Monday, 22 December 2014

Top Ten Lists - My Favourite Reads of 2014

Over the past week or so, I've been featuring some of my favourites (Top Tens) of the past year; from actors/ actresses to movies and TV shows and then some of the songs that I've enjoyed listening to the most. So today it's time for my last Top Ten List (and most appropriate to a Blog on Books), that being my Top Ten favourite books of 2014. By that I don't mean books that were published in 2014, rather those books of the 100+ that I read this past year. They vary from Classics to mysteries to Sci-Fi. In my next Blog I'll summarize my year in reading, but for today, let's look at those 10 books.

10. A Room with a View by E.M. Forster (published in 1908). I have tried to read a few more classics in the past couple of years. This was one of those books that I was more familiar with as a movie, but even there, only bits and pieces. It was a movie that Jo has enjoyed and that did make me want to read it. (She is often an influence, without even knowing, on the books I read or the music I listen to, or the shows I watch.) It was one of the first books I completed this year and this was my review. "This isn't normally a book in my comfort zone as of late I do prefer mysteries and Sci-Fi but it's the second E.M. Forster book I've read in the past couple of years and I do enjoy his writing style. The story flows very nicely and I like how it developed and how the characters interacted. I've never seen the various movie versions from beginning to end, just snatches but as I discussed with my wife, it seems they were very faithful to the book. It is a classic and I liked the ending, it was most satisfying. Overall, I'm glad I took a chance and dove in. "

9. The Hangman's Daughter by Oliver Potzsch (published first in German 2008, then the English translation in 2010). I heard about this book first in one of my Goodreads' groups and as I have enjoyed some of the historical mystery series I've tried, I looked this book up. It didn't let me down at all and I was very pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed it. I will definitely track down the other books in this excellent series; which continues with The Dark Monk, The Beggar King and The Poisoned Pilgrim. This was my review. "An excellent historical mystery set in 17th Century Germany (Bavaria) after the 30 Years war, following the efforts of the Hangman of Shongau and his daughter and the young doctor of the town to solve the murders of orphan children and also prevent a woman from being executed as witch. Great characters, interesting plot and intriguing mystery. My first book by Oliver Potzsch, but I will read his others."

8. The Ladies' Paradise by Emile Zola (published in French as Au Bonheur des Dames in 1883). I first heard of this from the BBC adaptation that Jo and I watched over the past two years. I was surprised to find out it was originally set in Paris and was based on a story by Zola, an author I'd never read. It also turns out that this is the 11th novel of the Rougon-Maquart series; yep, I didn't know that either. Anyway, this was another surprise; I enjoyed it very much. Will I read the others? I don't know, but I may look for them and see. This was my review. "I decided to read this because of the BBC TV series, The Paradise, which was based on Zola's book. At its core, it is the story of the development of the major department store (set in Paris) and its impact on the people of the city and especially those whose smaller shops surround The Ladies' Paradise and are threatened by its very success. The story focuses on Octave Mouret, whose vision and enterprise make the Paradise what it is, and on Denise Baudu, who arrives in Paris to live with her uncle (owning the shop across the road), along with her two brothers. Denise has nothing and finds that she must find work elsewhere as her uncle's shop can't support her. So begins her career, off and on, at The Ladies' Paradise, as a shop clerk. Fascinating story, the development and success of the store, Mouret's developing love for Denise, Denise's troubles within the store and with her family. The very impact of The Ladies' Paradise, based on actual stores that developed during the 1800's, on the city is also very interesting. At times it's a very depressing story, especially as the negative impact on the surrounding shops grows and grows, but it also portrays an interesting picture of the times and the culture.. Most enjoyable. There are other books by Zola that make this a series, if I read his biography correctly, with The Ladies' Paradise being the eleventh book. I may have to try and find the others."

7. Black Diamond by Martin Walker (published in 2008). This is the third book in Martin Walker's series featuring Bruno, the Chief of Police of a small French village. I took a chance on the first book; Bruno, Chief of Police and enjoyed immensely. I loved the characters, the setting and the story. I've since read the second book, The Dark Vineyard and this year finished Book three. I can't recommend this series enough. I love good story telling and well-developed characters and this series offers both. This was my review. "There is something about this series that I love. I picked up the first book, Bruno, Chief Of Police, because I was firstly attracted to the cover. And then when I read the synopsis, I had to give it a try. I wasn't disappointed, quickly falling in love with Bruno's life, his village and friends. I've since read the second book, The Dark Vineyard, which was even better, further developing Bruno's character and letting us know more about his friends and his village. I finished this third book this morning; I had to find out how it would end. I have to give this a five-star rating. I find that Martin Walker writes the story in such a way that I find myself drawn into the life of the community of St Denis in the district of Perigord. I find myself caring for Bruno, worrying about his future, his personal life and the lives of his close friends; the Baron, Pamela (the English resident), the lovely Fabiola (the doctor) and all of the others. This story is filled with action, from illegal truffle activities, illegal Asian immigrants, gang wars and political intrigue. But even with all that, there is time to delve into the community that Bruno patrols and into Bruno's life. He loves his community and will do anything to protect it. The people are colourful and different from my own experiences and Walker describes them gently and lovingly. And the food... ah, the food, my mouth waters as I watch Bruno prepare his repasts. At any rate, it's an excellent series and I'm happy to discover that there are at least three follow-on books for me to find and see what will happen next? Will Bruno settle down with Pamela? Or someone else? :) Enjoy!"

6. The Keeper of Lost Causes by Jussi Adler-Olsen (published in Danish in 2007 and in English translation in 2011). I've enjoyed some of the Scandinavian mystery series I've tried; Jo Nesbo's Harry Hole books, Karin Alvtegen's unique series and I've got others on my bookshelf. I looked at this book, the first in the Department Q series for quite awhile before I decided to give it a try. Was I glad that I had! Excellent first book, intriguing characters and a very interesting plot. I will definitely find the others as well. This was my review. " What a surprisingly excellent mystery and story. I've had it on my bookshelf for awhile and am so glad that I finally pulled it down to read. The mystery, the cold case involving the disappearance of Merete, was different from any I've read before. The main characters, Carl Morck, head of new Division Q and his assistant, Assad, were so well-crafted. Carl is a police detective just coming back to work after he and his two partners were ambushed, one killed, one a cripple still in hospital and Carl, recovered, now trying to get back to work. His boss assigns him to a newly created unit as its chief, partly to keep him away from the other detectives. Carl avoids work until his new assistant, Assad brings him the cold case involving Merete, who became missing, presumed dead, five years ago on a ferry to Germany. The story weaves between Carl and Assad, working their way through the old case and Merete, working from the past, 5 years before, until the present as she tries to adjust and sort out where she is and why she was abducted in the first place. Carl is an interesting character, his personal life also slowly being developed and his investigating talents becoming more visible. All in all, it was an excellent story, witty, but also with a great deal of tension as the story winds up to its climax. Loved it and am looking forward to reading more Department Q mysteries."

5. The Falls by Ian Rankin (published in 2001). Back in 2007, Jo bought me the whole Inspector Rebus series for Xmas. We had enjoyed the TV series, the one starring John Hannah, then the other starring Ken Stott, both playing grizzled Scottish police inspector John Rebus. I prefer Stott's characterization, he is more of how I perceive Rebus; tired, hard - living, cynical, but still an excellent cop. I've been reading two or three of the series a year, savouring the development of Rebus' character and that of his friends, especially his assistant, Siobhan Clark. The Falls is the 12th book in the series and I enjoyed it so very much. Rebus has grown so much and Rankin's story-telling is getting better and better. I've just finished the 13th, Resurrection Men, as well and enjoyed it almost as much. Such an excellent series. Anyway, here is my review. "It's been about a year since I read my last Rebus mystery and I'm sorry it's taken me so long to read the next, The Falls. I can't recall when I've more enjoyed a mystery. Rebus and the gang are involved trying to solve the disappearance of a young woman, the gang including Siobhan Clark, Ellen Wylie, and new boss, Gil Templer. Rebus is looking at his life, as always, trying to sell his flat, develop a relationship with a potential new lady friend, fend off Templer's attempts to make him see a doctor, while investigating the disappearance. He finds similarities to old cases and heads down past byways, while Siobhan is investigating a computer - based role-playing game that the missing girl was involved with, meaning involvement with a cryptic online 'Quizmaster'. The story was so well-crafted and presented and I just enjoyed getting involved with Rebus, his life and his friends. It's nice about these stories that Ian Rankin takes the time to develop the characters of those around Rebus and to get them deeply involved in the cases as well. Excellent and most enjoyable read. "

4. Disordered Minds by Minette Walters (published in 2003). I've read a few of Minette Walters' mysteries/ stories over the past 7 or 8 years; The Ice House, The Scold's Bridle, Acid Row, to name a few. She is a unique writer, her stories are standalones, each unique in its own right. She focusses on the psychological aspects of story - telling and creates such interesting scenarios. Disordered Minds was probably my favourite book of hers to date. I highly recommend. Now to my review. "Excellent 'mystery' by Minette Walters. I think she is one of the most unique mystery writers I've ever read. Each story I've read is unique in its own right and covers different aspects of human behaviour. In this story, two investigators, one a university professor and the other a town councillor, Jonathan and George, delve into the past to try and prove that a convicted murderer, a young man with mental difficulties, who committed suicide in prison, was, in fact, innocent of the murder. The trail of their investigation is an interesting one, involving many twists and turns, potential suspects, deceit, etc. As well, they both must deal with their own issues, that may or may not colour their investigation. Walters has a unique style of writing, this story is partly written in emails, case transcripts, etc. I liked both Jonathan and George and their book editor, Andrew Spicer and the other characters are interesting and full of mystery. Excellent story and highly recommended."

3. Wool Omnibus by Hugh Howey (published in 2011/ 12, the omnibus edition which covers the first 5 books was published in 2012). This was another book recommended to my by friends in my Goodreads group. I found a copy at my local bookstore and decided to take a chance on it. Once again, I'm so glad that I did. It was one of the most unique and interesting Sci-Fi stories I've read in a long time. I have started reading more science fiction the past few years, after taking a long hiatus from the genre and Wool presented me with a fascinating world and interesting, strong characters. Here is my review. "Wow! What a great story, courage, bad guys, good guys, interesting concept and characters that you can enjoy. The story of the people of Silo 18 (you'll have to read it to find out what it is) whose daily lives move along, a relationship from floor to floor, all contributing in their own way; Mechanical, Medical, IT, Farming, Law, but at the same time there are secrets and plots. The story starts off with Sheriff Holston who is dealing with the death of his wife three years before, who chose to go on a 'cleaning' (more for you to read about) and decides to join her. The Mayor and deputy go down to Mechanical in search of the new Sheriff (Juliette.. a lovely, brave, wonderful character), much to the dissatisfaction of Bernard, Head of IT, who has ideas of his own for running Silo. The implications of this conflict form the basis of the story, which, in this Omnibus edition, run for 5 Chapters (Books). Silo will be turned upside down, new heroes discovered; Juliette will go on her own journey and there will be discoveries that will shock many of the residents of Silo. I can't say enough about this story. I want to get the next books, but am also kind of hesitant as Hugh Howey indicates in a Q&A at the end of the book, "There is always a story to tell, just maybe not the one that the readers expect." Great story, hard to put down and enjoyed every minute of it, even if some were with trepidation."

2. Lady Chatterley's Lover by D.H. Lawrence (published in 1928). This is one of the Classic's I chose to read this year. I had meant to do so in 2013, as part of one of my Goodreads groups Erotic fiction challenge but didn't have time to do so. When the genre came up again this year, I took a stab at this Lawrence book. I didn't have high expectations; last year I'd read Lolita and was somewhat disappointed with it. However, Lady Chatterley's Lover surprised me to no end. I loved it. It was so much more than I expected, more than an erotic tale, rather, a carefully crafted exploration of Lady Chatterley's life and ideas. Fascinating and I'm so glad that I tried it. My review. "Definitely a book out of my normal comfort zone, but such an excellent read. I had ideas about what to expect; a banned book, due to its rawness, explicit sexual language, but I was surprised. It's a thoughtful story of a woman, living in a marriage with a broken man; physically broken from the war, but also emotionally broken. Constance loves Clifford Chatterley anyway, cares for him, comforts him, but finds her life to be stagnant, loveless, emotionless. She meets Oliver Mellors, an other ex-soldier who now works as the game keeper on the Chatterley estate and finds herself drawn to him. The story is about their developing relationship, both emotional and sexual. I expected the sex to be graphic, raw, but other than some language, it was crafted very lovingly, very gently on the whole. The story itself is interesting, the characters as well and the interludes describing the countryside, coal mining country are also well-crafted. An excellent story and I'm glad I finally pulled the book off my shelves to read."

1. Parade's End by Ford Madox Ford (published between 1924 and 1928). This is another book that I took a chance after both listening to a BBC radio dramatization of the book and also a BBC TV miniseries starring Benedict Cumberbatch. It's made up of 4 books set mainly in England and on the Western Front during WWI. Once again, a pleasant surprise, great character development and superb story telling; emotional, psychological, dealing with love, the effects of War and so much more. My review. " This was a challenging, but ultimately, an enjoyable, and interesting read. The book is made of four separate books, Some Do Not, No More Parades, A Man Could Stand Up and, The Last Post. It is set in England and France, before, during and after WWI. It deals with Christopher Tietjens, his wife Sylvia and Valentine Wannop, a young woman who has captured Christopher's heart. Around these people are family members, Christopher's brother, Mark; friends, associates and many others. Christopher's relationship with his wife is bitter and harsh, she goes out of her way to destroy his life, even though she won't grant him a divorce. At the same time, Christopher has fallen in love with the young woman, Valentine, who he met as a result of his father's friendship with her mother. Amidst these personal issues is the war, life in the trenches, all these matters. The story is detailed, it takes time to get used to the flow of the story, but when you do, it is most enthralling. The second and third books, which deal more with the War itself, I personally found the most interesting. Critics have said that there needn't have been a fourth book, that Christopher, himself, isn't really even present, but ultimately, I found that it wrapped up so many of the unresolved issues very nicely. Definitely worth reading, if you want to try a classic."

So there you go, my Top Ten books of 2014. I think it's a nice mix. I'll summarize the sum total of my 2014 reading in a follow-on Blog. Maybe after Xmas.. Have a Merry Xmas and happy holidays.

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