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 Tremain

 

a79296240f2981a596941556967444341587343Restoration by Rose Tremain ★★★★★
Edition: Blackstone Audio (2013), Unabridged MP3, 13h00
Original publication date: 1989

This was my third five-star read so far this year; I don’t hand out that rating very easily, and when I do, it’s because the book has surpassed any expectation I may have had, made me want to start again right from the beginning as soon as I’d finished it, and opened up a universe which was somehow magical to me. As far as expectations go, they were pretty high with this novel, as it first came to my attention because it had been shortlisted for the Booker Prize, I had read very positive reviews for it, and it had been on my wishlist for a long time. My first book by Rose Tremain, which was among my favourites of 2013, was Music & Silence, and there’s a certain quality about her writing, or about the way she tells her stories, or about the characters she creates, or all of these put together, which I find very exciting. With these two books, I was willing to follow her wherever she wanted to take me with the very first words.

This story is set in the England of 1665 and is told as a first person account by one Robert Merivel, who relates the events as they are happening, probably in the form of a personal journal. All the events take place over the course of approximately one year, and it’s a year filled to the brim for Merivel in the England of the Restoration. Introduced by his father, a glovemaker to the King, Young Merivel, a student in medicine, meets Charles II for the first time and immediately falls under his spell, so that when King Charles asks Merivel to save one of his dying dogs (his beloved spaniels of course), Merivel jumps at the chance to be part of the inner circle of Whitehall Palace and successfully cures the dog, mainly by doing nothing (as I recall he drinks too much, falls asleep in his cozy palace bed, and leaves the dog to work out his own business). Merivel further captures the king’s favour with his comical antics—he is a rather ugly man and uncouth in his manners, liking to amuse the court with his frequent farts, among other things—and the king comes to affectionately call him his Fool, which delights Merivel, as he’s willing to do anything to be in the king’s favour for pure love of the man. For his loyalty and services, he is given a grand estate, and immediately sets about decorating his large house in an effusion of baroque colours, in the most vivid hues, then finding the practice of medicine distasteful to him, takes an interest in painting and music, and indeed he observes all around him with an artist’s eye. One day the King tells Robert that he would like him to wed one of his mistresses, Celia Clemens, simply because the king likes his last name and likes to think of his mistress as the future Mrs Merivel. The one condition he sets it that the marriage must not be consummated, and so enamoured is Merivel with his monarch that he immediately accepts an arrangement that few others would willingly comply with. Merivel is a great lover of all the finer things in life; along with the decorative arts, fine cuisine and wines, he also enjoys the company of women and rarely denies himself anything, so of course it follows that however good his intentions are, he is bound to fall in love with Celia, even though the latter detests him to the core. The trap is set, and what rises must fall, and throughout this novel we follow Merivel’s progress from King’s physician to wannabe artist and musician, to his time spent in the New Bedlam hospital, in Norfolk, where he tries to cure the insane once he has fallen from grace, a place from which he manages to fall from grace even further. Merivel is a fascinating character and though he doesn’t dwell much on why he is so obsessed with the king or any of his other inner motivations, he doesn’t lack in observational skills and describes his daily life and the happenings among these unusual circles of people in a very amusing manner, though the novel doesn’t lack for depth and melancholy observations on life, nor tragic events, as, among other things, the Great Fire of London (1666) plays a large role in the narrative.

I was very happy to discover that Tremain wrote a sequel in 2012, simply called Merivel, and it won’t be long before I pick it up. I listened to this book wonderfully narrated by Paul Daneman, one of those narrators I liked so much that I immediately tried to find what other books I could get which were read by him, but unfortunately, this is the only one on offer at present, and as this English actor passed away quite some time ago, there are unlikely to be others. There will be more Tremain in the near future for me however; other than the follow-up novel above-mentioned, I also have The Colour in the stacks, and just got hold her first book Sadler’s Birthday, as I’m tempted to read her complete works in due course.

Most highly recommended!

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.