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Originally published December 14, 2014 at 5:03 AM | Page modified December 23, 2014 at 12:08 PM

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Best books of 2014: The Seattle Times lists its top 35 titles

Seattle Times reviewers share their favorite books of 2014.


Seattle Times book editor

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Mary Ann, You are simply the very best! I love Well Read, too. Keep up the excellent work. MORE
@Yoda Man @BruceWilliams None of the Star Wars thrillers either. Or any of the other ghost written books by celebrities. MORE
Funny, No best seller O'Reilly books included. MORE

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When I imagine The Seattle Times’ best books of the year lined up on someone’s bookshelf, I get a little glow inside, for what a library it would be. For 2014’s list of 35 books, our reviewers chose novels, history, natural history, biographies and especially this year, a splendid selection of historical fiction, with authors such as Anthony Doerr, Richard Flanagan, Joseph Boyden, Sarah Bird and Sarah Waters using historical backdrops for their beautiful, harrowing and even inspiring stories.

Seattle Times reviewers are a discerning bunch, but here are some fiction and nonfiction titles that got more than one vote: Doerr’s “All the Light We Cannot See,” Emily St. John Mandel’s “Station Eleven,” biographies “Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph” and “Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life,” and “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?,” Roz Chast’s groundbreaking graphic memoir about her struggles with with her aging parents. Thanks to all our reviewers, who sorted through a flood of books published this year to pick the best. Happy holidays!

FICTION

“Above the East China Sea” by Sarah Bird (Knopf). Bird’s compelling novel explores heritage and identity through the intertwined stories, nearly 70 years apart, of two teen girls on the island of Okinawa, both impacted by war. — Agnes Torres Al-Shibibi

“The Orenda” by Joseph Boyden(Knopf). This transcendent novel about the Huron native people in 17th-century French Canada and the arrival of a Jesuit missionary priest, has an epic feel, both for its profound spirituality and shocking violence. — David Takami

“All the Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr(Scribner). Doerr, who has made a name for himself with some of the most original short stories of our day, spreads his wings majestically in this novel (a National Book Awards finalist) about two young people — a blind French girl and a brilliant orphaned German boy — caught up separately, and for a brief shining moment together, in the horror of World War II. — David Laskin

“The Narrow Road to the Deep North” by Richard Flanagan(Knopf). Winner of this year’s Man Booker Prize, this novel is an unflinching journey through the unimaginable cruelty on the Burma Death Railway, that traverses the fragile boundary between beauty and suffering, memory and oblivion. — David Wright

“Let Me Be Frank with You” by Richard Ford (Knopf). — Ford brings back his hallmark character, sportswriter-turned-retired-real-estate-agent Frank Bascombe, for a fourth book. This quartet of stories, set in Frank’s twilight years, cuts to the heart of what it means to age in America. — Mary Ann Gwinn

“The Stories of Jane Gardam” (Europa Editions). Richly observant, unsparing yet empathetic, this collected short fiction by Gardam, one of Britain’s great late-blooming writers, is a treasure to savor — one story at a time, or on a reading binge. — Misha Berson

“The Peripheral” by William Gibson (Putnam). As the whip-smart so-called “hicks” of William Gibson’s latest novel pursue a murder investigation, this novel confronts us with cat-eyed Goths wearing animated tattoos, pocket hospitals replacing increasingly ineffective antibiotics, and the question of which split-off version of the road before us is real: the one in which a presidential assassination leads to global catastrophe, or the one in which wealth and tech imported from the future save us from our worst selves. — Nisi Shawl

“The Museum of Extraordinary Things” by Alice Hoffman(Scribner). Set in the socially turbulent early 1900s in New York, this magical tale combines history, mystery, romance and the theme of survival. Coralie, the only child of an obsessive, sinister and domineering scientist, must escape her father’s clutches to unite with her lover, a lone young photographer, estranged from his immigrant father. — Bharti Kirchner

“A Brief History of Seven Killings” by Marlon James(Riverhead). A tour de force, this saga is centered on the real-life attempted assassination of reggae legend Bob Marley in politically turbulent Kingston in 1976 and the little-known people who were involved with it. Told from different perspectives by an international cast of characters, infused with slick Jamaican patois and spanning decades, the novel is as challenging as it is transfixing, turning a moment in Jamaica’s modern history into an unflinching portrait of a people. — Tyrone Beason

Euphoria” by Lily King(Atlantic Monthly Press). This riveting, beautifully composed novel, set in 1933 and based on the lives of Margaret Mead and her first and second husbands, features adventurous fieldwork in the Territory of New Guinea, a bitter love triangle and the strangeness of humanity’s cultures and customs. — Wingate Packard

“Station Eleven” by Emily St. John Mandel(Knopf). More than just another “dystopian future” novel, Mandel’s darkly lyrical tale begins with an actor collapsing onstage, then follows a handful of characters both forward and backward in time to give us an appreciation of art, love and the triumph of the human spirit. — Doug Knoop

“The Last Kind Words Saloon” by Larry McMurtry(Liveright). This episodic tale of the prelude to the Gunfight at the OK Corral distills McMurtry’s career-long meditations on the fading Western frontier into a brief, laconic and almost impressionistic story — less meaty than the author’s previous novels, but no less captivating. — Adam Woog

“The Wind Is Not a River” by Brian Payton(Ecco). A thoughtfully conceived novel that is part war epic, part love story and part odyssey turned inside out, in which the wife sets off on a quest far from home while the battle-scarred husband tends to the flickering fire in his cave. Combining these his-and-her stories of mettle, juxtaposing constancy with adaptive flux, what emerges is a metaphorical alloy of survival. — Barbara Lloyd McMichael

“Fives and Twenty-Fives” by Michael Pitre(Bloomsbury). This debut novel gives a realistic ground view of the war in Iraq and chronicles the difficulties of veterans’ re-entry into civilian society. Pitre served in Iraq twice and left the Marines in 2010 as a captain. — John B. Saul

“The Rise & Fall of Great Powers” by Tom Rachman(Dial Press). In his new novel, Rachman, author of the mordantly funny “The Imperfectionists,” introduces readers to the singular Tooly Zylberberg, a woman who, while trying to make sense of her enigmatic, globe-trotting past, discovers both betrayal and a criminal act of love. — Ken Armstrong

“Lila” by Marilynne Robinson (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). In her third book detailing the life and times of the fictional Rev. John Ames, Robinson turns to his wife, Lila, a drifter who found refuge and respect in the preacher’s home. The novel portrays the psychological damage done by an unsettled childhood and artfully recalls a New Testament parable spotlighting the importance of compassion in the Christian repertoire. — Ellen Heltzel

“Some Luck” by Jane Smiley (Knopf). Smiley puts her prodigious talent for characterization, her eye for detail and her knowledge of Iowa farm life to work in this story of a farm family, from the end of World War I to the 1950s. Best part — it’s the first in a trilogy. — Mary Ann Gwinn

“Lost for Words” by Edward St. Aubyn (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).A playful but nonetheless stellar book, this sendup of British literary culture is by (at) turns an exploration of fragile creative temperaments and a comedy of bookish ill manners — shot through with St. Aubyn’s usual linguistic virtuosity. — Brian Gallagher

“The Paying Guests” by Sarah Waters (Riverhead).No other book I read this year gripped me quite like this one. It’s a historical novel (set just after World War I, in a London where too many men never came home), a passionate love story and a meticulous thriller — and Waters lets us revel in every whisper, every creak of a floorboard, every hopeless gaze. — Moira Macdonald

NONFICTION

“The Human Age: The World Shaped By Us” by Diane Ackerman(Norton). Sourcing the planet for environment-saving projects, and showing the wondrous minds behind them, Ackerman brings hard science to bear on hope. — Alan Moores

“Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter” by Randall Balmer(Basic Books). The president you were embarrassed to admit voting for emerges in this biography as a man of rare integrity and vision, a man who for a moment was perfectly in sync with the national temperament — and then disastrously out. — Richard Wakefield

“Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?” by Roz Chast(Bloomsbury). Chast’s graphic memoir about her battle to care for her quirky, stubborn parents as they face the end of life is funny, sad, informative, honest and brave, and represents another leap forward for the graphic canon. — Mary Ann Gwinn

“A Sting in the Tale — My Adventures with Bumblebees” by Dave Goulson (Picador).Who knew bumblebees were so important? Goulson, British environmental scientist and founder of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, travels far and wide, investigating why these crucial pollinators are in decline and how we can help their numbers increase. — Irene Wanner

Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson” by S.C. Gwynne (Scribner) — The story of Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson, whose rock-ribbed belief in the rightness of his cause and his talent for taking risks kept the Confederate cause alive. Gwynne’s talent for spinning a vivid narrative from historical research sets this story alight. — Mary Ann Gwinn

“Disobeying Hitler: German Resistance after Operation Valkyrie” by Randall Hansen (Oxford University Press). There have been so many World War II books that it’s getting difficult to find a new angle to grab readers’ attention. Hansen does: the story of the German leaders, military and civilian, who surrendered against Hitler’s orders — why they did it, how, and what happened to them. — Bruce Ramsey

“Midnight at the Pera Palace: The Birth of Modern Istanbul” by Charles King(Norton).This history of a tumultuous period in one of the world’s most fascinating cities uses a sumptuous hotel full of spies, fallen nobles and government operatives as home base for describing Turkey’s sometimes-rocky journey into the modern era. — Melissa Davis

“Blood Will Out: The True Story of a Murder, a Mystery, and a Masquerade” by Walter Kirn (Norton). True crime meets memoir in this smart and literate tale of a murderous con artist who befriends a curious young writer.Mark Lindquist

“The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History” by Elizabeth Kolbert (Henry Holt). Kolbert’s account of the burgeoning mass extinctions on Earth, from frogs to bats to coral reefs, was the scariest book I read this year. — Mary Ann Gwinn

“Empire of Sin” by Gary Krist(Crown). Combining a deep knowledge of social history with an eye for scintillating detail, Krist walks us through the birth of New Orleans’ famed red-light district, Storyville, mixing prostitutes with pols, reprobates with reformers and, in the process, shining a light on America’s enduring capacity for hypocrisy. — Claudia Rowe

“Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life” by Hermione Lee (Knopf). The veteran British biographer does a brilliant job of telling the story behind the late-blooming novelist’s career, and how Fitzgerald’s comprehensive research and hard-won life experiences made their way — sometimes candidly, sometimes obliquely, always comically — into her novels (including “The Blue Flower,” “Human Voices” and the Booker Prize-winning “Offshore”). — Michael Upchurch

“Limber” by Angela Pelster (Sarabande Books). Filled with precise, poetical and sparse language, the essays in this unusual natural-history book reveal not just the life of trees but how they connect us to the greater world around us. — David B. Williams

“Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption,” by Bryan Stevenson (Speigel & Grau). Heartbreaking stories of injustice at the hands of the U.S. criminal-justice system from McArthur “Genius Grant” recipient Bryan Stevenson, who has devoted his career to representing the most hopeless prisoners, sentenced to death or life without possibility of parole. — Kevin J. Hamilton

“My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind” by Scott Stossel(Knopf). Stossel is much more than an anxious guy who wrote a self-help title. He’s a dogged researcher who uses a profoundly troubling personal malady as a starting point to teach and encourage others. His highly entertaining way of telling the story — without soppy sentiment or any grinding of axes — is terrific, as is his refusal to take a hard line on this or that flavor-of-the-month treatment for anxiety. — Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett

“Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph” by Jan Swafford(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). Enormous, kaleidoscopic and exuberant, this huge Beethoven biography is a detailed portrait of the age as well as of the tormented man who gave us some of the world’s greatest music. — Melinda Bargreen

“Hotel Florida: Truth, Love and Death in the Spanish Civil War” by Amanda Vaill(Farrar, Straus and Giroux). This group biography of six larger-than-life characters, including writers Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn and photographer Robert Capa, helped me understand the complicated strands of a conflict that served as a staging ground for World War II. — Mary Ann Gwinn

Mary Ann Gwinn: 206-464-2357 or mgwinn@seattletimes.com. Gwinn appears every Tuesday on TVW’s “Well Read,” discussing books with host Terry Tazioli (go to www.tvw.org/shows/well-read for archived episodes). On Twitter @gwinnma



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