As in 2013, I read 53 books in 2014, and recorded the details on the social bibliographic website LibraryThing. The highlights of my year’s reading are below, and if you have a deep desire to find out everything I read for the year (albeit I didn’t manage this time to review all the books I read) you can check out my 2014 reading thread on LibraryThing.
As you’ll see from the post below, 2014 was the Year of the Memoir for me.
Best book, best non-fiction, best memoir
Clothes. Clothes. Clothes. Music. Music. Music. Boys. Boys. Boys. by Viv Albertine
Here’s what I tweeted when I finished the book:
“Finished superb memoir #clothesmusicboys by @viv_albertine last night. Wonderful book – entertaining, moving, sad, amusing, profound”
And I don’t need to say a lot more – it was really was that good. Viv Albertine was the guitarist of iconic 1970s English punk band The Slits. When that band broke up, she disappeared into a marriage in which her creativity wasted away. This is the story of how she got to that point and how she resumed her creative life after 25 years’ obscurity. It’s also the story of some very bad (and some very good) choices, taken with a fierce commitment to independence, and the emotional price she has had to pay for that independence.
Along the way, there are fascinating portraits of Sid Vicious, John Lydon, Mick Jones, Ari Up and many other famous figures of the punk era; unexpected connections with musicians and actors as diverse as Steve Howe of Yes and Tom Hiddleston; and the voice of a fine storyteller. This is, so far, my favourite book of 2014.
Memoir runners-up (4 of ’em!)
Bedsit Disco Queen by Tracey Thorn
Earlier this year, I read Viv Albertine’s Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys. and enjoyed it very, very much – in fact, it was and remains my favourite book of the year. In reviews and interviews, it was often compared to Tracey Thorn’s Bedsit Disco Queen, so I was keen to read that as well.
And I enjoyed it, but not as much as #clothesmusicboys. Partly that’s because Viv Albertine came of age musically in the 1970s, the same decade in which most of my ongoing music interest began; Tracey Thorne is the best part of a decade younger, and the music genres she has passed through are of less interest to me.
But it’s also because Viv Albertine has led (for both good and ill) quite an extreme life, and her autobiography reflects this – whereas Thorne is a much more reserved and contained character, and so her autobiography is much less dramatic. For all that, it’s still a very worthwhile read.
Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain
The core of this book is Vera Brittain’s account of her service as a nurse during the First World War, during which time she lost her lover, her brother and another close male friend in the fighting. It’s an account that points up the horrible stupidity and futility of that war – men dying in their hundreds of thousands for the sake of a few miles of trench – and of war in general. Not an easy read, but highly recommended.
Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh
If you’ve ever seen the Internet meme that features a half-woman, half-fish hybrid triumphantly holding a broom while saying something like CLEAN ALL THE THINGS!, you owe it to yourself to meet that meme’s originator. This is an autobiography with the emphasis on graphics, as Allie Brosh treats dog ownership, depression, ill-fated family excursions and other rites of passage with strong doses of both humour and common sense, leavened by her amazingly expressive drawings – the people may be stick figures with a hint of the aquarium, but the simple dog and the helper dog come marvellously alive.
Li Na: My Life by Li Na
Li Na, winner of the 2011 French Open and the 2014 Australian Open, is my favourite tennis player – I’m not a huge tennis fan, but I do like her on-court skill, determination and power, and her memorable off-court interviews.
Li Na is a stubborn individualist, and that has frequently led to conflict with the all-encompassing state sports system in which she grew up – conflicts documented in this book. But the core of the book is her relationship with her husband Jiang Shan, a former top Chinese player who gave that up to be the tennis equivalent of Li Na’s caddy – and also, for a time, her coach, something that wasn’t great for her marriage and which they wisely brought to an end.
There are probably stories Li Na could have told about her childhood and her battles with the Chinese tennis authorities that she has chosen not to, but nevertheless, this is an interesting and moving autobiography that you don’t have to be a tennis nut to enjoy.
Other non-fiction runner-up
Dirty Politics by Nicky Hager
Best fiction, best novel
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
“Cloud Atlas” isn’t always an easy read, and it’s rarely a comforting one, but I’m willing to go as far as to say that it’s a great novel. I found some of the multiple storylines, which range from past through present to future and cover a range of genres, easier going than others, but connections between those storylines made the book a satisfying whole. As is often the case with science fiction by authors more strongly associated with literary fiction, the science fiction portions of the book don’t offer anything strikingly new in conceptual terms, but in common with the rest of the novel, they are deeply and densely imagined. If you are prepared to give it time and attention, “Cloud Atlas” offers rich rewards.
Runners-up, best novel
The Summer Book by Tove Jansson
Doctor Sleep by Stephen King
Best short story collections
ShameJoy by Julie Hill
I read ShameJoy on a recent trip from Wellington to Auckland. Reading on planes isn’t usually my thing – I get bored and distracted easily – but that wasn’t the case with ShameJoy – I very much enjoyed both the style and the substance of this book. Julie Hill’s sense of humour and the deftness of her story construction both kept me entertained throughout. Well worth reading!
A Quiet Day and other stories by P. S. Cottier
P.S. Cottier is best known as a poet (and also anthologist – full disclosure: P.S. Cottier and I co-edited The Stars Like Sand: Australian Speculative Poetry.) But this collection shows she’s a very good short story writer as well. What I like best about these stories is the way the contemplative tone which introduces the collection shifts smoothly to accommodate the real and the surreal, the happy and the sad. The combination of restrained style and unexpected content means the reader is never sure which way the stories are going to tip, and that’s a good place for a writer to be.
Best poetry collection
Cinema by Helen Rickerby
Wellington poet Helen Rickerby just keeps getting better. Her best work is moving, funny, and thought-provoking without being “difficult” – and Cinema is full of her best work. This collection is all directly or indirectly about the silver screen. It includes poems about the art-form itself, poems about the effect cinema has had on the poet’s life, and a series of poems about the lives of Helen’s friends as if directed by various famous directors. (I’m still hoping for one about my life as directed by a tag-team of Sofia Coppola and David Lean.) Great stuff!
(Note: I read far fewer poetry collections in 2014 than usual because of all the poetry – not listed here – that I read during the selection process for The Stars Like Sand: Australian Speculative Poetry, but Cinema would have been a highlight in any year. I have a whole bunch of unread collections I plan to get to grips with over the summer holidays.)