2014 was a great reading year for me. Almost all of my 77 books this year were decent or better, so picking my favorites proved a harder task, as there were so many great reads. What a lovely “problem” to have. (Also, the 15 graphic novels this year really helped my book count *smile*) Here you go:
“The Martian” by Andy Weir: One of my favorites of the year, and it was a good year for me. I laughed aloud often. The tone and sarcasm of the main character’s narration felt just like my best pals. And it’s a harrowing story, as well, that does a good job of not getting too bogged down in the tech of staying alive when stranded on Mars. I devoured it. Very fast-paced read. Truly wonderful. Not sure it will stand up to repeat readings, but for one time through, it was a great adventure.
“The Girl with All the Gifts” by M. R. Carey: Fun new take on the apocalyptic zombie story. Nicely written with good pacing. Good adventure, fascinating scientific look at the mechanism of zombieism within this world, and some interesting character studies, with some decent creepy/horror elements, but not too overtly “horror.”
“West with the Night” by Beryl Markham. I’m a travel memoir junkie, and this always tops the lists of the best. Finally read it. Gorgeous. Powerful. Clean, crisp writing. Great adventure. Great stories. Here is what Ernest Hemingway had to say: “…She has written so well, and marvelously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer. I felt that I was simply a carpenter with words, picking up whatever was furnished on the job and nailing them together and sometimes making an okay pig pen. But [she] can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves writers. The only parts of it that I know about personally, on account of having been there at the time and heard the other people’s stories, are absolutely true…I wish you would get it and read it because it is really a bloody wonderful book.”
“Code Name Verity” by Elizabeth Wein: recommended by Seattle’s famous librarian Nancy Pearl. It’s a lovely inspired-by-true-events story about plucky young british women in WWII. Spy stuff. Female pilots in early aviation. Very clever story-telling device, as our plot is revealed through interrogations of a captured fighter. Smart. Fun. Easy to read. (the plot and characters are entirely fictional. But it’s inspired by the roles of women in aviation and spy craft during WWII)
“The Guards” by Ken Bruen: Gritty Irish police novel. Lots of ambiance. Decent mystery. Unique formatting and interesting authorial choices in setting up new chapters means that there are lots of half-pages, so it’s even shorter than it looks. You’ll finish it in a few hours. So maybe search out a used copy, as the dollars to time spent reading ratio isn’t great. But Bruen has a really great voice and this was a solid and quick read.
Locke & Key series by Joe Hill. Really enjoyable spooky graphic novel series. Not so much blood and guts horror, but lots of good creepy ambience. Family moves to ancestral home after their dad is murdered. They start finding magical keys, each with a different property. Kids vs Demons. I found the illustrations gorgeous and rich. There are six books total, and they tell a complete story.
“Hild” by Nicola Griffith: Oh, how I do love historical epics. Gorgeous full story inspired by the seventh-century woman in ancient england who would come to be revered as Saint Hilda, who worked as the Seer to one of the kings. One reviewer said it was as “immersive as a river in rain. Her prose is so startlingly beautiful that reading description never feels like work — which is no mean feat, considering that many of her descriptions are about the running of medieval households.” It’s lovely and complex and well researched with taut/complex political maneuvers and clever and wonderful.
“Romancing the Duke” by Tessa Dare: I am not genereally a fan of the romance genre. I find so much of it to be sex-negative with some worrisome consent issues, as well as formulaic drivel. But a pal recommended this to me, and I’m glad I trusted her. It was an adorable and fun little romp. While the plot might still be formulaic, the characterization and some of the backstory is refreshingly unique. Our heroine is entertaining and spunky, and the writing is vibrant and has some decent jokes, too (maybe not “laugh out loud” moments, but quirky smiles, at least).
The Criminal series, by Ed Brubaker: Fantastic graphic novel series. Very Noir. Lovely dark atmosphere and brutal stories. Also great that each of the six stories stands alone. Read together, they’re interconnecting, as they’re in the same town and sometimes ancillary characters appear in other volumes. But I appreciate that they are each their own story. Good stuff.
“The Boys in the Boat” by Daniel James Brown. Mr Brown was the keynote speaker at the fundraiser dinner for UW libraries this year. He’s engaging and well-spoken, but I still was reluctant, as non-fiction isn’t my favorite, and I just do not care about rowing. Like, if I was going to care about this sport, I’ve had ample opportunity over the years. One of my college roomies was on the UW rowing team, and when she and the other women were competing, even, I was excited for her personally, but still didn’t really care much about the sport (honestly, all the “racing” sports aren’t my thing). But I’m SO GLAD I finally read it. There is so much early Seattle and Washington state history about which I was totally ignorant. This is a well-crafted novel, providing great characterization and engaging writing style. I rarely felt bored, and found myself caring about the outcomes of races from 80 years ago, even though I KNEW the ending already. I am still filled with so much rage/hurt towards Joe’s parents. ARGH! So yeah, I was engaged early and my attention was held. Well done (although sometimes it felt a narrative stretch to interconnect the boys’ stories with Germany’s preparations of the Munich games. Still, it was always interesting information told in a mostly engaging way).
“Travels with Charley” by John Steinbeck: Not sure how I hadn’t read this until now (as I’m a travel memoir junkie, and Steinbeck ain’t too shabby a writer). It’s lovely and sweet and funnier than I expected, and not as horribly dated (ie. racist or sexist) as I’d feared. It’s a short little book following his cross-country road trip with his giant poodle.
“The Last Policeman” by Ben Winters: Great. Fascinating idea, following a newly promoted detective in modern times. Unfortunately Earth will be struck by an asteroid in 6 months time and there are NO viable plans to avoid the catastrophic end of humanity. This isn’t about avoiding the end of the world. It’s about how to keep living when we know the termination date. How does modern society continue and how does it break down with six months left to live? And who stops doing their jobs well, etc. We follow this detective as he tries to investigate a murder in a world that is, mostly, giving up. Very interesting concept and an easy read.
“An Imperfect Offering” by James Orbinski: Oof. Amazing non-fiction by the former leader of Doctors Without Borders. Sometimes this book will make your soul ache, as there is so much ugly in the world and the Doctors without Borders folks are in the very heart of it all. But it’s so important. And so well-written. And uplifting at times, showing humanity struggling against the ugly. Also eye-opening (to me) to learn the roles of the many local people actively involved in working at a Doctors without Borders camp, who often face much greater personal risk than the foreign nationals. And it offers actionable suggestions and offers some hope and ways to continue and strive for a better world. Vital. Powerful. True.
“Wool” by Hugh Howey: Tightly written post-apoclyptic story of humanity surviving post-nuclear world in an underground silo. Great world-building. Really really well done. Interesting characters. Good page-turning plot. There are two more books in the series. But this can also be read as a stand-alone. (I still haven’t read the 3rd book yet. The 2nd is a very accomplished and satisfying prequel). Update from Jan 2021. I read the 3rd book a few months later was was also quite satisfied with it.
“Under the Skin” by Michel Faber. Delightfully weird story. Atmospheric. Unsettling. Strange. I happened to read this months before I heard it was being made into a film. Still haven’t seen the film. Recommended reading, but it’s a weird little thing. I suggest NOT reading ANYTHING about the plot, because the story slowly being revealed is part of the joy of reading this.
The Vorkosigan saga by Lois McMaster Bujold .This author is such a joy, and a used bookstore purchase reminded me of that. (I loved her “Curse of the Challion” fantasty series a decade ago, and then read a few of her more famous sci-fi Vorkosigan series back then). These are STAND ALONE stories (bless you, Ms Bujold) with fast pacing and sarcasm and plot twists and they’re just satisfying pulpy fun. There are over 15 of them total. While it’s recommended to read in internal chronological order (not the same as published order) it really doesn’t matter. (Clearly, as they’re written as stand alones, they show up in different periods of Miles Vorkosigan’s life. So if you see one at a used bookstore, pick it up. They’re fun. She’s won a TON of Hugo and Nebula and other awards and you’ll see why. Smart and fun and fast-paced. Speaking as someone who is often bored by the technology part of sci-fi, these are tight, character driven, often fun political manuevers involved in the battle scenes. Good humor, too. Starting with Cordelia’s Honor is a nice beginning point, or begin with The Warrior’s Apprentice or The Vor Game (by itself or re-published in the compendium Young Miles).
I re-read Scott Lynch’s “Lies of Locke Lamora” and “Red Seas Under Red Skies” to remind myself of what happened before I tackle the 3rd in the series that was just released. This is some of my favorite world-building fantasy series. Great humor. Great characters. Think Ocean’s Eleven style heists in classic medieval fantasy realm. It starts out all fun and then the stakes get REAL and there’s still half the book left. Page turning with memorable characters and unexpected events.
I also re-read the Harry Potter series. Hadn’t done that since their original publications. They hold up well. The first two are pretty generic and not that great, but as JK Rowling progressed, they become really wonderful. Re-reading #6 was a particular joy, as I’d forgotten how much of the complex story was left out of the film.
“Savages” by Joe Kane. I was reading Ecuador-related works in the months leading up to my travels. This is an engaging account of a journalist’s experiences with an indigenous Ecuadorian group trying to prevent oil companies from drilling on their land in the Amazonian rain forest. World politics, and different cultures, and economics, and the environment, and all the other complicated interests involved in this fight. (Further complicated when a community doesn’t share western ideas of ownership and contracts).