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31 December 2015

My Top 5 Books of 2015

2015 was a record year of reading to me — I powered through 158 books including a couple of re-reads. Last year, somewhat grudgingly, I made the switch to e-books — I try to use my local library as much as possible but the wait lists for new books are often too long — which probably helped to boost my numbers. You can probably tell from my full reading list that crime and psychological thrillers and mysteries are still my favourite genres, but I try to read as widely as I can, seeking recommendations from friends, colleagues and blogs. Here are my top five:

1. A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. Regular readers will not be surprised that Yanagihara's brutal but brilliant, heart-breaking but heartfelt novel is my favourite of the year. The story of talented but damaged Jude and his three best friends from college as they navigate relationships, careers and, well, life isn't at all what I expected. It certainly isn't always easy to read, but A Little Life is well worth the emotional effort; I could scarcely put it down throughout its 700-odd pages.

2. The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett. What might my life have been like if only I hadn't fallen off my bike? This is the question posed by Barnett's novel, in which we are treated to three versions of the relationship between Jim and Eva, who variously meet (or don't) in Cambridge in the 1950s. It sounds a little like Sliding Doors, but I thought it was more of the calibre of Sartre's Les Jeux Sont Faits. It is a tale of possibility, hope and love — what it means to succeed and what it means to find a soulmate.

3. Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff. The opening scene of Fates and Furies — a young couple, newly married, alone on the beach; one talented and happy, one with a darker past — reminded me of Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach, which I loathed. Nonetheless, I stuck with it as the story of handsome, golden Lotto and intelligent, enigmatic Mathilde gradually unfolded. It was only after a dramatic change of narrative structure part-way through, as we segue from the titular fates to the furies, that the novel really hooked me in. Like its central characters, Fates and Furies is often smart and often beautiful, but sometimes painful.

4. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. A young blind girl and her father flee Paris for the Brittany coast in 1940. Hundreds of miles away, a young German boy becomes an expert at fixing radios, before earning a place at a tough military academy. These stories, we sense, will overlap but when and how? Doerr's novel is meticulously observed, rich and tender, if very slightly too long.

5. Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill. I don't usually enjoy structural or stylistic elegance in a novel when it comes at the expense of plot and characters, but Offill's quirky tragicomedy combines style and substance. Well-paced, convincing and enjoyable, Dept. of Speculation offers brief snapshots into the life of a Brooklyn-based writer and her husband as their marriage begins to falter.

And in case my shortlist is too short, here are a few bonus recommendations for the five books that just missed out on a top-five spot:

  • We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas. On the surface, We Are Not Ourselves reads a little like a mash-up of Colm Toíbín's Brooklyn and another novel that was made into a popular film this year (spoiler alert: click here if you want to know which one). A young Irish-American from Brooklyn meets and falls in love with a scientist who is quite different from the boys she has ever known. We Are Not Ourselves tells the story of their relationship over the next few decades — a recurring theme in my 2015 favourites. More than that, though, it's a chronicle of a changing country and of that often elusive American Dream. Thomas's novel is slow-moving at times, but thoughtful, beautiful and sad.
  • So You've Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson. A cautionary tale for the Twitter generation, Ronson's book explores what it means to be publicly shamed in the digital age. He interviews a number of people whose lives have been altered forever after they did something stupid on social media. So You've Been Publicly Shamed is, by turns, fascinating and appalling. 
  • Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami. Since my trip to Japan last year, I've been trying to soak up as much Japanese culture as I can and Kawakami's novel about the friendship between a 30-something woman and her former high-school teacher is beautiful, understated and tender. It transported me back to Tokyo, evoking many of the city's sights, sounds, smells and sensations.
  • The Likeness by Tana French. I had to include at least one crime novel on my longlist and Tana French's Dublin Murder Squad series was one of my favourite discoveries this year — I'm late to the game, I know. Each of the five novels features a different detective from the (fictional) squad as they try to solve a current crime that also prompts them to confront their own past. The Likeness, which is narrated by a female detective who goes undercover to investigate the murder of her döppelganger, is my favourite and is compelling, intriguing and well written.
  • Purity by Jonathan Franzen. Well, what would a 'books of the year' round-up be without a Great American Novel? In Purity, though, Franzen's tongue is often firmly in his cheek (one of the characters even remarks that most Great American Novelists seem to be called Jonathan). Epic in scope with complex, overlapping plots that jump from Berkeley coffee shops to East German cover-ups. 

My complete 2015 reading list (re-reads are in italics):
  • The Miniaturist — Jessie Burton
  • An Officer and a Spy — Robert Harris
  • Buried Angels — Camilla Lackberg
  • Dept. of Speculation — Jenny Offill
  • Everything I Never Told You — Celeste Ng
  • Red Dragon — Thomas Harris
  • Wonderland — Stacey D'Erasmo
  • Nobody Is Ever Missing — Catherine Lacey
  • The Architect's Apprentice — Elif Shafak
  • The Girls at the Kingfisher Club — Genevieve Valentine 
  • Wild — Cheryl Strayed
  • What If — Randall Munroe
  • The Girl on the Train — Paula Hawkins
  • You — Joanna Briscoe
  • Still Alice —  Lisa Genova
  • The Burning Room — Michael Connelly
  • Cold Cold Heart — Tami Hoag
  • Dark Places — Gillian Flynn
  • The Boston Girl — Anita Diamant
  • Unbecoming — Rebecca Scherm
  • The Company You Keep — Neil Gordon
  • Left Neglected — Lisa Genova
  • All the Light We Cannot See — Anthony Doerr
  • Yes Please — Amy Poehler
  • Alan Turing — Andrew Hodges
  • Binary Star — Sarah Gerard 
  • Our Tragic Universe — Scarlett Thomas 
  • A Spool of Blue Thread — Anne Tyler
  • Unbroken — Laura Hillenbrand
  • July's People — Nadine Gordimer
  • Don't Sweat the Small Things — Richard Carlson
  • American Sniper — Chris Kyle
  • The Forgotten Girls — Sara Blaedel
  • Butterflies in November — Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir
  • The Driver's Seat — Muriel Spark
  • The Jigsaw Man — Paul Britton
  • Mightier Than the Sword — Jeffrey Archer
  • A Little Life — Hanya Yanagihara
  • The Nightingale — Kristin Hannah
  • The List — Karin Tanabe
  • Ballad of a Small Player — Lawrence Osborne
  • Missing You — Harlan Coben
  • World Gone By — Dennis Lahane
  • The Good Girl — Mary Kubica
  • What Alice Forgot — Liane Moriarty
  • The Sun and Other Stars — Brigid Pasulka
  • The Rosie Effect — Graeme Simsion
  • The Children's Crusade — Ann Packer
  • The Crown — Nancy Bilyeau
  • The Creation of Anne Boleyn — Susan Bordo
  • Unravel — Calia Read
  • H Is for Hawk — Helen MacDonald
  • So You've Been Publicly Shamed — Jon Ronson
  • Don't Try To Find Me — Holly Thomas
  • The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace — Jeff Hobbs
  • Skippy Dies — Paul Murray
  • We Are Not Ourselves — Matthew Thomas
  • At the Water's Edge — Sara Gruen
  • Strange Weather in Tokyo — Hiromi Kawakami
  • Forensics — Val McDermid
  • The Visionist — Rachel Urquhart
  • Finding Zero — Amir Aczel
  • The Flash Boys — Michael Lewis
  • Last One Home — Debbie Macomber
  • The Buried Giant — Kazuo Ishiguro
  • Luckiest Girl Alive — Jessica Knoll
  • The Information — James Gleick
  • After the Crash — Michel Bussi
  • The Girls from Corona del Mar  — Rufi Thorpe
  • The Headmaster's Wife — Thomas Christopher Greene
  • In a Dark, Dark Wood — Ruth Ware
  • Inside the O'Briens — Lisa Genova
  • The Boys in the Boat — Daniel James Brown
  • My Salinger Year — Joanna Rakoff
  • The Japan Journals: 1947-2004 — Donald Richie
  • Techbitch — Lucy Sykes & Jo Piazza
  • Thomas Cromwell: Servant to Henry VIII — David Loades
  • Confessions of a Player — Victoria Coren
  • The Versions of Us — Laura Barnett
  • Into the Forest — Jean Hegland
  • In the Woods — Tana French
  • The Likeness — Tana French
  • Every Secret Thing — Laura Lippman
  • Landmarks — Robert Macfarlane
  • True Story —  Michael Finkel
  • Serena — Ron Rash
  • Faithful Place — Tana French
  • Among the Ten Thousand Things — Julia Pierpont
  • The Interlude — Rupert Smith
  • The Book of Numbers — Joshua Cohen
  • Anna Karenina — Leo Tolstoy
  • Into Thin Air — Jon Krakauer
  • Broken Harbour — Tana French
  • The Price of Salt — Patricia Highsmith
  • The Light Between the Oceans — ML Stedman
  • Hardly Knew Her — Laura Lippman
  • The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying — Marie Kondo
  • Pretty Baby — Mary Kubica
  • Go Set a Watchman — Harper Lee
  • Far from the Madding Crowd — Thomas Hardy
  • In the Unlikely Event — Judy Blume
  • A Window Opens — Elisabeth Egan
  • The Good Girl — Fiona Neill
  • Pitch Perfect — Mickey Rapkin
  • The Driftless Area — Tom Drury
  • To the Power of Three — Laura Lippman
  • The Secret Scripture — Sebastian Barry
  • Villa America — Liza Klaussmann
  • The Taming of the Queen — Philippa Gregory
  • The Sisters — Claire Douglas
  • The Year of Living Danishly — Helen Russell
  • Purity — Jonathan Franzen
  • I Let You Go — Claire Mackintosh
  • Elizabeth — David Starkey
  • A Book of Common Prayer — Joan Didion
  • The Kind Worth Killing — Peter Swanson
  • Fates and Furies — Lauren Groff
  • The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. — Adelle Waldman
  • Early One Morning — Virginia Baily
  • Sweet Caress — William Boyd
  • The Narrow Road to the Deep North — Richard Flanagan
  • The Heart Goes Last — Margaret Atwood
  • Did You Ever Have a Family? — Bill Clegg
  • The Martian — Andy Weir
  • Snowdrops — A.D. Miller
  • Blue Nights — Joan Didion
  • Sleeping on Jupiter — Anuradha Roy
  • Rogue Lawyer — John Grisham 
  • The Road to Little Dribbling — Bill Bryson
  • Depraved Heart — Patricia Cornwell
  • Friday on My Mind — Nicci French
  • Golden Age — Jane Smiley
  • Never Look Back — Clare Donoghue
  • A Guide to Berlin — Gail Jones
  • Liar's Chair — Rebecca Whitney 
  • What Lies Between Us — Nayomi Munaweera
  • The Good Liar — Nicholas Searle
  • Rock, Paper, Scissors — Naja Marie Aidt
  • The Ice Twins — SK Tremayne
  • The Crossing — Michael Connelly
  • The Ninth Life of Louis Drax — Liz Jensen
  • The Cuckoo's Calling — Robert Galbraith 
  • The Darkest Secret — Alex Marwood
  • The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend — Katarina Bivald
  • No 11 — Jonathan Coe
  • The Girl in the Spider's Web — David Lagercrantz
  • The Tea Planter's Wife — Dinah Jeffries
  • The Verdict — Nick Stone
  • Where'd You Go, Bernadette? — Maria Semple
  • The Danish Girl — David Ebershoff
  • The Secret House — Nicci French
  • The Blondes — Emily Schultz
  • Where My Heart Used to Beat — Sebastian Faulks
  • The Silkworm — Robert Galbraith
  • Career of Evil — Cormoran Strike
  • Hotels of North America — Rick Moody
  • Not on Fire, but Burning — Greg Hrbek
  • Primates of Park Avenue — Wednesday Martin


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