Literature

My Top 10 Books of the Past Year

Yes, I know, it’s another of those “looking back on 2014” posts and I should really just move on (ironically, I don’t really celebrate New Year or anything), but as I plan on discussing the books I’ve read each month, I thought that recapping on my top ten books of 2014 would be a nice way to kick off proceedings. I set myself the challenge of reading 60 books in a year, and I just missed and finished up with 56 books, but I discovered some real gems along the way. So, in chronological order of when I read them, because rankings would be waaaay too difficult, here are my top ten books of the past year.

1. Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

January saw my first adventure into the moving, often surreal, world of Murakami, and it was incredible. Norwegian Wood is different from many of his other books as it isn’t magic realism (the next Murakami I read was Sputnik Sweetheart, which is much the same, so it wasn’t until I picked up After the Quake in July that I discovered how weird and wonderful his stories can be). It tells the story of young Toru Watanabe starting University in 1960s Tokyo, where he finds his passions being torn between Naoko, his troubled friend from adolescence, and the brazen Midori. It may sound like your typical love triangle, but I can assure you that it is full of very real emotion and is an incredibly poignant tale of growing up and seeing the world without rose-tinted glasses.

2. Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom

I read The Five People You Meet in Heaven a good few years ago now, but Tuesdays with Morrie is different in that it’s not fiction, but rather an account of how Albom used to go and visit the home of his ex-professor every Tuesday, providing companionship in exchange for valuable wisdom and life advice in his final days as he lies dying from ALS. However, it is presented as a novel, rather than some sort of self-help book, and the prose is often beautiful in itself. I’m not one for books that go all-out on the “life is amazing and inspirational and you should live every day to the max!” front, but Morrie really moved me. I found great comfort in his astute words, and they provided me with great comfort at a time when I really needed it.

3. The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly

Here’s something you might not know about me: I love fairy tales. Not necessarily the saccharine ones often found in children’s books and Disney films (not to knock Disney – I love Disney, but it is fluff, really), but the ones where things are not at all what they seem and there’s danger lurking behind every tree. That’s why I enjoyed The Book of Lost Things so much. It’s about a young boy named David who, after narrowly escaping a plane crashing into his back garden during the war, escapes into a magical world he has only read about in books. However, it’s not quite the storybook fantasy he has imagined, but rather a world filled with ferocious half-wolf men, witches with Frankenstein complexes and a terrifying Crooked Man who wants nothing more than to capture and steal the soul of David’s younger brother. I’d like to imagine it as Labyrinth rewritten by the Brothers Grimm on a hefty dose of absinthe.

4. A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

There’s a particularly cute story about how I came across this book. When I was together with my ex-boyfriend, we would often visit bookshops together, and one day, when trying to decide on a third book for my “3 for 2” offer at Blackwell’s, I said “go and choose me a book that you’ve read and think I’d like. Any book at all, as long as it’s in the offer. You choose it and I must buy it, no questions asked.” Turns out he had very good taste, as he chose A Tale for the Time Being (in return, I chose The Secret History for him, which he loved, so it was a win-win situation, but I digress). This book was so good that I even braved my awful motion sickness to read it on a two-hour bus journey, sans paracetamol. It is about a writer, Ruth, who discovers the diary of a Japanese schoolgirl, Nao, washed ashore near her home, all the way across the Pacific. The POV alternates as we learn more about Ruth’s journey to track down the diary’s owner alongside Nao’s difficult family life, endearing and inspirational Buddhist nun grandmother, and how she has resorted to keeping this diary as a way of dealing with the tragedy that surrounds her. It was so perfect and to be honest, only lost one star on Goodreads for the gratuitous suicide talk, which I found difficult at that point in time. Otherwise, a five-star novel.

5. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

Can you tell that I like contemporary magic realism yet? I had been planning to read this for a while, but didn’t get the chance until an old friend said “I love this book so much that I have two copies, so you can keep one of them” (thanks Alethea, you babe). I love weird and wonderful circuses. I love mystery and things that appear different on the surface. I love magic. I love old-time-y settings and the taboos that surround them. So all in all, this book was a real winner for me. I can’t really explain the whole book, as there are so many intertwining plots, but the overarching theme is that there are two rival young magicians, Celia and Marco, who have been raised to duel each other once they come of age by taking part in an ominous “competition” at a mysterious circus that is only open at night, is gone the next morning and travels the world at lightning speed. But surprise surprise, poor Celia and Marco fall in love and it all gets a bit complicated. It’s so much more than that though. I promise.

6. Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt

Warning: the book made me cry real, big, messy tears. Books hardly ever move me to tears. Films, yes, but I can usually maintain composure with books. So take heed. Having said that, this was definitely my favourite book I read all year and I devoured it in a day. It tells the story of the teenage June and how her life changes in 1987 when her beloved Uncle Finn dies of a “mysterious illness” (spoiler alert: despite the blurb’s best attempts to keep it a secret, you can tell right from the start that it’s AIDS). It seems her family, especially her sister, are putting up barriers and trying their best to get on with life, but June finds the grieving process much harder. She tentatively forms a beautiful friendship with Finn’s boyfriend, in whom she finds great solace. What I loved about this book was how real all the characters were; I felt like I was grieving with them. I loved their complexity and seeing how each of the characters dealt with Finn’s death, as it felt very realistic – I liked the fact that they weren’t too soppy about it, but instead pretended to be okay with it while bottling up their real emotions, in an attempt to “put on a brave face.” BECAUSE THAT’S REAL GRIEF TOO, PEOPLE. Gah, I feel emotional just thinking about poor June and Toby and Finn and Greta and all the other wonderful characters that I just want to cuddle. All the feels.

7. Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin

Now, I realise this is quite a departure from the other books I’ve listed, but I really do enjoy horror, especially when it’s as suspenseful as this. I have always liked Chuck Palahniuk (who, incidentally, wrote the introduction to my edition of Rosemary’s Baby), but after reading Ira Levin, I don’t think I will ever be able to enjoy Palahniuk in the same way again, because this guy is just the king of suspense. I haven’t seen the film, so I didn’t know what the ending held in store, and I was left guessing throughout the book. Rosemary was a total badass (despite his gender, Levin seems to be really good at writing really awesome lady characters – I read The Stepford Wives shortly after this, and its protagonist Joanna was equally cool) and the ending left me with the same kind of good chills that a good American Horror Story finale (i.e. not Coven) leaves me with. Aaaaaah.

8. The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

I had been meaning to read this for absolutely ages, so I leapt at the chance when I saw it in the library. I don’t think there was much point in me borrowing it in all honesty, as it can be read in half an hour, but it was amazing all the same. I could hear the unnamed protagonist’s voice so clearly that her descent into full-on madness as she becomes convinced that there are women trapped beneath the yellow wallpaper in her bedroom was truly chilling. Combined with shrewd comment on mental illness and the challenging relationships between men and women (Perkins Gilman was a staunch feminist and generally fierce), it really stayed with me long after I turned the final page. It’s so short that I will no doubt re-read it sometime, as I’d really like to look at the allegorical content even more closely, especially now that I’ve read up on Perkins Gilman’s life.

9. The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides

I don’t quite know what it is, but there was just something about The Virgin Suicides that made me go “yes.” Ironically, I found it both amazingly enjoyable and triggering – the mind is a funny thing, isn’t it? After the first suicide in the novel, I could really feel myself getting sucked into the Lisbon family’s grief and could clearly picture their decaying, dusty house with windows full of candles. I liked learning about all the sisters and their varying responses to the first death in the family, although I kind of wish Eugenides had focussed slightly less on Lux. The narrative itself was also really interesting, as it was plural first-person, but you never really learn more about this mysterious “we”, other than the fact that they’re a group of boys who congregate to watch the Lisbon home from their vigil across the street, out of sympathy for their isolation. However, the fact that the boys were unnamed, combined with how the Lisbon family eventually faded away from the scene, gave a real sense of impermanence and reminded me of how life can pass by us so easily.

10. The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer

And finally, yet another mental illness book to round off my list! This is the only book I’ve read about schizophrenia so far, but I found it so so moving and would love to read more fiction on the subject (especially since I wrote my research methods essay on it and am considering it as a theme for my dissertation). After witnessing the death of his older brother Simon, who has Down’s Syndrome, as a child, Matthew grows to blame himself for the tragedy as he feels he should have protected him. He develops schizophrenia in his teenage years and begins to see and hear Simon everywhere, and after recalling a science lesson from his first year of secondary school, makes it his mission to rearrange atoms to bring him back to life. Of course, this can’t be done and he is hospitalised. His account of being in hospital was reminiscent of The Bell Jar (one of my favourite books of all time) and I loved how Filer used different fonts and layouts to convey Matt’s troubled mindset. There were quite a few moments when I shed a tear (refer back to point made in 6…), and like Tell the Wolves I’m Home, I also read this in a day. I don’t know – maybe I’m just a book-masochist?

So there you go, after two hours of typing, I am finished with my top ten. What books did you really enjoy in 2014? Do you have any reading goals for this year?

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