As the calendar year comes to a close, it’s become common to compile best-of lists to share, discuss and widely recommend. Here are 10 of my favorite fiction titles, in no particular order, published in 2014. What lands a book on my best-of list? All of these novels feature quality writing, stories with an intriguing plot hook and memorable characters. They make the reader reflect on bigger issues, and ultimately on the human condition. We want to read books we can connect with, often in ways that are far from obvious. While I want to be entertained as I read, I want to be thrilled by the author’s craft. I look for a poetic turn of phrase, descriptions that make me pause, reread and reflect. This list reflects a variety of fiction subgenres, including realistic, historical, sci-fi, post-apocalyptic and mystery.
The eye-catching cover of Lily King’s slim novel Euphoria, depicting the inner bark of the native rainbow eucalyptus, slyly reveals the story’s setting of Papua, New Guinea. Loosely based on events in the life of brilliant, pioneering anthropologist Margaret Mead, Euphoria’s Nell is a headstrong researcher both aided and hobbled by her partner in life and in the field, her Australian husband Fen. As the book opens, the two are fleeing the brutal tribe they had been observing for a number of months, frustrated and hoping for a new opportunity. Fate connects them with the previously isolated English anthropologist Bankson, who welcomes a chance to work with the dynamic couple in studying a female-centric tribe, the Tam. Intellect, connection and understanding (or lacks thereof) spark passions among the anthropologists and the tribe itself, leading to both internal and external discovery.
“I was strong and he was not, so it was me who went to war to defend the Republic.” Thus begins Laird Hunt’s Civil War nod-with-a-twist to Homer’s The Odyssey, Neverhome. Here Penelope goes proudly off to battle while Odysseus tends to the home fires. Told in a first person narrative, the story follows “Ash” Thompson, a young Indiana farmwife hungry for honor and adventure, who passes as a man in order to join the Union army. Ash soon finds she has a strong taste for battle and a remarkable talent with a gun. Hunt takes readers through the harsh realities of war in the Civil War era, seasoning the story with the kind of small details of daily life that fascinate readers and make history come alive.
Mark Watney has the dubious distinction of being the first astronaut accidentally stranded on Mars in Andy Weir’s The Martian. A biologist and mechanical engineer, Watney was left for dead after a violent sandstorm caused flying debris to pierce his spacesuit and sent him flying down a hill. This event triggers the sudden evacuation of the rest of the crew of NASA’s third manned mission to the red planet. But Watney has suffered only minor injuries, and pure dumb luck and a little science keep his suit from being totally breached. He soon realizes his dire circumstances, setting the survival plot in motion. Author Weir has created a smart, funny, self-deprecating geek in Watney, a guy you can’t help but root for as he solves problem after problem with determination, grit and pure knowledge of math and science. Told in a series of log entries interspersed with chapters that depict the scientists and suits at NASA working on a way to rescue the man whose plight has become an international cause, The Martian is a pure sci-fi page-turner.
A team of four women make the twelfth expedition to Area X, a lush overgrown landscape teeming with wildlife and cut off from civilization for decades after The Event has begun. The team is comprised of our narrator, known only as the biologist; the surveyor; the anthropologist and the psychologist, whose penchant for hypnotizing the others makes her immediately suspect. Annihilation, a smartly packaged original paperback, is the first installment in The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer, whose volumes have all been published in 2014. Mysteries abound in this unsettling, intellectual sci-fi thriller, as the party discover a feature of the landscape heretofore undocumented — an underground tunnel (or tower, as the narrator prefers to think of it) that descends deep below the surface. Who or what has left the message on the walls, written in living, pulsating vegetation? How is the narrator changed when she accidentally inhales spores that have been released? And what exactly happened to those who came back from previous expeditions, irrevocably damaged?
“Irrevocably damaged” also serves to describe the characters who populate Phil Klay’s stories of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, Redeployment. The winner of this year’s National Book Award, Klay’s stories plumb the emotional and psychological depths of what it means to serve, and the aftershocks that reverberate throughout the bedrock of life after homecoming. Justly compared to Tim O’Brien’s classic The Things They Carried, Redeployment will surely maintain its place on must-read lists for decades to come.
The other titles that round out the list have been previously reviewed by my colleagues here on Between the Covers: Bellweather Rhapsody by Kate Racculia, Station Eleven by Emily St. John-Mandel, The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd, We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas and The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters.
Following the journey of the heroine in David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks gives the sensation of jumping down a confusing yet richly stylized rabbit hole. Holly Sykes is not only a strong-willed English teenager who loves her Talking Heads LP, she’s also a hypersensitive psychic phenomena. At age 15, she rebels against her callous mother by running away for a weekend. This typical rite of passage causes a terrible loss to the family and Holly herself. And so the jostling expedition begins through space, sanity, and many years.
Throughout her life, Holly develops complex relationships with a series of eccentric characters who also narrate this intricate tale, including an arrogant college student, a journalist covering the Iraq War in 2003 and an aging egocentric literary writer. Reality begins to distort as Holly’s psychic strength attracts two separate groups of mystics with supernatural powers and questionable intents. The plot’s jagged terrain has the unhinged feeling of sewn together novellas, and seeing the seemingly free-flowing threads come together is a one-of-a-kind reading experience.
The Jane Austen Centre declared today Jane Austen Day in recognition of the anniversary of her birth in 1775. Austenites worldwide are making plans to celebrate their beloved author in all manner of festivities, including teas, costume balls and social media events. Indeed the day has its own Facebook page! Austen’s enduring appeal is evident in the legion of literary spin-offs and retellings published every year. Two new entries in the field will interest the Austen Army as well as readers of historical fiction, mystery and romance.
If you liked P.D. James’s Death Comes to Pemberley which was recently adapted as a two-part series on Masterpiece Theater, then Stephanie Baron’s Jane and the Twelve Days of Christmas is for you. The 12th installment in this popular series takes place during the Christmas season of 1814. Jane and her family are dining at The Vyne, the wealthy Chute family’s ancestral home. When one of the guests is killed in an accident, the mood dampens. Almost immediately Jane suspects something sinister is afoot and that a killer is at large. Baron’s attention to detail is impeccable, the mystery is well-crafted and devotees will savor the biographical tidbits sprinkled throughout.
Syrie James invites readers to get to know the teenage Jane in Jane Austen’s First Love, a novel, the author explains in her afterword, was inspired by actual events. It’s 1791, Jane is 15 and she dreams of falling desperately in love. Edward is 17, heir to an estate and handsome beyond belief. They live in two different worlds but continue to spend time together. Jane can’t stop thinking about him or the fact that he seems interested in her too. But there is a rival for his affection. When Jane starts matchmaking with three other potential couples, things go disastrously. This charming story’s appeal extends beyond Austen fans to romance readers and those who enjoy compelling coming-of-age stories.
Written from the perspective of Downton’s own trusted butler, Carson, Rules for Household Staff is anything but the dry instructional manual its title would suggest. Carson’s careful and precise introduction brings a depth of dignity to the serving class in keeping with the series’ sensitive depiction of its members.
Referring to servants as Improvers of Lives, Carson likens those who enter the profession to “doctors and nurses” who “heal and make well lives that can be fraught with worry and responsibility.” Clearly, those who serve – at least at Downton – are called to do so, and by the correct and efficient discharge of their duties, they may aspire to master their chosen career. To this end, the remainder of the volume is dedicated.
Replete with useful notes and instruction on a staggering variety of practical duties and behavioral obligations, Rules for Household Staff is a surprisingly concise and markedly engaging read. Readers who follow the series will develop a deeper understanding of the downstairs characters in Downton, as well as a keener appreciation of the responsibilities each member of the household bears in the running of the abbey. Along the way, readers may also pick up some unexpectedly useful skills, such as napkin folds, the proper procedure for decanting wine and a nontoxic method for ridding the kitchen of flies.
Recommended for history enthusiasts and in particular for fans of the Downton Abbey series. Those who have already enjoyed Rules for Household Staff may also appreciate The Chronicles of Downton Abbey.
Mallory Ortberg’s Texts from Jane Eyre: And Other Conversations with Your Favorite Literary Characters is a funny, irreverent take on what it would be like if famous authors and classic literary characters texted. Ortberg takes books and authors that we read in high school or college and retells their stories in text form. From Hamlet to Elizabeth Bennett to the Lorax, from Edgar Allan Poe to William Wordsworth to Emily Dickinson, no character or author is out of reach for Ortberg.
Ortberg uses classic characters like Jo March and Jane Eyre, juxtaposed with more modern ones like the twins from Sweet Valley High and the members of the Baby Sitters Club. She brings these characters to life through text speak and emoticons, making the reader crack up at the thought of Plato texting the cave allegory to a close friend, or Hamlet text-yelling at his mother to keep out of his room. The texts referenced in the title of the book are particularly amusing—Mr. Rochester’s in all caps and Jane Eyre’s cool and distant, as he tries to lure her back to him.
Ortberg, one of the co-editors and founders of The Toast website, has translated her hilarious online writing career into print with Texts from Jane Eyre. Readers will be laughing along as they relive some of their favorite (or least favorite) literary characters in text message form. This is one that former English majors will devour!
Beloved Irish novelist Maeve Binchy once said, “I am obsessively interested in what some may consider the trivia of other people’s lives.” Her people watching paid off in her novels but also in her work as a journalist for The Irish Times, where she serendipitously launched her writing career. Maeve’s Times: In Her Own Words is a selected collection of her work spanning five decades at the newspaper as a women’s editor, columnist, feature writer and reporter. When her novels became bestsellers, she resigned her full-time position but continued contributing until her death in 2012.
This volume chronologically organizes some favorite pieces from her long tenure and groups them into decades from the 1960s through the 2000s. Her eye for detail, so prevalent in her novels, serves her well in chronicling various topics ranging from the lighthearted to the controversial. Her humor and drollness are evident in each article, whether it be musings about dull airline companions or honest thoughts about more provocative subjects such as the plight of the Irish working in England. And she was also an almost giddy reporter on the shenanigans of the royals and in attendance at many of the weddings, including Charles and Diana’s in 1981.
Readers will acquire a better understanding of Binchy’s treasured homeland as the anthology also serves as a sociological study and cultural commentary on a changing Ireland. This entertaining collection will delight her legion of devotees who will get to know her a little better while enjoying the cherished characteristics of her writing – wit, wisdom and compassion.
Life has always been in the details for Addie Baum, the 85-year-old protagonist in Anita Diamant's new historical novel, The Boston Girl. When her youngest granddaughter asks her to tell her life story, Addie starts at the beginning. Born at the turn of the century, this daughter of Jewish Russian immigrants endures disappointments and obstacles along the way to living a full life defined by plucky resolve and passion. In Diamant's capable hands, Addie's first person narrative is a gentle and lovely rewinding back to the soul of another time and place.
Coming of age as a Jewish woman in the 20th century, Addie endures the endless harping of her suspicious mother who sees America as the wrecker of young women. Home is in a tenement in the north end of Boston, where there is just enough money for food and rent. Staying in school becomes Addie's dream despite her mother's low expectations. It's her love of reading that opens doors to the world she will eventually inhabit. When she lands an invite to join the Saturday Club girls at their camp at Rockport Lodge, she forms friendships along with opinions and new experiences. For Addie, it is time of Parker House rolls and keeping boys from getting "fresh." When she tries on long pants for the first time she can't believe how liberating it feels.
Diamant, whose previous works include the highly regarded The Red Tent, wades through a significant period in American history, including sweat shops, the flu epidemic, World War I, the Depression and feminism, just as Addie matures and exploits her own personal potential. While this latest novel may be a lighter read than Diamant's previous works, readers will enjoy the plot-moving short chapters that capture the intrinsic nature of the early 20th century immigrant experience in America. The Boston Girl should make an excellent book club selection for those examining the breadth of connections that sustain us.
By definition, a wallflower is someone who yearns to stay out of focus and is content with experiencing the world from a vantage point far removed from social commotion. Wallflowers are typically observant people who possess the uncanny ability to find beauty in unique places. Eliza Robertson's debut collection Wallflowers places a series of introverted characters in situations with the potential to reveal more than their individual livelihoods.
Unified by central themes of longing and loss, Robertson's characters all wish for a way to forget the past or escape the present. In "Here Be Dragons," a geographic surveyor sees shades of his late fiancée in every corner of the remote locations he visits. She haunts him not in the convenient visages of doppelgängers, but in the complicated forms of reverie associated with people, places, things and experiences amidst savage and newly loveless lands. "Slimebank Taxonomy" thrusts readers into the empty life of a young mother living with her brother and his family. Her sister-in-law does not shoulder the added burden gracefully as she diverts attention from her own child to care for the new baby. The young mother realizes this, yet remains powerless to rear her newborn; instead, she finds solace in dredging drowned animals from a nearby swamp and cleaning their bodies. "Roadnotes" tells the story of a woman who leaves her job to drive through the Northeast on an autumnal leaf-viewing tour. Conveyed in the form of a series of letters addressed to her brother, readers see glimpses into her true motivations for her journey as she laments the loss of her mother, despite her rough childhood.
Robertson's debut collection shimmers with beauty enhanced by flecks of melancholy, with hints of hope where it seems toughest to find. With stories less about the wallflowers that populate them and more about the collective souls of humanity, Wallflowers is not to be missed by literary fiction enthusiasts. Fans of the rustic Canadian backdrop and the accompanying aloneness might also enjoy D. W. Wilson's collection Once You Break a Knuckle.
In 1992, 24-year-old Chris McCandless gave away his savings and most of his worldly possessions and embarked on his dream trip, a quest in the Alaskan wilderness. His adventure ended in his tragic death in an abandoned bus just off the Stampede Trail near Denali National Park. Chris’ story was the subject of Jon Krakauer’s bestselling nonfiction book Into the Wild in 1996, and it was later made into a film directed by Sean Penn. Krakauer’s book focused mainly on Chris’ journey and the end of his life, but it left many questions about his past and his motivations unanswered, leading to many widely held misconceptions about Chris.
Because of the popularity of Into the Wild, people think that they know Chris’ story, but there’s much more than meets the eye. While Krakauer was researching his book, Chris’ sister Carine McCandless shared more about her family and Chris’ childhood with him, even allowing Krakauer to read some of her brother’s letters relating his feelings about unpleasant details of life in the McCandless home. To protect her parents and half siblings, Carine asked Krakauer not to include the letters in his book. Now, Carine McCandless is revealing those details in The Wild Truth, a book she hopes will allow readers to view her brother’s life and actions through a more accurate lens.
Above all things, Chris McCandless valued truth, and Carine’s raw and honest account of their family life builds a much clearer picture of what drove Chris to take his journey. This unforgettable story is my favorite new nonfiction book this fall. The Wild Truth is not just for fans of Into the Wild. It’s also a must-read for readers who are drawn to family memoirs.
We are delighted that Carine McCandless will speak about her book and her brother’s legacy at the Arbutus Branch on Saturday, December 6 at 2 p.m. Readers can hear directly from Carine and have the opportunity to ask her questions about The Wild Truth. Find out more information about this event.
Imogen Robertson invites readers on a journey to Paris, 1909, the height of La Belle Epoque, where the alluring excess of the era comes to vivid life in The Paris Winter. Robertson introduces readers to three fiercely independent young women whose friendship is built on a common love of art, but who are quickly ensnared in a sinister plot.
For Maud, a destitute art student at the Académie Lafond, life is anything but decadent. Her inheritance only covers rent and tuition, leaving her no choice but to go hungry. School friends Yvette and Tanya quickly notice their proud friend’s state and secretly intervene to get her a job as a companion to wealthy Christian Morel’s sickly sister Sylvie. Maud can hardly believe her fortune as the position includes a warm, clean room and plenty of hot meals. The security of her employment also allows her to focus her energy on her art. But all is not well in the House of Morel as the private lives of the siblings are vastly different from their public personae. Sylvie is hiding an opium addiction and Christian’s aura of intrigue feels threatening.
Maud embraces their secrets as her own, but before long finds herself embroiled in sinister plots which take her and her friends from the gritty underbelly of Paris to the haunts of the upper class. The three young women grow as they work together to uncover the truth amidst so much deception. Robertson’s characters are memorable and her colorful, detailed descriptions serve to create a strong sense of place and time. Art lovers, history buffs and armchair sleuths won’t be able to put this thriller down.