The 100 best books of 2015

by The Listener / 12 November, 2015
With Christmas and summer holidays looming, here’s a shopping list of the year’s best reading compiled by Mark Broatch and the Listener team.
NZ Listener


Fiction


PURITY by Jonathan Franzen (Fourth Estate)

Large, sprawling, sometimes quite silly, full of shamelessly self-promoting references to Dickens, energetic, and redeemed by interesting ideas, particularly about the internet.

A SPOOL OF BLUE THREAD by Anne Tyler (Vintage)

Gently amusing, often touching novel about several generations of the Whitshank family, set, as always, in Baltimore. Tyler has announced that this one, Booker-shortlisted, is her final fiction work.

THE STORY OF THE LOST CHILD by Elena Ferrante (Text)

The last in the anonymous author’s Neapolitan quartet, it’s ­enthralling, disturbing, startlingly honest and a justly acclaimed tour de force.

SWEET CARESS by William Boyd (Bloomsbury)

The saga of photo­grapher Amory Clay as she makes her way through the tumult of the 20th century. As with all Boyd’s novels, the characters leap out at you.

THE DIVER’S CLOTHES LIE EMPTY by Vendela Vida (Allen & Unwin)

A traumatised woman is travelling alone in Morocco. The second-person narrative shunts the reader into her paranoias and past betrayals.

STATION ELEVEN by Emily St John Mandel (Picador)

Subtle, richly detailed and atmospheric novel about a travelling Shakespeare troupe after a viral apocalypse.

THE MOUNTAIN CAN WAIT by Sarah Leipciger (Tinder Press)

Startling debut tale, set in British Columbian forest lands, of family frailty, with earthy characters so strong you can almost smell them on the page.

THE BLUE GUITAR by John Banville (Viking)

A past-it painter ponders an affair in this, the master prose stylist’s engrossing and often moving 16th novel.

THE ANTIPODEANS by Greg McGee (Upstart Press)

Focusing on the experiences of two Kiwi soldiers in Italy during World War II, it’s a powerful and immersive novel that’s part love story, part adventure and part family mystery.

STARLIGHT PENINSULA by Charlotte Grimshaw (Penguin Random House)

A fat internet pirate fighting extra­dition, a TV journo with marvellous suits, a PM in denial – Eloise Hay’s not-quite-New Zealand is a thoughtful conversation about the idea of truth.

THE PARTY LINE by Sue Orr (Penguin Random House)

Dark, evocative and totally gripping novel, set in a 1970s New Zealand farming community, which examines the fallout after an outspoken girl forces the community to confront unpalatable truths.

THE INVISIBLE MILE by David Coventry (VUP)

Beautifully and brutally poetic local first novel is a re-imagining of a Tour de France in the 1920s that becomes a reflection on the effects of war and identity.

10:04 by Ben Lerner (Granta)

Metafictional novel from the solipsistic, anxious, erudite and very funny young Brooklyn author who brought us Leaving the Atocha Station.

CHAPPY by Patricia Grace (Penguin Random House)

The first novel from Grace in a decade deals, subtly and beautifully, with the big issues – identity, love, war, poverty, women’s rights.

THE FISHERMEN by Chigozie Obioma (Scribe)

Shortlisted for the Man Booker, this novel is sharp with vibrancy and ripples with foreboding. The elemental life of Africa is as vivid and freshly masculine as the young boys who inhabit it.

ARCADIA by Iain Pears (Faber & Faber)

A twisted, circular, do-your-head-in time-travelling narrative – it’s a book and app – concerning utopias, parallel universes and storytelling itself.

UNDER MAJORDOMO MINOR by Patrick deWitt (Granta)

A compellingly dark and twisted fairy tale for grown-ups, heavy on atmosphere and eccentricity, in beautifully underwritten prose.

SATIN ISLAND by Tom McCarthy (Jonathan Cape)

This Booker-­shortlisted novel is a fizzing barrage of ideas, but ultimately an invigorating blast of fresh air and a rewarding, singular work of fiction.

SLADE HOUSE by David Mitchell (Sceptre)

Inspired by his own Twitter-­serialised short story, Mitchell brings his distinctive approach, ingeniously and chillingly, to the haunted-house tale.

THE GREEN ROAD by Anne Enright (Jonathan Cape)

Enright’s story of a mother inviting her children home to Ireland’s west coast for one last Christmas before she sells, is full of vibrant individuals in a family who struggle to connect.

THE CHIMES by Anna Smaill (Sceptre)

Deeply original novel set in a future London in which people communicate by way of music. World-building at its best.

A LITTLE LIFE by Hanya Yanagihara (Picador)

Dark, mysterious, painful, sprawling but superbly told, this Booker-shortlisted novel explores the deep friendships of four diverse young men establishing themselves in New York.

FLOOD OF FIRE by Amitav Ghosh (John Murray)

Stunning finale of Ghosh’s Opium Wars trilogy.  A blazing celebration of history and the sublime power of language.

THE ILLUMINATIONS by Andrew O’Hagan (Faber & Faber)

Scottish novelist pulls off the impossible: twinning the war in Afghanistan with an old folks’ home, and making both fascinating and revealing.

GRIEF IS THE THING WITH FEATHERS by Max Porter (Faber & Faber)

Brief yet poignant, funny and poetic debut from the UK editor of The Luminaries about how memories heal the pain of grief.

THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN by Paula Hawkins (Doubleday)

Atmospheric look at an everyday situation that develops into much more. Moody and unique, and about to be made into a big-name film.

LUCKIEST GIRL ALIVE by Jessica Knoll (Macmillan)

Like an anthropological study of New York’s social scene in novel form. Clever, cynical and unsettling.

A GOD IN RUINS by Kate Atkinson (Doubleday)

A vivid ­depiction of the adaptive psychology required to stay sane as a fighter pilot in WWII, with a devastating twist.

OUTLINE by Rachel Cusk (Vintage)

Cusk has created a protagonist without affect, a writing teacher travelling to Athens to teach. The cold distance in this novel is compelling, enigmatic and intriguing.

FATES AND FURIES by Lauren Groff (William Heinemann)

“Marriage is made of lies. Kind ones, mostly.” A relationship over two decades, seen from both sides, radically different. It’s brilliantly plotted and written and has real intellectual weight.

SEVENEVES by Neal Stephenson (William Morrow)

“The moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason.” A truly epic sci-fi novel of the biggest ideas from the writer of Snow Crash.

TSAR OF LOVE AND TECHNO: STORIES by Anthony Marra (Hogarth)

Scintillating collection of linked short stories that reveal what it’s like to live inside a communist and post-communist Russia. Tragic, funny, heart­warming characters.

THE MEURSAULT INVESTIGATION by Kamel Daoud (Oneworld)

The Algerian journalist and writer has produced a brilliant, provocative debut novel in response to Camus’s The Outsider.

HONEYDEW by Edith Pearlman (John Murray)

One of the world’s great short story writers has, at 79, produced another collection of dazzling, intricate tales.

Crime & Thrillers


TRUST NO ONE by Paul Cleave (Upstart Press)

Outstanding psychological thriller about a crime writer with early onset Alzheimer’s who may be a killer. Great plot and dry, dark humour.

INSIDE THE BLACK HORSE by Ray Berard (Mary Egan Publishing)

Local crime debut that delves into contemporary rural New Zealand. Great characters, good action and some nice prose.

AMERICAN BLOOD by Ben Sanders (Allen & Unwin)

The young Aucklander’s first novel set abroad. It’s easy to see why Hollywood snapped up the incomplete manuscript. Tense and gritty, lean prose, wry humour.

THE FIXER by John Daniell (Upstart Press)

Rare fictional foray into the sports world that works. Daniell seems to find that sweet spot between blokishness and insight that Barry Crump mined so well.

DRY BONES IN THE VALLEY by Tom Bouman (Faber & Faber)

Lean and spare rural noir from an excellent new voice that might be edging himself towards James Lee Burke and John Hart territory, in terms of beautifully written crime fiction.

LET ME DIE IN HIS FOOTSTEPS by Lori Roy (Text)

About as Southern and as gothic as Southern gothic can get – super­stition, ignorance and violence in backwoods Kentucky. Excellent writing makes it scarily believable.

LEONA: THE DIE IS CAST by Jenny Rogneby (Echo)

Swedish detective Leona takes unusual steps when she decides she needs to be authentic, to build the life she really wants. Original and beauti­fully plotted.

TIGHTROPE by Simon Mawer (Little, Brown)

Superb psychological portrait of a female spy who parachutes into France to help the Resistance, and her struggles to return to civilian life.

THE KIND WORTH KILLING by Peter Swanson (Faber)

The beautiful Lily offers to help Ted terminate his cheating wife but alas they are not the only ones plotting a murder. Elegantly plotted, with lovely writing.

THE CARTEL by Don Winslow (William Heinemann)

The sequel to The Power of the Dog is another gritty and powerful story of the drug war in Mexico. Terrifying in parts and horrific in others.

THE WHITE VAN by Patrick Hoffman (Grove)

A remarkable assembly of messed-up people with messed-up ideas, from Russian mobsters to a drugged-out young woman and a desperate cop. Hugely entertaining.

History & War


ARDENNES 1944: HITLER’S LAST GAMBLE by Antony Beevor (Viking)

Action-filled, closely informed account from the war master of Hitler’s final vicious and lethal attempt to counterattack and split the Allies.

KL: A HISTORY OF THE NAZI CONCENTRATION CAMPS by Nikolaus Wachsmann (Little, Brown)

Magisterial investigation of how the Nazis used their network of concentration camps as a brutal system of repression, and a searing insight into what life was like for prisoners.

CITIZENS OF LONDON: THE AMERICANS WHO STOOD WITH BRITAIN IN ITS DARKEST, FINEST HOUR by Lynne Olson (Scribe)

Absorbing account of how three ­celebrated, colourful Americans, including newsman Ed Murrow, helped cement the US-UK alliance.

THE OTTOMAN DEFENCE AGAINST THE ANZAC ­LANDING: 25 APRIL 1915 by Mesut Uyar (Big Sky Publishing)

Sydney-based Turkish military historian cuts through 100 years of Anglo-centric ignorance and myth to show how the Ottoman Army repelled the Anzac landing.

KUPAPA: THE BITTER LEGACY OF MAORI ALLIANCES WITH THE CROWN by Ron Crosby (Penguin Random House)

A landmark examination of the traumatic collision between two cultures and its enduring effects.

AT THE MARGIN OF EMPIRE: JOHN WEBSTER AND HOKIANGA, 1841-1900 by Jennifer Ashton (AUP)

Fascinating bio­graphy of Scotsman John Webster, who arrived in New Zealand in 1841 and became a leading figure in the Northland timber industry.

THE VILLA AT THE EDGE OF THE EMPIRE by Fiona Farrell (Penguin Random House)

White-hot with anger, but controlled in its argument, the best book so far to come out of the Canterbury earthquakes.

ENTANGLEMENTS OF EMPIRE by Tony Ballantyne (Duke University Press)

For those who think the last word has been said on early Maori-Pakeha relations, a precise, argumentative and game-changing book.

OUTCASTS OF THE GODS? THE STRUGGLE OVER SLAVERY IN MAORI NEW ZEALAND by Hazel Petrie (AUP)

Insightful and comprehensive exploration of a fascinating and controversial topic.

CALLS TO ARMS by Steven Loveridge (VUP)

Step by step, a young historian strips away the nationalist Kiwi myth and reminds us how enthusiastic most New Zealanders were for Britain’s cause when the Great War was actually being fought.

THE SECRET WAR: SPIES, CODES AND GUERRILLAS 1939-1945 by Max Hastings (William Collins)

Highly readable, authoritative, finely written tale of WWII’s spies, boffins and secret fighters, from Alan Turing to the Resistance, intelligence agencies to partisans.

THE TEARS OF THE RAJAS: MUTINY, MONEY AND MARRIAGE IN INDIA 1805-1905 by Ferdinand Mount (Simon & Schuster)

Fascinating, intelligent and even-handed history of a century of the British in India through the eyes of one Scottish family, Mount’s own.

DYNASTY: THE RISE AND FALL OF THE HOUSE OF CAESAR by Tom Holland (Little, Brown)

Masterful, accessible account of the tyrannical deeds of the Roman emperors Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero.

Life stories


FRANCIS BACON IN YOUR BLOOD by Michael Peppiatt (Bloomsbury)

Irresistible, insightful account of the sometimes tortured friendship between the writer and the brilliant, difficult artist 30 years his senior.

MAURICE GEE: LIFE AND WORK by Rachel Barrowman (VUP)

Masterful, meticulous melding of fact and narrative about one of our best storytellers and a champion chronicler of marriage and mortality.

ON THE MOVE: A LIFE by Oliver Sacks (Picador)

The world’s most famous neurologist’s early memoir, Uncle Tungsten, was much praised, and here Sacks, who died in August, honestly and humorously recounts his life’s passions, cerebral and physical.

KISSINGER: 1923-1968: THE IDEALIST by Niall Ferguson (Allen Lane)

Idealist or something less noble? The contrarian historian gains access to Henry Kissinger’s private papers and other archives in this first volume of a project that promises to reassess the man and his deeds.

GOEBBELS by Peter Longerich (Bodley Head)

Thorough, exhaustive portrayal of Hitler’s mad and horribly intelligent propaganda minister.

THE COMPLETE WORKS OF PRIMO LEVI (Penguin Classics)

Out next February here, but already released to the rest of the world for £78, more than 3000 pages from the chemist, writer and Holocaust survivor.

MARGARET THATCHER: THE AUTHORISED BIOGRAPHY, VOLUME TWO: EVERYTHING SHE WANTS by Charles Moore (Allen Lane)

Written by an admirer, but this middle volume of the trilogy is fascinating – deep, wide and rigorous.

BLOOMSBURY’S OUTSIDER: A LIFE OF DAVID GARNETT by Sarah Knights (Bloomsbury)

Entertaining biography that leaves the reader incredulous: even by Bloomsbury standards, “Bunny” Garnett’s ever-unfolding love life was astounding.

DANCING IN THE DARK by Karl Ove Knausgaard (Vintage)

The fourth in his My Struggle series. Like its hero Karl Ove, it’s funny, crass and touching, veering wildly between clumsy and deft, but also exuberant and authentic.

THE ART OF MEMOIR by Mary Karr (Harper)

The author of The Liars’ Club brilliantly and wittily analyses some of the finest autobio­graphical writers from Nabokov to Cheryl Strayed.

M TRAIN by Patti Smith (Allen & Unwin)

Sequel of sorts to singer’s award-­winning Just Kids largely sidesteps music, celebrity and boho diva-hood to deliver affecting ruminations on quotidian life and the joys of literature.

STALIN’S DAUGHTER: THE EXTRAORDINARY AND TUMULTUOUS LIFE OF SVETLANA ALLILUYEVA by Rosemary Sullivan (Fourth Estate)

Skilful tale of Svetlana’s shock defection to the West in 1967, and her subsequent unsettled and unhappy life.

IN LOVE AND WAR: NURSING HEROES by Liz Byrski (Fremantle Press)

Unusual melding of memoir and history centred on the burnt pilots treated by New Zealander Archibald McIndoe and the nurses who cared for them.

ANOTHER LITTLE PIECE OF MY HEART: MY LIFE OF ROCK AND REVOLUTION IN THE ‘60s by Richard Goldstein (Bloomsbury)

The pioneering pop critic survived the whirl of sex, drugs and rock music to create a vibrant memoir of a revolutionary time for sexuality, class, race and love.

Society, Art & Literature


PACIFIC by Simon Winchester (William Collins)

The author of Atlantic switches to our part of the world, taking snapshots in the history of the ocean and the countries around it (though we’re sailed by fairly briskly).

1606: WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE AND THE YEAR OF LEAR by James Shapiro (Faber & Faber)

The American scholar who brought us the award-winning 1599 explores how plague and the Gunpowder Plot formed the background to Shakespeare’s production of three brilliant plays, including King Lear.

SO YOU’VE BEEN PUBLICLY SHAMED by Jon Ronson (Picador)

Ronson’s humorous but disturbing investigation of social shaming, mob behaviour made so simple, instant and overwhelming by the power of social media.

WHERE I’M READING FROM: THE CHANGING WORLD OF BOOKS by Tim Parks (Vintage)

This collection of essays, out in paperback next year, is the novelist and translator’s attempt – reading, writing, translation, “global novels” – to get beneath and beyond language and literature.

KEEPING AN EYE OPEN: ESSAYS ON ART by Julian Barnes (Jonathan Cape)

Fully illustrated collection of the novelist’s pieces on art over recent decades – mostly French paintings – that’s nuanced, thoughtful and of course readable.

SIX CAPITALS: THE REVOLUTION CAPITALISM HAS TO HAVE – OR CAN ACCOUNTANTS SAVE THE PLANET? by Jane Gleeson-White (Allen & Unwin)

Makes a compelling case as to why and how global capitalism needs to change to better reflect the social and environmental effects of business.

THE HAPPINESS INDUSTRY: HOW THE GOVERNMENT AND BIG BUSINESS SOLD US WELL-BEING by William Davies (Verso)

In which the political scientist cogently argues that our obsession with happiness may have more to do with the interests of governments and organisations than people’s needs.

REAL MODERN: EVERYDAY NEW ZEALAND IN THE 1950S AND 1960S by Bronwyn Labrum (Te Papa Press)

What did New Zealand life used to be like? Through hundreds of photos we get a real sense – a time that’s simpler with less choice but that also has a vibrancy and is on the verge of great change.

NEW ZEALAND PHOTOGRAPHY COLLECTED by Athol McCredie (Te Papa Press)

McCredie, a curator at Te Papa, has created a vivid portrait of our country by carefully and skilfully drawing together more than 300 images from the national collection.

PHOTOGRAPH by Ringo Starr (Genesis Publications)

Ringo always had a camera in his hand and this is a collection of his photos through the halcyon days of the Beatles. Lavish production and design.

LATEST READINGS by Clive James (Yale University Press)

He might be slower and acutely aware of his mortality, but James hasn’t lost his perspicacity or humour in this new collection of criticism.

THE NEAREST THING TO LIFE by James Wood (Jonathan Cape)

Small but precisely formed collection of autobiographically tinged essays by the US-based English critic that argues the vital connections literature makes with life.

RED NOTICE: HOW I BECAME PUTIN’S NO 1 ENEMY by Bill Browder (Bantam)

Gripping, brutal true-life account of Browder’s life as a trader in Russia but also an amazing story of why so many oligarchs have emerged from that country.

HUMANS OF NEW YORK STORIES by Brandon Stanton (Macmillan)

Facebook legend that’s been transferred to hard copy. The same sad, tragic, humorous and touching photos now come with backstories.

Science & Nature


ADVENTURES IN HUMAN BEING by Gavin Francis (Profile)

Fascinating top-to-toe exploration of the body by a GP, who is one of those rare individuals: someone who can write about the scientific world and make it both erudite and accessible.

10% HUMAN by Alanna Collen (William Collins)

Collen argues convincingly that our enthusiasm for killing human bacteria is playing a leading role in ailments ranging from immune problems and ­obesity to autism.

ON IMMUNITY: AN INOCULATION by Eula Biss (Text Publishing)

When the writer became a mother, she began to investigate immunisation and found among many parents an ecology of fear and misunderstanding of risk.

RUST: THE LONGEST WAR by Jonathan Waldman (Simon & Schuster)

Exhaustive but highly readable account of how engineers and scientists are engaged in the multibillion-dollar fight to save our bridges, ships and icons such as the Statue of Liberty.

IT’S ALL IN YOUR HEAD by Suzanne O’Sullivan (Chatto and Windus)

Neurologist O’Sullivan shows that although psychogenic maladies may be imaginary, to their many sufferers they are real, and demand a holistic attitude from medicine and society.

THE VITAL QUESTION by Nick Lane (Profile)

The evolutionary biochemist gets as close as science can to an explanation of why life on Earth is the way it is, but be warned: there’s plenty of crunchy cogitation required.

HOW TO CLONE A MAMMOTH by Beth Shapiro (Princeton University Press)

Should we, if we could, bring mammoths, moa or dinosaurs back? Evolutionary molecular biologist Shapiro elegantly probes the practical and ethical problems of cloning long-dead animals.

THE GLASS CAGE: WHERE AUTOMATION IS TAKING US by Nicholas Carr (WW Norton)

The Pulitzer Prize nominee’s compelling account of how we are ceding control to technology and reducing our ability to remember and solve problems.

TERRAIN by Geoff Chapple (Penguin Random House)

The journalist and author exposes the dark, dislocated underbelly of New Zealand’s geological landscape.

THE FISHES OF NEW ZEALAND edited by Clive Roberts, Carl Struthers and Andrew Stewart (Te Papa Press)

Handsome, comprehensive, richly illustrated bible of the 1250-plus local varieties for the deep-pocketed ($250) fish-obsessives among us.

NEUROTRIBES: THE LEGACY OF AUTISM AND HOW TO THINK SMARTER ABOUT PEOPLE WHO THINK DIFFERENTLY by Steve Silberman (Allen & Unwin)

The first science book to take out the famed Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction is a scholarly yet accessible and humane argument for normalising differently wired brains.

THE FOUR-DIMENSIONAL HUMAN: WAYS OF BEING IN THE DIGITAL WORLD by Laurence Scott (William Heinemann)

A perceptive and lucid account of how instant, always-on digital technology is changing our brains and perceptions.

THE COPERNICUS COMPLEX: OUR COSMIC SIGNIFICANCE IN A UNIVERSE OF PLANETS AND PROBABILITIES by Caleb Scharf (Scientific American)

The astrophysicist and astrobiologist explores in clear language nothing less than our place and specialness in the universe.

THE PLANET REMADE: HOW GEOENGINEERING COULD CHANGE THE WORLD by Oliver Morton (Granta)

Is a hotter planet inevitable? Or can humans intervene in the biosphere? Science writer Morton calmly explores various geoengineering proposals, risks and possible rewards.

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