My best fiction reads of 2014

This is a purely personal list in that there are a lot of very good books which I should read and maybe could read but I haven’t. I haven’t read the Man Booker Prize winner, for example, as there is a long waiting list and it may be sometime next year before I get round to reading it.I am looking forward to the latest by Richard Ford and Colm Toibin but they haven’t turned up for me to read yet.

So here goes…

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The planner Tom Campbell

A picture of what it’s like to be young and vaguely ambitious in London where a young town planner is uncertain whether to go for a job back up north or stay in London where he’s mixing with a fast set who have much more money than he does in their world of designer drugs, flashy lifestyles, expensive restaurants and strip clubs.The characters ring true and the novel is as entertaining as it is believable.

A dancer in the dust Thomas H. Cook

Cook is one of the best thriller writers around and has been sadly underrated for his first-rate and credible psychological thrillers. In this strong and quite sad story about a murder in New York linked to an African country mired in corruption, he has created  a strong female character in a woman who loves the country she is in and tries to stand up to the enormous corruption around her.

Cataract City Craig Davidson

You may know him from his earlier novel Rust and bone which was made into an excellent film with Marion Cotillard.This later novel is about two childhood friends growing up in the Niagara Falls area and going separate ways. It’s a gripping story of a dark world of dogfighting, bare knuckle fighting, prison and tough lives, a world where the biggest undercover crime is cigarette smuggling across the US border. It’s an alien world to most of us but it is hugely readable if grim.

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To rise again at a decent hour Joshua Ferris

This year the Man Booker was opened up to American authors and this novel was on the shortlist. It’s a real oddity, clever and quirky and unusual enough to get on the shortlist but possibly too quirky to win! It’s about a dentist who finds someone has set up a fake website for his practice, followed by a Facebook page and a Twitter profile linked to a fringe religious sect, a worry for an avowed atheist. A weird and often very funny book with a serious core to it.

Nychtophobia Christopher Fowler

Fowler is the author of the highly entertaining Bryant and May mystery series and a couple of droll autobiographies. He’s a fan of horror movies and has written some horror tales for a small British imprint and this novel is one of these. It’s a genuinely strange story of a woman whose well-off husband  buys a large house in Spain. Weird things occur and they seem to be linked to the history of the house and what happened in Spain in the time of the Civil War. Past and present combine in a novel which brings a new twist to the haunted house genre.

Fourth of July Creek Smith Henderson

If you’re looking for something cosy don’t go near this first novel about a social worker in a small depressed American town in the 1980s. The main character is trying to help a rural family with a paranoid survivalist father. At the same time his private life is falling apart with his marriage breaking up and his teenage daughter becoming a runaway. A screwed up central character who’s trying hard to do the right thing in a world that shouldn’t be this difficult makes for a gripping and powerful novel, one of the best debuts for some time.

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A pleasure and a calling Phil Hogan

Imagine a real estate agent who makes a copy of all the keys for properties he markets and generally behaves in a way that the Real Estate Institute wouldn’t sanction. What he learns about clients he uses for good ends (an older lady who is ill treated by a blowhard is punished in a wonderfully apposite and funny way) but things become darker and his invasion of private lives turns sinister. A terrific and original read.

The road to reckoning Robert Lautner

A literary western in the tradition of writers such as Charles Portis and even Cormac McCarthy. It’s the story of a twelve year old boy and his father in the 1830s who leave New York to travel west to sell the Samuel Colt reloading gun. Father and son are separated and the boy has to survive on his own until he meets an ex-ranger and the two set out bent on revenge. A tough tale with a heart but little sentimentality, it would make a terrific movie.

Sleep in peace tonight James MacManus

Britain during World War II before the Americans enter the war is seen though the eyes of Roosevelt’s envoy to Britain. This is a vivid and detailed portrait of time and place with strong portraits of Roosevelt and Churchill and cameos by many real people of the time. A gripping tale of a time of great uncertainty as Churchill stood alone while Roosevelt wavered as isolationists called the tune in the U.S.

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The assassination of Margaret Thatcher Hilary Mantel

Naturally the title story catches the eye immediately and it is a droll tale of an assassin getting ready to do the deed in a flat of a woman who is bemused by the situation she finds herself in. Other stories deal with domestic disharmony and women who finally crack under social pressure and one deals with expat life in Dubai and another a tale of a drive home in a farm vehicle which may have hit something en route. Only in the last words do you realise what.

Head of state Andrew Marr

Marr is the well known broadcaster and journalist and he wrote this novel during recovery from a stroke. It’s an outrageous comedy about politics and what happens (in 2017) when a referendum on the EU is looming. Venal politicians, foul mouthed newspaper editors, a female US President,  the death of the P.M. kept secret, murders…it’s all wildly over the top but very funny.

The restoration of Otto Laird Nigel Packer

A television company is making a documentary on the Dutch architect of a postwar London tower block which in its day was seen as a bold social experiment but has since fallen into disrepair. The man himself was an émigré to Britain, having been brought up in hiding during the Nazi occupation. A fascinating tale that takes in the life of the man, his wife and family.

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Fives and twenty-fives Michael Pitre

The Iraq conflict seen through the story of a platoon whose job it is to clear potholes on the Western Iraq highway, potholes that will usually contain some kind of explosive device. The author joined the Marines in 2002 and was deployed twice to Iraq. An excellent novel, the best war novel for some time, it gives the feel of what happened to the ordinary soldier in the conflict.

Family life Akhil Sharma

An Indian family come to America and life is going well until the golden boy of the family has a terrible accident and what happens from then on cripples the family financially. I didn’t realise when I read this novel that it was based on real and terrible events that happened to the author and his family. A really powerful and moving piece of work and all the better for its unsettling and sad story being told with such quiet power.

Jam Jake Wallis Simons

What would happen if there was some sort of accident on the M25. Nobody knows what has happened and there is no mobile coverage to find out why. A disparate cast of characters – an arguing family, a bunch of racist yobs, a Waitrose driver who must guard the contents of his van, an expert on bugs, a history professor, university students – wait the situation out in this clever and unnerving novel.

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Man at the helm Nina Stibbe

How many novels have there been about terrible parents? In this lively novel it’s an irresponsible gadabout mother who breaks most of the rules of parenting and runs though a succession of unsuitable men. The title refers to the necessity (seen by others) of women having “a man at the helm.” The book is narrated by the children who don’t really understand what’s going on and there’s a strong Nancy Mitford quality about the book.

Completion Tim Walker

If you liked state of the nation novels like John Lanchester’s Capital, try this excellent British novel. A house in an expensive part of London (well, all of London is expensive, this is just top end) was the setting for a series of children’s books by the mother of the family. The parents are no longer together and members of the family live in Dubai, East London and France. What happens to them makes for a highly readable story.

Hotel Alpha Mark Watson

Big hotels have been the background for many novels as well as television series such as Hotel Babylon and movies like The Grand Budapest Hotel. Perhaps the appeal is that hotels are somewhat removed from the everyday world. Certainly the hotel in this one is - the owner is something of an idealist but not a conventional one. He interacts with an interesting cast of characters while hiding secrets. The changing world of technology and how it alters the hotel world is part of this highly readable novel.

Boxer handsome Anna Whitwham

An excellent first novel inspired by the grandfather of the author who’d been a boxer In London’s East End. The novel is set in Hackney where a third generation boxer falls for a preschool teacher from outside his world. It’s a strong novel about some tough and troubled people but it gripped me throughout and it’s actually quite moving.

Into the trees Robert Williams

A couple sell their house in town for one in a forest (seems to be somewhere like Lancashire) where they hope for a calming of their small daughter who won’t stop crying. Things improve until a violent incident invades their safe place. Characterisation is superb as the other characters – even those that act violently – are understandable. I found the novel completely gripping.

Philip Tew
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