Rags-to-riches tales, gothic stories of forbidden passion, mesmerising cross-cultural novels and smart, snappy beach reads… Our pick of ten of the best books from 2014.
Having not been particularly enthused about reading this, it turned out to be one of the best books I’ve read all year. Ifemelu, an ambitious, intellectual Nigerian woman moves to America, and discovers it’s not quite the paradise she had been led to believe. The book skips between her time in the States as an adult immigrant, her adolescence in Africa and her subsequent return to a changed country, as well as delving into what happened to the boy she left behind. Adichie peppers the story with extracts from Ifemelu’s blog, meditating on the politics of race in the US as compared to Nigeria, but strikes a perfect balance between serious and soapy. I couldn’t put it down.
Is it ever a good idea to go on a summer holiday to a remote Majorcan villa with your family, especially when the party includes adult children and a girlfriend nobody is quite sure about? Probably not, especially if a marriage is crumbling at the same time. Emma Straub’s novel, which is full of cutting descriptions and tightly-drawn characters, from the fitness fanatic to the self-aware teenage daughter and the satisfied matriarch at the centre, is engaging from start to finish. Everyone behaves disgracefully. Lots happens, but not much changes. The summer stretches out, and then it ends. A beach read, but smarter and funnier than your average.
One of the first American novels to be shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, this quirky story didn’t take the trophy but it’s still worth a look. To say much about the plot would be to spoil it, but keep reading beyond the first few chapters to have all your expectations about the plot upended. The book begins with the protagonist Rosemary starting to talk about her early life and the conflict with her sister Fern – but how accurate are her memories anyway? A novel to make you think.
It may be December, but why not dream of the beach? In a past-it Long Island town, 18-year-old Katie and her peers are whiling away the weeks, drinking and smoking too much, getting by in dead-end jobs, and sleeping with the wrong people. Vietnam is blazing and America is bitterly divided, while for the young people in the deteriorating ‘Trunk’ district, prospects are few and hopes of escape are limited. Meanwhile the idealistic Katie is drawn to a handsome local boy, recently returned from the war and struggling to readjust, as well as to another veteran; the acerbic, alcoholic and insightful Mitch. Not much happens, but the rambling stories of minor and major characters are gratifyingly compelling. A memorable first novel from Chicurel.
No, this is not Romeo and Juliet by a different name. But set in the Middle East between the 1940s to the early 1990s, it is a tale of love crossing a significant divide. Jude is a British Jew, drawn against her better judgment to a Muslim man called Ishmael, born in the ancient city of Jaffa shortly before Israel’s independence was declared. Hajaj is adept at navigating the sensitivities of an age-old conflict without resorting to cliché, drawing heavily on her own experiences. She brings to life the smells and sounds of the Middle East and the injustices and tragedies on both sides, while simultaneously painting a portrait of a very extraordinary family. Absolutely mesmerising
It’s about the undead, but don’t let that put you off. Owen’s debut is no Twilight knock-off, despite the author having once penned fan fiction. A tale of forbidden passion and Victorian social norms, it reminded me more of the magical Night Circus, which was a hit a few years ago. The Quick imagines a world where vampires – just like humans – are bound by class, and stalk not just the streets but the halls of a posh gentleman’s club. Owen incorporates many of the classic tropes of the gothic genre, from moody lamp-lit streets to ruthless urchins and inquisitive foreign travellers, switching between narrators and interspersing diary entries and other correspondence. Her characters sit just on the right side of caricature, from the self-important scientist Augustus Mould to the bon vivant Christopher Paige. The final pages will leave you with shivers down your spine. Intelligent, and also enormous fun.
As good as One Day? Well no, because the formula isn’t quite as original the second time around, and Douglas and Connie aren’t quite as memorable as the ill-fated Dex and Em. This time, Nicholls focuses on what happens following the happily ever after, looking at run-of-the-mill couple Connie and Douglas’ marriage 20-odd years down the line. We join them on a long-planned but rather joyless trip around Europe with their grating teenage son Albie. As we move from city to city, and the holiday descends into the kind of farcical disaster that only ever transpires in fiction, Douglas looks back on how he met his wife, and how their relationship progressed from day one. Highly readable, if not Nicholls’ finest.
A Second World War novel, but far from being a clichéd tale of virtuous folk coming together to keep calm and carry on. Vee Sedge is a low-level con artist; Noel is the amusingly wise but also naive evacuee she reluctantly takes in when the Blitz begins. Eventually, with bombs falling on the capital, both become reconciled to their new living arrangements and embark on a rather madcap adventure. It could be trite, given the subject matter, but Lissa Evans is talented enough to make it funny, sweet and utterly heart-warming.
The rags-to-riches, ‘living the American dream’ tale has been told many times, but rarely with such a memorable heroine. Lillian Dunkle is every eccentric millionairess rolled into one, splurging her wealth, making unreasonable demands, drowning her sorrows and generally wreaking havoc everywhere. But Lillian is by no means a diva without a cause. As she recounts her experiences as a child immigrant to America, living in the tenements and building herself up one ice cream cone at a time, her foibles become if not forgivable, at least understandable.
Apart from wishing that it came with its own country-music soundtrack album, this a gem of a book that is – quite sensibly – set to be made into a film. A group of friends from a middle-of-nowhere American town are reunited for a wedding, setting them off on a dangerous meander down memory lane. One is now a famous country star, refreshingly down-to-earth despite his success; but others in his old gang stayed put and live far more unremarkable lives. Old rivalries and romances come to the fore, a hell of a lot of beer is drunk, and more than a few punches are thrown. You’ll be itching to sing along.