2014: Very Good Reads

Of 179 books read in 2014, here are my VGRs:

The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak: I can’t believe I hadn’t read this before. Completely wonderful book.

Hollow City, by Ransom Riggs: The excellent follow-up to Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. Jacob and his friends travel to London, and it’s a journey filled with danger and adventure.

Lost Lake, by Sarah Addison Allen: This is Allen’s first book since she was diagnosed with breast cancer (and is now, happily, cancer-free). It’s a beautiful story about a widow and her daughter, touched with Allen’s usual magical realism, exploring the themes of redemption, healing, and overcoming obstacles.

Cress, by Marissa Meyer: These books in the Lunar Chronicles just keep getting better. Unfortunately, I had in my head that this was the third of a trilogy, rather than the next book in the series, so I was pretty disappointed to be left hanging at the end of the novel! The characters all have unique, distinct voices, and I can’t wait for (supposedly) the last book in the series next year, Winter.

The Invention of Wings, by Sue Monk Kidd: Worth the wait (it’s been ten years since her last novel, The Mermaid Chair, came out). Excellent, well-researched novel set in Charleston, SC in the early nineteenth century. The two main characters are Sarah Grimke (who was a real person) and a fictional slave, Handful, in her family’s household. Sarah goes on to become a Quaker and outspoken abolitionist, and the lives of the two women are very well-written and fascinating to read.

Night in Shanghai, by Nicole Mones: I was so excited to see Mones finally published a new novel (after the excellent The Last Chinese Chef, published in 2007). Her books just keep getting better and better! This is an impeccably researched novel about a period I knew almost nothing about: Shanghai before World War II. The story centers around an African-American pianist who travels to Shanghai to lead a jazz band, although he is classically trained and lacks jazz skills.

The Winds of Marble Arch and Other Stories, by Connie Willis: Willis is a master of the short story (and the novel!), and I loved this collection of stories. There was only one that I remember slogging through a little bit; the rest all flew by and were delicious.

Annihilation, by Jeff VanderMeer: Eerie and unsettling and very hard to describe. Fascinating, though. A group of people set out on an exploratory mission to a mysterious locale, and things start to go wrong, as they have for all previous missions.

The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry, by Gabrielle Zevin: I loved this book about a snarky, grumpy bookseller who has lost his wife. Someone leaves a baby in his shop with a note saying she wants him to raise the child, and he ends up doing just that. If you love books and reading, you will love this book.

In the Age of Love and Chocolate, by Gabrielle Zevin: An excellent finish to the Birthright trilogy. Anya is such a terrific heroine, and even if some of her choices drove me crazy, they were understandable and believable given her circumstances.

The Winner’s Curse, by Marie Rutkoski: I was surprised by how much I really enjoyed this book, as the description didn’t thrill me. Historical fantasy, good world-building, intriguing politics; I look forward to the next book.

Authority, by Jeff VanderMeer: Wow, a totally different vibe from the first book, but just as compelling and fascinating. More mystery than horror, and some of our questions are answered about Area X, but I look forward to getting more answers in the next book.

The Painter, by Peter Heller: Loved this story about a painter trying to outrun his past mistakes. Totally different from The Dog Stars, but still that same sense of desolation and something I can’t quite put my finger on. Heller’s writing just really resonates with me. Violence, loss, tragedy, and still hope. Always hope.

The House of the Scorpion, by Nancy Farmer: Excellent story about the clone of an old drug lord. Great characters and story-telling.

Defenders, by Will McIntosh: McIntosh never fails to delight me, and Defenders was no exception. A terrific sci-fi novel about aliens attacking Earth and the hastily-crafted warriors genetically engineered to fight them, and the future consequences of it all.

My Real Children, by Jo Walton: A unique story about an old woman who remembers living two very different lives. A little slow but compelling writing, story, and characters.

The Girl with All the Gifts, by M. R. Carey: Loved it! The story of a girl, imprisoned in a cell, who is strapped into a chair every morning while a gun is held on her. She is wheeled to a classroom filled with other children strapped into chairs, where they are taught meaningless lessons. The story unfolds and the reader learns more about Melanie’s world, and it is an excellent reading experience. Distinctive, well-written characters, terrific pacing and plot, and an awesome ending.

The Martian, by Andy Weir: I loved this book! I knew nothing about it before I started and assumed it would be sci-fi, but it was actually just a terrific survival story of a man alone on Mars.

One Plus One, by Jojo Moyes: Moyes never disappoints, whether she’s writing in a contemporary or historical setting. This is the story of a single mother trying to provide for her daughter and stepson and never quite making ends meet. Enter a man whose life and career are at a particularly chaotic time, and you’ve got Moyes’s trademark magic.

All the Truth That’s in Me, by Julie Gardner Berry: This book really surprised me. The cover looks like a contemporary YA, but the book is actually set in colonial America (probably; the time period is never explicitly stated), and it is a very unusual read. Second person narrative, a young girl recovering from a terrible trauma… A compelling and strange book.

All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr: I’m not sure I even have words for this book. I loved it. I recommend it unconditionally. It takes place in France during World War II (with various flashbacks) and alternates between the story of a blind French girl and a reluctant German soldier who is a genius at fixing and building radios.

Think Like a Freak, by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner: I always enjoy the Freakonomics books, and this was a fun one about the ways and whys of how we think, and how to “retrain your brain.” Short and entertaining chapters with interesting insights.

Runaway, by Wendelin Van Draanen: Excellent YA about a runaway foster child. Uplifting despite all the hard things Holly has to go through.

The Other Language, by Francesca Marciano: Very good set of stories that were very evocative and well-crafted.

Redshirts, by John Scalzi: A very fun, funny, geeky, entertaining send-up of the Star Trek zeitgeist.

The Golem and the Jinni, by Helene Wecker: This was on my to-read list for quite a while, and I’m glad I finally got around to it. It was a really enjoyable and well-written novel about a golem and a jinni (what else) who both end up in New York City at the beginning of the 20th century. Their back stories are fascinating, as are the various turns their lives take.

Big Little Lies, by Liane Moriarty: Moriarty always seems to find a fresh way to tell a story, and this novel is no exception. The beginning is rather confusing, but it straightens out quickly, and the story is told with short interjections of flash-forwards while the back story is filled in. Excellent characters, interesting plot, and I couldn’t wait to find out who had died!

The Last Policeman, by Ben H. Winters: Although this story takes place in a science fiction-y setting (an enormous asteroid is set to hit the Earth in six months, so I guess this would be a pre-apocalypse setting), it is really just an excellent mystery. Hank Palace is a newly-made detective, and his focus on his job is unique in a world full of people who have given up and checked out. He is convinced that an apparent suicide is actually a murder, and he follows it through doggedly. I can’t wait to read the rest of the trilogy.

Lock In, by John Scalzi: Another terrific mystery in a science fiction-y setting, I’m on a roll this month! Excellent novel about a virus that has caused 1% of the population to become “locked in” – fully awake and aware, but unable to move or respond to stimulus. A host of new technology springs up to support these people, largely supplemented by the government. Our hero is a famous young lock-in (“Hayden”) who is starting his first day as an FBI agent. Fast-paced, innovative, and thoroughly enjoyable.

Neverhome, by Laird Hunt: A fascinating story of a woman who impersonates a man in order to fight in the Civil War while her husband stays home with the farm. Beautifully written and moving, though disturbing at times. It took me a while to get into the rhythm and language of the book, but once I did, I was hooked and couldn’t imagine it being told any other way

Say What You Will, by Cammie McGovern: I tore through this book, but I still have some mixed feelings about some of the plot lines. The heart of the story is about lonely people finding deep friendship. A teen girl with cerebral palsy asks her mother to hire peer aides in her senior year of high school so that she can make some friends for the first time in her life. She ends up connecting with Matthew, a teen struggling with OCD whose compulsive behaviors have alienated him from his peers. Their friendship/relationship definitely has some rocky sections and transitions, a few of which were preposterous and/or weird, but overall I found myself deeply invested in their relationship and personal struggles.

I’ll Give You the Sun, by Jandy Nelson: The Sky Is Everywhere was actually a DNF for me, interestingly enough, but I did want to try Nelson’s new novel. I absolutely couldn’t put it down. It was one of those reads where I felt resentful every time life pulled me away from it, and I finished it in one day. It’s told in alternating voices, past and present, of fraternal twins Noah and Jude, and the storyline is fascinating and really pulls you in.

Stone Mattress, by Margaret Atwood: Those of you who have been reading for a while know that I’m not generally a fan of short stories (mostly because they’re over so quickly), but Atwood’s collection is excellent and I loved every one.

The Story Hour, by Thrity Umrigar: Another author whose first book I read (The Space Between Us) set a standard that no future books seem to live up to. Don’t get me wrong, I greatly enjoyed The Story Hour and found it engrossing, but The Space Between Us was so powerful. This is the story of an Indian woman, married to an Indian man and living in the U.S., who tries to kill herself. Maggie, the psychologist assigned to her, gets personally involved in wanting to help her, with great consequences to all involved.

Spoiled Brats, by Simon Rich: Simon Rich is funny and wonderful and I love everything he writes.


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