ARTS & CULTURE

The 18 Best Fiction Books Of 2015

Don't sleep on these bad boys.

05/12/2015 2:50 AM AEDT | Updated 05/12/2015 2:50 AM AEDT
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In 2015, we were overwhelmed by the thoroughly kickass roster of new books on offer. We tore through some, and others we savored slowly. A few disappointed us, while many more thrilled us unexpectedly. Sci-fi, memoir, magical realism, short fiction, very (very) long novels, and genre-bending masterpieces have taken us on a constant adventure through ever-changing literary scenery. 

Now that the year is drawing to a close, we're already eager to see what next year has in store for us readers. But first, we're taking a moment to look back on a year in reading. Every critic has her favorites, and these were ours:

WILLIAM MORROW

Welcome to Braggsville by T. Geronimo Johnson

Johnson’s latest novel hit an odd note in the year of Black Lives Matter; it’s almost too timely of a satire on America’s fatal race problem in the South and beyond. D’aron Davenport, a doughy white boy raised in the titular small Georgia town, can’t wait to escape to college at Berkeley. Once there, he befriends three kids who couldn’t be more unlike him -- Louis, an in-your-face Malaysian-American comedian; Candice, a liberal do-gooder from the Midwest; and Charlie, a black inner-city kid with a serious drive to succeed. Then D’aron unwisely reveals to them that his hometown stages a yearly Civil War reenactment, and they’re off to spend the break conspiring to disrupt the reenactment with a protest. Though D’aron refuses to believe his home harbors anything but good at its heart, the naive actions of the gang of friends will have consequences devastating beyond comprehension. By turns darkly hilarious and bone-achingly tragic, Welcome to Braggsville rips open the thin camouflage Northerners and Southerners, liberals and conservatives alike throw over our race problems to reveal the ugly truth beneath. - Claire Fallon

Read our review. 

RIVERHEAD

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff

It’s been called the literary Gone Girl, but it’s so much more than that. Lauren Groff’s novel tells the story of a successful marriage from the vantage point of both parties -- bubbly, vivacious Lotto and private, hard-working Mathilde. From Lotto’s perspective, the couple’s happy marriage is the result of some rare magic -- but then again, he’s always been a bit dramatic. For Mathilde, taking care of the inconveniences of daily life behind the scenes has mostly been a happy chore, and yet she still feels unworthy of her husband’s affections. Through their intertwining perspectives on their short courtship and the years that follow, Groff suggests it’s the secrets we keep, as much as the intimate moments we share, that form the bedrock of our lasting relationships. - Maddie Crum

Read our review.

HARPERCOLLINS

You Too Can Have A Body Like Mine by Alexandra Kleeman

The title of You Too Can Have A Body Like Mine reads like a dare to Kleeman’s target audience not to pick up her book. It’s not a diet book, obviously, or a magical thinking manual; think less The Secret and more DeLillo and Pynchon. The protagonist, A, lives in an unnamed city with her roommate, B. She occupies herself watching TV with her boyfriend, C, or eating popsicles with B, who seems to be growing more and more obsessed with her. C, meanwhile, begins to pressure A to appear on a dystopian couples game show with him, while she’s zoning out on the increasingly weird Kandy Kakes commercials that hold her attention more than the programs themselves. Touching on body image, mass media, consumerist religiosity, and the tortured relationships between ourselves, our bodies, our food, and each other, Kleeman’s haunting, dazzlingly-written novel pulls you inexorably into another world, where the rules are different yet painfully familiar. - Claire

Read our interview with the author.

HOGARTH

The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra

The subgenre of “Russian literature” calls to mind bearded men (OK, two particular bearded men) and distraught women stifled by the social strictures of their time. These are beautiful, important books, but as beautiful and as important is Anthony Marra’s recent addition to the chorus. Following an emotionally wrought novel set smack in the middle of the Chechen Wars is his collection of connected stories, all centering on post-Cold War tumult and isolation. A restoration artist commits a revolutionary act unforgivable by the state, a man reflects on fond memories of frolicking through man-made Lake Mercury, and a captured soldier clings to a gift from his brother: a mix tape he keeps in his pocket, fueling his dwindling hope for survival. - Maddie

Read our review.

KNOPF

The Book of Aron by Jim Shepard

Shepard has long been better known for his short story collections, which flaunt his unparalleled research skills and curiosity about every nook and cranny of history. But his latest book is a novel, focused on an unusual figure, Janusz Korczak, who ran an orphanage in the Warsaw ghetto under the Nazis. Aron, the book’s narrator, is a young orphaned boy living in Warsaw who takes shelter in Korczak’s orphanage. Still a child, bereft of everything comforting and familiar, Aron is overwhelmed in the midst of events far beyond his understanding, as the once-powerful Korczak attempts to stave off Nazi attention from his orphanage for as long as possible. Heartbreaking, spare, deeply human, and somehow even funny, The Book of Aron is the rare new Holocaust novel that feels truly felt, not painstakingly historical. - Claire

Read our interview with the author.

Farrar Straus

The Sellout by Paul Beatty

Paul Beatty is a poet, and you’d know it by his winding, lyrical sentences. His novel, The Sellout, is a hilarious, artful riff on race in America today. Overeducated and underemployed, the narrator recalls his life as the subject of his father’s controversial, borderline abusive social experiments, which shaped how he thought about the way humans interact. When his home in Dickens, California -- an “agrarian ghetto,” he calls it -- is literally taken off the map, the narrator fights to save it, running into warring opinions on equality along the way. To capture the attention of those in charge, he radically suggests resegregating the local high school -- an act that lands him in the middle of a Supreme Court case. Come for the funny scenes, stay for the nuanced look at race in America. - Maddie

Read our review.

COFFEE HOUSE PRESS

The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli, translated by Christina MacSweeney

This slim novel is a story about stories on every level: Why we create them, who we create them for, how much value they have, whether they can define and change who we are. The narrator, Gustavo Sánchez Sánchez, aka Highway, sees the story as his dental autobiography. Growing up without significant resources, stumbling into a bad marriage and then a divorce that separated him from his only child, Highway dreams of being able to afford dental implants. He turns his life around by becoming an auctioneer, claiming to be the greatest one in the world. With the money he amasses, he purchases the purported teeth of Marilyn Monroe herself, which he has implanted into his own mouth. But as the story twists and turns, we see how Highway’s fabulism both creates a captivating autobiography and makes it impossible to separate his reality from his fantasy. Luiselli, who worked closely with MacSweeney on the translation, has a deft comic touch and imbues her prose with a seemingly effortless lyricality. This unassuming gem works its way into your mind, where it will linger long after you’ve turned the last page.  - Claire

 Read our review.

EUROPA EDITIONS

The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante

The final book in a series for readers who aren’t so keen on book series, The Story of the Lost Child concludes the decades-long friendship between narrator Lena and her brilliant, troubled confidant and partner in crime, Lina. Though the two grew up in the same neighborhood, their paths diverged when Lena followed a traditional path toward education and Lina chose the path that more closely followed their hometown’s idea of success by getting married and working in her family’s shoe shop. Through the lens of her friendship with Lina, Lena recalls the tragedies and small triumphs of Naples, from burgeoning equality for women to petty, violent crimes. The result is as much a Dickensian social commentary as it is an intimate examination of the power of personal relationships. - Maddie

Read our thoughts on Ferrante fever.

FARRAR, STRAUS

Imperium: A Fiction of the South Seas by Christian Kracht, translated by Daniel Bowles

Published in Germany in 2012, Imperium made a splash in its home country and finally arrived on American shores this year. The novel fictionalizes the life of August Engelhardt, a German man who traveled to German New Guinea in 1902 in hopes of founding a sun-worshiping, fruitarian community in the tropics. Swiss author Kracht’s Engelhardt, a devout believer that humans should eat only coconuts, tries and fails to sustain a like-minded community there, and to maintain his diet in the face of severe malnutrition. Imperium delves into the extremist psychology behind such a rejection of society and traditional foods, satirizing the white, Western tendency to seek purity by relocating to a different, exoticized society, as well as the “genteel” racism endemic to such colonizing. In wry prose, Kracht replicates the absurd, overly intellectualized logic of such unhinged idealism, as in one brilliant passage justifying the choice of the coconut as the sole godly food. Morbid yet funny, outlandish yet profound, Imperium is the satirical South Seas horror story you never knew you needed. Claire

Read our review.

Knopf

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

Ishiguro has a penchant for writing spare, fable-like stories that exist somewhere between the realms of fantasy and social commentary. Fans of the ethereal Never Let Me Go will find plenty to love in The Buried Giant, the story of an elderly married couple traveling across a misty medieval landscape. As they work to clarify hazy memories of their son, a bigger picture of a forgotten war, and the devices used to repress memories of those lost, resurfaces. Suitably, Ishiguro uses the language of lore to tell Axel and Beatrice’s story, in a pleasant examination of the stories we tell ourselves to get by. Plus, there are dragons. - Maddie

Read our interview with Kazuo Ishiguro.

DOUBLEDAY

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

Yanagihara’s sophomore novel, a sprawling misery opus, has received accolades and critical pans in near-equal measure. One thing’s for sure: this book is tough to ignore. The four friends at its heart -- Jude, a shy and tormented lawyer; Willem, a handsome actor; J.B., an ambitious but occasionally cruel artist; and Malcolm, a talented architect -- are barely out of college when we first meet them, living in crummy New York apartments and scrapping for their big breaks. The novel follows them as they seek success and happiness, while Jude begins to succumb to the trauma of a past he refuses to talk about. If you’re looking for realism, you won’t find it here; A Little Life turns a modern tragedy into a classical Greek one, with the heights and depths of human experience exaggerated to the extreme. Buried within are truths about grief most can relate to, if few can understand the actual horrors within Jude’s past. Immersive and often overwhelming, A Little Life asks the reader to imagine how painful and how far past recovery a single person’s life might be. Claire

Read our review.

KNOPF

The Visiting Privilege by Joy Williams

Nobody writes spare, funny domestic scenes quite like Joy Williams, whose tender short stories always seem to both uphold and critique human wants. The Visiting Privilege is a survey of both new and collected stories, the latter being knotty, comical thoughts from disenchanted female narrators, the former being pithy, journalistic musings. Each of her stories concerns itself with the strange and fluid subconscious; she expresses the joy of spending time with animals and children, and misanthropically mocks the literal language of quarreling adults. A much-needed anecdote to our hard facts-driven media habits, Williams does her best to say what can’t be said, to bring to life what can’t be analyzed. - Maddie

RANDOM HOUSE

Among the Ten Thousand Things by Julia Pierpont

Not a word is wasted in Pierpont’s efficiently engineered debut, which follows a family hovering on the brink of possible dissolution in the wake of the husband’s infidelity. The book opens with the two children -- just old enough to more or less understand what they’re reading -- discovering a box of correspondence between their father and his mistress, intended for the eyes of their mother. As their mother tries, brittle and uncertain, to navigate the following weeks in the least damaging way possible for her children and the most survivable way for herself, their father, an artist, wallows in the disappointment of a failed gallery show and drifts further into his own narcissistic spiral. Brimming with human insight and told in clear, sure-footed prose, Among the Ten Thousand Things draws the reader into a granular examination of the profound power each choice made in a family can have over the unit as a whole. - Claire

Read our review.

PANTHEON

A Cure for Suicide by Jesse Ball

What starts out as a playful thought experiment evolves into a meditation on grief, trauma and recovery in Jesse Ball’s stylishly wrought novel. The author of Silence Once Begun began his writing career as a poet, and plays close attention to the rhythm of words, and the power in what goes left unsaid. The same holds true in his dystopian novel, which begins with a dialogue between two characters, an examiner and a claimant. The claimant is relearning how to speak, and how to socialize, for reasons slowly revealed over the course of Ball’s strange, always engaging story. - Maddie

Read our review.

KNOPF

In the Country by Mia Alvar

Mia Alvar’s debut short story collection follows the everyday stories of Filipinos, whether Manila dwellers or immigrants in Saudi Arabia or New York City. As is often the risk with short story collections, some stories are stronger than others, and one, the title story, feels primed for a longer treatment, but they’re held together by Alvar’s incisive sensibility and fluid prose. In story after story, she calmly but firmly excavates the deep ties that bind us together, without shying away from the brutal flip side, the sometimes anguished obligation many of her characters bear throughout life. With certain sparkling, unmissable stories and a consistent talent shown throughout, Alvar’s first book marks her as a writer to watch. Claire

Read our review.

HARPERCOLLINS

The Small Backs of Children by Lidia Yuknavitch

Yuknavitch’s novel is a wild ride spinning through the personal and the political in such quick, equal measure that they begin to blur into one cohesive experience. In The Chronology of Water, she imbued memoir with elements of imagination; in The Small Backs of Children, she embellishes her fictional story with scenes from her own personal life. The novel centers on the subject of a prize-winning photo, a feat of photojournalism acknowledged in the same Western world that pays little mind to the girl’s violent everyday life in Eastern Europe. The image unites a cast of characters --most of them artists -- who resolve to do something about the girl’s tragic situation, rather than merely meditating on it. - Maddie

Read our review.

RANDOM HOUSE

Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum

Although Hausfrau is a debut novel, it possesses the assurance of an established writer, perhaps because Essbaum is a poet. Her interest in the power of language suffuses a trite tale of ennui and infidelity with original beauty. American-born Anna Benz, the protagonist, lives in an affluent suburb of Zurich with her Swiss husband, Bruno, and their small children. After years, she’s still unfamiliar with the local language, and only able to escape her domestic life by taking lessons. Bored and self-destructive, she falls into a series of affairs, growing more and more detached from her family. In her own musings, and interstitial discussions with her therapist, she uses the inherent slippage of language to excuse and qualify her sins. As the novel draws to an unsettling close, it’s clear she’ll have to pay for this selfish bargaining, but how, exactly, will be shocking. - Claire 

Read our review. 

RIVERHEAD

Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins

In a recent interview, Claire Vaye Watkins discussed her first novel, a dystopia written for readers who find the word “dystopia” a little hackneyed. “I wanted to write about characters who were themselves bored with that narrative,” she said, adding that apocalyptic stories are mostly about our own egotism. So, Luz Dunn, the central character of Gold Fame Citrus, is not a hero who saves humanity or a particularly empowered individual who wards off imposing forces of nature. She’s one of the most human characters to appear in fiction this year, and is as susceptible to flattery, selfishness and insecurity as the next person. Following her as she stumbles into motherhood, and, eventually, into a dangerous cult, makes what could’ve been a Hollywood-worthy thriller a powerful look at society’s pressure on the individual. - Maddie

Read our review.

 

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