What a good year for reading 2015 was. I discovered poetry and, (possibly because poetry collections are so much shorter than novels), managed to make it through 156 books in the year. This might also have something to do with the fact that I wasn’t reading “The Goldfinch” this year and consequently losing about eight weeks’ worth of perfectly good reading time.
I’ve struggled to narrow my best of list down to ten. Instead I’ve gone for one favourite read of the year and fifteen other notably brilliant books in no particular order. Who knows when these books were published. I tend to read whatever Oxfam books has for less than four quid so this is by no means a definitive guide to the best books published in 2015, (most likely I’ll get round to read and rating them sometime in 2017). I hope you get some ideas from this list. I’d thoroughly recommend all these books and, as you all know by now, am more than happy to talk about good books with anyone who needs a recommendation. Let’s all read even more in 2016.
Top Book of the Year
Flannery O’Connor – “The Art of Being; Letters of Flannery O’Connor.”
Faith, writing, suffering and peacocks, everything you need to make your way graciously and wisely through life is included somewhere in these 700 pages, plus a generous dose of Ms O’Connor’s cunning Southern wit. If your serious about being a person you need to read this.
1.Kevin Barry – “Beatlebone”
Here’s John Lennon traipsing round the West Coast of Ireland looking for an island to scream on. Never was there a better premise for a book. It’s hilarious and a little bit terrifying and what Kevin Barry does with words shouldn’t work and yet never fails to hit the mark. The man’s a bloody genius and he’s far too nice to dislike.
2. Anne Carson – “Glass, God and Irony.”
This year I read poetry and mostly hated everything I read, except Anne Carson who I now love like she is my actual mother. This one made me cry big, salty tears in bed and reminded me why I love putting words together and why I should never to settle for the obvious sentiments. The woman’s the most genius of all us Carsons. (Be careful to buy the American version or you’ll not get Irony, only Glass and God, and let’s be honest, the three really need to be served up together).
3. Jenny Offil – “The Department of Speculation”
Is it poetry? Is it prose? Is it some strange hybrid, (proety)? Who cares. It’s marvellous. Never has a relationship coming together and falling apart and coming together again been chronicled with such searing honesty. This sort of writing which makes other writers jealous and able to recognise themselves between the lines. I pretty much underlined every other sentence.
4. Agota Kristof – “The Notebook”
Not to be confused with the Ryan Gosling “Notebook” this is just about the strangest and most disturbing book I chance upon this year. I don’t think I’ve read anything like this before. I’m not even sure how to describe it. It’s worth reading as an experiment in character development alone, but it’s so much more than this. It’s the sort of book which stays with you like a good/bad taste in your mouth.
5. Ali Smith – “How to be Both”
I’m ashamed to say I’d not read any Ali Smith before 2015. Now I am a definite convert and am progressing quickly through her back catalogue. This is the book which hooked me. It’s sharp and insightful and so very, very 2015 for a book that’s fifty percent set in the distant past.
6. Lauren Van Den Berg – “The Isle of Youth”
This author was another new discover in 2015 and it was a real treat to be able to hear her read a new story at the London Short Story Festival in June. These are fabulous short stories in this collection. They’re well told and slightly quirky in that Karen Russell/Aimee Bendery way I am consistently drawn to. The novel’s great too and I’m sure there’s way more to come from Lauren Van Den Berg in the next few years.
7. Donal Ryan – “The Thing About December”
I have to say I actually enjoyed this novel more than “The Spinning Heart” despite everything the critics said. Johnsey Cunliffe is one of the most flawed yet endearingly likeable characters I’ve come across in the last few years. It didn’t surprise me at all to hear that Donal Ryan has a special place in his heart for him. You can always tell when a writer really loves a character, they’re just so well-written.
8. Matthew Thomas – “We Are Not Ourselves”
I’ve read a lot of Dementia literature, both poetry and prose, in the last year and this very comprehensive novel following a couple from birth right through to the husband’s death of symptoms related to Dementia is by far the best. It is heartbreaking, unflinching and full of the kind of honest writing people living with Dementia deserve. This is not a sentimental novel but it has a core of respect and genuine love of humanity running right through it, like Updike at his best.
9. Anne Berest – “Sagan, Paris, 1954.”
This purports to be a non-fiction book about the life of the French novelist, Francois Sagan, during the year her first book, “Bonjour Tristesse,” was published. Don’t be fooled. It’s actually a remarkably astute meditation on writing and the writer’s motivation. If you’ve any notion of writing yourself you’d be well-advised to read it.
10. Carys Davies – “The Redemption of Galen Pike”
I wish I could write short stories this good. They’re short. They’re punchy. They’re like the bastard children of Flannery O’Connor and Karen Russell, or someone else who’s edgy, contemporary and blessed with a blindingly sharp imagination. How could this not be something you’d want to read? I’ve already given away four copies of this book and I don’t buy people books for presents unless I’m one hundred percent certain they’ll really enjoy them. You need to go out and buy this now.
11. Max Porter – “Grief is the Thing With Feathers.”
Late to the party here, it almost didn’t make it into the 2015 list but this one’s an absolute blinder. Writing about grief is a difficult thing to pull off without dipping into sentimentality but this walks that fine line with incredible ease. The narrative spins between a father who’s recently lost his wife, his sons and the Ted Hughes-inspred crow who haunts the house during the first months of their mourning. The crow keeps things caustic. The father keeps things honest and the boys remind us that the world is not for ending just yet. The language is like thinking pinned down.
12. Marilynne Robinson – “Lila”
A new Marilynne Robinson is a thing to be saved and savoured so I kept “Lila” from Christmas all the way through to October, when I devoured it in the sun, sitting on the edge of a Fermanagh lake. I don’t need to tell you that this is flawless, that the characters are almost Biblical in their scope, and that the writing is graceful and lingers long after the final page. Everything Marilynne Robinson touches is a kind of miracle.
13. Alain de Botton – “How to Think More About Sex.”
I love Alain de Botton and this is a particularly good example of his writing. It’s not so much about sex as the way the sexes interact with each other and the psychology behind their actions. This is the sort of book best read in a group and discussed at length with wine and much vehemence.
14. Christian Wiman – “My Bright Abyss; Meditations of a Modern Believer.”
Sometimes books arrive in your hand at just the right moment and they kind of save your life. This is just such a book. Christian Wiman is a decent poet and a marvellously honest and compelling human being. He talks at length here about writing, faith and suffering. He knows what he’s talking about on all three accounts. This is the sort of book which feels like the writer has read the inside of your head and managed to make sense of it all. I think I’ll probably read it again many, many times in the future.
15. Ben Lerner – “Leaving the Atocha Station.”
We’re in slightly self-indulgent Dave Eggers territory here; male, white American of a certain age writing thinly-veiled fiction about his own life. It could be terrible. It’s actually impossible to put down. I read this in one sitting and thoroughly enjoyed his second novel too. Going to be keeping an eye on Ben Lerner from now on. I hope he grows out of writing about himself though.