At the beginning of every January I ponder the books I’ve read cover-to-cover over the course of the last twelve months and ask myself some questions:
• Out of all the bazillion books in the universe – why did I choose this particular book?
• What did the book promise in the way it was marketed (cover, blurb, hype) and the first few pages? And did it deliver?
• Am I glad I spent those few hours, days, weeks—or months in the company of these characters/ideas and why?
• Would I recommend this book?
• Will I search out other books this author has written?
• Would I read it again? And will it remain on my bookshelf or in my e-reader to treasure and return to: (1) because I love the writing or (2) when I need inspiration?
Next, I look for patterns among the year’s collection of books:
• Were there clusters of genres or topics?
• Did I read more than one book by an author or put other books by them on my Amazon Wish List?
• What do my book choices and my reactions to them tell me about myself and the year that just ended?
• Were there surprises?
Finally, and best of all, I give myself permission to begin the bones of a booklist for a new year – bones, I say, because who knows what books I’ll cross paths with or what I’ll feel like reading week after next.
Some highlights from my 2014 fiction book list :
Last Friends & Old FILTH – Jane Gardam (together with The Man with the Wooden Hat – a book I read in 2013 ) comprise Jane Gardam’s brilliant trilogy centered on the life, friends, lovers, and nemesis of Raj Orphan and celebrated judge and barrister, Sir Edward Feathers (aka FILTH – Failed In London Try Hong Kong). I fell in love with Gardam’s writing and her characters, and got a sobering glimpse of British Colonialism in the process. These books, individually and as a set, will stay on my book shelf and be recommended to my friends.
Splendors & Glooms – Laura Amy Schlitz. This is a treasure of a book that begs to be read aloud. Gather your children or grandchildren—or anyone who loves a good story. The characters are engaging and memorable, the plot is original, and the suspense is palpable. Great read! Please read my extended review here.
Me Before You & The Last Letter from Your Lover – JoJo Moyes
I thought these two books are compulsively readable. Me Before You tackles the tough topic of assisted suicide and is populated with unforgettable characters and an affecting love story – highly recommended. The Last Letter from Your Lover is light in comparison, more of a romantic diversion, not stellar, but an enjoyable page turner.
Flight Behavior – Barbara Kingsolver
A novel that takes on important and depressing problems – poverty in Appalachia, climate change, tipping points, the accumulation of losses, and the potential for change (both personal and global). I rooted for the protagonist, Dellarobia Turnbow, to the bitter end. Flight Behavior is a good but not great book like some of Kingsolver’s earlier novels, including The Bean Trees and Pigs in Heaven. I admire Barbara Kingsolver. I was ambivalent about this novel.
The Signature of All Things – Elizabeth Gilbert
What if a contemporary of Charles Darwin’s, just as brilliant and passionate and scientifically perceptive, was a woman? This is a very engaging novel full of lively characters and not just a little botany. It was one of the high points on my 2014 reading list. Please read my extended review here.
The Fault in Our Stars – John Green
This is a sweet tearjerker about cancer stricken teens. I read it to see what all the hype was about (a best selling YA novel and a movie to boot). The characters (Hazel and Augustus) are engaging and likeable but I felt the quest that holds the novel together was less convincing.
Orphan Train – Christina Baker Kline
This novel is about a chance coming together of two women, one elderly and one a troubled teen on the verge of becoming a legal adult. Molly Ayer gets a community service assignment to help ninety-one year old Vivian Daly clean out her attic. As they sort through trunks and boxes of memorabilia, they share stories and learn that they aren’t so different. Both have been alone in the world and often at the mercy of others. When she was a child, Vivian was one of the hundreds of orphans put on trains and sent west to uncertain futures. The story Vivian tells is absolutely riveting. For me, it was the most vibrant part of the novel. I learned about a reprehensible part of American history that was totally unfamiliar to me. I enjoyed this book until the final chapters. I didn’t believe what happened and it left me feeling that Vivian’s character was inconsistent and, in the end, unbelievable.
Foster – Claire Keegan
Almost too slight to be a novella, this gem of a book is small, perfect and brilliant. It’s the story of a young child, a girl named Leanbh, one of a passel of children from a poor Irish family whose mother is pregnant yet again. Leanbh is sent to live with an aunt and uncle she barely knows for an indeterminate time. The story is told in first person through Leanbh’s eyes. The writing is spare, the effect is fresh and honest. This is truly a rare and beautiful book.
All the Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr
This novel is a stunning achievement. The way Doerr brings the strands of the plot together and paces the novel is faultless. I know that many readers had trouble with the shifting timeline but I thought it worked. I was right there with Werner and Jutta, Marie Laure and Madame Manec, Frederick, Von Rumple, and the rest, each of them described with such telling detail. I read the book and then read it again. I have one wish though—that the author had ended the book sooner, and without resolution. I long to have Werner and Marie Laure’s futures left open to possibility.
We are All Completely Beside Ourselves – Karen Jane Fowler
This book is about an important topic (no spoilers here), it’s ingeniously written, and I absolutely understand why the characters are so messed up. But despite all that, Rosemary and Harlow and Lowell drove me crazy. I would avoid them if I ran into them in a restaurant and I didn’t want them hanging around in my head. This book is worthy in every respect, just not my cup of tea.
The Goldfinch – Donna Tartt
I’m a huge fan of Donna Tartt. The Little Friend is one of my all time favorite novels, perfect in every way, so I was really looking forward to The Goldfinch. I’m sorry to say that, at least for me, it didn’t live up to it’s predecessors. True, the characters were almost Dickensian (young Theo, Andy Barbour, Hobie, and Pippa) but over time (and the book is a strapping 771 pages long, so there is lots of time), I found Theo and his friends less and less sympathetic and I felt the book rambled unnecessarily. I’ve read the reviews and I know that many astute readers loved it and there was much to love. It won the Pulitzer. Congrats to Donna Tartt!
Reading in the Dark – Seamus Deane
Deane has constructed a novel of short discrete vignettes whose every word is so painstakingly chosen that the result reads like poetry. Set in Ireland in the 1940s and 50s when children were raised to be “seen and not heard,” and where “little pictures have big ears,” the young narrator tries to understand the world by observing the adults around him. The melancholy soul of Ireland is palpable here. Death, ghosts, and tragedy are made mythic by the power of secrets, lies, and a devastating national history. A rare achievement, always exquisite, but past the middle of the book the crystalized prose became an effort to read.
Eleanor & Park – Rainbow Rowell
Here’s a book about falling in love for the first time, about connecting with another person who really “gets” who you are on a deep level, about a perceptive and abiding friendship that makes an otherwise friendless world bearable, and about having to grow up in a world that’s sometimes hostile. Eleanor & Park rings true on every level – a book that’s nuanced and captures the earnestness of young love so expertly that reading it just might cause you to summon some tender memories of your own.
I read other novels this year, but these are the ones that stood out for me.
And in the spirit of a fun factoid or a P.S.—I note that the novels I read in 2014 were crowded with orphans and a preponderance of heroines had red hair. What’s that about?