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31 December 2014

My Top 5 Books of 2014

People sometimes ask me if I have considered doing the read-one-book-per-week project, but I've always overachieved on that front and in 2014 I read almost three books per week — and although there are a couple of novellas in the list, I also read five books from George R.R. Martin's A Song of Fire and Ice series, so I've racked up a decent page count. Although I still prefer to read real, physical books, I got an iPad Mini for my birthday last year and the convenience of having numerous e-books at my fingertips won me over in the end; my heaving bookshelves also approve.

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:



  • The Outline of Love — Morgan McCarthy
  • Lush Life — Richard Price
  • The Centenary of the Crossword — John Halpern
  • Two Girls, One on Each Knee (7) — Alan Connor
  • Entombed — Linda Fairstein
  • Lipstick Jungle — Candace Bushnell
  • First Novel — Nicholas Royle
  • — Marjorie Celona
  • The Sealed Letter — Emma Donoghue
  • The Interestings — Meg Wolitzer
  • Sisterland — Curtis Sittenfeld
  • The Wolf of Wall Street — Jordan Belfort
  • Lionheart — Sharon Penman
  • Crazy Rich Asians — Kevin Kwan
  • The Smartest Kids in the World — Amanda Ripley
  • Precious Thing — Colette McBeth
  • Tampa — Alissa Nutting
  • The Art of Fielding — Chad Harbach
  • The Gods of Guilt — Michael Connelly
  • The Deadhouse — Linda Fairstein
  • Heresy — SJ Parris
  • The Woman Upstairs — Claire Messud
  • The Book Thief — Markus Zusak
  • The Life of Pi — Yann Martel
  • Death Angel — Linda Fairstein
  • American Dream Machine  Matthew Specktor
  • The Liars' Club — Mary Kerr
  • Think Twice — Lisa Scottoline
  • Reconstructing Amelia — Kimberly McCreight
  • The House Girl — Tara Conklin
  • Cutting for Stone — Abraham Verghese
  • Angela's Ashes — Frank McCourt
  • Lemon Grove — Helen Walsh
  • The Next Time You See Me — Holly Goddard Jones
  • A Thousand Pardons — Jonathan Dee
  • Six Years — Harlan Coben
  • The Monuments Men — Robert Edsel
  • Sycamore Row — John Grisham
  • The Goldfinch — Donna Tartt
  • Season To Taste — Natalie Young
  • A Heart Bent out of Shape — Emylia Hall
  • We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves —  Karen Joy Fowler
  • Winter's Tale — Mark Helprin
  • Be Careful What You Wish for — Jeffrey Archer
  • Prayers for the Stolen — Jennifer Clement
  • A Delicate Truth — John Le Carré
  • One Step Too Far — Tina Seskis
  • A Game of Thrones — George R.R. Martin
  • A Clash of Kings — George R.R. Martin
  • Thinking, Fast and Slow — Daniel Kahneman
  • The Lost Child of Philomena Lee — Martin Sixsmith
  • A Storm of Swords — George R.R. Martin
  • Thursday's Children — Nicci French
  • Think Like a Freak — Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner
  • Beautiful Ruins — Jess Walter
  • David and Goliath — Malcolm Gladwell
  • Quiet — Susan Cain
  • The Circle — Dave Eggers
  • Paris — Edward Rutherfurd
  • The Invention of Wings — Sue Monk Kidd
  • Bittersweet — Miranda Beverly-Whittemore
  • The Fever — Megan AbbottThe Village — Nikita Lalwani
  • A Serpentine Affair — Tina Seskis
  • The Rosie Project — Graeme Simsion
  • The Fault in Our Stars — John Green
  • & Sons — David Gilbert
  • The Husband's Secret — Liane Moriarty
  • The Hurricane Sisters — Dorothea Benton Frank
  • Orphan Train — Christina Baker Kline
  • The Bean Trees — Barbara Kingsolver
  • Midnight in Europe — Alan Furst
  • Divergent — Veronica Roth
  • Insurgent — Veronica Roth
  • Allegiant — Veronica Roth
  • Terms & Conditions — Robert Glancy
  • Bonita Avenue — Peter Buwalda
  • Friendship — Emily Gould
  • Meeting the English — Kate Clanchy
  • The Marriage Game — Alison Weir
  • The Bees — Laline Paull
  • The Vacationers — Emma Straub
  • Sharp Objects — Gillian Flynn
  • To Rise Again at a Decent Hour — Joshua Ferris
  • Mambo in Chinatown — Jean Kwok
  • Euphoria — Lily King 
  • Above — Isla Morley
  • A Feast for Crows — George R.R. Martin
  • The King's Curse — Philippa Gregory
  • Seating Arrangements — Maggie Shipstead
  • The Aftermath — Rhidian Brook
  • Panic — Lauren Oliver
  • Ciao, America! — Beppe Severgnini
  • The One & Only — Emily Giffin
  • Big Little Lies — Liane Moriarty
  • Americanah — Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  • All Fall Down — Jennifer Weiner
  • A Dance with Dragons — George R.R. Martin
  • My Brilliant Friend — Elena Ferrante
  • The Last Magazine — Michael Hastings
  • The Sense of Style — Steven Pinker
  • Arts & Entertainment — Christopher Beha
  • NW — Zadie Smith
  • Stuff Matters — Mark Miodownik
  • Station Eleven — Emily St John Mandel
  • A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing — Eimear McBride
  • Brain on Fire — Susannah Cahalan
  • The Company — Robert Littell
  • Us — David Nicholls
  • Gulp — Mary Roach
  • The Paying Guests — Sarah Waters
  • Lamentation — CJ Sansom
  • Some Luck — Jane Smiley
  • Serving the Reich — Phil Ball
  • Gray Mountain — John Grisham
  • The Children Act — Ian McEwan
  • The Edge of Eternity — Ken Follett
  • Pillars of the Earth — Ken Follett
  • We Were Liars — E. Lockhart
  • The Story of a New Name — Elena Ferrante
  • The Secret Place — Tana French
  • The Promise — Ann Weisgarber
  • Dear Committee Members — Julie Schumacher
  • The Splendid Things We Planned — Blake Bailey
  • Elizabeth Is Missing — Emma Healey
  • On Such a Full Sea — Chang-Rae Lee
  • Dear Daughter — Elizabeth Little
  • Hatchet Job — Mark Kermode
  • Lila — Marilynne Robinson
  • The Divorce Papers — Susan Rieger
  • Leaving Time — Jodi Picoult



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