this might be a mistake, Ryan turns on her:

‘No, Stella.’ He’s all but shouting. ‘It should have been me. I’m the one who’s meant to be famous. Not you – me! You’re the woman who stole my life!’

Current events in Stella’s life are told alongside extracts from her book One Blink at a Time. From it we learn about Stella contracting Guillain-Barré Syndrome ‘an astonishingly rare autoimmune disorder, which attacks the peripheral nervous system, stripping the myelin sheaths from the nerves’. Stella spends a year in hospital, during which both her and her family’s life changes enormously, culminating in her and Ryan divorcing.

The book then goes on to tell us how living in New York came about and why Stella’s now back in Ireland. Typically of Marian Keyes’ novels, this happens with a supporting cast of Stella’s family – businesswoman sister, mother and father – and best friend – bitter after her own break-up – and a love interest. Oh, yes.

I’ve been reading Keynes’ novels since I was 19 and a university friend told me I had to read this book she’d come across called Rachel’s Holiday. I was going home for the weekend so bought it on the way to the train station. By the end of the journey I was two-thirds of the way in and I finished it in bed later that night while the rest of the house was asleep. I tell you this so when I say that The Woman Who Stole My Life is one of Keynes’ best books, you know I mean it.

The novel tackles what happens to a family when one of them becomes ill; it looks at what happens to the person who suffers from that illness; it touches on the strain couples who undergo fertility treatment are under; it considers what happens to you when you suddenly become successful and your life is not your own anymore.

The Woman Who Stole My Life is smart, hilariously funny, thoughtful and has the best love interest since Rachel’s Holiday.* It is Marian Keyes at her best.


*I know someone will challenge me on this so, to clarify, Luke was perfect for 19-year-old me, the latest man is perfect for 36-year-old me. In my head, of course.


Thanks to Penguin for the review copy.