Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The Best of 2014

2014 was quite a year. I had a baby. And I kept reading (it's possible! It wasn't even hard!) I somehow managed to read 139 books this year (and no, that doesn't count any of the children's books I read to Hawthorne.) I read (significantly) more books in 2014 than I did in any other year in which I've kept track of my reading. In September, I hit 100 books. I've spent a lot of time thinking about why I managed to read so many books this year, and I think it comes down to making reading more of a priority. I didn't watch nearly as much television in 2014 as I did before. And I didn't even see as many movies. I read. If a book wasn't working for me, I set it down and picked up another one. Sometimes I picked it back up again, but sometimes I didn't. And I gave up review obligations. I still read plenty of books from publishers, but I didn't commit to reviewing them on specific days. When I picked up a book, it was because I wanted to read it at that moment, which may account for my high number of highly-rated books. Of the 139 books I read in 2014, I rated 115 of them 4 stars or more. That's 82.7%, which is awesome. 52 were 4-star reads, 41 were 4.5-star reads, and 22 were 5-star reads. Granted, these numbers are somewhat skewed because I read all 27 of Michael Connelly's novels in 2014, and 10 of those were 5-star reads. 2014? A success.

The Top 12 of 2014

As always, my Best of the Year list reflects what I read in 2014, not what was published.

Want to buy these titles? Clicking the covers take you to Amazon.

12. The Expats by Chris Pavone (my review)
The Expats is a smart, twisty thrill ride of an espionage adventure across Europe. Like Kate, the reader never quite knows who or what to trust. It's also a surprisingly thoughtful exploration of marriage and love. Mozhan Marno's narration was superb. Pick this one up on audio.

11. Dark Places by Gillian Flynn (my review)
Dark Places is my favorite Gillian Flynn novel (it was published second, after Sharp Objects and before Gone Girl.) Flynn manges to write about very dark people and events with moments of humor, and I loved the richly drawn characters as much as the mystery. 

10. Yes Please by Amy Poehler (my review)
I like Amy Poehler, but I'm not a super fan, which is why I still can't fully articulate why I fell so deeply in love with this book. As I read, I was moved, both emotionally and intellectually. I was wowed by both what Poehler managed to accomplish with this book and how unique it is. I can't fully articulate either what this book is or how much it meant to me, but I didn't expect to connect so fully and so deeply. Thanks to the honesty, humor, grace, and wisdom of Amy Poehler, I did.

9. When Mystical Creatures Attack! by Kathleen Founds (my review)
When Mystical Creatures Attack! is one of the highlights of my year in reading. Its description made it sound gimmicky but enjoyable. Instead I discovered a fresh new voice bold enough to experiment with form and narrative, but refined enough to not lose sight of character development and the emotional and moral center of fiction.

8. Man of My Dreams by Curtis Sittenfeld (my review)
Curtis Sittenfeld is perhaps my favorite novelist, and I'm so glad I finally made time for her second novel, The Man of My Dreams. While not quite as polished as American Wife or Sisterland, The Man of My Dreams is a fascinating, thought-provoking novel. Hannah is a unique and curious character. She may not be a character I felt I had much in common with, but that makes her an even more fascinating vessel for Sittenfeld to share universal truths about life and love. The Man of My Dreams is an exploration of the people, particularly those to whom we find ourselves romantically or sexually attracted, who come into and out of our lives (and sometimes back in again.) The theme of the unexpected, wayward paths of our lives is common in Sittenfeld's work, and it's one this nomadic reader can't ever get enough of.

7. Inside Madeleine by Paula Bomer (my review)
Regular readers know I'm not a huge fan of short stories, but I am a big fan of Paula Bomer, and this collection is her best book yet. There's not a bad story in this collection. While there isn't a single theme to unify the collection, several themes run through its stories. Bomer writers about young girls and women, growing up in the 1980's to the present. They live in the Midwest (Bomer is from South Bend, Indiana), Boston, and New York (where Bomer now lives.) They do not shy away from bad decisions, many involving men and drugs. There's a rawness to both Bomer's writing and her characters. The titular novella that ends this collection is a literary tour de force. It packs as much punch as a full-length novel, and it's one I won't soon forget.;

6. Ways of the Dead by Neely Tucker (my review)
The Ways of the Dead is an astonishingly good debut mystery, and it's perhaps the book on this list that surprised me most. Tucker tells a complicated mystery in a straight-forward way. The cast of characters is large, and the story covers a multitude of themes, but the narrative moves quickly and doesn't get lost in the details. Instead, as the case gets more complicated, these details make it ever more compelling. I'm already eagerly awaiting the next novel from Tucker, which is thankfully coming out in summer 2015.

5. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler (my review)
When this novel came out, I dismissed it because I was most familiar with The Jane Austen Book Club and didn't take Fowler seriously as a literary writer. When it was longlisted for the Booker Prize, I started paying attention and discovered one of the most surprising novels of 2014. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is confident and accomplished. Its layers of plot, revelation and time are perfectly rendered. Fowler tackles issues large and small in this narrative that is itself both complicated and simple.

4. The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud (my review)
The Woman Upstairs is criminally under-appreciated. Messud's control of this story, and this fascinating narrator and character of Nora, is masterful. She tells the story in a way that makes the reader understand simultaneously how Nora sees the world and how others likely see it. Coupled with Nora's story is the exploration of "the women upstairs," of which Nora is one. It's a powerful social commentary on gender, visibility, and worth. 

3. 10:04 by Ben Lerner (my review)
My pick to win the Pulitzer Prize for Literature in April, 10:04 is not only one of the most inventive books published this year, it's also one of the more intellectually entertaining reading experiences of my year. It's thin on plot and long on observation. Lerner's a poet, and his use of words is mesmerizing. Its explorations of the tensions and connections between fiction and memoir, and between time and memory, are enchanting and beguiling.

2. How to Be Both by Ali Smith (my review)
How to Be Both is inventive, provocative, and mind-bending. Its prose is beautiful and smart. The characters are richly drawn. The historical sections are beautifully imagined and brilliantly executed.

1. Euphoria by Lily King (my review)
What are the odds that the last book I finished in 2014 would also be the best? My full review of Euphoria is coming soon, but in the meantime: I loved the way this book made me think. Its insights into the early days of anthropology were fascinating. Its wisdom about why and how we study other cultures is mesmerizing. And stuck within all of this wisdom are characters to root for and a plot to celebrate. If you want a beautiful, brilliant, thought-provoking novel with a plot, Euphoria is for you. This combination made Euphoria slightly edge out the more interesting, more challenging, and arguably more accomplished 10:04 and How to Be Both.

Author of the Year: Michael Connelly
I couldn't come up with a way to adequately factor in the 27 Michael Connelly novels I read this year. Ten were 5-star reads. Eight were 4.5-star reads. I sometimes read two or three in a row. I started in February and ended in September. While some titles stand out, 2014 was certainly the year of Michael Connelly for me. 

Now tell me: what was your favorite book of 2014?

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  1. I've got DARK PLACES on my list to read this year. GONE GIRL was not really a favorite of min, unlike most of the world it seems. Oh, and I also saw THE WAYS OF THE DEAD somewhere and it looked interesting. Glad to hear that it was worth it. All of Michael Connelly in a year? That's dedication or really, really enjoying his work. I have not read a single one of his books, though he has been recommended to me many, many times. Maybe 2015 is the year? LOL

  2. Fantastic list! I haven't read many, but several are near the top of my TBR pile - especially Euphoria, which everyone seemed to discover right at the end of the year! When Mystical Creatures Attack wasn't on my list before, but seeing it on yours has opened my eyes to it - with such an unusual title it is hard to ignore. Thanks for keeping up a fantastic blog :-)

  3. You read SUCH an impressive amount! Especially for a baby year. When Greyson was born, my reading numbers generally tanked for that year. lol I also dismissed We Are Completely Beside Ourselves until it started getting more critical attention. Now I've bought a copy and just need to read it. I'm also glad to know you liked When Mystical Creatures Attack! I'll give it a look.

  4. Loved reading your list. I am surprised by MAN OF MY DREAMS, which I didn't love nearly as much as her others. Will definitely check out some of your other recs! I think you hit on the best strategy for facilitating reading: read what you want, when you want. I find that works for me too!

  5. Out of all of your picks, I've only read Euphoria! How is that possible?


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