Our favorite books of the year

Our favorite books of the year

The best of 2014

Illustration by Nick Wanserski
Illustration by Nick Wanserski

This was an odd year for books, usually the quiet introspective cousin at the pop culture family gatherings. But the Amazon/Hachette contract dispute put book publishing on front pages again—okay, mostly in opinion columns and think pieces, but still. As usual, The A.V. Club invited our regular books writers to pick their favorite titles released in 2014. Since very few of our contributors read the same list of books each year, a ballot system doesn’t work as well. Here is a list of our 2014 book recommendations, from reviewed favorites to unsung gems. And don’t forget to vote for your favorite reads of the year in our readers’ poll.

The Bone Clocks, David Mitchell

The Bone Clocks is the best book to come out in 2014 because it is one of those rare novels that sets itself up for near-impossible goals and reaches them effortlessly. Simultaneously a fantasy epic, character study, meditation of human nature and mortality, and modernist masterpiece in the vein of The Sound And The Fury (as well as Mitchell’s own Cloud Atlas), The Bone Clocks is somehow all things at once, a rolling maelstrom that never feels too chaotic nor loses its way. It’s a perfect read for those interested in formal masterpieces as well as those looking for a brisk, pulpy adventure. [Noah Cruickshank]

The Martian, Andy Weir

With a star-studded film adaptation directed by Ridley Scott in the works, it might be tempting to skip this book and just wait to see the movie. But you’d be missing out. Scott might be able to capture the tension of the story about NASA’s attempts to rescue an astronaut stranded on Mars, and he can surely present some great visuals to go with the catastrophes that happen along the way. But it would take a Fight Club-level of voice-over to capture the novel’s greatest strength, which is the rapid-fire humor the protagonist uses to cope with his situation. The combination of strong science and page-turning suspense are what made The Martian so attractive as a film project, but it’s the jokes about cannibalism, Elrond, and texting a picture of boobs to all of Earth that make it such a delight to read. [Samantha Nelson]

The Magician’s Land, Lev Grossman

It’s rare to find a trilogy that improves as it goes on, but each book in Lev Grossman’s series, which began in 2009 with The Magicians, has more depth and scope than the one that came before. While on the surface, the books are about a secret school for magic, and an even more secret portal to a Narnia-like land, at their heart they’re about the limits of wish fulfillment, as hero Quentin Coldwater gets everything he ever wanted but learns that it’s his own self-centeredness, not any lack of magical lands to explore, that are at the root of his unhappiness. While Quentin still takes center stage, Land branches out to give the reader multiple points of view, giving a well-rounded picture of Grossman’s flawed characters and the often grim underpinnings of his magical fantasy, before bringing the series to a satisfying end. [Mike Vago]

Wolf In White Van, John Darnielle

In his day job as the creative force behind musical act the Mountain Goats, John Darnielle wields a literary voice and concise yet lyrical details on par with a great short story writer. Darnielle’s first full novel (his entry in the 33 1/3 series on Black Sabbath’s Master Of Reality is a novella) has that short story quality, too: It’s not especially plotty as it gradually fills in the blanks around Sean Phillips, a disfigured young man authoring a text-based role-playing game through the mail. It’s easy to picture a shorter version of this story as a three-minute Mountain Goats song or a 25-page story, but Darnielle takes his time and lets Sean speak for himself on a variety of topics: not just the mechanics of old-fashioned role-playing games, but Satanic messages in rock music, childhood loneliness, and becoming a permanent outsider in everyday life, among others. With this extra breathing room, Sean becomes one of Darnielle’s great narrators, and his story becomes one of the year’s most captivating character studies. [Jesse Hassenger]

Boy, Snow, Bird, Helen Oyeyemi

Boy Novak discovers early that it really is a hard-knock life. Having come of age motherless, in a desolate Lower East Side tenement, and raised by an abusive rat-catcher of a father, Boy flees New York to seek a new life in a small Massachusetts town. Helen Oyeyemi’s fifth novel follows the lives of the three Whitman women (Boy, Snow, and Bird—but mostly Boy) specifically and life in 1950s and ’60s New England in general, and it is a tale that is so much more than the “Snow White reimagined” tag that’s been placed on it. It’s a bit of a shame that so much of the novel’s media coverage reveals what is a mid-narrative revelation for the characters, but Boy, Snow, Bird remains a beautifully haunting story that can stand on its own, and does. [Andrea Battleground]

An Untamed State, Roxane Gay

Roxane Gay’s debut novel, An Untamed State, is a tough read. Not difficult in the sense that the elements at play are hard to keep track of but that the subject matter is a challenge in itself. For several hundred pages, the reader must bear witness to Mireille’s horrifically brutal kidnapping, rape, and torture. If these events were portrayed on-screen, there would be the opportunity to avert one’s eyes until the rough parts were over, a flimsy but instinctual refuge for any squeamish movie-goer. To Gay’s credit and that of her stark, gorgeous prose, none of this horror seems gratuitous. It’s essential to know what really happened to this woman during what were undoubtedly the longest two weeks of her life, if one is to fathom all that comes after and the emotional cost of her trauma—which, as it turns out, is the novel’s true narrative arc. [Andrea Battleground]

Dr. Mütter’s Marvels: A True Tale Of Intrigue And Innovation At The Dawn Of Modern Medicine, Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz

Ever since Erik Larson’s success with Devil In The White City, non-fiction has taken a turn for the melodramatic, with speculative dialogue and artificial suspense propping up historical events. Thankfully, Dr. Mütter’s Marvels is a fascinating story in its own right, and it’s pried open with the poetic skill of author Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz, who spent a decade researching it. She tells an artful but decisive story about Dr. Thomas Dent Mütter, who essentially created the field of plastic surgery—but it’s also about the dawn of modern surgery, which fought its way into existence in Philadelphia before anybody knew what germ theory was. The book is ceaselessly interesting but not showy, and Aptowicz expertly paints the scenes with broad brushstrokes and tiny details. It’s a nearly perfect piece of non-fiction. [Laura M. Browning]

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki And His Years Of Pilgrimage, Haruki Murakami

When Haruki Murakami releases a new book, it’s an event. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki sold a million copies in its first week in Japan, and in the States bookstores held midnight release parties à la Harry Potter. Murakami’s last book, 1Q84, had a similar amount of hype, and didn’t live up to it, but Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki is a different beast altogether. A meditative story on lost love and what it means to grow up, the novel manages to hit all of Murakami’s noted quirks without ever surrendering to them. And, as if as a mea culpa for 1Q84, it’s a short, brisk read, telling the story it needs to tell before beautifully falling silent. [Noah Cruickshank]

Will Not Attend, Adam Resnick

Subtitled Lively Stories Of Detachment And Isolation, Adam Resnick’s first book is a David Sedaris-like trip through real (though frequently unbelievable) events. Unlike Sedaris—and more like Louis C.K.—Resnick rarely looks on the bright side, delivering stories about his asshole brothers and overbearing dad with a sort of brutal hilarity. And though Resnick is known best as the co-creator of Get A Life and the director of the cult hit Cabin Boy, his instincts as a memoirist run more cynical: The best moments of Will Not Attend cover scarring childhood memories, a family trip in which Resnick finally admits to hating his sister-in-law, and a run-in with a fast-food chain that nearly killed him. He’s never outraged, though, or if he is, that outrage is tempered by bemusement at how stupid it all is. It’s a fine line, but he navigates it on every page. [Josh Modell]

Five Came Back, Mark Harris

A delight for fans of the history of American cinema and the Second World War, Five Came Back chronicles the lives of five prominent Hollywood directors (Frank Capra and John Ford among them) as they contribute to the Allied effort against the Nazis and Japanese army. Both an informative primer on the Hollywood system in the early 20th century and the creation of the propaganda department of the American military, Five Came Back manages the delicate balancing act of expertly realizing its major subjects (five people are a lot to profile well) without ever losing the tension of its wartime backdrop. [Noah Cruickshank]

Who We Be: The Colorization Of America, Jeff Chang

Jeff Chang’s previous book, Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, is an excellent history of hip-hop that succeeds by acknowledging that the music isn’t the most important thing, broadening its perspective beyond the artists to look at the social forces they shaped. His new one, Who We Be, goes even bigger than that, using the past 50 years of art history as an in for discussing far bigger trends and shifts in the way America sees itself, its white-supremacist past, and its uncertain, multicultural future. Equally informative and insightful about the deeper significance of everything from OBEY to The Boondocks to Occupy, it’s a powerful, accessible book that doesn’t sacrifice scholarly rigor, and an important history for our time. [Eric Thurm]

A Brief History Of Seven Killings, Marlon James

Marlon James’ A Brief History Of Seven Killings is not a novel to be breezed through lightly. There are dozens of characters, several of whom also serve as narrators, and the plot is full of machinations that covers a lot of terrain, both narratively and literally. James uses a real-life event—the 1976 assassination attempt of Bob Marley—as the backdrop for an unsparing examination of Jamaican history, life, and politics. With this novel, he fills in many blanks on a historical footnote still shrouded in mystery almost four decades later, creating a violent, fascinating epic in the process. For any college freshman who proudly displayed a Bob Marley poster or snatched up a Marley T-shirt at Target as some kind of shortcut to cool, A Brief History Of Seven Killings is a different kind of education. For all readers, it’s a revelation. [Andrea Battleground]

Fire Shut Up In My Bones, Charles Blow

New York Times opinion columnist Charles Blow has written what may be the memoir of the year (sorry, Amy Poehler). He kicks it off with a powerful prologue where a college-age Blow has picked up a gun with every intention of murdering someone in cold blood. It seems odd, then, to call the book “suspenseful.” It’s clear that the man probably wouldn’t have had one of the most remarkable contemporary careers at the nation’s “newspaper of record” had he actually murdered someone as a young adult. The actual story reveals itself, as it often does, in the steps between a particular then and now, and Blow recounts them beautifully. This is a singular story, for certain, but it’s also a resonate coming-of-age narrative and a stunning testimony on what life was to be young, lonely, and black in 1970s rural Louisiana. [Andrea Battleground]

Words Of Radiance, Brandon Sanderson

Brandon Sanderson launched his epic fantasy series, The Stormlight Archives, with 2010’s The Way Of Kings, but had to put the project on hold to when he committed to help finish Robert Jordan’s Wheel Of Time series. Fortunately Words Of Radiance was well worth the wait. While the first novel in the promised 10-book series showed plenty of potential, it was too bogged down in world-building and setup. With his complicated geopolitical struggles, ocean-themed ecology and rules of magic already established, Sanderson was left freer in Words Of Radiance to focus on his characters. Shallan, a noble woman and scholar who played a secondary role in the first book, gets the star treatment here and develops into the best female character Sanderson’s ever written. Hopefully it won’t take another four years for the story to continue. [Samantha Nelson]

What If? Serious Scientific Answers To Absurd Hypothetical Questions, Randall Munroe

Fans of Randall Munroe’s webcomic xkcd are already familiar with the wry sense of humor and mad-scientist background that give life to his simple stick figures. In What If?, Munroe expands a feature that was born online next to xkcd, and brings the humor, the science, and the stick figures to the kinds of absurd questions you come up with at 3 a.m. after a night of hard drinking, like “If everyone on the planet stayed away from each other for a couple of weeks, wouldn’t the common cold be wiped out?” Now you can find out. It’s super silly but super wonderful, with answers that get stretched out to their logical conclusions and then some. Munroe is a former NASA roboticist, a mischievous storyteller, and, apparently, a Firefly fan. [Laura M. Browning]

Museum Of Extraordinary Things, Alice Hoffman

The latest novel from the bestselling author of Practical Magic and The Story Sisters revolves around the romance between a woman whose been raised since childhood to serve as a mermaid in her father’s freak show and a Jewish immigrant turned crime photographer. But it’s also a tale of the love people feel for New York City, even though that relationship can be so abusive. The attraction that gives Museum Of Extraordinary Things is a microcosm of the city itself, filled with wonders and horrors. Setting her tale in the early 1900s, Hoffman has plenty of both to draw on with the construction and destruction of the Dreamland amusement park at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire looming large. Hoffman’s compelling characters provide a guide through a city that’s so easy to get lost in. [Samantha Nelson]

The Tale Of The Dueling Neurosurgeons, Sam Kean

Much like he did for chemistry in The Disappearing Spoon and genetics in The Violinist’s Thumb, Sam Kean’s The Tale Of The Dueling Neurosurgeons explores an area of popular science by presenting strange and fascinating tales about its history and modern applications. His book on neuroscience is occasionally depressing since it’s filled with anecdotes about awful maladies caused by brain trauma and disease. But each of these misfortunes provides insights into just how complicated and incredible the brain is, and just how little we know about its workings. By exploring the discipline’s past, Kean shows how far our understanding has come in a relatively short time and offers a glimpse of how much more there is to learn. [Samantha Nelson]