2014 was a tough year in world news events, but it was a great one for books; which makes me feel a bit like there is some kind of cosmic sensibility balancing the universe in some ineffable way. Because as any avid reader knows, when life gets tough, the tough dive into a book for the most thorough escapes from reality (I love movies, but they are never as good at replacing the real world as a good novel, IMO).
I just tallied up my Goodreads list for the past year and I'm pleased as punch to report that I read 39 books in 2014 — which is probably my readingest year yet. Below were my favorite escapes from the difficult news, boring travel interludes and sometimes frustrating personal stuff we all have to deal with. (Hint: Always keep a book in your bag and you'll never be sorry to wait in line again.) What were my criteria? Simply what I found thoroughly entertaining and well-written, these are books I've been recommending to friends and fellow writers alike.
"The Paying Guests" by Sarah Waters is a delicious read by an author who has carved a niche in the increasingly popular and crowded historical fiction category. What begins as a novel of manners set in post-World War I Britain (involving a down-at-the-heels mother and daughter who board a young couple in their beautiful old home), evolves into a love story and then a crime/ mystery thriller by the end of its formidable page count. Some reviewers have suggested that the BBC or PBS make this into a Masterpiece Theatre production, and I agree. Waters' prose is lively and the plot, like all her books, keeps the pages whizzing by. It is absolutely cinematic (or in these days of incredible TV dramas, telegenic), so here's hoping that it makes it onto the small screen.
"Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage" by Haruki Murakami seems to be a simple tale at first. But like many of Murakami's often-bizarre and always ineffable novels, it stays with you for some time, the main character's perspective invading your thoughts. At least, that's what happened to me. The protagonist endeavors to solve a mystery and the answer becomes almost secondary. Underneath, it's a novel about the strangeness and difficulty of friendships, and how people change over time, but Murakami manages to structure it like a mystery in the telling — which it is, inasmuch as all our lives are made up of the small mysteries we find in each other and ourselves if we dare look closely.
"The Bone Clocks" by David Mitchell follows his smash hit (which was made into a movie of the same name), "Cloud Atlas." I was not the only one who was prepared for this one to be a disappointment after the crazy places we went in "Cloud Atlas," but "Bone Clocks" is just as strong, and maybe even better, held together in time, space and temperament by the rebellious Holly Sykes. Mitchell is not afraid to cross time zones and experiment with genres, as he did so breathtakingly in Atlas and his other novels, and we even meet some of the characters from those other literary adventures in "Bone Clocks" (indeed, the author revisits characters in all of his interconnected novels, making some dedicated readers chart them out and wonder at the crossovers), so it's doubly mysterious fun.
"The Secret Place" by Tana French is a classic whodunit, the fifth in French's Dublin Murder Squad series. (You definitely don't have to have read the previous books to enjoy this one; they each stand alone perfectly well.) French is my favorite mystery writer working today, and it's because her books are never simply about the mystery at hand, but about the relationships between the people involved and the investigators too — which makes the reader invested, not just interested, in the solution.
"We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves" by Karen Joy Fowler is one of those books that's not only hard to describe due to a pretty huge spoiler early on in the book, but also because it's not really classifiable. It is a fictional story told from the perspective of a loving sister, and it's nominally about family dynamics, but more so it's a story about science and philosophy, which makes it sound much heavier than it is. This is a deeply thoughtful, emotional book, and while tears may be jerked, Fowler elicits them from us in a nontraditional fashion. I read it in the spring, and it haunted me all summer and autumn. It's that kind of book.
"Stone Mattress" by Margaret Atwood is the author's first short-story collection in eight years. An incredibly accomplished writer of more than 40 works of fiction, poetry, short stories and critical essays, Atwood's books have won or been shortlisted for the Booker Prize, the Giller Prize in Canada, the Premio Mondello in Italy and more. If you haven't read her most famous dystopian-feminist novel, "The Handmaid's Tale," or enjoyed one of Atwood's newer novels like "Oryx & Crake," this is a great introduction. Described on the cover as "nine tales," they are certainly that — as dark and insightful, funny and disturbing as Atwood's fiction tends to be, with a real fairy-tale quality to them. That includes ghosts, vampires and other creatures — in her capable hands wrought as the human beings they really are.
"Lovely, Dark, Deep" by Joyce Carol Oates, which was published in September, falls between two novels of hers — "Carthage," from earlier in the year, and "The Sacrifice," which debuts in January; so, if you didn't already know, Oates is an incredibly prolific writer. That's relevant to this group of chilling, sometimes disturbing, always interesting stories that delves into the details behind crimes small and large. Each of the 13 stories in the collection feels as many of hers do — like sketches of a painter as they practice for a larger composition. Some of them are more fleshed out and deeper, while others are almost like ideas, but each thoroughly sucks you in. If you are wary of short-story collections, Oates' are a great place to start, since they are so easy to get into and she is a master of the form.
"Bark" by Lorrie Moore is a treat for anyone who imagines what the lives of the people that fill our days — the casual acquaintances, the coworkers — are really like. Moore is known for her incisive, witty and revealing short stories, and this is her fourth collection, but the first in 15 years, and the critical acclaim shows she's still got it. So much so that you might find yourself recognizing yourself or those you are closest to in her portraits of American life now.
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