While 2014 has been a political and social cesspool, it has been a year of personal triumph for myself in the continuing effort to become a fully realized human being. That level of quality has been reflected in the books I read this year. I pull all my five star and four and a half star reviews to make my Year in Review shortlist every year, and some years I’ve had to dip down to the four star reviews. Not so this year. And I have very specific reading memories with all of these books, although I think that’s more about me actively trying to live in the present than the books themselves. (Although I imagine their quality didn’t hurt.)
So, without further ado, here are my favorite ten books of 2014. Catch you in 2015, cats and kittens.
As ever, these are my favorite books that I reviewed in 2014, not my favorite books that were released in 2014. (I am of all times! Although I am mostly of the eighties.)
10. Hawkeye: My Life as a Weapon
by Matt Fraction, David Aja, and Javier Pulido
Hawkeye doesn’t attempt to rehabilitate Clint’s image by making him a badass. Instead, it embraces and focuses on his strange, liminal status as a superhero. He’s an Avenger, but, subconsciously, he doesn’t feel like he’s an Avenger. Despite his riches, he chooses to live away from the Avengers in a not-so-great neighborhood in New York. He doesn’t have superpowers, which the opening issue illustrates beautifully by featuring Clint taking a truly heroic fall and then going through the recovery process for his serious injuries. Sure, Iron Man technically doesn’t have superpowers, but Clint lacks Tony’s outsized ambitions; that same issue finds Clint taking on a member of the Russian mob in order to give everyone in his building a break on their rent. (It ends with him becoming their landlord.) What, then, makes Clint a superhero?
Fraction’s answer: his compassion.
9. The Girls at the Kingfisher Club
by Genevieve Valentine
These stories—the stories of characters becoming full human beings—are my favorite, but Jo might be the oldest character to undergo this journey in anything I’ve read. Not that Jo is particularly ancient, but rather that Jo is recovering from a life where she’s had to be more symbol than anything else. I’m suddenly reminded of Pacific Rim’s Stacker Pentecost, who refuses to tell his life story because he only needs to be a fixed point in the lives of others. As the General, Jo is happy to let her sisters hate her and sacrifice her own desires so that her sisters can be safe. Before Jo can finally come into her own, she has to learn how to not only exist on her own but how to let others make their own decisions. It’s a difficult thing to do, really, when someone else’s wrong decisions are the difference between a life lived in snatches of moonlight and a life of your own.
8. New York Diaries
edited by Teresa Carpenter
New York Diaries is all about that accumulation of experiences and how it can reveal the soul of a city—New York City, obviously. (This my second New York read this winter, which is quite on purpose.) It plucks diary entries from four hundred years (1609 to 2009, to be precise) to show the city through the eyes of hundreds of people. I knew about this ever since I first eyed this book back during my first weeks at the Tattered Cover, alternately confident that it was a sign and despairing that the universe was mocking me. But I had no idea that the book is arranged not in a more traditional chronological order, but in a calendar format that lists entries from across history on the day they were written. It’s an idea that editor Teresa Carpenter confesses to copying from The Faber Book of Diaries, which utilizes the same format to examine British history, in her introduction. It gave me pause at first, but I’m both a child of and avid student of remix culture; I was almost immediately won over.
7. Gossamer Axe
by Gael Baudino
…among Gossamer Axe’s greatest strengths are a clear-eyed earnestness and almost maniacal attention to musical detail. (Which makes sense, given that Gael Baudino herself is a harper.) I’m often wary of urban fantasy, as it can get too gritty for my blood from time to time, but Gossamer Axe has no interest in noir. Instead, it marries together a bright, slightly sanitized late eighties rock and roll scene with an unchanging fairy world slowly unraveling, taking its own sweet time (despite the time table) so it can comment on the AIDS crisis, families, and, of course, feminism.
6. The Perks of Being a Wallflower
by Stephen Chbosky
[Charlie’s] incredible depth of feeling often leaves him paralyzed—not through indecision, but because he feels its inappropriate to try and impose his will on others. When Mary Elizabeth, one of Sam’s friends, asks Charlie out on a date, he’s excited, but soon reflects that, if he does the asking, he might get to go out with a girl he actually likes. It’s almost cute in the moment, reminding us that Charlie is younger than his friends, but it comes back to haunt the reader. Later in the novel, Patrick suffers a hideous break-up and takes it out on Charlie: drinking, making Charlie take him cruising, and kissing him. And Charlie consents to all of this, because he thinks this is how you express love: by being what another person needs you to be.
Obviously, this supposition is taken apart bit by bit as the novel goes on, culminating in Sam taking Charlie aside and specifically tells him that “You can’t just sit there and put everybody’s lives ahead of yours and think that counts as love. You just can’t. You have to do things” (200). And therein lies the universality of Charlie’s story: The Perks of Being a Wallflower is about learning to become your own agent, in its own gentle way. And that is what becoming an adult is all about.
5. The Scorpio Races
by Maggie Stiefvater
That was my first inkling that The Scorpio Races was an emotional tour de force. (Which is a fancy way of saying, “My heart, oh, my heart.”) There is a romance in The Scorpio Races, but it’s far more about the various relationships Puck and Sean, the other protagonist and four-time Scorpio Race champion, have with the other people on the island. The island of Thisby is almost the third protagonist, as every character has a relationship with it that they’re negotiating. For Puck, it’s her two brothers. After the death of her parents, Puck has been trying to stitch her family back together, but they’re pulling away from her for reasons they can’t change—Gabe can no longer bear life on the island, while Finn, her little brother, is growing up. Her relationship with herself is also changing, as she grows into a woman without the hand of her mother to guide her. The Connolly parents are not conveniently disposed of; rather, Puck is still processing her grief and the idea of a life beyond her parents and what they left her.
4. My Real Children
by Jo Walton
It may seem that there’s a clear winner between Patricia’s two lives—the one where she gets to be a well-known, wealthy travel writer, settle down with the woman of her dreams, and have happily adjusted children is surely better than suffering through a marriage with the cruel Mark. But Pat’s world is the poorer of the two, constantly on the brink of war and environmentally devastated, two factors that eat away at their lives and happiness. (The only silver lining? There’s a cure for AIDS in her world.) In fact, both worlds are alternate history; while Trisha’s resembles ours the most, there’s still a research station on the moon that her son George eventually works on. This makes Patricia’s ultimate question heartbreaking—not knowing which life is real and which isn’t, any attempt to determine which one is either means denying the earth or denying her own happiness.
3. Scandals of Classic Hollywood
by Anne Helen Petersen
Petersen sympathetically (and, in the case of Mae West, admiringly) examines their personal lives before digging deep into their images. Obviously, every celebrity requires a different approach, but it always feels of a piece and manages to make you look at our culture a little differently. Petersen’s analysis is welcomingly and necessarily inclusive, touching on race, sexuality, class, and gender and the narratives these star images perpetuate about those things.
2. Sorrow’s Knot
by Erin Bow
…therein lies the hypnotic pulse of Sorrow’s Knot: how a group of three lives—that of Otter and her friends Kestrel and Cricket—becomes tied up in these grand stories simply because of human nature. Otter loves her mother but is terrified of the thing she’s becoming. Kestrel, the most law-abiding of the bunch, will do anything for both Cricket and Otter. And Cricket breaks one of their most sacred laws because he’s a storyteller born, who knows what stories she needs if their people are to be saved from the dead. It is not a ponderous novel, but it’s a novel with its emotions at the surface, focusing on Otter’s coming of age and the myriad other stories that feed into that.
1. The Devil Finds Work
by James Baldwin
Every facet of this essay is this rich. Baldwin’s expert analysis of England’s imperial impulses; cultural appropriation so that you can have your exotic character of color without actually having to treat one like a human being; the sheer strangeness of the idea that non-heteronormative love must be earned through suffering. Like all great criticism, it’s given me much needed critical vocabulary. There’s a direct through line between my raptures over the platonic kiss at the end of Quantum of Solace and Baldwin’s clear-eyed take on film-ending kisses: “But the obligatory, fade-out kiss, in the classic American film, did not really speak of love, and, still less, of sex: it spoke of reconciliation, of all things now becoming possible. It was a device desperately needed among a people for whom so much had to be made possible” (58).