Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë – I read Jane Eyre before I could truly understand it. I had seen the movie and I was drawn to the dark, dreariness of it. The unease that permeates throughout. Most of all, I liked Jane. There was also probably a hint of wanting to impress people by the fact that I was reading Jane Eyre. I remember the actual physical book vividly – it was red, leather bound and much nicer than the other books in my middle school library. It had a ribbon bookmark. (An aside: does anyone else remember the way their middle school library smelled? In my memory, most of middle school took place in the library.) I hadn’t revisited Jane Eyre in many years, but it turns out that middle school me and 2014 me have very similar tastes. This time, I listened to the book on audio as I drove around Virginia for my job during the fall. It seems to me that this has been a particularly rainy fall and winter and that was perfect for listening to Jane Eyre on long drives. I am still drawn to Jane and the mystery of it all, the atmosphere, the language, Mr. Rochester and his lying ways. This year, I’d love to watch all the Jane Eyre movie adaptations to compare them and read books that have been inspired by Jane Eyre, like Wide Sargasso Sea.
The Transcriptionist by Amy Rowland – When I was working in publishing, I didn’t blog about the books published by my company because it felt like a conflict of interest. That was the right thing to do, but I didn’t get to tell you about some really great books. Since I’ve switched jobs, I’m very excited to share them with you. The Transcriptionist is a quiet novel, one that can almost seem like it’s leading to something bigger, but don’t be disappointed when it doesn’t. The book starts out with a mystery, but this is a book that asks questions and doesn’t answer them. And that’s what I loved about it. It’s about a woman named Lena, a mysterious death, newspapers, technology, coincidence, war, life and death and what it means to be alone. Big questions with no easy answers.
The Three by Sarah Lotz – So, I’m really not a great flyer. It seems like it would be a horrible idea for me to read this book, about three plane crashes on the same day that the world believes are somehow connected. And it was! It was terrifying! But what I actually loved about this novel was the structure. It’s a book within a book and uses found documents, like chat and video transcripts, letters, and interviews. I didn’t necessarily expect this book to make my list of the best books of the year, but I keep thinking about the structure months after reading it. It managed to maintain the suspense and use the technique to its advantage. The other book I read this year that tried to do the same thing, The Supernatural Enhancements, let the structure get in the way of the actual story. I can’t imagine The Three being told any other way.
Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng – I only read Everything I Never Told You a few weeks ago, but I knew immediately that it was going to be one of the best books I read this year. On its surface, it’s a story that’s been told many times in literary fiction and crime fiction: a teenage girl goes missing and her family must deal with the aftermath. But this book takes every cliche from that tired story and turns it on its head. The Lees stand out in their small Ohio town in the 70s as the only interracial family. James Lee, the patriarch, wants nothing more than for his family to blend in. Marilyn Lee hates the homemaker life she has fallen into, so pushes all her medical school aspirations on her oldest daughter Lydia. When Lydia goes missing, James and Marilyn and their two remaining children, Nathan and Hannah, are left to untangle where it all went wrong. I can’t recommend this book enough.
An Untamed State by Roxane Gay – An Untamed State is a difficult book to read and it’s a book that’s going to stay with me for a long time. Mireille, American-born and of Haitian descent, is visiting her parents’ estate in Haiti with her midwestern white husband and their infant daughter when she is kidnapped. Kidnappings are common in Haiti and her wealthy father refuses to give into the kidnappers’ demands, leading to a horrific two weeks of brutality for Mireille. When Mireille is finally released, she is shattered physically and emotionally and must somehow heal and learn how to live and love again after this horrible thing has happened. An Untamed State is the kind of novel that makes you feel. Anger, disgust, horror, and grief. But also hope and forgiveness.
Someone by Alice McDermott – This was one of the first books I read in 2014, for my book club, and I just knew it was going to stick with me. It has. It’s about the life of one ordinary woman named Marie. It’s a portrait of her and her life, her sadnesses and triumphs, that moves forward and backward in time with a beautiful fluidity. It’s one of the few books I reviewed this year, so I talk about it in a lot more detail here. Also, do yourself a favor. If you’re going to buy this novel, please buy the hardcover. It’s so understated, it’s hard to tell online, but it’s one of the most beautiful books I own. The buildings and text on the cover and the spine are this lovely metallic copper color and it’s just lovely.