We read a lot of books in 2015. Now we want to share our favorites from among the books released last year. Our critics and several of our contributors have shared their favorites below. Let us know in the comments or on social media what your favorite books of 2015 were!
David Nilsen, editor and critic
Burning Down George Orwell’s House by Andrew Ervin (Soho Press) – Ervin’s novel about a young man who has lost direction and tries to find it on a rain-and-whisky-soaked Scottish island establishes a sense of place and atmosphere better than any other I read this year, and deftly blends humor into its darker themes.
The Tijuana Book of the Dead by Luis Alberto Urrea (Soft Skull Press) – Urrea’s gift lies in blending the brutal with the beautiful in such a way that the dismal aspects of border life are honestly depicted while allowing the graceful hope of the human spirit to shine through.
The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson (Graywolf Press) – This book is a hybrid of memoir and theory, and addresses everything from the compromises and triumphs of monogamy and parenting to gender identity and queer issues. Written with sharp intellectual clarity and unapologetic emotional honesty, Nelson’s book is sure to be referenced for years to come.
Reeling Through Life: How I Learned to Live, Love, and Die at the Movies by Tara Ison (Soft Skull Press) – Ison writes about film the way I want to write about film: through the lens of personal experience. We bring ourselves to the movies, and that doesn’t stop when we write about them. Ison’s book is a memoir of sorts that shows us the way films–both canonized classics and campy personal favorites–impact and inform the way we process our experiences and identities.
Binary Star by Sarah Gerard (Two Dollar Radio) – Gerard’s novel might be my favorite work of fiction I read in 2015. The book is a dizzying amalgam of astronomic wonder and individual self-destruction. Breathtaking prose settles over a devastating story like a white sheet over the furniture of a abandoned household, secrets locked away and spied through the windows. Binary Star is an incredible accomplishment.
The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic by Jessica Hopper (Featherproof Books) – This book would be a victory merely for existing, but it stands on the merit of its writing even if its title claim were not true. Hopper gets music, and damn can she write about it.
Black Cat Bone by John Burnside (Graywolf Press) – While I read a lot of great poetry in 2015, no collection rocked me like this one did. Burnside’s depictions of wild nature and the quiet places of the human heart are rendered with deft lyricism and gorgeous melancholy.
The Girl Who Slept with God by Val Brelinski (Viking) – This novel is a gut-punch for anyone who grew up in a repressive Christian fundamentalist environment as I did. I had a very personal reaction to this one.
Four-Legged Girl by Diane Seuss (Graywolf Press) – This third collection from Seuss is something of a memoir in verse, tracing the poet’s memories from girlhood to middle age like a fingernail dragging paint and spit down a dirty canvas.
Skyfaring: Journeys with a Pilot by Mark Vanhoenacker (Alfred A. Knopf) – Vanhoenacker’s lofty prose conveys his extensive professional knowledge in a way that brings the reader along into his excitement rather than going over our heads. This 747 pilot loves what he does and renews our wonder at the idea of flight.
Application for Release from the Dream by Tony Hoagland (Graywolf Press) – Hoagland’s is charmingly cantankerous in this collection, denouncing the dehumanizing “conveniences” of modern life, the ridiculousness of America’s militant self-image, and the destructive nature of 21st century consumerism, while also giving us humor and hope that all is not yet lost.
Rules for Werewolves by Kirk Lynn (Melville House) – This thoroughly unique novel puts us into a pack of “werewolves,” individuals who squat in abandoned (however temporarily) houses in the suburbs and live by an animalistic code of ethics. Skillfully told entirely through dialogue, the book features my single favorite scene of fiction from 2015.
Melinda Guerra, contributing critic
Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances by Neil Gaiman (William Morrow) — I love short stories and now I love Neil Gaiman (confession: this book was the first complete Gaiman work I read). Packed with something for just about everyone (horror, non-romantic romance, crime, monster stories, etc.), the stories in this collection are not only well done, but they also come with beautiful lines that continue to tumble around in your head for several months after you’ve put the book down.
Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids edited by Meghan Daum (Picador) A diverse grouping of writers present the stories behind their childlessness, whether childfree by choice or by the circumstances of life. Personal and at times almost too honest, these essays explore the reality that non-parents can live a deeply fulfilling life, even in a society that continues to regard the childless with judgmental suspicion.
Spinster: Making A Life of One’s Own by Kate Bolick (Crown Publishers) Finding herself suddenly without a mother in her early twenties, Bolick finds five women (all deceased writers of one kind or another, all of whom at least at one point declared they’d not marry) whose work and personal lives shepherd her through her own years of discovering who she is. Fun and easy reading, the book packs fascinating biographical information about these women into essays about her own forays into (and out of) love and learning how to shape life in her own way.
The Only Ones by Carola Dibbell (Two Dollar Radio) Set in post-pandemic New York City, this book follows Inez’s story as what starts with her signing up to be a donor (she – and, by extension, her blood, urine, eggs, and anything else she can sell from her body – is immune to the diseases ravaging the population), leads to her being left to raise her own clone as her child. New to motherhood, to helping someone else survive, and to hiding from the governmental and religious groups for which she is now a target, Inez wins over readers with her charming and resonant navigation of motherhood, particularly for those readers who find themselves similarly surprised by parenthood.
Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand In the Sun and Be Your Own Person by Shonda Rhimes (Simon & Schuster) – Fans of Thank God It’s Thursday and those who have no idea what that references (note: it’s the name given to Thursday nights, thanks to Creator & Producer Rhimes’ three popular, back-to-back TV shows) will find this book clever, personal, and empowering. Peppered with references devoted fans will love, this book details the year its introverted author took to stop avoiding things which scared her, and to instead say yes to every opportunity that came her way.
Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things by Jenny Lawson (Flatiron Books) – The Bloggess’ second book is a sometimes serious, often funny look at surviving and thriving in life in the midst of depression, anxiety, and general “my brain is a real bastard” times. Lawson shares stories from her childhood and adulthood that have made her the slightly neurotic person she is today, and invites us to laugh and cry and cringe with embarrassment along with her.
Katy Goodwin-Bates, contributing critic
YA – All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven (Alfred A. Knopf) – Started my 2015 YA obsession. I have watched the reactions of my 14 year old pupils as they finish this book and realise that both love and complete despair exist (and then observed them trying not to cry in front of the rest of the class). It is beautiful and heartbreaking and I want to read it again.YA – Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo (Henry Holt) – Draws you deeply into a completely convincing world, in which the Grisha are magical outcasts, hunted by the evil Fjerdans and sought as slaves by everybody else. Bardugo’s world-building first in what I believe will be a trilogy is absorbing and has one of the most exciting final 100 pages I’ve read all year.
YA – Illuminae by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff (Knopf Books for Young Readers) – Possibly my favourite YA book of 2015. It’s original and completely beautiful to look at, and is almost too exciting right from the outset. This is my most frequently recommended book of the year and, in 2016, I am cutting off all friendships with non-converts.
YA – One by Sarah Crossan (Greenwillow Books) – Written in blank verse and from the perspective of a conjoined twin, One is a remarkable achievement; the style is unlike anything else I’ve read, and the story is never less than compelling, as Grace and Tippi face a world which isn’t quite sure how to react to them and face some life-changing decisions. It is another book I would like to force everyone to read.
YA – Simon Vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli (Balzer + Bray) – A book to restore your faith in humanity, with some of the most charming and realistic characters to be found in contemporary YA. Albertali’s depiction of teenager Simon and the build-up to his coming out is basically essential reading. This book has received a colossal amount of love at the back end of this year and it is totally deserved.
Adult – Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff (Riverhead Books) – One of those rare cases when the hype is worth it. Groff depicts a marriage in anatomical detail, showing complete genius in splitting the novel in half; the first half tells the reader all about Lotto and the second focuses on his wife, Mathilde, while unpicking every single thing we found out in part one.
Adult – City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg (Alfred A. Knopf) – Another hyped novel, and one that many have decided to hate without actually having read it, it’s worth reading so you can have an informed opinion on one of 2015’s biggest publishing stories. There is a lot in this novel to enjoy, particularly the depiction of late-70s New York and the disparate cast of characters Hallberg assembles.
Adult – Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller (Tin House Books) – I really enjoyed this weirdly creepy fairy-tale-esque novel, about a young girl snatched from home by her survivalist father. It’s beautifully written with plenty of surprises.
Rachel Nix, poetry contributor
Anne with an E by April Michelle Bratten (Dancing Girl Press) – Anne with an E is an Anne of Green Gables-inspired chapbook with an edge. The collection isn’t at all predictable – the poems are both gritty and bold, but Bratten managed to give enough nods to L.M. Montgomery’s work to please just about any reader.
Mike Chin, fiction contributor
Ongoingness: The End of A Diary by Sarah Manguso (Graywolf Press) – This strange little book is equal parts meditation on writing, reflection on life, and critical analysis of a massive collection of journal entries (which ironically do not appear in the text). I’d recommend it to writers, mothers, or anyone interested in grappling with the interplay of text and white space on the page.
Daniel Olivas, fiction contributor
How Winter Began by Joy Castro (University of Nebraska Press, 2015) – “With these stories, Castro lulls the reader with beautiful, exquisitely crafted sentences. But before we realize it, she reveals the dark contours of her characters’ lives—lives that are often desperate and broken, but not without hope for something better.”—Daniel A. Olivas, El Paso Times
Michael Ratcliffe, poetry contributor
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (Spiegel & Grau, 2015). Every so often, a book comes along that opens your eyes so you can truly see; opens your ears so you can truly hear. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me is that book. Written as a letter to his son, Coates comments on what it means to be Black, and more specifically, a Black male, in America. I thought I understood that reality as much as any white American male could, but Coates’ book opened my eyes, ears, and mind even further.
Jennifer MacKenzie-Hutchison, fiction contributor
Close to Hugh by Marina Endicott (Doubleday Canada, 2015). Endicott ingeniously weaves a story from the diverse elements and characters of Hugh’s world, a close-knit artistic community in small town Ontario. Her prose is replete with vivid language, metaphor, and poetry. Interestingly, she propels her story along through her characters more than any overarching plot. Although I was wary, even confused, in the first few pages, I soon became hooked and remained so to the end. An enjoyable, perceptive look into humanity.