My favorite books of 2014

I still have a few more books from 2014 that I need to finish or start soon, like the Romanov Sisters, Nora Webster and The Opposite of Loneliness. But the following books (plus two others I’ve already written about here, The Silkworm and The Secret Place) are my favorites of 2014 right now.

 

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Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

First-time novelist Celeste Ng’s literary mystery has been growing in popularity since Amazon’s book editors selected it as their best book of 2014. Published in June, the book is sold out my neighborhood Barnes & Noble and is one of Amazon’s top sellers.  There’s a reason it’s winning so many accolades, it is a haunting, one-of-a-kind book that I read entirely during one snowy afternoon. I was hooked in the first few pages by the well-developed plot, authentic characters and outstanding writing.

Race, gender, family expectations and sudden death are a few of the heady subject matters Ng tackles with grace. We know from the book’s first sentence that the 16-year-old protagonist Lydia Lee is already dead. Lydia was her parent’s favorite child and they projected their own dreams onto her without ever getting to really know their daughter. Like many unexpected deaths, the tragedy unravels the Lee family. The issues that were simmering under the surface of the seemingly happy family are all brought to light.

Ng expertly takes the reader back and forth in time to see how these dynamics developed over the years and of course, to solve the mystery of Lydia’s death. The book never delves into the police procedural realm but instead dives deep into the perspective of each character to analyze the events that lead to Lydia’s drowning and what they could have done to prevent it. The ending is unforgettable and wrenching but leaves the reader with some hope.

“Everything I Never Told You” powerfully shows how damaging it is to try to live up to expectations of perfection, both self-imposed and imposed by others. It also illustrates how important it is to truly know the people closest to you, not just your idea of them. The book truly is a masterpiece.

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The Children Act by Ian McEwan

“Atonement” is one of all-time favorite books and I know that Ian McEwan will likely never write anything better but I still love his newer works. “The Children Act” is no exception.

Like his 2007 novel “On Chesil Beach”, it can easily be read in one sitting but that doesn’t make it any less powerful. The book centers around Fiona Maye, a British magistrate in her 50s who works in family court but has no children of her own.

The Children Act itself is a British law that states, “When a court determines any question with respect to . . . the upbringing of a child . . . the child’s welfare shall be the court’s paramount consideration.” This rule is at the core of the very tough decisions Fiona must make every day.

At the heart of the plot is a particular case: a 17-year-old boy with leukemia who refuses a life-saving blood transfusion because of his family’s Jehovah Witness faith. What authority does Fiona have to intervene and force a boy to get a life-saving treatment he doesn’t want? The ultimate answer is heartbreaking.

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All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Set in France and Germany in World War II, “All the Light We Cannot See” explores how the unseemly war affects the lives of two children, Marie Laure, a French girl who went blind at the age of 6, and Werner, a precocious German orphan with a technological bend.  The story switches between their viewpoints and different times in their lives so you stay invested in each character’s story equally.

The reader feels a sense of urgency and worry throughout the book as many tragedies befall Marie Laure, Werner and the people around them. Although they are on opposite sides of the war, their paths eventually cross for a short period of time.

I’ve heard some criticism of the book’s final chapters, which skip ahead to the 1970s and 2014. I thought they were very effectivey at tying up loose ends and a moving way to express the guilt and regret that the German people felt about the Holocaust and the Third Reich.

 

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The Story of Land and Sea by Katy Simpson Smith

Have you ever been to a haunting old house or town and wished that you could turn back time to see what transpired there hundreds of years ago? People who long to breathe life into historical places will love this book.

This debut novel is set apart by its hauntingly beautiful prose about a coastal village in North Carolina shortly after the American Revolution. For a short book, it packs a remarkable array of tough themes into it including slavery, religion, war and early death.

Separated into two distinct parts, the novel begins with a sailor named John, his 10-year-old daughter Tabitha and her grandfather Asa. Tabitha’s mother, John’s wife and Asa’s daughter Helen passed away during childbirth like her mother before her and countless women during that era.

The second part is set several years earlier and focuses on Helen, her slave Moll, Asa and eventually John. One of the strengths of this book is the strained relationship between Helen and Moll, which illustrates the evil of slavery.

This is a magical book and I wish it was getting the attention it deserves.

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