Saturday, January 3, 2015

My 10 Favorite Novels (ok, 11) of 2014

 “Some books should be tasted, some devoured, but only a few should be chewed and digested thoroughly.” –Francis Bacon   

I tasted, devoured, and chewed over 200 books in 2014. allows me to rate and organize them for reflection. I enjoy looking back and seeing what my books mean to me, how they've changed me. 

This was the year I discovered audible books and roared through 50 of them…they added much to my reading life and several will appear on my two (Yes, two…) Top Ten Lists.

First, fiction. I’ve always believed fiction is truer than nonfiction and it still answers my heart and soul.

Two favorites were the final installments of beloved young adult series.

Undivided, the end of the Unwind quartet. Menace, paranoia, in a society who has lost their way, seeing teens as enemies.  This world has turned young people into spare parts, and a small group of kids are willing to pay the ultimate price to break this world to pieces. Shusterman makes us think about hard issues, and I’m grateful. I gasped, I cried, I shuddered.

Blood of my Blood, the end of the I Hunt Killers Trilogy shocked and horrified. I was in agony reading, even though I had to peek at the ending.  I met this author, Barry Lyga, and got an advance copy of Game, the second in the series. My students and I are obsessed. I loved the characters, and Lyga puts them into the most awful situations. When my students and I tweeted him to rail at him to write this book fast, he seemed to delight in keeping us in suspense about our characters.

Three other young adult novels made my list:

Laurie Anderson’s The Impossible Knife of Memory, about PTSD. Her first novel with more than a one-word title, it is masterful. I listened to her speak of her own father’s PTSD, and this, in many ways, is a love letter to her father. I can see this book as a comfort, with all its fierceness, to kids who are suffering. Anderson is a treasure for our young people.

Winger – oh, why have I not read this one before? It begins with the narrator’s head in a commode. It made me laugh out loud and cry out loud.  Ryan Dean West, Winger, lives in a ritzy boarding school and plays rugby. In this book he learns more than he reckoned about life and rugby. Andrew Smith’s voice is utterly perfect. A sequel will be published next year that will show Winger dealing with the left-over issues from this book.

Brown Girl Dreaming is a memoir in verse, and one of the last books I read in 2014. Jacqueline Woodson is willing to go scary places in her books, and I’ve always loved her ability to connect with my reluctant readers. This gentle love letter to the people who raised her, gave her voice, and encouraged her is beautiful.  Her honesty about her struggles to read and her inventive strategies warmed my heart.

I reread three books and fell in love again…

To Kill a Mockingbird is my favorite book. I have tried so hard to remember  the first time I read it, and I can’t. It seems like it’s always been in my life. This year when I reread a brand new copy (I still have the beat-up copy I taught from for years, and two autographed copies – one by Lee herself and one by Mary Badham who played Scout), I quoted lines and posted pictures on Facebook and created a reading community…it was a fantastic way to return to this book. I wrote about it here.

How can you NOT love the narrator of I Capture the Castle? Its first line: “I write this sitting in the sink” introduces us to Cassandra Mortmain, the younger, not-so-pretty daughter of an eccentric writer who lives in a broken-down castle with few prospects. But don’t count Cassandra out. With wit and affection, she will forge her path.

And then, Up the Down Staircase. I read the book, I saw the film, but I forgot so much. An online friend’s review reminded me of the book, and the used copy I got from amazon was the original white and orange pocketbook paperback…with yellow, brittle pages that crumbled in my fingers. The story, on the other hand, was startlingly current…the kids, the administrators, the demands…nothing new under the sun. I so appreciated Hook’s honesty about the life inside a school.

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry was a wonderful surprise. I’ve read other books by Zevin and had been underwhelmed. But this. It’s Silas Marner in a book store. It’s about creating a family when yours has been destroyed. It’s about love and books and grief. I loved it. Loved it. Loved it. Another one that made me ugly-cry, even rereading my favorite lines from the book.

I spent the summer reading F. Scott Fitzgerald, and reading about him. I knew The Last Tycoon was unfinished, but I was mesmerized by it. By the maturity of Fitzgerald’s prose, by the insights of people and business in Hollywood. Having read so many biographies, I knew how very unhappy and unfulfilled he was those last years in Hollywood, writing on demand, but this novel would have been his towering masterpiece…I just hope he would have changed the proposed ending…in a snowstorm in Oklahoma. He never came to Oklahoma, and it was apparent in his writing. This is now officially my favorite of all his pieces. And, as I go back to, I see  I did not review it. So, just trust me. I loved it.

Aarrgh! I tried so hard to stay with ten...but Hemingway's Girl keeps glancing at me, chastising me for leaving her off my list. This was another reread this year. I read it IN Key West, after dragging my husband to Hemingway's home, not once, but twice. Speaking to the clerk at the gift shop made me realize not everyone loves this book as I do...a glance at Hemingway and his second wife through the eyes of a fictional character who worked in the home. Lots of great history, including the horrible hurricane of ..... Reading the book and seeing the house will always be a treasured memory.

I read 204 books last year, as usual, a collection that makes no sense to anyone but me. I read omnivorously and hungrily. 

There are so many other authors that could  be on this list of my Top Ten…Shirley Jackson, Stephen Kellogg, Mary Hahn, Michael Chabon, Terry Tempest Williams, a second book by Andrew Smith, Jewell Parker Rhodes, Anthony Marr, Dr. Seuss and Jack Prelutsky. Phillip Pullman, Louise Erdrich. Sorry, friends.

It was a wonderful year in books.


  1. Thanks got this list! I want to emulate you!

    1. Thanks...I miss having students to share these books with.

    2. You can share with us! I follow you on Goodreads, and I've frequently chosen a book because I saw you'd liked it. Thank you!

    3. LOL! I do. Probably some of my friends are tired of my booktalks...but they're in my blood. And I'm grateful some of you understand.

  2. I always love reading other people's reading lists. "Up the Down Staircase" is one of my favorites, and "Let it be a challenge to you." is something I mutter to myself almost as often as Dorothy Parker's "What fresh hell is this?" in my teaching practice. Admittedly, I also often give Vonnegut his due and invoke "If this isn't nice, I don't know what is."

    1. Isn't it funny how English teachers think in literary lines?

  3. Well, I want to emulate you, too! For the first time, there are no crossovers (other than the historical/re-reads of Up the Down and Mockingbird) in our fiction lists. I'll be interested to see what non-fiction you liked in 2014.

    It was a year in which I read fiction more than non-fiction (and most of that was centered on...gardening, not education or social issues). And you almost lapped me. My goal was 135 books, and I limped in at 112. I re-read a couple of books, but didn't count them--still, a mediocre showing in the Swisher-Flanagan Reading Challenge.

    Onward. 2015 dawns.

    1. Audible is the reason I surpassed my goal...and I hear I can borrow audio books from the library with Overdrive...will be looking into that.

      I love reading with you, Nancy. I check your reviews and they help me decide if I will like a book...