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Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Best Books of 2015

‘A pretty decent effort” … Harper Lee on Go Set a Watchman.

What was your favorite titles last year? Is your favorite on the lists?
Send me an email - Let me know what you think of the titles that made the cut...


    Fiction & Poetry

BEATLEBONE. By Kevin Barry. (Doubleday, $24.95.) In razor-sharp prose, Barry’s novel imagines John Lennon in 1978, on a journey through the west of Ireland in search of his ­creative self, conversing with an Irish driver.

THE BEAUTIFUL BUREAUCRAT. By Helen Phillips. (Holt, $25.) An administrative worker’s experiences pose existential questions in Phillips’s riveting, drolly ­surreal debut novel.

BEAUTY IS A WOUND. By Eka Kurniawan. Translated by Annie Tucker. (New Directions, paper, $19.95.) A novel about Indonesia’s turbulent 20th century.

CITIZEN: An American Lyric. By Claudia Rankine. (Graywolf, paper, $20.) A meditation, in prose poems, images and essays, on what it means to be black in our ­racially divided society.

CITY ON FIRE. By Garth Risk Hallberg. (Knopf, $30.) Hallberg’s ambitious ­Dickens-scale descent into New York City circa 1976‑77 doesn’t shortchange the era’s squalor. Many of its characters are lost kids in flight from their parents.

THE COMPLETE STORIES. By Clarice Lispector. Edited by Benjamin Moser. Translated by Katrina Dodson. (New Directions, $28.95.) The Brazilian was one of the true originals of Latin American literature.

DELICIOUS FOODS. By James Hannaham. (Little, Brown, $26.) This ambitious, sweeping novel of American captivity and ­exploitation involves an addicted mother laboring on a commercial farm.

THE DOOR. By Magda Szabo. Translated by Len Rix. (New York Review, paper, $16.95.) Szabo’s haunting 1987 novel examines the bonds between two very different women in Communist Hungary.

DRAGONFISH. By Vu Tran. (Norton, $26.95.) In Tran’s elegant and entertaining novel, a cop searches for his ex-wife, a ­haunted Vietnamese immigrant, in the sleazy ­underbelly of Las Vegas.

FATES AND FURIES. By Lauren Groff. ­(Riverhead, $27.95.) Groff’s complex and remarkable novel about marriage offers two critically different narratives, first from the husband’s point of view, then from the wife’s.

THE FIFTH SEASON. The Broken Earth: Book One. By N.K. Jemisin. (Orbit, paper, $15.99.) In Jemisin’s fantasy novel, ­civilization faces destruction and the earth itself is a monstrous enemy.

FINALE: A Novel of the Reagan Years. By Thomas Mallon. (Pantheon, $27.95.) The strong sense of foreboding that reigns here stands in arresting counterpoint to today’s notion of the Teflon president.

THE FIRST BAD MAN. By Miranda July. (Scribner, $25.) In July’s wry, smart first novel, two women’s consensually violent host-guest relationship leads to an erotic awakening.

THE FISHERMEN. By Chigozie Obioma. (Little, Brown, $26.) In its exploration of the murderous and the mysterious, the mind’s terrors and a vibrant Africa, this debut novel is heir to Chinua Achebe.

FORTUNE SMILES: Stories. By Adam Johnson. (Random House, $27.) The author of “The Orphan Master’s Son” offers a collection that is at once pervasively dark and shot through with humor.

FROM THE NEW WORLD: Poems 1976-2014. By Jorie Graham. (Ecco/HarperCollins, $29.99.) Graham’s work has more of life and of the world than that of almost any other poet now writing.

GOD HELP THE CHILD. By Toni Morrison. (Knopf, $24.95.) Child abuse cuts a jagged scar through Morrison’s novel, a brisk modern-day fairy tale with shades of the Brothers Grimm, and a blunt moral: What you do to children matters.

HARRIET WOLF’S SEVENTH BOOK OF ­WONDERS. By Julianna Baggott. (Little, Brown, $26.) The title character’s final ­novel has gone missing in this tenderhearted story about the legacy of loss.

HERE. By Richard McGuire. (Pantheon, $35.) A corner of the living room of the author’s childhood home in New Jersey is viewed over a period of eons in this graphic novel, which introduces a third dimension to the flat page.

THE HOLLOW LAND. By Jane Gardam. ­(Europa Editions, paper, $15.) Subtle linked stories about two boys’ friendship, first published in Britain in 1981, illuminate family and community ties.

HONEYDEW: Stories. By Edith Pearlman. (Little, Brown, $25.) With simultaneous intimacy and distance, the tales in Pearlman’s majestic collection excel at capturing the complex and surprising turns in seemingly ordinary lives.

HOW TO BE BOTH. By Ali Smith. (Pantheon, $25.95.) The two parts of Smith’s novel link a modern teenage girl and a 15th-­century Italian painter.

 THE INCARNATIONS. By Susan Barker. (Touchstone, $26.) In Barker’s astonishing novel, a Beijing taxi driver learns of his previous lives as a bit player during 15 centuries of China’s past.

LEAVING BERLIN. By Joseph Kanon. (Atria, $27.) In Kanon’s thriller, a German-born American writer becomes a spy in East Berlin.

A LITTLE LIFE. By Hanya Yanagihara. ­(Doubleday, $30.) In Yanagihara’s novel, four friends from college grapple with adulthood in New York.

THE LOVE OBJECT: Selected Stories. By Edna O’Brien. (Little, Brown, $30.) An Ireland gripped between tradition and change finds illumination in O’Brien’s brilliant and memorable tales.

LOVING DAY. By Mat Johnson. (Spiegel & Grau, $26.) Johnson’s hero is tragic not because of the stresses of his liminal racial status but because he, like most everyone else in the novel, is haunted by ghosts of painful pasts.

MAN AT THE HELM. By Nina Stibbe. ­(Little, Brown, $25.) Two sisters try to marry off their divorced mother in this jaunty ­British social satire.

A MANUAL FOR CLEANING WOMEN: ­Selected Stories. By Lucia Berlin. Edited by Stephen Emerson. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $26.) In these unadorned linked stories, Berlin examines women under duress and figures on America’s fringes.

THE MARE. By Mary Gaitskill. (Pantheon, $26.95.) A subtle depiction of a relationship between two families, their communities and a horse touches on tricky questions of class and race.

THE MEURSAULT INVESTIGATION. ­By ­Kamel Daoud. Translated by John Cullen. (Other Press, paper, $14.95.) This rich and inventive Algerian novel imagines the ­story of the Arab murdered on the beach in Camus’s “The Stranger.”

MISLAID. By Nell Zink. (Ecco/HarperCollins, $26.99.) Zink’s screwball comic novel about the making and unmaking of an American family lays bare our assumptions about race and sexuality.

MY STRUGGLE: Book 4. By Karl Ove Knausgaard. Translated by Don Bartlett. (Archipelago, $27.) This is the fleetest, funniest and — in keeping with its adolescent protagonist — most sophomoric of the volumes translated into English thus far.

NIGHT AT THE FIESTAS: Stories. By ­Kirstin Valdez Quade. (Norton, $25.95.) Quade is searching for truths both existential and sacred in her haunting and beautiful ­debut collection.

OUTLINE. By Rachel Cusk. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $26.) Cusk’s heartbreaking portrait of poise, sympathy, regret and rage suggests a powerful alternate route for the biographical novel.

PREPARATION FOR THE NEXT LIFE. By ­Atticus Lish. (Tyrant, paper, $15.) Lish’s gorgeous, upsetting debut novel follows the doomed love affair of a traumatized soldier and a Muslim immigrant.

PURITY. By Jonathan Franzen. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $28.) Connections emerge slowly as lies and secrets are revealed in this intricately plotted novel about the corruptions of money and power.

THE SELLOUT. By Paul Beatty. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $26.) Beatty’s satire breaks open the private jokes and secrets of blackness in a way that feels powerful and profane but not escapist.

S O S: Poems 1961-2013. By Amiri Baraka. Selected by Paul Vangelisti. (Grove, $30.) A half-century of revolutionary work ­displays the firmness of Baraka’s beliefs and the heat of his fury.
THE STORY OF THE LOST CHILD. Book 4, The Neapolitan Novels: “Maturity, Old Age.” By Elena Ferrante. Translated by Ann Goldstein. (Europa Editions, paper, $18.) Friends confront age and the questions of life’s meaning in the stunning final book of this brilliant series.
THE STORY OF MY TEETH. By Valeria ­Luiselli. Translated by Christina MacSweeney. (Coffee House Press, paper, $16.95.) This playful collaborative novel invites reader participation.
SUBMISSION. By Michel Houellebecq. Translated by Lorin Stein. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $25.) In Houellebecq’s morally complex novel, an alienated French professor and a France without faith or values yield to an Islamic government.

THE SYMPATHIZER. By Viet Thanh Nguyen. (Grove, $26.) Nguyen’s tragicomic debut novel fills a void in Vietnam War literature, giving a voice to the Vietnamese and compelling the rest of us to look at the events of 40 years ago in a new light.

THIRTEEN WAYS OF LOOKING: Fiction. By Colum McCann. (Random House, $26.) A novella and three stories display ­McCann’s empathetic imagination and ­belief in the capabilities of literature.

THE TRUTH AND OTHER LIES. By Sascha Arango. Translated by Imogen Taylor. (Atria, $24.99.) The writer in Arango’s cunningly plotted, darkly humorous novel is a fraud — and a murderer.

THE TSAR OF LOVE AND TECHNO: Stories. By Anthony Marra. (Hogarth, $25.) Interconnected stories set in a Russian industrial city are seamlessly narrated, with flashes of dark humor.

THE TURNER HOUSE. By Angela ­Flournoy. (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $23.) The ­African-American family story told in this engrossing, remarkably mature first ­novel is also a story of the city of Detroit.

VANESSA AND HER SISTER. By Priya ­Parmar. (Ballantine, $26.) A novel of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell, constructed around an invented diary and letters.

THE VISITING PRIVILEGE: New and Collected Stories. By Joy Williams. (Knopf, $30.) These tales, spanning a period of nearly 50 years, are marked by queasy humor and a wry nihilism.

THE WHITES. By Richard Price writing as Harry Brandt. (Holt, $28.) Most readers will never come close to a New York homicide investigation, but they will instinctively know that Price’s insightful crime novel has this world down right.

 courtesy of

By Magda Szabo. Translated by Len Rix.

In Szabo’s haunting novel, a writer’s intense relationship with her servant — an older woman who veers from aloof indifference to inexplicable generosity to fervent, implacable rage — teaches her more about people and the world than her long days spent alone, in front of her typewriter. Szabo, who died in 2007, first published her novel in 1987, in the last years of Communist rule; this supple translation shows how a story about two women in 20th-century Hungary can resonate in a very different time and place. With a mix of dark humor and an almost uncanny sense of the absurd, she traces the treacherous course of a country’s history, and the tragic course of a life.
A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories
By Lucia Berlin. Edited by Stephen Emerson.
Berlin, who died in 2004, left behind a substantial but ­little-known trove of stories that in her lifetime appeared mostly in literary journals and small-press books. This revelatory collection gathers 43 of them, introducing her to a wider audience as an uncompromising and largehearted observer of life whose sympathies favor smart, mouthy women struggling to get by much as Berlin herself — an alcoholic who raised four sons on her own — frequently did. With their maximalist emotions and sparse, unadorned language, Berlin’s stories are the kind a woman in a Tom Waits song might tell a man she’s just met during a long humid night spent drinking in a parking lot.

By Rachel Cusk
Cusk’s subtle, unconventional and lethally intelligent novel, “Outline,” her eighth, is a string of one-sided conversations. A divorced woman traveling in Greece, our narrator, talks — or rather listens — to the people she meets, absorbing their stories of love and loss, deception, pride and folly. Well-worn subjects — adultery, divorce, ennui — become freshly menacing under Cusk’s gaze, and her mental clarity can seem so penetrating, a reader might fear the same risk of invasion and exposure.

By Paul Beatty
This year’s most cheerfully outrageous satire takes as its subject a young black man’s desire to segregate his local school and to reinstate slavery in his home — before careening off to consider almost 400 years of black survival in America, puncturing every available piety. Sharp-minded and fabulously profane, Beatty’s novel is a fearless, metaphorical multicultural pot almost too hot to touch.

The Story of the Lost Child: Book 4, The Neapolitan Novels: “Maturity, Old Age
By Elena Ferrante. Translated by Ann Goldstein. 
Like the three books that precede it in Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet, this brilliant conclusion offers a clamorous, headlong exploration of female friendship set against a backdrop of poverty, ambition, violence and political struggle. As Elena and Lila, the girlhood rivals whose relationship spans the series, enter the middle terrain of marriage and motherhood, Ferrante’s preoccupations remain with the inherent radicalism of modern female identity — especially, and strikingly, with the struggles of the female artist against her biological and social destiny. 

By Ta-Nehisi Coates

Forget, for a moment, the ubiquitous comparisons to James Baldwin: Though fitting in many ways, they can distract us from how original Coates’s book truly is. Structured as a letter to his teenage son, this slender, urgent volume — a searching exploration of what it is to grow up black in a country built on slave labor and “the destruction of black bodies” — rejects fanciful abstractions in favor of the irreducible and particular. Coates writes to his son with a cleareyed realism about the beautiful and terrible struggle that inheres in flesh and bone.

By Sven Beckert
If sugar was the defining commodity of the 18th century and oil of the 20th, then surely cotton was king in the 19th century. In this sweeping, ambitious and disturbing survey, Beckert takes us through every phase of a global industry that has relied on millions of miserably treated slaves, sharecroppers and millworkers to turn out its product. The industrialization of cotton rested on violence, Beckert tells us, and its story is that of the development of the modern world itself. Even today, he reports, an industry that is always looking for cheaper labor is engaged in a “giant race to the bottom.” 

By Helen Macdonald
Macdonald, a poet, historian and falconer, renders an indelible impression of a raptor’s fierce essence — and her own — in this breathtaking memoir. Unmoored after the death of her father, she retreats from the world, deciding to raise and train a young goshawk, a brutal predator, in solitude. The hawk accompanies her into the wildest reaches of grief and her own nature, a place of darkness and surprising light, evoked in prose that mingles poetry and science, conjuring and evidence.

ON MORE THAN 25 BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR LISTS: including "TIME" (#1 Nonfiction Book), NPR, "O, The Oprah Magazine" (10 Favorite Books), "Vogue" (Top 10), "Vanity Fair, Washington Post, Boston Globe,

 The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World
By Andrea Wulf
Alexander von Humboldt may have been the pre-eminent scientist of his era, second in fame only to Napoleon, but outside his native Germany his reputation has faded. Wulf does much to revive our appreciation of this ecological visionary through her lively, impressively researched account of his travels and exploits, reminding us of the lasting influence of his primary insight: that the Earth is a single, interconnected organism, one that can be catastrophically damaged by our own destructive actions.
"New York Times "10Best Books of the Year 
"Los Angeles Times "Book Prize;  Costa Biography Award
A""Best Book of the Year: "The Economist," "Publishers Weekly," "Kirkus Reviews" 

By Asne Seierstad. Translated by Sarah Death.

In this masterpiece of reportage, Seierstad, a Norwegian journalist, explores the dark side of Scandinavia through the life and crimes of Anders Behring Breivik, who, on July 22, 2011, killed 77 people, most of them teenagers, as a protest against women’s rights, cultural diversity and the growing influence of Islam. As she weaves the stories of the teenagers with the central narrative about Breivik and his disturbing, alienated childhood, the book attains an almost unbearable weight. This tragedy isn’t literary and symbolic; it’s the real thing.
Visit. . .

 Notable Children's Books of 2015

Picture Books

ASK ME. By Bernard Waber. Illustrated by Suzy Lee. 40 pp. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $16.99. This posthumous book by the great Waber (“Lyle, Lyle Crocodile”) features a long, leisurely, lovely conversation between a father and daughter out taking an autumn walk.
FINDING WINNIE: The True Story of the World’s Most Famous Bear. By Lindsay ­Mattick. Illustrated by Sophie Blackall. 32 pp. Little, Brown. $18. Written by a great-­granddaughter of the Canadian soldier who bought a bear cub from a trapper and took her to Europe in World War I, this delightful account of the story behind A.A. Milne’s “Winnie-the-Pooh” is also a family history.
LAST STOP ON MARKET STREET. By Matt de la Peña. Illustrated by Christian Robinson. 32 pp. Putnam. $16.99. In this wise, moving story, C.J. is full of complaints as he and his peppery grandmother take a bus ride, but Nana helps him see the other side of things, especially after they arrive to help at a soup kitchen.
THE MENINO: A Story Based on Real Events. Written and illustrated by Isol. Translated by Elisa Amado. 53 pp. Groundwood/House of Anansi. $19.95. Our reviewer, Samantha Hunt, praised “the humor and the poetry” of this original take on the strangeness of babies — the alien sounds they make, the odd way they move — from the point of view of an older sibling.
IS MOMMY? By Victoria Chang. ­Illustrated by Marla Frazee. 30 pp. Beach Lane. $15.99. Children mischievously answer a question about their mommies on each page in this buoyant, refreshing look at ­parent-child love.
POOL. Written and illustrated by JiHyeon Lee. 56 pp. Chronicle. $16.99. A wondrous, wordless tale of a girl and boy and the magical world they discover once they brave the depths of a pool.
THANK YOU AND GOOD NIGHT. Written and illustrated by Patrick McDonnell. 32 pp. ­Little, Brown. $15.99. This playful, extraordinarily charming bedtime book features a girl whose stuffed rabbit hosts a surprise sleepover party.
TOYS MEET SNOW. By Emily Jenkins. Illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky. 40 pp. Schwartz & Wade. $17.99. The three toys from the “Toys Go Out” chapter book series get their own picture book, a transporting look at the wonders of snow.
WAITING. Written and illustrated by Kevin Henkes. 32 pp. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $17.99. Five toys wait on a window ledge, each for something different, in this profound and beautiful take on patience and perspective from the matchless Henkes.

Middle Grade

CIRCUS MIRANDUS. By Cassie Beasley. ­Illustrated by Diana Sudyka. 292 pp. Dial. $17.99. An orphaned fifth grader, falling under the spell of his dying grandfather’s tales of a magic circus, attempts to cash in a deferred wish in this shimmering debut novel.
ECHO. By Pam Muñoz Ryan. 592 pp. Scholastic. $19.99. Muñoz Ryan’s enchanting novel sends a harmonica traveling across years and over continents and seas to touch, and possibly save, the lives of three music-obsessed children, each facing serious struggles.

FIRSTBORN. By Tor Seidler. 227 pp. Atheneum. $16.99. In this artful and affecting novel, a solitary magpie travels with and becomes attached to a family of wolves who are repopulating the remote Lamar Valley in Yellowstone National Park.
GOODBYE STRANGER. By Rebecca Stead. 289 pp. Wendy Lamb. $16.99. A seventh grader recovering from a near-fatal accident navigates changes in herself and her tight group of friends in this moving novel, which our reviewer, Meg Wolitzer, called “masterly.”
LISTEN, SLOWLY. By Thanhha Lai. 260 pp. Harper/HarperCollins. $16.99. The funny, gently heartbreaking story of a 12-year-old Vietnamese-American girl who travels reluctantly to Vietnam with her grandmother and learns to love the fractured country and culture her family came from.
THE MARVELS. Written and illustrated by Brian Selznick. 665 pp. Scholastic. $32.99. Half wordless illustrated tale, half prose narrative, this captivating hybrid novel set over several centuries follows a family of theater legends who may or may not have really existed.
MOST DANGEROUS: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War. By Steve Sheinkin. Illustrated. 370 pp. Roaring Brook. $19. A riveting and remarkably effective account of Ellsberg’s life, his release of the Pentagon Papers and America’s tragic history in Vietnam.
NIMONA. Written and illustrated by ­Noelle Stevenson. 266 pp. HarperTeen/­HarperCollins. $17.99. A shapeshifting girl becomes a sidekick to a would-be villain in this winning, genre-convention-busting graphic novel that charts the terrain between magic and science.
ROLLER GIRL. By Victoria Jamieson. 240 pp. Dial. $20.99. In this spiky, winning graphic novel, a summer at roller-derby day camp helps a 12-year-old girl learn to rechannel her anger and let go of her former, more uncertain self.
STELLA BY STARLIGHT. By Sharon M. Draper. 320 pp. Atheneum. $16.99. An ­African-American girl in the Jim Crow South, a budding writer, witnesses a frightening Ku Klux Klan event and decides to fight with her family for change in this stirring, heartfelt novel.
THE THING ABOUT JELLYFISH. By Ali Benjamin. 343 pp. Little, Brown. $17. A shattering debut novel about a grieving, lonely girl, stung by the treachery of middle-school social alliances, who tries to use the scientific method to explain her former best friend’s death by drowning.

Young Adult

THE HIRED GIRL. By Laura Amy Schlitz. ­Illustrated. 387 pp. Candlewick. $17.99.Set in 1911, this transcendent novel features a literature-loving teenage narrator, raised poor and Catholic, who flees an abusive home and gains acceptance and worldly knowledge working as a servant for a Jewish family.
SHADOWSHAPER. By Daniel José Older. 297 pp. Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic. $17.99. “Magnificent,” our reviewer, Holly Black, called this sharp urban fantasy set in Brooklyn, about a young muralist — a shadowshaper, able to channel friendly spirits into art — facing an assortment of dangers.
SYMPHONY FOR THE CITY OF THE DEAD: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad. By M. T. Anderson. Illustrated. 456 pp. Candlewick. $25.99. A gripping, thoroughly researched biography of the Russian composer that illuminates the horrors of World War II along with the eternal hope music can provide.
SIX OF CROWS. By Leigh Bardugo. 465 pp. Holt. $18.99. This crackling first book in a new series by the author of the Grisha Trilogy assembles a team of outcasts who must band together to pull off a heist in order to save the Grisha, a tribe with magical powers.
BECOMING MARIA. Love and Chaos in the South Bronx. By Sonia Manzano. Illustrated. 262 pp. Scholastic. $17.99. In prose that shines brightly, the “Sesame Street” star recounts her path from a poor Nuyorican family ravaged by her father’s alcoholism to a scholarship at a prestigious college theater program.

Lot's of good books on the list. I missed more than I thought. Needless to say, my TBR stack has grown exponentially since reading this list.
Did you decide to read a book you discovered on the list? What did you think?

Drop me a note:  mrsr (at) live (.) com

Thank you for visiting...your support is most sincerely appreciated. I look forward to an exciting year of personal growth, good books and meeting lots of new readers.

RJ :-)

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