My favorite books of 2014

If you’ve read my blog for any length of time, you’ve probably noticed something about me: I love books. (Fancy that, a writer loving books. Shocking, I know.) I try to keep a list of what books I’ve read (or attempted to read); it helps to know what writers have influenced me, my thoughts, and my own writing.

In the past year, I attempted to read 50 books. I finished 44.

  • 11 non-fiction (10 finished, 1 unfinished)
  • 39 fiction (34 finished, 5 unfinished)

My top books for 2014:

Award for fiction: The Blind Man’s Garden, by Nadeem Aslam.

A profound, moving novel, one of the few that I’ve awarded 5 stars on Goodreads. It revolves around a family in Pakistan shortly after the American invasion of Afghanistan after 9/11. It brilliantly captures the conflict within Islam between the extremists and the moderates, as well as the conflict between the foreign military forces and the culture and people in the invaded land. Violent, heart breaking, and powerful. It’s a different perspective on America, one that (I believe) Americans need to recognize.

Award for classic novel: Tess of the D’Urbervilles, by Thomas Hardy.

Categorize this under “now why haven’t I read this before?” Tim Fall mentioned this book in a comment, and though I dreaded Thomas Hardy the way some dread needles and dental work, I thought I should read Tess.  It wouldn’t be proper for a good literature major to admit ignorance of a literary classic, no matter who penned the words. (I read Anna Karenina for a similar reason; my rocket scientist husband had read it, and I couldn’t bear the idea of being one-upped by an engineer.) I was thrilled to discover this work for the first time. It spawned several blog posts, too, which is a plus for me.

If you can handle the subject matter (which includes rape), give it a try. (If in doubt, read a synopsis first. I do this with many long, classic novels. It doesn’t diminish my enjoyment of the story to know the ending, and I appreciate the author’s mastery of plot, etc., more when I’m not wondering about the ending.)

Award for genre fiction: Bury Your Dead, by Louise Penny.

To call this a “genre” mystery is to seriously under-describe this book. I first heard Penny’s name a few years ago when I was writing my first novel. Penny wrote The Cruelest Month, which is what I had titled my book. How dare she! Being an unreasonable person, I seethed a bit, even though we both got the phrase from Chaucer and Eliot. After recovering my sense of reason, I laughed at myself and checked out her work. And loved it. She’s one of the few authors whose works I consistently enjoy.

In this one, she manages to weave three mysteries in one: a previous case unsatisfactorily solved (the murderer insists upon his innocence), the present mystery of the death of an archeologist, and a professional tragedy that has left Inspector Gamache and his team shaken and personally traumatized. Her language is beautiful, her characterizations rich, and the ending–well, this is one book where I’m glad I didn’t read the ending first. It lifts the mystery genre to literary heights. (To fully appreciate this novel, read The Brutal Telling first; this book will make much more sense if you read the previous one!)

If you’re picky about language/sex/violence, be forewarned that both books have some 4-letter words, though not as much as many other non-CBA novels, and while there are no sex scenes, there are two homosexual men in a committed, monogamous relationship. If this is an issue for you, these aren’t the books for you.

Award for non-fiction (tie)

David and Goliath, by Malcolm Gladwell

Basic premise: of course David defeated Goliath. He only appears to be an underdog because we fail to recognize the advantages he had over the giant. What we think is an obstacle might really be an advantage; what we believe is an advantage may be the reason for our downfall. What’s more, we can turn those disadvantages into advantages.

After reading this, I sat down and thought of all the disadvantages and obstacles I face in writing and publishing. Then I decided to make them advantages. I’m still working on this one!

Shakespeare’s Tremor and Orwell’s Cough, by John J. Ross

I’ve recommended it to several people. Ross is a medical doctor who writes fluently about the various ailments famous writers have suffered and how those ailments influenced or inspired their work. Some writers have well-documented issues, while he diagnoses others from the symptoms that contemporaries describe but don’t have a medical explanation for. The Bronte family (TB, mental illnesses); Melville (eye issues, mental issues); Swift (dementia, possible Asperger’s)–just to name a few. (Yeats, Shakespeare, Milton, Orwell, Joyce, Hawthorne, and London also receive a chapter devoted to them.) The book has all the medical and literary research references in the appendix. I’m not a medical person but Ross explains the issues clearly enough for a layperson. Recommended for all who love literature and medicine.

Okay, enough babbling about my favorite books. What was your favorite book in 2014? Tell me about it in the comments!

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15 thoughts on “My favorite books of 2014

  1. Very interesting. I haven’t read any of those except ‘Tess’. I tend to listen to audiobooks rather than read, as I have to save my brain energy mainly for my studying. I’m part way through ‘Nicholas Nickleby’ and am thoroughly enjoying it, never having been a fan of Dickens before. I read (listened to) many classics this year, including ‘The Making of a Marchioness’, ‘A Room with a View’, ‘Where Angels Fear to Tread’, etc., etc.
    As for more modern fiction, I loved listening to ‘The Girl with All the Gifts’ by M.R. Carey, which was actually a SF book about zombies… not that I knew that before I started reading, but it was actually very good! Among others I also enjoyed ‘Pied Piper’ by Nevil Shute, ‘Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress’ by Dai Sijie, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ (I’d never read it before), ‘Black Narcissus’ by Rumer Godden (one of my favourite authors but I wasn’t keen on the narrator) and ‘The Siege’ by Helen Dunmore, set during the siege of Leningrad in winter 1941. I listened to the last in the height of summer but the narration and writing were so good that I was chilled to the bone! My favourite fictional audiobook of the year was ‘The Help’ by Kathryn Stockett.
    In non-fiction I listened to Simon Schama’s ‘A History of Britain Volume One’ and am part way through ‘Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves and the American Revolution’. I thoroughly enjoyed ‘Empress Dowager Cixi’ by Jung Chang. My latest non-fiction is ‘Geisha of Gion’, an autobiography by Mineko Iwasaki, which is an easy read but surprisingly compelling. My daughter bought it for me from her school’s Christmas fair for 20p (about US$0.30 according to google). Oh, and I have FlyLady’s ‘Body Clutter’ sitting on my bedside table, which is a keep-meaning-to-read. Most uplifting non-fiction book of the year has to be Katie Davis’ ‘Kisses from Katie’ (daft title, amazing book). I’m also always poring over healthy eating and homemaking books. Note to self: must get out more… So grateful for books. They help me stay sane ❤

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    1. I’ve never been able to concentrate on anything I hear, so I’m impressed that you do audiobooks. (I’d have to take notes or something!) That book by Dunmore sounds especially good; I’ve read several novels about the siege of Leningrad, and they never fail to startle and shock me out of comfortable life of abundance. I’ll write these titles down. Thanks for sharing, Sandy. (I always want to call you that, even though it might not be your “real” name. My mom’s best friend when I was growing up was named Sandy. Lovely lady. 🙂 )

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  2. This was great, Laura – I’m very interested in checking these out, since Tess is the only one of them that I’ve read. I haven’t read any Malcolm Gladwell and am always hearing him quoted, so I’ll have to try his book in the new year.

    Very interesting about the writers’ ailments. I have often wondered, if Emily Bronte lived today, whether she might be diagnosed on the autism spectrum. Descriptions of her being very unsocial, set in her ways, obsessed with narrow interests (her fantasy writing, which she immersed herself in for her entire life), yet very brilliant, suggest this. Does Ross say anything about that?

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    1. Oh, Ross had quite a bit to say about Emily Bronte! I can’t quite remember everything, but he does seem to think she was on the autism spectrum, probably Asperger’s. Her fixed habits probably contributed to her death; she was constantly walking on the moor, even after she was obviously ill with tuberculosis, and she refused to rest, hastening her death. I just looked back at my notes from the book. Ross said that an Asperger’s personality had several traits favorable for successful writing, according to an Irish psychiatrist. They pursue (narrow) interests zealously; have excellent memory retention for detail; have a unique perspective and lack of interest in others’ opinions, which leads into original subject matter and expressive means; have good verbal skills; and may find artistic creation therapeutic. All of which fits Miss Emily Bronte. The book is well worth checking out. If I recall correctly–my notes are sparse–several of the other authors might have been on the spectrum as well.

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  3. You never babble, my dear!

    I just got home after the two-week-long internet hiatus (which I will never do again!! I missed my blogs way more than I expected I would) & I want to mull your question over in my weary mind.

    I was on a memoir kick in 2014 – hmmmmmm. I’ll think about this one as a I schelp my girl to ballet & get back to you!

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    1. Memoirs can be powerful, can’t they? I’ve contemplated writing one about searching for a new church home, all those ups and downs, and dealing with the grief of my last church’s split; but I think I’m not quite finished with the experience enough to do it (yet). I’d love to know what memoirs you read in 2014!

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  4. This is a great book post. I love discovering what others are reading, what speaks to them, all that. I’ll be putting several of these on my list. David and Goliath has been there for a while. Your review inched it a lot closer to the top.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Oh, and I didn’t answer your question. I haven’t decided what my favorite book of 2014 was yet. I’m currently formulating a book post (in my head at least), so I’ll have to get back to you. I read several young adult books in 2014, a genre I typically shy away from — it always seemed…well, juvenile, and I felt that as a grown-up, I should be reading more “sophisticated” literature. I’ve changed my mind. I certainly won’t completely switch to YA, but I’m less likely to dismiss it as simplistic and a waste of time. Three YA books that I very much enjoyed — Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell, Looking for Alaska by John Green, and Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life by Wendy Mass. I entertained the idea of leading a youth book club at church, which is what propelled me to binge read YA.

    I also enjoyed Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison. I also like to read off the banned book list — not sure what this says about me, but I do.

    Wishing you all the best in 2015, Laura!

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    1. I should’ve listed my favorite YA novel, too. YA didn’t appeal to me when I was a young adult (which I could psychoanalyze and come up with some nifty, Freud-worthy theories about) but I see the appeal more as an adult. I think the YA books might be better written now than they were then. I’m not sure! But YA can deal with some topics better than adult fiction can, IMO, because teens aren’t as depressed by, say, dystopian themes.

      I think a youth book club would be a great idea! Lots of teens love to read, but they may stick with only certain genres if no one prompts them to read something slightly different.

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