Every year around this time, our employees submit their lists of the top 5 books of the year. We're looking forward to releasing those soon (New Year's Day!); some interesting trends emerged this year. In the meantime, please enjoy this preview, highlighting our top fiction picks of 2015.
Beauty Is a Wound
by Eka Kurniawan
A beautiful, stirring, and powerful epic of Indonesian politics and family, Eka Kurniawan's Beauty Is a Wound
is a vibrant tapestry of village life, colonial rule, political independence, and generational drama. Sweeping across decades, Kurniawan's violent, enchanted saga compels on account of its impressive breadth, storytelling verve, and traces of magical realism. Rape, incest, slaughter, massacre, brutality, war, and revenge loom heavily in the story, but Kurniawan tempers these darker elements with humor, rich history, and fantastical occurrences. Beauty Is a Wound
is a lively, vigorous work, offering a gorgeous, at times harrowing, glimpse into Indonesia's tumultuous past.
– Jeremy G.
The Book of Speculation
by Erika Swyler
I was charmed by the Watson family, peopled by an unemployed librarian and a tarot-card-reading circus mermaid. Simon Watson has lost a lot in his young life — his parents, his job, and soon his house will fall over the cliff it is perched atop and land in the sound below. Even with all that, what Simon is racing against is losing his sister, Enola. For years she's been rarely heard from, off traveling with a carnival, but now she's home. Enola is increasingly in a world of her own, constantly fiddling with her mother's tarot cards which are always in her pocket. An antiquarian book delivered to Simon's doorstep may hold the key to his family's strange, and possibly cursed, history, if only he can figure it out in time to help his sister.
– April C.
The Buried Giant
by Kazuo Ishiguro
How can I talk about this book without telling you that, in addition to it being my number one pick for 2015, it also now lives among my top 10 favorite books of all time? The story entails the journeys of an aging couple, two warriors, and Sir Gawain, the chivalrous knight from Arthurian legends. Their fates all meet as they make their way across Britain, at a time when ogres and other mythical creatures were said to still walk among us. We come to learn that what they think they are seeking is not quite what is drawing them, as in most lore, and that memories are really just our own personal mythologies. But it is the telling of the fable that makes it feel very much like a folktale you've been told your whole life, passed down generation after generation. That is the magic of Ishiguro, and why you must read this book.
– Aubrey W.
by Don Winslow
isn't just the best book that I read in 2015... it's also one of the best books I've encountered in the whole of my reading lifetime. This is an epic tragedy, really, spanning decades (set in motion in Winslow's previous book, The Power of the Dog
), that shines a light into every kind of human darkness. What's more, The Cartel
has at its heart a profound, shattering message which lays bare one of the defining issues of our times. This is a brilliant, genre-defying novel that will, if you're anything like me, make you cry.
– Gin E.
Cult of Loretta
by Kevin Maloney
This is one funny — and sometimes disturbing — short novel. Cult of Loretta
combines a likable sad-sack narrative with early '90s Portland grunge-drug culture and the pain of romantic hearts that can't be tamed or understood. I loved all the Portland references throughout, which made it feel like a strangely historical read. If I were to ever make a list of best books set in Portland (especially books that truly capture the oddness of our city), this would be near the top.
– Kevin S.
Did You Ever Have a Family
by Bill Clegg
Bill Clegg is perhaps best known as a literary agent whose memoirs about addiction and recovery captivated readers, but his first novel, Did You Ever Have a Family
, is a spectacular debut. The story of a community's tragedy on what was supposed to be a happy occasion — a wedding — is recounted through the voices of multiple characters. As readers piece together the details of what happened, we also witness their intricate web of connections. Did You Ever Have a Family
demonstrates how a tragedy can ripple through many lives in unexpected ways, and how healing and redemption can be found within those connections.
– Jen C.
The Fall of Princes
by Robert Goolrick
Goolrick's story is a fall from grace told with clear-eyed, gut-wrenching honesty — no pity, no remorse, but sometimes aching with sorrow and self-inflicted rage. This is the story of hard-edged men in '80s suits with their equally buffed and cut arm-candy women dressed in nearly nothing, all playing hard with the kind of ready cash few of us experience. The excesses of The Fall of Princes
make for a brutally fascinating and compelling read.
– Tracey T.
Get in Trouble: Stories
by Kelly Link
Kelly Link is the best short story writer ever. There, I said it. With a jab of surreal, a dash of magic, and so much emotional pull, Get in Trouble
is a book I'd recommend to most anyone.
– Rachel G.
by Gillian Flynn
Anyone who has read Gone Girl
, Dark Places
, or Sharp Objects
knows that Gillian Flynn has a tendency to play cat-and-mouse with her readers. The Grownup
, which originally appeared as "What Do You Do?" in George R. R. Martin's Rogues
anthology, is a must-read for any Flynn fan. This 62-page story really embodies Flynn's unmistakable dark and quirky humor. It's a quick mystery that will hold you until the end.
– Tiffany R.
In the Country
by Mia Alvar
What's it like to be a stranger? This idea is explored in Alvar's excellent debut collection of stories. The characters move to, travel to, and work in Bahrain, the Philippines, New York City, and Boston; sometimes they return home only to find it no less alien. Their isolation and subsequent self-examination is inspected in beautiful and sometimes funny prose; their attempts to build community and make connections told of with sympathy and grace. Through these stories, Alvar lets us glimpse what it means to be transformed by a change in geography.
– Eva F.
A Little Life
by Hanya Yanagihara
While A Little Life
is perhaps the saddest book I've ever read, I was buoyed by the portrayal of the emotional lives of the four main characters. Rarely has friendship between men been more closely examined than the relationships between Willem, Jude, JB, and Malcolm. Yanagihara shows an alternate way of forming family — not through blood or marriage, but through lifelong friendship. In an interview I saw with Hanya Yanagihara, she described herself as "the Dian Fossey of sexually confused middle-aged men." Her close observation has paid off, and given us an incredibly moving, important book.
– Adam P.
A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories
by Lucia Berlin
Lucia Berlin is the greatest short story writer you've never read. Her writing style is conversational and real, yet poetic at the same time. Her protagonists are mostly working-class women who are unlucky in life, and Berlin writes about them with great insight, compassion, and, occasionally, humor. What left me totally gobsmacked, though, was Ms. Berlin's way with language. I found myself rereading sentences just to try and figure out how she managed to so-nimbly dance with her words. Lucia Berlin's stories sit easily with the work of Alice Munro
, Raymond Carver
, and John Cheever
– Sandy M.
The Meursault Investigation
by Kamel Daoud
This thoroughly mesmerizing read is a retelling/reimagining of Camus' The Stranger
, where Mersault, Camus' anti-hero, murders an unnamed Arab merely because the sun gets in his eye. Daoud's debut novel is narrated by the nameless Arab's younger brother. The winner of the Goncourt first novel prize, The Meursault Investigation
is a thorough indictment of colonialism as well as post-colonialism.
– Sheila N.
Our Souls at Night
by Kent Haruf
If you love beautifully spare writing, messy memorable characters, and flawlessly described settings, try this story of loneliness and connection, love and heartbreak. Souls
inspired me to make some dramatic changes in my own life and motivated me to read Haruf's five other exquisite novels.
– Peter N.
People Like You
by Margaret Malone
The stories in Malone's People Like You
are so good — they're only-book-on-a-desert-island good. They are exactly why I read, with their sumptuous minimalism, their gorgeous, particular detail, their delicious deadpan humor, their off-kilter characters. But the main reason I'd keep this book on that island and go without warmth if it were the last piece of available kindling is that underneath all of Malone's delicately honed skill is a voice so true, so absolutely you and me, bearing witness to the traumas, triumphs, and tragedies of all the tiny moments of regular life.
– Gigi L.
by Jonathan Franzen
There's a short list of the best living authors, and Franzen is easily on it. Purity
stands even taller than The Corrections
, and the underrated Strong Motion
. His newest novel gives the reader characters to laugh with and at while also creating excellent and academic conversations about today's society. Purity
is a thick, engrossing, and twisting novel peppered with chilling macabre scenes that ends perfectly. Its beauty and reflection on humanity helped me appreciate living in the United States in 2015.
– Jeff J.
The Story of the Lost Child
by Elena Ferrante
From every book I've pulled from every shelf, I've asked a question: How loudly will you resonate within me? Like a bell
, answers Elena Ferrante. Reading Ferrante (The Story of the Lost Child
is the fourth and final in the Neapolitan series, and, yes, they must be read in order) was like reaching into the coffer of everything I have ever wanted from a writer and finding every piece there. Her novels are not, as some mistakenly think, "books for women" — they are masterpieces for the ages. Like a surgeon, she has dissected humanity and written us down.
– D. Lozano
The Sunlit Night
by Rebecca Dinerstein
This wonderful, quirky novel explores love and loneliness against the backdrop of the Norwegian Sea, 95 miles north of the Arctic Circle. The constant sunlight creates an enchanting environment for the characters to find themselves and form connections with others whose circumstances have brought them to the top of the world.
– Jen H.
The Tsar of Love and Techno: Stories
by Anthony Marra
It's not the first time I've selected a book by Anthony Marra as my top pick of the year. His work always catches my attention and stands apart as some of the most beautiful, intricate, absorbing writing I've experienced. The Tsar of Love and Techno
is no exception. The stories in the book are woven together in a way that reads more like a novel than a short story collection, and there are many surprising connections revealed as you move through the book.
– Kim S.
The Visiting Privilege: New and Collected Stories
by Joy Williams
For proof that Joy Williams is one of the best short fiction writers alive today, turn to any story in The Visiting Privilege
. Her quietly unsettling tales take on a life of their own within a matter of paragraphs, and each is its own beguiling creature, closing in on some unseen prey. This definitive collection, containing stories from three decades of Williams's writing plus 13 new pieces, marvelously showcases her wit, her awe-inspiring prose, and her talent for demonstrating cause and effect in the subtlest of ways.
– Renee P.
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More Best Books of the Year from Powell's: