As the calendar year comes to a close, it’s become common to compile best-of lists to share, discuss and widely recommend. Here are 10 of my favorite fiction titles, in no particular order, published in 2014. What lands a book on my best-of list? All of these novels feature quality writing, stories with an intriguing plot hook and memorable characters. They make the reader reflect on bigger issues, and ultimately on the human condition. We want to read books we can connect with, often in ways that are far from obvious. While I want to be entertained as I read, I want to be thrilled by the author’s craft. I look for a poetic turn of phrase, descriptions that make me pause, reread and reflect. This list reflects a variety of fiction subgenres, including realistic, historical, sci-fi, post-apocalyptic and mystery.
The eye-catching cover of Lily King’s slim novel Euphoria, depicting the inner bark of the native rainbow eucalyptus, slyly reveals the story’s setting of Papua, New Guinea. Loosely based on events in the life of brilliant, pioneering anthropologist Margaret Mead, Euphoria’s Nell is a headstrong researcher both aided and hobbled by her partner in life and in the field, her Australian husband Fen. As the book opens, the two are fleeing the brutal tribe they had been observing for a number of months, frustrated and hoping for a new opportunity. Fate connects them with the previously isolated English anthropologist Bankson, who welcomes a chance to work with the dynamic couple in studying a female-centric tribe, the Tam. Intellect, connection and understanding (or lacks thereof) spark passions among the anthropologists and the tribe itself, leading to both internal and external discovery.
“I was strong and he was not, so it was me who went to war to defend the Republic.” Thus begins Laird Hunt’s Civil War nod-with-a-twist to Homer’s The Odyssey, Neverhome. Here Penelope goes proudly off to battle while Odysseus tends to the home fires. Told in a first person narrative, the story follows “Ash” Thompson, a young Indiana farmwife hungry for honor and adventure, who passes as a man in order to join the Union army. Ash soon finds she has a strong taste for battle and a remarkable talent with a gun. Hunt takes readers through the harsh realities of war in the Civil War era, seasoning the story with the kind of small details of daily life that fascinate readers and make history come alive.
Mark Watney has the dubious distinction of being the first astronaut accidentally stranded on Mars in Andy Weir’s The Martian. A biologist and mechanical engineer, Watney was left for dead after a violent sandstorm caused flying debris to pierce his spacesuit and sent him flying down a hill. This event triggers the sudden evacuation of the rest of the crew of NASA’s third manned mission to the red planet. But Watney has suffered only minor injuries, and pure dumb luck and a little science keep his suit from being totally breached. He soon realizes his dire circumstances, setting the survival plot in motion. Author Weir has created a smart, funny, self-deprecating geek in Watney, a guy you can’t help but root for as he solves problem after problem with determination, grit and pure knowledge of math and science. Told in a series of log entries interspersed with chapters that depict the scientists and suits at NASA working on a way to rescue the man whose plight has become an international cause, The Martian is a pure sci-fi page-turner.
A team of four women make the twelfth expedition to Area X, a lush overgrown landscape teeming with wildlife and cut off from civilization for decades after The Event has begun. The team is comprised of our narrator, known only as the biologist; the surveyor; the anthropologist and the psychologist, whose penchant for hypnotizing the others makes her immediately suspect. Annihilation, a smartly packaged original paperback, is the first installment in The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer, whose volumes have all been published in 2014. Mysteries abound in this unsettling, intellectual sci-fi thriller, as the party discover a feature of the landscape heretofore undocumented — an underground tunnel (or tower, as the narrator prefers to think of it) that descends deep below the surface. Who or what has left the message on the walls, written in living, pulsating vegetation? How is the narrator changed when she accidentally inhales spores that have been released? And what exactly happened to those who came back from previous expeditions, irrevocably damaged?
“Irrevocably damaged” also serves to describe the characters who populate Phil Klay’s stories of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, Redeployment. The winner of this year’s National Book Award, Klay’s stories plumb the emotional and psychological depths of what it means to serve, and the aftershocks that reverberate throughout the bedrock of life after homecoming. Justly compared to Tim O’Brien’s classic The Things They Carried, Redeployment will surely maintain its place on must-read lists for decades to come.
The other titles that round out the list have been previously reviewed by my colleagues here on Between the Covers: Bellweather Rhapsody by Kate Racculia, Station Eleven by Emily St. John-Mandel, The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd, We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas and The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters.
Following the journey of the heroine in David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks gives the sensation of jumping down a confusing yet richly stylized rabbit hole. Holly Sykes is not only a strong-willed English teenager who loves her Talking Heads LP, she’s also a hypersensitive psychic phenomena. At age 15, she rebels against her callous mother by running away for a weekend. This typical rite of passage causes a terrible loss to the family and Holly herself. And so the jostling expedition begins through space, sanity, and many years.
Throughout her life, Holly develops complex relationships with a series of eccentric characters who also narrate this intricate tale, including an arrogant college student, a journalist covering the Iraq War in 2003 and an aging egocentric literary writer. Reality begins to distort as Holly’s psychic strength attracts two separate groups of mystics with supernatural powers and questionable intents. The plot’s jagged terrain has the unhinged feeling of sewn together novellas, and seeing the seemingly free-flowing threads come together is a one-of-a-kind reading experience.
The Jane Austen Centre declared today Jane Austen Day in recognition of the anniversary of her birth in 1775. Austenites worldwide are making plans to celebrate their beloved author in all manner of festivities, including teas, costume balls and social media events. Indeed the day has its own Facebook page! Austen’s enduring appeal is evident in the legion of literary spin-offs and retellings published every year. Two new entries in the field will interest the Austen Army as well as readers of historical fiction, mystery and romance.
If you liked P.D. James’s Death Comes to Pemberley which was recently adapted as a two-part series on Masterpiece Theater, then Stephanie Baron’s Jane and the Twelve Days of Christmas is for you. The 12th installment in this popular series takes place during the Christmas season of 1814. Jane and her family are dining at The Vyne, the wealthy Chute family’s ancestral home. When one of the guests is killed in an accident, the mood dampens. Almost immediately Jane suspects something sinister is afoot and that a killer is at large. Baron’s attention to detail is impeccable, the mystery is well-crafted and devotees will savor the biographical tidbits sprinkled throughout.
Syrie James invites readers to get to know the teenage Jane in Jane Austen’s First Love, a novel, the author explains in her afterword, was inspired by actual events. It’s 1791, Jane is 15 and she dreams of falling desperately in love. Edward is 17, heir to an estate and handsome beyond belief. They live in two different worlds but continue to spend time together. Jane can’t stop thinking about him or the fact that he seems interested in her too. But there is a rival for his affection. When Jane starts matchmaking with three other potential couples, things go disastrously. This charming story’s appeal extends beyond Austen fans to romance readers and those who enjoy compelling coming-of-age stories.
Life has always been in the details for Addie Baum, the 85-year-old protagonist in Anita Diamant's new historical novel, The Boston Girl. When her youngest granddaughter asks her to tell her life story, Addie starts at the beginning. Born at the turn of the century, this daughter of Jewish Russian immigrants endures disappointments and obstacles along the way to living a full life defined by plucky resolve and passion. In Diamant's capable hands, Addie's first person narrative is a gentle and lovely rewinding back to the soul of another time and place.
Coming of age as a Jewish woman in the 20th century, Addie endures the endless harping of her suspicious mother who sees America as the wrecker of young women. Home is in a tenement in the north end of Boston, where there is just enough money for food and rent. Staying in school becomes Addie's dream despite her mother's low expectations. It's her love of reading that opens doors to the world she will eventually inhabit. When she lands an invite to join the Saturday Club girls at their camp at Rockport Lodge, she forms friendships along with opinions and new experiences. For Addie, it is time of Parker House rolls and keeping boys from getting "fresh." When she tries on long pants for the first time she can't believe how liberating it feels.
Diamant, whose previous works include the highly regarded The Red Tent, wades through a significant period in American history, including sweat shops, the flu epidemic, World War I, the Depression and feminism, just as Addie matures and exploits her own personal potential. While this latest novel may be a lighter read than Diamant's previous works, readers will enjoy the plot-moving short chapters that capture the intrinsic nature of the early 20th century immigrant experience in America. The Boston Girl should make an excellent book club selection for those examining the breadth of connections that sustain us.
By definition, a wallflower is someone who yearns to stay out of focus and is content with experiencing the world from a vantage point far removed from social commotion. Wallflowers are typically observant people who possess the uncanny ability to find beauty in unique places. Eliza Robertson's debut collection Wallflowers places a series of introverted characters in situations with the potential to reveal more than their individual livelihoods.
Unified by central themes of longing and loss, Robertson's characters all wish for a way to forget the past or escape the present. In "Here Be Dragons," a geographic surveyor sees shades of his late fiancée in every corner of the remote locations he visits. She haunts him not in the convenient visages of doppelgängers, but in the complicated forms of reverie associated with people, places, things and experiences amidst savage and newly loveless lands. "Slimebank Taxonomy" thrusts readers into the empty life of a young mother living with her brother and his family. Her sister-in-law does not shoulder the added burden gracefully as she diverts attention from her own child to care for the new baby. The young mother realizes this, yet remains powerless to rear her newborn; instead, she finds solace in dredging drowned animals from a nearby swamp and cleaning their bodies. "Roadnotes" tells the story of a woman who leaves her job to drive through the Northeast on an autumnal leaf-viewing tour. Conveyed in the form of a series of letters addressed to her brother, readers see glimpses into her true motivations for her journey as she laments the loss of her mother, despite her rough childhood.
Robertson's debut collection shimmers with beauty enhanced by flecks of melancholy, with hints of hope where it seems toughest to find. With stories less about the wallflowers that populate them and more about the collective souls of humanity, Wallflowers is not to be missed by literary fiction enthusiasts. Fans of the rustic Canadian backdrop and the accompanying aloneness might also enjoy D. W. Wilson's collection Once You Break a Knuckle.
Imogen Robertson invites readers on a journey to Paris, 1909, the height of La Belle Epoque, where the alluring excess of the era comes to vivid life in The Paris Winter. Robertson introduces readers to three fiercely independent young women whose friendship is built on a common love of art, but who are quickly ensnared in a sinister plot.
For Maud, a destitute art student at the Académie Lafond, life is anything but decadent. Her inheritance only covers rent and tuition, leaving her no choice but to go hungry. School friends Yvette and Tanya quickly notice their proud friend’s state and secretly intervene to get her a job as a companion to wealthy Christian Morel’s sickly sister Sylvie. Maud can hardly believe her fortune as the position includes a warm, clean room and plenty of hot meals. The security of her employment also allows her to focus her energy on her art. But all is not well in the House of Morel as the private lives of the siblings are vastly different from their public personae. Sylvie is hiding an opium addiction and Christian’s aura of intrigue feels threatening.
Maud embraces their secrets as her own, but before long finds herself embroiled in sinister plots which take her and her friends from the gritty underbelly of Paris to the haunts of the upper class. The three young women grow as they work together to uncover the truth amidst so much deception. Robertson’s characters are memorable and her colorful, detailed descriptions serve to create a strong sense of place and time. Art lovers, history buffs and armchair sleuths won’t be able to put this thriller down.
In Jane Smiley's Some Luck, on a farm in Denby, Iowa, Rosanna and Walter Langdon begin their married lives in 1920 in the time-honored tradition of past generations. Walter ponders fertile fields and chooses good bottom land for his farm. Rosanna becomes the consummate farmer’s wife and produces five children, all with vastly different personalities: Frank, brilliant but fiercely independent; Joe, whose gentle spirit and love of the land make him the heir apparent to the farm; Lillian, the beautiful but innocent angel; Mary Elizabeth, destined to fate; Clare, her father’s favorite; and Henry, always thirsting for knowledge.
Spanning three generations, covering the coming of age of America, Some Luck is the latest offering from Pulitzer Prize-winning author Smiley. Smiley deftly weaves historical events throughout her narrative, painting a portrait of one family as it endures the Great Depression, drought, social unrest and burgeoning communism, through World War II and its aftermath. With a sure hand, Smiley portrays each of these events as they affect farmers and laborers, town and city, America and the world. Whether on the farm or in a war, everyone must endure the hardship and the vagaries of life and fate. As Grandma observes, “But what would we do without some luck?” Smiley also subtly reminds us of the importance of family and friends, as they support each other through trying times and happy moments. As Walter and Rosanna survey their family at a Thanksgiving feast, they realize all they have achieved and conquered and that, by forming this family, they have created 23 unique stories that will resonate through succeeding generations.
Some Luck is the first installment in a trilogy. Once you have laughed and cried and shared all their stories, you will be anxiously awaiting the next installment.
Blake Butler’s 300,000,000 is a jungle; readers require courage and a literary machete to traverse this five-part psychological horror story. Told through the mediums of a manifesto left in the wake of a heinous murder spree, a first-hand account of the police investigation into the atrocities, and a disjointed recollection stitching the pieces together with plenty of room for the viscera to seep out, 300,000,000 is filled with rare glimpses of toxic and transcendent ravings.
Gretch Gravey is 300,000,000’s patient zero of homeland terror, supplicating and drugging teenage metal heads in his city to transform them into thralls of murder. He releases his ever-expanding army of brainwashed husks into the suburbs to kidnap people and bring them back to his house to be killed and buried in a sub-basement crypt. Gravey’s ultimate goal is the utter decimation of America by its own pudgy hands, and his successes are unhindered despite his eventual incarceration. Investigating police officer E.N. Flood feels himself being consumed by Gravey’s residual evil and attempts to chronicle his descent into madness in his notes, which are actively redacted by other members of the force who have succumbed to Gravey’s will.
As if Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club and Damned were chewed up and spat out in a bilious, meaty mass, 300,000,000 is disgusting and schizophrenic, yet somehow delicious in its depravity. Readers who enjoy wandering through their pitch-black houses when it’s so late that it’s actually early will be tickled by the way Blake Butler makes them question their sanity.
Award-winning author Molly Gloss’ newest novel has a transitional setting that begins on a ranch in Oregon in 1938, but the narrator looks at the past and whispers of present day. Falling from Horses is a layered work of fiction that strategically weaves together a man’s whole life by looking at the events that helped define it.
The protagonist, Bud Frazer, is the son of humble tenant ranchers. His upbringing instilled in him a way of life that Bud decides to use for a career, though not in the way his parents anticipated. Upon leaving home as a new adult, he tries his hand in the rodeo circuit before deciding to move to Hollywood and become a stunt rider for Western films. Eager to rub elbows with all the big names of the day, Bud packs his bags and hops a bus south. En route to Hollywood, Bud meets Lily, an aspiring screenwriter, and in their short time together on that bus trip they fall into a platonic relationship that spans a lifetime.
Those that have enjoyed Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses should pick this one up and give it a go. Like McCarthy, Gloss’ work is a character-driven narrative of a young man trying to find his path in the twisting and turning maze of life.
In Dear Daughter, Janie Jenkins has the kind of life teenage girls like to read about in fan magazines. She’s famous for the parties she’s attended, the high-profile celebrities she’s gotten high with and the fabulous clothes she wears. Paris Hilton wishes she were Janie Jenkins. Until 16-year-old Janie sneaks into her mother’s closet, climbs into her mother’s best fashion boots and overhears a passionate argument. The next thing Janie remembers, she is covered with her mother’s blood and trying to explain this to the police.
Janie is known among her set as the girl most likely to steal your boyfriend. She may be popular in the press, but not among her peers. She is devious and her number one priority is herself. This may not be evidence of murder, but it sure gets you biased witnesses and an unsympathetic jury. Convicted of her mother’s murder, Janie spends 10 years in prison for a crime she didn’t commit. Or, did she?
Released on a technicality, Janie follows clues she’s uncovered in the prison library databases. Pursued by the vulture press and obsessed bloggers who want her to pay for her evil act, Janie assumes the identity of a nerdy historian. In her new guise, she probes the past of the tiny gold-rush town her mother grew up in, proving that even the tiniest towns can hold deadly secrets.
Elizabeth Little’s debut thriller Dear Daughter brings a completely fresh perspective to the mystery scene. Her character exhibits the raw emotion of a traumatized teenager. Instead of compassion and therapy, she receives condemnation and punishment. Isolated and alone, Janie must battle her own demons in order to unearth the truth, no matter how horrific. Fans of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and William Landay’s Defending Jacob will appreciate the fast pace and moral conundrums. Climb into your favorite easy chair, you are about to pull an all-nighter.