Monday, December 29, 2014

Best Reads of 2014

Time for me to choose the best of the nearly thirty novels I read for pleasure in 2014. Many wonderful novels passed through my hands this year (see sidebar for the complete list); choosing the top eight proved to be quite a difficult task. The books that made the cut engaged me from the first page, sustained my interest throughout, and remained with me long after I closed the cover. They spoke to me through their lovely use of language, the uniqueness of their voice, the artfulness of their plot, and their depth of character and theme. Some were published this year, others years ago; several are outstanding debuts, others the work of more established authors. I thank these authors for the pleasurable hours I spent lost in the pages their wonderful, accomplished stories.

In alphabetical order:

by Anthony Doerr (Scribner, 2014)

The story of a blind French girl working for the Resistance and a young Nazi engineer whose lives become inextricably bound through the invisible power of radio waves, this marvelous literary novel caught the book world by surprise. Narrated in short chapters that alternate between the two character's perspectives, the novel explores love, patriotism, and the nature of goodness amid the deprivation and devastation of war.

by Markus Zusak (Knopf, 2005)

I was late to the party on this one, but so glad I came! In a wry yet sympathetic voice that eschews melodrama, Death recounts the story of a German foster girl who survives the horrors of the Holocaust by stealing books and sharing them--with neighbors during bombing raids, as well as with the Jewish man hidden in her cellar. The story illustrates the power of the written word to free the soul even as it bridges the chasms that separate us.

by Helene Wecker (HarperCollins, 2013)

A Nebula nominee and winner of numerous prestigious awards, this stunning debut novel blends history with fantasy as a mythical Jewish golem encounters a Syrian jinni in turn-of-the-century New York City. I knew little about either folklore when I started reading, but the novel's inventive premise, convincing setting, sympathetic characters, and intriguing conflicts grabbed hold of my imagination and didn't let go until the satisfying end. An unusual and truly glorious read.   

by M. L. Stedman (Scribner, 2012)

This story appeals through both its unique setting and the depth of its moral conflict. Living alone as lighthouse keepers on a secluded island off the western coast of Australia, a young couple rescues a baby from a boat smashed against the rocks. Having lost several children to miscarriages, the wife begs to keep this child as their own. Against his better judgment, the husband agrees...until they return to the mainland and discover the devastation their decision has wrought upon the child's real mother. Can Tom right the wrong without tearing his family apart? A poignant reminder that actions can be wrong for all the right reasons...

by Jo Baker (Knopf, 2013)

Longbourn reimagines PRIDE AND PREJUDICE from the perspective of the estate's servants: the housekeeper, Mrs. Hill, and her butler husband; two housemaids, Polly and Sarah; and the mysterious new footman, James. Torn between the attentions of James and the Bingleys' charismatic black footman, Ptolemy, romantic and ambitious Sarah struggles to define her future as unexpected secrets linking life above and below the stairs come to light. No need to be an Austen fan to appreciate Baker's finely crafted tale, one that never feels contrived or derivative.

by Jessie Burton (Ecco, 2014)

In rapacious, religiously oppressive seventeenth century Amsterdam, a young wife's polite but distant husband presents her with an elaborate doll-sized replica of their home as a wedding gift. The miniatures Nella purchases to furnish it begin to echo the family's life in unsettling ways. Is the mysterious miniaturist an agent working to hasten the family's destruction, or a savior attempting to guide Nella out of a labyrinth of dangerous secrets? Although the answer remains as elusive as the miniaturist, this suspenseful tale entertains with unforeseen twists and gratifying turns as it exposes the hypocrisy of a society that worships wealth above Christian charity.  

by Priya Parmar (Ballantine, 2014)

Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf? Painter Vanessa Stephens Bell might not fear her brilliant sister, but she certainly has her hands full dealing with the manipulative, emotionally fragile author. Parmar's novel focuses on the two sisters at the center of the bohemian intellectual circle known as the Bloomsbury group. Amid the comings and goings and shifting pairings of the artists, writers and thinkers who frequent the Stephens' salon in early 20th century London, Vanessa struggles to protect herself, her husband, and her family from Virginia's obsessive need for her sister's undivided attention. Vanessa's narrative offers an engaging portrait of a visual artist struggling to stand her ground in a world of shifting words and discarded convention.

by Robert Hicks (Warner Books, 2005)

The commandeering of her home to serve as a hospital for wounded Confederate soldiers shakes Carrie McGavock out of the torpor she has suffered since the death of her young children. With the help of her black servant Mariah, she sets to work tending the soldiers sandwiched onto the floors of the plantation house. Refusing to allow Zechariah Cashwell, who wants nothing more than to die, this escape, she sends him to surgery. The pair finds mutual healing in the weeks that follow. Carrie spends the rest of her life caring for the graves of the thousands of soldiers buried on her property. A story of love and courage painted with curious particularity against a backdrop of epic proportions.

Here's to 2015 and another delightful year of reading!


Sophie Perinot said...

I read it earlier than this year but I adore "The Book Thief"--it almost made me stop writing (sorry guys, it didn't) because Zusak's use of language is so extraordinary. I made every member of this family read the book.

Julianne Douglas said...

Yes, it's definitely that kind of book, Sophie. Many of the books I read this year made me want to give up writing in despair of ever producing anything of remotely similar quality. Yet, at the same time, these excellent books inspired me to keep trying and improving. So much to learn!

Sarah Johnson said...

I read Widow of the South when it came out, and loved it (even though, from what I recall, it minimized the contributions of Carrie's husband, John). This summer I had the opportunity to visit Carnton Plantation and its Confederate cemetery - an immense and stark memorial - which got me thinking about the novel again.

All the Light I Cannot See is one I bought when it came out, but I haven't yet cleared time to read it! I'm also even later to the party on Book Thief.

Julianne Douglas said...

I would love to see the plantation and cemetery one day! Yes, I think the author probably did minimize the husband's contribution, but only to make him less appealing compared to Zechariah.

The Book Thief reads very quickly, despite it's length.