Best Books of 2014: Staff Picks

Post originally published on 12/18/14

I had the fortune this year of meeting some incredibly talented writers on a national book tour, and many of them wrote the bulk of the books I read in 2014. This was a year of stunning debuts, some fantastic ladies, and a whole lot of rural noirish flavor sprinkles. I won’t rank these in any order because that’s always so painful to do, but I will say that the list kicks off with my #1 favorite book of the year (and probably the next five years after this), and it deserves so many commendations for being the best book I’ve read in ages. The rest of the list is filled with very close runners-up to the crown, and they made my year in reading a lovely one.

ABOVE ALL MEN:
Eric Shonkwiler

“Years from now, America is slowly collapsing. Crops are drying up and oil is running out. People flee cities for the countryside, worsening the drought and opening the land to crime. Amid this decay and strife, war veteran David Parrish fights to keep his family and farm together. However, the murder of a local child opens old wounds, forcing him to confront his own nature on a hunt through dust storms and crumbling towns for the killer.”

What to say about this novel that I have not already said all year? I have been screaming accolades since I received the ARC for this incredibly gorgeous, haunting, poetic near-future tale that blends the richness of McCarthy with the sparseness of Hemingway with the poetry of Faulkner with a voice and precision that is uniquely Shonkwiler’s. This is hands-down my favorite book of 2014, and I cannot even tell you how it blew me away and resonates with me still. If you buy only one book this year, make it this one.

IN THE SEASON OF BLOOD & GOLD:
Taylor Brown

“Almost all Taylor Brown’s stories are family dramas, stories of blood and kinship, betrayal, and conflicted loyalties. Set sometimes in the past, other times in the present or future, and told with verve in a fresh and memorable voice, these stories reward the reader with surprise, authenticity, and the mystery of human connection.”

Brown’s stories are gritty and full of heart, full of the blood that pumps through our veins and ties us together to our family without question. His prose is tight, and he is probably one of the loveliest souls in existence, in person as on the page.

DON’T START ME TALKIN’:
Tom Williams

Don’t Start Me Talkin’ is a comedic road novel about Brother Ben, the only remaining True Delta Bluesman, playing his final North American tour. Set in contemporary society, Brother Ben’s protege Silent Sam Stamps narrates an episodic ‘last ride,’ laying bare America’s complicated relationship with African-American identity, music, and culture.”

Funny, poignant, beautifully designed, and beautifully told. A great, humble look at the blues and the human condition that is universal and doesn’t just appeal to people who already love the genre.

THE POOR MAN’S GUIDE TO AN AFFORDABLE, PAINLESS SUICIDE:
Schuler Benson

“Twelve stories, fraught with an unapologetic voice of firsthand experience, that pry the lock off of the addiction, fanaticism, violence, and fear of characters whose lives are mired in the darkness of isolation and the horror and the hilarity of the mundane. This is the Deep South: the dark territory of brine, pine, gravel, and red clay, where pavement still fears to tread.”

Yes, it’s true that Alternating Current published this book, but there’s a reason we did so. When Schuler Benson sent us a short story for a lit journal two years ago, we were so taken by his commanding of dialect and rural Southern environment, that we just had to see more. What culminated is a collection of some of the best gritty, Southern noir short stories we’ve ever read, and we stand behind this book tooth and nail.

A TREE BORN CROOKED:
Steph Post

“James Hart, with a tough-as-nails exterior and an aching emptiness inside, does not want to go home. Yet when James receives a postcard from his mother, Birdie Mae, informing him of his father’s death, he bites the bullet and returns to the rural and stagnant town of Crystal Springs, Florida, a place where dreams are born to die. James is too late for Orville’s funeral, but just in time to become ensnared in the deadly repercussions of his younger brother Rabbit’s life of petty crime.”

Post hits on family dysfunction and the dark underbelly of Southern noir with the best writers of the genre. Her writing is colorful and full of rough beauty, and she’s gunning for her spot among the backwoods boys to bring a little touch of female firecracker to the country-noir picnic.

ALL MOVIES LOVE THE MOON:
Gregory Robinson

“Anyone who watches silent movies will notice how often crashes occur — trains, cars, and people constantly collide, and drama or comedy ensues. This book is also a collision, a theater where prose, poetry, images, and history meet in an orchestrated accident. The result is a film textbook gone awry, a collection of linked prose poems and images tracing silent cinema’s relationship with words — the bygone age of title cards.”

Like a grainy movie, the hybrid prose-poems in this collection shift into focus frame by frame to showcase blips of a bygone era. The collection resounds as a tragic love letter to the days of yesteryear, without ever forgetting the glory. Rose Metal’s insanely beautiful packaging of this book just steals the show.

THE ABORTIONIST’S DAUGHTER:
Elisa DeCarlo

“It’s 1916, and Melanie Daniels, the prettiest girl in Mullers Corners, New York, dreams of making a brilliant marriage. But scandal has doomed her dreams. Six years ago a woman died while receiving an abortion from Melanie’s father, and now that ‘the killer doc’ is back from prison, Mullers Corners won’t forgive and won’t let Melanie forget her family’s disgrace.”

This is a mix of two huge loves in my life: historical fiction and Broadway. It’s a stage-lovers cup of tea, while remaining universal and touching on a very sensitive topic without crushing its fragile state. A painful story told with grace and non-judgment that tackles feminism in a time of moral code and silence.

WINTERSWIM:
Ryan W. Bradley

“Pastor Sheldon Long was born of the woods, raised in a secluded cabin by a mute mother and an abusive father who preached God’s vengeance. Forced to take control of his own destiny, Pastor Long found God in his own way, melded with the mythologies of his mother’s tribe. Now he’s out to send the wicked, as he has judged them, to heaven. The novella weaves religiosity and mythology into a tale of drugs, sex, and murder set against the frozen backdrop of blue-collar Alaska.”

This is dark, brutal rural Alaskan noir that skillfully blends religion and violence, and will leave you incredibly uncomfortable and itching in your skin.

AUTOPLAY:
Julie Babcock

“In Julie Babcock’s first poetry collection, the state of Ohio appears as an astronaut, a cowgirl, and a waitress at Big Boy. Cultural and personal histories collide on worn-out stages, back roads, and gravel pits in order to explore the paradoxes of home — how it holds shovelfuls of experiences we want to simultaneously bury, unearth, and transform.”

This poetry collection is tried and true Midwest Americana, bursting with the things that make me miss my home and all the things that made me leave it. Babcock’s writing is smart and clean and makes the Midwest pop.

EVERY KISS A WAR:
Leesa Cross-Smith

“The twenty-seven stories in this debut short story collection are set to the sounds of ‘frogs and crickets out back, steam-pulsing like a machine’ and ‘a sad country song that hasn’t been written yet.’ Men and women love and leave over cigarettes and shots of kitchen-table whiskey. A finalist for the Flannery O’Connor Short Fiction Award and the Iowa Short Fiction Award, this collection is a ravishing war of characters laid bare as they look for the glow and fight to stay in the light.”

This woman gives me the feelies. She writes super realistic, down-to-earth, human characters, and they hurt and they bleed and they laugh and they break, and through it all, they love.

MY NEXT BAD DECISION:
Nathan Graziano

“Graziano reminds us that young love is often flooded by self-doubt and self-loathing, that sometimes the hero and the villain are inseparable. His ability to create multidimensional characters who are not afraid to offend sets him apart from other writers. This book of poetry shows how the transition from young adult to parent is anything but neat. We, as readers, can read about transgressions that we have committed but don’t have the guts to share.”

Graziano’s words are fresh and brutal and written with the voice of experience. His poems are deeply personal while maintaining that universal appeal that is often lost with intimate tales.

A SHELTER OF OTHERS:
Charles Dodd White

“Following his release from prison, Mason Laws returns to the mountains of his youth where his estranged wife, Lavada, has been caring for his ailing father in Mason’s absence. As Mason and Lavada each set forth to recover themselves, they remain entrenched in the rural and rugged landscape that bore them and their own haunted histories. This moving story tells of the families we’re born into, the families we make for ourselves, and how tightly woven are the ties that bind.”

Dark, noirish, and haunting, this book weaves his unique Appalachian voice with relatable inspiration and gripping, real characters who never receive the author’s judgment, just get to tell their stories themselves.

BESIDE MYSELF:
Ashley Farmer

“A girl drinks river water that gives her good advice but a bad reputation. A young woman’s job at a make-up counter ends in disaster. Car accidents and cornfields cause siblings to disappear while, up above, airplane banners advertise hair care products. These brief, lucid dreams illuminate the moment the familiar becomes strange and that split second before everything changes forever.”

Not only is Ashley Farmer the cutest little bug on the face of the earth, but her writing is powerful, moving, and intensely personal. She can tell a story that will leave you looking down at the hole in your chest and wondering where your heart went.

HOP ALLEY:
Scott Phillips

Cottonwood (2004) was a huge step forward for the burgeoning king of noir Scott Phillips. His dark and gritty take on the Western featured the Kansas town beginning in 1872 and introduced us to saloon owner and photographer Bill Ogden, among other characters. Hop Alley returns us to the Wild West to discover Ogden running a photo studio near the Chinese part of town know as Hop Alley in Denver in 1878. Bill must confront the mysterious murder of his housekeeper’s brother-in-law, the increasing instability of a woman, and an all-out riot across Hop Alley.”

This is Wild West noir that is at once funny and quirky. With Phillips at the helm, Bill’s narration is artful through the honed vernacular and dialect of a true Western noir master.

INSIDE MADELEINE:
Paula Bomer

“Bomer takes us from hospitals, halfway houses, and alleyways, to boarding schools and Park Avenue penthouses, exploring the complex relationships girls have with their bodies, with other girls, and with boys. The title novella tracks the ins and outs of an outsider’s life: her childhood obesity and kinky sex life, her toxic relationships, whether familial or erotic, and her various disappearing acts, of body and mind.”

A short story collection of lust, rage, and abuse. These stories are tough to get through but will leave you with a new perspective on the treatment of younger girls at the hands of younger boys.

THE HEART DOES NOT GROW BACK:
Fred Venturini

“Dale Sampson is used to being a nonperson at his small-town Midwestern high school, picking up the scraps of his charismatic lothario of a best friend, Mack. He comforts himself with the certainty that his stellar academic record and brains will bring him the adulation that has evaded him in high school. But when an unthinkable catastrophe tears away the one girl he ever had a chance with, his life takes a bizarre turn as he discovers an inexplicable power: He can regenerate his organs and limbs.”

Venturini is a fantastic new voice on the scene, transforming his indie Samaritan into a major offering that is a tender coming-of-age novel meets comedic superhero tale.