Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Best Books of 2014

Yes, it's that time of year again: time to look back through my blogged book reviews and pick the winners. In 2014 I didn't read much non-fiction, which is unusual for me, and I read a lot more SF, which is very unusual; in fact, Annihilation, an SF novel by Jeff Vandermeer, would have have been on this list but it's the first part of a trilogy so it will have to wait for 2015. As usual, just click on the titles to go to my original reviews.

The People in the Trees (2013) by Hanya Yanagihara

The main character in this novel about scientific discovery and the exploitation of the Third World starts out as an ass and ends up a monster. That the author holds our fascinated attention with this horrible person is amazing, as is her prose and the twists and turns of the plot. Not for the faint of heart.

The Sun is God (2014) by Adrian McKinty

McKinty, a fine writer of hardboiled Celtic Noir crime fiction, makes a detour into historical mystery fiction with this tale of a cult of German sun worshipers in New Guinea. The story, as bizarre as it seems, is based on a real crime, and McKinty uses it as a framework for looking at the birth of alternative lifestyles (kooks and cranks division) in the early 1900s. Excellent wrting that comes in a very small package by the standards of historical fiction.

Alone in Berlin (1947) by Hans Fallada

Easily the best novel about totalitarianism and World War Two I've ever read. A Berlin couple mount a small-scale and futile propaganda war against Hitler in 1941, and the novel charts their pursuit and capture by the Gestapo. There's a large cast of characters, almost all of whom meet sticky ends, and despite the unrelenting grimness of the story, Fallada is such an energetic, entertaining writer it becomes hard to put the book down. It's also published under the title Every Man Dies Alone.

Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel (2013) by Max Blumenthal

In the aftermath of Israel's recent assault on Gaza, this journalistic look at Israel's headlong rush towards becoming a fascist apartheid state provides an insight into why Palestinian lives are held so cheaply by Israel. This isn't a picture of Israel that's usually allowed into the mainstream media, and that makes it essential reading.

The Confession of Sultana Daku (2009) by Sujit Saraf

Daku was a famous bandit who terrorized the United Provinces of India in the 1920s. This novel brings that period to vivid life, but also examines the pernicious caste system that produced a bandit like Daku. Saraf is one of those great writers you've never heard of, and it'll take some work to find this novel--I had to order it from a used bookstore in New Delhi.

The Great Night (2011) by Chris Adrian

The fantasy genre is full of mashups, and this might be the most well-mashed I've come across. It's Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream plopped down in contemporary San Francisco, and it works because Adrian handles the fantasy elements masterfully while at the same time writing a deadly serious novel about the high cost of love. Be warned: these fairies are dangerous to be around, and the novel begins with a devastating description of a child's illness.

My Home is Far Away (1944) by Dawn Powell

To Kill a Mockingbird is rightly proclaimed as the Great American coming-of-age novel, but I'd place this novel a very, very close second. Powell was a literary star of post-war New York City, and this is her lightly fictionalized memoir of growing up in small town Ohio. Where Harper Lee's novel is warm and sentimental in its depiction of family life, Powell is brutal in describing the dysfunctional Willard family. A nice touch is that Powell didn't bother to change the name of her actual wicked stepmother when it came time to write the fictional version. Take that, stepmom.

Hard Rain Falling (1966) by Don Carpenter

A great, existential novel that follows a thuggish personality from orphanage to street hustler to prison and finally to a ramshackle kind of redemption. It's easy to see the connections between this novel and Jonathan Lethem's The Fortress of Solitude, including the fact that both novels go off the rails in the last act. Hard Rain Falling is so powerful and sharply written that despite its tire fire finale it still manages to make this list. The opening chapter by itself is a master class in tough, efficient, hardboiled prose.

The Centurions (1960) by Jean Larteguy

High-ranking officers in the US Army were being encouraged to read this book during the most recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It's easy to see why. Larteguy was a war correspondent and soldier who had first-hand experience of France's conflicts in Vietnam and Algeria. His novel is both a paean to the martial spirit, but also a savage and comprehensive look at why colonial powers are foiled by guerilla armies. It's a sprawling, exuberant novel that's comparable to Zola's La Debacle; in fact, this is probably the novel Zola would have written if he were alive in 1960.

The Son (2013) by Philipp Meyer

I've saved the best for last. This saga covering the lives of the McCullough family of Texas from the 1840s to the present day is a ripping yarn and a serious meditation on the central role of violence in American history. Meyer paints a big canvas with ferocious energy, and is unflinching in showing the worst in his American and Native American characters. Not quite the Great American Novel, but certainly a great American novel.

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