It was a good year. A really solid year. I am on my way to setting a new record for # of books read in a single year, so making a Best List presented a bigger challenge than usual. In the end, my Top 5 was relatively easy. Just like last year, I knew while I was reading them that they would be here. Sometimes you just know. I actually struggled the most with the rest of the list and I still feel guilty over all the books not included.
My Top 5 are all pretty damn heavy, I won’t lie. That’s the kind of book that tends to affect me and settle down inside my bones. Honestly, it’s not until you get out of the top 10 that you’ll find lighter offerings because I naturally gravitate towards dark and complex books. With that said, 4 of my top 20 are absolutely delightful and heartwarming and wonderful, so I’m not fully gone. Promise. There really is something here for everyone. It’s been a really good year.
Beyond breaking these down into 1-5, 6-10, and 11-20, I couldn’t do any additional ranking so please take them in Alphabetical order within their chunk. These are only 2015 releases, I’ll cover a broader look at books in a later post.
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. It should not be a surprise to see this in my Top 5. I read it in January and immediately declared it the best book I would read this year. Maybe someday I will have the strength to re-read it and see if I can cement it on my all-time list. I’ve been a huge advocate for it, and it’s always wonderful when you see a book you tell everyone to read get the kind of success this book has had. It is not your typical giant book, it is not your typical prizewinner, it is not trying to be cerebral, this book is just feelings, lots and lots of feelings, high melodrama. If horrible things happening to people is too much for you, you may want to skip it, because it turns the dial up to 11 on the horrific and the sublime. Friendship, trauma, healing, love, it’s all there.
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. It is rare for nonfiction to show up at the top of my list, but this book is so important, so affecting, so unforgettable that it demands nothing else. Everything you’ve heard about it is true. It is not possible to over-hype this book because it delivers so thoroughly. It is wise and deep and speaks truths that we all need to hear about race in the US today.
Fifteen Dogs by Andre Alexis is probably the biggest underdog on this list (though it recently won a big Canadian prize, and I’m so happy for it!) though I think it has great mass appeal. The titular 15 dogs are given human consciousness, and that alone should be enough to get you hooked. This is one of those books that keeps you on the edge of your seat with a quick and fascinating plot, gets you all attached to its characters, and at the same time speaks volumes about what it means to be human. An amazing and underappreciated book that deserves your attention.
The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma. After multiple Rioters talked it up, I finally picked up this book on audio. No one warned me. I wanted to listen to this book constantly but I also dreaded turning it on because I worried so much about what was going to happen next. It’s very hard to talk about it without spoiling, so I won’t add any more detail. Needless to say, this book about four brothers in Nigeria will leave you absolutely floored. We’re talking Shakespearean level drama. I cannot believe this is a debut novel. I also cannot get it out of my head.
The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante. This book gets a very unfair advantage since I read it shortly after devouring the three previous books in the Neapolitan series. So it gets to ride all my accrued love for those books and for the author, who writes under a pseudonym and whose real identity is unknown. I have probably recommended these books more than any others this year and I will keep doing it. Outside of book nerd land, I don’t know that Ferrante has caught on all the way, but you really should get on board. You will not regret it. These books are absolutely amazing, and like many of the other books on this list, they’re incredibly readable, piled high with plot, and have characters that you’ll never forget.
Daughters Unto Devils by Amy Lukavics. Don’t underestimate Young Adult novels. This YA horror is one of the most frightening, creepy books I have ever read. It is scarier than most adult horror. It is a masterclass in horror. It’s basically a kind of Little House on the Prairie meets Rosemary’s Baby, with a family living on the frontier, literally getting cabin fever, possibly being haunted by demons, etc. Just read it. But maybe not at night.
In the Country by Mia Alvar. A short story collection on my top 10! Will wonders never cease? I read some great story collections this year, but this one is by far my favorite. There is not a weak one in the bunch and it’s so full of emotion. Many of the stories have that classic short story moral dilemma, but there is so much complexity in each brief tale. The stories are about Filipino families, those living in the Philippines and those who have emigrated to the US or to the Middle East. These are not the kinds of stories you get to hear very often, and that’s exactly why you should read it. (Also because the writing is so good I can’t even.)
The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins. Another one I picked up based on Rioter buzz. I tend to be cautious about Fantasy, but this really isn’t Fantasy as much as it is every single genre all together. This book is stuffed to the gills with mythology and surrealism and horror and everything else you can possibly think of. And yet it works. It works beautifully. There is high and low, beautiful and horrible. But there’s also cops and ghosts and reincarnation and swat teams and pretty much anything else you can think of. This book will blow your mind in the best way.
More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera. When I read this YA novel, I really liked it. But then something happened. I couldn’t shake it. It stayed in my head. It did not leave. And it remains the one that I come back to in a year where I read some incredibly strong YA. This book will give you so many feelings. Aaron is a poor brown kid in the projects. Thomas is his new friend. And as they become inseparable you start to wonder, “Is Thomas maybe…” and then I will not spoil a thing. But this is a great book dealing with identity, LGBT youth, and much, much more.
The Whites by Richard Price (writing as Harry Brandt). I love me some Richard Price. He’s one of the best crime writers we have, arguably the best. And this book was his attempt to write something lighter, faster, and more pulpy. It didn’t work. It became a Richard Price book, sprawling and epic, yet intimate and tight, showing crime from a variety of different angles. The parallel narratives are particularly strong, one of his best, and his best is really, really good.
Dumplin’by Julie Murphy. I read it in a frenzy and immediately told most of my friends who read a lot of YA to read it immediately. Dumplin’ is a contemporary YA with a lot of what you’d expect: struggles with friends, with family, with romance, with identity. What separates it is a heroine with a vibrant voice who also happens to be fat. She knows she’s fat, she knows how other people look at her, and she loves herself anyway. Being in the presence of Willowdean is a joy.
Eden West by Pete Haumann. I’d never read Haumann before, but after this book I looked into him and wasn’t surprised to learn that he’d written one of the seminal YA novels on religion and faith. Eden West is also about those topics, and honestly I think it can be marketed just as easily to adult as teen audiences, I don’t really know where I’d personally categorize it. The story follows a young man growing up in a cult whose life is changed when he meets a local girl while he’s walking their borders. There are lots of cult stories. It’s kind of a thing. I read at least 3 just this year. This one had so much truth and it’s rare to find a book that can respect its character’s faith in something that is objectively terrible to an outsider.
Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff. It’s one of the big books of the year, you’ve probably seen it and heard about it by now. It’s a book that demands discussion, and I found it incredibly intriguing and interesting. I love books that mess with your expectations and this one completely does. It’s an exercise in structure and character that is also incredibly satisfying, a rare combination. A warning: you have to give this book more time than you usually would. You’ve got to get at least halfway before you really know what you’re getting into.
Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal. I don’t read a lot of happy books, as I mentioned. Kitchens is a book that manages to be happy AND hit my dark and complex sweet spot. It’s one of those books of connected stories, a difficult task, but one Stradahl does better than anyone I can remember off hand. All his characters feel real. And reading his book reminds you how heavy our modern fiction is with city people, how rarely we depict the people who make up most of our country. It’s also great for all you foodies out there.
The Sellout by Paul Beatty is a dark, biting satire dealing primarily with race. Even when it seems fun or jaunty, there’s always some wise darkness just around the corner. You cannot relax with this book. It does not let you get comfortable. It makes you judge characters then makes you anxious about judging them. It is some of the strongest satire I’ve seen in years and we really need more books like this in the world.
Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli. I often read a book not knowing the author’s name due to the formatting on electronic galleys. I was convinced this book was written by a young gay man, one who’d recently been to high school and lived through these kinds of experiences. But no, Becky Albertalli was never a teenage boy. How she creates Simon and makes him so full I don’t know, but I’d love to ask. This is straight up contemporary YA, but it’s so perfectly done that it should be a model for the genre.
Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho. The canon has a problem. It’s all white authors and white characters. And then you get into genre fiction and you find the legacy continuing despite the world having changed. Fantasy, science-fiction, historical fiction, it can be hard to find books by authors of color with characters of color. Luckily now you have this book, which is kind of like if Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell was a lot less brooding and had a lot less white people. So basically, it’s AWESOME. It’s also hella feminist (another problem you run into) and witty and delightful and really, why haven’t you read it yet? (I don’t even like Fantasy and I totally dug it.)
Unfinished Business by Anne-Marie Slaughter. The only book on work-life balance I have ever liked. The only one I’ve ever read where I nodded my head and said, “Yes, yes, this is exactly it.” I hate the articles, the panels, the same discussions over and over again without anyone saying what the real problem is and what most people face every day. I just want to get rid of everyone talking about these issues and instead have us all read this book. Give it to your boss, give it to your company’s CEO, give it to the working women and men in your life. It needs to be read.
Welcome to Braggsville by T. Geronimo Johnson. At first you think this book is about being that kid who never fit in in a small Southern town and going to college and finding your people. But that’s just the intro. This book has much more to say and it’s not going to beat around the bush. It’s going to give you crazy plot twists, commentary on race and media, and a distinctive voice that stays with you. Amazing stuff, perhaps the book I’ve read that most reminds me of Junot Diaz’s Oscar Wao.
A God in Ruinsby Kate Atkinson. A companion of sorts to Life After Life, but I liked it better. Gutsy and ambitious.
Idyll Threatsl by Stephanie Gayle. Fantastic new mystery series about a closeted cop who moves to a small town.
Lost Canyonby Nina Revoyr. Deliverance for the modern age, this time featuring more than just white guys!
Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf. His last, slim novel is beautiful and still and utterly affecting.
Speakby Louisa Hall. What is intelligence and consciousness and connection? A book with a lot to think about.