The Best Stuff I Read, Saw, or Stumbled Across in 2014

Read that title again. It’s an awful title—vague, colloquial, jumping awkwardly onto the bandwagon of best-of-the-year posts and award nominations. Except that it actually won’t be useful for award-list types, because I’ve failed to confine myself to new releases and have organized it with the same care and skill I apply to my grocery shopping (“Screw it, just throw it in the cart.”). However, here they are: A few of my favorite things.

Moths of the New World” by Audrey Niffenegger, The Guardian (2014)

I already did some hand-waving and shouting about this one in a short fiction review roundup, so I’ll confine myself here. It’s a really, really excellent short story about love and books and libraries and writers and readers. As with my favorite everythings, I have the sneaking suspicion it was written just for me.

Mrs-Yaga1-e1414313775988Hunting Monsters” (S.L. Huang) and “Mrs Yaga” (Michal Wojcik), The Book Smugglers (2014)

I know you shouldn’t lump stories together, but these are both delightful, genuine, subversive retellings of fairy tales, part of The Book Smugglers successful first run at short fiction publishing (I suspect they just want to make other book bloggers finally and truly admit defeat). I already talked about “Monsters,” but Wojcik’s story deserves a little more attention: It’s a sweet, shining gem of a story.

Imagine if Baba Yaga lived in British Columbia and had a cell phone and was your legal guardian. Imagine you’re a teenage girl grown increasingly frustrated by the way your suitors are constantly being sent off on impossible quests. Imagine how adorable and eerie, how funny and dark, the result would be.

In a mere 2,800 words, Wojcik traces a classically satisfying coming-of-age story, delivers some gut-punches to the quest-to-prove-your-love narrative, and invents a Baba Yaga who is both chilling and loving. I have no doubt that she still sometimes hankered for human heart, but hey, what’s a Slavic witch-lady with a flying mortar to do.

The_Bread_We_Eat_in_Dreams_by_Catherynne_M._Valente_Front_Cover_Only_200_302White Lines on a Green Field” by Catherynne Valente

Catherynne Valente’s short story collection, The Bread We Eat in Dreams, was more or less representative of her work: wild, strange, oozing with fairy tales and rich prose, each story like a pomegranate seed trapping you for another month in the underworld. But this story was my favorite. It’s a Coyote story, wrapped in an American Midwest high school story, wrapped in a sports story, wrapped in Valente-isms. It’s unsettling and wild and I love it.

fowlerWe Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler (2013)

Once again, I refer you to my previous ravings. While only vaguely speculative, this book made this list because A) I love it so much I might make a sandwich-board sign about it and proselytize on Kentucky streets, and B) there was something so immersive and otherworldly about it that I finished it feeling like I’d read very good fantasy. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you anything about it without ruining the slow unfolding of the family’s drama, so just take my word for it?

boy snowBoy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi (2014)

And yet, this is the book I might list as my favorite read this year (reviewed at Strange Horizons). It’s a dark and clever retelling of Snow White in 1950s New England, which is also about race and identity and mirrors. I still haven’t gotten over that first line: “Nobody ever warned me about mirrors, so for many years I was fond of them, and believed them to be trustworthy.”

If you haven’t read Oyeyemi, brace yourself for dark, winding prose, startling honesty, and unstudied brilliance. If you tried White is for Witching and found it too eerie and opaque, know that Boy, Snow, Bird is tighter, clearer, and just as eerie.

broken monstersBroken Monsters by Lauren Beukes (2014)

I gave this book to my Mom. She read thirty pages or so, called to tell me she’d rather not spend the next week in a state of tense, horrified terror, and switched to a Juliet Marillier novel. I totally get that, and consider it a warning: probably don’t read this when you’re home alone after dark, and your dog keeps barking but it’s probably nothing. It’s horror in the classic serial-killer sense. But it’s also more than that—I reviewed it at Strange Horizons, and Matt wrote a rather better review on Books, Brains, and Beer.

city cityThe City and the City by China Mieville (2009)

Oh, what, everybody’s already heard of this and read it years ago? Well excuse me, I just read it this summer. I can report back rather un-originally that it was really, really cool and super clever. The idea, for those three or four people who haven’t read it, is that there is a city that has socially and consciously split itself in two. They are the same city, occupying the same physical space, but citizens of one city or the other have collectively constructed a different reality. They see and unsee aspects of their city at will. And in these two cities, a fairly classic but totally fun police procedural story unfolds. For anyone who’s spent time studying cultural construction in academia, it’s incredibly fun to read, simultaneously taking theory seriously and poking fun at it.

Reviewing the Other: Like Dancing about Architecture” by Nisi Shawl, Strange Horizons

I told you this was a list of disorganized “stuff.” You were warned. This article in Strange Horizons is just about the most useful thing a book blogger can add to her arsenal. It’s both passionate and practical, and should be required reading for folks reading fiction from cultures not-their-own. Which I hope to god is everybody.

about-time-closetAbout Time, Film (2013)

Look. This movie only got 69% on Rotten Tomatoes. This offers us a glimpse of an important statistical reality that we as humans must face: about 30% of the population lacks a functioning, breathing soul. It’s sad, but denial will get us nowhere (I mean, A Knight’s Tale only got 58%, so it may be even more people than we’d like to think).

Because guys, this movie is absolutely lovely. Sappy, slightly moralizing, littered with plot holes—sure. But also uplifting and genuine and worth it. It’s also one of the only time-travel movies that doesn’t involves going back to the past to warn your future self, breaching the time-space continuum, the inevitability of our fates, or stumbling around on an unfamiliar street crying, “What year is it?” Instead, it’s about an eccentric British family who seems to have a patrilineal gene for voluntary time-travel, and how they carve out loving, full lives for themselves anyway.

Also, it has Bill Nighy in it, at his very best, and more openly-sentimental father-son bonding than is usually permitted on screen.

orphan blackOrphan Black, TV (2013-14)

Dudes. Classic sci-fi clone stuff, mixed with murder mysteries, religious cults, New Age genetic research, Irish radicals. Plus Tatiana Maslany, who is probably the best TV actress you’ve ever seen. Plus blowing the Bechdel test out of the water. Plus non-stereotypical, non-hetero characters and relationships. Plus a totally political focus on women, bodily freedom, and corporate power. Watch it.



  1. I discovered Valente for the first time this year, and I agree, she’s one of my new favorite short story writers. Broken Monsters made my top ten, but I never found time for Karen Joy Fowler’s book, although I’ve heard amazing things about it. Great list!

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