So here we are again, considering our favorite books of the year, the annual impossible task that we make possible by pretending we’ve read and reviewed everything out there. (We haven’t. We couldn’t.)
We got the conversation off to a good start early, with Paula Hawkins’ delicious hit thriller The Girl on the Train making everyone remember how they felt when they read Gone Girl and couldn’t recommend it (or complain about it) fast enough. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, which won the National Book Award, kept us talking about one of the biggest issues of the year — race in 21st century America. Literary punching bag/darling (depending on your point of view) Jonathan Franzen returned with Purity (which you will not find on this list), and Floridian Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies was named Amazon’s book of the year — and President Barack Obama’s favorite book as well.
Awards kept a couple of novels from 2014 in the spotlight. The Pulitzer Prize for Fiction launched Anthony Doerr’s World War II novel All the Light We Cannot See back on the bestseller list, where it remains. Marlon James regenerated buzz when he won the Man Booker Prize for A Brief History of Seven Killings, making him the first Jamaican writer to win the prestigious award.
With all those notable literary moments in mind, here are our favorite books of the year.
Fortune Smiles, Adam Johnson (Random): Johnson, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013 for his novel about North Korea, The Orphan Master’s Son, won the National Book Award for these precise, chilling, indelible stories. The characters — including a Silicon Valley programmer with a paralyzed wife, a pedophile befriending two neighborhood girls, a former Stasi prison warden and two North Korean defectors in Seoul — all stand at a crossroads, weighing their destinies. The way in which their decisions haunt you makes Fortune Smiles one of the year’s best books.
Loving Day, Mat Johnson (Spiegel & Grau): Johnson’s terrific novel is about a biracial comic book artist grappling with his identity (he gets involved in what may be a cult along the way). But the hilarious Loving Day is really offering up a pointed exploration of blackness, whiteness and otherness — and asking us to take a hard look at what happens when we allow others to define us. Author of Pym, another extremely funny novel about race, Johnson accomplishes something remarkable by asking provocative questions in the most entertaining way possible.
Make Your Home Among Strangers, Jennine Capó Crucet (St. Martin’s): In this alternately amusing and wrenching coming-of-age novel, Crucet — who grew up in Hialeah — examines cultural dissonance and the warring factions of family and responsibility. Her main character, Lizet, has returned home to Miami from her exclusive liberal arts college under the cloud of a scandal, only to find her mother embroiled in the ongoing drama surrounding a Cuban boy rescued from the ocean (think Elián González). Crucet deftly explores the particular problems of being the first generation to go to college in a unique and ultimately universal way.
The Tsar of Love and Techno, Anthony Marra (Hogarth): The lives of the characters in Marra’s collection sprawl across the former U.S.S.R. from the 1930s to the present, from just outside the Arctic circle to the ruins of Grozny in Chechnya, connecting at surprising (and often heartbreaking) intersections. A censor for Stalin is entranced by the photograph of a ballerina. Two soldiers live in a well after capture, dreaming of home. Brothers share a dream and a bond though they’re separated by miles. These characters are bound by history, family — and a mysterious pastoral painting with an ugly past. Each story fits together like the pieces of an intricate puzzle, creating an extraordinary and unforgettable mosaic of Russian history.
Finale: A Novel of the Reagan Years, Thomas Mallon (Pantheon): Set mostly in the final months of 1986, Mallon’s novel views historic events (the Reykjavik summit, the Iran contra scandal) through the eyes of a National Security Council staffer. Mallon, who also wrote the novel Watergate, is “incapable of composing a bad sentence,” wrote Herald reviewer Ariel Gonzalez. “In fact, one of this novel’s many joys is the beauty and elegance of its prose. . . . Mallon is a novelist, not a historian. But he reminds us that history is not about facts and dates; it’s the greatest story ever told.”
Rain: A Natural and Cultural History, Cynthia Barnett (Crown): If you live in Florida, worrying about the weather is a given. We’re the perfect audience for award-winning Florida journalist Cynthia Barnett’s examination of rain’s role in literature, myth, science and history. Nominated for the National Book Award, Rain is “at its heart, a call to end the folly of our ways,” wrote Herald reviewer Susannah Nesmith, who also added that Gov. Rick Scott might want to take a look at it. Sage advice.
Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, Erik Larson (Crown): On May 17, 1915, the British ocean liner Lusitania was struck by a German torpedo and sank swiftly, killing almost 1,200 people. But as he has done in such mesmerizing books as The Devil in the White City, Isaac’s Storm and In the Garden of Beasts, Larson wrings great drama and suspense from a familiar story, exploring the historic backdrop and revealing the excruciating miscalculations and mistakes that led to the tragedy. He mines inexhaustible details of life aboard the ship and the submarine that sank it and vividly recreates the terror and chaos aboard as the ship sank (in a mere 18 minutes).
H is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald (Grove): Macdonald’s book about training her goshawk doesn’t merely explore the often unsettling realities of living with a predator; it’s also a poignant testament to our ability to recover from devastating loss. Macdonald begins to train her hawk — named Mabel — after her father’s death, using T. H. White’s problematic The Goshawk as a guide. What she learns along the way makes for a vibrant, lyrical blend of memoir and natural and literary history.
M Train, Patti Smith (Knopf): Slimmer than the National Book Award-winning Just Kids, the latest memoir from punk poet Smith reads like an elegantly crafted series of prose poems about loss, life and art, punctuated with photographs she has taken over the years. Smith, who kicked off this year’s Miami Book Fair, moves between the past and the present with ease, marrying “the unremarkable with the sublime,” according to Herald reviewer Emma Trelles. Sublime indeed.
Lord Fear, Lucas Mann (Pantheon): Through interviews with family and friends, author Mann traces the tragic descent of his brother Josh, who died of a heroin overdose when the author was 13. By all accounts Josh was a bully, abusive and manipulative. And yet Mann builds an indelible portrait of life under this tyrant that, wrote Herald reviewer Nicholas Mancusi, acts as “a meditation on the function of grace, proof that love can defy all logic, transcend facts or even reality itself until it is almost indistinguishable from faith.”