Monday, January 11, 2016

Top 10 Books of 2015

   I read 70 books this year, averaging 1.35 books a week. This was 11 titles down from last year's total. I'm not sure if my reading speed is coming down with age or I just read more books this year that are a bit slower to get through. I felt like I read some really good books this year, but nothing that just blew me away like last year's "All the Light We Cannot See".

1. Our Souls At Night by Kent Haruf. A beautifully written look at the friendship between a widow and widower in Holt, Colorado, the setting of "Plainsong" and several other of Haruf"s books. This was Haruf's last book before he died and that sense of mortality comes through in the writing. It starts with “And then there was the day when Addie Moore made a call on Louis Waters.” Addie is coming over to ask Louis to come over every now and then and sleep with her. Not for sex necessarily, but just for the warmth & companionship, to hold hands and not talk at all. They become the best of friends and the relationship grows until some people become embarrassed by it. This is a book that has stayed with me. Parts of this book keep popping into my head more than 6 months after I finished it. A film is in development and Robert Redford and Jane Fonda are rumored to be interested.

2. Golden Sun by Pierce Brown. By far the most exciting book that I read in 2016, "Golden Son" is a follow-up to "Red Rising", a book that I really enjoyed last year. But this one blew me away, one of the best space operas I have ever read. Epic in scale, but with characters that I really liked and rooted for. Having fully infiltrated the Gold ruling class, Darrow continues to try to bring down the society from within. There were times reading this book that I remember actually gasping out loud, it is so filled with twists and surprises. I missed this one as soon as I finished it. "Morning Star", the final book in the trilogy is due out next month - I can't wait!

3. Undermajordomo Minor by Patrick DeWitt. While this may not be quite as good as DeWitt's "The Sisters Brother", it doesn't miss by much. This is kind of a fairy tale, at times laugh out loud funny, at times very dark and twisted. Think of a very dark, R rated "The Princess Bride". Lucien "Lucy" Minor is a compulsive liar, a skinny wimp in Bury, a small town full of brutish giants. He accepts a job sight unseen as the assistant to the majordomo of the remote and frightening Castle Von Aux. While learning his new job , he finds the castle and nearby village are full of dark secrets and strange inhabitants. Once I got into the book, I was grinning ear to ear from beginning to end.

4. Fortune Smiles by Adam Johnson. An amazing collection of short stories from the Pulitzer Prize winning author of "The Orphan Master's Son". Every single story in the volume is a winner, a rarity in collections like this. They will either tug at your heart or punch you in the gut, sometimes both. George Orwell Was A Friend Of Mine, the story of a former STASI prison warden trying to explain to people of a unified German what and why he did, is probably my favorite of the bunch. All the stories here are highly recommended. National Book Award winner for 2015.

5. Dead Wake by Erik Larson. Easily the best non-fiction I read in 2015, this is an excellent look at the last voyage of the Lusitania. Larson does a remarkable job of bringing the passengers and crew of the liner alive and shows the long list of coincidences that brought her and the German U-boat together off the coast of Ireland. Even though I knew the fate of the ship, I was still holding my breath at the end, hoping that passengers that I had come to know would survive.

6. The Kind Worth Killing by Peter Swanson. While not perfect, this is the first book that I have read that feels like it deserves the too often used description "the next Gone Girl". Alternating narrators, a big twist halfway through the book, and a "villain" that you find yourself rooting for. Two strangers meet in a London airport and through a friendly discussion decide to kill the wife of one of them. I really liked that the book could surprise me (several times) and make me feel sympathetic for a cold blooded killer. In my opinion, much better than the overrated "The Girl On The Train", I was happy to see it finish on the "Entertainment Weekly" Best Books of 2015 list.

7. Into The Savage Country by Shannon Burke. Outstanding short novel about a fur trader in the American West of the 1820s. William Wyeth leaves St. Louis on a fur trapping expedition. Things don't go as planned and he ends up facing off with Native American tribes, the British government, and other American trapping groups. Featuring exciting action and beautiful descriptions of nature, "Savage Country" reminded me of Phillips Meyer's "The Son". I just saw "The Revenant" at the theater and this book makes an excellent companion piece to that film.

8. Trigger Warning by Neil Gaiman. I am still way behind in my Gaiman, this is only the third of his books that I have read. But I loved this collection of stories, featuring a little bit of everything. There is Click-Clack the Rattlebag, a story you should definitely not read right before trying to go to sleep. It features a Dr. Who story, a Sherlock Holmes tale, and a story that is a wonderful tribute to Ray Bradbury. The Return of the Thin White Duke is a homage to David Bowie, one of Gaiman's heroes.

9. Paradise Sky by Joe Lansdale. As a kid and well into my twenties I hated Westerns. "Lonesome Dove", "The Searchers", and Elmer Kelton made me a little more open to that genre. But it is still a surprise to me to find two books that could be considered Westerns on this list. "Paradise Sky" is the fictionalized story of the somewhat legendary African American cowboy known as Deadwood Dick. Joe Lansdale is a hell of a storyteller, and his "The Thicket" is one of the best adventure novels I have read over the last few years. "Paradise Sky" is almost that good and I wish it had been even longer, I was sorry to see it end.

10. Descent by Tim Johnston. A hard book to categorize. The first half is a depressing as anything I have read in a very long time. While out on a run with her little brother, Caitlin Courtland disappears in the Rocky Mountains. Enough of a downer that I wasn't sure I was going to finish it, but halfway through the story the book makes a fascinating turn and turns into a different type of book. I loved the second half of the story, it managed to surprise me and I love that in a book.

    Other books that I loved this year were "Make Me" by Lee Child (one of the best Jack Reacher thrillers), "Funny Girl" by Nick Hornby (a funny look at the life of a comedienne on British TV), "The Book Of Aron" by Jim Shepard (a sad but sometimes funny child's eye view of the Warsaw ghetto in WWII). "The Alex Crow" is another quirky, confusing, but vastly entertaining YA book from Andrew Smith. "Sweetland" by Michael Crummey is the genre-crossing tale of a man living a lonely life on an isolated Canadian island.
     And finally, the book that I most disliked this year - "The Girl On The Train" by Paula Hawkins. This bestselling book, touted as the next "Gone Girl", this is at best an average thriller about the murder of a young woman in London. Told though the narration of three women, one the eventual victim. I was somewhat bored by the whole thing, although I will admit the identity of the killer was a surprise. The story only worked because one of the characters suffered from blackouts, which seemed gimmickry.
     And I was very disappointed in the new John Irving novel, "The Avenue of Mysteries". John Irving may well be my favorite living author, many of his books have struck a real nerve in me and have stuck with me many years after finishing them. This wasn't one of  those, Still, even a weak John Irving is still a good read and I'm glad that I read it. The main character is a bestselling author that grew up in as an orphan in Mexico. The book switches back and forth between that time and the present in which he is taking a trip to the Philippines.

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