I hate ‘books of the year’ lists. Collectively, they read as a flurry of smug nepotism and glib, superficial blurb-swapping – an easy way to fill column space while Britain’s few remaining arts journalists wind down for the Christmas break. I don’t think that, individually, any of the authors polled are being deliberately back-slappy or trite – it’s just the cumulative effect of lots of writers being asked to sum up 12 months of publishing in a few sentences. Often the books they pick are excellent, deserving choices, but they’re granted so little space, and these lists are so ubiquitous, that I end up experiencing a marrow-deep, Grinchish antipathy towards the entire wretched industry, with its culture of desperate incestuous glad-handing.
Which is silly.
One exception is The Millions ‘A Year In Reading’ lists. Rather than restricting themselves to titles published in 2014, contributors reflect on the books they read over the year, whether they were published a month, or 200 years ago. This, to me, feels much closer to my relationship with books and my experience of reading. I read a handful of novels around the time of release, but I am tapping those backlists like some kind of gross literary tapeworm in the colon of culture.
I understand the pressure to draw attention to new titles, the realities of limited shelf-space, the difficulty of justifying press attention for a book that was released a while ago, and no doubt when my own fiction debut comes out in April, I will be frantically advocating that the entire Western Canon be swept aside to make room for my superior contribution, The Honours. ‘Why the hell would you want to read Orlando or Things Fall Apart or Infinite Jest?’ I shall be implicitly hollering. ‘Clear your reading list of so-called “classics” and purchase my unproven first attempt at longform narrative! The opportunity cost of not using the time to, for example, read the works of Shakespeare or the King James Bible or Milton, is totally worth it!’ And some of you, rather wonderfully, will buy into that argument, and will read my book, and I will be able to convert your goodwill/poor impulse control into food and clothes and shelter.
The tepid water you are immersed in that I am slowly heating to boiling point is this: I thought I’d compile an incomplete list of my favourite reads of 2014. Most aren’t books that came out this year, but they were all books that I read and enjoyed over this arbitrary 12 month stretch. If you are stuck for things to read in 2015, pick one of these. Remember – word-of-mouth is by far the most powerful force in publishing. If you read a book and love it, tell your friends, post about it online, and either lend your copy to someone else, or buy it for a gift. This is how great stories stay alive.
My Fave Books I Have Read This Year
The Once & Future King – by T H White
I picked up a hardback copy of this in a secondhand bookshop, after a bracing Spring swim in a millpond. It’s a quartet of novels, starting with The Sword In The Stone, which most of us have seen the Disney adaptation of. The four books cover the King Arthur legend.
I’ll be T H (Totally Honest) with you, dear friends – I expected not to like this. I’ve never been especially enamoured with all that Cameloty, mystical quasi-hippy druidic hogwash and I fully expected to be bored to salty, hollow tears by a drab rehashing of a clapped-out mythos.
I really liked all the books! White is so good on the line. Sentence by sentence, they are wonderful – there’s a crispness and a musicality which lifts the whole enterprise. The quartet starts out light and funny and full of roistering cartoonish zest, and – as the series progresses – descends into this much darker, much sadder, but still beautifully human tragedy. It’s all the more powerful for the carefree, farcical beginnings, and – although there is an overall dearth of female characters – Guinevere in particular is presented compassionately and three-dimensionally, rather than being some slatternly architect of the Round Table’s demise.
I do particularly like the feel of a sequence that starts off as children’s books and, by the end, isn’t really appropriate for children. It reminded of Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea quartet, and how the fourth novel feels starkly different to the others (at first I wasn’t sure I liked it) much darker and adult, but is ultimately the best in the sequence, engaging with difficult, nuanced themes and completing some nuanced, authentic character arcs. Both stories bypass a lot of your adult defences, and hitting you on a weird, primal emotional level.
True Grit – by Charles Portis
My friend Molly recommended this to me, which was great of her as I had been pretty vocal about my dislike of a previous recommendation (to the extent of writing a 20 minute lecture, with slides, putting my anger in a proper historical context and performing it to the audience at our regular night in London, Homework, while wearing a balaclava). I have not seen the film or TV adaptations, which probably helped, as I went in more or less blind.
The narrator and protagonist is 14-year-old Mattie Ross, who sets out on a quest to avenge the murder of her father. She has a wonderful, irascible, pedantic voice, switching seamlessly between her acts of incredible determination and bravery, and lectures on obscure doctrinal points of Scripture. You get all the pleasures of a cowboy adventure yarn, but with real heart and humour and rich, human prose.
I read this after The Honours was long-since finished and submitted, with a sinking feeling of ‘oh shit – everything I wanted to do has already been done, and much better.’ Which is an important lesson for any writer, I suspect.
Elizabeth Is Missing – by Emma Healey
So I know people can get a bit eye-rolly about publishing’s vogue for quirky outsider first-person narrator debut fiction, ever since Curious Incident. (can a ‘vogue’ last 12 years?) Certainly it gets treated like a genre in itself, but I suspect that’s an issue with the limited ways we talk about books (and the reductive Book Club model) rather than any slight on the actual titles themselves, which tend to be more diverse than the (flattering, well-intended) comparison to Mark Haddon’s 2003 debut.
But this novel is really, really good, you guys. Yes, it helps that the premise is intriguing and easily-explained, but it is very well-executed and the plotting is killer. Unlike a lot of voice-led novels, it’s not a tossed salad of vignettes and set pieces with a denouement tacked-on.
Here’s the concept: the narrator is an elderly woman with deteriorating memory. Her friend, Elizabeth, seems to have disappeared, and so she tries to find out what has happened, but her investigation is complicated by the fact that she keeps losing her train of thought and forgetting where she is. Cue lots of Momento-style note-taking, determination and misunderstandings. It’s a very compassionate, plausible account of creeping dementia, interlaced with flashbacks to the narrator’s youth, and a second post-war mystery, involving the disappearance of her sister.
The voice is great – there are lovely moments where she can’t remember the word for something, and so resorts to various poetic similes to describe an everyday object – and there’s a real clarity and crunchy specificity to the prose. But there’s also a decent plot. The stakes rise convincingly. Structurally, it’s a very impressive piece of work. The novel doesn’t rely on the voice to carry the day, which is refreshing.
About Writing – by Samuel R Delany
This is the best book on creative writing I’ve ever read, and I’ve read dozens.
In a mixture of essays, letters and interviews, he interrogates this idea of what a story is, what a novel is, what literature is, what art itself is, favouring painstaking analysis and evidence-based reasoning over the sweeping generalisations and drab rhetorical point-scoring we’re used to. Delany never mistakes prolixity for articulateness. When specific technical terms and a series of subordinate clauses are necessary to elucidate a subtle point, he uses them. When a simple, bold statement will do, he uses that.
He’s witty and well-read and passionate and brave in his assertions. I didn’t agree with everything he said but I respected everything he said because it was clearly arrived at through work and care and honest intellection. His analysis of the actual mental process of composing a sentence, moment by moment, the deletion and replacement of words, the value of doubt… I’ve never seen these ideas discussed with such precision and patience.
His writing about experimental literature (including the work of the Oulipo, which y’all know I dig) is enlightening and balanced. Look, I could waffle on for ages, heaping these fat lumps of praise-coal into the furnace of my appreciation, but you get the idea. I’m not going to summarise vast tracts of his arguments because I’d only mangle them, and I don’t think they submit well to summary – not everything can be crunched down into pithy soundbites. If you write, or you’re passionate about reading, buy this book. It’s a substantial offering that will enrich your experience of reading.
The Ladies Of Grace Adieu – by Suzanna Clarke
So, after reading and loving Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (which is getting a BBC TV adaptation, apparently) it took me a shamefully long time to get round to reading this follow-up short story collection. JS&MN was a little chap-heavy, and these tales redress the gender balance while being totally freaking awesome.
Honestly, if I go on about how great a writer I think she is I might do a little chunder from excitement. Stylistically, an absolute treat on every page. There’s a real love of language, a precision and an attention to detail and an elegance that many have tried to copy but few have matched. (I could give you a list of poor imitators but I think there’s something a little mean-spirited about that – I understand the impulse to emulate this glorious pastichey voice and I expect if I tried to my effort would fall similarly short; I only mention the many failures to emphasise just how difficult this style is to pull off, notwithstanding how natural Clarke’s writing sounds)
These stories have fun and heart and great characters, and they do myth and magic without being lazy. There is menace and madness and romance and farce. You just can’t go anywhere else to find this kind of writing. This collection requires much less commitment than JS&MN and isn’t a sequel, nor is it all set in the same universe, (although one of the stories does involve a cameo) so if you’ve blanched at the width of the novel, this is a good spot to dip your toe in the water and see if you like it.
Journey To Armenia – by Osip Mandelstam
This is book is difficult to describe – it’s more or less a large, freeform essay about Armenia by the poet Osip Mandelstam, full of digressions and piercingly clear-sighted little crystalline nuggets of description. It’s not a hard read, exactly – I had to look up a few words and place names – but it does reward progressing at a slower, more ruminative pace, giving images and ideas time to sink in.
Quoting from it in some sense dimishes the wonderful cumulative effect of its precision, but still, I can’t just gush ‘oh, it’s lovely’ then not provide any evidence. So I’ve opened it at random, and this is the first paragraph my eyes alighted on:
Who has not felt envious of chess players? You sense in the room a peculiar field of estrangement, from which a chill hostile to nonparticipants flows.
See? Mandelstam is fucking crushing it, every page.