Best Books of 2015
I did a fair amount of reading in 2015. In fact, I read 82 books consisting of 28,352 pages. You can see all of these cool-nerdy facts on my Goodreads page. Anyway, it was hard to whittle all that down to just a few favorites, but these ones stood out to me (for various reasons). If you're looking for something good to read, you can probably find something here.
The String Diaries by Stephen Lloyd Jones - This was such a fun read. It was a familiar story told in a new way. Original Review: We open with Hannah running for her life, driving away from something as yet unknown, her husband bleeding out in the passenger seat next to her and her daughter asleep in the back. Over the course of the novel, we find out exactly who Hannah is running from and why: a supernatural creature known as a hosszu eletek who has been obsessed with her family for over a century. I'm a sucker for stories that cross generations, especially when they are linked as cleverly as The String Diaries does it. I also love the idea of a secret sub-culture, hidden among us for years. This book was fast-paced, well-written, and a great story.
Horrorstor by Grady Hendrix - I still love this whole thing, from the story itself to the amazing cover. It's unique, funny, and terrifying. Original Review: You may mistake this book for your Ikea catalogue. And that's the point. Set up as part retail catalogue and part ghost story, Horrorstor may be a genre all its own. Amy works at Orsk furniture store, a cheaper and shoddier version of Ikea. She's bored, lazy, and doing her damnedest to avoid her boss so that she doesn't get fired. Weird things have been happening at Orsk lately though, seemingly at night when the store is closed. When Amy's boss asks her and another coworker to work an overnight shift with him to patrol the store, she's not psyched for the job, but she does need the time-and-a-half. What they find takes us into total horror story nightmare. Hendrix has taken the classic haunted house story and flipped it on its head in a funny, smart, and truly terrifying way.
Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood - Again, Margaret Atwood amazes me. These short stories are simple stunning, stand on their own, and are cohesive enough that they are a perfect collection. Original Review: To get it out of the way, Margaret Atwood is a genius and one of the most fascinating people I've seen interviewed. She's a goddess. Stone Mattress is a collection of nine short stories, each better than the last. The first three stories are loosely connected and have some overlapping characters, but the rest stand on their own. Honestly, I can't pick a favorite. They are all smart and somewhat dark and funny. I read several of them with a smirk on my face. My only complaint is that the stories weren't longer. I didn't want them to end.
A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride - I've thought about this book so many times since reading it. It's so unlike anything else I've read in terms of its style and the story is so heartbreaking and yet so common. I hope that McBride does much, much more in the future. Original Review: I'm not even sure how to approach this one. The book is written in a stream of consciousness style that is incredibly hard to follow at first. I really had to get into a groove in terms of reading this and any distraction took me away from it. Although the style is daunting at first, you do become used to it. It follows the life of an unnamed Irish girl and her relationship with her older brother and mother. Without giving anything away, A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing is brutal, unforgiving, heart-breaking, beautiful, and difficult. The narrator inspires both pity and rage, sadness and anger. Watching her spiral out of control is challenging, but knowing the cause of that acting out, it is impossible not to ache for her.
The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion - I never did write that longer write-up that I intended, but this book has stayed with me. I think that I read it at the perfect time in my life, after enough time had passed that I could appreciate it. A haunting, beautiful, brutally honest read. Original Review: I'm planning on doing a longer write-up on this book because it really hit me in a way that I probably should have expected, but didn't. But for now, let me just say, in the words of my mother, that Joan Didion can write the hell out of anything. She is incredibly talented, thoughtful, and a truly amazing writer. The Year of Magical Thinking is no exception. Written about the year following her husband's untimely death, Didion struggles with grief, with loss, with self-pity. If you have ever felt any of that, you should read this. She perfectly describes so many mundane moments, that are personal, but also universal. Her story is sad, moving, and powerful. I'm glad that I bought my copy so that I can turn to it again and again.
The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell - Loved this book and so glad it introduced me to David Mitchell's work. I plan on adding much more of him to my "to-read" list. Original Review: I picked this off the new fiction shelf randomly and am so glad I did. Where to even start? There's so much going on in this book from the hundreds (?) of characters, to the multiple narration changes, to the passage of time and the changing of settings. The Bone Clocks spans decades and travels across oceans. We start with 15-year-old Holly Sykes, just having run away from home after having a row with her mother. Almost immediately, things start to get strange. We learn that Holly used to hear voices from "the radio people". As she travels farther from home, she meets odd characters and even loses chunks of time. I can't say any more without giving away the plot, but it is epic and incredibly well-done. I'll definitely be picking up more David Mitchell. Anyone read Cloud Atlas?
The Martian by Andy Weir - Can you believe I still haven't seen the movie? Anyway, the book was good enough that I'm not sure that I really have to see it. Weir's humor and love of science and of man's hunger for survival comes across every page and makes for a wonderful read. Original Review: I hate space. Like, it freaks me the eff out so I never want to talk about it. Yet I somehow ended up reading this book about an astronaut who is left for dead during a mission to Mars, but in fact survived and finds himself all alone there. This is the stuff of my nightmares. That said, the book is great. The protagonist is smart, funny, and managed to keep me interested in all the boring science stuff he was doing to stay alive. The story really comes together as more and more people get involved, from the entire NASA operation working to get Mark home to the crew that abandoned him. Two thumbs up.
The Troop by Nick Cutter - This book may still give me occasional nightmares. Damn, this was good. Scary, smart, with a little conspiracy thrown in. It's one of my favorite story recipes. Original Review: Scoutmaster Tim takes his scouts, 5 teen boys, out to a remote island for their annual trip. Their plans involve hiking, campfires, scary stories, and the ever-important male bonding. All of that comes to a halt when an eerily thin man winds up on the island with them. Tim attempts to take control of the situation, using his skills as a doctor to care for the obviously sick man as well as he can. But the next morning, Tim knows that something is very, very wrong. What happens next is part Lord of the Flies, part The Good Son, part The Stand. In short, it's utterly terrifying. I flew through this in less than a day, in part because the story is riveting, but also because I loved how Cutter interspersed the narrative with newspaper articles, interviews, and other little vignettes of what came before and after the island.
The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins - While this didn't live up to its "The Next Gone Girl" hype, it was a really fun read and one that I'm excited to see translated to the big screen. Original Review: The girl on the train is Rachel. Every morning, she takes the same train into London, and every evening, she takes the same train home. From her preferred window seat, she is able to have a clear view of all of houses they past, including one that particularly fascinates her. She creates a life story for the home's inhabitants, calling them Jess and Jason. Rachel is also a recently divorced, recently unemployed alcoholic. When something happens that brings Rachel in contact with "Jess" and "Jason" (really named Megan and Scott), everything in Rachel's life comes to a head. This was a fun thriller and an easy read, but I figured it out too quickly for my taste. Definitely a good beach read.
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel - The more I thought about this novel, the more of an issue I had with the ending. That said, everything up to that point was so close to perfect and I think my biggest complaint is that I wanted more. More story, more of the characters I'd grown so attached to, more closure. That's never a bad thing. Original Review: Oh, this book. Even though it took me a while to get into (I read it in two big chunks with All The Light We Cannot See thrown in the middle), I was in love with it by the end. Arthur Leander, famous actor, is playing King Lear in a Toronto stage production when he has a heart attack on stage. He dies as a child actor, Kirsten, looks on. This night is memorable not only because of Arthur's dramatic death, but also because it is the start of a flu pandemic that virtually wipes out the world. Twenty years later, Kirsten travels around Lake Michigan as part of the Traveling Symphony, a group of musicians and actors who perform for the small towns and settlements that remain. There's so much more than this and so many other wonderful characters, all connected to Leander in some way, whether it be his ex-wives, his son, the paramedic trainee who attempted to save him, or his best friend. A truly beautiful story that you must read.
All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr - Hands down, one of the most beautifully told stories I've read in a long time. Just when you think you've read everything you can about World War II, Doerr comes at it from a completely different angle. The relationship between Marie-Laure and her father is indescribably loving. Read the book for that alone. Original Review: Read this immediately. Set in France and Germany during World War II, this is a brilliant novel. We follow Marie-Laure, a blind French girl as she grows up learning her small Paris neighborhood by using a model that her father built her, spends her days at the museum where he works, flees Paris, and settles in the seaside village of Saint-Malo. We also follow Werner, a German orphan living in poverty in Germany, collecting anything of value he can find near his town's coal mines, tinkering with radios, joining the Hitler Youth, and being sent all over Europe to try and catch Germany's enemies by using their radio frequencies. Their two stories eventually converge. Jumping from past to present, the novel is simply stunning. I really can't say enough about it. Just read it now.
Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay - So smart, so witty, so plugged into pop culture. This book is everything I wanted and more. Required reading. Original Review: Bad Feminist has been on my list FOREVER. I was so happy when I finally made it to the top of the waitlist at my local library. Bad Feminist is wonderful. It's full of essays that I wish I were brave enough to write. Gay combines her humor, her love of pop culture, her intelligence, her confusion, her anger, her sadness to make this perfectly imperfect book. She questions the status quo and makes the reader reassess their feelings on gender, on race, on academia, on sexuality. She isn't ashamed to say that she's not an expert, that she's not a perfect feminist, but she is trying, just like the rest of us are or should be. It's a beautiful book that I can't recommend enough.
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot by David Shafer - Just plain old fun. Sometimes you need to read a smart, silly, spy novel with an evil super villain and far-from-perfect people trying to take him down. Original Review: I loved this book. I never wanted to put it down. Leila is a non-profit worker in Asia. Leo is a rich kid struggling with his own mind. Mark has found himself suddenly famous and clinging desperately to it. And yet they all come together when The Committee, a multi-national cabal, is attempting to buy, own, and then sell back all of the world's information. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is darkly funny. My only complaint is that the ending was too open-ended, but hopefully that means there will be a sequel.
The First Bad Man by Miranda July - I can't say enough about this book. It's so quirky and weird and strange and hilarious and oddly endearing that it makes me smile just to think of it. Original Review: The First Bad Man was so odd, so quirky, and so funny that I found myself shaking my head or laughing out loud a number of times. Cheryl is a strange woman, oppressed by anxiety. She works for a company that creates self-defense videos and workouts. When her bosses ask if their grown daughter Clee can move in with her for a short time, Cheryl acquiesces. Clee moves in and completely disrupts Cheryl's incredibly organized life. On top of that, Cheryl has begun going to therapy and has become obsessed with a board member, Philip, who himself is in love with a teenage girl. The entire book is filled with odd situations, each more absurd than the last. I loved every minute of it.
Here & There by Joshua Scher - So yes, the remainder of the book was as good as the beginning. It reminded me of House of Leaves (always a good thing) in it's style and the way it was set up. It did end rather abruptly, but I don't think it could have ended any other way and still been plausible. Original Review: This book is...good. But I don't know what to do with it. It's long - I'm still only about 2/3 of the way through, but so much has already happened. Danny's mom has disappeared. Through a small series of clues, he finds a briefcase of hers, filled with what appears to be her last case (she was a psychiatrist). Through her report, notes, and Danny's own thoughts, we learn the story of Kerek Reider, a brilliant scientist, his wife Eve, and their sons, Otto and Ecco. There's espionage and paranoia and science and romance and so many other wonderful, intriguing things happening all at once. I hope the remainder of the book is as good as the beginning!