If you’re short on time, wandering into a bookshop or library and trying to find something you’ll enjoy reading can sometimes seem like trying to find a needle in a haystack! Whether you’re a fan of thrillers, fancy an engaging historical romp or keen on staying up-to-date with literature’s latest luminary, our edit of the Best Books of 2015 is a very good place to start…
Deservedly in the running for the Costa Prize, A Place Called Winter is one of those stories that you’ll be reflecting on long after you reach the final page. Patrick Gale’s latest novel tells the tale of an upper class Edwardian gentleman who swaps London for the vast and frozen wasteland of Canada (for reasons not entirely within his control) and carves out a new life as a farmer; it’s an epic journey, a love story and a fascinating historical piece all in one. Having read it less than a year ago, I’m already itching to go back to it.
There’s no Ralph, and Margaret doesn’t make an appearance, but for anyone who was a Judy Blume fan as a tween, you can’t possibly not adore her latest foray into fiction. Her first for adults in 15 years, In the Unlikely Event is set in the 1950s and tells the story of a New Jersey town coming to terms with a series of air accidents. The writing isn’t her best, but the fun is in the gossipy style and the small-time drama, and in working out the connections between the many, many characters she brings to life with verve and affection.
We’ve all had that ‘what if’ moment at least once, whether it’s a question mark over a job we didn’t take or someone we didn’t date. Laura Barnett takes that concept and runs with it in this very impressive debut, coming up with three different paths for young lovers Eva and Jim as they grow older and wiser throughout the 20th century. Each ‘version’ is richly imagined and has its upsides; the challenge comes in keeping track of all the moving parts. I’d recommend reading The Versions of Us as a physical book, rather than on Kindle, so you can keep looking back.
You’d have to have a heart of stone for this tale of three Indian men living undercover, undocumented lives in Britain not to at least dent your perceptions of immigration, aspiration and privilege. Each man has a different reason for fleeing to Sheffield, and Sunjeev Sahota weaves their backstories into the book so that as their year in Britain progresses, you root for them ever more. But it’s far more than misery lit; it’s also a grim and thought-provoking exploration of India’s caste system, the visa-marriage industry, and how poverty and desperation can poison personal relationships. Nominated for the Man Booker, The Year of the Runaways deserves all the critical acclaim it got.
In Mazie Phillips, bestselling novelist Attenberg has created perhaps the most memorable and endearing character of the year. Mazie, who comes of age in the seedy backstreets of Prohibition-era New York, is the ultimate old-fashioned broad with a heart of gold, a do-gooder with a sharp tongue. She works in the ticket office of the Venice cinema, a role she initially takes on with reluctance but grows to love, and when the Depression hits, she fights to keep it open and do what she can for the homeless folk of the lower east side. Steeped in period history and told from several perspectives, Saint Mazie – loosely based on real events – is heart-warming and lovely; I devoured it.
In the wake of the various Girls – Gone and on a Train – there has been a rush of identikit thrillers, many of them featuring unstable women and not all of them as gripping as they’d like to be. Not so I Saw a Man, which starts off as a well-observed story about suburban life in London and lost love, suddenly morphs into a mystery spanning London, New York and Nevada, and it’s a real nail-biter. One quiet afternoon, Michael Turner pops next door to his neighbours’ house to investigate a disturbance. What happens next, and then, what happens after that, will have catastrophic consequences for him and for the entire family next door.
Yes, it’s long. Very long. More than 900 pages, to be precise, and the payoff isn’t nearly as good as it should be after all that build up. But Garth Risk Hallberg’s much-discussed debut is simply brimming with intricate character depictions and the individual stories he tells – usually in lengthy digressions from the plot, but never mind – are captivating. Set mostly in 1970s New York – a gritty, almost dystopian landscape of rioting, vandalism, drugs and crime – Hallberg chronicles the lead up to a dramatic event on New Year’s Eve 1977 in the first section, then switches focus to the following July, when a city-wide blackout hits. If you’ve got time over Christmas, City On Fire is a novel to get well and truly stuck into.
There’s no category called schadenfreude lit (that I know of), but if there was one, this book would fit right in. Charlotte’s life is so utterly horrible when the book starts; as an artistically-frustrated housewife and mother in 1960s Cambridge she is constantly exhausted and isolated. Then her husband Henry – who has his own misery to deal with – decides to move the family half a world away, to Australia. Charlotte’s agony looks set only to grow, and their marriage starts to crumble. The Other Side of the World is a story about rootlessness and hope, it sounds miserable, but is redeemed by the fact that Bishop is a talent, evocative writer.
Technically this is a round-up of 2015’s best fiction, and a memoir shouldn’t be included. But Pick’s no-holds-barred account of her struggle with depression, her problems having a baby and her troubled relationship with her fiancé is one of the most honest, poignant things I’ve read this year. At the heart of Between Gods is Pick’s decision whether or not to convert to Judaism – the religion she grew up not knowing was her father’s and that saw her family destroyed during the Holocaust – but beyond that, it’s about finding a place in this complicated, messy, non-stop modern world of ours. Which is something we can all relate to.
A lively yarn set in the seedy underworld of late 19th century New York, Leslie Parry’s debut novel follows a cast of enigmatic characters over the course of a single night in Manhattan, weaving together four complicated stories. Parry’s troupe of oddballs includes Odile Church, a Coney Island performer who has lost everything and is desperate to find her sister Belle; Sylvan Threadgill, an impoverished privy cleaner; the well-married Alphie who finds herself in a lunatic asylum with no memory of how she got there, and an unnamed, silent woman she encounters in the ward. Church of Marvels is madcap and peculiar – and good fun.