2014: The Shelf of Shame

on Tuesday, December 23, 2014
2014 saw many wonderful books take root and flourish but, as always, there were a fair few weeds popping up around the garden. So it is, fellow Bookworms, that we strap on our collective garden gloves, grab our secateurs and jump in for some good ol' hack n' slash.

Most Overrated Books of 2014

Brace yourself, Murakami sycophants because I'm going to say it: Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage was far and away the most overhyped book of 2014. The anticipation before its release was Jonestown level feverish. I'll admit to having been swept up in the hoopla, too. Oh yes, I was waiting for this biblical revelation. Then it hit and... well... Okay, it was perfectly pleasant; fun, quirky, kind of cute. It had many of the classic Murakami magic tricks. But when all is said and done it wasn't a patch on The Wild Sheep Chase or Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World. Indeed, this one had the suspicious aftertaste of Kool Aid.

I was at a loss to understand the plaudits poured upon Akhil Sharma's slim offering, Family Life. It supposedly took him ten or twelve or twenty (or some other multiple of a ferret's average life span) years to complete and drew heavily from his personal experience of grief and dislocation. Stripped of its forest of laurels it is a fair to middling shrub of a novel about about the immigrant experience. I can't help but feel that Sharma has a lot of friends in high places, none of whom could muster the guts to tell him that those umpteen years might have been better spent working on something else.

One other book that rolled around in a well-oiled orgy of love was Ali Smith's How To Be Both. Critics and readers alike were falling over themselves to praise its structural innovation, sly narrative experimentation and ingenious mirroring of two different eras. To be fair, it's not hard to be swept up in Ali-mania. Her writing is absolutely stunning and this book was no exception. Still, I didn't see what all the fuss was about. Another pretty good book put on some unreachable pedestal by those who probably eat a teaspoon of caviar and claim they are full. Or maybe I was just too dumb to get it.

Dishonourable Mentions: Chang-Rae Lee's On Such A Full Sea proved that great authors can choke in unfamiliar surrounds. Sci-fi was not his friend. Also, Peter Matthiessen's In Paradise was good but a little too self-consciously po-faced for my liking.

Biggest Disappointments of 2014
I suppose these are really personal disappointments because I was so excited for these books when I first heard of their impending release and then... *sigh*...

American Innovations by Rivkah Galchen. Okay, seriously: How incredible was Galchen's novel, Atmospheric Disturbances? From the moment I put it down I have been chomping at the bit for something new, something sparkling, something splendiferous from this bright young star. Enter American Innovations. Never mind that it's a collection of stories. That could have been just as exciting. But these show little of the imaginative pizazz that made Atmospheric Disturbances one of my favourite novels of the past ten years. Maybe it was just sorbet. Maybe there's something exceptional waiting in the wings. Another novel to knock me off my feet. Here's hoping.

Consumed by David Cronenberg. I was intrigued when I heard Cronenberg had written a novel. That it was said to lean heavily on JG Ballard, whose iconic masterpiece, Crash, Cronenberg had made into a film filled me with an underlying sense of dread. Still, I kept the faith. It might be good, right? Alas, no. There's "leaning on" and there's straight up imitation. When your model is someone as distinctive and singularly brilliant as Ballard you don't stand much of a chance. And so we end up with this: Fan fiction from a deranged fan.

Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting by Kevin Powers. Yellow Birds still stands as my all-time favourite war novel. Three years on and I still shiver when I think about it. When I saw that Powers would be following it up with a collection of poetry I was cautiously optimistic. I don't usually go for the form - I'm fairly convinced I just don't understand it - but I trusted in Powers (he is, first and foremost, a poet) and, I heartily reassured myself, one of my other favourites war books, Pink Mist, happens to be an extended poem. Alas, it all went over my head and it has been consigned to the shelf of books I'm glad to own but will probably never pick up again. At least it makes me look more cultured.

I'm not quite sure why I still hold out hope for Ian McEwan. His glory days are clearly well behind him. Solar was a momentary blip of light (sorry) but otherwise it has all been drab greyness from this former master. The Children Act was, however, a new low - a plodding, workmanlike novel of family law that lacked any of the taut plotting, intrigue, danger, excitement or insight that made Black Dogs, Enduring Love or Atonement such modern classics. I'd have to put it alongside Saturday as his weakest novel to date, but at least that had a brilliantly frightening villain. If it weren't for the fact that Martin Amis, who seemed to be on a similar career trajectory, published one of his finest novels to date this year, I'd give up on McEwan altogether.

Dishonourable Mentions: He's always hit or miss, but I'd still hoped for something better from Dave Eggars. Your Fathers Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever? was a particularly lame effort at a State Of The World novel. And then there was Damon Galgut's Arctic Summer. Oh how I've longed for something even half as amazing as The Good Doctor. The Imposter was pretty good but this one, while lush and 'classic' in style, was just kind of boring.

2014 Trainwreck of the Year
Oh how the mighty fall. Or stumble. Or at least stub their big toes. Long time readers may recall my unhealthy love for Tom Rachman's hilariously brilliant debut, The Imperfectionists. Not quite a novel, but more than a collection of short stories, it deftly skewered the world of wanky international journalism with its perfectly pitched sketches of all those involved with a failing newspaper. To my mind, it was almost a perfect book. Sad to report that the exact opposite must be said of his follow-up, The Rise & Fall of Great Powers. A meandering mess, with no discernible direction it pained me to plod through the whole thing. I'm still trying to work out what the hell it was actually about but then I am reminded that I just don't care and go back to my Rachman shrine, kneel before the last flickering embers and pray that this, not the other, was an aberration.


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