cvr9781476746586_9781476746586_lgThis is the time of year when every publication, print or online, feels obligated to publish a “Best Books” of the year list. Every year, hundreds of thousands of books are published in the United States, so it seems like an impossible task for anyone to pick 10 of the “best” books. The New York Times publishes a list of 100 notable books, and then a couple of weeks later, announces the 10 best. (I thought it was amusing that the Times initially gave All the Light We Cannot See, my favorite novel this year, a mediocre review back in May when it came out, but now has the book listed as one of its 10 Best).

These year-end lists seem to make more sense with movies. I don’t know how many movies are released each year, but I would guess that a critic could manage to see most of them. Even if a critic read a book a day, he or she would still have read a tiny fraction of the books published by major publishers each year. It’s disheartening to think about how many brilliant books are published each year that fail to receive critical acclaim or even much readership.

Authors seem to get grumpy about these lists. Ayelet Waldman, an author who is famous for airing her opinions on social media (her thoughts on the Kardashians: they are “vile scumbag pigs”), was disappointed that the New York Times didn’t include her well-reviewed novel, Love and Treasure, in its list of notable books. So she tweeted: “It’s just so f***ing demoralizing. You pour your heart into your work, you get awesome reviews, and then someone decides it’s not “notable.” I mean. Why do I bother? I could write a f***ing journal.” Charming . . .

Booksellers aren’t always crazy about ranking their favorite books. In a blog post titled Trying to Come Up With My Year’s Favorites, Daniel Goldin (Boswell and Company in Milwaukee) flatly states, “I hate making these sorts of lists.” Every year, the store publishes a year-end “Boswell Best” list, and Daniel says, “Every year, I am one of the last people to come up with my books, which sort of drives people crazy, but what can they do, as I always look very, very busy, and heck, I own the place.” Parnassus Books in Nashville (owned by author Ann Patchett) sidestepped the problem by asking 18 well-known authors what books they will be giving for the holidays this year (Writers to the Rescue: Your Favorite Authors Share Their Gift Lists.) I love that Héctor Tobar and Hampton Sides each recommend one another’s books, without knowing the other was being asked for a book recommendation.

Still, the urge to create a list of favorite books can be irresistible. For what it’s worth, here’s a list of the books I loved the most this year. What do they all have in common? To quote Maureen Corrigan of NPR, “All of the disparate books on my list contain characters, scenes or voices that linger long past the last page of their stories.”  I kept it to 10 (five nonfiction, five fiction) — unlike Corrigan, who included a dozen books on her list (Sometimes You Can’t Pick Just 10). Candidates for my list were books originally published in 2014, which eliminated some great books from 2013 (or earlier) that I read this year.


9780385535373In the KIngdom of Ice by Hampton Sides
Like all the best narrative nonfiction books, In the Kingdom of Ice is much more than an enthralling account of a historical event. Sides paints a detailed picture of post-Civil War society, when many young men who missed the opportunity to fight in the war were looking for opportunities to become heroes. His engaging, and often very funny, portrayal of newspaper titan James Gordon Bennett, Jr. (backer of the voyage), shows us the increasing role of the press. He covers Native American culture in the Arctic . . . the state of scientific and geographic knowledge in the Victorian era . . . and most of all, the enormous human capacity for courage and endurance.

Deep Down Dark by Héctor Tobar
Ann Patchett’s favorite book of the year was just selected as the first book for NPR’s Morning Editions Book Club. In an NPR interview, Patchett says, “It’s a riveting story. It was riveting when we were watching it on the news, it’s riveting in the book . . .  Even though we already know they’re safe, there’s an enormous amount of suspense and tension.” The book also stands out, Patchett says, because of Tobar’s beautiful and thoughtful writing. “He’s taking on all of the big issues of life,” she says. “What is life worth? What is the value of one human life? What is faith? Who do we become in our darkest hour?”

9780062284068A Deadly Wandering: A Tale of Tragedy and Redemption in the Age of Attention by Matt Richtel
A groundbreaking legal case and the latest scientific research on the brain and attention combine in this compulsively readable, multi-layered story about a devastating accident affecting several families and the perils of multitasking in today’s digital world. There are no villains in Pulitzer-Prize winning author Richtel’s moving account of a young man’s journey from what the New York Times describes as a “thoughtless, inadvertent killer to denier of his own culpability to one of the nation’s most powerful spokesmen on the dangers of texting while behind the wheel.” The book isn’t preachy by any means, but the message it delivers about distracted driving is lifesaving.

The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace by Jeff Hobbs
Robert Peace, a 2002 graduate of Yale and a product of inner-city Newark, was murdered at age 30 in a drug-related shooting. Hobbs, who was Peace’s roommate in college and who remained a close friend after graduation, has written one of the most thought-provoking books I’ve read in a long time. Why did Peace, a brilliant young man with a promising career in scientific research, succumb to the drug trade? Hobbs thoroughly and thoughtfully examines Peace’s life in all its complexity and contradictions, with the help of Peace’s family, friends, colleagues, and teachers.cover

Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown
I’m not sure if this is a self-help or a business book — at Lake Forest Book Store, we shelve it in the business section. Either way, these are categories I rarely explore.  Essentialism really resonated with me; in fact, as soon as I finished it I ordered multiple copies for gifts. McKeown’s book shows us how to shape a life that is filled with meaningful activity. The book doesn’t advocate that we abandon our electronic devices, and it doesn’t provide tips for time management or organization.  It’s a philosophical guide to setting priorities in life.


All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
It didn’t win the National Book Award, but can we hope for the Pulitzer? This is the only book I’ve ever jumped the gun on and reviewed on the blog before it was published, which I don’t think I’m supposed to do. It’s such an extraordinary book, I just couldn’t wait.

9781410468895The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin
A widowed bookseller has lost his zest for life — but his life changes when two things happen: he finds a baby on his doorstep and he falls in love with his sales rep. This wonderful book is a love letter to the book business, and to reading. I loved this book so much that as soon as I finished it I reread it. I don’t think I’ve ever done that before! It lives in a stack on my nightstand along with a few other very special books.

The Headmaster’s Wife by Thomas Christopher Greene
The Headmaster’s Wife is a page-turner with very surprising plot twists, but much more than that —  it’s a beautifully written exploration of marriage, friendship, grief, and mental illness. What do we owe to those we love? What actions are unforgivable? What is the breaking point from which a person can’t recover? Greene said the questions he asked himself when writing the book were, “What happens if you don’t hold it together? What happens if life just completely falls apart?”

We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas
I think this debut novel, the story of more than 50 years in the life of Eileen Tumulty Leary and her family, is a masterpiece. I read the book months ago, and I still can’t stop thinking about it. As I was reading it, I was reminded of Alice McDermott. The New York Times reviewer remarked on the connection between the two authors: “Mr. Thomas’s narrow scope (despite a highly eventful story) and bull’s-eye instincts into his Irish characters’ fear, courage and bluster bring to mind the much more compressed style of Alice McDermott. (According to this book’s acknowledgments, she has been one of his teachers. If he wasn’t an A student then, he is now.)”9780804137744

I Shall Be Near to You by Erin Lindsay McCabe
A headstrong young woman disguises herself as a man, enlists in the Union Army, and follows her new husband into battle in this beautiful story of love and war. Based on letters written by Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, this is historical fiction at its best. My husband (a Civil War buff) enjoyed I Shall Be Near to You as much as I did, and his usual taste in Civil War books runs to long, detailed biographies of Civil War generals.

What books are in your top 10?





26 thoughts on “10 Favorite Books of 2014 — I Couldn’t Resist Making a List

  1. great list! All the Light We Cannot See will definitely be on mine as well. But I’m late on this and only post in January, as I still read a lot in December, and sometimes the best gem comes then

    1. Sadly, I think I’m not going to get much reading done the next couple of weeks — although I’m reading The Narrow Road to the Deep North and considered delaying the favorite books post until I was done with that, because it’s amazing.

  2. Great list and thanks for the nice round-up of other lists to check out! I’ve been kicking myself for not getting my review copy of We Are Not Ourselves read pre-pub! It definitely needs to go on my list of books published this year that might have made my favorites list if I had read them! I listened to The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry and loved it. Should buy myself a print copy and read it over again that way.

  3. Completely agree with All the Light We Cannot See! I would also add We Were Liars and Station Eleven for my list. And so glad to see you listed the Headmaster’s Wife.,,,,I had added it to my TBR list and could not recall where I had seen this book mentioned and why I should read it. Its has moved back to the top of my list to ensure it gets read soon. Happy Holidays!

    1. I debated We Were Liars — if I could have included 11 it would have been on the list! I haven’t read Station Eleven but EVERYONE is raving about it — I’ll have to read it! Happy Holidays to you!

  4. I really need to get to In the Kingdom of Ice. I’m totally kicking myself for not reading it closer to its release date because now I’ll probably let it keep slipping and I’ve heard nothing but great things.

  5. I think I read In the Kingdom of Ice due to your plug during Nonfiction November. I’m so glad I did! I could not come up with a list of new releases, because I read so few of them this year. But I did read some wonderful books, and it was really hard to stop at ten (I cheated by grouping some together).

  6. I’m seeing AJ Fikry on a lot of lists — it didn’t really work for me. But I really want to read All the Light and We are Not Ourselves. I’ve heard good things about Hampton Sides too. I read almost no new releases this year, so no real input on any of the best of lists, except I’m happy to see they are all pretty different. No “it” book this year except maybe All the Light…

    1. I feel like All the Light We Cannot See is becoming the It book which makes me happy, because I loved it so much . . . but unfortunately, it is sold out at the store where I work and the publisher tells us it won’t be available until after Christmas. Yikes, didn’t they know they had a winner on their hands?!

  7. You have two of my favorites on your fiction list – A J Fikry and I Shall Be Near to You. I have a copy of All the Light We Cannot See, and I’m hoping to have time to indulge over the holidays! I’d like to check out some of your non-fictions picks as well — thanks for the great suggestions!

  8. You inspired me to review my year in books. Here is my top 10 list (in no particular order): 1) Things I’ve Learned from Dying (Dow), 2) Station Eleven, 3) 10:04 (Lerner), 4) Lila (Robinson), 5) The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace, 6) Immunity: An Inoculation (Bliss), 7) Being Mortal (Gawande), 8) Acceptance (Southern Reach Trilogy), 9) Doctor Sleep (King), 10) All The Light We Cannot See

    1. You have a great list! I am really looking forward to reading Immunity and Being Mortal in particular. Everyone tells me to read Station Eleven, but I just don’t know if I can do dystopian. I should really step outside my comfort zone and try! Hope all is well with you and you have a wonderful Christmas with your husband and adorable daughter! XO

  9. I love that you had The Headmaster’s Wife on your list and I’m mad- because he is on my list as well but I foolishly had him as a debut! Damn- I already published my favorites for the year. Anyway, I loved that book- never saw it coming and could not put it down.

  10. All The Light and Fikry are both on my favorite list for 2014. I just haven’t been able to get that post out because I can’t get my list under 15. Next week maybe. And I really do need to read more nonfiction. My favorite this year was a graphic memoir titled “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant” by Roz Chast. Such a range of emotions reading that one!

    1. It was really hard to get the list under 15! I have Roz Chast’s book on my shelf, and I’ve heard it’s terrific, but I have a problem reading graphic books — I get a headache just looking at the page. i’m going to try to get past that though!

  11. I really like pulling together my favorites of the year list — I think it’s fun to reflect on a year of reading and get reminded about the books that resonated with me. Plus, reading the lists is fun because it reminds me of books I missed out on — in this case, Kingdom of Ice, Essentialism, and The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace. Thanks

  12. I also enjoyed the books you have suggested. In addition I would have to add A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman, Whistling Past the Graveyard by Susan Crandall and The Universe vs. Alex Woods. These are books that I likely would have ignored if I saw them on the shelf, however the ladies at Lake Forest Bookstore recommended them and I was so happy that they had!

  13. This year I especially enjoyed Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore.

    I think I’m going to read The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry this holiday season thanks to your recommendation. It looks terrific and I love reading books about the reading, writing, and bookselling life.

  14. Ha – I had no idea that the NYT had given All the Light a mediocre review and then put it on their 10 Best list! This makes me laugh b/c I lived in NYC for almost 8 years and now live in the suburbs outside of NYC….and I’ve always thought the NYT was a pretentious joke (I’m sure this comment will rile up some people, but whatever). Anyway – I couldn’t get into All the Light…I tried the Amazon Sample and didn’t buy the whole book after feeling like I was slogging through the sample. AJ Fikry, on the other hand, was my #1 of the year! Also really liked We Are Not Ourselves. And – I completely succumbed to the Best of lists….I have so much fun making them and love reading other people’s. Who cares if we all haven’t read every book out there!

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