Re-stacking the shelves: The 10 books I loved most in 2014

(image via Dabbler)
One book most definitely on my To Read List is Richard Flanagan’s book which won this year’s Man Booker Prize and is being hailed as a modern Australian classic (image via Dabbler)

 

I have always loved to read.

But somehow in the last few years I lost the habit, partly because I was frantically busy at work and barely had time to watch the TV shows I love and movies I wanted to see, but also because somehow, and I have no idea how this happened I kind of fell out of love with reading temporarily, convinced it took up too much time.

Fortunately sanity reasserted itself late last year and I decided I would spend 2014 reading as many books as I possibly could, a mix of newly released titles and what I like to call Aspirational Reading titles, books that had sat on my shelf for years, doing little but gathering dust.

It’s been, as anyone who loves reading will know, a sublime delight getting back into the habit of reading, escaping into worlds both all too real and fantastical, and discovering the delights that lay between the covers of the books that had so caught my eye in the bookshop.

You will notice that this is not a Best Books of 2014 list; rather it is a mix of books, some new, some old but all of which were read this year and which I loved, or which impacted me significantly in some way.

I plan to continue this mix of the new and old next year since why does a book exist but to be read, and though there are many books released each year that I would love to read – I have a folder full on my computer of photos taken of book covers in bookshops this year – I can see no point in simply buying a book to be decoration.

So here we go, the old and the new, the deeply loved and the impressive, the books I loved most in 2014.

 

The Middlesteins

 

THE MIDDLESTEINS by JAMI ATTENBERG

The Middlesteins are not the happiest or the easiest people to be around but in the end, thanks to Jami Attenberg’s rich, descriptive writing, you’re glad you got to spend time with them.

Here’s how I summed up the book in my review:

“The Middlesteins is a delight from start to finish, full to the brim with wisdom, wry humour, and pithy insights about life and family and the frailities and messy complications of both, written with an obvious love of words and their power to vividly bring a story to life.

“So well-wrought, and beautifully brought to life are The Middlesteins that even though the family may not be all that appealing at times, and you may shake your head in wonder that these people manage to stay in the same room as each other let alone the same city, you can identify closely with them and are happy to spend as much time as possible with them.

“And yes, in the tradition of all deeply insightful and beautifully written books, you mourn parting company with The Middlesteins, which underlines with honesty, blunt humour and dancing prose that family, flawed though it may be, is what defines, messes up, saves, and ultimately give us a meaningful framework to navigate this messy and unpredictable thing we call life.”

 You can read my full review here.

 

Looking for Calvin and Hobbes book review MAIN

 

LOOKING FOR CALVIN AND HOBBES by NEVIN MARTELL

Ever since I read my first Calvin and Hobbes strip back in the ’90s I have been a huge fan of the work of Bill Watterson, a reclusive cartooning genius of whom little had been written until Nevin Martell’s richly-detailed and wonderfully-written book and perfectly filled the void.

If you love the comic strip then you must read this book.

Simple as that.

Here’s how I summed up the book in my review:

“Looking For Calvin and Hobbes is packed full of fascinating tidbits of information, presented as an adventure hunt of sorts, the very kind of quixotic journey that Calvin and Hobbes themselves would have not hesitated a second to embark on.

“While some might find Martell’s “failure” to meet the Watterson himself disappointing, I found the recounting of his grand quest wholly engrossing, one of those rare books that in daring to pursue a passionate dream to fulfil one mission, ends up fulfilling quite another, and emerges all the richer for it.

“Given the odds of any of us ever meeting Bill Watterson in person, reading Looking For Calvin and Hobbes is the next best option, as true a reading of Bill Watterson and his legendary comic strip as we are ever likely to get, short of Watterson himself coming forth from the enigma into which he has happily retreated, to the endless fascination of everyone concerned.”

You can read my full review here.

 

The Returned book review MAIN

 

THE RETURNED by JASON MOTT

The mysterious and the supernatural are all the rage with now and Jason Mott’s book, The Returned, which details the return of dead people to their family and friends, unscarred by any knowledge they died, is a largely successful rumination on life, death and that curious thing called the human condition.

Here’s how I summed up the book in my review:

“Mott’s writing is mostly heartfelt and lyrically poetic, retaining an appealing descriptive beauty even when he is discussing the most troubling of events, only flagging when it commits the cardinal writing sin of stating rather than showing, which tends to rob the narrative of some of its intense vivacity and power to affect.

“The Returned also shows a tendency towards the end to favour action over introspection, veering into rather less substantive Hollywood thrills and spills instead of the philosophical and relational richness it mostly sticks to, and this does jar more than a little.

“But overall, it is a beautifully written, engagingly thoughtful read, rich in a million and one possibilities and ideas, a worthy attempt at pondering what we would do if we could have exactly what it is our regretful hearts are asking for.”

You can read my full review here.

 

Existence review MAIN

 

EXISTENCE by DAVID BRIN

It’s not often that a book comes along that asks us to consider, really consider, who we are as a people, and does it in a way that it is as accessible as it is beautifully written.

But Existence by David Brin is such a book, and though it can get a little dense at times in its exploration of ideas, it is worth reading each and every page, soaking in it and let your mind ponder where we came from, who we’ve become and who we could be.

With aliens and spaceships thrown in.

Here’s how I summed the book up in my review:

“In that respect, Existence is a masterful and quite accessible philosophical treatise on the nature of what it means to be.

“Is it enough so simply scrape by? Can we expect our civilisation to endure in glorious perpetuity? Will it be derailed by things we know about it or something else entirely? And should we be presented with an opportunity like that of the so-called Havana Artifact and its galactic inhabitants, will it harm us or help us?

“And most importantly should our continued existence rest upon a “do no harm” mantra inclusive of all, or is it every man for themselves with a few spared, along with our vast array of hard won knowledge?

“The fact that Brin is able to pose these questions at length and in exquisite detail without only rarely bogging down in intellectual pondering is a rare feat, rendering Existence as an engrossing, narrative-rich book with the soul and mind of a cabal of Nobel Prize scientists at its core.

“It dares to envisage a future neither ideal nor rampantly dystopian, in which the least of our worries may be emissaries from the far flung corners of the galaxy.”

You can read my full review here.

 

The Girl With All the Gifts MAIN

 

THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS by M.R. CAREY

 If you had told me before I read this remarkable book that there wasn’t a lot left to be said that was even remotely original about the zombie apocalypse, I would have readily agreed with you.

But The Girl With All The Gifts turns this idea on its undead head, providing us with an emotionally-nuanced, highly intelligent and deeply thoughtful novel that dares to ask if the survival of the human race at its stands now is really the best thing for us all?

Here’s how I summed up the book in my review:

“While every bit a thriller, with the sort of shocks, scares and impossible to escape situations that make The Walking Dead and 28 Days Later such compelling viewing, The Girl With All the Gifts is at its heart the profoundly moving, and thought-provoking tale of one young  thoroughly different girl who simply wants to be loved, and the woman who overcomes a myriad of fears, to give her that love.

“It is never mawkish or overly-sentimental – its setting puts paid to any temptation to render the relationship in those terms very early on – always staying true to the idea that humanity could survive the apocalypse, just not in the way we imagined.”

You can read my full review here.

 

The Tiger's Wife book review MAIN

 

TIGER’S WIFE by TÉA OBREHT

I am so glad I finally found the time to read this beautiful book.

At turns whimsical, magical and deeply lyrical, at others deeply, painfully real and brutal, it is a paean to the power of stories to establish our identities and bind us closely one to another.

The writing is every bit as poetic and alluring as its themes, each page packed with phrases that dance off the page with cadence and meaning.

Here’s how I summed up the book in my review:

“The two most charming things about Téa Obreht’s assured debut novel The Tiger’s Wife, a captivating mix of real life and the delightfully fantastical set in what was once Yugoslavia, are revealed almost immediately by the evocative, descriptively-rich opening paragraph:

In my earliest memory, my grandfather is bald as a stone and he takes me to see the tigers. He puts on his hat, his big-buttoned raincoat, and I wear my lacquered shoes and velvet dress. It is autumn, and I am four years old. The certainty of this process: my grandfather’s hand, the bright hiss of the trolley, the dampness of the morning, the crowded walk up the hill to the citadel park. Always in my grandfather’s breast pocket: The Jungle Book, with its gold-leaf cover and old yellow pages. I am not allowed to hold it, but it will stay open in his knee all afternoon while he recites the passages to me. Even though my grandfather is not wearing his stethoscope or white coat, the lady at the ticket counter in the entrance shed calls him “Doctor.”

“We have barely met Natalia, and have not even learnt her name, but already we are aware of the great love she holds for her grandfather, a man of great learning, who is devoted to his patients and defined by his love for his beloved wife, daughter and, of course, his fellow tiger-centric granddaughter.

“It is this enduring affection, tested thought it is at times by the usual ambivalence-laden rites of passage such as teenage years and the early twenties, for the man from Galina, friend of the mysterious Deathless Man and protector of the titular Tiger’s Wife, who remains nameless throughout, that is the focal point of this extraordinary tale.”

You can read my full review here.

 

A Fairy Tale book review MAIN

 

A FAIRY TALE by JONAS T. BENGTSSON

Let’s be honest – life is rarely as magical as we want it to be.

In fact as Jonas T. Bengtsson makes clear, it’s often far from that and we can emerge scarred at the other end, angry at the people who were supposed to be looking after us but somehow failed to do so.

But what if, he asks, those people were simply doing their best they could, trying to make life as magical as possible?

Yes they might have failed but life is unforgiving and should they be condemned for that and how much of a grudge should we hold?

Here’s how I summed the book up in my review:

“In this regard, Bengtsson, and Barslund, who does a masterful taking the author’s beautifully poetic but grittily real prose from one language to another without loss of emotional depth or fluid readability, has crafted a deeply impacting tale of the toll taken on one life by the well-intentioned but ultimately deficient parenting of the only person they have ever known in any truly meaningful way.

“He evocatively brings forth the sense that though the childhood was a fairy tale of sorts, and the bonds between father and son run deep throughout their lives even when they are later separated, that his time with his father deleteriously impacted his ability to engage properly with the wider world later on in life.

“Even so, in the end A Fairy Tale is a gripping story of one man’s realisation that though his childhood was less than ideal,  and that he will likely always be tainted and affected by a fatherly bond that was as much a benign nightmare as it was a fairytale, that there remains the possibility, or at least hope, of redeeming it in the future, that we are not in the end doomed to repeat the sins of our fathers.”

You can read my full review here.

 

The Confessions of Max Tivoli review MAIN

 

THE CONFESSIONS OF MAX TIVOLI by ANDREW SEAN GREER

Another magical tale of sorts but one in grounded in the idea of a man, much like Benjamin Button, living his life physically in reverse.

In every respect he is a normal man who longs for unconditional love  and acceptance of his authentic self but he can never achieve this in any ongoing normal fashion because he is never allowed to be his real self, save for with one special friend.

It is poignant, deeply affecting and all too human, a reminder of the fact that real happiness in life must be fought for, and even then, may not pan out the way we would like it to.

Here’s how I summed up the book in my review:

“And yet Max is so much more than ordinary in one crucial sense – he has to fight for every last inch of happiness in his life far more than any of the people around him who take life’s ups and downs with an almost casual air of resignation or acceptance.

“Whether this manifests itself as an almost endless road trip across USA with his best friend Hughie (who reveals in one part of the book that he has just as much to hide as Max does rendering him in Max’s parlance, a fellow “monster”) to find his long-lost Alice, or assuming an identity that is not his own and effectively killing himself off in order to win his much-treasured prize of true love, it is an all or nothing proposition, a passionate affair with love itself that does not diminish over time, even though there is much that comes against it, not the least the unforgiving passage of life itself.

“It’s one thing to disguise oneself for an afternoon tea or carriage ride; it’s quite another to keep a lie for the length of an affair or, more improbably, for the lifetime that I hoped to be with Alice. I might change my looks and words to suit her, but how could she really love me when my truest self was buried under the floorboards?” (p 138)

“Max is accused at times, most affectingly by Hughie towards the end of their lives when the former’s decision to give everything up to have Alice close to him has devastating effects on the latter’s life, of being selfish; but then he is almost forced to be more selfish than the rest of us since he lost so much before he had barely left the womb.

“The real genius of The Confessions of Max Tivoli is that its protagonist does not ultimately emerge as the monster he often accuses himself of being but rather an ordinary man in search of love, life and happiness, who is forced by a most extraordinary set of circumstances to do everything he can to gain the very things the rest of us take for granted.”

You can read my full review here.

 

The Collected Works of AJ Fikry MAIN

 

THE COLLECTED WORKS OF A. J. FIKRY by GABRIELLE ZEVIN

We often make the mistake of thinking that the big epic moments in our lives are the only ones that have any real meaning.

But Gabrielle Levin, delightfully and compellingly makes the case in The Collected Works of A. J. Fikry that it usually the smaller unremarkable parts of our lives that come to mean more to us as time goes by, the small almost unnoticed events that assume real importance especially as we gaze back at the end of our lives.

Here’s how I summed up the book in my review:

“As much a love letter to the possibilities of life, as to reading, literature and the importance of bookstores, which are sadly fast disappearing from the landscape of our lives, The Collected Works of A. J. Fikry is a sweet, without being cloyingly sentimental, ode to the small and the unremarkable and the way they can grow into something magnificent and meaningful if only we will pay them some attention.

“Filled with a passion for the written word, and dialogue that sparkles with the sort of wit you find in old Spencer/Hepburn romantic comedies, with a cast of secondary characters every bit as vital as Fikry and his “collected works” of people he loves, Levin’s charmingly unassuming book is one for the romantic at heart, for people who appreciate the real romance of life happens when we’re least expecting it, in the nitty gritty realities of everyday, often unremarked upon life.”

You can read my full review here.

 

The Young and Prodigious TS Spivet book review MAIN

 

THE YOUNG AND PRODIGIOUS T. S. SPIVET by REIF LARSEN

What a delight this book is.

A grand adventure, chock full of ruminations on the meaning of life by a young boy no less, filled with deeply poetic and funny passages and fabulous illustrations and sidebars that are almost as entertaining as the main text.

If you want a book full of whimsy and meaning the Larsen has written just the book for you.

Here’s how I summed up the book in my review:

“What gives this delightful, emotionally-resonant and exquisitely well-written book so much power is that for all the grand adventures that T.S. goes on, and for all the maps, diagrams and side bars that fill the edges of the book (giving both further insight into the young man’s world and making the book an object of unique pictorial beauty in and of itself), is that it is, in essence, a universally-understandable tale of one person’s quest to find a place to which they can belong.

“That T.S realises by the end of the book that he has always belonged with his family, and may not yet be ready to belong completely to the fabled once-promised land of the very-adult scientific community he once uncritically revered, is drawn out with such sensitivity, sweetness and mostly matter-of-fact sentimentality that you can’t help but warm to this impressive young man, and the remarkable journey, both exterior and interior, that he undertakes.”

You can read my full review here.

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