And now for my final post of the year! When I began this blog back in August, I did not expect the amount of exposure and positive feedback I’ve received thus far. Thank you to each and everyone of you, and do look forward to more exciting posts in 2015!
Just to begin with a notice: these are the top 10 books I read in 2014, not the best books of 2014. In fact, none of them were released this year (I did read several books published in 2014 but they didn’t make my list). Not to do the 2014 books injustice, of course—2 books at the top of my 300+ to-read list were published this year, i.e. Station Eleven (Emily St. John Mandel) and All the Light We Cannot See (Anthony Doerr), both of which I will definitely read next year.
This year, I took part in the Goodreads 2014 Reading Challenge (my account), in which you pledge to read a certain number of books in 2014. Initially, I had pledged 75 books, but this summer, realising I would easily reach that goal, upped it to 100 books. Did I reach it? Sure enough, and more. In fact—and really, just stating the facts—I blew it out of the water.
In my list, I didn’t include rereads (save Pullman’s Northern Lights, which I read 15+ years ago), many of which are among my favourite books ever: The Sandman (Neil Gaiman), Watchmen (Alan Moore), The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go (Kazuo Ishiguro). The books listed below I encountered for the first time in 2014; all made strong impressions, particularly in the midst of the 170+ books I devoured.
Anyway, here are the top 10 books I read in 2014:
1. The Nao of Brown (Glyn Dillon; 2012) (read in Feb 2014)
Witty, intriguing, harrowing. Dillon’s graphic novel about a girl named Nao, who has Primarily Obsessional OCD, was a highlight of this year, and is one of the best graphic novels in recent years. Nao is half-Japanese, half-English—though she was born in England and thinks of herself as English—addressing identity issues I could relate to. Plus, Dillon sensitively portrays a girl stuck between the countries of Japan and the UK, creating a work that deeply resonated with me. Beautifully illustrated with wonderfully-written dialogue, this will sit well on any graphic novel fan’s shelf. It’ll also serve as a great entry point for anyone interested in foraying into the world of literary comics.
Here is just a snippet of witty dialogue from Nao’s first date with Gregory at the pub:
GREGORY: My Mum said you’re Japanese. Would it be fair to say… there are two types of Japanese… women? The autonomous, intrepid ‘escapee’, who makes it to the west because they weren’t cut out to live the life of the docile cliche… the repressed, suffering in silence, Milquetoasts, unable to speak up for themselv—
NAO: Milk toasts?
GREGORY: Exactly… Look… ‘Hello Kitty’… the archetypal Japanese female… unable to articulate. Why? For she has no mouth.
NAO: …. Yes, Hello Kitty may appear to have no mouth, but Winnie the Pooh has no pants and Action Man lacks… well, he’s unlikely to get any ‘action’. Anyway, according to Sanrio, she does have a mouth… it’s simply unseen, beneath her fur: Ergo, it’s never drawn… but it does exist… in theory. And… what you fail to take into account is that Hello Kitty’s male counterpart, ‘Dear Daniel’, also has no mouth… therefore negating your claim that Kitty is representative of the archetypal Japanese female and her ‘lack of voice’.
GREGORY: …. Perha—
NAO: And if you want the official company line… they’ve said Hello Kitty appears to have no mouth because she speaks from her heart.
[Glyn Dillon, The Nao of Brown (London: SelfMadeHero, 2012).]
2. Middlemarch (George Eliot; 1874) (read in Mar 2014)
What can be said about Eliot’s Victorian classic that has withstood the test of time (140 years, to be exact) which hasn’t been said before? Don’t be put off by its length. Featuring a fascinating array of highly-idiosyncratic characters and multiple plotlines which intertwine cleverly, it addresses themes of all sorts, including gender conflicts (i.e. status of women in a patriarchal society), marriage, religion, politics, morality, etc. It’s bold, daring, and what I found the most surprising was how contemporary it was. Compared to her previous novels, Adam Bede or The Mill on the Floss, which contains heavily-accented dialogue that isn’t the easiest to read, the dialogue in Middlemarch wouldn’t sound out of place in our modern society today. There’s a reason why many have proclaimed it to be the greatest novel in the English language.
3. Northern Lights (Philip Pullman; 1995) (read in Apr 2014)
I read the first instalment of Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy 15+ years ago, and though I didn’t remember the exact details of the plot, there were several things that remained vividly in my mind all these years: Lyra, the golden compass (hence the US title The Golden Compass), dæmons, the freezing Arctic, and of course, armoured bears.
In April, I bought a hardcover containing the entire trilogy and revisited it—it was even more exciting than I had remembered. A YA fantasy novel that adults have no reason to be ashamed of liking, I would contest that Pullman’s Northern Lights is even better than the Harry Potter books, which are also enjoyable. It contains surprisingly mature prose for a YA novel, and the pacing is brilliant. It’s a shame his vehement atheistic agenda overwhelmed the 2 sequels, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass, causing the trilogy to spiral downwards into an utter mess—I wasn’t offended by his anti-religious themes, but once they began overshadowing the characters and plot, it became tedious to read. But Northern Lights is a brilliant achievement of original fantasy that grips you from start to finish.
4. White Teeth (Zadie Smith; 2000) (read in Jul 2014)
I honestly can’t remember the last time I read a book that made me laugh out loud. And not just once, but multiple times. Smith’s humorous depiction of non-British immigrants and cultures in Britain is thoroughly farcical, yet it contains a lot of heart. The characters are both irritating and irresistible, unique to a fault, but thankfully not to the extent where it prevents us from engaging our sympathies as they endure hardships in various forms, shapes and sizes (although whether they bring misfortune upon themselves is arguable…). It really is impressive how she handles her ensemble of multicultural characters, considering she wrote this début novel when she was only 22 in her final year at Cambridge (what am I doing with my life?!). Yes, I can see why people might consider it self-indulgent, but I was more than happy to overlook it, to let the laughs overshadow her conscious awareness of her talent—and truly, she is a most talented writer.
5. Enduring Love (Ian McEwan; 1997) (read in Aug 2014)
As much as people like Atonement (me included), this is superior in many ways. Opening with a deadly accident involving a hot-air balloon (Bill Bryson remarked: ‘utterly compelling from the very first page‘), 2 strangers are drawn together in a psychological battle of forbearance which unfolds rapidly. McEwan crafts beautiful prose (when does he not? For more insights into his prose: ‘Purple Prose: Grandiloquent, Orotund, Highfalutin (aka Bombastic and Pretentious) Musings‘) and a compelling mysterious plot that leaves you guessing right up to the end. He accomplishes an elaborate portrayal of the extreme tendencies of science and religion, which results in a masterful and frightening exploration of the psyche. I can’t remember the last time I was this psychologically unnerved while reading a book, causing me to shudder literally at parts. Yet the fact that I couldn’t stop reading is testament to his masterful storytelling. Psychological realism at its finest.
6. Stoner (John Williams; 1965) (read in Nov 2014)
New Yorker published an article in 2013 entitled ‘The Greatest American Novel You’ve Never Heard Of‘. (Warning: don’t read the article until you’ve read the novel.) On my copy, the blurb by the Sunday Times says: ‘The Greatest Novel You’ve Never Read’. After reading it, I can confidently say there’s quite a bit of truth in those blaring statements. Stoner has become my favourite American novel I’ve read yet. A Bildungsroman of a farm boy who becomes an English professor, it documents his rise, and arguably, his fall, through his internal and external struggles in his academic and domestic environs. Riveting from beginning to end, Williams’s masterful prose conveys an excruciating poignancy, of true sadness, and leaves us with an ambivalent sense of satisfaction and dissatisfaction. But this is, by no means, a bad thing. It’s proof that Williams was successful in drawing us deep into the realistic life of his protagonist, both good and bad. I’ve been undoubtedly touched by the man that was William Stoner.
7. When Heaven Invades Earth: A Practical Guide to a Life of Miracles (Bill Johnson; 2003) (read in Nov 2014)
I’m no stranger to the controversies of this book, nor to the accusations against Bill Johnson, senior pastor of Bethel Church in Redding, California. But for too long had I heard these violent condemnations without actually reading any of his writings, so I picked up his first book on living a supernatural life of miracles. I will gladly say that not once did I read anything that seemed heretical or blatantly wrong. In fact, this has proved to be one of the most encouraging and empowering books on Christian living I’ve read. I won’t go into the details and address every controversial issue; that’s not particularly relevant right now. But I will say that I’ve personally experienced many of the things he has expounded on in his book—I could relate, and what he says accurately reflects the truth played out in my life. Recommended for Christians who have been disillusioned with their stagnant way of life, are not content with the current state of the world, and who desire to see the supernatural become natural. (Have a read instead of bashing it blindly.)
8. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art (Scott McCloud; 1993) (read in Nov 2014)
My graphic designer/photographer friend Devin made the bold claim that it is ‘possibly the most important work regarding art and communication in our generation.‘ I’m inclined to agree. It is a revolutionary work, containing a surprising depth of perception, that serves as proof of his enlightenment. How privileged we are that he is willing to share what he has observed, studied, learnt! Here are just some of the great names in comics that have praised this seminal work: Art Spiegelman (Maus), Will Eisner (A Contract With God), Alan Moore (Watchmen), Neil Gaiman (The Sandman), etc.
In his work that has arguably formed the foundation of comics studies in academia (alongside Will Eisner’s Comics and Sequential Art), McCloud introduces the world of comics, and why we should take them seriously as a sophisticated medium that can convey information in ways other mediums are unable to through the deft combination of words and pictures (did I mention Understanding Comics itself is a non-fictional comic?). Here’s his complex definition (each word of which he brilliantly unpacks):
Here’s a glimpse of just one of multiple revelations about comics:
I’ve been reading comics for almost 20 years, yet McCloud expounds upon the most fascinating of insights regarding the beautiful medium of comics that I had never even considered before. A vital work that must be read, not only by people who love comics, but all artists. Absolutely brilliant.
9. Small World (David Lodge; 1984) (read in Dec 2014)
Witty, intricate, absurd. Small World is possibly the funniest novel I’ve ever read. The second novel in Lodge’s ‘Campus Trilogy’, it is a ‘campus novel’ that attempts to evolve into a ‘global campus novel’, but which fails because a global campus is still a campus: an insular environment of pretentious academics (not all, but most of them). Their invest all their efforts in travelling around the world, attending conferences which simply serve as facades for sleeping around. My Campus Novel module tutor was not particularly kind to Lodge for what he believed to be a lack of sophistication on his part—Lodge is also a prominent literary critic—by employing condescending stereotypes, xenophobic connotations, and gender constructs (favouring the men, of course) in bad taste. But I refuse to believe that Lodge wasn’t aware of his blatant mockery—it’s much too apparent that he was writing this with full awareness of his novel being a satire with high degrees of irony. Whatever the case may be, I thoroughly enjoyed his poking fun of the academic world and the various cultures (there’s even a Japanese academic who sleeps in capsule hotels!). For a multicultural English Literature university student, this was a delightful read.
10. The Portrait of a Lady (Henry James; 1881) (read in Dec 2014)
Might this be the first novel written that deals extensively with TCK identity issues? Isabel Archer, a young American woman, travels to Europe—particularly England Italy—endowed with a free-spirited mind and an inclination for adventure. Wholly independent and beautiful, she is on the receiving end of multiple proposals for marriage, yet values her liberty much too highly to accept. But can she hold out against all the men in love with her, or will she succumb to any? Will her stubbornness eventually lead to her downfall? Will she find true love in the end? In this elaborate portrayal of a lady struggling to survive, torn by conflicting morals and values and thoughts, James does a brilliant job of writing a novel undeniably influenced and reminiscent of the Victorian novels (and he was American!). He examines the issues of identity and multiculturalism, once again two topics to which I could strongly relate. A masterful, well-constructed novel.
(11.) The Complete Short Stories: Volume Two, 1954–1988 (Roald Dahl; 2013) (read in May 2014)
Such a masterful writer! Roald Dahl is most well-known for his children’s stories (which are absolutely delightful), but I have a guilty pleasure (actually, not so guilty) for his short stories for adults—you can sense the wondrous fun he was having when writing them. Some of the stories are of an adult nature (you won’t ever meet a playboy like Uncle Oswald) and definitely not meant for kids, but they are all highly entertaining. Volume One is great, but I personally preferred the stories in Volume Two. This collection contains what is possibly my favourite of his short stories: ‘The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar’ (did anyone else try staring at a candle flame and the back of playing cards?). Another highlight is his non-fiction work: ‘Lucky Break: How I Became A Writer’. Highly recommended.
(12.) The Scarlet Letter (Nathaniel Hawthorne; 1850) (read in Nov 2014)
I had to read The Scarlet Letter 6 or 7 years ago in school and I remember finding it absolutely boring. I must admit I groaned when I saw it on my American Fiction module reading list this year. I reread it… and found it unexpectedly enjoyable! I have to warn you though, the prelude entitled ‘The Custom-House’ which comprises the first 50 pages is dull and tedious. But bear with it—the rest of the novel adopts a different tone. Hawthorne’s prose is beautiful, poetic and captivating. Narrating Hester Prynne’s struggle to live with the searing ‘A’ on her chest (a symbol of adultery), I was surprised by the text’s richness and layers. The characters are far from flat, but instead provide a surprisingly intense psychological depth. The allegorical imagery is palpable but I didn’t find it detracting or distracting—rather it supported the plot through clever intertwinings and connections. I now understand why it is considered an American classic, with good reason.
(13.) Worship Matters (Bob Kauflin; 2008) (read in Dec 2014)
There’s a reason this is one of the most, if not the most renowned and acclaimed book out there on worship. Not only does Bob Kauflin address all the practical aspects of leading musical worship at church, it continually and unabashedly refocuses our attention on the ‘heart’ (rather than ‘art’) of worship—that is, to glorify God in every aspect of our lives. Solid truths derived from a healthy balance of Word and Spirit, and facing head-on all the controversial tensions wholly present in churches (and dealing with them impressively), this is a must-read, not just for people involved in the musical aspects of worship at church, but for all believers who desire to live true lives of genuine worship.
Are there any books on this list you’ve read? Liked or disliked? What were your favourite books this past year?
- A Contract With God
- Adam Bede
- Alan Moore
- All the Light We Cannot See
- American fiction
- Anthony Doerr
- Art Spiegelman
- Bethel Church
- Bill Bryson
- Bill Johnson
- Bob Kauflin
- campus novel
- Campus Trilogy
- Comics and Sequential Art
- comics studies
- David Lodge
- Durham University
- E. Devin Vander Meulen II
- Emily St. John Mandel
- Enduring Love
- English Literature
- George Eliot
- Glyn Dillon
- graphic novels
- Harry Potter
- Henry James
- His Dark Materials
- Ian McEwan
- John Williams
- Kazuo Ishiguro
- Nathaniel Hawthorne
- Neil Gaiman
- Never Let Me Go
- New Yorker
- Northern Lights
- Philip Pullman
- psychological realism
- reading challenge
- Roald Dahl
- Scott McCloud
- short stories
- Small World
- Station Eleven
- Sunday Times
- The Amber Spyglass
- The Custom-House
- The Golden Compass
- The Mill on the Floss
- The Nao of Brown
- The Portrait of a Lady
- The Remains of the Day
- The Sandman
- The Scarlet Letter
- The Subtle Knife
- The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar
- Uncle Oswald
- Understanding Comics
- When Heaven Invades Earth
- White Teeth
- Will Eisner
- Worship Matters
- Zadie Smith