Top Reads 2015

If you’ve noticed a lack of reviews recently, please know it’s not from a lack of interest, time or reading, just a temporary technical problem, not yet resolved but should be by mid January.

So, 2015 was a bumper reading year, I surpassed my book a week ambition and actually read 65 books from 26 different countries, a third of what I read was translated from another language, something I seek out in my interest to experience literature and storytelling from within other cultures and not only by those who have access to the English language.

I will create a separate post to talk more about my impressions and attractions of reading outside the main literary cultures and the cultures and landscapes that keep drawing me back for more.

As with previous years, I’ll share my one Outstanding Read and the Top 5 Fiction and Non-Fiction reads, with a few special mentions.

Outstanding Read of 2015

Autobiography MotherThe Autobiography of My Mother by Jamaica Kincaid My first read of the long-established author Jamaica Kincaid (Antigua) and it moved me like no other book had since last years outstanding read, Jennifer Clement’s Prayers for the Stolen.

This is a novel about a young woman growing up without a mother, abandoned for a time by her father and looking back at her life and the thoughts, reactions she had back then, using all the senses.

It is a kind of awakening, a visceral account that is insightful and squeamish both. It was for me too, the beginning of a season of Caribbean reads that were one of the major reading highlights of the year, soon after this I read three books by Maryse Condè (Guadeloupe), Cristina García’s Dreaming in Cuba, Edwidge Danticat’s Breath, Eyes, Memory (Haiti) all of which were 5 star reads.

Top Fiction

Click on the title below to read the review.

1.  The Wall,  Marlen Haushofer a riveting story of one womans survival in the aftermath of a catastrophic event, with only a few animals for companions. A lost classic that was revived years after the death of the writer and one that had me spellbound until the end.

2. The Yellow Rain, Julio Llamazares set in an almost abandoned village in the Spanish Pyrenees, this is a haunting, elegiac account of one man who refused to leave and was witness to the degradation of all that man had contributed as nature reclaimed what was left. Captivating in the way it is written, you will want to slow read it, brief yet unforgettable.

3. Dreaming in Cuban, Cristina Garcia spanning three generations of women from Cuba, told from their differing perspectives, particularly the grandmother who is rooted in her country and culture, it explores separation, identity, the strong bonds of family and the weight of expectation. How these women survive their circumstances. Just brilliant and part of a great collection of literature from the region.

4. Frankenstein, Mary Shelley well it started with listening to the BBC audio broadcasts for learners of English, followed by watching a relayed broadcast of Benedict Cumberbatch in the London National Theatre adaptation, which was brilliant, to finally reading the work itself. I was a little hesitant, old classics aren’t really my thing, but I loved reading Frankenstein and couldn’t help but admire the tremendous achievement of Mary Shelley in creating it. Made all the more fabulous by having seen how it continues to inspire creative direction in the 21st century.

5. The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt, Tracy Farr I didn’t read a lot of newly published works in 2015, but this one was a standout read for me, I was quickly drawn into the world of Lena Gaunt, an Australian theremin player who was born in Asia and had a few life changing experiences from her encounters there, who lived without much parental guidance or supervision, and developed her musical talents amid an eclectic group of artistic friends, had one true love and faced certain tragedy, all of which is brought to life after a recital she gave in her eighties attracted the attentions of a filmmaker. All the more interesting, for it being inspired by a true legend.

Top Non-Fiction

1. Unbowed: Autobiography of Wangari Maathai the truly inspiring story of Kenyan Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai, the work she did, the challenges overcome that gave her a top education and the will to make a real difference, particularly for the lives of women in her country. She empowered others and created enduring projects and movements for all.

2. Under the Sea-Wind, Rachel Carson first in a nature inspired trilogy about the sea and her inhabitants, brought to life in a creative narrative, as seen from the perspective of three sea creatures, part one, the edge of the sea shows the habitat from the point of view of a female sanderling bird, she names Silverbar, part two, the Gulls way, is dedicated to the open sea and navigated by Scomber, the mackerel, and finally part three, river and sea, we follow Anguilla the eel as he travels from his coastal river pool downstream towards the sea and that deep instinctual pull towards the abyss.

3. Tales of the Heart: Stories from my Childhood, Maryse Condé essays, vignettes of childhood, recommended as the place to start in reading the work of this talented and enthralling writer from Guadeloupe. Loved it and was quick to follow-up with Victoire, My Mothers Mother, a book she says is true, though sold as a novel by her publishers due to the tendency of her research subjects to rely on oral stories to pass on their history. Brilliantly told, as she delves into the unknown life of her grandmother to better know and her own mother who died when she was 14.

4. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot (review to come) the background story to the global presence and utilisation of the immortal HeLa human tissue cells, that were discovered to be unique in that they never died, continued to replicate and could be used to do all manner of tests for disease and drugs and how cells respond, something of a revolution for medical science.

HeLa were the initials of the person from whom the samples were taken, as was the procedure at the time. But who was HeLa and what did she or her family have to say about these extraordinary developments thanks to the cells of one woman? Rebecca Skloot spent 10 years researching the life of Henrietta Lacks and the subject of the HeLa cells to bring this extraordinary narrative.

5. Tiny, Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar, Cheryl Strayed these are letters from the columnist Sugar, who it turned out was Cheryl Strayed, author of the book Wild about her solo journey to trek the Pacific West trail in her twenties.

These letters are written when she is in her forties and though still young, has lived multiple lives and had more than her share of extreme and dysfunctional experiences, from which to draw her own brand of wisdom. It’s a pick up at will kind of book, but her confrontational yet compassionate style is refreshing and thought-provoking, her ability to be very clear on her opinion and advice, without being judgmental.

Special Mentions

Outstanding Debut – Our Endless Numbered Days Claire Fuller

Excellent Classic – The Enchanted April, Elizabeth von Arnim

Most Uplifting Read – Antoine Laurain’s The Red Notebook and The President’s Hat

Most Disturbing Read – Agaat by Marlene Van Niekerk

Most Disappointing Read – The Waves , Virginia Woolf

50 thoughts on “Top Reads 2015

    • Thanks Helen, feeling very out of touch, at the library to post this today, no access to twitter and limited access to other things until I replace my laptop asap!

      Frankenstein would not have been the same without the preceding events that lured me in totally to the story and then finally to the work that inspired it all.

      I’m hoping to read more Maryse Condé and Jamaica Kincaid this year, loving literature from this region!

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    • I really liked it too Tom and wrote a review of it on here, the letters I didn’t review, but had to admit I thought they were really excellent and like no other kind of giver of advice, Cheryl Strayed really has a way with words and one hell of a background from which to give advice from. Happy New Year to you!

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  1. A very diverse selection, Claire. Frankenstein is such a classic story – I read it many years ago, and your review was an excellent reminder. Loved the National Theatre adaptation, too – the NT Live initiative is a wonderful thing.

    I’ve included The Enchanted April in my reading list for the Classics Club, and I’m pretty sure it was your review that pointed me towards it, so thank you for that.

    Happy New Year, Claire – wishing you all the best for 2016!

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    • Isn’t it great, the NT Live broadcasts Jacqui, sending great theatre to cities everywhere, that reminds me, I better dust off Hamlet, we have that coming to Aix at the end of this month, another Cumberbatch performance, He turns theatre into something of an Olympic sport with his empassioned performances. Frankenstein a true classic.

      I’m looking forward to your reading The Enchanted April, the first of hers I read was Elizabeth and her German Garden which is also an excellent read, after reading that, so many people mentioned The Enchanted April, I had to read that too, but I recommend the former too, lesser known perhaps but drenched in von Arnim’s particular wit and humour.

      I look forward to reading the reviews of your modern classics, with lots of tempting translated titles there Jacqui.

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    • Thanks Nancy and happy to hear you’re that excellent French classic from 1914, so sad that his literary career was cut short by the war, but great that people are still reading Le Grand Meaulnes. I read it in English but would like to reread it in French now that I’m familiar with the story. I hope you have a great reading year in 2016, I see you have set yourself a grand challenge to read quite a number of books, your language skills are to be admired!

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  2. Well, well, not sure I’ll be able to forgive you for saying The Waves was the most disappointing book…😉 I used to reread it every couple of years or so and know large chunks of it by heart. But perhaps it’s one of those books that you need to read at the right time, in the right frame of mind. I really like the sound of The Yellow Rain and have been meaning to read The Wall for ages, if I can find it.

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    • It’s a knife twist inside for me too reading that The Waves is disappointing! But it’s so interesting hearing how different people react differently to books.🙂

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    • Please you must forgive me! It was just beyond my comprehension, I couldn’t stay within the narrative and didn’t understand at all what I was reading, it was as if it threw me out each time I tried to read, nothing stuck and apart from some great lines about the sea I remained detached from the narrative throughout. I knew that it was one of Eric’s @lonesomereader favourite books and so I was really looking forward to it. So doubly disappointed that I wasn’t able to intellectually access what you and he both have been able to. I was somewhat reassured when another literary reader of note told me she had understood it after taking a Woolf class, I think it’s a title that needs some explanation and guidance, some context. So bravo to you for being able to appreciate its literary merit, I really do you admire that ability, genuinely.

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  3. I love how you’ve outlined your selections Claire and some great choices. I love Jamaica Kincaid. She’s such a strong writer. I forget – have you read Monique Roffey? Her novel House of Ashes published last year was excellent and a fascinating story about a coup on a fictional Caribbean island.

    I’ve not read any of your choices so now I have more for my To-Read list. Although I’m in the middle of The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt at the moment and it is great! So readable.
    Fascinating too to read about your non-fiction choices as I don’t often read it. Ever since seeing the movie ‘Wild’ I’ve wanted to read something by Cheryl Strayed.

    Hope you get your computer issues sorted and that you’ll try commenting on my blog again sometime. Happy new year!

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    • Good to know you are a fan of Jamaica Kincaid Eric. and thanks for the recommendation, no I haven’t heard ofMonique Roffey. I will be looking her up and the book you mention. Lena Gaunt I read near the end of the year, and it really transported me, both her character and her adventurous life, complete with its eccentric passion and surrounded by interesting characters. It had a real sense of place, perhaps because I am familiar with some of the locations she uses, but I could really imagine so much of it, in it’s diversity of places she lived in. I hope it does well in the UK.

      You should read Cheryly Strayed, she writes riveting non-fiction, Wild is an excellent read. I am in the process of getting a new computer so I can be back to normal very soon, definitely been having withdrawal symptoms from not being able to post and comment. Thanks goodness the library is open and has access for members! All the best for 2016, look forward to reading your posts.

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    • Thanks Cathy, it was an interesting year, a lot of reading off my shelf and a foray into Caribbean and African works from within those cultures which I really enjoyed. Cheryl Strayed really has a way with words and on so many diverse topics, she’s great when writing from the heart, I wonder what she’ll be doing next?

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  4. Claire, Frankenstein is truly amazing, isn’t it? What vision and imagination she had. Henrietta Lacks is incredible and has had a huge impact. I haven’t read Enchanted April in ages – have you seen the wonderful movie? And thanks to you I read The Wall this year, which I thought was a masterpiece and hope to write about on the blog this year. You now have me interested in Dreaming in Cuban, especially with the US/Cuban relations opening up – my son has been to Cuba twice and loves it. Lots of great recommendations here, thank you Claire! I love that you read so much in translation, you are my source! Have you seen Three Percent (here in Rochester, NY) and the Read the World Book Clubs? Here is the link: http://www.rochester.edu/College/translation/threepercent/

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    • Frankenstein is truly a masterpiece, Shelley had an incredible wisdom for one so young and a fabulous imagination, the fact it continues to inspire new and fantastic productions proves it. Books Can Save a Life is one of the best sources I know for fabulous narrative non-fiction, I was a little light in my non fiction reads but will be redressing that this year and looking to you Valerie. Thank you too for the three percent link, I wasn’t aware of their podcasts, but will be sure to follow them now!

      I loved Dreaming in Cuban and I am sure you will also appreciate it, it’s complex but but heart rendering, the challenges these women faced and the ways they go about coping and supporting each other. I stumbled across it in the library, but what a find, really. Along with Kincaid and Maryse Condè, they bring something unique to literature.

      I look forward to your review of The Wall too Valerie, that was a recommendation from Vishy, one of his all time favourites, so I knew it was going to be something special.

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    • It was an excellent and insightful read and quite sad that nowhere among all those that benefitted was their room for acknowledgement of the original donation, because her gift was truly an exceptional one. It is a warning to all I guess. And so great her story has now been told and gained such worthy recognition.

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  5. Wonderful list, Claire! So nice to see ‘The Wall’ and ‘Frankenstein’ there. I loved both of them. It is so hard to believe that Mary Shelley was still in her teens when she wrote that book. How did I miss your review of Rachel Carson’s trilogy? I so want to read that! Happy reading in 2016! Hope your computer gets fixed soon. I am looking forward to hearing your thoughts on reading outside the main literary cultures.

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    • Thank you Vishy for recommending The Wall, it was totally my kind of read and I hope more people will pick it up. Yes, Frankenstein seems never to lose its appeal and I love that it was written by a young woman and was such an avant garde work at the time, I am happy to see e more modern renditions of The Creature treating him with greater sensitivity to his awakening and seeing it is man who was as much the monster as his creation.

      You have reminded me I must read the next part in Rachel Carson’s trilogy, you will adore Under the Sea-Wind I am sure. happy Reading Vishy and keep sending me those recommendations!

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    • Lucky you indeed!That must have been amazing. So do you have a favourite(s)? I was stunned by the portrayal in the autobiography of my mother, such a unique and enchanting voice, I can’t believe I stumbled across it at a book sale. I have her latest to read this year, I like her frank approach to a subject and use of her own experience, but then not.

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      • I remember all of her books being pretty special but a couple that still stand out to me now (after four years) is a short story called ‘Girl’ about growing up female in the Caribbean and, surprisingly, her autobiographical travel writing ‘Among Flowers: A Walk in the Himilayas’. I remember having to do a presentation on this latter story and was initially disappointed because I didn’t think I would like it but it surprised me. I don’t have her latest novel, to be honest I didn’t even know one had come out! Again, that will go on my wishlist!

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  6. Great selection, I’ve been seeing “The Yellow Rain” in a few places now and it does look like a wonderful book. Happy 2016!

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  7. Well, Claire, I just added every one of your favourite fiction reads (and a few of the others) to my to-read shelf. The Wall and The Yellow Rain sound particularly good to me. I also have the Enchanted April on order – it was recommended to me by a friend a few weeks ago, and since then I have seen it on 2 best-of-the-year lists.
    I really hope I get a chance to read some of these books soon. I love that you read from so many different countries. It’s kind of the opposite of what I’m doing, which is maybe why I admire it so much. I might have to add a new project to my blog eventually…

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    • Thank you Naomi, that’s high praise indeed, I do admire and enjoy your reviews of Canadian works, I have Lisa Moore’s February on my list and perhaps will read another one by Kim Thúy ( in French) this year as well. I do enjoy reading across cultures and languages, it seems there is so much we miss out on, and there is so much to appreciate and learn from by reading outside our usual literary culture. But then sometimes we have to return and immerse ourselves in that too, I know I neglect literature from my own birth country, but I am sure there are many others out there promoting it.🙂

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    • I remember your review last year Ali and was delighted to discover you were such a fan and that someone else was reading Frankenstein the same year as I was. I also have in my sights this year her mother Mary Wollstonecraft’s classic A Vindication of the Rights of Women. Quite a family, even though they were so struck by tragedy.

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    • Great choices, The Enchanted April is such a readable classic and set in such a beautiful location too. her other book Elizabeth and Her German Garden is also a great read. Henrietta Lacks is a must read for so many reasons, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. happy Reading!

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  8. I love that you go so far out of your way to seek works translated into English! It definitely increases the diversity of your reading choices and I appreciate learning about works I would never have encountered! I can’t wait to see what you have to say about The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, I read it so long ago but hearing Skloot talk this past year reminded me of how great it was.

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    • Thanks Geoff, I’ve really become quite attached to reading books from other cultures, whether they are translated or in English, the latter tend to be immigrant stories, as someone from another country who can write in English has often made such a transition, but it’s great to have access to storytelling and narrative from within the original culture.

      Henrietta Lacks was incredible and I’ll be putting my review up soon, I have quite a back log not having had computer access since mid Dec.

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  9. I’m planning on listening to the audiobook of Our Endless Numbered Days. Kincaid’s The Autobiography of Mother is also on my TBR for this year. I’m also interested in Dreaming in Cuban. Glad you got to Skloot’s novel. That book brought out so many emotions in me. And Agaat has been on my TBR now for 4 years! Quelle honte! I should have read it by now. The nudge from this post is taken. Yo’ve as usual read some extraordinary books Claire. Thanks for lengthen my TBR with good books.🙂

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    • That will be interesting, to listen to Our Endless Numbered Days on audio, I wonder if it will include the piano piece that is such a feature of the book, and silent to the ears of readers. It’s just come out in paperback and one of the Penguin versions has a quote from Word by Word on the back cover. Chuffed!

      I can’t wait for you to read Kincaid’s book, it’s every different to her essays, it’s so original, it’s almost theatrical, it would make a great stage adaptation actually. A one woman solo piece. Oh you have some great books to come, Dreaming in Cuban is great, read them near each other and Edwidge Danticat’s too. I just finished Brother, I’m Dying, so good, it will be a favourite this year I am sure.

      Henrietta Lacks is great and Agaat is so thought provoking, I think I’m still suffering from not being able to articulate what so disturbed me about it. We must have a chat about it once you’ve read it. Happy Reading Didi!

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      • Wow a quote from you on the back cover! Cool! I’m definitely going to have to listen to it now. Yes Agaat has been on my shelf for 3 years and I hate to admit putting it off that long. Deep down inside I know it’s going to be brilliant. Will definitely make sure I read it. Well done Claire!😀

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  10. I’m determined to read everything Elizabeth von Arnim ever wrote. have you read The Pastor’s Wife or Elizabeth and her German Garden? They’re amazing. Happy New Year!

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    • She has a unique and entertaining voice definitely, I came across her when a friend gave me Elizabeth and Her German Garden, which I have reviewed on here. I also have A Solitary Summere which is a follow up slim title to that novel, still to read, saving it for summer. I shall have to check out The Pastor’s Wife!

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  11. Pingback: The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt by Tracy Farr |

  12. Pingback: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot |

  13. Pingback: Brother, I’m Dying by Edwidge Danticat – Word by Word

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