The best books of 2015 immersed us in richly imagined stories about marriages, murders and general mayhem, as well as the grim reality of racism in America, memories of a life infused with music and advice on how to tap into our inner creativity. Condensing the year’s great books into a manageable list was challenging, but here’s a look at some you should read or give as gifts as 2015 draws to a close:
Best novel: Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff (Riverhead)
Why it’s a winner: This sharp-edged dissection of a marriage was a finalist for this year’s National Book Award, but surely there was no book published in 2015 that so deftly cut into gritty pieces the complicated relationship that exists between husbands and wives. As in all great stories about marriage, this one also contains secrets. The novel is written in two parts. The first follows the life of “Lotto” Satterwhite, an actor-turned-playwright born into a rich Florida family. He marries the darkly secretive but seemingly steadfast and supportive Mathilde whose story and perspective unfold in the book’s second half. Groff’s knack for nailing the emotional choreography that goes into making a marriage work – or not – is encapsulated in a remark that an acting coach observes early in the novel: “Storytelling is a landscape, and tragedy is comedy is drama. It simply depends on how you frame what you’re seeing.” It’s all here – sex, money, fame, fortune, betrayals and lies – you just have to open the book and start reading, compulsively.
Best non-fiction: Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (Spiegel & Grau)
Why it’s a winner: When an esteemed writer like Toni Morrison proclaims The Atlantic magazine writer Coates’ meditation on being black in America “required reading,” it’s time to take notice. Judges for the National Book Award did, naming it the non-fiction book of the year. Between the World and Me is written by Coates in the form of a letter to his teenage son about what it means socially, culturally and politically to be black in America. No issue this year has ignited more passion. “I write you in your 15th year,” writes Coates. “And you know now, if you did not before, that the police departments of your country have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body. . . . I tell you now that the question of how one should live within a black body, within a country lost in the Dream, is the question of my life, and the pursuit of this question, I have found, ultimately answers itself.” Coates’ book is required reading for anyone trying to understand racial tensions in America.
Best Mystery: The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins (Riverhead)
Why it’s a winner: This suspenseful noir novel would have been on the fast track to fame even if pre-publication reviews hadn’t been comparing it to Gillian Flynn’s explosively popular Gone Girl. Like Flynn’s novel, the story in The Girl on the Train is told by multiple unreliable narrators including Rachel, the girl on the train, who, like the main character in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, observes some very suspicious behavior while looking through a window. When a woman goes missing, Rachel, a gin guzzling, blackout-prone divorcee, inserts herself into a local murder investigation to her detriment. Packed with red herrings, secrets and seductions, this novel now has its fans panting for the film version, in production, starring Emily Blunt.
Best Short Story Collection: The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra (Hogarth)
Why it’s a winner: For better or worse, as we’re constantly told, our attention spans are becoming shorter. For short-story writers it’s a Golden Age, yet few can match the bright, funny, yet darkly tragic tales that Marra tells in this superior collection. Set mostly in war-torn Chechnya, these stories encapsulate humanity’s eternal yearnings for love and happiness even as violence, environmental disasters and broken hearts abound. In the final story, aptly called “The End,” Kolya, a recurring character, appears to be tucked inside a rocket ship headed for Saturn. His observations capture the enduring optimism of the stories’ men and women. “There were days,” he says, “when Earth’s small glories were luminous enough to make church icons dim to a lesser shade of gold.”
Why it’s a winner: You may know her as the star of IFC’s Emmy-nominated comedy Portlandia or as the guitarist and vocalist for the all-girl rock band Sleater-Kinney. Now, Brownstein’s tale of growing up as a music-loving nerd and her immersion in the indie rock and riot grrrl scenes ensure that people will also recognize her for her storytelling talents. As much a history of the music scene of the late 20th and early 21st century, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl—the title comes from a song lyric—is a smartly told, deeply personal account of coming of age through music. She writes how Sleater-Kinney hoped to “expand the notion of what it means to be female” and how music, from an early age, lifted her above her challenging childhood with an anorexic mother and a father who later tells her he’s gay. Through all the tumult, she writes, music was her savior: “I was relieved that music had done exactly what I had always wanted it to do, which was turn me into someone else.”
Top books in other categories:
YA Fiction: Bone Gap by Laura Ruby (Balzer + Bray). As much a tender love story as it is a tale of the supernatural, this novel’s action takes place in the menacingly named community of Bone Gap “where the skin of the world thinned,” a place that “had gaps just wide enough for people to slip through, or slip away, leaving only their stories behind.” This novel’s brutal honesty about loss, young love and redemption make it appealing to teens and adults.
Self Help/Inspirational: Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert (Riverhead). The “Eat Pray Love” author, humbly and generously, shares her wealth of knowledge about how to overcome fear and embrace your inner creativity. She doesn’t promise success and fortune but she guarantees a richer life. “The universe buries strange jewels within us all, and then stands back to see if we can find them,” Gilbert writes. “The hunt to uncover those jewels – that’s creative living.”
Historical Fiction: The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks (Viking). In this cinematic portrayal of one of Israel’s greatest kings, Brooks digs deeper than the legend surrounding his slaying of Goliath and produces a magnificent portrait of a violent and selfish, as well as loyal and determined, warrior and man. From the opening pages, where Brooks describes David’s physical beauty, to the richly detailed scenes in which David’s prophet, Natan, describes how he will record David’s history as a man who “built a nation, made music that pleased heaven, and left poems in our mouths that will be spoken by people yet unborn,” readers will be captivated.
Narrative Nonfiction: Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson (Crown/Archetype). One of the greatest sea disasters took place in 1915 when a German U-boat sunk the “fast, comfortable, and beloved” Lusitania, celebrated as the fastest luxury ocean liner ever built. Larson’s colorful description of the ship’s final voyage from New York to Liverpool – you can practically smell the bracing sea air – is a suspenseful story that jangles the nerves even though we know the ship’s fate.
Science Fiction/Fantasy: The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin (Orbit). This suspenseful first book in a new trilogy—The Broken Earth series—is an on-trend post-Apocalyptic tale that takes readers to a time of cataclysmic tectonic events. The riveting major characters control the earth’s geological forces even as they deal with those who want to destroy them because of their powers. This novel, from the Nebula and Hugo Award-nominated Jemisin, is perfect for a wide-ranging audience from lovers of The Walking Dead to Margaret Atwood’s dystopian tales.
Horror/Supernatural: Ghost Summer: Stories by Tananarive Due (Prime). Publishers Weekly crowned this short-story collection from the award-winning Due one of the top 10 science fiction/fantasy/horror books of the year. The supernatural-infused stories are bizarre meditations on how we often hide who we really are from ourselves and others. These tales of shape shifters – werewolves who undergo plastic surgery to hide their monthly mutation and a secretive, web-footed woman who finds solace navigating the bottom of a lake – drive home Due’s message about the monsters hiding in all of us.