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.

August Reading Wrap Up

August started strong, but then I stumbled for a couple weeks in terms of reading. I just wasn’t motivated to dive into (or finish) anything.  Distressingly, I set two titles aside for later — not quite giving up, but waiting for a better time. In better news, I did complete by Dusting Off The Bookshelf challenge — more to come on that this week.

By the numbers: 8 books, 8 reviews on Goodreads, 3 reviews on alenaslife, 1 oldie from my shelf – #dustingoffmybookshelf, 1 from my 2014 personal challenge (non-fiction), 2 audio, 2 set-aside

August 2014 books

From most to least favorite: (Overall, I really ended up liking everything I read this month)
Shotgun Lovesongs, Nikolas Butler, already reviewed

Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness, Susannah Cahalan, already reviewed

The Flying Troutmans, Miriam Toews #DustingofftheBookshelf

So wonderful and quirky and unexpected. Black comedy at its best. I am ashamed that I have not gotten around to writing the review this book deserves.

“It’s impossible to move through the stages of grief when a person is both dead and alive, the way Min is. It’s like she’s living permanently in an airport terminal, moving from one departure lounge to another but never getting on a plane. Sometimes I tell myself that I’d do anything for Min. That I’d do whatever was necessary for her to be happy. Except that I’m not entirely sure what that would be.”

The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches: A Flavia de Luce Novel, Alan Bradley (audio book)

I am very sad to have completed this book, as it is the last in Bradley’s 6-book Flavia de Luce series. I have truly adored each and every installment in the series and The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches is no exception. This is the only one, however, that I don’t think would stand alone without reading the preceeding novels. This finale ties together many outstanding questions left from the 5 murders Flavia has “solved” in her 11th year. I listed the audio versions of all these books except the first. Jayne Entwistle does a magnificent job bringing these books to life.

“Why is it that the facts closest to our noses are the ones that are hardest to see?”

Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened, Allie Brosch 

Not my typical read at all — a collection of comedic illustrated essays — but I had heard really great reviews from readers I trust. And I’m glad I snapped my mini-reading funk with this book. I read this in one sitting with no problem. Fast-paced, acerbic humor (as in I was laughing out loud at the pool) balanced with heartbreaking honesty. I recognized myself several times throughout. It’s really good read.

“But trying to use willpower to overcome the apathetic sort of sadness that accompanies depression is like a person with no arms trying to punch themselves until their hands grow back.”

Fourth of July Creek, Smith Henderson, already reviewed

We Were Liars, E. Lockhart

Despite my “advanced age,” I love that the YA fiction genre really coming into its own, filled with great characters, sharp writing and high emotion. We Were Liars has all of these qualities, plus some additional twists and turns. It just didn’t quite reach the level of an overall great read for me. Wounded and vulnerable and misunderstood teenagers make for great books. I just never quite fell in love with this set the way I think I was supposed to. The other problem here is that I predicted the central plot twist very early on in this novel.

“Silence is a protective coating over pain.”

Still Life with Bread Crumbs, Anna Quindlen (audio book)

Perfectly pleasant, very readable, likable characters, good story, interesting setting. Nothing earth shattering here but I can never go wrong reading Anna Quindlen.

“Then when she really thought about it she realized she’d been becoming different people for as long as she could remember but had never really noticed, or had put it down to moods, or marriage, or motherhood. The problem was that she’d thought that at a certain point she would be a finished product.”

What I set aside this month…

The Rise & Fall of Great Powers: Good book, bad narrator. Set aside the audio 25% in. Must get print version.

A Curious Man: The Strange and Brilliant Life of Robert “Believe It or Not!” Ripley. Lost momentum 2/3 the way through. Will finish this month (?)

 

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

W…W…W…Wednesday: Books read, reading and to read

Hooray, it’s Wednesday — one of my favorite blogging days of the week as I get to share what everyone’s reading. I’m pretty pleased with my list this week.

Thanks to Miz B at Should Be Reading for inspiring so many of us to get involved in WWW Wednesdays. It’s always a great way to connect.

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?

 

Brain on FireWhat are you currently reading?  I’m almost finished with my book club title, Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness. This is an incredibly disturbing and captivating read. I haven’t wanted to set the book down for the past couple days, even though I’m alternatingly fascinated and terrified by this young woman’s true story. Highly recommend. On audio, I’m starting The Rise & Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman. I was a big fan of The Imperfectionists and I’m already finding some of that same dark humor in disk 1; however, I’m not a huge fan of the narrator’s voice and I’m wondering if I need to switch to the print edition.

The Dead in their Vaulted ArchesWhat did you recently finish reading? I am very sad to have completed the audio version of The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches, as it is the last in Bradley’s 6-book Flavia de Luce series. Rumor (aka the internet) has it that he’s writing a new Flavia series, but it won’t necessarily contain all the places and characters I’ve come to love from Buckshaw and Bishop’s Lacey. I have adored each  installment in the series. This is the only one, however, that I don’t think would stand alone without reading the preceeding novels. This finale ties together many outstanding questions left from the 5 murders Flavia has “solved” in her 11th year. Also finished Shotgun Lovesongs (reviewed here) and We Were Liars, which definitely deserves a review that I have not yet written.

Fourth of July CreekWhat do you think you’ll read next?  I was surprised and thrilled to find a copy of Fourth of July Creek on the New Release shelf at the library. I’ve heard such great things about it. Even though it’s almost 500 pages, I’m going to sneak it in before my next non-fiction, A Curious Man, and my classic, 1984 (which my 13 year-old is HATING by the way). No shortage of books to read this month.

Happy reading everyone!

 

*All book covers are images saved from Goodreads

How about you?

What are your W…W…W… titles? Please feel free to share a link to your own W…W…W…Wednesday posts or share your reading plans in the comments.

 

Shotgun Lovesongs: The Comfort of a Good Book

cover image from Goodreads

cover image from Goodreads

Sometimes you begin reading a book and it immediately feels comfortable, like slipping into an old sweater on a cool day. That’s what I felt reading Nickolas Butler. Even though I grew up in the Chicago suburbs and not small-town Wisconsin, I knew the Midwestern feel of this novel down to my bones. I knew the speech patterns, the sense of both belongingness and isolation. I knew these people.

“These men, these men who have known one another their entire lives. These men who were all born in the same hospital, delivered by the same obstetrician. These men who grew up together, who ate the same food, sang in the same choirs, dated the same girls, breathed he same air. They move around one another with their own language, their own set of invisible signals, like wild animals.”

Occasionally I still see my childhood friends, groups like these, pictured on Facebook. I marvel at how these packs of boys have maintained that closeness, that tribe mentality, well into adulthood. They still live in the same town, drink in the same bars, run with the same crowd. They leave and they come back. That’s not how my life evolved, but I get it.

“Henry’s voice — the voice of an old friend — like finding a wall to orient you in some strange, dark hotel room.”

So all of that is to say that I had no trouble believing the backdrop of Kip, Henry, Ronny, Lee and Beth in Little Wing, Wisconsin. They are facing their 30s, all reunited in their small town, with varying degrees of professional, relationship and personal success. There are the jealousies, secrets and broken hearts you might expect from such a small-town novel, mostly predictable, but no less interesting just because I could guess where it was going.

The story is told in alternating chapters from each of the main characters’ perspectives, allowing us a glimpse into their inner-thoughts and back stories. The strategy worked to keep me invested in each person, but perhaps sacrificed the momentum of the plot, which does pick up dramatically in the second half.

I can’t say this is a great story or brilliant writing, but I can say I enjoyed reading this book. I like reading about people, groups, places I know.

“Sometimes that is what forgiveness is anyway — a deep sigh.”

Read-alikes:

The Year We Left Home by Jean Thompson
Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
Midnight Champagne by A. Manette Mansay

What other Midwestern family dramas should I be reading? I’m open to suggestions.

W…W…W…Wednesday: Books read, reading and to read

I missed all of my fellow WWW-ers last week, but I decided I would not spend a day of my family vacation glued to WordPress. Instead, I was reading!!!! More books than I’ll even mention in this post, but reviews and wrap-up are rolling out on the blog this week.

Thanks to Miz B at Should Be Reading for inspiring so many of us to get involved in WWW Wednesdays. It’s always so great to see what everyone is reading.

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?

 

cover image from Goodreads

cover image from Goodreads

What are you currently reading?  Just starting a short story collection, Birds of a Lesser Paradise that has been on my shelf for a couple years. I needed something completely different in style to sort of clear my mind and this does the trick. Really strong writing and interesting characters, which are key to successful short stories. On audio, I’m back into The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches, the 6th installment in the Flavia de Luce mysteries. I just adore Flavia and I appreciate how Bradley is bringing together the previous stories and mysteries in this one (which I hope is not his last).

 

 

cover image from Goodreads

cover image from Goodreads

What did you recently finish reading? So many books! Most recently I read a classic (another of my personal 2014 goals). Their Eyes Were Watching God was a very difficult read for me for two reasons. 1) All of the dialog is in heavy dialect so I had to pick apart the language, especially in the first half. 2) I have a hard time not applying my modern values/standards to what I read — which is really unfair given the early 20th century, black community setting of this book. I sometimes wanted to shake the main character Janie, but ultimately, I’m really glad I read this book. It will stick with me.

 

 

cover image from Goodreads

cover image from Goodreads

What do you think you’ll read next?  I have a lot of reading goals for August, including two non-fiction books, Brain on Fire and A Curious Man, and another classic, 1984, but first up a fiction book recommended by a friend, Shotgun Lovesongs. I love a good small town drama.

Happy reading everyone!

How about you?

What are your W…W…W… titles? Please feel free to share a link to your own W…W…W…Wednesday posts or share your reading plans in the comments.