Some of the novels I read in 2014 would make great holiday reading

When I first started The Urbanist in 2010 (known then as The Melbourne Urbanist), I had a page devoted to discussion of books of all sorts, but mainly novels.

That went by the wayside with the shift to Crikey but now, with Christmas tomorrow and no one showing much interest in “serious matters”, it’s a good time to get back to reading for pleasure.

Of the novels I read during 2014, these are the ones I’d recommend you consider spending time with over the next couple of weeks (they’re mostly relatively new releases):

  • Year of wonders, Geraldine Brooks (2002). This exquisite, perfectly formed tale set during the great plague  in 17th century England could be the best novel I’ve ever read. Architects take note – this beautifully “designed” novel is an object lesson in what makes a brilliant creation; a work of art.
  • The Planner, Tom Campbell (2014). A witty, sharp, insightful and intelligent story about a land use planner in London. No public servant should let another Christmas go past without reading it. And it really is set in the world of planning, property development and architecture (I’ve (re)published some extracts before).
  • The bone clocks, David Mitchell (2014). I’ve been a Mitchell acolyte ever since I read the magnificent Cloud atlas and have read all his books. The penultimate chapter is a let down (maybe because I’m ambivalent about sci-fi) but the rest of it is so good it simply shouldn’t be missed.
  • The son, Phillip Meyer (2013). A sweeping multi-generation saga charting the history of Texas. It’s broadly in the manner of James A Michener but it’s way smarter and the characters more deeply drawn than my vague memories of Michener’s books (and I read a few back in the day).
  • Funny Girl, Nick Hornby (2014). Another favourite writer; read all his novels too (and some of his non-fiction). This is his latest book, about the travails of a comedienne in 1960’s British TV. In short, delightful, funny, engaging.
  • The signature of all things, Elizabeth Gilbert (2013). Yes, it’s the same woman who wrote Eat, pray, love, snooze or whatever it’s called, but don’t be put off; she writes brilliantly. Another multi-generation story dealing with nineteenth century concerns like evolution, spirituality and sexual repression.
  • The book of strange new things, Michel Faber (2014). I didn’t much like his first novel Under the skin (although it was much better than the pretentious movie version) but this one, about a missionary on a distant planet and his deteriorating relationship with his earth-bound wife is a winner. It’s nominally science fiction but that’s only in passing.

Here’re some other novels I read this year that I thought were OK but they didn’t reach the same heights for me as those above (note though that they’ve all been highly praised by critics):

  • Stoner, John Williams (1963/2003)

I read a few other novels in 2014 and they were mostly interesting in one way or another but I wasn’t impressed enough to mention them to others. I would say though, avoid The narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket at all costs; it might be Edgar Allan Poe, but it’s a stinker.

Apart from a handful, most novels I’ve read in recent years are too long; some, like All the light we cannot see, are much the poorer for want of a good hard prune. It’s as if editors don’t actually edit any more.