14 Favourites of 2014

Out of the 233 books I read in 2014, I tried to narrow down my selection of favourites to a top 5, or even a top 10, but couldn’t do it. So I guess fourteen favourites is an improvement over the 31 I came up with last year—not as far as quality of course, only in terms of paring down the numbers.

In reading order:




The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng (review)
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household (review)
Lady Susan by Jane Austen (review)
Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan (review)
The Quick by Lauren Owen (ARC) (review)
Dissolution by C. J. Samson (review)
The Unstrung Harp: Or, Mr Earbrass Writes a Novel by Edward Gorey
Restoration by Rose Tremain (review)
The Waiting Game by Bernice Reubens (review)
Breakfast With Lucian: A Portrait of the Artist by Geordie Greig (review)
The Ruby in Her Navel by Barry Unsworth (review)
Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor
Le joueur d’échecs / Chess Story by Stefan Zweig

I may yet review the few I managed to overlook so far.

Five Stars for this Gem

0385509634.01._SX450_SY635_SCLZZZZZZZ_♫ The Ruby in Her Navel
by Barry Unsworth ★★★★★
Source: Audible
Edition: AudioGO (2007), Unabridged MP3, 12h22
Awards & Distinctions:
Booker Prize Longlist (2006)
Original publication date: 2006

This book by the fine historical novelist Barry Unsworth is set in 1149 Palermo, Sicily, where power struggles between East and West have left King Roger hard pressed to maintain his throne. Both the Pope and the Bishop of Rome refuse to recognize his rule, and Conrad Hohenstaufen (ruler of the West) and Manuel Comnenus (ruler of the East) are threatening to invade Sicily to secure their powers. Palermo has always been tolerant to various ethnic communities, but a Christian group is making false accusations against Muslims, Jews, and other “outsiders” to take over power.

Thurstan Beauchamp narrates this story. He is a young man still, the son of a Norman knight and a Saxon mother. He works in the Diwan of Control, the central financial office at the palace, where his employer is Yusuf Ibn Mansur, a Muslim man with political savvy and of unimpeachable honesty who is willing to help Thurstan become influential if he can avoid falling into one of the dangerous political games the various factions are playing against each other. Traveling throughout Europe as “Purveyor of Pleasures and Shows”, Thurstan finds a group of five Yazidis, including Nesrin, a belly dancer with uncommon talent, and immediately hires them to come to Palermo to perform for the king. He is drawn to Nesrin’s great beauty and allure, but things take yet another turn when he meets again with the Lady Alicia on the same trip, once his great love when he was still a boy and she then just a girl also. Now she has returned from the land of Jerusalem as a widow of considerable wealth and power, and she seems just as taken with Thurstan as he still is with her, when he finds his love for her has not abated over the years.

We learn early on in the novel that Thurstan’s most cherished dream has been to become a knight and fight in the crusades, as his father has done before him, though this opportunity was taken away from him just when it seemed about to be realised. Now with Lady Alicia’s return on the scene and the considerable influence of her relations, many opportunities beckon. The novel builds up at a moderate pace, all the while filled with period details which inform us about aspects of daily life in 12th century Palermo. Thurstan, narrating in the first person from the vantage point of a period after the events have taken place, is a personable main character, whom we cannot help but empathise with, though he makes many grave gaffes and mistakes, and much as his naïvety and youth show he has yet much to learn and ought to know better, we see the events though his eyes before he had gained the advantage of hindsight, so that the reader is offered only glimpses of the whole, until a complex mystery is revealed.

A jewel of a book which I can’t wait to reread to pick up on all the fine intricate details I may have missed upon first reading; I also loved Andrew Sachs’ narration in this audio version; a well-earned five stars for this gem, which only makes me want to read yet more of Unsworth’s wonderful prose. Lucky for me, I still have his 1992 Booker Prize winner Sacred Hunger and it’s follow-up, The Quality of Mercy, as well as The Songs of the Kings, all historical fiction novels also, as well as the travel memoir Crete to look forward to in my vast personal reading and listening library. It’s not unlikely I may end up trying to get hold of everything Unsworth has written in his long and fruitful career, during which he published a total of 17 novels, and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize three times.

Most Memorable Reads of 2013

Given I’ve read close to 160 books this year (158 to be exact), I found it almost impossible to narrow my list down to just ten books. Besides, why should I? I’ve been lax about writing reviews this year, so thought I’d just write a quick line or two about each of my 31 choices explaining why they were especially memorable to me. They are listed in reading order:

Gillespie and I by Jane Harris ★★★★½
Faber & Faber (2012), Paperback, 440 pages.
Because an unreliable narrator done this well always makes me want to go right back to the first page and start all over once I’ve finished the book.

The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay ★★★★★
Bolinda Audio (2006), Unabridged MP3, 21h34.
Because one little guy’s dreams of glory as a boxing champion to make reparations for a whole nation makes for a captivating read in Courtenay’s hands. He’s a bestselling author in Australia, but apparently little known everywhere else. Aussie actor Humphrey Bower narrates all Courtenay’s books and is a real pleasure to listen to. 


84, Charing Cross Road
by Helene Hanff ★★★★★
Penguin Books (1990), Paperback, 112 pages.
Because these genuine written exchanges between a quirky American writer and a very English London book vendor in postwar years make for every book lover’s delight.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (3rd reread) ★★★★★
The Folio Society (2012), Hardcover 336 pages. Illustrated by Anna and Elena Balbusso. Because rereading one of my all-time favourite novels from a gorgeously illustrated Folio Society edition started me on avery expensive, but highly satisfying craze.

Elizabeth and Her German Garden by Elizabeth von Arnim ★★★★★
Blackstone Audiobooks (2006), Unabridged MP3, 3h47. Narrated by Nadia May.
Because von Arnim made me, a city bound dweller, fall in love with her garden as well as her feisty character. The perfectly adequate audio version compelled me to search high and low for a beautiful vintage collector’s edition and I was rewarded with this little jewel from the MacMillan Company (1901), first American edition. 

Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin ★★★★½
Harper Audio (2013), Unabridged MP3, 7h39.
Because reading this story set in ’70s San Francisco was like getting acquainted with the roots of everything the 80s pop culture of my childhood and youth became for the rest of the world. Frances McDormand narrates this audio edition; quite a treat. 

Good Behaviour by Molly Keane ★★★★½ Folio Society (2011), Hardcover, 240 pages. Illustrated by Debra McFarlane.
Because reading about the misadventures of the Irish St Charles family whose prime concern is keeping up appearances, as seen through the lens of Aroon St-Charles, the unlovely and ungainly heroine, made for a gripping ride as they all descend from riches to rags

Travels with Herodotus by Ryszard Kapuściński ★★★★½
Folio Society (2012). Hardcover, 248 pages.
Because Kapuściński’s love letter to Herodotus’ The Histories made me want to get better acquainted with the ancient historian and read more works by them both.

Middlemarch by George Eliot ★★★★½ Naxos AudioBooks (2011), Unabridged MP3, 35h40.
Because it’s a classic love story and social commentary about a small English community peopled with fascinating characters I hope to revisit again and again. This audio version is narrated by the Divine Juliet Stevenson, but I’ve got a Folio Society edition standing by for future rereads. 

Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin ★★★★½
Folio Society (2012), Hardcover, 280 pages.
Because it’s a captivating tragic story about unrequited love complete with a duel to the death. Because it’s told in verse, yet still reads like a gripping novel. The Folio Society edition illustrated by the Balbusso Twins is to die for. And the Opera version by Tchaikovsky isn’t bad either. (A short editorial)

Le fantôme de l’Opéra by Gaston Leroux ★★★★½ Le Livre qui parle (2005), Unabridged CD, 10h.
Because I finally got to discover the mysteries of the Phantom and the story had more intrigue to offer than I could ever have hoped for.

Black Mischief by Evelyn Waugh ★★★★½
AudioGO (2010) Unabridged MP3, 6h49.
Narrated by Michael Maloney.
Because it’s a hilarious send up about an African emperor’s misguided attempts to bring his country into the modern age, and everything that can go wrong does so with a vengeance. Waugh is so brilliant I want to read everything he’s ever written.

Jumping the Queue by Mary Wesley ★★★★½
AudioGO (2011), Unabridged MP3, 5h36.
Because Mary Wesley had a talent for creating fascinating characters and made me deeply care for an old woman intent on suicide, and not find ridiculous that she fell in love with a much younger suspected matricide. Wesley, who started writing in her 70s and became a huge success is an author worth discovering. Anna Massey, one of my favourites narrates this edition.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë (reread for Coursera The Fiction of Relationship course) ★★★★½
White’s Fine Editions (2010), Hardcover, 448 pages.
Because that crazy woman in the attic makes Rochester’s unforgivable behaviour almost understandable.

The Potato Factory by Bryce Courtenay ★★★★★
Bolinda Audio (2005), Unabridged MP3, 23h27.
Because it tells the story the real life Fagin, the criminal Ikey Solomon, and while it doesn’t make him the least bit more likeable, it turns him into the centre of an epic tale you can’t help but be carried away with.

Hamlet by William Shakespeare ★★★★½
Sterling Signature (2012), Hardcover, 456 pages.
Because I finally got to discover for myself what the big deal is, and the Prince of Denmark had no difficulty transcending his own fame. This gorgeous edition features cut paper illustrations by artist Kevin Stanton.

The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibin ★★★★½
McClelland & Stewart (2012), Kindle Edition, 112 pages and Simon & Schuster Audio (2013), Unabridged MP3, 3h07.
Because Tóibin presents us with a completely believable Mary who has a mind very much her own. It made for a compelling and very short read, but then was worth revisiting on audio, if only because Meryl Streep as Mary is a something you don’t want to miss.

Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos ★★★★★ Frémeaux & associés (2001). Unabridged MP3 CD.
Because I was one of the many fans of the movie when it was originally released and found the book told in a series of letters delivered that much more intrigue and obscenely irresistible cruelty. The audio version featuring a cast of over 10 actors is a real treat, but I supplemented that with a Bibliothèque de la Pléiade edition featuring fascinating essays and additional notes. 

Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry ★★★★★
Phoenix Audio (2000), Unabridged MP3, 36h11. Narrated by Lee Horsley.
Because even though I wasn’t all that keen initially on reading a Western story about a cattle drive, once I read this book I just wanted to—and did—stay on with the characters for three more novels.

Harvest by Jim Crace ★★★★½
Hamish Hamilton (2013), Hardcover, 224 pages.
Because this one man in this tiny isolated community in the middle ages seem to express the pain all of humanity has faced since the dawn of the industrial age.

Music & Silence by Rose Tremain ★★★★¾
New York, Farrar, Straus & Giroux (2000), Paperback, 464 pages.
Because this story is about a musician in King Christian’s IV’s Danish court in the 17th century and introduced me to a world I wasn’t familiar with. Because the lutist is a beautiful and idealistic man who falls in love with a lovely young maiden. Because in stark contrast, King Christian is mad and his wife is a manipulative wench who makes Pretentiousness Somehow Appealing.

Le Comte de Monte-Cristo by Alexandre Dumas père ★★★★¾
Livraphone (2008), Unabridged MP3 CDs, 49h50.
A man who becomes almost godlike in his quest for vengeance. Epic. Classic. Mythical. Legendary. Bring on the superlatives. Dumas stole from Arabian Nights and created his own Masterpiece.

Lord of the Flies by William Golding ★★★★¾
Random House Audio Publishing, (2002). Unabridged CD. Narrated by Martin Jarvis.
Because over 30 years after seeing the movie, this dystopian tale about children run amok on a desert island still has the power to chill and enthrall, and then some. I’m treating myself to the Folio edition illustrated by Sam Weber. 

Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev ★★★★½
Tantor Media (2010), Unabridged MP3, 8h16.
Because Turgeniev made his nihilistic anti-hero Bazarov the centre of an outstanding commentary on family, social struggles, love and friendship, all in one very small package that leaves you with plenty to think about. My full review here. 

An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris ★★★★½
Random House Audiobooks (2013), Unabridged MP3, 16h03. Narrated by David Rintoul.
Because Harris presents the Dreyfus affair from the point of view of a man who initially condemned him, and then became one of his most ardent defenders, and does so in a way that has you on the edge of your seat even though the outcome of the affair is well documented. Really liked David Rintoul’s narration.

91AFB7e1SpL._AA1500_Dragonwyck by Anya Seton ★★★★½
Chicago Review Press (2005), Paperback, 352 pages.
Because the Gothic and Tragic elements of this story about a young farm girl invited to stay with her supremely wealthy cousin were absolutely overpowering (in a good way) and made for a truly delightful reading experience. The Joseph L. Mankiewicz movie version starring Gene Tierney and Vincent Price did a good job of capturing the mood, but could not encompass the richness of the novel. Mariner Books have recently published new editions of a selection of Anya Seton’s novels featuring lovely cover designs (as shown) also available as eBooks. (Recent review here)

An Elephant in the Garden by Michael Morpurgo ★★★★½
Harper Collins Children Audio (2010), Unabridged MP3, 4h18.
Because I feel a soul connection with elephants, though I’ve never laid eyes on one in the wild, and this WWII true story about a zoo elephant who saves a family from the utter annihilation of Dresden really is very affecting. (Recent review here)

The Man of Property by John Galsworthy ★★★★½
Blackstone Audio (2006), Unabridged MP3, 13h49. Narrated by David Case.
Because the first novel in the Forsyte Saga makes clear that the Forsytes are everywhere to be found, and though it is set in late 19th century London, Galsworthy perfectly captured the mentality of the upper middle-class which is still prevalent today, with captivating characters and a story I definitely want to keep following. Narrator David Case aka Frederick Davidson has an unbelievably snooty delivery which often puts me off, but sometimes works very well, as with this novel. With time I intend on completing not just the Forsyte Saga, comprising three books and two interludes, but the complete Chronicles, which includes nine books and four interludes. (Recent review here)

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini ★★★★★
Riverhead Trade (2008), Paperback, 432 pages.
Because Hosseini has a unique talent for telling unputdownable horror stories about the trials of the Afghan people (in this case two women) filled with outrageous violence on an individual and social scale, yet always reminding us that as long as there is love, any kind of love, there is always hope.

Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson ★★★★½ Vintage (1995), Paperback, 460 pages.
Because through the telling of one Japanese American man’s struggle to find justice in a small island community which has convicted him because of his heritage, the pain of an entire post-WWII nation is revealed with unique beauty. (Complete review here)

Morality Play by Barry Unsworth ★★★★½ AudioGO (2012), Unabridged MP3 5h34. Narrated by Michael Maloney.
Because it’s a damned well written little novel set in the Middle Ages of plague and widespread fear about a young cleric on the lam who joins a troupe of actors, in and of itself a dangerous and unsanctioned move. But then the troupe decides to enact the play of a murder which has just occurred in the village to draw in the crowds and in the process uncover dangerous secrets that might doom players of the troupe and the real life act alike. Read with a rushed, breathless delivery by Michael Maloney which suits the first person narration very well.