My Favourite Reads of 2014

2014 has been a disappointing year for new books. I normally compile two lists of favourites  - one in which all the books were published in the previous year; the other composed of older books.  This year only four books could be included in the former category so I’ve combined the two to produce a single list of the best books I’ve read in the past 12 months.

Here are my favourites: 

Cold Skin 

Cold Skin by Albert Sánchez Piñol 

Dark, gripping and thought provoking. It makes you think about fear and the instinctive behaviour it creates; but also has an important message about Man’s impact on the environment. There are giant toads too – what’s not to love?!

A Sting in the Tale

A Sting in the Tale by Dave Goulson 

A witty, accessible book that summaries most of what is known about bumblebees today. I’ve been telling my friends facts from it all year!

The Mouseproof Kitchen

The Mouseproof Kitchen by Saira Shah 

Emotional insight into the realities of having a disabled child. It also includes vivid details about living in France, including mouthwatering descriptions of the food.  

The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair

The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair by Joël Dicker 

Gripping thriller set in small town America. It isn’t perfect, but the story is so entertaining I didn’t care.

Alive: There Was Only One Way to Survive

Alive by Piers Paul Read 

Alive isn’t for the squeamish, but it shows the strength of human spirit and the importance of keeping hope alive.

 The Moth: This Is a True Story

The Moth: 50 Extraordinary True Stories 

The Moth is a wonderful collection of stories that show people at important junctions in their lives – it’s inspirational!

After the Bombing

After the Bombing by Clare Morrall 

Rich character development and vivid emotions make this one of the best WWII stories I’ve ever read. 

 The Book of Strange New Things

The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber 

Quirky book that adds aliens and religion to a simple story about the difficulties of a long distance relationship.

 Flight of Passage

Flight of Passage by Rinker Buck 

The true story of two teenage brothers who decide to fly across America on their own. Their youthful enthusiasm was contagious and it has done a lot to alleviate my fear of flying. 

Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation

Cooked by Michael Pollan 

This book changed my life. It probably won’t change yours, but you might look at food in a slightly different way.

My Book of the Year

The Yearling

The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings 

Vivid story about a family trying to survive in the swamps of Florida. It beautifully describes an almost forgotten way of life and should be more widely known. Read it!

Have you read any of these? 

Did you enjoy them as much as I did?

I hope that you have a wonderful Christmas!

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The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber

The Book of Strange New Things

Five words from the blurb: missionary, leaving, wife, adventure, worlds

The Book of Strange New Things is an impressive book. It is nearly 600 pages long, but the intensity of the emotion means that it never drags and so seems much shorter.

The book centres on Peter, a missionary who travels to another planet to teach Christianity to a strange new species. He leaves his wife Bea on Earth and the pair communicate via an electronic system. Bea struggles on her own, especially as things on Earth begin to go wrong. The book shows how their strong relationship begins to falter as Peter finds himself increasingly absorbed by his work.

Not much actually happens in this book, but I was completely absorbed by the couple. Having had a long distance relationship I found their shifting emotions scarily accurate.

He sighed, squeezed her hand. What was he going to do without her, out in the field? How would he cope, not being able to discuss his perceptions? She was the one who stopped him coming out with claptrap, curbed his tendency to construct grand theories that encompassed everything. She brought him down to earth. Having her by his side on this mission would have been worth a million dollars.

The world-building was fantastic. The vivid descriptions enabled me to visualise the new planet and I found the quirky differences between our world and theirs entirely believable. The alien species were particularly well observed and I loved the way the human’s interactions with them highlighted the problems within our society.

My only issue with the book was the occasional excess of religious quotation. I thought the discussions on faith were well done, but my eyes tended to glaze over when the bible extracts became excessive. Luckily this only happened a handful of times and I suspect that anyone with an interest in Christianity will find these much more inspiring than I did. 

Overall this was a fantastic book. I loved the fact I didn’t know where the story would take me and found the ambiguous ending particularly satisfying. Recommended to those who enjoy vivid character studies, packed with emotion.

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The thoughts of other bloggers:

The real problem, it dawns on you as you read, is that Faber just isn’t that interested in his alien Others. Sibilant Frictive

…one of the best novels I’ve read this year. S Krishna’s Books

In fact, The Book of Strange New Things is a novel that skirts the edge of one cliché after another only to either bypass them or—more impressively—reinvest them with emotional significance. Reading in the Growlery

Cooked by Michael Pollan

Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation

Five words from the blurb: food, society, changing, basics, knowledge

It isn’t often that a book comes along and changes the course of your life, but that is exactly what happened when I read Cooked.

Michael Pollen is a journalist with a keen interest in food, especially our relationship with it. Cooked documents Pollan’s journey around the globe as he learns about the way different cultures cook, discovering valuable skills that the Western world are quickly forgetting. Pollan predicts that cooking will soon become a specialist skill and within a couple of generations it will be unusual for anyone to do more than reheat food within their home.

The book is divided into four sections: Fire (food cooked over a flame), Water (boiling), Air (bread and other foods using yeast to incorporate air) and Earth (fermentation of everything from cheese to vegetables). Michael’s passion for his subject oozes from the page. He was so inspiring that I instantly wanted to copy him. I didn’t have easy access to an entire pig and had nowhere to dig a pit to BBQ it so I started with fermentation. His arguments about the health benefits of naturally fermented food were powerful and I became saddened by the way our culture sanitises everything to the extreme, killing all bacteria without stopping to think about the fact our bodies need to work in harmony with it.

To ferment your own food is to lodge a small but eloquent protest – on behalf of the senses and the microbes – against the homogenization of flavors and food experiences now rolling like a great, undifferentiated lawn across the globe. It is also a declaration of independence from an economy that would much prefer we remain passive consumers of its standardized commodities, rather than creators of idiosyncratic products expressive of ourselves and of the places where we live, because your pale ale or sourdough bread or kimchi is going to taste nothing like mine or anyone else’s.

I tried to buy the equipment to begin fermenting food within my home, but realised it wasn’t available in the UK. It was then that I had a light-bulb moment and my life changed. 

How My Life Has Changed

For the past few months I have been setting up my own company which will import and sell fermentation products in the UK. It is still early days, but I am loving the challenge of the new project. I hope to launch my new fermentation blog early in 2015 and begin to sell the equipment in April. I’ll let you know how it goes!

The Rest of the Book

The entire book was incredibly well researched and I loved the way Pollan made me think about food in a new light. He does an excellent job of explaining our changing relationship with food and the problems this causes for our society. I found the Water and Air sections slightly less interesting than the others, but this was probably because I am well informed in these areas so much of the information was not new to me. 

I listened to the audio book version read by Pollan himself. I think this gave the book even more impact as his emotions came across strongly. His scientific knowledge was impressive and I loved the way everything was backed up with thorough research. My only criticism is that the book is US focused and I’d love to see how the statistics compare with those in the UK. 

Overall I can’t complain though. This book has changed my life. My kitchen now smells of fermenting cabbage and I’ve been inspired to change my diet and the course of my life. No other book has ever come close to having that power on me! 

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Many thanks to Sandy for giving this book to me – it’s changed my life!!

 

Two Disappointing Novellas: The Day of the Owl and The Guest Cat

The Day of the Owl

The Day Of The Owl by Leonard Sciascia

Translated from the Italian by Archibald Colquhoun

Five words from the blurb: Sicily, murder, mafia, investigation, cold

The Day of the Owl begins with a man being murdered in front of a bus load of people. The sawn-off shotgun used in the attack suggests that it is a mafia killing, but no one is willing to admit they saw the shooting so the investigation runs cold.

This book is an examination of the mafia presence in Sicily. I found it interesting to read about this topic/setting for the first time, but most of the book did nothing for me. I think the problem was my unfamiliarity with the subject matter. The subtlety of the political messages went over my head and the large number of Italian words frustrated me. I only finished the book because it was so short.

Recommended to those with a knowledge of Italian political history and its connection with the mafia.

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The Guest Cat

The Guest Cat by Takashi Hirade

Translated from the Japanese by Eric Selland

Five words from the blurb: couple, writers, cat, visits, together

The Guest Cat is a quiet book about a couple who work from home as freelance writers. Beautifully poetic writing describes their everyday lives and the interactions they have with a cat that decides to visit them.

Unfortunately, perhaps because I’m more of a dog person, this book did nothing for me. The couple’s life was boring and I failed to see the attraction of reading endless descriptions of what the cat did. I normally love Japanese books, but this one didn’t contain any of the usual culinary, cultural or mythological aspects of Japanese society that I enjoy reading about.

If you love cats and enjoy vivid descriptions of how they wander in and out of people’s lives then this is for you, but if you’re after any plot or emotion then I’d avoid it.

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Three Things You Should Listen to This Weekend

I haven’t read much recently because nothing on the page seems to live up to the quality of the podcasts I’ve discovered. Listening to great stories has the added benefit of being able to do something else whilst enjoying them – perfect for enabling me to continue to sort out my house!

Rather than keep my discoveries secret I thought I’d share them with you. All three are so good – you really should try listening this weekend!

Not My Father's Son: A Family Memoir

Not My Father’s Son by Alan Cumming

This week BBC Radio 4 have serialised Alan Cumming’s emotionally charged memoir. Not My Father’s Son is available to download for the next 4 weeks – I highly recommend you give it a try! 

Note: I think the free download might only be available to those in the UK so others might have to settle for reading it in print.

The Moth: This Is a True Story

The Moth

Last month I raved about The Moth: 50 Extraordinary True Stories. I’ve since discovered that The Moth has a website which contains lots of amazing short stories for you to listen to. There is also a podcast which includes the best stories from each week.

serial

 

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Serial

Serial is a Twitter phenomenon. It is an investigation into a murder that happened in 1999. The evidence gathered is presented in a podcast and the audience is encouraged to help solve the crime. I was sceptical at first, but the continuous Twitter chat finally persuaded me to give it a try. It is a unique concept and so compelling. I can’t wait for the next episode!

Have you listened to any of these? Did you enjoy them as much as I did?

I’m Not Scared by Niccolò Ammaniti

I'm Not Scared Translated from the Italian by Jonathan Hunt

Five words from the blurb: Italian, village, children, discovery, scare

I bought a copy of this book a couple of years ago after seeing several bloggers rave about it. For some reason I expected it to be chilling and so avoided reading it until I could do so in daylight hours. This was unnecessary as it was a much less scary than I anticipated.

The book is set in a small Italian hamlet where six children have the freedom to explore the surrounding countryside. One day nine-year-old Michele is dared to enter a derelict house on the outskirts of their village and is shocked by what he discovers there.

The story was narrated by Michele so was much simpler and faster paced than I expected it to be – I flew through the entire book in just a few hours. There was something wonderful about the childhood innocence of the narration, but it also frustrated me. I felt I was being pulled along too quickly, forced to almost skim the words instead of slow down and think about the difficult issues that were being raised.

‘Papa! Papa!’ I pushed the door and rushed in. ‘Papa! I’ve got something to…’ The rest died on my lips.
He was sitting in the armchair with the newspaper in his hands looking at me with toad’s eyes. The worst toad’s eyes I had seen since the day I had drunk the Lourdes water thinking it was acqua minerale. He squashed his cigarette-end into his coffee cup….
Papa drew in air through his nose and said: ‘Where have you been all day?’ He looked me up and down. Have you seen yourself? What the hell have you been rolling in?’

The book has been described as a ‘literary sensation’ and I think that is the wrong term. I’m Not Scared is a more mainstream piece of fiction and is the type of book I’ll be pushing into the hands of a wide variety of friends. It is particularly good for showing that translated fiction needn’t be difficult or boring.

Some people might find the ending frustrating, but I was impressed by the suspenseful nature of it and the way it forces the reader to think about the book for much longer than they would if everything was tied up neatly.

Overall I found this to be an entertaining read, but it lacked the depth to be considered outstanding.

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The thoughts of other bloggers:

 …a gripping read with strong emotional impact. Medieval Bookworm

The ending went beyond ambiguous to just plain lacking. Carpe Librum

If you intend to read this book make sure you’ve got a few clear hours to do so, the storytelling is so rich and vivid you won’t want to abandon it until the final, devastating climax is reached. Reading Matters