Favorite Books of 2015, And A Year In Retrospect

4 Jan

2015 is over! It’s funny, years passing didn’t used to mean a whole lot to me, but now that I’ve started doing yearly reading goals it’s an exciting time. A time to celebrate the achievements of the past year and set goals for the future! Those goals will be in another post because come on, no one wants to read 5+ pages of me rambling.

This year I met almost all of my goals. I read 191 books out of my initial goal of 150. I read 72,025 pages out of a set goal of 45,000. I got through 12 series (a total of 56 books), which was right on track with my goals for one a month! I didn’t hit my goal to get through big books I’ve been putting off (only did 1 of 4) but I’m overall very satisfied with my reading this year. I hit so many different genres, and there was a pretty good diversity in terms of author’s gender, sexuality, and home nation.

So, let’s talk about my favorites. Given the number I read there was no way I could do one of those concise, 10-book lists like many people. So I decided to sit down, comb through my list (excluding re-reads, of course), and write down every one I really loved with an idea to trim it down to about 20 at the end. Well… I made my list, and it was only 19! Yeah, I was pretty proud. Instead of adding another book I just went with my gut. So these are my top 19 favorites of 2015! In alphabetical order, because I’m not going to pick favorites. These were all fantastic.

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The Animals, by Christian Kiefer: You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll feel like your heart just got ripped out of your chest. I had basically no expectations going into this novel and it blew me away. It’s bleak and depressing but full of am amazing amount of emotional punch. I actually cried reading this: in fact, I cried reading 4 books this year (and, of course, all of them are on this list!). The Animals skirts a lot of genres, dipping its toes into grit-lit but never quite settling there because there is more… humanity and connection here than you’d expect from grit-lit. I mean, I grew emotionally attached to a bear in this book. And I’m terrified of bears.

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The Blue Fox, by Sjón: This slim little volume is part fairytale, part family drama, part survival-adventure, and part pure magic. The writing is simple but amazingly lyrical, and the plot manages to have many twists and turns given how few pages it covers. There’s a strong undercurrent of folklore and magical realism here, and while I suppose you could consider this a moral tale it’s quite twisted and emotional. The characterization manages to be incredibly well done given how little the author gives himself to work with: there’s a disabled girl here who isn’t even alive in any of the scenes, yet manages to be absolutely amazing and compelling.

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Broken Harbor, by Tana French: I honestly never thought a Tana French novel could surpass In The Woods for me (and yes, I’m working on those Dublin Murder Squad posts!). Yet somehow, Broken Harbor did. This book takes the “is there something weird/supernatural going on here?” theme that ran through ITW and shoots it into overdrive. This book is really a combo horror-mystery, and it’s spooky as hell. And the main mystery is, of course, combined with a fantastic lead detective with a… colorful home life, to say the least, with an element of madness that just amplifies the creep-factor of the main murders.

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The Buried Giant, by Kazuo Ishiguro: This seems to be a very divisive book. Fans of Ishiguro’s more mainstream books like The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go generally don’t like it, and I can see why. But my favorite Ishiguro books (The Unconsoled, A Pale View of the Hills) contain a streak of strange unreality. The Buried Giant takes this and runs with it: it’s technically a fantasy book, and includes things like dragons and giants and demons. However, fans of fantasy were also disappointed because it’s not exactly a swashbuckling adventure. The story focuses on an elderly married couple and their search for their son… and also their memories. This is more a book about memory, war, and love than it is about dragons or adventure. And while it’s an Arthurian tale with characters borrowed from that world, there’s nothing epic about it. This is a slow, character-driven tale that has an absolutely heartbreaking conclusion that had me in tears. If you like unusual, slow, fairytale-like fantasy I highly, highly recommend this!

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Dead Beat, by Jim Butcher: The Dresden Files was my second-favorite series that I discovered this year, and of course one of the books was going to make it into my favorites list. It wasn’t even a debate which one: Dead Beat encompasses everything I love about the series. The characters are absolute perfection (Butters~), the fantasy aspect is great (necromancers! the Wild Hunt! the Erlking!), the story is riveting with some nice twists & turns, it advances the meta-plot, and most importantly it has the greatest action scene I’ve ever read. It’s just… if you like urban fantasy and haven’t read this, what’s wrong with you?! And if you don’t like urban fantasy, give it a shot: it’s a genre I don’t particularly enjoy, except for the Dresden Files. Which is pure magic.

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The Evolutionary Void, by Peter Hamilton: I am a longtime fan of Peter Hamilton. I devoured Pandora’s Star & Judas Unchained in my late teens, but somehow I hadn’t read the follow-up trilogy. Well, okay, I know exactly how. I bought the first book the day it came out, read it, and by the time the second one came out I forgot everything that happened. And re-reading a 800+ page book is no small feat, so eventually I gave up. This year I re-dedicated myself and read all of them in a row. What an amazing ride! I didn’t think I could love a book of his more than Pandora’s Star, but this came hella close. All of the parts come together perfectly in the finale, every stray thread wrapped up and every character proven useful to the plot. Of course characters are where Hamilton really shines and this has some great ones. But my favorite thing (aside from, you know, everything else I loved) was the incredible easter eggs from Pandora’s Star. My favorite character came back in the most perfect way imaginable. Peter Hamilton, how even are you so amazing.

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Fates and Furies, by Lauren Groff: Few books inspire as much passion in me as Fates and Furies. Something about this book struck a deep chord in me: the writing is beyond gorgeous, the characters are fantastically complex, the plot unfolds in incredibly unexpected ways and it’s deliciously meta. I’m on a warpath when it comes to pushing this book on people: if you know me in person, I’ve probably tried to get you to read it. I feel all fuzzy thinking about it: it’s one of those books you could re-read a dozen times and find something new each go through. And the main theme, of what makes an event “real” and how perception affects reality, is pretty much my absolute favorite. Oh, and the book-in-a-book…. which is also present here. It’s seriously perfect, and I wouldn’t change a single thing.

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A Head Full of Ghosts, by Paul Tremblay: 2015 was not a great year for horror (unlike 2014, which was spectacular!) but I did find some great reads. Including the amazingly-meta House of Leaves-inspired A Head Full of Ghosts. It’s about a possibly-possessed girl who gets a documentary made about her, but it’s the telling of the story that is so compelling. We get the story from the “possessed” girl’s sisters, the filtered experience of a reporter, and a series of blog posts that dissect the documentary on its 10-year anniversary. There are so many references to other horror novels and movies, far more than I could ever hope to catch, but there are some pretty clever ones from my favorite horror book of all time (House of Leaves) and an absolute whammy from We Have Always Lived In The Castle. It wasn’t a perfect book, and I had a few issues with it, but my overall enjoyment and the high scare-factor (that sun room scene oh my god) overrode all the (small) negatives.

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Hyperion, by Dan Simmons: Hyperion is a book I picked up over a decade ago and never finished. Not because I didn’t enjoy it, but because the first story (The Priest’s Tale) was just 2spooky4me. I have a high scare tolerance but man… that one got me to the bone. I decided to finish the book (and series) this year and, yeah, The Priest’s Tale is just as unbearably freaky the second time around. But Hyperion is also awe-inspiring, heartbreakingly sad, tense as hell, and absolutely magical. This is everything science fiction should be: the main concept does not override the plot, but serves to provide a platform for an absolutely amazing story. While the over-arching plot is great it’s the tales from the pilgrims that make Hyperion shine. Definitely one of the all-time scifi greats, even if the sequels never quite reach its fevered pitch of intensity.

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The Incarnations, by Susan Barker: I love fiction set in Asia, and while my particular area of focus is Japan (especially when written by Japanese authors) I love China too. Or rather the idea of it: with the current censorship from the Chinese government, it’s hard to find modern fiction set in China that really feels like it’s set there, rather than the author just choosing it as an “exotic” set piece. The Incarnations is compared to David Mitchell frequently, and it deserves this high praise: it tells the story of a series of incarnations between two people over a thousand+ years of China’s history. It really feels steeped in culture, and every detail (from historical accuracy to the modern food) is well-researched. Of course none of this means anything if the story isn’t great but oh man is it compelling. It’s part historical fiction, part mystery, and totally amazing. Though all those damn dumpling descriptions will make you hungry, so have a snack ready when reading.

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A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara: This book tore me apart. It’s a devastating read, and contains pretty much every trigger imaginable (self harm, substance abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, child abuse, mental illness, suicide, and more!). It’s amazingly hard to get through, and there’s one scene where I had to physically put down my Kindle because it was too much. Yet for all this book rips your heart to shreds, it’s just… it’s perfection. I loved it so much. Even though it made me cry (multiple times). The characters are the most fleshed-out and realistic I’ve ever encountered in fiction, and while it’s uncompromisingly brutal it’s well worth the read if you have a strong stomach. One of my favorite books of all time, and probably my favorite read of the year.

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Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov: The one “big book” I wanted to read this year that I actually got through! Sure, it isn’t big in terms of length, but it’s one of the most beloved books of all time. That kind of thing makes me nervous. But I shouldn’t have been, because I loved it. I think this is the best execution of the unreliable narrator I’ve ever read: while it’s clear Humbert Humbert isn’t telling us any of the truth and constantly lies to himself or misses incredibly important details, you at times almost find yourself siding with him. Which is truly masterful writing, because it’s about a child rapist who is practically proud of his actions. It’s also downright hilarious at times, a stark contrast to how sad and tragic the overall plot is. The writing is, of course, the star: every sentence is pure poetry.

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The Magician King, by Lev Grossman: The last of the 4 books that made me cry! You’d think the first book in the series, The Magicians, would be on my list. But oh. My. Lord. This book takes everything I loved in the first (super meta, references to fantasy classics, twisted plot, characters you love and love to hate, beautiful writing & worldbuilding) and amped them up to 11. The story here is darker than The Magicians: much darker. Julia’s summoning scene was unbearable to read. But the character growth here is fantastic, and of course it’s more of one of my favorite worlds. Definitely my favorite of the trilogy, though I truly loved all of them. This was my favorite series discovery of the year.

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The Queen, by Tiffany Reisz: Tiffany Reisz is the queen of my heart. I love everything she does, but nothing comes close to the Original Sinners series. Nora is one of my all-time favorite characters, so this book was kind of bittersweet. It’s the end of the series–or at least for a while, since Reisz has since announced that it will continue at some point in the future. So it’s just goodbye for now, not goodbye forever. But man was it hard for me to say farewell to these characters and their world.

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Quicksand, by Junichiro Tanizaki: It’s kind of shocking that I love Japanese literature so much but hadn’t yet read any Junichiro Tanizaki. I certainly fixed that in 2015, and while I liked everything of his that I read Quicksand holds a special place in my heart. Like its namesake, it lures you into a sense of complacency and then you find yourself sinking into absolute madness. It seems like a simple premise: woman cheats on her husband with another woman. But the plot here gets so amazingly, dementedly complex, and it seems like every page there’s a new twist in the plot. It just gets worse and worse for the characters until we’re far into magical realism territory because it’s just so unbelievable–yet because the burn is so slow, you’re never taken out of the core story. It’s a masterfully constructed novel.

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Red Seas Under Red Skies, by Scott Lynch: Another “you ripped my heart out but I loved every second of it” novel. That seems to be a theme of the year, no? Another theme: liking the second book in a trilogy the best. This actually seems to be the least-liked Gentleman Bastards novel but I loved it so much. There’s a heist (of course), pirates, a fantastical casino, plots, sabotage, character development, world development, interesting magic, fantastic female characters, a super interesting twisty plot, and of course more Jean x Locke bromance. It’s everything that makes the series unique and interesting on hyperdrive.

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Satin Island, by Tom McCarthy: This might be the weirdest book I read this year, and it was also one of my favorites. It has no plot, and it barely has characters either. What it does have is some amazing discussion of anthropology, which I have a degree in so of course it was right up my alley! It’s really a series of interconnected stories that answer one of the big anthro questions: how does perception affect reality? What version of an event is the true story? If you like weird philosophical texts that focus on meaning and connections rather than, you know, everything else you’d expect in a book, you might love this! But probably not. I mean, it’s so weird. How did this even get published.

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When We Were Animals, by Joshua Gaylord: I really didn’t expect a young adult book to end up here. It’s a genre that has totally lost my interest, and I tend to skim over any releases that are tagged YA. But all the good reviews (and the compelling plot description) swayed me to pick up When We Were Animals and I am SO thankful I did. This book is ethereal and fantastical, an amazing twist on the coming-of-age story. It’s as wild as its premise makes it out to be, but amazingly deep and with some fantastic characters. I assume it’s YA because of the age of the main characters, because there’s nothing simplified about the writing (which is AMAZING), plot, or characters. I was so enthralled with this book, and I absolutely devoured it.

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The Wide, Carnivorous Sky, by John Langan: I know a lot of people don’t like short stories, but they might be my favorite writing medium. Especially horror & new weird short stories, which these definitely are. This book plays with the format & boundaries of the short story: there’s a play, a movie, and a classroom lecture, along with classic throwbacks to Lovecraft & Poe. The monsters are classics as well (vampires, werewolves, zombies) but the structure of each one is just so fresh and interesting. Every twist was pleasantly unexpected, and I loved every one of these stories. John Langan has quickly moved up on the list of my favorite horror authors, and I can’t wait to catch up on his other books and, of course, to read what he has coming out next!

So that’s it for 2015! As you can see, my favorites were kind of all over the place: literary fiction, fantasy, science fiction, horror, short stories, classics, romance, mystery, young adult, historical fiction, and urban fantasy all had books on the list. And 6 of them were from series I read this year, making me very happy with my decision to hit so many! So what were your favorite books of the year?

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4 Responses to “Favorite Books of 2015, And A Year In Retrospect”

  1. Iris January 4, 2016 at 7:06 am #

    The Incarnations sounds fascinating. My favourite book read this year was And Then Emily was Gone.

    • Leah Bayer January 5, 2016 at 12:06 am #

      And Then Emily Was Gone looks so good, I hadn’t heard of it but I loooove horror and I’m adding it to my TBR!

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