One of the perks of being in charge of content for the store’s blog is having the platform to champion books I love (and a limitless amount of online runway to do it with). So here are my ten favorite books I read this year.
I think, for me at least, “unexpected” is the best word to describe this list. If you’d told me a memoir of grief and falconry and a 75 year-old classic and Oprah Book Club selection would end of in my top-5 favorites of the year, I wouldn’t have believed you. But this was truly a great year for me. Even when writing about my ten favorites, I felt bad for so many others that got left out, I went ahead and included a listing of another ten really terrific books.
I hope one or more books I’ve written about here will pique your interest and you’ll pick it up. They are all wonderful in their own way. Thanks for reading and thanks for a terrific 2015.
Happy holidays, happy New Year and, most of all, happy reading.
- H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald
This is my favorite book of 2015 and, frankly, second place isn’t particularly close. H is for Hawk is nakedly intimate, as well as remarkably expansive and nothing short of profound. The prose could cut glass and delivered moments that took my breath away.
H is for Hawk is dense with fresh, nuanced insights into weighty philosophical topics: humankind’s relationship with the land, nature and animals; our (mis)construction of and (mis)uses of history; our need for belonging, to a place and to others. I’ve never read a more honestly searching, unsentimental and even-handed dissection of these thorny philosophical questions. Macdonald’s quest for meaning is personal, genuine, without agenda and, at times, thrilling.
In the right author’s hands, any subject can be fascinating. Helen Macdonald is such a writer: H is for Hawk is simply outstanding, probably the richest memoir I’ve read. I really don’t do justice to the substance and scope of H is for Hawk. If you think there’s a chance you’d find this interesting, read this book. H is for Hawk is dazzling. It soars.
- You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine by Alexandra Kleeman
Truly impossible to summarize, You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine by Alexandra Kleeman is hilarious and deeply unnerving and strange and propulsive and philosophical and revelatory. It’s like nothing I’ve read. The story is too bizarre to effectively summarize, but it is in no way beside the point. Kleeman takes on our modern existence, our capitalist, consumerist, and mediated lives, puts a clown nose on it, looks it kindly in the eyes, then guts it with a prison shiv. Her prose flows like a broken Jacuzzi, it warmly envelops then periodically blasts you from unexpected angles. You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine explores (and infects the reader with) the disconnect one feels in a place and time where even the imitation of a fake is packaged off as real and the real feels but a simulacrum for a fake we’ve been previously sold. You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine is bright. It’s brilliant. It’s the real thing.
- The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
Harrowing, hilarious and haunting, The Sympathizer is a remarkable debut.
A great Vietnam War novel AND a great American novel, it’s the story/confession of a man of two minds: half-Vietnamese, partially American-educated, assistant to the general of the South Vietnam military, Viet Cong spy. His perspective offered a much-needed corrective for my view of the Vietnam War from the Vietnamese side. Nguyen’s mastery of tone produces an emotional rope-a-dope: he gets you laughing before he punches you between the eyes.
- The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers
I wasn’t looking forward to this one; I was required to read it for the store’s book club. Sure, I knew Carson McCullers’ 1940 debut novel was considered a classic, but I have little interest in reading those paeans to the dusty, humid, simple nobility of the oddballs of the rural south that populate the literary landscape. With the knowledge that McCullers wrote The Heart is a Lonely Hunter when she was 23 years old (and that it was an Oprah book club pick at one time), I was fully expecting a sad-sack tale of winsome, youthful longing, a 400-page slide guitar solo.
I was so, so wrong. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter rages. It’s the rage of the powerless, the voiceless, the all-but-defeated. It’s the rage of the rioter: singular, but omnidirectional, at everything, but directed at no one. It’s punk rock of a more restrained time. Carson McCullers created a masterwork that burns with immediacy, with hard, bleak truths and human understanding that are as relevant and relatable today as they were in 1940.
- A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
I’m hesitant to write too much about what A Little Life is “about”; I don’t want to unduly (mis)direct anyone’s reading of it. It is simplest and, hopefully, most accurate to say that A Little Life is about…life. It’s about friendship and love. It’s about the power of memory, how memory constructs and gives us shape, how it enriches and inhibits. Mostly, A Little Life should be experienced. But it should also come with a warning label. This is so not a book for everyone.
A Little Life is an emotional dirty bomb. It is dark, so dark. It took me to emotional neighborhoods I’ve never seen from the highway, much less driven through…lingered in…taken up squatting in. On two separate occasions it caused me to spontaneously erupt in tears. Tears of grief. No book has taken such an emotional toll. Yanagihara could be tried for literary emotional war crimes.
This book is powerful and haunting and amazing. It is so not for everyone.
- The Fatal Flame by Lyndsay Faye
Lyndsay Faye has saved the best for last and delivered a dynamic, enormously satisfying conclusion to her engrossing and always delightfully unexpected Timothy Wilde trilogy. If you haven’t read Gods of Gotham, the first in the trilogy, and you’re a fan of literary mysteries, historical fiction or just well-written hero stories that immerse you in another world, then what the hell have you been doing? Come to the store and get Gods of Gotham immediately!
These are more than just good mysteries, however. Lyndsay Faye’s Wilde trilogy transcends genre in two ways: in the elegance and impact of its historical setting and in the emotional richness of its world-building. Throughout the three books, Faye populates the world of Timothy Wilde with complex, authentic, human-sized characters. The cumulative effect of this work pays off mightily in The Fatal Flame. Because each recurring character has been painted throughout the series with nuance and depth and love, there are genuine, affecting emotional stakes on the line. There were a half-dozen times or more in Flame where I caught myself tense and worried for the fates of different characters.
Lyndsay Faye always delivers in that sweet spot between twisty, surprising plot and rich character-driven emotional stakes.
- A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay
An incisive, thoroughly of-the-moment psychological horror story, A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay is creepy, high-wire suspense, as well as trenchant social critique. Is 14 year-old Marjorie Barrett schizophrenic, possessed by an evil spirit or simply a deviously troubled adolescent? The pervasive miasma of dread that hangs over A Head Full of Ghosts is pierced by well-crafted (and well-timed) jolts, as well as the pointed observations and (often) unintended humor of Tremblay’s remarkably well-drawn and fully-fleshed narrator, Merry Barrett, the troubled Marjorie’s little sister.
While horror fans should love A Head Full of Ghosts, it is much more than another genre entry.
Forget the countless literal-minded, marketing-driven imitators that have come before: Paul Tremblay has delivered the real “next Gone Girl“. Working within a genre tradition and possessing all the requisite shocks, bumps and jaws drops, A Head Full of Ghosts comes from a definite, coherent point of view and has something resonant to say about our current culture. The only thing scarier than the horrors Tremblay presents are readers immune to the horrors he presents.
Embrace or ignore the “horror” designation, just don’t let it keep you away. A Head Full of Ghosts is so, so smart and about the most fun read I’ve come across in a while.
- The Fair Fight by Anna Freeman
The story of female boxers in 18th-century Bristol, England, The Fair Fight is smart and compelling exploration of the power of possibility – how while hope is essential, that which cannot be imagined cannot be hoped for. This book surprised and delighted me at every turn and featured, as one of the three points-of-view the story is told from, one of my absolute favorite literary characters. Freeman’s writing is incredibly confident and the characters are crafted with love and nuance.
- City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg
City of Fire isn’t a Great American Novel (TM), but it is pretty great and it
is so American. Hell, it’s America*: it’s the cry of the lone individual always a part of, grasping for, rebelling against, relying on and resenting in equal measure the systems and institutions that make us who we are.
An epic book under the guidance of a steady-hand and poetic heart doing what only a book can do, City on Fire is a true feat. It’s immense in all the right ways.
* though, predominantly a White America story, despite a prominent African American character and a major supporting Asian American character, it’s not a complete American story…hardly a knock–even a book this massive can’t capture the entire American story
- Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye (due March 2016)
A loving and wholly original tribute/meta-fictive re-imagining of Jane Eyre, Jane Steele is a page-turning, ever-so-slightly larger-than-life, ridiculously fun and charming post-feminist hero story. Faye takes on Jane Eyre’s basic structure and themes of identity, class, patriarchy and reconciling personal happiness with virtue and gives us a heroine who, while trying to channel Jane Eyre as her spirit animal, finds she’s capable of and compelled to deal with her oppressors in more decisive and final (and murderous) ways. In Jane Steele, Lyndsay Faye’s writing is manifested and personified in Jane: irresistibly charming, reliably surprising, and equally prone to steal or break your heart (or stab you in it).
Ten other really terrific books:
The Sellout by Paul Beatty; Undermajordomo Minor by Patrick Dewitt; Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller; Speak by Louisa Hall; The Folded Clock by Heidi Julavits; Church of Marvels by Leslie Parry; Nimona by Noelle Stevenson; Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins; Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist by Yunil Sapa (due Jan. ’16); Mislaid by Nell Zink