Books of the Year 2015

I am woefully behind in my reviewing, and it occurred to me that I had enough posts lined up in prospect to take me to the end of the year. And so, I thought I had better get my best books in as I like to do it midway through December. By this stage, I usually know what they are. I’ve read a lot of good books this year, a lot of interesting ones, but few real crackers. So, the list comprises eleven of the very best and a handful of honorable mentions.

Best Books

the wolf borderThe Wolf Border by Sarah Hall. Written with cool, vivid fluidity, this is a novel of deceptive serenity about big themes – the drives of nature, the demands of politics, the unexpected dynamics of change. An unusual and original story, narrated in a wonderfully intriguing voice, it was a book I just wanted to keep on and on reading, loving its display of Hall’s sheer natural talent.

A Want of Kindness by Joanne Limburg. This evocation of the Stuart dynasty in the time leading up to the reign of Queen Anne is an astonishing feat of authenticity. Including many of the real letters written by Anne, the transition into fiction is seamless and boldly, beautifully done. Absolutely exquisite writing and brilliant characterisation; a piece of literary time travel.

PayingGuestThe Paying Guests by Sarah Waters. Waters is such an adept at mixing up genres in her literary historical fiction, and this time the post-war novel meets the romance meets the sensational crime story. The anxiety of her heroines sucks you into the plot and although I spent the best part of the novel fearing what would happen next, I couldn’t put the book down.

Golden Age by Jane Smiley. This is the third and final novel in her Hundred Years’ Trilogy. I’ve really enjoyed every one of them, but this closing volume really worked its magic on me, bringing together all the disparate threads in her huge family saga around the recent disasters in finance and the harbingers of disaster in the environment. Smiley is such an outstanding writer – effortless grace in her sentences, steel blades in her mind. A chilling but necessary work of fiction.

Hotel AndromedaHotel Andromeda by Gabriel Josipovici. Only Josipovici could bring together the esoteric installation art of Joseph Cornell and the conflict in Chechnya, and bring out such depth of meaning about the scarcely credible extremes of human behaviour.  Josipovici can still do things with seemingly ordinary dialogue that other authors can only dream about, and any book that actually wonders why we can’t just Make Art Not War is going to be high on my list at the moment. He is such a profound writer.

this boy's lifeThis Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff. What do you call this – an autobiographical fiction? Based more than loosely on Wolff’s own life, this bildungsroman of miscreant and misguided boyhood is just so very funny and so very sad all at once. Every other sentence you want to turn around and read out loud to someone. At its dark heart there’s a moral about the fact that while we want to get away with things, it’s terrifically bad for us and all kinds of distressing when we do. A book I hope to read again some day.

Five Came Back; A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War by Mark Harris. To think I began reading this book not sure if I’d get through its 500 pages, when in fact it turned into one of the most heart-in-the-mouth reading experiences of the year! Harris follows the fortunes of five top Hollywood directors across the course of the Second World War. The battles they had with the authorities, the enemy, and themselves over how truthful their representations could or should be give the most unexpectedly intriguing perspective on the war. Incredibly moving and insightful.

LyingLying by Lauren Slater. You’ll either love this or it’ll drive you mad. Slater’s account of growing up with an unusual form of epilepsy is constantly put in doubt by her propensity (or the side effect of the illness) to confabulate. Constantly slippery, constantly questioning and yet written in such brilliant, muscular, vivid prose, this memoir puts the idea of truth-in-narrative on trial and gives a unique judgement.

One Life by Kate Grenville. Finding after her mother’s death the empty notebooks in which she planned to write her life history, Grenville decides to take on the task herself. Written in a voice that could be her mother’s, she imaginatively reconstructs the hardships of life in early twentieth century Australia up until the moment Kate herself is born. An exquisite piece of social history, showing us just how much women’s expectations have changed over the past two generations, it is also a moving tribute to a strong and loving mother.

Things I Didn’t Want To Know by Deborah Levy. I never managed to review this slim volume, although it was one of the very best of the best books for me in 2015. Sometimes you can be so in awe of a book and have so little idea of how the author could have managed to write it, that you don’t know what to say. It is the story of Levy’s coming-to-writing, a sort of reflective response to Orwell’s essay, Why I Write. It focuses on three points in her life – her childhood in South Africa with her father imprisoned for his work with the ANC, her early, gawky adolescence in exile in England, and the contemporary moment in Mallorca where she has come to reflect. The writing is extraordinary. I still don’t know what to say about it, except that it’s outstanding.

AWomenOnTheEdgeA Woman on the Edge of Time by Jeremy Gavron. You can scroll down the page and find my recent review of this memoir about the author’s mother, a woman who apparently had it all but who committed suicide in a manner reminiscent of Sylvia Plath. Gavron hunts down the truth of her circumstances and her motivations in an engaging and moving testimony, pieced together from fragments of accounts collected from friends and family. A beautiful book.

 

BELONGINGSo that’s my best of the year list. Honorable mentions in fiction must go to Frances and Bernard by Carlene Bauer, an exquisite epistolary novel set in the 50s detailing a reluctant romance between a poet and a novelist, Belonging by Umi Sinha, a gripping story of three generations caught up in the rights and wrongs of imperialism in India, spectreofalexThe Spectre of Alexander Wolf by Gaito Gazdanov, the haunting story of two Russian men, bound together by a shared act of random violence, Frenchman’s Creek by Daphne du Maurier, for its sheer good-natured fun-loving romantic spirit, Still Life with Breadcrumbs by Anna Quindlen, which tells the tale of two people hoping for a second chance at life (and getting it, in a completely cockles-of-the-heart–warming way), Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead, a ballet novel based on Mikhail Baryshnikov’s defection to America, and The Case of the Hail Mary Celeste, a delightfully rip-roaring tale of lost nuns and the Great Western Railway in a mash-up of boy’s own and private detective fiction.

the prison book clubHonorable mentions in non-fiction go to The Prison Book Club by Ann Walmsley for being everything you might hope for from that title, The Nearest Thing to Life by James Wood, four essays that are part literary critique, part memoir and wholly engaging, and JGallowayJanice Galloway’s two volumes of memoir, This Is Not About Me and All Made Up, for her lyrical, witty, painful, truthful, just plain brilliant voice.

 

36 thoughts on “Books of the Year 2015

    • It was funny; I hadn’t thought it was that good. But looking back over the year I found so many books I’d forgotten about and now, yes, it WAS a good year. Especially for non-fiction. I’d love to know what you think of the Gavron if you get hold of it!

    • This is such a dangerous time of year for me as I read everyone’s best-of lists. I always add so many to my own wish list! I do like Sarah Waters – not so much her earlier books, but all the ones from The Night Watch onwards. And there are plenty of readers who love everything she’s written. I do hope you enjoy the ones you’ve got!

  1. Delighted to see Jane Smiley on your list. I looked forward to her trilogy so much I was almost prepared for disappointment but it’s a wonderfully assured piece of work, and immensely enjoyable with it. Thanks for reminding me about This Boy’s Life, well worth a reread. Of the ones I haven’t read, Five Came Back most appeals. On the list it goes!

    • I completely agree about Jane Smiley. I thought the third wouldn’t manage to maintain the quality and then it was the one that really blew me away! I loved Five Came Back. It was so so moving and surprising and insightful. Do let me know what you think of it if you read it.

  2. Such interesting books here. Thank you for the list. Some I have read and enjoyed -The Paying Guests, for example
    The Gavron and Sarah Hall books have been recommended elsewhere too

    • Thank you! I am just beginning to go round the best-of-the-year lists (always dangerous – so much book lust!) and I’ve definitely seen Sarah Hall mentioned, and so rightly, too. I didn’t think so many people had heard of the Gavron but it really pleases me that it’s being promoted. It was an amazing book.

  3. The Paying Guest is the first Sarah Waters I’ve managed to get through so that must say something about my response but I wouldn’t make it a book of the year. Somehow I’ve missed the Kate Grenville. I must look that one out because I am fascinated by her take on modern Australian society and I would imagine this must make some reference as to how they got there.

    • Hello Alex, how lovely to have you visit! If you like Kate Grenville then oh yes do look this one up. It is such a brilliant book, so simply written yet so obviously heartfelt and fascinating about Australia in the early part of the 20th century. I’d love to know what you make of it.

    • Ooh I must come and read your list! Thank you for visiting again – it’s lovely to have you drop by. I’d love to know what you think of the Gavron. I found it so engaging; definitely one of those books I kept stealing time from the day to get back to! And I’m delighted we felt the same about The Paying Guests. Waters is such a clever writer.

  4. Good list and a great year of reading! What if you finish a really good book before the end of the year though? Will you update your list? I always fret about that which is why I wait until nearly the last day of the year when I am sure I won’t be finishing another book.

    • Between you and me, I’ve got seven books unfinished at the moment and whilst all of them are good books I’m enjoying, none of them are going to really rival the ones I’ve put on the list. If one turns out to become suddenly and unexpectedly amazing, I will firmly promise it a slot in 2016! But I think I’ll be lucky to finish half that pile before the year ends. You know how it goes!

  5. I have The Paying Guests and the Hundred Years Trilogy on my TBR, so I’m pleased to see them on your list. I’m interested in reading the Joanne Limburg book too as I know very little about Queen Anne. My own list will be ready nearer the end of the month!

    • Ooh looking forward to reading your list, Helen! They are murder on the TBR, but I do love them. I would just love to know what you make of the Joanne Limburg, well, and the Jane Smileys and the Sarah Waters. Just any of them you like to write about, I will be there!

  6. I have read rather fewer books this year than last (I mean fiction here of course) but a couple stood out. “The Cat” by you-know-who and Bulgakov’s “Black Snow which, while not climbing to the dazzling heights of The Master and Margarita, was still a pretty good story and a splendid satire on censorship and the challenges (!) of writing for the theatre.

    • I love The Cat – no surprises there! I have never managed to get on with Bulgakov, so maybe I should try a different title to The Master and Margarita. Maybe I need something like Black Snow, which might take me into his work a different way. Between you and me, I have read shamefully little Russian literature, though the Gazdanov was fab.

    • It’s definitely one of those books that’s worth a try. It has a broad appeal and the writing is flowing and lucid, really smooth to read. I didn’t pick it up for a while at first, thinking I wouldn’t like the topic, but the wolves were properly fascinating. Would love to know what you make of it!

  7. I’ve had the Sarah Waters on my Kindle forever…I need to move it up the list. I was thrilled about a month ago to find that du Maurier’s entire oeuvre had finally been issued for e-reader, and I bought quite a few that I had never read…such delight.

    • I think there must be several du Mauriers that I haven’t read. The House on the Strand, the one about the Glassblowers, Hungry Hill (which I’m pretty sure was my grandmother’s favourite, though when I was told that I have no idea). Would be very curious to hear how you get on with the Waters. As with all books, you’ve got to be in the mood for it, I find. At least, that’s the reason I have some 20-year-old books on my shelf and I’m sticking with it!🙂

  8. What an interesting selection, Victoria. The only one I’ve read is Gazdanov’s The Spectre of Alexander Wolf, which I loved – so much so that I have another couple of his books in my TBR. It’s good to see Sarah Hall’s The Wolf Border on your list, too. I haven’t read it, but I really enjoyed her short story collection, The Beautiful Indifference.

    • I will be very intrigued to hear how you get on with the Gazdanov’s, Jacqui. I’d love to read another but haven’t been able to decide where to go in his work next. I would be happy for you to guide me!

  9. Yes yes yes to Sarah Hall and Sarah Waters both, and I’m very keen to read Jeremy Gavron’s book too. It can’t have been a bad year if you read all of these🙂

    • I know! When I began to do the list I was all, oh I didn’t read anything much good this year in fiction… and then as I went through SNB and the blog, I realised how much good stuff there had been. Would love to know what you make of the Gavron. I found it fascinating.

    • It’s funny how many people didn’t have a great reading year. I didn’t think I’d had one until I went back over my lists properly; then it turned out better than I thought. But I do hope you have a MUCH better reading year in 2016!

  10. So I am behind, but catching up now, and don’t you read the best books?? I wish I had time to read them all. I enjoyed the Wolf Border too, although it may have missed something in the radio abridging, I still enjoyed the unusualness of the story and was impressed by the sensitivity of the protagonist (can’t remember her name now!) to her surroundings.

    • I’m so glad you enjoyed that one! I read it way way back at the start of the year so my memory is sort of hazy about the details too, but I did love it. I was surprised I found so many books I’d really loved, as I hadn’t thought it was that great a year. But there you go; if you read enough books you ARE going to find a good selection of diamonds!

  11. Out of curiosity I got “Things I Didn’t Want to Know” from the library. Mostly because I had read Alexandra Fullers books about growing up in Africa. They had very different experiences, but you could see how their African childhoods shaped their lives. I loved Levy’s book. It is a short book, but she manages to paint large images that will stay with me. Thanks for the recommendation.

    • It makes me so happy when a recommendation of mine brings pleasure to another reader. Thank you so much for letting me know and I’m so glad you enjoyed it. I’m hoping to read more by Deborah Levy this year.

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