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Best Literary Fiction of 2014

Doerr captures the sights and sounds of wartime and focuses, refreshingly, on the innate goodness of his major characters.

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ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE

Doerr presents us with two intricate stories, both of which take place during World War II; late in the novel, inevitably, they intersect.

In August 1944, Marie-Laure LeBlanc is a blind 16-year-old living in the walled port city of Saint-Malo in Brittany and hoping to escape the effects of Allied bombing. D-Day took place two months earlier, and Cherbourg, Caen and Rennes have already been liberated. She’s taken refuge in this city with her great-uncle Etienne, at first a fairly frightening figure to her. Marie-Laure’s father was a locksmith and craftsman who made scale models of cities that Marie-Laure studied so she could travel around on her own. He also crafted clever and intricate boxes, within which treasures could be hidden. Parallel to the story of Marie-Laure we meet Werner and Jutta Pfennig, a brother and sister, both orphans who have been raised in the Children’s House outside Essen, in Germany. Through flashbacks we learn that Werner had been a curious and bright child who developed an obsession with radio transmitters and receivers, both in their infancies during this period. Eventually, Werner goes to a select technical school and then, at 18, into the Wehrmacht, where his technical aptitudes are recognized and he’s put on a team trying to track down illegal radio transmissions. Etienne and Marie-Laure are responsible for some of these transmissions, but Werner is intrigued since what she’s broadcasting is innocent—she shares her passion for Jules Verne by reading aloud 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. A further subplot involves Marie-Laure’s father’s having hidden a valuable diamond, one being tracked down by Reinhold von Rumpel, a relentless German sergeant-major.

Doerr captures the sights and sounds of wartime and focuses, refreshingly, on the innate goodness of his major characters.

Pub Date: May 6, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-4767-4658-6

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: March 6, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2014

Blazing indeed: not just with Harry’s fury, but with agonizing compassion for all of wounded humanity.

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THE BLAZING WORLD

An embittered female artist plays a trick on critics that goes badly awry in Hustvedt’s latest (The Summer Without Men, 2011, etc.).

An “Editor’s Introduction” sets up the premise: After the 1995 death of her husband, art dealer Felix Lord, Harriet Burden embarked on a project she called Maskings, in which she engaged three male artists to exhibit her work as their own, to expose the art world’s sexism and to reveal “how unconscious ideas about gender, race, and celebrity influence a viewer’s understanding of a given work of art.” Readers of Hustvedt’s essay collections (Living, Thinking, Looking, 2012, etc.) will recognize the writer’s long-standing interest in questions of perception, and her searching intellect is also evident here. But as the story of Harry’s life coheres—assembled from her notebooks, various pieces of journalism, and interviews with her children, the three male artists and other art-world denizens—it’s the emotional content that seizes the reader. After a lifetime of being silenced by the powerful presences of her father and her husband, Harry seethes with rage, made no less consuming by the fact that she genuinely loved Felix; the nuanced depiction of their flawed marriage is one of the novel’s triumphs, fair to both parties and tremendously sad. As in her previous masterpiece, What I Loved (2003), Hustvedt paints a scathing portrait of the art world, obsessed with money and the latest trend, but superb descriptions of Harry’s work—installations expressing her turbulence and neediness—remind us that the beauty and power of art transcend such trivialities. If only art could heal Harry, who learns the risks of entrusting others with your own unfinished business when the third of her male “masks” refuses to play her endgame. She dies less than a year later (no spoiler; we learn this from the opening pages), and the book closes with a moving final vision of her art: “every one of those wild, nutty, sad things…alive with the spirit.”  

Blazing indeed: not just with Harry’s fury, but with agonizing compassion for all of wounded humanity.

Pub Date: March 11, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-4767-4723-1

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Nov. 27, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2013

A small gem, disturbing and haunting.

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EUPHORIA

King (Father of the Rain, 2010, etc.) changes the names (and the outcome) in this atmospheric romantic fiction set in New Guinea and clearly based on anthropologist Margaret Mead’s relationship with her second and third husbands, R.F. Fortune and Gregory Bateson—neither a slouch in his own right.

In the early 1930s, Nell and Fen are married anthropologists in New Guinea. American Nell has already published a controversial best-seller about Samoan child-rearing while Australian Fen has published only a monograph on Dobu island sorcery. Their marriage is in trouble: Nell holds Fen responsible for her recent miscarriage; he resents her fame and financial success. Shortly after leaving the Mumbanyo tribe they have been studying (and which Nell has grown to abhor), they run into British anthropologist Bankson, who is researching another tribal village, the Nengai, along the Sepik River. Deeply depressed—he's recently attempted suicide—Bankson is haunted by the deaths of his older brothers and his scientist father’s disappointment in him for practicing what is considered a soft science. Also deeply lonely, Bankson offers to find Nell and Fen an interesting tribe to study to keep them nearby. Soon the couple is happily ensconced with the Tam, whose women surprise Nell with their assertiveness. While the attraction, both physical and intellectual, between Bankson and Nell is obvious, Fen also offers Bankson tender care, which threatens to go beyond friendship, when Bankson falls ill. At first, the three-way connection is uniting and stimulating. But as Nell’s and Bankson’s feelings for each other develop, sexual tensions grow. So do the differences between Fen’s and Nell’s views on the anthropologist’s role. While Bankson increasingly shares Nell’s empathetic approach, Fen plots to retrieve an artifact from the Mumbanyo to cement his career. King does not shy from showing the uncomfortable relationship among all three anthropologists and those they study. Particularly upsetting is the portrait of a Tam who returns “civilized” after working in a copper mine.

A small gem, disturbing and haunting.

Pub Date: June 3, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-8021-2255-1

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Atlantic Monthly

Review Posted Online: March 29, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2014

Always a pleasure to read for his well-drawn characters, quiet insight and dialogue that crackles with wit, Morton here...

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FLORENCE GORDON

Unexpected celebrity and long-absent family members distract a heroically cantankerous 1960s-era activist in the summer of 2009 as she reluctantly confronts the challenges of age.

Morton (Breakable You, 2006, etc.) returns to the world of writers with Florence Gordon, a feisty literary lioness of the U.S. feminist movement. At 75, she has a just-published book that’s languishing, and despite years away from the limelight, she's embarked on a memoir only to learn that her longtime editor is retiring. No matter: She treasures her solitude and “having fun trying to make the sentences come right.” Yet fame befalls her in the form of a top critic’s review of her book in the New York Times. Family matters also intrude. Her ex-husband, a vicious burned-out writer, demands that she use her contacts to get him a job. Her son and his wife are back in New York after years in Seattle. Their daughter, Emily, helps Florence with research and almost warms up the “gloriously difficult woman.” Then the matriarch’s health begins to nag her with strange symptoms. While Florence dominates the book, “each person is the center of a world,” as Emily thinks, and Morton brings each member of the small Gordon clan to life at a time when there is suddenly much to discover about their world. He’s also strewn the novel with references to books and writers and the craft itself, which is appropriate for the somewhat rarefied setting—Manhattan’s historically liberal, bookish Upper West Side, where Morton’s characters often dwell—and a treat for anyone keen on literary fiction.

Always a pleasure to read for his well-drawn characters, quiet insight and dialogue that crackles with wit, Morton here raises his own bar in all three areas. He also joins a sadly small club of male writers who have created memorable heroines.

Pub Date: Sept. 23, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-544-30986-9

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Review Posted Online: June 5, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2014

Weighted with sorrow and gravitas, another superb story by Mengestu, who is among the best novelists now at work in America.

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ALL OUR NAMES

What’s in a name? Identity of a kind, perhaps, but nothing like stability, and perhaps nothing like truth. So Mengestu (How to Read the Air, 2010, etc.) ponders in this elegiac, moving novel, his third.

Himself an immigrant, Mengestu is alert to the nuances of what transplantation and exile can do to the spirit. Certainly so, too, is his protagonist—or, better, one of two protagonists who just happen to share a name, for reasons that soon emerge. One narration is a sequence set in and around Uganda, perhaps in the late 1960s or early 1970s, in a post-independence Africa. (We can date it only by small clues: Rhodesia is still called that, for instance, and not Zimbabwe.) But, as in a V.S. Naipaul story, neither the country nor the time matter much in a tale about human universals, in this case the universal longing for justice and our seemingly universal inability to achieve it without becoming unjust ourselves. The narrator, riding into the place he calls “the capital,” sheds his old identity straightaway: “I gave up all the names my parents had given me.” Isaac, whom he meets on campus, is, like him, a would-be revolutionary, and in that career trajectory lies a sequence of tragedies, from ideological betrayals to acts of murder. The region splintering, their revolution disintegrating, Isaac follows the ever-shifting leader he reveres into the mouth of hell. Meanwhile, Isaac—the name now transferred, along with a passport—flees to the snowy Midwest, where he assumes the identity of an exchange student, marked by a curious proclivity for Victorian English: “I remember thinking after that first afternoon that I felt like I was talking with someone out of an old English novel,” says the caseworker, Helen, with whom he will fall in love. Neither Isaac can forget the crimes he has witnessed and committed, and the arc of justice that each seeks includes personal accountability. Redemption is another matter, but both continue the fight, whether in the scrub forest of Africa or at a greasy spoon somewhere along the Mississippi River.

Weighted with sorrow and gravitas, another superb story by Mengestu, who is among the best novelists now at work in America.

Pub Date: March 4, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-385-34998-7

Page Count: 255

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Jan. 21, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2014

McBride’s debut garnered the inaugural Goldsmiths Prize in 2013 and the Baileys Women’s Prize for fiction in 2014—and...

A GIRL IS A HALF-FORMED THING

A fresh, emotionally raw debut from Irish-born, U.K.–based author McBride.

Written in halting sentences, half-sentences and dangling clauses that tumble through the text like fleeting, undigested thoughts, the story follows the female narrator as she navigates an abusive upbringing—physical, sexual and psychological—and the lingering effects of her brother’s early childhood brain trauma. McBride opens with the young narrator in the hospital with her mother and brother, who is undergoing surgery (“You white-faced feel the needle go in. Feel fat juicy poison poison young boy skin. In your arteries. Eyeballs. Spine hands legs. Puke it cells up all day long. No Mammy don’t let them”). From there, the author follows her protagonist through her confused, angry adolescence, which is exacerbated by her mother’s piercing Irish-Catholic piety, and examines her struggle between appeasing her family and developing her own identity. Though the structure and events are roughly chronological and conventional—childhood; adolescence and experimentation with sex, drugs and alcohol; further confusing and liberating experiences in college; the deaths of loved ones—the style is anything but. McBride calls to mind both Joyce and Stein in her syntax and mechanics, but she brings her own emotional range to the table, as well. As readers, we burrow deep within the narrator’s brain as she battles to mature into a well-balanced adult amid her chaotic surroundings. In an uncomfortable but always eye-opening tale, McBride investigates the tensions among family, love, sex and religion. Lovers of straightforward storytelling will shirk, but open-minded readers (specifically those not put off by the unusual language structure) will be surprised, moved and awed by this original novel.

McBride’s debut garnered the inaugural Goldsmiths Prize in 2013 and the Baileys Women’s Prize for fiction in 2014—and deservedly so. This is exhilarating fiction from a voice to watch.

Pub Date: Sept. 9, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-56689-368-8

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Coffee House

Review Posted Online: July 3, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2014

A cutting and resonant debut.

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AN UNTAMED STATE

A harrowing and emotionally cleareyed vision of one woman’s ordeal during and after her kidnapping in Haiti.

Gay’s remarkable debut novel is mostly narrated by Mireille, who, as the story opens, is visiting her native Haiti from Miami with her husband and infant son when she’s forcibly abducted by a gang and held for 13 days. She was a target because her father heads a highly profitable construction firm, and his resistance to paying ransom baffles Mireille’s U.S.-born husband, Michael; meanwhile, she’s repeatedly beaten and sexually assaulted by her captors. Gay’s characters are engineered to open up conflicts over gender, class (Mireille’s family is wealthy in a poor country) and race (Mireille is black and Michael is white). But Gay’s dialogue complicates rather than simplifies these issues. As a prolific essayist and critic, Gay (Writing/Eastern Illinois Univ.) has developed a plainspoken, almost affectless style, which serves her heroine's story well: The more bluntly Gay describes Mireille's degradations, the stronger the impact. Gay’s depiction of Mireille’s emotional trauma after her release is particularly intense, precisely capturing her alienation from her own identity that followed the kidnapping and the self-destruction that spilled out of her sense of disconnection. The novel alternates between past and present, and flashbacks to Mireille's childhood and marriage underscore the intelligence and emotional ferocity she accessed to survive her ordeal. (She persistently supported in-laws who were initially inclined to dismiss her.) The closing chapters suggest that Mireille is on the path to recovery, but it’s also clear that a true recovery is impossible; many of Gay’s scenes deliberately undermine traditional novelistic methods of resolution (baking bread, acts of vengeance, acting out sexually). Among the strongest achievements of this novel is that Mireille’s story feels complete and whole while emphasizing its essential brokenness.

A cutting and resonant debut.

Pub Date: May 6, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-8021-2251-3

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Black Cat/Grove

Review Posted Online: March 13, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2014

If there’s any justice, Allen’s visionary work, as startlingly inventive as one of his subject’s performances, should propel...

SONG OF THE SHANK

One of America’s most gifted novelists projects dark and daring speculations upon the incredible-but-true 19th-century story of a child piano prodigy who was blind, autistic and a slave.

In the waning years of antebellum slavery, a rapidly fracturing America was introduced to a stunning musical phenomenon: Thomas Wiggins, a young black slave from Georgia known only as “Blind Tom,” who “sounded out” his first piano composition at age 5 and, five years later, was famous enough to play before President James Buchanan at the White House. What made Tom even more remarkable was that he was both blind and autistic, thus compounding audiences’ astonishment at his extraordinary ability to not only perform classical works, but to spontaneously weave startling variations on American folk ditties into original musical tapestries. Because most of the details of Wiggins' story have been lost to history, there are many blank, enigmatic spaces to fill. Chicago-born Allen (Holding Pattern, 2008, etc.) assumes the imaginative writer’s task of improvising shape and depth where elusive or missing facts should be. What results from his effort is an absorbing, haunting narrative that begins a year after the Civil War ends when Tom, a teenager, and his white guardian, Eliza Bethune, arrive in a nameless northern city (presumably New York), where they are contacted by a black man who intends to reunite Tom with his newly liberated mother. The story rebounds back to Tom’s childhood, during which he struggles to feel his surroundings despite his compromised senses and finds his only warmth (literally) beneath the piano belonging to Eliza’s slaveholding family. Allen’s psychological insight and evocative language vividly bring to life all the black and white people in Tom’s life who, in seeking to understand or exploit Tom’s unholy gifts, are both transformed and transfixed by his inscrutable, resolutely self-contained personality.

If there’s any justice, Allen’s visionary work, as startlingly inventive as one of his subject’s performances, should propel him to the front rank of American novelists.

Pub Date: June 17, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-55597-680-4

Page Count: 584

Publisher: Graywolf

Review Posted Online: May 15, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2014

Page doesn't sentimentalize the cruelty of life in a prison system but manages to transcend it through Simon, who writes his...

ALPHABET

A moving novel about knowledge, self-awareness and the power of words, set in the purgatory of prison. This young man's life demands our attention and refuses to let go.

Simon Austen is serving life imprisonment for the murder of his girlfriend in a fit of uncontrollable rage. It's Margaret Thatcher's 1980s England, but he is lost in time, attending sessions with institutional psychiatrists who might be able to help him gain parole. He learns to read with the aid of a prison volunteer and writes letters for his fellow inmates to lawyers, mothers and lovers, considering it his job. He also writes his version of his life story, tattooing his body with the words others have called him in spite and hate: “ARROGANT,” “WEIRDO,” “BASTARD,” “COLD,” “MURDERER.” Then “COURAGEOUS,” inspired by Bernadette "Bernie" Nightingale, a counselor he fantasizes about and works with to enter an experimental program that may move his parole forward. Page writes fiercely, drawing a fine portrait of a man who lives daily, routinely, fragilely in an environment that can erupt in violence at any time. It does, in a powerful scene where Simon is gang-beaten, has bleach poured down his throat, and is sent to a hospital, where all we've learned about him is dramatically, but tenderly, unsettled. Vic is his roommate in the prison hospital and an unforgettable character as he transforms into Charlotte, disrupting Simon’s view of life's predictability and moving him to a greater understanding. Charlotte is freed, figuratively and literally, but writes letters and visits Simon, giving him strength and a vision of life outside the cement and steel of incarceration and the confinement of his own history. The words that are inked over Simon’s body are simply prologue to the next chapter of his life.

Page doesn't sentimentalize the cruelty of life in a prison system but manages to transcend it through Simon, who writes his own story in tattoo ink and letters. This powerful novel is simply an epiphany.

Pub Date: Oct. 21, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-927428-93-1

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Biblioasis

Review Posted Online: Aug. 10, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2014

Waters keeps getting better, if that’s even possible after the sheer perfection of her earlier novels.

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THE PAYING GUESTS

An exquisitely tuned exploration of class in post-Edwardian Britain—with really hot sex.

It’s 1922, and Frances Wray lives with her mother in a big house in a genteel South London neighborhood. Her two brothers were killed in the war and her father died soon after, leaving behind a shocking mess of debt. The solution: renting out rooms to Leonard and Lilian Barber, members of the newly emerging “clerk class,” the kind of people the Wrays would normally never mix with but who now share their home. Tension is high from the first paragraph, as Frances waits for the new lodgers to move in: “She and her mother had spent the morning watching the clock, unable to relax.” The first half of the book slowly builds the suspense as Frances falls for the beautiful and passionate Lilian and teases at the question of whether she will declare her love; when she does, the tension grows even thicker, as the two bump into each other all over the house and try to find time alone for those vivid sex scenes. The second half, as in an Ian McEwan novel, explores the aftermath of a shocking act of violence. Waters is a master of pacing, and her metaphor-laced prose is a delight; when Frances and Lilian go on a picnic, “the eggs [give] up their shells as if shrugging off cumbersome coats”—just like the women. As life-and-death questions are answered, new ones come up, and until the last page, the reader will have no idea what’s going to happen.

Waters keeps getting better, if that’s even possible after the sheer perfection of her earlier novels.

Pub Date: Sept. 16, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-59463-311-9

Page Count: 560

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: July 16, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2014

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