Welcome to the 2014 edition of the year-end post that’s gone by a few different names over the years, but captures the same idea: presenting the best library books and materials we encountered this year.
Obviously this list is going to have lots of books on it, because reading, hurray! But there are many ways to read, and loads of different kinds of media experiences out there. Libraries — and library workers — are interested in all of them. So, without further ado, here are the year’s favorite reading, listening to, watching, and otherwise consuming picks from the Eleventh Stack team. Enjoy!
Ian Samson’s Mobile Library Mystery series is not cozy, nor is it hardboiled, but it’s very entertaining, set in Northern Ireland and well worth your time. This book is the first of the series.
Burn Notice is possibly the most under-rated television show I’ve ever been exposed to. A spy show that has adventure, humor and a great story, and that lasted seven seasons and ended properly is hard to come by. Both are my top picks for 2014!
The book was all the things I love about Amy Poehler: funny, big-hearted, and inspirational. She talks about topics like childbirth, writing and her divorce in such a warm, honest and endearing voice. It affirmed my belief that Amy Poehler is the best person ever and we should immediately be best friends.
I read two books by Roxane Gay this year and it was a little difficult to choose which one I enjoyed more. Bad Feminist is a collection of essays about many things, not just feminism. An Untamed State, a novel about a woman kidnapped in Haiti, left me breathless. I can’t remember a book that made me want to skip ahead just to see what happened so I could calm down. Read them both.
My Lady, My Lord , by Katharine Ashe
Freaky Friday meets the Regency era in this breathlessly romantic and original historical. Frenemies and neighbors Ian and Corinna find fate offering them an unexpected chance at a romantic truce. This is one of the most charming, clever, intelligent, and entertaining romances I have read this year. Ashe is a professor of European history at Duke University.
I watched over two hundred movies this year. Some Velvet Morning is an eighty-minute film that only features two actors with a twist ending that left my jaw hanging. The documentary film Tim’s Vermeer completely challenged every perception I had of art in a way that hadn’t been done since I first watched Exit Through the Gift Shop. But the standout for the year has to be How to Train Your Dragon 2.
In the first film, inspired by the book series by Cressida Cowell, director Dean DeBlois introduced us to a fantastical world of dragons and vikings. With that exposition out of the way, DeBlois took everything to the next level; the animation is sharper and the story’s scope is much broader. And much darker than I was expecting, much to my delight.
Now, I’ve never been one to believe that animated movies are solely for children. You only have to look at films like Satoshi Kon‘s Paprika, Mamoru Oshii‘s Ghost in the Shell or any film by Hayao Miyazaki to know that. As I was watching it, I couldn’t help but think about The Empire Strikes Back, which is considered the darkest chapter in the Star Wars saga and often regarded as the best. I was checking IMDb after the film ended–as I am wont to do–and saw that DeBlois was inspired by Empire in making his sequel. I applaud DeBlois for choosing to treat his audience with respect and tell a mature, albeit somber story.
A third film in the planned trilogy is set to come out in 2017. That gives you plenty of time to watch the first two!
I already wrote about what has ended up being my favorite book this year (good job, self!). Instead, let’s talk movies. My two favorite movies from the past year were Guardians of the Galaxy (I know it’s awesome. You know it’s awesome. Let’s move on.) and Snowpiercer. Here’s why the later rocked my world a bit:
- The cast! Chris Evans. Tilda Swinton. John Hurt. Jamie Bell. Octavia Spencer. It’s an international A-team, friends.
- The director! Joon-ho Bong is kind of a big deal in South Korea and should be more well-known. Hopefully this movie will fix that for him (For your monster movie needs, check out The Host).
- Fun action sequences, played out in small spaces!
- Tilda Swinton! Yes, she’s worth mentioning twice. The character was originally written for a male actor, but after Bong met her at a film festival, he re-imagined the part. She’s just so weird and wonderful, and completely steals the attention away from everyone. I love her.
- Controversy about the US theatrical release! The Weinstein Company held the rights here, but wanted about 20 minutes shaved off of the run-time before allowing it to be shown in theaters. Bong refused. The film nerds rallied and it was eventually given a decent 150-theater release, tallying $86,758,912 internationally.
In 2014 I became an aunt, finished my Master’s degree, spent a day at sea on a Navy battleship, and started working at Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. 2014 is also the year I embraced audiobooks. As the Coordinator of Volunteer Services, I’m sometimes at as many as three or four CLP branches in one day, which can mean spending lots of time in the car, shaking my fist at Pittsburgh traffic. I was already used to listening to podcasts on my commutes, but when I started burning through my downloads halfway through the week, I knew it was time to give audiobooks a try.
Wait, you haven’t read Matilda? Let me get you up to speed: super smart girl, super mean grown-ups, magical powers, hilarious comeuppance. Matilda is already your favorite? GREAT! It’s time to re-visit. This audiobook is an award-winner for a reason. Take a childhood classic, add in a world-class actress who does a variety of voices and accents (and sometimes switches between them at impressive speed in dialog-heavy scenes) and you end up with an audiobook that will leave you wondering which of your old favorites you should try again in audio format.
I listened to this entire book on a solo trip to Norfolk, Virginia, and when I arrived at my friend’s house after nine hours of driving, terrible traffic, and no dinner, I was hesitant to get out of the car knowing I only had 20-minutes left on the last disc. The book’s main conceit might sound silly – an old telephone gives a woman in a rocky marriage the ability to communicate with her husband in the past – but I thought the execution of the tale was anything but senseless. Rowell weaves past and present together in a rich, bright, emotional narrative. Also, Rebecca Lowman is simply great (is it weird to say that you have a favorite audiobook narrator?). I’ve since listened to several other books Lowman has recorded, and she consistently knocks it out of the park.
Sometimes reading books about nuclear accidents and failed Arctic expeditions gets me down – so when I need to cheer myself up, I turn to adorable fluffy high school romance manga. Really. So right now, I’m reading Otomen.
Asuka Masamune’s father abandoned his family when Asuka was a wee lad because he (the father) wanted to become a woman. Asuka’s horrified mother reacted by declaring that her son would grow up to be THE MANLIEST MAN OF ALL MEN EVER and devoted her life to the task – except that she’s usually traveling around the world, doing important businesswoman things. This conveniently leaves Asuka alone to pursue his favorite hobbies: cooking, cleaning, and sewing (and he’s really really good at them, too).
Standard high school romance manga hilarity ensues as Asuka wins the heart of a lovely young lady with more stereotypically male interests and makes a lot of new friends along the way. Otomen is predictable but fun, and it’s filled with positive messages: don’t be ashamed of who you are and what you like; appreciate the friends who appreciate you; and don’t let people tell you what you can or can’t do just because of your gender. Plus, it’s really really cute.
I read & watched so many great things this year, that instead of listing all of them I’m just going to focus on a few that I feel haven’t gotten the attention and audience they deserve.
For nonfiction I can’t think of a better collection of essays I’ve read this year (or in many years) than The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison, which is as much about empathy as it is about pain, and the limits of empathy. It is a surprising, moving, and challenging read worth giving a try. For an easy entrance point I recommend the titular essay, or the lighter “The Immortal Horizon.”
In the fiction category I found myself haunted by All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld, which follows its strong protagonist from her past in the dusty outback of Australia all the way to her current life as a sheep farmer on an isolated British island. This is a dark book, and often reads like a horror story; it is not without some hope and humor though, and the main protagonist is one of the toughest women I’ve encountered in fiction in some time.
It’s hard for me to pick a favorite movie, so I’m going to recommend a recent foreign film we screened at the library for International Cinema Sundays that I think deserves a larger audience. Gloria is a 2013 Chilean film from director Sebastián Lelio that focuses on the day-to-day life of its protagonist, a divorcee in her fifties with two grown children. We follow Gloria as she searches the city for love and connection, and embarks on a new passionate love affair. Adults at this stage in their life (and particularly women) are rarely given this kind of treatment on film, and it’s a real joy to spend a couple hours with Gloria (wonderfully played by Chilean actress Paulina Garcia). If you enjoy a good character study, this film is for you–warts and all.
Although I watch very little TV, this year I became obsessed with the BBC America series Orphan Black. It stars the amazing actress Tatiana Maslany, who at the beginning of the series discovers that she is one of many clones (all very different characters, all played by her). Part sci-fi, part thriller, and part drama, this series is impossible to stop watching once you start.
All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood looks at the way children affect their parents’ lives, for better or for worse (or more accurately, for better and for worse). It’s an interesting look at the ways in which children both enrich our lives and make things exponentially more difficult. This isn’t a book that will give you any parenting advice, but one that will find parents nodding their heads as they read about the joys and miseries of having children.
I didn’t discover the Love and Rockets comic series until the late ’90s, but since then have been a devoted fan, especially of Maggie and Hopey. If you know the series, you know the feeling of growing up with the characters. In 2014’s The Love Bunglers, Jaime Hernandez continues the story of Maggie. Now older but still flawed and endearing, Maggie is one of the best characters in comics. You could read this latest volume as a stand-alone book, but if you want to start at the beginning (which I highly recommend!), take a look at some of the older Love and Rockets books that we have in our collection.
I had heard such varying accounts of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, but it wasn’t until I had been through an intense fiction/audiobook drought, and a recommendation from a friend, that I decided to give it a go. There are instances where I think that an audiobook, narrated by an amazing talent, can make all the difference in the enjoyment of a story, and I believe this is one of those instances. Narrator David Pittu pushed this tapestry of a novel into a Goodreads “I really liked it” rating category for me. I may have given up on this story without his voice(s) to guide me along.
In terms of what some might regard as “real books,” i.e. print books – the one that really sticks out for me from my reading pile of 2014 is Dan Barber’s The Third Plate. Without being too preachy, but by providing solid, living examples of sustainable food production, Barber’s work should be added to the standbys of required reading by those interested in the topic. And now, more than ever, I want to go to Stone Barns Center in New York state!
This year for me was a year of poetry, poetry, poetry. The best poetry book of 2014 was undoubtedly Louise Gluck’s Faithful and Virtuous Night, her most accessible collection in many, many years. However, the hands down best volume I ran across this year was Braided Creek: A Conversation in Poetry by Ted Kooser and Jim Harrison, originally published back in 2003. Though neither poet is a personal favorite, I’ve long admired them both and this volume is simply transcendent. The poems are mostly all 3 lines or less, with the occasional 4 or 5 line piece. There are four poems per page and, at 85 pages, you get a lot of bang for your lyrical buck.
The impetus for the book came from a cancer diagnosis for Kooser, which prompted the two friends to begin a pointed correspondence in brief poems. What makes these brief, vivid, insightful pieces truly amazing is that the poets chose not to sign them, not to designate who wrote what. This is very intriguing for the reader, but for the poets themselves I’d say it was something of a mission statement: in the resulting book, ego has truly been effaced from the process. To focus only on the words, and the words alone – this was, at once, an act of deep humility and an act of profound respect, each for the other, and for the work itself. I defy anyone to try to identify who wrote what which, in a suitably subtle fashion, communicates how very well crafted these little gems are.
Romance – Kristan Higgins – In Your Dreams
Em asks Jack to be her date at the wedding of her former boyfriend and it would be simple to say “hilarity ensues” but this book offers so much more.
Suspense – Linda Fairstein – Terminal City – The New York environs of Grand Central Terminal and its maze of underground tunnels serve as the location of a series of brutal murders investigated by special victims prosecutor Alexandra Cooper.
Women’s Fiction – Elin Hilderbrand – The Matchmaker
Dabney has a second sense when it comes to paring up happy couples on Nantucket , but an old beau from her past turns her marriage and her life into turmoil when he returns after an absence of many years.
One of the best comics I read this year was Sex Criminals by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky. In order to save their library from foreclosure, the two main characters use this weird ability they have to stop time after they have sex to rob a bank. It’s even more awesome than it sounds.
For prose, I think my favorite is Yangsze Choo’s The Ghost Bride (also available as a delightfully narrated eAudio book). This is a historical mystery/romance/fantasy novel. The number of genres it straddles is probably why I loved it so much. The story follows Li Lan, a young Malayan girl whose father wants her to become a ghost bride for the recently deceased son of a wealthy family. Li Lan gets swept up in solving the mystery of her would-be-husband’s death and goes on a literal journey to the underworld, where she meets ghosts and other mystical creatures.
I saved my picks for last because I had a hard time choosing favorites. Every book I finished this year was good in its own way, or I wouldn’t have finished it. That being said, there are three that stood out:
My Real Children, Jo Walton. At the end of her life, Patricia Cowan sits in a nursing home, horribly confused. It’s not dementia, though: Patricia remembers two distinctly different lives, and since she knows they can’t both be true, one must be real and one false…right? Maybe. Or maybe not.
The timeline split occurs when Patricia marries — or doesn’t marry — a man named Mark. How can she possibly choose between two lives, both rich and meaningful in their own ways? Walton’s writing is elegant and breathtaking, and the alternate universes she paints are filled with life, color, and, occasionally, terror. Literary sci-fi at its best. Available in print only.
Shoggoths in Bloom, Elizabeth Bear. This book is like a sterling silver crown set with a series of diamonds: every story is gorgeous, razor-sharp and on-point. What’s really amazing, though, is that each story in the collection is different: Bear is as adept at mystery and horror as she is at sci-fi and fantasy, which makes starting each new tale a pleasure (you don’t know what you’re going to get, but you know it will be good). Standout pieces are “Sonny Liston Takes the Fall” (historical fantasy), “Dolly” (SF with some pointed ethical questions), and “Orm the Beautiful” (which I cannot even tell you about without ruining the surprise). This is definitely a book I’ll be buying for my personal collection. Available in print only.
Stone Mattress, Margaret Atwood. I know I’ve already reviewed this, but I can’t stop recommending it. Atwood is just a genius, and if you’ve never tried her, don’t be afraid. I mean, do be afraid, but not for the reasons you’re thinking. Her prose is very accessible and readable, which I appreciate in literature (anybody can string a bunch of big words together and sound smart, but that’s not literature). Also, her stories are about the kind of people you already know, even if you sometimes do not like them very much. Oh, just read it already! Available in print, Playaway, digital audio, and Kindle / EPUB editions.
We hope you’ve enjoyed our eclectic collection of library selections! Now it’s your turn: what were your favorite library checkouts of 2014? Leave us a comment, so we can check them out, too!