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.

The deep, dark and ugly of Fourth of July Creek

Fourth of July CreekThe Montana Visitors Bureau will not be hiring Smith Henderson any time soon. The Montana of Henederson’s gripping debut novel is bleak and desolate, filled with alcoholics, addicts, guns, separatists and loneliness. Even his brilliant depictions of the state’s wilderness seem hard-edged and dangerous. Henderson’s characters are beyond broken; they are fractured into tiny pieces and spinning out of control.

This is not a pretty novel.

“The children were like children from anywhere, maybe a little less so.”

Pete Snow, a Department of Children’s Services social worker, should be our hero, but he’s an alcoholic who abandoned his own child and shelters more than one criminal. The fact that I still have sympathy for this man is a testament to the strength and power of Henderson’s writing.

His adversary, Benjamin Pearl, is a wild near-animal zealot, raising his son and hiding from society. (Conspiracy theorists will love his philosophy and anti-system rants.) Again, he is the antithesis of everything I believe in and yet, my heart broke for him and I was unable to compartmentalize him in the role of “bad guy.”

Is it any accident that these men have the names Snow and Pearl which evoke images of innocence and purity? I’ve got to hand it to Henderson. Down to the characters’ names, he doesn’t leave any detail of this novel to chance.

Snow and Pearl almost dance around each other through the events of this novel, alternating between trust and betrayal. Their relationship illustrates all the themes and questions of freedom, relationships, loyalty and democracy.

Meanwhile, Snow’s daughter is missing. In some of the most emotionally powerful chapters of the novel, we hear directly from Rose.

“What was it like on the way to Texas? It was Wyoming, which means to drive forever through ugly subscrape the color of dirty pennies. It was just wyoming along.”

The way in which Rose continues to use “wyoming” as a verb, noun and adjective to describe the nothingness she feels is absolutely brilliant.

All of these journeys are incredibly sad. I never shy away from dark reading material. In fact, I couldn’t help but compare this book to The Painter, Once Upon a River and Girlchild. All of these are fiction about the darker underside of America. The difference is that Fourth of July Creek, I found no hope. I could not put this book down, but I didn’t want to read it.

“the world is a blade and dread is hope cut open and spread inside out.”

Read-alikes:

The Painter by Peter Heller

Once Upon a River by Bonnie Jo Campbell

Girlchild by Tupelo Hassman

July Reading Wrap Up

Summer hours and a week-long getaway made for a great month of reading for me. New releases and many titles that had been lingering on my to-read for far too long are finally finished.

July Reads

By the numbers: 13 books, 13 reviews on Goodreads, 5 reviews on alenaslife, 4 oldies from my shelf – #dustingoffmybookshelf, 2 from my 2014 personal challenge (set in a foreign locale & a classic), 1 audio

From most to least favorite:
The Painter, Peter Heller  Reviewed

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, Robin Sloan Reviewed

Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands, Chris Bohjalian Reviewed

The Girl You Left Behind, Jojo Moyes  Reviewed

Birds of a Lesser Paradise, Megan Mayhew Bergman

This outstanding collection of short stories has been on my to-read shelf for years just waiting for my discovery. I fell hard for these brilliant, quirky, animal inspired stories. All are about survival despite the odds. They inspired me and entertained me. Bergman is definitely an author I’ll watch for.

“I wished for things to stay the same. I wished for stillness everywhere, but I opened up the rest of the bedroom windows and let the world in.”

The Invention of Wings, Sue Monk Kidd Reviewed

Bellweather Rhapsody, Kate Racculia

Another book that defies any easy description. Mix together temperamental artists, teen angst, middle-ages loneliness, and a mystery. Then plop all of it in a crumbling Shining-style grand hotel and you’ll get a feel for this novel. High drama and high stakes vs. ruin and decay. Really enjoyed reading it, even if I couldn’t swallow the actual story line.

“Maybe that’s what he reminds her of: they are both full of dark corners, odd places, possibly ghosts.”

Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston

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.

“The years took the fight out of Janie’s face. For a while she thought it was gone from her soul…But mostly she lived between her hat and her heels, with her emotional disturbances like shade patterns in the woods — come and gone with the sun.”

Silver Linings Playbook, Matthew Quick

Engrossing and enjoyable read despite the heavy mental illness subject matter. Even though I didn’t see the movie I was heavily influenced by its stars in visualizing this book as I read.

“I am practicing being kind over being right.”

Emotionally Weird, Kate Atkinson

This novel has so much confusion — stories within stories, mysterious characters coming and going, multiple fonts, unreliable narrator(s) — all purposeful. I was often lost, but never frustrated or disinterested because it also has Atkinson’s wit, humor and beautiful writing. I suppose there’s a plot — mother and daughter on a decaying Scottish island trying to tell their personal truths, claim identity. It’s all rather circular and a little bit beside the point (although, true to Atkinson’s other works, there are multi-layered connections among characters and everything gets tied together well.)

“Memory is a capricious thing, of course, belonging not in the world of reason and logic, but in the realms of dreams and photographs — places where truth and reality are tantalizingly out of reach.”

The Secret Life of CeeCee Wilkes, Diane Chamberlain

This book is much more made-for-tv-movie than my usual reading choices, but I had no trouble getting caught up in CeeCee’s story. It’s fast paced and engaging, even if I don’t want to believe any woman (even a 16 year-old) would be gullible enough to fall for the lines that ensnared CeeCee.

“You got dealt some crappy cards. But you’re the one who has to decide how to play them.”

Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

A carry over from June, I struggled to make my way through this book, which I truly wanted to love. I liked the first part and the last part (up until he final 2 pages), but the 300+ pages in the middle left me unmoved, even a little bored. There were some things I loved. I love the blog posts that show up in the novel. These were the most enlightening, passionate, personal moments in the novel, I loved learning about Nigeria and Nigerian culture. Certainly my eyes were opened to the many ways in which Americans (myself included) are blind to racism and cultural identity.

“And her joy would become a restless thing, flapping it’s wings inside her, as though looking for an opening to fly away.”

The Wife, The Maid and the Mistress, Ariel Lawhon on audio

This historic fiction is based on the real-life disappearance of New York State Supreme Court Justice Joseph Creighter in 1930s. Lawhon does a great job of evoking the era, filled with politicians, gangsters and corruption and sets up some delicious characters as the title implies. I wasn’t crazy about the mystery itself. The plot developments felt a little forced and overall, it moved too slowly to make it thrilling. (I probably would have preferred to read the print instead of listening to the audio over the course of a month.)

“His hand left a trail of shame across her skin.”

My July Photo Collage is comprised of book covers provided by Goodreads.

Peter Heller’s The Painter — just, wow

I know it’s sexist to categorize books as either masculine or feminine, but I do it anyway. Don’t’ get me wrong, I read both. Dennis Lehane is one of my favorite writers and his dark, gritty, violent books definitely fall in my definition of masculine. Toni Morrison, on the other hand, with her magic and poetry and search for identity, belong in my (again, sexist) definition of literature.

cover image via Goodreads

cover image via Goodreads

What is rare is to find an author who so fully embodies both sides of the spectrum, but that’s the only way I can think to describe Peter Heller and his current book, The Painter.

My immediate reaction after turning the final page was simply, Wow.

The story-line is surprisingly violent (like in a Clint Eastwood way), but the language of the novel is thoughtful and thought-provoking, making the book’s appeal both powerful and gentle. The protagonist, Jim Stegner, is not easy to like. He’s an alcoholic artists with a troubled past and a violent temper, searching for peace and beauty.

“I almost cannot contain — the rage and the tenderness together like boiling weather front.”

Heller writes him so vividly that he does almost seem to boil on the page. His actions are despicable, but his conscience (soul?) runs deep with guilt which comes out through his artwork. Art, particularly Jim’s painting his own conscience, plays a huge role in this story. Again, Heller finds a brilliant way of combining almost poetic language with the gritty realities of what it means to be a working artist.

“The reason people are so moved by art and why artists tend to take it all so seriously is that if they are real and true they come to the painting with everything they know and feel and live, and all the things they don’t know, and some of the things they hope, and they are honest about them all and put them on the canvas. What can be more serious?”

This is my first experience reading Heller and I now must move The Dog Stars up to the top of my To-Read shelf. I think I’m about to become a superfan.

“We can proceed in our lives just as easily from love to love as from loss to loss. A good thing to remember in the middle of the night when you’re not sure how you will get through the next three breaths.”

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

I am back with another solid week of books read and reviewed and heading into 10 days offs when I hope to really make a dent in my TBR.

Thanks to Miz B at Should Be Reading for hosting. I have discovered so many other wonderful blogs through this book-loving meme.

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 via Goodreads

cover image via Goodreads

What are you currently reading?  I wish I could remember* which terrific blog peaked my interest in Bellweather Rhapsody because I’m really enjoying this mystery (maybe ghost story?) set amid a high school arts conference at a crumbling grand hotel. After feeling burned by The Interestings (which I did not love), I was nervous about delving into another group of teenage prodigies, but this one grabbed me right away. On audio, I’m loving The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches, the 6th installment in the Flavia de Luce mysteries.

 

 

cover image via Goodreads

cover image via Goodreads

What did you recently finish reading? I read and reviewed Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands by Chris Bohjalian. I definitely recommend it to fans of YA and strong smart writing. Also finished The Secret Life of CeeCee Wilkes, which was my first Diane Chamberlain novel. It was completely engaging while I read it, but more made-for-tv-movie than my typical reading choices. It turned out to be a good choice for a summer, poolside read as the story was engaging but the language was simple and straightforward.

 

 

cover image via Goodreads

cover image via Goodreads

What do you think you’ll read next?  I had a great visit to the library this week as I prepare for vacation and a solid week of nothing but time on my hands. I chose 7 books, all different genre, mostly older releases. I’ll be starting with The Painter because I’ve heard nothing but outstanding raves and I’ve never read Peter Heller.

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.

*EDIT: Many, many thanks to Rosemary at Rosemary and Reading Glasses as she is the blogger who introduced me to this book and author. Thanks for the reminder Rosemary.