This was a game-changing year for women in literature. Half of the books on the 2014 National Book Awards Fiction Longlist are written by women, and the Goodreads Choice Awards of 2014, distributed by readers’ votes, were awarded to 13 women—a majority. Of course, there are even more fantastic books that weren’t formally recognized, which we’d like to correct here, because often the best books don’t just change the literary world—they change how we view the world in general. From novels we got lost in to essays that helped us find ourselves, here are 14 books that took 2014 by storm.
1. Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay
Bad Feminist is the most important feminist book of the year. In her first sentence alone, Gay changes what it means to define yourself as a feminist: “I embrace the label of bad feminist because I am human.” The book covers everything from watching Girls to what it’s like to move through the world as a woman of color today. Even better, the book is laugh-out-loud hilarious.
2. Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
Brown Girl Dreaming tells the story of Woodson’s childhood growing up in the segregated South and discovering her passion for storytelling. Throughout the novel, poignant observations from the child’s perspective weave together to create a beautiful, moving story. Told in free verse, this young adult book is just as revealing for adult readers.
3. Yes Please by Amy Poehler
In Yes Please, one of comedy’s funniest women has written a memoir full of not just laughs, but lessons, too (much like her buddy Tina Fey’s Bossypants). If you, like me, love Amy Poehler more than words can express, this is about as close as you can come to hanging out with her in real life.
4. Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer
This year marked celebrated novelist Meg Wolitzer’s first foray into young adult fiction. The result is Belzhar, a subtle and elegant book full of surprises. When Jam Gallahue’s British boyfriend dies, Jam tries to recover from her grief by writing in a journal, and uncovers new truths about love and loss along the way. Wolitzer’s characters are flawed and intriguing, and even when the plot turns slightly supernatural, it always feels real.
5. Poisoned Apples by Christine Heppermann
This collection of 50 poems subverts traditional fairy tales by retelling them as real-life experiences of teenage girls. Heppermann has created a magical, gut-wrenching book that looks at how we’re taught to see ourselves from a very early age. And did I mention it’s funny? Oh, it’s funny! One poem is titled “If Tampons Were Guys.”
6. The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison
This collection of essays asks beautiful questions about how well we can ever understand another person. The stories all feature protagonists who confront personal and external pain, and in doing so, explore what it means to really feel. Each essay is insightful and vivid and unique,so it’s perfect for reading piecemeal.
7. We Were Liars by E. Lockhart
This was probably the best young adult book of 2014. It’s a quick read with a captivating mystery that will continue to haunt you for months. Told from the perspective of a teenage girl with memory loss, you put the pieces together as she does. But it’s the breathtakingly beautiful language, not the plot, that really makes this book special.
8. The Unspeakable by Meghan Daum
Megan Daum isn’t afraid to talk about the things no one else wants to. She takes on various “unspeakable” topics, starting with perhaps the most taboo—her relief after her mother’s death—and going on to tackle biases against childless women and the trivial nature of near-death experiences. Throughout, Daum’s dry humor and lack of sentimentality make the book a refreshing and challenging insight into what it means to be authentic.
9. Not That Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham
If you just know Dunham as the hilarious creator and star of Girls who keeps getting naked on camera, there’s more to learn. A lot more. Dunham launched herself into literature with this complex, hilarious book. Of course, there’s still plenty of sexual candor—in the first chapter, Dunham writes that that every misstep of hers was worthwhile if she can prevent her reader “from having the kind of sex where you feel you must keep your sneakers on in case you want to run away during the act.” Also, this is a great audiobook, even if you’re not into that sort of things, because Dunham narrates it.
10. #Girlboss by Sophia Amoruso
This isn’t a traditional guide to success. Yes, Amoruso is the CEO of Nasty Gal, an online fashion retailer she founded herself that is now worth more than $100 million. But she didn’t follow the usual rules, or really any rules. She started out as a teenage hitchhiker and petty criminal. Amoruso walks us through how women can succeed in their own way,and it’s totally inspiring.
11. I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson
This YA novel has been compared to books by John Green and Rainbow Rowell. At 13, Jude and her twin brother, Noah, are incredibly close, but three years later, they’re barely speaking to each other. Each twin tells their side of the story, with Noah documenting the early years and Jude taking over post-fallout, both unaware of certain crucial things. This is Nelson’s second widely praised novel (the first was The Sky Is Everywhere).
12. Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
Everything I Never Told You has rightfully been acknowledged as one of the best debuts of 2014. The Lees are a Chinese-American family living in Ohio in the 1970s when their daughter Lydia’s body is found in the local lake. The delicate balance of their family is torn apart as secrets and guilt consume the parents, and the two remaining children try to find out what happened to their sister. The story is a page-turner that grabs the reader from the very first page.
13. The Book of Unknown Americansby Cristina Henríquez
Maribel, an immigrant from Mexico, and Mayor, an immigrant from Panama fall in love, and in the process begin a long relationship between their families that is soon complicated by love and guilt. The book also includes testimonials from Maribel and Mayor’s neighbors and friend, also immigrants from Latin America, and turns the book into a compelling meditation on what it means to be an American.
14. How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran
If you’re still embarrassed by who you pretended to be when you were a teenager, this book is for you. After embarrassing herself on TV, teenager Johanna Morrigan decides to reinvent herself completely. Her alter-ego, Dolly Wilde, is a fast-talking, hard-drinking adventurer, but what happens when Johanna realizes the persona she’s crafted has a flaw? The book is described as “The Bell Jar written by Rizzo from Grease,” and it has the potential to be as enduring as both of those legendary titles. This is Moran’s first foray into fiction following the success of last year’s comedic, masterful memoir How to Be a Woman.