“Top 25?!”said Paul. “How many books did you read this year?”
Well, after the paltry 65 I got through in 2013, I decided to make a concerted effort to improve on that embarrassing number in 2014. My goal was a lofty 120 – which I ended up far exceeding, racking up a very respectable 180 books on the year (and I could have done even better had I not been distracted by this pesky production).
Let’s be real. Most Best of the Year lists are full of crap, lazily lauding critical darlings or rewarding mere premise over execution (I’m tempted to compile a list of “Top 10 Worst Books That Made Everyone Else’s Top 10 Best Books”). This, on the other hand, is my diverse list of the books that truly resonated with me this year; books I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend. And do!
So, yeah. Top 25. But then, after I started compiling my list, I realized I was excluding some terrific books – and so, I expanded it to a Top 30. And, eventually, 35.
Many of these books were published prior to this year – but I’ve indicated the 2014 releases with an asterisk (*) and capped my countdown with a mini Top 10 Titles of 2014 list.
All to say – here are the books I most enjoyed reading between January 1st and December 31st (inclusive!) of this year. It’s a nice eclectic mix covering everything from graphic novels and genre (horror, fantasy, SF, mystery) to general fiction and non-fiction.
What titles made your list?
*35. BIRD BOX by Josh Malerman
A series of bizarre murder-suicides in Russia pique the media’s interest, but when these horrific incidents begin to proliferate and start striking closer to home, the world descends into a blind panic. Rumour spreads that people are being driven insane by the sight of some mysterious otherworldly entities and, soon, people have retreated into their homes, covering up their windows, refusing to open their eyes if they venture outdoors. A helluva page-turner.
*34. THE ROAD TO RECKONING by Robert Lautner
You can almost smell the gun smoke, sweat, and campfire in this gritty Western character piece about a young boy, orphaned after his father’s murder, who enlists the help of an ornery bastard to get him home. Smart and absorbing.
*33. FROSTBORN by Lou Anders
Award-winning editor Lou Anders first novel is a Norse-inspired, adventure-fueled tale for young fantasy enthusiasts. Karn, a young farmer-to-be, strikes up an unlikely friendship with Thianna, a half-giantess, to take on undead forces, an ancient dragon, troublesome trolls, an opportunistic uncle, and more! If you’re looking to inspire your child to follow in your Martin/Eddings/Jordan-loving footsteps, then this book is a great place to start.
32. ANCILLARY JUSTICE – Anne Leckie
The mysterious Breq is much more (and less!) than she appears. Once a military starship possessed of Artificial Intelligence, she now exists as merely one of the thousands of former ancillaries (a.k.a. corpse soldiers) that live as extensions of her former self. Reduced to a single fragile human body, fueled by the memories of her powerful past, she sets out on a seemingly impossible mission of vengeance. Sound cool? Well, it is. And smart. I haven’t read an SF novel this engrossing in quite a while.
31. A CALCULATED LIFE By Anne Charnock
In the late 21st century, society has stratified into the haves (genetically-enhanced individuals who live comfortable lives free of addiction and crime) and the have-nots (drudge workers who live in segregated, crime-ridden communities). Our protagonist, Jayna, is a hot up-and-comer at a corporation that track global trends. She has the perfect job, the perfect life and yet, she can’t help but feel that something is…off. Perfection aint all it’s cracked up to be and when Jayna decides to inject a little unpredictability into her ordered existence, things take a turn for the dangerous.
30. SCHRODER by Amity Gaige
In the heat of a custody battle, a desperate father takes his daughter on an ill-advised extended road trip. It’s one of several big errors in judgement that lead our protagonist down an inevitably heartbreaking path. The fairly straightforward premise belies a surprising complexity in this touching and tragic tale. On the surface, not “the type of book” I’d enjoy – but I was thoroughly engrossed.
29. THE INVERTED WORLD by Christopher Priest
A city moves along a railroad track in constant, laborious progress, attempting to keep up with something called “the optimum” – or risk losing pace and falling victim to a gravitational field that has warped space and time. This is a truly bizarre work of science fiction that jumps between multiple narrative styles in telling a story that is both grounded in its characters yet intellectually and creatively provocative in its conceit. At times, I felt like I was reading Leigh Brackett’s The Long Tomorrow – on acid.
*28. TO RISE AGAIN AT A DECENT HOUR by Joshua Ferris
Online identity theft turns a middle-aged dentist’s life upside-down in this wickedly dark novel about self, faith, and the inherent dangers of not flossing.
27. The Circle by Dave Eggers
Our young heroine lands a job working for The Circle, a cutting edge internet company that is Google, Facebook, and Yahoo rolled into one. Before she knows it, she is at the forefront of a wave of technological advancements that will revolutionize social interaction. But at what price? A smart, scary book that explores the potentially insidious consequences of our increasingly “connected” lives. Delivers a powerful message on our increasing willingness to relinquish privacy and freedom in exchange for convenience.
26. Red Country by Joe Abercrombie
Joe Abercrombie has distinguished himself in a fairly crowded field, delivering gritty, visceral, yet darkly humorous tales that fly in the face of established high fantasy conventions. His world-building is as unique and richly textured as the colorful characters who battle and banter their way through his stories, and I list him among my very favorite authors. Period. Beginning with his first book, The Blade Itself, and continuing through five subsequent novels, I can honestly say “I’ve never read an Abercrombie book I haven’t loved.”. Red Country is Joe at his consistent best, a story about a young girl, Shy South, who sets off to rescue her younger siblings from a group of murderous outlaws. She is aided in her quest by Lamb, her (seemingly) spineless soft-spoken stepfather, and the unlikeliest of allies in a group of risk-averse mercenaries. A hell of a lot of fun.
*25. ANNIHILATION by Jeff VanderMeer
A team of four women set out to explore a mysterious region known as Area X. By all accounts, they are the twelfth group to journey into the bizarre amazon-like territory. All of the previous expeditions have ended badly, marked by murders, suicides, disappearances, and, in the case of the eleventh, the inexplicable return of its members, sickened and psychologically broken by their experience. Our narrator, a biologist, apprises us of her team’s progress as they venture deep into Area X, making strange discoveries and unearthing hidden agendas, all the while dogged by a creeping suspicion that all is not right…
24. The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters
A great near-future thriller that follows Detective Henry Palace in his investigation of a suspicious suicide – amidst the backdrop of societal breakdown as the world prepares for the apocalyptic arrival of Asteroid 2011GV. While the clock ticks down toward an extinction level event, suicides abound and people abandon all to pursue their bucket lists, but Henry demonstrates single-minded focus. The first book in a three part series, each focusing on a different investigation – and the continuing erosion of civilization.
23. House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III
A clerical error sparks a property dispute between a former Iranian Air Force Colonel and a recovering addict, a conflict fueled by desperation and pride that eventually leads to tragic consequences. Dubus does a masterful job of presenting us with the very real and very sympathetic people on both sides of the issue. This one will stay with you.
22. Summer House with Swimming Pool by Herman Koch
Herman Koch excels at developing fascinating morally ambiguous, occasionally sociopathic characters – and his books are the opposite of feel-good summer reads. So, with that warning in mind, prepare to be thoroughly engrossed by this novel about a physician to the stars who faces some serious legal consequences after one of his celebrity patients dies following a botched medical procedure.
21. Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin
After a series of horrific child murders casts suspicion on the local Jewish community (a valuable tax source for the English court), King Henry II brings in a brilliant coroner, educated at the school of medicine in Salerno, to lead the investigation. The only hitch – she’s a woman. Operating at a time in England when female doctors are about as prevalent as tennis rackets, our protagonist, Adelia, must feign assistantship to her own assistant in order to solve the murders. A great historical mystery.
*20. We Are the Goldens by Dana Reinhardt
A story of two sisters and their incredible bond. Nell and Layla are inseparable, the best of friends, drawn even closer by their parents’ divorce. But Nell begins to notice a change in her sister. Layla becomes withdrawn and secretive, and Nell suspects it may have something to do with a popular high school teacher. Restrained and real.
*19. Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast
At times reminiscent of Art Spiegelman’s brilliant graphic novel Maus in its depiction of the relationship between aging parents and their middle-aged offspring, this bittersweet memoir traces artist Roz Chast’s struggles to care for her increasingly infirm mother and father as they deal with their loss of independence, their health and, eventually, each other. At times very funny and at times heartbreaking, it’s an eye-opening account of the realities that await us all.
*18. Afterlife with Archie (Escape from Riverdale) by Roberto Aguire-Sacasa
Archie Andrews and the gang from Riverdale face a zombie apocalypse when their high school dance is crashed by the undead, forcing them to take refuge at Lodge Manor. Surprisingly dark, this grim take on the hitherto silly comic is shockingly effective. Right up there with The Walking Dead and World War Z.
17. N0S4A2 by Joe Hill
Hill finally comes into his own with an unsettling story about missing kids, a dark fantasy land, and a creepy yet surprisingly nuanced villain. A standout read.
16. Going Clear by Lawrence Wright
A history of scientology and its frighteningly far reach. Terrifying.
15. Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh
I generally hate blog books but this one is the exception. Incisive, engaging, and very, very funny, it’s complimented by some perfect and perfectly hilarious illustrations.
*14. Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher
Jason Fitger writes a lot of reference letters. A lot of woeful, meandering, passive-aggressive, unintentionally offensive reference letters that, if nothing else, offer tragic-comic insight into the world of their author, an embittered professor of creative writing at a small liberal arts school. The book, a hilarious collection of his (un)professional missives, will have you carefully reconsidering the next time you ask someone for a professional recommendation.
*13. The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North
Many will no doubt draw comparisons to Kate Atkinson’s much-hyped Life After Life given the similar premise – a protagonist is continually reborn after death, reliving his/her life over and over – but whereas Atkinson’s heroine has no knowledge of her past experiences, North’s hero does and this makes for a completely different and (in my opinion) far more interesting narrative. Armed with the memories of what came before, Harry August discovers others like him, time traveling kalachakra, who hold the secret to saving the world – and ending it.
*12. In the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides
Historical documents, journals, and personal accounts are used to reconstruct the ill-fated polar voyage of the USS Jeanette and its 33 man crew who are forced to undertake a grueling thousand mile journey across the frozen Arctic when their ship goes down in icy waters. Harrowing.
11. Thirteen Hours by Deon Meyer
When a young American backpacker turns up dead in Capetown and her friend disappears, Detective Benny Griessel is tasked with the politically-charged job finding the missing girl. The narrative jumps back and forth between the official investigation and the young woman on the run in this highly suspenseful, immensely captivating page-turner. Impossible to put down, I read this novel in a single night, staying up until 2:00 a.m to finish it.
*10. Saga by Brian K. Vaughan
It’s an going series, so I’m including it as a 2014 release. Two former soldiers, deserters, and star-crossed lovers from opposing sides of an interplanetary conflict attempt to put the war behind them and raise their daughter with the help of some unlikely allies. But their pasts come back to haunt them in the form of some even unlikelier enemies – and otherworldly complications. The comic book version of an intricately plotted, character-driven cable drama. Fiercely original.
*9. The Troop by Nick Cutter
A field trip to an isolated island takes a horrific turn for a group of young boys when their scout leader welcomes an emaciated stranger into their camp. It’s a horror version of Lord of Flies that is at turns harrowing, humorous, and thoroughly engaging. Wonderfully written. It’s heads and shoulders above most novels in the genre.
8. Super Graphic by Tim Leong
This visual guide to the comic book universe uses pie charts, venn diagrams, bar graphs, maps, and trajectories to highlight fun facts. Whether it’s a rundown of DC’s alternate Earths, the pizza particulars of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the alliances and connections of the denizens of Sin City, a Walking Dead kill counter, a map of Tintin’s travels, or a taxonomy of animal-named characters, there’s something here for most every fan to geek-out over. LOVED it!
7. The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay
Moorish Spain (or a fictional version thereof) is the backdrop of this sweeping historical fantasy involving sieges, warfare, diabolical plots, courtly intrigue, crosses, double-crosses, friendship, and romance. At heart of it all are three protagonists whose backgrounds and alliances lead them on intersecting paths both heroic and tragic. Brilliant world-building and wonderfully nuanced characters. My introduction to the works of author Guy Gavriel Kay novel. Highly recommended.
6. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
When his wife goes missing, family and friends rally in support of her distressed husband – until evidence surfaces suggesting he may have had a hand in her disappearance. As suspicion mounts and the onion is peeled on a less than ideal marriage, the reader discovers that appearances can be very deceiving. Replete with twists and turns, a compelling read.
*5. Half a King by Joe Abercrombie
Young Prince Yarvi is son to the King of Gettland. Born with only one good hand and no aspirations to the throne, he has grown up in the shadow of his older brother. But when his father and brother fall in battle, it falls on him to avenge them. His scheming uncle has other plans, however, and Yarvi is betrayed and sold into slavery. And so, it’s from his lowly position as a galley rower riding the Shattered Sea that his quest for revenge begins, one that will see him forge alliances with reprobates and renegades, battle fierce adversaries, and, ultimately, reforge himself into a force to be reckoned with.
4. This is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper
To honor the memory of his recently deceased father, Judd Altman learns he must sit shiva, spending the week in mourning with his fractured family. Disparate personalities clash as unresolved issues resurface in this wickedly humorous novel.
3. The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion
Don Tillman, a brilliant but socially inept professor of genetics, comes up with the optimal means to finding his ideal companion: a sixteen page questionnaire designed to weed out unsuitable candidates and zero in on his perfect match. His scientifically sound approach to love yields unexpected results in this touching and thoroughly charming novel.
*2. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
Inspired by an experiment in the 1930’s in which a husband and wife research team raised a baby chimp in their home as a member of their family, this novel offers a fictional account of a similar experiment run some sixty years later – and its heartbreaking effects on those involved. Our narrator is Rosemary, a woman who reflects back on her childhood, growing up with a human brother and chimpanzee sister – until the dark day her sister, Fern, was taken away. The loss of their beloved family members has far-reaching consequences for all of them. Some fifteen years later, Rosemary attempts to learn the truth about her sister’s fate. Humorous and poignant.
1. The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
The book opens with our narrator, Jeannette, on her way to a New York City function, when her cab stops beside a homeless women rooting through the trash. Upon closer scrutiny, Jeannette realizes that homeless woman is, in fact, her mother. And so begins one of the most amazing books I’ve read in recent memory. The blurb on the back of the jacket does it an enormous disservice, painting it as a bleak autobiographical account of woman growing up in an abusive family. It’s actually quite touching, uplifting – and incredibly funny, reminiscent of David Sedaris at his very darkest. One of my Top 10 books of all time. Go read it!
MY TOP 10 BOOKS OF 2014
#10 – We Are the Goldens by Dana Reinhardt
#9 – Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast
#8 – Afterlife with Archie (Escape from Riverdale) by Roberto Aguire-Sacasa
#7 – Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher
#6 – The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North
#5 – In the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides
#4 – Saga by Brian K. Vaughan
#3 – The Troop by Nick Cutter
#2 – Half a King by Joe Abercrombie
#1 – We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
Happy New Year!
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