This has been a solid year for me, one devoid of any quarter-life crisis as I precariously treaded through the catch-22 conundrum of being a dreaded millennial. The year had a rich accompaniment of reading material, full of old favourites, new surprises and thankfully minimal literary masochism. This was the year that I not only cracked out the unicorn rating of 5 stars, but did so on more than one occasion.
In a publishing season where fanfiction stylings became the industry norm, issues of diversity came to the forefront and Franzen out-Franzened himself, one could obviously not read every hot-button book, hence some exclusions you may be wondering about. That means no Grey, no A Little Life, no Purity, etc. This list is simply a composition of the books I enjoyed the most. It’s not an objective representation of the year in books so please don’t read it as such.
Honorary Mentions: Nimona by Noelle Stevenson, My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, Scenes from a Revolution by Mark Harris, Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee, Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor and The Brightest Day: A Juneteenth Historical Romance Anthology by various authors.
Best Romances Published in 2015: The Companion Contract by Solace Ames and When A Scot Ties The Knot by Tessa Dare.
This was a good year for romance. I read far more of the genre this year than in any other as a reviewer and I broadened my horizons beyond my preferred contemporary comfort space. That meant more historicals, more erotica, more self-published books beyond the known names, and so on. It certainly yielded results, with my top two romance reads of the year being a digitally published erotica and a more traditional historical, and a Highlander one at that!
The Companion Contract was less an erotica novel and more a deftly handled character piece with a lot of fucking. That’s intended as a compliment! Solace Ames’s much acclaimed yet criminally under-read effort offered an empathetic and fully defined depiction of a sex worker heroine while avoiding cheap shaming and uninformed stereotypes. The rest of the ensemble were as richly developed while the story’s focus revealed a complex and passionate take on a variety of issues such as identity, sex work, drug addiction and sexual fluidity. Few books lingered in my mind quite like The Companion Contract, and even fewer did so with such steamy sex scenes!
This time last year, if you’d told me my best of list would include a Highlander romance, I would have
assumed something had gone majorly wrong. I tend to avoid the genre like the plague, usually finding it too mired in nationalist clichés to garner any pleasure from reading them. But if anyone could pull it off, Tessa Dare is the woman to do it. On top of a tightly structured plot and warm, witty characters to match, When A Scot Ties The Knot also has the genre savvy to play with its tropes and reader expectations. There’s enough here to satisfy the hardcore Highlander lover, but the added self-awareness is what sells it. Not only does Dare know what makes readers tick, the Scots in her book do too.
Best Comic of 2015: Bitch Planet.
Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro’s furious feminist fiction is a touch overcrowded and often politically muddled, yet has inspired the kind of righteous anger and passion in readers that only comes along once in a while. Set in the near-future, the aforementioned Bitch Planet is a world sized prison orbiting Earth that houses ‘non-compliant’ women. It doesn’t take much to become an enemy in the eyes of an oppressive patriarchal state: Some women are there for murder and other such serious crimes, others are imprisoned for being ‘unruly’, unpleasing to society’s rigid standards, or simply for being fat. There’s no chance of escape and the glimmers of hope thrown at the women are cruelly snatched away for purposes of entertainment.
What makes Bitch Planet so striking is its cast. The majority women of colour cast defy stereotype and expose the harsh realities of their world as well as our own. The women have body shapes and sizes across the spectrum, and none of them are concerned with bending their will to the expectations of men, even if it puts their lives at risk. It’s a fascinating combination of intersectional feminist tract and prisonsploitation; one with a genuine love for the schlocky genre while still willing to interrogate its male-gaze centred aims. This is a brutal and often shockingly violent read – there’s a reason it’s being sold as Tarantino meets Atwood in the world of Orange Is The New Black – but there’s nothing out there like it and you owe it to yourself to read it.
Best Books Read In But Not Published In 2015: The People In The Trees by Hanya Yanagihara and Randall by Jonathan Gibbs.
A Little Life was the literary smash of the year: A 740 page epic of brutality, emotional catharsis and the bounds of male friendship that enraptured everyone from critics to the best-seller list. I haven’t read Hanya Yanagihara’s latest yet, even though it’s the kind of thing I love, because I’ve no idea how to prepare for such a reading experience. Fortunately, she has another novel out, and it’s that book that left me bound obsessively to its pages.
The People in the Trees is the unreliable recollections of a disgraced scientist with footnotes provided by an equally unreliable toadying editor. It’s a story mired in self-preservation and arrogance; a genius’s attempt to regain his dignity after a major scandal. His words are eloquent, precise and part of a clear agenda; equal parts beautiful and unsettling. There’s something hypnotic about Yanagihara’s work that can be difficult to place. It’s almost invasively revealing, and I just couldn’t turn away. This is the novel I probably talked about the most this year. It’s the one I can’t stop thinking about, and will proudly sit in my top 10 favourite books of all time now.
As will Randall. Jonathan Gibbs’s debut, published by indie darlings Galley Beggar Press, is a pretty blatant
satire of Damien Hirst and the Young British Artists scene of the 90s. The targets are obvious but each moment lands with such specificity and wit. The eponymous hero is a Hirst-like modern artist whose work shocks and appalls while selling for millions. His rise is documented by Vincent, a friend and outsider of the world who works overtime to position himself as front and centre in the narrative of history. Writing about ‘geniuses’ is hard, but Gibbs succeeds in not only weaving a portrait of someone who could convincingly be part of a very distinct period of recent history, but creating work that would undoubtedly take place amidst the unmade beds and pickled sharks. Even above The People in the Trees, Randall is the novel I’ve spent the most time trying to unravel (and adapting the screenplay in my mind). I hope more people discover it so I’ll have someone to talk about it with!
Best YA Published In 2015: Not Otherwise Specified by Hannah Moskowitz.
I’m an unapologetic evangelist for Hannah Moskowitz’s work, and have been so for many years. It continues to be a real thorn in my side that she isn’t more widely acclaimed and bigger selling than she is. Her character studies are sharp, rough around the edges and have no interested in being easily categorized. As the title suggests, Not Otherwise Specified is not a novel to be neatly boxed away. Moskowitz continues to write some of the most keenly observed character studies in YA, and her latest contemporary novel offers a typically insightful glimpse into the difficulties of adolescence, mired with eating disorders, biphobia and the smothering expectations of your own ambitions. It continues to baffle me that Moskowitz isn’t more widely read and celebrated since she remains one of the best in the business.
Best Non-Fiction Published In 2015: Girl In A Band by Kim Gordon.
What does it mean to be a girl in a band? It’s the question many women in rock have had to put up with for decades, so leave it to former Sonic Youth bassist and all-round badass Kim Gordon to answer it with no holds barred honesty. Girl In A Band is a particularly unique memoir in that Gordon approaches her past with undeniable regret and the tinges of resentment, thanks to her cheating ex-husband and former bandmate Thurston Moore. His betrayal has left her admittedly unable to look back at her memories with pure clarity. Is she downplaying previously joyful moments because of her current pain, or has hindsight left her eyes open more than ever? Gordon doesn’t know, and it’s that brutal truthfulness that makes her memoir such a must read, regardless of whether or not you like her music.
Best General Fiction Published In 2015: The Life & Death of Sophie Stark by Anna North.
I’m a sucker for a novel about a ‘difficult woman’ told from an unreliable point of view. Anna North’s effort presents the short, hectic and often emotionally impenetrable life of the eponymous Stark, a cult indie-director, told from the point-of-view of those who could possibly claim to know her best. Of course, nobody truly knew Stark, and it was this opaque view of her that led to the air of mystery around her. Her friends and family try to give meaning to her life through their recollections of her, yet it is clear that no easy answers will ever be found.
The Worst Book of 2015: The Raven by Sylvain Reynard.
Honestly, this was far too easy to decide. Partly because of the staggering mediocrity of the book itself and partly because I just didn’t subject myself to the same level of bad books I used to do. It’s been one of the smarter decisions I’ve made for myself. The Raven had all the warning signs of a bad book and yet I plunged in knowing that of all because my sheer curiosity wouldn’t let me say no. That strain of literary masochism will never truly die!
The Raven is a bad book: Slogging in pace, overwritten in style, derivative on every level (no surprise given that it’s a spin-off from a pulled-to-published Twilight fan-fiction), weighed down by the portentous self-importance of another Byronic-alpha male, and worst of all shockingly boring. The only remotely interesting thing about the overlong snore is its return to the vampiric origins of the source material it had previously shunned. Creative risk or sheer shamelessness? You decide. Or don’t. This book wasn’t even campy fun. I’m stunned it’s received the good reviews it has.