This is my favorite time of the year, when publications and websites create their "best of 2014" lists. As is tradition, I present my list of the most compelling reads of 2014 — books that stayed with me long after I finished reading them.
A book set in 1686 Amsterdam wouldn’t normally be something that would appeal to me, but I found Jessie Burton’s debut novel, “The Miniaturist,” riveting. It tells the story of young woman who finds herself married to a mysterious businessman. She is tested by events that occur in her new home and finds strength she didn’t know she had.
Matthew Thomas’ debut novel, “We Are Not Ourselves,” is an emotional book about the daughter of Irish immigrants who lives in Queens, New York, and whose goal is to become part of the middle class. She is on her way until her husband’s illness derails her plans.
Marilynne Robinson won the Pulitzer Prize for her novel “Gilead,” in which an elderly Iowa minister is writing his history to his young son. Her new novel, “Lila,” gives us the sad back story to the minister’s quiet, much younger wife, Lila. The goodness in the people in Gilead gives one hope for humanity.
Emily Arsenault’s “What Strange Creatures” combines a murder mystery with an adult brother-sister relationship at its center. Theresa’s brother is accused of murdering his girlfriend, and she must clear his name. The sibling relationship is beautifully done here.
Lianne Moriarty tops her juicy last novel, “The Husband’s Secret,” with her latest novel, “Big Little Lies.” Set in the world of an affluent school in an Australian beach community, it also combines a whodunit with a story of helicopter parents and the secrets they hide. It’s like eating a bag of potato chips: You can’t stop reading it.
“The Orphans of Race Point” by Patry Francis is a gorgeous novel that I have recommended to so many people. Hallie and Gus are best friends as children and date as teenagers. An unfortunate incident changes their relationship, and we see them grow away from each other, but something pulls them back together. I never wanted this book to end.
“The Golem and the Jinni” is another book I wouldn’t normally gravitate towards. Helene Wecker’s historical fantasy novel shares the story of a golem who loses her master and must hide her identity at the turn of the 20th century in New York. She meets a jinni hiding from forces who want to do him harm, and they are drawn to each other, spending nights wandering the city together, fearful that someone will find their secrets. It is a unique novel.
I love it when I find a novel that is under the radar and I can bring attention to it. Susan Schoenberger’s “The Virtues of Oxygen” is one of those. It centers on a young woman who contracts polio and lives in an iron lung. Her small upstate New York community helps care for her, and it is also a story of this town and how it deals with the changes in economic circumstances.
Four nonfiction books made my list this year. Atul Gawande’s “Being Mortal” deals with something our society wishes to avoid: How do we handle the aging process and our own mortality? He uses examples of people and institutions trying to cope and improve our understanding, and this is a thought-provoking book.
Roz Chast writes about a similar theme in “Can We Talk About Something More Pleasant?” Using the graphic novel form, she details her experiences with her aging parents and their reluctance to accept that they can’t live alone anymore. It’s heartbreaking and eye-opening.
Todd Glass is a comedian I first heard about when he was on TV’s “Last Comic Standing” years ago. In his memoir “The Todd Glass Situation,” he shares his story of being learning-disabled and coming to terms with being gay and trying to hide it from his fellow comedians, family and friends. His description of coming out on Marc Maron’s podcast is riveting, but the best part of the book is when he brilliantly answers people who say that things were better “back then.”
Kelly Kittel’s memoir "Breathe" will break your heart. Her toddler son was killed when his teenage cousin accidentally ran him over with a car, and soon after, Kelly lost her baby at childbirth. The faith that she and her husband had in the wake of these awful losses, not to mention to the family rift it caused, is astounding.