It’s pretty late in the year for a “best of (so far)” list, but whatever.
This year marked a challenge for me: read one book per week. The goal is to read 52 different authors in a variety of genres. For the most part I have read novels and short story collections published since 2010 (four were published prior; two in 2008, one in 1997, and one in 1981). Up until recently I haven’t been paying attention to releases from this year, but as I finished my 41st book of 2015, I realized I have read 10 that were published since the first of the year. Here’s a ranking with some thoughts.
10. The Girl on the Train – Paula Hawkins
This was published way back in January when it was hailed as the next Gone Girl. It’s a cheap, quick thriller that is sure to entertain. Rachel lives on the outskirts of London and takes the train in every day. She’s an alcoholic, and writer Paula Hawkins won’t let you forget it. She sees something shocking, gets involved, and all hell breaks loose. It’s a quick read that will entertain, make you scratch your head at an enthralling and insane ending, and let you move on after an hour of pondering.
9. Everybody Rise – Stephanie Clifford
Everybody’s problem with Stephanie Clifford’s debut is that Evelyn is sort of (just kidding), really unlikeable. But what a lot of people miss is that is precisely the point. Evelyn is a social climber. She’s unlikeable on purpose and a lot of people just can’t seem to like a novel where that happens. This could have scored higher on this list, but it falls flat because it reads like literary chic-lit. It doesn’t commit one way or another. It wants to be a playful romantic comedy (and it would be a good one), but Clifford also seems to write some grandiose masterpiece (it wouldn’t even come close). Go into knowing you’ll get angry, and you’ll be fine.
8. Church of Marvels – Leslie Parry
Three stories, which so blatantly have to intertwine, reveal how a sanitation worker, a woman in an asylum, and a performer for the Coney Island Church of Marvels circus all collide in this turn-of-the-20th century novel. It is a fun read, but feels like it’s all exposition of the first act. All of a sudden you’re just halfway through it and realize, “wow, a lot of plot happened, but did anything happen?” It’s a vivid tale and quite entertaining, but something feels out of sort. One thing is for certain: it’ll make one hell of a film or limited series.
7. In the Country – Mia Alvars
Mia Avlar’s collection of short stories are all about Filipinos, but take place across the globe. Stories range from an American model abroad in the Philippines to an upper class boy falling in love with a homeless, lower class girl. What really makes this collection spectacular is that it is extremely character driven. The narration is raw and honest. It’s not at all exquisite, but Alvar’s writing is beautiful. Just go with that contradiction. It’ll make sense once you read this collection.
6. Among the Ten Thousand Things – Julia Pierpont
This is a polarizing novel, but it shouldn’t be. Customer reviews, like critic reviews, like this commentary you’re reading now, should be taken with a grain of salt. Something to just pique your interest. The story follows a family of four the moment a marriage falls apart. There is a solid, if not textbook template, plot that follows a upper echelon Manhattan family. However, one aspect of the novel that was really unique and jarring (which a lot of readers might not like) is where the second part of the novel jumps to reveal what happens after the other parts. It’s peculiar knowing the fate of the characters so far down the road when the main narrative is far from over.
5. The First Bad Man – Miranda July
This is one of those novels that takes a while to digest. It’s a pretty straightforward story: uptight, middle-aged Cheryl takes in her boss’ unhinged 20-something daughter because she has to in order to keep her job. She has a lump in her throat and has constant horrific visions of a baby boy. The novel explores sex and fear as if they are almost the same thing.
4. Girl at War – Sara Novic
Ana is a young girl in Croatia when a civil war tears apart the country. The novel alternates timelines between the early 1990s and the 2000s where Ana is living in New York City as a young woman. The story gives a touching look at what war does to a young person and the affects they feel later in life after the rest of the world forgets about the tragedy. Sara Novic succeeds in writing a piece that is harrowing, hopeful, and sometimes humorous.
3. Kitchens of the Great Midwest – J. Ryan Stradal
J. Ryan Stradal’s novel is more of a short story collection meant to be read in a very specific order (a la A Visit from the Goon Squad). It’s about a girl named Eva from Minnesota and her coming-of-age tale. She’s rarely the main character of a story though, and is often on the peripheral of some. If you know that going in, it won’t be as much of a disappointment when you realize you won’t know exactly what makes Eva tick. That’s okay though. As much as this is about her, it about the lives of every single one of the characters. She just links them all together.
2. Fates and Furies – Lauren Groff
Marriage might be the worst thing to ever happen to society. This couple may seem perfect on the surface, but they are far from it. Lancelot (Lotto) and Mathilde marry after only two weeks of dating. The first half of the novel focuses largely on Lotto’s upbringing: death, acting, and sex, lots and lots of sex. Subtitled Fates, Lotto’s story feels like a montage of his life and marriage. He becomes wildly successful, but he barely understands at what cost. The second half, Mathilde’s Furies, takes this great book and makes it stellar. Her story is where the secrets lie. It is a novel that forces the reader confront their own secrets as well.
1. Did You Ever Have a Family – Bill Clegg
Pain is universal. It happens to everyone; it happens over and over; it sometimes never stops. Bill Clegg’s fiction debut was rough. It hurts to read about June Reid’s tragedy. Her family’s house exploded the day before her daughter’s wedding. She lost everybody. Told through a variety of character’s points of view from a variety of time – long before the accident to give biographical information all the way to months after to discover the aftermath – this story unravels in a unique way. Some may say it is disjointed because there is no linear timeline. We find out about a character’s demons, then backtrack years, then forget about that character only to realize that was an important tidbit revealed in an unassuming way. Read this short, but haunting, novel to understand what it feels like to lose.