Making a yearly Top 10 book list isn’t as much of a no-brainer as my annual movie list, since I don’t necessarily read books the year they were published. It’s not my job, so I take my time and read books when I feel like it. But I read so many great books this year - some published in 2015 and some earlier - that I felt compelled to share my favorite titles with you. Please consider this a discussion, and post your favorite reads of 2015 below!
In alphabetical order:
AIMLESS LOVE: NEW AND SELECTED POEMS
Billy Collins, 2014
Billy Collins has long been one of my favorite poets. I’ll never forget meeting him, asking him to sign my book and nervously telling him how to spell my name - the look of mild derision he gave me as he said “I know how to spell Meredith” remains one of my favorite celebrity encounters. His poetry is plain and powerful, capturing the most clear-eyed of truths in small, quiet lines. He is funny and precise, and writes and thinks like no other person on this earth.
Aimless Love is another all-timer, gathering some of his best poems of the past years like “Obituaries” and “The Long Day,” and including new beauties, such as “Unholy Sonnet #1”:
Death, one thing you can be proud of
is all the room you manage to take up
in this Concordance to the Poems of John Donne,
edited by Homer Carroll Combs and published in 1945.
Mighty and dreadful are your tall columns here,
(though soul and love put you in deep shade)
for you outnumber man and outscore even life itself,
and you are roughly tied with God and, strangely, eyes.
But no one likes the way you swell,
not even in these scholarly rows,
where from the complex field of his poems
each word has returned to the alphabet with a sigh.
And lovelier than you are the ones that only once he tried:
syllable and porcelain, but also beach, cup, snail, lamp, and pie.
CAREER OF EVIL
Robert Galbraith, 2015
The third book in the Cormoran Strike detective series by Robert Galbraith (a still-used pseudonym of J.K. Rowling, though her identity was revealed after the publishing of the first novel), Career of Evil follows Cormoran and his assistant Robin as they attempt to track down the man who sent a severed woman’s leg to their office. Cormoran’s colored past brings three suspects to light, while the culprit proves himself to be alarmingly preoccupied with Robin.
The book gives us insight into the characters of Cormoran and Robin, both of whom have remained rather mysterious through the first two books of the series. Though the mystery isn’t quite as taut as Cuckoo’s Calling and The Silkworm, Career of Evil is a fascinating character study and a powerfully angry treatise against sexually violent men.
CODE NAME VERITY
Elizabeth Wein, 2013
I wrote about Code Name Verity here, and months later I’m still thinking about the book and its gorgeous tribute to female friendship and courage. Wein committed herself to painstaking research into the WWII roles of pilot and spy held by the two young women who occupy her novel. Code names Kittyhawke and Verity are brave but not fearless, brilliant and kind but flawed. They are lasting characters, and their friendship is one for the ages.
Code Name Verity is a funny, feminist adventure, thrilling and heartfelt. If you have a daughter, buy her a copy and then borrow it when she's done.
DEAD WAKE: THE LAST CROSSING OF THE LUSITANIA
Erik Larson, 2015
Larson has become a very popular "non-fiction novelist," and with his 2003 book The Devil in the White City, he was something of a gateway to non-fiction for this die-hard lover of novels. He tells history as a juicy, poetic narrative that moves as breathlessly as an airport thriller. All of his books are must-reads, and Dead Wake is no exception, going into infinitely human detail when discussing the sinking of the luxury liner Lusitania on the cusp of World War I.
In parts, as Larson discusses the unfathomable wealth of the Lusitania's guests, providing their opulent packing lists and starving you with descriptions of their feasts, Dead Wake feels a bit like Titanic, the romantic epic about a sister ship to the Lusitania that sank three years previously. But he also gives us the perspective of Kapitänleutnant Walther Schwieger, the man commanding the German U-boat U-20 that sank the Lusitania. And he brings us into the mind of President Woodrow Wilson, who was grieving the death of his wife, then pining for the love of a new woman, distracting him from what should have been his top priority: preventing a world war. It's a riveting read, as long as you don't mind too much boat stuff. (I admit, I skimmed the boat specs!)
FAMOUS IN LOVE/TRULY MADLY FAMOUSLY
Rebecca Serle, 2014/2015
Although I have learned to love non-fiction, and I have always loved heady literature, I am certainly not above a fun bit of fluff, and Serle's two-part teen romance is a hell of a lot of fun. A fictionalized version of the Twilight craze, Famous in Love and Truly Madly Famously are imagined from the point of view of the young woman plucked from obscurity to star in an international phenomenon, and caught between two co-stars as surely as her character is caught between two loves.
Serle has a sexy, biting voice, and I'm dying for the Famous in Love television series hitting ABC Family (soon to be called Freeform, for some reason) next year, produced by Serle herself alongside Pretty Little Liars' Marlene King.
Gregory Mcdonald, 1974
One of my favorite birthday gifts this year, from my pal Robert Saucedo, was a box of battered paperbacks making up Mcdonald's crime series from the 1970s. Mcdonald's main man is Irwin Maurice Fletcher, a terse and iconoclastic investigative journalist who always gets the bad guy, but not without alienating every single human he encounters on the way.
I've now read Fletch and all of its prequels, and I'm excited to move on to the rest of the series - they're propulsive and funny, great mysteries starring an all-timer a-hole. And being forty-year-old paperbacks, they smell exactly the way you want your books to smell: like they've been lived-in and loved for a couple generations. I ended up stealing Robert's idea and gathering another set of paperbacks for my dad for Christmas this year. Maybe he'll do the same for someone else!
THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN
Paula Hawkins, 2015
Boy, did I fly through this book! Hawkins' thriller follows Rachel, an unhappy alcoholic who stares each day out of the train window at a beautiful couple she has named Jason and Jess. When "Jess," whose real name is Megan, goes missing, the book suddenly switches perspective to tell a story, one year earlier, from Megan's point of view. And then it shifts again, and suddenly we're learning more about Anna, the woman Rachel's husband left her for when her drinking spun out of control.
In some ways, it's just a really strong thriller, and that's always a thing of beauty. But The Girl on the Train is also a devastating examination of our demons, those that damage us and those that damage everyone around us. It's a terrific mystery and a heartrending story, one that I just dare you to put down.
GOING CLEAR: SCIENTOLOGY, HOLLYWOOD & THE PRISON OF BELIEF
Lawrence Wright, 2013
After seeing HBO's Going Clear special, I was hooked, but I had no idea how much more Lawrence Wright's book would terrify and enlighten me. This is incredible journalism, a shattering reveal into the iron-clad secrecy of The Church of Scientology. Wright goes both macro and micro, by discussing the enormous implications of Scientology's church status, giving unhinged director David Miscavige governmental carte blanche, and by examining the very personal ramifications suffered by a few brave former church members - and leaders - who came forward to tell their story.
He also goes deep into the psychology behind Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, publishing excerpts from his disputed (by the church) private diary and providing weighty historical and social context over the decades Scientology has been in action. It's a remarkable read, and has made Wright's 2007 9/11 exposé The Looming Tower a very anticipated follow-up for me.
A HEAD FULL OF GHOSTS
Paul Tremblay, 2015
I reviewed A Head Full of Ghosts here, and it remains one of the most memorable books I read in 2015, as well as one of the scariest books I've read in my lifetime. But Tremblay's Boston-set novel, following a troubled family starring in a hugely popular possession reality show, isn't only terrifying and a perfect literary companion for horror film fans - though it is that, as well. It's poignant, a keen insight into the binding and breaking love between sisters, a love that is as much villain as hero in this sad, beautiful story.
IN THE HEART OF THE SEA: THE TRAGEDY OF THE WHALESHIP ESSEX
Nathaniel Philbrick, 2001
The best thing Ron Howard's mild whale adventure (reviewed here) did for me is convince me to read Philbrick's book, which tells the story with far more fervor. This isn't just about a Moby Dick-sized white whale attacking a ship, though that story alone would be plenty interesting if told better than Howard's version - this is about the long months that followed, tiny boats in an eternal ocean, months of starvation, dehydration, cannibalism, every possible extreme of exposure and, eventually, madness.
But also heroism! In the Heart of the Sea doesn't exactly have a happy ending, but you'll be happy you read it by the time you get to the end. It's a very quick read, too; if the subject interests you but you don't have much time for reading, put it on your list.
Joe Hill, 2009/2013
2015 flies high in my estimation for being the year I finally started reading Joe Hill. As a lifelong King nerd, it took learning that the perfect end of 11/22/63 (reviewed here) was actually Hill's idea. Now that I've read Heart-Shaped Box and NOS4A2, both of which conclude in deeply satisfying poetry, I have no trouble believing it.
Heart-Shaped Box follows fading death rock star Jude Coyne as he is relentlessly haunted by the malevolent spirit of an old man, the father of a former love of Jude's. The book is truly frightening and pretty merciless, but it's also incredibly lovely, because Jude's journey is so grand and human. NOS4A2 is about Victoria McQueen, an artist with a damaging history and a secret - and supernatural - knack for finding lost things. It's a book about trauma, surviving it and turning it into something powerful. I'd be hard-pressed to tell you which I prefer, but I know I'm ready to throw Horns into the mix very soon.
THE ROYAL WE
Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan, 2015
Let's end on a bit more fluff, as The Fug Girls bring their bright, irreverent (but never mean-spirited) humor to an alternate version of Wills and Kate's royal love story. The book spans a decade and has a fair amount more heart and wisdom than that fluffy premise indicates, and it makes for a fun, fictionalized insight into what it must be like to marry the crown of England.
Currently reading: David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks, 2015.
On my most immediate to be read pile: Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower (2007), Joe Hill’s Horns (2011), the rest of the Fletch series, Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman (2015) and Rainbow Rowell’s Carry On (2015).