The Best Books of 2014 So Far

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Brenna Clarke Gray

Staff Writer

Part muppet and part college faculty member, Brenna Clarke Gray holds a PhD in Canadian Literature while simultaneously holding two cats named Chaucer and Swift. It's a juggling act. Raised in small-town Ontario, Brenna has since been transported by school to the Atlantic provinces and by work to the Vancouver area, where she now lives with her stylish cyclist/webgeek husband and the aforementioned cats. When not posing by day as a forserious academic, she can be found painting her nails and watching Degrassi (through the critical lens of awesomeness). She posts about graphic narratives at Graphixia, and occasionally she remembers to update her own blog, Not That Kind of Doctor. Blog: Not That Kind of Doctor Twitter: @brennacgray

And by best, we mean favorite. Let’s be real. Share your best reads of 2014 so far with us in the comments!

<a title=Adam by Ariel Schrag

A straight cisgender teen boy visiting his gay college sister in New York for the summer meets the girl of his dreams… who is gay… so he pretends to be trans… and hilarity and tragedy ensue. This book is EVERYTHING. Gorgeously observed, sharp-tongued, big-hearted, fearless. I can’t wait for the HBO series (this is not like a thing Nikki Finke has reported, this is just my Dreamland Hollywood Development Slate). Schrag forever and ever. – Kit Steinkellner



all my puny sorrowsAll My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews

Miriam Toews is best-known in Canada for crafting novels drawn from her own life experience that deal with the Mennonite experience and its intergenerational effects. She has been feted as best we fete anyone in Canada — Governor General Awards and Canada Reads selections and Giller nominations are only the tip of her award iceberg. All My Puny Sorrows is her seventh book and is not for the faint of heart, but if you stick with the emotional torment it will unleash within you, you will discover one of the most beautiful novels of the year. You see, Elf and Yoli are sisters. On the surface, Yoli is the fuck-up: kids from different fathers, no money, no plan. One the surface, Elf is perfection: a world-celebrated concert pianist with a devoted partner. But Elf wants very much to die. And Yoli wants very much for her sister to want to live. And as the two navigate these competing wants against the backdrop of their father’s faith and suicide, their mother’s desire for happiness, and the world of psychiatric medicine, Yoli must answer the impossible question: if you love someone, do you really let them go? This novel will break your heart in a thousand different ways, and then it will show you that a broken heart can heal. Knowing that the story was Toews way to heal after her own sister’s suicide in 2010, almost 12 years to the day after her father’s, makes the narrative feel so honest that you sometimes will feel like a voyeur. But you will also feel like living someone else’s pain can help to relieve it. I can’t say enough about the magic of this novel: I just need you to read it. –Brenna Clarke Gray

all the light we cannot seeAll The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

It’s been a year of strong historical fiction about the two World Wars–The Secret of Raven Point also stands out–but All the Light We Cannot See is something special. It’s is a beautiful book, sharply detailed enough to ground you in a moment but ethereal enough to move you along smoothly through time, through story. It’s a rare piece of historical fiction able to reach out and encompass historical detail–like natural history and mineralogy in interwar Paris, 1930s radio technology, educational practices under the Third Reich, and more–without being bogged down by them. Indeed, the details are woven into the lives of the characters in ways that make the book rich without distracting from, or overdetermining, its plot. Tracking back and forth and time, and back and forth between two characters whose lives converge at the close of World War Two, All the Light We Cannot See is both expansive and nimble. And the writing. It’s sensual, physical, precise. When, for example, a bathtub is emptied at a pivotal, dread-filled moment: “The drain moans; the cluttered house crowds in close.” – Derek Attig

annihilationAnnihilation by Jeff Vandermeer

It’s been decades since Area X, an edenic but mysterious wilderness, sprang up and cut itself off from civilization. The Southern Reach, a government organization tasked with understanding Area X, have sent in eleven expeditions and each of them have fallen to madness, death, or simply did not return. Now, the Twelfth Expedition is across the border: four women – a psychologist, a surveyor, an anthropologist, a biologist – and with them, we head into Area X.

Since the moment this book came out, I’ve been shoving it into the hands of everyone I know, hell, anyone who can read! Annihilation is a short novel, but it’s as dense as the swamps and thickets of Area X, with a delicious sense of dread and wonder that twine themselves throughout the tale. A character study of our narrator, the Biologist, while simultaneously casting light on a strange new world that rings of ancient intent, Annihilation asks questions of us, of both a personal nature and of Mother Nature, while building to a climax mired in horror and truth of self.

And this is only book one! Not only is this not a book to miss, but book two, Authority, is already out, and the final book in the Southern Reach Trilogy, Acceptance, will be in stores in September. No matter what I’ve read so far this year, my eyes still manage to find that green and tan book on my shelf, if only to make sure Area X isn’t staring back. – Marty Cahill

Be Safe I Love YouBe Safe I Love You by Cara Hoffman

There are many books about soldiers returning home from war, but there are two things that set Be Safe I Love You by Cara Hoffman apart. First, Hoffman gets inside the head of the returning soldier. While there’s no way those of us who haven’t served can truly understand the horrors of war, Hoffman somehow makes us able to really see how it can damage a person’s psyche. Second, it’s about a woman. There are so few novels that deal with female soldiers, much less those who went to war for the money (the main character, Lauren, feels as though she doesn’t have the right to PTSD because of this). Hoffman excels at writing the other, the Lauren that has returned in physical form but can’t quite make sense of the normality of the life she’s returned to. It’s such a gorgeous novel that it hurts to read. –Swapna Krishna

bird boxBird Box by Josh Malerman

The world of Josh Mallerman’s Bird Box is shrouded in darkness. Something terrible has happened, something so horrifying, it can make a person go suicidally mad with only a single glance. Nearly everyone is dead, and remaining survivors do not leave their homes without wearing a blindfold. As the book opens, however, Malorie (our heroine) is leaving that safety, and she is taking her two young children with her. The novel weaves back and forth between past and present events, building the world as it goes. It is a world filled with an unseen danger that cannot be seen, because the very act of seeing is the danger.

Horror films and stories often fall apart at the reveal, because the actual threat pales in comparison to the image of the threat conjured by our mind. Bird Box succeeds, and is so chilling, because we, the reader, are kept in the dark. Just like the characters, we want to see what we are so afraid of, but we know that doing so will be our undoing. Mallerman breaks the “Show, don’t tell” rule, and creates a uniquely terrifying novel. A dark room is scarier than a lit room, and Bird Box‘s darkness is absolute.

black moonBlack Moon by Kenneth Calhoun

If you’re looking for a book that is all about the uncanny and dreamlike, Black Moon is right up your alley. It refuses to give us the satisfaction of a beginning or an ending; rather, it drops us into the middle of an insomnia epidemic so severe, people are going insane and dying and no one knows what to do about it. It reminds me, in fact, of an Octavia Butler story (“Speech Sounds,” 1984), in which a mysterious illness wipes out a large segment of the population and leaves the survivors without speech or the ability to read or write. Butler, too, dispenses with beginnings and endings, and the illness continues. And it’s this dizzying sense that keeps the reader on her toes, searching for clues about the epidemic in every sentence and on every page. We follow each character as he or she looks for a loved one, a friend, a safe place to hide from the zombie-fied neighbors. Calhoun is a deliberate, talented writer and I can’t wait to see what he unleashes on us next. –Rachel Cordasco

complicitComplicit by Stephanie Kuehn

The fantastically creepy follow-up to Kuehn’s magnificent debut, Charm & Strange, Complicit is a twisty, terrifying, and intricately plotty thriller that takes “unreliable narrator” to a level that would do Gillian Flynn proud. Sixteen-year-old Jamie Henry thought he was in the clear when his deeply troubled older sister, Cate, was sentenced to juvenile detention for burning down a neighbor’s horse barn. But suddenly Cate is out and back in town, and she has more than a few surprises up her sleeve. Complicit combines Kuehn’s characteristically gorgeous prose with riveting plot twists and rich, complicated characters to create an unputdownable thriller with style and substance to spare. –Sarah McCarry

console warsConsole Wars by Blake Harris

Although I don’t play many video games, I have a soft spot for books about video games, especially about the business side of how games get made. Console Wars is the story behind the “battle” for supremacy between Sega, the quirky underdog, and Nintendo, the establishment, during the early 1990s. The book is full of engaging characters and great tidbits about the early years of Sega, including the story of how we got the Sonic the Hedgehog we know today. Apparently the original Japanese version of Sonic was “villainous and crude, complete with sharp fangs, a spiked collar, an electric guitar and a human girlfriend whose cleavage made Barbie’s chest look flat.” Details like that made this book and kept me turning the pages.  –Kim Ukura

Creativity IncCreativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull

Catmull was one of the handful of people who made Pixar what it is: the most consistently commercially and critically successful film studio of our time. This is in part the story of Pixar, but it’s also the story of how Catmull understands Pixar’s success. I use that phrase intentionally because Catmull’s message is to be OK with uncertainty, be aware that you have blindspots, and recognize that you don’t always see things clearly. Catmull’s commitment to build a creative company that lasts drove him to think, over decades, about how to manage people and construct a business so that it can consistently create good work. It’s an unbelievable story with compelling characters, but more than that, it’s a testament to the value of humility, experimentation, and drive. –Jeff O’Neal

Empathy Exams JamisonThe Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison

Graywolf Press knew what they were doing when they placed this brilliant book of essays in the hands of booksellers and reviewers many months before its release: By the time the book came out, it had been being raved about for so long, so many people were eager to read it that it debuted on the NYT best sellers list, and was in its sixth printing by the end of its second week of sales. It’s refreshing to see a book of essays get so much attention, and there is no question as to why it was this one: Jamison’s personal accounts, tied to the subject of empathy, are fascinating and gorgeously written. She writes about subjects such as her time as a medical actor; supporting her brother at his endurance race; visiting a prisoner in Virginia; a support group for Morgellons sufferers (people afflicted with Morgellons think small fibers are coming out of their skin); and the West Memphis Three. This book should be taught in school. There isn’t a single essay that isn’t incredible, and there isn’t anyone who shouldn’t read this book. Unless you’re a toddler. Maybe wait until you’re a little older, in that case. –Liberty Hardy

The EnchantedThe Enchanted by Rene Denfeld

The Enchanted is a book that I read in one day because I was completely entranced by it, and then haunted me for days afterward. The writing is definitely the best thing about this book, it completely pulls you into the story and it is hard to escape its grasps. The story takes place at a prison and follows a variety of characters: a female investigator who works to get prisoners off death row and is hired by a firm to help a prisoner who does not want to be set free, a former priest who works as a counselor in the prison with the death row inmates, the warden of the prison, and more. Denfeld herself works as an death row investigator so the situations in this book feel just as real and complex as you would expect from a prison story. I would warn that this book is a little violent, to the point where I had to put the book down to give myself a break from some of the scenes, so if you are hesitant toward that this may not be the best book to pick up. However, I think that the story and perspective is unique and completely worth the read. –Rincey Abraham

The End of Eve by Ariel Goreend of eve

Ariel Gore’s memoir details the last years of her mother’s life. You’d think that such a work would be sappy and sentimental, but once you get to know Eve, you’ll see that’s not the case at all. The End of Eve had just about everything I ever want in a memoir: WTF plot events, almost-over-the-top characters that you never doubt are real, gorgeous and breathtaking moments of introspection, and wry humor. Bonus points for it being written by a lady who likes ladies, if only because we don’t have enough of those stories. –Susie Rodarme



everything I never told you coverEverything I Never Told You
by Celeste Ng

On the surface, this is about a mixed-race Asian-American family dealing with and trying to solve the mysterious death of their favorite teenaged daughter in ‘70s Ohio (this isn’t a spoiler, it happens in the first sentence). What it’s really about all the ways we can be an “other”- in society, in our own marriages, in our jobs, and to our parents or children. It’s also about pressure- the pressure to be with people who are like ourselves, and to fit in, and to be everything our parents want us to be. It’s about giving up your career to become a wife and mother, and what that means and doesn’t mean. It’s about dealing with prejudice. It’s about secrets and happiness and misery, and all the things we never tell the people we love. It’s about everything, is what I’m saying, and not a single word is wasted or superfluous.  – Amanda Nelson

The FeverThe Fever by Megan Abbott

This was my favorite read in February, as I was lucky enough to read it in advance. My favorite thing about it is how Abbott so perfectly captures the feelings and worries and paranoia of the teenage years, specifically the teen-girl years, and, as I tried to convey in February, The Fever reads as though Abbott writing memories through the haze of those feelings rather than in sharp and exact detail. This book is everything I love about reading. –Jeanette Solomon



Guy In Real LifeGuy In Real Life by Steven Brezenoff

Look, I know you aren’t supposed to judge a book by the cover or whatever. That’s what my mom always told me. But when I first spotted Brezenoff’s Guy in Real Life, with its incredibly charming pixelated artwork that looked like it was straight out of an old school Sierra or LucasArts role playing game… well, I knew this book was for me.

In fact, I felt like this book was written specifically for me. The sections where the narrative jumps into video games, the romance between the two mismatched protagonists, the geekery that just oozes out of the pages. Reading Guy In Real Life was less like reading a book, and more like spending time with a good friend.

Bottom line, it’s an amazing, geeky, beautifully written coming-of-age story with memorable characters and a unique narrative. Pick it up. Don’t wait for the inevitable movie.  –Eric Smith

Hollow CityHollow City by Ransom Riggs

My memories of reading Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children were idyllic, because I read the majority of it sitting outside in the sun, oblivious and lost inside this weird old world that was haunting and dangerous and incredibly sweet. That I had to wait so many years for a follow-up novel was maddening, but also left me worried I would expect too much and would be left disappointed. Fortunately, Hollow City didn’t disappoint in the slightest. We pick up almost exactly where book one left off and the pace rushes along even faster than the first book as the world of Miss Peregrin’s Peculiar Children (or, as I jokingly referred to them, “Retro X-Men”) expands and the threats they face also grow more numerous and detailed and dangerous. The strange, old-timey photos don’t integrate into the narrative quite as fluidly as they did in the first book, but I never minded in the slightest. I was enjoying the story far too much. The book ends as excellently as the first one did, and now I’m mostly left hoping I don’t have to wait quite so long for the third book. This is fun stuffs. –Peter Damien

Little FailureLittle Failure by Gary Shteyngart

Like his fiction, Gary Shteyngart’s memoir is funny in the most heartbreaking way possible. Or is it heartbreaking in the most funny way possible? Hmm. In any case, laughs and eye-widening awkwardness abound. Shteyngart is caught between two countries, two languages, two sets of values, and two sets of expectations (his parents’ and his own) for much of his young life, and his desire (and inability) to reconcile these widening gaps provides both much of the book’s humor and its pain. Along the way, young Igor (yep, he’s even disconnected from his own name), figures out that he likes telling stories, which is great for all of us who like reading his books, though even the discovery and development of his talents as a writer create about as many problems as they solve. Little Failure paints an achingly personal picture of immigrant experience, family tension, American culture, and identity, all while tossing in a fair few laughs. In other words, it’s Shteyngart to a T. –Josh Corman

love bunglersThe Love Bunglers by Jaime Hernandez

I mean. That title alone, right? A culmination of the Love & Rockets “Locas” storyline he’s built since the early 80s, this comic collection may represent Jaime Hernandez’s Maggie opus. Especially fulfilling for longtime readers, it’s also remarkably succinct and suitably self-contained for first-time visitors to the “Locas” world. Thirty years on, middle-aged Perla Luisa “Maggie” Chascarillo manages a San Fernando apartment complex. Her major claim to fame remains that newspaper clipping from a teenage summer in Huerta, California, heralding her as a child prodigy, “Maggie the Mechanic.” In the decades between, she loved and lost, with an inexplicable balance toward the latter. Hernandez chronicles the key turning points in her relationships, affording much attention to her adolescence, and a previous summer when infidelity and abuse led to the dissolution of her family.

The title itself refers to our human capacity to fumble what seem, in retrospect, the simplest of layups. One of the western world’s most gifted and nuanced cartoonists renders this charming, tragic, thoughtful soap opera in exquisite black and white, more akin to a Sunday comic strip. Maggie’s kiss haunts every man and woman she’s touched. They’re spellbound. Just as she finds her own solace in life and love in this deeply satisfying volume (an ending, if not the series’ definitive conclusion), I find myself shadowed by a reading experience I’ll be hard-pressed to match in the months to come. –Paul Montgomery

lovecraft's monstersLovecraft’s Monsters, edited by Ellen Datlow

Lovecraft wasn’t the greatest of prose writers. He had some truly original ideas and made them come alive in his world, but today his writing feels a little …. clunky. Lucky for us, his ideas live on and a great deal of writers honor him by writing stories that take place in his world. Which brings us to Lovecraft’s Monsters, a collection of Lovecraft-inspired stories and poems written by some of today’s greatest genre writers. Neil Gaiman, Elizabeth Bear, Caitlín R. Kiernan and Joe Lansdale, too name a few. I’ve long been a Lovecraft fan (his stories, remember, not his prose and certainly not the man himself) and this collection is a pleaser for those of use who like the dark stuff. There’s a story in the anthology by Brian Hodge, The Same Deep Waters as You, that is the stand-out for me and still gives me shivers just thinking about it. If you like Lovecraft even a little bit, this collection is a must.  –Johann Thorsson

The Martian Andy WeirThe Martian by Andy Weir

Of the many genre descriptions of Andy Weir’s novel – adventure, sci fi, survival – none of them quite encapsulate the appeal of The Martian. On the surface, it is a story of Mark Watney, an astronaut who is left by his team on Mars after a nasty wind storm and an accident leaves them to believe he is dead. He’s not, however, and we get to watch him survive on Mars by the grace of potatoes, poop, and a seriously optimistic attitude. Optimistic and sarcastic and funny and inventive, Mark Watney is exactly the kind of “hero” you want him to be. He’s a botanist and an engineer, which means he’s ideally positioned to come up with ways to keep himself alive until NASA can work some of their magic to rescue him. Weir’s genius is that Watney is a guy we want to root for. He’s smart, but it never seems easy, and we get to see his predicament through his daily logs, filled in equal amounts with problem solving and with wry commentary about his unusual situation. We also get to watch NASA figure out that Watney is alive and come up with a plan to get him home. It’s a simple concept – guy stuck on a planet trying to stay alive – that is absolutely perfect in its execution. The Martian is that novel you just want to give to everyone you know.  – Rachel Manwill

noisy paint boxThe Noisy Paint Box: The Colors and Sounds of Kandinsky’s Abstract Art by Barb Rosenstock, illustrated by Mary GrandPré

Much like Kandinsky breaking free of the artistic realism of the day to create abstract art, The Noisy Paintbox takes a less conventional approach to non-fiction, freeing itself from biographical minutiae to paint a compelling portrait of an artist’s journey.  And if the spellbinding illustrations (equal parts moody and quirky) look vaguely familiar, it might be because the formidable GrandPré also did the iconic covers for the Harry Potter books.  Which is appropriate, because isn’t an artist creating worlds with a paintbrush just as magical as a wizard wielding a wand? –Minh Le

open road summerOpen Road Summer by Emery Lord

It’s hard to get attention in YA if your characters aren’t dying or wishing that they were, but for me that just makes a novel that achieves emotional depth without being an “issues” book all the more welcome. Open Road Summer is an exactly perfect coming-of-age story, a romance, and the answer to the eternal question “What would it be like to be Taylor Swift’s best friend?” From this point on I’m going to go out of my way to read any/ everything Emery Lord writes.  –Cristin Stickles



orendaThe Orenda by Joseph Boyden

What’s so refreshing about The Orenda, Joseph Boyden’s fresh take on the old story of the European encounter with the Americas, is the way it normalizes its First Nations characters. They don’t speak with the archaic, oracular diction that is the stock representation of “Indian-ness,” but in a straightforward conversational style. They aren’t a homogeneous bunch, either. Their beliefs, personalities, and opinions are as varied as those of any group of people you’d meet in real life. All this makes for a fast-moving read that’s hard to put down, but be warned that it isn’t always pleasurable. The Orenda is replete with episodes of brutal violence and torture that are all too historically accurate. It’s a testament to the author that these horrific acts aren’t gratuitous and that those who perpetrate them don’t come off as monsters but as complex human beings. The darkness Boyden unflinchingly examines makes his novel all the more illuminating. –James Crossley

Pointe by Brandy ColbertPointe by Brandy Colbert

A black elite ballerina’s best friend who was abducted four years ago returns home and when he does, suddenly, Theo’s world is turned upside down again. It’s not just that she’s reprocessing the grief, but it’s that she realizes she has to face the truth of who abducted Donovan: a man with whom she’d had a relationship and who’d taken advantage of her. This is a dark but honest contemporary YA novel with a powerful voice. It’s sophisticated and layered, incorporating the challenges of navigating the very white world of ballet, of eating disorders, of grief, of sexual abuse, and more without ever once feeling like an “issue” novel nor one that relied too heavily on problems to allow readers to discover the driving forces behind Theo. But perhaps what makes it most memorable is that it never feels too smart or too polished — Theo makes poor choices and the cast of friends she spends time with are themselves dynamic and flawed. There’s something about teen characters who are allowed to be imperfect and work through their problems despite these imperfections that is refreshing. – Kelly Jensen

Red or DeadRed or Dead by David Peace

After reading Red or Dead, I bought every single book David Peace has ever written — including one I had to send away to the UK for. This is one of the strangest novels I’ve ever read and, despite my absolute ignorance in regards to the English Premier League, one of the most interesting. Peace has created weird and wonderful fiction out of the life of famous coach Bill Shankly; it’s a hypnotic reading experience, a spot-on portrayal of what it’s like to be part of a dedicated community, and a fascinating portrayal of a man obsessed. –Jenn Northington



robot uprisingsRobot Uprisings edited by Daniel H. Wilson and John Joseph Adams

The book that has done the most to catch my attention so far this year is a collection of short stories about robots that raise up against their human creators. There are stories by some of my favorite writers of the last five years, including Ernest Cline and Cory Doctorow, so I knew I was going to be getting into some good stuff when I started flipping through the pages, choosing the story that I would read first. I had no idea that I would find such variety.  There’s drama, suspense, humor. There are robots with a conscience, worried about the actions that they intend to take against their owners and creators. There is one story that stands out from the others as truly chilling.  “Spider the Artist” by Nigerian-American Nnedi Okorafor still makes its presence felt in my dreams, with giant robotic spiders and people running from flames. Any story that stays with you months after you read it is a story that works.  And its inclusion in Robot Uprisings is just one of the reasons that this is a collection that should find a home on your shelves. –Cassandra Neace

saga volume 3Saga, Volume 3 by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples

Two soldiers on opposite sides in an interstellar war meet over the shared love of a romance novel. I probably shouldn’t even have to continue, but if you’re not quite convinced, consider that there’s also plenty of badassery (both of the weaponry and magical kind), a diverse set of characters, bounty hunters living by their own values, gorgeously drawn worldscapes, and sexual tension like woah. I can’t stop recommending it to everybody I know–both those who already actively read comics and those who are looking to try. It’s just, simply, damn fun to read. Volume 2 was also recently nominated for a Hugo for Best Graphic Story (Volume 1 nabbed the award in 2013) and Staples for Best Professional Artist.  –Nikki Steele

shotgun lovesongs nickolas butlerShotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler

Fans of Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings will love this tale of mid-30s childhood friends who reunite in their small Wisconsin town, Little Wing. The story is told from alternating points of view of the five characters— the fancy Chicago stockbroker who returns to Little Wing with his wife to have a baby, the farmer and his wife who never left, the now famous musician who is marrying a famous actress, and the damaged former alcoholic. As these characters’ lives have gone in different directions, it’s fascinating to see who remains loyal to whom, and how their shared experiences growing up inform their choices as adults. This is a novel that snuck up on me, tapped me on the shoulder, and then reared back and punched me in the gut. I loved it!  It’s one of the better debut novels I’ve ever read.  –Greg Zimmerman

silence once begunSilence Once Begun by Jesse Ball

This book is bananas beautiful. The sort where you go “Oooh, I didn’t know books could do that!” After his wife suddenly stops speaking, a character named Jesse Ball becomes immersed in the story of Oda Sotatsu, a young Japanese man on death row who takes a vow of silence after signing a confession to a crime he didn’t commit. But who is Sotatsu protecting, and why won’t he speak up to save his own life? The story fits together like an Escher painting, playing with writing forms from the exactingly journalistic to the heartstabbingly lyrical, and the whole thing is a big gorgeous mindfuck by the end. Just when I think I’ve read it all, a book like this comes along and shows me I don’t know a thing. –Rachel Smalter Hall

An Untamed StateAn Untamed State by Roxane Gay

It’s been months since I first read this incredible novel, and I still think about it all the time. This is the story of a privileged Haitian-American woman who is kidnapped and held for ransom while visiting her parents in Haiti. Mireille is held captive for thirteen days, during which she is tortured and raped and treated exactly as horribly as you’d expect a woman to be treated in such circumstances, while her father refuses to pay the ransom on principle and her husband scrambles to find a way to free her. Gay takes an unapologetic look right at the ugliest things humans do to each other, and she never falters. This is a difficult book, but it’s also a remarkably engrossing one. I found myself holding my breath, feverishly turning pages, unable to put the book down until I knew what would become of Mireille. Gay understands how much readers can handle, and she breaks up the story at the perfect moments to give us breaks. An Untamed State is an emotionally challenging but ultimately hopeful read, and its rewards are immense. –Rebecca Joines Schinsky

utopia or bustUtopia or Bust: A Guide to the Present Crisis by Benjamin Kunkel

When someone eventually writes a history of the Millennial generation’s political evolution (and boy, do I not envy whichever Sisyphys gets stuck pushing that boulder), Utopia or Bust may prove to be a defining document. Until then, it is still one of the most eloquent and cogent studies of the financial meltdown which has done so much to define the age in which we live.

When Benjamin Kunkel, co-founder of n+1 and author of the novel Indecision, announced that his career was transitioning into that of a Marxist public intellectual, the general reaction could best be summarised as “that’s adorable”. Amidst the cheap shots however, few mentioned how extraordinarily brave the declaration was, or how ably Kunkel surpassed the bar he set himself. Utopia or Bust is not only a brilliantly provocative collection of essays,  but also a fascinating literary memoir of one man’s ideological coming-of-age, relatable even to those who don’t share Kunkel’s politics. If I have any criticism of the book, it’s that these personal aspects are given insufficient space, but that’s a tribute to Kunkel’s lack of narcissism: he has bigger things to discuss than himself.

“Theory, and writing about theorists, brings no victories by itself,” Kunkel writes, a line which serves to highlight the vast gulf between his book and the coma-inducing academic disciples of critical theory who tend to cover similar intellectual ground. Utopia or Bust is, by contrast, funny, poetic, angry, incisive and very, very relevant. Essential reading for anyone who cares about the state of our economic, political, journalistic and literary culture. –Sean Bell

weirdnessThe Weirdness by Jeremy Bushnell

There are books that I just dislike as a general rule. It’s not so much judging a book by its cover as its subject matter or genre. For example, the middle-aged man reflecting on the mediocrity of his life. No thanks. Or the somewhat younger and douchier version, the  young-male-writer-in-Brooklyn-who-doesn’t-really-do-much genre. Hate it. And yet, The Weirdness is my favorite book of 2014 so far despite the fact that its main character is Billy Ridgeway, an aspiring writer in Brooklyn who does very little besides his dead-end job in a Greek deli. Fortunately it is something totally different because while Billy is a guy who doesn’t really do much, this is not a book where very little happens besides brooding on art and love. No, this book doesn’t even get through the first chapter before the Devil himself has made an appearance. It only gets weirder from there, as one would expect from the title. There is nothing predictable about this book. It manages sharp satire on the literary scene even while it throws in plot developments such as hellhounds and a Starbucks run by demons. I am really grateful for the Big Machine shout-out from the publisher. It’s an apt comparison, both books consistently deliver the unexpected, and it’s why I read a book that normally I wouldn’t have touched with a ten-foot pole. –Jessica Woodbury

the wicked + the divineThe Wicked + The Divine by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie

About two weeks before this comic came out I started to get anxious. It wasn’t a patience thing; I was genuinely afraid I wouldn’t like the book as much as I wanted to. Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie (along with colorist Matt Wilson) are one of the best creative teams in comics. They are also, far and away, my favorite creators. So it was hard not to get caught up in the pre-release excitement. With my expectations pretty high, it was not unreasonable to fear disappointment. Now I feel terrible for ever doubting.

 The premise of The Wicked + The Divine is that every 90 years an assorted pantheon of gods are reincarnated as pop stars. It’s a sleek and savy examination of celebrity culture and cross-media archetypes. And not only is this comic gorgeous to look at, I swear you can actually hear it–the crashes and snaps and classic rock ‘n roll “One-two-three-four!!”. It’s not the first time I’ve said this creative team is doing the work of their careers, but they really do get better and better with each book. The talent and creativity in The Wicked + The Divine is at fever pitch, and I will gladly follow these guys down any rabbit hole they wish to take me.  –Ali Colluccio

The Winter People by Jennifer McMahonThe Winter People by Jennifer McMahon

I don’t tend to like scary, but I got caught up in this one. It was the most fun I’ve had readig a book in awhile. Flipping back and forth in time. McMahon tells the story of what happens in a small town (and in particular in an old farmhouse on an isolated lane). It will take you most of the book to figure out what is happening to these missing people, and you will be rushing to turn pages to find out. Not to discount her beautiful storytelling and the fact that, while wanting to know the answer you don’t really want the story to end. I can’t tell you anything more… It might give something away. Let me just say that you’ll be eyeing your closet for a few days after reading this one. Be sure to pick this up and make sure you don’t have anywhere to be – you’ll want to devour it in one sitting!  –Wallace Yovetich

word exchangeThe Word Exchange by Alena Graedon

A clever, well-crafted techno thriller about a disease called word flu that’s spread with the next generation of smart phones. I don’t think I’ve ever had so much fun reading a book on my phone. I loved all the characters, especially Bart with his gratuitously Brobdingnagian words (see what I did there?) and his unrequited love for Ana, his boss’s daughter. I also loved the “hidden” New York City of pneumatic tubes and secret passages depicted in the novel. The ending was kind of drawn out and emotionally somewhat unsatisfying, but overall I’d definitely recommend this novel to anyone who’s a bibliophile. –Tasha Brandstatter