Best books of 2014
We’ll send you a myFT Daily Digest email rounding up the latest Life & Arts news every morning.
Publishers have their faults but they do not forget anniversaries. This year in books, accordingly, was always going to have an elegiac tone, so dominated by the centenary of the first world war that it often felt like we were commemorating its early stages in real time – as indeed we were. Readers could draw comfort from the fact that similar landmarks have often produced enduring works – think Simon Schama’s Citizens, published for the bicentenary of the French Revolution – and in Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers and Margaret MacMillan’s The War that Ended Peace, we had two likely classics before 2014 even arrived. Many more titles followed: histories, as you would expect, with Adam Tooze’s The Deluge a heavyweight offering; but also novels, biographies of war poets and statesmen, some fine anthologies and powerful first-hand accounts such as The Burning of the World, a memoir of Austro-Hungarian army life by the painter Béla Zombory-Moldován.
Other milestones competed for our attention. The upheavals of 1989 – above all, Tiananmen Square and the fall of the Berlin Wall – were the subject of numerous well-received books. Likewise the Napoleonic wars, with the looming bicentenary of Waterloo prompting publishers with an eye to the paperback to get their accounts of the battle out early. Maybe the same thinking lay behind the appearance this year of In These Times, Jenny Uglow’s assured social history of the British experience between 1793 and 1815, as well as two significant lives of the bicorned bogeyman himself by Andrew Roberts and Michael Broers.
Occasionally, I did wonder whether some of the anniversaries might, in another time, have been allowed to pass unmarked. Should we really have got so excited about the 450th of Shakespeare’s birth, for example, especially considering that we only have to wait until 2016 for the 400th of his death? Was the passing of 45 years since the publication of Eric Carle’s children’s classic The Very Hungry Caterpillar a good enough reason to invest extra significance in the 2014 celebrations of “Very Hungry Caterpillar Day”? I regularly receive notifications of 30th, 15th, fifth, even seventh and third anniversaries – at which point, for me, the idea just seems to lose all meaning.
Journalists, of course, should be wary of memorialising. But if anniversaries have become a kind of secular religion, scattering the calendar like saints’ days with their invitations to reflect on victories, heroes and cautionary tales, then perhaps that isn’t such a bad thing. Going back to Dylan Thomas last month around the time of the centenary of his birth, I was grateful for the reintroduction; however arbitrary the reason, I am richer for it. And in a world of distractions, why not welcome any inducement to read? As for Very Hungry Caterpillar Day, you can sign me up for that when the half-century comes around.
A preoccupation with the past is understandable right now: six years on from the financial crisis, western economies continue to struggle, populist forces are on the rise nearly everywhere and there is a pervasive sense of a social compact under pressure. Such concerns were at the heart of Political Order and Political Decay by Francis Fukuyama, who worried about the capture of the American state by special interests; they weighed on David Marquand in Mammon’s Kingdom, his modern take on the Condition of England question. They were there, too, in Greg Grandin’s The Empire of Necessity – a book that managed to be at once a compelling narrative of an 1804 slave revolt, a panoramic study of the Americas in an age of revolution and a meditation on the contradictions inherent in the idea of liberty itself, then and now.
But no writer spoke more directly to the zeitgeist than the winner of the 2014 Financial Times and McKinsey Business Book of the Year Award, Thomas Piketty, whose Capital in the Twenty-First Century arrived with a resounding thud in a fine English translation this spring to challenge a century of theory-driven economics with a degree of confidence seldom found outside the grandes écoles. The product of 15 years’ research, Capital in the Twenty-First Century pulls together disparate data from a number of different countries to argue that we are returning to levels of inequality last seen a century ago; and to propose, furthermore, that the tendency for the rate of return on capital to exceed the rate of growth (“r > g”) requires sharp taxation of wealth at the higher end if we are to preserve the levels of social harmony necessary for democracy to function.
Critics of Piketty’s ideas as too extreme have ranged from Mervyn King to Myleene Klass (if the singer’s views on Labour party proposals for a “mansion tax” count); he has come under fire from the left, too, for a certain lèse-majesté with regard to the work of Marx; and some of his statistics have been questioned, notably in the FT. No one is going to turn to the literary editor for a decisive ruling on all of this but it seems fair to conclude that, while Piketty may not have settled the inequality debate, he has taken it into new territory: his opponents will be obliged to follow.
As Piketty disarmingly accepts, economics is only one guide to the pressing issues of the day; fiction can offer different insights and, on this particular subject, We Live in Water, Jess Walter’s tender, funny collection of stories about life on the wrong side of the tracks in the US northwest, was a fine example. The winners of the US National Book Award for fiction and Britain’s Man Booker Prize both looked squarely at war – the Iraq “surge” in the case of Phil Klay’s Redeployment, the Thai-Burma “death railway” in Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, a historical novel that carried a powerful contemporary charge. Concerns about technology also seemed to play on the minds of novelists: social media in the case of Joshua Ferris’s Man Booker-shortlisted To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, the excesses of the security state in Peter Carey’s Amnesia.
Meanwhile, literary non-fiction was taking a personal turn. Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk, an exhilarating journey around falconry and TH White, became the first memoir, and the first work of nature writing, to win Britain’s Samuel Johnson Prize. And autobiography was suddenly everywhere, evident in history, science, biography – even the novel, with the English translation of the third instalment in Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle series often, like the first two, seeming to render the distinction beside the point.
If this was a year for honouring the past and worrying about the present, it was also a time for speculating about what might be. Ursula Le Guin, in a passionate speech at the National Book Awards this month, welcomed her lifetime achievement award as a sign that writers of science fiction and fantasy – “realists of a larger reality” – were no longer the poor relations of the literary world. And as the prize shortlists and review pages showed, serious novelists have clearly shed any inhibitions they might have once had about venturing into the speculative: David Mitchell, Howard Jacobson, Chang Rae-Lee and Michel Faber all did so to great effect in 2014.
Elsewhere, the forces of progress captured the imagination. At the policy makers’ and business leaders’ forum of Davos in January, The Second Machine Age by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee generated a flurry of interest in the idea that robots could soon play a far bigger part of our daily lives – and render many of us unemployed in the process. Immortality was in the air, too, with the Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari speculating in Sapiens: A Brief History of Humanity on what might happen if advances in bioengineering and artificial intelligence came together to vastly increase human lifespans and capabilities. Little surprise, in a world getting to grips with the logic of “r > g”, that we should not expect the benefits to be equally shared.
But it was the strength of writing about mortality that really struck me in 2014. To pick just a few examples, there was Do No Harm by Henry Marsh, a gripping portrait of a brain surgeon’s life and work; Being Mortal by Atul Gawande, the American doctor-writer whose first Reith lecture was aired by the BBC this week; and Marion Coutts’ remarkable The Iceberg, an account of the period between her husband’s diagnosis with a brain tumour and his death a little over two years later.
Here is a subject where writers are clearly reflecting a shift in public attitudes – one evident in the phenomenal response to the British actress Lynda Bellingham’s memoir of her last years, which has topped the bestseller lists since its publication, selling more than 200,000 copies in less than two months. The 17th-century essayist François de La Rochefoucauld wrote that death was like the sun, neither to be looked at steadily. It is to our credit, surely, if that maxim no longer holds.
Award-winning authors, FT editors and columnist on the titles to remember this year
Editor of the Financial Times
Creativity, Inc, by Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace (Bantam/Random House), is a great book for anyone interested in inspiring and managing creative talent. Catmull, a PhD student from the University of Utah, nurtured the dream of making the first computer-animated movie. That dream translated into Pixar, the Oscar-winning California studio later acquired by Steve Jobs and Disney. Creativity, Inc – a finalist for FT/McKinsey Business Book of the Year – explains the failures, the tensions and the ultimate accolades from Finding Nemo to Toy Story.
Author of ‘H is for Hawk’, winner of the 2014 Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction
To Richard Kerridge, British reptiles and amphibians are creatures as exciting, strange and savage as any African lion. I loved his Cold Blood: Adventures with Reptiles and Amphibians (Jonathan Cape). It is not just a deeply informed natural history of these denizens of our countryside, but a paean to the small, the unloved, the forgotten and overlooked, all tangled up in a beguiling memoir of childhood, obsession and family life. Moving, careful, humane and beautifully written, it’s a book impossible to read without falling a little in love with the author and his scaly and web-toed subjects.
Anybody who has an elderly parent must read Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal: Illness, Medicine and What Matters in the End (Profile/Metropolitan). So must anyone who plans one day on becoming old themselves. The surgeon and writer forces us to look at mortality unflinchingly, telling us what is wrong with how we treat the old and dying – we revere their safety and we prolong life when it is cruel to do so – as well as explaining how we could do it better. He tells the story of awful deaths and better ones, including that of his own beloved father, without clichés, sentimentality or evasion. It is predictably grim; what is less predictable is that Gawande’s wisdom and humanity make its final message an uplifting one.
Author of ‘The Zone of Interest’ (Cape/Knopf)
Lawrence Wright has become a formidable technician of synthesis and narrative. After The Looming Tower (the story of September 11) and Going Clear (on the scientology racket), he has now produced the wonderfully readable Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin, and Sadat at Camp David (Oneworld/Knopf). The peace treaty goes on seeming wholly unattainable right up until the three men unscrew their fountain pens in the White House. Yet they signed, and the peace has held for 36 years.
Clive James’s Poetry Notebook (Picador/Liveright) reintroduced me to the intense pleasures of close reading. Although he has some hard – and funny – things to say about Ezra Pound, James is firmly committed to celebration. He reminds us that poetry is, or can be, “the most exciting thing in the world”. And this is what literary criticism, and literary pedagogy, should aim for: not to add a further encrustation of complexity, but simply to instil the readerly habits of gratitude and awe.
Author of ‘The Bone Clocks’ (Sceptre/Random House)
My favourite book of 2014 is Michel Faber’s novel The Book of Strange New Things (Canongate/Hogarth), about a Christian chaplain in the near future sent to a planet called Oasis; about his wife back on an Earth suffering economic and ecological collapse; about faith and its limits, love and its limits, neocapitalism and its endgame, and cultural relativism and its paradoxes. It is brainy, driven, funny, dark, idiosyncratic. Yes, The Book of Strange New Things is science fiction; yes, it’s literature; yes, writing this good illuminates life.
Editor of FT Weekend
I admit. I am one of those devoted fans of Haruki Murakami. His latest book, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage (Harvill Secker/ Knopf), features a main character who is stalled, inert, made calm by trains running on time. Within pages, you are claustrophobically aware of how far he has stepped from his childhood self, fully alive in the company of his four closest friends; now he is sidetracked in a different, smaller life. A nascent relationship forces him to follow the threads of his own past, beginning a journey through friendships, love, jealousy, sexual awakening and ambivalence, with just enough surreal dream projections to keep it unbalanced.
Karl Ove Knausgaard
Author of ‘Boyhood Island: My Struggle Book 3’ (Vintage/Archipelago)
The Austrian Peter Handke, no doubt one of the best and most influential authors in European literature of the past five decades, is back again with another masterpiece, the beautiful Storm Still (Seagull Books). It’s about history, family, language, war, life and death, and it’s done with such skill, originality, simplicity and insight that I want to cry, with joy and with sorrow – and with envy!
Diary of the Fall by Michel Laub (Harvill Secker/Other Press) is another extraordinary book from 2014, as sharp as it is moving. I’ll never forget the grandfather’s rewriting of his life, from what it really was to what it should have been. In my world, this novel is already a classic.
MP and author of ‘Please, Mister Postman’ (Bantam Press)
Alison Light’s Common People: The History of an English Family (Fig Tree) was a revelation. Given the huge popularity of genealogy reflected in the success of TV programmes like Who Do You Think You Are? there’s bound to be an audience for this book. But this is no populist hobby manual. Light sets out to trace the lives of the virtually untraceable and in doing so uncovers the rich history of people who had no material wealth at all and therefore nothing to hand down to the genealogists.
Author of ‘Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay’ (Europa Editions)
The only book that I read this year in English is The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri (Bloomsbury/Vintage). I had never read anything of hers, and it was a wonderful surprise. Lahiri skilfully shapes the political aspect of her story, effectively conveys the collision of two worlds, and vividly describes campus life in the United States. But what in my view makes the book memorable is the character of Gauri. In Italy the novel was titled La moglie – “The Wife”. It’s one of those rare cases where the publisher’s commercially driven decision to use an alternative title actually serves to call readers’ attention to a great literary accomplishment.
Economics by Martin Wolf
Fragile by Design: The Political Origins of Banking Crises and Scarce Credit, by Charles Calomiris and Stephen Haber, Princeton, RRP£24.95/$35
We get the banking systems we deserve or, more precisely, that our political systems choose. The US has had 12 systemic banking crises since 1840, while Canada has had none. Better awareness of how the political forces work might lead to superior bargains. But this informative book does not leave the reader optimistic. It is hard to shift bad political equilibria.
Microeconomics: A Very Short Introduction, by Avinash Dixit, OUP, RRP£7.99/$11.95
Macroeconomics – the study of the economy as a whole – has got a bad reputation recently. But Dixit demonstrates in this accessible book that economists do at least know a great deal more than nothing about microeconomics: the study of markets, both their successes and their failures.
Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalisation of Democracy, by Francis Fukuyama, Profile, RRP£25/ Farrar, Straus and Giroux, RRP$35
In the second of two masterly volumes, Fukuyama shows how the difficult balance between the state, the rule of law and democratic accountability emerged, then developed and, more recently, started to decay in the west. This is a work of political science, not of economics narrowly defined. But the issues Fukuyama raises are of profound concern to economists, too, because economic institutions affect and are, in turn, affected by the political systems in which they operate.
Stress Test: Reflections on Financial Crises, by Timothy Geithner, Random House Business, RRP£25/ Crown, RRP$35
Geithner was president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and then Treasury secretary through the worst years of the financial crisis. His book offers a lively account of what this felt like. Geithner also argues that the way the US handled the crisis, particularly its use of stress tests, is a model for the future. Sadly, he also believes that crises are sure to recur.
How to Speak Money, by John Lanchester, Faber, RRP£17.99/ WW Norton, RRP$26.95
Most people have little idea what economists and financiers are talking about. Lanchester, a best-selling author, has decided to remedy this by writing a provocative and personal reference book. His definitions are not always correct but they almost always offer an amusing start.
Thrive: The Power of Evidence-based Psychological Therapies, by Richard Layard and David Clark, Allen Lane, RRP£20
In this important book, the authors – one an economist, the other a psychologist – demonstrate both the human and economic costs of mental illnesses. These are far and away the most destructive set of ailments to fall on the young and middle-aged. Yet mental illnesses remain undertreated, if not altogether ignored, by health systems. The case the authors make for ending this neglect is unanswerable.
European Spring: Why Our Economies and Politics are in a Mess and How to Put Them Right, by Philippe Legrain, CB Books, RRP£12.99
This is a splendid book on the European malaise. Legrain argues compellingly that policy makers’ response to that crisis was and remains a disaster. He warns that the eurozone is still far from healthy and that the German example, which members are supposed to follow, is a delusion. He notes, too, that the UK’s recovery is built on sand.
House of Debt: How They (and You) Caused the Great Recession, and How We Can Prevent it from Happening Again, by Atif Mian and Amir Sufi, Chicago, RRP£18/$26
Professors Mian and Sufi argue that “economic disasters are almost always preceded by a large increase in household debt”. It is debatable whether this is a universal truth. But it is certainly true of the financial crisis of 2007-08. The authors argue, persuasively, for a shift from traditional debt towards contracts that share losses between the suppliers and users of finance.
War: What is it Good for? The Role of Conflict in Civilisation, from Primates to Robots, by Ian Morris, Profile, RRP£25/ Farrar, Straus and Giroux, RRP$30
Morris argues that war may bring peace, prosperity and progress. This is not always the case. Some war is simply destructive. But through war, more powerful and effective states emerge and these in turn have produced the security that then allows people to become more productive. The thesis is disturbingly persuasive. In a nuclear age, however, it is clear that the great powers will have to try something else.
Capital in the Twenty-First Century, by Thomas Piketty, translated by Arthur Goldhammer, Harvard, RRP£29.95/ Belknap Press, RRP$39.95
This was the blockbuster success of 2014 and was named the Financial Times and McKinsey Business Book of the Year. Despite the controversies surrounding it, the book throws much light upon one of the most important questions in economics: what determines the distribution of income and wealth. With an abundance of data and some simple and powerful theories, Piketty has made an immensely important contribution to the public debate.
The Dollar Trap: How the US Dollar Tightened its Grip on Global Finance, by Eswar Prasad, Princeton, RRP£24.95/$35
It is by now the conventional wisdom that the dollar’s primacy is coming to an end, with the Chinese renminbi the imminent successor. Prasad rejects this view. The role of the dollar as a unit of account and medium of exchange is indeed likely to be eroded, he agrees. But, he argues – to my mind, convincingly – the dollar’s role as a store of value has if anything been strengthened by the crisis.
The Euro Trap: On Bursting Bubbles, Budgets and Beliefs, by Hans-Werner Sinn, OUP, RRP£25/$45
Sinn is the best-known and most trenchant German critic of the way in which the eurozone has managed – or, in his view, mismanaged – the crisis. He rightly identifies the roots of the crisis in the huge divergences in competitiveness that emerged in the years leading up it. This view from Germany shows just how difficult it will be to make the eurozone work successfully, even if one disagrees with some of the conclusions (which I do).
Business by Andrew Hill
Dragnet Nation: A Quest for Privacy, Security and Freedom in a World of Relentless Surveillance, by Julia Angwin, Times Books, RRP$27
This book would have been frightening and fascinating if Angwin had merely described the impact of internet surveillance on various innocent parties. What makes it riveting is her engaging story of a concerted and often difficult quest to protect her own and her family’s privacy.
The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies, by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, WW Norton, RRP£17.99/$26.95
Brynjolfsson and McAfee started to lay out their vision of the challenges of the technological revolution more than three years ago. But their broadly optimistic book is still one of the best summaries of the debate about the impact of digital change on our future job prospects and prosperity.
Hack Attack: How the Truth Caught Up with Rupert Murdoch, by Nick Davies, Chatto & Windus, RRP£20/ Faber, RRP$27
The case for calling Davies’s tour de force a business book (like the two books above, it was a finalist for FT/McKinsey Business Book of the Year) lies in its revelations about the structure, motivation and governance of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire. Much more than a retelling of the UK’s inquiry into phone-hacking, it is a sharp guide to the causes and profound consequences of the scandal.
Shredded: Inside RBS, the Bank that Broke Britain, by Ian Fraser, Birlinn, RRP£25
Of two excellent recent books about the implosion of Royal Bank of Scotland (the other is Iain Martin’s Making it Happen, published last year), Fraser’s is the darker, deeper and ultimately more satisfying version. It is given added weight by the author’s evident, and justified, anger at the way in which one bank brought the British financial system to the brink of catastrophe.
The Boom: How Fracking Ignited the American Energy Revolution and Changed the World, by Russell Gold, Simon & Schuster, RRP$26
This often fascinating account of the rise of “fracking” is the ideal book for readers still wondering what to make of the phenomenon. Gold recounts some compelling tales of communities and individuals whose lives have been transformed, for good or ill, by the latest resource boom.
A Bigger Prize: Why Competition Isn’t Everything and How We Do Better, by Margaret Heffernan, Simon & Schuster, RRP£14.99/ PublicAffairs, RRP$27.99
Heffernan’s burning sense that our obsession with competition is undermining the potential benefits of co-operation and collaboration illuminates this book, a thought-provoking companion to her earlier polemic, Wilful Blindness. She spares nobody, pointing out in detail how competition can lead to inferior results – and genuine suffering – in business, sport, education and scientific research.
The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution, by Walter Isaacson, Simon & Schuster, RRP£20/$35
Isaacson deserved the plaudits he received for his biography of Steve Jobs but The Innovators was the work he interrupted to write about the Apple co-founder. It is arguably more fascinating, particularly in its account of how the daring of earlier technology innovators, from Ada Lovelace to Alan Turing, provided a foundation for the breakthroughs of Jobs and his contemporaries.
Flash Boys: Cracking the Money Code, by Michael Lewis, Allen Lane, RRP£20/ WW Norton, RRP$27.95
The consummate chronicler of finance’s hidden excesses turns his attention to the world of algorithmic traders. Lewis is on the side of those fighting to protect ordinary investors in what he sees as an unequal struggle with the “flash boys”.
The Shifts and the Shocks: What We’ve Learned – and Have Still to Learn – from the Financial Crisis, by Martin Wolf, Allen Lane, RRP£25/ Penguin Press, RRP$35
The FT’s chief economics commentator applies his experience and knowledge to the wrenching and continuing economic crisis. The book makes uncomfortable reading for bankers, financiers and policy makers. But most readers will agree with Joseph Stiglitz, who wrote in his FT review: “Martin Wolf has outdone himself.”
Politics by Gideon Rachman
Roy Jenkins: A Well-Rounded Life, by John Campbell, Jonathan Cape, RRP£30
The biography of a centre-left politician who never made it to the top of British politics and operated in a period when the country was in gentle decline might not sound too promising. But Campbell is a superb biographer and he makes Jenkins a fascinating and emblematic figure.
Contest of the Century: The New Era of Competition with China, by Geoff Dyer, Allen Lane, RRP£20/Vintage, RRP$15.95
A much-praised account by the FT’s Washington-based diplomatic correspondent of the emerging rivalry between the US and China. Dyer examines the economic, political and strategic aspects of the contest – as well as the formidable, if very different, domestic challenges faced by both nations.
Revolt on the Right: Explaining Support for the Radical Right in Britain, by Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin, Routledge, RRP£14.99/$29.99
The first major academic study of the UK Independence party debunks the idea that its core support is made up of choleric ex-colonels in the shires, and identifies its base as the poorer end of the white working class. As a result, Ukip ultimately poses as much of a threat to Labour as to the Tories.
No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the Surveillance State, by Glenn Greenwald, Hamish Hamilton, RRP£20/Metropolitan Books, RRP$27
Greenwald, Edward Snowden’s journalistic collaborator, tells the story of the biggest leak of classified information in US history. To some Greenwald is a hero, to others he is an irresponsible egotist. But this is an important first-hand account of the Snowden affair.
Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and The End of a Stable Pacific, by Robert Kaplan, Ballantine Books, RRP£12.99/Random House, RRP$26
Kaplan, an experienced geopolitical commentator, takes on one of the world’s strategic flashpoints – the South China Sea. He brings some obscure but important territorial disputes to life, with a characteristic mix of history and reportage.
World Order, by Henry Kissinger, Allen Lane, RRP£25/ Penguin Press, RRP$36
Now in his nineties, Kissinger remains one of the world’s most interesting thinkers on geopolitics. Here he identifies four great cultures – European, Islamic, Chinese and American – each with a distinctive approach to shaping the rest of the world. The book’s message is a plea to achieve a global balance of power based on “Westphalian” principles, defined as “a practical accommodation to reality, not a unique moral insight”.
Bending Adversity: Japan and the Art of Survival, by David Pilling, Allen Lane, RRP£20/ Penguin Press, RRP$29.95
This year has seen dramatic economic reforms in Japan as a dynamic prime minister struggles to break a cycle of decline. The FT’s Asia editor provides an affectionate, beautifully written and counter-intuitively optimistic take on the country, which stresses Japan’s ability to reinvent itself.
Talking to Terrorists: How to End Armed Conflicts, by Jonathan Powell, Random House, RRP£20
As Tony Blair’s chief of staff, Powell played a key role in the Northern Ireland peace negotiations. This lively, anecdotal book serves as a “how to” manual for the delicate business of negotiating with terrorists – with chapters on everything from “making contact with the enemy” to the use of “third parties”.
Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth and Faith in the New China, by Evan Osnos, Bodley Head, RRP£20/ Farrar, Straus and Giroux, RRP$27
As the New Yorker’s Beijing correspondent, Osnos established a reputation as one of the most vivid western writers on China. In Age of Ambition, winner of the US National Book Award for non-fiction, he paints a portrait of a country torn between the rise of individualism and an entrenched one-party state.
History by Tony Barber
Nixon, Kissinger and the Shah: The United States and Iran in the Cold War, by Roham Alvandi, OUP, RRP£35.99/$55
Knowledge of the 1970s, when Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was one of Washington’s closest global allies, is essential for anyone wishing to grasp why it is so difficult for the US and Iran to overcome their differences. Alvandi casts the period in a new light by showing that Iran’s last shah was more than just President Richard Nixon’s cat’s paw in the Middle East.
Christendom Destroyed: Europe 1517-1648, by Mark Greengrass, Allen Lane, RRP£30/ Viking, RRP$45
The political and religious conflicts of early modern Europe receive high-quality treatment from Greengrass, professor emeritus at the UK’s Sheffield university. But he also gives a detailed account of changes in ordinary people’s lives, from diet and clothes to language, making the book an excellent addition to the new Penguin History of Europe.
Stalin, Volume 1: Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928, by Stephen Kotkin, Allen Lane, RRP£30/ Penguin Press, RRP$40
Kotkin’s 1995 Magnetic Mountain, a path-breaking account of crash Soviet industrialisation in the city of Magnitogorsk, established his expertise as a historian of Stalinism. His latest book is the first of an immense, three-volume study of Stalin, which promises to set new standards for scholarship on the Georgian-born Soviet dictator.
Let God Arise: The War and Rebellion of the Camisards, by W Gregory Monahan, OUP, RRP£75/$115
In 1702 the Protestant Camisards of the remote Cévennes region of southern France rose up against the crown and the Catholic authorities. Monahan tells the story with fluency and erudition.
The Collapse: The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall, by Mary Elise Sarotte, Basic Books, RRP£18.99/$27.99
The fall of the Berlin Wall was the defining event of the revolutionary year of 1989. Sarotte provides an authoritative and fast-moving account of the events that led up to the collapse of East Germany.
The Deluge: The Great War and the Remaking of Global Order, 1916-1931, by Adam Tooze, Allen Lane, RRP£30/ Viking, RRP$40
Tooze made his name with The Wages of Destruction, on the Nazi German economy. His study of the post-1918 era is equally impressive, explaining why the US and its allies, having defeated Germany, were unable to stabilise the world economy and build a collective security system in Europe.
National Service: Conscription in Britain, 1945-1963, by Richard Vinen, Allen Lane, RRP£25/ Penguin Global, RRP$40
Written with compassion and insight, Vinen’s book brilliantly recreates the atmosphere of postwar Britain by examining the relatively shortlived experiment with military service. A professor at King’s College, London, he draws parallels with the experience of France, on whose modern history he has published several fine books.
The Tupac Amaru Rebellion, by Charles F Walker, Harvard, RRP£22.95/$29.95
The Tupac Amaru rebellion began in the Spanish viceroyalty of Peru in 1780 and turned into the largest popular uprising in Spain’s imperial history. To this day, its impact resonates in modern Latin American politics. The rebellion receives masterly treatment from Walker, a history professor at the University of California, Davis.
A Mad Catastrophe: The Outbreak of World War I and the Collapse of the Habsburg Empire, by Geoffrey Wawro, Basic Books, RRP£19.99/$29.95
In a year glutted with first world war books, this study stands out for its devastating portrayal of the reckless diplomacy, internal political disarray and incompetent battlefield leadership that dragged Austria-Hungary towards the abyss in 1914. Wawro, a University of North Texas professor, offers a remarkably fresh and unsentimental analysis of an empire on its last legs.
Science by Clive Cookson
Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology, by Jim Al-Khalili and Johnjoe McFadden, Bantam Press, RRP£20
A weird and wonderful world is brought to life in this ambitious book by two scientists working in the new field of quantum biology. They show how bizarre effects such as tunnelling, entanglement and superposition can account for bird navigation, plant photosynthesis and our sense of smell.
Invisible: The Dangerous Allure of the Unseen, by Philip Ball, Bodley Head, RRP£25
The history of invisibility provides a rich seam of stories and analysis for Ball, one of the most engaging contemporary science writers. He covers the magic, superstition and science of making people and objects invisible, from ancient spells and potions to the latest “metamaterials” coming out of physics labs.
Risk Savvy: How to Make Good Decisions, by Gerd Gigerenzer, Allen Lane, RRP£14.99/ Viking, RRP$26.95
Gigerenzer, a risk expert, describes the high cost in human suffering and financial losses of misjudging risk. Things will only get better, he shows, when specialists, particularly doctors and investment advisers, improve on their appalling record of analysing and communicating risks in their fields.
The Lagoon: How Aristotle Invented Science, by Armand Marie Leroi, Bloomsbury, RRP£25/ Viking, RRP$29.95
Leroi reconstructs Aristotle’s studies of wildlife at the Kalloni lagoon on Lesbos more than 2,300 years ago. Entertainingly, he builds up the thesis that the great Greek philosopher was the world’s first systematic biologist.
A Rough Ride to the Future, by James Lovelock, Allen Lane, RRP£20
Lovelock is revered for his hugely influential view of Earth as Gaia, a self-regulating system in which biology and geology, physics and chemistry maintain conditions suitable for life. He outlines his latest thinking in this book, written with humanity, wisdom and (at 94) a certain vulnerability.
Art by Jackie Wullschlager
Landmark: The Fields of Landscape Photography, by William A Ewing, Thames & Hudson, RRP£39.95/$65
A definitive study of contemporary landscape photography in all its conceptual variety – Andreas Gursky, Hiroshi Sugimoto, John Stezaker. Ewing takes in the work of 100 photographers and, through themes ranging from pastoral and the sublime to “rupture” and “playground”, considers what landscape means.
Masterpieces in Detail: Early Netherlandish Art from Van Eyck to Bosch, by Till Holger-Borchert, Prestel, RRP£75/$120
The title misleads: Prestel’s latest, lavish outsize volume ranges from the early Renaissance right up to Rubens and Van Dyck. Dutch painting is about nothing if not detail: for lovers of this period, the gloriously enlarged close-up illustrations and expanded spreads make this an unrivalled account.
Vincent Van Gogh: Ever Yours – The Essential Letters, edited by Leo Jansen, Hans Luijten and Nienke Bakker, Yale, RRP£30/$50
No artist was ever a more engaging, vivid, honest, yearning, generous correspondent: you can open this selection on any page and be instantly riveted. Marvellously condensed from the Van Gogh Museum’s landmark six-volume 2009 edition.
Edgar Degas: Drawings and Pastels, by Christopher Lloyd, Thames & Hudson, RRP£24.95/ J Paul Getty Museum, RRP$39.95
“Drawing has come back again!” announced Gauguin on seeing Degas’s sketches. Comprehensive but compact enough to read in bed, this superbly illustrated account encompasses the range of works on paper by the artist who was the 19th century’s greatest draughtsman, equal to the Old Masters.
Germany: Memories of a Nation, by Neil MacGregor, Allen Lane, RRP£30
Written with deep insight but a feather-light touch, this emotionally gripping analysis considers Germany through the prism of its unique historical fragmentation: the only European country without a coherent, overarching national narrative. MacGregor also brilliantly distils how objects acquire cultural resonance.
The State Hermitage: Treasures from the Museum’s Collection, by Mikhail Piotrovsky, Booth-Clibborn Editions, RRP£175
Yes it justifies the price! Art book of 2014, this revised edition marks the 250th birthday of St Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum. The two volumes afford years of browsing but also a full overview of western and Russian art history, ancient and modern.
Architecture & Design by Edwin Heathcote
Forensis: The Architecture of Public Truth, edited by Forensic Architecture, Sternberg Press, RRP£23/$28
This dense, provocative book proposes architecture as evidence, advocating the use of built and virtual space as a field of study in the struggle against violations of human rights. It spans the bombings in Gaza, drone strikes and the sinking of refugee boats.
Radical Cities: Across Latin America in Search of a New Architecture, by Justin McGuirk, Verso, RRP£17.99
The most interesting architecture in the world is currently coming out of Latin America but we often see only images. Here McGuirk explores the background to schemes we know superficially, if at all, and the stories are as seductive as the visuals.
Sottsass, by Philippe Thome, Phaidon, RRP£100/$150
Ettore Sottsass was one of the most remarkable figures in modern design. He helped define Italian modernism, only to ruin it all by pioneering postmodernism. His work could be brilliant or kitschy, often both simultaneously. This is a huge book, a bit over-designed but still seductive.
Film & Theatre by Rebecca Rose
Charlie Chaplin, by Peter Ackroyd, Chatto & Windus, RRP£14.99/ Nan A Talese, RRP$25.95
In this fine short life, Ackroyd underlines the link between Chaplin’s boyhood sufferings and his success. As the FT’s reviewer wrote: “His ability to transform his early experience of hopelessness into a universal symbol is, for Ackroyd, the mark of his genius.”
Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh, by John Lahr, Bloomsbury Circus, RRP£30/ WW Norton, RRP$39.95
Lahr’s definitive biography of the great American playwright may be a little lacking in its coverage of Williams’ formative years but it magnificently recounts his stage successes, work with Elia Kazan and Marlon Brando – and, later, the sad decline into booze and barbiturates that killed him aged 71.
Brando’s Smile: His Life, Thought and Work, by Susan L Mizruchi, WW Norton, RRP£18.99/$27.95
Biographers have often highlighted Marlon Brando’s eccentricities. But in this sympathetic portrait, Mizruchi plays up his intellectualism: Brando was an autodidact with a library of 4,000 books, not to mention a great editor of his own lines.
Classical & Opera by Richard Fairman
Grand Opera: The Story of the Met, by Charles Affron and Mirella Jona Affron, University of California Press, RRP£30.95/$45
With New York’s Metropolitan Opera hardly out of the news this year, an (almost) up-to-date history is timely. This volume tells of a grand operatic melodrama, though played out as often by general managers and unions as by prima donnas. Too breathless, but even-handed in its judgments.
Harrison Birtwistle: Wild Tracks, by Fiona Maddocks, Faber, RRP£22.50
Birtwistle, now 80, has spent the better part of a lifetime evading interviewers’ questions. Here, Maddocks plays sympathetic listener to the composer’s doubts and insecurities. The result is an illuminating study in which we learn how the wider threads of his life are woven into his music.
Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph, by Jan Swafford, Faber, RRP£30/ Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, RRP$40
An affectionate portrait of Beethoven, “paranoid, misanthropic. . . [but] among the most generous of men”. Jan Swafford’s vast biography sketches in the social and political background but gives most space to the music in descriptions that are sometimes trite but always vivid and readable.
Pop by Ludovic Hunter-Tilney
Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys, by Viv Albertine, Faber RRP£14.99
The title encompasses Albertine’s outlook as a London teenager. But music called out loudest: she became guitarist with The Slits, feminist pioneers in punk’s 1976 heyday. With wit and candour, she looks back at a journey from working-class upbringing to punk-rock royalty, followed by suburban marriage and boredom.
Singing from the Floor: A History of British Folk Clubs, by JP Bean, Faber, RRP£17.99
Bean’s oral history of the British folk revival features participants both celebrated and obscure. Schisms abound, such as “traddies” grumbling about “whizz-kid guitar players singing about wearing their heart on their sleeve”, as one such whizz-kid recalls.
The History of Rock’n’Roll in Ten Songs, by Greil Marcus, Yale, RRP£16.99/$28
To veteran critic Marcus, rock claims to “divine all truths, reveal all mysteries, and escape all restrictions”: a kind of astrophysics with even wilder hair. He dives into 10 songs to find a dizzying array of precursors and echoes, all time-collapsed in a four-minute hit.
Fashion & Style by Jo Ellison
The Big Picture, by Arthur Elgort, Steidl, RRP$98
Elgort’s exuberant fashion images are an artful synthesis of narrative wit and energy. This book spans his 50-year career and juxtaposes supermodels, ballerinas, musicians and images of his family. A joy to behold, the pages thrill with his signature joie de vivre.
Women in Clothes, by Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits, Leanne Shapton and 639 others, Particular books, RRP£24/ Blue Rider Press, RRP$30
This vast field study asks not what we wear, but why we wear. It unites hundreds of voices in a sartorial conversation that is blissfully free of angst, refreshingly unfashiony, and spiced throughout with terrific illustrations and visual projects.
Worn Stories, by Emily Spivack, Princeton Architectural Press, RRP£15.99/$25.95
A simple premise: Spivack approached people to nominate a piece of clothing and explain its personal significance. Marina Abramovic chooses her walking boots; actress Greta Gerwig tells a love story via a flannel shirt; musician Roseanne Cash offers her father’s purple tuxedo shirt – a rare departure for the Man in Black. The tales are varied and affecting.
Literary Non-Fiction by Carl Wilkinson
The Iceberg: A Memoir, by Marion Coutts, Atlantic Books, RRP£14.99
Coutts’ husband, the art critic Tom Lubbock, died in 2011 from a brain tumour. The Iceberg is a devastating account of his illness that also invites the reader to share in a kind of triumph at the ingenuity and courage displayed by a family under intense pressure.
Common People: The History of an English Family, by Alison Light, Fig Tree, RRP£20
Light traces the history of one English family – her own – across two centuries, asking big questions along the way. Reviewing for the FT, Gillian Tindall called it “a substantial achievement”.
H is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald, Jonathan Cape, RRP£14.99/ Grove Press, RRP$28
Winner of the 2014 Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction, Macdonald’s account of training a goshawk after the death of her father blends memoir, nature writing and literary biography.
Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery, by Henry Marsh, Phoenix, RRP£8.99
Marsh, one of the UK’s top neurosurgeons, offers candid and elegantly written reflections on the drama of the operating theatre, the politics of a busy NHS hospital and the personal impact of holding the lives of others in your hands, day after day.
Fiction by Rebecca Rose
The Zone of Interest, by Martin Amis, Jonathan Cape, RRP£18.99/ Knopf, RRP$26.95
Amis returns to the subject of the Holocaust with this love story set in Auschwitz in 1942. A work of “artistic courage, chilling comedy and incontestable moral seriousness”, according to our reviewer.
To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, by Joshua Ferris, Viking RRP£16.99/Little Brown, RRP$26
Paul O’Rourke, a New York dentist, insomniac and serial monogamist, finds his world turned upside down when someone fakes his online identity. A darkly comic novel that was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.
The Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Richard Flanagan, Chatto & Windus, RRP£16.99/ Knopf, RRP$26.95
Winner of the 2014 Man Booker Prize, this exquisitely written novel by the Australian author Richard Flanagan is informed by his father’s experiences as a prisoner of war forced to work on the Thai-Burma “death railway”.
Let Me Be Frank with You, by Richard Ford, Bloomsbury, RRP£18.99/ Ecco, RRP$27.99
In this fourth outing for Frank Bascombe, Ford’s protagonist continues to grapple with the ageing process as he deals with some complex interactions with old friends – and his ex-wife. Threaded through with reflections on mortality, the story collection is also a celebration of life’s small comforts.
We are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler, Serpent’s Tail, RRP£7.99/ Plume, RRP£16
Fowler’s moving, funny, Man Booker-shortlisted study of the lingering effect of an experimental upbringing on a young woman hinges on a vital twist, revealed just a third of the way through.
Funny Girl, by Nick Hornby, Viking, RRP£18.99
In his first novel for five years, Hornby takes us back to 1960s London and the heyday of light entertainment. Protagonist Barbara Parker progresses from beauty pageants and make-up counters to a role in a successful sitcom. Artful and perceptive.
J, by Howard Jacobson, Jonathan Cape, RRP£18.99/ Hogarth, RRP$25
Set in a near-future dystopia in which citizens have been brainwashed to forget a horrific pogrom co-ordinated through social networking, Jacobson’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel is quite a departure from his 2010 prizewinning comedy The Finkler Question. The story centres on two misfits who attract the sinister regime’s attention.
Redeployment, by Phil Klay, Canongate, RRP£15/ Penguin Press, RRP$26.95
Winner of the National Book Award for Fiction, this compelling debut collection of short stories is based on Klay’s experiences as a soldier in Iraq. The focus is often more on the disorientation of homecoming than the chaos of war itself.
The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell, Sceptre, RRP£20/Random House, RRP$30
Mitchell’s crazily inventive, Man Booker-longlisted epic unfolds over half a century, touching on civilisational collapse, the horrors of the Iraq war, and the eternal battle between good and evil.
Lila, by Marilynne Robinson, Virago, RRP£16.99/Farrar, Straus & Giroux, RRP$26
Having published only four novels in 35 years, “Marilynne Robinson is America’s most highly acclaimed and respected, least prolific novelist,” wrote Claire Messud in these pages. This, the third in a loose trilogy about pious small-town life in mid-20th century Iowa, focuses on the solitary Lila and her ambivalence towards the religious life she has married into.
Family Life, by Akhil Sharma, Faber, RRP£14.99/WW Norton, RRP$23.95
Sharma’s autobiographical novel took 12 years to write. It tells the terrible true story of how a freak accident left his family traumatised and ultimately divided, only a short while after their immigration to the US from India in search of a better life. Heartbreaking and beautifully rendered.
Some Luck, by Jane Smiley, Mantle, RRP£18.99/Knopf, RRP$26.95
Smiley’s epic about a farming family’s efforts to adapt to changing times is the first in a trilogy spanning 100 years. As the story opens in 1920, the Great War has left its scars and while the older generation clings to the land, the younger members of the family are drawn to a more urban existence.
How to be Both, by Ali Smith, Hamish Hamilton, £16.99
The ever-inventive Smith’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel is a tale of two halves: in one, teenage George, trying to cope with her mother’s sudden death, finds herself obsessing about their trip to Ferrara to see a certain fresco cycle; in the other, we follow the young Renaissance artist responsible for the paintings. Which way round you read the narratives depends on which copy you pick up.
Nora Webster, by Colm Toíbín, Viking, RRP£18.99
Nora Webster, newly widowed, attempts to shield her two youngest children from her rawest emotions, as well as from well-meaning neighbours. Set in the 1960s, this tangential sequel to Toíbín’s Brooklyn is a clear-sighted yet sympathetic portrait of a woman destabilised by grief, as well as a meditation on the Irish mother figure.
We Live in Water, by Jess Walter, Penguin, RRP£8.99/Harper Perennial, RRP$14.99
Best known for his 2012 Beautiful Ruins, Walter centres these stories of down-at-heel American life around his home town of Spokane, Washington. As Lionel Shriver wrote in the FT: “the author never allows his keen social satire to reduce the humanity of his subjects. We laugh with, not at.”
The Paying Guests, by Sarah Waters, Virago RRP£20/ Riverhead, RRP$28.95
Set in 1922, this is a page-turner about the exhilaration of forbidden love, the pain of dashed hopes and the lure of crossing social barriers.
Fiction in Translation by Ángel Gurría-Quintana
The Sermon on the Fall of Rome, by Jérôme Ferrari, translated by Geoffrey Strachan, Maclehose Press, RRP£12.99
Winner of France’s Goncourt prize, Ferrari’s novel interlaces the story of Matthieu and Libero, childhood friends who take over a village bar in their native Corsica, with the saga of Matthieu’s grandfather, scarred by the collapse of empire and embittered by the noxious relationship between the island and the mainland.
In the Beginning Was the Sea, by Tomás González, translated by Frank Wynne, Pushkin Press, RRP£12
The long-overdue translation of this modern Colombian classic tells the story of a bohemian couple in 1970s Medellín who move into a farmhouse on the Atlantic coast. Amid the beauty, poverty and violence of their surroundings, the faultlines of their relationship are exposed.
Boyhood Island, by Karl Ove Knausgaard, translated by Don Bartlett, Harvill Secker, RRP£12.99
This third instalment in the Norwegian sensation’s six-volume My Struggle focuses on the anxieties and joys of childhood. Knausgaard’s appetite for self-examination (or is it self-mythologising?) is insatiable: no anecdote is too insignificant, no episode too trivial, to escape his attention.
By Night the Mountain Burns, by Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel, translated by Jethro Soutar, And Other Stories, RRP£10/$15.95
The volcanic island of Annobón, off the west African coast, provides the setting for this novel about a poor community facing a series of natural disasters. Survival, hope and despair wrestle in this surprising work by Equatorial Guinea’s leading author.
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, by Haruki Murakami, translated by Philip Gabriel, Harvill Secker, RRP£20/ Knopf, RRP$25.95
Years after the title character is told by his closest high-school friends that they wish to have no further contact with him, he sets out to investigate what led to this abrupt rejection. Part quest, part exploration of teen anxiety, Murakami’s latest sold 1m copies in the week after its Japanese launch.
Iza’s Ballad, by Magda Szabó, translated by George Szirtes, Harvill Secker, RRP£16.99
In this posthumously published novel by one of Hungary’s most celebrated authors, a widow is persuaded by her daughter to leave her village and consider a new life in Budapest. A delicate meditation on loss, loneliness and the difficulty of new beginnings.
Frog, by Mo Yan, translated by Howard Goldblatt, Hamish Hamilton, RRP£18.99
Blending social realism with the bizarre, China’s most recent winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature tackles his country’s one-child policy through the story of a rural midwife, Gugu, caught between loyalty to communist policies and her maternal instincts.
Poetry by Maria Crawford
Ask the Moon: New and Collected Poems 1948-2014, by Dannie Abse, Hutchinson, RRP£20
This glorious, complete collection includes previously unpublished works by the great Welsh doctor-poet, who died in September. Abse’s warmth and lightness of touch is evident whether applied to young love, the horrors of war or the quiet absorption of grief.
Poetry Notebook: 2006-2014, by Clive James, Picador, RRP£14.99/ Liveright, RRP$24.95
James’s miniature essays, originally conceived as a series for Poetry magazine, showcase his passion for verse – for the questions it raises and the answers it can provide. Deeply personal and formally incisive.
The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion, by Kei Miller, Carcanet, RRP£9.95
In Kei Miller’s beautifully executed, Forward Prize-winning collection opposing systems of thought collide. The cartographer of the title is challenged by the “rastaman” on whose landscape he is trying to impose his scientific world view: “no riddim the mapmaker’s heart is/ familiar with. No. Ain’t nutt’n iambic bout dis.”
Hold Your Own, by Kate Tempest, Picador Poetry, RRP£9.99
Tempest follows her Ted Hughes Prize-winning Brand New Ancients with a bold retelling of the myth of Tiresias. In a voice at once inviting and challenging, erudite and incongruous, the 28-year-old south Londoner confirms her position as one of literature’s most remarkable millennials.
Travel by Tom Robbins
The Times Comprehensive Atlas of the World, HarperCollins, RRP£150
Early atlases were status symbols as much as navigational tools, and with global mapping now available at the click of a mouse, they are becoming luxury items once more. The first Times Atlas was published in 1895; the latest is only the 14th edition. Updates include thousands of new place names, changed borders and melting glaciers, but the key attraction remains the same as ever: the chance to let the imagination roam over deserts, mountains and exotic cities.
Down to the Sea in Ships, by Horatio Clare, Chatto & Windus, RRP£20
As the western world prepares for its annual carnival of consumerism, Clare’s book is a reminder that global trade depends on an industry that is all but invisible to the public. In this lyrical account of two great voyages by container ship (from Felixstowe to LA, and Antwerp to Montreal) Clare paints an intimate portrait of the sailors and their working conditions.
The Emperor Far Away: Travels at the Edge of China, by David Eimer, Bloomsbury, RRP£20
Turning his back on Shanghai and Beijing, Eimer heads for China’s hinterlands – the sometimes lawless regions along the country’s 22,000km of land borders where the strictures of the Communist party seem distant. Some 50 ethnic minorities – 100m people – live in these regions and Eimer aims to give a voice to their grievances against the Han majority.
Rising Ground: A search for the Spirit of Place, by Philip Marsden, Granta, RRP£20
Previous books have taken Marsden to far-flung parts of Ethiopia and Russia, but having moved to Cornwall, he sets out on a journey through the county on his doorstep. He investigates its rich history, from Neothilic monuments to the artists of St Ives. Perhaps most intriguing is that he finds traditions of paganism alive and well.
Sport by Neil O’Sullivan
O, Louis: In search of Louis van Gaal, by Hugo Borst, Yellow Jersey, RRP£9.99
Relations between the British press and Manchester United’s feted but fiery Dutch manager have so far been notable only for an uncharacteristic respect on their part and an equally unlikely restraint on his. As Dutch football writer Borst’s love-hate portrait of Van Gaal makes plain, this state of affairs is unlikely to last.
Played in London, by Simon Inglis, English Heritage, RRP£25
Sports historian Inglis’s compendium of facts, figures, stories, street signs and photos is the perfect present for sport-loving Londoners. He takes us from Henry VIII’s Whitehall tennis courts to modern “colosseums” such as Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium, via the drill halls, billiard halls and sports clubs that have shaped leisure time in the capital.
The Second Half, by Roy Keane with Roddy Doyle, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, RRP£20
As a successful and controversial footballer, Keane did nothing by halves. No low-key ghostwriter for his new memoir, then, but a Booker Prize-winning co-author. Doyle duly employs dead-on literary ventriloquism to illuminate the person behind his fellow Irishman’s unforgiving public persona.
Wounded Tiger: A History of Cricket in Pakistan, by Peter Oborne, Simon & Schuster, RRP£10.99
When Pakistan was created in 1947, cricket was a game for the middle classes in Karachi and Lahore; today it is played in the remote, conflict-torn Swat valley and the country has produced some of the world’s great players. All this despite damaging political interference and corruption scandals. “Nobody seeking to understand that amazing country can ignore Oborne’s compelling book,” ruled the FT’s umpire.
The Forbidden Game: Golf and the Chinese Dream, by Dan Washburn, Oneworld, RRP£12.99/$18.99
US journalist Washburn weaves colourful narratives to document the rising popularity of golf in China. Which would seem unremarkable were it not for the fact that distrust of this formerly banned “bourgeois” sport remains high and, a decade ago, central government banned the construction of new courses in a bid to stamp out corruption.
Food by Tim Hayward
The Virtues of the Table: How to Eat and Think, by Julian Baggini, Granta, RRP£14.99
Baggini, a practised demystifier of philosophy, takes on the issues with which “foodies” torture themselves. He is never dry or over-academic, leavening reason with wit. Several writers have attempted philosophies of food. This philosopher does a better job and with more humour.
A Year at Otter Farm, by Mark Diacono, Bloomsbury, RRP£25
You can take your pick of dozens of books about people who have set up photogenic smallholdings and are prepared to share their glorious lifestyles. Diacono is no dilettante, though, and this is the one to pluck out from the rest.
Make Mine a Martini: 130 Cocktails & Canapés for Fabulous Parties, by Kay Plunkett-Hogge, Mitchell Beazley, RRP£14.99
Like an over-friendly drunk, memoirs of “my life in booze” usually get boring quickly. Plunkett-Hogge, though, flits lightly and tantalisingly through a glamorous life in 1950s Bangkok and later in the film and music industries. The recipes are enticing.
Made in India: Cooked in Britain: Recipes from an Indian Family Kitchen, by Meera Sodha, Fig Tree, RRP£20
Any book on another culture’s cuisine rides a fine line between authenticity and the realities of cooking it here. Sodha dances along the line, evoking the exotic but delivering extremely achievable recipes. A charming book.
Gardens by Laura Battle
The Writer’s Garden, by Jackie Bennett, photographs by Richard Hanson, Frances Lincoln, RRP£25
Few of the authors and poets featured here could be described as horticulturalists (“most of the writers in this book employed gardeners”, Bennett admits) but they all found inspiration in garden landscapes. Contemporary photographs are juxtaposed with archive shots – Beatrix Potter at Hill Top Farm, for example.
The Gardener’s Garden, Phaidon, RRP£49.95
All the old favourites are included here along with many, many more. This enormous, picture-heavy tome, which covers 250 of the world’s most exceptional gardens, has a western bias but is strong on the Middle East and Asia, from the 19th-century Iranian masterpiece Bagh-e Shahzadeh to the Tokachi Millennium Forest in Japan.
Meadowland: the Private Life of an English Field, by John Lewis-Stempel, Doubleday, RRP£14.99
For a year Stempel immersed himself in the wildlife of a field on his Herefordshire farm. The result is a beautifully written record in which, for all the detail, the author remains a realist. The meadow always has been a managed environment: hay must be harvested and rabbits controlled.
Crime by Barry Forshaw
The Silkworm, by Robert Galbraith, Sphere, RRP£20
We mustn’t hold against Robert Galbraith the fact that he’s really mega-selling JK Rowling. This second entry under her crime-writing nom de plume is every bit as assured as its predecessor, and once again features one-legged sleuth Cormoran Strike.
Malice, by Keigo Higahino, translated by Alexander O Smith, Little, Brown, RRP£12.99
Japanese crime fiction is an esoteric taste but this is a compelling mystery. Nonoguchi finds the corpse of a fellow writer; but as he had designs on the man’s wife, do we trust his story?
The Inspector Maigret Omnibus 1, by Georges Simenon, Penguin, RRP£16.99
It may be cheating to place a work by the late Simenon among the best of the year, but his Maigret books are being republished in new translations and are comprehensively better than most current crime entries. This omnibus includes the very first outing for the pipe-smoking Gallic sleuth Pietr the Latvian.
The Bone Seeker, by MJ McGrath, Mantle, RRP£16.99
McGrath’s female Inuit hunter/detective Edie Kiglatuk is an Arctic guide who knows every inch of the Alaskan forests. The Bone Seeker bristles with a powerful evocation of the frigid landscape.
Falling Freely, As If in a Dream, by Leif Persson, translated by Paul Norlen, Doubleday, RRP£18.99
There is plenty of life in Nordic noir, as Persson reminds us. British writers who complain about the attention given to the Scandinavians should pick this one up and see why that is.
Science Fiction by James Lovegrove
Sand, by Hugh Howey, Arrow, RRP£7.99
In a post-apocalyptic world over-run by deserts, intrepid divers plunge into the dunes to retrieve treasures from the cities buried below. Sand shows that the success of Howey’s Wool trilogy was no fluke. This is a superior SF thriller, both slick and gritty.
Bête, by Adam Roberts, Gollancz, RRP£18.99
A mordant, satirical thought-piece in which animals are fitted with artificial intelligence chips, enabling them to speak. Roberts’ fascinating, discursive riff on Animal Farm features a grubby, self-lacerating protagonist and lashings of wry humour.
Annihilation/Authority/Acceptance, by Jeff VanderMeer, Fourth Estate, RRP£10/£12.99/£12.99
VanderMeer has long been a critics’ favourite but with his Southern Reach trilogy – all three volumes published in the same year – he has hit sales gold as well. Area X is a zone of Florida blighted by an inexplicable catastrophe, becoming a locus of weird happenings. Haunting, surreal and bold.
The Martian, by Andy Weir, Del Rey, RRP£7.99
The SF book of the year, Weir’s debut is a tense, unbearably gripping survival story about an astronaut stranded on Mars with only his wits, scientific acumen and dark sense of humour to keep him alive. Brilliant.
Children’s Fiction by James Lovegrove
El Deafo, by Cece Bell, Amulet Books, RRP£13.99/£6.99
A memoir about growing up with hearing loss, told in graphic novel form with anthropomorphic animal characters, El Deafo is refreshingly unsentimental and lacking in self-pity. Bell is honest about the challenges her disability has posed but finds grace in even the worst setbacks.
Jane, the Fox and Me, by Fanny Britt and Isabelle Arsenault, Walker Books, RRP£15
Hélène is a lonely, bullied schoolgirl who draws consolation from Jane Eyre. A stay at summer camp brings a new friend in this masterly, evocative, delicately rendered graphic novel from two Québécois creators.
The Imaginary, by AF Harrold, illustrated by Emily Gravett, Bloomsbury, RRP£12.99
What happens to imaginary friends once they’re forgotten or the person imagining them dies? In this Gaimanesque fantasy they either fade away or must seek a new companion. Spirited and darkly witty.
Valentine Joe, by Rebecca Stevens, Chicken House, RRP£6.99
Perfectly timed for the centenary of the outbreak of the first world war comes this touching transtemporal romance in which a modern-day girl visiting Ypres finds her life intersecting with that of a boy soldier at the front.
Young Adult Fiction by Suzi Feay
A Song for Ella Grey, by David Almond, Hodder, RRP£12.99
A masterly retelling of the Orpheus myth, transposed to Northumberland. Lyrical prose is matched with equally beautiful pages – white on black for the descent into the Underworld.
Fifteen Bones, by RJ Morgan, Scholastic, RRP£6.99
In this exciting and chilling account of gang culture in schools, introverted Jake befriends a damaged and dangerous girl with an awful secret. Throbs with authentic menace (Morgan is a London teacher).
As Red as Blood, by Salla Simukka, translated by Owen Witesman, Hot Key Books, RRP£7.99
Pacy Finnish noir with a punky heroine who has more than a whiff of Lisbeth Salander. But Simukka cleverly overlays a very modern plot – drugs, crime kingpins, prostitution – on to traditional fairytale motifs.
Lockwood & Co: The Whispering Skull, by Jonathan Stroud, Doubleday, RRP£12.99
A second outing for Stroud’s trio of ghost detectives as they investigate the grave of a twisted Victorian scientist, pitting their wits against their biggest rivals, the snooty Fittes agency. Plenty of humour alongside the chills.
Your Book of the Year
Do you agree with our choices? Tell us about your favourite book of 2014 and you could win a year’s free FT Weekend digital subscription.
All you have to do is email firstname.lastname@example.org by December 15 with the title and author of the book you liked most and, in 100 words or less, explain your choice. Please include your name and address.
We will publish a selection of entries, including the winner. Books must have been published – in the UK or US – after January 1 2014.
Lorien Kite is the FT’s books editor
Illustrations by Chris Wormell
Get alerts on Life & Arts when a new story is published