I’ve been promising this post for awhile now, and since the books of 2015 have started stacking up, I figure I better get cracking.
The Best Books of 2014
Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I would have loved this book for its discussion of hair alone, but Adichie really knocked it out of the park. Young love, really finding yourself once you grow up and get over your first love, and identity in groups, for yourself, and at large. It’s figuring out class politics in Nigeria, and race politics in America, and how race and class discussions never really separate anywhere. It’s a book I kicked myself for borrowing from the library, because I wanted to underline and write notes in the margins the entire time. Adichie is like a baby Toni Morrison and I can’t wait to devour her backlist.
The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt. I resisted reading this because I wasn’t a big fan of Tartt’s Secret History, but everyone was all ravey-ravey and the book was on super-sale, so I bought it for Christmas. And zomg. It was a slow start, but once the bomb went off in the museum, another one went off in my head, and I couldn’t put the book down. Serious, I think I read the rest of the 800+ pages in two days. Boris was a brilliant madcap character, and I wanted to crawl inside Hobie’s workshop and find all the hidden passageways, and I loathed Theo so much, but I couldn’t resist running along on all his crazyass adventures. It was brilliant, brilliant, brilliant – I didn’t even mind the bits that weren’t so believable, although I know that totally bugged some people. Accept that you’ve fallen down the rabbit hole and enjoy the ride, people.
Eleven Days, by Lea Carpenter. I hesitated when I originally starred this book. Was it the most mindblowing story? No. But the tale of a mother and son from when she first finds out her son has gone missing from his special ops mission in Iraq was so hypnotic and melodic that I couldn’t put it down. The writing was haunting and lovely and unflinching. I had to include it because it made me hope in the face of devastation.
Marcello in the Real World, by Francisco X. Stork. A YA selection that hit me in so many of the right places that I wondered how I had gone so long without hearing about it. It’s a great story to hand to tweenaged boys looking for something other than Percy Jackson or Harry Potter. Marcello is different, like Sheldon from Big Bang different. His parents are pushing him to move out into the real world, and so he interns at his dad’s office and…all sorts of magical things happen. There was only one weird side storyline near the end that felt false and was totally unnecessary. Otherwise the story was a poignant reminder about following the truest parts of our heart, even in the face of ridicule.
State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett. I love Ann Patchett so much that she’s become one of my pre-order authors. She’s had a few misses as I work through her backlist, but for the most part, she knows how to sing the songs I love to hear. My sister described this one as a horribly constructed poor man’s White Mary, as a research pharmacologist goes off into the Amazonian rain forest to find a missing colleague and stumbles across both her longtime forgotten, missing, and nutso mentor – and possibly the fountain of youth. State of Wonder broke my heart and put back the pieces, even if I had to forgive a few plotlines that were just bizarro. The language was still exquisite enough for me to give it 5 of 5 stars, even with its quirks. If you love Patchett, you’ll love this one. If she bugs, it’s not for you. (Ask Kim.)
Walk Across the Sun, by Corban Addison. Okay, this one was just about the opposite – I loved the premise of the story: a corporate lawyer hit some troubled times, takes time off, ends up in India instead of D.C. and decides to try to save two young Indian girls who were sold into forced prostitution after the Tsunami killed the rest of their family. But the writing read at best like a B-rated procedural, and at worst like crappy fanfic. But I couldn’t put it down until I found out what happened. So it sort of earns a qualified place here.
The Martian, by Andy Weir. Okay, if you are the one person who hasn’t heard me rave a zillion times about this book, let me just say this: I read it FOUR TIMES last year AND I threw an epic hissyfit when the Tournament of Books left it off its list. Oh, and I email Andy Weir daily to ask him if he’s written his second book yet.
When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead. I was a little dubious about this; it riffs on Wrinkle in Time, which I had just read, and wasn’t sure whether my nerdiness would stand up. It did, and another classic YA-to-adult crossover favorite was born. Seriously – ask all of my friends how many times I shoved this book in their hands and told them to read it. It was like a nerdier, time-travellin’ Judy Blume – and you know how much I love my Judy Blume.
Boy, Snow, Bird, by Helen Oyeyemi. This was a weird, weird book and I loved it. It was pitched as a book about race and skin politics and passing and, oh, hey, that was also designed as a fractured fairytale (a la Snow White), and who doesn’t want to read that? Only in this case, the Evil Queen rescues Snow White, then banishes her after her own (dark-skinned) child is born. And that ending…okay, someone’s going to have to explain that ending to me, because I was all whaaaa? Oh! And SURPRISE – it was set in my little-known hometown! Seriously. Perfectly. Weird.
We Need New Names, by NoViolet Bulawayo. Books about the oil slicks of identity and coming to America seem to be my bag this year. We Need New Names was one of the most strongly told stories I’ve read, even if Bulawayo’s voice got lost in the weeds here and there. When she was there, she was there and locked you into the scene so strongly, you felt like you were there. How someone could read this book of creating home and a sense of self in the middle of nothing and hopelessness and not come away with such a strong sense of gratitude and needing to do for others is beyond me.
Jim Henson: The Biography, by Brian Jay Jones. Oooh boy. Don’t read this biography if you need to keep your childhood mentor up there on a pedestal – I almost needed to wash my mind out with soap after getting through with some pieces. But if you really knew Henson’s work, you knew there were going to be skeletons and boogie men and all kinds of weird shit in his closet. If you can work around that, you’ll find out all kinds of wonderful little tidbits and so much about the person he was and the family he was surrounded by, and that knowledge has informed his art for me in so many interesting ways.
we were liars, by e. lockhart. Okay, this was one of the It Books of the year and you’ve probably read a hundred things about it. Yes, the ending was telegraphed a bit, and yes, when you’re told to expect a twist it sucks some of the fun out of it, but for me the book was written so lyrically, and was just different enough that I couldn’t walk away. The style is different and will bug some people, but it’s also short-short-short, so you can sneak in a lot of good storytelling in just an hour or two. An excellent beach read (for those of us who like to think on the beach).
The Book of Unknown Americans, by Cristina Henriquez. Ohhhh, this book broke my heart. Maybe not on a Tell the Wolves I’m Home level, but STILL. Heart breakage. It’s another book about displacement and trying to find a place where you can be you, a better you – whoever that is. In this one tenement building, a bunch of immigrants have found temporary shelter and chapter by chapter we find out who they are, as their stories begin entwining for better and for worse, straight through until the screaming finale. I knew something was going to happen, but not this and oh. Oh, my heart.
A House in the Sky, by Amanda Lindhout. How often does it work out that both vacation books end up being on your Best Of list? House is a memoir written by a photojournalist who travels to the most remote and dangerous corners of the world in an attempt to understand the world and live a life of meaning. During a trip to Somalia, she and her traveling companion are taken hostage and held for more than a year. There is no way I could have survived what Amanda went through. I’m a memoir addict – especially when the tales include danger and bravery and a high level of imagination – and this one recounts a tale few others can compete with.
The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair, by Joel Dicker. This was such a different story. It was like a mystery or a crime procedural, but it wasn’t. It was modern, but with hints of throwback. You’d think you had the story pegged or the characters pinned and then…not so much. It’s hefty – boy, did I hate taking up so much space in my carry-on – but it was worth it. After I finished, I couldn’t tell you where the story could be culled, and every bit kept me entertained. A smart, rollicking read that will make you bang the book against the nearest object and yell, “JUST TELL ME WHO DID IT ALREADY!” Ahem.
The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell. I was so intimidated to read this. Space-traveling Jesuits? Life found on another planet? Religion and sci-fi? You’ve got to be kidding me. But ohmygod. The story was so intense, I have a hard time remembering the characters are not real, and the scars aren’t either. I will think about this book – and recommend it – for the rest of my life. Forget everything else, all the clutter and descriptives you’ll hear: it’s a book about family and what you would do for those you love. (In space.)(With Jesuits.)
Everything I Never Told You, by Cynthia Ng. Why is it that every book I’m telling you to read, I’m also telling you how bad the book broke me?! Yes, I needed a box of tissues to make it through this one, too. But at least you know from Page One that the Lee’s favorite daughter (yes, seriously the “favorite”) has died, and the rest of the story is an unfolding of how and maybe why. I just wanted to shake every single character – in fact, I did shake the book more than once – and make them share what the knew. Because there were so many things that some people knew that others didn’t, and if they just pooled their resources, their daughter, sister, friend, girlfriend, person might not still be alive, but would finally be at peace. And then maybe so would they. Haunting and perfect.
Bellweather Rhapsody, by Kate Racculia. Okay! Change of pace! This was a fun, quirky, laugh out loud sort of book. (You’re welcome.) It’s shades of The Shining, in which a grizzly old murder went down at a sprawling, aging resort years ago, the same resort where a band competition is now going down. And the child who survived the wedding-day murder all those years ago has come back to put her ghosts to rest. Only there’s a giant snowstorm that has trapped all the guests! And one of the kids goes missing! Dun dun dunnnnnh! Seriously smart and seriously funny with just enough pop culture references (and The Shining references) to keep it humming along. Quite the antidote to all those tearjerkers I’ve been telling you to read.
City of Women, by David Gillham. I love, love, love World War II history, fiction, memoirs – anything I can get my hands on. Usually one or two pieces end up on my Best Of lists, and when they do, it’s because they stood out. I read so many, they’d have to. City of Women was one of those. It’s the story of German housewives left in Berlin during the war, one of whom has an affair (or two or three), gets caught up in scandals and clandestine affairs (not the sexy kind, the spy kind) and starts to wonder what the line is, exactly, between Good Guys and Bad Guys. Oof, this book was full of feels. But it’s okay – no tissues.
Bird Box, by Josh Mallerman. You know when you hear eighty-thousand different people talk about a book and how FABULOUS it was and how they couldn’t sleep for days because of it? I am one of those eighty-thousand when it comes to Bird Box. It wasn’t quite “hide the children in the closet for a few days so nothing sucks their souls” the way N0S4A2 was, but it still scared the shit out of me. Definitely a read-in-the-daytime kind of book. Seriously. Not kidding.
The Book of My Lives, by Aleksander Hemon. I wasn’t sure how many books I’d fall in love with during Non-fic November, but this was one I practically shoved in my sister’s hands. It’s a memoir of boyhood in Sarajevo, of the freedom-fighter (with words, beautiful words) the boy grows into, and of the writer’s professional life in Chicago after he flees his homeland. I loved how Hemon played with language, with the construction of identity, with even the idea of Memoir. It’s a book filled with Deep Thinking, not just time-passing. You’ve been warned.
Bad Feminist, by Roxane Gay. Roxane Gay is my favorite find of 2014. I would read her grocery list because she’d probably use it to point out in funny and true ways the racial and classist oppression of grocery aisle structures and the privilege of even having grocery stores and the differences of produce offerings in L.A., Haiti, and suburbia. And she’d be right. Because Roxane Gay’s writing…there aren’t stray bullets when she pulls the trigger. Everything is on point and deadly accurate and somehow we all end up being more conscious, better subjects to one another. Seriously. Mandatory reading right here.
Revival, by Stephen King. Was this King’s best book to date? No. It was better than Mr. Mercedes, but less so than Doctor Sleep. Was it still better than most everything else I read this year? Hell yes. King is the storytellin’ master.
Fourth of July Creek, by Smith Henderson. I hadn’t really heard much about this one, but it ended up on everyone’s Best Of list, so I happily snatched it from the library bookshelves when I went book hunting. It was strangely addictive, the kind of story where you don’t like any of the characters, but they are so beautifully constructed that you’re addicted to knowing more, to finding out exactly how and why they tick, drawn furiously to the end to find out what happens. Good god dang, what a story this was. A social worker who can’t make his own family work. A missing teenager. A feral boy. An anarchist. And the beautiful barren landscape of nowhere Montana.