It’s that time again…the best-of roundup posts! I’m a little late to the party, but who cares? Here — in no particular order — are the best 5 books I read in 2014, plus some reading statistics just because…
Disclaimer: I’m always playing catch-up in my reading, so these aren’t the best books published in 2014, but the best I read. For links to some lists of the former, see the bottom of the post.
1. Starfish by Peter Watts.
Peter Watts is a Canadian SF author who writes very dark, very hard SF centered around biology. His novel Blindsight was shortlisted for the Hugo a few years ago, and the sequel, Echopraxia, came out last summer (I bought it promptly but haven’t read it yet).
Starfish was his first novel, but you couldn’t tell from the quality. It’s about a deep-sea station manned by people who’ve been modified with built-in wetsuits and breathing apparatus, which raises a couple of questions. First, what kind of people are willing to have that done to them (and live at the bottom of the ocean, next to an oceanic rift, for months)? Second, when your body is altered to live under these conditions, what does that do to your psyche? And that’s just for starters….
This book was big when it came out in 2010 (remember what I said about playing catch-up with my reading?). Cronin had previously published some family drama novels, and it shows…so this is a vampire apocalypse novel with family/small-town drama at the core and also a quest structure. Sounds like a strange mash-up, but for the most part, it really works. Cronin’s cross-genre roots serve him well — there’s a lot of hard-hitting emotional stuff intertwined with the end-of-the-world action.
My only quibble is the length. Despite the epic scope of the story, it didn’t need to be 900 pages long — 700 would have done just fine. Having said that, I devoured it at twice my usual reading speed, so make of that what you will.
This is the only non-genre book on the list (another high-profile 2010 novel), but I loved it in part for genre reasons, and I’ll tell you why. The concept is tough to read: it’s the story of a woman kidnapped and kept in captivity in a soundproofed garden shed, told from the perspective of her young son. Jack has been sheltered from the truth of their existence. To him, Room is the entire world; everything and everyone he sees on TV is pretend.
Watching him slowly learn otherwise is painful at times, but it also hits at the heart of what I love about genre: that sense of discovery, of learning about a world and how it works. As a bonus, the POV and narrative voice are extremely strong: we’re in five-year-old Jack’s head the whole way, even when we understand things he does not, and that’s both heartbreaking and amazingly effective.
You’ve probably all read this already, so I won’t say too much about it. It’s an ’80s novel, which made me all nostalgic — in part because I’ve read (and loved) other McKinley novels before, in part for the writing conventions of a time before YA was a “‘thing” and fantasy was just fantasy.
I found the pacing and conflict a bit uneven by today’s exacting standards, but the protagonist’s journey felt larger-than-life as she *ahem* gets dragged through the fire and has to rebuild herself stronger than ever. Plus, there’s a horse who really feels like a horse, with a complete personality. And I’m not the only one who loved it — this is a Newbery Medal winner.
By contrast, this is a contemporary YA fantasy (from 2011), so it’s full of familiar tropes. BUT I think this is what literary agents mean when they say they want writing that feels “fresh”. Despite the tropes, the characters ring true and bring depth to the story, and the sentence-level writing reaches for poetry without being overdone. I particularly enjoyed the fact that although the protagonist, Karou, is “special”, she’s also lonely and deeply insecure; and also the relationship with her best friend, full of in-jokes and teasing.
Fair warning: this is book 1 in a trilogy, and it shows.
What I loved about these:
- hard-hitting emotion and psychological depth
- huge character arcs
- SFF stories in which the whole world is affected/changed
- sentence-level writing that rises above the ordinary, whether it’s poetic (Laini Taylor) or a strong narrative voice (Emma Donoghue)
- strong sense of the world/place
That summary is especially timely for me right now, as I seek to regain my writing mojo. Note to self: read (and maybe, eventually, write) more of that!
On to the statistics…here’s hoping I’m not the only one interested in them. ;-)
I read 24 books in 2014, 7 fewer than in the previous year, but that’s not surprising because I was on a six-month sabbatical that year!
- 6 were adult fantasy (9 last year) and 6 were adult SF (5 last year).
- 2 were non-genre adult fiction (1 last year)
- 5 were YA fantasy (2 last year) and 2 were YA SF (2 last year)
- 3 were non-fiction (5 last year)
- I read no anthologies, poetry, YA non-genre (1 of each last year), or graphic novels / webcomics (3 last year)
17 of the books were part of series – almost all of my genre reading. (The exceptions were The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman and The Secret History of Moscow by Ekaterina Sedia.)
I read books by 22 different authors (not counting collaborations), of whom 9 were new to me this year (12 last year) and 13 were new-to-me books by previously read authors (11 last year).
6 of the authors were male, 15 female, and 1 presented as non-gendered (Mazarkis Williams, although hir novel, The Emperor’s Knife, was solidly hetero). Last year was 9 male and 14 female.
Publishing and Buying
Of all 24 books I read, 10 were published in the last five years – a ratio consistent with years past.
2 books were acquired for free from an SFF convention, 1 was a library book, 1 I read as an e-ARC (Advance Reader Copy), and 1 was free from Project Gutenberg. The rest I bought.
10/24 were ebooks – about 40%. (Last year was 33% and the year before was 25%, so it’s gradually creeping up! At the end of 2013 I finally got a smartphone, but it hasn’t changed my ereading habits much – I still read mostly on my Kobo B&W e-ink reader.) What I buy in ebook form:
- big fat fantasy novels or trade paperbacks that are too heavy to comfortably hold or lug around (2)
- older books that I can’t get in print from my local bookstore (3)
- out-of-copyright books (1)
- books from my to-read list that go on sale (2)
- books that I bought as ebooks for no particular reason (2)
I buy from my local indie SF&F bookstore whenever I can, otherwise that number would likely be higher!
Other Reading Recaps
Last year’s recap is here.
And here are some reading recaps/ “best-of” lists that actually cover SF&F books published in 2014…
- Joel Cunningham at the B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog
- Cheryl Morgan at Aqueduct Press
- Various reviewers at Tor.com
Your turn! What were the best books you read in 2014 (any genre)?