The Best And The Worst of 2015

7db028c3bace71b194a45cc01c1fd1adAs the last hours of 2015 draw to a close it is time to look back on my reading year and think about which books have astounded me and which, unfortunately, have disappointed. When I consider the year as a whole one thing that I do regret is how much valuable time I spend re-reading, but this is inevitable given that of the three book groups to which I belong I run two as well as a Summer School and all of them tend to rely on my recommendations.  I do try and make sure that what we tackle are books that will not simply bear a re-read but actually benefit from it, but even so, it is time that could be given to new works and I’m afraid I do rather resent that.

Where I have read books for the first time they have by no means always been books published this year.  So, best and worst of 2015 means best and worst in relation to what I’ve actually read rather than of what are new publications. Besides, even if they had all been 2015 publications, I am not deluded enough to think that I have any sort of grasp on the entirety of what the publishing world is producing.  My ego isn’t that far developed!

So, let’s start with the worst and get them out of the way.  The book that I read for the first time which disappointed the most was Laura Barnett’s The Versions of Us.  I know that a great many of you loved this novel but it was one of the very few books this year that I gave up on.  While I thought the conceit was really interesting I was simply bored rigid by the characters and honestly couldn’t have cared less what happened to them regardless of which reality they inhabited.  I decided life was too short to spend time with them once, let alone three times, and sent it back to the library for someone in the long line of reservations who would appreciate it better than I could.

The re-read that didn’t live up to my expectations, much to my surprise, was Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time.  When I first encountered this I was an impressionable teenager ready to swallow whole any arguments put forward that would exonerate Richard III.  This time, coming to it with a rather more cynical eye, I was annoyed more than anything by Tey’s insistence that any rumour relating to Richard has to be explored thoroughly while accepting those about Henry VII without so much as a second thought.  Heaven knows I am no apologist for Henry, but this lack of even-handedness really irritated me, especially as it was precisely what she was complaining about in respect of previous chroniclers of the period.

However, at least I could understand what these two writers were aiming to achieve.  The prize for the most incomprehensible book of the year has been won hands down by Richard Flanagan’s Gould’s Book of Fish.  This turned up on one of my book group lists and I have no more idea now than I did after reading it what Flanagan’s purpose was in writing as he did.  I think the most appropriate way to describe how I got to the end would be to say that I gouged my way through it.  I am clearly not clever enough to appreciate what I was assured was a very literary novel.

On then to happier experiences.  I’ve read and enjoyed a lot of crime fiction this year but in general I wouldn’t say that any of the authors I read regularly have produced stunning novels.  However, one series that is gaining power with each new book is Harry Bingham’s Fiona Griffiths sequence.  The fourth book, This Thing of Darkness came out during the summer and it was one of those occasions when everything came to a halt until I had read it from cover to cover.  However, if you haven’t yet encountered Fiona and her work out of the Cardiff Police Force then don’t start here.  Go back to the beginning with Talking to the Dead, not simply because there are strands that you need to follow through the series but because all four books are excellent.  Not unlike Sara Paretsky, Bingham is concerned with the way in which those with access to power are able to manipulate the law to their own ends.  I live in hope that in the fifth novel, The Dead House, due next July, some of those smug so-and-sos will finally get their comeuppance.

Where more general fiction is concerned 2015 proved to be the year when I caught up with novels that others had been appreciating for, well in some cases, decades.  Having admitted that I had never read To Kill A Mockingbird two of my book groups immediately scheduled it just so that I could finally be shown the error of my ways and I will happily admit to having loved it and being completely unable to understand why I had never picked it up before. But, perhaps surprisingly, I did not become an Atticus fan.  I definitely had reservations where he was concerned.  So I am going to be interested to see how I get on with Go Set A Watchman when we read it next summer.  Maybe I won’t be as distressed by the way his character is portrayed there as so many other readers seem to have been.

My book of the year, however, with no possible competitors in sight, was Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves.  I read this three times in the course of a matter of months, once for each book club, and it grew in my estimation every time.  I could eulogise about the novel yet again but this post is already too long and you can read what I had to say when I first encountered the book here. For me reading this was one of those rare experiences when I just wanted to enter into the world of the book and walk hand in hand with the characters for the rest of my life. I am certain that I haven’t read it for the last time and confident that I will never grow weary of it.  If, this time next year, 2016 has provided a novel that comes anywhere near that it will have been a year worth waiting for.

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32 thoughts on “The Best And The Worst of 2015

  1. I admit your book of the year took me by surprise. I enjoyed it a lot without necessarily loving it and knew the big twist before I read it; but I’m sure it would benefit from a re-read. I had read Jennie by Douglas Preston in the mid-1990s (sadly now out of print) which covers much of the same ground. Fowler’s tic of always referring to the beginning, middle and end also irked me!

    On a different note – I must try a Harry BIngham – will add the first onto my wishlist. All the best for 2016. 🙂

    1. I would have been surprised this time last year if anyone had told me I would be so moved by it as well, Annabel. And, yes, I think it does benefit from a re-read. I certainly found far more in it on both my second and third reads. And do try Bingham, at least the Fiona Griffiths books. They are excellent.

  2. Thank you for this recap and for all your posts over the year! I’m another who is now keen to try the Fiona Griffiths books (reading these year-end posts is not at all good for my TBR pile — or is very good, I suppose, depending on your perspective!). I know what you mean about The Daughter of Time, though I was bowled over by it as a teenager too. Now that I’ve read some of Tey’s other novels, I understand that DOT is not at all the best. But it will always have a sentimental place in my own list of personal favorites, because it made such a difference to how I thought about the way history is made. I heard an academic talk on Gould’s Book of Fish and knew it would not be for me. 🙂

    Best wishes for 2016!

    1. I’m so glad you feel that way about ‘Gould’s Book of Fish’. I was made to feel a real philistine because I didn’t appreciate it but it was such hard work for very little (no?) reward. I hope you enjoy the Fiona Griffiths novels. At first sight the premise behind Fiona’s history sounds as if it will be too way out to be acceptable, but it is based on fact and I think Bingham makes it work for the stories very well.

  3. For some reason I too was surprised by your book of the year. I don’t know what I thought it would be but I wasn’t expecting that one! Makes me want to move it up my TBR List!

    Thanks for sharing another year of reading. It was a pleasure to follow along! Happy New Year to you and The Bears!

    1. I would have been surprised as well, Stefanie, this time last year. For some reason it just caught my imagination and I thought the way in which she explored what I felt to be really important themes made them accessible to all.

      The Bears have asked me to wish you a Happy New Year too and you know that you always have my best wishes.

  4. I haven’t read the Fowler — now thinking maybe I should! I too loved The Daughter of Time, but though I’ve re-read (and re-loved) Tey’s other novels, I haven’t read this one for ages. I wonder what I’d think of it now? Almost afraid to find out as I’ve always thought of it as so wonderful. Great list anyway, and a happy new year to you.

  5. Our reactions were so different. I enjoyed Versions of Us far more than Fowlers novel. Reading your comments on Goulds Book of Fish has me nervous now since this is on my shelf waiting to be read. If I end up feeling I am gouging my way through it as you did then I know I won’t even finish it.

    Wishing you and the bears a healthy and happy 2016

    1. And a Happy New Year from all of us, Karen. Given how different our reaction may be you may well enjoy Gould’s dear old fish. I should at least give it a try.

  6. Happy New Year! I love the description of “gouging” through an unpleasant book. I can relate, though it’s been a while since I made myself finish something I really disliked. I had the same reaction to The Daughter of Time last time I read it – and I haven’t re-read it since, though I love the characters (especially the lamb-like Carradine). I’ve forgotten the plots of most of the others, except The Franchise Affair, and I’ve been thinking it’s time to try those again.

    1. I think some of the detective novels are better, Lisa. What I really found difficult to swallow this time round, to be blunt, was the hypocrisy. She was so definite about Richard having been unfairly treated but completely blind to the fact that she was doing the same thing in respect of Henry. When she’s writing about something where she isn’t so partisan then she’s probably better.

  7. I really have been meaning to reread the Fowler for ages and ages. Maybe it can be one of my exercise books in this coming-up month — I like to read either new nonfiction or else fiction rereads while I’m exercising, so the Fowler would be a solid choice.

    I love your description of gouging your way through a book. I have definitely felt like that before!

    1. It’s a real pain isn’t it, Jenny. It’s at times like that that I appreciate what it must be like not to enjoy reading but be forced to do it at school. Do give the Fowler a second read. I got so much more out of it second time around.

  8. I don’t read much crime fiction and usually don’t pay much attention to reviews of it. But reading through this, the title Talking to the Dead caught at my non-necromantic alarm systems. Perhaps I should explore this series.
    Hooray for the Fowler book! I loved it too.

    1. I think the premise behind the Bingham series would really intrigue you, Jeanne, especially as it is based in an actual illness. Do start at the beginning of the series though.

      1. You were right, Talking to the Dead is a good book. I might read more in this series.
        I’d never heard of Cotard’s Disease before. What a weird place the mind can be.

    1. I think what struck me most, Nicola, was just what a feminist book it was. I loved the fact that all the positive forces in the novel were women- whether they were human or ape.

  9. I think I agree with you about the Flanagan novel. I enjoyed the Josephine Tey although your comments about her lack of even handedness are spot on – I enjoyed the quiet pace of the novel. I agree that the Fowler novel is quite excellent, a very thoughtful and cleverly narrated novel that is hugely readable.

    1. I am comforted by how many other people had problems with the Flanagan novel, Ian because those of us in the group who discussed it who hadn’t enjoyed it were rather sneered at as being beneath it. I just think it is an over-written book.

  10. Too late to wish you a Happy New Year? I also read We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves in 2015 – is was a great audiobook. Not a lot of them make me cry!

  11. Oh, I wept buckets, Alex! Even on the second and third reads. And, like you apparently, I am not a great crier. And it is never too late to wish someone a Happy New Year, which is why I am sending you my best wishes for the next twelve months.

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