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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W…W…W…Wednesday

I’ll tell you mine and you tell me yours. Thanks to Miz B at Should Be Reading for hosting.

www_wednesdays44

I’d love to know what everyone is reading.  To play along, just answer the following three (3) questions…(or post a link to your blog.)

• What are you currently reading? • What did you recently finish reading? • What do you think you’ll read next?

AmericanahWhat are you currently reading? I am slowly making my start in Americanah. Only 70 pages in after 3 days and I can tell I will need to spend some time with this novel. The writing is great and I already love the two narrators, but it’s dense. The Nigerian names and culture are very unfamiliar to me, so instead of devouring it, as I’ve done with books recently, I’m really trying to absorb it slowly. So far, so good. (I am also slowly making my way through the audio version of The Wife, the Maid and the Mistress — an interesting, based-on-real-life story set in the 20’s. I just haven’t had enough time alone in the car to finish.)

the book of unknown americansWhat did you recently finish reading? I posted a full review of We Are Called to Rise, which is a great book, but I also finished The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez this week. Not sure how I ended up reading a string of books in which immigrants play a major role, but they’ve all been really good. The Book of Unknown Americans is a teenage love story set against the backdrop of an apartment building inhabited by immigrants, all Spanish-speaking, but from many different countries. I like how Henriquez balanced the main story (which has all the makings of great YA) with the short narrations from so many other people. There were times when the book seems to lose its rhythm, but all in all, a really enjoyable read that opened my eyes to the world around me.

The Invention of WingsWhat do you think you’ll read next? I finally picked up a copy of The Invention of Wings. It’s the summer read for the high school where I work and I’ve been wanting to read it since it’s release.  I loved The Secret Life of Bees, but didn’t love The Mermaid’s Chair. I have high hopes for this one.

How about you?

What are your W…W…W… titles?

Book Review: We Are Called to Rise

We Are Called to RiseEach of the characters in Laura McBride’s devastatingly beautiful debut novel has to face personal tragedy. Avis is the “bastard daughter of a teenage hitchhiker” facing the dissolution of her marriage and the crumbling of her son’s sanity. Bashkim is a young immigrant Albanian trying to behave perfectly to not upset the delicate balance in his home when several traumatic events occur. Luis is a messed up veteran, struggling to recover from a suicide attempt and digging his way through PTSD. Roberta is a volunteer children’s advocate who’s seen the worst of abuse, homelessness and helplessness.

What’s so brilliant about Laura McBride’s writing and story-telling is that this always remains a hopeful, even uplifting novel. I found myself reading with tears in my eyes several times, but was carried along by my confidence that these great characters would overcome. As the novel’s title implies, these are people called to rise up with courage in the face of great odds.

“If you wait too long to figure that out, to figure out that we are the ones making the world, we are the ones to whom all the problems — and all the possibilities for grace — now fall, then you lose everything. Your only shot at this world.

I get that this one small life is all we have for whatever it is that we are going to do. And I want in.”

I love the balance of failure and grace which underlies the story. I, too, wanted in. Most books with this much courage & goodness set in desolate circumstances make me feel manipulated by easy answers and untrue characters. McBride avoids falling into that trap, crafting four distinct voices for her narrators, each of which rings complex and true. While my heart broke wide open for young Bashkim, I identified most strongly with Avis.

“I don’t know what I’m doing. I never knew what I was doing. I just jumped in and tried, no manual, I tried as hard as I could, and for the second time in my son’s life, I missed the important cue.”

McBride slowly lets out the strings of each individual story before bringing them together in somewhat surprising ways, building the pace and drama of the book perfectly. I would have liked to have known Roberta a bit better. Her primary function seems to be to bring the pieces of the story together, as opposed to having her own journey, but that’s a minor complaint in the scope of the novel.

I appreciate that McBride also gave me a glimpse of Las Vegas I have never seen. I’ve only ever thought of Vegas as a place people pass through, not a community of families and friends and immigrants. While I wouldn’t describe it as a book about Las Vegas, the city’s boom-town nature certainly plays a role in the plot.

“Yes, Vegas children fight America’s wars. These most American, least American of children, the children of the nation’s brightest hidden city: the city that is an embarrassing tic, a secret shame, a giddy relief, a knowing wink.”

The only thing keeping this novel from a 5-star rating for me is McBride’s tendency to over-write her characters beliefs and intentions toward the end of the novel. It’s as if she didn’t trust me, the reader, to understand their inner fears and beliefs so she delves into inner monologues (especially for Roberta and Luis) which disrupted the flow of the book. I suspect this is the insecurity of a first-time novelist, unsure that the author’s message hasn’t come through organically.

Still, I never wanted to put this book down and I know I will keep these characters close to my heart for a while to come. I have no reservations about highly recommending this book.

W…W…W…Wednesday

Another editition of I’ll tell you mine and you tell me yours. Thanks to Miz B at Should Be Reading for hosting.

www_wednesdays44

I’d love to know what everyone is reading.  To play along, just answer the following three (3) questions…(or post a link to your blog.)

• What are you currently reading? • What did you recently finish reading? • What do you think you’ll read next?

Among the MissingWhat are you currently reading? I am a big fan of Dan Chaon’s full-length novels so his short story collection, Among the Missing,  has been on my TBR for a very long time. Found it on the shelf and the library last week and I’m so glad I did. Half-way through and savoring ever word. Chaon has a great talent for getting inside our insecurities and bringing them to life in situations so real, I feel like I’m deep in each story. He’s just a terrific writer.

Prayers for the StolenWhat did you recently finish reading? This weekend I finished Prayers for the Stolen by Jennifer Clement. I posted a review yesterday so I won’t repeat all my opinions here. I should add though, that I can’t get some of the images Clement created out of my mind. I don’t read much about Mexico, especially considering my heritage, but this is inspiring me to learn more and investigate what other authors are out there writing about what’s going on in that country right now.

 

We Are Called to RiseWhat do you think you’ll read next? I received an email that We Are Called to Rise is waiting for me at the local library so I’ll go pick that up today. Very excited to read this title, which could lead to great disappointment, but I’m hoping great reading instead.

which has gotten under my skin so I’m hoping to get into that soon.

How about you?

What are your W…W…W… titles?

W…W…W…Wednesday

I’ll tell you mine and you tell me yours. Thanks to Miz B at Should Be Reading for hosting.

www_wednesdays44

I’d love to know what everyone is reading.  To play along, just answer the following three (3) questions…(or post a link to your blog.)

• What are you currently reading? • What did you recently finish reading? • What do you think you’ll read next?

Death Comes to PemberlyWhat are you currently reading? Today I will start my book club book for this month. I’m not too excited about reading Death Comes to Pemberly. Actually, I’m not excited about reading P.D. James. I was not a fan of An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, another Book Club pick. I have been told that this one is very different so I’m trying to keep an open mind. I have to remind myself that book club expands my reading horizons and selections.

 

China Dolls

What did you recently finish reading? Just finished China Dolls by Lisa See and I’m contemplating my review. My initial reaction is one of frustration because it didn’t live up to my personal Lisa See standards, but I enjoyed reading it. Loved the WWII time period and learning about the Chinese nightclub scene. She creates such wonderful atmospheres for her books. The problem is that I didn’t like the characters. I kept waiting to like them, but it didn’t happen.

 

We Are Called to RiseWhat do you think you’ll read next? I don’t have anything on hold at the library or waiting on my shelf so I’m in the happy position of being able to peruse the shelves. I do have some titles at the top of my To-Read, including We Are Called to Rise, which has gotten under my skin so I’m hoping to get into that soon.

How about you?

What are your W…W…W… titles?

Best Book Quotes of the Week

Best Book Lines

I found it difficult to narrow my favorite quotes down this week. I was off of work for much of the week and had time to read some great stuff.

Stumbled upon a new-to-me blog Book Notes Plus and was reminded of the wisdom of Albert Einstein.

“Everybody is a genius.  But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

As the school year draws to a close, I try to keep this lesson in mind. The high school I work, even with its high college-prep standards, does a great job celebrating the individual genius of each student. I need to keep this in mind at all times with my three sons as they find their places in this world.

From Laura McBride, We Are Called to Rise

“The way I see it, nothing in life is a rehearsal. It’s not preparation for anything else. There’s no getting ready for it. There’s no waiting for the real part to begin. Not ever. This is it.”

I haven’t read this book yet, but based on the quotes friends are posting on blogs and Goodreads, I’m going to love it. A reminder to live each moment phrased in a way that appeals to my theater loving soul.

From Norman Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth

“So many things are possible just as long as you don’t know they’re impossible.”

Related to the quotes above, a clever quote full of hope. This was my favorite Goodreads Quote of the Day this week and immediately took me back to when I taught this book to a gifted reader during my short grammar school stint. I somehow never read this book as a child and was completely charmed by Juster’s brilliance with satire that worked for both young readers and a jaded adult like me.

From Ruth Ozeki, My Year of Meats

“To a Japanese person, Wal-Mart is awesome, the capitalist equivalent of the wide open spaces and endless horizons of the American geographical frontier. All this for the taking!”

Ozeki has a marvelous way of making me look at modern life in a new way. I love the image of Wal-Mart as an endless horizon, all for our taking. In this book she is contrasting cultures (another thing she does so well), but also driving at simple human truths. I just love her writing…

…which led me to look back on quotes I loved from another of her books, A Tale for the Time Being.

 “Sometimes when she told stories about the past her eyes would get teary from all the memories she had, but they weren’t tears. She wasn’t crying. They were just the memories, leaking out. ”

From Mary Miller, The Last Days of California

“Why didn’t I feel things the way others felt them? It wasn’t that I didn’t care about people. It was more like I couldn’t really believe they were real.”

In this passage Miller cuts right to the heart of her character’s insecurities and reminded me so much of those teenage days when I believed I was so different from everyone else. The world, and the people in it, existed only in relation to me. I didn’t love this book as a whole, but I loved some of Miller’s observations about growing up.

 

I’d love to know what lines have caught your attention.