I love and hate best-of-the-year lists. Love because I can’t resist reading them; hate because I abhor picking a favorite anything.
Please know that though I’m calling these my favorites, I’m holding them loosely. These are the best novels I read in 2015, no matter their publication date, and if this list is anything like those from previous years, I probably forgot at least one title I completely and utterly adored.
I’ve heard my mom gush about this book for pretty much my whole life, and finally read it in January for the "a book your mom loves" category in the Reading Challenge. Of course, my only regret was that I’d waited so long: I loved this story from page one's metaphor of the unlikely tree in Brooklyn. No description I ever heard before made me want to read it, so I'll spare you the plot synopsis. I'll just say: read it. Wistful, haunting, satisfying. (I listened to the audio version, which—barring some infrequent random jazz music—was quite good.) More info →
In her last novel Life After Life, Ursula Todd lived many versions of her life. This companion shows much of the same story from her brother Teddy’s point of view. It lacks the showiness of its predecessor, yet the structure remains strong, and subtly inventive. While Ursula’s life (lives?) centered on the blitz, Teddy’s one life (albeit with a twist) centers on Britain’s strategic bombing campaign against Germany. As a Halifax pilot, Teddy’s life expectancy was brutally short: the statistics were overwhelmingly against his survival. When the war ends, he has a hard time coming to terms with the future he’s been given, and suffers mightily from survivor’s guilt. This is an awfully good book, nimbly spanning generations, and marvelously told. More info →
I love Marilynne Robinson's writing, though I have to be in the mood for it: she writes lyrical, beautifully constructed prose. In her latest novel, Robinson brings her reader back to Iowa, where we revisit characters we've met in Gilead and Home. (Or not—the books don't have to be read in order.) On its surface, this is a quiet novel about quiet people, but Robinson is adept at probing what's really going on beneath the surface. A gorgeous novel. More info →
This one spent years on my TBR list, because so many friends with great taste called it THE best book they ever read. I'm so glad I finally read it, although it did take me nearly two months to get through. (It IS 645 pages long, but it wanders a bit.) I don't remember what my expectations were about this book, but whatever they were, they were wrong. Duncan combines the Vietnam War, bush league baseball, Seventh Day Adventism, and family ties into an incredible, heart-wrenching story. The book is truly remarkable for the times when it reveals the deep joy present in a family's lowest moments. Due to some tough themes and a ton of language, this isn't for the faint of heart. More info →
I have been impatiently waiting for Kate Morton's next novel for years and this one didn't disappoint: I think it's her best yet. In 1933, a young child disappeared without a trace. In 2003, a disgraced young detective stumbles upon the cold case and soon discovers its ties to one of England's oldest and most celebrated mystery writer (think Agatha Christie). I absolutely loved reading a mystery novel about a mystery novelist: the references to the fictional author's writing process and working life were delightfully meta and utterly fascinating. More info →
This is Nigerian novelist Adichie’s third novel, but the first I've read. The story centers around a smart, strong-willed Nigerian woman named Ifemelu. After university, she travels to America for postgraduate work, where she endures several years of near-destitution, and a horrific event that upends her world. She finds her way, winning a fellowship at Princeton, and gaining acclaim for her blog, called “Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black." A highlight: Adichie seamlessly weaves blog posts—about race, national identity, class, poverty, and hair—into the narrative. The novel grapples with difficult issues without becoming overwrought. I would not have read this based on the flap copy, but I was hooked from page one. Haunting, moving, incredibly well done. Terrific on audio.
For years I've been calling myself a lover of British literature, and yet I'd never read Middlemarch. (I say I love long books, but at 904 pages it was more than a little intimidating.) This year I remedied that unfortunate situation. Eliot’s hefty masterpiece combines her “study of provincial life” with a close look at several young couples who fall (or think they fall) in love. Who will find lasting happiness, and who won’t, and why? By focusing on the narrow disappointments and particular joys of this small community, Eliot cuts to the heart of human nature. A novel about love, happiness, and second chances. More info →
This year I inhaled all 11 books in Louise Penny's Inspector Gamache series. I thoroughly enjoyed the series as a whole, but this seventh installment was my favorite individual title. (The books don't have to be read in order, but I recommend it.) Inspector Gamache returns to Three Pines to solve a murder that's intimately tied to the world of fine art. The story is built around the concept of chiaroscuro—the contrast between dark and light that's significant in some artists' works, and in all our natures. I couldn't put this down. More info →
I had to be talked into reading this one, because this book wasn't exactly calling my name. I couldn't care less about video games or John Hughes movies, but this exceptional book hooked me from page one. It’s 2044 and the world is in shambles, so who can blame Wade Watts if he’d rather live in a virtual reality than the real one? Like many of his peers, Wade spends his waking hours by himself, logged into a virtual reality game, racing through a computerized scavenger hunt in which his success depends on his knowledge of obscure ‘80s pop culture references. Dystopian novels abound, but they’re not usually this fun. (I loved the audio version narrated by Wil Wheaton.) More info →