What follows are my comments on most of the very best books I read in the year 2015. According to my list on the Goodreads site, I read 73 books, but actually there were a few more, & I awarded five stars to 26 & this is my selection of the ones I most liked. It’s fun & informative to try to see a pattern & really I don’t, except as usual it’s heavy on crime fiction – which I regard as the best form of fiction for exploring moral & spiritual issues. (Just as so-called ‘literary fiction’ esp. of the ‘postmodern’ variety, is the worst. How would you like to have Julian Barnes or Martin Amis as your spiritual director?) These simply go on the Read shelf along with everything else. My classified shelves hold school stories, stories about relationships & stories about caregiving, named after the first book I read in each when I joined Goodreads in autumn 2012. The other two shelves, nonfiction & classics, explain themselves. I don’t know if I should be embarrassed, or proud, that classics now includes authors who would have been contemporary when I was an undergraduate. Maybe that means I’m a classic too! (I’ve added “You’re So Classic” to my soundtrack.)
Classics for me are by definition five-stars. If you don’t like one (& I’ve bailed out of a few myself, like The Idiot) it’s the reader’s fault. This year on its 3rd reading Brideshead Revisited didn’t make it, tho’ I’d rate Evelyn Waugh as a classic author, but as a satirist always good for a laugh, with little to nourish the spirit. The moral & religious values of this book are wholly outdated, tho’ as a celebration of undergraduate high-living Brideshead Revisited is a perfect reflection of its time. Tho’ I really all but finished my 3rd or 4th time through George Eliot’s Middlemarch in 2014, officially it counts has the greatest classic of my year & indeed probably the best work of domestic fiction in the English language – ever! I though Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, which I’d not read since I was a schoolboy, held up very well, especially as a portrayal of relationships amongst what we’d now call ‘frenemies’ who express their true feelings by what they don’t say. I found Alain Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes (never mind all the different translators’ attempt to get the title into English idiom) a bit disappointing for plot (I wonder if the author hadn’t been killed in the war if there would have been a sequel) but for the characters & the quest & the setting it remains the great French school story, just as Tom Brown’s School Days provides the English touchstone. Whether Emma Smith’s The Far Cry will be rediscovered & ‘canonised’ will be determined by future generations. But I believe for some readers I will always be a treasure & I was so privileged to finish it finally. (And like the MC Teresa, to have once been stared @ in an open car from a very short distance by a very large kitty cat!)
I’ve listed only one nonfiction book, Barry Strauss’s The Death of Caesar, because I’ve not reviewed Rowan Williams (or rather I did but lost it). A few years ago I gave my criteria for five-star history. In addition to fairness, impartiality, accuracy, & engagingness, a five-star must offer the reader a lively sense of being actually present when it happened. This one does. You think you’re right there in the Senate House when Caesar is assassinated. It’s packed full of stuff I didn’t know before, such as that prominent Romans had security details composed of gladiators & that we have archaeological evidence of the very designs of the weapons used to despatch Caesar.
The best American school story I read was Lili Anolik’s Dark Rooms – not quite in the class with Megan Abbott’s Dare Me, but it does rock. Without question, On the Jellicoe Road by Malina Marchetta was the best school story that i’ve read in 2015 & joins my top five by contemporary writers. To be an excellent MC of what we (not I, actually) call a YA requires a fascinating blend of bravery, dedication, self-doubt & uncertainty, love & caring but modesty & self-respect. Taylor exemplifies them all. So also does Tris in Divergent, a book I hadn’t really expected to like, there being so many dystopian YAs out there. Code Name Verity is another adventure story classed as a YA, but for me it shared honours with The Kindly Ones as the best historicals I read this year. The latter is a flesh-crawlingly depiction of a believable all-too-human believing Nazi; the former a touchingly beautiful depiction of two brave young women willing to sacrifice all to put paid to such monsters.
For spooky stuff, Ice Twins edges out Mind of Winter. Hoping F. G. Cottam will make next year’s five star llist. We’ll see. But I’d be tempted to name M. R. Carey’s The Girl with All the Gifts as the best adventure read, as well a classic horror story.
Some other newly discovered favourite authors were Claire Fuller, whose Our Endless Numbered Days is the most moving story about a child growing up amongst strange & terrible circumstances I’ve read since Me & Emma, & Rebecca Scherm, whose Unbecoming (I think there’s a multiple pun in the title) is a great addition to the bad girls club, along with S. Williams Tuesday Falling. Scherm’s Grace wins for cleverness & trickery, William’s Tuesday kick-arse action.
For intensity & the very best setting (but then, for me it would be), the voyage of the yacht The Blue, by Lucy Clarke, was my best read. For sheer all-round artistic brilliance, Sharon Bolton’s Little Black Lies was the very best book to appear this year & a super depiction of grief & loss. I’d not have missed either for the world.