Fantastic books from 2014

….not including the books I read for this blog. You already know how how I feel about those.

To be clear, these are not my favorite books that were published in 2014, but books that I read in 2014, from any era.

So, counting down, my favorite books in 2014 were:

The_Hot_Zone_(cover)8. The Hot Zone by Richard Preston (1994) I actually read this book in March, long before ebola became a hot news item, which made the outbreak this summer all that more fascinating/horrifying. It’s always a pleasure when a nonfiction writer can create a story as gripping as a novel, and doubly so with a topic as important yet little known as this one. Even science-phobic me became fascinated in the shapes of cells and the process of studying them. I will say that, for such a thriller of a tale, the end is a little anti-climatic. Still didn’t make me regret the first three-fourths though.

Anansi_Boys7. Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman (2005) The first few chapters of this novel irritated me. It felt like just the kind of stereotypical characters you see in second-rate comedies. On the one hand, you have the shy, uptight brother and on the other, the partying, popular brother who’s going to shake things up! And get big brother to let loose! It all just felt like the sibling version of the manic pixie dream girl.

But gradually, the book’s exaggerated but somehow still extremely believable characters, humor, and deliciously ridiculous escapades won me over. Those last couple chapters had me smiling like you wouldn’t believe. Having previously read the much darker companion novel, American Gods, I was surprised but delighted by how fun and zany Anansi Boys is.

Also, I love modern novels that draw from traditional mythology/fairy tales, and it’s nice to have a mainstream one that takes inspiration from somewhere other than Germany or Greece.

My only nitpick about Anansi Boys is that I kind of feel like one of the heroines is magically date-raped, which was then uncomfortably played for laughs. It was distracting, but not insurrmontable for this hugely enjoyable book.

imgres-16. The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith (2014) If you’ve read my other posts, you know that murder mysteries are a guilty pleasure of mine. Formulaic? Yes. Uses serious crimes and human grief for entertainment? Quite right. Completely addictive? Indubitably.

What you may not know is that I love Harry Potter without any guilt whatsoever. I love Harry easily as much as any member of my own family. I love the original books so much that, to this day, I can’t watch the movies because the characters in me head are already perfect as they are, thank you ver much.

So imagine my delight when these two passions came together and I heard J.K. Rowling was writing whodunnits under a pen name. The Cuckoo’s Calling did not disappoint and I bought the sequel, The Silkworm, the minute it went live on Amazon.

And, guess what? J.K. just keeps getting better and better. In The Silkworm, her plots are tight, her characters lovable, and her satire biting and on-point. I look forward to following Cormoran and Robin’s adventures, poolside of course, for years to come.

Rubaiyat_cover5. Rubaiyat by Omar Khayyám, translated by Edward Fitzgerald (c. 1120) After I ridiculed anyone who reads books of poetry in the Monroe review, I realized something: read a book of poetry this year. My first one ever, I think.

Actually, I first became interested in Rubaiyat through my fascination with the Taman Shud case, but found this ~1,000 year-old tome to be more powerful as a reminder of why people wrote poetry in the first place. Beautiful but enigmatic explorations of the human condition, with all its pleasures and futility. It reminds me a bit of Ecclesiastes in that sense. Just as relevant and poignant now as it was in Medieval Persia

9780345806567_p0_v2_s260x4204. Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin (1956) One of the advantages of books over film is the lack of censorship, audience-imposed or otherwise. This book is case in point: while 1950’s Hollywood was mired in the world of euphemisms, implied relationships, and fops, Giovanni’s Room frankly discusses its main character’s heartbreaking confusion about his sexuality, as he tries to find his own place among the gay bars, transvestite prostitutes, and lecherous predators that populate a very literal gay Paris.

Now, this is a story of a gay man in the 50’s, so as you can imagine, its not exactly light reading. In fact, the always-awesome James Baldwin wrote from experience, and you can imagine that as a gay, black man in this era, his life wasn’t exactly a pile of laughs.

Extremely sad, but beautifully and thoughtfully written, Giovanni’s Room is a totally-worth-it forgotten classic.

112500533. The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey (2012) This book totally Up‘d me, in that I went in for a charming little fairy tale and ended up a puddle of tears by the end of the first chapter.

Ivey resets the eponymous Russian fairytale in 1920’s Alaska, which is cool enough in itself. If this were just a homesteading-the-frozen-north novel, with none of the magical realism, it would still go on this list as a piece of interesting historical fiction.

But Ivey is a true master of her craft. Most fairytale retellings, from The True Story of the Three Little Pigs to Once Upon a Time, try to flip a well-known story in a way the audience wasn’t expecting. Instead, Ivey retells “the snow child” pretty faithfully, but adds depth, dimension, and humanity to the story’s fairy tale simplicity. She fleshes out the bare-bones “…and the old man and the old woman were very sad” into 400 pages of human joy, sorrow, and frailty. The things that happen to our characters are not especially dramatic or shocking, but they are told with such raw human emotion that is almost too painful to touch.

2. Kindred by Octavia Bultler (1979) I’m convinced that this book was written specifically for me (um…8 years before I was born) it is a triple venn diagram of all the things I love in a story. Here, let me illustrate it for you:

Kindred

And each of those individual pieces are great, both taken separately and as a whole. We have an incredibly strong but realistically flawed protagonist, Dana. She and her husband have a powerful bond ,without a glurgy love story taking away from the main focus of the narrative, namely, Dana randomly disappearing from their 1970’s house in California into her ancestors’ home in the Antebellum South.

8165Y22bNlLThe slave narrative is, well, it’s horrifying, as all slave narratives are/should be. That’s why the time travel element adds such a powerful dimension to this story. The knowledge that Dana can and will go home, won’t die in bondage like so many did, allows the reader breathing room, an escape hatch from those tragic circumstances.

Butler is actually better known as a science fiction, rather than fantasy, author, but I especially liked that she set that instinct aside and never explains how the time travel works, my least favorite part of time skipping stories. I want to be the adventurer, the ship captain, not the mechanic.  But this book delivers more than adventure, it delivers a powerful narrative about our country’s history.

cloudatlas1. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (2004) Cloud Atlas is the kind of book that makes me either want to do nothing but write or to stop all together, because I know I will never have as much to say– or as powerful a means to –about the human experience. Spanning centuries of human history, but somehow creating an intimate portrait of just a few characters, Cloud Atlas seamlessly interweaves a complicated web of themes and motifs, going down into the darkest places of the human soul, but still ending on a surprisingly hopeful note.

The characters are distinct and interesting but never simple, and the stories are gripping and imaginative. There is just so much to say about this book that I don’t even know where to begin. So I won’t. I’ll just leave this here, as an excellent breakdown by someone much more knowledgeable than I am.

I will say that one thing that stood out to me was Mitchell’s mastery of dialect. Each story is realistically written in the language of the time period, including two future-based dialects that Mitchell extrapolates from trends in our own. Incidentally, this constant language-switching does not make for easy reading. But the pay-off is completely worth it.

Oh, and the movie was just ok. Pretty to look at but it kind of castrates the original message.

My favorite book of the year, one of my favorites of all time, and one of the best in living memory: Cloud Atlas. 

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