Wednesday, December 31, 2014

My Favorite Books I Read in 2014

Since I started this blog, I've had a year-end wrap up of the books I read in each year. I retired in February of this year and have therefore had more time to read. Back in the end of June, I did a post on the books read so far. I've read more books in the second half of the year, totaling 93 in all. Rather than do another interminable post of book covers, I thought I just highlight my favorite books of the year, in the order I read them.

Empty Mansions by Bill Dedman
This book was a bit off the usual track of books I read. Empty Mansions explores the fascinating life of Huguette Clark, an enigmatic figure who had not been photographed in public since the 1920s. Though she owned three palatial homes in California, New York, and Connecticut, they sat vacant while she lived out her final two decades in a New York City hospital, despite being in excellent health. Her father was copper industrialist W. A. Clark, who had started in the mid-1800s with nothing, to be one of the richest men in the country by 1900. He's little known today. His surviving daughter, Huguette, was basically a recluse most of her life, for years living in the giant mansion shown on the cover. After she almost died from untreated skin cancer on her face, she moved into an exclusive hospital in New York City. Although she recover fully, she felt safe in the hospital and never left. It helped that she gave huge donations to the hospital, so they weren't about to kick her out. The early parts of the book were about her father which is a fascinating historical account of a formerly famous person I never heard of. The rest was about Huguette herself, more a psychological study of how great riches can lead to total isolation. She died in 2011 at 104.

Never Let Me Go by Kazo Ishiguro
You may remember the 2010 movie made from this book staring Keira Knightley. I remember seeing the trailers for the film and thinking it looked interesting but we never got to see it. Even if you've seen the movie, I recommend the book, although the book is better if you haven't seen the movie. The book starts in what seems like a private English boarding school. There are both boys and girls attending the school. There are some strange goings on, which are not explained, but the story moves along nicely. It's only as you get deep into the book that you learn that the school is not what it seems and the children are not normal children. The author takes his time developing the mystery and developing the characters so that by the end you understand the choices the children have to make when they are adults.

23 Years On Fire by Joel Shephard
This is the 4th book (of 5) in the Cassandra Kreshnov saga. One of my main reading staples is science fiction and the harder the better. In this series, there are two conflicting cultures of humans in space. The Federation is a grouping of planets and star systems, loosely centered on Earth (although none of the stories take place there) which believes in individual freedom. It's not unlike what you might expect a more-perfect America might be. Although this future is advanced enough for artificial intelligence to be developed, it is against the law in the Federation. Humans are free to augment them selves with implanted devices which make them faster, stronger and smarter than normal humans, but artificial humans are not to be developed. The other culture, the Legion, believes the opposite and has developed artificial humans to a high degree. Eventually a war develops between the cultures and the Federation wins. All of the books in the series take place after the war is over. Cassandra is an artificial human soldier from Legion who defected to the Federation just before the war ended. She is a very high order of artificial human capable of feats of strength and action, backed by high intelligence.  She joins the Federation security services. There are still threats from Legion, which form most of the stories. She herself, although granted full citizen status in the Federation, has to deal with those who will never trust her. The series is all about her trying to overcome her slave-like past with Legion and trying to become a free and fully functional human. There is a lot of action very well done. There is also a lot of development of the basic economics and politics of the Federation which are very plausible. I highly recommend this series if you're a sci-fi fan.

Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War by Max Hastings
I also like to read history books, and since 2014 is the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I, this seemed a natural. The book has some background on how the war started. The delicate "Balance of Power" maintained by the various European countries in the years leading up to 1914. The great powers were all expecting war but were shocked when it came. Of all the European countries, only Germany was really preparing for war, and when at long last the trigger was pulled, Germany was ready. Russia, France and England had to play catch-up which allowed the Germans to make progress on 2 fronts so quickly. Both sides thought the war would be over quickly but by the end of 1914, both sides got mired into trench warfare which would last for years.

The Girl With All The Gifts by M. R. Carey
Zombie stories seem to be a permanent niche in science fiction these days. This is a zombie story with a twist. The last city in England to escape the zombie plague has set up a research center in a remote area to study zombie children. These kids look normal, and unlike the adult zombies wandering the country-side, can speak and learn. The research center is set up like a school for the children who are taught normal subjects. One of the children (the "Girl" of the title) is particularity bright and at 10-years-old can do calculus in her head. But she's a zombie and if you get close enough to her for her to catch your smell, she'll launch at you in a frenzy and eat you. So consequently her and the other children are kept in restraints in the classroom and the teachers a keep themselves clean with bleach. Eventually the center gets overrun by zombies and the teachers, the soldiers who were protecting them and the Girl try to make it back to the city. The ending was quite unlike any zombie story I've read before.

The Forever Watch by David Ramirez
 The Forever Watch takes place on a giant spaceship on a 1000-year multi-generational trip to another world. The ship is fleeing some unnamed catastrophe back on Earth. The story is about a woman named Hana, who is a city planner. The ship is divided into sections, each with it's own culture from back on earth. Hana lives in a section which looks like New York City (yes the ship is huge). Her job is to keep the city working. She's a bureaucrat who worries if the sewers are working and how to control the lights to save energy. Then she meets ex-policeman Barrens who is haunted by a secret he learned before leaving the force. There is a serial killer on-board and no one seems to know how to handle the situation. He believes that the killer is actually some sort of monster. With her knowledge of how the city works, Hana starts to help Barrens track the 'monster'. The results of all this added up to a good read. Although generational spaceships are not a novel science fiction concept, the world building here is exceptional. As is the character development. This was a self-contained novel but I would not be surprised if there is a sequel. In fact, I hope there is.

The Flight of the Silvers by Daniel Price
This had the most original premise of a science fiction story that I've read in years. A small group of people, who mostly don't know each other, are going about their lives in San Diego. One early morning, all the electricity fails. As each goes outside they begin to realize that this was no ordinary power outage. There are airplanes crashed around the city. Nothing works, not even battery-powered devices. And then sky begins to crush inward. The tops of tall buildings start to disintegrate. As whatever is happening gets close to them, a mysterious stranger appears to each of the group and clasps a silver bracelet on their wrists. The world gets crushed around them but they seem to be protected by a force field. They pass out. When they recover, they find themselves in a altered San Diego. They find each other, others find them, scientists who have been expecting them. They get studied. They learn about this new world, where machines exist which can manipulate time in weird ways (like a device that looks like a microwave oven which can make objects placed in it younger). Gradually they find that they themselves can manipulate time without the use of machines. They get caught up in a struggle between other people who have the same powers as they and the mysterious strangers who saved them. The author does a lot of time twisting here but manages to get a linear story out of it. Be aware that this is the first book of a series but I'm eagerly awaiting the next installment.


Hackenbush said...

I really wanted to like Catastrophe after having heard the author speak (TV or radio). I gave up after 200 pages. I don't know if it was Hasting's writing style or my lack of ability to keep up. Maybe both. Anyways I've learned that I'm too old to keep reading a book I don't like. Empty Mansions looks really good. Along the WWI lines I recommend the Eddie Rickenbacker bio, Enduring Courage. Thanks for sharing your favorites.

capewood said...

I came across a blog where a guy planned to read the best selling novels of the past 100 years. Several of the earlier books were set during World War 1. I may be over-rating "Catastrophe 1914" because it helped me understand these novels.

Pintu Chowdhury said...

Thanks to share such nice information.

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