Top Ten Favorite Novels of 2014
Sycamore Row by John Grisham
Jake Brigance, Grisham's lawyer from his first published novel, A Time to Kill, finds an envelope in his mail on the Monday after a recluse, Seth Hubbard’s suicide by hanging, that includes a will and a letter instructing Jake to make sure the will is followed as written. Jake does as he is instructed, but day after filing the will, another will is presented, one that benefits Seth’s two grown children rather than Seth's maid and sometime caregiver, who receives the bulk of his estate in the Seth's new will. The two children, and even the maid herself get their own lawyers with their own agendas.
Grisham fleshes out the Jake Brigance character as he wrestles with the prejudices of all the characters and his own motives. He ultimately relies on carrying out his own dead client's wishes. The story culminates in the successful search for Seth's long-lost brother who is bequeathed a small percentage and may hold the answer to why Seth did what he did.
Grisham is a master of premise and conflict. He is at his best when he seems to have a personal dog in the fight. The Brigance books are in that vein.
Gulf Boulevard by Dennis Hart
Boston accountant Jason Najarian reaches into the bag of multi-colored M&Ms he keeps in his desk drawer and pulls out a handful of the hard-shelled candy coated chocolate, but before he tosses them into his mouth, he notices he has a handful of the same color, all green. What are the odds? He doesn't even wait to calculate the astronomical number before he is off to buy three lottery tickets. One of the tickets turns out to be the Powerball winner of 63 million dollars. In methodical accountant fashion, he kicks into gear a plan to make his dream of living as a hermit in a warm climate on the ocean a reality by purchasing, among other items, a beach house on a barrier island near Sarasota, Florida.
Between raking the sand so his beach is always the same pristine picture he daydreamed about, he has his semi-hermit existence consistently interrupted by visits from beach house neighbors who include the beefy Sal Scalise who claims to be in the music business and the beautiful Fiona Tallahassee who claims to be a Native American tribal lobbyist. Another of his neighbors gets visits from her brothers who dress like enforcers, are rude to everyone, and skulk around spying on people with binoculars.
They all contribute to postponing Najarian enjoying his plans for peaceful, solitary retirement, maybe for good.
The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman
In the early 1900s, Coralie appears as the Mermaid in her father’s “museum Museum of Extraordinary Things,” alongside performers like the Wolfman, the Butterfly Girl, and a one-hundred-year-old turtle. One night Coralie stumbles upon Eddie Cohen, a young man photographing moonlit trees near the Hudson River. They maintain a distant, almost wordless relationship while she swims the river at night to drum up business for her father's museum and Eddie experiments with photographic techniques. the relationship until Eddie happens to photograph the devastation of the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. Eddie's search for the sister of one of the women he photographed uncovers secrets which will threaten to end their relationship but will ultimately bind them together out of necessity.
This is Hoffman doing what she does best, combining real characters with authentic emotions in a setting that hints at the mystical. In the end, she ties together several compelling subplots neatly, but perhaps a little against expectation. It may not be my favorite of Hoffman's novels, but it wouldn't be too far down the list.
Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King
Now retired, Hodges has lost his way in boredom and depression craving the thrills of taking down the region’s most notorious criminals. When a disturbing letter from the Mercedes Killer arrives at his door, Hodges soon finds himself uncontrollably drawn into a pursuit with stakes nearly as big as the city itself. three of the most unlikely heroes Stephen King has ever created try to stop a lone killer from blowing up thousands.
King writes a lot of stuff, some of it is hit or miss, but most of it is hit as far as I'm concerned. This is a fine work, not quite up either of his winners from last year, Joyland and Doctor Sleep, but very close.
The Doubt Factory by Paolo Bacigalupi
Bacigalupi's book traces the awakening of a smart, compassionate, and privileged girl named Alix Banks to the reality that her father's PR company has helped numerous clients avoid bad press and help cloud public opinion about unsafe prescription drugs and other industrial practices in the world of big business, what the activists refer to as The Doubt Factory. Alix learns about her father when she becomes a kidnap victim at the hands of an group of activist youths whose families were destroyed by the products and companies her father strategizes to protect. Moses, the charismatic ringleader of the group has been watching Alix and believes he can convince her to help them.
After she escapes, she researches the group's claims only to find they are not only accurate, but worse than even they know. When she tries to return to the group to offer her assistance, she finds them disbanded by a private security firm hired by her father's colleagues. Only Moses remains, and he has already given up, blaming himself for the group's failed plans. Alix must convince him they can still do something with her research and her connections with her father.
After reading so many reviews panning this book and calling into question whether Bacigalupi actually wrote it, I was astounded to find that I liked it as much or more than many of his other works. This is a solidly plotted, even more solidly researched, and even more moving than I expected. It is a very different work than his futuristic fantasy novels and his presentation reflects a more grounded realism. I suspect readers who disliked it were more uncomfortable with the reality it revealed about their current existence than with his necessary change in style.
Wayfaring Stranger by James Lee Burke
During the Depression, Weldon Holland, Texas teenager, puts a bullet through the back window of a stolen car driven by Clyde Barrow. Ten years later, Lt. Holland and his sergeant, Hershel Pine, escape certain death in the Battle of the Bulge and encounter a beautiful young survivor of an extermination camp, named Rosita Lowenstein. Eventually, Weldon weds Rosita and takes her to Texas where Hershel has started an oil pipeline business. They meet Roy Wiseheart, a war hero in his own right, and the heir to his ruthless father's oil empire. It will be the frontier justice upheld by Weldon's grandfather, Texas lawman Hackberry Holland, and the legendary antics of Bonnie and Clyde that shape Weldon's plans for saving his family from the evil forces that lurk in peacetime America and threaten to destroy them all"
As Burke protagonists go, Weldon is no larger than life Robicheaux or a mild-mannered Texas Ranger like his grandfather Hackberry Holland, but he has more than a bit of both. He doesn't attack every problem with their sense of authority, but he has an everyman's sense of fairplay and will tolerate it being trampled for only so long.
Wolf in Winter by John Connolly
The community of Prosperous, Maine has always thrived when others have suffered. Its inhabitants are wealthy, its children's future secure. It shuns outsiders. It guards its own. And at the heart of Prosperous lie the ruins of an ancient church, transported stone by stone from England centuries earlier by the founders of the town... But the death of a homeless man and the disappearance of his daughter draw the haunted, lethal private investigator Charlie Parker to Prosperous. Parker is a dangerous man, driven by compassion, by rage, and by the desire for vengeance. In him the town and its protectors sense a threat graver than any they have faced in their long history, and in the comfortable, sheltered inhabitants of a small Maine town, Parker will encounter his most vicious opponents yet. Charlie Parker has been marked to die so that Prosperous may survive. Prosperous, and the secret that it hides beneath its ruins.
Serpent of Venice by Christopher Moore
Venice, a long time ago. Three prominent Venetians await their most loathsome and foul dinner guest, the erstwhile envoy from the Queen of Britain: the rascal-Fool Pocket. This trio of cunning plotters--the merchant, Antonio; the senator, Montressor Brabantio; and the naval officer, Iago--have lured Pocket to a dark dungeon, promising him an evening of spirits and debauchery with a rare Amontillado sherry and Brabantio's beautiful daughter, Portia. The wine is drugged and the girl is not even within the city limits. But this Fool is no fool and the plotters prove no match for Pocket of Dogsnogging and the lovesick sea serpent who follows him everywhere, protecting him against all who would harm her paramour.
Once again, Christopher Moore has plucked various Shakespearean characters and archetypes to play out his story of satire and fantasy. It takes a little more time than usual to grasp all the players and how they figure into the many plots, subplots, and counterplots.
Fear Nothing by Lisa Gardner
Due to a genetic condition, Dr. Adeline Glen can't feel pain. Her sister is Shana Day, a notorious murderer who first killed at fourteen. She has spent 30 years in prison. Their father was Harry Day, an infamous serial killer who buried young women beneath the floor of their home, has been dead for forty years. Now, someone is murdering young women, leaving his calling card, a bottle of champagne and a single red rose. The Rose Killer also knows other things only her or her sister might know. The only person who may have seen the killer: Detective D. D. Warren, who injured in a confrontation with the killer, still can't lift her child, load her gun, or recall a single detail from the night that may have cost her everything.
This is another D.D. Warren novel, but this is almost a stand alone with Detective Warren forced to follow along with the plot as much influence it. She does become a target which allows D.D. to summon the internal strength of will and character which Gardner has so masterfully developed over past novels. Dr. Adeline Glen is a fascinating character in her own right and a curious reader might wonder if she might make another appearance in future Gardner story.
Shovel Ready by Adam Sternbergh
Spademan used to be a garbage man. That was before the dirty bomb hit Times Square, before his wife was killed, and before the city became a blown-out shell of its former self. Now he's a hitman. In a near-future New York City split between those who are wealthy enough to "tap in" to a sophisticated virtual reality, and those who are left to fend for themselves in the ravaged streets, Spademan chose the streets. When his latest client hires him to kill the daughter of a powerful evangelist, he must navigate between these two worlds -- the wasteland reality and the slick fantasy -- to finish his job, clear his conscience, and make sure he's not the one who winds up in the ground.
Sternbergh employs a unique stream of consciousness, staccato style with little use of quotation marks for dialogue and other conventions. It takes a little while to get accustomed to it, but it seems to fit the storytelling and presentation. It also took me a little while to get accustomed to the fact that the hero was a killer, but he turns out, in short order, to be much more than that. And thank goodness, because I don't think I would have finished it otherwise. I'm glad I did, because it is a nuanced tale with many wonderful twists, a futuristic mash-up of Gibson's Neuromancer and the many steampunk, virtual reality plug-ins which followed.
Other Books published in 2014 which I also enjoyed and would recommend:
The Farm by Tom Rob Smith
Dreams of Gods & Monsters (Daughter of Smoke & Bone #3) by Laini Taylor
The Amazing Harvey: A Mystery by Don Passman
After I'm Gone by Linda Lippman
The Skin Collector (Lincoln Rhyme #11) by Jeffery Deaver
And, of course, I reserve the right to subtract and add to the list if I should read something in the near future which was published in 2014 and was better.