I love reading lists, particularly bookish ones, and I love compiling my own. As a bookseller, I'm often asked what my "Desert Island" list of books would be, and while that continues to be an impossible question to answer, I'm definitely more comfortable creating my personal Best Of lists every year.
For 2014, I reduced my reading goal on Goodreads from 125 (in 2013) to a more manageable 104 -- that is, a steady reading pace of two books per week, on average. I'm happy to say that I met, and even exceeded, my goal for the year with 108 books read. Before I launch into my list of my favorite books of the year, I'd like to devote a little space to my reading statistics. Some books can qualify for more than one category, so occasionally the percentages will add up to more than 100%.
Of those 108 books, here is the basic breakdown:
Fiction 92% (99)
Nonfiction 8% (9)
Short Stories 5% (6)
YA/Middle Grade 20% (22)
Ebooks 12% (13)
Audio Books 19% (20)
Books in Translation 5% (6)
Okay, now here's where it gets interesting. I'd always figured that I read more books by women than by men, and my anecdotal evidence is borne out by my numbers.
Books by women: 63% (68)
Books by men: 37% (40)
But what gets me is that all year long, I was actively
trying to diversify my reading. There's been a look of talk in the book world about diversity (you can find a lot at #weneeddiversebooks, or you can watch this excellent YouTube video
of BookRioter Amanda Nelson), and I wanted to put my money where my mouth was. Or at least put my reading time where my mouth was, since most of the books I read I don't actually pay for. The thing is, even with trying
, and even with expanding my definition of "diverse
," fewer than a third of the books I read in 2014 qualify for my new shelf on Goodreads called "Diversify Your Life." To earn placement on that shelf, a book must be written by OR feature a main character who is either a person of color, or LGBT, or differently-abled.
Thirty-three books. 33. In other words, about 30%. That's the number that I've been striving for all year, folks. It's damned hard.
That being said, I do find it fitting that the best book that I read this year was a debut novel, written by
a black woman, about
a black woman. Cynthia Bond's incredible debut novel, Ruby
, is one of the most beautifully written novels I've ever read, but it's also one of the most brutal. Think Toni Morrison by way of Cormac McCarthy's Southern gothic novels, and you'll have a pretty good idea of the dark places this book might take the reader. Frankly, I'm flabbergasted that this book isn't making more of a mark on the literary world.
The other books I read this year that earned a spot on my favorites list, in chronological order of when I read them, are:
I technically didn't read this book in 2014, but it was published that year, so it goes on the 2014 list. This is another debut novel that doesn't read like a debut novel. Also dark and bleak, but told in expansive prose. It's set in upstate New York and it explores themes of family, vengeance, and loyalty. I never reviewed this one, though I certainly meant to.
This is another book that I read near the end of 2013 but which was published in 2014, so it goes on this list. A quiet novel set in a small town in eastern Tennessee, just days before it's scheduled to be flooded in order to bring electricity to the region. When a young girl goes missing, the few people who hadn't already evacuated help search for her while her mother accuses an itinerant ne'er do well of taking her--or worse. Very well written but not in any kind of showy way. You can see my full review here.
I was very surprised how much I liked this book, told in the twin narratives of two women: Sarah Grimke, born to a life of white privilege in antebellum Charleston, and Hetty, the slave girl who was given to Sarah on her 11th birthday. I learned about the real-life Grimke sisters who were instrumental in the abolitionist movement in the US. You can find my whole review here
This is another debut novel that feels extremely self-assured. I thought this book was bleak and disturbing, but then I read Cynthia Bond's Ruby
! Still, this is an excellent first novel, set in the mountains and plains of the west in the 1980s, exploring one man's efforts to save children through the foster care system while failing to save his own daughter. I intended to review this one but I never got around to it. C'est la vie.
This is another book that surprised me. My year end lists of favorite books don't typically have commercial writers cracking the Top Ten spot, but Jodi Picoult's novel that explores elephant empathy and elephant grieving held me spellbound. I didn't care nearly as much about the human aspects of the story, but her pachyderm research for this one was extensive. My full review is here
I've been a fan of Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt's short stories since The Most Beautiful Book in the World
was translated into English. The first story in his newest collection may just be the finest short story I've ever read: war, dogs, family, redemption. I think he's one of the finest short story writers we have today. My full review of it is here
I was a total newbie to David Mitchell when I sat down to read The Bone Clocks
. This book sometimes felt like the literary equivalent of the movie Inception
. Literary, substantive, fantastical, and producing one of the finest character portraits I've ever had the pleasure of meeting. This book isn't perfect, but wow, it's pretty impressive. You can read my full, rather gushing review, here
by Emily St John Mandel is a book that I feel personally invested in. I've been following Emily's career since her first book, Last Night In Montreal
, which was published by an indie press a number of years ago. Now she's gotten the critical acclaim that I've been wanting for her, earning a spot on the list of finalists for the National Book Award in 2014. I think what I liked best about this post-apocalyptic book was the way she portrayed some of the finer things about civilization that endured: drama, art, and the power of storytelling.
I became a devotee of Mariynne Robinson years ago when I read Gilead
, the first of three books that she wrote featuring the Reverend John Ames and the small Iowa town of Gilead. So I was pretty sure that I would love Lila
, the final book in that grouping. I didn't write a full review of this one, but I do talk about it quite a bit here
in my discussion of the five fiction finalists for the National Book Award.
I wouldn't say that this was one of the best written books I've read this year, but Caitlin Moran's first novel, How to Build a Girl
, was probably the funniest, not least because I had the pleasure of reading it with more than a dozen other book bloggers in a pre-publication readalong. This is the coming of age book that I wish I'd had when I was a teenager, trying to figure out how to build myself, over and over. (I probably still don't have it right.) You can read about our collective reading adventure here
There were a lot of other excellent books that I read in 2014 (All Our Names
, Boy Snow Bird
) that didn't emotionally resonate with me, and there were some great books that I started but didn't finish, for a variety of reasons (A Brief History of Seven Killings
and All the Light We Cannot See
There have been quite a few excellent books that I read in the last few months of 2014 that won't be published until later in 2015, and they will have to wait until next time to make my list, but they include A Little Life
by Hanyah Yanagihara, S. M. Hulse's Black River
, and Tania James's The Tusk That Did the Damage
I also had some extremely disappointing reads in 2014, including The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters
, The Flamethrowers
by Rachel Kushner, and the new Haruki Murakami book, Colorless Tsukuru and His Years of Pilgrimage
, all three of which I actually took the time to review. Actually, I didn't find The Flamethrowers
disappointing so much as I just found it terrible.
What about y'all? Did you read any of my favorite books on this list? What books kicked ass for you in 2014? What disappointed or surprised you?