The 30 Best Fiction Books of 2015

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The 30 Best Fiction Books of 2015

Choosing the “best” books of the year is a dangerous game to play. This year, we were faced with the task of pitting Robert Brockway’s punk rock sci-fi tale The Unnoticeables against massive literary tomes like Garth Risk Hallberg’s ultra-hyped City on Fire. Solidifying this year’s list was like apples and oranges on steroids. So why do we even bother?

The short answer is that we simply love celebrating good books. And while “good” is relative, we believe the following titles will captivate you. Alexandra Kleeman’s You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine might’ve kept us awake at night, but the redemptive qualities of Stephanie Kallos’ Language Arts soothed us. This year’s stories might be all over the map, but they have one thing in common: they’re worth sharing.

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30. The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah


France, 1939. It would be understandable if you took one look at the setting and groaned, believing The Nightingale to be simply another story in the ever-growing line of World War II novels. But Kristin Hannah’s tale of two sisters living in Nazi-occupied France is no ordinary book. Through Vianne and Isabelle, Hannah highlights the experiences of women fighting the war in their own backyards, exposing the sacrifices and indignities endured to survive. So yes, The Nightingale is a WWII story…and it’s a story worth treasuring. —Frannie Jackson

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29. A Poet of the Invisible World by Michael Golding


Remember how crazy everyone was about Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist? Michael Golding may well be the new reigning champ when it comes to the spiritual self-discovery narrative. A Poet of the Invisible World tells the tale of Nouri, a boy born with four ears and a magnetic draw for bad luck, as he explores mystical religion, hedonism, love and poetry in a quest to satisfy his longings. Golding’s prose is remarkably fluid and soothing, possessing a storytelling quality which makes the novel read like a myth that’s been around for years. Regardless, we’re fortunate that we have it now. —Mack Hayden

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28. Morte by Robert Repino


Morte introduces readers to the war to end all wars in the form of animals rising up to fight humans, thanks to hyper-intelligent ants that have decided to eradicate mankind from the planet. In the midst of it all is Morte, a house cat turned assassin who only wants to find his former best friend, a dog from his life before animals gained sentience. Like Animal Farm on a global scale, Morte weaves a moving and beautiful story—complete with a blend of thrills and horror. It’s unlike anything you’ve ever read, and you’ll talk about it long after you’ve closed its cover. —Eric Smith

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27. Golden State by Stephanie Kegan


“I was never interested in getting inside the mind of a killer,” Stephanie Kegan told Paste. “I wanted to live in his sister’s head.” Kegan unravels protagonist Natalie’s charmed life when a bomber’s manifesto reads like a letter from the character’s estranged brother. Torn between protecting her family and sparing future victims, Natalie spirals down the rabbit hole of guilt-by-association. Golden State delivers a minefield; one misstep and the story will explode. But Kegan walks the line between sanity and chaos, writing a tale with a flawless conclusion. —Frannie Jackson

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26. Trigger Warning by Neil Gaiman


The Neil Gaimans of the past and the present coexist in Trigger Warning, a compendium of odds-and-ends stories and an original entry into the American Gods mythos. Much as he did during his post-modern residency at Vertigo comics, Gaiman shifts his lens on old fairy tales, most prominently in “Observing Formalities” and “The Sleeper and the Spindle”—gorgeous retellings of “Sleeping Beauty” that fit firmly in the legacy of the author’s recent Hansel & Gretel retelling. Though this collection may revel in the elasticity and expansion of its author, the crucial things remain: these stories patiently escort us to foreign, intoxicating planes that make the “real” world that much richer when we return. —Sean Edgar

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25. Golden Son by Pierce Brown


Red Rising, Pierce Brown’s sci-fi epic of 2014, introduced readers to an interstellar caste system made of nightmares. From the all-powerful Golds who rule over the universe to the lowly Reds who toil beneath the Martian surface, everyone is born into a specific role in society. When Darrow discovers the horrifying truths behind his existence as a Red, he joins a plot to tear down the Golds’ rule. Golden Son picks up with Darrow continuing to infiltrate the world of the Golds in a story both violent and imaginative, possessing twists and turns and betrayals in practically every chapter. —Eric Smith

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24. Girl at War by Sara Novi?


One of this year’s most discussed debuts comes from Sara Novi?, a former fiction editor at Blunderbuss Magazine who has documented the subject of war and its effect on children. With those contributions considered, it makes sense that Girl at War serves as a long-form meditation on the genre. The novel follows Ana Juri?, a 10-year-old girl surviving in the midst of the Yugoslav Wars. What makes young Ana’s story unique is that it’s not concerned with unmasking the horrors of war, as many have repeatedly done. Instead, this book is an exploration of how humans grow, prosper and move on from unthinkable times. —Tyler R. Kane

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23. The Rocks by Peter Nichols


Unfolding backwards in time, from 2005 to 1948, Peter Nichols’ The Rocks examines how a single mistake can reverberate across decades, highlighting the lives of characters who inhabit or regularly visit the Mediterranean island of Mallorca. Nichols is vivid in relating Mallorca’s exotic magnetism, with its olive and lemon groves, bougainvillea, sunshine and sea making for a “Cézanney landscape.” But the greatest strength of The Rocks is the novel’s spectacular characters, true to themselves in both faults and strengths across lifetimes. —Eric Swedlund

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22. Seveneves by Neal Stephenson


Bestselling author Neal Stephenson returns with a thrilling answer to the question, “What would happen if the world were ending?” With Earth on the brink of catastrophe, humanity ensures its survival by embarking to outer space. Five thousand years later, its descendants attempt to return to the alien planet humankind once called home. Stephenson expertly weaves science and philosophy, technology and psychology into a stunning saga that pushes the boundaries of its science fiction label. At nearly 900 pages, Seveneves ultimately delivers an epic journey well-worth taking. —Frannie Jackson

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21. The Unnoticeables by Robert Brockway


This is both a horror novel for mathematicians and a sci-fi novel for punk-rockers. Scary celestial beings—think angels, only more demonic—watch our every move, meticulously picking out the repeating patterns of our day-to-day existence. They see our lives as math problems waiting to be solved, always keen to simplify these patterns and remove any redundancy. In this first installment of a planned trilogy, Robert Brockway (whom some of you will likely recognize from has rendered two distinct main characters who can evade indoctrination by these “angels.” The characters are trapped in a race against time, because the angels believe a grand machine is moving the universe onward—and it needs constant maintenance. —Jeff Milo

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20. Paradise City by Elizabeth Day


London has a way of carving out its own space in any story set in the city, transforming itself into an additional character. But in Elizabeth Day’s Paradise City, London’s atmospheric quality is deployed with such subtlety that the novel feels both unique to the metropolis and refreshingly universal. At the book’s core rests four characters’ stories, bridging the gap of age, race and socioeconomic status. Defined by their sense of unbelonging and their desire to prove themselves, the characters deliver a moving portrait of the insecurities that define the human experience. By turns funny and shocking, Paradise City is a novel of and for our time. —Bridey Heing

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19. Submission by Michel Houellebecq


Bestselling (and highly controversial) French author Michel Houellebecq’s latest novel delivers a nihilistically driven narrative featuring the academic, misogynistic François. The character, who has made a living studying and teaching the 19th-century author J.K Huysmans, spends an enormous amount of time exploring the ideas and practices of sex. Somehow, and this owes to his craft, Houellebecq interweaves the desires of the flesh with a democratic transformation of France into an Islamic country in 2022. And while this theme is timely, and even nuanced in the prose, the real conflict of the novel is the classic French search for meaning. Submission reveals a complex, engaging story that makes a mess of the comfortable. —Mark Eleveld

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18. Suitcase City by Sterling Watson


Suitcase City packs all of the elements of gripping noir: a relatable anti-hero with an inescapable past; a twisted nemesis who worms his way into the anti-hero’s head at a slow but insistent pace; a seedy, squalid setting with its darkest corners painted in carefully meted detail; and genuine, aching loss. When ex-football star James Teach is forced to confront his criminal past through the vengeful ministrations of his ex-partner in crime, the events unfold with menacing inevitability. Between the novel’s tense racial overtones and its unforgettable golden-oldie earworm—which must be read to be believed and won’t be forgotten—Suitcase City makes its case for Sterling Watson as a contemporary noir master. —Steve Nathans-Kelly

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17. Sweetland by Michael Crummey


Nearly five years after its release, I still consider Michael Crummey’s debut novel Galore to be one of my favorite books of this early century. I don’t mean to sound hyperbolic, but I have to underline that claim with a high amount of Internet-defying sincerity, (indeed, Galore won Canada’s Commonwealth Prize for best book). Sweetland actually satisfied those rather high expectations that I (and likely all of Canada) held for Crummey’s next novel. In this story about a small fishing town in Newfoundland, our hero Moses Sweetland is a retired lighthouse keeper haunted by memory. Moses has reached that certain age when a man gets reflective about his life’s work and value, whilst his body and soul fleetingly withstands waves of nostalgia, regret and revelations—just like the slowly eroding cliffs beneath the scrutinizing glare of the town’s lighthouse. —Jeff Milo

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16. The Unfortunates by Sophie McManus


Sophie McManus’ examination of the cruel monster love—all of the beast’s horrifying, hallucinogenic shades—is composed of heather greys and the medicine powder at the bottom of pharmaceutical bottles. Her debut novel proves her to be a chorus, capable of pretty little pictures or vicious passages wherein the anomie of Bret Easton Ellis is whipped about with the speed and ferocity of Tom Wolfe. Set in the rich, classic milieu of East Coast Old Money, McManus treats the lucre with the same prismatic loupe as the emotion; it permeates the background like radiation, savages the leads and, refreshingly, saves the day. It is her ability to add shades to our brightest and most loathed lodestars that makes The Unfortunates one of this—or any—year’s best. —B. David Zarley

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15. The Incarnations by Susan Barker


Who are you? you must be wondering. I am your soulmate, your old friend, and I have come back to this city of 16 million in search of you. So begins the first letter in a series of haunting messages left in Driver Wang’s taxi. Spanning 1,500 years of history, the letters detail Wang’s past lives—as a slave in Genghis Khan’s army to a teen during China’s cultural revolution. The writer insists that their lives have been intertwined for centuries, and Wang begins to fear that the writer may have violent plans for the future. Susan Barker’s The Incarnations delivers a hypnotic journey through defining moments in China’s history, cementing the novel as an enthralling exploration of fate and consequences. —Frannie Jackson

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14. Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf


Kent Haruf, the celebrated author of Plainsong and Eventide, stays in tune with his subtle, no frills prose in his posthumously released “final” novel. Set in the Colorado plains, Our Souls at Night delivers a small town narrative highlighting the lives of two seniors desperate for companionship. Widow Addie and her fellow widower Louis forgive any proper courting (they don’t really know one another) and begin sleeping in the same bed for comfort. Around the same time, Addie’s imploding son unceremoniously drops off her grandson, and it this, the boundless energy of youth, that keeps Louis’ attention. This ragtag team slowly becomes a family in a story possessing all of the right intimacies a mature ear has to offer. —Mark Eleveld

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13. The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi


Imagine our most precious natural resource has all but dried up. Paolo Bacigalupi writes a near-future where the American Southwest has been utterly ravaged by drought, and states fight over dwindling water stores. Angel Velasquez, the titular “water knife,” lives to secure water rights for the Southern Nevada Water Authority—by any means necessary. But the hint of a game-changing conspiracy in Phoenix leads Angel to collide with an investigative journalist and a Texas migrant, putting all of their lives at risk. Exploring the desperate ventures people undertake to endure the unthinkable, The Water Knife promises thrills with enough gravity to make you question how far you’d go to survive. —Frannie Jackson

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12. Fortune Smiles by Adam Johnson


Adam Johnson possesses a dangerously sharp knack for dropping you right in the middle of the action. That’s vital for any short story writer, as the minimal frame demands an augmented vividness. But one reason Johnson won the National Book Award for Fortune Smiles is that his narrative pacing and measured massage of the senses delivers intensity—without strapping you into a tilt-o-whirl at high gear. His collection of stories weaves a subtle amount of surrealism with the dread that feels too common to the Internet Era’s everyday experience, particularly with his “Nirvana” story’s invocation of holograms as holistic medicine. These tales reveal how we all attempt to find a meditative peace in the midst of our unique recipes of personal chaos. —Jeff Milo

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11. Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg


In one of the most moving books of the year, memoirist Bill Clegg delivers a sucker punch of a debut novel. Did You Ever Have a Family delves into tragedy as June Reid loses her daughter, her daughter’s fiancé, her ex-husband and her boyfriend Luke in a fire on the eve of her daughter’s wedding. Fleeing the rural countryside of the East Coast to travel the country in despair, June searches for answers that may never appear. Interwoven narratives from Luke’s mother, lesbian motel owners and Luke’s biological (and absent) father flesh out Clegg’s lyrically stunning prose that offers master strokes of consolation. —Mark Eleveld

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10. Woman with a Blue Pencil by Gordon McAlpine


Gordon McAlpine’s latest foray into hardboiled metafiction, Woman With a Blue Pencil, pulls off a dazzling high wire act, managing multiple narratives and layers of reality without sacrificing an iota of page-turning power. The author deftly threads excerpts from two intertwined thrillers and snippets of letters, all set against the fever-pitched backdrop of post-Pearl Harbor Los Angeles. The novel also packs a powerful emotional punch, invoking one of the tragic and unforgivable chapters in American history—the internment of U.S. citizens of Japanese descent during World War II—with a tertiary narrative of manipulation and self-betrayal. —Steve Nathans-Kelly

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9. You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine by Alexandra Kleeman


Alexandra Kleeman’s debut novel is simultaneously the scariest and the funniest book about body image. You might consider You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine to be horror, because it hides a creepy cult that worships the purification of diet plans, along with some downright Cronenbergian evocations. You might also consider it to be dystopic, because there’s a spat of unexplained disappearances among a population obsessed with ethically-bankrupt reality shows. And you might consider it to be suspense, because our main character, a young woman known simply as A, is growing ever more paranoid that her disturbed roommate, B, is morphing herself into A’s twin. Whatever genre distinctions you choose, Kleeman’s experimental novel is one of the most engaging reads of the year. —Jeff Milo

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8. So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighborhood by Patrick Modiano


French author Patrick Modiano won the 2014 Nobel Prize in Literature for his striking exploration of postwar Europe through a concise body of fiction. Modiano continues his celebrated life’s work in the pages of So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighborhood, which follows protagonist Daragane as he lives unplugged from the world and his memory of it. When a stirring controversy leads the character to remember names and places, as if through a chronological blender, Daragane pushes his memory for “accurate” recollection. Modiano consistently reintroduces the current timeline before transitioning into the past, where desire and remembrance tug at the heartstrings of the man Daragane once was. The journey is the story, and the beauty of Modiano’s prose shines once again in this short read that provokes the trappings of too many musings and desires, albeit a welcome provocation. —Mark Eleveld

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7.The First Bad Man by Miranda July


Multimedia artist and filmmaker Miranda July’s collection of short stories, No One Belongs Here More Than You, was as self-realized as a debut fiction collection got in 2008. The tales exposed readers to July’s worldview, proving that her artistic visions easily transferred across film, digital and print mediums. With The First Bad Man, July once again delivers a fluid tale with lasting power. The novel tells the story of Cheryl Glickman: a businesswoman, a romantic and a person who thinks she possesses a centuries-old connection with a baby spirit named Kubelko Bondy. After taking in her boss’ pregnant daughter, Cheryl’s domestic life vaults from mother, to lover, to a whole bunch of other Meredith Brooks nouns. But as defined as the voice is of The First Bad Man, it also leaves room to explore non-traditional family roles and relationships. Even hopeless romantics will take something away from this single-sitting read. —Tyler R. Kane

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6. The Harder They Come by T.C. Boyle


Any nightly news program will validate the timeliness of T.C. Boyle’s latest read, The Harder They Come. The novel explores the inherent American nature of violence through three short-fuse leads: Sten Stenson, a retired high school principal and former vet; Adam Stenson, Sten’s 25-year-old son whose struggles with mental health cloud the narration; and Sara Jennings, a middle-aged, establishment-hating farrier who finds herself romantically linked to the Adam. Boyle has penned a fast-paced, riveting read that mirrors many action movie scenarios: the lone hero taking on legions of less worthy adversaries. But most importantly, like in real life, there are no victory bells when The Harder They Come’s final bullets are spent. —Tyler R. Kane

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5. Purity by Jonathan Franzen


Jonathan Franzen has proven himself as the master of the addicting, readable American novel. The Corrections, Franzen’s tongue-in-cheek tribute to Midwestern politeness and complacency, cemented this claim in 2001, and Freedom kept him on the same trajectory through 2010. With Purity, however, he tackles a more lighthearted approach that amounts to a more emotionally crippling whole. With a lead character named Pip Tyler (real name, Purity), Franzen’s practically begging for Great Expectations-level comparisons. And in that vein, he delivers. Purity explores Pip’s minimal knowledge of her past, ultimately highlighting class, opportunity and their effect on our existence. —Tyler R. Kane

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4. City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg


Garth Risk Hallberg has written a great American novel on his first attempt. Set in 1970s Manhattan, an era memorialized with punk’s birth at the Bowery while the Bronx was in flames, City on Fire crosses the divides of class, age, sexuality and race with its characters. The story centers on the shooting of Samantha Cicciaro, a 17-year-old Bohemian artist from Long Island who has bought into the idea of reinvention in the big city. But the shooting is merely the novel’s lynch pin. Here is a book in which the plot is the rhythm section, not the melody, and it stays free of labored explanations and a forced climax. City on Fire is resolute and powerful, exceptional in that it retains life but is not so sacrosanct that is fails to create beauty in error. —Mark Eleveld

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3. The Wolf Border by Sarah Hall


A zoologist on the brink of single-motherhood. An eccentric earl with a controversial scheme. Grey wolves roaming the English countryside. If this reads like a recipe for literary mayhem, you couldn’t be further from the truth. In The Wolf Border, Rachel Caine has monitored a wolf pack in a remote section of Idaho for the past decade, distancing herself from her estranged family in England. But she’s drawn across the pond when an earl proposes an unprecedented plan to reintroduce wolves to the Lake District. Sarah Hall’s captivating novel weaves the poetic with the realistic, creating a luscious tale spanning continents. You’ll discover that you don’t read The Wolf Border, you experience it. —Frannie Jackson

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2. Language Arts by Stephanie Kallos


Central to Stephanie Kallos’ Language Arts is the notion of stimming—repetitive, self-stimulating, physical movements and behaviors considered therapeutic for people with developmental disabilities. Cody Marlow, a low-functioning autistic boy, derives calm and balance from ritually crumbling bricks of Ramen noodles. His father, Charles, nurses a lifelong preoccupation with drawing repeated loops, and an imprecise faith in the transcendent power of stimming binds father and son. A deeply absorbing, magnificently wrought look inside the stories a man tells himself about life, Language Arts overflows with insight and mesmerizing twists. Even with the remarkably high standard set by Kallos’ two previous novels, she shows no sign of faltering. Improbably enough, she keeps getting better. —Steve Nathans-Kelly

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1. Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff


Named “the best book of the year” by multiple media outlets and listed as a finalist for the National Book Award, Fates and Furies has garnered a substantial amount of praise in a few short months. But is it deserving of this attention—the hyperbole of affection showered on its pages?

Yes, it is.

Lauren Groff’s novel places a marriage under the microscope for a span of 24 years, revealing that the secrets between a couple influence their relationship just as much as—if not more than— their shared experiences. Written in striking, gorgeous prose, Fates and Furies opens on 22-year-old Lotto and Mathilde enjoying their first afternoon as a married couple. What follows is a captivating story that jumps through time, offering Lotto’s perspective for the first half of the novel and then Mathilde’s. Inventive and devastating, Groff’s narrative is, quite simply, the best book of 2015. Period. —Frannie Jackson