2014 Year in Review #2: Best Books
Self explanatory. Let’s go.
Only eight books were good enough, and got a strong enough emotional reaction, to get the elusive five-star rating this year. For fun, I’ve tried to sum up my emotional state after finishing each.
- Villette by Charlotte Bronte (Spaced out for the rest of the day.)
- The Orenda by Joseph Boyden (Threw up. For real.)
- The Bridge of Beyond by Simone Schwarz-Bart (Like waking from an extremely lucid dream.)
- Malarky by Anakana Schofield (Despair, happiness, urge to read again.)
- The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje (Heart hurt.)
- Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (I said “wow” out loud, like three times. That’s my review.)
- The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt (Cried like a baby.)
- TransAtlantic by Colum McCann (Overwhelmed by how much I’d just read. Not number of pages.)
In making this list, I realized I only did a full, proper review of one book (Malarky) and didn’t mention three of them much at all (The Orenda, The Bridge of Beyond, Wolf Hall.) That’s messed up. If I’m not using my blog to ramble on about the books I loved, what the hell am I doing?
It’s not the end of the world that I didn’t review Wolf Hall, because really, you don’t need me to tell you it’s good (BBC is gonna do that for you. Also Damien Lewis. *swoon*) but I’m not impressed that I didn’t review The Orenda and The Bridge of Beyond, specifically, as it was mostly because I was afraid. I’m uncomfortable reviewing postcolonial literature, or, frankly, literature with racial themes – afraid I’ll say the wrong thing, that I’m not in a position to really “get it,” and so on. I procrastinated on The Orenda and The Bridge of the Beyond till I felt like it was too late. It’d all been said about the former, and I couldn’t remember the story of the latter.
There’s a whole movement about reading diverse, which is based on the “vote with your wallet” idea, but book bloggers aren’t always paying for their books. In this case, The Orenda and The Bridge of the Beyond were both freebies and so the fact that I’ve read them, and kept it to myself, really doesn’t do much for the cause.
Talking about books I love is why I’m here. It’s probably why you’re here. So I’m going to get over myself, and at least review the books that blow my mind this year. (Don’t worry, I’m still gonna snark on books, that is the other reason I am here.)
I’m not going to do “Worst Books” because I didn’t read anything that was truly awful this year. Mostly because no one tricked me into reading dragon porn. However, I did go into several books with expectations that were not realized. Some of these are gonna be UNPOPULAR OPINIONS. Before you hit “comment,” realize that I liked all these books, just not as much as I thought I would:
- Me Before You by Jojo Moyse: All the book bloggers liked it, even the ones who don’t like romance. I was prepared to be won over. I was diverted, but not much more.
- Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi: I liked it A LOT but I was prepared to have my life changed.
- Girl Runner by Carrie Synder: I feel bad about this one. I liked it a lot, and stayed up late to finish it and everything. I think if I hadn’t been drawing parallels to The Stone Angel, it would have been okay. But no one can compare to Hagar. (Review to come)
- Mãn by Kim Thuy: Another one raved about in book blog land. Okay, the very small and specific #CanLit book blog land, but still. And I liked it, but it left no impression on me. I don’t think about it at all. (Probably not gonna review but I am going to read Ru as I have been assured it’s even better.)
- The Girls by Lori Lansens: I feel bad about this one because it was an ethusiastic recommendation from a friend but I just couldn’t suspend my disbelief.
And, finally, the 2014 Reading in Bed Book of the Year:
Make that BOOKS of the Year:
Villette by Charlotte Bronte and The Bridge of Beyond by Simone Schwarz-Bart!
I can’t choose and I won’t. Both these books astonished me with their use of language, their maturity, and their truth. I was nodding my head and thinking “how did she know?” and drawing all sorts of parallels to other books and pop culture and what not, despite the fact that these books are set in times and places completely unknown to me. The specific challenges Lucy Snowe and Telumee face are nothing like the ones I do, but made me look at my life -both real, and reading – in new ways.
Villette is notable mostly because it’s a somewhat controversial choice for favourite Charlotte Bronte novel (it’s certainly mine) and because… much as it pains me to say this… it has usurped Wuthering Heights as my favourite Bronte. It’s so subtle though still overwrought in that Bronte way. Very little happened; it was a completely internal story. We were with Lucy, relentlessly. It should have felt claustrophobic, but it didn’t. It somehow contained so much through a life that was so circumscribed. I will reread it and I think it’s the perfect way to start reading the Brontes, except that you might be disappointed thereafter.
The Bridge of the Beyond is notable because I’ve never read anything like it. Oh, it’s a multi-generational epic, it’s postcolonial, it’s got lots of “strong female characters,” so I guess from that perspective I’ve read plenty like it. But the writing is like nothing I’ve read, and the feeling of reading this book is at once dreamy and disturbing. The fact that this is a translation is almost too much for me to wrap my mind around because it’s one of those rare books where every word is perfectly chosen. How can this be true when they’re not even the original words? I can say more. I will say more. As I said above, I’m resolving to write about the books that really deserve it, and this is one. It’s the one I am most daunted by too, as I want to do it justice. So I’ll just say: full review to come. And… read it.
Whew! Link me to your best of 2014 lists. I love them and I’m not sick of them yet!
I love your wrap-up. Also, you’re thoughtful and articulate, which makes you qualified to talk about whatever book or issue you like, in my book (ha …?).
Totally agree on Hilary Mantel. I was reading something of hers last year (might have been the latest, but I did pick up Wolf Hall again for a few chapters) and I remember just shaking my head at the Mr. and saying “she’s really, really good.” And he said, “how good?” And I said, “I’m glad she’s one of the good guys.”
Seriously need to get to Villette now (and hey, the rest of my Classics Club list . . . ).
Just put the audio version of Bringing Up the Bodies on hold at the library.
I’m not keeping up with Classics Club stuff at all. I do want to read more classics this year though. Any other classics on your radar?
A re-read of Jane Eyre, The Odyssey, The Blind Assassin, a few 1000+pagers I should probably get started on . . .
You thought The Girls was overrated?! Laura, can we talk? It wrecked me.
I agree with all of your other thoughts here, and really want to read your top picks. Half of them are some of my favourites, so that’s a clear sign I’ll like the other half.
Matthew, let’s team up and bully Laura about The Girls. Heart broken.
We can talk, but not here, I can’t really say all my reasons without major spoilers! There was one thing that happened that I was just like NO no one would do this, no one would make this decision 🙂 That and the main sister annoyed the crap out of me; I know that it a stupid and shallow reason to not like a book but there it is!
I’ve been thinking about reading Villet, The English Patient and Wolf Hall for a while now, I feel even more tempted seeing them as a few of your top books. I’m after a good emotional reaction to a book this year.
Ok. I have a lot to say. I hope my kids stay happy for a few minutes.
First, I am so happy to see The Orenda was a five-star read! It was my favourite from last year. I was a little worried about what you thought of it since I wasn’t seeing a review… But, I feel better now. I also loved Malarky and Sisters Brothers. I will now have to read Villette and The Bridge of the Beyond. I read Transatlantic when it first came out, but I didn’t love it as much as you did.
I agree that you should review the books you love! So we will know how much you loved them, and then we can add them to the top of our giant lists. We all worry about saying the wrong thing, but saying anything at all is better than saying nothing. I love your reviews!
At the end of the year, my best books are the ones thathave stayed with my the most. Some books I thought were great at the time just didn’t stay with me, and Man was one of those. I thought the writing was beautiful, but maybe the story wasn’t strong enough to hold on? I don’t know. But, I read Ru over Christmas, because I had heard the same as you about it being even better, but I think I actually prefer Man. I think it’s because I found the books so similar in their writing style, and maybe I was hoping for something a bit different? Anyway, it was still good, and also very quick, so you should still read it, so you can let me know what you think!
I agree with you about The Girls. I didn’t even finish that book. I read it because I loved Rush Home Road so much. Have you read that one?
I just finished reading Girl Runner and I loved it. Some of it was predictable, but I loved it anyway. However, I still haven’t read Stone Angel (something that I plan to fix very soon!). I would love to hear what you liked about it and what you didn’t.
I think that’s it. 🙂
I will review Girl Runner, because it was a review book. House of Anansi was kind enough to send me a hard copy even though I already had the ebook 🙂 I have a few 2014 reviews to catch up on! Luckily, I’m not building up a backlist of 2015 reviews because I’m reading The Luminaries exclusively, and slowing, and I don’t have to review it because I bought it myself!
Oh and I may read Rush Home Road one day. I’m not writing her off as an author or anything!
Such an enjoyable post! Regarding favourite reads of 2014, I would choose Andre Alexis’s Pastorale, and Miram Toews, All My Puny Sorrows. The last third of the year was a bit of a reviewing washout for me, as I was sucked into the black hole of a heavy teaching semester. I cracked the spine of Michael Crummey’s Sweetland, just before September madness began, but put it aside until I had time to give it the attention it deserves — but, based just on the few pages I read, I can’t WAIT to get back to it. I have also been beguiled, this fall, by a collection of short stories by Peter Unwin, Life Without Death — and am doggedly trying to get a review together for it — a writer who most definitely should have a higher profile than he does in this country.
Happy New Year! Looking forward to reading about your further literary adventures!
Your top books are all on my radar, but didn’t quite make my TBR list (I am pretty picky with what gets on the list!) I did read Toews’ The Flying Troutmans this year, and I can’t help thinking the plot sounds so similar to AMPS, the suicidal sister, the other sister trying to save her… it wasn’t even written that long ago. Anyway, I really enjoyed it. Didn’t make my top books of the year, but it was enjoyable and I think it would be a great movie.
Thanks for the tip on Peter Unwin. Haven’t heard of him!
I can forgive you for Me Before You, but The Girls?! Insert crying emoji here. I think we should do coffee one day soon so we can talk about it! I’m very anxious and curious to discuss it with you, honestly! Plus, it would be nice to see you 🙂
Jim got me Girl Runner for Christmas, I’m looking forward to reading it!
I loved the Girls too. We weep together, Brie. tee hee.
Great wrap-up, Laura. Will now add The Bridge of the Beyond at the top of my TRB list.
I’ll be reading Villette soon as part of the Reading the Classics in 2015 Challenge. Glad to hear it’s THAT good. Glad it surpasses Wuthering Hights…. yeah! But surpassing Jane Eyre? Whoa. That’s a bold statement ;).
Thanks for sharing.
Yeah, WH has been a favourite and close to my heart since I read it at 16, so that’s a MAJOR statement for me. Look forward to your thoughts and… yeah… I know I’m outnumbered on The Girls 🙂
I would love to see you before you go! I will email you.
Maybe we can be overrated book buddies. I didn’t hate Boy, Snow, Bird, but I didn’t really understand the love that it got from so many places.
I haven’t read Girl, Runner yet, but I felt very similar about one of Snyder’s other books: The Juliet Stories. Reading it, I felt like I’d been put on a blind date with someone who shared all my interests, but we just sat there awkwardly, unable to think of anything to say to each other, knowing we should like each other, except we didn’t.
Noooo, you just said it perfectly, now what am I going to say in my review??? We can still be buddies, not to worry 🙂 Boy Snow Bird would have been perfect if it’d all been the letters between the sisters.
I loved Villette when I read it, but I just get so grumpy at Charlotte trying to censure her sisters after their deaths that I probably didn’t love it as much as I could have.
Yeah she’s a total bag. But I guess if I’d watched my siblings die one by one, I might be a bit unpleasant myself 🙂
Oh I did not love Villette. I wanted to but after all that time spent with it, that ending? I was so mad! Wuthering Heights is not my favourite Bronte at all – it’s so melodramatic and kind of insane. I love Jane Eyre but The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is my favourite.
I was mad too but in a good way?
Tenant of Wildfell Hall is underrated for sure. #JusticeforAnne as I’ve seen on Twitter 🙂
It’s interesting to see that you rated The Orenda one of your best books, especially because I completely agree with your judgment on Wolf Hall and Villette (amongst others!) I found that not only did it make me feel physically sick (though I didn’t actually throw up, am quite impressed that you did), but it was also written in a style so pedestrian and uninspired that there was not much for me to get out of it, other than “brutal violence happens; brutal violence bad; tiny shard of hope; the end.” And I mean, I even kind of LIKE books like that, when their use of language is more interesting. Boyden seemed to me to just plod, plod, plod onwards: not only with constant subject-verb-object sentences, which get hard to read after a while, but often writing sentence fragments. For effect. Like this. Which…nah.
Villette, on the other hand, is pure genius and I am so pleased that it’s your favorite Bronte! It may be mine, too. 🙂
Okay, you are getting at some things I didn’t quite know how to say. My 5 star review was a pretty emotional reaction and probably influenced by the crazy amount of hype for this book but yeah, I felt like the writing for the opening scene was great, but never got better, or even as good, the rest of the book (which was like 500 pages, plenty of opportunity!)
This is part of the reason I haven’t reviewed too. I admire the sweep, the ambition, the subject matter, the perspective, the greek chorus thing… lots of things I like… but is the writing 5 star worthy? Maybe not?
The emotional response and the complexity of a book are huge for me and can easily cause me to overlook the writing (as long as the writing is not bad, which it isn’t at all in this case). I have read books before that have been beautifully written, but the story has been kind of boring, and I forget them immediately. I definitely prefer the first kind of book. Both would be good, too! Just wanted to stick my nose into this one…
I mean, I definitely have books where I finish it feeling as though I’ve been put through the wringer, and that reaction is so strong that it’s an automatic 5-star despite any weaknesses there might objectively be. In this case, the overpowering horror and disgust was less strong than the irritation at the repetitive syntax! But my reactions will differ from another person’s, who might be more forgiving, or less grossed out, or what-have-you. I just know that the best writing I’ve ever read is significantly more adept than The Orenda seemed, to me anyway.
I’m curious about your favourite books of 2014. I perused your blog but didn’t see a post – though I LOVE your first lines post and may steal this idea (with attribution, of course!)
I would be happy for you to steal it! I borrowed it from elsewhere myself 🙂
I didn’t do a best books of 2014 list–there were so many others that it seemed like it might just be a drop in the ocean. But I read so much in 2014 that was wonderful; maybe I ought to?
Happy New Year! I made the mistake of trying to comment on your last post with children around. I loved both The Orenda and Wolf Hall (lots of wows from me too).I haven’t heard of The Girls, so now I’m curious about it. How do you like The Luminaries so far?
I like it! Almost love… can still be brought around, I have like 500 pages to go 🙂 I’m almost done the first part and I feel like I deserve to count it as a book (Part I is 350+ pages!) but I’ve heard it described as a parody of a Victorian novel and that’s very apt. I’m about to start The Forsyte Saga which is also kind of a Victorian parody.
You don’t even understand how nervous I was about The Orenda podcast we did. When you can’t really take time to formulate your sentences, speaking about PoCo is just ridiculously difficult. I know you’ll do an awesome job of it, but I understand your hesitation. -Tania