I am folding two things together: My Cephalopod Coffeehouse review with my Best Books of 2014 overview. Goodreads has made it so easy for me to locate my best reads of the year: I simply sort books by publication date to filter my 2014 reads from all the rest, then look for my 5-star books within that 2014 subset. (A longer list would include my favorite books all around that I've read in the past year, but I'm trying to be a bit more concise.) Here are those books, in order of publication date (most to least recent).
The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell: Reading this novel was like watching a good season of Doctor Who, with magical timey-wimey vampire things instead of Daleks. We follow the life of Holly Sykes, whom we meet as a lovelorn teenager in 1980s England, and we follow into a post-apocalyptic near-future. Mitchell's previous novel, Cloud Atlas, had lots of narrators with their own distinctive voice, and he does that again here, though The Bone Clocks is more cohesive than Cloud Atlas. While there is some darkness and some didactic bits about how foolish humans are, overall Mitchell seems like he is having a fantastic time here, and I couldn't help but have fun along with him. Named a Best Book of 2014 by The Telegraph, NPR, The Guardian, the New York Times, Goodreads, Buzzfeed, and the editors of Amazon. In fact, every single "best of" list I Googled included this book.
The Paying Guests, by Sarah Waters: Another reliable English novelist with another reliably great book—and my best read of December. The Paying Guests is set a century ago in post World-War-One England, which was a very rough period in English history. So many men were fed into the maw of that horrible conflict that women ended up practically alone for a generation, and this novel is partly about that: Protagonist Frances Wray and her widowed mum are ex-aristocrats trying to scrape out a living and keep their home afloat. They have to take in lodgers to make ends meet, and that's where things get interesting. The couple that moves into their home introduces romance and chaos to the staid Wrays, and things get both sexy and deadly pretty quick. Named a Best Book of 2014 by most of the above outlets as well.
The Bees, by Laline Paull: When I say this is a story told from the point of view of a bee, I mean that literally. A bee. With six legs and antennae. Her name is Flora 717, and she's a lowly sanitation worker in a hive that's run like North Korea ... which probably pretty accurate. Paull seems like she knows her bees, but she also manages to anthropomorphize Flora 717 believably enough to get readers (at least, this reader) to empathize with her. Flora has to cope with outside threats (weather, wasps, pesticides) and inside threats (the priestess caste of bees), and is individualistic enough to change her own circumstances.
Dreams of Gods and Monsters, by Laini Taylor: The conclusion of Taylor's stunning YA trilogy. I do not understand why Taylor is not way more famous than she is. I like the Hunger Games and all, and Divergent and the Maze Runner were OK, but this is the real business. I guess I shouldn't exactly compare it to those others, as Taylor's trilogy is not dystopian. It's fantasy. But it feels very similar, because it's about a modern teenager coping with giant forces beyond her reckoning. Karou is the teen, and when we meet her she's just a blue-haired kid in Prague who happens to be an apprentice to a couple of actual monsters. Chimaera, to be exact. Then she falls in love with a really pissed-off angel bent on annihilating everything she holds dear. I absolutely inhaled all three of these books. I would strongly recommend them to any teenager (or adult) who likes Twilight, because there are some similarities but Taylor is such a superior writer. I mean, it wouldn't take much, but she is amazing. Puts everyone else to shame. And her female characters aren't klutzy hapless wimps (or banal killermachines with boobs).
Redeployment, by Phil Klay: A short-story collection written by an actual Marine who served in actual Iraq. Klay (rhymes with "fly") is also an incredible writer who brings the horrible reality of war to gritty life. You know, I didn't have to live this war, but I'm part of the democracy that chose to send these men and women into the fray, so I kinda feel I owe it to them to really face what we've put them through. It's been a miserable decade of war. The least we can do is listen to the soldiers who walked through the mud and blood. This is fiction, but it doesn't feel like it. It feels like a confession, and our job is to hear it out. Named a Best of 2014 book by NPR, The Guardian, The New York Times, Foreign Policy, Kirkus Reviews, Goodreads, Buzzfeed, the President of the United States, and the editors of Amazon. Also, winner of the 2014 National Book Award for fiction.
Dept. of Speculation, by Jenny Offill: This slight book takes what appear to be scraps of insight the narrator/author scrawled on receipts or backs of envelopes and through some sort of narrative alchemy turns them into a great novel. The narrator is unnamed, but she mirrors Offill's life closely. You have to assume this is highly autobiographical, and that's part of the charm. A story you think is real is processed differently, with more adrenaline, than a story you know is fiction. There's the thrill of voyeurism here, watching someone's life unravel spectacularly. With so many books circling around extraordinary events (super-flus, terrorist attacks, zombie uprisings), it's refreshing to see a gripping story that's just about ordinary life, with all its sadness and joy and terror.
The Other Language, by Francesca Marciano: Of all the books I read this year, this is the one I want to go back and read again. Some books, like Gone Girl, are incredibly-written and demand five stars for craft, but are not exactly a pleasure to read. This book was delicious. All my metaphors about reading it involve food; there is something so sensuous about the prose it can't be described any other way. It's luscious. It's tasty. It's also not a novel, but a short-story collection, which (if I'm sticking with the culinary metaphor) turns it into something like a feast of tapas. Each story is set in an exotic locale (Venice, India, Kenya) and features mostly female protagonists dealing with some sort of crisis. The crises move the story forward but each story is as much about place as it is about people. Take this collection with you on your next beach vacation—or in place of it.
We Were Liars, by E. Lockhart: Honorable mention goes to this YA novel, which only got 4 stars from me for various little complaints—mostly stemming from the fact that I'm not the target audience—but which I have been recommending to every teen I know. I checked it out from the library for myself, but I ended up buying it for my kids for Christmas and I will harass them until they read it. I'd maybe describe it as a mix of King Lear (the mad patriarch and his wretched daughters), Wuthering Heights (star-crossed lovers from disparate social spheres), and the Great Gatsby (the decadence and dissolution of the terribly rich). It is also an intense mystery with a shocker of an ending. And you can finish it in a day.