Books of the year

My favourite books of 2015

Books-of-the-yearIt’s New Year’s Eve, so  it’s time to carry out my annual tradition of selecting 10 of my reading highlights from the past 12 months.

Over the course of 2015 I read 80 books (nine of which are still to be reviewed — oops) which is about average for me. I could probably read twice that if I spent less time on Twitter and didn’t have to go to work!

My favourite books come from a variety of countries and languages. Some were published this year, most were published prior to 2014. A few could be regarded as modern classics, several may well turn out to be classics of the future. Some made me laugh, some made me cry, some made me feel sick to the stomach. All intrigued and delighted me.

Here they are. Note they have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s surname. Hyperlinks will take you to my full review.

Beatlebone by Kevin Barry

Beatlebone by Kevin Barry (2015)
My favourite read of the year, Kevin Barry’s award-winning novel follows the exploits of a troubled man who simply wants to spend three days alone on the island he bought off the west coast of Ireland years ago but has never visited. The plot, which draws strongly on Samuel Beckett, is full of riotous comedy, quick-fire dialogue and surreal moments of despair and angst. I loved it.

spill-simmer-falter-wither-tramp-press

Spill Simmer Falter Wither by Sara Baume (2015)
Sara Baume’s debut novel is an impressive achievement. Written in the second person, present tense, it’s a beautiful and sad tale about the year in the life of one man and his newly bought rescue dog. Yet the story is less about their relationship and more about how a social misfit, a resourceful man who can barely string two words together, seeks solace in a world he doesn’t really understand.

The_lover

The Lover by Marguerite Duras (1984)
This evocative novel (translated from the French by Barbara Bray) is about forbidden love set in exotic Indochina in 1929. It is narrated by Hélène Lagonelle, a French woman looking back on her life, as she recalls the love affair she conducted, aged 15, with a Chinese man 12 years her senior. It is, by turns, heart-wrenching, sensual and disturbing, deeply melancholy and pulsates with an aching loneliness. It brings to mind the very best writing of Jean Rhys.

Young-god

Young God by Katherine Faw Morris (2014)
This is the kind of book that grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go. The urgency of the writing and the dire predicament of the young narrator — Nikki, a sassy, street-smart 13-year-old forced to live with her drug-addicted father and his underage lover — make it absolutely compelling reading. It’s not a book to be forgotten easily.

The-Good-Doctor

The Good Doctor by Damon Galgut (2003)
This turned out to be my surprise read of the year, for The Good Doctor is written in such a lucid dreamlike style I felt I couldn’t function in the real world until I’d finished it. Set in post-apartheid South Africa, it tells the story of a middle-aged staff doctor, working in a deserted rural hospital, who is forced to share his room with a blow-in: a newly qualified doctor brimming with idealism. Thrust together in this unnatural way, the older doctor who narrates the story must confront dark truths about himself — and his country.

Republic-of-Uzupis

The Republic of Užupis by Haïlji (2012)
Possibly the strangest book I’ve read all year, this post-modern novel (translated by Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton) is set in Lithuania even though it’s by a Korean writer.  Hal, the 40-something protagonist, arrives in Vilnius looking for the Republic of Užupis — his father’s homeland — but no-one seems to know where it is located or even whether it exists. Written in dreamlike, melancholic prose, it explores the idea of nationhood, and plays with the notions of time and memory, so it feels like something Paul Auster might have come up with. It’s weirdly compelling.

This-place-holds-no-fear

This Place Holds No Fear by Monika Held (2015)
I went through a phase of reading books about the Holocaust earlier in the year, and this one left a memorable impression, perhaps because it looked at what happens to someone who manages to survive the Nazi death camps; can they ever hope to find happiness and lead a normal life again? The tale is essentially a love story between Heiner, a Viennese man, who was deported to Auschwitz in 1942 as a Communist, and Lena, a translator from Germany, who is 10 years his junior. This beautifully told tale offers a poignant, often moving but never sentimental, glimpse into a marriage that is governed by trauma. It’s never maudlin, however, but it distills in clear, eloquent prose (beautifully translated from the German by Anne Posten), an unconditional love that knows no bounds. Deeply affecting — and based on a true story.

The-Dig

The Dig by Cynan Jones (2014)
The Dig pits two men against each other — a sheep farmer and a ratting man who keeps dogs for pest control — and then explores the outfall between them. This powerful and violent novella explores rural life, Nature,  crime and grief. It is an intense and immersive reading experience, dark and thrilling, but also heart-wrenching and occasionally stomach-churning. I liked it so much I went out and bought Jones’ entire back catalogue.

Bright-lights-big-city-new

Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney (1985)
What a joy this Bloomsbury classic proved to be. First published in 1985, I’d long written Bright Lights, Big City off as a “drugs novel” — but how wrong could I be? It is essentially a black comedy about a 20-something trying to find his way in the world, not always making the right decisions and paying the price along the way. I especially loved its depiction of life working on a magazine, and the New York setting was a plus too.

The-enchanted-april

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim (1922)
Proving that I don’t always read fiction that is dark and miserable, The Enchanted April turned out to be a rather delightful, joyous and, dare I say it, enchanting read (see what I did there?) First published in 1922, it tells the story of four very different English women who go on holiday to Italy together without their male partners and follows the often humorous exploits that follow. A brilliantly evocative comedy of manners and an insightful exploration of the give and take required between friends and married couples, I totally loved this warm and funny book.

Have you read any from this list? Or has it encouraged you to try one or two? Care to share your own favourite reads of 2015?

Note that you can see my favourite books of all the years between 2006 and 2014 by visiting my Books of the Year page.

Finally, many thanks for your support — emails, blog visits, comments, likes, clicks and links — both here and on Reading Matters’ Facebook page over the past 12 months; it is very much appreciated. Here’s wishing you a fabulous book-filled New Year! 

Author, Book review, Fiction, Granta, Katherine Faw Morris, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘Young God’ by Katherine Faw Morris

Young-god

Fiction – paperback; Granta; 208 pages; 2015.

Some books leave a strange but memorable aftertaste on your reading palette, and Katherine Faw Morris’s debut novel, Young God, certainly does that. This may be a thin volume, but it brims with menace and sparkles with shameless in-your-face shocks, which arrive one after the other. It’s a story that gets under the skin and leaves an indelible mark. And they’re the kinds of stories I like best.

Life on the margins

The story goes something like this… When her mother dies, Nikki, a sassy, street-smart 13-year-old, moves in with her father to avoid social security putting her in care. Her father, Coy Hawkins, lives in a trailer in the woods with his 15-year-old girlfriend, Angel, whom he pimps out.

Coy was once the biggest coke dealer in the county, but he now seems to use drugs rather than sell them, a fact that shocks Nikki when she presents him with a bag of 500 “Roxies” — the opiate Roxicodone — which she stole from her mother’s boyfriend, Wesley.

She expected him to sell them first. Call somebody. However that works. Nikki didn’t snort any. Angel’s nodding on the couch. Coy Hawkins is slumped in a reclining chair. Nikki stands at its foot, completely alert.

Somewhere along the line Nikki understands that if she’s to avoid being pimped out, she must make a living elsewhere, and so she turns to the local drug trade, where she begins selling “black tar” heroin for one dollar a milligram. It is, needless to say, a rather sordid and dangerous business, but Nikki seems unaware of the consequences.

Living in this messy world, where life is cheap and teenage girls are merely sexual objects for older men to play with,  Nikki holds her own, but it’s not a life that offers any kind of hope or fulfilment.

By turns shocking and stomach-churning, Young God lifts the lid on an impoverished underclass living on the margins of society. It’s a dark, brutal, cut-throat existence, no place for anyone let alone an uneducated 13-year-old girl, who’s just lost her mother. But Nikki is not the kind of character that invokes pity: she’s headstrong, determined, full of life and willing to rush headlong into new experiences.

Short, sharp, snappy prose

I read this book, mostly with my heart in my mouth, wondering what wretched, violent thing was going to happen next. It’s a gritty story full of sleaze and sex, where characters perform base acts to numb the pain of existence. On every page there’s something to shock or to stun the reader, but it doesn’t feel manipulative or gratuitous — everything is there to inform the story, to lend it an air of authenticity, to show you how cheap life is for those who live their lives like this. It makes for a deeply unsettling reading experience.

The prose style — short, sharp, snappy — mirrors the starkness of the subject matter, but reads like the rawest of poetry.  This is also reinforced by the creative use of white space in which a single sentence or a short paragraph occasionally stands alone on a whole page:

Young-god-text-excerpt

When I came to the end of this novel, which I read in one frenzied sitting unable to tear my eyes from the disturbing story unfolding before me, I felt wrung out. Young God is a thrilling, eye-opening read, and not one that is easy to forget…