Favorite Books of 2014

20:20 Wed 08 Apr 2015
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2014 was a good reading year for me. In particular, it included a stretch of reading that brought back to me a joy in reading that had been, if not missing, at least muted.

In 2013 I started to try to read more, but it still felt like an effort until around September 2014. At the end of August I re-read Blindsight, and, contrary to my fear that it might not be as good the second time through, I loved it again. Following that, in September I loved five of the seven books I started: The Interestings, Acceptance, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Orlando, and The Luminaries. I loved the books, and I also simply loved reading in a way that I hadn’t in years.

Part of this was down to the book tracking I’ve been doing. While assigning ratings to books is crude and misleading, it’s also useful to me, and in this instance it made me very conscious that I’d been very happy with the books I’d been reading, and this made me more enthusiastic about the next book(s). Another part of it was due to the two book groups I’m in, both of which help me to read books I might not otherwise come across—more than that, though, I feel as if the book groups have also made me try harder to get recommendations from other people, something that’s always been part of my life but has dwindled a little. Three of the books in that run were for book groups, and three others were recommendations.

So in part, the returned joy in reading is due to measures I’d taken to encourage myself to read: the clinical, slightly obsessive tracking (and the software supports I’ve written for it), and the social, gregarious book groups.

The other part is just luck, the luck of encountering a high number of wonderful books in a short span of time.

Despite the inadequacies of ratings, for me to rate a book at 90[1] it has to have quite an effect on me. I’ll go through the 10 books I rated that highly last year, and then address the rest chronologically.

Blindsight, Peter Watts

I’m still convinced that it should have won the Hugo in 2007. It’s bleak, but highly plausible in its vision for future humanity, and the neuroscience ideas it explores (particularly around identity and free will) are still entirely relevant.

The Interestings, Meg Wolitzer

It has blind spots if you look at it as an attempt at a Great American Novel, but if you accept its focus on middle-class white East Coast Americans who grew up in the 1970s, it’s really good. It concentrates on friendships and how pressures internal and external alter them, touching on money, inequality, entitlement, sexism, depression, and sexual assault along the way. I found it very convincing throughout, with no significant lapses in verisimilitude.

Acceptance, Jeff VanderMeer

The final book of a tremendous series, the Southern Reach trilogy. All three books are great, and hard to characterize precisely in genre terms: weird science fiction horror fantasy? There are certainly elements of SF and horror in them, although you could perhaps argue over “fantasy”. A pervading sense of weirdness and dread was a major accomplishment of the series, along with a somewhat Lovecraftian creeping sense of human insignificance. The entire series seemed to me like a triumph of matching understated style and tone to subject matter.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaiman

This is my favorite work of Gaiman’s since Sandman. He set and maintained the mood excellently, and all the parts of the story just fit together in a snug, self-contained, and pleasing way. It’s a relatively short book, and I suppose a small story, but a very good one.

Orlando, Virginia Woolf

In a manner entirely different to Acceptance, this was another triumph of style and tone. I was surprised by how funny it was, as that had not been my expectation. Woolf infuses it with a zest for life that also feels like a zest for reading and writing even as the text (occasionally) disdains those things. Indubitably deserving of its classic status.

The Luminaries, Eleanor Catton

What came through most strongly from this story of gold-rush New Zealand[2] was a sense of insight into human character; Catton is able to not just delineate her characters admirably but give the sense that she (and you) looked into their souls.

The Dispossessed, Ursula K Le Guin

This was my third time reading The Dispossessed, and my sense is that it got better upon each reading. This story, of a man who is the first to travel from a planet of revolutionary exiles back to their mainly-capitalist homeworld, powerfully communicates both the difficulties of ethical struggle (or ethical life?) and the possibility of a better world.

Excession, Iain M Banks

Another re-read; I’ve been making my way through the Culture novels, and was happy to get to this one, which may be my favorite, dealing with the Culture—and in particular the Culture’s movers and shakers, well-connected Minds—and its conflicted reactions to encountering something clearly more powerful than it can comprehend. It features probably my favorite AI character ever, Grey Area.

Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman

Non-fiction, thus entirely different from the rest of the books on this list. I found this a tough read, but a very valuable one, full of insights about how our brains trick us and encourage us to avoid engaging our powers of reason. I recommend it on the basis that it’s important for everyone to have a better practical understanding of how their brain works.

Life: A User’s Manual, Georges Perec

In terms of how difficult it must have been to write, perhaps the most impressive book of these 10. Perec creates a literary (almost) still, a written painting of the interior of a Parisian apartment block over few minutes in time in the 1970s, going from room to room (but never back) and describing the inhabitants, contents, and histories of those rooms. Highly experimental, a masterpiece of structure and digression.

Those were the stars, but I read a number of other noteworthy books last year.

Mark Z Danielewski’s House of Leaves was excellent, but not as disturbing to me as it had been the first time through—this time, its structure was foregrounded for me to a much greater extent. A very interesting multi-layered text with horror touches that are quite disturbing, with the postmodernist distancing used by the structure of the book making them both less immediate and somehow more unsettling.

Stories of Your Life and Others, Ted Chiang’s short story collection, had some great pieces in it, particularly the final one, “Liking What You See: A Documentary”.

Peter Watts’ short story collection, Beyond the Rift, mostly sticks to Watts’ usual concerns, and its standout story is “The Things”, Watts’ take on retelling/reinterpreting what’s going on in John Carpenter’s The Thing.

Annihilation and Authority are the two earlier books in Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, and my comments about Acceptance apply to them also.

I loved Jonathan Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude, and thought it was a wonderful examination of growing up in New York City in the 1970s, as well as being a fascinating exploration of race relations and gentrification (both very relevant contemporary American issues). I found it utterly convincing—but I found that its core conceit, the fantastical element that makes it other than a “straight” literary tale, was ultimately both distracting and unnecessary.[3]

I like all of the books in Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder series, and A Walk Among the Tombstones was no exception. Scudder is an excellent and convincing character, and if you like American crime fiction I highly recommend reading the series.

Neuromancer remains a classic, both of cyberpunk and science fiction, but it’s in an odd position now, where its vision of the future is clearly not one that will happen, but the once-future that is our present shows strong signs of having been influenced by Neuromancer.

Alexander Berkman’s The ABC of Anarchism is a good introduction to anarchist concepts, and remains remarkably relevant for a book written in 1929.

Echopraxia, the sequel to Blindsight, is strong and a good read, but not on the same level as its predecessor; I found most of the first half of it overly confusing.

Night Soldiers, the first novel in Alan Furst’s loose series about espionage in Europe in the period around the Second World War, was depressing but very well done. The story of a small-town teenager who is recruited by Russian intelligence and his struggles to survive that existence, it doesn’t pull any punches about what that would have been like.

William Gibson’s most recent novel, The Peripheral, was a good read throughout, with interesting plotting, but it has a core time-travel conceit that I could never quite accept, and that took away from its otherwise-compelling near-future settings.

I found Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl highly enjoyable despite its bleakness, its depressing view of gender relations, and its implausible ending. Flynn brought it off very well, and in particular the voices of the protagonists were excellently realized.

Use of Weapons was another Culture novel re-read, and another enjoyable one. While it didn’t reach the heights of Excession, it was structured well, and had what I consider a good example of a Banks sting-in-the-tail. Really, of course, you should just read all the Culture novels.

Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams was a fun, whimsical examination of Einstein’s ideas about possible models for time; it felt somewhat like a pop physics book crossed with an Italo Calvino novel.

Karen Joy Fowler’s Sarah Canary was excellent but annoying. Specifically, I found the coyness about the nature of the eponymous character (and, by authorial design, the genre of the book) irritating, reaching a low point when the author contrives to have a potentially revelatory event occur when all of the viewpoint characters are absent. Given that the writing was excellent apart from that, and that as an exploration of the 1800s Western United States it had a series of interesting viewpoints, the unwillingness to be open about Sarah Canary was unnecessary.

Ancillary Sword was a good sequel to Ancillary Justice, even though it suffered slightly from its book-two-of-three status, and I’m looking forward to the next one.

I often react badly to fatalism in fiction, but Gabriel García Márquez seems to be able to get away with it. Chronicle of a Death Foretold is suffused with it, as the title suggests, but the writing is too good and the atmosphere too convincing for me to hold this against the text.

Some statistics about my 2014 reading:

58 books with an average of 387 pages per book, an average rating of 78, taking an average of 6 days to read.

54 ebooks, 4 physical books.

55 fiction, 3 non-fiction.

28 books I would recommend.

17 books from book groups (7 SF reading group, 9 Books & Brews, 1 other).

6 books that I had previously read.

In 2014 I made myself write a short comment on each book I read as I finished it, something I wish I’d started doing years ago, so this list of all the books I read last year in chronological order now includes those comments. You can also find this list formatted more nicely elsewhere.

Ratings are based on how much I enjoyed the book at the time.

  1. The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, Catherynne M Valente.

    2014-01-04. 65%

    I expected to like this a little more than I did; it had excellent sections, but overall the authorial voice and the style didn’t quite work for me.

  2. House of Leaves, Mark Z Danielewski.

    2014-01-25. 80%

    An excellent metafictional work, but on second reading it was much less disturbing than the first time around, and the ways in which it called attention to its own fictionality much more obvious to me, and that seemed to undermine rather than to improve the experience of reading it.

  3. Throne of the Crescent Moon, Saladin Ahmed.

    2014-03-05. 65%

    I wanted to like this more, but the plot and setting seemed insufficiently developed, and it often felt as if it were following genre expectations too closely, and relying too much upon the fact that its setting was different from that of typical fantasy novels.

  4. The Instructions, Adam Levin.

    2014-03-20. 75%

    This started out excellently, and has amazing pieces of writing in it, but lost its way later on, and I didn’t like the ending much.

  5. The Fell Sword, Miles Cameron.

    2014-03-23. 75%

    Still an interesting world, but not as good as the first one, and ended up feeling quite like an interim book.

  6. Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie.

    2014-03-24. 75%

    Excellent large-scale science fiction ideas, but the last quarter of the book felt far less convincing and compelling than the rest.

  7. Stories of Your Life and Others, Ted Chiang.

    2014-03-28. 80%

    Uneven but mostly excellent; I think “Liking What You See: A Documentary” was the stand-out story for me.

  8. The Green Ripper, John D Macdonald.

    2014-03-28. 60%

    I’ll grant that it was hard-boiled, but also implausible, with what really seemed like a lot of wish-fulfillment thrown in, as well as some rather dubious political setup to justify the main plot.

  9. Beyond the Rift, Peter Watts.

    2014-03-30. 80%

    Uneven, but the better stories are fantastic—including “The Things”, which is superb.

  10. A Crucible of Souls, Mitchell Hogan.

    2014-04-03. 65%

    This didn’t do enough to elevate itself above run-of-the-mill fantasy about a protagonist with a mysterious past that may be the key to a deadly new conflict.

  11. The Emperor’s Blades, Brian Staveley.

    2014-04-07. 75%

    Competent fantasy opener that I enjoyed, but I’m not sure I’ll read further in the series.

  12. The Proof House, K J Parker.

    2014-04-10. 75%

    Reasonable finish to the trilogy, but overall this was not as strong as most of Parker’s work.

  13. The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson.

    2014-04-11. 70%

    Strong writing that effectively places the reader in the distorted mental states of the protagonists; however, the narrative seems much less plausible now than it might have when it was written, and that implausibility takes away from the overall effect significantly.

  14. Annihilation, Jeff VanderMeer.

    2014-04-14. 85%

    Excellent disturbing and atmospheric opening to the trilogy.

  15. Anansi Boys, Neil Gaiman.

    2014-04-16. 70%

    Fun, but somehow a little cutesy, and in this case Gaiman’s tone and style weren’t enough to make it work.

  16. The Fortress of Solitude, Jonathan Lethem.

    2014-04-29. 85%

    I was entirely pulled in by this exploration of gentrification, race, and coming of age in New York, but the fantastical element that it is built around seemed ultimately unnecessary and distracting.

  17. Interpreter of Maladies, Jhumpa Lahiri.

    2014-04-30. 75%

    Some of these stories were excellent, such as “Mrs. Sen’s” and “This Blessed House”, but overall I found them very uneven.

  18. The Crimson Campaign, Brian McClellan.

    2014-05-21. 65%

    A disappointing sequel that lacked the energy and novelty of the first book.

  19. Authority, Jeff VanderMeer.

    2014-06-11. 80%

    Not as strong as the first book in the trilogy, but still atmospheric, suffused with a decaying dread.

  20. A Walk Among the Tombstones, Lawrence Block.

    2014-06-13. 80%

    Well-paced, well-written, and enjoyable, as most of the Matt Scudder books are.

  21. Post Office, Charles Bukowski.

    2014-06-28. 70%

    The first quarter was excellent, but the rest, while communicating very effectively the feel of the protagonist’s situation, was not a lot of fun to read.

  22. Neuromancer, William Gibson.

    2014-07-02. 85%

    Still highly enjoyable, but the experience of reading this now that the future has overtaken it reminded me of reading Gibson’s “The Gernsback Continuum”.

  23. Red Harvest, Dashiell Hammett.

    2014-07-26. 60%

    I was very surprised to not enjoy this all that much; the tone and attitude of it seemed very different from other Hammett I’ve read, and it seemed cartoonish and haphazard.

  24. The Shadow Throne, Django Wexler.

    2014-08-11. 65%

    Some interesting ideas, but ultimately a disappointing sequel.

  25. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, N K Jemisin.

    2014-08-29. 75%

    Some great ideas, but ultimately not enough depth or complexity—and it should have been called The Several Kingdoms.

  26. Blindsight, Peter Watts.

    2014-08-31. 90%

    Stood up very well on a second reading—it’s still a brilliant first contact novel combined with a skeptical look at consciousness.

  27. The ABC of Anarchism, Alexander Berkman.

    2014-09-09. 80%

    Brief but strong overview, still relevant over 80 years later.

  28. The Interestings, Meg Wolitzer.

    2014-09-12. 90%

    Narrow in its focus, but excellent at describing contemporary East Coast middle class American life, with masterful characterization.

  29. Echopraxia, Peter Watts.

    2014-09-13. 80%

    Compelling but initially confusing; highly interesting but doesn’t quite live up to its predecessor.

  30. Acceptance, Jeff VanderMeer.

    2014-09-17. 90%

    Excellent finish to a disturbingly atmospheric trilogy of cosmic insignificance and alien strangeness.

  31. The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaiman.

    2014-09-20. 90%

    Sustains its mood superbly throughout.

  32. Orlando, Virginia Woolf.

    2014-09-25. 90%

    Wonderful tone, far funnier than I expected.

  33. The Luminaries, Eleanor Catton.

    2014-10-05. 90%

    Amazing writing, amazing characterization.

  34. The Causal Angel, Hannu Rajaniemi.

    2014-10-15. 75%

    Fun, interesting, not quite convincing enough.

  35. The Dispossessed, Ursula K Le Guin.

    2014-10-18. 90%

    A brilliant, insightful examination of other modes of cultural/political organization. I think I liked it third time through even more than the first two times.

  36. Night Soldiers, Alan Furst.

    2014-10-22. 85%

    Excellent rendering of pre- and post-WWII spying and treachery in Europe.

  37. Writing the Novel, Lawrence Block.

    2014-11-08. 65%

    Practical and grounded, but not as inspiring as I’d hoped.

  38. Black Wine, Candas Jane Dorsey.

    2014-11-14. 75%

    Some fascinating ideas on power, family, sex, and history, but it didn’t fully come together for me; I think I didn’t quite get it.

  39. The Peripheral, William Gibson.

    2014-11-15. 80%

    Great speculative near-future SF, excellent worldbuilding detail and dialogue, but I had trouble accepting the primary conceit throughout.

  40. The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman.

    2014-11-19. 75%

    Atmospheric and consistent, but the lack of depth is more noticeable in this than in The Ocean at the End of the Lane.

  41. Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn.

    2014-11-20. 85%

    A disturbing page-turner with some excellent characterization and insight, though it ultimately felt slightly hollow.

  42. Use of Weapons, Iain M Banks.

    2014-11-21. 85%

    I enjoyed this more the second time around. Clever structure, plenty of interesting ideas, and a compelling pair of protagonists.

  43. We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson.

    2014-11-22. 75%

    Absorbing rendering of the mindset of a very odd family; the pervading strangeness of the narrator’s mindset comes through very strongly. Oddly archaic, seeming like it was written 50 years or more before its 1962 publication.

  44. Einstein’s Dreams, Alan Lightman.

    2014-11-24. 80%

    Whimsical and enjoyable Calvino-esque vignettes on what the world might be like given different models of time.

  45. Midnight Robber, Nalo Hopkinson.

    2014-11-29. 65%

    Never came together, didn’t deliver on the promise it had, and a terrible ending.

  46. Excession, Iain M Banks.

    2014-12-02. 90%

    This may be my favorite of the Culture novels. The ideas are excellent, and the Minds fascinating—is Grey Area one of the best AI characters in SF?

  47. Sarah Canary, Karen Joy Fowler.

    2014-12-04. 80%

    Excellently written, and a compelling tour of the American West from unusual points of view; the genre-bending (and thus the plot, such as it was) was in the end a little too oblique for my taste.

  48. Ancillary Sword, Ann Leckie.

    2014-12-07. 80%

    Not as good as the start of Ancillary Justice, but more even throughout and significantly better than the last part of the first book. Good, interesting large-scale SF.

  49. The Liminal People, Ayize Jama-Everett.

    2014-12-09. 75%

    Noir-ish/cyberpunkish gritty superpowers story with some good writing and strong characters, but the start was more promising than the rest, and I thought it drifted too much towards the fantastical.

  50. Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman.

    2014-12-22. 90%

    Excellent investigation of the competing systems we use in our attempts to think. I’m tempted to regard this as mandatory reading for everyone.

  51. Chronicle of a Death Foretold, Gabriel García Márquez.

    2014-12-22. 85%

    Brief but very affecting; lyrical, moving and fluid prose suffused with tragedy.

  52. Child of God, Cormac McCarthy.

    2014-12-24. 75%

    Excellent writing, but for me this did not have the impact or weight of his later works.

  53. The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins.

    2014-12-24. 75%

    Enjoyable, but alternated between excellent writing and writing that seemed insistent on avowing its status as a book aimed at a young-adult audience.

  54. Catching Fire, Suzanne Collins.

    2014-12-25. 75%

    The writing was more even than, but didn’t reach the same heights as, the first one, but I thought the pacing was better.

  55. Mockingjay, Suzanne Collins.

    2014-12-26. 70%

    Strong in its stark examination of the costs and effects of war and suffering, but marred by the evident warping of the war/narrative to accommodate relationship/character development.

  56. Fool’s Assassin, Robin Hobb.

    2014-12-28. 75%

    Some good writing and characterization, but the plot relies on too many contrived coincidences.

  57. Life: A User’s Manual, Georges Perec.

    2014-12-31. 90%

    A masterpiece. A celebration of Paris, of puzzles, of objects and ephemera and art and lists, and, above all, of digressions and details.

  58. By Night in Chile, Roberto Bolaño.

    2014-12-31. 75%

    Some excellent writing, but ultimately the character of the narrator wasn’t enough to sustain it.

[1] The highest rating I’ve been willing to give out; thus far my ratings, despite ostensibly being a percentage, go from 40 to 90. In part 90 is the highest I’ll go because it seems pointless to distinguish further once a book reaches superlative status; at the same time, “100%” would indicate perfection, which I guess I believe is impossible.

[2] In my ignorance, prior to reading The Luminaries I had not been aware that there had been a gold rush period in New Zealand.

[3] It seems an odd position for me to essentially be arguing that the story would be better with the fantastical element removed, but there you go.

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