The Mare (Mary Gaitskill) — The last book I read in 2015 (I finished it on December 31!) was also one of the best. Told from multiple viewpoints, it’s the affecting story of Velveteen Vargas (“Velvet”) , a young Dominican girl from Brooklyn who spends summers in upstate New York as a Fresh Air Fund child, and Ginger, her “foster mother”, who becomes deeply involved in Velvet’s life,.
Voracious (Cara Nicoletti) — I loved every page of this book, which is like nothing else I’ve ever read. The author is a butcher (!) and book lover, and the book contains 50 recipes — each inspired by a book that’s meaningful to her.
The Muralist (B.A. Shapiro) — Balancing history and fiction in historical fiction is tricky — The Muralist has a little too much fiction for my taste. I’m glad B.A. Shapiro included a note explaining what she invented, because I kept thinking, “Wow! That really happened?!” (For example, an assassination attempt against a government official.) Still, I learned a lot about abstract expressionism, and the story was well-plotted. If you’re interested in learning more about the FDR administration’s attitude towards Jews and refugees, I’d look elsewhere. The book is particularly poignant given current events.
I’ll Give You the Sun (Jandy Nelson) — Teenage twins Noah and Jude, both artists, are as close as two people can be, but they compete for the love of their parents and the attention of a new friend. Nelson, a poet and literary agent turned YA author, gives us each twin’s perspective in this thoughtful, but well-plotted exploration of art and love.
A Step Towards Falling (Cammie McGovern) — McGovern’s second novel for young adults isn’t as strong and original as her first, but I enjoyed the unique voice of a developmentally disabled high school student.
Early One Morning (Virginia Baily)– Baily’s second novel tells the story of Chiara, a young woman who impulsively saves the life of a young Jewish boy, whom she names “Daniele”, during the Nazi occupation of Italy. Her decision reverberates a generation later, when a teenage girl contacts her, claiming to be Daniele’s daughter. Provides an interesting glimpse into both World War II-era Italy and adoptive parenthood, but the ending felt a little rushed.
The Rising: Murder, Heartbreak, and the Power of Resilience in an American Town (Ryan D’Agostino) — The devastating true story of Dr. William Petit, who lost his wife and two daughters — and was critically injured himself — in a brutal attack in the family’s Connecticut home. Amazingly, Petit has not only survived but managed to rebuild his life. This book, which I read in one day, is a real-life companion to Bill Clegg’s Did You Ever Have a Family.
We Never Asked for Wings (Vanessa Diffenbaugh) — I liked Diffenbaugh’s second novel even more than her first, The Language of Flowers. It’s the coming-of-age story of two people: 16-year-old Alex, who’s devastated when his beloved grandparents return to their native Mexico, and his mother, Letty, who must finally learn to be a parent.
Music for Wartime (Rebecca Makkai) — The stories in this collection vary tremendously in subject matter, tone, and style, but they are united by one central question: what is the role of the artist in this crazy, mixed-up world? I loved some of them and admired all of them.
Belzhar (Meg Wolitzer) — Jam’s parents don’t know what to do with her when she can’t seem to recover from her grief, so they send her to the Wooden Barn, a boarding school for “emotionally fragile, highly intelligent teenagers”. In a very unusual English class, she and her classmates begin to heal. Wolitzer skillfully incorporates fantasy into a novel that at first seems like a straightforward prep school story.
Fates and Furies (Lauren Groff) — I have mixed feelings about this book — it’s a real accomplishment in terms of the careful construction and literary style, but it left me cold. It’s one of those books — and there seem to be more and more of them as I get older –that I admire very much but don’t touch my heart, almost as if it’s an A+ project in an MFA program .
The Hummingbird (Stephen P. Kiernan) — One of my favorite novels of the year, The Hummingbird tells the story of a hospice nurse, her terminally ill patient (a history professor specializing in World War II history), and her war veteran husband. It’s beautiful, suspenseful, and inspiring.
Carrying Albert Home (Homer Hickam) — I can’t help but compare this book to Rocket Boys, Hickam’s debut and one of my all-time favorite memoirs . . . and it comes up short. Carrying Albert Home is a curious blend of fact and fiction that goes on a little too long but still contains some poignant and humorous moments.
Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County: A Family, A Town, A Civil Rights Battle (Kristen Green) — Veteran journalist Green chronicles the years when Prince Edward County, Virginia closed its public schools rather than obey the federal mandate to desegregate — and tells the story of her family’s part in this shameful chapter of history.
Did You Ever Have a Family? (Bill Clegg) — Warning: this book will keep you up late at night, and it will break your heart. The writing is gorgeous, and the tragic story is perfectly constructed. This memorable novel will be one of my favorites of the year. It’s already been longlisted for the 2015 Man Booker Prize.
A Window Opens (Elisabeth Egan) — This book touched my bookselling heart — it’s sort of a mashup of Goodnight June (Sarah Jio) and The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry. It’s the clever and entertaining story of a full-time mother and part-time editor who suddenly needs to find a “real” job — and lands at “Scroll”, an up-and-coming company with a diabolically quirky corporate culture. Perfect for all those readers who don’t want to read “dark” or “depressing” books, the novel pays tribute to independent bookstores — and tells a heartwarming family story at the same time.
Everybody Rise (Stephanie Clifford) — If you liked Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep, you’ll like Everybody Rise. The narrator is a 26-year-old version of the narrator from Prep — a nice, insecure woman turned vicious social climber whose every move makes you cringe. Some of the characters are well-drawn, while others (like Barbara, the narrator’s mother) are unconvincing caricatures. The action, implausible though it often was, kept me turning the pages.
Crooked Heart (Lissa Evans) — A precocious 10-year-old orphan is evacuated from London during the Blitz — and is placed with a couple of marginally successful con artists. Darkly humorous yet poignant, this book is Roald Dahl for grownups.
Still Time (Jean Hegland) — A gorgeous novel about an aging professor, suffering from Alzheimer’s, whose extensive knowledge and understanding of Shakespeare helps him understand a world that is becoming more and more confusing.
The Admissions (Meg MItchell Moore) — This insightful and delightfully witty novel is about much more than getting into college: the secrets the members of the upwardly mobile Hawthorne family are keeping from each other, and the admissions they must make. I loved Moore’s previous books (The Arrivals and So Far Away) and I’m not sure why she hasn’t received more acclaim.
The New Neighbor (Leah Stewart) — A terrific page-turner about two lonely women in Sewanee, Tennessee who are both hiding painful secrets. Jennifer Young and her 4-year-old son move in near 91-year-old retired nurse Margaret Riley, and Margaret soon becomes obsessed with digging into Jennifer’s past.
How to Write a Novel (Melanie Sumner) — I loved every page of this book, and what I enjoyed most was the voice of the 12.5-year-old (and yes, that’s how she refers to herself) narrator, Aristotle. While trying to write a book, following the instructions in a writing manual, Aristotle stumbles upon some family secrets. Fans of Where’d You Go, Bernadette? will adore this smart and endearing novel — and since almost everyone loves Where’d You Go, Bernadette?, that means almost everyone will enjoy How to Write a Novel.
Orphan #8 (Kim Van Alkemade) — Based on the author’s family history, this historical novel is the story of Rachel Rabinowitz, following her throughout her life as she comes to terms with her past as a subject of medical experimentation when she was a child living in a New York City orphanage. Rachel’s struggle to become a whole human being, able to work, love, and even to forgive, absorbed me from start to finish.
Avenue of Spies (Alex Kershaw) — A worthy addition to my collection of World War II nonfiction, Avenue of Spies isn’t on a par with In the Garden of Beasts, by Erik Larson, but it’s a similar story: an American family, living in occupied Paris, shows unusual courage in the direst of circumstances.
Days of Awe (Lauren Fox) — Isabel, a wife, mother, and middle school teacher, is crippled by grief and guilt when her best friend dies in a car accident. Days of Awe is a story of self-discovery, as Isabel redefines her relationships with everyone she loves. It’s by no means an unrelentingly sad book — Isabel, who makes plenty of mistakes, is filled with clever, self-deprecating humor.
Circling the Sun (Paula McLain) — I initially wondered why McLain chose to write a historical novel about Beryl Markham, since she told her own story so well in West With the Night — but she did a terrific job filling in the blanks and bringing Markham to life.
Pirate Hunters (Robert Kurson) — Two expert wreck divers (including John Chatterton, of Kurson’s terrific Shadow Divers) risk their safety and life savings to find a pirate ship off the coast of the Dominican Republic. It’s a fascinating page-turner, and I loved learning more about the Golden Age of piracy.
The Impossible Knife of Memory (Laurie Halse Anderson) — High school senior Hayley, daughter of an emotionally damaged Iraqi war veteran, struggles to live a “normal” life when she and her father, Andy, settle into his childhood home. Anderson’s father, who was stationed at Dachau during World War II, inspired her to write the story of a family affected by post-traumatic stress syndrome.
The Rocks (Peter Nichols) — I expected to love this book . . . and I didn’t. It had a wonderful, creative narrative structure, moving back in time and building tension. There was some lovely writing. However, there were too many peripheral characters, and I didn’t really care abut any of the characters. I guess I’d say I found it “putdownable”
Among the Ten Thousand Things (Julia Pierpont) — This very assured debut novel is the story of adultery and its effect on a family. I admired the creative structure and the taut writing, but didn’t find myself emotionally moved.
The Painter (Peter Heller) — If the first sentence of The Painter doesn’t grab you, I don’t know what will. Jim Stegner is a painter of “outsider art” and fly fisherman with a propensity for violence who gets himself involved with some very bad people.
Testament of Youth (Vera Brittain) — Classic memoir of love and loss in World War I-era England; required reading for anyone interested in that time period.
Hold Still (Sally Mann) — Don’t read controversial photographer Mann’s memoir as an e-book; the photographs are an integral part of the story. It’s one of the best memoirs I’ve ever read.
Language Arts (Stephanie Kallos) — How do you connect with someone you love who doesn’t have language? English teacher Charles Marlow, the desperately lonely divorced father of an autistic son, struggles to make sense of his life and relationships.
Our Souls at Night (Kent Haruf) — This short, beautiful book tells the entire story of two lives in less than 200 pages. Kent Haruf gives more insight into the lives and longings of his characters than many authors do in books twice as long.
The World’s Strongest Man (Harrison Scott Key) — A hilarious (and sometimes heartbreaking) memoir about a bookish son’s relationship with his testosterone-fueled father.
The Dismantling (Brian Leeuw) — Literary thriller about the illegal trade in human organs — smart and thought-provoking.
The Cherry Harvest (Lucy Sanna) — Historical fiction about a farm family in Wisconsin that houses German POWs during World War II. I guess I’ve read too many historical novels, because I’m getting picky — this one came off as superficial.
Small Blessings (Martha Woodroof) — Fans of A.J. Fikry will adore this book about a lonely, widowed English professor at a small southern college. living with his spunky mother-in-law, who finds love with a new employee at the college bookstore — and who falls in love with a mysteriously orphaned 6-year-old boy.
The Daylight Marriage (Heidi Pitlor) — This novel about a broken marriage — one which was perhaps ill-fated from the beginning — is addictive and devastating. I read it in one day.
The Children Act (Ian McEwan) — I was interested in the story about the court case involving a teenage Jehovah’s Witness who is refusing a blood transfusion — not so interested in the story about the judge’s marriage. But even when Ian McEwan is not at his very best, he’s still worth reading.
The Good Shufu (Tracy Slater) — Tracy Slater lives in two worlds — she fell in love with and married a Japanese man, traversing the globe to balance her life and career in the United States with her expatriate life in Japan. As a bookseller, I was particularly interested in her “Four Stories” global reading series. I enjoyed this memoir and Slater’s observations on cultural differences, but I never felt that I got to know her Japanese husband
Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen (Mary Norris) — I’m a grammar nerd, so I absolutely loved this book! Mary Norris is much more than a copy editor, or “comma queen” — she’s a delightfully wicked and witty writer.
Being Mortal (Atul Gawande) — This is not the most fun book you’ll ever read, but it’s one of the most necessary. Gawande, a physician and talented writer, uses affecting, real-life examples of people facing end-of-life issues that will make you think hard about what will be most important to you and your family as you face your mortality.
Happily Ali After (Ali Wentworth) — Ali Wentworth has a way with words — I thoroughly enjoyed this witty, breezy collection of essays. Perfect to tuck into your bag for a trip.
Eleanor & Park (Rainbow Rowell) — What a jewel of a book! It’s classified as YA, but the story of two lonely teenagers who become friends and later fall in love will appeal to anyone who has a heart. It’s hard to believe that Rowell’s characters aren’t real people; their voices are original and true. It’s the kind of book you want to buy multiple copies of and give to everyone you know.
Blackout (Sarah Hepola) — So painfully raw it was tough to read, this memoir of addiction was tough to read — but I admire Hepola’s honesty and courage, not to mention her clear and graceful writing style.
The Tusk That Did the Damage (Tania James) — James deftly combines three narratives to tell the tragic story of the Gravedigger, an elephant who is orphaned, taken into captivity and trained to perform, and eventually goes mad and escapes. The author made the risky decision to narrate part of the story from the point of view of the elephant, and it works beautifully.
Where They Found Her (Amanda McCreight) — Engaging, well-plotted mystery that goes several layers deep — a very worthy follow-up to Reconstructing Amelia. Excellent choice for older YA readers.
Inside the O’Briens (Lisa Genova) — his could be Lisa Genova’s best novel yet. The story of a loving family in crisis, Inside the O’Briens focuses on Joe O’Brien, a tough Boston cop who is devastated when he learns that he is suffering from Huntington’s disease — and that his four children may have inherited the lethal gene from him.
The Dream Lover (Elizabeth Berg) — I applaud Elizabeth Berg (one of my favorite authors) for branching out and writing historical fiction. George Sand is a fascinating subject, and I enjoyed learning more about her life and writing career.
The Listener (Rachel Basch) — Beautiful writing, well-developed characters, and a very original story combine to make this novel about identity, parenthood, and truth-telling one of my favorites of 2015.
Dark Rooms (Lili Anolik) — I’m always a sucker for a prep school novel, but this one didn’t work for me. I kept comparing it unfavorably to Holly LeCraw’s The Half Brother-– probably an unfair comparison, since Dark Rooms is a page-turner/murder mystery, while Half Brother is purely a literary novel. But still, they had the same plot twist . . .
Three Many Cooks (Pam Anderson) — I’ve used Pam Anderson’s cookbooks for years, and I enjoyed this memoir she wrote with her daughters — quite a few good recipes as well.
The Children’s Crusade (Ann Packer) — I savored every page of this beautiful novel, which explores the complicated relationships among four siblings raised by an attentive, loving father and a neglectful mother. There’s no doubt it will be on my Top 10 list at the end of the year.
The Light of the World (Elizabeth Alexander) — Poet Alexander has written a gorgeous chronicle of her family’s grief after her 50-year-old husband died unexpectedly. Every short chapter (most are 2-3 pages) is like a poem, with spare, beautiful feeling and intense feeling.
Pioneer Girl (Bich MInh Nguyen) — Charming — especially for Little House on the Prairie fans. Lee Lien, daughter of hardworking Vietnamese immigrants, is a newly minted Ph.D. in English literature with no job who finds a mysterious gold brooch belonging to her mother — an item that may have belonged to Laura Ingalls Wilder.
Mimi Malloy, At Last! (Julia MacDonnell) — The title character is a sixty-something Irish-American divorcee and the mother of six daughters; she’s recently been forced into retirement and is reluctantly exploring her sad family history. I loved Mimi, and kept turning the pages, but the novel is a strange combination of light and dark.
An Uncomplicated Life: A Father’s Memoir of His Exceptional Daughter (Paul Daugherty) — A wonderful book for any parent — through the story of the first 25 years of his daughter Jillian’s life, Paul Daugherty reminds us of the precious gifts our children are, “exceptional” or not. That sounds hokey, but the book isn’t.
Leaving Before the Rains Come (Alexandra Fuller) — Fuller’s eventful life continues to provide her with interesting and thought-provoking subject matter. In her latest memoir, the dissolution of her marriage causes her to face her past from a new vantage point.
Bettyville (George Hodgman) — When George Hodgman lost his editorial job in New York, he returned to his hometown of Paris, Missouri (“population 1,246 and falling”) to care for his 91-year-old mother. Hodgman’s honest and affecting portrait of their relationship moved me both to laughter and tears.
Redeployment (Phil Klay) — Last year’s National Book Award winner for fiction, a collection of short stories about the Iraq War, is tough but valuable reading.
Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania (Erik Larson) — Not in the same league as my favorite Larson books (The Devil in the White City and In the Garden of Beasts), Dead Wake is still worth reading. It just didn’t surprise me the way the others did.
The Rosie Project (Graeme Stimson) — Just plain delightful — the story of a lonely professor with Asperger’s syndrome who is determined to find a wife who meets his strict parameters. Rosie doesn’t fit his requirements — but love is a mysterious thing.
Life From Scratch: A Memoir of Food, Family, and Forgiveness (Sasha Martin) — The author set out to cook a recipe from every country in the world and blog about it — along the way, she made peace with her past and connected with the world around her. It’s a heartfelt, plainspoken chronicle of how food and cooking can heal damaged souls.
Finding Jake (Bryan Reardon) — How well do you actually know your teenager? This novel is well-plotted and tension-filled, but the awkward writing style distracted me.
The Half Brother (Holly LeCraw) — A prep school novel with a twist (actually, more than one) — the protagonist is a young teacher.
My Sunshine Away (M.O. Walsh) — Right up there with The Secret Wisdom of the Earth as one of my favorites of 2015 — and it’s a debut novel also. It’s suspenseful, sometimes almost unbearably so, but it’s about an immature, self-centered boy who manages to become an adult with integrity.
Station Eleven (Emily St. John Mandel) — If this is science fiction, I might be a convert. This gorgeous novel, a finalist for the National Book Award, “offers comfort and hope to those who believe, or want to believe, that doomsday can be survived, that in spite of everything people will remain good at heart, and that when they start building a new world they will want what was best about the old” (from the New York Times review).
The Infatuations (Javier Marias) — It was interesting to read a “metaphysical murder mystery”, but I don’t think I’m going to read another one.
Girl Runner (Carrie Snyder) — A young female runner leaves her family farm and wins a gold medal at the 1928 Olympics. At the age of 104, wheelchair-bound and nearly blind and deaf, she returns to the farm with two young filmmakers. Beautifully written, achingly sad.
The Magician’s Lie (Greer Macallister) –Historical page-turner about a female magician — who may or may not be a murderer. If you enjoyed Water for Elephants as much as I did, you’ll love this debut novel.
I Stand Corrected: How Teaching Western Manners in China Became Its Own Unforgettable Lesson (Eden Colllinsworth) — Funny, informative, and touching . . . I LOVED this memoir. I started reading it thinking I would learn something about contemporary China, and I did, but it’s about much more than that — what it means to be a parent, for one thing.
The Grown Ups (Robin Antalek) — Coming of age story about a group of friends growing up in suburban New York. Good crossover book for young adults moving into adult fiction.
It Was Me All Along (Andie Mitchell) — Memoir about a young woman’s struggle to lose weight and develop a healthy relationship with food. I kept reading because it had been highly recommended, but ultimately it didn’t hold my interest.
And So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures (Maureen Corrigan) — An ode to Fitzgerald’s masterpiece by the NPR book critic.
West of Sunset (Stewart O’Nan) — A lovely, sad story of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s last years, which he spent as a hardworking (and hard-drinking) screenwriter in Hollywood.
The Girl on the Train (Paula Hawkins) — This has been getting a lot of buzz . . . I’m already tired of the comparisons to Gone Girl. Yes, it has unreliable narrators, but it’s a completely original book. It’s addictive — I read it in one day!
The Secret Wisdom of the Earth (Christopher Scotton) — Wow! Could the first book I finished in 2015 also end up being one of my favorite books of the year? Harper Lee meets Pat Conroy in this coming of age story set in Appalachia 30 years ago.