I said I would do this last time. Here’s a list of my favorite books that I read this year. Note that it may look like this list is meant to be “Favorite Books from 2014,” but it is a fluke that so many were actually published in 2014.
I did the Goodreads challenge to complete 40 books this year (and I will be successful). This gives you some idea of how big the pool was. I plan to use modified versions of reviews I’ve already written in case you find the same review elsewhere and think I copied. In no particular order:
1. The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman.
I’ll start with a caveat that I read this book entirely on plane trips. In some sense, this is more a collection of short stories than a novel. But the characters in the stories all work at the same newspaper. This means as you read more and more, characters you’ve already met start making their appearances and it feels more like a novel.
The characters are bizarre in a fascinating way. Each of the stories felt unique, and some even fell into Borges-esque scenarios (a woman reads the newspaper in its entirety everyday, but one day is missing and she can’t move on until it gets found which leads to an endless bureaucratic mess through the inner workings of the paper).
The book is full of surprises and turns with each character. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
2. Zeus is Dead: A Monstrously Inconvenient Adventure by Michael G. Munz.
This book is absolutely hilarious. It is simultaneously a murder mystery, classic hero quest, and old school comedy. This may seem impossible, but the combination is seamless.
Let’s start with the comedy. This is not your modern, tasteless humor that will seem dated in 10 or 20 years when the trend dies. This comedy goes back to the timeless masters. The setup is masterfully done with verbal misdirection, odd and surprising combinations, and goofy situations. Even puns. But have no fear if you’re the type to groan at a pun. They are used in conjunction with other techniques, so once you’re laughing for another reason, the pun slides right in for effect.
On to the mythology. From reading other reviews, I was a little afraid that I needed to be an expert on mythology. Don’t be afraid! The characters are introduced in layers with excellent pacing. All you need to know about them will be explained in the book. Only once you have time to get used to them are new characters introduced. It works wonderfully. Plus, there is guide in the back if you need it. You won’t need it.
You probably should be somewhat familiar with common tropes from these genres (as most people who read books will be), because a lot of the humor comes from the characters (and narrator) being fully aware of the tropes and cliches they fulfill. The self-awareness of the book is crucial to it working properly. Otherwise it might come across as a blind mash-up.
Munz shows us he knows what he’s doing by carefully keeping the tradition in some parts and radically departing at others. Weaving all these threads together could have been a catastrophe in less deft hands, but it seamlessly stays together and seems natural here. Most importantly, the book will immediately draw you in with a fun, original premise and keep you in the whole way through.
3. The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell.
Don’t come to this one expecting something totally different. This is classic David Mitchell. Think of Cloud Atlas. It is a sprawling epic story with some slight supernatural elements but a healthy dose of realism. Each section jumps ten years and changes character point of view.
Each character’s voice is fully distinct and developed. The politics can be a bit heavy handed at times, and cutting the entire last section would greatly improve the book (there is nothing (I mean nothing!!) worse in literature than an extended denouement).
Overall, it is a fun, engaging read even if slightly predictable at times.
4. 10:04 by Ben Lerner.
In order to appreciate Ben Lerner’s new book, one must be proprioceptive, a word used often in the book, to the writing style which includes appositives, those clarifying comments between commas, and beginning sentences with subordinate clauses, but one must also grapple with long compound sentences; only to reach the end and find new punctuation that extends the sentence even more.
More seriously, this novel is excellent. Be warned. One could argue that the character and plot development are not strong and do not propel the book forward in the way of the classic novel form. This should not be a criticism in the same way that such a criticism would be seen as nonsense if given of Whitman’s poetry.
The book raises big questions about art and life. There’s no attempt to force some correct answer down your throat. The point is to get you to think about them.
5. For Kings and Planets by Ethan Canin.
I recommend this one with reservation, because outside of the above 4 books, everything else I read this year is a 4 star review or lower, but I wanted this list to have 5 things on it.
The plot setup might make you groan: a pristine, naive midwestern boy goes to the big city for college and is seduced into the dark ways of the rich, city boy. Sound familiar?
But forget about that for a second, because that’s where everyone’s review seems to get stuck. Underneath this trope, which should be considered a device to deliver the story and message, is a heartbreaking struggle that came right at a time I wanted to hear it.
The main character grapples in no uncertain terms, but beautiful prose, with the great questions. What do you do if you don’t succeed at your dream? How long do you keep trying before settling? Is there ever a way to compromise on such things without losing a part of yourself? What does it mean to live a meaningful life?
This novel handles these questions better than any in my recent memory.