The holidays are upon us in earnest. Presumably, now that the shopping rush is puttering out and the more pro-worker (re: union) jobs are letting employees go home for Christmas, one might want to spend time with family, relax, and enjoy the great indoors with chestnuts, eggnog, and other yuletide traditions. It’s an ideal time to put down the smartphone or iPad and curl up with a good book.
To that end, here is a list of what I thought were the top 10 books of 2014. Whether you’re the paperback type or more likely to view an ebook, I suggest you check these out!
Strobe Witherspoon, Science Fiction/Satire
While I’m not a huge fan of “dystopian fiction,” I found Furtl to be a cut above its contemporaries. It depicts such a world, in which a tech entrepreneur fights to save his search engine, Furtl, from its competition. Furtl’s algorithms, social networks, and payment systems have come to control modern life to the point of dumbing down society. The government agrees to offer its support if the head of Furtl hands them all of its user information. This one turned out to be as page-turning as it was satirical and allegorical. It simultaneously pokes fun at Google and offers commentary on privacy (i.e. the NSA scandal) and the negative effects of social networks. Buy it in paperback form, or enjoy the irony of downloading the ebook version.
9. “The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History”
Elizabeth Kolbert, Nonfiction/Science
Despite my strong interest in and advocacy of environmentalism, I don’t always read books on the subject (unless they focus on nature or wildlife), because in my experience, they have a habit of consolidating or regurgitating stilted facts that I could research and draw conclusions from on my own. However, The Sixth Extinction distinguishes itself with its simple, relatable prose, clearly designed for the casual reader – environmental activist or otherwise. Because of that, it plays a much larger role in informing the reader about climate change and the need for wildlife conservation than any other environmental book I’ve read recently. It also drives home the point that our rainforests and the Great Barrier Reef could be among the first casualties in this extinction event. A poignant read that ought to wake people up to the climate disasters they have long remained ignorant of.
8. “Prince Lestat”
Anne Rice, Horror/Gothic
The latest entry in The Vampire Chronicles, Prince Lestat is far from the best book in the series, which, in my opinion, peaked with The Queen of the Damned in 1988 and jumped the shark with Blood and Gold in 2001. However, in the age of glittering teen vamps and fanged soap operas, Anne Rice seems to be the sole writer currently preserving the vampire legend in its traditional form. I can see how anyone who has read the first ten books in The Vampire Chronicles would enjoy this latest entry. And it certainly helps that Prince Lestat is among the winners of the 2014 Goodreads Choice Awards, taking the top spot for best horror novel of the year.
7. “Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary”
Christopher Tolkien (editor), J.R.R. Tolkien (translator), Poetry/Fantasy
It’s always rather irked me that so many people familiar with the Iliad and the Odyssey have not read Beowulf. This latest edition ought to serve as a great opportunity to do so. Tolkien, who needs no introduction, actually completed this translation of the Scandinavian epic poem in 1926; it was only just published this year, with editing by his son. I highly recommend choosing this translation, which will be of particular interest to major Tolkienites, for Tolkien’s commentary includes written portions of some of his old, and previously unpublished, Oxford speeches during the 1930’s. In the tale itself, one can also spot the inklings of what would contribute to the framework of The Lord of the Rings, which was absolutely inspired by elements of Beowulf, in addition to the Nordic epics Völsunga saga and the Nibelungenlied. Perhaps not suggested for the very casual bookworm, Tolkien’s translation of Beowulf will be of large pleasure to the fan of fantasy, folklore, and the Scandinavian mythos.
Richard Powers, Science Fiction
This was a strange and interesting novel. It features a retired composer named Peter Els, who becomes an avant garde artist – one who pushes the boundaries in terms of what can be considered art, dabbling in dangerous do-it-yourself genetic engineering. What seems to be a study on the nature of art abruptly turns into an action narrative when government agents descend upon Els, forcing him to flee. A cross-country chase ensues, and throughout, we learn through flashbacks more about Els, including his early life, motivations, and personal drama. In some ways it seems to be, in part, a modern re-interpretation of the Greek tale Metamorphoses (the story of Pygmalion and the ivory statue), though there are also messages about terrorism and civil liberties. It’s a deep thinker’s book, for sure, but readers looking for something fun should enjoy it, as well.
Simon Morden, Epic Fantasy
These days, fantasy literature is marked by so many tropes, and now anti-tropes, which have become equally formulaic, that many fantasy readers have been left jaded. But Arcanum brings something new to the table. Set in a fictional German-speaking country a thousand years after the fall of Rome, its narrative is based on an interesting question: what if a society that had always relied upon magic was suddenly deprived of it? Whether intentional or not, Arcanum actually becomes a powerful allegory for dwindling real-world resources, adding an environmental undertone to the whole affair.
4. “The Bone Clocks”
David Mitchell, Drama/Fantasy
The Bone Clocks is written by David Mitchell, whose name might be familiar to a reader who has checked out his other work, Cloud Atlas, or at least seen its film adaptation. Beginning in 1984, it follows the trajectory of protagonist Holly Sykes’ life, all the way into 2044, when the world’s climate has collapsed and her area of Ireland has become comparable, economically and environmentally, to the Middle East. What seems to be a meditative drama on her ability to adapt to the changing world takes a sharp left turn when she seems to be at the center of some sinister plans by a cult of psychic soul-stealers. An interesting story that disposes of clichés.
3. “The Passenger Pigeon”
Erroll Fuller, Nonfiction/Science
Unbeknownst to many, 2014 marks the anniversary of the death of the last passenger pigeon, Martha, in the Cincinnati Zoo on September 1, 1914. The Passenger Pigeon takes a look at the history of the bird that was among the most abundant species on the planet for a time. The illustrated book laments the loss of the bird and looks at contributing factors, including deforestation, that led to its demise. The book is all the more touching because of the allusions it draws to modern endangered species, as well as our ever-warming climate and the implications of that.
Jeff VanderMeer, Science Fiction/Adventure
After an expedition by a secret government agency into uncharted coastal land goes south, a group of female scientists end up fighting for their lives as they uncover the mysteries of the strange place. Stranded, they discover an underground tunnel, walls strewn with dark Biblical passages, and a strange virus that seems to grant psychic ability. Annihilation mixes old-school, pre-space sci-fi with modern-minded adventure. A fun escapist novel.
1. “Words of Radiance: The Stormlight Archive, Book 2”
Brandon Sanderson, Epic Fantasy
Easily the most unique novel of the year, Words of Radiance is part two of the ongoing Stormlight Archive series. It offers a drastically different take on the epic fantasy framework, in which Sanderson creates a colorful and unique world where plant and rock life is sentient and has evolved to adapt to an unstable climate often battered by terrible “highstorms.” At the center of the series are a group of warriors called Shardbearers, who wear adaptive, self-healing, self-replicating armor and struggle to unite warring kingdoms against a darker and much more profound threat. While Sanderson’s prose can become utilitarian at times, everything else about the novel is fantastic. It builds effortlessly upon the plot established by its predecessor, The Way of Kings. At 1,088 pages, the book doubles as a doorstopper. Fans waiting for the upcoming new Game of Thrones novel should take a close look at this series in the meantime.
Photo: “Words of Radiance” by Brandon Sanderson. Tor Fantasy (Publisher’s official site)/Michael Whelan