“I don’t believe a book lives until it’s been read,” bestselling author Brandon Sanderson told Paste. We couldn’t agree more.
Once read, books transcend the ink on their pages, becoming characters, theories, conflicts and ideas that dance around our minds. The same book read by multiple people will transform into different versions of itself. We’d argue a book is never read the same way twice.
So rather than assemble a list of the “best” novels of the year so far, we’ve listed our favorites. Books that kept us desperately turning their pages until 4 a.m. Books that transported us to intriguing, even terrifying, points in history. Books that made us chuckle, tear up, think. Books that lived.
We may have granted life to these books through reading them, but they gave us stories we’ll dream about for years to come. So it’s with great excitement that we present our picks for the “best” novels of 2014 (so far):
1. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
Marie-Laure is a young, blind girl in Paris who, despite her ailment, loves to read. Werner is a German kid with a knack for picking apart transistor radios. As World War II takes hold of both their lives, thrusting them into harsh, uncertain times, their stories slowly but surely converge. Even the tiniest details of the book contain metaphors, but Doerr’s crisp writing manages to avoid cliché and pretension, leaving the multiple layers of storytelling to strengthen the narrative.
All the Light We Cannot See explores topics of light, darkness, heroism, sacrifice, courage, hope, life and death—but it does so quietly, never hitting you over the head with the themes. Perhaps most refreshing is that Doerr doesn’t try to make Marie-Laure and Werner into heroes or universal symbols of shattered innocence; they’re just kids, wrapped up in the chaos of war, and trying to survive. It’s that authenticity that really, well, lights up All the Light We Cannot See. —Emelia Fredlick, Editorial Intern
2. Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever? by Dave Eggers
Eggers’ latest novel employs a gimmick: It’s told entirely in unattributed dialogue with no exposition. It’s also worth noting that the premise—a disaffected Millennial named Thomas keeps kidnapping people and getting away with it—is pretty implausible. I don’t care. What I care about are the ideas being discussed.
Thomas believes he’s the butt of society’s joke and the victim of some bait-and-switch scheme on the part of Baby Boomers, and to that end he has a lot of questions for the people he kidnaps. “That seems like the worst kind of thing,” Thomas says to a kidnapped Congressman, “to tell a generation or two that the finish line is here, that the requirements to get there are this and this and this, but then, just as we get there, you move the finish line.” The answers his elders give him add nuance to the narrative of generational angst that’s been trotted out in a thousand “What’s Wrong with Kids These Days” magazine think-pieces. —Paul Bowers, Contributing Writer
3. An Untamed State by Roxane Gay
At the opening of Gay’s highly anticipated debut novel, Mireille Duval Jameson’s life is like a fairy tale. She has a devoted husband, an adorable infant son and proud Haitian parents whose love, Mireille assumes, knows no bounds. But the fairy tale dissolves when Mireille is kidnapped while visiting her parents’ grand estate in Port-au-Prince, held for ransom and cruelly tortured.
This page-turner takes on the larger themes of privilege, social class, entitlement and corruption. What makes the narrative so riveting isn’t the sheer brutality of Mireille’s imprisonment, but rather the harrowing truths that haunt her. Sometimes our worst enemies are the people we love the most, and freedom, once lost, can never truly be reclaimed. —Anjali Enjeti, Contributing Writer
4. Half Bad by Sally Green
The first book in a what promises to be a thrilling trilogy from debut author Green, Half Bad captivates with a tale of isolation, survival and witches. But forget everything you know about the potion-brewing hags of folklore—these incarnations are far more deadly.
Nathan, the son of both a White witch and the cruelest Black witch in the world, is hunted by everyone. With the days ticking by as he approaches his 17th birthday, he must to evade capture and track down his father—or die. Far more than a story chronicling the struggle between good and evil, Half Bad weaves a narrative where darkness and light collide in every character. —Frannie Jackson, Asst. Books & Comics Editor
5. Fallout by Sadie Jones
It’s a tale familiar to artists in a fledgling economy: Work very, very hard for three weeks, only to be unemployed for five. Skillfully written in a haphazard, nonlinear order, Fallout is a fast-paced look at the independent theater scene of 1960s and ’70s London. Small town Luke follows a seemingly cosmopolitan Paul to London, where both struggle to create art—Luke through closeted play-writing Paul through theater production. Each character bases decisions on his fear of missing out, and each possesses a fatalistic assurance that their roles in the scene—and each other’s lives—are somehow meaningful despite the challenges. —Julia Cook, Editorial Intern
6. We Were Liars by E. Lockhart
When a teen experiences a traumatic head injury on her family’s private island, she spends the year that follows attempting to uncover the origins of her mysterious affliction. It’s this central riddle that underlies the ensuing generational drama, interracial romance and upper-class angst.
A master class in suspense, We Were Liars ends with a twist so eerie it puts M. Night Shyamalan to shame. —Jessica Gentile, Contributing Writer
7. The Last Kind Words Saloon by Larry McMurtry
The book, McMurtry’s 46th by my reckoning, returns to the American West that has served as the author’s muse for the past five decades. It follows cowboys-cum-folk legends Wyatt Earp and Doc Holiday as they…well, what is it they do, really? They wander, they drawl, they wisecrack; they fall into and out of contact with an array of characters, both historical and non. Crafted, according to McMurtry, as “a ballad in prose,” The Last Kind Words Saloon sometimes appears closer akin to Waiting for Godot than Gunfight at the OK Corral.
McMurtry, renowned for writing the Pulitzer Prize-winning Lonesome Dove, took a five-year hiatus between this novel and his last, an interval that seems like it should have yielded a more sizable work from the prolific wordsmith. But blunt as a decade-old pocketknife and boasting the brevity of a cough, The Last Kind Words Saloon gave me much to engage with, ponder and enjoy. —Shane Danaher, Contributing Writer
8. World of Trouble by Ben H. Winters
When you set your novel at the end of the world, you’d better make it pay off. Winters’ World of Trouble is more than a shining example of how to write about the apocalypse—it’s one of the most well-written mysteries of any era. Following two stellar volumes of The Last Policeman trilogy, the novel finds protagonist Hank Palace desperately searching for his sister, hoping to spend his last days on Earth with the only blood he has left.
Raising as many questions about ethics as it does about the mystery, World of Trouble is a book you don’t want to miss. —Mack Hayden, Contributing Writer