Top 10 books I read in 2014: mini-reviews

We’re doing it again, guys.

Well, I am. And you’re along for the ride as I laugh diabolically to myself behind my hand. HA. HA HA.

So I took the Goodreads Reading Challenge to read 50 books in 365 days. I read 38 last year, so I figured it would be pretty manageable—but dude. This year has been insane. It was a miracle that I finished the 50th book before December 31st.

Like a boss.

View the full list of books I read in 2014!

And now, here it is: my 2nd annual Top Ten round-up, complete with mini, non-spoilery reviews so that you can either add my fave books to your TBR pile, or navigate away from this page right now and continue to live a perfectly happy life without my opinions!


#10. UNDER THE NEVER SKY trilogy by Veronica Rossi

UtNS trilogy

So… I’ll admit, I took one look at these covers and was like, “Will not be seen reading these in public, thanks very much.” At first glance, you would never think that these books are about a world ravaged by catastrophic ‘aether’ storms, and a society that has been severely divided into Dwellers and Outsiders—respectively, those saved from the storms inside protective domes called Pods, and those forced to live outside of them. In the domes, people wear devices called Smarteyes, which allow them to be logged into a virtual reality called the Realms.

The main character Aria spends her entire life logged into the Realms—until she gets banished from the Pods for accidentally starting a fire (something she’s never seen in real life before), and meets an Outsider named Perry. Together, neither trusting the other, they search for the part of the earth that’s rumored to be untouched by the storms—the Still Blue.

Sooo deliciously complicated, right? Yeah, just wait—I didn’t even touch on Senses (how the human race has mutated to survive the storms), Blood Lords (the politics within Outsider tribes), and that’s just the first book. This series take a somewhat overused premise (the earth destroyed by bad weather oh no), and makes you care so much. The rotating points of view throw you into a world that feels just familiar enough for you to figure out what’s happening. And yes… romance between Aria and Perry is a thing. Should be obvious from those covers.

This series was by far the most wonderful surprise of 2014.

#9. SERAPHINA by Rachel Hartman

Seraphina

I first came across this book in a Waterstones bookstore in London in early 2013. I was so determined at that point to keep myself from buying any more hardcovers that I would have to lug home that I actually wrote down the title and author on the back of a receipt so that I would remember to buy it the second I touched down in California.

I totally lost that receipt.

It took me half the year to rediscover this book at the library—and Seraphina became the first book I read in 2014. But guys, when I finally got my hands on it, it was for real one of those I’LL-NEVER-LET-YOU-GO-JACK situations. Rachel Hartman gave me everything I ever wanted; dragons who shapeshift into humans, royal court political turmoil, and an intelligent, musically-talented heroine who harbors a secret that could both get her killed and also shatter the peace between dragons and humans in her kingdom forever.

There are too few fantasy novels with heroines like Seraphina in this world. She’s strong because she’s smart. She’s interesting because she’s good at art. The narration spends a lot of time in her head, but that’s not for lack of world-building; it’s actually because figuring out how her brain works is the most captivating part of this novel. And then there are dragons. Just… just read it please.

 #8. POINTE by Brandy Colbert*

Pointe

Okay, so… this book is not for everyone. But it is also one of the most intense, raw, painfully wonderful works of prose I have ever read.

Don’t let the title fool you, because this book is the farthest thing from being about ballerinas. It’s the story of a 17-year-old dancer named Theo, whose best friend Donavan disappeared four years ago. When Donavan suddenly reappears, he’s not talking about what happened to him, not even when the man accused of kidnapping him is found and arrested. Theo knows more than she’s telling, and when she is called to testify against Donavan’s kidnapper, she’s terrified that finally telling the whole truth will destroy her life.

The reason why I say it’s not for everyone is because of how graphic it is… for YA. I mean, I’m not into censorship, but if my kids were reading this, I probably wouldn’t want to know. It’s honest in the best sense—it doesn’t shy away from shame, trauma, sexuality, and so many other real life issues that teenagers grapple with all the time. It’s a book that needed to be written. It’s also a book that needs a new cover because I cannot figure out why you would make it look like a bad retelling of Black Swan when it actually is one of the best written (and also ethnically diverse THANK YOU) YA contemporaries I’ve come across.

*P.S. – I wrote a full review on Goodreads here.

#7. NEVERWHERE by Neil Gaiman

NeverwhereHow do I describe this book? It took me long enough to read it. You all know (or soon will) of my deep, undying love for Neil Gaiman—love that transcends 3-hour waits at Comic Con. But truth be told, I’ve read only a few of his novels; I own The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Stardust, The Graveyard Book, Coraline and Other Stories, and borrowed Neverwhere from my brother’s shelf, but I haven’t read the longer works/series that have made him so famous (i.e. American Gods, Anansi Boys, Sandman, etc.).

Either way, Neverwhere is a treasure, a TREASURE I tell you. And I’m so happy that I finally got around to reading it this year. In the book a man named Richard discovers a magical world below London (aptly named London Below), and goes on an adventure that blows his straight-laced mind. The character work and world-building is exquisite. Written with Neil’s (yes I’m calling him by his first name because he totally tweeted me, like, once) dry wit and whimsical sensibility, Neverwhere seriously had me wondering what was real and what wasn’t by the end. He is truly the master of the modern-day fairytale. I feel like aiming to have one of his books be part of this list every year would be a pretty easy goal to meet.

#6. THE ARCHIVED by Victoria Schwab

Archived

My friends have been harassing me about this book for the past 2 years. It was one of those situations where I was like, “Yes, yes, *gestures grandly* but look at my To-Be-Read pile, I have not the time for zombie books.” LITTLE DID I KNOW, guys. This book is not just about zombies. I mean, it’s sort of about zombies. BUT THEY’RE SPECIAL ZOMBIES. They’re zombies from an alternate universe where the bodies and memories of the dead are archived in a massive library, like books on shelves. And very special people called Keepers are employed to keep them from waking up, and more importantly, escaping into our world.

That’s where MacKenzie comes in. She’s a kick-ass, snarky, secretly sensitive heroine, who is not only a Keeper but is also a normal teenage girl dealing with the aftermath of her little brother’s death. As you can probably tell, being a Keeper of the dead while also having a dead brother could pose problems. AND THUS COMPLICATIONS ENSUE.

You can probably tell that I’m excited about this book from the amount of caps I’m using in this mini-review. Also from the fact that this mini-review is turning into something that is not so mini. Victoria Schwab has won my heart and I regret nothing. Don’t just read this for the incredibly intricate plot or the brilliant way Schwab writes flashbacks or the beautiful prose or the subtle character development as MacKenzie works through her grief… do it for the zombies, guys. For the zombies.

#5. ROSE UNDER FIRE by Elizabeth Wein

Rose Under Fire

I could promise that this mini-review will be shorter than the last one, but this book also shattered my emotions so please excuse me while I freak out all over you. Rose Under Fire is the sequel to last year’s Code Name Verity, and it’s equally brilliant and just as heart-wrenching. I’m starting to get the feeling that if Elizabeth Wein rewrote the phone book, it would instantly become a NY Times Bestseller, and I mean that in the best way possible. She’s everything I ever want to be in the world of historical fiction. She makes the story relevant, she makes the characters relatable, she gathers all of your feels into her arms and throws them off a cliff one by one and you cry because you love it. 

Eh-hem. Anyway. Rose Under Fire includes a few nods to Verity, but it could be a standalone novel just as easily as a sequel. The MC Rose is also an American pilot in WW2 and captured by Nazis—she’s sent to a women’s concentration camp called Ravensbruck where she forms friendships with several of the young women imprisoned there with her. Together, they plot their escape while trying to survive the atrocities that go on, all of which are based on true events.

It’s a heartbreaking read, but so powerful and just as WOW-worthy as Verity was. Read it, I beg you. You will not be disappointed.

#4. BOOK OF A THOUSAND DAYS by Shannon Hale

Book of Thousand Days

Again, my love for Shannon Hale is shining through here. Sorry not sorry. This was actually the last YA novel of hers that I’d not read—which is weird, since it’s one of her older ones. Book of a Thousand Days is based on the the Grimm Brothers’ fairytale “Maid Maleen,” but it’s re-imagined on the steppes of central Asia with a teenage heroine named Dashti. Dashti is appointed as the maid to Lady Saren, who has been locked in a tower for 7 years for refusing to marry a suitor. But when their food supply is low and the girls begin to realize they’ll die before their joint sentence is up, Dashti must find an escape for both of them before time runs out.

So it is an epistolary novel (written like a series of diary entries—I know, my pretentious English major is showing), but don’t let that throw you; this book sucks you in just as easily as any other one of Hale’s books. Besides, Dashti is just an awesome protagonist; she has strength without destruction, intelligence without fear, compassion without cliché… I really think there should be more heroines with Dashti’s unfailing kindness, not to mention her sharp sense of humor. The book is written with Hale’s signature grace and lyricism, and I could have stayed inside the story forever.

#3. WINTERGIRLS by Laurie Halse Anderson

Wintergirls

So, let us talk about Laurie Halse Anderson for a hot second.

I had only ever read Speak before this year, and just that book was enough to shape my writing in a way I couldn’t have imagined. Auntie Laurie is a massive inspiration to me. That beings said, I was still wary when I picked up Wintergirls (do you sense the running theme in this post?), because it was being sold as an anorexia book. OH GOD NO not an ANOREXIA book. I was waiting for all the tropes and clichés that come with books about girls struggling with their weight. I was so wrong about this book. So. Wrong.

Every sentence, you guys. Every sentence made me stop and go, “Holy @#*%.” I am not joking. It’s just that good. She is just that good.

Let me back up. Wintergirls is about a girl named Lia whose best friend recently passed away from bulimia-related causes. The two girls had fueled each other’s eating disorders, and Lia is left traumatized and depressed in the wake of her friend’s death, feeling as though she is partly responsible. It’s barely 275 pages long, but I’m warning you now that this is not a fluffy beach read. And yet, LHA doesn’t leave you without hope—it’s subtle, but it’s there and it doesn’t hit you over the head. The characters don’t just feel real—they are real. These girls are my friends, women I have met in Los Angeles, people I knew growing up. It’s seven kinds of crazy that LHA has written such relevant and beautiful books and people still talk about how YA is not “serious literature.”

#2. DAUGHTER OF SMOKE AND BONE trilogy by Laini Taylor

DoSaB trilogyAnother series my friends harassed me about. But this time, with a vengeance. Have you ever had one of those experiences where you walk into places and see the same book, even in non-bookstore-type places? Like with the passenger next to you on the airplane? Or lying on an empty seat in a Macy’s? Or in the hands of a classmate who “doesn’t even like YA”?

Yeah, so, this is the story of how Laini Taylor probably stalked me for 3 years until I finally broke down and borrowed Daughter from the library. And then Days. And then Dreams. In. Rapid. Succession.

They are so much better than the hype. And yet I cannot express to you how difficult it is to tell other people about this book without making yourself sound crazy. “An angel and a human artist with questionable, non-human relatives fall in love and cause a war that threatens to destroy the universe. BUT WAIT IT’S SO GOOD YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND.”

So I tend to talk about the glorious prose instead. And the characters. And how real the world feels. And how the plot twists keep you on your toes the entire freaking time. And how the shifting points of view are done to absolute perfection, rivaling Sarah J. Maas’s (Throne of Glass) brilliant POV work. The worst part about these books was finishing them and realizing that I didn’t actually own them. I plan on buying them so that I can put them in strategic places around my house until my whole family reads them, and later THE WORLD. Because that totally worked on me.

#1. THE IMPOSSIBLE KNIFE OF MEMORY by Laurie Halse Anderson*

Impossible KnifeThis is the second LHA book in this top ten list. There’s a reason for that. It’s because she’s a goddess.

This is a book about post-traumatic stress, abuse, addiction, and being a teenager. Sidenote: that’s what I love most about LHA, is that she tackles these huge subjects but always includes “…and being a teenager.” In the book, Hayley has never had a normal childhood—her father Andy returned from serving in Iraq 5 years ago and they have been on the road ever since. Now they are back in his hometown so Hayley can go to high school, but as Andy’s PTSD persists, normality seems further and further out of reach for both of them.

It. Is. Incredible. It also took me a month to read it, because again, it’s a lot. But it’s also written in this deeply personal way with such outstanding sensitivity to the subject matter—at Bookfest this year, I heard LHA talk about how she grew up in a home with an alcoholic father who suffered from PTSD, and that seems to be a lot of why this book rings so true, but LHA also is one of those writers who taps into magic every time her pen touches paper.

I want to put this book in the hands of everyone who has ever said books aren’t important, that they don’t really change anything. This is an important book. And it changed me.

P.S. – I wrote a full review on Goodreads here.


Got any reading recommendations for next year? Have your own top ten to share? Let me know in the comments below! And Happy New Year.

–Samantha Chaffin

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5 thoughts on “Top 10 books I read in 2014: mini-reviews

  1. Alyssa says:

    Aaaaand, my Goodreads TBR just grew again. I think I should probably do a Goodreads reading challenge myself, just to clear some of those TBR. Sounds like it was a great year in reading for you, may 2015 be similarly filled with bookish joy!

    • samchaffin says:

      YAY for growing TBR lists! 😀 I’d definitely recommend doing the challenge. For me, it was a great way to make sure I was consistently reading throughout the year. I never had that problem before I started working, but now in post-grad life, it’s that much harder to actually make time for books. Weird.

  2. Brie says:

    You ALWAYS make me want to add things to my TBR pile *fights the urge* but of course I will try to find time to read some of these like Rose Under Fire sometime in the near future. Here’s my top ten: http://briliterarygiants.blogspot.com/2014/12/top-ten-books-of-2014.html I surprised myself this year. I would say more but I am kind of in a ramble mood…so I will again resist the urge and just keep things short and sweet. Happy New Year and I hope you read some amazing books in 2015. 🙂

      • Brie says:

        Haha…I think so…there will be some intense Twitter conversations next year if I fall under the spell of any of these books. Thank you, I didn’t feel like 73 was a lot because I always set ridiculous goals for myself end up failing them and looking like an overachiever. 🙂

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