The State of the Art: Books 2014

Last year, I was amazed and delighted to note that not only was there an increase in the number of books I was able to read, but that the average quality of books rose as well. What a magical time it was. This year, I'm still amazed, but not as delighted. I don't know how I did it, but I somehow managed to put away 36 books (to last year's 28), and as always, that doesn't even include books I often re-read, or stray things like childhood favorites I revisited to see how they held up.

Thirty-six doesn't sound like a lot, but for someone who also consumes a lot of movies, TV, games, and podcasts, averaging three books a month isn't half-bad! Unfortunately, though the number of books went up, the average quality went down. There were definitely some bright spots this year, of course, which we'll get to in a moment. But if we're looking at 2014 as a whole, the books that stand out are fewer and farther between. Note that last year, 13 of the 28 books ranked a B+ or higher (46%). This year, 10 of the 36 managed to make the cut (28%). Ouch.

But hey, let's get to some good news! In looking at my list of books, it becomes increasingly clear how much I enjoy a well-executed gimmick. I wouldn't call myself a huge overall fan of science fiction or fantasy, but books that manage to straddle the line between those and realism always seem to rise to the top. It's our world, but giant bugs are attacking. It's our world, but a hidden Amazon tribe needs our help. It's our world, but a woman keeps looping through her life. If 2013 was the Year of the Short Story, 2014 is the Year of the Parallel Universe. So let's crawl through the looking glass, and talk about which of those worlds are worth the visit.

#1: Grasshopper Jungle - Andrew Smith

What I Said: If this book had just been about a horny teenaged boy trying to come to grips with his raging hormones, that would have been cool. If this book had just been about a horny teenaged boy trying to come to grips with his raging hormones as he contemplates his probable bisexuality, that would have been cooler. But this book is about a horny teenaged boy trying to come to grips with his raging hormones as he contemplates his probable bisexuality, and by the way, giant insects are taking over the world, starting with his hometown. And damn, is it fantastic.

#2: The Unwanted - Jeffrey Ricker

What I Said: Melding a story about fighting mythological forces, a story about family bonds and reconciliation, and a story of young gay romance is akin to trying to graft wheels onto a dolphin, and yet somehow, Ricker manages to weave them together seamlessly. Jamie must navigate the dangers of both the American high school caste system and of angry gods hurling lightning bolts in his direction, and for that to read as completely natural and realistic is quite the feat.

#3: S. - J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst

What I Said: The book is crammed with bits of paper, from "newspaper clippings" to postcards to handwritten notes, so the reader is actually reading two books at the same time, with one of them being completely fake. Still with me? It's a tough act to pull off, but Abrams and Dorst do it nimbly, making this one of the most fascinating reading experiences of the year.

#4: The Ocean at the End of the Lane - Neil Gaiman

What I Said: There's a very dreamlike quality to the book, and it's a great example of a modern fairy tale. The interloping demon would be genuinely terrifying to a child, and the Hempstock women are exactly the type of people you'd run to in order to defend your home. It fits very neatly into the Gaiman catalog, and I'd heartily recommend it.

#5: Life After Life - Kate Atkinson

What I Said: As the story unfolds, we see how the small changes in the characters' actions ripple out, affecting not only Ursula, but the people around her. As a character exploration, it's riveting.

And now, for the fully ranked list, with books published in 2014 underlined:

Grasshopper Jungle - Andrew Smith (A)
The Unwanted - Jeffrey Ricker (A)
S. - J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst (2013) (A-)

The Ocean at the End of the Lane - Neil Gaiman (2013) (B+)
Life After Life - Kate Atkinson (2013) (B+)
Spoiled Brats - Simon Rich (B+)
The Divorce Papers - Susan Rieger (B+)
How to Build a Girl - Caitlin Moran (B+)
When Did You See Her Last? - Lemony Snicket (2013) (B+)
Missouri - Christine Wunnicke (2006/2010) (B+)

The Book of You - Claire Kendal (B)
CivilWarLand in Bad Decline - George Saunders (1996) (B)
Astonish Me - Maggie Shipstead (B)
The Postmortal - Drew Magary (2011) (B)
The Path of Minor Planets - Andrew Sean Greer (2001) (B)
The Humans - Matt Haig (2013) (B)
One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories - B.J. Novak (B)
Shouldn't You Be in School? - Lemony Snicket (B)
Speaking from Among the Bones - Alan Bradley (2013) (B)
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell - Susanna Clarke (2004) (B)
Arts & Entertainments - Christopher Beha (B)
Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin - Jill Lepore (2013) (B)
Mr. Mercedes - Stephen King (B)
File Under: 13 Suspicious Incidents (All the Wrong Questions) - Lemony Snicket (B)

Lexicon - Max Barry (2013) (B-)
The Interestings - Meg Wolitzer (2013) (B-)
Hollow City - Ransom Riggs (B-)
Longbourn - Jo Baker (2013) (B-)
Sisterland - Curtis Sittenfeld (2013) (B-)
Ready, Okay! - Adam Cadre (2000) (B-)

One Last Kiss - Michael W. Cuneo (2012) (C+)
The Lifespan of a Fact - John D'Agata, Jim Fingal (2012) (C+)
The Violinist's Thumb: And Other Lost Tales of Love, War, and Genius, as Written by Our Genetic Code Sam Kean (2012) (C)
From Scratch: Inside the Food Network - Allen Salkin (2013) (C)
The Three - Sarah Lotz (C-)

The Imperfectionists - Tom Rachman (2010) (D+)

And finally, there are the books that don't even get the dignity of a grade. Last year, there were one or two books I didn't get through because issues of my own, rather than anything being wrong with the book itself. Not so this time:

The Execution of Noa P. Singleton - Elizabeth L. Silver: Is it the narrator or the author who's irritatingly in love with the sound of her own voice? Either way, this book got insufferable in a hurry and was punted back to the library.

Founding St. Louis - First City of the New West - J. Frederick Fausz: St. Louis is a fascinating city, but you'd never know it from this book, which is a dry recounting of names and dates. There are ways to make history intriguing, and unfortunately, this isn't it.

Hopefully, the books of 2015 will signal a bounce back in quality, and I'll have more to recommend. Speaking of which, my reading list is almost entirely made up of recommendations from others, so if you've got a Best Of... list of your own, please let me know. Happy reading!


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