2014 was my most productive reading year. As my library grows at an increasing rate, so must my reading if I’m going to keep up.
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel was the best book I read all year. I read it in two periods over a couple of months. It was impossible to put down. Her writing is immersive and beautiful. Focusing on the rise of Thomas Cromwell in Henry VIII’s court, Mantel delves into the human mind and its frightening capacity for evil, which she finds even in the most innocuous conversation. Written in the third person, Cromwell is the ostensible narrator, simply known to the audience as ‘he’, even if sometimes it is unclear who ‘he’ is. I can’t wait to read the second book in the trilogy, Bringing Up the Bodies.
2014 I was introduced to a couple of well-known British Catholic writers, Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh. Greene was the more arresting character, intensely religious, with a fairly flexible sexual morality. I read two of his books, the Power and the Glory, and the Captain and the Enemy. Both books take you to Latin America. The former set entirely in Mexico. His books are short yet intense, written with a rigid detachment, I look forward to reading more of Greene.
Brideshead Revisited a very famous work by Evelyn Waugh was one of the more enjoyable reads of the year. Waugh is considered a great linguist and I can understand why. His sentences are lucid and flow with ease. His characters are almost Dickensian, yet he imbues them with more depth than Dickens ever did.
Speaking of Dickens, Bleak House was his major contribution to my year. I’d watched the BBC series and felt I had to read the book and like all Dickens books I read, had I not seen the series, I would have been lost. Yet the book is remarkably vivid in its descriptions, a sense of being there in the moment of early 19th century England, not to mention Lady Deadlock who has to be the most fascinating character Dickens ever wrote.
Australian authors also contributed to my year, I read Christopher Koch’s Year of Living Dangerously, about a group of journalists living in Indonesia in 1965 under the anti-western rule of Sukarno. Billy Kwan is the emergent anti-hero, a dwarf, who keeps records of people, eventually attempts to assassinate Sukarno and gets killed in the process.
Eyrie by Tim Winton wasn’t my favourite, evidenced by the fact that it took me a while to finish a fairly easy read. Despite an exciting finish, the book wallows except for a few sentimental scenes between the main character, a disgraced former environmentalist, and his neighbour’s grandson.
One of the more intriguing novels this year was Donna Tart’s Goldfinch which I read at the start of the year. Long and detailed, it’s an absorbing story about a young boy that loses his mother in a terrorist attack at a museum. He steals a painting known as the Goldfinch and the painting serves as a metaphor for the rest of the book as he has difficulty letting go of his mother. It’s a novel that stays with you long after its completion. I expected to read a couple of chapters, yet the writing was so beautiful, I remember staying up till the early morning and having it complete in a couple of days.
Another of hers that I read later in the year was The Secret History. A rather depressing read, about a group of Greek learning university students who decide to kill one of their own. The first line establishes the melancholy, ‘This is the only story I will ever tell’. One thing about Tart to remember, she’s verbose and wants you to know it.
The Book Thief by Marcus Cuzak was the most experimental book I read all year. The narrator is death, rather depressingly, and the narrative focuses on the day to day life of a German family during the Second World War. Its experimental narrative ensures the work isn’t too preachy, yet still manages to get its point across, not to mention it’s extremely depressing ending. A brilliant book.
Robert Galbraith, or should I say JK Rowling debuted a crime novel which I read in 2014. A private investigator with only the one leg, is hired to investigate the death of a model, that police had ruled a suicide, by her brother. It was the most absorbing book I read this year. Like Harry Potter, Rowling has a keen eye for minute detail that slowly, but engagingly builds the story for the reader. The reveal of the murderer at the end was somewhat of a let down, and didn’t make complete sense, yet the process getting there was phenomenal.
From one famous author to another, Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina was a book I just had to read and boy am I glad I read it. I thought it would take me ages but I was wrong, just over a week, it was that difficult to put down.
Tolstoy’s story is dramatic yet filled with moments of realism that force the reader to pause and reflect. For example when Levin finds out that Dolly is sick, he is hunting birds, two fly over his head in that moment and he is distracted by them, before remembering that he was unhappy and why. Tolstoy gets into the minds of all his characters, even a dog at one stage, granting them great depth. I plan on returning to it.
Politics is never too far away and I was very excited when a political thriller from two Australian journalists, Chris Uhlmann and Steve Lewis, whom I admire was released. It’s a sequel to a work they wrote a couple years ago. Titled the Mandarin Code, the work recreates Australian politics with a satirical take that is both hilarious and frighteningly accurate. The book also focuses on the difficult Australian balancing act between China and the U.S. I recommend reading both books. Can’t wait for the third.
Fantasy fiction is a favourite of mine.
I finally began the Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan. The story is engrossing, and certainly worthy, the world loaded with depth and detail, not to mention magic and enchantment. Yet the writing is a let down. Long winded and clunky, the books could be almost half the size with a leaner writer, and be just as good. I hope to have a few more of them finished by the end of the year, after all there are 14 books!
I’m in the process of re-reading the Lord of the Rings, don’t get me started on how much I love Tolkien. It’s even better the second time around.
I read the Da Vinci Code for the first time….the less we say about that the better.
2014 was also the year of non-fiction. There was much Australian non-fiction to enjoy. Paul Kelly’s Triumph and Demise on the six years of Labor was brilliant. A totem on how not to run a government.
John Howard’s the Menzies Era, focusing on the 23 years of Liberal Party rule between 1949-1972, sought to challenge the perception that the Liberals did nothing for the 23 years they were in Government. A brilliant read.
Afternoon Light by Robert Menzies, a book I had to get off Amazon, was something I’d longed to read. In it Menzies articulated his political philosophy and defended his political legacy, notably his contested leadership during the early years of the Second World War. The book proves what an accomplished writer he was.
Menzies appears a fair bit in 2014, a book by his daughter Heather Henderson, focuses on her father’s personality and character. A more intimate and wholistic image of our longest serving Prime Minister is emerging.
Bob Carr’s somewhat controversial, Diary of a Foreign Minister is a very well written insight into what life in Foreign Affairs is like. It also provided an insight into the elitist, yet cunning politician Bob Carr is/was.
Julia Gillard’s My Story was also an important book published this year. Gillard wrote a highly selective account of her Prime Ministership, unable to acknowledge her errors, portraying Kevin Rudd as mentally unstable to justify her move against him. To her credit, most of the book was about policy and the reasons behind her decision making. Unfortunately Gillard was unable to show this as Prime minister.
Another political tome, is He Who Must be Obeid, about Labor powerbroker Eddie Obeid and the trail of corruption he left behind. It’s truly depressing, yet sometimes I got the impression that the writers, notable journalists Kate McGlymont and Lynton Besser, were so keen at portraying Obeid as evil they try and find something wrong in everything he does. Nonetheless Eddie attempted to rig a tender license, of that there could be no doubt.
The centenary anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War was this year and it provided much discussion and publication. I read two books on the reasons behind the war (and countless other articles and watched countless documentaries). It has to be one of the most fascinating periods in history. The first book July 1914: Countdown to War by Sean Mckmeekin provides a day by day recount of the diplomatic wrangles from the assassination of Franz Ferdinand to the final declaration of war between Austria and Russia. It’s intense and detailed, displaying how diplomatic incompetence contributed to the war, especially in Austria-Hungary and the eagerness with which the great powers clung to their alliances.
The superior work is Sleepwalkers by Christopher Clark. It is breathtakingly brilliant and detailed. Shattering illusions about the war, highlighting the role Serbia played and providing a detailed account of the pre-war years. In fact Clark begins the story in 1903, when the Serbian Monarch was overthrown and replaced. He can be a little too pro-German in his analysis. Doesn’t criticise Germany’s decision to invade neutral Belgium enough, almost excusing it as ‘well if they hadn’t, the French would have’. Yet the story provides brilliant analysis and anecdotes of some of the European characters of the time. The most vivid to emerge is Kaiser Whilem II, who Clark portrays as a somewhat childish leader, in constant need of affirmation.
Charles Moore is a prominent conservative commentator in England and was selected by Margaret Thatcher to write her biography. Part 1: Not For Turning, published shortly after her death, is brilliant. Amazingly researched, Moore rises above partisanship and writes with remarkable balance. Provides Thatcher’s early years with skin and bones, explores the shaping of her political philosophies, her unexpected and lucky rise to the top, her economic policies, culminating in England’s victory in the Falklands War. The chapters on the Falklands War are thriller like and the best part of the biography. The chapters on economic reform were too dense for my mind. I await Part 2.
The most moving book I read in 2014, was Dear Leader. A book written by a North Korean deserter Jan Jin-Sung, it details the poverty and oppression of the North Korean state. Some of the chapters on the poverty are heart breaking and stay with you. What elevates this story further, is the fact that Jin-Sung was a senior propagandist for the Kim-Regime. He reveals details about the way the Government functions that until now many western readers would never have known. Ofcourse we cannot know if the details are correct, yet they are impressively detailed and therefore must have some truth.
Here’s to a greater 2015.