According to Goodreads, I read 109 books during 2014, and most were strong, good-looking, and above average. A fair many were excellent, and if I thought about my picks even more, I might have come up with a different list. These are all books I read during the last year, even if they were published earlier, or will be published later.
I found it interesting to see there isn't much overlap with the Goodreads list for Best Historical Fiction, as voted on by readers. I've read only five of the 20 finalists, and just two (My Name Is Resolute and Secret Life of Violet Grant) made it to my list. Another, Emma Donoghue's Frog Music, was outstanding, but I read it as an ARC in 2013.
Hope you all had a good reading year, and I'm looking forward to the new crop of books in 2015. Thanks for reading along with me.
And now for the list. The links lead to my reviews of the books, if they exist.
Joseph Boyden, The Orenda (Knopf, 2014). Boyden’s mesmerizing third novel sits at the confluence of three civilizations in 17th-century Ontario: the French, the Iroquois, and the Huron (Wendat). Despite the cultures’ disparate beliefs, the author remains clear-sighted and impartial, and the scenes of Native spirituality are beautifully rendered.
Alix Christie, Gutenberg’s Apprentice (Harper, 2014). This gorgeously written debut, an inspiring tale of ambition, camaraderie, betrayal, and cultural transformation set in the cathedral city of fifteenth-century Mainz, dramatizes the creation of the Gutenberg Bible. I hadn’t heard of Peter Schoeffer or his important historical role before this, and it was a revelation.
Charles Finch, The Laws of Murder (Minotaur, 2014). Set in 1876 London and featuring gentleman detective Charles Lenox as he gets pulled into a Scotland Yard investigation with links to his own past, this stellar mystery is chock full of atmosphere and twisty, dramatic surprises. I jumped into Finch's series with this 8th volume without much trouble.
C. W. Gortner, Mademoiselle Chanel (William Morrow, 2015). Disclaimer: the author is a good friend, and I read this as a manuscript. That said, I honestly feel this is his best novel yet, an engrossing story of 20th-century designer Coco Chanel: her career successes, her love affairs, her hidden vulnerabilities. For those weary of “famous guy’s wife” novels, many of which explore unfulfilled ambitions, this convincing vision of a driven, powerful woman is an ideal antidote.
Alexis Landau, Empire of the Senses (Pantheon, 2015). I’ll be reviewing this later on so won’t say very much about it now. This ARC arrived with little fanfare (plain tan cover, no other material), but I was immediately swept into an absorbing saga about a family of mixed faith living in WWI-era and late 1920s Berlin.
Laurie Loewenstein, Unmentionables (Akashic, 2014). This warmhearted, involving work, situated gracefully in small-town Illinois and overseas during the WWI years, depicts a wide range of social concerns as people's minds are opened to new, previously hidden possibilities.
Rett MacPherson, Sleeping the Churchyard Sleep (Word Posse, 2014). When Olivia VanBibber and her brother bring a plate of their great-aunt’s fried chicken over to the home of a newly arrived stranger, their surprising friendship transforms her world – and eventually pulls her into a genealogical mystery. A warm-hearted, stereotype-free portrait of 1950s West Virginia, and the witty, forthright narrative voice of Olivia (a polio survivor who uses a wheelchair) is irresistible.
Marschel Paul, The Spirit Room (Wasteland Press, 2013). This epic about two teenage sisters’ coming of age in 1850s New York State, set against a vivid backdrop of quirky social fads and dark situations, is a fabulous read for fans of American women’s history. I picked this up on a whim when I was supposed to be reading something else and got drawn right in.
Stephanie Thornton, The Tiger Queens (NAL, 2014). A lengthy, immersive read about the extraordinary women who supported Genghis Khan and strengthened his kingdom. It’s full of fascinating detail about 12th-century Mongolia yet the plot moves forward with unstoppable momentum.
Nancy E. Turner, My Name Is Resolute (St. Martin’s, 2014). Resolute Catherine Eugenia Talbot (a fictional character) reveals the story of her eventful life, from her Jamaican childhood through her involvement in the lead-up to the American Revolution. Full of adventure, romance, and unexpected surprises, her account remains captivating throughout its nearly 600 pages.
Various, A Day of Fire (Knight Media, 2014). Six well-known historical authors – Stephanie Dray, Ben Kane, E. Knight, Sophie Perinot, Kate Quinn, and Vicky Alvear Shecter – got together to collaborate on a high-concept novel set in Pompeii at the time of its destruction in 79 AD. This gets my vote for “most creative.” Their stories interlock perfectly, and if you seek out fiction set in the ancient world, it’s not to be missed.
Beatriz Williams, The Secret Life of Violet Grant (Putnam, 2014). A dual-period novel – you might call it a historical mystery-thriller-romance – set in WWI-era Oxford and Berlin and also in 1960s Manhattan. The cheeky, whip-smart voice of Vivian Schuyler, a young woman caught up in solving the mystery of her the great-aunt she never knew, won me over completely.