Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Year-end book review: my 14 fave reads of 2014

I read over 80 books in 2014. Many of which I thought were good, but not great; a few (I'm looking at you, Donna Tartt) really pissed me off; and a dozen or so that delighted, enlightened, or captivated me -- and made me wish I could write like that.

Herewith, a list of my 14 favorite, or most memorable, reads of 2014, both fiction and nonfiction, listed alphabetically by author.

(For a complete list of all the books I reviewed this year, click here or on the Book Nook label at the end of this post.)

One Hundred Names by Cecilia Ahern. Fiction. A story about redemption, friendship, and not judging a book, or a person, by its cover, or appearances. The main character, and, in a way, deus ex machina, is Kitty Logan, a disgraced journalist who seeks to redeem herself and to pay tribute to her recently deceased mentor and editor, Constance, by writing the story Constance had wanted to write but didn't. The story? We don't exactly know (until the end of the book). All the editor left was a list of 100 names. It is up to Kitty to track down the 100 people on the list and figure out what ties them together and to Constance.

I loved this book, and not just because I started my professional life as a journalist, or that I, too, had a beloved editor and mentor named Constance (though it helped me to instantly connect with Kitty, her coworkers, and her subjects). I loved it because of the stories Kitty uncovers in her quest, the great writing, and how uplifted the book left me feeling when I finished reading it.

Flirting with French: How a Language Charmed Me, Seduced Me & Nearly Broke My Heart by William Alexander. Nonfiction. This book is for everyone who has ever attempted to brush up on their high school language skills or tried to learn a new language after the age of 40 (or 35, or 22).

More than a memoir, Flirting with French chronicles Alexander's attempt to master French at the age of 59 and shares some of the science behind language acquisition and its effect on the brain. As per usual, Alexander, the author of 52 Loaves, about his adventures in bread-making (which I also recommend), imbues his tale (and struggles) with frankness and humor. Highly recommend (and not just because I happened to read it while trying to learn Italian and could totally relate.)

Lucky Us by Amy Bloom. Fiction. A powerful, moving, beautifully written coming-of-age story about two motherless teenage girls, half-sisters, trying to make a life for and support themselves in 1940s America. The older sister, Iris, whose mother has just died at the opening of the book, and has no idea she has a half-sister, harbors dreams of becoming a movie star in Hollywood. The younger sister, Eva, the illegitimate daughter of Iris's philandering, no-good-but-charming father, doesn't know what she wants -- and is unceremoniously dumped on Iris's doorstep, or in her parlor, the day of Iris's mother's funeral, by her mother.

Eva quickly forms a bond with Iris and commits to helping her in her quest to become a movie star. Soon, the girls are fleeing Ohio, and their father (who has been stealing from Iris), for Hollywood, where Iris gets noticed by studio executives and seems to be on her way. Until circumstances conspire against her and she is forced to flee again, this time to New York, with the help of a an avuncular studio hairdresser, Diego, dragging along Eva and their father, who shows up on their doorstep just as they are about to leave.

With the help of Diego and his sisters, Iris and her father land jobs as a governess and butler to a nouveau riche Italian family in Great Neck, while Eva works in Diego's sisters' hair salon in Brooklyn. However, once again, Iris's ambition (and passion) wreaks havoc on their lives and the lives of others around them. And as Iris is sent off to war-torn London, Eva is left to pick up the pieces in New York and find a way to support herself.

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. Fiction. The beautifully written, poignant story of two teenagers whose lives are forever changed by the Second World War.

Marie-Laure, who is blind, lives in Paris with her doting father, the master of locks at the Museum of Natural History. But when the Nazis invade France, Marie-Laure and her father flee Paris, taking with them a dangerous secret, to the coastal town of Saint-Malo, where Marie-Laure's reclusive great uncle lives.

Werner, a year older than Marie-Laure, lives with his younger sister in an orphanage in a German mining town. However, when Werner's talent for fixing radios is discovered by a local party official, he wins a spot in an elite, and sadistic, Hitler Youth academy -- and is soon after conscripted into the army, where his mission is to ferret out resisters and those seeking to bring down the Nazis by secretly broadcasting information.

Eventually, Werner's work leads him and his team to Saint-Malo, where his and Marie-Laure's lives collide  and change forever.

The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion by Fannie Flagg. Fiction. Who would have thought watching Match Game all those years ago that Fannie Flagg would become a beloved, best-selling author? Though I guess I shouldn't be that surprised as she was always funny and clever. But as we (I) know, being funny and clever does not necessarily translate into being a great author. And I think Flagg is a great author.

I loved The All-Girl Filling Station's Last Reunion (as I did her other books). And I learned something, too -- about early female aviators, the WASPs (Women Airforce Service Pilots), who helped America's World War II effort. At the risk of sounding cliche, I laughed and I cried (albeit mostly to myself) all throughout this dual tale of a kindly but much put-upon Alabama homemaker (and her domineering mother), set in the mid-2000s, and a family of pioneering female aviators from Wisconsin during the 1930s and 1940s.

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert. Fiction. I could not stomach Eat, Pray, Love, and it was only after being reassured that this book was totally different and well worth a read that I checked it out. And I am glad I did.

Not a typical "Jennifer Book" (as I prefer upbeat, happy reads), while much of the book is sad and depressing, Gilbert's prose are so eloquent, and her story of botanist/heiress Alma Whittaker so compelling and inspiring, I could not put the book down. (I particularly enjoyed the section about Roger the dog.)

As for how to describe The Signature of All Things, you could say it is a book about mid-19th century botany and botanists, which it is. You could also call it a novel of adventure and self discovery. Which it also is. You could also call it the tale of a dysfunctional family and of love and loss. And it is those things, too. Just read it.

Under the Wide and Starry Sky by Nancy Horan. Fascinating (somewhat fictional though based on fact) biography of Fanny Vandergrift Osborne Stevenson, the wife of author Robert Louis Stevenson.

The Other Language by Francesca Marciano. Fiction. I am not a big fan of short story collections. Not sure why. I think it's because I find them uneven and unsatisfying. But something about The Other Language intrigued me enough to check it out. Maybe it's because I love books set in other places, told from a non-American (in this case, Italian) point of view.

In any case, while the stories in The Other Language are all a bit (or more) sad and depressing -- tales of love (or lust) and loss -- they are beautifully and movingly told (the word poignant keeps springing to mind). I also found them all too relatable and  admired the author's ability to capture pivotal moments in relationships. 

The Hotel on Place Vendome: Life, Death, and Betrayal at the Hotel Ritz in Paris by Tilar J. Mazzeo. Nonfiction. The Nazi occupation of Paris observed from inside the Hotel Ritz, where Nazis, the rich and famous, Allies, and spies for both sides lived and mingled. A work of nonfiction, the book at times reads like a spy novel or pulp fiction and includes plenty of glitz and glamor, as well as a history of the Hotel Ritz and some of its famous occupants and regulars, going back to its opening in 1898.

The Heir Apparent: A Life of Edward VII, the Playboy Prince by Jane Ridley. Nonfiction. One of the best biographies I've read -- extremely well researched and very well written. Ridley gives readers a full-blown portrait of Edward VII, aka Albert Edward or Bertie, from his boyhood to his coronation and death, uncovering many previously unknown or forgotten facts about not only Edward but about his role in governing England and the political conflicts of the time (mid to late 1800s through the early 1900s). She also gives us a glimpse into the life of Queen Victoria, his mother, a horrible sounding woman and mother, and her family, and Bertie's wife, Princess Alexandra of Denmark. A fascinating read. Highly recommend, especially if you are an Anglophile.

Save the Deli: In Search of the Perfect Pastrami, Crusty Rye, and the Heart of Jewish Delicatessen by David Sax.Warning: Do not read this book unless you have on hand a really good pastrami, or corned beef, or turkey sandwich, on rye bread, with a side of coleslaw. Which, considering there are no great delis anymore, or very few, will be tough to find. So prepare to be hungry.

Save the Deli in short is a love letter to that temple of smoked or cured meats and schmaltz that Jews (and non-Jews) have flocked to for centuries. Sax, a Canadian, spent several years traveling the United States, Canada, and Europe in search of the last remaining delis, sampling their wares and writing about what made them great (both the food and the people) and why so many once great delis -- institutions -- closed (mainly in New York, because the rent is so high) and why and how they have managed to survive in other places (namely Los Angeles).

The Heist by Daniel Silva. Mystery/Espionage. This was my first Daniel Silva Gabriel Allon spy novel, and even though it is the 14th book in the series, The Heist stands on its own merits, and Silva does an excellent job of making new readers to the series not feel like they've missed something.

Taking you on an adventure around Europe, The Heist opens in Venice, where we find Silva's protagonist, Gabriel Allon, an Israeli art restorer and spy, restoring  an altarpiece by Veronese. However, when a former (fallen) English spy, known to deal in stolen artwork, is found brutally murdered in his Lake Como villa by a London art dealer friend of Allon's, and word on the street is that the deceased may have been hiding or trafficking a famous missing masterpiece by Caravaggio, Allon is forced out of semi-retirement and sets off to find the Caravaggio and the killer(s).

Lovers of spy novels and books about art heists, especially ones set in exotic locales, should greatly enjoy The Heist. I did.

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion. This may have been my favorite book of 2014. Very funny. Reminded me of The Big Bang Theory, in a good way, as the main character in The Rosie Project, Don, like Sheldon, is a scientist, who is "socially challenged" (i.e., has Asperger Syndrome or similar). Though in this case it is the Sheldon character, who is good looking and into cooking not comic books, who falls for the Penny character, Rosie, who is a sexy bartender (similar to Penny), though also very intelligent. Got it?

Okay, for those who have no idea what I'm talking about, The Rosie Project is a romantic comedy about a health-obsessed Australian geneticist with Asperger's who creates a compatibility test for finding the perfect mate and winds up falling for a sexy bartender who smokes. (Just trust me and pick it up. You won't be sorry.)

Fooling Houdini: Magicians, Mentalists, Math Geeks, and the Hidden Powers of the Mind by Alex Stone. Fun, fast-paced read/memoir about a young man's love of (or really obsession with) magic. Very entertaining and informative (though I may never play poker or black jack again).

So what were some of your favorite, or most memorable, books that you read in 2014? Let me, and everyone else know, via a Comment.

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