The best books I read in 2014

51Qfd-dh5gL._SL300_ Flowers From the Storm is legendary in the romance novel genre, and rightly so. It really does prove that a romance novel can also be superb literary fiction. There is nothing cliche or predictable about this book. I decided to listen to it in audio form, and I think that medium is especially suited to Flowers From the Storm, due to the leading man’s broken speech and the leading lady’s antiquated thee-thou Quaker diction.

Kudos to Laura Kinsale for creating a rake whose libertine behavior was not glamorized, as well as a protagonist whose simple goodness is never diminished by making her seem cloying or two-dimensional. This book was skillfully written, carefully plotted, and an overall joy to read.

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The Princess and the Goblin has been on my to-read list for a long time. It’s one of the first examples of children’s fantasy literature (if you don’t count fairy tales), and both J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis were hugely influenced by George MacDonald’s work.

What prompted me to bump it up to the top of my book pile was that our local book club was reading The Great Divorce, and in it, the narrator (who it is easy to assume is Lewis himself) reaches heaven and finds that his long-admired literary mentor, George MacDonald, has traveled far to teach him about the wonders of the afterlife. Lewis’ rapturous admiration for MacDonald’s skill with a pen far exceeds my own impressions, but I enjoyed this book well enough. The author really seemed to capture the tone needed to speak to readers on a child’s level, while at the same time making the story enjoyable for adults.

I did feel that the characters in this book were kind of flat, but perhaps drawing children heroes with shades of gray would be too far ahead of the author’s time.

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The above work made me wonder what was the first book written for children, outside of those shocking morality tales that taught children not to stand too close to the fire. It’s generally agreed on in English literature that the honor goes to Alice in Wonderland. When I saw a good friend of mine praise it as one of the most influential books he’s read, I knew it was high time I read it.

I appreciated that the author not only abandoned the morality tale trope so common to his era, but actually lampooned it in the book. It seems as if we have come full circle, as children’s literature today is rarely without a morality tale (even if that morality tale is to insist there there is no such thing as morality).

The effortless whimsy of this book is a credit to the author, and I really wanted to love it. But I guess I’m just too grown up, because I really felt frustrated with the book. In Alice’s words, it was all “stuff and nonsense,” and I couldn’t help feeling anxious to return to the real world. However, I’ve been informed by my friend that I made a grievous error in not reading the annotated version, as what made the book so significant for him is that when he read it, he understood for the first time how authors used literary symbols in their work to represent political and philosophical themes. Oops!

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The Bees was an impulse read, which is actually quite rare for me. For some reason, it’s being compared to The Hunger Games, which is nice publicity and all, but I don’t think the books have that much in common. It would be more apt to compare it to Watership Down, and higher praise too, if more people were familiar with that classic.

The world is richly drawn and the plot is suspenseful. I felt compelled to share it with friends, so that speaks to how highly I esteem it. However, things kind of unraveled there at the end. What exactly was the author trying to say about religion (or at the least, religion in this bee world)? It’s as though the author wasn’t sure what to say about it, beyond making it an important plot device. Orwell created a similar anthropomorphic world in Animal Farm to make some strong indictments of government, with the major difference that when you reach the end of his book, you feel pretty well satisfied with what he was trying to do (even if disagree with his agenda).

The Bees flew to great heights for me, but it didn’t quite reach its full potential. Still, if you love novels with lots of world-building and high stakes tension, this is worth a read.

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I was obsessed with unicorns when I was a little girl. How it is possible that I never stumbled across The Little White Horse before now, I’ll never know.

I stand in awe of the author, who weaves a truly magical story rich with imagery, humor and unforgettable characters. Elizabeth Goudge manages to take what is so wonderful about the idea of unicorns–their magic, wildness, purity, and elusive beauty–and infuses the entire novel with those themes in so many subtle ways.

This book is almost perfect for our family…except for the strong religious overtones. In particular, a major character is described as a vocal atheist until he falls off his horse one day and hits his head, “knocking some sense into him.” He not only converts but becomes a preacher to boot. Religious themes are intertwined into the story in such a way that I don’t think it’s something I could easily skip over in a family read-aloud, so this may be a book my kids will have to wait to read when they are teenagers.

If you have no problem with strong Christian themes (and I’m sure most of you don’t), The Little White Horse is timeless classic fantasy that kids of all ages will love. (Just don’t watch the movie. It’s awful.)

I think that does it for my top five books of 2014. Even with the reservations I had with some of them, I am glad I read them and would recommend them to others. Do you have any books you read that you’d like to suggest I read in 2015?

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