Books

Best fiction of 2015

Fiction

▪ “Academy Street,” by Mary Costello (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Over the course of just 150 or so pages, Costello tells the life story of an Irishwoman who moves to New York in the middle of the 20th century and experiences intense periods of love and heartbreak.

▪ “And West Is West,” by Ron Childress (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill). A gracefully written novel about one life’s inseparability from all others and the importance of personal responsibility in a world ruled by proxies and touch-screens.

▪ Aurora,” by Kim Stanley Robinson (Orbit). In the year 2545, thousands of volunteers begin a multi-generational journey aboard a starship to see if another planet’s moon can sustain human life. More than 150 years later, the passengers finally approach their destination. But what they find on the moon threatens their survival.

▪ “Beatlebone,” by Kevin Barry (Doubleday). A funny and risky reimagining of John Lennon’s existential journey as he retreats to his island west of Ireland and tries to free his mind of domesticity, fame, money and the memory of his parents with the help of his spiritual guide: a cabbie named Cornelius.

▪ “The Buried Giant,” by Kazuo Ishiguro (Knopf). A bittersweet, fable-like novel set in a distant and somewhat mythical version of Britain’s past.

▪ “The Children’s Crusade,” by Ann Packer (Scribner). Four grown siblings, driven together by deciding the fate of their childhood home, try to decipher the calculus of their parents’ troubled marriage in Packer’s elegant third novel.

▪ “Church of Marvels,” by Leslie Parry (HarperCollins). Parry’s utterly captivating first novel has a desperate, visceral quality, its turn-of-the-century New York teeming with lost or broken humans just trying to survive. The story takes us from a family-operated Coney Island sideshow to a bleak, barbaric insane asylum, to the city’s underground opium dens — all places that carry a morbid sense of historical fascination.

▪ “Delicious Foods,” by James Hannaham (Little, Brown). A propulsive story about a teenager trying to save his drug-addicted mother from indentured servitude on a modern-day fruit farm. In swift, startling scenes, Hannaham makes visible the ornate prison of racism.

▪ “Dragonfish,” by Vu Tran (Norton). In Tran’s elegant and entertaining novel, a cop searches for his ex-wife, a haunted Vietnamese immigrant, in the sleazy underbelly of Las Vegas.

▪ “The Dirty Dust,” by Mairtin Ó Cadhain (Yale University Press). A ribald, rollicking novel set in an Irish graveyard and populated by dead people you will wish you had known in life.

▪ Eileen,” by Ottessa Moshfegh (Penguin Press). In this dark, Hitchcockian novel, Eileen Dunlop — an endearing misfit who works in a boys prison outside Boston in the early ’60s — is clearly headed for disaster. But even when it arrives, in predictable violence, the reader can only gape in awe.

▪ Finale: A Novel of the Reagan Years,” by Thomas Mallon (Pantheon). A political drama set mostly in 1986 and 1987 that is anchored in historical events and oozing withering assessments of real-life people: Nancy Reagan, Richard Nixon and, of course, the Gipper himself.

▪ “The First Bad Man,” by Miranda July (Scribner). July’s debut novel shimmers with sharp details and disarming frankness, following Cheryl, a pathologically pathetic middle manager, as she navigates a sinister world of adult games.

▪ Frog,” by Mo Yan, translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt (Viking). The Nobel Prize-winning author grapples daringly with China’s recently relaxed one-child policy. The narrator is a writer struggling to turn the life of his aunt, a midwife-turned-abortionist, into a nine-act play, which forms the book’s epilogue.

▪ “The Girl on the Train,” by Paula Hawkins (Riverhead Books). While you want to yell at the main narrator, Rachel, an unemployed alcoholic, and drag her to an AA meeting, you also root for her as she desperately, obsessively tries to solve the disappearance of a stranger she’d watched from her window. Read it before next October: That’s when the movie starring Emily Blunt hits theaters.

▪ “God Help the Child,” by Toni Morrison (Knopf). Toni Morrison is a masterful storyteller and her 11th novel is an emotional look at colorism, family and how the pain we experience as children can haunt us.

▪ “A God in Ruins,” by Kate Atkinson (Little, Brown). Using the slipperiness of time and narrative, Atkinson plays with her reader and novel like a kitten with a ball of literary yarn. The second half of the 20th century is played out in the rewarding, yet crumbling, lives of Teddy Todd and his beloved family.

▪ “Go Set a Watchman,” by Harper Lee (Harper). While this “second” novel from the acclaimed author of the American classic “To Kill a Mockingbird” probably won’t make many other “best of” lists, it is certainly one of the biggest talkers this year. For that alone, it deserves mention.

▪ “Fates and Furies,” by Lauren Groff (Riverhead Books). In sublime language, Groff gives the reader two sides of the same marriage and the unknown lengths to which spouses will go to protect each other out of love, devotion, distrust and disappointment.

▪ “I Refuse,” by Per Petterson (Graywolf Press). In a spartan but resonant novel about two former friends whose lives have taken very different paths, Petterson, a widely admired Norwegian writer, reflects on the nature of memory and the outsized role that happenstance can play in shaping one’s destiny.

▪ “Kitchens of the Great Midwest,” by J. Ryan Stradal (Pamela Dorman Books). A delectable novel about the power of food, love, cooking and fate to shape a young chef and the family, friends and strangers who influence her life.

▪ “The Lady From Zagreb,” by Philip Kerr (G.P. Putnam’s Sons). If Philip Marlowe, Raymond Chandler’s private detective, walked not the streets of 1940s Los Angeles but 1940s Berlin, he’d be called Bernie Gunther — that’s Kerr’s very nervy gumshoe, who must solve the mysteries here and somehow not provoke his Nazi acquaintances.

▪ “Land Where I Flee,” by Prajwal Parajuly (Quercus). Four siblings travel home to India for their grandmother’s birthday. Having largely escaped the taboos and prejudices of their childhoods, they’re forced to re-evaluate decisions they’ve made and the power their grandmother still wields over them.

▪ “A Little Life,” by Hanya Yanagihara (Doubleday). A finalist for the National Book Award, Yanagihara’s novel about four young men who move to New York City illuminates human suffering pushed to its limits, drawn in extraordinary, eloquent detail.

▪ “Loving Day,” by Mat Johnson (Spiegel & Grau). Imagine Dave Chappelle or Aaron McGruder taking a satirical look at mixed-race identity in America. This is cynical and a little wild but still speaks to real identity issues.

▪ “The Marauders,” by Tom Cooper (Crown). An ensemble crime drama peopled with eccentric, memorable characters that takes place in the vividly conjured Louisiana bayou during the BP oil spill.

▪ “The Mare,” by Mary Gaitskill (Pantheon). With her trademark precision and emotional clarity, Mary Gaitskill details the trials of Velveteen Vargas, a Fresh Air Fund kid who finds an unlikely companion in an unruly mare.

▪ “Mislaid,” by Nell Zink (Ecco). A zany, comic novel dealing with the most profound social issues of our day — race and sexuality — told with verve in a refreshing original voice. Longlisted for the National Book Award.

▪ “Purity,” by Jonathan Franzen (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). This ingeniously plotted, fat novel spans the States (with a brief touch down in Wichita) and the globe, and covers our vanishing privacy, our cheap affair with celebrity and the ethics of investigative journalism vs. data dumping. But it’s weighed down with more bad mothers than you’ve seen this side of the Brothers Grimm.

▪ “The Secret Chord,” by Geraldine Brooks (Viking). A novelistic retelling of the biblical King David by the Pulitzer-winning author of “March” holds both a coming-of-age tale and classic tragedy.

▪ “Sweetland,” by Michael Crummey (Liveright, published in Canada in 2014 but the U.S. in 2015). A loner refuses to leave his small Newfoundland community when the town is resettled by the government. Terrific characterization and setting bring this atmospheric novel to life.

▪ The Sympathizer,” by Viet Thanh Nguyen (Grove). Nguyen’s tragicomic debut novel fills a void in Vietnam War literature, giving a voice to the Vietnamese and compelling the rest of us to look at the events of 40 years ago in a new light.

▪ “Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights,” by Salman Rushdie (Random House). An enchanting magic carpet ride backward and forward in time, set in New York City in the near future after a storm. One of our greatest living storytellers returns to the novel after eight years with a deeply satisfying tale.

▪ “Undermajordomo Minor,” by Patrick deWitt (Ecco). Lucien (Lucy) Minor befriends thieves, meets an obedient servant, runs into a “misbehaving” master and enters into a love triangle over the course of this hilarious gothic fairy-tale novel that feels like a Wes Anderson film and is a lot of fun to read.

▪ “The Unraveling of Mercy Louis,” by Keija Parssinen (Harper). In this engaging contemporary reprise of Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible,” female sexuality is put on trial in a humid refinery town in southeast Texas as the star female basketball player, and other girls, begin to suffer a “mass psychogenic illness.”

▪ “The Water Knife,” by Paolo Bacigalupi (Knopf). A thrilling, prescient novel about the struggle for survival via water rights in a dystopian, drought-stricken United States.

▪ “Welcome to Braggsville,” by T. Geronimo Johnson (Morrow). Johnson is a master at stripping away our persistent myths and exposing the subterfuge and displacement necessary to keep pretending that a culture built on kidnapping, rape and torture was the apotheosis of gentility and honor. This shockingly funny story, longlisted for the National Book Award, pricks every nerve (on both sides) of the American body politic.

▪ “West of Sunset,” by Stewart O’Nan (Viking). This novel follows F. Scott Fitzgerald during his years as a struggling screenwriter. Its Golden Age Hollywood feels lived-in and real and makes for a welcoming read.

▪ “The Whites,” by Richard Price, writing as Harry Brandt (Henry Holt and Co.). Few fiction writers examine the minds and lives of policemen as well as Price does. This latest novel explores the effects of old crimes and rough justice.

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