Top 15 Fiction of 2014

I read a lot of books this year, so I’m offering my top 15 fiction books (here’s nonfiction).

I don’t think 2014 had as many home run reads as 2013 did, but there are still lots of good reads in this year’s list.

  1. Flora & Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo
    A beautiful, sparse, partially illustrated and wonderfully wacky story about a girl and a squirrel-turned-superhero. While it touches on over-the-top comic book superhero themes and ideas, it’s more down to earth with family issues and interested in deeper ideas like poetry. Yes, squirrels writing poetry! I read it out loud to my kids and it was an absolute joy to read. The voice and the flow of the language was very unique and just fun. I mean, c’mon, “malfeasance” is just fun to say.
  2. Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger
    A summer of tragedy in a small Minnesota town in 1961, as told through the eyes of a 13-year-old boy. It has an edge of mystery to it, but it’s mostly about this boy and his family, their relationships and ultimately a coming of age story. It deals with faith and tragedy honestly and realistically and is just saturated with perfectly honed writing. I was especially impressed by the clarity of the characters.
  3. Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith
    This is the greatest novel you’ll ever read about six-foot-tall praying mantis soldiers devouring a small town in Iowa. It might also be the best book you read all year. It’s funny, weird, rambling, and full of the profanity and sex you’d expect from a 16-year-old narrator. It starts off as another story of an outcast teenager, struggling with life and his attraction to his girlfriend and gay best friend. But it turns into apocalypse by experimental mutant insects. It gets there (and holds together) thanks to the wonderful narration of 16-year-old Austin, a wannabe historian who lays it all out and explores the weird connections and fascinating underbelly of an economically depressed community in rural Iowa. It’s as if my two favorite genres—funny yet painfully honest teen novel and post-apocalyptic sci-fi got together to create a genetically modified hybrid super-genre that kicked every other book’s ass.
  4. Ask the Passengers by A.S. King
    Astrid Jones has never felt safe since moving to a small town. Her mom is image-obsessed, her dad is checked out, her sister is a people pleaser, her best friend lives a double life and, oh yeah, Astrid has a girl friend and hasn’t told anyone she’s gay. Not even herself. Since she can’t confide in anyone, she spends a lot of her time lying on picnic tables, sending her love to random passengers soaring past at 20,000 feet. In many ways it’s your typical teen finding out who they are story, but it’s so well-written and funny and fresh that there’s nothing typical about it.
  5. Forty Acres by Dwayne Alexander Smith
    Martin is invited to join an elite group of black businessmen, but he discovers they’re part of a secret society that wants to repay the evils of slavery by enslaving whites. It’s a fast-paced thriller wrapped around a thought-provoking idea. It’s terrifying, which is both as it should be and a little disturbing for what it says about myself.
  6. Fledgling by Octavia Butler
    Why do we read any other vampire novels? This one is it. Incredible. It starts with a young vampire awaking in a cave, disoriented and injured, suffering from amnesia and remembering nothing of what happened to her. As she pieces together the mystery it’s revealed that her dark skin is a genetic modification that allows her to stay awake during the day and survive the sun, but she’s hated by what amounts to vampire white supremacists. The action shifts from shadowy attacks to a court room like showdown and the intensity just ratchets up.
  7. The Boy at the End of the World by Greg van Eekhout
    A post-apocalyptic far-future where a boy wakes up in a broken ark to find himself the last human in the world. He has to adjust to a new world with a robot for a companion. It’s a great little kid’s story. I read it out loud to the kids and we all loved it.
  8. The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson
    Such a great and powerful story of a Gilly, the foster kid bouncing to a new home and starting over yet again. The defensiveness and fight or flight mentality is so spot on. She’s the world weary teen, wearing her guts and her prejudice on her sleeve, so eager to out-smart everyone and prove herself. It’s a quick read and the end comes too fast—you’ll be fighting the tears.
  9. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
    A husband comes home to find his wife missing, but nothing is quite as it should be. This mystery is a captivating page-turner that in the end was just plain terrifying, not from any horror but from the sheer craziness of what a person is capable of. 5 stars for being an incredible read. 4 stars because it gives me the willies.
  10. The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate
    A short and lovely tale told from the perspective of a captive gorilla in a carnival-like mall. Not only is it a great little story, but the voice of Ivan is spectacular. I might be a bit biased since I listened to the audiobook and the voice work was very good, but the tone and voice of Ivan was just unique and so well done. I could listen to Ivan pontificate all day long.
  11. Lion’s Blood by Steven Barnes
    An alternate history where Europeans are enslaved by Africans. We see an Irish village sacked by Vikings, the people sold off in slavery, and forced to endure the passage across the Atlantic to an Islamic colony in North America at uneasy truce with the Aztec nation. It flips our racial expectations in a jarring way that’s hard to get used to (so used to the typical slave narrative, I realized halfway through that I was imagining the enslaved whites as blacks). Not only is it a jarring situation, but it’s a powerful story of master and slave.
  12. More Than This by Patrick Ness
    Desperate and depressed, Seth commits suicide and wakes up in an abandoned world. He finds himself inexplicably in his childhood home in England, across the world from where he drowned, and the world is dusty, overgrown and empty. Is he in some kind of hell? This one is weird and deep, but really good as you start diving down the rabbit hole.
  13. Like No Other by Una LaMarche
    A lovely Romeo and Juliet story between a Hasidic girl and a black teen in modern day New York.
  14. Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
    Malinda starts high school by calling the cops on a major party. She’s lost all her friends and everyone hates her, but the worst part is she tried calling the cops because she was raped at that party and never told anyone. Her freshman year continues to get worse as she tries to cope (or not cope) with what happened to her. Despite what feels like a cliche story (though I’m not sure I can name many teen girl is raped stories) it has a great voice and realistically moves through the aftermath of a traumatic event.
  15. Landline by Rainbow Rowell
    A workaholic mother sends her family off for Christmas vacation without her and as her marriage is on the brink she discovers a magic phone that connects her with her husband from 15 years earlier in the midst of another relational crisis. Complicated? Yes. It’s probably not as coherent as it could be, but it’s full of humor, warmth, random asides and near time travel. That’s always fun.

If you want to read more, check out my booklet 137 Books in One Year: How to Fall in Love With Reading Again.

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