Six months of blissful unemployment in the first half of the year and a one-hour train commute in the second half of the year means that 2014 was my best year yet for reading, as I just scraped across the line to make it a solid 70 books – a record I doubt I’ll break for some time. Here’s a rundown of the ten best books I read this year.
Beszel and Ul Qoma are twin cities with completely different languages, ethnicities, societies and architecture. They sit not side by side, but in the same physical space as each other, with residents of either city trained from birth to “unsee” their opposite numbers. China Mieville’s fascination with cities reaches its zenith in The City and The City, a hugely original creation which touches upon so many aspects of real life cities which seem bizarre when looked at afresh – wealth disparities, people not looking at each other on the tube, the homeless, and far more – yet it does so without forcing these implications upon the reader, leaving the novel, at its heart, a simple crime procedural that just happens to take place in a crazy fantasy city.
Selecting books for this list is often difficult – what exactly does “best” mean? Most enjoyable? Most memorable? Objectively greatest? Most thought-provoking?
T.H. White’s enormous novel The Once and Future King, comprised of five smaller books, is not a piece of fiction I can say I loved, or maybe even liked. Indeed, for most of the middle stretch (i.e. three books worth) I was bored by it. Its tone never sat well with me: deliberately whimsical and satirical, yet also dark and philosophising. But by the time I finished the final volume, The Book of Merlyn (the best in the series), I was ready to stand back and appreciate this enormous work on its own terms: as a long and fascinating attempt by a troubled writer to leave his own mark upon the legends which had long fascinated him. I may not have always enjoyed it, and I still believe it’s a strange and flawed book, but it was also deeply memorable and unique – the sort of book that you’re glad exists simply for its own sake. It wouldn’t have felt right to leave it off this list.
8. The Last Werewolf
There’s a reason humans peg-out around eighty: prose fatigue. It looks like organ failure or cancer or stroke but it’s really just the inability to carry on clambering through the assault course of mundane cause and effect. If we ask Sheila then we can’t ask Ron. If I have the kippers now then it’s quiche for tea. Four score years is about all the ifs and thens you can take. Dementia’s the sane realisation you just can’t be doing with all that anymore.
It’s appropriately ironic that this is a hybrid tale: part monster story, part espionage thriller, richly comic and with one of the best narrators I’ve read in a long time. 200-year-old Jake Marlowe may be a monster and a murderer, but we can forgive him that, because he’s such good company. The Last Werewolf would have reached a higher spot on this list if it didn’t stumble badly towards the end, but it’s still a cracking good novel.
“And there was another one, too, about ‘where is Earth?’ Now, I ask you – where is Earth? – in relation to what? Oh, yes, he knows it goes round the sun, but where, please, is the sun? And, there were some others – simply not his kind of questions.”
This is an overlooked classic from John Wyndham, one of Britain’s greatest science fiction writers, in which a humble father is distressed to find that his eleven-year-old son appears to have developed an imaginary friend – a voice in his head with all kinds of scientific questions and strange notions about the human race. All of Wyndham’s hallmarks are here: a curiously dated vision of society (even for his time), a stuffy yet enjoyable writing style, a collision between human and alien intelligences. Yet Chocky, his final published work before death, is surprisingly more hopeful about mankind’s future than his previous novels. And compared with his most famous four (The Day of the Triffids, The Kraken Wakes, The Chrysalids and The Midwich Cuckoos), most of which have rather abrupt endings, Chocky has perhaps the most satisfying conclusion since The Midwich Cuckoos – and one a great deal more touching and affecting. It’s nice to think that perhaps Wyndham became more optimistic before his death.
A unique novel set in eleventh century England after the Norman invasion, Paul Kingsnorth has created a phonetic “shadow tongue” comprised entirely of derivatives from Old English words (rather than introduced Romance words which comprise much of the modern language) to better reflect the words and thoughts of the people who lived at the time. In this superstitious world where villagers fear the devils and spirits of the forest in the darkness beyond the light of the campfire, it’s easy to feel unsettled in the opening chapter, as a series of omens and warnings foretell something terrible coming for England. The French invasion may not have been supernatural, but for all the blood and misery it brought, it may as well have been an army of demons. The aftermath of the invasion unfolds through the eyes of Kingsnorth’s marvellously written narrator, Buccmaster of Holland, an arrogant and violent man with a dark history. The Wake is a wonderful case of concept and execution coming together perfectly.
Those ten words perfectly sum up the ethos of Lonesome Dove. Larry McMurtry’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Western masterpiece is in many ways a book of two halves. On one hand it’s a plain and easy read which I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to somebody who isn’t much of a reader; on the other hand, it’s a thousand pages of deep and affecting literature that very much deserved its Pulitzer win. On one hand, it’s a light-hearted and often funny book; on the other hand, it doesn’t shy away from the realities of the American West, and contains scenes of utter brutality. On the one hand, it’s a nihilistic and realistic novel in which death comes to good people for no good reason; on the other hand, it exhorts us to take joy in the world and find meaning in simple things. As one reviewer put it: “If you only read one Western in your life, make it Lonesome Dove.”
When Gabriel Garcia Marquez died earlier this year, Peter Carey wrote in the Guardian about how valuable the Latin American writer had been to him as he struggled with his own cultural cringe. Nobody can read Carey’s early stories, or his first novel Bliss, without noticing they take place in locations which are clearly Australian but nonetheless go unnamed. “The absence of placenames in the stories is a good indication of what I was avoiding,” Carey said, “a sign that I was still too young (and damaged) to see that Myrniong was a beautiful strange name and that Wonthaggi was a poem unto itself.”
In Illywhacker, his second novel, this reluctance has been well and truly vanquished. Illywhacker zigzags its way up and down Australia as it follows the life of vagabond, thief, pilot, casanova, snake-catcher and general illywhacker Herbert Badgery, and its paragraphs are dotted with Australian town names that begin to take on a lyrical beauty: Jeparit, Terang, Balliang, Jindabyne, and hundreds of others. The novel sprawls across hundreds of pages and three generations of Herbert’s extended family: a huge, messy, heartfelt picaresque epic. Objectively speaking, Oscar & Lucinda is probably Carey’s better book, but Illywhacker is by far my favourite, and one of the best novels I’ve read in years.
Lev Grossman’s brilliant Magicians trilogy is often incorrectly described as Harry Potter for adults, which is a pathetically shallow analysis. For all its flippant humour and millenial meta-commentary, this trilogy is a surprisingly thoughtful work about unrealised dreams and the bleakness of adulthood. Young people finding that life isn’t what they thought it would be is hardly uncovered ground in literature, but Grossman marries this to the very concept of young adult fiction, and the momentousness, heroism and epic nature that makes up so much of it – setting up an entire generation of kids for dashed hopes and dreams.
It’s a mark of Grossman’s success that he builds this concept into a genuinely successful fantasy: a story that you love reading and a world you enjoy being in. It’s a further mark of his success that The Magician’s Land manages to answer all of those hard questions the earlier books raised, squarely acknowledging that our hopes and dreams probably won’t come true, but still ends on a positive and uplifting note. The Magician’s Land is an excellent conclusion to one of the finest works of fantasy in the last twenty years.
2. The Bone Clocks
The brigadier I knew has left his bombed-out face, leaving me alone with the clock, shelves of handsome books nobody ever reads, and one certainty: that whatever I do with my life, however much power, wealth, experience, knowledge or beauty I’ll accrue, I, too, will end up like this vulnerable old man. When I look at Brigadier Reginald Philby, I’m looking down time’s telescope at myself.
David Mitchell has always been known for having a pastiche writing style, switching easily from the viewpoint of a 19th century diarist to a Worcestershire schoolboy to a Korean clone-slave in a dystopian future, all while maintaining his own magical authorial voice, replete with wit and dazzling wordplay. The Bone Clocks returns to the patchwork style we saw in earlier novels like Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas, skipping across the threads in the life of Holly Sykes, from 1980s England to the coast of Ireland in a future ravaged by climate change, by way of Cambridge, Switzerland, Iraq, Australia, Iceland and plenty more besides. In the background of Holly’s life, the conclusion to a centuries-long battle between different factions of immortals is being played out.
The Bone Clocks is not David Mitchell’s finest novel; I felt that the framework meant we never truly got to know Holly as a character, and the tone stumbles badly in the penultimate chapter as the immortals come out of the shadows and onto the stage. But it is, nonetheless, a David Mitchell novel, and every sentence is a feast.
1. The War of the Worlds
Never before in the history of the world had such a mass of human beings moved and suffered together. The legendary hosts of Goths and Huns, the hugest armies Asia has ever seen, would have been but a drop in that current. And this was no disciplined march; it was a stampede – a stampede gigantic and terrible – without order and without a goal, six million people unarmed and unprovisioned, driving headlong. It was the beginning of the rout of civilisation, of the massacre of mankind.
No matter that I’ve read and watched and experienced so many adaptations of this story that I already could have written a plot synopsis: the original is the best. I was pleasantly surprised to find, when I finally got around to reading this 116-year-old novel, that it was the most captivating piece of fiction I’d read in a very long time. Wells’ timeless tale of imperial destruction and genocide is a classic for a reason: from the sultry, eerie heat of the summer evening in Woking, to the panicked flight at the Leatherhead ferry, to the horrible stillness of a deserted London, he takes the reader through a series of unforgettable set-pieces as he wreaks apocalyptic devastation on the suburbs of London – which, even though set in the 19th century, still seem the very definition of humdrum normalcy. The War of the Worlds is an enduring classic for a good reason, and even if you know the story, it’s a book you absolutely must read.