Thursday, 15 January 2015

Thursday List: Best Books of 2014


dancing in Americanah



I love reading other bloggers’ best-of lists, so hope the feeling might be mutual.

You can find more of my lists on the tab above, including the 2014 best crime books, and the 2012 lists.

Stats first – more than half my books were by women (52%, down from 55% last year). About three quarters were old, by which I mean published before 2013 - so the list below is the best books read last year, and most of them were not published last year, it is not a list of new books.

Two-thirds were, roughly-speaking, UK-based, and another 20 % were US-based.  About 25 books were translated from another language (among them Albanian, Kyrgyz, Danish, French, Italian and Japanese.) 
I read about a third of the books on my Kindle.

These figures are remarkably similar to last year’s. During 2014 I did a massive clearout of old TBR piles – more on this in another entry – and I wonder if that will have an effect on next year’s figures, as I perhaps look at more up-to-date books. The TBRs were older books, & hard copies. Also, I have been gently participating in the Books of the Century challenge – trying to read one book published in each year of the 20th century – which may also make a difference. We’ll see.

Next, I want to mention two non-fiction favourites from last year – both by women and about women, fabulous feminist tracts that I would strongly recommend to everyone, but particularly to committed readers, who will especially enjoy them:


Samantha Ellis How to be a Heroine – read my enthusiastic (to say the least) review for more, and why this is the ideal Clothes in Books book. I give away a lot of copies of my favourite books as presents every year: this was the one I gave away most in 2014.


Rachel Cooke Her Brilliant Career – a wonderful look at the lives and careers of some women in the 1950s. Hilarious and highly entertaining, but factual, referenced and footnoted – a model multiple biography.



Now the best novels I read last year, in alphabetical order by author, with links to the original reviews. I aimed to list ten, but over-fulfilled my plan.




Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Americanah This is a phenomenally interesting and enjoyable book, achieving something very rare: it combines being a fascinating funny story, a page-turning read, and a polemic with something important and serious to say about race, immigration, culture and modern life.

Daniel Alarcon At Night we Walk in Circles
Good things come from Peru: Paddington bear, the operatic tenor Juan Diego Florez, and Daniel Alarcon and this book. A small theatrical company wanders round the interior of Peru putting on their play, and then try to do a good deed: going to visit a family who have lost their son. No-one could predict what follows. I said ‘It is a strange and wonderful book, and one that leaves you considering afterwards.’


tea in the garden, time after time 



Kate Atkinson Life After Life A superbly clever novel: inventive, compulsively readable and beautifully worked-out.





Lissa Evans Crooked Heart I said: This is one of the best new books I’ve read this year, and I could quote from it all day. Charming (though totally unsentimental) and heart-breaking, and laugh out loud funny.

Ford Madox Ford Parade’s End This tetralogy is an 800-page adventure: it is experimental, and should make for difficult reading, but actually I raced through it. It is unlike any other book, and is very good on social climbing, the importance of rumour and reputation, and (also like Shakespeare) the strange motiveless malevolence that sometimes overtakes people. I wrote an article on it for Guardian Books this week - Sylvia Tietjens was my choice for a villain in literature.

Jim Harrison True North This is the kind of book I would expect to HATE: In fact I loved it, I found it mesmerizing and extraordinary. I am sure many people would dislike it, but I still cannot recommend it highly enough, though I don't find it easy to say why….

Ismail Kadare The Siege - a strange and wonderful book, eerily real, which convinces you that Kadare does know (but how could he?) what it would be like to be a common soldier, a pasha, a chronicler during a 15th century siege. His Ghost Rider was also a winner.

Emily St John Mandel Station 11 The book is terrifying, disorienting, enthralling, creepy and life-affirming. It deals with the aftermath of a deadly flu, which wipes out 99% of the population and leaves civilization as we know it destroyed. Mandel is an extraordinary writer and this is an extraordinary book: unnerving, disconcerting, and very very memorable. 


Rebecca Jones & family


Angharad Price The Life of Rebecca Jones This is a treasure of a book, one that pulled me in and completely enthralled me. It tells the story of a real person, but not someone you would have heard of: Rebecca Jones was the author’s great-aunt, and Angharad Price has imagined her life as a first-person narrative. Rebecca Jones lived in a remote valley in North Wales for her whole life: her family had farmed in the same place for a thousand years. It is a spell-binding description of one life, and it is one of those books that concentrates on something that seems to be very small, but makes you think that you can see the big things all the better for having read it.

GB Stern The Matriarch This is another book that should be better-known: revered children’s author Hilary McKay recommended it to Clothes in Books, to our everlasting gratitude, and I think everyone who reads it will immediately start telling others about it…. It is the story of a Jewish family through from the 19th to the 20th centuries, and is witty, clever, hilarious and full of wonderful observations. Although funny and iconoclastic, it has a real view of the sadnesses and realities of life, the way one person’s decisions can affect another, and the way some of the characters are bullied out of happiness. 


everyone loves a yellow dress - The Matriarch


Elizabeth Taylor Game of Hide and Seek  An absolute masterpiece, a really stunning piece of writing – it seems to combine the best bits of Barbara Pym, Elizabeth Bowen and Madame Bovary.

Ludmila Ulitskaya Funeral Party I love this writer, love this book: it is only 167 pages long, but contains a whole world in it, a short, terrific novel about a young Russian man, an émigré living in New York, who is dying surrounded by his friends and lovers. 

the angel starts to shimmy in the Woodrell



Daniel Woodrell The Maid’s Version Everything you have heard about Daniel Woodrell is true. He is an extraordinary writer, absolutely compelling, the kind who makes you shake your head in wonder. This story of a dance-hall fire in Mississippi in the early 20th century, and what comes after, transcends genres and is truly a masterpiece.



Best crime books were last week’s list: Ivy Pochoda’s Visitation St is probably a book that straddles the two genres; the Woodrell above could equally have been on either list; and J Meade Falkner’s The Nebuly Coat also defies categorization. 


The top picture is by William H Johnson from the Smithsonian.

A really good year’s reading, and in 2015 I hope to complete the Books of the Century challenge, and read even better books.

Thanks to all the readers and commentators who make Clothes in Books such an enjoyable project….

26 comments:

  1. Moira - I do like the variety in your list! And you've reminded me that I do need to put Americanah on my list. I remember thinking that when you first posted about it. And why am I not surprised to see Parade's End here?

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    1. Thanks Margot, I was glad they turned out varied. And yes, entirely predictable that the Ford Madox Ford was there....

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  2. I read two of these as we went through the year but will definitely try some of the others. Thankyou for this great list!

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    1. Thanks Deborah - I love looking at other people's lists, and getting recos from them, so it's always nice to return the compliment.

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  3. Absolutely thrilled to see The Matriarch on your list!

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    1. And as I say, I am endlessly grateful. I've got some more of her books lined up....

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  4. I am interested in Americanah and even sought it out at the bookstore, but thought I might like to try another shorter book by her first. Still dithering. Definitely going to read Kate Atkinson's Life After Life this year and it is your post on it that convinced me to give it a go, even with its length. I had no plans to read Daniel Woodrell's The Maid’s Version ... nothing against it but just not in the stacks yet. But I notice it is very short so maybe worth seeking out. The only one I have of his is Tomato Red. And you have gotten me interested in Kadare. Just not this particular book yet.

    Lovely list with lots of variety.

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    1. Thanks Tracy, and I hope you enjoy your choices. You are one of the bloggers whose choices I trust and follow, so I'm glad you feel the same way...

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    2. And I forgot Station Eleven. My husband bought that one, so I will read it someday. This year I hope.

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    3. Very much recommended... I think you'll like it.

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  5. Love the stats, but I don't think you gave us your total for the year? Just curious. Fair to say I have read none of these. Most interesting to me, Pochoda which I have and Woodrell which I don't.

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    1. I didn't give a total because I think it would be a bit distracting, I was surprised at how high it was - all that clearing of TBR and needing to read for Guardian pieces boosted the numbers a lot. So I'll bury a hint down here: it was more than 300....

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  6. What a wonderful list. I'll be sure to take advice from it, including on The Matriarch, resonant with me because my maternal grandparents were East European Jewish immigrants.
    I have Life After Life on my stack and after I finish Tana French's The Secret Place and Sarah Waters' The Paying Guest, that one is next.
    Will duly note others listed here.
    Even Mandel's book looks interesting, and I never read any post-apocalyptical type books, but I may just look at this one. It's been on the New York Times bestseller list for weeks.

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    1. I'm guessing you will love The Matriarch Kathy. I'm looking forward to reading more books in the series.
      I would have said the Mandel book wasn't for me, it's not the kind of thing I would usually pick out, but I am so glad I did....

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  7. Moira, very impressive — congratulations! Lots of variety, I agree. In case I missed it, how many total books did you read in 2014?

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    1. Thanks Prashant - Col asked the same question above, and so I'll repeat that it was unnaturally high and more than 300! A lot higher than 2013 in fact....

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    2. Moira, that's some number! I'd be thrilled if I read less than half that figure.

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    3. thanks Prashant - I was very lucky this year to have a lot of work related to books which boosted the figures!

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  8. Gawd, I want to read EVERYTHING. Thanks (I think...). I am, however, currently reading your recommendation The Nebuly Coat and have got to the mid-way stage where the menace is growing all the time but it is still impossible to figure out how it will play out. Really enjoying it.

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    1. Such a good book. I've just been looking at some of the books I've got lined up, and blaming you. The girls with the turned-around trunks - that was you wasn't it? It looks so good....

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  9. I am so impressed with your total of books read last year. How do you do that?
    It's taking me longer to read the older I get and I've had less reading time.

    I know you've used the painting of the dancers, but who is the artist? I just love it.

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    1. I am helped by the fact that quite a few were read for work...

      I should have credited the artist again: I have now added it to the end of the blogpost. It is by William H Johnson from the Smithsonian, and there's a link above (now!). There are some fabulous pictures by him in the collection, I love them, I've used them several times on the blog.

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  10. I like that painting, too. And who painted the one with the woman wearing the yellow dress?

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    1. Yes, I always credit pictures first time I use them, but not always if I do them again. It is by Joszef Rippl-Ronai, and is called Young Girl Dressed in Yellow.

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  11. I know you have used Johnson's painting before and I have seen it here, but "senior" memory is operating here! Or non-memory I should say.

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    1. No, it is me not being quite as careful as I should be about crediting....

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