It’s January 1st, that one magical day of the year when you can depend on seeing my annual reading experience described in wholly unnecessary detail. Nice to know something around here’s dependable, as I rarely post here anymore. Time might come when I post here only on January 1st, but I won’t surrender this annual tradition. The public demands it! That is to say, I track my reading habits obsessively, and if an innocent member of the public lands here, the worst that will happen is a mild case of tedium. It passes quickly.
Depression is a nasty disease. Not nasty like Ebola or multiple sclerosis, and as a topic it has no business in my annual book review, except for this: whole months of 2014 passed with me reading hardly anything. I just didn’t want to. Still don’t want to, most of the time. I would check out new books by authors I adore — Christopher Buehlman, Tana French, and K.J. Parker, for instance — and return them to the library without having cracked them open.
So it should have been a better reading year. It should have been a better year, period.
But you aren’t here for the gloom! You’re here for the scintillating minutiae of my reading life! I completely understand if you can’t contain yourself a moment longer, if you simply must jump to the meat of the Book Rundown, but some of you may wish to revisit previous years’ entries to torture yourself with sweet anticipation:
- 80 books in 2013
- 55 books in 2012
- 128 books in 2011
- 112 books in 2010
- 101 books in 2009
- 83 books in 2008
- 141 books in 2007
- 130 books in 2006
And now, the real reason we’re all here: Book Rundown, 2014
Total books read, cover-to-cover: 92
- Adult: 85
- YA: 6
- Children’s: 1
Books read that were published in 2014: 38
Books read that won’t be published till 2015: 1. The Aeronaut’s Windlass, first in a new Steampunk series by Jim Butcher.
Nonfiction: 40. This includes a couple of poetry books and a collection of cartoons, which are murky from a classification point of view. Other people might class them as fiction.
Genres: (as some books have more than one genre, total exceeds 92)
- Art and photography (collections): 4
- Biography: 1
- Cultural Criticism: 2
- English Language: 1
- Expose: 1
- Feminism: 1
- History: 5
- Horror: 1
- Humor: 8
- Memoir: 9
- Psychology: 1
- Science: 4
- Social science: 6
- Travel: 1
- True crime: 2
- Classics/Literary canon: 2
- Crime/Mystery: 3
- Erotica: 1. Which should last me a lifetime, please and thank you.
- Fantasy: 20
- Historical: 2. Both by Douglas Nicholas. Superb medieval British Isles setting.
- Horror: 13
- Humor: 1
- Literary fiction: 5
- Mainstream: 1
- Mystery: 3
- Science fiction: 8
- Steampunk: 1. Reluctantly– this is NOT my genre– but I wanted 2014 bragging rights for a book not pubbed til 2015, and anyway it’s written by my BFFF. (That extra F is not a typo. It stands for Frenemy. ‘sComplicated.)
- Suspense/Thriller: 5
- Western: 1
- Audiobooks: 26. Would have been more, but I broke my own rule. Normally I listen exclusively to nonfiction, preferring to read fiction with my eyes, but I encountered such a strong audiobook review of a novel that I made an exception. I quickly recalled why I don’t listen to fiction: the pace, the literal pace, is too slow. Didn’t help matters that the novel itself was not to my tastes. I finally gave up on it sometime in summer, but I stubbornly refused to start a new audiobook till I’d finished the one in progress. The result: six months of no audiobooks. I ended the stalemate by reading the remainder in a print copy. Maybe now I can go back to audiobooks.
- Collections/Anthologies: 18. 1 of cartoons (T-Rex Trying); 1 of fantasy art (Spectrum 20); 1 of speeches (by Kurt Vonnegut!); 1 of radio interviews (NPR’s Funniest Driveway Moments; not that funny); 7 of essays; 5 of photoessays; and 2 of poetry.
- Graphic novels: 13, of which one was nonfiction.
- Picture book: 1. Not for young children. This is a picture book for tweens and up, provided they have a bent sent of humor. It’s not as good as the first Patrick Rothfuss picture book, The Adventures of the Princess and Mr. Whiffle, but I enjoyed the continued macabre adventures of the princess and her stuffed teddy in this sequel, The Dark of Deep Below.
- Annual fat Russian novel: First Love, by Ivan Turgenev. Positively slender, by Russian standards, but positively not-positive in theme and tone, so it counts as legitimate Russian fiction.
- Annual classic: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith. It’s a coming-of-age novel, and I regret not reading it when I was a teen; would have meant more to me then. But I still enjoyed the hell out of it.
- Annual language book: Bad English, by Ammon Shea.
- Re-reads: 0. As in zero. I’d have to doublecheck my records, but I think this is unprecedented.
New (to me) authors: 64, or 66 if we go with pseudonyms: I already knew Robert Gilbraith as J.K. Rowling, and I wish I’d stayed with Anne Rice and not tried her erotica pen-name, A. N. Roquelaure. Two hundred pages of spanking, that was.
New section for 2014! Authors by sex: Note that each author only gets one entry, so though I read three Stephen King books, I’m only listing him once. And I am treating Robert Gilbraith as a male, out of respect for JKR’s chosen pseudonymous identity.
- Female: 21 (roughly one quarter)
- Male: 66 (roughly three quarters)
Best book of the year, fiction: The Necromancer’s House, by Christopher Buehlman, published 2013. Baba Yaga is the antagonist. That fact alone guaranteed I would read it, even though my previous Buehlman book (Those Across the River, featuring werewolves) was merely enjoyable: liked it, didn’t love it. But this book? THIS BOOK? Astonishingly good. In contemporary upstate New York, Andrew is a mostly-out of practice necromancer, still mourning his dead wife but in love with a witch named Anneke, who loves him just as much. They’d be a great couple if she weren’t a lesbian. Instead Andrew meets his sexual needs, sorta, with a nearby carnivorous mermaid, who unwittingly murders an old man who had been dear to Baba Yaga, thereby invoking the wrath of the scariest, most powerful monster in all of European folklore.
The whole book has a moody tone. There are moments of horror, humor, violence, and pathos. Buehlman has a truly inventive imagination and sneaks in a lot of commentary on social issues such as alcoholism and sexual identity without being pedantic, and the climactic battle scene has a plot twist I promise you won’t see coming.
My only problem with this book? It is Urban Fantasy and Horror of the highest caliber, and nobody seems to know about it. Urban Fantasy fans know about The Dresden Files (hey Jim, love ya, noodlehead) and about folks like Kevin Hearne, Seanan McGuire, Myke Cole, and Chuck Wendig, but The Necromancer’s House isn’t getting the same marketing or publicity or con-time or whatever it is that makes established fan-bases aware of standalone novels like this.
Best book of the year, nonfiction: What It Is Like to Go to War, by Karl Marlantes, published in 2011. I listened to the audio version, narrated by Bronson Pinchot. This should be required reading for any civilian, and ESPECIALLY for anyone in a position of power to send troops into war zones– but this is not a political book about the Vietnam War, or even a philosophical book about the ethics of combat. This is the memoir of one Vietnam vet doing his damnedest to explain what it’s like to go to war.
Marlantes is a superb writer: his book Matterhorn stands alongside Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried and the early novels of Robert Olen Butler as some of the finest fiction on Vietnam. And only a superb writer could bring such insight and clarity to terrible subjects like violence, dehumanizing the enemy, trauma, and PTSD. (His book has helped me understand my own PTSD and depression.)
But what I admire most is the honesty of the memoir. Marlantes tells the whole picture, not just the parts that paint him in a flattering light. He could have concentrated on the “War Is Hell” theme: no one would have argued with that, and it would have been the truth. But it would not have been the whole truth. Marlantes is brave enough and honest enough to talk about the parts he enjoyed: the adrenaline, the camaraderie, the killing of the enemy. And he has the courage to reveal how, all these decades later, he is still haunted: haunted by what he did, haunted by the aftereffects echoing in his civilian life, haunted by the parts of war he still misses to this day.
- Zombie Baseball Beatdown, by Paolo Bacigalupi. Middle-grades/YA novel featuring human zombies, cow zombies, baseball, and a really strong argument in favor of local agriculture and strict food inspections.
- Poems Dead and Undead, edited by Tony Barnstone and Michelle Mitchell-Foust. Most of us don’t read poetry for pleasure, perhaps because we had to count one too many iambs in grade school. It’s a short anthology, and you don’t have to read it cover-to-cover, but surely some of the poems will catch your fancy, as two in particular did for me. I was astonished at the over-the-top gruesome imagery (“What kind of sadist would write this?!?”) of a poem called “The Dead King Eats the Gods,” and then learned that it was inscribed on an ancient Egyptian pyramid. And I was charmed by the twisted fairy-tale version of God and his buddy Satan in “The Gardener,” by Stephen Dobyns.
- Behind the Beautiful Forevers, by Katherine Boo, might be the best example of embedded reporting you’ll ever read. For three years Boo immersed herself among three-hundred some families in a slum in Mumbai. To bring the religious and ethic strife, the overcrowding, and the overwhelming poverty into focus, she follows the stories of a few select individuals, resulting in a narrative that boggles the Western mind. The audiobook is narrated by Sunil Malhotra, who does an outstanding job of with the various accents.
- The Aeronaut’s Windlass, first in a new series called Cinder Spires by Jim Butcher. It’s not published yet, so I can’t say much, except that it’s Steampunk, and I don’t like Steampunk, and I found myself grudgingly liking it anyway.
- The Magician’s Land, the third volume in the trilogy by Lev Grossman. No book will ever touch me as did book #2, The Magician King, but this was a fine conclusion to a series that pays homage to Narnia and Hogwarts.
- I Am Pilgrim, by Terry Hayes. Just bear with the slow start, okay? Once the action gets going, the pace of this spy novel does not let up. I’m bored with most contemporary thrillers, but Terry Hayes nails it. International terrorism, unnerving but badass protagonist, exceptionally good plotting, little details that make it all seem believable. Hayes reminds me a lot of Neal Stephenson. Also? It’s a debut. That’s just annoying in a book this good.
- Something Red and The Wicked by Douglas Nicholas. Nicholas is a poet, and it shows, but not in an obnoxious ooh-look-how-lyrical-and-erudite-I-am kind of way. Set in the medieval British Isles, and starring a family of four traveling entertainers, these first two novels in the series mix horror with magic and adventure and romance. The prose is lovely without bring pretentious, and I challenge even the nerdiest history buff to find a historical inaccuracy
- The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, by Claire North. Though I am leery of anything marketed as literary fiction, I’m a sucker for reincarnation stories. This sort of story has been done before (ha) but North has some unique angles. Quite reminiscent of Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life.
- Grasshopper Jungle, by Andrew Smith. Our hero in this YA novel loves his girlfriend but suspects he might also be in love with his best male friend. That’s right: we have a bisexual/questioning teenage male protagonist. Not a bisexual girl — face it, everyone likes bi- girls — but a sexually confused male. It’s so damn refreshing. I could stop talking right now and rest my case. Except maybe I should mention that Smith writes with a style reminiscent of Kurt Vonnegut. And also maybe I should mention the humongous praying mantises poised to take over the world.
- Shovel Ready, by Adam Sternbergh. Another book too damn good to be a debut, this is a near-future thriller with just a little bit of science fiction. Our hero is an assassin. He really likes boxcutters. That’s the bright start of the novel: things tend to get a little bleak after that. Look, this is a really grim book, definitely not for everyone, but the prose is tight and I soaked up each page. Which possibly says something about me.
- Annihilation, by Jeff Vandermeer. Perceptive reader that you are, I bet you can already tell from the title that this is going to be another one of those not-very-cheery books. Most of the characters die in the first few pages, so try not to get too attached. For that matter, don’t get attached to the survivors. They’re not especially likable. This is a short book of ecological science fiction, with not even a hint of levity to disrupt the tense atmosphere.
- Quesadillas, by Juan Pablo Villalobos. Though wary of any book that threatens to reveal itself as literary fiction, I took a chance on this one because 1.) it was short and 2.) there was an amazing amount of swearing, I mean even on the first page. Not quite sure how to classify this — satire? magical realism? Marxist lit? — but no matter: it is the story of a family in Mexico with too many children and too little money. Funny thing is, it’s not bleak. Plenty of horrible things going on, but the tone dances between ligth-hearted and surreal.
- The Martian, by Andy Weir. Science fiction! Adventure! Survival story! Mark Watney’s fellow astronauts left him for dead, which is sort of unnerving to realize when you return to consciousness and realize that you’re alone. On Mars. With no transport. And no way to communicate with earth. With an inauspicious start like this, you’re probably expecting a short story– a very, very, very short story. But Watney has the ingenuity, the tools, and the chutzpah to not only treat his injuries but to establish his own one-person colony– and to start thinking up ways for a good-old-fashioned rescue. Props to Andy Weir for inserting all kinds of science and factoids without dragging down the narrative.
- Nonfiction: Her, by Christa Parravani. This is not a bad book. Parravani is a gifted writer, and her story sounded like just my kind of memoir. Reading about other people’s struggles helps me understand my own. Parravani’s identical twin Cara was brutally, violently raped. She never completely physically healed, and it should go without saying that she never healed emotionally, spiritually, or psychologically. Cara began abusing drugs, and one day she died of a heroin overdose. Christa somehow managed to function after her twin’s death, but spent years suffering from the deep depression and unhealthy relationships.I’m with you so far, Parravani. This is a gut-wrenching grief memoir. But then one day along comes Mr. Wonderful, they fall in love on their first date, marry a few months later, and next thing there’s a baby. I am truly happy you finally got a break, Christa, and I wish you all the best. But this was the worst nonfiction book of 2014 for me, personally, because it ends with a deus ex machina. Prince Charming showed up to rescue you. I read grief memoirs to draw strength from people who survive even though things don’t get better.
- Fiction: Shotgun Lovesongs, by Nickolas Butler. Yet again overcame my wariness of Literary Fiction to give this one a try. I should know better by now: if all the critics love a LiFi novel, I’m guaranteed to hate it. But it was set in rural middle Wisconsin, an area I know well and love. Long story short: the prose is fine, no problems there, and the characters are pretty well-developed, only I didn’t like the characters. Not always a deal-breaker– I love George R. R. Martin’s Tywin Lannister, for instance — but they just didn’t interest me. I didn’t care about them. And my biggest disappointment of all was that the book did not evoke rural Wisconsin. Hey, maybe for some folks it did, but the setting felt more like Ruraltown USA than Eau Claire.
And finally, all ninety-two titles, arranged by author:
|Adrian, Matt||The Mincing Mockingbird Guide to Troubled Birds|
|Alter, Adam||Drunk Tank Pink|
|Azzarello, Brian||Brother Lono|
|Bacigalupi, Paolo||Zombie Baseball Beatdown|
|Barnstone, Tony and Michelle Mitchell-Foust, eds.||Poems Dead and Undead|
|Buehlman, Christopher||The Necromancer’s House|
|Blum, Deborah||The Poisoner’s Handbook|
|Boo, Katherine||Behind the Beautiful Forevers|
|Bourdain, Anthony||Kitchen Confidential|
|Bryson, Bill||I’m a Stranger Here Myself|
|Bryson, Bill||A Walk in the Woods|
|Butcher, Jim||The Aeronaut’s Windlass|
|Butcher, Jim||Furies of Calderon|
|Butcher, Jim||Ghoul Goblin|
|Butler, Nickolas||Shotgun Lovesongs|
|Carey, Mike||The Girl with All the Gifts|
|Cargill, C. Robert||Dreams and Shadows|
|Cole, Myke||Control Point|
|Connolly, Harry||Child of Fire|
|Cosby, Nate||Cow Boy|
|Crockett, Alexandra||Metal Cats|
|Crosley, Sloane||I Was Told There’d Be Cake|
|Ettlinger, Steve||Twinkie, Deconstructed|
|Fenner, Cathy and Fenner, Arnie, eds.||Spectrum 20|
|Forman, Gayle||If I Stay|
|Gaffigan, Jim||Dad Is Fat|
|Galbraith, Robert||Cuckoo’s Calling|
|Greenberg, Isabel||The Encyclopedia of Early Earth|
|Grossman, Lev||The Magician’s Land|
|Harris, Alice||Blow Me A Kiss|
|Harris, Joe||The X-Files: Season 10|
|Hayes, Terry||I Am Pilgrim|
|Hiaasen, Carl||Team Rodent|
|Homans, John||What’s A Dog For?|
|Ironmonger, J. W.||Coincidence|
|Jemisin, N. K.||The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms|
|Kidder, Tracy||Strength In What Remains|
|King, Stephen||Danse Macabre|
|King, Stephen||Mr. Mercedes|
|Kittredge, Caitlin||Coffin Hill|
|Korb, Scott||Life In Year One|
|Krakauer, Jon||Three Cups of Deceit|
|Lovejoy, Diana||Cat Lady Chic|
|Magary, Drew||Someone Could Get Hurt|
|Krulwich, Robert||NPR Funniest Driveway Moments|
|Malerman, Josh||Bird Box|
|Marlantes, Karl||What It Is Like to Go to War|
|Martin, George R. R.||The Hedge Knight v. I|
|Martin, George R. R.||The Hedge Knight v. II|
|Mueller, Tom||Extra Virginity|
|Murphy, Hugh||T-Rex Trying|
|Nicholas, Douglas||Something Red|
|Nicholas, Douglas||The Wicked|
|Norman, Howard||I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place|
|North, Claire||The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August|
|Parker, Robert B.||Looking for Rachel Wallace|
|Pratchett, Terry||Raising Steam|
|Riordan, Rick||The Lightning Thief|
|Robothan, Michael||Watching You|
|Roquelaure, A. N.||The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty|
|Rosen, R. D.||Throw the Damn Ball|
|Rothfuss, Patrick||The Adventures of the Princess and Mr. Whiffle: The Dark of Deep Below|
|Schulner, David||First Generation|
|Sedaris, David||When You Are Engulfed in Flames|
|Shea, Ammon||Bad English|
|Smith, Andrew||Grasshopper Jungle|
|Smith, Betty||A Tree Grows in Brooklyn|
|Solnit, Rebecca||Men Explain Things To Me|
|Stechschulte, Conor||The Amateurs|
|Sternbergh, Adam||Shovel Ready|
|Su, Kat||Crap Taxidermy|
|Talty, Stephan||The Illustrious Dead|
|Tobin, Paul||I Was the Cat|
|Tregillis, Ian||Something More Than Night|
|Turgenev, Ivan||First Love|
|Vanhee, Jason||Engines of the Broken World|
|Villalobos, Juan Pablo||Quesadillas|
|Vonnegut, Kurt||If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?|
|Waters, M. D.||Archetype|
|Weir, Andy||The Martian|
|Wood, Jonathan||No Hero|