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.

Summer Movie Reviews: A Most Wanted Man, Begin Again, Magic in the Moonlight

It’s been well-documented that 2014 has not been the best summer for movies. How many terrible comedies, bad sequels, mediocre action movies and lackluster comic book/Transformers sagas can Hollywood release until the major studios realize what they’re doing wrong? Spending tons of money on marketing and casting famous stars does not guarantee that people will go see your movie.

There are actually a few very interesting and intelligent movies out right now that didn’t have the budget of Transformers 4.

A Most Wanted Man

At times it’s hard to watch Philip Seymour Hoffman’s last starring role in a movie because tragically, this is his final act. The role of talented and determined yet burdened German intelligence agent Günther Bachmann is a great fit for Hoffman. He plays it so perfectly that it elevates the whole movie to a different level. There’s no question that he was one of the best actors of his generation, if not the best.

Based on a book by John Le Carré, “A Most Wanted Man” tackles the war on terrorism and the world of espionage in the wake of the September 11th attacks. Bachmann plays the head of a small unit of roguish spies operating in Hamburg, a city under intense scrutiny because it was the home of 9/11 mastermind Mohamed Atta. As someone who is fascinated by these operations, I loved this movie and will definitely read the book.

Germany, who is afraid of harboring someone like Atta again, is taking an extremely close look at anyone entering Hamburg. When a suspicious Chechen enters the city illegally, he becomes the focus of Bachmann’s group, other German government entities and U.S. intelligence officers. The question remains, is he really a bad guy or is it just conjecture?

The suspense continues as intelligence officers untangle a web of Russian mafia, terrorists and otherwise upstanding citizens/possible sympathizers giving money to terrorists to buy weapons. It’s a very muddled crowd and frequently it is not clear who they should be following.

Robin Wright has a standout role playing CIA officer Martha Sullivan, who is Bachmann’s sometimes friend, sometimes foe, while evoking shades of House of Cards’ Claire Underwood. Willem Dafoe has a great turn as wealthy banker Tommy Brue whose help Bachmann needs.

Overall, this a great spy movie with a strong Le Carré plot and outstanding acting. The plot ends relatively abruptly but it closes with a haunting final scene of a frustrated Bachmann walking off the screen one final time.

Begin Again

John Carney, best-known for Once, returns with another movie that mixes music into the plot seamlessly. I actually enjoyed this movie more than Once because I found the plot and characters more relatable.

A British songwriter in her 20s Gretta (Keira Knightley) visits New York for an extended stay with her up and coming rocker boyfriend (played by first time actor Adam Levine). Dave, who Adam Levine embodies perfectly since he’s pretty much playing himself) inevitably cheats on Gretta the second he finds stardom. It leads to a heartbroken Gretta singing a song at an open mic night that is attended by a down on his luck record executive Dan (Mark Ruffalo) who immediately recognizes her potential. It takes a while for Dan to convince Gretta that she should step outside of her comfort zone and record an (outdoor!) album with him but when she does, the results are beyond anyone’s expectations.

It’s a hopeful movie with a very strong cast and soundtrack. Keira Knightley, who I think is a really underrated actress, surprises everyone with her singing talent. Her songs “Tell Me If You Wanna Go Home”, “Lost Stars” and “Like A Fool” are highlights. She really owns the role of Gretta and makes her believable as a young woman going through a scary major life change and finding hope in the struggle. In the past, Keira has said that she usually chooses period movies because they offer better roles for women and Gretta is a character as worthy as her past roles.

Mark Ruffalo really stands out in this movie too. He brings a warmth and charisma to Dan’s character that makes him trustworthy. It definitely would not have been the same without him.

I highly recommend this movie and it will find a bigger audience through word of mouth.

You can listen to the music from the movie here:

Magic in the Moonlight

Once I heard that this movie was about a man trying to debunk a spiritualist medium and it starred Colin Firth and Emma Stone, I was sold. Woody Allen is a controversial figure but his ability to write and direct movies with original plots starring great actors is unparalleled. Especially in the age of the remake, sequel, trilogy, franchise, etc.

Colin Firth stars as a grouchy upper-class British magician named Stanley whose stage show involves him dressing as a Chinese magician named Wei Ling Soo. The fact that the movie is set in the 1920s makes it a little easier to believe that Wei Ling Soo is a world-renowned performer. A fellow magician and old friend Howard Burkan (played by Simon McBurney) enlists Stanley’s help to debunk a spiritualist named Sophie who has captivated a wealthy American family and is now living with them in the South of France. The plot takes a lot of twists and turns from there as Sophie’s talents eventually capture the imagination of the famously skeptic Stanley.

This isn’t the best movie in the world but it’s enjoyable and worth seeing if it interests you. The art direction is amazing. The costumes, sets and settings are so gorgeous that you don’t want the movie to end because you feel like you’re on a fantasy vacation. The plot kept me hooked and Colin and Emma both have great comedic timing.