(Note: not all of these are new books; some of them are books I just got around to reading for the first time in 2014.)
I picked up this 'literary apocalypse' novel expecting another THE ROAD. What I got was something I'd never read before: a beautiful apocalypse. STATION 11 interrogates art, human connection, and the meaning of life in a matter-of-fact postapocalyptic setting. I can describe the plot in trite catchphrases (it's SLINGS AND ARROWS meets THE STAND!) -- but what's great about this book is hard to put into words. Let's just say it's about a famous Shakespearean actor who dies onstage, and a lethal flu epidemic, and a new generation using art to survive in a brave new world. If you're a writer, you should read this book.
The Paying Guests
Of all the "literary" books I read this year, this one was my favourite. It's a character study of a woman out of step with her times, who discovers she's not as brave or ethical as she believed herself to be. Also, it's a page-turner about illicit love and murder. And it's beautifully written.
Robin Hobb's latest may win no grand literary awards, but it was one of the most enjoyable books I read this year. Hobb sets her novels in a high fantasy world, but it's the domestic details that grip the reader and anchor the plot. I don't know how she does it. Note: if you've never read Hobb's novels before *don't* start with this one. Go back and read ASSASSIN'S APPRENTICE, or even ROYAL ASSASSIN first.
I haven't read the last book in Vandermeer's Southern Reach trilogy, otherwise I might have three titles heading this entry. An "environmental disaster" (or was it?) has produced a mysterious zone of biological weirdness called Area X. Governments send expeditions to investigate it. Things go horribly wrong.
ANNIHILATION won my love for situating me inside the deteriorating consciousness of a biologist trying to preserve her sanity on a bizarrre jungle expedition. (Scientific explorers going mad! Love!)
AUTHORITY transfers that creepiness into bureaucracy, plunging its pov character into a 'jungle' of a new workplace. (Uncanny workplaces! Love!) It also features one of the creepiest scenes I read in any book this year.
Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer
This is a clever puzzle box of a novel -- perhaps too clever to be widely successful. Still, if you enjoy trying to outhink unreliable narrators, you should check it out. The plot: Charles Jessold was a brilliant young composer who killed two people and then himself. A music critic narrates the story of his own very peripheral relationship with the doomed genius. It's a dull tale - at first. Then we get another version. And another. And things get darker and more twisted every time.
The Secret History
Finally got around to reading this study in murder, intimate friendships, and what people will do to belong to a group. As with many books of this type the real character of interest is the narrator, a young man from a lower class background determined to fit in with an elite group of students at a private college. And it has a great opening line: "The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation."
Life after Life. A child is born, dies, restarts her life, is born, dies, restarts... This must have been a very hard novel to write. Atkinson doesn't completely pull it off, imo, but the result is a highly unusual and very readable novel.