I like to read a variety of genres and subgenres, from adult fiction and nonfiction to young adult and some middle-grade books, but I thought I typically tended to skew more toward fiction. This year, however, the books that have really spoken to me and stuck with me have been more often nonfiction. I’m not sure if that speaks to the quality of the nonfiction I’ve read or to some disappointment I’ve had in fiction I’d thought would be better this year. So I’ll start with the nonfiction books I’ve found compelling in 2014:
- The Good Spy, by Kai Bird: This story about Robert Ames, a CIA agent in the ’60s and ’70s who spent his career in the Middle East, had me absolutely fascinated; it was challenging reading, to be sure, that required real focus so I could absorb all the pertinent details about places, people, and politics. But it kept my interest and left me feeling well informed about the big picture, better educated. This is a must-read for anyone interested in the complex history of the divisions in the Middle East, especially in the Holy Land area and its immediate environs, and all the repercussions of each action taken by locals and world governments.
- Eichmann Before Jerusalem, by Bettina Stangneth: This fine book that will likely change the whole conversation not just about Holocaust architect Adolf Eichmann but about future research into Nazi Germany and its continued relevance. As with The Good Spy, this book is not a quick and easy read; it is a work of scholarship that is comprehensive and thoroughly researched and the conclusions of which are meticulously documented and explained. But it is well worth the time and effort to tackle: anyone who has ever been acquainted with Hannah Arendt’s characterization of Eichmann during his trial in Jerusalem (he made Arendt conclude that “evil” often exhibits itself as “banal”) must read this more accurate examination of the mass murderer.
- On Immunity, by Eula Biss: Biss examines the issue of people choosing not to vaccinate, not primarily to persuade “anti-vaxxers” to change their minds, but to show how our culture has fostered this dangerous movement. And the result is a fascinating, informative, and thought-provoking look at parenting in 21st-century America. Not only is On Immunity a quick primer on the history of vaccination and the current attitudes about it, it is an interesting examination of a new kind of class inequality. Regardless of one’s attitudes about vaccination, this book should spur some good discussion about attitudes in our modern society and our responsibility to each other.
- The Invisible History of the Human Race, by Christine Kenneally: This book is just as much about genealogy and its popularity and history as it is about how DNA relates to it. The author sets up how DNA comes into the picture by exploring the interest in and history of family history research, of cultures, of eugenics, of how people look at race (for one thing), and then adds in the puzzle piece of DNA. Her writing style and approach are engrossing and interesting, and I found myself dog-earing a lot of passages that spoke to me in various ways.
Now, on to a few works of fiction that particularly pleased me. First, this year brought the conclusions to a few good series, including Cassandra Clare’s The Mortal Instruments, Neal Shusterman’s Unwind, and Deborah Harkness’ All Souls Trilogy. I enjoyed all three but I think I was most satisfied with UnDivided, the fourth and last book in the Unwind dystology. I wrote earlier this year that I was disappointed in Harkness’ failure to share certain vital information that was pertinent to the whole series in the final book, The Book of Life. Are we supposed to accept that she made us expect a conclusion and did not provide it for us? I didn’t think so. And while I was mostly satisfied with The City of Heavenly Fire, I didn’t think it was as great as earlier books in the series (let’s face it: the first three books were great, and the next three after what seemed like a “conclusion” weren’t quite up to Clare’s previous standards). So an official mention of Shusterman’s achievement comes first in my fiction list (which is going to just include young adult fiction, so I admit I’m mixing genres, which seems fitting now that YA fiction is being read just as much by adults as teens):
- UnDivided, by Neal Shusterman: A conclusion to a series that’s been as thought-provoking as it’s been action-packed. It fit perfectly with the rest of the books and did not let me down. I loved how he wrapped things up. So cool. Just read the series about a future in which the U.S. has settled on a “compromise” between pro-lifers and pro-choicers by not allowing abortion but by allowing parents to “unwind” their teenagers if they cause problems (or for any other reason): their bodies are dismantled and every part is donated to others.
- Love and Other Foreign Words, by Erin McCahan: I loved this author’s first YA romance, I Now Pronounce You Someone Else, and this second made me just as happy. This book’s heroine is only 15 and quite precocious for her age in some ways because she is so ridiculously bright. Josie attends high school for half the day in her town of Bexley, Ohio, but starts the day with classes at a nearby college. She especially enjoys languages and how they are used by their respective groups. She is precise in her approach to the use of words. This love of precision (oh, how I love her for that!) causes her difficulties, though, when it comes to “love.” Love and Other Foreign Words is funny, real, vibrant, clever and utterly charming, and a bonus is that it has at its heart a girl who is deeply loved and nurtured by her parents and older sisters and who loves them back; the family is intact and very happy. Refreshing!
- The Casquette Girls, by Alys Arden: I reviewed this one for the San Francisco Book Review without knowing much or expecting much of it and was quite pleasantly surprised. Yes, this is YA, and yes, it’s paranormal, but it’s pretty cool. It’s an engaging story that’s rich in historical detail and has a richly developed setting. Readers who love magic and the supernatural will particularly eat up this well-written novel about supernatural creatures causing problems in post-Katrina New Orleans.
And there you have it: some wonderfully researched, intelligent, absorbing, informative nonfiction reads, and a few fun fiction picks that just happen to be written for young adults. Apparently, the “adult” fiction titles disappointed me a bit this year. Let’s hope for better in 2015.