From rediscovered manuscripts to stories championing the human spirit, 2015 was a terrific year for books.
Here's a selection of some of the year's best.
In former journalist Paula Hawkins’ debut thriller, protagonist Rachel wrestles with an alcohol problem while also trying to piece together a mystery she witnesses from the window of a commuter train. After destroying her own marriage with alcohol, Rachel idolizes the couple she sees on her morning commute, until one of them disappears. Like ‘Gone Girl,’ to which it is often compared, ‘Train’ is a study in the complexity of relationships, love and how characters must overcome their own demons to see life as it really is.
Without a doubt, “A Little Life” is a tough read. At first glance, this 700-page behemoth seems to be about four postgraduates coming of age in New York City. But Yanagihara slowly and skillfully reveals the story to truly center around Jude, a man running from a horrific past he chooses not to share with his friends. On the surface, Jude seems to not have a care in the world — he’s a charismatic and talented attorney who has a loving adopted family of a devoted law professor and a trope of three equally successful friends. Spanning 30 years in the lives of the four friends, Yanagihara reveals more details about Jude’s past and how it threatens to put his future in jeopardy. A gut-wrenching story about friendship, redemption and the human capacity to heal — read it with a handkerchief at the ready.
In a gripping open letter to his 15-year-old son, Coates gives a voice to the current race tensions emerging from police brutality in the U.S. In turns both sage and weary, Coates doesn’t outline specific answers to the problems plaguing American race relations. Rather, his approach is to prepare his son for life in an America Coates sees as ready to destroy black life rather than confront the ever-present problem of racism.
This National Book Award-winner comes when Americans of every color need it the most to wrestle with questions of race for themselves. The inward struggle of individual Americans is necessary, Coates argues, for any protest or public demand for change to be successful.
Part fantasy, part mystery, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest novel casts his usual literary tension of confronting the past in the odd setting of medieval England. Elderly couple Axl and Beatrice struggle through a mist that makes people lose their memories while on a journey to find their grown son. Some critics berated Ishiguro’s try at fantasy as dull and confusing, but readers who see the book through are rewarded with an unforgettable and bewitching portrait of love, loyalty and family against all odds.
Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in Britain, Nigerian author Chigozie Obioma’s first novel is an eerie and unyielding retelling of Cain and Abel. The story is set in Nigeria, where a local madman predicts that 15-year-old Ikenna will be brutally murdered by one of his three brothers. The prophecy drives Ikenna crazy, making him suspicious of his family, who oscillate between wanting to forget the prophecy even as they believe they are sentenced to its outcome. Obioma likens the story to a metaphor for Britain’s occupation of Nigeria, but on its own, the novel is a page-turning story of fate, choice and conscience.
Embroiled in controversy from the announcement of its publication, the predecessor to Harper Lee’s “To Kill A Mockingbird” raised eyebrows and shattered sales records this summer. Love it or hate it, “Watchman” offers a leaden reality to counter the innocence of “Mockingbird” in a way that makes its readers examine their own attitudes about race tensions. It may be set in an America on the cusp of the civil rights movement, but the demeanor of Lee’s reimagined patriarch Atticus Finch disturbingly echoes the attitudes of many Americans today.
Most people know that the sinking of the Lusitania luxury ship in 1915 helped seal America’s involvement in World War I. But the ship’s demise at the hands of a German U-boat was more than a tragedy. As Erik Larson meticulously tells through research and character sketches on both sides, the sinking of the Lusitania marked the end of the gentleman’s approach to war and showed that anyone, even a cruise ship loaded with women and children, can become a target in wartime. Larson’s portrayal and attention to detail unearths a maritime disaster often obscured by the Titanic, but which has repercussions in our current world, when terrorists may strike at any moment and complacency can be deadly.
Author Jon Ronson adeptly tackles a conundrum of modern life: When it comes to social media, is the fear of public shaming making us afraid to speak our minds? With anecdotes ranging from the horrifying to the comically absurd, Ronson’s critique of social media leaves readers looking up from his book wondering how shaming reached such a pandemic and what, if anything, can be done about it.
Grief affects everyone differently, and when Helen MacDonald lost her father in 2007, it drove her to buy a hawk. A longtime falconer, MacDonald needed a challenge, a project and above all, a connection when she felt most alone. Goshawks, like the one MacDonald raised, are notoriously difficult to train and the bird makes a perfect match for MacDonald, who slowly comes through her grief as the bird learns to return to her gloved arm, both making the most of the rewards their new lives have to offer. This is a terrific memoir for anyone who believes in the healing power of nature.
What makes a marriage work is the question at the heart of Lauren Groff’s “Fates and Furies,” a novel that chronicles the relationship of Lotto and Mathilde and examines their marriage from both of their perspectives. Midstory, Groff abruptly changes the point of view from Lotto to Mathilde, casting their marriage in a completely different light. The change is quick without being jarring and the book becomes a deft look at how personal perceptions color the defining moments of a shared life. The reality, Groff attests, lies somewhere in between.