We all understand that “Best of 2014” book lists are a joke because no one has read them all. This is MY joke. I don’t read that much anymore, so I guess that just makes the joke funnier. As ever, I will come clean about any nepotism and intrigue that affected my choice. New feature for this year: I will crown one winner in each category, because that’s kind of fun.
Fiction (for grown-ups)
(The actual best novel of 2014 was DEVOTED LADIES by Lev Olsen, as yet unpublished so ineligible. Nepotism/intrigue level: This author is both richly deserving and my brother.)
The winner!: Daughter of Mystery by Heather Rose Jones.
In LGBTQ small press publishing, the author usually has to write her own back cover copy, as I know to my sorrow. You can be great at writing books but suck at writing back cover copy. But I haven’t really seen the reverse, so usually if I love the back cover copy of a small press queer book, I will love the book. That was the main reason I bought this book. Plus, frittering away my life watching Rose of Versailles has made me really enjoy stories about female swordfighters. This novel exponentially exceeded my modest expectations. It’s an incredibly compelling and well-written fantasy novel set in a mythical European country. I think this was some of the best worldbuilding I’ve ever encountered. It’s a world where there’s magic but, very realistically, exactly how the magic works is not that well understood and most people don’t really care because their minds are on other stuff. One of the book’s two heroines consults some ancient texts by an expert on the magic, and the information was so richly detailed and convincing that I actually wondered if this was a real historical figure. I thought this novel also dealt very nicely with some common problems in lesbian historical fiction (see, that’s what it read like, even though it was fantasy), such as having a realistic happy ending in a homophobic society, and also dealing with the lovers-pretending-to-be-mistress-and-servant trope. If you are looking for a lesbian Patrick O’Brian-esque fantasy novel, which I would have looked for had I ever dreamed such a thing was possible, this is it. Whatever Heather Rose Jones writes next, I want it.
Defenders by Will McIntosh.
No one element of this story is original—the earth is overrun by hostile aliens; humans invent a secret weapon to overthrow the aliens; will the secret weapon turn against the humans? But as a whole the story is incredibly original and exciting and thought-provoking.
Frog Music by Emma Donoghue.
A queer historical novel set in 1876 San Francisco about a burlesque dancer whose baby is taken from her and a woman who wears men’s clothes at a time when this was an arrestable offense. Then there’s a murder. This was a little quieter than some of Emma Donoghue’s other books and when I was done I was comparing it unfavorably in my head to my favorite of hers, Life Mask. But the story stuck with me and I keep thinking about it, so I’m realizing this book was actually pretty great.
What else was I reading?
Foxglove Summer by Ben Aaronovitch. Fifth in a series about a London police detective who investigates magical crimes.
Revival by Stephen King. After a family tragedy, a small-town Christian preacher turns into a sinister miracle worker on a quest to see what’s on the other side of death. I really love Stephen King, but he’s written a squillion books, so some of them have to be better than others, and this is one of the lesser ones.
The winner!: Show Trans by Eliott DeLine
My fave book published in 2014 overall, no contest. I wrote a review here of this non-fiction novel about navigating the world as a transgender person with a rich inner life. There’s a lot going on in this book and I think you would like it, whoever you are.
Nepotism/intrigue Level: Extremely low. I know this writer a little bit, but I think this doesn’t count because I liked his books first and met him second because of that.
Gender Failure by Ivan E. Coyote and Rae Spoon
Before I read this, I read another book each by Coyote and Spoon. Told from alternating POVS, Gender Failure is a a two-person memoir bout retiring from or messing with the gender binary. I really liked it and I would recommend it to to, oh, anyone. I actually did tell my girlfriend she should read it, and I have an iron-clad rule of never ever recommending books to her.
Dancing Through It: My Journey in the Ballet by Jenifer Ringer.
Jenifer Ringer was one of my favorite dancers at NYCB until her recent retirement, so it’s no surprise that I loved her memoir. I thought it was also a powerful protrayal of having an eating disorder and recovery. And I liked reading about her partner James Fayette.
Bowie by Simon Critchley
I wrote a review here. I love David Bowie and books about David Bowie, especially if they talk about narrative identity and where creativity comes from.
A Cup of Water Under My Bed by Daisy Hernandez
A queer Cuban/Colombian memoir that delves into Santería, identity, sexuality, money, class, debt, language and intersectionality.
In My Skin: My Life On And Off the Basketball Court by Britney Griner
I don’t even really follow basketball, I just think Britney Griner is good looking and I like reading about basketball (more than I like watching it.) Written in a very conversational style, it’s an interesting story about coming out as gay while an elite athlete at a homophobic college. The only drawback to this book is that Griner is still very young, and so a lot of threads, like her relationship with her father, obviously seem unfinished.
Queerly Beloved: A Love Story Across Genders by Diane and Jacob Anderson-Minshall
A transgender transition memoir, but told in alternating chapters by both Jacob, a transgender man, and Diane, his wife of many years. Jacob had been a forest ranger and identified as a woman, but then after a career-ending accident began to identify as a man. Diane was very supportive and basically was one step ahead of Jacob the whole time. I enjoyed the dual point of view and the plain-spoken, straightforward style. Overall these were two very relatable people who described their experiences in a gripping way, which is not that surprising considering they were already professional writers (who co-write a series about a blind lesbian detective.) My favorite part of the book had almost nothing to do with gender or transition, though. It was about their quest to have kids and it involved clawing a used condom out of the garbage and then later being foster parents in a very strict program for kids who are juvenile sex offenders. There were things Jacob and Diane had never told each other until they wrote this book together, which made it exciting, but also sometimes repetitive.
Nepotism/intrigue: They have the same publisher as me but I don’t know them at all so there’s no story here.
Pregnant Butch: Nine Long Months Spent in Drag by A.K. Summers. A graphic memoir (i.e. it’s drawn, as in comics and graphic novels, but it’s a memoir. Not graphic as in “scary” or “lots of sex.”) Exactly what it says on the tin, about a pregnant butch lesbian. Cool art, with a bit of a Tintin theme. Keeping it real about having babies. But a smidge of the dark side you encounter from some people who say they are radical feminists.
Young Adult/Middle Grade
The winner! Legacy of the Claw (Animas #1) by C.R. Grey
Everyone has an Animas bond with an animal species... except for Bailey. How will he hide his affliction at his elite boarding school? And what is his involvement in a prophecy of revolution? This awesome steampunk-y middle grade story is told in a fresh and original way and its greatest strength is the luxuriant imagery and description.
Nepotism/intrigue: Ding ding ding, very high! This is my friend Cate’s first published novel! Way to go, Cate!
Just Girls by Rachel Gold
I wrote a long review of this book. I used to be a really strong believer in Toni Morrison’s quotation, “If there's a book that you want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it.” Then by coincidence in 2014, both Rachel Gold and I happened to write YA/New Adult novels with a transgender main character and a lesbian romance that is also about same-gender dating violence. You know, that tired old thing again. Now I’m a believer in a new quotation, “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, sit back and put up your feet and eat some pistachio nuts and let Rachel Gold write it because she’ll do a better job.”
Nepotism/intrigue: I emailed with this writer once or something because it’s a small small world, but I do not think this tenuous relationship has influenced me.
Speaking of tired old things again! May I point out two other great YA novels of 2014 that sound from their (oversimplified) descriptions as though they are the same, but are actually wildly different?
Otherbound by Corinne Duyvis
Nolan has a seizure disorder, which causes him to be pulled into another world, where he lives life as Amara, a girl with an exciting and important destiny.
Nepotism/intrigue: I have followed this writer’s career with considerable interest since we were both in the Outer Alliance group (a SF/F writers group advocating for the inclusion of LGBT issues) and I was really pleased when she placed this book with a big house, but I don’t know her, so disappointingly once again there’s nothing to see here.
The Unintentional Time Traveler by Everett Maroon
Jack has a seizure disorder, which causes him to be pulled into another world, where he lives life as Jacqueline, a girl with an exciting and important destiny.
Pointe by Brandi Colbert
Theo is an talented African-American ballet dancer, but when her childhood best friend returns home after being kidnapped years ago, it brings bad memories back to the surface. Trigger warning for sexual abuse and an eating disorder.
Changers Book One: Drew by T Cooper and Allison Glock
Ethan discovers he is part of an ancient race of humans called Changers, destined to switch bodies four times before discovering which is his true identity, and he becomes a short girl named Drew, but luckily Drew still knows how to play the drums
This One Summer by Mariko and Jillian Tamaki
This is a graphic novel, I’m not sure it’s even YA. A quiet, gorgeously illustrated story of two friends during the summer when they’re on a knife’s edge between childhood and puberty.
Everything Leads To You by Nina LaCour
Short review here. A pleasing story of a talented girl who falls for a girl who turns out to be the grandchild of Hollywood royalty.
Guardian by Alex London
Last year I was raving about the first book in the series. I got halfway through this one but then put it down to turn my attention to the books of 1914. I’ve noticed that I often most enjoy the first book in a series that’s set in a horrible dystopia, and then in the second book where it turns out the rebels aren’t that great either I sort of lose interest, and then by the third book which is a total bloodbath I’m bored. I think this says more about me than about Alex London who is a stellar writer. I am going to finish this book, and for all I know, the third book is not going to be a total bloodbath after all. I even started writing a trilogy following this very formula and then lost interest in my own series after the first book.