It has – once again – been a lacklustre year for me in terms of reading: 22 books read in 2015 in total, which is a much smaller number than I would like. So I feel a little … guilty, almost, in selecting a top five. It doesn’t feel earned. I’m going to anyway, obviously, but I’ll be having some stern words with myself and attempting to correct this in the year ahead.
In the meantime, these were my five favourite books of 2015. They’re in no particular order, and they’re presented with the usual caveat that my favourites do not necessarily overlap perfectly with what I thought was best. Best is a trickier term to pin down; favourites is considerably easier. But even then, it was difficult to choose. There are several other books that could easily have made this list.
Here we are…
The First Fifteen Lives Of Harry August, by Claire North
Harry August is born in the early 1900s in difficult circumstances. He lives a relatively undistinguished life until his first death in 1989. At that point, he is born again – into the exact same circumstances, and with the full knowledge of the life he led before. That second life understandably does not go well, but as his lives pass, he makes contact with the supportive Cronus Club, and realises he is a ‘kalachakra’: one of many individuals who relive their lives thousands of times over without forgetting the previous ones. Harry learns to explore and exploit this ability until, at the end of his eleventh life, he receives a message from a little girl about the state of the future.
There are almost too many joys to be found in this novel. It is beautifully written, for one, but the real fun is in the exploration: the way it takes a single, relatively simple idea and runs with it, following every aspect of the concept to its natural limits. And so – of course – it is possible for ideas and messages to be passed back and forth through time over eons, either as warnings or as jokes. It feels obvious and natural that secret clubs and communities of such individuals will evolve, that rules will be established and that shortcuts and helplines will be created. It’s the ultimate secret society, and the idea is fleshed out and made real. So it’s the world, filled to its edges, that enchanted me here, even more so than the plot (which is rewarding and clever) and the depth of character (which is great). I was trying to think why I responded so positively to it all, and I realised I can give it the highest compliment: it reminded me of reading The Homeward Bounders by Diana Wynne Jones for the first time as a teenager. That was the first time I was this transfixed by a world so simultaneously neverending and wonderful and sad and moving. A fantastic book.
The Way Inn, by Will Wiles
Neil Double is a professional conference attendee. He’s happy to be paid to replace you at all those boring, anonymous business conferences you can’t be bothered to go to but your work says that you should. He loves all the badges and tote bags and random people. And most of all, he loves The Way Inn: the chain of cheap, identikit hotels that make him feel at home (or at least in exactly the same place) wherever he might be in the world. But on his latest assignment – at a conference for conference organisers – he meets a strange woman in the hotel, and follows her into the increasingly surreal netherworld that lies below the surface of the Way Inn chain.
What starts off as a wonderfully funny satire on the culture in question (anybody who’s attended a conference or stayed in a similar hotel will laugh frequently, generally in painful recognition) descends quickly into a kind of (still very funny) Lovecraftian horror. This book puts the ‘psycho’ into ‘psychogeography’. An awful description, I know – but really, not far off. From the moment Double meets the mysterious woman, who is trying to photograph all the abstract art in the various hotels and find meaningful patterns in them, you know you’re in safe hands, and the feeling never falters. Filled with great one-liners and set-pieces, and ultimately real feeling, it’s a pitch perfect novel. Like Harry August above, The Way Inn stretches and explores its crazy conceit to its limits, while still managing a very human landing.
The Death House, by Sarah Pinborough
The Death House has hit a fair number of ‘Best of 2015’ lists – and for good reason – but in many cases, the genre of the book has been touched on. Is it SF, for example? Or perhaps horror? Is it YA? What exactly is it? But Pinborough is a prolific writer who has spent years flitting successfully between many different genres, and who now seems to have found her feet combining aspects of whichever ones she wants into beautifully crafted stories that defy genre expectations and simply work on their own terms. So the truth is that this is just a Sarah Pinborough novel.
It’s a futuristic setting: the ‘Death House’ is a hospital-cum-boarding-school to which children who have been identified as defective in some way are taken by force. When they show signs of illness, they are taken to the Sanitorium, from which they never return. The main characters are Toby, a teenage boy, and Clara, the teenage girl whose arrival transforms his world. But there are many others. The relationships are skillfully drawn: none of these teenagers are heroic, as such, and many of the expected confrontations play out in ways you wouldn’t expect.
Obviously, the Death House is a metaphor for life itself – we’re all stuck with each other; we’re all about to die at any time – and as the tagline suggests: “Everybody dies. It’s how you choose to live that counts.” There are no happy endings in life; there are just happy, if transient, presents. And just as the novel explores the cruelty and uncertainty of the situation, it also conjures up several moving and beautiful moments that reinforce that point.
Pretty Is, by Maggie Mitchell
I wrote about this for The Murder Room:
“Abducted children are a long-standing trope in crime fiction, and it’s easy to understand why: a missing child immediately creates urgency and tension and a mystery to be solved, along with intense emotional engagement. The trope seems very popular right now, but if Pretty Is – the excellent debut novel by Maggie Mitchell – sounds at first like it will be ploughing familiar territory, it swiftly becomes clear that it’s working much more fertile and interesting ground…”
Read my full thoughts here.
Viral, by Helen FitzGerald
This is the third year that one of Helen FitzGerald’s books has appeared on my list of favourites, and yet the population at large still somehow refuses to give her the huge sales figures her work deserves. Go figure. But perhaps that will change in February, when Viral is released, because from its attention-grabbing first line, through a story drawn straight from the headlines, it’s a novel that plays to all of FitzGerald’s strengths, and which is engaging and charming to the very end. (More of which in a moment).
Su-Jin is a strait-laced seventeen year old Korean girl, adopted as an infant by the Oliphant-Brotheridge family. On a holiday to Magaluf with her infinitely more experienced sister, Leah, and her friends, Su-Jin gets drunk and is filmed performing a sex act on a number of men in a nightclub. The video goes viral. Su-Jin is villified by the media and her life is gradually destroyed. As her mother, Ruth – a respected court judge – seeks justice here, Su-Jin goes into hiding from the hounding press attention abroad, and then on the run.
The anger here, at least to start with, is palpable. We’ve all seen similar online stories be appropriated by the media, with the attention and blame generally focused on the drunk women in question rather than the men participating or the people filming. Here, FitzGerald tells the story from the other side (and indeed, the right side). But that’s really just the starting point for a tale of a young woman learning to reject various pressures to conform to expectations, whether social or familial, and instead using a moment of personal trauma as a springboard to leap out into the world and form her own identity on her own terms. Stylishly written, this is an incredibly funny novel, and ultimately a very touching one. That first sentence is certainly memorable – I’ll leave it to you to discover it – but it’s a testament to the strengths of the story in between that the last sentence, beautifully judged, is the one that will stay with you.