Top Books of 2015 – A Retrospective

At the beginning of this year I set myself a Goodreads challenge to read 40 books in 2015. As of today, the 28th December, I’ve read 43, so it’s great to have achieved that goal (I can say with a degree of certainty that I don’t expect to finish my current 890 page tome before New Year). Without any further ado, here are my top books of 2015:

 

Fiction:

5) The Spy Who Came In From the Cold – John Le Carre 

A fantastic work of espionage thriller that provided a nice antithesis to all the Bond films I’ve been watching in the latter quarter of the year. Le Carre definitely lived up to the hype and I fully intend to read some of his other works in future.

4) Blindness – Jose Saramago

Probably one of the most chilling dystopian novels I’ve ever read with some truly harrowing moments but some very thoughtful observations on human nature too. Saramago’s style too is inimitable.

3) Kolymsky Heights – Lionel Davidson

A gripping, intellectual, well-paced thriller that stumbled in places but proved vastly satisfying, especially during the utterly un-put-down-able final 50 pages.

2) Jurassic Park – Michael Crichton

Loved the films all my life, finally made it to the novel that started it all. Possibly even better than the films thanks to the impeccable research and passion that Crichton’s writing bursts with. The sequel The Lost World is sitting atop my shelf waiting for a spare moment in 2016.

1) The Secret History – Donna Tartt

After numerous recommendations from colleagues and customers as well as understated but almost cultish following on the internet that ensures a modest place on any ‘best contemporary fiction’ list, I finally came across Tartt’s The Secret History in a charity shop and decided to bite the bullet. I haven’t regretted it. The prose just gets under your skin and you feel as intrigued and compelled as Richard in the novel. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever read and, though it was a commitment, it was so engrossing and real that the time just flew by. I didn’t want to leave the cozy East-Coast college scene at all.

 

Non-Fiction: 

5) Stranger Than We Can Imagine – John Higgs 

Higgs’ alternative history of the twentieth century attempted to broach together many developments of the past hundred years into a coherent argument for a change in collective Western conscious: that we were moving from a black and white society to one that existed in shades of grey; where multiple-perspectives now could be combined to make sense of reality and that single answers no longer held true. Watching Higgs’ create this argument whilst charting the histories of movements from Modernism to science-fiction proved fascinating and highly original.

4) So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed – Jon Ronson

Ronson’s timely work explored the pros and cons of our ability to network in the internet age: the good and bad that the mob-mentality of sites such as Twitter can wreak. Like all Ronson’s books, it broached the subject with a wry sense of humour and a love for the absurd but simultaneously managed to engage in some thought-provoking and much-needed discussions about how society must approach the internet and the damage that a fifteen-minute Tweet-war can do to an individual’s life. Necessary reading.

3) What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions – Randall Munroe

By far the funniest book I read all year, the XKCD creator’s book of impeccably-researched and utterly ridiculous pseudo-science regularly had me wiping away tears of laughter. The combined imagination of curious internet-users and the combination of wit and intelligence that Munroe possesses created a book that was at once completely fascinating and totally ludicrous. Definitely a must-read for the scientifically-minded.

2) The Almost Nearly Perfect People – Michael Booth

Probably the second funniest book I read all year, Booth’s sort-of-travel book on Scandinavia was a wry look at a collection of countries which have been touted as the nearest thing we have to a Utopia on planet Earth. It was a fascinating look at the economic, social and political success of Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Iceland and Finland and shed fascinating and hilarious light upon the history, demography and general quirks of a group of nations that we all know but don’t really know.

1) The Establishment – Owen Jones

“It changed me” is a phrase that gets tossed around too much, but it’s not hyperbole for me to say it of this book. The Establishment was a book I took a chance on when I was feeling a vague spark of political feeling. It’s fair to say it’s the book that politicised me and heavily influenced my own political views. I’ve gone on to inform myself politically and try to get involved in politics ever since, and I think I’m happier for it. Jones writes with passion and perception beyond his years and provides a damning indictment of British politics as it stands. It’s enough to engage anyone in what proves to often be a very important and utterly farcical aspect of our lives.

 

Worst Books of the Year

3) The Stranger (a.k.a The Outsider) – Albert Camus

I know it’s meant to be a classic meditation on apathy and the absurd and has proved highly-influential – including to subsequent works by other authors that I’ve loved – but I just didn’t care for this novel. Perhaps it was the particular translation I read with its staccato, Hemingway-esque prose, but I suspect it was more than that. I couldn’t care for such an indifferent character. Perhaps that makes me part of the society that ousts Mersault rather than one of the outsiders who can sympathise with him. Either way, I found it completely unenjoyable.

2) The Communist Manifesto – Marx and Engels

Another highly-influential classic that didn’t gel with me. 2015 was the year I discovered I stood on the left politically, but certainly not far enough to engage with the philosophy of Marx and Engels. To me it read like the rantings of a fifteen year old who should never be given a firearm, descending into irrelevant angry monologues and then abruptly announcing that these mad ramblings proved some sort of philosophy correct. At least I can say I’ve read it.

1) List of the Lost – Morrissey

The worst work I read all year was without doubt Morrissey’s debut novella, but it was also so much more than that and to understand that you have to read it. Whilst I wouldn’t recommend the previous two entries to anyone unless I really thought they’d gel with the persons tastes, I would recommend List of the Lost to any bookworm as a unique and unprecedented tale full of meaningless plot twists, unexpected rants and terrible wordplay. Morrissey’s first literary effort may be terrible but it remains uniquely Morrissey and that imbues the work with a certain melancholic charm which would almost be likable if it weren’t for the fact that it’s total drivel. Still, it was different and proved rather entertaining in its own paradoxical way at the time, so who can argue with that?

 

2016 Goals

It’s a bold move, but for 2016 I’m going to attempt to read 45 books – how that goes, only time will tell. I also intend to try to get some more of my own writing out there, possibly by liaising with some local magazines. Again, time will tell.

Currently I’m reading I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes – an enormous but totally gripping thriller about a shocking terrorist plot that proves disturbingly believable in today’s political climate. After that there’s a few works of fiction on the shelf that I intend to read as soon as possible: After the CrashThe Lost World, and a gorgeous Folio edition of The Man in the High Castle.

Non-fiction-wise there’s Do No HarmLife on the Edge and H is for Hawk waiting to be picked up. I also know I’m going to be buying a copy of Matt Haig’s Reasons to Stay Alive soon which I think will be a rather different read.

I should try to read some of the books I left unfinished in 2015 too. Neurotribes was a fascinating history of autism, but at over 500 pages it was hardly the sort of thing one could plough through in one sitting. The same goes for Post-Capitalism. I need to give a second chance to The Road to Little DribblingHeirs to Forgotten Kingdoms and Honorable Friends but we’ll see whether I get round to that.

All in all, 2015 has proved a great year for reading and I’m thoroughly looking forward to see where 2016 takes me.

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