Real talk: 2014 was, overall, a pretty shit year for everybody. But we have less than twelve hours left in this year, so we might as well try to reflect on the good stuff that happened. Like how many good books we all read this year. So, please enjoy Loud Bookish Type’s Favorite Books of 2014. As always: these are the books I read in 2014, not necessarily ones that were released this year. Because I can’t be running off to the store and spending thirty bucks on every new hardcover that comes out. I mean, Jesus.
Anyway, this year I read and loved…
1. We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
There’s no review for this one yet – being home for the holidays meant I had nothing to do except read, so I read like three books and started a fourth while I was home, which means I have a backlog of reviews that need to be written. But I absolutely had to include this on the list, because holy shit, We Have Always Lived in the Castle was so good and so, so terrifying. Shirley Jackson, with the same scary talent she used to write The Haunting of Hill House, has managed to write a ghost story that doesn’t have a single ghost.
2. Outside the Dog Museum by Jonathan Carroll
The only bad thing about this book was how long it took me to find out it existed. Last summer I started an informal little book club with a co-worker where we lent our favorite books to each other. I gave her In Other Worlds: Sci-Fi and the Human Imagination by Margaret Atwood; she gave me Outside the Dog Museum. Neither of us was disappointed.
3. The Grapes of Wrath John Steinbeck
I avoided reading this one for a long time, because I knew that it was going to be unrelentingly bleak. I was right – it’s a book about poor migrant families during the Great Depression, so there’s no way anyone’s getting a happy ending – but what I wasn’t prepared for was how many similarities I found between Steinbeck’s portrayal of 1930’s America and 2014 America. Sure, we have the internet and better vaccines now, but many of the same problems that plagued the Joads are still very real problems faced by people today. It was this fact, more than anything else, that made The Grapes of Wrath such a sad book, but Steinbeck is a genius and his writing is beautiful even when it’s breaking your heart.
4. Yes Please by Amy Poehler
This book seemed to disappoint a lot of people who read it. Everyone was expecting a second Bossypants, but instead Poehler delivered a serious-minded (but still hilarious) meditation on family, career, and how to become the person you want to be. It’s more of a self-help book than a straightforward collection of funny essays, and I loved it because of that. Her essay, “Treat Your Career Like a Bad Boyfriend” should be taught to every middle school girl in the world.
5. An Infamous Army by Georgette Heyer
I first got into Heyer through her detective novels, but she’s better known for historical romances. Now that I’ve read An Infamous Army, I think I’ll have to switch to the historical-romance team. Which is weird, because that’s never been a genre that particularly interested me (Jane Austen, ugh) but damn this book is good. I loved it for two reasons: first, all the characters are delightful and charming, especially our heroine Barbara Childe, the wild widow of Brussels. And the story, which takes place around the time of the Battle of Waterloo, is a masterclass in historically accurate fiction. The book’s big setpiece, an almost blow-by-blow description of Waterloo, is apparently so accurate that An Infamous Army is studied at Sandhurst Military Academy in England.
6. Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell
I read Karen Russell’s previous short story collection, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, and her novel Swamplandia! and was largely underwhelmed by both. Russell’s writing is gorgeous, and she has a gift for subtle, wonderful magical realism, but endings are not her strong suit. Often in St. Lucy’s, she would create an awesome situation or scenario, like a camp for children with unusual sleeping disorders, or a girl whose sister is dating a ghost – but then she wouldn’t be able to bring the stories to a satisfying conclusion, and would just sort of stop when she ran out of steam. Most of the stories lacked a clear beginning, middle, and end, and it made for a frustrating reading experience. The stories in Vampires in the Lemon Grove still leave you with the sense that something is missing, but they have a clearer narrative structure and are more satisfying as complete stories. And the writing remains, as always, scary good.
7. Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations by Georgina Howell
This was the second Gertrude Bell biography I’ve read, and I think I prefer it to the other one (Desert Queen by Janet Wallach). Howell is definitely a more emotional biographer than Wallach, which is sometimes a positive (during the section that deals with the death of Gertrude’s first love, Howell makes you feel her subject’s sorrow and despair) and sometimes negative (sometimes you get the sense that Howell is projecting her own emotions onto Gertrude, especially when she doesn’t give any primary sources to prove how she was feeling at a given time). The book seems more concerned with presenting Gertrude’s life as a whole, rather than focusing primarily on her later career in the Middle East, and Gertrude herself emerges as a slightly different person in Howell’s book – while Wallach portrayed Gertrude as a prickly spinster with no friends, Howell’s version of Gertrude is happier and is surrounded by supportive friends, family, and colleagues. I imagine that the truth of Gertrude Bell is somewhere between these two portrayals, but it was interesting to read such different takes on her life.
8. Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett
Classic, delightful Gaiman. It’s a lighthearted take on the apocalypse that would make a frankly killer season of <i>Supernatural</i> (but this would mean they’d have to figure out how to include well-rounded female characters who don’t get killed off in service of Man Pain. Ya burnt, Supernatural). Gaiman and Prachettt’s writing styles are naturally suited to each other, and the story flows so smoothly you can’t even tell that it was written by two different authors.
9. A History of the Vikings by Gwyn Jones
Vikings are my current historical obsession, and I spent the last year or so trying to find a good, reliable history of that time period. I started with TD Kendrick’s book of the same title and was immensely disappointed (Kendrick is mainly concerned with what the Vikings did outside their homelands, rather than their day-to-day lives). So it was a relief to dive into Jones’ history and find exactly what I was looking for: detailed information not only on the important figures in Viking history (and featuring some amazing Viking names like Svien Forkbeard and Eric Bloodaxe) but also in-depth discussion of the Viking religion, social structure, political system, burial rites, and more. It’s a great introduction to the culture and the history, and also will make you really want to visit Sweden.
10. Wild Magic (Immortals #1) by Tamora Pierce
This was the year I finally started reading Tamora Pierce’s fantasy novels – about fifteen years too late, but I’m doing my best to catch up. I debated including the Alanna series on this list, because I read and loved the Lioness quartet as well, but Wild Magic won out in the end. First because Alanna is still a major character in that book, so I’m not forgetting her completely, and also because Wild Magic, written several years after the Alanna series, is a much stronger book in terms of pacing, characterization, and general world-building. Writing this, I’m reminded that I still haven’t gotten around to reading the next book in the series, so I should fix that soon.
Honorable Mention: The Vesper Holly series by Lloyd Alexander
As part of my reading project this summer (Working Title: All Redhead Heroines All the Time) I also read the five Vesper Holly adventures, and while none of them impressed me enough to earn a spot on this list, I still want to make sure they get a mention. Vesper Holly is the heroine little girls desperately need, and even though the books have plenty of faults, they still deserve more recognition. If anyone reading this has any little girls in their lives, the Vesper Holly books would make a stellar birthday present. Just sayin’.
And that wraps up 2014, dear readers! Thank you to all the new followers I gained this year – especially you, spam bot accounts! – and to all my old ones, for sticking with this small, sporadically-updated blog. Let’s hope 2015 is fantastic; I’m going to go drink an unsafe amount of cheap champagne now.