The best books of the year span genres, defy categorization, and vary in scope, from intimate family dramas to a meditative exploration of end-of-life care. They include essays from wunderkind Lena Dunham, a dystopian story from breakout novelist Emily St. John Mandel, and thrilling tales from masters such as Marilynne Robinson and Stephen King. These are the most indispensable reads of 2014.
The Best Fiction Books of 2014
Barnes & Noble’s Fiction picks include Anthony Doerr’s stunningly ambitious All the Light We Cannot See; John Grisham’s searing new legal thriller, Gray Mountain; Michel Faber’s monumental, genre-defying The Book of Strange New Things; and Stephen King’s dark and electrifying Revival.
All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr
In this elegant bestseller set during World War II, Guggenheim fellow Anthony Doerr (The Shell Collector) uses radio’s ability to cross enemy lines as a device to weave together the fate of a young, blind French girl and an orphaned German boy. There is a fairytale quality to the book—the girl and her father must flee to a rickety old house by the sea; the boy must march with monsters and yet retain his humanity—that works perfectly with Doerr’s evocative prose.
The Book of Life (All Souls Trilogy #3), by Deborah Harkness
The Book of Life concludes Deborah Harkness’s trilogy about Diana Bishop, a historian and undercover witch whose discovery of a powerful and dangerous ancient manuscript ends her dream of living a (mostly) human life. Diana and her vampire husband return from a time-traveling sojourn to continue their hunt for the missing pages of enchanted book Ashmole 782 and to await the birth of their twins. In vivid strokes, Harkness renders a shadow world of witches, vampires, and demons that exists alongside our own. This novel will bewitch any reader with a taste for the supernatural.
The Book of Strange New Things, by Michel Faber
This surreal, futuristic epic by Michael Faber (Under the Skin) shoots its well-meaning, good-hearted protagonist, Peter, into space to minister to a curious native population of Oasans. Back on Earth, where Peter’s brave wife waits for him, things fall apart. Modern literary and sci-fi novels don’t often broach the topic of faith; it’s refreshing to encounter Faber’s respectful take on Peter’s relationship with his god and his wife.
Edge of Eternity (The Century Trilogy #3), by Ken Follett
In the heart-pounding conclusion to Ken Follett’s century saga, a new generation of his original five families lives through the colorful era of 1961 through 1989—from the Civil Rights Movement to the Vietnam War, from the rise of rock and roll to the fall of the Berlin Wall. The captivating trilogy’s epic final chapter celebrates the triumph of democracy after a bloody century, with uncompromising attention to the facts and an unmatched storytelling talent.
Gray Mountain, by John Grisham
When hotshot Manhattan lawyer Samantha Kofer finds herself laid off in the early days of the 2008 recession, she expects her yearlong exile in an Appalachian legal aid clinic to be nothing but a way to kill time while plotting her return to New York. But working in the tiny town of Brady, Virginia, brings her closer to the actual machinations of the legal system than she’s ever been before, and she soon finds herself entangled in a high-stakes Big Coal case that could prove deadly. John Grisham takes readers far from the big city in this propulsive tale.
Lila, by Marilynne Robinson
In Lila, Marilynne Robinson returns to the same Iowa town and characters of her book Gilead and its follow-up, Orange Prize-winner Home, giving us the backstory of Gilead principal John Ames’s wary and watchful young wife. Known at first simply as The Child, Lila has endured a grueling existence. Mistreated by her actual family, then saved—technically, kidnapped—by a fierce woman called Doll, Lila leads an itinerant life. This gorgeous, heart-wrenching novel is intimate yet historical, delicate yet as sturdy and clear-eyed in its assessment of heartland values as the work of Mark Twain.
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The Long Way Home (Armand Gamache Series #10), by Louise Penny
There’s no surer crime magnet than a retired investigator. This beloved trope holds true in Louise Penny’s tenth Armand Gamache novel, which finds her former Chief Inspector of Homicide set happily adrift in small-town retirement. But when a neighbor with a hard-luck story and a missing husband asks him for help, he follows her back into the fray. This slow-burn mystery is studded with evocative descriptions of food and place, and laced with teasing questions of duty and morality.
The Magician’s Land (Magicians Series #3), by Lev Grossman
The first two books in Lev Grossman’s trilogy followed gifted magician Quentin Coldwater’s transformation from callow youth to fantasy-world king to exiled monarch. His journey was defined by chronic dissatisfaction, overlaid on a life path so magical his ennui borders on cognitive dissonance. But in this pitch-perfect wrap-up to perhaps the best, most democratic fantasy series of its generation, Coldwater finally grows up. The way Grossman entwines hairline plot twists, science-based magic, and the coming of age of a prickly-by-nature narrator is astonishing. This trilogy is for fans of Harry Potter, fans of Narnia, fans of closely observed literary portraiture, and fans of magic, both the real and the narrative kind.
The Martian, by Andy Weir
During a deadly sandstorm on the red planet, the crew of a groundbreaking mission to Mars is forced to evacuate. In the chaos, botanist and mechanical engineer Mark Watney is struck by flying debris. Left for dead on a barren wasteland of a planet, Watney battles to survive despite impossible odds. Though bodily concerns, like his dwindling food supply, could easily end him, the soul-crushing loneliness of deep space is just as brutal a foe. But Weir gives his protagonist a sharp sense of humor, as crucial as anything else in his fight for survival, and key to keeping the reader fully locked in. This science-powered thriller is a page-turner of the highest order.
The Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Richard Flanagan
This year’s Booker Prize winner, Tasmanian author Richard Flanagan (The Sound of One Hand Clapping), takes us back to the horrors of World War II as seen from a relatively unusual vantage point: a POW labor camp, where an Australian doctor must, using virtually nothing but his hands, treat 700 suffering men whose only reward for getting well is more work. This is historical fiction that is gruesome, astonishing, unsparing, and sometimes romantic.
Natchez Burning, by Greg Iles
Greg Iles’ charged tale of the long arm of racism and even longer memories of those on both sides of the racial divide has a bone-deep sense of place: the scarred and lawless underbelly of Natchez, Mississippi. Mayor and former prosecutor Penn Cage investigates a murder in which his own father, a community pillar, is implicated, requiring him to go all the way back to the 1960s, facing the darkest chapters of the Civil Rights Movement as well as the slow realization that he may learn more about Cage, Sr., than he ever wanted to know.
One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories, by B. J. Novak
This effervescent literary debut comes from TV writer B.J. Novak, best known for his writing and directing on The Office. In this collection, his subjects range from a sex doll with artificial intelligence to a cranky old man who feels unfairly robbed of credit for designing a math problem. These tales are funny, imaginative, and poignant by turns, but always cognizant that a storyteller’s first job is to entertain.
The Paying Guests, by Sarah Waters
In South London in the 1920s, a genteelly impoverished widow and her unmarried daughter, Frances, are forced to take lodgers into their home: Leonard and Lilian Barber, whose progressive ideas, lower social status, and troubled marriage help speed the story to a crisis. The novel takes place in the volatile social landscape of the post-World War II years, and Frances, especially, is a creature of her time and place, too restricted to strike out on her own as a modern woman, but too clever and self-aware to sink into the life of an idle, well-bred wife and mother. Waters effortlessly spins a tightening tale of psychological suspense and sudden, shocking violence.
Prince Lestat (Vampire Chronicles Series #11), by Anne Rice
Rice’s Vampire Chronicles is back after more than a decade, breathing new life into petulant, decadent, and totally mesmerizing vampire Lestat de Lioncour, who is unwillingly dragged into 21st-century vampire politics in this new novel. Vampirekind is in a panic: a mysterious voice is speaking to them, demanding they cull their numbers with intraspecies mass murder. Lestat’s brothers of the blood call for his intervention, but Lestat is fickle, and Rice ratchets up the tension as we wonder whether he will save his kind or doom them all. Prince Lestat is jam-packed with history, adventure, a meticulously crafted mythology, and insight into modern man and modern vampire.
Revival, by Stephen King
A pastor broken down by personal tragedy seeks redemption in a forbidden place: faith healing. Revival opens on the young pastor’s arrival, wife and child in tow, to a small East Coast town, where he woos his congregants and wows young Jamie Morton—until the day tragedy strikes his family and he renounces God, then is banished. When a grownup Jamie reconnects with the Reverend Jacobs years later, he fears the man has gone too far into mad science to be retrieved. As in his earlier, magnificent 11/22/63, King embeds a rich, humanistic story inside an eerily wrought horror fable. The result is an immensely satisfying read that still manages to give you nightmares.
Some Luck, by Jane Smiley
Jane Smiley’s absorbing, meditative novel Some Luck is set largely on the Langdon family’s midwestern farm, with each chapter covering a year in the family’s life from 1920 to 1953. But it keeps an eye on the advancing tide of change—from electrification and tractors to the Great Depression, Communism, and the Second World War. Will city life, higher education, and the lure of enlistment carry Rosanna and Walter Langdon’s children away from the cornfields? And if so, is that a tragedy or a triumph? Some Luck is the first in a planned trilogy that will cover a full century in the lives of the expanding Langdon clan.
Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel
Fifteen years after a pandemic marks the end of life as we know it, an itinerant Shakespearean troupe performs its way across the husk of a vastly depopulated America. In this stunning, layered narrative tying together the lives of people before, on the eve of, and after most of the world’s population is wiped out, St. John Mandel writes about what matters at the end of everything. Dystopian fiction is so often about mere survival, but St. John Mandel understands we need something to survive for.
We Are Not Ourselves, by Matthew Thomas
Protagonist Eileen Tumulty’s name perfectly foreshadows the tumultuous 60 years that lie ahead in first-time author Matthew Thomas’s epic about the American dream. Born in 1941 as a poor Irish immigrant in Woodside, Queens, Eileen pins her hopes of a better life on her love for and marriage to a mild-mannered neuroscientist—only to watch as Alzheimer’s destroys him from within. This is a love letter to caretakers and to mothers, to immigrants and to people who still, against all odds, labor for their piece of the American dream.
The World of Ice & Fire: The Untold History of Westeros and the Game of Thrones, by George R. R. Martin, Elio Garcia, Linda Antonsson
The world of George R.R. Martin’s Seven Kingdoms is darkly beautiful, intricate, and deep. In this lavish compendium, he provides the most comprehensive view yet of its history. Produced with the founders of the fan site Westeros.org, this gorgeous book is filled with battles, rivalries, usurpers, and imagery that will take your breath away. Featuring full-color maps, artwork, and comprehensive family trees, it’s entirely made up of new material covering the lore and legends of the Seven Kingdoms. A must-have for any fan of the wildly popular series.