I gravitate naturally towards political and crime thrillers, and dark and suspenseful novels, and so these titles dominate my list this year, but I try to read more widely and to explore unfamiliar genres whenever I can. I have also noticed that switching to e-books means that I am less swayed by a book's cover, which has its pros and its cons. Here are my top five books of the year:
1. The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer. This is a story about a group of friends who meet as teenagers at a performing arts summer camp in the mid-1970s and who are tipped for Great Things. Thirty years on, however, and most of them are living much more ordinary lives than they had imagined. Wolitzer's novel is long but engaging: a tale of success and failure, friendship and betrayal, love and regret.
2. The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters. Set in my neighbourhood — well, Camberwell, so almost — in the early 1920s, Waters' novel paints a dank and repressed picture of post-World-War-I London. Frances, an intelligent woman in her mid-twenties, lives alone with her mother in a crumbling Camberwell manse until they take in the eponymous paying guests — a young, married couple — to boost their income. For a slow-burner of a novel, there are a fair few dramatic twists along the way, and Waters' portrayal of her heroine is complex and compelling.
3. The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion. I picked this book up on a whim at an airport and really enjoyed it — it is also the only novel in my top five with a male author. The Rosie Project introduces us to Melbourne geneticist Don Tilman. He has a successful career and enjoys his life, which is dominated by routines within routines, but flounders in social situations. He decides it is time to find a wife and sets about the project in a ridiculously rigorous, scientific way. He doesn't count on meeting Rosie, however: a highly unpredictable young woman who wants him to help her find her biological father. Simsion's novel is often funny and sometimes moving and with a quirky but likeable protagonist. It comes as no surprise that the sequel is already out and the movie is in the works...
4. The Divorce Papers by Susan Rieger. Les Liaisons Dangereuses is on my list of all-time favourite books and I have always had a soft spot for epistolary novels and their futuristic spawn. Julie Schumacher's Dear Committee Members — another favourite of mine this year — is told entirely through the emails from an ageing university professor who is constantly asked by students, colleagues and rivals for letters of recommendation. The Divorce Papers, meanwhile, is about a young criminal lawyer in a New England law firm who is roped in to handle a divorce case for a rich power couple. Rieger tells the story using emails, memoranda and other work documents written by her young protagonist — who is bright and hard-working, but insecure and occasionally unprofessional — and adds some heft to what could venture into chick-lit territory by including 'real' legal documents from the fictional state of Narragansett. The Divorce Papers really helped to fill my lawyer-envy void while The Good Wife is on hiatus.
5. The Bees by Laline Paull. There are plenty of dystopian young adult novel franchises kicking around at the moment, but Paull's novel adds a creative and well-imagined new dimension to the tiring genre. The Bees tells the story of Flora 717, a young bee assigned to the sanitation caste. She isn't allowed to fly and she certainly isn't allowed to breed, but she has special talents that, if discovered, but her life and the order of the hive in danger. Paull has also clearly done a huge amount of research on her apian protagonists. The book cover endorsement says it best: The Handmaid's Tale meets Watership Down.
As I always find inspiration in other people's end-of-year favourite book lists, I thought I'd also list the five books that didn't quite make the final cut:
- Precious Thing by Colette McBeth. A dark, twisty psychological thriller about a crime reporter and a woman who has gone missing; the pair were close friends when they were younger but drifted apart as their lives diverged.
- A Heart Bent out of Shape by Emylia Hall. The Swiss tourist board should be grateful to Hall, because her novel really made me want to visit Lausanne. Our naïve narrator Hadley is on her year abroad in the Swiss town and forms tentative friendships with fellow student Kristina and her professor, Joel. A Heart Bent out of Shape is beautiful and haunting portrait of love, loss and that fragile period between youth and adulthood.
- We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler. I knew nothing at all about this book when I read it on my iPad — I hadn't looked at the cover or read the blurb — and it is the kind of of novel where you want to avoid spoilers. Suffice to say, Fowler's novel, which tells the story of Rosemary and her unusual and memorable family, is clever, funny and delightful.
- The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. Epic in scale and scope, and beautiful in form, Tartt's novel has earned many plaudits, as well as attracting some detractors. The Goldfinch tells the story of Theo, a young teenager who is left alone after a devastating accident at The Met in New York. There are suspenseful turns, but Tartt often dials down the pace to focus on the detail. Yes, it's long but it's worth the read.
- Quiet by Susan Cain. The only non-fiction work on my longlist, Cain's book is for the introverts out there who would like to be reassured that it's OK to shun a bustling party in favour of a night in reading or spending time with a few close friends. It should also be essential reading for those who believe the only way is extrovert.
My complete 2014 reading list: