December 28, 2015

The Year in Books 2015: Best of the Best

The Year in Books 2015

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Other lists coming later this week will feature each individual CCLaP reviewer's personal favorite reads of the year, and of course don't forget that we encourage you not to read too much into numerical scores here in the first place (one person's sci-fi masterpiece is another person's eye-rolling steampunk trainwreck). But if you were to put together a master list combining all the highest scoring books by all of our staff reviewers over the course of 2015, that list would look like the following, arranged alphabetically by title and with each reviewer's initials appearing at the end (KW: Karl Wolff; CS: Chris Schahfer; JP: Jason Pettus).

American Neolithic
American Neolithic
By Terence Hawkins
C&R Press

I must confess, I was expecting little more than Just Another Ho-Hum Academic Novel when this first arrived, penned by the founding director of the Yale Writers' Conference; so imagine my surprise when this turned out to not only be a hauntingly poetic look at a pulpy question straight from speculative genre fiction ("What if neanderthals still existed in our modern world?"), but also a smart alt-history novel about what our nation might look like if the Tea Party wins the next Presidential election. Like the best of Michael Chabon or Rick Moody, this is a blend of genre writing and fine-art literature for those who demand only the best writers in America writing at the top of their game; and in a different age this book would've come out with great fanfare from a place like Random House and won the Pulitzer Prize, not from an obscure small press where it received almost no attention. This IS one of the best books you will read this year, so don't delay in picking up a copy. (JP)

The Argonauts
The Argonauts
By Maggie Nelson
Graywolf Press

People wonder what poststructuralist theory and semiotics have to do with them. Maggie Nelson's got an answer. In this brilliant memoir-study-love letter about her transgender partner, she recounts her experience with a more self-defined model of gender. She also calls out academia as a boy's club, rips into the Christian right, tells the story of her first child's birth, meditates on Greek mythology, and somehow finds the time for plenty of deadpan humor. All of this in one hundred fifty pages. For fear of hyperbole, an incredible achievement. (CS)

Between the World and Me
Between the World and Me
By Ta-Nehisi Coates
Spiegel & Grau

Yeah, I know. It was everyone's favorite book of 2015, the one everyone agreed on, etc. Can you blame me for loving this so much, though? Coates is a guy with a lot to say, both about race and basic human dignity, and his way of saying it is a great combination of eloquent and fiery, not to mention void of easy answers. If that weren't enough for you, the man's brilliant storytelling skills are exemplified in episodes about his high school and college years. One for believers in the David Foster Wallace dictum that great literature should disturb the comforted and comfort the disturbed. (CS)

A Curious Man
A Curious Man
By Neal Thompson
Three Rivers Press

The life and times of Robert "Believe It or Not!" Ripley, a boy from hardscrabble rural California who became a cartoonist. He later spun his cartooning into one of the first multimedia empires. (KW)

Gutshot
Gutshot
By Amelia Gray
FSG Originals

People keep calling Amelia Gray's fiction "creepy," "grotesque," and "full of stories about giant snakes who split towns in half" like it's a bad thing. Yet Amelia's third collection and fourth book overall proves she's got it together, even if her books aren't fun little skips through fields of daisies. Instead, these stories are as bizarre and claustrophobic - and as frequently hilarious - as earlier work like AM/PM, except now her bizarre world is starting to look more and more like a real place. It might be a few years before she follows this one up, but I can't wait for what she plans to do next. (CS)

The Last Bookaneer
The Last Bookaneer
By Matthew Pearl
Penguin Press

Definitely not for everyone -- there are plenty of complaints about this novel online, in fact -- the reason this historical thriller made my particular Best Of The Best list is from the super-fetishistic nature of its subject matter, seemingly perfectly tailored exactly for me; it's set in the world of Victorian "bookaneers," back when copyright laws had just been invented in the US and the UK but before either country recognized the legality of the other's, when a publisher could make a lot of money by swiping a well-known manuscript from the other country before the book had come out there, and romantic "literary pirates" could make a lot of money by being the swipers. A globetrotting tale that takes us from the smoky back alleys of London all the way to Robert Louis Stevenson's jungle mansion in Samoa, on top of everything else this is also a sneakily sly ode to contemporary paper books in an age of Kindles, as well as a pretty convincing argument for why all of us should be collectors of rare first editions. (JP)

Muscle Cars
Muscle Cars
By Stephen G. Eoannou
Santa Fe Writers Project

A wondrous, accessible short story collection focuses on the Greek-American community in upstate New York. It is also a powerful rumination about how men see themselves in this time of perpetual war and drastic social change. (KW)

Pepperpot: Best New Stories from the Caribbean
Pepperpot: Best New Stories from the Caribbean
Peepal Tree Press / Akashic Books

I always love opportunities to read about other cultures that are sometimes far different than my own; and this particular one (a co-branding effort from our pals at Akashic Books) is especially great, because it presents not just a stereotypical sun-drenched, brightly colored cornucopia of happy Caribbean natives like many other region-boostering anthologies might, but goes out of its way to include stories about white collar criminals, suburban middle-class families, and other pieces that show off the incredible diversity of this complex series of islands. If you're looking for a book on Caribbean culture that's not some magical-realism Gabriel Garcia Marquez ripoff, this is the anthology for you. (JP)

The Peripheral
The Peripheral
By William Gibson
G.P. Putnam's Sons / Penguin

The inventor of cyberpunk, who lately has been writing a series of present-day thrillers, returns to science-fiction for the first time in a decade, and the results are hugely entertaining. A dual story that partly takes place thirty years from now, and partly another seventy years after that, Gibson gets to eat his cake here and have it too, turning in a look at such day-after-tomorrow fears as Western fascism, surveillance states, and 3D printing of illegal devices, but also getting to play in his far-future sandbox that he's such a master at, presenting us a series of head-exploding ideas about what a post-apocalyptic, rapidly depopulated and re-greened "living building" London might look like a century from now. Not his most cutting-edge book to be sure, but a great return to form that will keep both old fans and new very happy. (JP)

See You in the Morning
See You in the Morning
By Mairead Case
Featherproof Press

A small press gem for all you small press people. Humble as this book is, it's easily worthy of my number four slot. Coming-of-age stories have been beaten to death, yet Case manages to inject a lot of life into the genre's corpse. Her unnamed narrator passes through a confusing world with a voice that's just the right combination of sweet and confused. It's twee, sure, but whoever had a problem with twee? Likeable characters aren't everything in fiction, but I guarantee you will like this narrator by about the fourth or fifth page. (CS)

Taxidermy Art
Taxidermy Art
By Robert Marbury
Artisan

Marbury, the founder of the Minnesota Association of Rogue Taxidermists, curates a collection of eccentric taxidermy. The art works challenge and question our relationship with death and the animal world, but in a kitschy, glorious, tongue-in-cheek manner. (KW)

Uncertain Justice: The Roberts Court and the Constitution
Uncertain Justice: The Roberts Court and the Constitution
By Laurence Tribe and Joshua Matz
Picador

Arguably one the best primers on the inner workings of the United States Supreme Court. Tribe and Matz team up to succinctly explain the opposing arguments and tricky decisions of the Roberts Court. All the greatest hits are here: gun control, abortion, free speech, healthcare, privacy, and presidential power. The challenge is discovering when both sides have valid arguments for a prickly legal dispute. (KW)

Filed by Jason Pettus at 7:05 AM, December 28, 2015. Filed under: CCLaP news | Chris Schahfer | Karl Wolff | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Literature:Nonfiction | Profiles | Reviews |