I was interested in Ken Follett’s Fall of Giants when it first came out. I’m a fan of his books, and the reviews looked good. That said, the thought of reading a 1,000 page book … and then another, and then a third … well, that can be pretty intimidating. So the first book sat in my Kindle library until book two came out. Then knowing the final installment would be out later in the year, I took the plunge. No regrets.
Ken Follett’s Century Trilogy certainly makes my short list of favorite reads in 2014. As I dug into the story of the five main families from the early 1900s through two world wars, the civil right movement, the 60s and the fall of the Berlin Wall, certain of the characters’ choices made more sense. After all, part of the fun of reading a historical fiction epic is seeing the characters at the right (or wrong) place at the right (or wrong) time. And while the books are long – it’s a time commitment to read the entire saga – they are good, fun, fast reads. You get swept along by the story arcs and the upheaval of the times.
My single favorite book of the year might have been All The Light We Cannot See. It was on many critics favorites lists, but then again, so was The Goldfinch (bleh) and Marilynne Robinson’s prequel to Gilead (couldn’t read it). All the Light We Cannot See, though, was beautifully written, with interesting characters, and a well-paced plot that moved the two main characters’ fates to intersect. The premise is somewhat depressing – two kids, a German orphan who’s a radio wizard and a blind French girl in the years leading up to and during World War II. Gulp. But even knowing that, the story was terrific. Worth the critical praise.
The other book that topped my list was The Return. I really enjoy Michael Gruber’s books and wonder why he isn’t a better-known author. I’ve written about his novels before. His books cover a range of subjects and he really digs in to paint a picture for the reader of art forgery, Shakespeare’s works, Pakistan, the Mexican narcostate, etc. He’s a compelling writer, with quirky, frankly somewhat disturbed characters who have obsessions and issues and don’t see the world for exactly what it is. In other words, very real people. I loved learning about Marder and Skelly’s decades long friendship, and peeling back the layers on what really happened that day at Moon River, when they were young men. And I’m still not sure which version is real.
With our trip to Brazil in 2014, I spent some time reading novels set in the Amazon. Of those, I enjoyed both Roosevelt’s Beast and State of Wonder. Let me just say that even today wandering a bit off the beaten path in the Amazon can lead you who-knows-where. My one issue with State of Wonder is that while I like Patchett’s writing, I dislike the contrived aspect of the story setting. Here, the story that happens in the Amazon has an otherworldly feel to it, and returning to the real world bursts the bubble. In that way, it’s similar to Bel Canto. You know that the world that exists in the embassy cannot be sustained, and once you realize that the world she’s created must come to an end, it ruins the story a bit for me.
My final recommendation from 2014 is Robert Harris’s An Officer and A Spy, the story of the Dreyfus Affair as told by the French officer who uncovered the conspiracy. I was only vaguely familiar with the outlines of the story – that Dreyfus was falsely accused of espionage and convicted due to anti-Semitism in the military/society – but the layers and the sheer scope of the cover up, a continuing cover up even once the initial evidence was presented, was impressive in its stubbornness. It’s a good reminder that even when the emperor has no clothes, large institutions (see Catholic Church, NFL, CIA) are pathologically compelled to protect the institution at all costs, even when doing so undermines its credibility and purpose.
So all in all, a good year of reading.