my favourite books of 2014

Well, who doesn’t love a list? I meant to do this a while ago, but anyway: here we go. These were [almost] all the books I gave five stars to on Goodreads last year.

The Rook (The Checquy Files, #1)The Rook by Daniel O’Malley
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Loved it! It’s about a woman who wakes up surrounded by the dead bodies of the people who attacked her before she lost her memory. She has no idea why they were trying to kill her, and she has no idea HOW she killed all of them. But thanks to letters from her former self, written to her future self, she slowly pieces together her former identity. At the same time, she’s going about her former self’s regular routine, trying not to let on to anyone that she’s not who she used to be. Further complicating matters is the fact that she appears to work for a shadowy organization–the supernatural version of Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

The narrative is snappy and intelligent, the plot is perfectly paced from start to finish, and the characters are very well-drawn. The protagonist, Myfanwy, is resourceful, smart, strong, endearing and surprisingly hilarious. Oh, AND the book has a plethora of well-rounded female characters who actually interact with each other meaningfully. I wish this weren’t so rare in books like this. It passes the Bechdel test with flying colours!

I hope they make this into a movie or TV series. Truly, I can’t say enough good things about it.

The Bone ClocksThe Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Just as good as I had hoped, maybe better. I didn’t know much about the plot when I started reading it and perhaps that was for the best. [And that’s why I’m not going to say anything about the plot in this review.] Beautifully written, poignant, suspenseful and urgent. I didn’t want to stop reading it.

The Woefield Poultry CollectiveThe Woefield Poultry Collective by Susan Juby
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I read the whole thing on an international flight and thoroughly enjoyed it. The situations and characters are slightly larger than life, but in a boisterous, good-hearted, effective way, not in an annoying try-hard way. Prudence, a Williamsburg hipster who dreams of running her own small sustainable organic farm, has her wish granted when her great-uncle dies and leaves her his rural Vancouver Island home. Although the farm definitely doesn’t match what she had in mind, soon she has gathered a group of local misfits to help her transform it into the communal oasis she had envisioned: Earl, the elderly farm hand whom she inherits along with the property; Seth, the 21-year-old agoraphobic alcoholic who reluctantly agrees to work on the farm in exchange for room and board; Sara, the 11-year old who raises prize chickens and provides livestock advice.

This was a great holiday read that is warm and funny. I actually laughed out loud at one point, which I almost never do. It reminded me of early Miriam Toews–lighthearted with overall happy endings, but not afraid to address serious issues like addiction, estrangement, and neglectful/abusive parents.

Nobody's FoolNobody’s Fool by Richard Russo
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Wow. This book took forever to read, but for some reason I didn’t mind the meandering. I think it’s because the characters are so well drawn and appealing despite their flaws. Sully and Beryl, the two main characters, were so well written that I almost felt like I was reading about real people. I even sort of missed them when I finished the book.

Sully is a feckless but likeable 60 year old who has to keep working manual labour jobs despite a bad knee, because the state won’t grant him disability support. He lives on the top floor of his landlady Beryl’s house. Beryl is a sharp witted 80 year old who is coping with her own physical decline. Despite their differences, Sully and Beryl are genuinely fond of each other. There’s a whole cast of other characters who are a part of their lives in this small town and they are an important part of the fabric of the story.

I liked the depiction of a strong community where people look out for one other even though they might be exasperated with each other. And because they’re so flawed, there’s plenty to be exasperated about.

This is just as good as Straight Man, the other Richard Russo book I’ve read. Actually, I think I liked Nobody’s Fool just a tiny bit more.

An Available ManAn Available Man by Hilma Wolitzer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Loved it. Very gentle, humorous, and populated with flawed but likeable characters. It’s the story of Edward, a widower whose grown stepchildren gently but firmly prod him into the dating scene, a couple of years after the death of his beloved wife. Nothing very unexpected happens, but because Wolitzer is a good storyteller and a good writer, the novel is touching and funny and fresh-seeming.

Life After LifeLife After Life by Kate Atkinson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book took me over a year to finish–I kept checking it out and then returning it to the public library. I thought it was good, but partway through I found myself getting more and more dejected by the traumas the main character experienced. My friend Doug commented on my Goodreads review that he could guess where I had stopped reading, and encouraged me to keep going: “Do try again. I know exactly where you must have stopped (Derek) and I found that version of her life so unremittingly dark that I felt the same way. There’s plenty of darkness ahead but the character becomes so much more in control of her life and destiny that it feels very different.” He was totally right about giving it another try. It is a beautiful book–harrowing at times, but I think ultimately uplifting. I’m glad I read it.

The GoldfinchThe Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I loved it. I liked Tartt’s first novel, The Secret History, but this one surpassed my expectations! It’s enormous in scope and very ambitious and I think it works. There’s not a lot that can be said about it without spoilers, so all I will say is that I thought the storylines and characters were fascinating, and the writing was very beautiful. It just pulled me along and it was the first book in a while where I just wanted to keep reading and reading to find out what happened.

I liked the protagonist, Theo, very much. He is a sympathetic character, and I found myself rooting for him even when he was about to do something desperately stupid. He seems like a realistic picture of a young person who experiences so much grief and loss in a short period of time. He’s intelligent, loyal, witty and capable of surprising the reader.

My only minor issue was that I felt the end was not quite as strong as the rest of the book. The last chapter/subchapter seemed ever so slightly rushed, which I realize is a somewhat ludicrous thing to say about a book this size. However, I don’t feel it detracted significantly from the overall quality of the novel as a whole. Maybe I was just disappointed that it ended because I wanted the story to continue.

Anyway, highly recommended. This is that rare sort of book that is a highly anticipated critical darling, and really deserves it.

These reviews are all on Goodreads as well. You can see all my reviews here.

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