Best of 2014: The Books I Loved

After a very strong start, my 2014  reading year fizzled out. My year as a blogger was sporadic at best. Still, I wanted to post my Best Reads of 2014. I read/listened to 89 books this year, even with basically not cracking a spine for most of November and December.

According to Goodreads, it was total of 23,418 pages, with most of my choices rating 4 or 5 stars. There were a few dogs and several titles I gave up on, but I don’t want to focus on the negative.

My “Best of” list consists of the best of what I read in 2014, not necessarily books released in 2014, so you’ll find a mix of old and new, fiction and non-fiction, and even some poetry.

Cover image from Goodreads

Cover image from Goodreads

#1 — the very best of the best of 2014…

The Enchanted by Rene Denfeld

5 stars, read in April 2014

Denfeld so deftly balances the horrors of Death Row with lyrical storytelling that I often found myself breathless. How did she create something so beautiful out of people and situations so ugly? Without preaching or excusing or solving, she lays bare this Enchanted place in a way that broke my heart. Read more.

My soul left me when I was six. It flew away past a curtain over a window. I ran after it, but it never came back. It left me alone on a wet stinking mattress. It left me alone in the choking dark. It took my tongue, my heart, and my mind.”

 

My Year of Meats#2 My Year of Meats by Ruth Ozeki

5 stars, read in June 2015

Ruth Ozeki writes with such precision and honesty that I found myself walking alongside her main character Jane Tagaki-Little, completely immersed in the story rather than viewing it objectively. Ozeki takes this novel from sharp-witted and playful to emotional and honest seamlessly. Her writing shines in the descriptions of each of the families Jane profiles, adding layers of richness to the main story. Read more.

“I chose to ignore what I knew. Ignorance. In this root sense, ignorance is an act of will, a choice that one makes over and over again, especially when information overwhelms and knowledge had become synonymous with impotence.”

image from Goodreads

image from Goodreads

#3 All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

5 stars, read in May 2014

Doerr has created something exquisite in the way he crafts his characters and brings World War II to life. Because the main characters, Marie Laure and Werner are both so interested in the changing world, we are too. Through their eyes we explore science, radio, friendship and patriotism. A very special book with top-notch writing, complex characters, an interesting plot and honest emotions. Read more.

“Don’t you want to live before you die?”

Black Swan Green#4 Black Swan Green by David Mitchell

5 stars, read in January 2014

David Mitchell captured my soul from two different directions in this novel. First of all, he evoked coming of age in the 1980s perfectly. Secondly, as the mother of boys, I read this book as a sort of primer. He delves so beautifully into the thoughts and emotions of a pubescent boy. Read more.

“If you show someone something you’ve written, you give them a sharpened stake, lie down in your coffin, and say, ‘When you’re ready’.”

Eleanor Park#5 Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

5 stars, read in March 2014

Oh sweet, beautiful, wonderful, heart-breaking young adult fiction. This novel lives up to all its hype. An honest, tragic love story told from the alternating perspectives of the title characters in 1986. Read more. 

“She looked like art, and art wasn’t supposed to look nice; it was supposed to make you feel something.”

Brain on Fire#6 Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness by Susannah Cahalan

4 stars, red in August 2014

I found this memoir emotionally disturbing in all the right ways. This could easily have been me or someone I love. The author’s medical crisis came on fast, with no explanation, for seemingly endless weeks, with little hope of remedy. Susannah went from a capable, outgoing, ambitious woman to a victim of her own body almost overnight. Read more.

“We are, in the end, a sum of our parts, and when the body fails, all the virtues we hold dear, go with it.”

Mr Penumbras 24 hour bookstore#7 Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

4 stars, read in July 2014

I can’t get the creativity of the story out of my mind. To me it’s Harry Potter meets Dan Brown thriller meets book nerds all set against a backdrop of Google-era hackers. It’s mysterious and funny and fresh and charming. Read more.

“This girl has the spark of life. Thus is my primary filter for new friends (girl- and otherwise) and the highest compliment I can pay. I’ve tried many times to figure out what ignites it — what cocktail of characteristics comes together in the cold, dark cosmos to form a star. I know it’s mostly the face – not just the eyes, but the brow, the cheeks, the mouth, and the micromuscles that connect them all.”

How to be a Good Wife#8 How to be a Good Wife by Emma Chapman

4 stars, read in March 2014

This debut novel is brilliantly psychotic! Marta is a wife, an empty nester, definitely on the verge of some kind of psychological breakdown; but that is just the beginning of this dark, twisted, thriller. Who can we believe? Read more.

*I recommended this book more than any other to casual readers this year.

the book of unknown americans#9 The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez

4 stars, read in June 2014

This book wants to be a lot of things – love story, issue-oriented novel, independent essays – which should make it a mess, but somehow all work together to make a book that really touched my heart. I was touched and moved by the small stories and the central families is this lovely novel. Read more.

“I felt the way I often felt in this country — simultaneously conspicuous and invisible, like an oddity whom everyone noticed but chose to ignore.”

The Round House#10 The Round House by Louise Erdich

4 stars, read in March 2014

Dark and disturbing, but not without beauty. A bit of a mystery; a complex moral dilemma without clear answers; and, oh, a brave tragic, entangled, unresolved ending.  Read more.

“I stood there in the shadowed doorway thinking with my tears. Yes, tears can be thoughts, why not?”

And what list would be complete without Honorable Mentions?

I’m blessed to have read so many great books this year. Without hesitation, I would also recommend: Aimless Love by Billy Collins, Among the Missing by Dan Chaon, Hyperbole & a Half by Allie Brosh, Golden State by Michelle Richmond, Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler, Prayers for the Stolen by Jennifer Clement, My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff, We Are Called to Rise by Laura McBride, The Painter by Peter Heller and A Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing by Mira Jacob.

Happy reading.

October Reading Wrap Up

After my slow book month in September, I didn’t think it could get any worse. I was wrong. I don’t know if it was the books, or my schedule or just my mood, but I hardly read at all in October and it’s starting to get me down. (Followers will also notice that I didn’t do much writing or posting either…I just felt as if I didn’t have much to say.) But, if only to look back on later, I still provide my measly little wrap-up.

By the numbers: 4 books, 2 reviews on Goodreads, 0 reviews on alenaslife, 0 oldie from my shelf – #dustingoffmybookshelf, 1 from my 2014 personal challenge (poetry, non-fiction, foreign locale), 2 audio, 1 set-aside

October 2014
From most to least favorite:

Elizabeth is Missing, Emma Healey

Even though I guessed most of the plot early on, this tale held my interest and my heart. Maud is 82 and clearly has dementia, so when she insists that “Elizabeth is missing,” no one pays attention. As her memory and her independence continue to slip away, her past becomes more pronounced. Maud is the definition of an unreliable narrator but the way Healey handles her voice is brilliant. My heart broke for her in so many ways.

“The sun’s in my eyes and it’s difficult to see. The shape of her is distorted by the light, circles of her silhouette removed as if by a pastry cutter.”

The Drop, Dennis Lehane

My favorite part of reading Dennis Lehane is the way the atmosphere creeps off the page from the opening lines. His novels are dirty and violent, obsessed with society’s underbelly — the thugs and the losers. And yet…there is still beauty.

“His brain was not evil. He knew it wasn’t; he spent a lot of time wandering its pink folds. It was just confused and hurt and filled with misshapen parts like an auto junkyard.”

The Painted Girls, Cathy Marie Buchanan (audio book)

Despite some weaknesses in the writing, I love the atmosphere and I love the two main characters, Marie & Antoinette. Buchanan’s novel is based in historical facts set in late 19th century Paris. Degas and one of his most famous models are included, as are some famous criminals and authors. Those “real” moments, passages and people set an incredible background for Buchanan’s imagination.

“Willfulness, such as yours, is exactly what a girl needs to raise herself up to do something useful with her life.”

 

When the Killing’s Done, T.C. Boyle (audio book)

Complex and interesting subject, but unlikable characters.

“She was at sea. She knew the rocking of the boat as intimately now as if she’d never known anything else, felt the muted drone of the engines deep inside her, in the thump of her heart and the pulse of her blood. At sea. She was at sea.”

My October Photo Collage is comprised of book covers uploaded from Goodreads.

September Reading Wrap Up

It doesn’t seem it should have taken so long to post my September wrap up considering I only finished 6 titles. Honestly, I can’t remember the last time I read so little. I did not crack the spine of a book for two weeks. But I’ve learned I need to ride out these slumps (and I was listening to a good audio, so there’s that.) I did complete a Dusting Off The Bookshelf challenge — see below.

By the numbers: 6 books, 5 reviews on Goodreads, 4 reviews on alenaslife, 1 oldie from my shelf – #dustingoffmybookshelf, 1 from my 2014 personal challenge (poetry, non-fiction, foreign locale), 1 audio, 0 set-aside

September ReadsFrom most to least favorite:

The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing, Mira Jacob ~ Already Reviewed

My Salinger Year, Joanna Rakoff ~ Already Reviewed

The Stone Diaries, Carol Shields ~ Already Reviewed #DustingOffMyBookshelf

The Free, Willy Vlautin ~ Already Reviewed

Landline, Rainbow Rowell

I just couldn’t ever really get past the gimmick that drives the plot of this book. Plus the fact that the protagonist’s name is Georgie McCool. It was all trying too hard for me.

“You don’t know when you’re twenty-three.
You don’t know what it really means to crawl into someone else’s life and stay there. You can’t see all the ways you’re going to get tangled, how you’re going to bond skin to skin. How the idea of separating will feel in five years, in ten – in fifteen. When Georgie thought about divorce now, she imagined lying side by side with Neal on two operating tables while a team of doctors tried to unthread their vascular systems.
She didn’t know at twenty-three.”

Beatrice & Virgil: A Novel, Yann Martel (audiobook)

Even though the writing is superb, I was uncomfortable the entire time I listened to this (thankfully) short book. In the beginning, I was concerned that it was taking far too long to get to the story. Then 1/3 of the way in, I was so disturbed by the often gruesome content. And then, the end. I don’t have the words to describe the insane, awful, gut-punching ending. I wanted to like it. I didn’t.

“Life and death live and die in exactly the same place, the body…to ignore death is to ignore life.”

My September Photo Collage is comprised of book covers uploaded from Goodreads.

Glad I Read: The Free by Willy Vlautin

The FreeIn this heartbreaking novel, Willy Vlautin offers up the delicate balance of beauty and sadness. The three main characters are not exactly intertwined, more like tangentially connected in the way all lives touch upon similar struggles and experiences.

Leroy, Freddie and Pauline are all struggling to stay afloat, to break free to overcome their demons – emotional, spiritual and physical. Vlautin does a wonderful job of presenting their circumstances and strengths even in light of their challenges.

“The first thing I learned is that you can be and do whatever you want. You just have to get up each morning and try to get there.”

Most of the writing is straightforward, almost like an essay designed to tug at our heartstrings. I appreciated how the author let me come to know Freddie and Pauline slowly and honestly. But, then there’s Leroy, the injured Iraq war vet, struggling with a debilitating brain injury. His opening scenes are dramatic and terrifically compelling. Then, most of his story is told as a semi sci-fi story taking place in his fractured mind. While I admire the writing skills in this approach, it severed some of the emotional connection for me. I found myself glancing ahead to see how many of these pages I had to get through until I returned to what, for me, was the “real” story.

Overall, I loved how much I came to care about these characters and their journeys. I rooted for them and cried for them. I felt how easily our lives can slip beyond our grasp. I practically clapped at the ending, which trusts readers to form their own conclusions.

Without melodrama, he tells a compelling story, one that could be mine or my neighbor’s. Recommend.

Read alikes
We Are Called to Rise
The Facades
We Live in Water
The Burgess Boys

Glad I read: The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing

The Sleepwalker's Guide to Dancing

“There are small blessings, tiny ones that come unbidden and make a hard day one sigh lighter.”

Good writing is one such blessing. I ordered this book based on my mom’s rave and spent a wonderful few days entranced by Mira Jacob’s wonderful debut novel. It’s the rare book that continues to get better as it goes on, but in this case I couldn’t put the story down once I was into the second half.

The plot is nothing remarkably new. Amina is a thirty-something who has to return home to deal with a sick parent. Of course her family is fractured, with buried secrets, tragedy and misunderstandings; but on top of the predictable, Jacobs layers an Indian immigrant’s story. Then, she goes a step further, through Amina’s career as a photographer, to highlight the ideas of isolation and belongingness. Without being overwrought or sappy, she breathes life into this family and into her themes in a compelling way.

“It wasn’t that she doubted their love or intentions, but the weight of that love would be no small thing.”

I understood Amina, but more importantly, I liked her. And I adored all the surrounding characters, especially her parents.  They start out as the typical stereotypes of overbearing mother and ambitious professional father, but their stories evolve to become complex and emotionally touching.

“Why is it that fathers so often ensure the outcome they are trying to avoid? Is their need to dominate so much stronger than their instinct to protect? Did Thomas know, Amina wondered as she watched him, that he had just done the human equivalent of a lion sinking his teeth into his own cub?”

Amina’s relationship with her parents held special resonance for me as they faced many quality-of-life decisions. What is real? What is right? Who controls the outcome? All of these questions (and more) come to play in very honest ways, bringing me to tears on several occasions.

Across the board, Jacobs does a terrific job of fleshing out every character she introduces, admirable given the fact that this novel stretches almost 500 pages, three decades and two continents. As the story comes to its beautiful ending, I found myself completely satisfied.

Highly recommend.

Read alikes:

The Lowland

The Namesake

Sister of My Heart

And the Mountains Echoed

Anatomy of a Disappearance

Flashback Friday: This is Where I Leave You

This is Where I leave youWith one week (and impatiently counting) until the film release of This is Where I Leave You, I thought I would suggest, beg, demand that any of you who have not yet read Jonathan Tropper’s outstanding dark comedic novel should do so before seeing the movie.

Need more persuasion? Here’s my review from August 3, 2012.

I can’t remember the last time a book made me laugh out loud, but this one did. It also made me blush, got me a little choked up at times, and introduced me to another author whose work I will actively seek.

Forced to take part in a traditional Jewish 7-day shiva for his father, Judd Foxman ping-pongs between his hilariously dysfunctional siblings, his larger than life newly widowed mother, and the agony of his failed marriage. By using the shiva as a tactic to force intimacy (or at least proximity) on his characters, Tropper provides the perfect background for high drama.

“Childhood feels so permanent, like it’s the entire world, and then one day it’s over and you’re shoveling wet dirt onto your father’s coffin, stunned at the impermanence of everything.”

Tropper brilliantly avoids overplaying his dramatic hand. Instead he inserts some borderline slapstick comedy for Judd and his family. I wasn’t sure in the opening chapter, which contains the funniest version of marital infidelity I’ve ever read (burning testicles and all), if Tropper could maintain that level of pitch-perfect dark comedy, but he does.

He finds the humor in life’s tragic situations, without ever lessening their importance.

“…the first thing you do at the end is reflect on the beginning. Maybe it’s some form of reverse closure, or just the basic human impulse toward sentimentality, or masochism, but as you stand there shell-shocked in the charred ruins of your life, your mind will invariably go back to the time when it all started. And even if you didn’t fall in love in the eighties, in your mind it will feel like the eighties, all innocent and airbrushed, with bright colors and shoulder pads and Pat Benetar or The Cure on the soundtrack.”

As I was reading, I could picture the film version, cast with the finest 30-somethings in Hollywood, a kind of Big Chill for the 21st Century. I believe Tropper is already at work on an adaptation. I sure hope Hollywood doesn’t manage to wreck the brilliant balance of a little raunchy, a lot funny, and perfectly heartfelt that Tropper has achieved.