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Top 5 books of 2014

I've failed to choose a favourite book of each of the four quarters of 2014 as we did in previous years, in spite of Caro's efforts to stir us into action at the end of March. Never mind. Still, it may be an appropriate time to look back on what we've read in the past year and see if we can remember what we liked. I've had a good year for rereads, but if I eliminate those (which means no Middlemarch or Pale Fire or Master and Margarita) I think my top 5 looks something like this:

The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens
Stoner by John Williams
The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
The Nearest Exit May Be Behind You by S. Bear Bergman

and ... what? Looking back at the books I've read, there are a handful that clearly smote me deeply at the time, though the effect has not lasted -- Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, Muriel Spark's A Far Cry from Kensington, Elinor Lipman's My Latest Grievance. There were five Wodehouses, all of which I loved, and perhaps I ought to go for the pick of those, which was probably Mike. But the one book that has stayed in my memory as a great joy, one I read very early in the year, is Nina Stibbe's memoir about being a nanny in 1980s Camden, Love, Nina: Despatches from Family Life. So that's number five on my list.

How about you?

Read and enjoyed several on your list, Gareth.  Pickwick, Achilles & Exit.
And 'Love Nina', because of its portrayal of the two boys and the drop-in presence of Alan Bennett.

I am only beginning to realise that 2015 has started, but this was an occasion to look back and reflect on what I read in 2014. I think I might steal 'Love, Nina', because, even after almost a year, it still makes me smile. 'Stoner', too, would be an essential: I am amazed that I had never before heard of John Williams, although I must have been in the majority there. Beyond those two, if I discount rereads, which rules out a great deal, from 'War and Peace', to a great deal of Wodehouse, to 'Diary of a Nobody', I think the next of my 5 would have to be 'A Reckoning', by May Sarton. This was rather an unexpected joy, as the subject matter, the attempt of a dying woman to make sense of events and relationships in her life, seemed somewhat unpromising. I only really bought it because I found it in a charity shop and thought it was a book I should have read, but it was, to my surprise, a pleasure to read.

I started reading Trollope's Palliser novels in 2014, and have so far completed the first two, 'Can You Forgive Her?' and 'Phinneas Finn'. I am going to treat those as one, as I am proposing, this year, and maybe next, to read the whole series. Suffice it to say, I feel motivated to continue!

I was at first at a loss as to what I could use as my final choice, but then I remembered 'The Broken Road', the 'sort of' third volume of Patrick Leigh Fermor's account of his youthful walk across Europe. It was not the polished product that I enjoyed in the first two volumes, but, as I had never expected to read any sort of conclusion to the earlier books, it was very satisfying to at least have this to round things off.
Joe McWilliams

Kind of a strange year for me. I read 50 books in 2014, many of them forgettable, because looking at the titles now (I keep a list), I can't remember much about some of them.
In terms of emotional impact, A Long Way Home by Saroo Brierley has to be in my top five, and not because it's particularly well written. It haunts me, even months after I read it.
Arturo Perez-Reverte's 'The Nautical Chart' delighted and thrilled me, upon reflection probably because I was in love with the femme fatale.
Out of Africa, Isak Dinesen's great work is another.
Four and five? The Remains of the Day by Ishiguro and The South, by Colm Toibin.

Honourable mention to Bring Up the Bodies. It was every bit as good, I think, as Wolf Hall, but I guess I'd had enough of it in one book and two was too much.

Hello Joe,
I tend to forget what books I've read so I started a Book Journal about ten years ago. I write about books, fiction, non-fiction etc. plays, essays,  I've read, include transcripts of poems I've liked, etc. I write it on Microsoft Word, incorporate pictures of authors, plays etc from the Internet.  From time to time I print the most recent pages and put them in a binder. I now have four fat folders running to several hundred pages. They make absolutely fascinating reading, and a good reminder of my literary life and developing tastes and enthusiasms.  
Joe McWilliams

Mike, what a nice idea you have there. I thought I was doing well to record the titles of what I've read, but as noted, it doesn't always help me remember. I'm pretty sure I'm too *%$#@ lazy to do anything like what you're doing, as sensible as it sounds.
Who knows, maybe somebody will publish it some day!

I keep a note of what I read, the author, and give it a rating.  Sometimes the rating seems overinflated later, not normally underinflated.

But for my top five, I found I had rated 6 books with my maximum 20.  So starting with the novels and in their probable order:

The Pickwick Papers by Dickens
Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson
Life after Life by Kate Atkinson

Then Walking Home: Travels with a Troubadour on the Pennine Way - Simon Armitage
An Awfully Big Adventure - by Jane Tolerton (oral histories of WWI veterans)

Then honourable mentions to 1812: Napoleon's March on Moscow by Adam Zamoyski and The Lost Pilot by Jeffrey Paparoa Holman (rated 19, but a most interestingly devised book, just dragged a little in places).
I note that three of my four top non-fictions were about war, though all three were of different wars, Napoleonic, WWI and WWII.

My reading in 2014 was distorted as I read all 8 of Simon Gray's biographical works.  I'd certainly place "The Smoking Diaries" among my top 5 reads and possibly "Coda" which despite being about Gray facing up to his terminal illness was not depressing.

My book club reads last year I found disappointing and my two favourites, "The Heart of the Matter" by Graham Greene and "Diary of a Nobody"  by George and Weedon Grossmith, were re-reads.  

The final book in my top 5 would be "Muckraker", the biography of newspaper entrepreneur W.T. Stead by W. Sydney Robinson.  Stead was a fascinating and controversial character and I was slightly disappointed that my review of the book on this board didn't generate more discussion.  I would recommend it as an insight into the development of the press in this country.
mike js

Not being organised like some others, I have to go with memory rather than a careful reading diary for this. Five goodies for me are:

H is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald
Anita, Keith Roberts
The Adjacent, Christopher Priest
City of Ember, Jeanne DuPrau
The Cyberiad, Stanislaw Lem

Regulars may be surprised that I managed as many as five books in a year, but see how diligent I have been in service of the Big Readers!   Very Happy

Good work, Mike Smile

My top five would be:

Herman Melville, Moby Dick

George Orwell, 1984

Knut Hamsun, Hunger

Robert Macfarlane, Mountains of the Mind

Halldor Laxness, The Atom Station

Of the five, Moby Dick was the best.

My Top 5 from last year:

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen
Not sure why I didnít recognise this at my last reading for the towering masterpiece that it clearly is.

Sketches From a Hunterís Album by Ivan Turgenev
I had read a few of these before, but I had never till now attempted the whole set. Turgenevís voice all too easily gets drowned out by his titanic contemporaries and compatriots, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, and thatís a shame: his voice is quiet but firm, humane, and intensely lyrical, and deserves to be heard.

Women in Love by D. H. Lawrence
Another re-read, but this time, I think I caught something of what Lawrence was attempting. †In this and in its predecessor, The Rainbow, Lawrence attempted to depict the intangible and elusive undercurrents of thought, feelings and sensations in our inner lives. I donít find DHL an easy writer either to read or even to like, but itís worth making the attempt, at least, to enter fictional worlds that are essentially alien to oneís sensibilities.

Flashmanís Lady by George Macdonald FraserWe often hear complaints that genre literature isnít taken seriously by the mainstream. I wonder if George Macdonald Fraser minded much. I suppose the Flashman novels are in the ďhistoric adventure storyĒ genre, but frankly, who cares? This is the 6th novel I have read so far in the series, and they are all superb.

King Lear by Oor Wullie I normally try to read a Shakespeare play each month, but one month last year, I read the two texts of Lear separately: one is a revision of the other, and Shakespeare is unlikely to have envisaged performances of conflated versions. The comparison was fascinating.

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