The past year has been a whirlwind of activity—One that at times threatened to swallow me whole in its vortex of business and stress, but one which also marked several major accomplishments for me—namely the publication of my first novel (go buy it, if you haven’t), and the completion of my Masters degree. It also marked my move to a new city and my taking a new job.
In the midst of all this, somehow I also found the time to read (which is why the excuse some people make about being too busy to read strikes me as fairly absurd—if I can do it, anyone can). In fact, this year is a record-breaking year for me book wise; I completed over 120 books in 2014 (averaging more than 2 a week). True, a number of these were audiobooks I listened to during my commute or while doing other tasks that didn’t require a lot of brain power, but still. A book is a book.
I won’t list them all here, nor will I attempt to give in-depth reviews for the ones I do mention (I’ll limit my statements to a pithy sentence or two per book), but I do want to pass along a few I found particularly notable:
BEST ANTHOLOGY: Toss-up between The Weird by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer and The King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers
The Weird is a massive tome, as anthologies go, collecting over 100 of the most influential stories of the horror subgenre “weird” fiction from the past century (not quite sci-fi, not quite fantasy, not quite horror, but likely containing elements of all three). If you like subtle, quiet horror based on a sense of the uncanny rather than on blood and gore, this book works like a Masters-level class on that type of fiction.
The King In Yellow is also a collection of weird, dark fiction, but besides the horror I found surprising notes of hope and redemption within its pages. Chambers is best remembered today for his influence on H.P. Lovecraft, but I actually think he’s a better writer than Lovecraft.
BEST BIOGRAPHY: Fearless by Eric Blehm
Fearless tells the inspiring true-life story of Navy Seal Adam Brown, who rose from a crippling drug addiction to become one of the most respected members of the legendary Seal Team 6, tasked with hunting down Osama Bin Laden. His is a story of hope in the midst of heartache, of God’s grace and of one man’s determination to give his all for the sake of the people he loved.
BEST HUMOR: Toss-up between Dad is Fat by Jim Gaffigan and My Man Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse
I listened to the audio version of Dad is Fat, and Gaffigan’s delivery of his material makes it all the better. Regardless, this is a good-natured and humorous account of the highs-and-lows of parenthood, told by one of the funniest comedians in the business today.
My Man Jeeves reads like the prototype for the modern sitcom: Playboy Bertie Wooster gets in one ridiculous scrape after another, only to be saved time and again by his long-suffering and brilliant butler, Jeeves. It’s a bit formulaic, but the sheer ludicrousness of each situation, along with the snappy dialogue (peppered with old-timey slang, don’t you know) make it an absolute blast. I’m going to be reading the rest of Wodehouse’s Jeeves books sooner or later.
BEST THEOLOGY/PHILOSOPHY: Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton
I was very pleasantly surprised by Chesterton’s droll spy novel The Man Who Was Thursday over the summer, and quickly followed it up with some of his nonfiction. Orthodoxy was not a disappointment—a wonderful volume on some of the central ideas of the Christian faith, lofty ideas put into simple, easily digestible language. A long-term C.S. Lewis fan, I was pleased to note Chesterton’s influence on Lewis—right down to the gentle sense of humor that comes through his writing. Orthodoxy is one of those rare books I know I’m going to wind up re-reading.
BEST COMIC: Astro City by Kurt Busiek
Simple as it looks on the surface, Astro City is a marvel. Taking the familiar tropes from fifty-or-so-years worth of superhero comics and viewing them through a thoroughly modern but never cynical lens, Busiek manages to weave together stories that are fantastically entertaining while being deeply grounded in the human experience—heartbreaking and hopeful and redemptive and infuriating and messy and poignant. I can’t say enough good things about this series; it’s among the finest comics I’ve ever read.
BEST SCI-FI: Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
Although the other two books of the MaddAddam trilogy never really live up to the staggering potential of the first one, Atwood’s Oryx and Crake may be one of the most important sci-fi novels I’ve read in a long time. Intensely dark and troubling, it reads a bit like A Brave New World for the 21st Century—a warning against unchecked scientific progress for its own sake and a hint at some things that may be on the horizon if we’re not careful. Touching on a number of hot-button bioethical issues ranging from birth control and pharmaceuticals to eugenics and genetic engineering, this is one of the most timely and terrifying novels I’ve read in quite some time.
BEST FANTASY: Phantastes by George MacDonald
Phantastes is George MacDonald at his most George MacDonald-y: A fairy tale for adults in which the moody and mysterious are mingled with the whimsical and wonderful, and Christian ideology stands side-by-side with the purely fantastic. Beautiful and lyrical and sad and peaceful, this novel is ultimately a contemplation about death as a natural part of life, and a comforting reflection on the fact that, to the Christian, death need not be feared.
BEST HORROR: Psycho by Robert Bloch
As a fan of the classic Hitchcock adaptation, I also loved the novel Psycho, which actually is quite similar to the movie. The only thing Hitchcock changed really was by cutting out extended conversations between Norman Bates and his mother, which, although it works just fine in the book, would have been difficult to handle without giving away too much in the film.
BEST CHILDREN’S BOOK: Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi
Pinocchio is one of the weirdest, most surreal children’s stories I’ve read in some time. The Disney version is strange enough in itself, but is super-tame compared to the Adventure Time-level absurdity that is the core of this book—I’d love to see a movie adaptation done that had the guts to accurately depict this story in all its bizarre wonder.
BEST LITERARY FICTION: Toss-up between David Copperfield by Charles Dickens and Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
David Copperfield was apparently Dickens’ favorite of his own books, and, with its large cast of quirky characters and its telling of the life story of its titular character from boyhood through adulthood, it’s easy to see how he would grow attached to them as a writer. It’s not my favorite of Dickens, though—His trademark humor is present, but I just didn’t find the story as compelling as, say, A Tale of Two Cities. Still, this is a fairly sweeping epic, and one I did enjoy a lot.
Anna Karenina is a tragic tale of the dangers of moral compromise and the slippery slope of deception. Tolstoy is wonderful in his descriptions and his character development and, long as this book was, I viewed it as something of a taste-test to see if I liked Tolstoy before committing to his famously lengthy War and Peace. The good news is that I found I do indeed like Tolstoy. The bad news is that I no longer have a good excuse not to read War and Peace.
BEST UNCATAGORIZABLE: Watership Down by Richard Adams
Is Watership Down a book for children or adults? Is it a fantasy? A family drama? A piece of literary fiction? A war novel? A book on the habits of rabbits in the wild? Ultimately these questions don’t matter all that much—the real question at hand is “is it good?” The answer to this is a resounding yes. A serious novel about a family of rabbits searching for a new home, Watership Down is a surprisingly epic and utterly unique piece of fiction.
So there you have it—a handful of the books I loved in 2014. Feel free to comment and share yours—I’m always on the prowl for good stuff to read. Until next time, see ya.