A little late, but better late than never: here are my top 10 books I read in 2015 (not books published in 2015 but simply read)! I posted a similar list for 2014 after I read 174 books that year. A bit too ambitious to match, but 103 books in 2015 isn’t too shabby either.
Going through my Goodreads Reading Challenge 2015 list elicited several ‘Oh yeah, that one!’ Since finishing my BA in June, I was free to read whatever books I wanted so I struck a few famous ones (hits and misses) off my to-read list, as well as focusing more on world literature in order to learn how people write about non-Western cultures, characters and dialogue. It’s proven immensely helpful for my own planning and writing of my novel set in Japan.
Notable book moments that come to mind:
- Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman: Overture came to a close in 2015, which started off promising (I mean, I didn’t expect to live through a Gaiman-penned Sandman series!) but was ultimately disappointing. Maybe multiple readings will help me appreciate it (just like the original run).
- Many friends whom I respect often cite C. S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy as their favourite books. I’m a fan of Lewis, growing up with Narnia and enjoying his theology books, e.g. Mere Christianity. Imagine my disappointment when I find Out of the Silent Planet a drag. But it can only get better, right? Or so I thought. Perelandra was so boring that I finally gave up halfway through. Tedious reads where the story is compromised by the excessive and blatant theological themes. I know Philip Pullman was directing his criticism towards Narnia, but it applies wholly to the Space Trilogy as well (though Pullman did no better in the last two books of His Dark Materials trilogy, with his anti-theistic agenda compromising his storytelling prowess).
- Finally got around to reading Junot Díaz’s The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao which was recently named by US critics as the best book of the 21st century so far. I appreciated what Díaz attempted to do, particularly envious of his unabashed usage of Spanglish and impressed with him pulling it off (I still have a dream of writing the first Japlish novel). But ultimately, it fell flat for me—a bit all over the place, relying more on gimmicks (e.g. elaborate footnotes, obscure sci-fi/fantasy references) than the actual story. Also surprised to discover the novel’s about his family more so than Oscar Wao himself.
Top 10 books I read in 2015… here we go!
1. Caleb Williams (aka Things as They Are; or The Adventures of Caleb Williams) (William Godwin, 1794) [Read: Jan 2015]
I chose to read this novel for my Literature of the Romantic Period module (avoiding all the poets on the course meant having only a handful of novelists to choose from) and was unexpectedly entertained by it. Unveiled through Caleb’s eyes as he discovers the horrific past of his master, Falkland, it turns into a cat-and-mouse game of life and death. A remarkably thrilling and engrossing political-mystery novel that is eerily contemporary in its presentation of the psychological complexities of humankind. But then again, I suspect it seems contemporary because the corruptness of human nature has always remained unchanged.
2. Possession (A. S. Byatt, 1990) [Read: Jan 2015]
One of the most ambitious novels I’ve read. I don’t quite know how Byatt managed to create such a work so epic in scope and variety. Following the pursuits of two academics who examine a previously unknown romantic relationship between two fictional Victorian poets, Byatt blends poetry and prose, letters and diaries into one deftly interweaving, postmodern novel (historiographic metafiction). In fact, she even composed all the poems for the fictional poets—that’s 1700 lines of original poetry! And you’ll be surprised at just how passionate it is: Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte’s letters are utterly romantic and heartbreaking. Oh, the feels.
3. Fireworks: Nine Profane Pieces (Angela Carter, 1974) [Read: Mar 2015]
Some of the most beautiful prose I’ve ever read. It’s purple prose, all right, but it’s good, pleasing purple prose. I picked this short story collection up because I’d heard Carter had lived in Japan for a while, making it the setting of several stories. Needless to say, I was surprised to find just how dark, twisted and creative her imagination is. Carter intertwines exquisite writing with content wholly disturbing, even shocking, yet does it most elegantly. Unforgettable stories. Not for the fainthearted.
4. Lighter Than My Shadow (Katie Green, 2013) [Read: Mar 2015]
An autobiographical graphic novel about Green’s struggle with eating disorders. Brutally honest and unflinching, I was riveted from start to finish, all 500+ pages of it. The simple artwork helps to soften the impact of the heavy content, but it’s still gut-wrenching. The most beautiful and powerful graphic memoir I’ve read since Craig Thompson’s ‘Blankets’.
5. Letters & Papers From Prison (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 1951) [Read: Apr 2015]
Bonhoeffer left behind a powerful legacy characterised by his firm, unwavering faith in God. In this collection of letters to his family and friends, you get a rare glimpse into his poignant moments of vulnerability and heightened sensitivity in the final days leading up to his death at the hands of the Nazis. His correspondence with his family is lighthearted in order to reassure them, but it’s only in his letters to his closest friend that you see his raw, genuine state of emotion. Revealing doubts and struggles which you won’t find in his other polished theological works, his profound observations of life and human nature will challenge your own way of living a life of faith.
6. TheoMedia: The Media of God and the Digital Age (Andrew Byers, 2013) [Read: May 2015]
Never have I read a theology book with such beautiful, poetic prose. I have the honour of knowing Andy (we went to the same church in Durham) and I’ve always been impressed with his flowing rhetoric when he preaches. It contains valuable insights and a fresh perspective on how God uses various forms of media, aka TheoMedia, to communicate with us. More conceptual than practical, but provides a solid foundation upon which to build and formulate methods of engaging with contemporary media issues.
7. number9dream (David Mitchell, 2001) [Read: Aug 2015]
Speaking as someone who grew up in Japan, this is the best novel written in English that’s set in contemporary Japan. Remarkably observant for a foreigner and thoroughly entertaining. Mitchell worked in Japan for several years as an English teacher, also marrying a Japanese—which would explain how he knows and incorporates so many satisfying trivialities and minute details that only those who’ve lived in Japan would understand. Unique but masterful prose as always, he’s crafted a fast-paced entertaining story of boy trying to find his father. Bravo, David Mitchell.
8. Paradoxology (Krish Kandiah, 2014) [Read: Sept 2015]
A brilliant and invaluable book exploring how Christianity’s multiple paradoxes (and there are many!) can build up, rather than be detrimental, to our faith. Wholly accessible without compromising theological depth. The chapter subtitles alone (e.g. ‘The God who is consistently unpredictable’, ‘The God who is indiscriminately selective’, ‘The God who determines our free will’) reveal that Krish Kandiah (President of London School of Theology) isn’t afraid to tackle controversial issues head-on – and he does it with a surprising degree of sensitivity, insight and success. Highly recommended.
9. Half of a Yellow Sun (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, 2006) [Read: Nov 2015]
Hands down, best book I read in 2015. It’s utterly brilliant. From the very first line, Adichie’s masterful, natural prose grabs your attention and refuses to let you go even after the novel is finished. Set in post-colonial Nigeria in the 60s during the Biafran War (civil war), it’s a novel that begins with a warmhearted, humorous story of cross-cultural love in the fascinating context of Nigerian culture, quickly descending into shocking chaos and destruction. I suspect the reason the war atrocities are so hard to read about is because you quickly develop an affinity for the characters. Wholly responsible for inspiring my own novel-in-progress, I love this so much I wish I’d written it.
10. Americanah (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, 2013) [Read: Dec 2015]
You know you’re witnessing one of the greatest writers of our generation when two of her books end up on your top 10 list. I immediately ordered Adichie’s latest after Half of a Yellow Sun, eager to devour Americanah after hearing so much about it. It didn’t quite match up to its predecessor but neither did it disappoint, containing some of the most observant, explicit commentary on cross-cultural racial tensions. There’s not much of a story, serving more as a medium for justified criticism regarding ignorant perceptions of race in America, but for me it was a delight to read. Sure to be an important work in this age where more and more people realise there’s more to the world than just the West, it was refreshing to see Adichie dealing courageously with issues usually taboo and left silent. But not anymore—this is a voice willing and worthy to be heard.
(11.) The Art of Fiction: Illustrated from Classic and Modern Texts (David Lodge, 1992) [Read: Apr 2015]
Indispensable for readers and writers who want to delve deeper into the art of literature. Lodge is an acclaimed novelist who wrote one of the funniest books ever (Small World: on last year’s list), but he is also first and foremost an academic. He draws from fiction all throughout history and in short, concise, accessible chapters, explains different literary techniques demonstrated by the greatest writers in the English language. Fascinating.
(12.) 火花 (又吉直樹, 2015) [Read: Aug 2015]
I haven’t read a Japanese novel in a long time, but it seemed fitting to try this novel written by a famous comedian (Naoki Matayoshi, part of the comedy duo Peace) whom I’ve respected and which ultimately won the Akutagawa Prize, one of Japan’s most esteemed literary awards. The story follows two comedians who struggle to make it in the competitive world of entertainment, discussing the philosophy of comedy. It divided critics upon its release, but I personally enjoyed it especially since I’m well acquainted with and a huge fan of Japanese comedy. I actually ended up reading it in one sitting (can’t remember the last book I read throughout the night).
(13.) The Sense of an Ending (Julian Barnes, 2011) [Read: Aug 2015]
I’ve known of Barnes for a while but just hadn’t gotten around to reading his works. Finally picked up his Man Booker Prize-winning novel and found myself thoroughly engrossed. His prose is natural and smooth, each word chosen very carefully and meaningfully. Containing mystery elements, I enjoyed the unreliable and confused narrator’s recollection of his childhood as we discover, along with him, memories and secrets initially meant to stay buried but were bound to emerge; for we all know, the past always catches up to the present.
(14.) Money, Sex and Power (Richard J. Foster, 1985) [Read: Nov 2015]
Foster doesn’t present theoretical fluff but rather theologically sound, wholly practical advice for right Christian living regarding the widely discussed and debated topics of money, sex and power. Handling these controversial issues with sensitivity and authority, this is a must read for all Christians. Personally, Foster’s teaching on sex, chastity and fidelity is the best Christian instruction I’ve ever found. Just brilliant.
Agree or disagree with any on my list? What were your favourite books you read in 2015?