It’s the time of year when people start creating “Best of” lists. I read a lot and used to talk more about non-knitting books on my blog, until I started using Goodreads to keep track of my reading and do quick reviews. But since I love getting recommendations for good books to read, I’ll join the many other writers and bloggers who are creating end-of-the-year lists. Since my reading doesn’t always keep up with the newest releases, I won’t call my list “Best of 2014″ but rather my favorite reads of 2014. Some of these books have been out for a little while and I just got around to discovering them.
I read a lot of YA books and generally enjoy them a great deal. Sometimes I think writing for the YA audience frees authors to be a bit more direct and less flowery in their writing, and certainly the number of high-quality YA books that have been coming out in the recent decade makes the genre wonderful even for older-than-teen readers like myself. Of the YA books I’ve read this year, and there were many, Code Name Verity, and its sequel, Rose Under Fire, by Elizabeth Wein, were two of the most affecting and gripping, books that kept me enthralled and made me cry. I had to brace myself to read these books, since you sort of know going into a World War II book that you’re going to end up reading things that break your heart and make you despair for the human race, but like the best fiction, these two books both left me amazed at the cruelty of humans but also inspired by the resilience and courage that our species has.
Belzhar, by Meg Wolitzer, dealt with modern times and modern issues — depression and trauma experienced by teenagers. The protagonist is sent to a boarding school in Vermont to deal with her depression after losing her boyfriend. Part of the story revolves around what is not said: Jam (short for Jamaica, the place where she was conceived on her parents’ honeymoon) spends most of the novel skirting around the issue of what happened to her beloved boyfriend Reeve. Jem is signed up for a seminar English class and forges bonds with the group of students in her class. This is an angsty-y but enjoyable and very empathetic treatment of the ways emotional trauma can hurt the teenaged soul.
I really was knocked out by E. Lockhart’s We Were Liars, which also tells the story of a teenager dealing with issues with a capital I: Cadence, daughter of a wealthy family, spends each summer at her family’s beach house on a private island near Cape Cod. She hangs out with her teenage cousins, spends time with her grandparents and generally enjoys life as the privileged daughter of a very upscale family. But as the novel starts, Cadence is recovering from an unnamed but clearly very serious trauma. She has amnesia and migraines, and can’t quite remember how her rather dysfunctional family got the way it is when she arrives. I won’t say more, since part of the pleasure of this novel is watching Cadence’s story unspool as she pieces together what happens and comes to grips with it.
I read The Here and Now without realizing that the author, Ann Brashares, also wrote The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants (which I haven’t read). Not that it matters, as this book is more of a fantasy/time travel featuring a girl from the future named Prenna. Prenna “immigrated” from the future, trying to avoid a future plague that decimates the world’s population. She meets a boy (of course) and they hit it off — but Prenna is supposed to stay away from non-travelers (for lack of a better word) so their relationship is forbidden, dangerous. This book plays around with the theme of changing the future that often forms a large part of time travel stories, and it does so in a way that feels satisfying and right.
Last YA book is one that I might not have read if it hadn’t gotten excellent reviews and a “Best of the Year” nomination from Goodreads. Red Rising felt a bit too sci/fi for me, and I wasn’t intuitively drawn to the notion of a guy who lives on Mars and drills for ore underground. But I’m glad I gave it a chance, because it was an exciting and suspenseful book. Yes, there is a dystopian future thing happening, and yes, it’s part of a goddamned trilogy (WHY MUST EVERYTHING BE SPLIT INTO THREE PARTS???) but it’s well-done and intriguing.
Non-YA books? Let’s start with the intense: Elizabeth Is Missing, by Emma Healey. I read several good reviews of this book, and even though I was a little unsure whether I would find it too depressing, I scored a free review copy. “Elizabeth is Missing” is told from the perspective of Maud, an eighty-something woman in the UK who is suffering from Alzheimer’s. When the book begins, she’s still living at home by herself, with some help from paid companions and her daughter Helen. And when the book begins, Maud is growing increasingly concerned about her friend, Elizabeth. She can’t seem to find Elizabeth anywhere or get in touch with her, and she’s afraid something bad has happened to her. Maud’s attempts to find out what happened to her missing friend are at times hilarious and heartbreaking. But it quickly becomes apparent that Elizabeth is also a stand-in for Maud’s sister, who went missing years ago, just after WW2. As you get to know Maud and Helen, and understand more about Maud’s past and present, it’s easier to see what is real and what’s not, but it’s also easy to see how hard Maud tries to fight against the disease that’s ravaging her brain. One of the most fascinating aspects of the novel is how it tries to get inside the mind of someone with dementia and let the reader experience some of the fear, frustration and anger — all of it justified — that Maud feels. In some respects, we all know how this story will end (there’s no cure for Alzheimer’s) but in other ways the reader doesn’t quite know how everything will play out. So I highly recommend Elizabeth is Missing for the incredible empathy it shows for Maud, and for managing to take an unlikely character who clearly irritates the people around her at times and turning her into a heroine. And for reminding us all that no matter how deeply a person’s brain has been affected by a shitful disease like Alzheimer’s, we shouldn’t forget that somewhere down under there is a real person, struggling to get out.
Dept. of Speculation, by Jenny Offill, is another book I wasn’t sure about but took a chance on when I was offered a free ARC. It’s a very slim book, written more as a series of vignettes. It’s sparse writing but is remarkably evocative. The characters don’t even get names; for example, we know the narrator only as “the wife.” Even though the vignettes (almost like journal entries) aren’t long, they draw you in and create a very real picture of a marriage, how it starts, changes, is altered by a baby’s arrival, and also the day-to-day that “the wife” experiences. This is not the usual kind of book I’d read, but you can read it quickly and it’s amazingly powerful.
I have a love-hate relationship with Stephen King. I read a bunch of his horror books when I was in high school (I remember how terrified I was by The Shining) and I think his vernacular writing style is deceptively hard to pull off, but I also sometimes end up being irritated because he often strikes me as too “boys club”-ish (if that’s the right phrase). Some of his recent writing is, I think, his best ever as he transcends the horror genre of oldies like Christine and Firestarter. Joyland was published last year and unlike many of his previous super-thick books, doesn’t even crack 300 pages. I expected it to be a noir-ish crime book, a la Maltese Falcon, but it was really more of a coming-of-age and ghost story — in a good way. It takes place in a family-owned amusement park, which is a fun setting and offers the chance for King to create some oddball characters in the mix. Even if you’re not usually a King fan, this might be worth checking out, and it’s a fast read, so it’s not a huge investment of time.
Another book I got to a little late is 2012′s Tell the Wolves I’m Home, by Carol Rifka Brunt. This book sounds a bit cliched — coming-of-age story, 80s nostalgia, AIDS patient before the discovery of retrovirals, sibling rivaly — and yet it works beautifully. The story is told from the perspective of June, and is set in the early 80s, before people knew as much about AIDS as they know know, when fear and prejudice were much more near the surface. June is especially close to her uncle Finn, who has just died from AIDS-related complications when the story starts. So this is a bittersweet story, about grief, about love (of many different kinds), and about not shutting away your heart even after you’ve suffered loss.
And my last favorite book I read this year: Beautiful Ruins, by Jess Walter. I was, again, late to the party on this one (I picked up a paperback copy at an airport) but I am so glad I ended up giving this a go. Beautiful Ruins was a delightful read. It takes place (mostly) in an obscure village on the Italian coast but also travels to Hollywood and other places in the world. It skips back and forth from the sixties to present-day, but it does so skillfully, and with a fascinating cast of characters that felt real (and some characters that are in fact real, although their participation in the book is obviously fictionalized). Imagine the charm of your favorite old movie, with Rock Hudson or Cary Grant, in book form. Loved it.
So there you have it: eleven of the books that I enjoyed the most, that transported me outside my daily life, that made me feel or made me think (or both). I love that no matter how many books I read, there are still plenty of good ones out there to explore. And please feel free to share some of your favorite 2014 reads in the comments!