If tasked with assembling a single shelf of books from 2014 that I most wanted to keep close by, these would be the books that made the cut. They aren’t necessarily the “best” books of 2014 – they aren’t all award winning or critically acclaimed or best sellers. What they are, though, are the books that stayed with me long after my reviews of them were published. They are the books whose ideas or worlds or characters (or the emotions they evoked) would return to me unbidden days or weeks or even months later in what I saw or heard or felt in the world around me.
And yes, I actually ranked them in a countdown to my most favorite, because that’s kind of a fun thing to do! Enjoy!
My Favorite Books of 2014
- Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
My knowledge of world history is woefully lacking, so I really appreciate well realized historical fiction. I find it especially fascinating to ponder how all of history – personal and intrinsic – hinges on the smallest of decisions, on the simplest choices, some in our control, others far outside of our control. The way that Kate Atkinson made each and every iteration of Ursula Todd’s life so very vital, so believable, so real, made a huge impact on me and the way I look at the world.
- Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler
Based in part on a fictionalized take on indie singer Justin Vernon, also known as Bon Iver (a high school classmate of the author), Nickolas Butler beautifully captures the sense and sensibilities of the rural Midwest. Set in a small town in Wisconsin, four long time friends whose lives have taken very different directions find that time does not necessarily heal all wounds. But for every challenge, for every setback, and with every turn of the seasons, there is new reason to hope.
- Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
A post-apocalyptic novel where there is nary a zombie in sight (thank heavens!), this story occurs after the devastation of the world population by a swift moving virus. Yet in this book, the greatest peril may not be where civilization is going, but what parts of the past we cling to. Ms. Mandel’s narrative centers on how memory shapes perception in circumstances that cannot be imagined or for which there can be no preparation. How does one cope with knowing “what we once were” in the face of the diminishing impact of that past?
- 10:04 by Ben Lerner
This very edge-of-fiction, stream-of-consciousness narrative is very small in scope but has some of the most gorgeous language I have read all year. The plot is simple: a young-ish writer living in New York has gotten a hefty advance on a second book, based on his critically acclaimed (but not very profitable) first book, which will expand on an idea initially expressed in a magazine article. But as he ruminates on his efforts, his life, and the potentials laid before him, we are captivated by those lovely, lovely ruminations.
My favorite almost guilty pleasure of the year! (Fortune’s Pawn was actually released in 2013, but both Honor’s Knight and Heaven’s Queen came out in 2014.) Perhaps not as high brow as many of the books I reviewed this year, but gosh darn! So much fun! Deviana Morris is one kick ass heroine, and the interstellar universe that Ms. Bach has created is highly imaginative and delightfully unexpected. Yes, the stories veer awfully darned close to romance, but in the best of all possible ways, and the fighting (Devi is a hired mercenary) and alien interactions should assuage even the most macho trepidations.
- The Pink Suit by Nicole Mary Kelby
This is a delicate and beautiful tale centered around Kate, a young Irish immigrant and talented seamstress who is employed by the famed New York fashion boutique Chez Ninon – the exclusive dress shop that was granted the license to recreate the Chanel designed pink suit and pillbox hat worn by Jackie Kennedy (known in the book as “The Wife”) on that fateful November day in 1963. It is also a love story, not only between Kate and her beau (a butcher with a poet’s heart) but also between Kate and her talent: working with fine fabrics and artful designs to make something truly magical.
- Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
A poignant tale of a family gripped by tragedy – the loss of their bright, beautiful eldest daughter. While young Lydia’s life seemed to hold nothing but promise, flashbacks from before her shocking death show a family not only fraying at the edges, but suffering at the core. What most amazed me about this book was how it tackled the notion that sacrifice for the assumed greater good, even with the most noble of intentions, can undermine the very things they are meant to save, and how assumptions made in the face of a lack of communication can have dire results. Heartbreaking, yet strangely hopeful.
- Hild by Nicola Griffith
A pretty darned perfect historical novel. Based on the early years of the 7th century British noblewoman known as Saint Hilda of Whitby, Hild is so much more than a catalog of dates and documented activities. This was a time before chivalry, before knights in shining armor, before courtly love. Life was harsh, vengeance and brutality and superstition were daily realities, even for kings, so far removed from our own reality that it sometimes feels like the book is an epic fantasy rather than history. Yet this young girl is able to watch the world around her and see the patterns that unfold, affording her a place at court where she is both feared and in constant peril. A remarkable book about a remarkable young woman at a remarkable time in history.
- Ancillary Justice/Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie
Okay, so this is cheating a bit: the first book in the “Imperial Radch” series, Ancillary Justice, was published in 2013 and I reviewed it early in 2014, but its sequel, Ancillary Sword, came out in 2014 and while I have read it, I have yet to pen a review. But both these books, singly and together, are so unique and intriguing that they demand to be in my Top Books of 2014. True science fiction, both books follow Breq, once a warship (or one of the many “automated” – or ancillary – members of the warship Justice of Toren), now singularly Fleet Commander on the Mercy of Kalr, commanded by the Emperor (or one of the parts of the Emperor) to protect the remote Athoek Station. Complex, challenging and incredibly rewarding.
- The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith
I’m not normally a big fan of the detective novel, but Robert Galbraith (also known as bestselling author J. K. Rowling) has made me a true believer with his unconventional and totally convincing P.I. Cormoran Strike. A darker, more visceral book than 2013’s The Cuckoo’s Calling, The Silkworm has Cormoran and his intrepid secretary Robin trolling London’s dysfunctional publishing scene in an effort to solve the murder of a thoroughly unsavory author. The actual murder investigation is not nearly as involving as the characters involved in it, but they are spectacular, and keep the narrative agile and captivating.
- The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley
A complex, brutal, compelling fantasy novel, The Mirror Empire is the first of at least two books (the “Worldbreaker Saga”) chronicling the strife between parallel worlds. The societies involved are feudalistic, barbaric – and staunchly matriarchal. Author Hurley has built a world where conventional fantasy tropes are in play, but are twisted in ways that are both unpredictable and utterly coherent; the plot seems to advance due to a deviation from convention rather than drawing from it. It’s masterful, gripping, and totally unforgettable.
- Lock In by John Scalzi
John Scalzi is the master of taking what seems at first to be a fluffy story, give it a highly engaging central character and then folding in layer after layer until before you know it, you’re smack dab in the middle of a meaty, satisfying offering that goes far beyond expectations. Lock In is just such a novel. It is set in the near future after a nasty virus has run, killing some, sparing others, but leaving a portion of its victims mentally untouched but physically inert, unable to move even an eyelid – a condition known as “Lock In”. This virus has not obliterated the world, nor even stopped its forward progress, but it has changed the landscape, economically, politically, culturally and sociologically. Highly entertaining – and at times, hilarious.
- Cibola Burn (“The Expanse” Series, Book 4) by James S. A. Corey
For sheer scope and artistry, the fourth book in James S. A. Corey’s “The Expanse” series is hands down my favorite book of the year. It already has been given such a rich and involved foundation from the earlier books in the series (Leviathan Wakes, Caliban’s War, Abaddon’s Gate), with its tight knit group of central characters, its invigorating new, POV characters, and – yay! – returning characters from previous books. This time intrepid Captain Holden and his stalwart crew find themselves embroiled in a territorial dispute on the far side of the ancient alien Gate; the refocusing from the expanse of space to one tiny, struggling settlement is a huge change of pace from previous novels, but is highly satisfying. I can’t think of one book that I read or reviewed in 2014 that I enjoyed more thoroughly than Cibola Burn, and I can’t wait until the next book in the series, Nemesis Games, debuts in 2015.
So there you have it – my list of Favorite Books of 2014. What do you think? Do you agree? Disagree? What books would you put on YOUR list? Regardless of what you think of the past year in your literary experience – here’s to more reading and more great books in 2015!