Ten Books to Read in 2014

Some things just naturally go together.

Like roast beef and Yorkshire pudding.  Prosciutto and melon.  Chocolate cake with vanilla custard.

Like Tom and Jerry.  Fred and Ginger.  Siskel and Ebert.

Like vacations and books.  Rainy Sunday afternoons and books.  Bedtime and books.

Stephen King

Stephen King knows!

To avoid the sad situation of having nothing good to read on my bedside table, I keep a list of recommendations from sources I trust. Last weekend, I updated my reading list.  One of the truly lovely things about the New Year is that most of the major newspapers (including the Globe & Mail, The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Economist) publish their lists of Top 100 books.  I cruise their lists and jot down anything that catches my fancy. I also consult Booklist and Amazon.com’s reviews and thank all the book reviewers for the many hours of pleasure their recommendations inevitably give me.

So culled from these various sources, here are the next 10 books on my list in case you enjoy escaping reality between the covers of a book too.  I’ve attached the reviews in case you might also enjoy cracking any of these open and escape for a wee while.

  1. The War that Ended Peace by Margaret MacMillan.  (Non-Fiction/History)

    The War that Ended Peace by Margaret McMillan.  Photo from Amazon.com

    The War that Ended Peace by Margaret McMillan. Photo from Amazon.com

I bought this one as a Christmas gift for Greg, so I’ll have to wait for him to finish it before I get my grubby hands on it.  He’s raving about it non-stop, saying Magaret MacMillan is Canada’s greatest historian ever and that this is one of the top 3 non-fiction books he has read ever.  He’s a slow reader, though, so I might be waiting awhile! The review according to The Economist reads as follows:  “How Europe (and the world) could have avoided the grief and ruin of war if its leaders had been wiser and more far-sighted. The centenary of the start of the first world war is generating an unprecedented wave of books. Margaret MacMillan’s is one that should not be missed.”

The summary as per Amazon.com has some amazing names who give it glowing recommendations:  “The War that Ended Peace tells the story of how intelligent, well-meaning leaders guided their nations into catastrophe. These epic events, brilliantly described by one our era’s most talented historians, warn of the dangers that arise when we fail to anticipate the consequences of our actions. Immersed in intrigue, enlivened by fascinating stories, and made compelling by the author’s own insights, this is one of the finest books I have read on the causes of World War I.” – Madeleine Albright, former Secretary of State

“Once again, Margaret MacMillan proves herself not just a masterly historian but a brilliant storyteller. She brings to life the personalities whose decisions, rivalries, ambitions, and fantasies led Europe to “lay waste to itself” and triggered decades of global conflict. Hers is a cautionary tale of follies a century in the past that seem all too familiar today.” – Strobe Talbott, President, Brookings Institution

The War That Ended Peace is a masterful explanation of the complex forces that brought the Edwardian world crashing down. Utterly riveting, deeply moving, and impeccably researched, MacMillan’s latest opus will become the definitive account of old Europe’s final years.” – Amanda Foreman, author of A World on Fire

“That MacMillan’s research is both thorough and of the utmost quality goes without saying; however, the relevant lessons she draws out of the “puzzle” that precipitated the Great War bear repeating again and again. Above all she reminds us that, even in an increasingly interconnected world, nothing is inevitable and there are always choices to be made that can lead us to achieve conflict prevention.” – Lieutenant-General The Honourable Romeo A. Dallaire

2.  The Good Lord Bird by James McBride.  (Fiction)

The Good Lord Bird  Cover Picture from Amazon.com

The Good Lord Bird Cover Picture from Amazon.com

According to Amazon.com:

“Winner of the 2013 National Book Award for Fiction .  A Washington Post, Publishers Weekly, Oprah Magazine Top 10 Book of the Year.  A magnificent new novel by the best-selling author James McBride.” –cover review of The New York Times Book Review “Outrageously entertaining.” –USA Today. “James McBride delivers another tour de force” –Essence.“So imaginative, you’ll race to the finish.” –NPR.org.“Wildly entertaining.”—4-star People lead review. “A boisterous, highly entertaining, altogether original novel.” – Washington Post.  From the bestselling author of The Color of Water and Song Yet Sung comes the story of a young boy born a slave who joins John Brown’s antislavery crusade—and who must pass as a girl to survive.”

From The Washington Post:  “This boisterous, highly entertaining novel, winner of a National Book Award, presents Henry Shackleford, who claims to be the only black person to have survived John Brown’s raid on the Virginian town of Harpers Ferry in 1859. As the story begins, Brown mistakes 11-year-old Henry for a little girl, and “Henrietta” becomes the abolitionist’s inspiration. For the next three years, he takes us from adventure to misadventure; from riding the plains with Brown’s Bible-thumping roughnecks to palavering with Harriet Tubman. Against the grim grid of history, we see a bumptious American tale, and McBride’s use of the vernacular makes for a comical ride. A terrible climax will come to pass, and we hurtle toward it, laughing, in this deeply researched, richly imagined book.” Marie Arana 

3.   The Unwinding:  An Inner History of the New Americaby George Packer.  (Non-Fiction)

The Unwinding, by George Packer Picture from Amazon.com

The Unwinding, by George Packer Picture from Amazon.com

From Amazon.com:  The 2013 National Book Award Winner.  A New York Times Bestseller.  A New York Times Notable Book of 2013One of Publishers Weekly‘s Best Nonfiction Books of 2013.  A Kirkus Reviews Best Nonfiction Book of 2013.  An NPR Best Book of 2013.  One of the iTunes Bookstore’s “Ten Books You Must Read This Summer”

A riveting examination of a nation in crisis, from one of the finest political journalists of our generation
American democracy is beset by a sense of crisis. Seismic shifts during a single generation have created a country of winners and losers, allowing unprecedented freedom while rending the social contract, driving the political system to the verge of breakdown, and setting citizens adrift to find new paths forward. In The Unwinding, George Packer, author of The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq, tells the story of the United States over the past three decades in an utterly original way, with his characteristically sharp eye for detail and gift for weaving together complex narratives.  The Unwinding journeys through the lives of several Americans, including Dean Price, the son of tobacco farmers, who becomes an evangelist for a new economy in the rural South; Tammy Thomas, a factory worker in the Rust Belt trying to survive the collapse of her city; Jeff Connaughton, a Washington insider oscillating between political idealism and the lure of organized money; and Peter Thiel, a Silicon Valley billionaire who questions the Internet’s significance and arrives at a radical vision of the future. Packer interweaves these intimate stories with biographical sketches of the era’s leading public figures, from Newt Gingrich to Jay-Z, and collages made from newspaper headlines, advertising slogans, and song lyrics that capture the flow of events and their undercurrents.
The Unwinding portrays a superpower in danger of coming apart at the seams, its elites no longer elite, its institutions no longer working, its ordinary people left to improvise their own schemes for success and salvation. Packer’s novelistic and kaleidoscopic history of the new America is his most ambitious work to date.

 4.  An Officer and A Spy by Robert Harris.  (Fiction/Mystery/History)

An Officer and A Spy by Robert Harris  Cover picture from Amazon.com

An Officer and A Spy by Robert Harris
Cover picture from Amazon.com

Margaret Cannon of The Globe and Mail writes: “Harris’s best of his brilliant historical reconstructions. We are in France exploring the times and events of the Dreyfus Affair. Think you know all about this? Read and see.”

From Amazon.com:  “Robert Harris returns to the thrilling historical fiction he has so brilliantly made his own. This is the story of the infamous Dreyfus affair told as a chillingly dark, hard-edged novel of conspiracy and espionage.

Paris in 1895. Alfred Dreyfus, a young Jewish officer, has just been convicted of treason, sentenced to life imprisonment at Devil’s Island, and stripped of his rank in front of a baying crowd of twenty-thousand. Among the witnesses to his humiliation is Georges Picquart, the ambitious, intellectual, recently promoted head of the counterespionage agency that “proved” Dreyfus had passed secrets to the Germans. At first, Picquart firmly believes in Dreyfus’s guilt. But it is not long after Dreyfus is delivered to his desolate prison that Picquart stumbles on information that leads him to suspect that there is still a spy at large in the French military. As evidence of the most malignant deceit mounts and spirals inexorably toward the uppermost levels of government, Picquart is compelled to question not only the case against Dreyfus but also his most deeply held beliefs about his country, and about himself.

Bringing to life the scandal that mesmerized the world at the turn of the twentieth century, Robert Harris tells a tale of uncanny timeliness––a witch hunt, secret tribunals, out-of-control intelligence agencies, the fate of a whistle-blower–richly dramatized with the singular storytelling mastery that has marked all of his internationally best-selling novels.”

I’m wondering how I’ve missed reading Robert Harris and look forward to discovering his stories.

5.  Gulp by Mary Roach.  (Non-Fiction/Science)

Gulp by Mary Roach.  Cover picture from Amazon.com

Gulp by Mary Roach. Cover picture from Amazon.com

Recommended by both The Globe and Mail and The Washington Post, which writes:  “A lively narrative about the gross and engrossing subject of digestion, starting with the mouth and moving on to, well, the other end.”Amy Stewart

Recommended by Amazon.com as an Amazon Best Book of the Month, April 2013.  “Mary Roach’s investigations into weird body science were inspired by a plastic torso with removable organs in her fifth-grade class, “the point at which curiosity began to push aside disgust or fear or whatever it is that so reliably deflects mind from body.” Since then, she’s investigated death (Stiff), sex (Bonk), life after death (Spooked), and life in zero-gravity (Packing for Mars). Now, she cruises down the alimentary canal with Gulp. As you’d expect with Roach, this isn’t a methodical top-to-bottom tour. It’s more delightful and memorable than that. She’s a gorgeous writer, a master of sly asides, puns, and the bizarre but ultimately relevant story, sounding at times like an absurdly well-informed comedian (her footnotes are must-reads). And her evocative portraits of experts obsessed with their piece of the digestive puzzle–the surprising properties of saliva, nuances of chewing and digesting, and, yes, the incredible control of the colon–coaxes her readers beyond the gag reflex, inspiring awe for the world inside ourselves.”Mari Malcolm

From Booklist:  In her latest rollicking foray into taboo, icky, and under appreciated aspects of the human body, best-selling science writer Roach takes readers on a wild ride down the alimentary canal. Not that the author of Stiff (2003), Bonk (2008), and Packing for Mars (2010) ever takes a direct route anywhere. No, voraciously curious and intrepid Roach zips off in whatever direction her ardor for research and irrepressible instinct for the wonderfully weird lead her. She begins this hilarious, mind-expanding inquiry into eating, digestion, and elimination with the symbiosis between smell and taste, guided by an olfactorily gifted “sensory analyst,” then profiles Horace Fletcher, proponent of a rigorous chewing routine known as “Fletcherizing” practiced by Henry James and Franz Kafka. We learn more than one can imagine about saliva and our passion for crispy and crunchy foods. Given Roach’s fascination with what we find disgusting, scientific obsessions and bizarre experiments, and horrifying things we do to ourselves, the stories get stranger as she proceeds down the body. Roach interviews a prison inmate about “rectal smuggling” (including cell phones), tells tales of flatulence, and reveals the truth about Elvis Presley’s fatal megacolon. For all her irreverence, Roach marvels over the fine-tuned workings and “wisdom” of the human body, and readers will delight in her exuberant energy, audacity, and wit. –Donna Seaman

6.  The One & Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate. (Children’s Fiction)

The One and Only Ivan.  Newbery Award Winner.  Cover picture from Amazon.com

The One and Only Ivan Cover picture from Amazon.com

This is a Newbery Award 2013 winner.  Even if you don’t have kids, I think you can still read good kid’s books with as much pleasure as most adult novels.  Harry Potter,  The Hunger Games and Kathryn Collin’s other brilliant books are great examples and yes, I read both long before the movie made it famous.  The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler remains on my all time list of faves.  Booklist’s review summarizes The One & Only Ivan as follows:  “Ivan, a silverback gorilla, has lived in a glass, metal, and concrete enclosure at Big Top Mall and Video Arcade, “conveniently located off I-95,” for 27 years. Bored, he watches TV, draws pictures, throws “me-balls” (dried excrement) at visitors, and enjoys the company of a venerable elephant named Stella and a few other friends. After a baby elephant arrives, Ivan makes Stella a solemn promise that seems impossible to fulfill. The text, written in first person from Ivan’s point of view, does a good job of vividly conveying his personality, emotions, and intelligence as well as creating a sense of otherness in his point of view. His story is based on the life of a gorilla now living at Zoo Atlanta. The book’s wide-spaced lines, plentiful white space, and pleasing black-and-white illustrations make this a quicker read than the page count might suggest. Animals fans will enjoy this one. Carolyn Phelan

7.  The Bully Pulpit by Doris Kearns Goodwin  (Non-Fiction/American History/Politics)

The Bully Pulpit Cover photo from Amazon.com

The Bully Pulpit Cover photo from Amazon.com

According to The Economist,“Theodore Roosevelt was the first president to install a press room in the White House, making journalists instantly more powerful and exacerbating tensions within his Republican Party. “The Bully Pulpit” captures the way a political party can be destroyed by factionalism, and shows the important role investigative reporters play in political life.”

According to Amazon.com, “One of the Best Books of the Year as chosen by The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Economist, Time, USA TODAY, Christian Science Monitor, and more. “A tale so gripping that one questions the need for fiction when real life is so plump with drama and intrigue” (Associated Press).

“The gap between rich and poor has never been wider…legislative stalemate paralyzes the country…corporations resist federal regulations…spectacular mergers produce giant companies…the influence of money in politics deepens…bombs explode in crowded streets…small wars proliferate far from our shores…a dizzying array of inventions speeds the pace of daily life. These unnervingly familiar headlines serve as the backdrop for Doris Kearns Goodwin’s highly anticipated The Bully Pulpit—a dynamic history of the first decade of the Progressive era, that tumultuous time when the nation was coming unseamed and reform was in the air.The story is told through the intense friendship of Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft—a close relationship that strengthens both men before it ruptures in 1912, when they engage in a brutal fight for the presidential nomination that divides their wives, their children, and their closest friends, while crippling the progressive wing of the Republican Party, causing Democrat Woodrow Wilson to be elected, and changing the country’s history.

“The Bully Pulpit is also the story of the muckraking press, which arouses the spirit of reform that helps Roosevelt push the government to shed its laissez-faire attitude toward robber barons, corrupt politicians, and corporate exploiters of our natural resources. The muckrakers are portrayed through the greatest group of journalists ever assembled at one magazine—Ida Tarbell, Ray Stannard Baker, Lincoln Steffens, and William Allen White—teamed under the mercurial genius of publisher S. S. McClure.

Goodwin’s narrative is founded upon a wealth of primary materials. The correspondence of more than four hundred letters between Roosevelt and Taft begins in their early thirties and ends only months before Roosevelt’s death. Edith Roosevelt and Nellie Taft kept diaries. The muckrakers wrote hundreds of letters to one another, kept journals, and wrote their memoirs. The letters of Captain Archie Butt, who served as a personal aide to both Roosevelt and Taft, provide an intimate view of both men.

The Bully Pulpit, like Goodwin’s brilliant chronicles of the Civil War and World War II, exquisitely demonstrates her distinctive ability to combine scholarly rigor with accessibility. It is a major work of history—an examination of leadership in a rare moment of activism and reform that brought the country closer to its founding ideals.”

8.  Slow Getting Up by Nate Jackson (Non-Fiction/Sports)

Slow Getting Up

Slow Getting Up Cover photo from Amazon.com

According to Booklist,  “Jackson played six seasons for the NFL Denver Broncos. He was, at various times, an extra wide receiver, a third-string tight end, and a special-teams regular. He didn’t get a contract that will support multiple generations of heirs; failed to assemble an adoring, self-interested posse; never signed an endorsement deal. But he lived his dream for six years, never quite sure if he’d survive the next cut—until he didn’t. Somewhere along the way he learned to write, not just link words together to form a coherent narrative, which would be more than enough for most sports bios, but really write. There is a bit of the artist in Nate Jackson. For anyone who wants to experience the NFL player experience, this is the book to read. The highs are here: scoring touchdowns (well, only a couple); moving from the practice squad to the game-day roster; those years (well, only a couple) when you felt kinda, sorta secure; and experiencing the camaraderie with teammates, a bittersweet pleasure given the uncertainty of who will be around tomorrow. Then there are the lows, led, of course, by injuries—lord, the injuries—the rehab, the pain, and the realization that one’s body has been completely misaligned. And the tragedy that Jackson endured with the death of two teammates—young, seemingly invincible warriors. This is Jackson’s first book, but he’s honed his skills at Slate,Deadspin, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times. Don’t miss this one; it could very well be the best book about pro football you will ever read.” Wes Lukowsky

My youngest son was once interviewed, at the age of 8, on Denver a radio station for being the biggest littlest Denver Broncos fan outside the United States.  At age six, he nearly broke his father’s heart by telling him he wished John Elway were his dad instead, because then he could go to all the games and even visit the players in the locker room.  So even without this review, I have a feeling this book would get bought and read by the males in my house and, frankly, as the lone female, I gotta keep up with the dinner table chatter.  I can handle learning something about their beloved game of football if the story is well told, and this apparently is.  Sure beats having to watch an actual game.

9.  The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton

The Luminaries

The Luminaries. Man Booker Prize Winner. Cover photo from Amazon.com

According to The Economist, “the longest winner of the Man Booker prize—by its youngest author, a 28-year-old New Zealander. A 19th-century murder mystery stretched out on a postmodern canvas, “The Luminaries” is a dream novel; stellar in every way.”

According to Amazon.com, “Winner of the 2013 Man Booker Prize and Canada’s Governor General’s Literary Award, a breathtaking feat of storytelling where everything is connected, but nothing is as it seems…. It is 1866, and young Walter Moody has come to make his fortune upon the New Zealand goldfields. On the stormy night of his arrival, he stumbles across a tense gathering of twelve local men who have men in secret to discuss a series of unexplained events: A wealthy man has vanished, a prostitute has tried to end her life, and an enormous fortune has been discovered in the home of a luckless drunk. Moody is soon drawn into the mystery: a network of fates and fortunes that is as complex and exquisitely ornate as the night sky. Richly evoking a mid-nineteenth-century world of shipping, banking, and gold rush boom and bus, The Luminaries is a brilliantly constructed, fiendishly clever ghost story and a gripping page-turner. It is a thrilling achievement for someone still in her midtwenties, and will confirm for critics and readers that Eleanor Catton is one of the brightest stars in the international writing firmament.”

10.  Life after Life:  A Novel by Kate Atkinson

Life after Life

Life after Life, photo from Amazon.com

According to The Economist:  “A simple idea—what if people could go back and have another shot at crucial moments in their lives—that builds into an intimate epic, spanning both world wars, by a British novelist whose imagination grows and grows.”

From Booklist:   “In a radical departure from her Jackson Brodie mystery series, Atkinson delivers a wildly inventive novel about Ursula Todd, born in 1910 and doomed to die and be reborn over and over again. She drowns, falls off a roof, and is beaten to death by an abusive husband but is always reborn back into the same loving family, sometimes with the knowledge that allows her to escape past poor decisions, sometimes not. As Atkinson subtly delineates all the pathways a life or a country might take, she also delivers a harrowing set piece on the Blitz as Ursula, working as a warden on a rescue team, encounters horrifying tableaux encompassing mangled bodies and whole families covered in ash, preserved just like the victims of Pompeii. Alternately mournful and celebratory, deeply empathic and scathingly funny, Atkinson shows what it is like to face the horrors of war and yet still find the determination to go on, with her wholly British characters often reducing the Third Reich to “a fuss.” From her deeply human characters to her comical dialogue to her meticulous plotting, Atkinson is working at the very top of her game. An audacious, thought-provoking novel from one of our most talented writers.”   Joanne Wilkinson


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