2014 — KfC’s 10 best

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I will be the first to admit it: the KfC blog had a lot of downtime in 2014 as distractions, diversions and domestic disturbances (it is amazing what the impact of fixing a collapsed, 100-year-old sewage pipe can have on one’s reading and writing) diverted me from dedicated discussion of books. And, let’s face it, a lack of discipline from the blogger reduced both the number of books read and reviews produced. I pledge to do better in 2015.

Still, I read more than enough books to produce what I feel is a worthy Ten Best list. They are listed in the order that I read them — click on the title to go back to the full review.

2014 roy The Tin Flute, by Gabrielle Roy. This novel, along with Hugh MacLennan’s Two Solitudes, another exploration of French-English tensions in Quebec, was part of my 2013 project to revisit Canadian authors whom I had read in my youth. Rereading Roy’s novel did not disappoint — indeed, it was even better than when I first read it. Her story of the Lacasse family in post-Depression Montreal is heart-warming at one end, tear-inducing at the other. MacLennan’s novel may be a better example of the macro aspect of the English-French conflict in mid-20th century Montreal — The Tin Flute decisively and sympathetically explores the human cost it imposes on one family.

2014 collins The Burial, by Courtney Collins. Australian author Courtney Collins’ novel started out with two major strikes against it for me — a hackneyed prologue about an Houdini appearance in Melbourne that serves as the novel’s over-arching metaphor and the introduction of a deceased infant narrative voice, normally a killer when it comes to KfC prejudices. Collins recovered quickly — we soon meet her heroine Jessie Hickman and I was quickly engaged in her story of “escape” (you can’t quite get away from the Houdini metaphor) from brutal experiences. I have a deep affection for North American “frontier” novels; The Burial is an excellent illustration that Australians can produce equally good ones.

2014 marai Embers, by Sandor Marai. I don’t read nearly as much translated fiction as some bloggers do, but that doesn’t mean that every year’s top 10 list seems to feature at least one example. Embers was first published in 1942 — it has been a well-read classic ever since and, like a good wine (it is one of those “dinner-based” novels), it has improved with age. The book opens with “the General” instructing his servant to prepare the landau to go and fetch “the Captain” from his lodgings in a nearby town. As the book unfolds we experience the chilling story of their history — we slowly learn what it was that fueled the “embers” which are all that remains of their current relationship.

Us Conductors, by Sean Michaels. Us Conductors was the Shadow Giller Jury’s choice for 2014 — it is safe to say we were as stunned as anyone else when the Real Jury agreed with our selection. It is the fictionalized biography of Lev Termen, a Russian scientist and inventor, who invented and promoted the theremin, an electronic instrument that opened the field of synthesized music which we hear so often today. Termen’s initiative was promising enough that his Soviet masters sent him to America — under the umbrella of promoting the theremin, his minder conducted assorted spying initiatives. They did not work out well and, of course, Lev was blamed. His later time in the Gulag is the least attractive part of the book — author Michaels saves it with a delightful, if somewhat absurd, conclusion where Lev applies his inventing talents to spying on Moscow-based U.S. diplomats. An excellent read, one that I think compares favorably with Jean Echenoz’s equally inventive fictionalized biographies (Tesla, Ravel, and Zatopeck) which you can also find reviewed on this site.

2014 miller The Tivington Nott, by Alex Miller. Alex Miller is another Australian author who frequently visits the “frontier” story, but this one is set in England, based on his own experiences as a stock boy there before he left for Australia. The “nott” of the book’s title is a stag without antlers — the story is about a crew of Devon and Somerset “hunters” who are obsessed with tracking it down. Miller succeeds in making all of them (not the least himself, the stock boy) fully developed characters who have their own charms and failings. I think Miller is one of the most under-recognized authors writing in English (I am reading his entire catalogue at the rate of one a year) — The Tivington Nott is an excellent example of his strengths.

2014 zentner The Lobster Kings, by Alexi Zentner. I am pretty much out of step with the rest of the Canadian literary community and bloggers in my admiration for this one — reviews were not impressive and it failed to make any Canadian prize list. The Kings are a lobster-fishing family who have pretty much run Loosewood Island off the coast of New Brunswick and Maine for almost 300 years. In the current time of the novel, they are facing challenges from both poachers and drug runners — and that produces some disastrous consequences. Okay, some of the plot developments are entirely too predictable and verge on the hackneyed, but I found that Zentner produced a cast of characters who came fully to life in a different kind of “frontier” story.

2014 hustvedt The Blazing World, by Siri Hustvedt. The Blazing World makes a surprise appearance here — I would not have read it were it not one of the first American-written novels longlist for the Booker Prize and if you visit my review you will find that I was ambivalent about it at that time. It has improved in memory. It is the story of Harriet Burden, the widow of a prominent New York dealer who feels her own artistic abilities are overlooked and sets out on a series of interesting ruses to prove her point. While that central theme carries the book, Hustvedt (the spouse of Paul Auster) shares her husband’s interest in producing novels that have a wealth of story lines — some of them didn’t work for me when I first read The Blazing World but they have bloomed with life in the months since.

2014 flanagan The Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Richard Flanagan. This year’s Booker Prize winner was another novel that had its flaws for me, but those have receded over time and the exceptionally powerful middle section of the book has become even more impressive. Dorrigo Evan is a Tasmanian who is one of the Australian prisoners-of-war who are ruthlessly used by the Japanese to build the Siam to Burma railway — he survives the experience and becomes a national hero, even though he is a deeply flawed individual. I still wish that Flanagan had spent more effort in developing those flaws in the post-war period — I can’t fault the Booker jury for acknowledging how well he captured the horrors of the POW experience.

2014 mitchell The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell. This one is a collection of six connected novellas, centred around the character of Holly Sykes. We meet her first as a 15-year-old in Gravesend, are told some of her early paranormal experiences and are introduced to a number of characters who will show up in later sections. As in other Mitchell novels (think Cloud Atlas or Ghostwritten), succeeding sections move on to Cambridge, the Swiss Alps and the global author promotion world, before the author heads off into resolving the paranormal issue (my least favorite of the sections) and then concludes with a post-apocalyptic section set mainly in Ireland. I prefer Mitchell’s penetrating analysis of current conditions (he is a brilliant satirist) to his “bigger” themes — for my money The Bone Clocks has plenty of both.

Tell, by Frances Itani. Set in the small town of Desoronto, Ontario in 1919, this novel is an exploration of the trials and tensions in a post Great War community, far removed from the conflict itself. Kenan Oak has returned from the war badly damaged (his entire left side pretty much useless) and he and his wife Tress are struggling to re-establish their relationship. What made the novel work for me is the way that their story is contrasted with that of his Uncle Am and his wife — in a way similar to The Tin Flute, Tell is the exploration of a community and its values and the way the “ordinary” experience the waves of “great” events.

28 Responses to “2014 — KfC’s 10 best”

  1. David Says:

    A great list, Kevin. I’ve read only two of them, but want to read almost all. ‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’ was one of my favourite reads of 2013, but I’m afraid ‘The Lobster Kings’ would be vying with Lorrie Moore’s ‘Bark’ for my least favourite read of the year.
    I desperately want to read ‘The Tivington Nott’ after both yourself and Kim gave it glowing reviews, but with only that and ‘The Ancestor Game’ left to go I’m trying to ration my Miller reading. This year I seem to have been devouring the novels of another Aussie, the late Christopher Koch, instead… I imagine you’d like him, if you haven’t read him already, as most of his main characters are journalists. His ‘Highways to a War’ about a war photographer covering Cambodia and Vietnam is particularly good.

    I was trying to come up with my own ‘best of 2014’ list the other day and was surprised how few new Canadian books would be on it this year – there are several I’ve liked a great deal: Michael Crummey, Richard Wagamese, Emily St John Mandel, David Adams Richards, KD Miller, Claire Battershill, Tasneem Jamal, Carrie Snyder, even Margaret Atwood; but none did I love unreservedly.
    One new-ish (2013) Canadian book would definitely make my top 10 novels read this year, and that is Susan Downe’s novel-cum-memoir ‘Juanita Wildrose: My True Life’ which I thought was just an extraordinary book, for the beauty of the writing, the playing with form and most importantly the story. And Isobel Huggan’s ‘The Elizabeth Stories’ from 1984 would be one of my 10 favourite story collections read this year.

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    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Thanks for those thoughts — I will be investigating Christopher Koch for sure. You will note that three Aussies hit my list this year. I’ve always found Australian writing impressive and welcome the chance to add another author to the list (since I haven’t heard of him and the journalism angle definitely adds to the appeal).

      I would agree that 2014 was a somewhat mixed bag for Canadian fiction with no truly outstanding examples (such as The Orenda from last year) but there were a number of “quite good” ones.

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  2. Brett Says:

    Great list, as always, full of many books I know and a couple I don’t. I must admit that I’m surprised Station Eleven didn’t make your list. Have you read it yet? While not a flawless novel, I felt that Mandel shows exceptional promise – I put her into the same catagory as Catton as one to watch.

    And while I know a list has to be finite (!), I was sure I’d see The Enchanted (Denfeld) and The Bees (Paull) on your list, as well. Have you read them?

    Thanks for the new titles – more books to add to my TBR pile!

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    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I have not read Station Eleven — as I’ve confessed before on the blog, novels set in post-apocalypse settings are at the top of my “don’t go” list (that’s what makes The Bone Clocks the exception that proves the rule). But with both you and David rating it highly, I may just have to bury that prejudice and give it a go sometime down the road. Alas, the pile of books bought and not yet read, from 2014 alone, is threatening its own “apocalypse” if it ever falls over.

      Haven’t read those other two either — will check them out.

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  3. Anokatony Says:

    I’ve read ‘Embers’ which is on my all-time best novel list and ‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’ which was on my ‘this year’s best’ list.
    I didn’t much like Hustvedt’s last novel so am hesitant to read ‘The Blazing World’, but it has made a number of the end of year lists.
    Your description of ‘Tell’ reminded me about ‘The Wars’ by Timothy Findley which is one of the finest World War I novels.
    ‘The Tin Flute’, ‘Us Conductors’, and ‘The Bone Clocks’ all appeal to me. Not sure I have the energy for ‘The Bone Clocks’ yet.

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  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Tony: Embers would be on my all time list as well.

    The Hustvedt is a challenge, I’ll admit — I was ready to abandon at the halfway point but am glad I persevered. And Tell does have echoes of Findley’s book. As much as I liked them both, neither would get a “must read” response from me.

    The Bone Clocks is actually quite an easy read. The “novellas” are all pretty well self-contained, albeit with some overlapping characters and themes. Mitchell is so good at taking the piss out of the pompous that each one of them reads like a modern version of Evelyn Waugh — you can easily set the book aside for a week or two after finishing each one and won’t miss much because he is also pretty good at supplying reminders on the continuing aspects.

    You are a good reader of Canadian fiction, so do try to make room for The Tin Flute sometime. There are some excellent American authors who captured that period (Bellow and some Roth come to mind, not to mention some of the great Black writers) — with the French/English aspect Roy has a different thread to deal with, but it compares to the best that the U.S. has to offer.

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  5. kimbofo Says:

    This is such a great list and some of them will feature on my Top 10 when I put it together during my Christmas break.

    I really ought to put the Tin Flute on my wishlist. I’ve got the Zetner, bought in expectation that it would make the Giller longlist, so I’ll be intrigued to see which side of the fence I fall on. I really did love his debut.

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    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Thanks, Kim — I look forward to seeing your list. When I looked at my 2014 reading list, I did notice that Irish writers were under-represented this year. I’ll make sure I address that shortcoming in the next year.

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  6. Lisa Hill Says:

    Oh dear, *more* books to add to my wishlist!
    I’ve only read one of them, the Flanagan of course, but I have The Tivington Nott on my TBR and also The Bone Clocks.
    I haven’t decided whether to do a Top Ten this year or not … at the moment it’s as much as I can do to keep up with reading my favourite blogs and posting the occasional review.
    But
    *drum roll*
    only three days left to my retirement!
    Then things might be different:)

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    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I think the “busyness” of retiring would be a legitimate excuse for skipping a top ten list for one year. Then again, I always find it a good reason to remind me of some of the books that I read early in the year which have slipped into the recesses of memory — but quickly come back to mind when you see the title.

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  7. ebookclassics Says:

    I enjoyed reading your list. I still have Us Conductors and Tell on my reading list, but The Tin Flute sounds very appealing too.

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  8. Guy Savage Says:

    I’ve read two of those listed: Embers (wehich I wasn’t crazy about) and the Blazing World which sets very well in my mind.

    Happy Xmas and I dropped in to mention the Italian crime series: Gomorrah.

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  9. Mary K Gilbert Says:

    Happy New year Kevin. I’ve just written the names of some of your books of the year in my notebook. I haven’t read any of the Canadian ones but plan to order them. I can pass them on to my Aunt – a keen reader who lived in Hamilton for 20 years and loves all things Canadian – apart from winter. The only book on your list I’ve read is Bone Clocks which I enthused about on your website previously. I’ve had an amazingly productive reading year and I’ve re read lots of favourites. Few new standouts though. I loved Alex Miller’s Journey to the Stone Country on your recommendation ( or was it Kimbofo? – apologies if it was). John Burnside’s Living Nowhere was exceptional. I’m currently reading the new Michael Faber and enjoying it. Looking forward to more discoveries in 2015. Thanks for your blogs – always thoughtful and interesting and I often share your opinions – which is reassuring!

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    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Many thanks for your comments and insights, Mary — they are very much appreciated. The Twitterverse has taken most of the book conversation away from blogs and I miss it.

      And I hope your Aunt does not find my Canadian selections wanting!

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  10. Liz at Literary Masters Says:

    I always look forward to seeing your “Top Ten,” so was glad to see this post! I was reading this with my daughter, and she was very impressed with your blog–she is now a fan. Here’s wishing you a Happy New Year–hope it’s filled with much time to read and blog!

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  11. james b chester Says:

    Looks like an excellent reading list. I also loved Embers, but I’m afraid I didn’t get too far with The Bone Clocks. I should give it another go sometime. I do have Narrow Road in my TBR stack.

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  12. Max Cairnduff Says:

    A nicely diverse list Kevin, and a good year clearly. I have the Marai and I’m delighted to see how it made the list and how highly you rate it. I’ve not read anything by him yet so that will be my first, and it really does make it a lot more enticing.

    I’m also delighted to be reminded of Us Conductors, which I’d forgotten about.

    The Tin Flute ” is heart-warming at one end, tear-inducing at the other” – that doesn’t sound like you so much to me though, so since I don’t recall your review I really must now read what you thought about it.

    I hope 2015 is even better Kevin.

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    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Do give Us Conductors a go — it is a relatively quick read and has some very good moments to it.

      As for The Tin Flute, I suspect it is more a “Canadian classic” than a global one but I do think it is an outstanding novel for its time.

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  13. Kerry Says:

    I have read five of your top 10 which, I think, is a record for me. It makes me happy, frankly, to fewer books to add to the TBR because your recommendations are always good for me.

    The five are: The Embers, The Blazing World, The Bone Clocks, The Tin Flute, and The Narrow Road to the Deep North. I’ve enjoyed them all, although I found the Mitchell disappointing (number9dream and Cloud Atlas are two of my all-times) and Narrow Road a bit overrated. Still, all very good books. The Blazing World definitely makes my own top 10 for the year and The Embers is, as you know, one of my absolute favorite novels, partly because I was an early-adopted, but also because it is excellent.

    Your description of Alex Miller as one of the “most under-recognized authors writing in English” is quite enticing, so vaults him to the top. My question, though, is should I start with The Tivington Nott or go to the beginning and work my way through. As you may recall, I do like frontier novels (e.g. Willa Cather). Any suggestion on where to begin?

    In any case, thanks for this great list and for another excellent year of book blogging. Happy New Year!

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    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I’m delighted that the overlap saves you money!

      As for Alex Miller, I started with Autumn Laing (click on his name in the sidebar for reviews of the three that I have read) and was very impressed. It is his second most recent — I’d call it a “frontier” novel in the sense that it deals with discovering cultures. I knew from comments on other blogs (most specifically from David who comments often here and Kimbofo) that Miller was well-regarded and my experience with Autumn Laing convinced me to read his catalogue in chronological order.

      I would not start with The Tivington Nott, as much as I liked the book — it doesn’t contain the “Australian immigrant conflict” which I think is an important element in his fiction. Obviously, I wouldn’t criticize starting with Autumn Laing. And I’d consider starting with one of two that I have not read but were prize winners — Journey to the Stone Country and The Ancestor Game. From the description of them, they both have the frontier element that we both like.

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  14. Caterina Edwards Says:

    Kevin, you don’t seem to be posting this year – 2015. Or, at lest, I can’t seem to find new posts. Is your site shuttered? Do you accept books for possible review? My first-ever publication was a short story in an Alberta anthology in the 70s. You commented positively on it in a column. I’m curious to see what you make of my latest book. (Because your reviews make me think.)

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  15. whisperinggums Says:

    Oh dear … when I saw your post pop up – I noticed this post that I’d somehow missed in the end of year rounds. I’ve only read two of the books – the two Aussie ones, and like you I think they’re very good and are both books that I still “feel” (in a good way!) when I think of them months after having read them.

    Anyhow, good to see you up and at ’em Kevin. That must be a good sign.

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