Every single year around this time, I find myself reflecting back on the books I’ve read since January 1st, and feeling:
1) mad at myself for not reading more;
2) mad at myself for wasting my life finishing that one really dreadful book;
3) delighted that I kept going through the hard bits of that one that turned out so wonderful; and, mostly
4) grateful that thanks to affordable secondhand books and libraries, I have such a wealth of access to so many inspiring reads.
The Washington Post has put out their list for the top 50 fiction books for 2014, and reading it made me want to share my favorites of the year, too. The Post’s selections are all published in 2014, but mine are all over the map.
Here are my favorite 20 of the books I read in 2014. As in previous years (2008, 2010, 2011, 2012), the selections are all over the place. Some are new, some are old, some are Canadian, some are graphic novels, some are chock full of violence, some are tear-jerkers, some are comedy, some are historical fiction. It’s just a little glimpse inside my brain and what it likes to read. Here are my top 20 books of 2014, in no particular order. Enjoy, and I’d love if you leave a comment with agreement, disagreement, recommendations or whatever else.
1. The Orenda by Joseph Boyden
It would be almost impossible to overstate the graphic and visceral violence in the book. Be warned. That said, The Orenda is a thoughtful, intricate and fully-realized story of the very early days of Canada’s settlement, the lengthy clash between the Huron and the Iroquois people, and the involvement of the white Jesuit priests and missionaries who came to settle there. Like all of Boyden’s work, even the most terrible and brutal of passages are still simultaneously beautiful. He is a tremendously skilled writer.
2. The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer
I must confess that even though this is only one of Wolitzer’s 10 novels, this is the first I’ve heard of and first I’ve read. But I enjoyed it so much that I intend to seek out her previous titles now, as well. You know the feeling you get as a child at summer camp – something like an overwhelming mixture of possibility and purity? It’s a feeling of falling in love with the people, time and place of the moment, a simultaneous slowing and speeding of time, invincibility, and bittersweet nostalgia for something that isn’t even over yet. Wolitzer captures that perfectly, and follows the lives of the six friends who experience it all together as teenagers, studying the places life takes each of them and the way they still belong to one another.
3. More Than This by Patrick Ness
More Than This is billed as a Young Adult (YA) novel, but don’t be fooled. Its story will certainly appeal to teenagers, but adults would be remiss to skip over it. The book tells the story of 16-year-old Seth, a boy who drowns, and then finds himself in a deserted neighborhood. Seth believes he is in hell or some kind of purgatory. Much more than that would risk spoiling, and this is absolutely a book worth reading. It made the hair on my arms stand up multiple times. It’s a considered, thought-provoking and philosophical read. Some of its plot points could have become preachy or heavy-handed, but Ness skillfully maneuvers around all the curves. If there’s a sequel, I will snatch it up as quickly as I can.
4. One More Thing by B.J. Novak
You may know B.J. Novak better as Ryan the Temp from the American version of the sitcom The Office. This collection is 100% worth it, even if you only read the story titled “The Comedy Central Roast of Nelson Mandela”. The title story is memorably great as well. A few of the stories felt a bit cutesy and gimmicky, but overall it’s a solid collection and made me laugh out loud a handful of times.
5. The Woman Who Walked Into Doors by Roddy Doyle
Absolutely heartbreaking. It would be a masterpiece if it were written by a woman, but the fact that Doyle, as a man, was able to so masterfully write the character of Paula Spencer, an abused but unbreakable working-class woman thinking back over her life, is mindblowing. This novel is so real, so understated and so powerful that I had to pause or stop several times during my reading, to think, or cry or just take a break. It’s such a small, quiet story, but told so beautifully that it’s unforgettable.
6. Y: The Last Man by Brian K. Vaughan
A mysterious sudden (and by sudden, I mean all the males are wiped out in an instant) plague has eradicated males all across the globe. Not just humans, but all other male mammals as well. All, that is, except for Yorick, an easygoing, perhaps a bit bumbling young man, and his pet capuchin monkey, Ampersand. Some of the storylines of the series are less successful than others, but author Brian K. Vaughan clearly put a lot of thought into plot branches and possibilities here, and the result is a creative, interesting, really fun read. I recommend the whole series.
7. The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri
This is the first full-length novel I’ve read from Lahiri, having only read (and enjoyed) her short fiction previously. Lahiri’s prose is elegant and vivid as ever, whether she’s describing water lilies on a pond or tense escapes. The Lowland is the story of two inseparably close brothers growing up in Calcutta whose paths diverge as they reach adulthood.
8. Kindred by Octavia Butler
What a strange and excellent book. First published in 1979, it is a science-fiction novel, but also a classic of African American literature and historical fiction. It details accidental and periodic time travel after a dizzy spell, between a woman’s modern-day Los Angeles life, and an early 19th-century Maryland plantation, where slavery is still in full practice.
9. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Come on, you’ve read this book. It’s embarrassing that I hadn’t read it before. I’d always meant to, but just kept not getting around to it. It did not, of course, disappoint, nor did Offred. If you haven’t read it, get to it!
10. The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd
I liked The Secret Life of Bees, Kidd’s 2002 novel, pretty well, but did find it a bit saccharine and heartwarming for my taste. The Invention of Wings is still moving, but in its pages, Kidd seems to have better achieved a balance between characters. The novel tells the story, through alternating chapters, of Handful (slave name Hetty), a young slave girl in Charleston, and Sarah, the daughter of the family who owns Handful and her mother. It felt uncomfortable to be reading a book about slavery, written by a white woman, but from the (sometimes) perspective of a black slave. But it was a solid story.
11. The Messenger by Markus Zusak
I read this entirely because I loved Zusak’s The Book Thief so much. The Messenger was extremely different, and a hard plot to pull off – hapless Ed, the broke and rut-dwelling taxi driver, has greatness thrust upon him one day in a most unlikely fashion, and goes about shrugging and becoming a hero by following a series of cryptic and authorless instructions, because why not. But it’s a really fun read, and even if I rolled my eyes a few times, I kept reading.
12. Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell
Another YA offering on the list. From the description, I wasn’t too excited to read this, as it sounded like many books I’d read before, about teenagers who don’t quite fit in finding each other. But the characters of both Eleanor and Park are written so realistically and unapologetically that it felt like a brand new story, and I found myself caring so much what happened to them. Rowell didn’t take any easy or obvious shortcuts to happy endings or clichés, either. It was a refreshing, raw and lovely book.
13. The Girl Who Was Saturday Night by Heather O’Neill
Love, love, love this book! Much like O’Neill’s debut novel, Lullabies for Little Criminals, this second offering from the Montreal author is inhabited by the most irresistible and charming characters possible. But O’Neill’s writing has improved, as well. While I found aspects of her first novel jarring and requiring me to suspend too much of my disbelief, this one gets it just right. It maintains enough strangeness and magic to remain its sense of wonder, but doesn’t close the door on the possibility of reality. The relationship between Nouschka and her twin brother Nicolas is perfect.
14. On Such a Full Sea by Chang-Rae Lee
A very unusual, risky and ambitious science fiction novel that really worked for me. For an inarguably dystopian story, On Such a Full Sea nevertheless manages to somehow buoy the reader up with hope and small snippets of joy as they traverse the strange landscapes. Read it yourself and see if you can help but cheer for Fan in your heart.
15. The Bear by Claire Cameron
This book bugged me from the get-go. Perhaps it’s because I have limited experience with five-year-olds, but the narration by Anna struck me as wholly unbelievable, and took me out of the story countless times. That didn’t really let up, to be honest, but I found the book so interesting in its details, history and story that I got past it.
16. Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple
I was nervous upon starting this book, because I feared from the get-go that Bernadette was one of those dreaded literary tropes – specifically, the madcapped, scattered, free spirit manic pixie dream girls. They’re annoying and done to death. But I was pleasantly surprised as I kept reading. It probably helped that my brain somehow decided that she would beplayed by Allison Janney in the movie in my head. I love Allison Janney.
17. Boxers/Saints by Gene Luen Yang
Gene Luen Yang does it again. He is the author of one of my favorite graphic novels, American Born Chinese. His latest offering is this two-volume graphic novel set in China’s Boxer Rebellion at the end of the 19th century. He chose a two-volume format, writing one from the perspective of a young boy on the side of the rebels, and one from the perspective of a little girl on the side of the Christians. That choice, with both volumes being written gracefully and sympathetically, ensures that the reader is unable to pick a side, which of course makes it all much more tragic and futile, but more realistic.
18. Tell The Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt
This is a heck of a good debut novel. I found it impossible not to fall in love with June, our teenaged protagonist, and the complex, beautiful relationship she has with her uncle Finn. The novel that follows Finn’s death is mysterious, touching and perfectly paced as June struggles to understand and separate her feelings and navigate relationships with her mother, her sister Greta, and her late uncle’s boyfriend.
19. The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud
Nora is an ideal unreliable narrator. She draws us in, intrigues us, and gets us, her readers, firmly on her side before slowly, inch by inch, unfurling the rest of the story. And as she does so, her likability recedes in turn, but by that time, she’s got us. And much of it is a story too familiar to many people, women especially – that of the exhausting, sorrowful awareness of dwindling life, wasted potential and futility. But there’s a spark, here, and by the end, it’s burning.
20. Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro
Not all of the stories contained in Munro’s 2009 collection worked for me. The title story, in fact, more of a novella in length, is too broad in scope and feels undecided the whole way through. I found it lacked the undeniable authenticity and truth in characters that typifies Munro’s writing to me. However, most of the stories in the book were great, and a couple were absolutely brilliant. The opening story had me at the library (I started reading there, before going home) sniffling into my sleeve.