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

my favourite reads of 2013

According to my Goodreads profile, I read an eye-watering 103 books in 2013. I'm glad that my long commute is being put to good use!

There were so many standout books from my reading list. I've tried to narrow it down to a Top 10 but I just couldn't! 2013 was a stellar year for my reading life. Some books were fresh off the press, others had been around for a while and I discovered them for the first time. I'm so glad I did.

So, without further ado. I thoroughly recommend these great reads. 

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Were I the type to get girl crushes, this would be one of those scenarios. Not only is Hannah Kent a very talented young writer but she’s also gorgeous and got a lovely personality as well….don’t you just hate that?! I was lucky enough to interview Hannah for my podcast when she visited London in September last year and you can hear about chat here.

Burial Rites is Hannah’s first novel and has been published to great acclaim. It captures the dark and oppressive yet startlingly beautiful and evocative Icelandic landscape with the impending execution of a possibly innocent woman in the background. It feels strange to call it a beautiful book when the subject matter is so dark…but it touches on so many aspects of human nature, truth, survival and how others perceive us versus who we know ourselves to be that you can’t fail to be moved by it. It has stayed with me ever since turning the final page. Highly recommended.

All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld

In a similar camp to Burial Rites, Evie Wyld’s second novel also focuses on a female character who is very much an outsider. Not your typical heroine, Jake Whyte is a sheep farmer, physically strong, emotionally scarred and has every reason to keep herself hidden from the world. Quiet yet menacing, it challenges you in terms of what roles you expect men and women to fall into – both in fiction and in real life – and the writing is so incredibly beautiful. I loved the way the narrative is structured – there is a present day narrative with details of Jake’s quite deliberately lonely life on an English island, and the other is a rewind through her troubled past in Australia, with everything happening in reverse chronological order. Sounds complicated, but it’s so compelling. Highly recommended, particularly for a dark and stormy night!

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed

I’ve wanted to read this book for ages, ever since I discovered Strayed’s wonderful advice column Dear Sugar and the book that resulted. This is Strayed’s own heroes journey, a solo hike on the Pacific Crest Trail after her mother died of cancer and her first marriage broke down when she was only in her early twenties. A painful journey in both the physical and emotional sense as she conquers her demons and lays a few ghosts to rest, the reader is at Strayed’s side every step, barefoot or otherwise (!), of the way as she accepts, embraces and finally lets go of the past and is profoundly changed by the end, ready for her next chapter. A real book for the soul, this one.

Like A House On Fire by Cate Kennedy

I’ve really got into short stories over the past few years and quite a few collections have come out of Australia in that time that have been rather phenomenal. I really loved this collection by Kennedy, the first book of hers that I’ve read. Loss and lack are the key themes here, whether it’s loss of a partner, a job, an old way of life or innocence. Like life, the stories have their ups and downs and don’t always have neat endings. But Kennedy’s writing is perceptive and compelling, with the characters leaping to life from the page, making the reader wince at times with recognition – always the hallmark of a good book for me.

Heartburn by Nora Ephron

I’ve wanted to read this for years and can’t believe I waited so long for it – but it was worth the wait. Funny, heartbreaking, bittersweet and mouthwatering all at once, Heartburn is the tale of a woman scorned – Rachel is seven months pregnant and discovers that her husband Mark is in love with another woman. In between plotting revenge and trying to win Mark back, Rachel shares her favourite recipes. So it was a mixture of my two favourite genres really!  Ephron, who passed away in 2012, made no secret that Heartburn is based on the breakdown of her second marriage in the same circumstances. “I knew the moment my marriage ended that someday it might make a book – if I could just stop crying,” says Ephron in my edition’s introduction. “One of the things I’m proudest of is that I managed to convert an event that seemed to me hideously tragic at the time to a comedy – and if that’s not fiction, I don’t know what is.” Me too, Nora. Me too. I found this book incredibly relatable on so many levels and if you’re a fan of Ephron’s movies (Sleepless in Seattle, You’ve Got Mail, Julie and Julia) you’ll love this book.

Cargo by Jessica Au

With sensory and vivid prose, this novel transports you to a seaside Australian town in 1992 and into the lives of three teenagers from various walks of life, each with different demons to battle. But what unites the three stories is not just the fact they overlap (which is done very well) but also the themes of adolescence that each of the protagonists grapple with – love, burgeoning sexuality, independence, freedom and a growing awareness of who they are and their place in the world. It is beautifully written and evoked memories of all the tartan shirts, Frozen Cokes, Doc Martens, swimming at the beach and watching Home and Away every night that typified my own pre-teen existence in Australia circa 1992.

Dearest Rose by Rowan Coleman

My first read of Rowan Coleman and it won’t be my last. I had heard great things about this novel – in fact it won Best Epic Romantic Novel at the 2013 RoNAs – and it didn’t disappoint. The novel opens with Rose and her seven year old daughter arriving at a B&B in the depths of Cumbria in the middle of the night, much to the chagrin of the landlady. The novel unfolds with the tale of what led Rose to that point, interspersed with how she goes about rebuilding her life in the present, with some funny but also heartbreaking moments, culminating in the novel’s truly horrifying climax. Rowan Coleman really doesn’t shy away from revealing the darkest, ugliest parts of abusive relationships and for that she is to be congratulated. It was such a compelling read. Have some tissues handy.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

Recently retired and emotionally numb Harold Fry is jolted out of his plain, dry, white-bread existence one day with the arrival of a letter from a former colleague who is dying. He responds to the letter and goes out to post it. Instead of putting it in the mailbox, he keeps walking, to the other end of UK, to deliver the letter in person, convinced by doing so he may save his dying friend. As he walks, Harold reflects on the events of his life, all the while having to deal with the reactions of his wife, friends, neighbours and total strangers to his “unlikely pilgrimage”!  The journey forces him to confront painful memories of the past he has kept hidden so he can “keep calm and carry on” as so many people do. A story about the courage to move forward in life, to find your way back to what really matters. Absolutely wonderfully written, I couldn’t put it down.

Limoncello and Linen Water by Tessa Kiros

I don’t think Tessa Kiros is capable of writing a book that isn’t evocative, exquisitely styled and photographed, and sumptuously written. This one is a tribute to the Italian women in Kiros’ life and the life lessons and wisdom she has gleaned from them, some domestic, others more profound. The recipes too are amazing, particularly Marisa’s potatoes with breadcrumbs.

The House We Grew Up In by Lisa Jewell

This is Lisa Jewell at her radiant, sparkling best. Engrossing, real and heartbreaking stuff - this book is about the Bird family and the fallout of a tragic event that takes place one Easter Sunday and reverberates through their lives for decades. A must for any Lisa Jewell fans and a wonderful introduction to her writing for new readers.

The Secret Lives of Men by Georgia Blain

Another wonderful short story collection by an Australian writer I'd not read before. I really enjoy stories that are slices of life, so to speak, that quietly and thoughtfully evoke daily life and its various struggles. In this collection, Blain skilfully and compellingly draws characters who examine their motivations, their behaviour in the present and the past, their longings and their failures. The stories are deceptively simple, the prose is stark and evocative and the effect is lingering. The minute I finished the book I wanted to read it again. One to keep on a shelf within easy reach.

By the Book: A Reader's Guide To Life by Ramona Koval

Interviewing Ramona Koval while I was in Melbourne last year was one of the highlights of my career to date. She is a warm, funny and generous woman and reading this book is like having her right in front of you, telling you about her favourite books and their effect on her through her life. This book is such a treat for people who love books – you’ll be nodding and smiling in recognition at mutual favourites, scribbling down titles (or checking the handy index at the end) of books to seek out and read, or most likely both.

Honestly: Notes on Life by Nikki Gemmell

I would buy a book about paint drying if it had Nikki Gemmell’s name on the front cover. She never disappoints me. This is a collection of her non-fiction, a series of columns she writes each week for The Weekend Australian about whatever’s on her mind – be it something small like the joy of a handwritten letter or some of the bigger questions in life. Frank, uplifting, reassuring and always beautifully written in her trademark lyrical style, this is one to savour.

Leftovers by Stella Newman

Stella is one of the funniest writers I know and after her very readable debut Pear Shaped, I was so excited about reading this one. Susie Rosen is, according to a magazine article she stumbles upon, a ‘Leftover’ – a post Bridget-Jones 30 something who has neither her dream man, job, nor home. According to her friends, Susie just needs to get over her ex and start online dating. But Susie’s got another plan. She’s holding out for a promotion and bonus at her ghastly job in advertising and once that happens she can finally quit and pursue her dream career in food, then surely everything else will fall into place. But of course, it’s not that simple!  This is a funny, relatable, well-written and heartfelt book about making things happen for yourself, as tempting as it is to wait for “one day”. Not a typical romance at all and a very empowering ending. I loved it!

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

I adored this book and became truly enchanted by all the characters, particularly Don Tillman, the quirky protagonist who is an Asperger’s sufferer, a professor of genetics at Melbourne university and a stickler for routine. He decides he’s going to get married but without a suitable contender in the picture as yet, embarks on The Wife Project to find his perfect woman. The Wife Project becomes The Rosie Project when Don pauses his search for a wife and decides to help an acquaintance find her real father instead. It’s absolutely hilarious, heart-warming and a reminder that love will usually find you when you least expect it. Highly recommended.

The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton

Seeing the name Kate Morton on a book cover to me says “guaranteed page turner” and this one was no exception. In fact, I think this is my favourite of all her books. I won’t spoil the plot for you (!) – all I will say is that if you like romantic family sagas with a gasp-out-loud-on-the-train twist, you’ll really enjoy this.

The Light Between Oceans by M.L Stedman

This was an exquisite book and one I’m still thinking about, a year later. The dust jacket foretells…”this is a story about right and wrong, and how sometimes they look the same.” Very true.

After surviving the brutality of the First World War, Tom and his new wife Isabel begin their life together on an isolated island off the coast of Western Australia where Tom has a job as the lighthouse keeper. Isabel suffers some tragic miscarriages and a still birth and sinks deep into grief. One day, she hears a baby crying. She and Tom discover a boat washed ashore on the island, with a dead man and a live baby inside. Tom, whose moral code was only strengthened after witnessing the horrors of war, wants to report this immediately, but Isabel has already taken to the baby and pleads with him to let them keep her and pass her off as their own child. Against Tom’s better judgement, he eventually agrees.

Some years later, they return to the mainland with their daughter and come to realise that their decision to keep the baby and raise her as their own has come at a great cost to someone else in the town. Will they continue to keep the secret?

This is an incredible book, absolutely unforgettable and very moving. Having written this, a year on, I’m going to read it again! I’d recommend having tissues close by for this one as well.

Lighter Than My Shadow by Katie Green

This long-awaited graphic memoir from illustrator Katie Green was one of the highlights of my reading year. The emotional effort it must have taken to draw her harrowing story must have been enormous. I’m sure I’m not the only one who is glad she did.

Lighter Than My Shadow is Katie’s story of her struggle with and recovery from anorexia nervosa, with the added trauma of sexual abuse during her recovery. Both taboo subjects, Katie never shies away from the struggles she endured and the story is told beautifully through her charming illustrations. It’s hard to read though, particularly if you’ve been through something even remotely similar. The early part of the book was particularly resonant for me, transporting me back to my teenage years where I was paranoid about putting on weight, hid food in my room and habitually starved myself as punishment for not “fitting in”. Katie’s journey, however, takes a far more sinister turn than mine did. The illustrations are so evocative, capturing the mind of a young girl who is aware her life is spinning out of control and her desperate attempts to control it, battling the “black cloud” that hangs over her in almost every picture.

Not an easy read by any stretch, and you might want some alone time afterwards to digest it. But it is so, so important that stories like this are told not only to expose the dark hearts of these taboo subjects but to give hope of recovery to anyone currently struggling. While there are a lot of shadows in Lighter Than My Shadow, there is light too. It’s such a brave, emotionally honest and beautifully realised book and deserves a very wide audience.  

What were your favourite reads of 2013?