Books of the Year 2015

Sending in his nominations for this year’s Spill Awards (voting to open shortly, folks, so watch this space), GF asked why we didn’t have a category for books. Simple answer: it’s difficult enough to put together shortlists for the other stuff, although we’ve all lived through the same year and more or less kept up with current films, television shows and records. Books are arguably even more personal – and probably very few of us are so keen that we buy hardback editions the moment they’re published, so it wouldn’t even be ‘favourite books published in 2015)’ but ‘favourite books I happened to read in 2015’, and the chances of *any* overlap at all become even smaller.

So, attempting to produce a shortlist for a vote seems pretty pointless. But what we can do, and have done in the past, is have a post like this, where anyone who wants to can talk about what you’ve been reading this year, what you’d recommend to the rest of us – and maybe even the stuff you read and absolutely hated…

I have three suggestions, all with at least some very loose claim to contemporaneity. Let’s get the pretentious intellectual one out of the way first: Jenny Erpenbeck‘s Aller Tage Abend, published back in 2012 but I’ve been waiting for the paperback, and this year published in English as End of Days. I should say that I hate that translation (yes, I read the original German version), as it is too closely linked to the notion of apocalypse whereas in the original that is just one of a range of possible meanings, but I can’t think of a decent alternative. Anyway, this is bleak but deeply human, brilliant and experimental but also incredibly moving; different versions of the life of the central character, who dies as a baby (which shatters her family) in the first part, then lives to her teens, then into adulthood, then into old age, all played out against the horrors of twentieth-century European history. It is a stunning meditation on life, death, chance and fate.

A little more cheerful, but equally though-provoking, are the Thessaly novels by Jo WaltonThe Just City (which I’ve just finished reading) was published at the beginning of the year, and the sequel The Philosopher Kings appeared in August. I’m hastily reading these as I’ve agreed to participate in an online seminar over at the Crooked Timber blog, and am impressed so far. As you might guess from the titles, this is all about Plato’s Republic: the goddess Athene (the gods are real – but precisely what they are is not entirely clear) decides to set the whole thing up as an experiment and recruits devoted Platonists from across time and space to act as the Masters who will train the first generations of citizens, children bought from slave-traders to be educated in the pursuit of justice and excellence. It’s a fascinating examination of theory and practice, the attractions of Plato’s ideas (especially for women) and their dark, anti-human side – especially when Socrates turns up and starts examining the city, culminating in a show-down debate with Athene herself as to whether the system really is just…

Finally, and even more entertainingly, the Laundry Files series by Charles Stross, the latest episode of which – The Annihilation Score – was published this year. Classic spy fiction (in different styles; the early books offer parodies cum tributes of Deighton, Fleming and the like) meets the Cthulhu mythos; the hero works for the Laundry, the branch of the secret service that deals with incursions into this reality of terrifying tentacled monstrosities, plus the cults that seek to bring this about. It’s a world in which advanced mathematics can be just as effective in summoning eldritch horrors as the traditional blood sacrifice and chanting routine. Full of intertextual references and in-jokes if you like the Lovecraft tradition, but also neatly-plotted supernatural thrillers in their own right.

24 thoughts on “Books of the Year 2015

  1. The Charles Stross books sound right up my street. I shall check them out in the New Year.

    I have been doing a lot of re-reading this year, including all of John Le Carré’s novels, some of Evelyn Waugh’s pre-war books (Decline and Fall, Vile Bodies and Scoop) and Alistair Reynold’s Revelation Space.

    I have also read (for the first time) Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter’s The Long Mars and The Long War, C.J Sansom’s (probably) final Matthew Shardlake novel, Lamentation and a two volume collection of E.F Benson’s Mapp and Lucia novels, which are wonderful.

    I meant to read Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, but haven’t quite got round to opening it yet.

    On the non-fiction front, things that took up my time include Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Jerusalem, which I recommend highly, Jason Goodwin’s Lords of the Horizons, which is a rather good single volume potted history of the Ottoman Empire and Peter Heather’s The Restoration of Rome, which was a disappointingly traditional narrative history of the rise of western Christendom which had the general air of being cobbled together over a few weekends. I also read Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers, a magisterial and meticulous exploration of the days and weeks leading up to the beginning of hostilities in 1914, and I re-read Patrick J. Geary’s superb The Myth of Nations about the medieval beginnings of European nation states and the attendant construction of national mythologies.

  2. Carole: I’ve read the Alexandria Quartet twice, seen the film once and tried to listen to it on disc but I gave up because I couldn’t stand the reader. A memorable read that I’m sure I’ll have another go at.
    If you like LeCarre and haven’t read Len Deighton give him a try.
    Start with the first of his triple trilogy; ‘Berlin Game’, the beginning of 9 novels with a wonderful and continuing cast of characters.
    ‘Winter – The story of a German Family’ is interesting in that it’s like a prequel to the trilogies, it deals with the forebears of his main characters over a 100+ years period. He’s also a cook and was for years the cooking columnist at The Observor and has written many cook books plus he’s to my mind the premiere historian of WW2, he has a grasp of details and an ability to write that for me makes him the authority; read his Blood, Tears and Folly for an alternate perspective on the war. With the exception of his cook books I’ve read everything he’s written, some twice. Very highly recommended.

    Currently I’m reading ‘Words without Music by Philip Glass’, fabulous book, constantly interesting and it reads like a novel. I just finished the chapter on Film and Music which in part dealt with his writing for Godfrey Reggio and his films Koyaanisqatsi sand Powaqqatsi, both of which I have so I re-watched them as I read his notes. Highly recommended for this audience.

    • Yes, Len Deighton is a good read too. I’ve read a lot of his spy fiction.

      If you like that sort of thing, I strongly recommend the spy books of Alan Furst, which are all set before and during WW2.

    • Yes, Len Deighton is a good read too. I’ve read a lot of his spy fiction.

      If you like that sort of thing, I strongly recommend the spy books of Alan Furst, which are all set before and during WW2.

  3. I should have also mentioned that the trilogy was previously adapted by Granada Television as a 12-part series called Game, Set and Match in 1988, with Ian Holm as Bernard Samson. Currently Quentin Tarrantino is interested in adapting the trilogy into a movie.

  4. “Books” is somewhat easier for me than music this year. It seems my musical adventures have been very much rooted in nostalgia and it was quite a task to find 3 new tunes for this seasons festival of fun.

    Books have featured more in my life this year than they have for some time. Mostly in a work related sense in that I’m now working part-time at the museum dedicated to our local army regiments of the past and have access to the bookshelves when it’s quiet.
    It’s also a case of “the more you know the more you want to know”. The regiments concerned have a long and interesting history and were present at some notable and important battles.
    Thus my first choice, I won’t call it recommendation as these things are so personal and military history isn’t to everyone’s taste, would be

    Waterloo – The Aftermath by Paul O’Keefe.
    This book tells, as the title suggests, what happened after that momentous battles. What happened to the dead, the wounded and also what happened politically and militarily once the smoke had cleared.
    It’s a sobering read. You wouldn’t have wanted to be a badly wounded French soldier. You’d be, most likely, simply left on the field. There were still some there 2 weeks after the battle. Yikes !

    Second would be one that I’ve read whilst at work and which has direct relevance there.
    Bristol’s Own- The 12th Battalion Gloucestershire Regiment 1914-1918. by Dean Marks.
    Poignant is not the word. This book covers the story, often in their own words, of the men who served in the Battalion throughout the First World War, many of whom didn’t come home again.
    The great thing about the book is that it tells the story from the beginning, the heady days of “signing on” , through the war and out the other side with chapters on the after times.
    I’d call it a hard read. I confess that a certain amount of lachrymose fluid flowed at times. Reading the letters and words and seeing photos of men who later died in the mud and filth of the trenches is really quite sobering. They were ordinary men, with ordinary lives, loves , hopes and fears and they were thrown into a charnel house where death came instantly and at random. One of the best books I’ve read from that period.

    Lastly, but by no means leastly, on a less martial note
    I love you, Baby Basil – by Leon Baxendale.
    I remembered this cartoon from the Graun ( I think it was printed in the Saturday edition) from years ago. Loved it then and love it now. I was delighted to find that Mr Baxendale is still alive and sells copies by post !
    His work is instantly recognizable to anyone “of a certain age” as he was responsible for the Bash Street Kids and Minnie the Minx back in the 1950s-60s.
    Baby Basil is wonderful, a budget philosophical cornucopia featuring dear innocent Basil, his muse Cynthia, a rude girl ( called Rude Girl) and a duck .
    It;s the book I’m going to most treasure. I’m so glad it exists.It makes me smile and, frankly, that’s about all I can ask for in a book.

  5. A few books from recent years read or listened to this year :

    ‘How Music Got Free’ – Stephen Witt about the rise of digital music, with its multi-narrative strand of scientist, business and ‘pirate’.

    ‘Concretopia’ – John Grindrod about the post-war rebuilding of Britain that has an infectious enthusiasm for its subject urging me to get on that train to Coventry/Milton Keynes etc.

    Finally, and yes it is a worthy winner ‘A Short History of Seven Killings’ – Marlon James which once you get past the visceral violence, is a panoramic novel that makes you want to dig deeper into post-Marley/Manley Jamaican history – GF any pointers?

  6. I’m a pretty slow reader (unless I’m on a train or on holiday) so our Book Group’s choice each month occupies a lot of my reading time.

    Fortunately we hit a run of good ones recently with Ishiguro’s “Artist of the Floating World” which starts slowly and almost blandly and then starts to get a grip on you. Which is how Ishiguro operates.

    Then Sebastian Barry’s “Secret Scripture which I’d read before. A great read. Two contradictory accounts of a woman’s life in early 20th Century Ireland. I was re-reading it and, not for the first time, I was appalled at how much I forget about books I loved at the time.

    The most recent one was Laurie Lee’s “As I walked Out One Midsummer Morning”. A strange choice for the run up to Christmas. It was fascinating to read about both Britain and Spain in the 1930s before either the Civil war or WW2.

    Managed to fit in the last but one Terry Pratchett, “Raising Steam”, which I loved. The railways come to Discworld. Looking forward to his last book but with kind of mixed feelings in the circumstances.

    Every time I travel on the tube in London I see at least two people reading “A Short History of Seven Killings”. Really must get round to that one.

    • Severin: Laurie Lee’s “As I walked Out One Midsummer Morning”. That sounds interesting, I remember as a child in the 30’s/40’s there were always Spanish refugees staying at my father’s house. One was called Emilio another was Fernando, Must order that one.

  7. I read As I walked Out One Midsummer Morning a long time ago. I remember it being a wonderful book. I must get hold of a copy and read it again.

  8. I’d just started my Christmas read – the new(ish) biography of Nelson by John Sugden, two volumes, 1000-odd pages each (which I thought would keep me pretty well amused over Christmas) when I went to see the film Sunset Song; which so enraged me with its general wrongness that I felt I had to reread the book. People, the book is SO much better! I’ve just finished it and now have to decide whether I’m going to go on to the other two parts of the trilogy, or return to my hero Horace. Decisions, eh?

  9. I remember going to the Imperial War Museum in Greenwich many years ago, there was a whole area devoted to Nelson, rooms full of material from his life; it made a believer of me.

    • I was born in the London Borough of Merton and moved back to it about 20 years ago. I’ve only recently visited some of the sites on the “Nelson Trail” including the site of Merton Place where he lived with Emma Hamilton.
      The house is long gone sadly – just a plaque on one of the blocks of flats – but the two cannons which stood outside the front door are in a small park nearby which his nephew bequeathed to the borough.
      Sad that the actual historic building should be there no more but he’s commemorated by a nearby pub (!) called the Nelson Arms which is where the lodge used to be. Plus a the local church stands in the former grounds and has an altarpiece made of wood taken from HMS Victory.

  10. Not that much of a Stephen King fan. but found a copy of the fully expanded 1000-odd page version of The Stand, which I’d never read, at work. It took about a month of commuting to get through it, but I thought it was amazing.

    Have just finished Jon Ronson’s “So, You’ve Been Publicly Shamed”. A very interesting and necessary book about the lynch mob mentality of Twitter and other social media. Made me very glad I’ve never had the inclination to join the crowd and sign up!

    He did a Guardian piece about it a few days ago too.

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