Sunday, 27 December 2015

My favourite books of 2015, part 2: July to December

Here's the second and last part of my 2015 round-up - the best books I read between July and December 2015. If you missed part 1, here it is!

Books from this year

The Ecliptic by Benjamin WoodThe Ecliptic by Benjamin Wood
It's a tough call, but I think this just about takes the crown as my No.1 favourite book of absolutely everything I read in 2015. I still get warm fuzzy feelings when I think about it. Elspeth Conroy is a long-term resident at Portmantle, an island retreat for artists; the first part of the book shows her forming a relationship with a new member of the community, while the second tells us how she became a painter, and what happened to lead her to Portmantle. The third and fourth parts of the book then draw all the strands of these stories together in brilliant, surprising, entirely unexpected ways. A beautifully written, magical, completely engrossing novel about inspiration, imagination and the creation of art.

Book of Numbers by Joshua CohenBook of Numbers by Joshua Cohen
The first time I started reading this book, I hated it and abandoned it. I'm still not entirely sure what made me go back, but by the time I was finally through with it, I'd done the biggest about-turn ever and decided it was a genuine once-in-a-lifetime masterpiece and possibly the greatest modern novel I have read. It's about a struggling writer who's contracted to ghostwrite the autobiography of a billionaire genius, the founder of search engine/tech giant Tetration. And both of them are called Joshua Cohen. The plot barely matters, though, because what makes it good is Cohen's incredible use of language and constant ingenious, witty wordplay. Book of Numbers isn't for everyone - it's very long, tough going and offensive in parts - but if you get hooked, it's astonishing. Reading back over quotes from it makes my heart sing; practically every sentence is a work of art. 

The Vegetarian by Han KangThe Vegetarian by Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith
Yeong-hye is an elusive, inscrutable character who disrupts the quiet stability of her family life when she chooses to stop eating meat - the consequence of a series of gruesome dreams. The story is made up of three parts, each observing Yeong-hye from the point of view of a different person - her husband, her brother-in-law, her sister - as she gradually becomes anorexic and suffers delusions. Beautifully translated from the original Korean, The Vegetarian is a deft character study that shifts and transforms all the time, making it hard to pin down what it's really about - just like its protagonist. Additional shoutout to that fantastic cover.

Hausfrau by Jill Alexander EssbaumHausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum
This is the story of adulterous housewife Anna Benz; on one level, a simple tale of ennui and betrayal. But there are so many layers to Anna's story, and it's so cleverly constructed, that I couldn't tear myself away from it. I was gripped all the way through, and would have enjoyed it immensely anyway, but when I reached the end and saw how perfectly every single part of the story had been pieced together - how even the smallest details have meaning and significance that doesn't necessarily become clear until later - I was even more impressed with it. Hausfrau also paints such a vivid picture of Z├╝rich and its environs that it's (probably) the next best thing to actually going there.

Number 11 by Jonathan CoeNumber 11 by Jonathan Coe
It's rare that a late-career book turns out to be the author's best, but Number 11 is - for me at least - exactly that. It's a sort-of-sequel to What a Carve Up!, revisiting members of the odious Winshaw family, and delivering a satirical view of modern-day British society. But it's also a very moving and human story which follows two friends from childhood onwards, telling a number of connected tales about what happens to (and around) them. So riveting and real that I felt like I was going to cry when I finished it and was forced to accept that I couldn't spend any more time with these characters.

Dietland by Sarai WalkerDietland by Sarai Walker
Dietland is a distinctly weird book - I loved it, but it's quite hard to explain why, perhaps because there are so many different ways to interpret its odd mish-mash of dark feminist satire, conspiracy thriller, brash comedy, and feelgood tale of body positivity. In short, it's about Plum, who is deeply unhappy and desperate for weight-loss surgery until the fateful day she notices a girl following her. This leads to her induction into the world of Calliope House - something like a women's refuge crossed with a secret society - and then in turn to her involvement with a feminist terrorist group called Jennifer. It all works because it has Plum, a warm and believable character, at its heart, which helps to ground the story when it ventures into absurd territory (and that happens quite a lot). Some will love it, some will hate it, but one thing's for sure: I've never read anything quite like this before.

The Reflection by Hugo WilckenThe Reflection by Hugo Wilcken
This noirish psychological mystery, set in 1940s New York City, is a multi-layered story that can be read either as a conspiracy thriller or a self-referential experiment (and probably in about a hundred other ways, too). Narrator David Manne is a psychiatrist who gets drawn into a web of intrigue involving a patient who insists he's not who others say he is. As Manne loses his grip on reality, the narrative reflects his mental state; repetition and motifs are used to great effect, and the reader must choose whether to believe his version of events. It's immensely entertaining, but intricate and very intelligent too.

Books from before this year

First Execution by Domenico StarnoneFirst Execution (2009) by Domenico Starnone, translated by Antony Shugaar
It begins as a sort of political thriller, but like The Reflection, there's much more to this book than meets the eye. An ageing professor meets a former student who's been arrested on a charge of terrorism; this event proves the catalyst for a chain of dramatic events, but the author also inserts himself into the narrative to discuss how he's shaping the story. First Execution then becomes a metafictional exploration of the character and author's thoughts on all sorts of subjects - politics, education, writing, ageing, justice and injustice, the nature and definition of 'terrorism', pacifism vs direct action... It's packed with ideas and enormously thought-provoking.

Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere by Alice FurseEverybody Knows This Is Nowhere (2014) by Alice Furse
I read Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere a couple of months ago, and I'm still mad it isn't ultra-popular. The nameless narrator has a good degree but a bad job, doing data entry in a generic office. Her contemplation of life, love, fulfilment and failure rings so true it's sometimes painful; Furse does an amazing job of portraying the mundanity of office life/post-graduation aimlessness in all its dreary horror, but the book is also, somehow, very compelling. The characters and dialogue are fantastic, it's funny, it has real heart, and it feels at once very important for right now and completely timeless.

Animals by Keith RidgwayAnimals (2006) by Keith Ridgway
A brilliant, weird, hilarious story that defies description or explanation. Animals opens with our nameless and stubbornly mysterious narrator spotting the corpse of a mouse - an event that causes him to come close to a breakdown. That's the starting point for a hilarious existential adventure through a warped version of London filled with eccentric characters, conspiracies around every corner, and menacing creatures lurking in the shadows. It's the sort of fiction that might be described as 'challenging' or 'experimental', but it's also gripping from the first page and incredibly readable.

I Am Jonathan Scrivener by Claude HoughtonI Am Jonathan Scrivener (1930) by Claude Houghton
A lonely man is employed as secretary to the elusive Jonathan Scrivener, and becomes acquainted with the man's diverse circle of friends; in the process he learns a great deal about himself, but frustratingly little about his employer. I Am Jonathan Scrivener is a philosophical novel, a psychological examination of character, and a mystery, all in one. It's a bit of a cult classic, a book I came across by chance, and quite invigorating to read - it's full of social commentary which makes it a fascinating portrait of London in the 1920s, but it also has a dry wit and is sometimes laugh-out-loud funny.

Honourable mentions

Slade House (2015) by David Mitchell Don't be put off by the fact that it's linked to The Bone Clocks -  this series of linked ghost stories, revolving around spooky Slade House, is so much better, and the characters are unforgettable.
Rawblood (2015) by Catriona Ward Another ghost story - a very creative and original one about a family with a cursed bloodline. It's a bit uneven, but contains some of the most brilliant and memorable scenes I've come across in any book, ever.
Purity (2015) by Jonathan Franzen It may not have anything new to say about modern life, the internet etc, but Franzen's latest generation-spanning epic has an attention-grabbing premise, colourful characters and a sympathetic heroine; I liked it better than The Corrections.
Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked (2013) by James Lasdun A beautifully written, insightful account of the experience of being stalked and harassed, which manages to remain fair while also communicating with great (and painful) effectiveness the horror of being trapped in a situation like this.

So that's everything I loved this year. What were your favourite books of 2015? And what are you looking forward to in 2016? (That, of course, is the next big post I'm working on - at the moment I have far too many books on the list, but I still want to know about all the good ones I might not have heard about yet!)

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1 comment:

  1. Another worthy list. I like how you read! I will be reading Purity for one of my reading groups in February. I am a Franzen fan. I don't care what anyone says!