As usual, my list is formulated as such: The books don’t have to be released in 2014, but I must have read them for the first time in 2014. I noticed this year’s reading trend leaned heavily toward espionage, noir, horror, and genre fiction in general. My goal is to mix it up a little more next year, but then again, the heart wants what it wants. We’ll see. Enjoy the list, and feel free to comment with your favorite books of the year!
10. A World Lost by Wendell Berry
A gorgeous little book that sometimes reads more like a series of character and location sketches than a "story," but it's beautifully done. The main character is a 9-year-old boy whose favorite uncle is murdered and it forever alters the young boy’s simplistic worldview and daydream-like existence in rural America during the 1940s. The prose isn’t minimalist in the way some might use the word to describe Hemingway or Carver, but minimalist in that while not much happens, what does happen is described with a casual insightfulness and innocent wonder, making even the most mundane moments a work of art.
9. The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan
This nonfiction book looks back at the farmers and homesteaders who refused to leave the dust bowl when the going got tough. It was a heart-wrenching story, not so much for the harrowing experiences of those who survived blackout dirt storms, starvation, extreme poverty, isolation, and the resulting physical and psychological ailments, but because it was such an avoidable tragedy. This book details both the survival and the devastating economic boom, greed, and ignorance that stripped the land of its most valuable necessities—grass, topsoil, and buffalo—and left farmers with crops no one wanted, then no crops at all…left ranchers who brought in cattle to replace buffalo with dying herds…left oilmen without crews or the ability to feed them…and the worst thing of it all is that we had no one to blame but ourselves. A tragic and insightful examination of the worst environmental disaster of the 20th century.
8. American Gods by Neil Gaiman
I held off on reading this one for a long time because I always assumed Gaiman was a Koontz-like beach-read author, but I kept hearing good things about him, so I finally dove in. It’s a pretty epic novel, and a lot of fun. It’s all fantasy and magic sewn in perfectly with grit, crime, and noir. The book balances the hardships of an ex-con against a whole hidden world of gods, demons, ghosts, and more who all walk and live among us, altering American history or trying to avoid it, and it all leads to a potentially world-ending battle that one man must try and stop. The book almost had a funhouse feel in that anything could happen at any time and anyone could be a real human or an aging trickster god. The book is a great entry point for anyone new to Gaiman. If you haven’t tried him out, start here.
7. Mission to Paris by Alan Furst
This is the year I finished reading all of Furst’s “Night Soldiers” books, so get ready for a few of them to make this list. Furst remains a favorite author (even after releasing the disappointing Midnight in Europe) and this one was fun for me because the main character is an Austrian-American film star who seems somewhat based on real life actor Paul Henreid, who starred in one of my favorite films, Casablanca. So being able to picture him immediately and hearing his voice made the journey enjoyable. The story mixes intrigue, romance, and tension while exploring the devious desires of the Nazi PR machine to use (exploit) actors to portray Germany in a good light, and our protagonist decides to use this ploy against the Nazis by spying on them when he’s invited to Germany on various PR stunts. It’s a fun, quick read that I’d recommend to anyone interested in WWII, espionage, noir, or Furst specifically. Not his best, but a good one.
6. Stettin Station by David Downing
Another WWII espionage novel (I like those) but this series stars the same protagonist throughout (unlike most of Furst’s novels). John Russell is an English-American journalist living and working in Berlin. His son is half-German and his girlfriend is a German film star, so he has a strong desire to stay as the Nazi war machine kicks into gear and most other foreign corresponds flee the country. Due to his job’s flexibility and ability to travel without (much) suspicion, the Germans, Soviets, and even the Americans push and pull him to spy on the others, and throughout the series he has successfully maneuvers through these webs using each agency against each other to keep himself above the fray and safe in Berlin, but by this book (the third in the series) the web has tightened to the point where Russell may not be able to escape the Gestapo this time. Each of Downing’s books improves upon the last, and I cannot wait to get to the next one. A top-notch historical espionage thriller.
5. The Shining by Stephen King
This is another novel I put off for a long time because I already knew the Kubrick film well and I don’t always enjoy King’s longer works, but I gave it a shot. Now I know why King didn’t like the film—there’s so much more to the book that the film left out or changed entirely (not to say the film is bad, it’s a great horror film, just different from the book). I enjoyed the ideas and themes King presents and the depths he goes to in exploring the father’s alcoholism, Danny’s special talents, and the hotel’s ability to use people to get what it wants. The book was riveting throughout, surprising for such a long novel. I think it might have something to do with narrowing King’s focus. Give him just a few characters and locations and he can work wonders, but let him play with a wide cast and the focus begins to wander a bit. This was the case with the sequel, Doctor Sleep, but I still enjoyed that one despite a hyperactive ending and a few characters I just didn’t buy. If you have the chance, read both back-to-back like I did. They play off each other well.
4. Everything Neon by Bud Smith
I admit to having a bias here as I know Bud in person, but I really enjoyed this poetry collection. Bud plays with reality in a humorous way, yet also with the most subtle tinge of magical realism, as if this life is more than what we see and do. There’s a wondrous element shimmering behind our drudgery, behind little silent moments at home, behind just buying and eating an orange. The poems capture New York City life without pretension, but with an imaginative, realist blend that I thoroughly enjoy. He’s going to be big, so get a copy now.
3. The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
At times I couldn’t tell if this was a memoir or fiction, and in truth it’s a blend of literature and aching confession about the men (boys really) who served and suffered in the dark jungles and flooded rice paddies of Vietnam. Some of the stories connect to others, while some stand on their own, but all offer person insights into the minds and actions of those who served, died, survived, and those who live somewhere in between. There are horrors here that never go away, and at times the writing is so masterful that few other books, either fiction or nonfiction, can touch it. O’Brien also brings some of these harrowing, painful war themes to his work In the Lake of the Woods, a surreal story of a politician and veteran who may or may not have murdered his wife. It narrowly missed this list, but I’d recommend that one too.
2. Night Soldiers / Dark Star by Alan Furst
This is cheating a bit, but these two books are the first and second in Furst’s series of WWII espionage novels about underground resistance fighters and common people turned spies determined to fight the Nazis. These two happen to overlap a bit, as the characters in both work as spies for Soviet Russia and undergo secretive missions against fascist Germany, sometimes to discover their own comrades are as dangerous and treacherous as the enemy. These are—by far—some of the most well-written, detailed, atmospheric, and engrossing novels I have ever read, and they rank as Furst’s best. I read them back-to-back and you should too. They aren’t just spy thrillers set in the 1930s and 1940s, but literary works of truth about one of the most suspicion-filled, turbulent, and dangerous periods in human history. These are the goods. Buy them now.
1. City of Thieves by David Benioff
Kathryn Stockett called this one “The perfect novel,” and she was right. This is hands down the best novel I’ve read in a long time, and yes, yes, again it takes place during WWII and involves Russians, this time during the siege of Leningrad, when the Nazis surrounded the famous city and tried to starve the Russians out of existence. A young man is falsely arrested for looting and is jailed with a supposed deserter, a handsome soldier with a gift for conversation who is just a few years older. They are offered a chance to save their lives and given an ultimatum: find a dozen eggs for a wedding cake for the general’s daughter, or die. This seemingly impossible journey across this broken, starving city is full of adventure, drama, humor, danger, and a smattering of romance, with a likeable cast of compelling, funny, and realistic characters. A perfectly constructed and stunning novel that left me wanting more but knowing I got what I came for. It doesn’t get better than this.