1. Francine Prose, The Chameleon Club, Paris, 1932
Prose creates a club friendly to gay, lesbian and transvestite clienteles, at a time when the Nazi presence is starting to be felt in Paris. A photographer based upon the Hungarian born Andre Kertesz photographs the demimonde of Paris, while a belligerent lesbian athlete, abused from childhood, begins to make her mark in sports, as a racecar driver, and eventually, Nazi collaborator. A French aristocratic woman grows in stature and becomes a key figure in the French resistance. Prose interweaves all these characters into a flawless rendition of Parisian nightlife and how the The Club itself becomes a safe haven for some and a source of black mail when the Germans find it. Splendid research is mixed with superb fictionalized characters. Most of the people who are mainstays of The Chameleon Club become part of the French resistance, so Prose equates some resistance membership with the inherent liberalism symbolized by The Club. Police presence at such clubs in Paris and Berlin was very common then, and had symbolized police protection, until the arrival of the Nazis and French police collaborators. See original review in the May AEQAI.
2. Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See
This lusciously written and beautifully researched novel gives us a young blind French girl and a technically brilliant young German boy, in alternating chapters. Each of them will manifest increasing courage as WWII explodes. The girl ends up in a small town in Normandy, where the Germans eventually invade. The girl’s father has been building elaborate miniatures of first, Paris, and later of the Normandy town, so that she can find her way around on her own. One of these boxes also contains a treasure taken from Paris for safe keeping, which a Nazi wants. The writing is true poetry in prose, and the book has elements of a fairy tale in it. How these two will meet is part of the denouement of the novel, whose secondary characters are also brilliantly rendered. See original review in June AEQAI.
3. Phil Klay, Redeployment
A series of connected short stories, Klay’s first book is a brilliant, sensitive rendering of some young American Marines in Iraq. The great strength of Klay’s work is how he humanizes each individual boy/man, and makes them much more than macho, gung-ho soldiers. Klay’s soldiers create deep friendships off the field as well as on, and his book may be the first war novel that completely humanizes the men. This is a breakthrough book, representative of a new generation, much like Kevin Powers’ Yellow Birds, a best book from two years ago. See original review in April AEQAI.
4. Jane Smiley, Some Luck
The first novel of a projected trilogy, Smiley returns to her beloved Iowa in a multigenerational family saga, beginning, in this novel right before The Depression and ending right after WWII. Six children will be born to the original young married couple, and we not only learn the rhythms of farm and family life, and how they interact, but also both the joys and boredom of life on an Iowa farm. Smiley is a genius at understanding small children’s characters, and the next two volumes will no doubt follow the children either into urban life or on the farm. Her writing is magnificent, and her love of the land profound. See original review in November AEQAI.
5. Marilynne Robinson, Lila
The third book in a series that began with The Pulitzer Prize winning Gilead, Lila may be considered a prequel to the other two novels about the life of Reverend Ames of Gilead, Iowa. Lila, who becomes Reverend Ames’ second wife and bears him a young son, was a stolen child, whose “mother” joins up with a few other homeless families who become day laborers on area farms. Robinson writes superbly about such families headed into The Depression, and although Lila learns every survival technique, she also almost inadvertently learns love and trust from this “mother”, Doll. Lila’s evolving intellectual awareness and ability to create her own narrative is mentored by Reverend Ames and she becomes the great love of his life, while the book will end with the birth of this miracle child. Marilynne Robinson is considered by many to be one of the world’s leading Christian theologians, as well as novelists, and Lila is, in short, a triumph. See original review in October AEQAI.
6. Ian McEwan, The Children Act
Based on a real court case in England, The Children Act is actually a British law that deals with the welfare of minor children. McEwan, in this, his finest novel to date, gives us a highly intelligent and sensitive woman judge, who is in charge of a very complex case, where law and religion will collide. Her own marriage is deteriorating as a backstory, and the decisions she will make on the bench is full of surprises. McEwan gives us one of the most evolved new professional women in all of literature. See original review in October AEQAI.
7. Smith Henderson, Fourth of July Creek
This debut novel presents a flawed but noble social worker in Montana, who attempts to save children from abusive, drug riddled family life. He discovers a nearly feral boy hidden in the mountains, with whom he will form a beautiful relationship, but whose father believes that the American government is out to get his family because of his religious beliefs. The denouement will accidentally prove the father right. The building of a partially trusting relationship between the social worker and this family is quite a feat and makes for superb reading. Henderson also knows his Montana well, and descriptions of the land are magnificent. See original review in August AEQAI.
8. Richard Flanagan, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
This 2014 Booker Award winner presents a tough look at the life of captured Australian soldiers, trapped in a Japanese internment camp, whose impossible job is to build a railroad what will connect Burma and Siam. The commanding Australian officer, a much conflicted but heroic man, seems to do best leading men, and worst at home in his bad marriage. Those contrasts make fascinating reading, and although some of the scenes in the camp are appalling, Flanagan gives us just enough of them, but mitigates them through the bonding of the soldiers under their amazing leader. Flanagan is not unsympathetic to the Japanese soldiers who guard them, and lets us understand their belief in the God given word of their Emperor. See original review in October AEQAI.
9. Matthew Thomas, We are Not Ourselves
Also a debut novel, Thomas presents a family of Irish immigrants in New York; the father is a hero to his people, but not much of a bread winner; the mother rapidly devolves into alcoholism, but the one daughter is emotionally strong and much beloved by her father. She becomes the central character of this family saga. She is determined to own a house, and “move up”, but marries an idealistic man who teaches in a community college, refusing promotions into administrative work. She works full time as a nurse and continues to get promotions; they have one son. Much of the book is a description of the husband’s devolution into Alzheimer’s disease, though at a young age, and Thomas’ description of what happens to his brain is so phenomenally well delineated, that, difficult though it is to read about, it’s a triumph of reporting and insight. That Eileen, the protagonist, will get that house and will care for her husband reminds us of the nearly daily heroism within American families. Eileen is one of the most fascinating characters in all of 2014’s literary offerings.
10. Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, Dust
Owuor is an emerging Kenyan writer of extraordinary gifts. This complex novel has numerous underpinnings, themes and plots, but will trace an evolving family tragedy back to a white colonialist, in whose former house the novel unfolds. Kenya itself is a central character of the book, as people strive to become part of this new country, and the family in the book has been part of an early political movement which will come back and haunt it. Owuor plays the characters off the Northern Kenyan landscape, while integrating African shamanism and long held animistic beliefs into the novel with complete and seamless brilliance. The writer’s love of the land sometimes takes over the plots, but the writing is well worth the occasional lapse in judgment. Owuor is one of the young writers to watch and has greatness in her already. See original review in May AEQAI.
11. Akhil Sharma, Family Life
Another family saga, Sharma, an Indian American, writes about his own family’s settling in Queens, into those non-descript apartments that so many immigrants have lived in upon arrival in this country. The older son, in whom the family places all its hopes, has a freak accident in a swimming pool, and loses all use of body and mind forever, while the younger son, presumably the author, gets past his screw around childhood and will enter one of New York’s finest high schools, and eventually Princeton University. The parents choose to take care of their son at home, which eventually is a modest house; the father gives up and the mother has to run the whole show, and does, in this mostly tragic novel, which becomes redemptive. The book is particularly strong in describing the interactions of neighbors and distant cousins, all of whom descend on this house, and many of whom aren’t so happy about the Princeton success. The writer is most astute about first generation Indians in America, and his writing is a great deal like poetry.
12. Paul Theroux, Mister Bones: 20 Stories
Paul Theroux, one of America’s most prolific writers, is equally fine with travel writing, novels, and short fiction. In his new collection of stories, his well-earned urbanity shines through in every story, many of which take place internationally, reflecting his own wide travels. There is no doubt that all his traveling has made Theroux something of a cynic and curmudgeon, and though he has come a long way from Medford, Mass, something dreadful must have happened to him in his high school days, which colors much of his writing, making it stronger. One of its side-effects seems to include a jaded view of sexuality, which is manipulated rather than enjoyed, used and dismissed. These 20 stories show Theroux at his most mature, and are amongst his best writing. See original review in November AEQAI.
Gabriel Chevallier, Fear: A Novel of World War I (Originally published in France in 1930; just published in America in 2014)
Dylan Landis, Rainey Royal
Richard Ford, Let Me Be Frank With You
Daniel Alarcon, At Night We Walk in Circles: A Novel
Tessa Hadley, Clever Girl– Reviewed in June AEQAI.
Greg Baxter, The Apartment– Reviewed in March AEQAI.
Haruki Murakami, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage: A novel
Jenny Offill, Department of Speculation– Reviewed in February AEQAI.
David Berznogis, The Betrayers