Pages most likely to succeed: Our favorite books of 2014 (so far)

Pages most likely to succeed: Our favorite books of 2014 (so far)

Earlier this year Amazon, where the capitalism stork gets all the books before he brings them to your house, went to war with Hachette, one of the largest publishing houses in the world, and got people talking about books—or at least how they’re published—again. If that’s all it took, why didn’t we start a retailer-publisher feud years ago? This collection of 2014 releases run the spectrum, but they all kept us up past bedtime, turning the pages. Here’s a list of superlatives featuring our favorite books of the year (so far).

Best 2013 book just released in the U.S.: Christopher Priest, The Adjacent
The veteran British speculative-fiction writer Christopher Priest had a breakout hit with 1996’s The Prestige, especially after it became the source of Christopher Nolan’s film of the same name. In spite of that renown, Priest’s latest novel, The Adjacent, waited a year after its U.K. release before being published in the States. It was worth the wait. Taking place against a kaleidoscopic backdrop of Earth’s past, present, and future—not to mention dimensions somewhere in between—the novel is a wonderful, stand-alone statement about the resonance of history, memory, and love. But for attentive, longtime fans, there are Easter eggs that reference many of his past novels, including The Prestige, which only adds to the grand intricacy of Priest’s multifaceted vision. [JH]

Best book to keep you awake at night: Kenneth Calhoun, Black Moon
What happens when the world stops sleeping? Speculating about mass insomnia is something many authors, from Gabriel García Márquez to Karen Russell, have tackled. But Black Moon, the debut novel by Kenneth Calhoun, carves out new space in the post-sleep apocalypse. As insomnia causes a gradual, surreal breakdown in society, the hordes of the sleepless begin to resemble zombies bent on attacking the small number of humans who still have the ability to slumber. Morbid, hallucinatory, darkly funny, and symbolically striking, Black Moon is Calhoun’s sci-fi meditation on what we as humans hold dear, and how the reality we’ve come to accept as universal and objective is sometimes little more then a tenuous social contract. [JH]

Best book to wean you off steampunk: Felix Gilman, The Revolutions
Felix Gilman does not write steampunk. That said, his five novels to date incorporate some elements of the anachronistic, science-fiction subgenre, even if they’ve ultimately owed more to the poetic sci-fi of authors like China Miéville and Ian McDonald. His latest book, Revolutions, seems at first glance like a treasure trove for steampunk fetishists: It’s set in London in the late 19th century, and it even involves a complex computer as Dickens might have imagined one. From there, though, it rockets off on dizzying tangents: astral projection, extraterrestrial intelligence, and a beautifully speculative distortion of the fin de siècle Decadent movement. But it’s also a mystery, a love story, and a pulpy adventure that rings many of the same notes as steampunk without ever falling into clockwork cliché. [JH]

Best use of misanthropy in search of comedy: Adam Resnick, Will Not Attend
Comparing Adam Resnick’s first book to David Sedaris’ work is fair but not quite accurate: Both are incredibly sharp, funny observers of their own lives who spin personal histories into funny stories. But there’s a darkness to Resnick’s first book—written after a television and film career that includes co-creating Get A Life and directing Cabin Boy—that Sedaris rarely messes with. Resnick had an intense childhood, with a brutish father and crazy brothers, and picking at those scars doesn’t seem to help him get over it, exactly. That might sound like the recipe for a turgid slog through a psychiatrist’s office, but that’s what makes Will Not Attend so fantastic: Some part of Resnick understands how ridiculous it all is—every single thing—so he’s free to let his id wander. Sometimes that reveals a loving father, sometimes a guy who delights in verbally eviscerating worthy targets. [JM]

Best reimagining of a fairy tale that is still full of surprises: Helen Oyeyemi, Boy, Snow, Bird
So completely does Helen Oyeyemi immerse the reader into Boy’s world, it’s easy to forget that the bare bones of her novel Boy, Snow, Bird come from the Snow White fairy tale. In fact, that very summation short-changes the novel greatly. With this effort, the author has crafted a story of three women, each of whom is carrying a very particular, yet very different, set of baggage. By unraveling the women’s pasts, Oyeyemi reveals that all reality is perception and identity is a house of cards. [AB]

Best memoir to put your own fucked-up childhood in perspective: Brando Skyhorse, Take This Man
For most of his childhood, Brando Skyhorse was told he was an American Indian, a “skin,” a “brave,” whose father, Paul Skyhorse, was incarcerated following the Wounded Knee uprising in 1973. Young Brando realizes pretty early that his mother is a master fabricator, and that the parade of men who appear in his life has skewed his perception of the term “father.” But it isn’t until he embarks on a search to find his “real” father (and by extension himself), that he learns the breadth and depth of his mother’s deceptions and abstractions, forcing him to reconsider everything he thought he knew about his origins and sense of self. Yet this book isn’t marked by the recycling of misery that can distinguish some narratives of this vein. It’s a heart-wrenching tale packed with humor, love, and compassion. This memoir manages a rare feat: telling a riveting true story of a grown man’s past, while making the reader feel protective of the boy at the heart of the telling. Much like Skyhorse’s young life, “at least it’s never boring.” [AB]

Best fictionalization of real events: Max Brooks and Canaan White, The Harlem Hellfighters
There have been several attempts to dramatize the stories of the Buffalo Soldiers and World War II’s Tuskegee Airmen. Yet, astoundingly, this seems to be the first time someone’s gone the dramatic route for the regiment of black soldiers in World War I known at different times as the Black Rattlers, the 369th, and the Harlem Hellfighters. World War Z author Max Brooks finally has the clout to get a long-gestating passion project published, and he tells an incredible story. The choice to have only black-and-white illustrations is an interesting one, but the fact that it’s monochromatic doesn’t make the artwork any less evocative or graphic. Even without the full spectrum of color, it’s still pretty disturbing when the troops are beset by an influx of rats, or when they have to keep plucking lice off the faces and dropping them in a candle, or when a human body meets a “Jack Johnson,” then promptly explodes, spraying entrails everywhere. [AB]

Best opening with a conclusion that lives up to it: Roxane Gay, An Untamed State
From An Untamed State’s very first paragraph, the reader is drawn into Mireille’s world by being launched into her worst nightmare. While it’s clear from the outset that she will live through her kidnapping, at what cost? This story examines the legacy and side effects of surviving a horrible trauma. It’s Mireille’s singular story, but it’s also a powerful tale of suspense, violence, privilege, and (eventually) redemption, one that is far more engrossing than any novel beginning “Once upon a time” has a right to be. Although this is Roxane Gay’s first novel, she has been a prolific writer for years, and this book establishes her as an incredible talent with a lot to say. [AB]

Best biographical depiction of a genius asshole: Mark Harris, Five Came Back 
Filmmaker John Ford is notorious in cinema lore as a hardass who verbally abused many of his actors (including John Wayne). Awful as he was, Mark Harris’ Five Came Back proves he had the cojones to back up his bluster. While filming in the Pacific during America’s foray into World War II, Ford and his cameramen were caught in the middle of an air raid, filming the entire bombardment while nearly getting blown to pieces. The book, which covers the war from the perspective of five Hollywood filmmakers, doesn’t tread lightly on Ford’s worst tendencies, showing how being a revolutionary and courageous director and didn’t preclude him from many dynamic feats of sheer assholery. [NC]

Best dystopian Baltimore: Chang-Rae Lee, On Such A Full Sea
While Divergent may have captured most readers attention for its portrayal of a post-apocalyptic Chicago, Chang-Rae Lee’s On Such A Full Sea provides a much more interesting take on Baltimore’s ravaged future. After American imperialism falls to dust, Asian immigrants colonize Baltimore, now named B-Mor, creating an Orwellian series of neighborhoods where classes are literally walled off from one another. The book is dreamlike, never providing a solid history of how its world came to be, but instead piecing together a framework from oft-told stories and depictions of daily life and struggles. On Such A Full Sea may not have the sturm und drang of The Hunger Games or Divergent, but the peaceful, if oppressed, lives of the people of B-Mor seem all the more real. [NC]

Best double release: Stuart DybekEcstatic Cahoots and Paper Lantern
It takes a brave person to publish two books on the same day, though Stuart Dybek doesn’t seem like he cares much about the notoriety of a double release. His two new story collections, Ecstatic Cahoots (filled with shorter works) and Paper Lantern (a series of longer pieces) play off each other with crackling energy. The stories themselves are just as nimble, using the same themes or images in various contexts, flipping ideas on their heads before switching off to something completely different. There isn’t a through-line in either book, or between the two, but they remain inextricable from one another, to the point where it’s hard to remember which stories appeared in which. [NC]

Best astronaut survival guide: Andy Weir, The Martian
Andy Weir’s debut novel The Martian offers a delightfully funny look at a man stranded on Mars and NASA’s efforts to bring him home. But its emphasis on hard science and engineering also makes is a surprisingly thorough step-by-step guide to how an astronaut can survive long enough to get rescued using Thanksgiving potatoes, rocket fuel, and his own feces. Protagonist Mark Watney provides safety tips for not blowing yourself up while trying to make water through explosive chemical reactions, ideas for using discarded probes to phone home and even how to figure out if you’re going the right way in a dust storm. If you happen to be lost in space, there’s no better book to have with you. [SN]

Best at populating your to-read list: Gabrielle Zevin, The Storied Life Of A. J. Fikry
The title character of The Storied Life Of A. J. Fikry owns a bookstore, so it’s not surprising that the novel is filled with literary references. Chapters are punctuated with his praise of particular short stories. He’s regularly recommending reading material to the book clubs his store hosts, whether it’s a group of women who are looking for an excuse to check in on the single dad’s young daughter or a crime-focused gathering run by the chief of police, who finds a new passion for reading through his friendship with Fikry. You don’t need to know the books Zevin mentions to appreciate the story, but it’s easy to find the character’s enthusiasm contagious and want to check them out later. [SN]

Best sex: M.D. Waters, Archetype
There’s a lot of sex in M.D. Waters’ debut novel, Archetype, which is set in a dystopian future where women are purchased as breeding stock. For the main character, who is alternately trying to escape a medical facility and reconstruct her former life, sex is a way to escape her desperate isolation and manipulate the men around her. Then there are the sultry flashbacks that provide a glimpse of what she’s lost: the chance to have great sex on a beach with no agenda beyond having fun. Whatever the particular scene’s motive, Waters knows how to make it steamy and satisfying. It’s likely that Archetype’s sequel, Prototype, which comes out later this month, will be just as sexy. [SN]

Best swan song: Peter Matthiessen, In Paradise 
Peter Matthiessen’s final book, In Paradise, weaves together stories of people on a meditation retreat at the Auschwitz concentration camp. It’s as heavy-hearted as it sounds, an attempt to untangle an incomprehensible burden on humanity. The protagonist, a Polish-born American man, makes the pilgrimage to that retreat for his mother’s sake, who was likely terminated there, and he spends his time there meditating and “bearing witness.” It’s not exactly a story of redemption or catharsis, though—it’s more of a meditation itself, both beautiful and horrifying, on the good and evil of humanity. Matthiessen, himself a Zen master who made that same retreat, died four days before the book’s publication. [LMB]

Best new superhero: Ms. Marvel (Marvel)
Kamala Khan was just an ordinary Jersey girl with a love for superheroes when she found herself in the middle of a chemical cloud that gave her extraordinary powers, presenting her with the opportunity to forge a new future for herself by taking on the former mantle of one of her idols. Writer G. Willow Wilson, artist Adrian Alphona, and colorist Ian Herring have created an immensely likable new hero that breaks from the traditional Marvel mold thanks to Kamala’s responsibility to her family and her Muslim upbringing, and Ms. Marvel’s opening origin arc stands as one of the strongest introductions in recent history. With immensely expressive artwork, an emotional story, and quick, quippy dialogue, this creative team has made Kamala one of the brightest stars in current superhero comics, and her journey is just beginning. [OS]

Best Golden Age revamp: Flash Gordon (Dynamite)
Flash Gordon is a character that doesn’t need an intense reimagining to make him relevant to contemporary times, and Dynamite has found immense success in its new Flash Gordon title by embracing a retro sensibility. Writer Jeff Parker, artist Evan “Doc” Shaner, and colorist Jordie Bellaire have crafted a thrilling new series by looking at the character’s pulp sci-fi past and using that as a template for his future, offering a book that is brimming with fun, humor, and impeccably staged action. Parker is one of the industry’s most gifted writers when it comes to understanding the core qualities that keep specific characters in the cultural consciousness, and the interactions between Flash, Dale Arden, and Dr. Hans Zarkov are as engaging as the dynamic action sequences. Shaner and Bellaire produce lush visuals that draw readers in with imaginative designs and smooth page compositions, complementing the strengths of the writing to make Flash Gordon a revamp not to be missed. [OS]

Most horrific reimagining of U.S. history: Manifest Destiny (Image)
Lewis and Clark’s Western expedition was a major event in the development of the United States, but what if the history books were hiding what really happened on the cross-country journey? Writer Chris Dingess, artist Matthew Roberts, and colorist Owen Gieni imagine an alternate history where Lewis, Clark, and crew make terrifying discoveries on their way west, meeting buffalo centaurs, plant-based zombies, and giant bugs that they wrangle with the help of their resident monster hunter, Sacagawea. Dingess’ genre-bending script balances spectacle with character development by exploring how these horrors impact the cast, largely made up of criminals that are plenty scary in their own right. Roberts’ breathtaking nature illustrations are brought to lush life by Gieni’s coloring, and even the most gruesome moments are beautiful thanks to the art team’s attention to detail. It takes a lot to stand out in Image’s current crop of exceptional titles, but Manifest Destiny has a level of ambition and craft that demands attention. [OS]

Most heart-wrenching panel sequence: The Love Bunglers (Fantagraphics)
Jaime Hernandez’s The Love Bunglers is a masterpiece, plain and simple. A story nearly 30 years in the making, it’s a stunning encapsulation of everything that has made Maggie Chascarillo one of the comic-book medium’s most important (and lovable) characters by focusing on her complicated relationship with Ray Dominguez. This relationship is distilled in a two-page sequence at the end of the story showing how the characters’ lives have been intertwined since early childhood. Both pages feature a nine-panel grid that spotlights specific moments Maggie and Ray have shared, with the first grid detailing Maggie’s perspective while the second grid looks at how Ray relates to the same event. Their entire life together is stripped down to 18 panels overflowing with personal resonance, spotlighting the incredible cartooning talent Hernandez has developed while telling Maggie’s and Ray’s stories. [OS] 


More Best of