Tag Archives: best books of 2014

Best o’ the Year: A Roundup Post

This year has been a good one, reading-wise. Anyone who follows my book reviews (hi, Mum!) will be aware I try to read at least one book a week (usually it’s more than that), and this year I re-read a lot of my old favourites. I had a bit of an Alan Garner-fest, which is never a bad thing, and I revisited A Wrinkle in Time, which was definitely overdue. But, of course, there were some books which stuck out from the rest, and to which I feel I should pay a little homage, now that we’re at the end of the year.

*GIFT IDEA KLAXON*

Photo Credit: DG Jones via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: DG Jones via Compfight cc

My goodness! What a dreadful noise. Anyway. Let’s carry on, shall we?

Of course, I read more books for children and young adults than the average person, and so I’ve divided up my list of ‘Bests’ to reflect that. I’ll take the books I read for adults first, just because.

Most Beautiful Book (for Adults) read this year: The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender, by Leslye Walton. Now, this book was marketed (and I bought it) as a YA story, but I really don’t think it is, actually. I think Ava Lavender is quite definitely a grown-up fairytale about love and loss and mortality, with a beautiful magical-realist feel and a wondrous style all of its own. Plus, that cover. It’s the most beautiful thing, particularly in ‘the flesh’. I urge you to go out to your local bookshop/store/purveyor and just pick up a copy and stroke it. If you don’t want to buy it after that, I despair of you.

Favourite Historical Novel for Adults read this year: Burial Rites, by Hannah Kent. A masterful retelling of the last execution to take place in Iceland, this is a gripping, semi-fictionalised tale which lingered in my mind for weeks.

Best SF/Fantasy Novel for Adults read this year: The Girl with All the Gifts, by M. R. Carey. Chilling, meditative, profound, loving, terrifying and moving – all at the same time – this book took me by surprise. I didn’t expect to love it as much as I did.

Best Literary Fiction of the year: A tie between Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch and Sarah Waters’ The Paying Guests. Two very different books, written by two exceptional authors, I loved both of them (except, perhaps, for the very end of Goldfinch). Books like these make me glad to be a reader.

Now, on to my lists for the younger readers:

Top Idea for a Christmas Gift (or an ‘any time of the year’ gift): Beyond the Stars, edited by Sarah Webb. Twelve amazing stories, all illustrated, and all written by children’s authors at the top of their game, this book is a real treasure. I hope it will feature in many little Christmas stockings this holiday season.

Best YA book read this year: Without a doubt, Louise O’Neill’s stunning début Only Ever Yours. This book left me an emotional wreck, in all the best ways. It’s not only an incredibly accomplished piece of work, but an important story. It needs to be read. I can’t recommend it any more highly. (Also high on this list are Half Bad and The Witch of Salt and Storm, both of which I loved and I’m delighted to have discovered their authors).

Best historical-themed children’s book read this year: This one was a closely drawn contest between Frances Hardinge’s Cuckoo Song and Emma Carroll’s Frost Hollow Hall. I honestly loved them both, but Hardinge just shades it, for me. That’s more to do with the fact that I adore Frances Hardinge in all her incarnations than a criticism of Frost Hollow Hall, which is an amazing book, wonderfully well written. I heartily recommend it. Both these books showed me, as if I needed it proved, that the world of children’s writing is a wide and wondrous one.

Most beautifully written children’s book read this year: Rooftoppers, by Katherine Rundell. I had some tiny quibbles with the plotting in this book, but one thing I can’t fault is the author’s use of language. The book is written so perfectly, with every word judged just right, that it left me in awe.

Favourite ‘classic’ children’s book read this year: Journey to the River Sea, by Eva Ibbotson. As I said in the review I wrote for this book, I can’t quite believe it took me so long to get around to reading Eva Ibbotson, but now that I have, I don’t intend to stop. This is a marvellous book, and would make a beautiful, and treasured, gift.

Most beautiful book of the year: Most beautiful in terms of its production, and its illustrations, and the feel of it in my hand, and the heft of it as an object, was Sally Gardner’s Tinder, illustrated by the incomparable David Roberts. I wasn’t as enamoured with the story as I was with the drawings, but that still hasn’t knocked this book off its top slot as ‘most beautiful’. It truly is a work of art.

And, drumroll please…

My favourite book of the year is The Skull in the Wood, by Sandra Greaves. It was one of the first books I reviewed this year, and I said even then that it would be hard to beat. It wasn’t, of course, published in 2014 but it’s still a ‘new’ book, and if you’re looking for a decently scary, magic-tinged, emotional and exhilarating story, look no further than this book. I loved it.

So, there you have it – the best of what I read in 2014, all totted up for your viewin’ pleasure. I hope, if you’re looking for some bookish gifts, that this list is useful, but even if you’re just looking for suggestions for your next great read (or you’re merely a statistician, coolly collecting votes and numbers), I hope you’ve enjoyed this post. Happy Read-mas!

Book Review Saturday – ‘The Girl with All the Gifts’

I’m going to try – really hard – not to give away the ‘twist’ about this book. Even though I’d guessed it long before I picked it up, and even though it did not spoil my enjoyment of the book in any way whatsoever, I am acutely sensitive that other readers might not feel the same way. So, let’s hope for the best.

(Although, if you don’t know what the twist at the heart of this book is, and you don’t want to have it spoiled for you, do not go to Goodreads. The cat’s not only out of the bag over there, but that ol’ bag’s been ripped to shreds, yo. Be warned).

Image: goodreads.com

Image: goodreads.com

The Girl with All the Gifts was a fast-paced, brain-tingling, heart-wrenching read. I thought it was excellent, from its plot to its characterisation to its deft use of language; however, it was (at times) quite gruesome. Bodily injury is described, surgical procedures are an intrinsic part of the plot, as are medical/biological descriptions, and there is a lot – a lot – of death. This doesn’t bother me (not in books, at least, and particularly not when it’s clearly vital to the story being told), but there are readers for whom it might be a problem. I’m not saying there’s blood spatter on every page (far from it), but the bits that are bloody are quite intense.

In any case, it tells the story of Melanie, who is (we suppose) about eleven. She is a pupil in a school for children who are – like herself – special in some undefined way. Every morning she is awoken by armed guards who strap her into a chair and wheel her into her classroom where she receives lessons from a variety of teachers, her favourite being Miss Justineau. Melanie loves Miss Justineau’s classes; the children learn about history and art and literature and the world when their kind and wise teacher is on duty, and over time Melanie begins to love not just the lessons, but Miss Justineau herself, too. The relationship between pupil and teacher is the primary emotional core of the novel, and it is expertly drawn and very moving. However, as we fall more deeply for Melanie (who would much rather be known as Pandora, the titular ‘girl with all the gifts’), the sheer weirdness of her world begins to hit us harder. It’s difficult to understand why she and her classmates are treated as a mix between geniuses and violent criminals; they don’t seem to be insane, or murderous, or in any way different from a normal bunch of kids going to school. Yet there are armed guards on every corner, and the children are dealt with and spoken to as if they were inmates in a high-security prison. Any hint of affection shown to them is severely punished. Any attempt to treat them like human beings is challenged.

As the story progresses, we begin to learn the truth about what’s going on in this world, and why the soldiers don’t laugh when Melanie jokes, one morning as they strap her into her chair, that she doesn’t bite. We figure out why nobody washes, but why they take chemical showers instead. We put together why the children only eat once a week. We start to work it all out while remembering that we are reading about children, and children we come to love very quickly. Melanie and her classmates get right into your heart, and when two of them are chosen and taken away to a laboratory by Dr Caldwell (incidentally, one of the most compelling and complex characters I’ve read), we feel torn and terrible and distraught even while, on some deep level, we understand why it is being done. It’s not that I agreed with Caldwell’s actions, but I understood her motives and objectives, and that scared me.

Which is, of course, brilliant.

And then the compound on which they all live and work is attacked by vigilantes intent on destroying everything they see, and Melanie – along with Dr Caldwell, Miss Justineau, and a couple of soldiers – escape into the unknown. Into a blasted world which has changed beyond anything we could recognise, a future vision of England many years after a massive, world-changing disaster has happened. Into a world where Melanie is feared by all the adults (even, a little, by Miss Justineau, who also loves her deeply), but where they also understand that she may be their only means of survival.

This book is many things – it’s a road novel, a survival story, a horror story, a beautiful story of love in its many forms, and a bildungsroman, if one can use the term of an eleven-year-old girl. Melanie certainly finds out who she is during the course of the story, and she struggles with that reality. She is the beautiful heart of the tale, and her innocent love for Miss Justineau, her desire to learn, her innate goodness and curiosity, are such a spectacular counterpoint to the reality in which she lives that it drives the whole book. The characters are rich and complex (though Miss Justineau reveals a dark secret about herself near the end of the book which I felt was a bit unnecessary; she was nuanced enough, in my opinion), and every one of them is believable and rounded and accomplished. The dialogue and setting are perfect – just close enough to home to be familiar, and just different enough to be horrifying – and the book plays with expectation and convention to excellent effect. It takes a trope with which we’re all familiar and makes something so new, and so fascinating, out of it that it practically reinvents the mythology. (Speaking of mythology, it also utilises Greco-Roman myths beautifully, tying in with the title in a very pleasing way).

And then there’s the ending, which is perfect. It’s not often you come across an ending which is so cleanly done that it squeaks, but this one does. It’s not what I expected, and it’s not what I hoped for, but it’s absolutely the right ending for this story.

So. This isn’t a book for kids, and it’s not a book for people who find it hard to sleep if they’ve read something scary, and it’s not a book for people who are able to put down a story mid-way through because they’ve to go do something silly like make dinner, or whatever. Block out the time you need to read this, and immerse yourself in it. It’s worth it. It’s one of the best books I’ve read this or any year, and if you like your books thoughtful, challenging, moving and just a little bit weird, then this is the one for you.