On Monday we posted our traditional list of our favourite books we read in 2015. This year we thought we’d also ask our authors to submit their favourite books – after all, they have far better taste than us. Their choices are by turns enlightening, inspiring and surprising. Be warned – your ‘to read’ list is about to get even longer…
Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher
Early in 2015, I devoured Julie Schumacher’s epistolary novel, the hilarious Dear Committee Members, in which a creative writing professor’s letters of recommendation inadvertently reveal his miserable personal life. By novel’s end he’s a better person… but the storyline isn’t the point. The point is the pleasure of reading a bookful of deliciously honest recommendation letters, so bitter and passive-aggressive and scathing they made me weep with laughter. Dear Committee Members, which won the 2015 Thurber Prize for American Humor, is a biting look at academia, and this creative writing professor found it painfully funny and enormously cathartic.
Judith Claire Mitchell, author of A Reunion of Ghosts
Shadow Country by Peter Matthiessen
Peter Matthiessen’s incredible Shadow Country combines the moral tumult of Dostoevsky and the unforced precision of Conrad. Beginning with the killing of real life outlaw and plantation owner Edgar Watson in the wilds of Florida in 1910, Matthiessen mixes first person accounts of Watson’s life, a third person narrative where his son tries to come to terms with his father’s true nature, and a final section from the point of view of Watson himself. From this mosaic comes a heart-breaking portrait of a man, a people and a country steeped in cyclical violence. It’s one of the greatest books I’ve read in any year.
Will Smith, author of Mainlander
Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own by Kate Bolick and The Folded Clock: A Diary by Heidi Julavits
It’s a truism that, if you’re open-minded, the right book will find you at the right time to whisper (or shout), if not exactly answers, then smarter echoes of the most burning questions of your heart. This year for me two such books were Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own by Kate Bolick (read on a solo trip to Paris, so no wonder!) and The Folded Clock: A Diary by Heidi Julavits. Distinct in style and scope, both books examine with honesty and humor ways of being a woman, a partner, a writer, a friend, a human.
Kseniya Melnik, author of Snow in May
The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers
Of the books I read this year that I loved most, Carson McCullers’s The Member of the Wedding stands above all. It’s one of those books that have been designated a classic at some point and then seems to have dropped away almost out of sight. It’s a sort-of coming-of-age story; it’s tender and strange and close to perfect.
David Flusfeder, author of John the Pupil
The Green Road by Anne Enright
The best novel I read this year was Anne Enright’s Booker-longlisted The Green Road. I can’t wait to read it again. It’s a page-turner, simply because the writing’s so good. Enright’s multi-faceted narrative moves in jumps from 1980 to 2005, from Ireland to America to Africa and back, zooming in on each of the four Madigan siblings and their difficult, magnetic mother. Anyone who hears the word ‘family’ and walks on will be missing out: this is a novel of extraordinary scope by a supremely talented writer.
Claire Lowdon, author of Left of the Bang
The Visiting Privilege by Joy Williams
I loved Joy Williams’s collection The Visiting Privilege. It’s deep and rich and at times very strange. Williams knows how to chart the dark absurdity and irrationality of every-day people and also how to create stories that feel organic and lived-in but often make you gasp or surprise you with their audacity. I feel like my brain has been rewired by Williams’ fiction and as both a reader and writer I don’t think I’ll ever see short stories quite the same way again.
Jeff VanderMeer, author of the Southern Reach Trilogy
They All Love Jack by Bruce Robinson
I have a guilty fascination with the crimes of Jack the Ripper. It’s led me to read an awful lot of pulpy, lurid trash over the years, but They All Love Jack is the first book on the Whitechapel fiend that I’d be unashamed to tell everyone about – and indeed here I am yelling about it. It’s written in such rolling, eloquent prose, bristling with righteous anger, and gripping to the last endnote.
Gavin Corbett, author of Green Glowing Skull
They Were Counted by Miklos Banffy
Banffy’s Transylvanian Trilogy, set in the run-up to WW1 but written in the ’30s, is a portrait of a ruling class, and of a nation, in decline, written by an insider. Banffy was a land-owning aristo, and Hungary’s foreign minister. He was also a writer of Tolstoyan ambition and breadth. This first volume, with its balls and shooting parties, its two heroes (one a rising politician, the other a self-destructive musician and gambler), its voluptuous love-affairs and its visionary landscapes, is as wise and melancholy and beautiful as an Eastern European equivalent of The Leopard.
Lucy Hughes-Hallett, author of The Pike
Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov
In a year when I worked my way through a lot of very famous and occasionally very long and challenging books, including Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate, A Brief History of the Time and, at the time of writing, 628 pages of Finnegans Wake, I think my favourite was probably Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov, the memoir of his youth in pre-revolutionary Russia and his subsequent exile. It was a reminder not only of Nabokov’s genius for spinning exquisite sentences and then arranging them in a cumulatively revelatory sequence – i.e. writing extraordinary books – but also of how much actual pleasure his work has given me over the last quarter of a century.
Andy Miller, author of The Year of Reading Dangerously
The Beginning of the End by Ian Parkinson
The outstanding book I read in 2015 was Ian Parkinson’s debut novel The Beginning of the End. Man inherits villa, meets Thai bride, loses bride to porn industry and suspicious death, descends horrifyingly into madness. Gene-splice Irvine Welsh and JG Ballard and grow the resulting hybrid in an eerie landscape of mini-malls and shifting dunes – it’s electrifying stuff and did not get half the acclaim it deserved when it came out.
Will Wiles, author of The Way Inn
Weatherland by Alexandra Harris
I loved Alexandra Harris’s Weatherland. It’s full of arcane detail – the 18th century architect John Wood whose ambitious plans for Bath were encouraged by the warm summers of the 1720s and 1730s; Jonathan Swift swimming in the Thames in the dark to cool off in the heat; and Virginia Woolf’s Orlando moving through it all, like a glamorous, transgendered ghost.
Philip Hoare, author of The Sea Inside
The Last Act of Love by Cathy Rentzenbrink
This stunning memoir explores the aftermath of a horrific accident involving Matty, the author’s brother. Emotional punches are delivered repeatedly; it is impossible not to define Cathy by her rise from the devastation. Yet the beauty is in her recalling. Her voice is unpolluted by bitterness and self-pity, instead there’s exploration of love in its purest form. In this unflinchingly honest memoir, Cathy offers hope to those who have survived; she demonstrates that joy and love can be found even after events alter a person forever. I’m left no longer afraid of love – making this memoir my book of 2015.
Caroline Smailes, author of The Drowning of Arthur Braxton
Citizen by Claudia Rankine, Between The World And Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates and Loving Day by Mat Johnson
The three best books I read this year are Citizen by Claudia Rankine, Between The World And Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates and Loving Day by Mat Johnson. I’m quite alarmed that the last one doesn’t have a UK publishing deal. It’s an intensely funny ghost story/campus romp about discovering what it’s like to be mixed race, a father, and the owner of a delapidated house infested with the ghosts of dangerous sorts around your neighbourhood. Between The World And Me and Citizen both explore what it’s like being black in America today, taking in macro- and micro-aggressions, history (both recent and old, local and national) and institutions, in utterly spell-binding ways that play with forms of prose, non-fiction, poetry and experimental writing.
Nikesh Shukla, author of Meatspace
Down To The Sea In Ships by Horatio Clare
I enjoyed Down To The Sea In Ships hugely — the story of two epic voyages around the globe onboard two of the gigantic, ever circling container vessels which collect and deliver so much of the UK’s ‘stuff’ — most of the ‘things’ around you likely came in on a ship.
Interesting as the water worlds of ships, ports, storms, huge waves, ice and seas undoubtedly are, they’re enhanced by Clare’s wonderful way with words. From the first the reader is aware that they’re journeying in the company of a fantastic storyteller with a knack for sketching the world and people he meets above and below decks with warmth, humour, and a wonderful turn of phrase.
Dan Richards, author of The Beechwood Airship Interviews
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