2014 In Books

shelfEver since 2012, I’ve set a yearly reading goal on Goodreads (if you are not on there yet and call yourself a reader, you may want to rethink that!). I have gradually increased my goal every year and as we bring 2014 to a close, I’m happy to say that I surpassed my goal of 35 books for the year. As of “press time” here, I’m at 57 out of 35.

In the same vein as my post about my favorite books, I’d like to put some of my own thoughts out there on the literary highs and lows of this past year. Keep in mind, of course, that these are only my own thoughts and opinions. Occasionally my opinion of a book is way off the general consensus, both good and bad. I welcome discussions and recommendations from all folks so pipe up in the comments if you’re willing.

Bottom line is that I love books. I love reading, I love to discuss what you are reading and even if I disagree, I still want to know why you are reading what you are reading. Even though the market figures still show that books are selling and people must be reading, I look around and see people taking in bits and bytes of information via their cell phones. I have friends who say they don’t have time to read, reading makes them tired, or they just plain hate reading unless it has been assigned to them. You won’t find any judgement here, but you will find honest opinions and thoughts on my own reading experiences.

With the exception of a handful of graphic novels, all the quantifiable words are here. I use the word “quantifiable” because I obviously can’t tally up the various news articles, emails, text messages, and other words taken in on a daily basis. (Although, the screenshot here says I read an extra 41 books!)

Graphic novels were included in my overall tally, but I excluded them from this particular list of opinions. Graphic novels, although entertaining, seem a bit out of place in a reading goal, since the majority of them didn’t require as much time and concentration as non graphic novels. Unsure if that might take away from some of the heavier stuff that I read this year, as there is quite the slant towards the non-fiction side.

The list below is reverse chronologically organized with the title of the book followed by the author, the overall community rating from Goodreads (out of 5.0), and then my own star rating (if available). Some of these will have the “review” I submitted to Goodreads in there, or Facebook commented thoughts and others are just unfortunate victims of my hazy memory and off-the-cuff opinion here. Each book listed was FINISHED in 2014.

Goodreads “2014” Shelf

Reconstructing Amelia / McCreight, Kimberly / 3.79 / 2.0
-Meh. That’s all I really have for this one. Touted as being in the same vein as Gone Girl? That’s like comparing One Direction to The Who. My opinion only, mind you. This has a respectable cumulative rating on Goodreads. I didn’t start to really dislike it until maybe the halfway point, and since I was already there it seemed like a waste to back out. Meh.

The Martian / Weir, Andy / 4.35 / 5.0
-Took me only two days to read it (even less time if real life responsibility hadn’t gotten in the way) . What an incredible read. Quick synopsis; guy gets left on Mars when his crew thinks he has died and they are forced to evacuate for their own safety. Turns out he is NOT dead and is forced to survive alone until they discover their mistake. IF they discover their mistake. My chest was actually pounding through the last twenty to thirty pages. LOVED this and haven’t had words on a page elicit such an emotional response in quite awhile. One of the best of this year, and probably one of my all time favorites as well. Stoked for the movie coming in late 2015, if North Korea will allow it.

The Polysyllabic Spree / Hornby, Nick / 3.74 / 3.0
-I’ve been a fan of Hornby for ages (ever since High Fidelity). His style of writing makes you feel as if you are sitting in a room with him and just chatting it up (see, I went British there for a second!). This book is a huge reason why I thought getting some words down on my 2014 reads could be beneficial. This book is a collection of essays he wrote on his own reading issues, predominately the fact that his “to read” list is rapidly outweighing his “read” list (an issue plaguing many readers). I found probably half a dozen books and added them to my TBR list, based on his recommendation.

Into the Fire: A Firsthand Account of the Most Extraordinary Battle in the Afghan War / Meyer, Dakota / 4.04 / 2.0
-Not too bad, per se. I get a bit glassy eyed when people write about some exceptional thing they’ve accomplished and begin tooting their own horn, though. It may seem a bit contradictory to say, since the whole point of them authoring a book is precisely for that reason but regardless, this is my list and these are my opinions. Like Lone Survivor, the story is fascinating but the narrative voice is full of machismo, which can get old quickly.

The Things They Carried / O’Brien, Tim / 4.11 / 3.0
-This was hit or miss for me. I did not necessarily DISLIKE it, but I didn’t love it like I thought I would. I would definitely read more O’Brien because there were several stories in here that really landed well, but there were equally as many that had a “meh” factor to me.

Crossing Over: A Mexican Family on the Migrant Trail / Martínez, Rubén / 3.93 / 3.0
-(Goodreads review) As much as I am a fan of literary exposition to “paint a picture”, if you will, there is a certain point that it can be considered overkill, perhaps even just rambling.

The underlying story here involves a horrific vehicle accident in California in the 1990s where several undocumented migrant workers were killed. Martinez focuses most of his energy on one particular family, and spends time in various places that the Chavez family lived and worked in, interviewing friends, family, and employers.

This book, although highly informative (and at times opinionated, although nowhere near as stomach-churning as Earl Shorris was in “Latinos”), involves quite a bit of rambling and what amounts to a good amount of “filler”.

That being said, however, I did enjoy this read overall and would read more from Mr Martinez. As one more window into the thinking of migrant workers, it’s worth a read. Even though it’s nearly fifteen years old (published in 2001 originally), it’s still quite relevant as one looks into the ongoing immigration debate.

To expound further on his heavy handed use of descriptors, see the FB comment in response to a friend who also read it several years back;

“I enjoyed a cold beer” vs “The can of carbonated yeast and hops appeared to be the one object of refreshment I had been searching for, my life entire. The frost that appeared on the edges of the aluminum cylinder reminded me of the cold winters of my youth in the Upper Peninsula. As I observed the label, plainly stating ‘Miller Lite’, I wondered if the original men behind this fermented concoction had any attachments to the original millers of yore.”

Dog Blood (Hater, #2) / Moody, David / 3.80 / 3.0
-Maybe it’s been too long since I read the first book, “Hater” (which I do remember liking years ago). I honestly don’t know but regardless, this one didn’t really do much for me. I’ve loved Moody’s previous stuff (the “Autumn” series most predominately), but this was not a favorite.

The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League / Hobbs, Jeff / 4.20 / 4.0
-The title alone leaves very little room for interpretation. That being said, this was still a highly engrossing read. Written by Robert Peace’s college roommate, you continue to hope that all goes well for Mr Peace up until the end. Tragedy for sure, but a very accomplished work from a relatively new author. One of the saddest, but best, nonfiction books I’ve read in awhile.

White Girl Bleed a Lot: The Return of Racial Violence to America and How the Media Ignore It / Flaherty, Colin /
4.28 / 3.0

-Incredibly relevant with the recent news stories and protests. Absolutely infuriating that politicians and the media get such a benefit out of playing us against each other. This book is absolutely biased, no doubt. Well researched, with links to each situation mentioned within, I recommend this one for an eye opening, and perhaps even stomach churning, experience. My only complaint is that with the bias so strong (hey I get it man and I agree with you on some of this stuff even), was that the writing could be a bit sloppy at times.

Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets / Venkatesh, Sudhir / 3.97 / 2.0
-Meh. Don’t remember much about this one, other than I could not be happier to be done with it.

Gone Girl / Flynn, Gillian / 3.95 / 4.0
-Although I read a pretty varied amount of things, I’m not immune to the fever pitch of popular fiction, especially with a movie coming fast on the heels of the work’s publication. I have only heard one person I actually know (not an online entity) that didn’t enjoy this one. Although this did not blow me away, or leave any lasting after effect, I still enjoyed it. Read this one pretty quickly, due to its “page-turner-ishness”.

For Whom the Bell Tolls / Hemingway, Ernest / 3.93 / 2.0
-The last (and only other Hemingway) I read was “A Farewell To Arms” while still in the Navy. If I recall, I did enjoy that one. This one is one that I felt obligated, as a book fan, to read and enjoy. Well needless to say, one of those two conditions was met. With brief little moments of enjoyment, centered around the conversations between the two lovers, this was another I couldn’t wait to be finished with.

The Girl with All the Gifts / Carey, M.R. / 3.91 / 4.0
-A lifetime zombie genre fan (before it was cool!), I will give any undead option a fair shake. Happily, this was one of the better genre reads in awhile. I don’t remember all the specifics, but there is a bit of a spin on the zombie mythology in this one, and it pays off in the end.

An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness / Jamison, Kay Redfield / 4.01 / 3.0
-After the suicide of Robin Williams, and my own struggles with depression, I got ahold of one of the books billed as one of the definitive studies on depression. As I told a friend, this started out strong and had me very interested but by the end I was happy to be done with it. Unsure what exactly had me turned off, but this one turned into a bit of a chore.

The Opposite of Loneliness: Essays and Stories / Keegan, Marina / 3.85 / 4.0
-(Goodreads review)
This book (or more appropriately a collection of various essays and short stories) was about fifty/fifty for me. That’s not a hit on the quality of writing by any means. When she lands a narrative punch, she LANDS it.

The fiction stories weren’t really my cup of tea (seemed like each one was based around an angsty young lady pining over a boy, etc etc) but her nonfiction stuff, whoa.

Wow. Like Jon Ronson in her ability to make the most mundane subject highly engaging and entertaining, the pieces about her real life blew me away.

Whether describing her car (a 1990 Camry), her gluten free existence, or a ride along with a bug exterminator, she had a fantastic narrative voice and had me enthralled.

So sad we won’t see more from her, but her light burned brightly while she was here.

Eleanor and Park / Rowell, Rainbow / 4.18 / 4.0
-An author from my homestate of Nebraska (Go Big Red!), this was another I was interested in mainly because of how well received it had been by the general public. I enjoyed it, and there were some highly enjoyable passages but it was not easily relatable to me. A love story between two high school kids is sweet and pure (see some of the John Green I read this year, ha ha) but as a nearly forty year old man, it doesn’t all land for me. I will definitely read more of Rowell, however. Don’t take my ramblings as any indication that I’m not interested in more from her, as this is absolutely NOT the case here (I’ve had “Fangirl” recommended to me by a couple friends).

Danny the Champion of the World / Dahl, Roald / 4.04 / 4.0
-The second book that I read with my son, this was a great read. Very applicable to a father and son literary partnership, seeing as it revolves around a single father (which I am NOT, by the way) and his son. We both really enjoyed this one, and definitely would recommend to anyone looking for one of Dahl’s perhaps lesser known works.

If I Stay (If I Stay, #1) / Forman, Gayle / 3.98 / 3.0
-Ok, ok. You got me again. Following the crowd? Reading the book right before the movie? Guilty as charged. To be fair, I didn’t necessarily dislike this book. The problem was that I didn’t LIKE it much either. Another one chalked up in the “meh” column. Fair enough to think that it may be due to the narrator being a high school girl. Funniest part of the whole thing is that I still haven’t seen the film, and really have no overwhelming desire to.

Outliers: The Story of Success / Gladwell, Malcolm / 4.06 / 4.0
-Both this book and the next book were read in tandem. I jumped back and forth between the two, due to them both being recommended by two people whose opinions I value. This book was a very interesting study on high achieving people and the methods they’ve used to achieve their success. Some very interesting trivia tidbits in here, the main one that sticks in my memory being the hours and hours The Beatles practiced in night clubs before they were famous, honing their craft before they had even become a household name.

The Everlasting Man / Chesterton, G.K. / 4.23 / 4.0
-As I mentioned, this was read in tandem with Outliers. Of all people to recommend this one to me, this was name dropped by a young man from church. As I mentioned in a previous posting on my all time favorite books, CS Lewis is quite the intellectual giant and after this book I can safely lump Chesterton into that same fraternity. As I told the friend who recommended this to me, I only was able to absorb about half of this book (if not even less than that). Yes, I read the whole thing and my eyes covered each page. I took in each word he put into this, technically. I just didn’t necessarily “get” it all. There is a good bunch of rambling, but when Chesterton nails a point he NAILS it. The overall gist of the book is to lay the basic groundwork of Christianity (and from the outside research I did on this book, it was written as a rebuttal to HG Wells after his attempted dismantling of Christianity). One particular passage stands out in my memory as somewhat comical. Chesterton discusses how a cow standing in a field does not possess the mental capacity to realize how beautiful the birds chirping around it are. Alluding to the fact that cows don’t enjoy nature as much as a fully aware person would. Just seemed humorous to me, although it’s a legitimate point.

Theodore Rex / Morris, Edmund / 4.16 / 5.0
-(From my Facebook posting while reading back in June)
“I’m about halfway through this book and am consistently blown away by how impressive Theodore Roosevelt was during his lifetime. A source of uncontained energy and testament to living ones life to the fullest, I highly recommend this book to anyone looking for a biography. Edmund Morris has written a voluminous trilogy of Roosevelt’s life, beginning with the Pulitzer prize winning “The Rise Of Theodore Roosevelt” in 1977.

As odd as it may sound, these biographical pieces flow like you would not believe. Each clocks in at 600-800 pages, but there is not a dull moment to be found. This particular book, the second in the series, addresses Roosevelt’s taking over of the Presidency upon McKinley’s assassination and his efforts to prove his worth in his own right as a President. Spanning the Panama Canal, a little known brush with war against Germany over a debt owed by Venezuela, and even more during the early 1900’s, this is one of the better biographies out there.”

Paper Towns / Green, John / 4.05 / 4.0
-Ok, ok. Here’s another young adult one. After Fault In Our Stars (yeah, it’s a little further down), I ate up as much of him as I could. Now, I don’t necessarily believe he is one of our finest authors or a “voice for the ages” or anything like that, but I think he writes teenage angst better than anyone I’ve read in years. His stuff can be a bit unrealistic as I don’t think there are as many real life teenagers who may behave as his characters, but even so it’s enjoyable. His dialogue between characters seems to bring them to life, in my opinion.

A Dog’s Purpose / Cameron, W. Bruce / 4.32 / 3.0
-A couple years back, I read The Art Of Racing In The Rain. I had the ebook of it and had nothing else on my plate at the time. I didn’t expect much from a book written “as a dog” but I could not have been more wrong. The book was amazing and worth all the praise bestowed upon it. I mention that because it opened up the possibility of reading another book I might have overlooked along the same subject. This book is written from the point of view of a dog as well. While I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as Racing In The Rain, it was a cute little read. I suppose it didn’t hit me with as much of an emotional wallop as Rain did. Don’t let that sway you though; I recommend both of them if you’re a dog lover or even just looking for a unique read. This was especially poignant because we had to put our Welsh Corgi to sleep earlier this year.

Looking for Alaska / Green, John / 4.18 / 5.0
-My second John Green read. Written in a way that has you curious about what exactly the narrator is counting down to, I enjoyed this one and I believe the movie rights have been picked up already.

Coal Black Horse / Olmstead, Robert / 3.76 / 3.0
-Don’t remember a ton about this one other than the basics. Teenage boy during the Civil War is tasked by his mother with locating his soldier father on the battlefield. He’s given a “coal black horse” for the trip and that’s seriously about all I can remember. Oh wait, shenanigans ensue along the way. I don’t remember hating it for any reason, but I also don’t remember enough to put it down in the favorites column.

Dear Mr. Henshaw (Leigh Botts, #1) / Cleary, Beverly / 3.65 / 4.0
The first book that my son and I read together. Also one of the first books I’ve read aloud in years. It worked like this; I would read a chapter one night, the boy would read the next chapter the next night. It was frustrating to him (and inspiring to me that he was so interested in the story) that we would only read a chapter or two a night. “Delayed gratification” if you will. Oh, and also I hadn’t figured out which book we could get to next so I was buying time. This was a cute little book written as a series of letters (to Mr Henshaw!) from a boy dealing with his parents’ divorce.

The Fault in Our Stars / Green, John / 4.42 / 5.0
-My inaugural John Green experience. Yes, it’s sappy. Yes, it’s a young adult novel (no shame there!). Yes, certain parts of the story don’t stand up well to scrutiny but you know what? Cancer stinks. Being a teenager stinks. Putting those two together is John Green, who has said this was inspired by a girl who he met through volunteering in a cancer ward. Sometimes you just have to immerse yourself in a piece of fiction and not spend too much time worrying about logistics (or people judging you for reading something that most tweener girls bookmarked with soggy tissues). I saw the film with my wife, and I will admit that it was exactly what I was hoping it would be. Not a difficult read, but still a relatively sobering one.

Everything’s Better with a Beard / Robertson, Si / 3.59 / 3.0
-Shameless padding for the 2014 stats. No use denying it. I am a fan of beards (and hope to grow my own back out when it’s allowed by my employer) and this ate up a few minutes in the Target book section as my wife shopped. I’m not a massive Duck Dynasty fan, but this provided a few minutes of humor; enough to warrant a few comments on the list.

The Devil’s Highway: A True Story / Urrea, Luis Alberto / 3.96 / 5.0
-(Goodreads review)
Fascinating, regardless of how you may feel about our immigration woes.

Urrea has put an undeniable human face on a tragic journey for these men.

The Battle of Mogadishu: Firsthand Accounts from the Men of Task Force Ranger / Eversmann, Matt / 3.98 / 3.0
-I didn’t necessary dislike this one, only the writing style. To be fair, the narrators are soldiers first and writers second. The story of this horrible event where our troops were outgunned and facing certain death has all the makings of a riveting tale. I think, however, Mark Bowden did a better job of telling the story in Black Hawk Down. I hate to say that, seeing as this book is actually written by the guys who were there, while Bowden’s was written after the fact and from multiple sources.

The NLT One-Year Bible, New Testament
-Our church had an eight week study on this and we had this broken down into workable reading blocks. I’m constantly opening my Bible, for a multitude of reasons, but this was a concerted effort at making it through the New Testament and I firmly believe it counts as a mark on the goal list. Please note that the link was the closest thing I could find in order to update my ongoing status as reading it.

The First Phone Call from Heaven / Albom, Mitch / 3.73 / 3.0
-Going into any Albom book, you expect it will be a tad bit sappy. That being said, this one really didn’t do it for me. The writing is engaging, but the story kind of fell apart the further it went on. The payoff didn’t seem to be worth the time put into reading it.

The Death of Josseline: Immigration Stories from the Arizona Borderlands / Regan, Margaret / 3.88 / 4.0
-This past year I read more nonfiction (especially immigration related nonfiction) than ever before. I’m trying to approach the research for my novel from all directions. This is a heart wrenching book discussing multiple cases where people set out for America only to find out they wouldn’t make it all the way.

The Everything Creative Writing Book / Burt-Thomas, Wendy / 3.60 / 4.0
Not a lot to say about this one. The title tells you what it’s about. It is full of some interesting ideas and tips for those who feel the need to put energy into their creative outlet.

Coyotes: A Journey Through the Secret World of America’s Illegal Aliens / Conover, Ted / 4.05 / 4.0
-Fantastic, even though a bit outdated (takes place in the 1980s), true life story of Conover’s experiences as an illegal entrant to the United States. It was humorous how often he had to prove that, although he was caucasian, he was only trying to be “smuggled” North in order to parlay the experience into a book on the people smuggling trade. Written in a very easy style that makes you curious about what will happen next.

Dalva / Harrison, Jim / 4.21 / 4.0
-This guy. Wow. I’m constantly impressed by Harrison’s ability to conjure up a backstory for his characters. I read “Returning To Earth” in 2013 and had no idea that it was tied to a bigger batch of characters from the same family. Incredible stuff here. I liked this one and think Harrison does a great job of writing the sort of character that you would really enjoy sitting down and having a conversation with. He has taken several generations of a Native American family and put you right inside their lives, creating some incredibly rich characters who refuse to fit into any specific stereotype.

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft / King, Stephen / 4.27 / 5.0
-One of THE definitive books on writing from one of THE first people in America you think of when someone says “author”. I can’t stress how much I loved this book. Even if you never have thought of sinking your time and energy into writing any of your own stuff, you will probably still find this interesting. Seeing as King has been writing for decades now, and is the creative mind behind some of our most lasting horror films, it is fascinating to listen to him explain how he got his start and the literary snafus that irk him to no end. One of the best I’ve ever read.

The Angel of Darkness (Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, #2) / Carr, Caleb / 3.91 / 4.0
-The second book of Carr’s that I read (The Alienist being the first), this had the same basic outline as it’s predecessor. A group of turn of the century investigators work to bring down a killer. Not quite as good as Alienist (a fictional version of Teddy Roosevelt as the police commissioner was AWESOME in Alienist), but not bad either.

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking / Cain, Susan / 4.01 / 4.0
-I remember enjoying this one quite a bit. I have several friends who I would consider introverts (and contrary to popular belief, I myself am a high functioning introvert). For years, the people who keep to themselves have been getting a bad rap. In a society that rewards the boisterous goal achievers, there’s always the feeling that the quiet people may not get their own recognition. This book does a fantastic job of putting to bed the myth that quiet equals bad. I’ve never felt that way anyway, and I’m sure plenty of people haven’t. Never the less, we’re in a world that is loud and constantly increasing the volume. It’s refreshing to read about some of the examples Cain lists as introverts who have contributed immensely to the greater good, even if they weren’t flashy about it.

Nerd Do Well: A Small Boy’s Journey to Becoming a Big Kid / Pegg, Simon / 3.63 / 3.0
-Would you consider the desire to sit down and have a pint of whatever with this guy a “man crush”? If so, then I’ve got that. This book was a Christmas present from my in-laws last year (Thanks JB and Patricia!) and while I liked it, I didn’t LOVE it. Pegg is absolutely hilarious and some of his stuff in here had me guffawing (yeah, I wrote the word” guffawing”) but there is a side story in every other chapter that really started to wear on me. Maybe it was to pad the book? I dunno, but it kept taking me out of enjoying the real life stories that Pegg was willing to share.

Burning the Days: Recollection / Salter, James / 4.13 / 4.0
-I was introduced to Salter with “Light Years” back in 2013 and really enjoyed it. Somewhat like Harrison, Salter will ramble on too. The funny thing is that I never seem to mind it, though. The man can craft some pretty impressive sentences. This book is his autobiography and there is quite the marked tone from his rambunctious youth to his more somber and pensive older man. He’s incredibly honest in this book, confessing to trysts with women he shouldn’t have been involved with and not painting a necessarily flattering picture of his younger hotheaded self. Just like Harrison’s “Off To The Side”, it is a nice peek behind the curtain into the thought process and upbringing of a very interesting literary voice.

Lone Survivor / Luttrell, Marcus / 4.31 / 3.0
-Another story about a military operation that went sideways, another case of a narrative voice that got on my nerves. The movie was intense, and the book’s subject matter is too. I can’t even imagine how hard it was for Luttrell to recover from such a tragedy, but I got tired of hearing how incredibly awesome the Navy Seals are and how awesome, by proxy, Luttrell is. Don’t believe me? Just ask him. I feel terrible knocking on these books (the previous one at the top of the list about Afghanistan), and I don’t want to appear as unappreciative of our troops. Far from it, believe me. I see the need for certain stories to be told, but at the end of the day I think I much rather prefer from an outsider with writing experience. There is a cadence and regularity to an already established narrator that is lacking in some of the books written by people who haven’t written before. To prove this point, I read Johnny Cash’s autobiography in 2013 and could not stand it. As much as I love Cash, I had a tough time getting through a full length book written by him. Love his voice, love his lyrics, and love his entire vibe but he is another example of someone who I enjoy reading ABOUT and not necessarily FROM.

Doctor Sleep (The Shining #2) / King, Stephen / 4.11 / 4.0
-It has been years since I read “The Shining” so I didn’t really remember all the specifics of Danny Torrance, but to be honest, it’s not absolutely vital for this one. King does a great job of bringing Danny out of his childhood and into the hum drum rhythm of an adult life. Introducing a relationship with a teenage girl who has the same abilities as Danny, King does a great job of somewhat handing off the reins to this new character. Yes, Danny has a pretty major part, but this book is owned by the girl who Danny is helping. Some creepy scenes in this one and definitely worth the time and energy sunk into it.

Well, that’s it. Thanks for sticking around. Congratulations, you’ve just read 5000+ words on the subject of reading. That’s pretty “meta”. Have a good 2015 and try to get some good reading done!

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