Books

The 100 best books of 2014: The Star’s staff and reviewers recommend their favorites of the year

From novels to poetry, biographies to thrillers , The Star's staff and reviewers recommend their favorite books of 2014.
From novels to poetry, biographies to thrillers , The Star's staff and reviewers recommend their favorite books of 2014. The Kansas City Star

Ever try to take a sip from a fire hose?

That’s the feeling one experiences as The Star’s books editor.

The mailbox is always overflowing with packages from hopeful writers, hyperventilating publicists, the great publishing “dreadnoughts.” Some writers need only to touch a keyboard and are on the best-seller lists again; other worthies struggle with first efforts.

The Star can only dip through the buckets of books and reviews, hoping to shed a little light here and there, knowing that many more fine efforts may not escape the shadows of literature.

Then at the end of the year, we offer the 100 books gleaned from the favorites of our staff, reviewers and friends. This year, we also are noting recommendations that appear on the year’s best lists of The New York Times, National Public Radio and The Washington Post.

And here’s the list. Drink deeply, friends:

FICTION

▪ “All the Light We Cannot See,” by Anthony Doerr (Scribner). Two teens caught in the midst of World War II, told with a fairy-tale-esque sense of wonder. NPR, NYT

▪ “The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher,” by Hilary Mantel (John Macrae/Holt). Mantel steps away from her brilliant Thomas Cromwell books to spin clever stories that are in our time. NYT

▪ “The Ballad of a Small Player,” by Lawrence Osborne (Hogarth). English lawyer/embezzler is at the end of his rope, gambling it all away in Macau. NYT, NPR

▪ “Bark,” by Lorrie Moore (Knopf). A collection of eight witty, aching, laser-precise tales of modern love, loneliness, the way we live and the way we talk. NYT, NPR

▪ “The Book of Strange New Things,” by Michel Faber (Hogarth). A missionary from Earth finds the conversion of inhabitants of another planet to be a bit sticky. NYT, NPR

▪ “The Book of Unknown Americans,” by Cristina Henríquez (Knopf). Wonderfully told story of the hopes and loves of a Mexican family who’ve slipped across the border to get their injured daughter better medical care. NYT, NPR

▪ “A Brief History of Seven Killings,” by Marlon James (Riverhead). Riveting novel about the 1976 assassination attempt against Bob Marley, taking the reader from Jamaica to New York. NYT, WP

▪ “Boy, Snow, Bird,” by Helen Oyeyemi (Riverhead). Nigerian-born Oyeyemi retells the Snow White story with freshness and attitude, questioning conventions regarding race, beauty and gender. NYT, NPR

▪ “Can’t and Won’t,” by Lydia Davis (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). A haunting collection of the shortest of stories. NYT

▪ “The Children Act,” by Ian McEwan (Nan A. Talese). A British family law judge struggles with her husband’s infidelity while consumed by the case of a young Jehovah’s Witness refusing a lifesaving blood transfusion. NPR

▪ “Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage,” by Haruki Murakami (Knopf). An intimate, ethereal and sparely drawn story of a man attempting to fill the unexplained holes in his life. NYT

▪ “Dept. of Speculation,” by Jenny Offill (Knopf). Offill’s first novel in 14 years is worth the wait, offering a sharp take on marriage, motherhood and art-making in startlingly affecting prose. NYT

▪ “Fourth of July Creek,” by Smith Henderson (Ecco). A social worker in Montana runs into survivalist zealotry. NYT, NPR, WP

▪ “Girl in Reverse,” by Barbra Stuber (Margaret McElderry). An Asian student navigates her Kansas City high school during the Korean War. NPR

▪ “Landline,” by Rainbow Rowell (St. Martin’s). Compulsively readable, psychologically spot-on novel features a rotary phone as a time-warp device.

▪ “Lila,” by Marilynne Robinson (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). Set in the fictional Gilead, Iowa, of two previous books, this tale follows a homeless woman who finds romance with a much older minister. NYT, NPR

▪ “Lovers at the Chameleon Club,” by Francine Prose (Harper). Set in 1920s France, this story was inspired by Violette Morris, an actual cross-dressing race-car driver who became a Nazi spy and torturer. NYT, NPR

▪ “The Moor’s Account,” by Laila Lalami (Pantheon). Rewoven tale of Mustafa al-Zamori, the first African explorer of the Americas in 1528. NYT, NPR

▪ “The Narrow Road to the Deep North,” by Richard Flanagan (Knopf). The meat grinder of the Burma-Thailand Railroad portrayed as never before. NYT, NPR, WP

▪ “The Paying Guests,” by Sarah Waters (Riverhead). In 1922 London, mother and daughter take in lodgers who bring romance and suspense in with them. NPR, WP

▪ “Redeployment,” by Phil Klay (Penguin). Searing and insightful, this National Book Award-winning collection of short fiction pieces may be the best to come out of the Iraq War. NYT, NPR

▪ “The Signature of All Things,” by Elizabeth Gilbert (Penguin). Early-American naturalist Alma Whittaker struggles to reconcile survival of the fittest with the human animal’s willingness to make personal sacrifices that benefit others.

▪ “Sleep Donation,” by Karen Russell (Atavist). This e-book novella by the author of “Swamplandia!” envisions a dystopian world where insomnia is contagious and deadly.

▪ “The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing,” by Mira Jacob (Random House). An ambitious, inter-generational debut novel follows Indian-American immigrants struggling to maintain culture and connection amid tragedy.

▪ “Some Luck,” by Jane Smiley (Knopf). Each chapter is a year-in-the-life of a large farm family through the first half of the 20th century. NPR

▪ “Song of the Shank,” by Jeffrey Renard Allen (Graywolf). Story of a blind, black singer in the days of slavery. NYT

▪ “Station Eleven,” by Emily St. John Mandel (Knopf). Shakespeare becomes a sign of cultural continuity for a band of travelers and artists in Mandel’s post-apocalyptic future. NPR, WP

▪ “Stone Mattress,” by Margaret Atwood (Doubleday). Atwood’s latest collection features nine dark, near-folkloric tales of mature characters refusing to go gentle into that good night. NPR

▪ “The Swan Gondola,” by Timothy Schaffert (Riverhead). A love story set at a steampunk carnival in turn-of-the-century Omaha, with a clever take on “The Wizard of Oz.”

▪ “10:04,” by Ben Lerner (Faber & Faber). A Brooklyn-based book on self-consciousness involves a visit to an art museum and an Occupy protester using the bathroom. NYT, NPR

▪ “To Rise Again at a Decent Hour,” by Joshua Ferris (Little, Brown). Humorous tale of an antic Park Avenue dentist. NPR

▪ “2 a.m. at the Cat’s Pajamas,” by Marie-Helene Bertino (Crown). This zany debut novel follows a set of colorful characters through an emotionally fraught 24 hours in Philadelphia. NPR

▪ “The UnAmericans,” by Molly Antopol (Norton). Debut collection follows the lives of immigrants to and from 20th-century Eastern Europe. NPR

▪ “An Unnecessary Woman,” by Rabih Alameddine (Grove Press). An elderly Lebanese woman translates Western books into Arabic, and looks back on her life during the country’s civil war, in this moving novel. NPR

▪ “The Weight of Blood,” by Laura McHugh (Spiegel & Grau). An Ozark town has its secrets, including the vanishing of the protagonist’s mother and the murder of her friend.

MYSTERIES AND THRILLERS

▪ “Black-Eyed Blonde,” by Benjamin Black, aka John Banville (Henry Holt). Featuring the late Raymond Chandler’s detective Philip Marlowe, Black’s book evokes the hard-boiled yarns of yore.

▪ “Gray Mountain,” by John Grisham (Doubleday). Young New York lawyer laid off in the recession shifts to the hills and dangers of coal country. NPR

▪ “Hyde,” by Daniel Levine (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). Fascinating inside-out reworking of the classic Gothic tale. WP

▪ The Long Way Home,” by Louise Penny (Minotaur). A return to a favorite character, the chief inspector of the Sûreté du Quebec, who is drawn into the world of art and lost souls. WP

▪ “The Silkworm,” by Robert Galbraith, aka J.K. Rowling (Mulholland Books). Second novel about detective Cormoran Strike, a missing writer and his libelous work in progress. NPR

▪ “The Secret Place,” by Tana French (Viking). French brings her incredible knack for character and suspense to a murder at a privileged boarding school for girls. NPR

HISTORY

▪ “Ax Murders of Saxtown: The Unsolved Crime That Terrorized a Town and Shocked the Nation,” by Nicholas J.C. Pistor (Lyons). Frontier family’s murders are grisly, but the more unnerving story may be the harsh 1800s Illinois landscape that settlers tried to carve a living from.

▪ “The Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act,” by Clay Risen (Bloomsbury). How the forces behind the nation-reforming 1964 law pushed past the segregationists. NPR, WP

▪ “Black Elk Speaks: The Complete Edition,” by John G. Neihardt (Bison Books/University of Nebraska Press). The celebrated 1932 story of the Oglala Lakota healer has been re-released with essays adding context to Neihardt’s achievement.

▪ “Danubia: A Personal History of Habsburg Europe,” by Simon Winder (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). The sprawling history of the Habsburg dynasty told through travelogue and quirky anecdote.

▪ “The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World,” by Greg Grandin (Metropolitan). A slave rebellion is the starting place for this study of the industry of bondage. NPR

▪ “Hollywood Exiles in Europe: The Blacklist and Cold War Film Culture,” by Rebecca Prime (Rutgers University Press). A deeply researched and distressing look at the impact that political grandstanding had on the careers of movie professionals after World War II.

▪ “How Paris Became Paris: The Invention of the Modern City,” by Joan DeJean (Bloomsbury). Entertaining story of the evolution of the “City of Light.”

▪ “The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan,” by Rick Perlstein (Simon & Schuster). Witty look at the high-voltage politics and culture of the early ’70s. NYT, NPR

▪ “Merchants of Independence: International Trade on the Santa Fe Trail, 1827-1860,” by William Patrick O’Brien (Truman State University Press). Revelations on the overland trails history of Independence.

▪ “The Month That Changed the World: July 1914,” by Gordon Martel (Oxford University). Unstoppable cascade of events that led to the First World War.

▪ “The Nixon Defense: What He Knew and When He Knew It,” by John W. Dean (Viking). An exhaustive analysis of the Nixon tapes by his former White House counsel digs deep into the lies, mistrust and craziness in the Oval Office. WP

▪ “Planning Armageddon: British Economic Warfare and the First World War,” by Nicholas A. Lambert (Harvard University). A fresh look at the pre-war British naval strategy against Germany and its effects.

▪ “Rebel Souls: Walt Whitman and America’s First Bohemians,” by Justin Martin (Da Capo). A convincing case that Walt Whitman’s drinking buddies were an 1800s version of the Beats and that all their bending elbows actually improved their work.

▪ “Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin, and Sadat at Camp David,” by Lawrence Wright (Knopf). Recounting the dramatic and amazingly lasting Middle East turning point as Egypt and Israel arm-wrestled toward their 1978 agreement. NYT, NPR

NONFICTION

▪ “Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China,” by Evan Osnos (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). This National Book Award winner examines the growing clash of the individual in China against the Communist Party rulers.

▪ “Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of the Great Gatsby,” by Sarah Churchill (Penguin). How a 1922 double murder in New Jersey and the media spectacle that followed may have informed F. Scott Fitzgerald as he wrote “Gatsby.”

▪ “Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End,” by Atul Gawande (Metropolitan). Well-composed indictment of how our health care system fails the old and terminally ill. NYT, WP

▪ “Deep Down Dark: The Untold Stories of 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine, and the Miracle That Set Them Free,” by Héctor Tobar (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). An “Into Thin Air” kind of read about the Chilean mine drama. NYT, NPR

▪ “Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War,” by Robert M. Gates (Knopf). A hard look at the Obama administration from one of its key members. NYT, NPR, WP

▪ “The Empathy Exams,” by Leslie Jamison (Graywolf). Essays that move seamlessly between the personal and the philosophical to examine the ways we both express and attempt to excise pain. NYT, NPR

▪ “Getting Schooled: The Re-education of an American Teacher,” by Garrett Keizer (Metropolitan). An honest, earnest look at teaching in a northern Vermont high school, to which this Harper’s editor returns.

▪ “Group f.64: Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham, and the Community of Artists Who Revolutionized American Photography,” by Mary Street Alinder (Bloomsbury). The biographer of Ansel Adams presents early Bay Area photographers breaking away from European high art expectations.

▪ “Living With a Wild God: A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth About Everything,” by Barbara Ehrenrich (Grand Central Publishing). Dedicated atheist decides to describe a jolting vision she received as a teenager and what that experience, examined decades later, suggests to her about the infinite.

▪ “The Meat Racket: The Secret Takeover of America’s Food Business,” by Christopher Leonard (Simon & Schuster). An investigative look at how a handful of companies have come to control our meat supply and what it does to farmers and ranchers.

▪ “The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky and Death,” by Colson Whitehead (Doubleday). The prize-winning novelist’s sardonic take on his experience as a World Series of Poker player.

▪ “The Second Amendment: A Biography,” by Michael Waldman (Simon & Schuster). A history of the most controversial provision of the Bill of Rights by the president of the prestigious Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law.

▪ “The Secret History of Wonder Woman,” by Jill Lepore (Knopf). The buried story of Wonder Woman’s creator and his unconventional household. NPR

▪ “The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History,” by Elizabeth Kolbert (Holt). The New Yorker writer travels the world to view the decline of species and biodiversity through the eyes of scientific researchers. NYT, NPR, WP

▪ “So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures,” by Maureen Corrigan (Little, Brown). The National Public Radio book critic gives a fresh take on what might be the Great American Novel and how Jay Gatsby is hardly the only person fascinated by that distant green light.

▪ “Things I’ve Learned From Dying: A Book About Life,” by David R. Dow (Twelve). A Texas lawyer who helps death row inmates reflects on the end of life in prisons and in his own family setting.

▪ “The True American: Murder and Mercy in Texas,” by Anand Giridharadas (W.W. Norton). A wrenching study of the aftermath of a hate crime when a Texan killed a Bangladeshi after Sept. 11. NYT, NPR

“What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions,” by Randall Munroe (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). A series of fascinating questions no one was asking in hilarious (and scientifically rigorous) detail.

▪ “What Wars Leave Behind: The Faceless and the Forgotten,” by J. Malcolm Garcia (University of Missouri Press). Dispatches from a former reporter for The Star details the struggles of residents of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Chad and other nations visited by war or tragedy.

LIVES AND LETTERS

▪ “Breaking In: The Rise of Sonia Sotomayor and the Politics of Justice,” by Joan Biskupic (Sarah Crichton Books). The rise of an unlikely U.S. Supreme Court justice.

▪ “The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames,” by Kai Bird (Crown). A riveting biography of a CIA operative who had insights on the Arab side of the violent Middle East ledger but died tragically in the midst of it. NPR

▪ “Hotel Florida: Truth, Love, and Death in the Spanish Civil War,” by Amanda Vaill (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). A lively portrait of Ernest Hemingway, Martha Gellhorn and others whose lives were transformed by the Spanish Civil War. NYT

▪ “‘Literchoor Is My Beat’: A Life of James Laughlin, Publisher of New Directions,” by Ian S. MacNiven (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). How a young man of wealth and privilege encountered the world’s masters of modernism and created an insistent and focused publishing house.

▪ “Little Failure: A Memoir,” by Gary Shteyngart (Random House). Rollicking Russian immigrant writer is a shtickler for the flesh-and-blood of human existence.

▪ “The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses,’” by Kevin Birmingham (Penguin). This “biography of a book” goes into the artist’s life and the court battles over this work.

▪ “My Heart Is a Drunken Compass: A Memoir,” by Domingo Martinez (Lyons). Martinez’s follow-up to his National Book Award-nominated debut, “The Boy Kings of Texas.”

▪ “My Struggle: Book Three,” by Karl Ove Knausgaard (Archipelago). The Norwegian author focuses on his preteen years in the third installment of his hugely popular series of wise and intimate memoirs.

▪ “Napoleon: A Life,” by Andrew Roberts (Viking). The new, definitive biography of the man who shaped the world. NYT

▪ “Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh,” by John Lahr (Norton). Revealing look at the playwright’s life and how his work changed American theater. WP

▪ “The World of Raymond Chandler: In His Own Words,” edited by Barry Day (Knopf). Chandler’s letters, photographs and fiction with his thoughts about London, Los Angeles, other writers and his own hard-drinking career as a detective fiction writer.

POETRY

▪ “Ask Me: 100 Essential Poems,” by William Stafford (Graywolf). The centennial of this revered poet’s birth is occasion for renewed appreciation for his works.

▪ “Blood Lyrics,” by Katie Ford (Graywolf). A new mother’s thoughts roam from the difficult birth of her child to the endless wars into which our nation seems ceaselessly drawn.

▪ “Book of Hours,” by Kevin Young (Knopf). Topeka poet narrates how generations usher one another from the birth of a son to the death of a father.

▪ “Citizen: An American Lyric,” by Claudia Rankine (Graywolf). Finalist for 2014 National Book Award is a timely reflection on African-American realities.

▪ “Faithful and Virtuous Night,” by Louise Gluck (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). National Book Award winner deals with mortality. NYT, NPR

▪ “Put This on, Please,” by William Trowbridge (Red Hen). Missouri poet laureate’s books show off his skill. Humor is the doughnut-glaze veneer for these well-wrought poems.

▪ “Wolf Centos,” by Simone Muench (Sarabande). A patchwork form connects poets of different ages through a wolf motif.

▪ “Woman With a Gambling Mania,” by Catherine Anderson (Mayapple). Anderson’s faith is one of secular witness, using art, language and history to approach divinity.

▪ “Collected Haiku of Yosa Buson,” translated by W.S. Merwin and Takako Lento (Copper Canyon). This bilingual edition sets a new standard for translations of this popular Japanese form.

GENRE CROSSERS

▪ “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? A Memoir,” by Roz Chast (Boomsbury). Shortlisted for the National Book Award, this graphic memoir by the New Yorker cartoonist chronicles, through her art and darkly funny text, her parents’ final years. NYT, NPR

▪ “Dear Committee Members,” by Julie Schumacher (Knopf). The life of a fictional and unhappy professor of creative writing and literature is revealed through his hilarious correspondence. NPR

▪ “An Officer and a Spy,” by Robert Harris (Knopf). Published too late for last year’s list, this brilliant and accurate account of the Dreyfus Affair is written as a thriller, seen through the eyes of the officer who exonerated the Jewish French army captain.

▪ “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons From the Crematory,” by Caitlin Doughty (Norton). A young mortician writes a morbid, funny and vivid tale of her job at a crematory.

▪ “Thrown,” by Kerry Howley (Sarabande). In an original blend of fact and fiction, a made-up philosophy graduate student writes elegantly about two real-life mixed martial arts fighters. NYT, NPR

▪ “Showa: 1944-1953: A History of Japan,” by Shigeru Mizuki (Drawn and Quarterly). The third volume in Mizuki’s autobiographical graphic novel takes us to the horror of World War II and a defeated homeland. NPR

Book nominators

The nominators from The Star this year were Darryl Levings and Steve Paul, the current and former books editors; Brian Burnes, who complies the “Readorama”; Edward M. Eveld, coordinator of the FYI Book Club; Cindy Hoedel, Star Magazine writer; the newspaper’s book reviewers: Kevin Canfield, Liz Cook, Jeffrey Ann Goudie, Anne Kniggendorf, Denise Low, Christine Pivovar, Sebastian Stockman and Steve Weinberg; as well as three associate professors from the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s English Department: Hadara Bar-Nadav, Christie Hodgen and Whitney Terrell.

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