Bookhound review of the year 2014

So we're at the beginning of 2015. Where did 2014 go? In some ways it's been a rather more peaceful year for me, and I think this has been reflected in the number of books I've read. Substantially up on the last few years. There's been a fair bit of interaction with authors too, principally on Twitter, which has been very enjoyable. You can follow me on @benregis1.

The "Before I die challenge" prompted me to read 9 books from the list of great fiction, all but one of which were reviewed. Rather than closing the challenge down at the end of the year, I'm going to keep it open and add books to it as and when. It certainly encouraged me to read more widely, even though I sometimes wondered how some of the books had made it onto the list (Cheese, anyone?).

I also finally gave in to e-books, reading my first novel via my android The honourable schoolboy in August. I'm still old-fashioned enough to prefer "proper" books, but acknowledge that there are some advantages to Kindle and its derivatives, not least the sheer number of books you can buy very cheaply. I write this with a rather heavy heart, as I suspect the low cost will eventually impact hugely on the hard copy market. But I also know that the history of publishing has witnessed huge changes from monks in scriptoria to Caxton, and from early moveable type to huge printing presses. This is just the latest change in a long history that has made reading more accessible, and I can certainly raise a glass to that.

I've read 111 books this year, only omitting one for review (the first of a set A dance to the music of time that I was hoping and failed to complete within the year). Of the 111, 38 were old friends, the rest were new reads. 5 were books of short stories, 10 were non-fiction, and humour was rather more in evidence than in past years. I met some great new authors this year. I laughed myself silly with the work of David Sedaris, Ben Hatch and Paul Magrs, and was charmed by Audur Ava Olafsdottir. Of the 111 reads around half (57) were borrowed from libraries. As libraries are increasingly closing or becoming victims of under-staffing and shorter hours, I'm a "typical" example of a library user that still depends on them for much of my reading. Certainly without them I wouldn't have accidentally stumbled upon some of my favourite reads of the year. 

Most of the books were originally written in English although there were translations from a variety of languages including French, German, Icelandic, Russian, Japanese (a rare foray into Oriental crime), Swedish, Hebrew (Amos Oz - my first read that was originally written in Hebrew), Turkish, Flemish (also, I think, my first) and Czech. The diversity of languages owes at least a little to the Before I die challenge.

So to the Bookhound awards for 2014, with awards for Book of the Year, Top Fiction, Non-fiction, New read, Old friend, Crime of the year, Most memorable, The Golden Crutch for the Laughed so hard I nearly ended up in hospital award, and everyone's least favourite Stinker of the year.

Top fiction
So many good books. I finally read the whole of The quest for Karla (Tinker Tailor, The honourable schoolboy, Smiley's peopleby Le Carre, loved Michael Jecks' informative Templar's Acre, and had a surreal experience that prompted me to re-read Day of the triffids. I loved Tess of the D'Urbervilles and had forgotten the sheer hilarity of Lucky Jim. I also loved the gentle writing of Audur Ava Olafsdottir's Butterflies in NovemberOverall though, I think the prize has to go to the magisterial writing of John le Carre. Nobody writes Cold War spy fiction quite like him, and the Karla trilogy is writing at its very best.

Top non-fiction
Just four competitors in the non-fiction stakes this year, two of which were re-reads. The stimulating History of the world in 100 objects, Left for dead, The cruellest miles and Ben Hatch's hilarious Road to Rouen.

And the winner is Neil MacGregor's History of the world in 100 objects. A thought provoking read, if this doesn't make you want to spend hours in the British Museum, nothing will.

New read
As ever there were some great new reads, I loved the previously mentioned History of the world in 100 objects, David Sedaris' writing was a real find, he would be my out-and-out Newly discovered author of the year, while I thoroughly enjoyed two books in which your sympathies towards leading characters shifted and changed as the series progressed - John le Carre's Smiley's people and Hilary Mantel's Bring out the bodies. I also loved the gentle other worldliness of two Nordic writers, Audur Ava Olafsdottir's Butterflies in November, and Tove Jansson's The summer book. My favourite though would have to be David Sedaris' Let's do diabetes with owls, almost unbearably funny.

Old friend
As usual there were a fair number of old friends revisited. Some I loved, some were perhaps not quite as I remembered them. Although I still enjoyed The shooting party, it didn't have quite the impact that it had before, Lucky Jim however still proved to be unbearably funny. The day of the triffids proved to be rather more embedded in my subconscious than I had realised, while the early volumes of David Downing's Station series still compelled though the later volumes were a little disappointing. The winner must be Triffids which gave me one of the oddest experiences of my book-reading life.

Most memorable
It's odd but the books that remain imprinted in your brain are not necessarily the ones that you gave the best reviews to, or indeed are the better books. Some books this year still stand out in my memory, Michael Jecks' fictionalised account of the Siege of Acre Templar's Acre - so imprinted on my mind that I was even able to impress my relatives at Christmas with my knowledge of the siege, quite extraordinary considering that I'd read the book 7 months ago. Also memorable was David Sedaris' Let's do diabetes with owls. I have very little recollection of any of the specifics of the volume, except for a warm glow of enjoyment at reading it. Day of the triffids proved to be memorable for an odd reason catapulting Bookhound into an apocalyptic future while standing in a quiet square in central London. Harpole & Foxberrow warmed a copyright librarian's heart, while Cheese proved to be well past its sell-by date, and was memorable for all the wrong reasons.

And the winner is Templar's Acre, not just a great piece of historical fiction, but an education.

Crime of the year
I don't think I read quite as much crime this year, and it was rather hit and miss. The old favourites such as Dorothy L. Sayers and Agatha Christie were as good as ever, but there were some dreadful new reads. Kingsley Amis' The Riverside Villas murder disappointed, as did the even worse Drood. Three of my favourite reads this year were set abroad, and were all by crime writers previously unknown to me - Mari Jungstedt's Dark Angel, Zoe Ferraris' Saudi-set City of veils, and, the recently read, Through the evil days by Julia Spencer-Fleming. I also loved a newly-discovered (to me) Christie Destination Unknown, even if the premise was batty. And the winner is Through the evil days, classy crime, and a thoroughly enjoyable read.

The golden crutch
It was a year for some brilliantly funny moments from the surreal world of David Sedaris' Let's do diabetes with owls to the problem of zombies and bookshops in Paul Magrs' 666 Charing Cross Road. Then there was Ben Hatch's road trip around France with wife, kids, and smuggled baguettes Road to Rouen, and M.E. Pargeter's affectionate tilt at Boy's Own stories. Honourable mention must also go to Lucky Jim and P.G. Wodehouse. All made me laugh, but the one that nearly landed me in hospital was the very wonderful David Sedaris. Thank you all for making Bookhound very happy this year.

Stinker of the year
Time for the Golden Raspberry of the Bookhound world. There have been some smashing books, but there have been some truly dreadful ones too. How about Cheese, a Flemish comedy about a cheese salesman recommended as one of the books you should read before you die. Reading this stinker death doesn't seem such a bad option! Then there was the increasingly barmy Drood, I wanted to start a libel action on Wilkie Collins' behalf. Proof that even good writers sometimes lose their way could be found in Kingsley Amis' The Riverside Villas murder, I also tried hard to like (but failed) Amos Oz' Black box, another book to read before you die which failed to engage. Three of these novels were so dreadful that it's very hard to draw a loser, but I think it must be Drood, supremely irritating, incredibly silly, and far too long. Is there an editor in the house?

Book of the year
Some great contenders here: Let's do diabetes with owls - a great introduction to the weird hilarious world of David Sedaris, an old friend in Day of the Triffids, Le Carre's brilliant Karla trilogy, the thought provoking History of the world in 1000 objects, and the still hilarious Lucky Jim. And the winner must be Let's do diabetes with owls. For sheer unadulterated pleasure it takes a bit of beating.

May you all have a wonderful 2015, and much reading pleasure this year.


Aarti said…
I have The Shooting Party on my shelf! I am so glad to see it mentioned here, even if it didn't have the same effect on you this time through. It will be my first time, so hopefully it will be impactful for me :-)
Margaret Jones said…
I've loved it every other time I've read it, and I still really liked it, even though as you said it didn't have quite the same impact. Definitely worth reading though. Happy New Year, Aarti!

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