The year in books: the words that mattered in 2014

Miles Salter reviews the year in books, discusses what he’s read in 2014, and remembers literary moments of note in York

under-the-skin
Scarlett Johansson starred in the movie adaptation of Under The Skin, the book by Michel Faber

books-we-are-completelyAs organiser of a literature festival, I should be ‘up’ on what’s happening in the world of books. I am. Sort of. But there are so many tomes published these days that it’s almost impossible to keep up.

And I’m a slow reader, too, which doesn’t help. So what follows only scratches the surface of what’s been going on in the world of books in the last 12 months.

I’m still catching up on things that were published years ago. I was blown away by J G Ballard’s autobiography Miracles Of Life, which told the tale of the late author’s childhood in war torn Shanghai and the tragic death of his wife in the early 1960s, as well as his experiences as a trainee doctor. Moving and insightful, it was one of those rare books that seemed to contain all of life within its pages.

Also impressive was We Are Completely Beside Ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler’s story of family experimentation told with humour and honesty. The book made the Booker Prize shortlist, but was beaten by a tale of cruelty and redemption, Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road To The Deep North.

Other books that were well received included Sarah Perry’s unsettling After Me Comes The Flood and The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton, which became Waterstones Book of the Year.

Literary success stories

miles-salter-rowan-colemanIn March, Rowan Coleman came to York to promote her novel book The Memory Book. Rowan is an old friend of mine – we were mates as teenagers in the late 1980s, and it was fantastic to see her again after over 20 years.

A mutual friend (and industry insider), Laura West, told me, back in February, that the book would do well, and it has – a shrewd campaign by Ebury for the paperback led to an appearance with Richard and Judy.

The Memory Book hit the bestseller lists in the autumn and Rowan jetted off to New York late in the year on the promotional trail. It’s a well deserved success – Rowan has worked very hard for a long time.

Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, published in 2013, sold well in paperback in 2014, but I had mixed feelings about it. The story took a long time to get underway and the author never adequately explained the theme of reincarnation, while the sequence set in Hitler’s headquarters was, to put it kindly, pretty implausible.

That didn’t stop the book from being hugely popular, and Atkinson is planning another book with the same group of characters.

Poetry peaks

books-ringmasters-apprenticeIn June I took part in the new York Waterstones store’s first ever poetry reading with poets Antony Dunn and Abi Curtis. A number of local writers were in attendance, including Nuala Casey, who launched her second novel Summer Lies Bleeding during the summer.

In December, Nuala was awarded Arts Council funding to help research her next book, and will continue to build on the success she’s had so far.

I’m a big poetry fan, and this year enjoyed Helen Mort’s celebrated debut collection Division Street, and Emily Berry’s excellent collection Black Country, which contains some staggeringly good poems such as Trucker’s Mate and Owl. The book deservedly won best first collection in the Forward Prize.

I also loved a new collection of poetry by American poet Thomas Lux, who I discovered via a reader’s session at Bridlington Poetry Festival in June. Lux’s tongue in cheek poems nevertheless conceal a lot of heart and sincerity.

“I like to make the reader laugh—and then steal that laugh, right out of the throat,” Lux has said. His Selected Poems is published by Bloodaxe and the always industrious Neil Astley, and is worth investigating.

Late in the year, I hosted an evening of poetry and music in York to promote York poet Oz Hardwick’s latest collection, The Ringmaster’s Apprentice.

Oz is a friend of mine, so I am biased, but having read the book in the last few weeks, I’m inclined to conclude that it’s amongst the best individual collections of 2014 – full of wit, imagination and wonder.

Published by Valley Press, Jamie McGarry’s small but proactive publishing company based in Scarborough, the book should bring Oz wider recognition. He’s certainly amongst North Yorkshire’s best poets.

Celebrity successes

books-the-humansIn July, no less a talent that Stephen Fry trumpeted York author Matt Haig’s novel The Humans. “I don’t normally do this,” Fry said on Twitter, “but what a fantastically funny and brilliant read – try The Humans.”

The book’s sales rose dramatically in the following days and weeks. Matt has been a resident of York for a few years now, but is moving to Brighton. York’s loss is Brighton’s gain, but Matt will be back in York in March 2015 as part of York Literature Festival to talk about his next release.

Fry himself hit the promotional trail in the autumn for More Fool Me, the latest part in his autobiography. At least it wasn’t named like the sporting biographies, lampooned by John Rentoul, who pointed out how many of them are unimaginatively titled My Story. Still, at least it’s concise.

One celebrity I have grudging respect for is Russell Brand, who published Revolution in October. I was sceptical at first, but have changed my mind – at least Brand has got something to say about politics in the UK, and is prepared to step into the fray.

Books for younger readers

books-fault-starsOne of the joys of being a parent is reading books with your kids, and this year I worked through some of Roald Dahl’s catalogue with my daughter. Dahl had an instinct for the power of both humour and the grotesque was terrific, a recipe that has been emulated by comedian turned author, David Walliams.

I read Walliams’ Mr Stink with my daughter this year and thought it was all right, but not exceptional. Walliams, though, is adored by kids, and his latest book, Awful Auntie, clocked up £1 million in sales in just three weeks this autumn.

Another book for the younger audience that sold by the truckload was John Green’s The Fault In Our Stars. This tale of teenage love and mortality, told from the point of view of a girl who has cancer, made me laugh and cry.

Teenagers loved its sardonic humour and the way it tackled life’s big questions. It has sold by the truckload.

New titles from big names

books-strange-new-thingsThe run-up to Christmas featured plenty of new titles by established authors, including Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Will Self, Sarah Waters and Nick Hornby.

The book I can’t wait to read, though, is Michel Faber’s The Book Of Strange New Things. Faber is one of our most brilliant writers, but has endured a year of highs and terrible lows.

The film version of his eerie novel, Under The Skin, came out at the start of the year, and has been praised by critics as one of the films of the year. His wife, Eva, died in July, after a long and difficult battle with cancer, and The Book Of Strange New Things, about love and faith tested to their limit, is dedicated to her.

Faber’s catalogue is relatively small but deals with life and humanity in all its vibrant strangeness. I hope we haven’t seen the last of his writing. There are few writers alive who match him.

Grief is a subject writers often return to, and Helen MacDonald’s memoir H Is For Hawk won plaudits for the way it intertwined the death of her father with the life of a wild bird. The book won the Samuel Johnson prize in November, and has grabbed the public’s imagination in the weeks since.

A spat between Hachette and Amazon caused ripples in the traditional publishing industry in 2014. The business of making and selling books is not perfect – York’s Blackwell’s store will cease trading this week, after students preferred to buy books online, but the UK publishing industry contains some fantastic talent.

Books are still selling in large quantities. I don’t think the industry is finished yet.