We made it to 2016, and you know what that means: time for self-reflection, New Year’s resolutions, and my list of the best books of 2015. I read 80 books last year, some fiction, some nonfiction, some memoir; my list here features only books I read that were actually published in 2015. (You’ll see a few honorable mentions toward the very bottom of the list – these books were some of my favorites for the year, but they were published before 2015, and thus disqualified from my overall “best of” list.) I’d love to know what your own standouts for the year were; make sure to stop by the shop and tell me your favorites!
And now, in no particular order, my favorite books of 2015:
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. I tackled the 700-page A Little Life back in April, but the beauty and pain from its pages have stuck with me all year long. I’m not sure I’ve ever read a book that portrays abuse and neglect so vividly, that allows its readers to feel and grow right alongside its main characters. My disclaimer I used this spring remains: A Little Life isn’t for everyone, but if you can stomach it, the book has the power to do what only the best books can: to open your eyes to the struggles of people who are different from you, yet who are somehow also beautifully the same.
Everybody Rise by Stephanie Clifford. First-time novelist Stephanie Clifford writes for the New York Times, so perhaps it’s her journalistic writing style that drew me to Everybody Rise in the first place. No doubt the book also appealed to me in part because the protagonist is a college graduate coming to terms with life in high society New York – I’m a sucker for 20-something coming-of-age stories – but really, Everybody Rise was a page-turner right when I needed one the most. The novel got me out of a major reading rut this summer; I remember being so glued to the page that the ARC wound up following me into the kitchen as I prepped dinner for a couple of evenings. I just couldn’t put it down. As Clifford’s main character became less and less likeable, I still found myself enmeshed in her story, unable to leave her as I found her. I loved this book.
Better Than Before by Gretchen Rubin. If you know me well, you know I’m exceedingly interested in personal growth; I love books about spirituality and time management, about organization and leadership. Better Than Before is one of those books I wound up reading aloud to friends and family – a joy to them, I’m sure. Gretchen Rubin manages to write about habits and habit building without boring or patronizing the reader. She’s engaging and funny, self-deprecating and vulnerable in all the right ways. Better Than Before has the power to be a life-changer; I even started wearing a Fitbit. (Flossing is still a struggle.)
Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee. It may not have been the most well-written book of the year, but Go Set a Watchman served as a striking reminder of Harper Lee’s talent; it showcased the transformation of a young writer and the power of an impeccable editor. When it released after much fanfare this summer, I curled up in my grandfather’s blue recliner and read it straight through, no breaks. I read it with much trepidation, but my fears were unfounded. The book is, above all else, a father-daughter story, a brilliant look at what happens when our heroes become human. (Spoiler alert: That’s not a bad thing.)
Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal. Book clubs, rejoice! Here’s a book for your 2016 lists. Kitchens of the Great Midwest is unlikely anything else I read this year; it’s a book for foodies, sure, but even those of us who mostly just pop microwave popcorn will find joy in the pages of this debut novel. I’m hesitant to go into too much detail about plot; I read the book as an ARC, and I think that worked to my advantage. Kitchens of the Great was a pleasant surprise because of my own initial ignorance. If you must know, though, the book features promising, up-and-coming chef Eva, and the flavors of her native Minnesota seep through every page. Kitchens of the Great Midwest reminded me how much our regions and places of origin shape our lives, even when we move far away. Read this one as soon as possible.
Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff. Only a few books absolutely blew me away this year, and one was Lauren Groff’s National Book Award Finalist Fates and Furies. Gosh, what an incredible piece of literature! Groff writes about the two sides of one marriage in a way that’s both haunting and gratifying; the reader becomes hooked by the love story of the novel’s first half, the story of Lotto and his beloved Mathilde. By the second half, Groff has turned what could have a run-of-the-mill romance into a masterpiece. The fictional couple’s story is unusual, yet somehow universal, as all the best tales are. This book is deserving of all the hype it’s received.
Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy. Even if I hadn’t been compelled to include a young adult novel on this list, I still would have included Julie Murphy’s Dumplin’ – it’s a YA book with crossover appeal, so sure: Snag a copy for your daughter this Christmas, but prepare to read it yourself first. High school junior Willowdean Dickson (“Dumplin’” to her beauty queen mama) has always been confident in the skin she’s in, but that changes as her relationships also change and grow. Dumplin’ has the power to change our views on body image and size, but honestly? It’s just a great story about a girl who loves Dolly Parton. I’m planning to mail my copy out to friends for a long-distance book club selection this winter.
Ghettoside by Jill Leovy. Some of the best books take us out of our comfort zones, and Jill Leovy’s Ghettoside certainly did that for me. A Los Angeles Times journalist, Leovy tackles an all-too-common American murder: a “ghettoside” killing, one young black man violently taking the life of another. Leovy follows the detectives who take the particular case, who strive for justice even when the victims are long forgotten. Literary journalism is one of my favorite forms of storytelling, and Ghettoside is a must-read, particularly now, at this stage of our nation’s history.
Tribal: College Football and the Secret Heart of America by Diane Roberts. Hilarious but insightful, Tribal reminds us what can happen when sports become our religion, when the love of an institution can blind us to the truth. Florida State University professor Diane Roberts acknowledges her own biases (she’s a die-hard football fan) while tackling the issues that begin to plague her enjoyment of the sport. Although her tongue is often firmly in cheek, Roberts has also done her research, and the book offers both a history of the sport and a social commentary on where fans can go from here.
Bug in a Vacuum by Melanie Watt. I don’t know why we all aren’t talking about Bug in a Vacuum. It’s my only children’s book on this year’s list; although I suppose I could have done a list made up entirely of my favorite children’s titles. Instead, I’ll just tell you that the wonderfully illustrated Bug in a Vacuum is gloriously silly and yet somehow poignant, too. As Watt chronicles the emotions of a bug trapped in a household vacuum, she also chronicles the five stages of grief. I can’t wait to read this story for a children’s story time, but I also believe it deserves a place in a school counselor’s library. Bug in a Vacuum was my favorite children’s book of 2015.
Honorable mentions to the following books, which I read and loved in 2015, but which were published prior to this year: Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead, Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng, and Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche.