We come at last to the final installment of the Stevereads Best – and Worst – Books of the Year for 2015 (which followed hard on the heels of the Donoghue Interregnum, to make for a very list-y December indeed!), a year in which I read more books than I’d ever done before in a single twelve-month span, a year in which I wrote more reviews of new books than I’d ever done before, and a year in which my life was more wholly composed of bookish things than it had ever been before. It was a wonderful year-in-books as a result of all this, and I’d be remiss here at its close if I didn’t extend a laurel & hearty handshake to all you Stevereads readers who’ve made your way through that year-in-books right alongside me (and even followed me elsewhere – to my beloved “Weekly” feature of Open Letters Monthly, to The Washington Post, to The National on the other side of the world, and, lately, to Boston’s own Christian Science Monitor (and those of you who can find me in my two other publishing homes are industrious indeed). It’s been an enlivening privilege to be part of this ongoing book-conversation, and it’s my happy duty now to finish the year by recommending its best works of nonfiction for your consideration:
10 Dead in Good Company, edited by John Harrison – This lavishly-illustrated local-history volume about Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts very much puts the stress of its title on the “company” rather than the “dead,” because this is in actuality a wonderfully energetic and intimate natural history of the various birds and beasts who’ve made the cemetery’s sculptured grounds their home. Owls, frogs, egrets, hawks, and foxes enjoy center stage in these collected essays and reminiscences, with the various buried Brahmins shoved into the background.
9 The Complete Works of Primo Levi, edited by Ann Goldstein (Liveright) – This impressive production from Liveright is also intentionally stark: a boxed block of black-and-white to reflect the contents, the collected writings of one of the 20th century’s most jagged and unaccommodating writers. The experience of slipping each of these hefty volumes out of the case and re-submerging into Levi’s works over the course of a solid week is like no other reading experience provided by any of the books on any of my lists this year.
8 A River Runs Again by Meera Subramanian (PublicAffairs) – This startling and ultimately hopeful book begins as a more or less straightforward account of various measures designed to reclaim something of India’s reduced and ravaged natural spaces. But under Meera Subramanian’s careful elaboration – and helped along by her lovely, understated prose – the story broadens into something very much like a portrait of an entire country and its people. India has received many wake-up calls like this one over the last thirty years, but none quite so eloquent, or with such a human face.
7 Katrina: After the Flood by Gary Rivlin (Simon & Schuster) – In many ways, Gary Rivlin’s look at the city of New Orleans ten years after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina is the mirror image of A River Runs Again: here, the human stories all revolve around recovering a civilization from nature, rather than nature from a civilization. But the human stories – stirring, irritating, outraging, and ultimately uplifting – are every bit as well-written and absorbing.
6 The Life & Love of the Sea by Lewis Blackwell (Harry Abrams) – If we’re lucky, almost every publishing year will have a lavishly-gorgeous photo-book like this one by Lewis Blackwell, which in this case mixes cutting-edge photographic techniques with good old-fashioned excellent aesthetic judgement to present page after page of haltingly beautiful photo-spreads of the world’s oceans and ocean inhabitants in all their moods and movements. I’ve spent a great deal of time on the oceans of the world, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen photos that brought it all so vividly to life.
5 Circling the Square by Wendell Steavenson (Ecco) – From the reign of Hosni Mubarak to the fitful possibilities of Tahir Square and the Arab Spring to the fall of Mohammed Morsi, Wendell Steavenson acts throughout her courageous and endlessly sympathetic book as both the perfect listening ear and the shrewdest of insiders, giving readers both the events and the personal street-level emotions behind them. These pieces represent some of the finest writing to come out of Tahir Square and the chaos of Egypt’s wrestling with modernity.
4 So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson (Riverhead) – It’s hard to suppress a delicious shiver of Schadenfreude at some of the stories Jon Ronson so wonderfully serves up in this dry-witted study of the public shaming to Western life two hundred years after stocks and branding vanished from the culture. But the stories – of ordinary people who inadvertently sparked social media firestorms that then took on unholy lives of their own – are scary too, as Ronson smartly demonstrates again and again, because they could happen to almost anybody. In the instant, blundering karma of the Twitter era, Ronson’s book should be required cautionary reading.
3 Ars Sacra by Michael Orda (H. F. Ullmann) – By a wide margin, this is the most stunningly opulent book published anywhere on Earth in 2015, a gigantic, 25-pound illustrated compendium of Christianity-inspired artwork from Late Antiquity through all the glorious epochs right down to the present day, all photographed in precisely-detailed splendor by Achim Bednorz and presented on thick, textured pages. It’s a thrilling, almost overwhelming celebration of some of the finest artwork ever created, as argument-ending a refutation as could be imagined to the contention of a certain dead demagogue that religion poisons everything (to paraphrase another dead demagogue, “Some poison! Some everything!”). Also: the book, supported on sufficiently sturdy pylons, can double as a dwelling.
2 Latest Readings by Clive James (Yale University Press) and Browsings by Michael Dirda (Pegasus) – Given my long-standing love of reading (with the obligatory nod of thanks to the great teacher who instilled that love) – and given my profession – it’s probably not surprising that I’ve read every book of book reviews to come down the pike. I esteem the peculiar craft of writing book reviews to word-count and on deadline; it’s not literary criticism, but it’s not dream-journaling either – it’s a strange kind of hybrid-voice, and it takes some work to do well. Clive James and Michael Dirda are two of the best living writers of that peculiar craft, and as these two latest offerings show, they’re also very enjoyably different from each other, James being more capacious in his approach and Dirda more monkishly contemplative. Their different approaches are united, however, in sure way they pitch their book-discussions beyond specific books – these are ruminations fit to stand for a while.
1 One of Us by Asne Seierstad (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), The Mystery of the Lone Wolf Killer by Unni Turrettini (Pegasus) – These two magnificent, bleak books share the distinction of being the Stevereads Best Nonfiction of 2015, and they share a subject matter as well: in July of 2011, a young man named Anders Breivik set off a bomb outside a government building in downtown Oslo, Norway, then took a ferry to a Youth League summer camp island and proceeded to shoot sixty-nine more defenseless victims, including many children, before calmly surrendering himself to the police. The entire civilized world was thrown into shock (except the United States, where in the 190 minutes of Breivik’s killing rampage there were 14 gun fatalities, and 14 more during the 190 minutes of his booking by Norwegian police, and 14 more while he waited for prison transport, and 14 more while he spoke with his attorney, and 14 more as he fell asleep that first night in custody, and 14 more every 190 minutes, day and night, ever since, including 14 more in the time it’s taken you to read these book-lists), and these two intensely good books are very different attempts by their authors to come to some kind of understanding of the tragedy. Both books handily exceed the tidy limits of strict reporting: both search brilliantly into the heart and horror of that inexplicable day.
As wiser heads than mine figured out and pointed out in the public forum, 2015 was characterized by a great deal of audacity in its fiction. Most of this audacity misfired – publishing emails as a novel, straight-facedly telling your publisher that you intend to write 117 800-page novels over the next 251 years, twee collaborations, genre-snobs continuing to attempt the writing of science fiction, etc. But just look at all of it that didn’t misfire! An epic novel about the punk scene in 1970s New York! A historical novel written in fabricated Old English! Bats! 2015 was a year in which an encouraging number of writers took chances based on the most encouraging assumption of them all: that somewhere out there in the Republic of Letters was an audience of readers who’d enjoy the challenge of the books that resulted.
10 . John the Pupil by David Flusfeder (Harper) – A young monk’s Candide-style journey across 13th-century Europe forms the framework within which David Flusfeder tells a far deeper and more delicate story, one that required a couple of readings for me to see clearly, and one that’s drawn me back for yet one more reading, just to savor. You can read my full reviewhere
9. The Luck Bringer by Nick Brown [Legend Press] – Nick Brown’s terrific debut tells the story of 5th century Athens from two tensile and illuminatingly different points of view, that of the crafty deposed Greek strongman Miltiades and of his hot-headed teenage “luck bringer” Mandrocles, each dealing with very different elements of an Athenian society under the looming threat of the Persian Empire. Brown brings his chosen slice of the ancient world to life so vividly and readably that I totally lost track of time (and forgot about his many, many predecessors in telling this story) while I was reading.
8. JD by Mark Merlis (University of Wisconsin Press) – In a year made notable by sprawling, operatic works of fiction (as we’ll see), there was something all the more remarkable – almost miraculous – about both the density and the jewel-like sharpness of this wonderful novel by Mark Merlis (who, like some other writers on our Year-End list this year, also made an appearance in the Donoghue Interregnum). It’s a multi-faceted story about a long-dead radical novelist, about his deceptively complicated widow who uncovers long-buried secrets about the man she thought she knew, and about their rebellious son – and all of it is executed with such calm precision. Like all of Merlis’s books, I’m sure this one will pull at my memory for years.
7. The Book of Numbers by Joshua Cohen (Random House) – There’s a class-clown attention-desperate smarminess to this novel that should have made me hate it. It’s the story of an enigmatic all-powerful tech industry figure, a combination of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Jim Jones, who enlists a hapless young novelist to tell his life story and learn his secrets, and once I learned that the young novelist’s name is Joshua Cohen, I was ready to feed the book to the nearest basset hound. But Cohen’s chronicling of Cohen’s adventures won me over by its sheer dazzling energy (and the puckish humor didn’t hurt), until finally I was very nearly as impressed by the book as were so many of my openly-dazzled book-critic colleagues. I expect to hate this novel upon re-reading it in paperback, but for now, I’d defend to the teeth its place on this list.
6. Martin Marten by Brian Doyle (Thomas Dunne) – If The Book of Numbers trafficked heavily in the expected and still won me over, this joyful little novel by Brian Doyle took the opposite tack, using the interlinked stories of a young teenager and a young pine marten to chart a completely convincing picture of the perils of the striving life. In its perfectly-controlled whimsy, the book reminded me of William Kotzwinkle’s The Bear Went Over the Mountain, but it had a sharp intellect all its own – I was immensely pleased to see it get the judicious critical praise it so richly deserves, and I’m hoping it reaches a very wide audience in paperback.
5. The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty by Vendela Vida (Ecco) – I was very impressed by Vendela Vida’s short, bewildering novel Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name, so I went into this book with admittedly high expectations – and it easily exceeded them. In this story about a woman who’s robbed of all her earthly identification while on vacation in Casablanca, Vida delves with downright poetic precision into the sense of alienation – and endless possibility – that foreign travel can bring. After thirty pages, I had not the slightest idea where the author would take the plot, and I was happy to whip along wherever it went.
4. The American People Vol 1: Search for My Heart by Larry Kramer (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) – A long, long time ago, I predicted that if author and activist Larry Kramer ever actually lost his mind, he’d do it not in a quiet where-are-my-car-keys way but with the multi-spectrum extravagance – the audacity, as I’ve mentioned – of a supernova. This big, utterly insane book is Part 1 of that supernova; it’s the demented grandchild of the ersatz American historical novel at the heart of John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor, the gay-fantasia obverse-history of the United States. Only Larry Kramer could have written this book, and that’s both a warning and a blessing. You can read my full reviewhere
3. The Dying Grass by William Vollmann (Viking) – It’s the pleasing quirk of novelists not just to be able to make great matter out of odd or trivial material but to flaunt their ability to do so, to make extravagantly long odds pay off and to make it look easy in the process. I would have told you no epic of American letters could ever be fashioned out of the sordid cruelties of the whaling industry – and I’d have been wrong. Likewise I’d have spared not a single thought for the Nez Perce theater of the American Indian Wars fought by the US government in the 19th century – and yet here, at mind-boggling length and beautiful complexity, William Vollmann has crafted just such an epic. You can read my full review here
2. Epitaph by Mary Doria Russell (Ecco) – I was pleased by Mary Doria Russell’s Doc, her very well-realized fictional portrait of “Doc” Holliday, but I wasn’t overly pleased – I read it and moved on. The sensibility and devices on display in that book certainly didn’t prepare me for the gigantic, almost Homeric power of this novel, which joins the story of Holliday with that of his friends the Earps and leads everything to the Gunfight at the OK Corral and beyond. It astonished me. You can read my full review here
1. A Little Life by Hanya Yaningahara (Doubleday) – Fiction-reviewers have become patent-medicine peddlers in the last two decades, I’ve noticed. It’s not enough any longer for them to follow the example of Horace Gregory or Mark Van Doren and intelligently discuss the merits and shortcomings of the latest books. Instead, they’ve become Agony Aunts, taking readers on a roller-coaster ride of the medical and psychological traumas every new book inflicts on them. “I could feel my spleen rupturing,” “I wept openly on the subway, like a slapped child,” “I gasped in astonishment so often my wife divorced me,” and so on. It can inculcate in the average review-reader a fishy disbelief, and who can blame such a reader, with all these raw nerves parading around the place? They’d naturally start to wonder if any of these new books can really be all that moving. But in the case of this amazing novel by Hanya Yaningahara, all such patent-medicine hand-waving is justified – might even qualify as understatement. In the course of this book, our author – who seems like a perfectly nice young woman, not particularly given to twisting the heads off little kittens – puts her main character and his friends through through every torment Dante every devised and a few that even he thought were a bit much. A breviary of misery this complete should by rights be wearying and monotonous, and yet the whole novel, easily and obviously the best of 2015, positively glows with catharsis. It will exhaust you, but it will better you too – and how many novels that do the one also do the other?
2015 was a very bad year for adulthood. In its twelve months, the aging Baby Boomer generation and the despised Millennials faced challenges to common sense and decency on all sides – and failed every single one of those challenges. Privileged college undergraduates screamed at their college administrators in public and were not disciplined; pampered college undergraduates tried to create “safe spaces” on their campuses, where they wouldn’t be confronted with ideas (or skin colors) they didn’t already like – and they weren’t expelled for it; a college instructor was filmed inciting a group of students under her authority to physical violence against a member of the Press and was not prosecuted for it. All across the country, adults started using the term “identify as” synonymously with “play-act as” and intended to be taken seriously (or they’d sue, of course); one such adult actually asked me, “Do you identify as a dog?” – and she meant it in a legal, reality-defining way, and when I patiently pointed out that, as she could see with her eyes, I am, in biological fact, a human, she was genuinely offended. It was a year in which tens of thousands of grown-up taxpaying adults shouted their support for a racist, bigoted, misogynistic bullying idiot not because they agreed with any of his policies but because they wanted to be part of his gang It was a year in which thousands of shaving, voting, bill-laying adults continued their full-scale retreat into their imagined fantasy-version of childhood, an utterly wretched period they’ve somehow convinced themselves was simpler, easier, and more honest. Those adults read children’s books in record numbers, wore pajamas in public, and used kids-speak like “all the feels” and Twitter abbreviations in public. It was a year of regression and rebellion-politics, in other words, a year in which a greater-than-ever proportion of adults in the civilized world decided to deny reality and demand respect for their denial. It was all appalling, and a good deal of it slopped over into the Republic of Letters, with predictably deplorable results. These were the worst offenders of 2015:
10A Time for Truth by Ted Cruz (Broadside Books), Gods, Guns, Grits, and Glory by Mike Huckabee (St. Martin’s), American Dreams by Marco Rubio (Sentinel), Crippled America by Donald Trump (Threshold), Rising to the Challenge by Carly Fiorina (Sentinel), Taking a Stand by Rand Paul (Center Street), etc. – The run-up to any US presidential election season is going to see an influx of campaign tracts masquerading as books, and such booklets will be much the same: simplistic, self-congratulatory, ghostwritten (indeed, the Stevereads Worst Books of 2015 contains more ghostwritten books than any previous year – I count 14), and inordinately stupid. But this crop share an added similarity that pushes the whole batch from seasonal annoyance to Year’s Worst, and that similarity is racism. The theme running through all of these campaign books – under the surface in some, proudly displayed in others – is one of recovery: America is weak, lost, even crippled, and the candidate in question is sadly but sternly pointing this out (as an act of tough love) and offering a regimen to fix things. In every single case, the regimen boils down to hate – of intellect, of poor people, of difference, of experience, but most of all of the black man who’s been in the Oval Office for the last two terms, and most of all because he is black. By every objectively measurable standard, America is not weaker, more lost, or more crippled than it was eight years ago – and yet the tone of all these books is one of cumulative regret, a sense of sorrow that the country has been badly off-course in all that time. And the root of that tone isn’t hard to see; it shows itself every time these candidates soak up support from donor conventions that are little more than un-upholstered Klan rallies; it shows itself in every passage where these candidates question the patriotism of the President of the United States; it shows, of course, in the ongoing quest of one of these candidates (uncriticized by the others) to prove that the black man in the Oval Office isn’t even actually an American at all. These are noxious little books, in other words, hate-mongering, fear-mongering screeds coming before the American reading public at one of the most complex moments in the 21st century and offering only the 18th century by way of solution. Reading them all has been more like taking pathologies at a mental health clinic than learning the thoughts of would-be national leaders.
9 Killing Reagan by Martin Dugard (with Bill O’Reilly) (Henry Holt) – We’ve seen already how laughable Martin Dugard is when he tries to write history, so most of the idiocy of this book (written in some kind of collaboration with FOX comedian and well-documented liar Bill O’Reilly) comes as no surprise. Even so, the extent to which Dugard takes things here is a little staggering. Most of the book is just badly-summarized swipings from real biographies of Reagan, and what passes for a central theme – that Reagan getting shot in 1981 essentially “killed” him by accelerating the onset of his Alzheimer’s – is so ludicrous it ought to have embarrassed even a fraud like Dugard.
8Love and Lies: An Essay on Truthfulness, Deceit, and the Growth and Care of Erotic Love by Clancy Martin (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) – Imagine you’re invited to the Dumbo prestige-loft of a loathsome young power couple for an evening of food nobody wants to eat (kale) and music nobody wants to hear (Mahler). They have no interest in anything you might have to say – you were invited because of your Twitter numbers, in order to join an audience, and that audience was invited solely in order to sit and mutely appreciate the dual performance of the power couple. And the performance itself? Why, stories about themselves, of course – how smart they are (even though it doesn’t take you long to figure out that they’re actually quite stupid), how cool they are (even though it doesn’t take you long to figure out that they don’t really have any sense of proportion or grace), and, ultimately, how much better they love each other than other couples do (even though it doesn’t take you long to figure out that they virulently hate each other)(and even though during this very party each of them propositioned you in the bathroom). Now imagine the grueling ordeal of that evening captured in book form.
7Hello Life! ‘by’ Marcus Butler (Gallery Books), In Real Life ‘by’ Joey Graceffa (Atria), Binge ‘by’ Tyler Oakley (Gallery Books), The Amazing Book is Not on Fire ‘by’ Dan Howell and Phil Lester (Random House), A Work in Progress ‘by’ Connor Franta (Atria), etc. – In addition to cat videos and video game play-along videos, the sticky loam of YouTube has also given rise to a peculiar, very specific phenomenon: cute-boy millionaires. They didn’t start off as millionaires, of course; they just started off as brainless cute little hair-styled narcissists. But in the era of YouTube, these cute boys turned their cameras to their favorite subject: themselves – and they found an audience of millions of teenage girls. That audience allowed YouTube to generate ad revenue from the channels of those cute boys, which made those cute boys into millionaires without, of course, chipping away at their narcissism at all. In fact, the money and the screaming, worshipful audience hugely increased the narcissism of these vapid cute boys – it led them to the mistaken belief that they could think, that they could have concerns and causes that extended beyond which kind of hair products to use. And one horrific result of this mistaken belief foisted itself on the reading world in 2015: books ghostwritten in the on-camera voices of these cute-boy millionaires, books laying out the life-philosophies of preening little creatures with brains like pretty soap-bubbles. The merchandising managers of these millionaires know the value of multiple streams of income, and the cute boys know that they like income, and the only victims are trees and readers.
6Exceptional by Liz & Dick Cheney (Threshold) – The sheer effrontery of a public figure as openly, unmitigatedly evil as former Vice President and war-architect Dick Cheney maintaining a public persona after leaving office would be startling enough, but Cheney has done much worse, popping up on talk shows in order to vociferously defend his worst illegalities, writing memoirs exonerating himself from the obscenities he committed in broad daylight, and, in this bizarrely malevolent book co-written with daughter Liz, implicitly positioning his eight years in power – during which two wars of conquest were started and a $600 billion-dollar deficit was run up – as high points of recent American history, a time when the “exceptional” nature of the United States was most closely realized. No single page of this book, no single paragraph, and hardly any single line is free of flat factual errors and outright lies, all told along the central theme that will be familiar from the first item on this Year’s Worst Books list: that the last eight years of American life have betrayed and subverted on a fundamental level – by the black man in the Oval Office. This is not the customary whine of a political grandee whose party is out of power – none of the books on this list are – but rather the far more concerted anger of a man who believes the entire basis of American decency has been polluted at a basic, personal level. And in its anger it gets almost every single fact about American history wrong.
5Evolution 2.0: Breaking the Deadlock between Evolution and Design by Perry Marshall (BenBella Books) – Since the only people who think there’s a “deadlock” between evolution and creationism are creationists, the very title of Perry Marshall’s affable distillation of snake oil hints at the lies to come in the book, and sure enough, there they are, all the usual suspects of creationism: that random mutation and natural selection aren’t sufficient to shape life as we see it in the world today, that molecular mechanics are too complex to be the result of natural processes, and so on. Marshall is far from the first creationist to ineptly characterize these kinds of things as indications that life was designed by supernatural forces (and of course he has only one supernatural force in mind, a personal force whose name and opinions he believes he knows; books like this are never about the benevolent creativity of Thoth), but his book is extra-mendacious in its ingratiating, fake-compromising tone, as though the author were striving to make peace between two equally-valid camps who have more in common than they want to believe, when in reality there is no compromise between magic and reality.
4Kissinger Vol. I by Niall Ferguson (Penguin Press), Being Nixon: A Man Divided by Evan Thomas (Random House) – Regression and rebellion-politics reach their peak in lying biographies of bastards, and these two noxious books represent the worst of that fad in the course of 2015. You can get a strong hint of the lies in store for you in both these books by the frequent mentions Niall Ferguson makes to James Boswell and Samuel Johnson, but of course both volumes have far, far worse in store than the mere egotism of their authors, each of whom makes a strong protestation (Evans implicitly, Ferguson explicitly) of objectivity and then proceeds to slant, shape, and massage their documentation in order to exonerate their appalling subjects from the court of historical judgement that’s already branded them as two of the worst villains the 20th century produced. Both Evans and Ferguson have done excellent work prior to the writing of these books, and after the writing of these books, both of them should not only be denied all future book-contracts but also denied all future interaction with ethical human beings, since the only person worse than a public official willing to bully, cheat, and kill in order to revel in personal power is a biographer willing to lie about those officials to future generations.
3Reagan: The Life by H. W. Brands (Doubleday), Destiny and Power by Jon Meacham (Random House) – Two more widely and publicly honored historians, two more fat volumes of lies about public officials from the recent past, in this case two presidents whose contiguous time in office was not a saint’s progression around the stained glass windows of Ely Cathedral. In both books, the authors – who damn well know better – use as their primary sources (and almost their only sources) the air-brushed, self-serving, and lawyer-vetted official memoirs of the men and women involved, and so in both books the authors come to exactly the gummy, Patton-watching conclusions about those men and women that the men and women themselves now most contentedly want readers – and history – to reach. It’s a glaring inversion to the proper relationship between biographers and the historical record, and it’s hugely unsettling that it’s happening closer and closer to immediate living memory. A “biography” along these lines of George W. Bush or Slobodan Milosevic can’t be far away.
2Alone on the Wall by David Roberts (with Alex Honnold) (W. W. Norton) – We circle back again to the retreat from adulthood with this rambling hagiography of sociopathic narcissist Alex Honnold, who’s built a career as a “free solo” rock climber, i.e. climbing tall rock-faces without any equipment other than his hands and feet. Roberts predictably portrays Honnold as some kind of free-spirit visionary, an innocent soul living a simple kid’s life in our crazy, complicated world, wanting only to hang out in his van, look befuddled all the time, and play on rocks. There’s almost no trace in Roberts’ book of a money-hungry, groupie-rogering pothead, and by the standards of the “biographies” on our list this year, I guess that means such a money-grubbing, groupie-rogering pothead must not exist. Whew!
2015 wasn’t a very good year for fiction. It had highlights, as, thankfully, any year will have, but if you think about it, highlights are all that genuine readers ever get: all years are, in aggregate, bad for fiction (as somebody who reads more self-published books than you’d readily believe, you can trust me on this) – the bulk of what’s published in any given year is dreck. But even so, 2015 batted below average. The highlights were fewer (for the first time in five years, my Top 10 Best Fiction list couldn’t have gone to 20), and the dreck slopped over the gunwales in almost every month. In any year, this will always be the fault of the authors first, since they’re the ones churning out this stuff while chain-smoking in Brooklyn. But I’ve increasingly come to see that these books are also failings of the various “support systems” these authors have in place – friends, spouses, agents, editors, mistresses – who are supposed to save them from rotten choices they might otherwise make on their own. At every step, in other words, everybody connected with these wretched books failed us, the readers. I aim my annual scorn here mostly at the authors, many of whom have by now had plenty of hints that they should change professions – but in most of these cases, a whole group should hang its head in shame. Because it takes a village to make a pile of crap.
10 The War of the Encyclopaedists by Christopher Robinson & Gavin Kotiz (Scribner) – One of the year’s most loathsome fads (may it please die a swift and painful death) was the collaboration, wherein two insufferable hipsters join forces to produce a novel at least twice as irritating as anything they could have produced separately. Such novels will have three main flaws, and the first of these is: because of the collaborative nature of the enterprise, neither author will take the book seriously. It will remain a lark, like lugging your turntable around in a carrying case or converting to Christianity. This flaw soils the very air of The War of the Encyclopaedists by Christopher Robinson and Gavin Kotiz, as is evident right from the names of the two main characters, Mickey Montauk and Halifax Corderoy. Every single subsequent detail and plot twist in this boring book is equally masturbatory; you can practically hear the authors chuckling to each other on their rotary phones.
9 The New World by Chris Adrian & Eli Horowitz (FSG) – The second main flaw of twee collaborative novels is: their pitch will defile anybody who touches them. A sad and gruesome case-in-point is this programmatic and tired novel by Chris Adrian and Eli Horowitz, about a loving wife, a loving husband, and a head-harvesting cyrongenics lab; Adrian is the amazingly talented author of The Great Night and The Children’s Hospital, but even such credentials don’t save him from the folly of this fad, any more than Laurence Olivier’s acting chops would save him from looking ridiculous on The Love Boat.
8 Read Bottom Up by Neen Shah and Skye Chatham (Dey Street Books) – The third main flaw of insipid collaborative novels is: they have the potential to trick their lazy and money-grubbing authors into thinking that their creation will be easy – which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Such is certainly the case with Read Bottom Up by Neen Shah and Skye Chatham; it’s a novel told mostly in the form of long email exchanges (hence the title), and you can almost see the light bulb of faux-inspiration lighting up over our authors’ heads while looking at some of their own emails: hey, we could make a BOOK out of this stuff! This particular book is the email marginalia detailing the courtship and relationship of two annoying New Yorkers. Take my advice and hit DELETE.
7 Under Tiberius by Nick Tosches (Little, Brown) – I read a lot of stupid books in any given year, and believe it or not, I exonerate quite a few of them on the grounds of simple ignorance: their authors acted in earnest and just weren’t experienced enough, cultured enough, or well-read enough to know that they were producing something stupid. Which is probably why I reserve a special 150-proof back-shelf Maker’s Mark of contempt for the tiny handful of authors who know they’re writing a stupid book and do it anyway, in the vicious, squinty-eyed certainty that there’ll still be plenty of readers dumb enough to buy it. I know such mental calculus is warranted (you’ll never go broke underestimating, etc.), but such knowledge just makes me hate these authors a little more – and Nick Tosches joins those ranks with this very intentionally stupid novel about the chance discovery of an explosive contemporary account of Jesus. You can read my full review here.
6 The Familiar Volume 1: One Rainy Day in May by Mark Danielewski (Pantheon) – Of the many ways a fiction writer can fail the craft of fiction-writing, by far the most widespread in the 21st century is the failure to control the story. Ever since David Foster Wallace was allowed by his editors to simply run at the mouth and, as it were, make shit up, a small number of degenerate authors have considered this a legitimate form of public fiction, and far too large a segment of the reading public, ignorant of Eliot, Hawthorne, Trollope, Dos Passos, or Welty, have indulged these authors. The result has been baggy monstrosities like Robert Jordan’s “Wheel of Time” series or George R. R. Martin’s “Song of Ice and Fire” books – shoulder-high stacks of books in what should by rights have been simple trilogies. And surely the Olympus of such monstrosities is this series by House of Leaves perpetrator Mark Danielewski; it purports to be the story of a small cast of handy fictional stereotypes as world-changing fates draw them together, and it’s billed as the first in a projected 117-volume series of 800-pagers, one appearing every six months until the author is 251. But the flat, tinny affect of the literally-unending prose makes this stoner-narrates-a-video-game mess a monstrosity to avoid.
5 Submission by Michel Houellebecq (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) – The raw materials of this novel are all the more tempting because they’re so promising: a slightly-future France in which an insurgent Islamic political party comes to power, establishes Islamic rule, and tempts a sad-sack professor with advancement if he converts to Islam. I wasn’t ten pages into Submission before I was wondering how good the book would be if Michel Houellebecq weren’t such a Gawd-awful writer, but alas, he is; there isn’t a single aspect of his promising premise he doesn’t bungle with boring prose, leaden pacing, and an absolutely surgical lack of narrative energy. Thanks to his soupy ineptitude, the reader is never tempted for a moment to engage with what might otherwise have been the most prescient and disturbing novel of the year.
4 The Illuminations by Andrew O’Hagan (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) – The basic plot of this novel is wan and derivative – disillusioned British veteran of Afghanistan returns to his secluded Scottish home to grapple with his memories and his family’s legacy – but it’s dependably wan and derivative; you’d think it would be pretty hard to screw up. And yet O’Hagan manages to screw it up (again, I blame the wholesale failure of his support system almost as much as I blame him): his characters are arch and weirdly unbelievable, his plot has the pace of recalcitrant porridge, and his story declines to conclude or even cast a parting glance at the mess it’s left behind.
3 I Am Radar by Reif Larsen (Penguin Press) – I admit, it would have taken the rough equivalent of The Beautiful and the Damned by this author to wash from my mind the rancid glop of his last book, The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet, so there was virtually no chance this exorbitantly horrible novel would actually please me. But even so, I was unprepared for how much it would enrage me. Its plot – such as it is – centers on a young man named Radar who’s exactly the kind of Messiah-waif this author reflexively writes about (and so clearly considers himself to be), but the protracted strew of garbage that’s spun around this central character is built on the author’s apparent philosophy that books should imitate spastic video games or risk being just like the boring old things in the library. Like a couple of other items in our rogues gallery this time around, Larsen’s book is actually deeply antithetical to reading.
2 Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg (Gallery) – It’s almost predictable that a writer who produced two books as formulaic and deeply cynical as Bill Clegg’s two memoirs might then go on to write a debut novel as formulaic and deeply cynical as Clegg wrote this year. It’s the story of a small-town Connecticut woman who abruptly loses her entire immediate family and must face life without them, and although a plot like that is self-evidently pat and off-the-shelf (in a way that’s always tempting to debut novelists), its execution here bears all the stamps of Clegg’s memoirs: it’s overwrought, pretentious, and cemented in coincidences. It’s always dismaying for me to see any book this bad reap the kind of praise this one has received; its extra-dismaying to think that praise may betoken a string of future novels from this author.
1 The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George (Crown) – It would be difficult even in brief summary to touch on all the contemptible aspects of this, the worst novel of 2015. It’s about a man who runs a magical bookstore on a river barge in Paris but one day decides to take his shop sailing (with a quirky little crew, of course) in search of his long-lost love, which is offensive enough, and the characters are all the worst kind of John Green-style hyperbole-spouting mannequins. But the worst part of it, for me, is that it, too, is antithetical to reading: the owner of the little Paris bookshop is an exponent of that most noxious viewpoint that holds reading as a kind of mystic religion and bullying booksellers as its priests and priestesses – in other words, it holds reading as something that happens according to a catechism and can therefore be done wrong (in the book a grieving customer must be given Author X but not Author Y, for instance). And as enormously irritating as that is, even more irritating is the chance that some readers will believe it. I wish this particular barge had gone down with all hands.
Biography, as many of you will know, is my favorite genre – it’s as improbable as the wildest-eyed fiction, as grounded in events as the most sober history, and often as unpredictable as any fantasy novel, and best of all, it very often brings out the best in its practitioners, many of whom are faced with the task of writing hundreds of new pages about subjects on which thousands of old pages have already been written. It can be a proving ground, in other words, not only for innovation in research but also for creativity in narrative. It’s a place for stately authorized biographies, multi-volume lifetime obsessions, and nimble-footed new approaches, and 2015 saw all three. These were the best of them:
10. Young Eliot by Robert Crawford (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) – I’m no big fan of the poetry of T. S. Eliot, so I went into this biography with the wariness you might feel when somebody wants to tell you what a great dancer Josef Stalin was – the worry is that being a fan is the price of admission. But no: Crawford’s goal is not to make converts but to tell the admittedly interesting story of Eliot’s early years. You can read my full reviewhere.
9. The Strategist by Bartholomew Sparrow (Public Affairs) – As mentioned, biographies can often be downright strange; certainly in 2014 I wouldn’t have expected to see a very long biography of the career of policy wonk and US government eminence grise Brent Scowcroft in 2015, let alone expected to like it as much as I did, both on first reading and even more on second reading. You can read my full review here.
8. Virginia Woolf by Vivane Forrester (trans by Jody Glanning) (Columbia University Press) – This slim, unforgettable book is a perfect example of how the sheer passionate beauty of a biographer’s engagement with her subject can make even the most familiar material feel new and electrifying again. Forrester’s prose is sinuous and powerful enough to match the hyper-smart and sensitive Woolf who comes to life in these pages. Other Virginia Woolf biographies are of course longer and more detailed, but this one feels like art in its own right.
7. The Remarkable Education of John Quincy Adams by Phyllis Lee Levin (St. Martin’s) – It’s a slight theme running through some of this year’s best biographies, this tactic of concentrating on part of a life instead of the whole, and it often pays benefits – as in this wonderful book, where Phylllis Lee Levin tells the story of the growth and development of the most remarkable US President of them all. You can read my full review here
6. The Fortunes of Francis Barber by Michael Bundock (Yale University Press) – Samuel Johnson was happy to collect odd and stray people as he shambled through life – he was bottomlessly generous and could be very, very kind – and one of them was the former Jamaican slave Francis Barber, the subject of Michael Bundock’s sprightly, enjoyable book. You can read my full review here.
5. Going into the City by Robert Christgau (Dey Street Books) – This gritty, sensuous, utterly engaging memoir by legendary Village Voice rock critic Robert Christgau completely surprised me as far as how much I loved it. I’ve always somewhat distantly enjoyed Christgau’s writing, but mainly because some of our fondest New York memories are of the same New York, a city now largely vanished – the actual things he tended to write about always left me stubbornly indifferent. But in these pages every subject comes alive with the touch of a master storyteller.
4. James Merrill by Langdon Hammer (Knopf) – When it comes to the aforementioned stately authorized life-stories, this was by far my favorite example in 2015, a big, sumptuous account of great poet’s long, privileged, and episodically vivid life spent traveling, hob-nobbing, buying things, and even occasionally writing. And Langdon Hammer chose a narrative voice as clear and elegant as his subject. You can read my full review here.
3. Ty Cobb by Charles Leerhsen (Simon & Schuster) – Some biographies – not always my favorites – take up a subject like a dusty memento and blow all the dust off it, revealing something entirely new. Such biographies are almost always too angrily earnest to make good reading, but this revelatory look at legendary baseball player Ty Cobb is an exception: Leerhsen investigates every single canard handed into public knowledge by Cobb’s previous biographer, discredits almost all of them, and presents the reader with an entirely new take on his subject. A thrilling performance.
2. Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary by Anita Anand (Bloomsbury) – This is the hugely enjoyable story of Princess Sophia Duleep Singh, and Anita Anand indulges herself in the great tale of Princess Sophia’s life and times (indeed, the book begins before her life, with the juicy I,Claudius-style drama of her home kingdom during the heady days of the Raj), following her to England and to causes undreamt of by her royal ancestors. It’s a very winning performance; you can read my full reviewhere.
1. Young Ovid by Diane Middlebrook (Counterpoint) – I never expected to see this book. It was originally intended to be a grand omnium gatherum life of the great Roman poet Ovid (by a remarkably powerful and insightful biographer, as we saw during the Donoghue Interregnum), but the wonderful Diane Middlebrook died in 2007, and it seemed like this book died with her. This lovely volume from Counterpoint, the Stevereads Best Biography of 2015, presents readers at last with as much of Ovid’s life as the author had been able to research and write, and it’s all heartbreakingly fantastic.
I read more books in 2015 than in any other year of my life (I exceeded my previous personal best – which was 2014 – in mid-December of this year and just kept going), and a great many of those books were squarely in my preferred genres of history and biography – in fact, as with a couple of other genres in this year-end round-up, I believe I read virtually every major new release work of history published in English in 2015. I read my share of monographs and scholarly books as well, but I concentrated on the stuff published by mainstream presses and aimed a mainstream audience, and I had a whale of a good time. The picking was very, very tough, but here’s the top titles from 2015:
10. The English and Their History by Robert Tombs (Knopf) – Gigantic, panoramic history of England come along with such regularity – and so regularly based on the same batch of secondary sources – that there’s a temptation to view them more as the re-issuing of textbooks than as new creations. But the saving difference is narrative wit, and in this Robert Tombs’s book shines; this really is a gigantic, panoramic history of England to own and re-read. You can read my full review here.
9.The Age of Catastrophe by Heinrich August Winkler (Yale University Press) & Out of Ashes by Konrad Jaurusch (Princeton University Press) – The 20th century in its broader scope got a large amount of critical attention from historians this year, with the undergirding thesis being that the one-two hammer-blows of the First and Second World Wars in many ways traumatized the entire century (a thesis that will perhaps be familiar to readers of the very first issue of Open Letters Monthly). These two enormous books deal with that trauma in eloquent and learned ways, and yet they read very differently, with Winkler a bit more concerned with the trauma and Jaurusch a bit more concerned with the recovery. Each immensely worth reading.
8. The Byzantine Republic by Anthony Kaldellis (Harvard University Press) – The typical thumbnail view of the Byzantine Empire – that it was hyper-sensuous, hyper-corrupt, and prematurely senescent for most of its existence – has always annoyed its serious historians, and in this intelligent, compacted study, the real Byzantium gets a stunning narration. You can read my review here.
7. The End of the Cold War by Robert Service (Public Affairs) – Maybe the primary salient characteristic of the fifty-year period known as the Cold War was a depressing characteristic: its stability. It seemed poised to go on forever, which made the experience of living through its abrupt end all the more amazing. Robert Service (the great historian, not the great poet) here tells that amazing story with sure-handed erudition. You can read my full reviewhere
6. Black Earth by Timothy Snyder (Crown) – In this harrowing follow-up to his Bloodlands, Timothy Snyder continues to re-tell the story of the Holocaust in ways it’s never been told before, radically shifting conceptions of both its geography and its very nature. This is required reading about one of
the century’s signature traumas. You can read my full review here.
5. KL by Niklaus Wachsmann (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) – The actual beating heart of that signature trauma – the system of concentration and death camps strung throughout the short-lived Nazi Empire – has never had a more thorough and readable history than this devastating volume by Niklaus Wachsmann, in which he traces in relentless detail the administration of a nightmare. You can read my full reviewhere.
4. Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War by Susan Southard (Viking) – Half a century after John Hersey’s Hiroshima changed – established, really – Western conceptions about the atomic bomb blast that destroyed its title city, Susan Southard here does a similarly searching and eloquent job with Hiroshima’s sister city in devastation, Nagasaki, and like Hersey, Southard tells most of her story by highlighting a handful of survivors and telling their incredible stories. You can read my full review here.
3. The Witches by Stacy Schiff (Little, Brown) – The incredible story of the Salem Witch Trials has been told many, many times before, and even fans of her fantastic Cleopatra might have wondered what Stacy Schiff could possibly bring to the tale of madness and accusation in Salem that would warrant a new book. And the answer is the same as it was with the oft-chronicled Cleopatra: she brings her vivid storytelling art, her ability to craft an irresistibly thoughtful narrative. Were I still working in bookstores, I’d be handing a copy of this book to every person walking into the shop.
2. The German War: A Nation Under Arms, 1939-1945, Nicholas Stargardt (Basic Books) – The subject of this intensely good book – the rise and fall of Nazi Germany – has likewise been written many times before, but much like Stacy Schiff, Nicholas Stargardt somehow manages to write about his subject with an energy and freshness of insight that makes it riveting all over again. You can read my full reviewhere
1. In These Times by Jenny Uglow (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) – I’ve never read a history of the Napoleonic Wars quite like this one, the Stevereads Best History of 2015; it’s the story, sifted from dozens of diaries and tranches of letters, of the people caught in this long and complicated conflict, and it’s a story that builds in nuance and intensity as it goes along, thanks to Jenny Uglow’s powerful narrative gifts. You can read my full review here.
The greatest pleasure associated with debut fiction, especially debut novels, is naturally the feeling of new avenues of possibility opening up; there’s something extra exciting about watching a new author try to work out a style and find a voice – perhaps only to disregard them both in their next outing, or perhaps to refine them until they change the landscape of contemporary fiction. I’ve helped my fair share of such initial outings take place, but even for me there’s a special thrill in the publication itself, the debut before well-wishers and sharp-eyed critics. 2015 was neither a great year for debut fiction nor a terrible one – but it had highlights, and there were the best of them:
10. City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg (Knopf) – Of course, in one sense 2015 was The Season of the Debut – one particular debut, this one, a huge, panoramic historical novel about the punk-fueled, graffiti-fouled New York City of the 1970s. The book famously sold for a gigantic price (and sold its movie rights almost before its own agent had ever heard of it), so the critical knives were out long before it reached bookstores. And yet, divorced from all those distractions – read anonymously, as it were, with a brown paper bag for a cover (an improvement, in this case) – the book is terrific and endlessly interesting. I have no idea what it portends – my guess would be that we see nothing more from this author for at least a decade – but I loved it so much I read it twice.
9. No. 4 Imperial Lane by Jonathan Weisman (Twelve) – Predictability hovered over this novel about a hapless young man who takes a job as the nurse and caretaker of a wealthy, sarcastic paralytic – and not the good kind of predictable that I (an unabashed Regency Romance fan) love so much, but rather a John Green kind of predictability where you get the sickening sense the author thinks he’s creating new stuff left and right. But that predictability only hovers for a little while as the novel gets going – then the heartfelt conviction of Weisman’s prose takes over. You can read my full review here.
8. The Shadow of the Crescent Moon by Fatima Bhutto (Penguin Group) – This amazing debut tracks the shockwaves that travel through a small group of friends in small-town Pakistan in the immediate wake of the American invasion of Afghanistan, and Fatima Bhutto could have won a ration of critical praise simply for providing readers with a good-enough glimpse into a largely foreign world at a largely-famous turning point in history. But she goes so far beyond that minimum – in dialogue, in atmosphere, and especially in her understanding of her own characters – that you’ll consistently forget you’re reading a first novel.
7. The Sorrow Proper by Lindsey Drager (Dzanc Books) – Lindsey Drager sets several plots spinning in her very moving debut, but the two main ones revolve around the baleful tug of the future: in the case of a couple whose daughter dies suddenly outside the local library, a future without her that may or may not be of their own making, and in the case of the staff of the library itself, a future without many of the old familiar contours of their world, as technology threatens to change their jobs completely. For most of this novel, I had little or no idea what the author was going to do next – which is such a rare feeling for me, especially when reading fiction, that I just wanted it to continue indefinitely.
6 Bats of the Republic by Zachary Thomas Dodson (Penguin Random House) – I was very pleased to see this big, enormously complicated and ambitious “illuminated” novel get some smart, fair critical assessments when it appeared, especially since it would have been so easy for critics to dismiss it as more gimmick than substance. It tells many stories, but mainly two running in roughly parallel tracks, one set 150 years ago on the borders of the Republic of Texas and one set in the future after civilization’s partial collapse, and all its stories are united by the author’s gently authoritative creativity – to such a degree that if the thing had had not one single gimcrack or illustration, it would have been every bit as spellbinding (or maybe just a bit more, which is my own suspicion).
5 Wilberforce by H. S. Cross (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) – Every year, a small handful of novels manage to confound me so thoroughly that I read them the first time with a kind of disgusted complacency and return to them only reluctantly and unexpectedly. This book – the story of a bunch of delinquents at a fictional English boarding school in the early 20th century – was certainly of that kind, and not even the intriguing moral vacuousness of its title character could shake my first judgements. But I kept thinking about it, and finally returned to it for a more intense re-reading – and now I’m convinced the author is playing a much, much deeper game than I at first guessed. I can’t wait for her next book set in this world she’s created.
4 The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth (Graywolf Press) – There are two tent-pole gimmicks structuring this incredibly energetic and very weird novel: first, it’s a post-apocalyptic historical novel, in which the end of the world is the Norman Conquest, not the zombie apocalypse, and second, its story is told in an elaborately-constructed faux-Old English of the author’s creation. And those two gimmicks might have been the end of it, but Kingsnorth very winningly remembers what so many novelists tend to forget: that if readers want gimmicks, they can buy an iPhone – the novelist’s job is to move and entertain. And underneath the linguistic fireworks of this novel there is a very moving story – although I don’t begrudge the fireworks; Kingsnorth makes them work wonders.
3 We All Looked Up by Tommy Wallach (Simon & Schuster) – This seems to be a year in which YA fiction is creeping into quite a few of my lists, which is disturbing (since I have nothing but contempt for the gazelle-herds of shaving, fornicating, tax-paying adults who’ve spent the last few years in full-blown retreat into fiction written for children) but also perhaps an indication that 2016’s Stevereads year-end festivities need a YA list of their own. But in the meantime, there’s this wonderfully smart and propulsive debut novel (likewise optioned by Hollywood, which must be very grateful reading hasn’t died the death so many critics have predicted for it) about a group of teens facing the death of the world by giant killer asteroid. Like so many of the books on this list, it stuck with me so tenaciously that I went back and re-read it only a month after reading it the first time. You can read my full review here.
2. Fire Flowers by Ben Byrne (Europa Editions) – Disaster looms over the plots of quite a few of the books on our list this time around, from killer asteroids to invading Normans to societal collapses (plus the end of the British Empire and the New York City blackout of 1977, if we’re keeping count), and this amazingly raw and powerful novel is no exception: here, the disaster is the defeat of Japan in 1945 in the wake of two atomic bomb-blasts. This cataclysm snatches up Byrne’s small group of characters and hurls their lives into chaos, and so effective is his writing that we feel ourselves right along with them throughout. There are absolutely indelible images on virtually every page.
1. Viper Wine by Hermione Eyre (Hogarth) – This, the best debut novel of 2015, is ostensibly about a darkly-miraculous youth-and-beauty potion (the “viper wine” of the title) that begins to make the rounds of the high-born ladies at the court of King Charles I, all of whom want the extra glow it provides but none of whom is prepared for its addictive qualities. But Hermione Eyre is going about so much more than pursuing a plot – like much of the best historical fiction in the last few years (and like some of it on this very list), the highlight of this novel is the startlingly original voice running through it, the wonderfully off-kilter sensibility that makes its goings-on seem both familiar and enticingly strange. I can’t recommend this book strongly enough, especially for the adventurous reader, and I’m now eagerly anticipating whatever this author does next.
2015 was a very strong year for the combined Science and Nature category I love so much, a very strong year for books describing and celebrating the mind-blowing wonders of nature. This category is a bit of a sweet tooth of mine, and I’m fairly certain I read every major mainstream example of it published in the US in 2015. These were the best of the bunch:
10. The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins by Hal Whitehead (University of Chicago) – The quietly revolutionary angle of this fantatsic book is hinted right there in the title: culture – not the behavior but the culture of non-humans. The subject is huge and in very large part untenable, since whales and dolphins spend virtually all of their lives outside the range of human observation, let alone human measurement. But the attempts this book makes are very, very much worth making. You can read my full review here.
9. Noise Matters by R. Haven Wiley (Harvard University Press) – Wiley’s study impressed me quite a bit the first time I read it, and it’s only grown on me since; his questions and findings about not only the incessant noise living things set up making on Earth but also the strategies those loving things have developed to deal with the racket are fascinating, and I’ve kept thinking about them. You can read my full review here.
8. Fastest Things on Wings by Terry Masear (Houghton) – The author of this inspiring book writes about what is surely one of the most delicate jobs on the planet: rescuing and treating injured hummingbirds, insect-sized creatures as fragile as soap bubbles. Her account of this job – and her glowing portraits of the personalities of the tiny patients – is irresistible. You can read my full review here.
7. After Nature by Jedediah Purdy (Harvard University Press) – The Anthropocene is the subject and the stage of Duke University professor Purdy’s smart and morally relentless book, the Anthropocene being the bleak and dangerously denuded world mankind has made out of the far more lush and varied world that existed a couple hundred thousand years ago. This concept of the modern age has been the subject of quite a few books lately, and this one is the best. You can read my full review here.
6. Wolves on the Hunt by L. David Mech & Douglas W. Smith (University of Chicago) – It’s not often in the world of nature-writing that readers get a chance to read a kind of summation written by the single most knowledgeable expert on a given subject, and in 2015 it happened a few times. Including this great book based in such large part on the research, insight, and vast personal experience L. David Mech brings to the subject of wolves. You can read my full review here.
5. The Runes of Evolution by Simon Conway Morris (Templeton Press) – The whole subject of convergent evolution is Simon Conway Morris’s emphasis here, the phenomenon where two completely separate kinds of life will evolve the same feature independently. But Morris is brilliant and very nearly omniscient, so his book ranges far, far beyond that phenomenon. You can read my full review here.
4. Old Faithful by Peter Thorne (Harper Design) and Dog Years by Amanda Jones (Chronicle) – It’s the most beautiful and the most heart-breaking phase of living with beloved dogs: they age much faster than humans, which means their human companions get to usher squirming, leaping young puppies into white-faced, dim-eyed old age, often more than once (for some of us, many, many times). The experience can be absolutely enlightening (dogs purify in old age) and almost unbearable, and in the end there are those unthinkable first moments when they aren’t there anymore. I’ve lived through more of those moments than I ever thought possible (and I’ve been told I have two more of them coming in 2016), and I’ve read as many books about those moments as I can. In 2015 the two best dog-books were on this saddest of subjects, and to those who’ll need to read them, I can’t recommend either of them strongly enough.
3. The Secret Lives of Bats by Merwin Tuttle (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) – This is another one of those once-in-a-lifetime natural history books written by a ground-clearing titan in the field – in this case the godfather of bat-research, Merwin Tuttle, here writing in clear, engaging prose about his lifetime spent studying bats, chasing them, and most of all changing public attitudes toward them. It’s a wonderful volume of facts and reminiscences, and every time you find yourself patiently explaining to someon that bats no more want to get tangled in human hair than humans want them to, you’ll remember the author, who’se been clarifying that point for over fifty years.
2. The House of Owls by Tony Angell (Yale University Press) – In this classic, gorgeously-illustrated volume, Angell mixes personal anecdotes about meeing and observing and even raising owls with generous amounts of the natural history of owls (with a special emphasis on the nineteen species of North American owls). Angell is one-half of the team that brought readers the superb volume In the Company of Crows and Ravens, and this present volume is every bit as spellbinding.
1. The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery (Atria) – This, the best Nature book of the year, is a heartfelt love-letter from a member of one big-brained Earth species to a entire group of other big-brained Earth species, and its so utterly winning from start to finish that it’s hard to imagine a reader who wouldn’t come away from the book with an entirely brightened and expanded concept of what octopuses are like, and what they can do, and maybe even what they think. As Montgomery makes thrillingly clear, these creatures are already, right here, every day, mankind’s First Contact with an alien species.
By far the cheeriest of our sub-genres is this one, romance novels (I used to find murder mysteries more cheering – because you’re guaranteed to read about at least one dead human – but I’ve mellowed a bit), and yet the successful crafting a cheery escapism is no small feat of writing, which makes the sheer amount of wonderful romance novels published in 2015 all the more impressive. Unlike most of the categories in this annual gotterdamerung, I had genuine problems narrowing the list down to the ten best:
10 A Scoundrel by Moonlight by Anna Campbell (Forever) – This is the fourth installment in Anna Campbell’s “Sons of Sin” series and the most headlong: a young woman named Nell is plotting an elaborate revenge against notorious rake James Fairbrother, the Marquess of Leath on behalf of her sister and all the other women whose reputations Fairbrother has tarnished over the years. But when Nell actually meets the object of her plot, she finds quite a different man than she expected – and the romantic sparks start to fly! This author long since won me over with her flair for dialogue, and this book certainly did nothing to change that devotion.
9 The Duke and the Lady in Red by Lorraine Heath (Avon) – This author’s utterly delectable series “The Scandalous Gentlemen of St. James Place” comes to an end with this volume, in which scheming, money-desperate Roslind Sharpe agrees to a shocking proposal from the licentious Duke of Avendale: he’ll solve all her financial problems – in exchange for a week as his mistress! As with Anne Campbell, so too with Lorraine Heath: I come to her books already a fan (her earlier book When the Duke was Wicked sealed the deal for me) and just wanting more.
8 Her Wild Hero by Paige Tyler (Sourcebooks Casablanca) – Over the years here at Stevereads, I’ve made no secret of my preference for historical romances over any of the more contemporary types that increasingly flood the market (one of my latest order-forms had no historicals), and I have good reasons for that preference (and one of them is not, as some of you wags have suggested, that I personally miss the Regency period): in my experience, historicals tend to be better-constructed than their contemporary counterparts and also slightly more reserved, not cutting straight to the sheet-scorching. It’s on this latter point that I tend to appreciate Paige Tyler’s novels as exceptions to the rule: she creates emotionally believable characters even when those characters are otherwise … fairly exotic, shall we say? (The hero in this latest book is a gun-toting Special Ops agent who’s also a were-bear, for example) And her female characters – very much including our heroine this time around, Kendra Carlsen, tend to be tough without simply being male characters written as women, which is very refreshing.
7 Running Wild by Susan Andersen(HQN Books) – In terms of sheer climate as well as plot, we’re not moving far from Her Wild Hero‘s jungle-located action to the jungle-located action of Susan Andersen’s Running Wild, the final book in her “Sisterhood Diaries” series, in which strong-willed Mags Deluca is searching desperately for her parents in the wilds of the Amazon jungle while trying to avoid getting killed by the drug-cartel enforcers who are chasing her and somehow involved in her parents’ disappearance. Along for the ride is Finn Kavanagh (the brother of a previous hero in the series), and the two become romantically attracted to each other even as they’re running for their lives (the cover must represent a happily-ever-after moment someplace dry, since dressing like that anywhere in the Amazon region would instantly result in a living carapace of chiggers). As in the other books in this series, in Running Wild Andersen juggles action and romance very well.
6 The Duke Can Go to the Devil by Erin Knightley (Signet) – This delightful novel is yet another entry in a series – in this case, Erin Knightley’s “Prelude to a Kiss” series (which also featured the wonderful The Earl I Adore) – but most Romance authors are seasoned hands at making their books-in-series read like stand-alones, while tucking away their “Easter egg” rewards for long-time readers (I counted three in this latest book). Knightley in particular makes every book feel fresh, and I think that might apply more to The Duke Can Go to the Devil than any previous book in this series. Knightley is also crackerjack at plots that invert expectations – in this case, confronting a prim-and-proper Duke with a free-spirited sea captain’s daughter and letting the rippling dialogue flow!
5 Put Up Your Duke by Megan Frampton (Avon) – This is the second installment in Megan Frampton’s “Dukes Behaving Badly” series, and as you might have guessed from the title, some of its plot-business centers, rather unconventionally for a Regency, on boxing: it’s the preferred hobby (and means of release) of Nicholas Smithfield, who needs it more than ever because a) he’s just become a duke, b) he’s been contracted without his doing into marriage with Isabella Sawford, and c) she’s a delicate, intelligent soul, not at all the type this hardened rake is accustomed to bedding. There follows a wonderfully-executed coming-to-love story, one that Frampton peppers with nifty sub-plots, the best of which involves Isabella’s sister Margaret, who defies their parents’ marriage plans; the short note she sends them is one of the most arresting moments in the book and virtually begs for Margaret to have a book of her own.
4 Better When He’s Brave by Jay Crownover (William Morrow) – After Better When He’s Bold and Better When He’s Bad, this is the third volume in Jay Crownover’s gritty “Welcome to the Point” series, and unlike most of the other books-in-series I’ve been mentioning, this one really is improved if it’s read after its predecessors – but even read alone, it’s still plenty good enough to be on this Stevereads list! It’s the story of pure-souled tough guy Titus King, a cop fighting what seems like an uphill battle against the forces of crime in the seedy town of the Point (details are scarce, but I get the impression it’s not in Iowa). In the way of romance novels, his life is complicated by the arrival in town of a young woman named Reeve Black, who needs his help but also tugs at his heart (and other bits of his anatomy) – and Crownover writes it all with such lean energy that the pages just fly by.
3 Taming the Rake by Monica McCarthy (Buccaneer Press) – In this entry in her “Rake Slayers” series, the delightful Monica McCarthy descends from her usual haunts in the Scottish Highlands and fashions a Regency of wonderful energy and depth. The “Rake Slayers” here are a group of London women who’ve made a pact to infiltrate the lives of the city’s most notorious womanizers, set them up, and then dump them – to give them a taste of their own medicine, as it were. The match-up this time around is Lady Georgina Beauclerk and the dissolute Earl of Coventry – but after she’s forced herself into his ramshackle world and brought order and – gasp – respectability, her own expectations are rumpled when she realizes that underneath Coventry’s hardened veneer there’s a man worth knowing.
2 The Love of a Rogue by Christi Caldwell – I’m a newcomer to Christi Caldwell’s “Heart of a Duke” series (of which this is the third installment), but this book was so good I intend to rectify my omissions right away in the New Year. This is the story – at once both predictable and utterly heartwarming – of poor Lady Imogen Moore, who’s the object of high-society gossip because her intended groom suddenly married her sister instead. She takes refuge in the company her best friend, Chloe Edgerton, but this refuge is soon endangered by Chloe’s young “chaperone” of a brother, Sir Alex – who begins to fall for Imogen just about as quickly as she begins to fall for him. The result is a treat of a book – and the addition of a new ‘must read’ Romance author to my list!
1 The Duke Who Knew Too Much by Grace Callaway – At long last, the first in a series! Grace Callaway’s book is the first in her “Heart of Enquiry” series, and this excellent brew of romance and intrigue and emotion is also the Stevereads best Romance novel of 2015. On one level, it’s also the most conventional novel on our list this year, the story of a worldly young London man, Alaric McLeod, the Duke of Strathaven, and a high-spirited young country girl, Emma Kent – imagine Pride and Prejudice if Elizabeth Bennet lost her sarcasm and Mr. Darcy gained a title. But Callaway has many, many more complications in mind, and the obstacles and detours she throws in the way of her two would-be lovers are all the more intriguing for being so historically unlikely. In the end, what started out looking like the most predictable romance imaginable turns into a smart, sexy romp not quite like anything else I read this year.
Our next sub-genre is science fiction and fantasy (“sff” for the initiated), a field of fiction that’s every bit as prone to being formulaic and derivative as its sister sub-genres, although its practitioners sometimes seem oddly, almost defiantly unaware of this fact. Possibly they don’t read as much of it as I do, but in 2015 I tried my best to read everything that wasn’t self-evident garbage – and I was, as I almost always am, pleased by the freakish variety that can be found if you look hard enough. Here are the best of the bunch:
10. The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson (Tor) – In one of the most technically and linguistically dazzling debuts of the year, Seth Dickinson tells the story of smart, innovative Baru Cormorant, the wounded but die-hard survivor of a conquered people who strives throughout this fantastic book to somehow redeem her people’s suffering. Dickinson has created a very pleasingly complex political take on the typical space opera, and the book’s dialogue is like nothing I’ve ever encountered in an sff novel.
9. City of the Iron Fish by Simon Ings (Gollancz) – I read right through Simon Ings’ 2012 novel Dead Water with nary a backward glance, but it stuck with me in the way some novels do, with certain scenes and concepts tugging at my imagination long after I’d gone on to other things. I expect the same will be true of this new book, since City of the Iron Fish, about the eponymous city that’s somehow protected from the fiery wasteland all around it, is even more impressive than Dead Water in its inventiveness and offbeat pacing.
8. Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson (Orbit) – Nothing quite says ‘science fiction’ like a big novel full of big ideas, and Kim Stanley Robinson is a quintessential science fiction author. In this dense, delectable new book, a starship that left Earth long ago to make the long voyage to a distant star system is about to reach its destination – a fairly standard sci-fi plot, but Robinson’s book stands out from a host of similar efforts by dint of his bottomless creativity in throwing problems before his cast of hopeful immigrants. The book immerses its readers in the sheer believably of its world.
7. The Total Emasculation of the White Man by David Valentine Bernard (Strebor Books) – This novel – about a group of largely unconnected men whose lives are affected in big and small ways, among other things, angels, demons, and a hysterically racist tract called The Total Emasculation of the White Man – was never destined, I suppose, to become a widely-embraced bestseller. Bernard’s prose is odd by any standards, and the humor running through this book – although it entirely won me over – will likely be completely inaudible to most readers. I loved the book, hence its appearance here.
6. Our Lady of the Ice by Cassandra Rose Clarke (Saga Press) – An ordinary working woman named Eliana Gomez is the heart and soul of this terrific novel about the corrupt and ailing Hope City, domed and isolated Argentinian colony in the frozen wasteland of Antarctica, where unrest among the human and robot population is at a breaking point and crime is rampant. Cassandra Rose Clarke so expertly balances her exotic location with her very human characters (even the ones who aren’t human) that neither feels the slightest bit gimmicky – instead, they leave a lastingly real impression.
5. Last Song Before Night by Ilana C. Myer (Tor) – Lin is a courageous young woman who follows her passion for song in a land where death is the penalty for women who sing, and that might be premise enough for most fantasy novels. But in her remarkable debut, Ilana Meyer complicates things: in the land of Eivar, the long-vanished Red Death has returned, an after-effect plague created by dabblers in long-forbidden magic. And the key to that magic is song – the same forbidden discipline to which Lin has devoted her life. The world-building in these pages is so convincingly textured that it feels completely natural and pulls the reader right in.
4. A Darker Shade of Magic by Victoria Schwab (Tor) – I was hugely entertained by this non-stop fantasy novel about parallel Londons and a young man who’s one of the few remaining Travelers, people with the ability to transport between those parallel worlds. The dialogue, the action, the family dynamics of Kell, the Traveler at the heart of the book … all of these things just swept me away. I’d never read this author before, and now I can hardly wait for her next book. You can read my full reviewhere.
3 The Only Words That Are Worth Remembering by Jeffrey Rotter (Metropolitan Books) – This dark and offbeat post-apocalyptic tale of a family of low-rung workers in a violent future on the outskirts of what was once Cape Canaveral came to me unrequested and utterly enthralled me for two hours, reading on the couch without an ear for anything else. You can read my full reviewhere.
2 The Vorrh by Brian Catling (Vintage) – A massive, semi-sentient jungle sprawls all around its nervous human settlements in this beautiful, bewildering novel (whose UK cover is presented here because its US cover is virtually a parody of ugly US book-covers). One man seeks to be the first to traverse the mighty Vorrh; another is tasked with killing him before he succeeds. And there’s a cyclops. You can read my full review here
Falling in Love with Hominids by Nalo Hopkinson (Tachyon Publications) – Here at the end of the year, I’m a bit surprised that the best sff book of 2015 was not only a short story collection but also one that veers so close so often to the border of YA. And yet, Nalo Hopkinson’s Falling in Love with Hominids is just a stunning success of a creative vision, even when that vision is presented in shards and fragments of eighteen different stories. Some of those stories – pieces like “Message in a Bottle” or “The Easthound” – are more effective than others, but the overall effect is joyous.