189110-189110-the-best-books-of-2014-fiction

The Best Books of 2014: Fiction

From postmodern latticework narratives to Booker prize winning epics, 2014 offers numerous fictional tales worthy of adding to your bookshelf.

Ask me to list the books I loved best in 2014 and watch me dither. For a beloved book is unto itself, its very singularity what makes it so memorably wonderful to begin with. Having to rank the books I hold dear, in 2014 or at any other time, is inevitably a Sophie’s Choice. Better to ask me the books I hated, with their bewildering word choices, poorly constructed sentences, and unlikely storylines.

What makes a great book, anyway, meriting it a spot on a Best-Of list? Is it a winning character? An engrossing plot? Exquisite prose? A unique concatenation of place and space landing a particular book in your hands precisely when you most require it? For some books magically appear this way, answering your call. These books become lifelong companions, read and reread, their bindings softening until the pages sigh, parting company from their fellows. More’s the pity if the book itself has attained talismanic status, rendering it irreplaceable. Slipping the loose pages back into place, you stack the whole business like a ream of printer paper.

The best books of 2014 do all of the above while diverting, edifying and consoling a populace set reeling by world events. There were pandemics, a missing airline, war, and ongoing violence in the Middle East. And we lost many treasured writers in 2014, such as Gabriel García Márquez, Maya Angelou, Kent Haruf, Mark Strand, Maxine Kumin, Peter Mathiessen and P. D. James.

Throughout, we read. For we are readers, and reading is how we make sense of an increasingly senseless world. When asked to share their favorite books of 2014, PopMatters writers responded with alacrity. The range of their responses is heartening, indicative of literature’s thriving health. Be it via the glow of an electronic device or from the printed page, people are reading. Here then, in alphabetical order by title, are the books we read and loved thus far that were published in 2014 (first editions, reprints and translations included). img-816 Diane Leach

 

Book: The Answer to Everything

Author: Elyse Friedman

Publisher: HarperCollins

Publication date: 2014-08

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The Answer to Everything
Elyse Friedman

In today’s ongoing global financial uncertainty, it’s easy to be swayed by those promising easy answers to tough situations. This is where Canadian author Elyse Friedman comes in with her latest novel, The Answer to Everything. A hilarious yet moving send up of a cult gone wrong (though its members wouldn’t call it a cult), this book is a quick, snappy read. However, The Answer to Everything is more than just a deep meditation on the human condition; it’s also a richly pleasurable read. The novel moves at a breakneck pace, and the chapters are short and digestible. Friedman’s writing has an easy fluidity that is brisk and refreshing. All in all, The Answer to Everything is an outstanding novel, one that reveals real emotion and poignancy in the lives of its all too believable and flawed characters. Friedman has penned a marvelous tome about the truth that lies in every one of us, and the falsehoods we’re willing to believe to mitigate just how painful facing reality on an everyday basis can really be. img-816 Zachary Houle

 

Book: The Beggar and the Hare

Author: Thomas Kyro

Publisher: Marble Arch

Publication date: 2014-08

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The Beggar and the Hare
Thomas Kyro

The best tales are always deceptively simple. They seem to be about one thing when, really, they’re about another entirely. A few characters, some simple props. One, two, three seemingly inconsequential events. Maybe four at a push. Like the finest vacuum cleaners, they suck you in before you know it. They have you churning and spinning, both frightened and excited at the same time. You may think you know where you are going. In truth, you don’t. And neither do you, in all honesty, care. The Beggar and the Hare is one such novel. It’s a fable, but unlike Aesop, it doesn’t preach. This is simple story about Vatanescu, a working class Romanian construction worker, who wants, according to the publisher, “a future for himself and a pair of footballs for his son.” That’s all there is to it. At least, on the surface. With Vatanescu as its central character, The Beggar and the Hare succeeds admirably. Ambitious, caring, a little naïve, a touch melancholy, he engages you in the way he always puts his son and his sons wishes and wants right before his own. img-816 Jonathan Muirhead

 

Book: The Blazing World

Author: Siri Hustvedt

Publisher: Simon and Schuster

Publication date: 2014-03

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The Blazing World
Siri Hustvedt

After a stream of too many fun, feel-good memoirs based on nothing much in particular, too many novels with little plot and even thinner characters, The Blazing World is a welcome jolt. This book places demands on the reader, forcing you think in the best possible way. Much of Hustvedt’s fiction is about art and artists: 2003’s What I Loved enfolds art, artists, family life and loss into a tour de force. Even 2008’s The Sorrows of an American, far more about the death of Hustvedt’s father, philosophy professor Lloyd Hustvedt, features an artist, the deranged Jeffrey Lane. And once more in The Blazing World, we are immersed in the art world. This novel was longlisted for the 2014 the Booker Prize, and deservedly so. It is unquestionably one of the year’s finest novels, a serious examination of what female artists continue to endure. img-816 Diane Leach

 

Book: The Book of Strange New Things

Author: Michel Faber

Publisher: Hogarth-Random House

Publication date: 2014-10

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The Book of Strange New Things
Michel Faber

This curiously resonant novel about a gentle Christian missionary on a distant planet takes its title from what the passive, curious aliens there call the Bible. Peter, the missionary, is a former junkie who has left his wife behind on an Earth that’s on the verge of environmental collapse. While Peter tries to discern the true meaning for why he and his fellow humans are so far from home and serves his new alien flock as best he can (he can barely look at their to-him hideous features, and is forever mystified by their opaque customs), his wife’s missives from home take on ever-more panicked tones of abandonment and fury. Unlike most mainstream novelists who have taken on science-fiction themes of late, Faber treats the genre aspects of his world with utter seriousness. More importantly, The Book of Strange New Things‘ precise, potent explorations of Peter’s soulful searchings for meaning are buttressed by both a rich emotional understanding and a theological precision. img-816 Chris Barsanti

 

Book: Bombay Stories

Author: Saadat Hasan Manto

Publisher: Vintage International

Publication date: 2014-03

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Bombay Stories
Saadat Hasan Manto

One of the great risks in reviewing a translated work is the tendency to believe that one is reading the author in his or her original language. I forget too often how much is lost in translation and if what I’m reading is the author’s voice or the translator’s (or both). This, however, is not an issue with Bombay Stories, the translated collection of Urdu short stories by the late Saadat Hasan Manto. Both translators, Matt Reeck and Aftab Ahmad, are renowned for their knowledge of Hindi and Urdu, respectively. The result is a mesmerizing collection of writing from a South Asian writer, dead for almost 60 years, whose works have never really reached a wide audience – until now. Bombay Stories consists of 14 of Manto’s works. I can only imagine that the process of choosing which stories to include was daunting, because Manto was one of the most prolific writers of his generation. Before his premature death in 1955 at the age of 42, he had penned hundreds of stories in Urdu, as well as essays, screenplays and radio dramas. Bombay Stories is an incredible book and a compelling argument to Saadat Hasan Manto’s credibility as a giant in Indian/Pakistani literature. While his own life was consumed by depression and ended through slow, alcoholic suicide, he was an iconoclast and light years ahead of his time. img-816 Shyam K. Sriram

The Bone Clocks to Elizabeth is Missing

 

Book: The Bone Clocks

Author: David Mitchell

Publisher: Random House

Publication date: 2014-09

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The Bone Clocks
David Mitchell

David Mitchell’s newest multilayered epic begins with a teenaged runaway, who leaves Gravesend on the Thames estuary. She soon crosses paths with this cosmic conspiracy one memorable “time-slip” day in 1984. Her predicament will bring her into the company of Dr. Marinus, who featured in Mitchell’s previous novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet (2010). As in episodes of Japanese combat, secret societies, natural wonders, dystopian breakdown, harried idealists, and teenaged desire in earlier novels, so here Mitchell merges set-scenes of imaginative showdowns with intellectual reflection, which will reward the keen and alert reader. Some exposition may seem slow in The Bone Clocks, but varied pace and tone build up suspense gradually. While arguably a few sections might have been trimmed, the experience Mitchell creates for the reader, to revel in the immediacy of unexpected events, benefits from leisure. These characters may return to surprise us. img-817 John Murphy

 

Book: The Boy Who Drew Monsters

Author: Keith Donohue

Publisher: Picador

Publication date: 2014-10

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The Boy Who Drew Monsters
Keith Donohue

Keith Donohue’s latest, fantastic novel, The Boy Who Drew Monsters, centers on a ten-year-old boy named Jack Peter. He was diagnosed as a young child with Asperger’s syndrome, making him a high-functioning autistic, but he hasn’t been the same since he nearly drowned when he was seven. Since that event, he has never set a foot outside – unless, of course, he has to go to the doctor’s office, and then it is an ordeal for his parents, Tim and Holly, to get him out of the house. His father home schools him while his mother works. The Boy Who Drew Monsters is dazzlingly electrifying, full of portending dread, and genuine creepy scares. Never have I have been so unnerved by a novel, at least in some time, and as a literary horror novel, this succeeds on just about every level. True, if you’re paying really close attention, the end of the book isn’t so much as a surprise, but that can be only viewed in retrospect. The novel kept me guessing right through its final pages – I even wondered if this would take a very The Sixth Sense turn, the oldest trick in the book, and have everyone be ghosts. (Thankfully, no.) By withholding key pieces of information, The Boy Who Drew Monsters plays with the mind, creating an unforgettable literary experience. img-817 Zachary Houle

 

Book: Collected Poems

Author: Mark Strand

Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf

Publication Date: 2014-10

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Collected Poems
Mark Strand

Within a course of a month, the gravity of Mark Strand’s Collected Poems changed completely. On 29 November 2014, Strand passed away from a rare cancerous tumor called a liposarcoma. Were Strand to not have passed, Collected Poems would still be a lofty, life-summing piece of work; at 512 pages, the anthology encompasses numerous poetry volumes, beginning with his powerful debut Sleeping With One Eye Open. Now that Strand has passed, however, a eulogistic but not funereal air lingers throughout these pages. In a way, such a mood is inevitable with Strand’s poetry, which frequently talks about or directly addresses death. Throughout these Collected Poems, one can follow Strand’s voice as it undergoes several stylistic variations, spanning short, witty poems to form-eschewing prose poetry, as in the case of his 2012 volume, Almost Invisible. But no matter how many times the form through which Strand speaks may change, his voice remains insightful and moving. To use his own words, from the poem “The Remains”, “Time tells me what I am. I change and I am the same.” It’s easy to read Collected Poems in a somber mood because of Strand’s passing, but by the end, one will feel comforted by Strand’s understanding of life and death. “Not every man knows what he shall sing at the end,” he says at the beginning of the poem “The End”. If that’s true, and I’d like to think it is, he’s a lucky man, because Collected Poems is as masterful a swan song as any writer could ask for. img-817 Brice Ezell

 

Book: Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

Author: Haruki Murakami

Publisher: Knopf

Publication date: 2014-08

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Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage
Haruki Murakami

You’re a young college student home for the holidays. You seek out your dearest, oldest circle of friends, only to be told they never want to see or hear from you again. What do you do? If you’re a protagonist in a Haruki Murakami novel, you suffer silently, grow up, and then, years later, you hunt them down one by one to find out why. Murakami’s latest novel is a superb and engaging psychological mystery that explores themes of friendship, loyalty, memory, and the loneliness of growing up. It’s a predictably delightful read that is as unpredictable in its plot twists as it is inscrutable, at times, in its moral messaging. A riveting mystery from the Japanese master whose poignant themes and pristine prose remain as powerful, moving, and evocative as ever. img-817 Hans Rollman

 

Book: Dept. of Speculation

Author: Jenny Offill

Publisher: Knopf

Publication date: 2014-01

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Dept. of Speculation
Jenny Offill

It took Jenny Offill nearly 15 years to finish her follow-up to 1999’s Last Things. This lengthy time span, with all of its insecurity, serves as the backdrop for Dept. of Speculation, a novel about a writer struggling with the tensions between being a wife, mother, and artist in the years following the publication of her first novel. After a family crisis threatens the existence of her family, the narrator’s already tenuous sense of self begins to unravel. The novel is written in fragments, one-to-two sentence anecdotes, existential reflections, quotations, and bits of wisdom. These relatable, funny, often dark observations feel like a collection of the best lines from a longer novel. Offill’s keen eye for the small details that can make modern life feel absurd are unique and universal at the same time. We can all relate to “the wife” as she begins to call herself when times get tough, even as we suspect she might be a little crazy. Isn’t this how most of us feel about ourselves? img-817 Brady Nash

 

Book: Elizabeth is Missing

Author: Emma Healey

Publisher: HarperCollins

Publication date: 2014-06

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Elizabeth is Missing
Emma Healey

Emma Healey’s debut novel is a beautifully written book that touches on so many of the challenges that come with aging. The novel is narrated by Maud, an octogenarian with dementia. In current time, Maud is on a mission to find her friend Elizabeth, but no one pays attention to her oft repeated mantra “Elizabeth is missing” — not her daughter or her caretaker or the police. Maud’s dementia makes her an unreliable narrator, and she frequently has trouble with language. She’ll say things like, “It’s the wrong name, I know it’s the wrong name, but I can’t think of the right one” or “I keep saying the word ‘trowel’ in my head; I have a feeling it will be important later.” And this is where the magic of the story comes in. Elizabeth is Missing makes profound, eloquent, sometimes humorous but often sad statements, about memory, family, and voice. Healey manages to capture the thought process of an elderly woman who is suffering from dementia perfectly. Most likely many will see a parent, spouse, grandparent, great-grandparent, or perhaps even themselves in Maud. img-817 Catherine Ramsdell

Falling Out of Time to The Hundred Year House

 

Book: Falling Out of Time

Author: David Grossman

Publisher: Knopf

Publication date: 2014-03

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Falling Out of Time
David Grossman

David Grossman’s Falling Out of Time is a work of heartbreaking genius. Initially it’s affecting on an artistic level, because his talent and way with words are rather remarkable and secondly, after you’ve done some research on him, it’s heartbreaking because you realize that the book was written as an elegy to his son Uri, who was killed by a missile in Lebanon in 2006. The last words in the book make mention of the years it took him to write it, as if suggesting that there is some hope at the end of the road, or perhaps making an empty promise to parents who might one day find themselves in his painful situation. Grossman’s word experiments in Falling Out of Time represent the suddenness of death, and also, in a way, the hope that we’ll encounter similar moments in the future. img-818 Jose Solis

 

Book: Flings

Author: Justin Taylor

Publisher: Harper

Publication date: 2014-08

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Flings
Justin Taylor

There’s a story in Justin Taylor’s new collection, Flings, that blew me away. It’s about two young people engaged to be married. They’re a bit drunk, and they decide to play a truth-telling game. There’s a hint that the game will go horribly awry, and that the two people will end up irrevocably hurting each other—an update of the George-and-Martha story from the world of Edward Albee. Flings is full of this kind of wisdom. There is a Buddhist belief: You never know what will happen next. The present moment has infinite possibilities. Taylor knows this to be true. He watches from Olympian heights, with amused detachment, as his characters surprise themselves and one another. Taylor’s stories require effort, but they reward you with genuine information and artistry. A wealth of disturbing knowledge awaits you here. img-818 Dan Barrett

 

Book: The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil

Author: Stephen Collins

Publisher: Picador

Publication date: 2014-10

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The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil
Stephen Collins

Stephen Collins’ The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil has a title so irresistible that it’s a surprise to see that he actually pulls off the addition of a great book to go along with it. In his first novel Collins, who won the prestigious Observer/Cape/Comica Graphic short story prize in 2010 for his comics work, has crafted a hauntingly beautiful parable built on a deceptively simple plot. The book’s entire plot is essentially in its title. Set in the island of Here, it tells the story of Dave, a man with a life so typical, we can pretty much say he rinses and repeats his routine every single day. Through a series of gorgeously realized black and white panels, Collins shows us how Dave’s facial hair begins to grow bigger and bigger until it becomes completely out of control, and the more he tries to cut it, the more violent and unexpected is its return. For all the unattractiveness of Dave’s beard, the true story being told is one of irrational fear, of xenophobia, which has resonated throughout the ages. Collins’ prose is simple, the story is told using comic book-like speeches and pithy narration that sometimes achieves true beauty, “…perhaps the most disturbing and remarkable story you’ve ever heard. It is the story of a man whose face has become in just the past two days a portal to hell”. img-818 Jose Solis

 

Book: The Girl in the Road

Author: Monica Byrne

Publisher: Crown

Publication date: 2014-05

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The Girl in the Road
Monica Byrne

The Girl in the Road is an extraordinary debut novel that blends genres into a rich, sensuous broth shot through with as much violence as empathy. Which is not to say the novel is filled with bloodshed, although blood certainly is shed and certain moments will turn the stomachs of the sensitive, but rather that the novel’s emotional scope spans the speculative futures of African and Indian peoples through a lens that is as bound to be poetic as it is to be honest and unflinching, especially when it comes to the cultural collateral damage inflicted on women in those regions. That the writing is feminist and therefore unavoidably angry does not narrow the focus of a book filled with wonder at the possibilities of desire, gender and belief. In its refusal of genres and boundaries, its celebration of ancient heritage and a riotous profusion of languages, religions, smells and tastes, and above all in its heartfelt, humorous appraisal of the shocking beauty of life, all scars and suffering included, The Girl in the Road is profoundly generous and humane writing; wise without posturing. img-818 Stefan Braidwood

 

Book: How to Build a Girl

Author: Caitlin Moran

Publisher: Harper

Publication date: 2014-09

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How to Build a Girl
Caitlin Moran

How to Build a Girl is the fictional, first-person account of young teenage Johanna Morrigan. Her family is poor, on welfare, two parents and five children crammed into inadequate public housing in the UK. Her unemployed and partially disabled father harbours dreams of making it as a rock star, but his sun has clearly set and he spends more of his time drowning dreams in drink than actually playing. Her harried mother tries to keep the household together, but is mostly occupied with newborn twins. Growing up with hippie parents, it seems, results in a far-from-normal childhood. Not only is Johanna deliciously funny and unrelentingly honest (Johanna’s inner dialogues, while frequently hilarious, also ring deeply and sincerely true), but also her heart is in the right place, too. With How to Build a Girl, Moran has taken it upon herself to write not just a best-selling book but a desperately needed guide for young people seeking advice and role models in a complicated, confusing and rapidly changing world. img-818 Hans Rollman

 

Book: The Hundred Year House

Author: Rebecca Makkai

Publisher: Viking

Publication date: 2014-07

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The Hundred Year House
Rebecca Makkai

The Hundred Year House is a mystery novel in the purest sense, in that it’s not about what will happen, but what has happened, and why. When you read it the second time, mystery solved, the book becomes something else, but equally excellent. The story concerns Zee and her husband, Doug, who move into the former carriage house on her mother’s estate in Illinois. It’s 1999. The estate, Laurelfield, was formerly an artists’ colony that housed various writers and artists, among them the deceased poet Edwin Parfitt, about whom Doug is writing a book. Laurelfield, which will be 100 years old on New Year’s Day, is said to be haunted by the ghost of Zee’s great-grandmother, Violet Devohr, who killed herself somewhere in the house. Zee has always been fascinated by the haunting. While teaching a course on ghosts in British and American literature, she muses, “We aren’t haunted by the dead, but by the impossible reach of history. By how unknowable these others are to us, how unfathomable we’d be to them.” By the time you get to the end of The Hundred Year House, you can play the events of the novel backwards in your head, as if you were rewinding a video of a glass breaking: here at the end, you see all the pieces scattered on the floor, and now you see them bestirred and lifted as if by an invisible wind, and now they come neatly, impossibly, but deeply satisfyingly, together. img-818 Jennifer Vega

In Times of Fading Light to Melancholy II

 

Book: In Times of Fading Light

Author: Eugen Ruge

Publisher: Graywolf Press

Publication date: 2014-10

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In Times of Fading Light
Eugen Ruge

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the dismantling of the Berlin Wall. At this point, it has been gone nearly as long as it ever existed, a mere 28 years between 1961 and 1989. However, the conditions for its construction were years in the making, and the fact of its absence still to this day hasn’t exactly vanquished its presence. As if to address that outsized presence, In Times of Fading Light encompasses not just the lifespan of the Wall, but also the years before and after. This immersive, elegantly written (and translated) debut novel tells the story of multiple generations of the Umnitzer family from 1952 to 2001, from an era when neither half of Germany was truly in control of its own destiny, to the readjustment afterward and the lingering ripples of the German Democratic Republic’s demise. Ruge’s diverse background includes contributing to state-made documentaries in the GDR before he left for West Germany in 1988 to write for theater and television, and it is easy to see how his experience in those fields informs his sense of storytelling, which can both give endearing flair to the otherwise mundane, and temper what could easily become melodrama with stoic realism. img-819 Ian King

 

Book: The Last Illusion

Author: Porochista Khakpour

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Publication date: 2014-05

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The Last Illusion
Porochista Khakpour

The Last Illusion is a fabulist novel, both haunting and comic, that takes the Persian medieval epic The Shahnameh as its starting point. In the novel, Zal is born fair-skinned and blond in Iran. His mentally unstable mother calls him White Demon and confines him to a bird cage along with her other pet birds, feeding him insects and letting him sleep on straw. He communicates with the birds by squawking. After ten years, an estranged older sibling intervenes. A white American behavioral analyst adopts Zal and moves him to New York City. As a feral child, Zal has trouble growing into a human adult in pre-9/11 New York City. He eats candied insects and dreams in bird. He is thrilled to meet illusionist Bran Silber, who seems to share his fascination with flying. However, chaos disrupts Zal’s isolated existence when he gets together with eccentric photographer Asiya McDonald and falls in love with her gigantic sister Willa. Meanwhile, Silber is planning his last illusion: making the World Trade Center disappear. img-819 Anita Felicelli

 

Book: Lucky Us

Author: Amy Bloom

Publisher: Random House

Publication date: 2014-07

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Lucky Us
Amy Bloom

You’ll see a great deal of play-acting in Amy Bloom’s new book, Lucky Us, her third novel. Eva, the protagonist, has a mother whose partner enjoys a double life. When this partner’s actual wife dies, Eva’s mother decides to “see what’s in it for us.” (Giving and taking are also prominent among Bloom’s literary interests.) When Eva’s mother grows bored with her partner, she disappears. She leaves Eva to be raised by a father whose intentions aren’t always pure. Here, Bloom continues to write about what it’s like to make your way outside of the mainstream. Without preaching, she gives hope to many readers. As a writer and as a human being, she’s a force for the good. img-819 Dan Barrett

 

Book: The Luminaries

Author: Eleanor Catton

Publisher: Back Bay

Publication date: 2014-10

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The Luminaries
Eleanor Catton

“I think the question you out to be asking, my dear, is not how much; it is who, and why,” says one character 230 pages into Eleanor Catton’s enormous 800-plus page novel, The Luminaries. This is a very apropos quote. The novel, really an epic, is part Victorian chamber mystery, part courtroom drama, and much, much more. Catton has made history with this book: she was the youngest winner, at the age of 28, of the Man Booker Prize, and The Luminaries made history for being the longest work to ever win the prize in its some 45 year history. If that wasn’t enough Catton, who was born in Canada but raised in New Zealand, has won Canada’s Governor’s General Literary Award for fiction with the work. Indeed, The Luminaries is a startling piece of writing from such a young writer. Catton has clearly done her research into the setting, the New Zealand gold fields of the 1860s, and writes with such a precise and powerful vision that, if you’re an author in your 20s and are trying to write the Great [Insert Country of Origin Here] Novel, you can now stop. Catton has beaten you to it. Outside the likes of Zadie Smith, we may never see such a young novelist performing such a great highwire act, and largely succeeding, as Catton has done here. img-819 Zachary Houle

 

Book: Melancholy II

Author: Jon Fosse

Publisher: Dalkey Archive Press

Publication date: 2014-11

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Melancholy II
Jon Fosse

Articles about the award-winning Norwegian writer and playwright Jon Fosse invariably dwell on the question of why he isn’t better known. “He is one of Europe’s most-performed dramatists, and his sparse, Pinteresque drama has led to him being tipped for the Nobel prize. So why has Britain never heard of Jon Fosse?” asked Andrew Dickson in a Guardian article earlier this year. Whatever the source of this disparity, Fosse’s Anglophone advocates are determined to keep trying. One of the Norwegian’s most famous and widely translated works is the aforementioned 1995 biographical novel Melancholy. Its subject matter is appropriate for this writer who is often likened to Ibsen: he explores the life of Lars Hertervig. Hertervig, an 18th century Norwegian painter, is now regarded as among the country’s finest, but during his lifetime he suffered mental breakdowns, spent time in an asylum, and died in poverty. Melancholy II is a much shorter work than its predecessor, but it evokes a striking, sad beauty in the perfectly poignant sense of melancholy it conjures. A morose work of mood, its aesthetic and beauty reflect eternal truths of age as much as they do the fickle personality of Lars Hertervig. It’s a unique, painful and beautiful piece in which the unorthodox and talented genius of Fosse and his subject seem to merge in the short span of the narrator’s shrinking memory. img-819 Hans Rollman

Moomin to Redeployment

 

Book: Moomin: The Deluxe Anniversary Edition

Author: Tove Jansson

Publisher: Drawn and Quarterly

Publication date: 2014-10

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Moomin: The Deluxe Anniversary Edition
Tove Jansson

Tove Jansson was born in Helsinki in 1914. To say Tove was born to become an artist might be a cliché, but it certainly makes sense given, that her father, Viktor, was a Swedish sculptor, and her mother, Signe, a prominent illustrator and graphic designer. Having realized she had a gift for creating effortlessly charming illustrations and also a natural talent for storytelling, she created the Moomin, a family of fantastical creatures with large round snouts that make them look like hippopotamuses, and a free-spirited world view that often makes them seem careless. Jansson’s first book The Moomins and the Great Flood was published in 1945 and became an almost instant success that was translated into countless languages, and gave path to almost a dozen more books and a comic strip that ran from 1954 to 1975, which has now been collected in a luxury tome titled Moomin: The Deluxe Anniversary Edition, to coincide with the centennial of Jansson’s birth. This compilation will serve longtime fans of Jansson, just as much as it will engage newbies, who will undoubtedly have a hard time putting the book down. img-820 Jose Solis

 

Book: Nora Webster

Author: Colm Toibin

Publisher: Scribner

Publication date: 2014-10

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Nora Webster
Colm Toibin

Years ago, people wondered why novelist Barbara Pym’s works were getting neglected. Many suggested the reason had to do with Pym’s avoidance of “Important” issues: war and peace, international diplomatic crises, and overpopulation. One of Pym’s defenders shot back: “Importance can be unimportant — and boring.” In other words, taking on global issues is often a way of consigning yourself to leaden, joyless, and uninventive prose. One might think of Barbara Pym when reading Colm Toibin’s new novel, Nora Webster. Like Pym, Toibin paints on a small canvas. His subject is an array of conflicts between his protagonist and one of her colleagues. And there are some scenes in which the protagonist takes voice lessons. And that’s all. Still, the story feels momentous. It’s as if Toibin were saying: “Daily life is a beautiful thing, and I’m going to force you to look at your own quotidian interactions very closely.” The writing is delighted and sprightly. I can’t stop thinking about this book. img-820 Dan Barrett

 

Book: Off Course

Author: Michelle Huneven

Publisher: Sarah Crichton

Publication date: 2014-04

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Off Course
Michelle Huneven

Michelle Huneven’s newest novel, Off Course, takes us once again to a mountain community in California in the ’80s, which connects it to her previous outing, Blame. A young woman, Cress, has moved to her parents’ A-frame so she can finish her economics dissertation. However, Cressida feels somewhat ambivalent about her thesis, so she devotes most of her time to fretting about her own unwise romantic decisions. First, she allows herself to be seduced by a shady, bearlike lothario, who sleeps with just about every two-legged creature in California. Next, she becomes entangled with Quinn, a brooding, handsome, married man whose voice is low-pitched and irresistible.

Cress’ tale is not alone in its ability to draw the reader in. It’s a tribute to Huneven that each and every one of her characters has a thorny, winding story. Each one is the star of his or her own existence. The secondary characters insist on behaving in their own idiosyncratic ways, even when their actions puzzle and startle Huneven’s self-absorbed protagonist. Let it be known: with Off Course, Huneven has produced a literary miracle. img-820 Dan Barrett

 

Book: Once You Break a Knuckle

Author: D. W. Wilson

Publisher : Bloomsbury USA

Publication date: 2014-01

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Once You Break a Knuckle
D. W. Wilson

Released this year in paperback, D.W. Wilson’s wonderful collection, Once You Break a Knuckle, takes the Kootenay region of his native British Columbia and fills it with down on their luck electricians, troubled teenagers, and a Mountie whose taste in t-shirts runs from the comical (“Don’t Writer Cheques Your Body Can’t Cash”) to the sinister (“Cops Only Have One Hand–the Upper Hand”). Wilson’s stories are more than just small town tales, however. There’s a lot of space here, a sense of the vastness of the Canadian wilderness which surrounds and sometimes envelops his characters. We are right there with him in the snow and woods and the mountains. These feel like stories to be read just before the sun has come up, when you’re the only one awake in the house. They’re not rousing in such a way as to substitute for your morning coffee, and they’re not hazy in the way the world seems when you awake from a vivid dream. Rather, these stories are quiet and still, the way the world is in the morning, when things are just getting going, when your sense of wonder is not yet dulled by the day itself. Wilson walks that line so skillfully that one can’t help but sit back in awe and watch him work. img-820 Jeremy Estes

 

Book: The Peripheral

Author: William Gibson

Publisher: Putnam

Publication date: 2014-10

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The Peripheral
William Gibson

At no point does William Gibson’s novel clue the reader in to what year it is, or even precisely what is happening; and that’s perfectly okay. Ever since his debut Neuromancer redefined the limits of science fiction three decades ago, Gibson has honed an oblique style that increasingly dances around the action, only darting in now and then, returning with dark shards of dread and prophecy. In this novel, a futuristic society is sending travelers to the past, which is actually for the reader the near future. It’s a recognizable place somewhere in the American South or Appalachia, where there are few jobs left but food service, cooking up drugs, or playing video games over the web for rich clients who like to bet on the outcome. The lead is Fisher Flynne, another classic Gibson heroine (tough, quiet, thoughtful, righteous) who gets wrapped up in the mysterious irruptions of the time travelers into the present/future. As frequently foggy as the plot is, Gibson keeps the novel tautly wired through a mix of sideswiping humor and detail (live tattoos, predatory trading algorithms that have evolved to hunt in packs) that are often as chilling as they are dead-on perceptive. img-820 Chris Barsanti

 

Book: Redeployment

Author: Phil Klay

Publisher: Penguin

Publication date: 2014-03

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Redeployment
Phil Klay

Phil Klay served in Iraq, graduated from Dartmouth, and writes stories about soldiers who have served or are serving and don’t know what to do with all the terrible knowledge they have acquired. This slashing, often jaw-droppingly honest collection takes on more ugly truths about war and its attendant cloud of lies than almost any book since The Things They Carried. In one typically knotty story, a veteran narrator who’s a fish out of water at an Ivy League college describes his “perversity” that leads him to “bash the war” when talking to conservatives” and “when I talk to liberals, defend it.” Klay’s style is surface-simple and studiedly complex, like “OIR”, a satire told almost entirely in military acronyms (“EOD handled the bombs.” “SSTP treated the wounds.” “PRP processed the bodies.”) that stars in mockery and ends in face-clawing tragedy. There are no wounded warriors here, just terrified and angry men trying to understand what they’ve seen, and knowing that nobody will ever comprehend, least of all themselves. img-820 Chris Barsanti

The Secret Place to Tough Day for the Army

 

Book: The Secret Place

Author: Tana French

Publisher: Viking

Release date: 2014-08

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The Secret Place
Tana French

Following in the footsteps of ABC Family’s Pretty Little Liars and Megan Abbott’s The Fever, Tana French mines the dangerous, beautiful territory of teenage girls, their secrets, and their blind loyalty in her latest novel, The Secret Place. Like her four other Dublin Murder Squad books, The Secret Place is brilliantly plotted with twists and turns; furthermore, the real reason to read it is its uncanny way of plumbing the darkest depths of the human soul. Because of her acting background, French has a knack for creating layered, multi-dimensional characters and distinctive voices that make each of her novels an event. The Secret Place is no exception, and here, too, French’s poetic tendencies return. Our culture has always been fascinated with (white) teenage girls, usually depicted through the male gaze, but I’m not sure that they’ve ever been the Machiavellian anti-heroines they are almost always depicted as today. The Secret Place is an absorbing take on a hot subgenre by one of our most skillful suspense novelists. img-821 Anita Felicelli

 

Book: Some Luck

Author: Jane Smiley

Publisher: Knopf

Publication date: 2014-10

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Some Luck
Jane Smiley

Jane Smiley’s output in recent years has been spotty. Many devoted fans were driven to desperation when her writing about horses threatened to overtake her work. Some feared horses would be for Smiley what Christianity became for Anne Lamott: an obsession bringing great personal joy while effectively ending her fiction career. Some Luck, however, banishes these concerns. In it, Smiley returns to Iowa farm life and its people, introducing the Langdon family of Denby, Iowa. Some Luck may be understated, but it moves swiftly, keeping the reader turning the pages. Smiley’s reach is wide and assured. Few authors are able to write equally well about war strategy, communism, cover crops, and postpartum depression. Smiley can, and does, such that when Some Luck closes it feels sudden, despite the novel’s length. The reader isn’t ready to leave the Langdons behind. Take consolation in knowing there is more to come: Some Luck is the first installment of a promised trilogy. In this case, the luck is all ours. img-821 Diane Leach

 

Book: Someone

Author: Alice McDermott

Publisher: Picador

Publication date: 2014-10

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Someone
Alice McDermott

Alice McDermott has been called “the Alice Munro of novels”. In other words, McDermott writes as fearlessly and probingly as Munro but, unlike Munro, McDermott prefers the novel form to the short story. Someone, McDermott’s latest, is an account of the life of one utterly normal woman from McDermott’s mother’s generation. This story may evoke memories of another recent masterpiece: Alice Munro’s story “To Japan”. In that story, a little girl lives through an impressive amount of trouble in one confusing train ride, and then gets off the train to see “whatever has to happen next”. And that’s the kind of adventurous spirit that animates McDermott’s writing. What a world we live in. And who the hell knows, or could even begin to imagine, what might happen next? img-821 Dan Barrett

 

Book: Station Eleven

Author: Emily St. John Mandel

Publisher: Knopf

Publication date: 2014-09

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Station Eleven
Emily St. John Mandel

After a global pandemic wipes out nearly all of the world’s population, a travelling band of actors and musicians called The Travelling Symphony braves the hostile countryside in order to bring art back into a world just trying to survive. Emily St. John Mandel ably handles a narrative that spans both pre-and post-pandemic times, one that follows a diversity of characters, including a movie star and his estranged wives, several survivors in the Symphony, and a young physician who was present when the world started to collapse. What makes this book stand out in the realm of post-apocalyptic literature is that it manages to not be about the apocalypse at all. Rather, the fall of civilization serves as a backdrop to the human dramas that continue no matter what. Station Eleven serves as a testament to the hope and healing power that art can bring to the world. img-821 Matt Grant

 

Book: Tough Day for the Army: Stories

Author: John Warner

Publisher: Louisiana State University Press

Publication date: 2014-09

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Tough Day for the Army: Stories
John Warner

Tough Day for the Army is quick, smart collection of humorous stories in the vein of George Saunders and Donald Barthelme. John Warner’s sharp eye for human interaction and the absurd is damning in its gaze. There are a few spots of genuine social commentary (“Homosexuals Threaten the Sanctity of Norman’s Marriage”), a few tales of terrible human interaction (“Notes From a Neighborhood War”), and a story or two that will have you laughing through the tears (“Corrections and Clarifications”). Humor is the device Warner utilizes to protect us all from the foolishness of our own actions, and, ultimately, hope reigns supreme. But not before we have a good long look at the broken mirror of our lives. A collection of short stories like Tough Day for the Army makes a convincing case for the essential nature of the short story; it keeps wolves of fear at bay while maintaining Shakespeare’s noted soul of wit: brevity. img-821 Scott Elingburg

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