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.

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Also read in May

I didn’t come close to posting reviews of everything I read in May. I’m still trying to get back into the blogging groove and, perhaps, not all of them warranted an individual post.

So, what was I reading? From best to worst…

Individual posts went to What is the What and All the Light We Cannot See, my two 5-star reads for May.

The PossibilitiesThe Possibilities

by Kaui Hart Hemmings                                4 stars

I loved this novel of grief, life and possibility. Admittedly it was a little slow to get started, but what a rare treat to read a book that just keeps getting better and better. Sarah St. John is lost in a world of grief 3 months after her son Cully dies in an avalanche. She craves “knowing” but has more questions than answers. Her dad, Cully’s father and her in-the-midst-of-divorce best friend alternately comfort and irritate. Into all if this comes Kit with some answers that lead to more questions.

“You can’t compare and rank heartache. Pain is pain is pain. There is no precise measurement. No quarter cup.”

The Snow QueenThe Snow Queen

by Michael Cunningham           3.5 stars

From the start, this novel reminded me of La Boheme (or Rent for less operatic readers). We have illness, addiction, sex, money problems and even “visions” all in a crumbling apartment. The quality of writing alone rescues this novel from sappy to breathtaking. Cunningham so completely embodies his characters and captures their thoughts, fears and dreams, that even when I didn’t particularly like them, I was still interested.

“People are more than you think they are. And they’re less, as well. The trick lies in negotiating your way between the two.”

The Temporary GentlemanThe Temporary Gentleman

by Sebastian Barry   3.5 stars

I love the book’s Irish-ness. I love the lyrical, reflective moments. I like learning about early and mid-century Ireland as well as Accra…Barry really writes the stranger in a strange land well. I can’t even fault his protagonists, two young hopefuls busted and broken by booze and war. It’s all the makings of a great read, but it never quite clicked into gear for me.

“Just now and then, in my effort to form some sort of narrative, to touch accidentally on something rawer than a mere wound…I have evoked the gods of truth, and they will have their way with me.”

Frog MusicFrog Music (Audio)

by Emma Donoghue                        3 stars

I wanted to like this novel much more than I did. I’m a big fan of Donoghue and appreciate the thoughtful detail she puts in to her historic fiction — in this case 19th century San Francisco at the peak of a heat wave and small pox epidemic. It’s the details, I think, that bog the novel down. I’m normally a sucker for atmosphere, but in this case, all of the information seemed to make the book drag on for too long.

“better keep your mouth shut and seem stupid than open it and remove all doubt.”

The Red HouseThe Red House

by Mark Haddon               1 star

The premise – two estranged families on holiday together – holds so much potential. The author’s track record – The Incident of the Curious Dog in the Nighttime – predicts great writing. The ambition – stream of consciousness from alternating perspectives – indicates something interesting. All of the components should have combined into a great novel. Instead, I spent 3 days with a muddled, confused, overly-ambitious mess of a book.

“Family, that slippery word, a star to every wandering bark, and everyone sailing under a different sky.”

#BookADay Day 3 – Blue Cover

Continuing the #bookaday challenge posted by Borough Press. Today’s challenge is a book with a blue cover. Several books came to mind immediately, including Michael Cunningham’s The Snow Queen, R.J. Palacio’s YA masterpiece Wonder and the graphic novel that has stuck with me called Same Difference.

Ultimately, I had to go with my most recent 5 star read, All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr.

image from Goodreads

image from Goodreads

I will not be able to do justice to this beautiful, thoughtful, spirited WWII novel here. Doerr has created something exquisite in the way he crafts his characters and brings the war 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. Doerr even makes snails interesting! Marie Laure’s observations and strength of character are made all the more complex because she is blind. I simply fell in love with her and her resilience. Werner too is extremely sympathetic, no easy accomplishment for a Nazi soldier. Doerr interweaves their individual stories in such a smart way. The story never felt contrived.

As I devoured the 500+ pages in just a few days, I was so grateful for the balance of devastation and hope. Of course most great war novels involve resilience and courage in the face of adversity, but Doerr seems to do it in such a sensitive way. He asks the fundamental question a few times:

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

Each character has to face the question in his or her own way. Without ever feeling manipulated I felt inspired.

A very special book with top-notch writing, complex characters, an interesting plot and honest emotions.

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