Best Books of 2014

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It’s the time of year when books editors are frantically pestering every author and celebrity they know to ask one of two questions: 1. What were your Best Books of 2014? or 2. What book would you most like to give a loved one this Christmas?

So far I’m only a legend in my own mind, and not famous enough to field that call. But I read all the time. ALL the time. So I had a look in my journal to refresh my memory about the past year in books.

Yes, I write down the title and author of each book as I begin it. Even when I don’t write anything else in my journal (or diary, whatever you want to call it), I am diligent about this and have been since the summer of 1983.

That’s when I got a job in publishing and discovered that even in an environment where everyone read constantly, I read even more than that — and more diversely. My boss brought this to my attention, saying, “You should keep track of what you’re reading.” I began doing just that and the habit stuck.

As I’ve said before, I don’t review friends. But I have a lot of friends who are writers. Among the terrific books written by my nearest and dearest are:

The Snarling of Wolves by Vivian French (YA); City of Halves by Lucy Inglis (YA); The Year of Reading Dangerously by Andy Miller (mentioned earlier in the year on this blog, just before I insisted he become my friend); Sidney Chambers and the Problem of Evil by James Runcie (third in the series that’s spawned the telly programme Grantchester); England Expects by Sara Sheridan (also part of a series, starring sleuth Mirabelle Bevan); Kingdom by Robyn Young, The Table of Less Valued Knights by Marie Phillips, and Man at the Helm, by Nina Stibbe (another poor soul I’ve forced myself upon).

Do, please, consider any and all of these books as they are terrific. Most of these lovely people have a solid backlist of work, so you’ll be well entertained.

I also urge you in the strongest possible terms to read Chop, Chop, the debut novel by Simon Wroe, set in the kitchen of a gastropub in London. I met Simon at the Wigtown Book Festival this past autumn and found him (and his charming partner) the most enjoyable company. So I know him, but not well or long. Imagine how nervous I was to crack the spine on his book recently — and how utterly delighted I am that it is fantastic! If you don’t believe me, know that it’s on the shortlist for the Costa first novel prize. Funny, smart, and just generally accomplished. Thumbs up.

Among the books I read in 2014 written by people I do not know, which I feel are worth your time, are the following:

The Undertaking by Audrey Magee. Nominated for a wealth of prizes, it’s the story (told almost entirely in dialogue) of Germans during World War II.

An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth by Commander Chris Hadfield. One of the most inspirational books. Ever. And I’m not even particularly interested in space exploration. Or wasn’t. But really, this is a manual for living written by a humble, wise man.

The Enchanted by Rene Denfeld. I have blogged about this before but I’ll urge you again, to read this superb novel. It left me sobbing.

Manhattan Memoir by Mary Cantwell. A trio of books about being young and working in publishing in the Big Apple in the 1950s. Fabulous.

Lucky Us by Amy Bloom. Oops, I’m cheating. I do know Amy. But it’s not like we’re on the phone trading recipes, okay? She is one of my favourite living authors and this novel is sweet and moving. Set in America during World War II and thereafter.

The Road to Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead. (Another slip-up, I’ve met RM, as well.) One woman’s lifelong — ongoing — love affair with a novel. Mead beautifully describes how the novel has affected her, and how her reaction to it has changed over the decades. [I don’t seem to have read my friend Samantha Ellis’s How To be a Heroine this year — was that 2013? Also GREAT, also about our relationship with books, and how they help to shape the women we become.]

Here’s Your Hat, What’s Your Hurry and Thunderstruck by Elizabeth McCracken. Two short story anthologies by another of the greatest American authors of our time.

The Collected Short Stories of Elizabeth Taylor. Big, fat, fabulous, a book to be kept by your bedside and savoured slowly. Taylor was, without question, one of the finest writers ever to set pen to paper. I will brook no contradictions on this.

It Ends with Revelations by Dodie Smith. Her career was so much more than Dalmatians or I Capture The Castle. This quirky little novel concerns a woman married to a homosexual, and what happens when she meets the love of her life. What’s surprising is that it was published in 1967, the year they decriminalised homosexuality in the UK.

It Isn’t All Mink by Ginette Spanier. Found a foxed second-hand edition in The Bookshop when I was in Wigtown. It’s not great literature, but it’s kind of fabulous. The first half is the harrowing story of Spanier’s young married life and how she survived World War II, on the run from the Nazis. The second half finds her running the atelier of legendary clothing designer Pierre Balmain, so it’s full of glamour and grande dames.

The Ghost of the Mary Celeste by Valerie Martin. An evocative, often surprising historical novel about one of the greatest seafaring mysteries of all time. (And yes, I also know Valerie slightly. Don’t sue me, okay?!)

That’s plenty to get you started! Visit your favourite independent book shop (in Edinburgh might I recommend Looking Glass Books?!) and give them your custom.

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