Our favorite titles of the year are books that took us away to another country or helped us see our own lives from a new perspective.
Here, in no particular order, are our favorites of the more than 50 titles we reviewed in 2014:
•“Nine Rabbits” by Virginia Zaharieva
This best-selling novel follows one remarkable woman, Manda, growing up in communist Bulgaria and forging her own path as an independent artist.
Told through a series of beautifully written short chapters, Zaharieva address some weighty topics with the candor and ease of a trusted friend.
• “An Untamed State” by Roxane Gay
When Mireille and her American family visit their wealthy relatives in Haiti, she feels like she is living in a fairy tale.
The novel quickly gets a Grimm twist when she is kidnapped and held for ransom. What unfolds is an unforgettable story about recovery and the ties of family.
• “Before I Burn” by Gaute Heivoll
Part historical fiction, part memoir, part metafiction, Heivoll’s unconventional and moving novel follows the true story of an arsonist’s 1978 rampage on the small village of Finsland, Norway.
• “The London Jungle Book” by Bhajju Shyam
Rereleased in 2014, Shyam’s story of exploring London for the first time is masterfully coupled with traditionally Gond images, resulting in a children’s book that speaks to adult themes of loneliness and the pleasure of simple joys.
• “I Am China” by Xiaolu Guo
It takes a talented author to make a story about translating journals suspenseful, but Guo does just that in this novel about two lovers who speak out against the Chinese government and the translator who is working to tell their story to the world.
— Laura Farmer
• “Orfeo” by Richard Powers
Composer Peter Els spends his life pushing the boundaries of musical expression. Late in life, his quest takes him from the confines of the musical staff into the boundless frontier of microbiology.
Powers is attuned to the anxieties of the present moment — the hopes and dangers of scientific progress, the threat of terrorism in myriad shadowy forms, and the desire for connectedness in a fragmented world.
• “The Word Exchange” by Alena Graedon
Graedon imagines a near future in which a single company makes a play to control not only content, but meaning itself.
Graedon’s debut novel blends plausible concerns about advances in technology and the purposes for which it might be exploited with a creatively executed narrative. The novel is built around philosophical arguments — notably the arguments of Hegel — but Graedon also keeps the suspense ratcheted up.
• “Thunderstruck” by Elizabeth McCracken
Each story in “Thunderstruck” is grounded in sadness — a loved one is lost to death or the wider world, a friendship is fractured, a comforting illusion is stripped away — but McCracken, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, infuses many of the stories with a wry humor.
The title story is a quietly dazzling portrait of a married couple divided by their elder daughter’s catastrophic accident.
• “A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip” by Kevin Brockmeier
Brockmeier, acclaimed fiction writer and graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, takes an unusual approach to this memoir of his seventh grade year.
Written in the third person, the book remains intimate and honest, even in a stunning dream sequence. Brockmeier is a kid we recognize, and his efforts to understand himself, his friends, and the wider world are wholly familiar.
• “Some Luck” by Jane Smiley
Smiley, a Pulitzer Prize winner and graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, has written an exceptional first entry in a trilogy that will follow a family through 100 years. “Some Luck” covers 1920 through 1953 and recounts the lives of the Langdons, an Iowa farm family. Smiley’s prose is beautiful, her insight into her characters is broad, and her empathy for each person’s struggles is deep.
— Rob Cline