Best Books of 2014

Howdy, y’all! I’m feeling warm and happy after migrating down South for the holidays, and much looking forward to the new year ūüôā

Goodreads kindly sent me an email summary of the books I’ve read in 2014 – I hit 94! Don’t tell, but I’m going to cheat and round to 100, which sounds more impressive. And I’m nearly at 100 posts too, despite only writing this blog for the latter half of the year. So exciting!

In honor of 2014, here are my favorite reads in each genre with links to my reviews:

Contemporary: A Guide to the Birds of East Africa

Fantasy: The Curse of Chalion (close runners-up:¬†The Emperor’s Blades and The City of Stairs)

Historical Fiction: The Visitors

Horror: Dracula

Mystery: Big Little Lies

Nonfiction: War of the Whales (close runner-up: Dream Team)

YA Contemporary: Great (close runner-up: Love Letters to the Dead)

YA Fantasy: tie between Deep Blue and The Paper Magician

If you haven’t gotten around to these in 2014, I highly recommend all of them for 2015. With fingers crossed for another year of great new books, Happy New Year!!!

Lydia Millet’s Mermaids in Paradise

Mermaids in ParadiseI think mermaids are the hot new thing. In addition to this, I read and enjoyed J. Kathleen Cheney’s The Golden City¬†in the spring,¬†reviewed Jennifer Donnelly’s¬†Deep Blue (Waterfire Saga #1)¬†early on in my blog, and have Ally Condie’s¬†Atlantia¬†sitting on my shelf for next year. Also, coincidentally I watched the 1980s rom-com film¬†Splash¬†with Tom Hanks while reading this book and The Little Mermaid¬†was on as I’m writing this review. So maybe mermaids are just “in” in my head.

Speaking of, for Lydia Millet’s Mermaids in Paradise,¬†we’re in the head of¬†sarcastic, high-powered businesswoman Deb,¬†beginning in the run-up to Deb’s cool California wedding to Chip, a laid-back, outgoing charmer. After intense negotiation that may be insulting to Middle Americans, the newlyweds decided to go to the Caribbean for their honeymoon, where their vacation is interrupted by a marine biologist who insists she has found mermaids. Natural adventurer Chip eagerly tags along on the quest to find them, while Deb follows dutifully, reluctant to let her new husband go off alone. When the mermaids are found, much to their surprise, they must rally together with a rag-tag band of tourists, including an ex-Navy seal, a Japanese blogging celebrity, and a kooky old married couple, to protect the new species from the greedy hotel corporation who wants to capture them as prized attractions.

(Spoiler Alert)

Deb takes a little getting used to, as she comes off as slightly bitchy and more than slightly alcoholic; however, Chip is a winner from the start and their couple dynamic quickly won me over. Plus the couple that adventures together stays together? And boy, is this an adventure! I didn’t really expect it to go the way it did with the marine biologist Nancy being murdered, Deb being kidnapped, the militia and bombs everywhere. It stretches plausibility at times, but what can you expect from a book about mermaids. Yet the titular mermaids were hardly present and never given their own voice – instead, the narrative voiced a human concern for a rapidly declining environment, disgust about rampant commercialization, and a reverent appreciation for nature. This poignancy belied the obvious satire of the plot, but somehow the extremes worked well together.

For much of the book, this was an engrossing, uniquely enjoyable read, with murder and mayhem in addition to mermaids. However, the ending was really confusing (wtf random asteroid) and left me with an unsettled-in-a-bad-way feeling, which I find frequently happens in fiction. I wish Millet had ended it instead with the mermaids riding the whales off into the sunset. Still it was an amusing pick as I gear up for my own Caribbean vacation!

3.5 Stars

 

Evil Librarian by Michelle Knudsen

Evil LibrarianI joke a lot with my friends about needing to find a hot librarian to date, so I was amused to find it to be the plot of this book.

Cynthia Rothschild is constantly teased by her friends about her obvious, but thusfar unrequited, crush on popular Ryan, so when her best friend Annie falls head over heels for the new sexy librarian Mr. Gabriel, Cyn’s looking forward to returning the favor. Then she realizes that there’s something weird about Annie’s infatuation and the object of her affections, and not just that he’s too old for her. Namely, after walking in on him flexing his wings in the middle of a creepy¬†ritual in the library, she realizes that he is in fact a demon. Now in addition to winning Ryan’s heart and making sure that the school musical¬†Sweeney Todd¬†runs smoothly, she has to figure out how to vanquish Mr. Gabriel before he kills the entire school.

Once you pick up this book, you pretty much just have to go with it. The premise is definitely creative and fun. The demon culture is actually fairly fleshed-out, from their love of musical theater to the showdown for the demon throne. ¬†Mr. Gabriel didn’t seem very appealing though I guess that’s because we get him through the page and Cyn’s perspective. There’s a sassy demonness who is one of Mr. Gabriel’s rivals and the more attractive character by far. I agreed with the demons that the depiction of the ¬†Sweeney Todd¬†production was the highlight, more so than even the demon rumble.

Cyn was definitely someone I could see myself being friends with, and such a loyal friend as she fought to save her bestie from becoming a demon’s bride. Her love interest Ryan was a jock as well as the star of the musical, an unlikely combination but a winning one.¬†The romance between Cyn and Ryan was cute, but unmemorable. The message was much more about the strength of Cyn’s and Annie’s relationship in the face of men, demons, and adversity of the average teenage and mythical varieties.

Overall, this book was ridiculous but I don’t have that much else to say. Even embracing that doesn’t make it great, though I think fans of Buffy will enjoy it. I personally found it mildly entertaining but nothing exciting, and¬†I would recommend it for a laugh.

3 Stars

Katie Heaney’s Never Have I Ever

Never Have I Ever: my life (so far) without a dateStarting from the title, Katie Heaney’s¬†Never Have I Ever: My life (so far) without a date¬†got me. As a single woman of approximately the same age as her, I knew I’d relate to her memoir of her own hapless dating experiences.

This is a super-short review because you really have to read it, to be in the mindset, to appreciate it fully. But if you’re anything like me, you will definitely identify with¬†her insights. Heaney tracks her lack of romance from her first crush in elementary school through the post-college present day. As a millennial, I particularly related to her failed attempts at online dating, from the excitement to tedium of creating a profile to the very awkward first date – all experiences that my friends have repeatedly recounted for me.

Like my friends, Heaney’s tend to be the heart of her story of singledom. In particular, her best friend Rylee, whom she refers to as a “lighthouse” (i.e. the type of person whom other people are drawn to), reminded me of a number of friends and acquaintances. Additionally, I (prone to nostalgia) enjoyed her reminiscing about living with other women in a crowded college dorm – I fondly (and sometimes not-so-fondly) bring those stories out at any university reunion, be it with one person over coffee or with a crowd at a tailgate.

While not the most insightful memoir, reading Heaney seems exactly like gossiping with your girlfriends. Sometimes what you really need is an entertaining outsider’s take on the same awkward things you’re going through, a type of literary catharsis, and in those cases, this is the perfect read.

4 Stars

Robert Jackson Bennett’s City of Stairs

City of StairsI really have Goodreads to thank for this pick, since I spotted it for the first time on their Goodreads Choice Awards nominations list. Naturally, I voted despite only having read a few books on the list – my fantasy choice was Brian Staveley’s¬†The Emperor’s Blades¬†– but I quickly added all the ones I hadn’t read to my “to read” list.

The city of Bukilov, Robert Jackson Bennett’s¬†City of Stairs, lies at the heart of the continent, a noble and powerful city now in ruins after the death of its guardian Gods and the colonization by it’s former colony of Saypur. With its history censored and its economic and technological development stalled, its people quietly seethe under the yoke and its administrators have their hands full keeping the peace. When a renowned historian is brutally murdered, quiet mousy Shara Divani is sent by her government under the guise of a lowly diplomat to ferret out the culprit. As a master spy and amateur researcher into Bukilov’s past, she soon begins to suspect that the divine are still alive and may return to wreak their vengeance.

(Mild spoilers ahead)

First of all, I loved that, unlike most fantasies, this one was based around czarist Russia/eastern Europe and Mughal India. I’ve only read one other of the former and none of the latter, so it was an exceptionally fresh and exciting universe for me. The world-building was fascinating, with a rich history of intercultural relations and the miracles of the divinities, who each had distinct identities with real-world parallels. After the downfall of the divinities, their power vanished from this world, resulting in the Blink, a mysterious event in which people were lost and cities were destroyed. As a result, the one thing I had trouble envisioning was how the continent and island of Saypur were laid out in relation to each other both pre- and post-Blink, and I wish Bennett had included a map.

As for the plot, I found it to be an intriguing blend of a murder mystery, spy thriller, and epic fantasy with the added bonuses of political machinations and religious debate. From just the opening scene in the courtroom, we’re treated to an insight into the Saypuri legal system, the tension between the colonized and colonizers, and the cultural and historical differences between nations. Some readers may find that they trip over the piles of info-dump, but for me the background was integrated fluidly into the present action.

The characters made the book with their complex, individual personalities. My personal favorite was soldier turned Bukilov governor Turyin Mulaghesh, a fierce and intelligent woman with a wry sense of humor, repeatedly eyeing the younger men and wishing she could retire to a quiet beach somewhere. Vohannes’ passionate patriotism and flamboyance balanced out the darker parts of the narrative, especially the past of giant Viking-like secretary Sigrud and the dirty secrets behind the historic victory of the Kaj. ¬†My preferred divinity was Olvos, who came across as a benevolent mothering figure, in contrast to her more manipulative, meddling divine siblings.

The main negative for me was that I found Shara hard to access, which is problematic since she’s presumably the one we’re rooting for. I loved her moments of vulnerability and the tea-connoisseur, gourmet-cook side of her personality. We get curiosity-inducing pieces of her relationship with Vohannes, doomed because he is gay not because she is emotionally closeted as I initially presumed, but her relationships with most of the other characters remain fairly shallow with faint explanations of their shared pasts. Mostly, she came off as a bit too perfect and strong for me to really embrace her struggle against the man. Additionally, her discontent with the system seemed not so much to spark change but to replace the current status quo with her own oligarchy of ideas.

Nevertheless, by combining my favorite genres, this is definitely one of the best¬†books that I’ve read this year. I liked that it can stand alone, though I hear there is a sequel in the works, but at least it doesn’t end on a cliff-hanger. The ending answered the majority of my questions in a satisfying way and overall it concluded the break-neck, twisting narrative with a bang. ¬†Due to Bennett’s genius genre-crossing, I would heartily and highly recommend this book for fantasy fans, mystery/thriller aficionados, or even lovers of historical fiction with an open mind.

4.5 Stars

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

The Rosie Project (Don Tillman #1)Graeme Simsion’s¬†The Rosie Project¬†(Don Tillman #1)¬†has been heralded since it came out in 2013 and had been on my to-read list nearly as long. Thanks to my book club selecting it as December’s pick, I finally got around to reading it, though I unfortunately missed discussing it as I was under the weather.

Professor Don Tillman, having never had a girlfriend, let alone been on a second date, is shocked to hear from an elderly female neighbor¬†that he’d be perfect husband material. Conceding that there probably is someone out there for him and, despite his difficulty with social interaction, deciding that he actually would want a mate, Don embarks on The Wife Project, a well-organized, questionnaire-based search that will narrow down the pool to the perfect candidate. She must be punctual and logical, a meat-eater and non-smoker, with a reputable profession.

Barmaid, vegetarian, and late-arriver Rosie is none of that. Yet when his womanizing best friend Gene sends her into Don’s office, he takes a chance. He finds her fascinating, fiery, and determined to fulfill her own personal project to find her birth father, one that Don is perfectly equipped to help her with being a renowned genetics researcher. As The Wife Project takes the back-burner to The Father Project, Don’s carefully structured life begins to break down and he realizes compatibility can’t be found on paper and his surveys didn’t account for romantic chemistry.

Well, we can all see where this is going. But the story lies in following the path to the inevitable conclusion, which is full of adorable hijinks, such as Don’s meticulous self-training to become an expert mixologist to his bonding with baseball fans on an impromptu trip to New York City. Simsion¬†perfectly balances the humor of these scenes with the underlying tragedy of Don’s attempts to learn how to love.¬†Don was¬†a very real, very relatable human being despite having Aspberger’s because he is so upfront about his socialization issues and so determined to overcome them.

Rosie is not Don’s ideal mate and, to be honest, she definitely wouldn’t be mine either even if I preferred women. In fact, I don’t even want to be friends with her. Yes, it’s great that she’s spontaneous and brings Don out of his shell but she’s also judgmental, obnoxious, and downright rude about the man who raised her. Whether or not he’s her natural father, he did the best he could raising her as a single dad after her mom passed away and it’s completely ridiculous that she’s still holding onto a grudge that he didn’t take her on the promised trip to Disneyland. For goodness sakes, Rosie, you’re a grown woman and can take yourself to Disneyland if it bothers you that much. Despite berating Don for his lack of human empathy, she’s self-centered herself, unable to relate to the struggles of other people and understand/accept their flaws, something Don actually does much better.

Although you could argue that she changed Don for the better, in reality he did everything himself even though she was the catalyst. Plus, he was great as he was, if not perfectly happy as Gene points out towards the conclusion. I think the reason I didn’t like the book as much as I thought I would was because I wasn’t rooting for her and Don to be together. I’m happy that Don got his realistically happy ending, but I would’ve been happier if I thought she was good enough for him.

3.5 Stars

 

Roomies by Sara Zarr and Tara Altebrando

RoomiesIt’s that time of the year that’s all the nostalgia bubbles up. My birthday was in September, followed by a quick reunion with my college friends in October for Homecoming, and a lazy (but cold) day at the beach with my best friend from high school over Thanksgiving¬†–¬†months of thinking how time has flown. And now, we’re only a few weeks away from a new year, which always brings both trepidation and excitement, though I’m quite glad to be getting out of 2014!¬†My point is, Sara Zarr and Tara Altebrando’s¬†Roomies¬†fit the mood of the moment.

Jersey native Elizabeth lives with her single mom in a small, smothering town and can’t wait to escape to UC Berkeley for college. When she receives her roommate assignment, she immediately emails Lauren to coordinate logistics and to begin building a best friendship. However, Lauren, the eldest child in a large San Francisco-based family, had been hoping to have a single and Elizabeth’s email came as a nasty shock. Resigned and unsure, she ultimately decides to make the best of it and cautiously responds, hoping her new roommate isn’t a serial killer.¬†As tensions rise with¬†their families and friends, they surprisingly find themselves turning to each other for comfort and dating¬†advice, until their first fight leads them to doubt whether they should actually be¬†Roomies.

Told from alternately Elizabeth’s and Lauren’s perspectives as they get to know each other through¬†their email, this book¬†explores the transition from childhood to adulthood in a relatable way. Like Elizabeth, I remember hoping that my new roommate was going to be my best friend – it didn’t happen, but I am still close with much of my freshman floor. Like Lauren, I was “academically-inclined” (read: nerdy) and socially awkward in high school so I worried about fitting in in college. ¬†A few misunderstandings arose as a result of their fear of coming across weird or overly strong, a point I understood well because it’s taken me years to even slightly get over my worry of that.

However, I think this book fell flat for me because¬†I¬†didn’t want to be besties with either, despite empathizing somewhat with their issues. From my high horse of ostensible maturity, they frequently came off as young and naive. That just means that they were portrayed as realistic teenagers, with parental problems and boy troubles and the like. Still, I appreciated how the authors handled Lauren’s connection with her supportive parents and budding interracial romance as well as Elizabeth’s feelings towards her single mom and frustrations with her high school friend group breaking apart.

The climax faltered for me because of its intense levels of teenage angst. While I could see both points of view all along, their argument was ultimately a chance for them to grow up further and learn to relate better to others, a painful process for the reader as they brood and sulk for pages. Sadly, there’s not yet a sequel because I’m more¬†curious about¬†how Lauren and Elizabeth’s roomie-relationship turns out because they’ll obviously have¬†more conflict once they’re stuck in the same teeny dorm room. The book unfortunately ends just as Elizabeth turning the door to enter the room and meet Lauren in person for the first time, admittedly a smart and overall hopeful conclusion.

Nevertheless, as it is this would be a perfect read to soothe the anxieties of girls headed off to college РI say girls because the plot veers towards the chick-lit but I think it does contain a few critical lessons for guys too. But I must be old because the triviality of their issues bothered me somewhat, though it made for an amusing detour down memory lane.

3.5 Stars