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  • Jeff Somers 4:30 pm on 2014/12/30 Permalink
    Tags: 2014 favorites, , , , m.r. carey, mrs. hemingway, naomi wood, , ted thompson, the beautiful things that awaits us all, , the land of steady habits, the son, under the radar   

    Great Under-the-Radar Reads of 2014 

    Ted Thompson's Land of Steady HabitsIt happens every year: Websites and magazines, newspapers, bloggers, and that crazy guy who stands just outside your subway stop wearing a tattered clown costume and aggressively demanding money all start releasing their “best of 2014” lists. But what about the books that don’t make the lists, or don’t make enough of the lists to cut through the noise? Certainly there are more great books every year than even the longest best of lists can handle, so there will always be overlooked works that deserve your attention. Here are five that might be missing from the lists, but deserve to be read.

    The Land of Steady Habits, by Ted Thompson
    Maybe it’s the back-cover plot summary that sounds like a take on John Updike, maybe it’s the inexplicable (but intriguing) cover art, but this wonderful story was overlooked by a lot of people. It’s the kind of refreshing story you don’t see much of these days, centered on a man’s retirement-age crisis, with a main character who’s brought right up to the line of complete dislikability. The improbably named Anders Hill, made rich from the sort of financial plays that tanked the economy, leaves his wife, parties with his son’s friends, and imagines he can escape the entropy of his life, but finds only spectacularly entertaining humiliation and the limitations of his own ego. It all pulls together into a thoroughly entertaining read that, yes, will remind you of Updike while standing on its own.

    The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All, by Laird Barron
    Laird Barron writes beautiful, sophisticated prose that pulls you in with gorgeous imagery and easy verisimilitude, then scares the pants off of you. His characters and settings are a break from the usual urban sophisticates of literature and the typical suburban mediocrities of most horror, and the writing is so strong you often forget you’re reading horror at all—at least right up until you read something that makes you put this collection of short stories in your freezer and build a blanket tent so you can sit up all night hiding in it with a flashlight, telling yourself you didn’t hear anything.

    Mrs. Hemingway: A Novel, by Naomi Wood
    Sometimes we forget that real life is often as entertaining—and more difficult to believe—than fiction. Ernest Hemingway would be a challenge to buy as a fictional character, but he was very real, and just about every aspect of his life makes for fascinating reading. Mrs. Hemingway interweaves the stories of all four of Hemingway’s wives, masterfully playing with time and keeping as a central mystery whether any of them manage to hold onto Hemingway’s interest for good. Possibly overshadowed by Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife, Wood’s excellent novel (incorporating some of the actual letters shared between Hemingway and his various mistresses-cum-wives) didn’t get the attention it deserves.

    The Girl With All the Gifts, by M.R. Carey
    Perhaps because the paranormal twist at this story’s heart is of a sort that some are exhausted with at this point, The Girl with All the Gifts got short shrift this year. But it’s an effectively told, surprising story that revels in its twists without relying on them. Inventively turning a supernatural apocalypse setup on its head and proposing an intelligent scenario for the usual pandemic, this book deserves a lot more attention than it’s gotten, and will appeal to readers who would normally pass over a novel with its particular premise.

    The Son, by Jo Nesbø
    Jo Nesbø is one of the most consistent and interesting crime writers in the world, but he’s often lumped in with Stieg Larsson and others as one of a many-headed creature known as Nordic Noir. While his Harry Hole novels are excellent mysteries and thrillers, his standalone novels (including the phenomenal Headhunters) are usually more interesting and unexpected. So it is with The Son, a story about a young man voluntarily serving time in prison for crimes he didn’t commit; a very corrupt system of cops, lawyers, and officials; and a central mystery that threatens to bring it all tumbling down. It’s an ambitious book that seeks to break out of some of the conventions of crime fiction, while reveling in others, and is well worth your time.

     
  • Dahlia Adler 5:35 pm on 2014/12/23 Permalink
    Tags: 2014 favorites, amy finnegan, , , , julie cross, kasie west, liz czukas, , paula stokes, , , , ,   

    The Best Contemporary YA Romance of 2014 

    Stephanie Perkins' Isla and the Happily Ever AfterConfession: contemporary young adult romance has the most special place in my heart of all YA genres. It encompasses so much of what I love about reading (and writing) young adult as a whole—all the experiences of “firsts” and all the ups and downs that come with them. Some of them are sweet, some are steamy, some are intense, and some are hilarious, but what all the good ones have in common is the butterfly-inducing magic that cannot be denied.

    Isla and the Happily Ever After, by Stephanie Perkins
    It was a long wait for the final book in Perkins’ trilogy of romances, but well worth it. Passionate, artsy Isla has had a crush on Josh for years, but it takes a Vicodin-induced semi-stupor to get them together. Once she learns the feelings are mutual, it’s full speed ahead into exactly the kind of all-consuming, enchanting romance no one does better than Perkins. Dramatic, engaging, and surprisingly sexy, this was a most satisfying conclusion to one of contemporary YA’s most popular series.

    Everything Leads to You, by Nina LaCour
    To be honest, LaCour’s grocery lists could probably make any post I write at this point—she’s just that good. This book is full of beauty: in the screenwritten vignettes, in main character Emi’s passion for set design, in the way Emi views enigmatic and struggling love interest Ava, and in LaCour’s writing in general. Those looking for LGBTQ YA romance sans coming-out angst particularly need to put this story about two already-“out” girls falling in love at the top of their shopping lists, but this is an all-around great read for any fan of YA and/or romance and/or books in general, really.

    Open Road Summer, by Emery Lord
    Reagan needs some time away, and there’s no better way to get it than by accompanying her country star BFF, Dee, on a national tour. But she doesn’t expect the perks that come along with it, in the form of the talented and adorable Matt Finch. Matt is that rare YA love interest who places a strong emphasis on friends and family, and makes a fabulous sweetheart counterpoint to Reagan’s thorniness. His songwriting skills don’t hurt one bit, either.

    The Art of Lainey, by Paula Stokes
    Soccer star and general has-it-all girl Lainey Mitchell has a pretty awesome high school life going, until her long-term boyfriend dumps her out of nowhere. Lainey isn’t the type to take it lying down, so armed with Sun Tzu’s The Art of War and an excellent best friend, she sets out with a plan to win him back. In this case, the plan involves mohawk-sporting, similarly-broken-heart-suffering coworker Micah, and a fauxmance intended to win both of their exes back. But it turns out the only romance worth fighting for is the one sparking between them, and watching them figure that out is oh-so-delightful.

    Whatever Life Throws at You, by Julie Cross
    Annie Lucas knows baseball—her father is the brand-new pitching coach for the Kansas City Royals. Jason Brody is baseball—the sexy new Royals’ rookie with a heartbreaker reputation to spare. There are so many reasons they need to keep their distance, but none of those compete with the chemistry they share. There’s something about sports-themed romances that just make them that much more swoon-inducing when done well. Maybe it’s the sheer amount of testosterone around, or maybe it’s just the baseball pants, but when it’s good, it just works, and it’s definitely good here. (Bonus points to Cross for all the frank sex talk, far too rare between partners in YA.)

    Ask Again Later, by Liz Czukas
    Heart LaCoeur has a ridiculous name and a ridiculous problem: two dates for one prom, neither of whom she’s interested in. Alternating timelines show the night playing out with each, but don’t be fooled by the premise—Czukas’ debut otherwise reads completely contemporary, and the romantic ending is beyond satisfying. It’s also charming, funny, and real, and one of my favorite recs for when you just need something to put you in a good mood, ASAP. (Which is also true of Czukas’ unrelated follow-up, Top Ten Clues You’re Clueless.)

    Not in the Script, by Amy Finnegan
    Emma Taylor’s been in Hollywood too long to believe there’s potential for true love there…until she meets her new costar, Jake Elliott. Jake is sweet, thoughtful, hot, and family-oriented, and the slow burn romance in this book is completely and wholly earned in the best way. Those who love the healthy pacing and fully fleshed development in books like My Life Next Door are sure to adore this one, and those looking for Hollywood YA with a heavy emphasis on insider Hollywood would do well to pick this one up, too.

    On the Fence, by Kasie West
    A truly adorable book about a girl named Charlie who’s surrounded by testosterone and starts to find her feminine side while falling for the boy next door. West stole my heart with her first contemporary YA romance, The Distance Between Us, and though this cute, fun summer read feels a little more light and predictable (as the friends-to-lovers trope tends to be), I loved the family dynamics even more. Most importantly, West holds up as one of the queens of romantic YA banter, which ensures I’ll be buying all her contemporary romances from here on out.

     
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