This is the time of year when booklovers feel overwhelmed, not only by the choice of books at hand, but by the lists. One after another, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, Huffington Post, National Public Radio and pretty much every other media organization you can name issue their proprietary, definitive lists of the best books of 2014. Even Bill Gates publishes a list of his own favorites.
Gates’s picks include Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century (a hot title this year) and the yet-to-be-published The Rose Effect by Graeme Simison (sadly, I can’t share Gates’ enthusiasm for the book.) Gates’s list includes old and new books he read over the course of the last 12 months, and if I were including older books on my list, one of the novels topping it would be Hans Fallada’s Every Man Dies Alone. First published in 1947, shortly after the author’s death, it wasn’t even translated into English until 2009, and it’s the kind of book that I want to shove into the hands of every serious reader I know. But looking just at the “best” of the fiction published in 2014, Fallada’s novel, alas, doesn’t make the cut.
The criteria for the books that do make it: A great novel is a perfect three-legged stool. It features characters who are so vividly drawn that I am convinced they are real; a plot that is engaging and convincing enough not to pull me away from the narrative in either skepticism or incredulity; and finally, a writing style that is clear, vivid and distinctive. Put all three together, above a certain level, and magic happens.
Some of the books below you’ll find on other lists. Some of them you won’t — and I’d argue they’ve been unfairly overlooked, of course. But in all cases, I’m confident that they represent a cross section of the best that publishers had to offer readers over the course of 2014. And if you’re looking for something to read — or something to give — for the holidays, these lists are a great place to start. And check back tomorrow for our non-fiction picks.
An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine
Aaliyah Saleh lives alone in her Beirut apartment — the unnecessary woman of the title, it is her self-imposed work of translating a great work of literature into Arabic that keeps her going. But at the age of 72, change may be afoot. Ruthlessly unsentimental but tremendously moving, Alameddine has created in Aaliyah a memorable heroine with a vivid, forceful personality and a strong narrative voice. An Unforgettable Woman may have been a better title. Short-listed for the National Book Award.
Barracuda by Christos Tsiolkas
Tsiolkas has a knack for making readers uncomfortable. His characters are rare people we’d love to have become our closest friends, and the problems they create for themselves make for difficult reading. But Tsiolkas, whose latest novel was long-listed for this year’s Man Booker Award, also has an incredible knack for crafting great stories out of compelling themes. In the case of the story of Daniel Kelly, a confused, angry and shame-ridden boy from the wrong side of the tracks, it’s the tale of how the dream of competing for gold medals in swimming on behalf of Australia went sour, and what happened next. Yes, the tale skips around in time; yes, it’s gritty and sometimes unpleasant — but it’s heartbreakingly real.
The Quick by Lauren Owen
I don’t like vampire novels. Really, I don’t. But I loved this novel. And if you’re looking for something light — well, actually, a memorably eerie homage to some of great classic horror novels — you would do well to check this out. Charlotte Norbury discovers an underground London in 1892, when her younger brother disappears from sight. She soon discovers that rescuing him from the Aegolius Club will be a tall order… Creepy. Not literary, but fabulous genre fiction.
The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters
Waters bridges the gap between a mystery novel and a novel of social commentary in this book, set in the 1920s. The times have changed, and the no-longer-wealthy Wray family live in genteel poverty; forced to take in paying guests (aka lodgers) to keep themselves from starving and their large house in a leafy enclave of south London from collapsing, they end up playing host to a couple several rungs beneath them on the social ladder, to Mrs. Wray’s horror. But Frances, her 26-year-old daughter, is fascinated by Lillian Barber — perhaps overly so. And that fascination sets in train an unimaginable chain of events. It’s slow to unfold, but every scene is pure gold in terms of atmosphere and character.
The Betrayers by David Bezmozgis
If you haven’t encountered Bezmozgis’ writing, get him on your radar screen with this novel. The tale of betrayal that unfolds is almost epic in scale, even though it takes place over the course of only 24 hours in the life of an Israeli politician and former Soviet refusenik. Fleeing a political and sexual scandal in Israel, Baruch Kotler and his mistress end up in Yalta and face the ghosts of Kotler’s past. Brilliant prose; captivating stories. He has been compared to Philip Roth, but I find his writing more consistently accessible. This was shortlisted for Canada’s Giller Prize.
- The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt
- Euphoria by Lily King
- Moriarty by Anthony Horwitz
- The Rise and Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman
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