For me, 2014 was a pretty respectable reading year. I achieved my Goodreads Challenge of finishing forty books, I discovered some exciting new authors (especially Helen Oyeyemi and Evie Wyld), and I even managed to make it through some non-fiction. On my travels, I had the time to tackle a few tomes (Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch), whereas later in the year when I was busier I sped through shorter novels (Lois Lowry’s The Giver, Graham Greene’s Doctor Fischer of Geneva). With only one or two exceptions, I enjoyed everything I picked up – I certainly identified some all-time favourite reads. So below are just a few of the books that especially stood out for me last year.
Best non-fiction: Gossip From the Forest by Sarah Maitland. Maitland's exploration of Britain’s forests is fascinating in itself, but the magic really happens when she connects natural history with the history of fairy tales, and uses what she’s learned to inform her own creative writing.
Best short story collection: The Rental Heart and Other Fairy Tales by Kirsty Logan. There’s been a lot of buzz about Logan’s debut collection - rightly so, as far as I’m concerned, for her short stories are dark, dreamlike and beautifully-crafted. I devoured them all in just a couple of sittings, not because they were easy reads, but because – like faerie –Logan’s world was difficult to leave.
Best children's/young adult book: More Than This by Patrick Ness. I’m reluctant to choose Ness for this because I picked him last year too, but his writing is so bold and unique that I simply can’t resist him. I’m also reluctant to say too much about this story, because the way it unravels is completely unpredictable and best appreciated without so much as a sniff of spoilers.
Best classic: Anne of Green Gables by LM Montgomery. Why haven’t I read this before? It really is a great book, mainly because Anne Shirley is such a fantastic character. As my pal Joely Badger pointed out, Anne is very much a contemporary of Richmal Crompton's (Just) William, in both her earnestness and her knack for getting into trouble. A lovely read.
Most disappointing book: The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman. I'm a big fan of Gaiman's work, especially Stardust, Neverwhere and his short stories. His ideas are big, his writing is clever, but I thought the plot of this one was rather muddled, even dull.
Best reread: The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole aged 13 and 3/4 by Sue Townsend. After the sad news of his creator’s passing, I revisited Adrian Mole last year, and found his adventures just as bittersweet, just as awkward, and just as likely to cause ugly snorts of laughter as they ever were.
Best book: The Hakawati by Rabih Alameddine. I’m not sure where to start with this one. In fact, at some point in the near future, I’d like to write a proper review of it, because Alameddine has given me such a lot to think about - both as a reader and a writer. So for now I’ll try to keep it short. Hakawati is the Arabic word for “storyteller”, and this is a book about stories. On the surface, it tells the tale of Osama, the grandson of a hakawati who returns from the US to his Lebanese homeland after the civil war. But woven within that story are countless others, ranging from the ‘real-life’ tales of Osama’s family to the fairy tales, folk tales and even religious tales told by the hakawati himself. It’s such a rich and complex structure, so inventive and entertaining, that you can practically sense Alameddine’s glee as he tests how far he can push the boundaries of his novel. I thought it was superb, and there’s no doubt it’s the best book I read last year.
I would, however, also like to mention The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler, All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld, and Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, for they too completely captivated me. Now I write this, I wonder whether I enjoyed these books so much because each of their authors – like Alameddine – approached their respective plots in an original, playful way: Miller’s was a retelling of the Iliad, Fowler revealed hers from middle to beginning to end, Wyld related half of hers backwards, while Atkinson told different versions of hers again and again.
So I suppose, if I've learned anything from my reading habits of 2014, it’s that I like a juicy structure; a book that not only tells a good story, but tells it in the best possible way. It’s a discovery that I’ll be keeping at the back of my mind when deciding what to read in the future, and also one I hope will give me more focus when it comes to my writing.