We're in the last stretch of 2014 (no, we can't believe it either)—which means it's time to start our annual look back at the year's best books. The full list of 50 will debut in our December issue, available online on December 1—but here's a sneak peek at the second half. Agree with our choices? Let us know in the comments!
26. Under Magnolia by Frances Mayes
27. The Betrayers by David Bezmozgis
28. Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler
29. Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 by Francine Prose
30. All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld
31. The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henríquez
32. The Vacationers by Emma Straub
33. Us by David Nicholls
34. The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
35. Living with a Wild God by Barbara Ehrenreich
36. The Bees by Laline Paull
37. Frog Music by Emma Donoghue
38. The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd
39. The Trip to Echo Spring by Olivia Laing
40. Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty
41. What Is Visible by Kimberly Elkins
42. Blood Will Out by Walter Kirn
43. Evergreen by Rebecca Rasmussen
44. Elizabeth Is Missing by Emma Healey
45. Under the Wide and Starry Sky by Nancy Horan
46. My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff
47. My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead
48. The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters
49. The Wind Is Not a River by Brian Payton
50. Natchez Burning by Greg Iles
Much more coverage of the Best Books of 2014 to come!
2. The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion
3. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
The Midnight Plan of the Repo Man by W. Bruce Cameron stars a man in a slump. Ruddy, a failed football pro, has a lame job and no friends. And then he starts hearing the voice of a dead real estate agent in his head. Our reviewer writes that Cameron's smart, humor-filled novel "is a light, breezy read that is pure entertainment." (Read the review here.)
We were curious about the books Cameron has enjoyed reading lately, so we asked him to recommend three favorites.
Because he writes thrillers, this very literary novel by Nelson DeMille, while a bestseller, is rarely mentioned on the same list with important American works. Yet, for me, this is The Caine Mutiny for the Vietnam generation, and I read it every few years just to marvel at how well it holds up: suspenseful, profound and superbly crafted.
According to Malcolm Gladwell, who wrote the fascinating book Outliers, it takes an “expert” about 10,000 hours to truly master his or her craft. Looking at the bibliography of Andrew Gross, one can easily see he’s got his 10,000 hours in—and it shows up magnificently in Everything to Lose, his latest thriller. Don’t open the front cover for a quick look if you don’t have the money to purchase the book—you don’t want to be caught shoving it in your coat and running for the door, but there’s no way you are going to abandon this novel once you’ve started it.
This is very literally “what I’m reading”—I just started it. I was immediately struck by the POV—The book is written in first-person, in the voice of Jack Reacher. I have not yet ventured far enough into the novel to know much more than the fact that this character, Reacher, is as comforting and habit-forming as the first cup of coffee on a cold morning. I cannot wait to get back to the book!
Thank you, Bruce! Readers, do you see anything you'd like to pick up?
(Author photo by Ute Ville)
In her 35th novel, best-selling science fiction and fantasy author Tepper brings back two of her favorite characters for another adventure. Abasio the Dyer (first seen in A Plague of Angels) and his wife, Xulai, are on a trip with a mission: to warn the residents of Tingawa of a literal sea change heading their way. The waters are rising, and people must adapt to a sea-dwelling lifestyle. Not exactly the most welcome of messages, as they discover . . .
Though they had been on this journey for almost a year now, their reception from place to place had been so varied that they had been unable to settle on a routine. Words and phrases that were acceptable in one village turned out to be fighting words in the next place, even though they tried to avoid any fighting at all. If hostility seemed imminent, they had the means to leave, and they did leave: horses, wagon, and all. Essentially they had three duties: first to explain that the world was being drowned; second to let people know about the sea-children. Third: to survive!
What are you reading this week?
Author Sarah Kennedy set her thrilling new series during one of the most intriguing eras of British history—the Tudor era. It stars an "everywoman," Catherine, a former nun who has lost her vocation due to Henry's shift from Catholicsm to Anglicism. More than 400 years after this dynasty died out, why do they continue to fascinate? In a guest blog post, Kennedy—who holds a PhD in Renaissance poetry—explores this idea.
Guest post by Sarah Kennedy
Henry VIII. Anne Boleyn. “Bloody Mary” Tudor. Queen Elizabeth I. Shakespeare. Who doesn’t love the Tudors? Or love to hate the Tudors? Lust, power, betrayal, the church, the state—they embody it all. The Tudor era still looms large in our imaginations, from The Other Boleyn Girl and Wolf Hall to Shakespeare in Love and Anonymous. We love to follow the intrigues, romances and betrayals of these glamorous historical figures. But why?
Henry VIII’s six wives have always intrigued us, partly because there were so many of them and partly because each woman was different and had her own impact on the politics and religion of the time. How many times have we watched Anne Boleyn win the king then lose her head? We know what has to happen, but those of us who admire her pluck and daring are usually hoping, somewhere deep inside, that she’ll make it this time, that she’ll have that son or that she’ll somehow escape to the countryside with her daughter. Those who favor Katherine of Aragon see her as the tragic heroine who led her people into battle and tried valiantly to be a successful queen over a foreign country—and with a husband who grew to despise her. Jane Seymour, of course, died providing the desired heir, who didn’t live to be an adult, and she was followed by poor Anne of Cleves, destined to be known as the “mare of Flanders” because the king found her unattractive. Catherine Howard, the girl-queen who clearly didn’t know what she was getting herself into, was summarily executed for misbehavior that the court seemed to wink at, and Catherine Parr, that strong-minded widow, managed to survive by playing to the aging king’s ego.
It’s the very stuff of drama—human personalities clashing and contending while the country reels from one religion to another. The royal characters of the Tudor era are both larger than life and real. They fight and they kill and they lie . . . and they love and dedicate themselves fiercely to their beliefs and their families.
And then there is the second generation: Edward the son, who suddenly falls ill in his teens and tries to “give” the crown to the tragic Jane Grey. The outcast older daughter, Mary Tudor, or “Bloody Mary,” was the first real queen regnant in England, and her half-sister Elizabeth ruled over the island’s “golden age”—but refused ever to marry.
The Tudor era was a time of massive change in Europe, but the family didn’t last long, which is another reason we go back to them. The 16th century in England is dominated by Tudors, but after Elizabeth’s death in 1603, they’re gone. In a hundred years, everything has changed, and the Tudors almost immediately become the family of legend. Henry’s break from Rome caused an upheaval in his country that rocked the very foundations of everyday life: the Church. Like us, people in Tudor England struggled with fundamental questions of belief and authority. What is the right relationship between religion and politics? What moral authority does the king have? What moral responsibility do people have to follow a leader they see as ungodly?
My first novel, The Altarpiece, tried to provide some possible answers, and the Cross and the Crown series follows a young woman who tries to make sense of her world and her God as she navigates the tricky waters of the Tudor court. Catherine Havens is a kind of everywoman. Like us, she wants to follow her conscience . . . and she wants to live a “good” life. And like us, she is trying to figure out what that life might . . . or must . . . or can be. Will her own intelligence be her guide? Or will she follow the dictates of her king?
It’s a question we all still ask ourselves, and the Tudor era continues to offer a dramatic stage on which writers, filmmakers, and playwrights can play out these human spectacles. I also wanted to consider the particular problems for women, who were seen as inferior to men—but who governed and taught and led both king and country. My Catherine is strong-willed and educated: a true Renaissance woman. But she is still a woman, who must take care not to seem smarter than the men close to the king—or than the king himself.
Why the Tudors? They are close enough to us to show us versions of ourselves, but also far enough away in time that the picture comes more sharply into focus. We know what they should do, but we also know what they will do, and our pleasure come both from hoping that things will go better this time around and watching the tragedies and triumphs play out as we know they must. And when we close the book or turn off the film, we’ve learned more about our past—and more about ourselves here in the present day.
Thanks, Sarah! The second book in the Cross and the Crown series, City of Ladies, goes on sale today (BAM | B & N | Indiebound | Amazon) and the third book will be published in 2015. Find out more on her website.
Amy hates her job at the rip-off Ikea superstore, Orsk. And now, she’s been wrangled into taking a night shift with some of her coworkers to catch the vandal who’s been roaming the store after dark. But as the gang investigates strange happenings amidst the shoddily made furniture, it becomes clear that there’s something far more sinister roaming the showroom floor after the industrial lights are dimmed.
Illustrated catalogue-style with furniture that gets progressively more disturbing with each chapter, this book takes a stab at American consumer culture. However, lest you think it's solely satirical fun, I’ll have you know that I slept with the light on after finishing this book. Thankfully, my town doesn't have an Ikea.
Her cell phone unleashed a shrill Woody Woodpecker laugh, informing her that she’d received a text message. Basil watched in disbelief as she fumbled the phone out of her pocket.
“Of course,” Basil announced to the trainees, “Amy knows that partners are never permitted to bring their phones onto the Showroom floor.”
“It’s another help message,” she explained, showing him the phone’s screen.
A few weeks earlier, several floor partners had started receiving one-word texts reading help from the same private number. Proliferating like rabbits, the texts came pouring in at all hours, and they were freaking people out. Corporate claimed that IT was powerless to address the issue since It was technically not Orsk related.
Are you reading anything spooky as Halloween approaches?
In the mood for a scary story, but want to keep it real this Halloween? You're in luck, because sometimes, reality is far more terrifying than fiction. Check out the most terrifying novels of the year here.
Walter Kirn used to have a friend. This friend, he slowly discovered over the course of their 15-year friendship, was a murderer. It's a fact that could float this bizarre, dark memoir, but Kirn goes deeper, drawing disturbing parallels between himself and the psychopathic charlatan who became his friend.
It's like an apocalypse novel about the destruction of humanity! Except it's real. Ackerman explores just what humans have done to this fair planet of ours and what it all means for our future.
This account of a doomed Arctic exploration is filled with icy suspense and dread, despite the fact that you already know how this tragic tale ends.
Want to be terrified of the direction humanity is heading? Read this book. At least you won't be looking at your phone!
What could be creepier than trusting someone, only to find out they are not remotely who you thought they were? This book details the life of CIA double agent Kim Philby, as well as the lives of his friends and colleagues. Those closest to Philby never quite recovered from the incredible shock of discovering his true identity.
Religion and the terrifying corrupting capabilities of power are explored in this detailed account of the strange life and brutal death of Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon Church.
In 1961, 23-year-old Michael Rockefeller capsized his canoe in New Guinea. He was never heard from again. No one knows what happened to him, but Hoffman has a theory. And it involves cannibalism.
Did we miss any? Tell us in the comments!
For many writers, especially the authors of memoirs, it can be hard to predict where and how readers will make the strongest connection to their stories. For Richard Blanco, whose The Prince of los Cocuyos is one of our favorite memoirs of 2014, the part of his book that seems to be attracting the most attention is especially surprising: It involves a can of Easy Cheese.
Growing up in Miami in a family of Cuban immigrants, little Ricky Blanco accompanied his cantankerous abuela (grandmother) to Winn-Dixie, a rare incursion onto the turf of los americanos. Blanco yearned to fit in with his American schoolmates, so he asked his abuela to buy a can of that uniquely American food, Easy Cheese. ("What? Queso en una lata? she questioned, unable to fathom the idea of cheese in a can. But I could tell from the tone of her voice that she was intrigued.") We won't spoil the story by telling you what happened next, but it's clear that the anecdote is making an impression on readers.
Blanco, the inaugural poet at President Obama's second inauguration in 2012, recently began a tour to promote The Prince of los Cocuyos. During one of his first stops, at Brookline Brooksmith in Massachusetts, a reader presented him with a very special gift—you guessed it: a can of Easy Cheese.
Will the gifts become a trend? No Easy Cheese was evident during Blanco's weekend appearance at the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville, but we have a feeling that Blanco might end up with a lifetime supply of canned cheese before his book tour is over.
To learn more about Blanco and his tender and keenly observed coming-of-age memoir, check out our Q&A with the author.
Is it me, or is 2014 the year of the essay? I've raved in previous posts over The Empathy Exams and Bad Feminist; On Immunity is another essay that moved me, entertained me and made me think. Biss, who teaches at Northwestern, won a Guggenheim Fellowship and used it to support her work on her third book, a combination of mythology, morality, medicine and mortality that is like nothing you've ever read before.
Blending personal experience with social history and myth, Biss takes on the thorny topic of immunization—moving from the story of Achilles, whose dip in the water was perhaps the first documented attempt of a parent to innoculate their child against harm, to modern-day anti-vacciners in a meditation on the concept of immunization and what it means on a personal level as well as a societal one.
Though this is a short book, it's not something to be read quickly. Biss' thoughful writing contains levels of meaning and plenty to ponder on every page.
When my son asks me about his belly button, I describe the near-mythological umbilical cord that once connected us. I point to my belly button and tell him that all of us were once contained within another body on which our lives depended. Even a three-year-old, who is still wholly dependent on me but already accustomed to thinking of himself as independent, finds this perplexing. Speaking from a moment just before the Enlightenment, Queen Elizabeth expressed a paradox that eludes us to this day—our bodies may belong to us, but we ourselves belong to a greater body composed of many bodies. We are, bodily, both independent and dependent.
What are you reading this week?
Today the final National Book Award category longlist was announced. For the authors involved, that means it's time for nervous hand-wringing to commence. For readers, well, it's time to dig into those lists and start reading, dissecting the judges' motives and/or rooting for your favorite . . . which is exactly what we're doing at BookPage! Read on for the behind-the-scenes action.
I’m pulling for young, experimental poet Maureen N. McLane—third er, collection’s the charm, right? The New York University English professor blends lush natural imagery with pointed, contemporary syntax in This Blue. At once playful and profoundly sobering, these poems examine mankind’s history and our tendency to exploit and abuse the beauty of our earth. Now is the perfect time to dive in if you missed this fantastic collection during National Poetry Month.
—Hilli Levin, Editorial Assistant
Looking at the NBA’s nonfiction longlist reminds me of the old “Sesame Street” song: One of these things is not like the others. Roz Chast’s hilarious and moving graphic memoir, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, stands out from a crowd of traditional narrative history and biography. Could Chast emerge as the winner? It seems highly unlikely, but I’m thrilled to see her deeply personal look at the perils of aging among this year’s contenders.
—Lynn Green, Editor
One farm. One family. One hundred years. Jane Smiley is taking on a seriously ambitious literary project with her Last Hundred Years trilogy, so it doesn’t surprise me a bit that the first novel, Some Luck, grabbed a spot on the NBA longlist this year. This installment takes us through the life of the Langdons from 1920 to 1953, and if the next two books are anywhere near as marvelously executed, then don’t be surprised if the critical praise and award nominations continue to flow her way.
—Hilli Levin, Editorial Assistant
It might feel shocking to see John Darnielle, a man most famous for being the lead singer of The Mountain Goats, on the NBA longlist for his first novel, Wolf in White Van. But when you consider the fact that his lyrics might as well be poetry or short stories, it's really not that surprising. Blame it on my love of the underdog, but I'm hoping for a win for this musician-turned-novelist.
I'm also rooting for Molly Antopol and her quietly beautiful collection of short stories, The UnAmericans, because, well, wow. She's under 35 and this is her debut work of fiction. I'm under 35 and I just googled "how to handwash stuff" so I find this immensely impressive.
—Lily McLemore, Assistant Editor
As the fiction editor at BookPage, I'm starting to have a visceral reaction to the descriptor "post-apocalyptic fiction." But Canadian author Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven brings a breath of fresh air to the genre with her fourth novel, a beautiful and deeply felt story that uses its dystopian setting to explore our very human need for shared culture, art and stories. Here's hoping this original and insightful work moves on to the shortlist.
—Trisha Ping, Managing Editor
It’s no surprise to see Jacqueline Woodson’s memoir-in-verse, Brown Girl Dreaming, on this list, and you’ll likely see it on several more award lists before the end of the year. Her accessible and poignant story shares what it was like to grow up in the 1960s and ’70s in a country “caught / between Black and White” and how writing helped her find her voice.
Also, is there any living writer who better captures the hilarity, messiness (sexual, social and emotional) and adventure of being a teenage boy than Andrew Smith? Not likely. Although I thought Grasshopper Jungle was the better of his two books that came out this year, 100 Sideways Miles is another winner—and it’s about time Smith was publicly and widely recognized for his talent.
—Cat Acree, Associate Editor