Sunday, December 14, 2014

My ten favorite books of 2014

Ten books I read in 2014 (not necessarily published this year) and would give a high rating to. I read each of these in a single day--a terrific test for me of if a book is working well.

The Thicket (Lansdale). If you don't read Lansdale, you should at least try one book, and this is a good one to start with. If you like Stephen King, you should definitely read him--not because he's usually a horror writer, but because he has a working-class-guy perspective like King's, only his prose is much better and his characterizations more layered. Landsdale might be the best mainstream American writer working today.

This historical novel, set in Texas, has elements of comedy that merge beautifully with the serious story of an orphaned kid and a rag-tag group of allies helping him find his kidnapped sister. The hog and the dwarf are terrific characters.

The Reapers are the Angels (Alden)  Literary zombie apocalypse novel, and by far the best zombie novel I've read. I usually don't like present tense narrative, and I forgave it that easily here. Lovely writing. Sympathetic main character. Beautifully sad. Usually when literary writers take a trip into genre territory, they don't succeed, but Alden does.

World of Trouble (Winters) The final in The Last Policeman trilogy, in which a giant asteroid is hurtling toward earth, and society is falling apart in anticipation of total annihilation, but one cop wants to do his job until the very end. Blending genres of apocalyptic and noir detective novels, presenting a compelling main character, relying on accurate scientific research, and offering a satisfying conclusion to the trilogy, this novel was my most anticipated novel of the year and easily  makes this list.

The Signature of All Things (Gilbert) A literary narrative of the life of an imaginary 19th Century woman botanist. Not that it influenced my rating much, but I also loved the endpaper sketches of plants and other details of book design.

The Outskirter's Secret (Kirstein) This is one of those science-fiction novels that reads like fantasy, until you start to realize that some of those magic objects are recognizable tech from our own world but sufficiently mysterious to the world's inhabitants to be confused with magic. If that can be considered a subgenre, it's one of my favorites. The hero of these stories is a Steerswoman, a peripatetic researcher/librarian. If she asks you a question, you have to tell her the truth. If you ask her a question, she must answer, sharing all human knowledge as she walks along gathering even more. Except...there are a small group of guys, called wizards, who are hoarding some knowledge and technology for themselves, and the hero is determined to solve the mystery of their knowledge. Set on an alien planet, with fascinating native flora and fauna, much of which is dangerous to humans. The standout book of a solid series.

Shine, Shine, Shine (Netzer) A novel about living life to please others but waking up to become more authentic. Mostly literary or mainstream, it has elements of science fiction. One of those books that I felt was just a step shy of great, and I was rooting for it to be great. Still, a satisfying read for a literary novel, having a strong plot (as too many litfic books do not).

The Unthinkable: Who Survies When Disaster Strikes - and Why (Ripley). Nonfiction. Were I not writing disaster novels myself, I probably never would have stumbled over this riveting book.  Ms. Ripley explains through narrative example and interviews with specialists that people variously--because of hardwiring--react to disasters differently. Some naturally lead and leap into action, and some naturally follow those leaders, and some freeze. No matter what your natural reaction, Ms. Ripley points out, being educated and trained vastly increases your chance of survival. She's an advocate for allowing people more practice than we often can have access to. It's a book you should read if you might ever be in a disaster--which means of course everyone everywhere should read it.

Aimed toward children, but impressed this adult:

Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World's Most Dangerous Weapon (Sheinkin) This non-fiction book, about exactly what the subtitle says it's about, is intended for middle school and younger high school kids, but it's terrific for adults, too. It won seven awards, and it deserved them. Action-packed narratives are thrilling to read. Nazis are working on their own bomb. Norwegian underground members are trying to destroy a German heavy water plant. There are Soviet spies in the Trinity Project, sneaking out messages. A secret training program for a few special bomber crews is underway. I've read several books on the Trinity project, two biographies of Openheimer, seen the TV documentaries on Enola Gay, and yet I was still glued to this. I think I literally bit my nails while reading it--despite knowing how, in real life, it all came out!

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (Andrews) YA novel with a smart, socially inept male narrator and his few friends, including a girl dying of cancer. This novel seemed much more realistic than The Fault in Our Stars in how it talks about cancer's effects on teens. Despite that serious part of the story, it made me laugh aloud several times and seemed an accurate depiction of high school as I remember that torture-fest. A rare YA book for boys I can recommend without hesitation.

The Forgotten Door (Alexander) A middle-grade book from 1965 about a humanoid alien who crash-lands on Earth, gets bonked on the head in the process, and forgets important things, like how to get home. A friendly family adopts him, but everyone else is afraid of this stranger. Depicting fairly dark events for the intended age range, this one pulls no punches about prejudice, fear, and violence toward the different. As both science fiction and an allegory, it still works well today.

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