First, the worst
I’m of the opinion that life is too short to finish a book you don’t enjoy, and so I don’t read many bad books all the way through. I have a fifty-page rule (recently upgraded from thirty pages), which is how long I will force my way through a rubbish book before making a decision to carry on or throw it out of the window.
My first worst book of the year, The Heart Goes On by Margaret Atwood, started well and had what looked like a great plot, but by the end I felt like it had not been worth the time I spent reading it. It starts as a dark and dangerous dystopia in which possibilities are severely limited and the protagonists, Stan and Charmaine, are starting to lose hope. They are living in their car when they are presented with an opportunity to live in complete safety within the walls of a new settlement called Consilience. The only catch is that every other month they must swap their home-life for a month-long stint in prison, taking the place of two convicts who will live in their house for that month. I was surprised to find that this prison-swap situation is merely the setting and doesn’t hold any significance after the first third of the story. The bigger picture is a ridiculous mash-up of sexual taboos, silly fetishes and boring personalities. I kept going because Margaret Atwood is a favourite author and I refused to believe she could be so lazy with her writing. The only reason I would have to recommend this would be to have someone to talk to about the stupid ending.
My second worst book of the year was I Love Dick by Chris Kraus. First published in 1997, this year marks its first appearance in the UK. I heard about it in The Guardian, which described it as a cult feminist classic and “the book about relationships everyone should read”. I was further fuelled by the many reviews I found claiming this to be the best book ever published (or similarly OTT declarations). It's a memoir/novel about a married woman who falls in love with a man called Dick after knowing him for only one night, for pretty much no reason. She thinks they had mind-sex or something. She and her husband then start writing letters to Dick about the evening and Chris' feelings and this goes on for way too long and gets more and more pathetic. It was very hard to get through at times, and not recommended for those who dislike or are not interested in art critique, pompous babble or pop-psychology. Chris Kraus is narcissistic, stubborn and painfully needy. I don’t feel like I’m missing some sort of point, but that others are looking for meaning that just isn’t there. I enjoyed the last chapter and the second-to-last line in particular is a killer. At the time of reading I thought I’d wasted my time, but now I look back on it as a funny few days, because I read it at the same time as a friend who equally thought it was overrated and needlessly pretentious. It was good to share the experience.
Winner of Waterstones Thriller of the Year 2015 and seemingly the whole country’s approval was The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins. This book has been compared to Gone Girl and Before I Go to Sleep and that's absolutely spot-on, it's a perfect blend of the two, with gaps in vital memories and the feeling that there is more to the main characters than meets the eye. I couldn't guess what was going to happen right up until the very end. The reveal was great and the last few scenes were really tense. There was more action than I was expecting from this kind of novel, which was surprising as most of the commentary on the mystery at hand came from the outsider's point of view, which at times was questionable at best. I’ll admit that this is a good book but I do wonder how much of the hype was manufactured by clever advertising and plenty of publicity. I’d recommend it to people who are trying crime for the first time as it does whet the appetite for further exploration into the genre, but this is not my thriller of the year.
I read Disclaimer by Renee Knight immediately after I read The Girl on the Train and instantly knew I was reading something higher quality. On reading the blurb I expected a deeply sinister and dark, high-speed thriller. I expected to be guessing the sender of the mysterious book all the way through, but that is just the very start. At first I saw this as a simple story, very easy to follow, but I really underestimated its complexity. Early on I thought something major had been revealed but a few chapters later I was backtracking, wondering how I'd so dramatically got the wrong end of the stick. This isn't a fast-paced story, it is steady and deliberate, and not once was I bored. Every revelation is small but effective, which always left me wanting more. This goes on up until the last page, catching me off-guard and literally giving me goosebumps. This book left me stunned.
As Disclaimer suffocated under the heavily padded Girl on the Train phenomenon, I was writing belly bands and recommendation cards, sneaking it onto eye-level shelves and trying to spread the word, all to no avail. Disclaimer is currently Waterstones Thriller of the Month and I find myself saying “I told you so” a little too often as more of my colleagues are picking it up and realising that it is in fact better than the much praised Thriller of the Year.
An ambitious reading goal of fifty books in one year led to a new passion for tiny little pretty books. Standalone short stories or small, select collections of poetry really helps boost the numbers in between epic tomes. So although technically the likes of Charles Dickens and the Brothers Grimm should not be showing up on this blog, I’m counting them anyway as part of Penguin’s Little Black Classics. When selecting a classic to read for the first time I put a lot of pressure on myself to choose wisely. I’d hate to be put off an author who has been hailed a genius for decades or centuries because I read the wrong book at the wrong time. The Penguin collection, 80 titles to celebrate their 80th anniversary, are 80p each, all around 80 pages long and serve as great little samples of the best loved authors. My personal favourite (so far) is A Slip Under the Microscope by H. G. Wells. The Door in the Wall, included in the slim volume along with the namesake, is a story that will stay with me for life.
This year I gave three books a 5 star rating, but only one of them was published in 2015. A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction, Waterstones Book of the Year and nominated for the Goodreads Choice Awards for Best Ficiton and the National Book Award for Fiction. It didn’t win anything and I just don’t understand why.
There was nothing about A Little Life that I disliked. Every character, every back story, every conversation and every anecdote. I was hooked, I savoured every word. I found I kept forgetting how the book started, and I think this shows how easy it is to slip into the story.
Before I started A Little Life I was warned by those who had read it that it was very dark and depressing. A colleague described it as "relentless". But I went ahead anyway because these people continued to read its 700+ pages despite the emotional distress it caused. In my opinion, the dark-and-depressing only starts about a third of the way in and by this time I was so invested in every character that the thought of giving up on the book for something lighter was like abandoning a family member going through hard times.
I don't cry watching TV and films, and I've only cried reading one book (a single tear at the last line of Flowers for Algernon), but this book made had me sobbing two or three times. In the last few chapters I couldn't read it in public for fear of uncontrollable wailing.
I think this book is perfect, and I want everyone I know to read it too.