books of 2014

my favourite reads of 2014

I think it's now well and truly embarrassing to have anything with 2014 in the title of a blog post.....but despite that, I wanted to share my favourite reads of last year with you. It's become a bit of a tradition that a few readers look forward to, so here you go, with apologies for my extreme tardiness! (though I have had an excuse).

I read some amazing books last year and I couldn't possibly just pick 10 to tell you about, as I did in previous years. So here were my favourites of the 94 (!) books I read last year, in no particular order:

That's 22 - must be a new record of some kind for me - but 2014 was a great reading year. Some of those books were newly published but others had been around for some time and I only just discovered them. Some were Australian books published a few years previously that finally made their way to the UK, to my great joy. Some I sought out, thanks to recommendations on social media or podcasts, others I happened upon by  accident (always wonderful). 

Last year was also a year I tried to find my own voice again, to face a few demons, think about what I wanted to do next and just chill out and enjoy life for a while, rather than worrying about goals and progress and every bloody thing needing to be an achievement. My reading reflected that, I think.

So rather than offer individual reviews on every book, as we'll be here all day, I thought I'd categorise them based on the big themes of my life last year and share some thoughts that way. Here goes:

Letting go

My word for 2014 was release and boy did that sum up last year for me. We sold our place out in the country, moved back to London, I went back to full time work after a few years of freelancing, and I let go of a lot of stuff I realised I was still holding on to - not because I longed for those days again (far from it) but because I was using a few scars from the past as an excuse to stay small and think small.

There was a massive clear-out of physical stuff from the move, there was a bonfire on the night of a new moon where I wrote letters that needed to be written and then burned them, and there was a massive shift in my thinking that was a long time coming. And it was funny how once I released the old shit, some new exciting stuff came right in.

The books I found wonderful companions for this aspect of life last year were Daring Greatly and The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown and The Great Failure by Natalie Goldberg. All three of these books are very much centred around letting go of what you think you know, what you believe about yourself and allowing yourself to live consciously and wholeheartedly, embracing the supposed failures (because what is failure, really? Who gets to decide?). They are highly recommended if you want some clarity and a kind, wise voice to cut through the crap that you tell yourself, the crap that keeps you small and afraid to shine. 

Creating a voice

At the start of 2014, I wanted to reconnect with my creativity and immerse myself in a writing practice again. I wanted to find my voice again (I wasn't sure where I'd put it) and it was during 2014 that I realised that a voice wasn't something you found, it was something you created. "Art is craft, not inspiration," said Stephen Sondheim

And so 2014 involved returning to my roots, as it were, with a lot of journalling, a lot of poetry (a form I hadn't written in since 2008), and committing to a regular writing practice. My husband Tom and I started getting up early and writing (or drawing in his case) before work. It felt important to begin our days with what mattered most to us, instead of scrambling around trying to find time for it in the evenings when we were exhausted. It changed my mindset entirely.

I have piles of notebooks that I crammed full last year with my writing practice. Most of it is unreadable as I was trying not to think while I wrote (and it shows). But I've kept them as testament to what I learned - that showing up and doing it every day is important.

While I was working hard, I also completely let go of any expectations. I put my novel that I'd been working on since 2010 in a drawer. I decided that the practice and the work was the most important thing, rather than the external validation I had been seeking for some time. As with the first theme above, I simply let go

The books that really fired me up, got me thinking about my work and practice in a new way or that were simply volumes of kind wisdom and instant inspiration were: 

Still Writing in particular was the most wonderful volume of inspiration and I highly recommend it to all you writers out there.  Dani Shapiro's memoir Devotion was also a very moving read, as were At Home In The World by Joyce Maynard and My Madder Fatter Diary by Rae Earl. All three lingered long in the memory and really helped me think about how I wanted to tell my own story. All of them involved exposure of some kind and a willingness to be vulnerable and brave, as their stories didn't necessarily cast other players in the best light. I learned a great deal from reading them, pulling them apart and seeing how the stories were put together. 

Fun and escapism

Reading remains one of the greatest pleasures in my life. I love losing myself in a good book, whether it's in a park on a sunny day or in front of the fire on a freezing wintry afternoon. You know you're reading a good book when you're happy your train is delayed or stuck in a tunnel so you can stay and read a little bit longer! 

Seeing how magical the works of other writers are gives me so much energy and much to aspire to. I am in awe of how they create their believable and compelling characters, enthralling storylines, delicious just-enough details, and worlds that are a joy to be lost in, even if it's just the minutes snatched on the commute each day.

The Narrow Road To The Deep North by Richard Flanagan was the best novel I read last year. I had been dying to read it ever since listening to this magical interview with him (Aussie expats, subscribe to the podcast - it's like a little taste of home each week) in 2013. It's one of those books that overwhelms with beauty and horror at the same time - there were times when I had to put the book down and come back to it later. Nearly a year after reading it, there are still moments of it I remember vividly. It examines some of the really big questions - what does it mean to be a good person; how do you go back to normal life after witnessing horror and trauma - and it is also a quite beautiful love story. It's deeply moving, like most of Richard Flanagan's work, and I highly recommend it. 

Shiver is the first novel of one of my most favourite writers in the world, Nikki Gemmell (who I interviewed here), and even though I remember my mum buying it when it first came out in 1997 and I've read every by-line of Nikki's since, I had not yet read this one, the novel Nikki has described herself as her most autobiographical.  I felt like I had taken a trip to Antarctica myself, such was the poetic and vivid nature of the story. And you might think Antarctica as an unlikely setting for a steamy, all-consuming romance but it works - the extreme nature of the environment matches up brilliantly with what's going on for the characters. I really loved it. 

The Engagements by J.Courtney Sullivan was a novel I found in my local Red Cross bookshop and it piqued my interest having seen it reviewed as a "must read" of last spring. I found it enthralling - five characters, separated in time, narrate the novel and each storyline shines a light on some facet of love, marriage, dreams, betrayal and commitment. One character, however, is not fictional - Mary Frances Gerety, who was a copywriter in the late 1940s and came up with the slogan "a diamond is forever" for DeBeers, hence creating the "tradition" of a diamond engagement ring. She, however, never married. The other four characters' storylines are post 1940s and Sullivan considers how the "diamond is forever" idea impacted their beliefs about love and commitment. It's very clever and perceptive, the perfect antidote to the "Don't Tell The Bride" (a show I actually guiltily enjoy!) age. 

The Tea Chest by Josephine Moon was a new book from Oz I couldn't wait to get my hands on - it follows the story of an Australian woman who moves to London to open a tea shop, and the lives of various other women she encounters to help her make this dream a reality. All of the women have their own demons to battle and the story ultimately is about resilience, following your dreams and trusting yourself. Spilt Milk by Amanda Hodgkinson was a magical book, a wonderful piece of historical fiction that had me spellbound to the end;  Glaciers by Alexis M. Smith was a novella that takes place over one day in the life of an ordinary girl who works in a city library, but so beautifully written it read like a long poem; and Foal's Bread by Gillian Mears was a slice of home, a haunting and evocative story of loss and hardship in country New South Wales from the 1920s through to the 1950s. I found it difficult to read at times but the storytelling was so powerful and the characters so resilient despite all the tragedy and loss surrounding them. 

An endless appetite

Cookbooks are a huge weakness of mine as they combine two of the greatest loves in my life - food and reading! Plenty More by Yotam Ottolenghi was my Christmas present from Tom and I read the whole thing in one day, having earmarked every recipe I wanted to try (I cooked the tagliatelle with walnuts for New Years Eve dinner; and the chickpea and bulgur wheat soup was a favourite winter meal). As with every Ottolenghi cookbook, the recipes celebrate vegetables in all their glory and give you lots of ideas for new flavour combinations.  English Food by Jane Grigson was another charity shop discovery and proved utterly delightful - I loved the history of England told through its traditional recipes and what is still considered "English food" today.  I love the way Grigson writes, she was one of my discoveries of 2014, for sure. 

I Quit Sugar For Life by Sarah Wilson was another favourite 2014 foodie read - Tom and I "quit" sugar in 2013 and the way we eat, and hence our lives, have been transformed. I had followed Sarah's tips and recipes via her wonderful website but had never read one of her books until they became available in the UK last year (I even met her at the London launch!). I loved IQS For Life - it's accessible, generous and delicious, filled with all sorts of ideas and tips for living the healthiest, most empowered and fulfilling life possible. I know firsthand how transformative it is when you take control of your health and make it a priority to nourish yourself properly, and not just with food.

But my favourite foodie read of 2014 has to go to Love and Hunger by Charlotte Wood, which is a wonderful collection of essays about food, cooking, sharing meals with friends and family, the psychology of eating, how food can soothe and comfort. Her observations are warm and witty, and the recipes are fantastic too. Part memoir, part cookbook, this is a food lover's delight.

Phew....we got there eventually! And now it's almost time to tell you my favourite reads for 2015!

What have you been reading lately? 

Full disclosure and all that, most of the links above are Amazon affiliated, you know the drill! xx