Wednesday, December 09, 2015

The Ultimate in Procrastination: My Year in Reading 2014

NOTE:  After starting to think about the best books I read in 2015 I realized that I never finished my best of 2014 reading list.  I found a few drafts of this posts but never got around to finishing any of them.  I am peerless when it comes to procrastination.

Wild? Unfocused?  Ill-disciplined?  Erratic?  Chaotic?  Unfinished?  In looking back on what I read in 2014, I realized that I started and abandoned dozens of books.  Some didn't pass the 50 page test.  Some had to be returned to the library before I got around to finishing them.  Some were good but then something else captured my attention and lured me away before I could finish them.  I started reading multiple books at the same time again (having dropped that habit maybe a decade ago) and I think the resulting lack of focus resulted in all this reading chaos.  But I did still manage to finish a lot of good books this year.

Archeological Find of the Year:  Memoirs of an Invisible Man by H.F. Saint.  This was a bestseller back in 1987 and was made into an awful (or so I have heard) movie.  I had no interest in the book back then and the paperback copy I acquired in the early 1990s is buried in a storage facility in another state.  And I am not sure why it popped into my head that I had to read this book now but I found a copy at the library and it was probably the most engaging thing I read all year.  When a securities analyst is caught in a explosion at a New Jersey research facility he isn't killed - he is rendered invisible.  And then has to figure out how to survive and live a life worth living while on the run from a secret government agency that wants to turn him into an intelligence asset.  I think most people imagine invisibility would be fun (and I was formerly one of them) but in H.F. Saint's world, it is a constant struggle to stay clothed, fed, safe, and even loved.  This novel is somewhat similar to Donald Westlake's novel Smoke but I think Memoirs is the better of the two.  

Country of the Year:  France wins the award this year for the four crime novels by Fred Vargas I read.  Plus the first novel in Pierre Lemaitre's Verhoeven trilogy, Irene.  (Which was actually the second to be published in English.  The second book, Alex, was published first.  And while I am thankful they were translated, the person who made the decision to publish these out of order should be sent to the guillotine as doing so ruined what would have maybe been the most devastating ending of any crime novel I can recall reading - with the possible exception of Mo Hayder's The Treatment.)  I also greatly enjoyed Katherine Pancol's The Yellow Eyes of the Crocodile.  And further padding France's lead in the race were the new translations of Georges Simenon's Inspector Maigret novels published by Penguin.  (Penguin is publishing, IN ORDER, new translations of all 75 of the Maigret novels.  Thank you, Penguin.)  Special thanks to my sweetie for the orange caffe au lait bowls that became necessary for me to have because of all the coffee drinking I was reading about in French fiction.

My Top Ten List:

10:  Her by Harriet Lane.  A chilling revenge story.  Nina knows what Emma has done to her.  Emma has no idea who Nina is or that she has ever done anything to her.  Nina toys with Emma like a cat toys with its prey before taking her final revenge - something terribly shocking - but real world shocking (as in not gory, sadistic violence - but something plausible and far worse).  Comparable to the best of Patricia Highsmith.

9:  Memoirs of an Invisible Man by H.F. Saint

8:  A Change of Climate by Hilary Mantel.  A confession - I have been a big fan of Mantel's work since the late 1990s.  I can't think of a writer who got better reviews for so long before she hit the big time, with Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies.  I feel like I am the only person who has read and loved early Mantel but hasn't been able to finish Wolf Hall.  Somehow I skipped this novel, the story of an English family in present day England that cannot escape the effects of trauma they experienced while working as missionaries in apartheid era South Africa.  This was a great book.

7:  The Secret Place by Tana French.  This is only French's fifth novel and the fifth in her ongoing series about the Dublin Murder Squad.  Two detectives must solve a murder at an all-girls school.  Page after page of amazing dialog.  French has been so good from the start that I would not be surprised if we were to find out she experienced a Robert Johnson/Crossroads type event before she wrote her first novel.

6:  LaBrava by Elmore Leonard.  Perhaps my favorite novel from my favorite male romance novelist.  A film noir story set in Miami just before the drug war exploded.

5:  Area X: The Southern Reach Trilogy: Annihilation; Authority; Acceptance by Jeff VanderMeer.  Three interlinked novels about a secretive government agency tasked with securing and studying a large chunk of Florida after an undefined environmental catastrophe.  Or maybe something like what John le Carre and J.G. Ballard would create if they turned the TV series LOST into a sprawling three part story - but better.  Area X is weird and at times I was unsure what was happening but I think that was by design.  An amazing reading experience - haven't read anything like it and I still think about it.

4:  True Believers by Kurt Andersen.  The story of a law professor who was unable to be appointed to the Supreme Court because of her anti-war activities at Harvard in the late 1960s.  Just what did she do?  I am not saying because I hate spoilers.  Lots of great material about James Bond in this story, too.  Kind of a crappy summary for such an engaging book.  Andersen is a long time magazine editor and has since morphed into a radio host and a witty and astute cultural critic.

3:  Expo 58 by Jonathan Coe.  A farcical spy novel set at the Brussels World Fair in 1958.  An unassuming English civil servant is forced to become an intelligence operative by two British agents who reminded me of Mr. Calder and Mr. Behrens from Michael Gilbert's short stories reimagined as a comedy double act.  (I have since learned they are modeled after two characters in Alfred Hitchcock's comedic thriller A Lady Vanishes - which I have yet to see.)  Also, a lot of James Bond material in this book, just like my number four choice, True Believers.

2:  The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim by Jonathan Coe.  Yes, Coe takes two of the top three spots.  I got behind on reading him (I had nice UK editions of the books and didn't want to spoil them by reading them - took a while to obtain reading copies.)  Maxwell Sim takes a job selling environmentally-friendly toothbrushes and attempts to drive across the UK - but inadvertently (to him) ends up mimicking Donald Crowhurst's trans-oceanic voyage while at the same time reading about Crowhurst.  Coe has a lot of fun with structure in this book.  Generally novels that play games with structure are no fun but with Coe it is pure pleasure.  Again, I find it a bit hard to convey just how wonderful this book is.

1:  We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler.  Technically, the best book I read in 2014 but as I look back, not much separates the top ten in this list.  The top ten are all pretty great this year. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves has a twist in it that hinders my ability to discuss it.  Even acknowledging this feels like a betrayal but the book was nominated for the Booker Prize so many people will already know what I am on about here.  Let us say that this is the story of a family coming to terms with its role in a chimpanzee research project.  How can that make for the best book of the year?  Trust me, it does.  

So, a very good year in reading for me.  In fact, books by perennial favorites Michael Connelly, Denise Mina, Ian Rankin, P.M. Hubbard, and Patricia Highsmith didn't crack the top ten.

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