Monday, December 29, 2014

Top 10 Books of 2014

       I managed to read 81 books - averaging 1.56 books a week, 10 more books than last year's total. It is much harder to keep up with the new releases working at a used bookstore, but I still read Publisher's Weekly every week and have been able to stay abreast of some of the best that way. The upside of working at Half-Price is that I see some fascinating titles come across the counter in buys, and lots of books that I have not thought of for many years.

1. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. An amazing and beautifully written novel about two young people in Europe before and during WWII. One a blind French girl and the other a German electronics genius whose lives eventually intersect. The language in this book was just amazing, I could picture every scene in my head as I read it and there are some that are still clear in my memory several months later. And when I finished the book I had a feeling of joy at how wonderful a story it was, as well as being devastated by the ending. It was nominated for the National Book Award and I was glad to see it show up on several of the "Best Of" lists at the end of the year.

2. The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd. The author of "The Secret Life of Bees" has written an excellent historical novel told through the eyes of two Charleston, South Carolina women in the early 1800s - one white and one black. Loosely based on the life of Sarah Grimke, an abolitionist and proponent of women's rights. At the age of 11, she was presented with Hetty, a slave of about the same age and the book follows their lives together and separately over the next 30 years. One of the things that I really liked about it was that Sarah is not a likable character at the beginning of the book, but over the years becomes more sympathetic, even if not ever becoming totally likable. This is a moving, beautifully written book that takes us deep into the lives of these two women and their feelings about each other and the world that surrounds them.

3. Frog Music by Emma Donoghue. Emma Donoghue's "Room" was one of my favorite books of 2010. Surprisingly, this historical novel is even better. It is based on an actual murder of an eccentric woman in 1876 San Francisco. The book is at times brutal, but the story is fascinating and I cared deeply for the characters. Donoghue uses songs of the era to give the book an authentic feel and I found the information at the end of the book about these songs very interesting. This is an outstanding read. 

4. In the Kingdom of the Ice by Hampton Sides. Easily my best non-fiction read of the year. An amazing true tale of adventure and survival in the Arctic in the late 1870s. It was believed at that time that the North Pole was surrounded by an unfrozen sea. George DeLong led a US Navy expedition to sail there. His ship became stuck in the ice for more than a year and then sank. His men had to set out in small boats and then on foot to reach safety in Siberia. The story of how the crew handled this and other obstacles is thrilling and moving.

5. Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith. This is an absolutely bizarre book that was the most fun I had reading a book this year. Two teenage boys in Iowa set loose a biological agent that creates 6 foot tall praying mantises that only want to eat (preferably humans) and reproduce. Our hero, Austin, loves his girlfriend, but is worried that he may be in love with his best friend Robby too. Andy and Robby have to team up to find secrets that will bring down the mantises. The book is hard to describe but well worth reading. Sony Pictures has hired Edgar Wright to direct what could be a hell of a fun film.

6. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. An amazing literary look at the end of the world that is set both immediately before and 15 years after a disease has wiped out 90% of humanity. Most of the story is told though the eyes of the members of a traveling troupe that performs Shakespeare & classical music for survivors in small villages in the Midwest. The Symphony has a motto, taken from an episode of “Star Trek: Voyager,” “Survival is insufficient,”. Both lyrical and gut-wrenching, this novel was on the long list for the National Book Award.

7. Tigerman by Nick Harkaway. A fascinating look at how a costumed superhero might work in the real world. A semi-retired British sergeant is assigned as consul to an island nation that may be destroyed in a natural disaster at any moment. He becomes Tigerman in order to try and keep order on the island. Harkaway is an amazing writer, and while "The Gone-Away World" is still my favorite of his books, this one is a fantastic read.

8. Closed Doors by Lisa O'Donnell. An excellent new novel by Lisa O'Donnell, author of "The Death of Bees", which was my favorite book in 2013. Michael is an 11 year old boy living in a remote Scottish village. After an attack on a family member, he must keep a secret that no child should have to keep. Michael is a great character and has a wonderful voice. I didn't always believe in some of the actions that the adults took, but Michael always rang true.

9. I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes. An absolutely engrossing, fast moving thriller. It features a retired agent that is drawn into a case when a terrorist is found to have a terrible weapon. There are several different storylines going on at once, but all were fascinating. At 600 pages, it is a bit long, but for me, it never lagged. This is an author to watch out for.

10. The Painter by Terry Hayes. Another beautifully written novel from the author of "The Dog Stars", my favorite book of 2012. "The Painter" isn't quite that good, but I still was sucked in from the very beginning. Jim Stegner is a successful artist living in Colorado with a past - years ago he shot and almost killed a man who threatened his daughter. Now he has a violent run in with another rancher and his personal life starts to come apart. The ending of the book wasn't quite what I expected, but I am not sure where the author could have gone with it.

      Other books that I loved this year were "Shovel Ready" by Adam Sternbergh (a thriller set in a partially abandoned NYC after it is hit by a dirty bomb), "The Dark Road To Mercy" by Wiley Cash (he turns out amazing Southern stories), "The Serpent of Venice" by Christopher Moore (a wonderful mash-up of Othello, The Merchant of Venice, and several other bits & pieces), "The Silkworm" by Robert Galbraith (second in a series of mysteries by J.K. Rowling), and "Eleanor & Park" and "Fangirl" both by Rainbow Rowell (a top notch young adult author).
     And finally, the book that I most disliked this year - "Missing You" by Harlan Coben. I have read and enjoyed several stand alone Coben titles (but have never tried the Myron Bolitar series), but this title just struck me as stupid. The book has an interesting premise, but the characters are so stupid and there are so many outlandish plot twists that by the end I just didn't care. I talked to others that enjoyed it, so it may not have been a bad book, but I felt like throwing it across the room by the time I finished it.

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