I read 118 books this year (and I’m fairly certain I’ll squeeze one more in before midnight tomorrow), and here’s my take on best of the best, the disappointments, and the surprises.
First off, the best books I read this year
The ones I didn’t want to finish. The ones to which I gave five stars without a moment’s hesitation.
The Secret Place by Tana French. It’s the fifth in her Dublin Murder Squad series, but you don’t need to have read any of the previous books to thoroughly enjoy this. It is a rare book that I linger over, wishing it wouldn’t end. The Secret Place is one of those rare gems. There’s a murder mystery involving a boarding school in Ireland, but there’s so much more. There’s so much meaty goodness about adolescence and human interaction. Tana French is freaking brilliant. I would put this book up against any Booker Prize nominees.
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. I normally avoid anything post-apocalyptic, but this book was fantastic. It takes place about 20 years after a flu decimates the population and there is some of what you’d expect about a world without electricity or government or gasoline or modern medicine. But there is also –I want to call it magic, but it’s not that kind of book– stunning writing about art and literature and music and what of human genius is worth saving. There’s a lot of hype about this book, but it’s well-deserved.
Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty. I read this because my friend adored it. I just finished this one last night and I’m still thinking about it. I think it was especially wonderful for me because it’s about a group of parents united by a Kindergarten class in an upscale Australian beach town. It hit all kinds of nerves with me about class, jealousy, the working moms versus the stay-at-homes, the secrets behind the seemingly perfect families. It’s a fat book, but will fly by because the writing is so good. Excuse me while I go read everything Liane Moriarty has written.
The Martian by Andy Weir. I don’t usually read sci-fi. I gave this one a chance based on the enthusiastic recommendation of a friend, and I’m so glad I did. You know what it’s about: a mission to Mars destroyed by a dust storm. One astronaut gets left behind. It’s the ultimate desert island story and it was gripping. Every time it started to veer into too much technical detail (I TOLD you I’m not into sci-fi) the narrator would have a funny very human moment and I’d be completely on board again. Don’t wait for the movie. Enjoy it for its tension and ingenuity and the unique loneliness of being the sole occupant of a planet 140 million miles from home (On average. Don’t go all perihelion/apihelion on me).
Other books that thoroughly satisfied me in 2014
Wonderland by Stacey D’Erasmo. It moves slow and well, not a whole lot happens, but it’s fascinating nonetheless. Sex and drugs and rock-n-roll. The way she describes the almost otherworldly yet visceral process of creation is right on the money.
The Golum and the Jinni by Helene Wecker. This is a book that created a world so ordinary with characters so extraordinary. Literally, a golum–a woman made from mud and magic, and a genie–a male spirit. The way they find themselves in turn of the century New York and how they make a place for themselves is very compelling.
Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter. Just a great story. Imagine if the titular postman from Il Postino had harbored a young starlet on the run from the set of Cleopatra. Yes, Liz Taylor and Richard Burton are in this story and the book is funny, touching, and exciting all at once.
The Guts by Roddy Doyle. I should reveal that I would read Roddy Doyle’s grocery list because I’ll bet it’s poignet and hysterically funny. His dialog is just…perfection. This book is a sequel to The Commitments and Jimmy Rabbitte is now nearly 50 with a houseful of kids and a dose of cancer. It’s not maudlin though. It’s funny and life-affirming and as Jimmy and his mates would say “fuckin’ brilliant.”
These made me sad because I expected better whether due to the author’s previous works or recommendations from friends.
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami. I have loved all of his previous books, and I literally counted the days until the release of this one. I have recommended his masterpiece Kafka on the Shore to dozens of people. I even sort of loved that crazy meandering mess that was IQ84. But this one…. Can you hear me sighing? A soul-deep sigh of sadness and just what the hell? Nothing happens in this book. I kept thinking Okay, things are gonna pick up any minute now. A cat’s gonna talk or an extra moon will appear in the sky, right? And THEN we’ll get going. But nothing ever happens. It’s terrible. I’m so annoyed by this meagre effort that when I see something pop up in my newsfeed about Murakami I actually say “fuck you!” to my screen. Murakami-san is going to need to step up his game big-time to win back my affections.
Redshirts by John Scalzi. Don’t scream at me. I know you loved this. You’re a Star Trek fan and you loved Ready Player One and you wish you were twitter buddies with Scalzi and Wil Wheaton. But this book didn’t work for me. I was along for the ride (literally, we listened to the audio book on a cross-country drive) up until [SPOILER] they went back in time to Hollywood. I lost all interest in the story at that point. If I’d wanted to read a book about show business hijinks, I would have chosen one with lots of sex and drugs and scandal. I can see how this book could be amusing, but to me it had no heart. I could not care about any of the characters. This would have made a delightful sketch on Saturday Night Live, but as a novel? Nope.
A Dark and Twisted Tide by Sharon Bolton. A friend turned me onto the Lacey Flint series. She’s a police detective with a super fucked up past. I was super into this series of books and not only looked forward to this most recent title, but squirreled it away to savor when I needed a treat. Well. This was seriously disappointing. Lacey has become the least interesting character in the cast, and I cannot express how head-smackingly frustrating it is to read about a smart, well-trained cop doing stupid shit. Repeatedly. There were at least four and maybe five times in which Lacey goes off investigating something without calling for backup and gets attacked. I think she may even have done it twice in one day. The underlying mystery is interesting and the book ends with a great twist, but goddamn, Lacey! You suck! I’m taking this nearly-unfinishable piece of crap as a cautionary tale for my own mystery series. It’s a warning to let Lexy be Lexy, but at least let her make mistakes in a variety of ways.
Runner-up disappointments: Police by Jo Nesbo which confirms for me that detective Harry Hole has run his course, and Identity by Ingrid Thoft. Her debut Fina Ludlow novel Loyalty was so strong, I had to wonder if she was pressured to knock out a sequel before she was ready. This was monotonous and bummed me out.
I don’t read much non-fiction and celebrity memoirs always seemed like the sort of dreck that dried-up prom princesses read at the hair salon. But whatever. I read three this year and they all made me smile and laugh out loud. Maybe in 2015 I’ll branch out to celebrities about whom I did not have squalid teenage sex fantasies.
Stories I Only Tell My Friends by Rob Lowe
Late, Late at Night by Rick Springfield