To end the year in true writer style, Michael shared his 20 favorite books of 2015 on his Facebook page. He reports 107 books read this year so far—51 novels and 56 nonfiction—and would love to hear your favorites of 2015 as well; You can add your recommendations in the comments below or on Michael’s Facebook page. Let’s get this countdown started:
20) WHAT STANDS IN A STORM, by Kim Cross
I’ve mentioned this one previously, but it definitely makes the best-of-year list, as Kim’s combination of science reporting and emotional, human stories make for a riveting and informative read about a devastating tornado outbreak.
19) THE LIFE WE BURY, by Allen Eskens
There’s a reason this novel was sweeping up awards for best debut of 2014. Eskens is an extremely talented writer, and this is a psychologically nuanced crime novel with some beautiful writing.
18) FLOW, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
A fascinating and highly readable look at the elusive state of total absorption in a craft or task, from music to mountain climbing. He writes: “The best moments of our lives usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to the limits in a voluntary moment to achieve something difficult and worthwhile.
17) REACHER SAID NOTHING, by Andy Martin
Admittedly this one requires a bit of a literary geek audience, but I loved this book. Andy Martin, a scholar of serious achievement and a fine writer, sat in (quite literally) on Lee Child’s writing process, from first sentence to last. Lee’s process is, um, maddeningly unique. (*&#^ you and your one draft, Lee!) But the inside baseball of the bestselling thriller writer of our generation is fascinating, and I’d argue it really is a warranted study.
A friend recently asked me: “Who is the flat-out smartest writer you’ve met?” I’m ashamed to admit my mind immediately drifted to non-fiction and literary writers, because, well, they have to be the brightest, right? The first name I offered was Stewart O’Nan, and I’d stand by that, but then I added, “Hang on – Lee Child. He might be the best-read person I’ve ever encountered, and he might have the best recall to go along with it.” (I’d have thrown Alafair Burke into the off-the-charts IQ mix but I couldn’t live with her if I gave her that much credit, so it will be our little secret).
Lee’s mind is truly remarkable, though – he is so incredibly knowledgeable, so quick to make connections, and so committed to widening his knowledge base. Any readers who would dismiss him simply because he’s a perennial #1 bestseller of the thriller vein – you know, “airport fare” – are readers who would miss one of the really great voices in literature right now. Hopefully, Andy Martin’s fun and insightful account will turn a few more readers Lee’s way. Because, you know, he’s hurting for readers…
16) LITTLE SISTER DEATH, by William Gay
This posthumous release from one of my all-time favorite writers is a Gothic gem, and the material included with the novel explains Gay’s personal relationship with the ghostly legend at the story’s
core. Of what he believes, or doesn’t, he writes: “I do know that the world is a strange and wondrous place. There are mysteries on every side if you care to look. I also know that I don’t know nearly as much now as I thought I did at twenty-five. If I stacked the things I know next to the ones I don’t, I wouldn’t have a very tall stack.” And as one of his characters tells another: “I don’t believe it or disbelieve it. I’m just tellin you is all.”
It’s an excellent, chilling novel, but the most powerful writing in the book is actually in the introduction, when Tom Franklin writes of his friend with such an obvious, fierce love that I read it twice before beginning the book, and a third time when I was done. It’s a tremendous and moving tribute.
15) THE OUTSIDER, by Frederick Forsyth
This memoir from Frederick Forsyth has nearly nothing to do with his novel writing—and it’s utterly fascinating. What a life! From joining the
RAF at 17 to work as a war correspondent to some literal espionage in his later years, Forsyth has stories to burn, and he tells them here with humor and grace and some pointed warnings.
His writing about his time in Biafra is particularly powerful, where he was a reporter in a place where a predicted “10-Day War” lasted for 30 months and a million children died.
Of two of them, brother and sister, Forsyth writes: “In a long life, I have never seen such resignation, such towering dignity, as in that wasted form as she turned away, all last hope gone. Together the two little forms walked away across the field to the tree line. In the forest she would find a shady tree, sit at its foot, and wait to die. And she would hold on to her kid brother, like a good sister, all the way. I watched them until the trees took them, then sat at my table, put my head on my hands, and cried until the dispatch was damp.”
14) HOSTAGE TAKER, by Stefanie Pintoff
Pintoff is a writer who deserves a wider audience, because she’s got great talent and the sort of ambition I love. It takes courage to depart from what your audience expects, and Pintoff displayed plenty of it with HOSTAGE TAKER, moving from her wonderfully researched historical mysteries like IN THE SHADOW OF GOTHAM to a novel of terror in the heart of Manhattan. The early image of a woman standing in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral holding a sign that reads “Help Me” sets the tone for a wonderful ride. I cannot wait to see what Stefanie Pintoff does next.
13) THE SIXTH EXTINCTION, by Elizabeth Kolbert
I’m a year late on this, one of the New York Times Best Books of 2014, but it’s a marvelous and fascinating read. Kolbert manages to make science reporting into page-turning reading on a regular basis, but she doesn’t get enough credit for her prose, with lines like this: “Right now we are deciding, without quite meaning to, which evolutionary pathways will remain open and which will forever be closed. No other creature has ever managed this, and it will, unfortunately, be our most enduring legacy.” A fascinating look at the world around us, behind us, and ahead of us.
12) ABOVE THE WATERFALL, by Ron Rash
Ron Rash is one of my favorite stylists at work today. He’s a renowned poet, and that shows in his prose, but he doesn’t allow it to clutter the storytelling, either. The indelible scenes in this book are pure story—a haunting memory of a school shooting; a meth bust so well described Vince Gilligan would want to steal it. And through it all, a setting rendered with stunning beauty.
A favorite line: “Outside town, a roadside apple stand has opened. Red delicious and Granny Smiths brim the latticed baskets. Like the half-mown hay field across the road, a harbinger of mornings when firm ground crackles and white breaths precede, trees start unblending and the leafers appear. Though a difference these last few years. Once out of their vehicles, the tourists raise cameras or cell phones, as if unable to see without them.”
11) WORLD GONE BY, by Dennis Lehane
It’s strange to identify a Lehane novel as something of a sleeper pick, considering the name-recognition he has, but I thought I’d hear more talk about WORLD GONE BY through the year.
The novel is a standout and one of the best gangster stories you’ll ever come across. Set in Tampa’s Ybor City area, the novel marks the conclusion of an ambitious trilogy that began with THE GIVEN DAY and the 1918 Boston police strike. Now it is 1943, the good guys are all involved in bad business, and Joe Coughlin is at home navigating a criminal empire while the rest of the world is at war.
Lehane makes use of this time and place beautifully while employing his standard strengths of dialogue and cinematic action sequences to build to a beautiful, emotional finale.
10) DEAD WAKE, by Erik Larson
A treasure in his ability to offer up forgotten or poorly understood history and render them as carefully researched and infinitely readable gems, Larson delivers again with this story of the sinking of the Lusitania. The calm confidence of those on the Cunard liner, even in a time of war, is both suspenseful and the perfect window into the American mindsets on the eve of World War I, and Larson uses that neat old trick of his where he makes you care about the story while he educates you.
I suspect American knowledge of the romantic tribulations of President Woodrow Wilson during his courtship of Edith Galt has increased fifty-fold thanks to this one, for example, all because the reader remains in the grasp of the main narrative. Larson is the Mary Poppins of history. (Use that on the next cover, Mr. Larson?)
9) CITY OF SECRETS, by Stewart O’Nan
I tried not to include many galleys, even though the bulk of my fiction reading throughout the year is galleys. But you should also be pre-ordering for the cause, so I’ve selected just two novels coming out in spring of 2016 to tease you with. This short but powerful novel from one of the best writers we have is certainly one of the “pre-order it now” crowd.
Set in 1945 in the world of the Jewish underground resistance in Jerusalem on the heels of WWII, and building to the bombing of the King David Hotel, O’Nan is dealing with big history here and handling it deftly, but he never loses his center.
The novel is the story of a man named Brand, fighting for the cause even while wondering what has become of himself, the man he used to be, and filled alternately with despair and hope as he eyes the future. CITY OF SECRETS is sure to be ranked among the year’s best novels, reminiscent of Graham Greene’s finest work. And it may well contain the best final sentence of 2016.
8) THE UNFINISHED ODYSSEY OF ROBERT KENNEDY, by David Halberstam
Halberstam was one of my favorite journalists, whether writing about politics or sports, but I’d never read this insider account of his days with the 1968 RFK presidential campaign. Much of the book takes place in
Indiana, where Kennedy campaigned aggressively and successfully, and gave his most memorable speech, in Indianapolis on the night Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. That speech, which included his first public reference to his brother’s assassination in five years, is generally credited for keeping Indianapolis from joining the number of cities that went up in flames and rioting.
Halberstam’s account of the campaign on all levels, from the calculated, shrewd moments to the lighter sides – every time Kennedy b
gan to quote George Bernard Shaw was the cue that the press could run for the buses, because he wasn’t going to offer anything new – gives a wonderful sense of Kennedy as a man, dealing with doubt from all corners and struggling in many ways, but relentlessly committed to his beliefs on the war, the poor, and Civil Rights.
He also provides an understanding of the political and cultural moment without stepping outside to explain it. Halberstam was a fine reporter, and understood that if you did your job right, there was no need to editorialize. Thus he concludes the book with a final moment of Kennedy upstairs at the Ambassador Hotel, while a euphoric crowd and his assassin await him downstairs. He offers no description of the assassination, nor attempts at explaining its impact, but simply this single, beautiful line: “Then he descended to acknowledge his victory, to talk about the violence and the divisiveness, and to let a nation discover in his death what it had never understood or believed about him during his life.”
7) THE FIREMAN, by Joe Hill
The second and last of the galleys I’ll include on the list. Joe Hill is a fantastic storyteller, with an incredible imagination and a rare ability to render scenes in their most visual fashion.
This new novel finds him depicting an American landscape that is up in smoke – literally. A highly contagious spore is infecting millions, and turning them into human time bombs, as eventually the infected will burn to death from the inside out. Harper Grayson, a nurse from New Hampshire, discovers the first signs of her infection shortly after discovering the first promise of her pregnancy. With no proof that the baby will be infected, Harper is determined to avoid the “Cremation Squads” that comb the towns, exterminating the infected in an effort to keep the disease from spreading.
THE FIREMAN will inevitably draw comparisons to THE STAND, but Hill keeps the focus much tighter as the book goes on, making Harper’s fight for survival the dominant and compelling main story.
6) A DEADLY WANDERING, by Matt Richtel
Incredibly well-written, and important, this book looks at how a quick glance at a text message while driving claimed several lives and changed others forever. Combining the neuroscience of distraction with a suspenseful narrative of police investigation and legal action, Richtel pulls of a truly impressive feat on a topic that all too many of us would like to ignore. It’s my “push this book into as many hands as possible” pick of the year.
5) FOLLOW THE RIVER, by James Alexander Thom
I read this for the first time about 20 years ago, and it didn’t disappoint on return. Thom’s fictional look at the real-life story of Mary Ingles, a 23-year-old pregnant mother kidnapped on the frontier by the Shawnee, who made a remarkable 1,000-mile escape, is one of the all-time classics of survival stories.
4) THE PLOUGHMEN, by Kim Zupan
A terrific debut novel that evokes its western landscape with gorgeous prose, The Ploughmen is a powerful and at times painful story. At the ageof 77, John Gload has long been suspected of a series of brutal murders, but more evidence is needed, and Valentine Millimaki is the deputy who has the unenviable task of trying to engage the old man in overnight shifts at the jail. Millimaki is a sympathetic and nuanced character but Gload is the star of this tale.
When we first meet him, in the midst of a crime, he assesses his youthful partner: “Though he had never sat on a horse or been among cows, he thought himself a cowboy…John Gload had found him through a series of dismaying defaults and in the end had used him simply because of his youth and apparent good teeth, which the old man judged indicated an abstinence from methamphetamine.”
Zupan lives in Missoula, Montana, where he teaches carpentry. After reading his first novel, I’d say he could teach plenty on the craft of writing, as well.
3) DETROIT: AN AMERICAN AUTOPSY, by Charlie LeDuff
LeDuff is a reporter who tends to piss people off, and it’s pretty clear how and why that might happen in this book, but he renders an important and vivid portrait of Detroit that is wildly readable. What works best for LeDuff is righteous anger, and he’s got no shortage of it in this story of urban decline, because he spends most of his time writing about people.The grander elements of the city are covered, yes, and the politics, but it’s in the stories of real people in a real city that LeDuff thrives. His writing is strong – at times too strong, he can fall in love with his own voice – and because he’s not seeking to offer a balanced view of the city, he’s able to hit hard and hit often. And he’s entitled to: it’s his hometown, his dead sister, his laid-off brother, his dying newspaper.
The personal elements of the book are the most powerful, and they provide LeDuff with room to riff on the city and its times. Like a boxer, he’s at his best when he’s angry. The stories in the book belong to Detroit, sure, but also to the country, and to get them out there into mass consumption and consideration I think it takes a hard edge and a compelling style. (See, Baltimore – THE WIRE).
I have no connection to Detroit, but I thought of Cleveland often while reading it, and I suspect there any number of other cities that will come to mind depending on the reader. The book also produced one of my favorite review lines in recent memory, from the New York Times: “Detroit is one of those taxing places that require you to have an opinion about them.”
2) CREATIVITY INC. by Ed Catmull
This insider account of Pixar could have fallen flat as another bland portrait of a company’s triumphant rise against the odds, but instead it’s absolutely fascinating, and helpful. I’ve alreadyreferenced Catmull’s portion on “good notes vs. bad notes” to at least a dozen people – I don’t care what your business is, his ideas on fostering creativity while also getting quality product out the door on time are wonderful.
One friend told me, “I never highlight anything when I read. I’ve highlighted about half of CREATIVITY INC.” From a writer’s viewpoint, I was interested to learn how Pixar holds dear the idea that smart and emotional storytelling is even more important than the best animation. Like a companion text, I read this around the same time I watched INSIDE OUT, which I loved, and which provided one of my favorite lines of the year: “That’s the subconscious: it’s where they take all the troublemakers.”
1) DESCENT, by Tim Johnston
I’ll close the list of my favorite reads of the year with my favorite novel of 2015, and a thank-you. Someone on this page, and again on Twitter, kept promoting the book to me, so when I came across it at the bookstore, it was already in mind. This is why we writers are so grateful to those of you who take the time to talk about what you’ve enjoyed.
I’ve given a couple copies of the book away since then, talked it up enough that several others have purchased – and loved – it, and generally tried to keep the word-of-mouth campaign moving. Johnston’s setup of a teenage girl who vanishes is hardly original. What he does with it, though, is absolutely his own, and it is stunning.
Part of this comes from the power of his prose, as Johnston is a writer of tremendous gifts, but it’s also in the delivery of the story and the reversal of expectations. Those reversals don’t come across as plot twists, over-slick surprises, but rather as organic developments to characters who read like real people, capable of surprising you because they’re complex.
It’s an emotionally loaded story, and there are so many beautiful lines that I hesitate to pick just one, but I’ll offer this, from the father of the abducted girl, who has returned to the site of the family vacation where she disappeared in the rugged mountains: “I never believed in God like I never believed in the truly bad man. In his power to touch me. Now I ask of this God, that if he will not give me my daughter back, at least give me my bad man. At least give me that.”