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The best books we read in 2015

As 2015 draws to a close, the Vox staff is once again sharing the best books we read in the past 12 months. Some of them were published a long time ago, others just earlier this year. They all have one thing in common: In a year with countless news stories, TV shows, movies, podcasts, and other books vying for our attention, these 14 titles captured our minds and our imaginations.

Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson (fiction)

I spend my day writing about conflicts — like the war in Syria — that are vicious, depressing, and defined mostly by the lack of good guys and good options. Words of Radiance, a wonderfully detailed story of good versus evil and the second book in Brandon Sanderson's Stormlight Archive series, was a perfect antidote.

It's impossible to summarize the plot here (the novel is 1,088 pages long), but suffice to say the story centers on two things: a war between a human nation and the mysterious Parshendi people, and the looming threat of an apocalypse whose nature almost no one on the entire world of Roshar really understands.

While the heroes are clearly heroes and the villains undoubtedly villainous, they all have rich inner lives and complex motivations. Take Kaladin, a lowborn soldier with a spirit companion who gives him magical powers. He could be a stock fantasy hero, but his constant wrestling with a history of depression (though it's never named as such) makes his outer struggles much more compelling. And that's to say nothing of the novel's wonderfully unique magical system and deeply built-out world. If you're looking for something to sink into over winter vacation, start with the excellent first book in the series, The Way of Kings — and get excited about the even-better sequel.

Zack Beauchamp

The Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante (fiction)

Yes, Elena Ferrante's four Neapolitan Novels are modern literary classics that deserve all the acclaim they're getting, and more. But they're also riveting page-turners, filled with unforgettable characters and shocking twists that make the reading experience an absolute pleasure.

The epic saga tells the life stories of two best friends, Lila Cerullo and Elena Greco, from their girlhood in postwar Italy to old age in the 2010s. Using the canvas of these two lives — and of the poor, insular neighborhood in Naples they grow up in and never truly leave behind — Ferrante explores themes of class, male violence, feminism, politics, motherhood, and creativity with savage intelligence.

The first book, My Brilliant Friend, is a slow build, rich with symbolism that resonates throughout the series, as it chronicles the girls' youngest and most hopeful years. Then, in book two, The Story of a New Name, the plot takes off like a rocket. By the end, we've followed Elena and Lila through decades' worth of joys, hopes, dreams, and disappointments — through exciting times and tedious ones, through unshakable loyalties and vicious betrayals, through good choices and some very bad ones. Read my full review for more.

—Andrew Prokop

Ms. Marvel by writer G.Willow Wilson and artist Adrian Alphona (fiction)

In this age of doom-and-gloom superheroes, I found myself relishing and seeking out more joyful comic books in 2015. And there is no more joyful or optimistic comic book than Ms. Marvel, the superhero origin story of Kamala Khan, a Pakistani-American, Muslim teenager with shape-shifting powers. It's smart, it's funny, the art is dreamy, and there's hope in the story's bones. It's hard to read Ms. Marvel and not think about or reflect on our own real-life culture and the Islamophobia that is alive and well in it and in that sense, Ms. Marvel feels like it can save us from the ugliness that threatens to strangle our hope, our joy, and our love. Ms. Marvel is a superhero for our generation.

—Alex Abad-Santos

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell (fiction)

I didn’t just read Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl, the story of Cath, a college freshman and fan fiction writer — I inhaled it. I read Fangirl the way when I read when I was a kid discovering the Harry Potter books; the way Cath must have read the basis for her own fan fiction, the Simon Snow books, another series about wizard schools and a Chosen One. Part of the pleasure was that parts of Fangirl felt like I was reading about myself, about a part of my life I never expected to see validated by fiction; I was once a teenage Midwestern girl who wrote fan fiction, too.

But that understates Rowell's immense talent for finely drawn characters and well-paced plots that remix familiar, comforting themes into something that feels entirely fresh and new. And Rowell, like Cath, was so enticed by Simon Snow's world that in 2015 she published Carry On, her own Chosen-One-wizarding-school story. Both books are a testament to the power of language and fiction to captivate us and carry us away, a reminder of the value of reading for the sheer joy of it.

—Libby Nelson

The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer (fiction)

Jeff VanderMeer's Southern Reach trilogy (all three books of which were published in 2014) loses a bit of steam as it goes along. Of course, it would almost have to, because the first book, Annihilation, is so good that I did that thing where I stayed in bed until I had finished it. Set in a vaguely futuristic, vaguely present-day United States where a large swath of natural landscape has been colonized and changed by ... something, the Southern Reach novels posit attempts by science to understand the unknowable. What I love is how well VanderMeer suggests a descent into madness, particularly in book two, Authority, which rather plays like The Office would have if Michael Scott were slowly being undone by some sort of ancient alien god (or so I theorize). The trilogy isn't content to provide easy answers, which may frustrate some readers, but I loved that aspect of it. The series has all the logic of a bad dream, which is to say that it plays by its own rules, but sticks to them rigorously — until it's time to start tearing out throats.

—Todd VanDerWerff

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (fiction)

It's not often that I pick up a 700-plus-page book, much less devour it in the span of two weeks, but Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch was spellbinding.

At once a suspenseful thriller and a coming-of-age novel, The Goldfinch manages to seamlessly interweave the anxieties and challenges associated with a 20-year art heist and the mundane realities of a life that protagonist and narrator Theo Decker never envisioned leading.

The plot is based largely on the premise that a single day can irrevocably alter the course of a life in both immediate and unforeseen ways, and Tartt's mastery lies in her ability to endlessly connect events and people in Theo's life in a manner that is natural and not heavy-handed or forced.

For instance, when Theo is a teenager living with his father, he befriends a foul-mouthed, philosophical, and heavy-drinking Russian teen named Boris, but then loses touch only to reconnect many years later in a surprising turn of events that finally offers Theo a chance to confront his tortured past. It is this effortless fluidity with which Tartt navigates her characters' relationships that is essential to The Goldfinch and helps set the fast-paced tempo of the book.

—Sarah Frostenson

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro (fiction)

"In any case, ogres were not so bad provided one did not provoke them," writes Kazuo Ishiguro at the start of The Buried Giant. Ishiguro specializes in taking the world-historical stakes of genre writing and confining them inside calm, mundane interactions. Never Let Me Go was his run at sci-fi; The Remains of the Day his attack on World War II fiction. The Buried Giant is his entrance into fantasy, and it's stunning. Ishiguro slowly, calmly builds his world — a world where most everything is forgotten and the characters join the readers in ignorance of the true story. But as that true story is revealed, it becomes clear that, like the ogres, the humans were not so bad so long as they didn't remember what had provoked them. The question is whether forgetfulness is a fair price for peace.

—Ezra Klein

H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald (memoir)

What I love about Helen Macdonald's H Is for Hawk is how crisp it is. Lots of writing is extra showy, extra flowery, for the sake of strutting around a bit. Macdonald's memoir isn't. It's sparse and lean, and every one of its words seems like a perfectly chosen little bomb. But in the process of constructing her tiny narrative explosions, Macdonald achieves the specific universality that the best literature aims for. You see yourself in her, even as she's a) grieving the death of her father, b) training a goshawk in the ways of falconry, and c) extolling the virtues of author T.H. White. And yet her pain is your pain is all pain. H Is for Hawk is like no other book I've read, and it's just a little bit perfect.

—Todd VanDerWerff

The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson (memoir)

The Argonauts is the best work yet produced on the new nascent queer politics of the United States — and somehow it is fewer than 150 pages long. There is something too general in saying the book is about marriage, and family, and love, and pain, but it is those things, and it is those things in troubling, difficult particular.

I have very few words here; fewer still, as Maggie Nelson knows, are good enough. So I will say this: The Argonauts is adequate to the nuances of its anxieties. I mean this in the best way. It is untidy without becoming confused. It is skeptical without the protective veil of irony. It is the sort of work that can only come from within the trouble it contends with, the sort that can only, and even then still rarely, be produced by an author like Nelson, who manages to be and see her subject all at once. It is a memoir unspoiled by too much objectivity and analysis, unhampered by too much distance.

It is a work of literature, too — an experiment in prose and craft worth studying, even in some other world where the concerns that animate its content did not exist, and where the words for them meant nothing.

—Emmett Rensin

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (nonfiction)

Between the World and Me is as beautiful as it is brutal. The book takes the form of a letter from author Ta-Nehisi Coates to his son, and traces the dangers of living in a country that touts exceptionalism but fails exceptionally when it comes to protecting black men and boys. Whether Coates is describing something as simple as an interview or retelling the violence of his childhood in Baltimore, his writing is haunting and ultimately gorgeous. But it's his searing message of inequality, and the pain he feels in his bones that America will always be insufficient to black men and women, that makes Between the World and Me one of the most important and necessary books of 2015.

—Alex Abad-Santos

Stasiland by Anna Funder (nonfiction)

I have the same terrible, slightly shameful fascination with stories about authoritarian regimes that I have with stories about murder: Even mediocre ones I’ll read to the end, and the good ones are enthralling. Anna Funder’s Stasiland: Stories From Behind the Berlin Wall, first published in 2001, is one of the good ones.

I knew little about East Germany aside from what I saw in the 2006 film The Lives of Others, and Stasiland fascinated me. Funder paints a vivid portrait of life in the East German police state, interviewing both those who resisted it and those who upheld it. But what struck me most were the stories Funder didn’t seek out but that found her anyway — like that of her landlord, Julia, who was targeted and persecuted by the secret police after she started dating an Italian man.

And while Stasiland is a work of journalism and recent history about a different country, there was some resonance to its theme of those things that collective memory chooses to forget when a country is reunited — a feeling that was hard to miss in 2015, the year when the legacy of the Civil War reared over and over into Americans’ public consciousness.

—Libby Nelson

Ghost Wars by Steve Coll (nonfiction)

By 2005, when the Pulitzer committee selected Steve Coll's Ghost Wars — a history of Afghanistan from the 1979 Soviet invasion through September 11, 2001 — the world's attention had already shifted to Iraq, and the book was treated as a history of events grounded safely in the past.

The book tells the story of how misguided interventions by Afghanistan's neighbors and by global powers, along with ideological movements wafting in from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, tore the country apart, turning it into a haven for extremists and a crucible that would forge al-Qaeda, a movement more awful than anything the world had previously known.

Ghost Wars was honored for its eloquent prose and its gripping storytelling, which recounts the grand sweep of Middle Eastern and South Asian history as well as the lives of individual Afghans, Americans, Saudis, and others who shaped world events. It was not honored as a dark warning about mistakes that should never be repeated, and I doubt Coll intended it to be one, but that is precisely what it turned out to be.

A decade later, after re-reading what is perhaps the best and most important piece of book-length foreign reportage of the 21st century, I am struck by the degree to which this same story has played out again — often involving the very same actors making the very same mistakes. Only this time it is Iraq and Syria that are torn apart, and the movement this chaos has forged is not al-Qaeda but a group that's even more extreme: ISIS.

Though Ghost Wars does not mention ISIS — how could it? — I cannot imagine a book that better understands how such a thing can happen, and knows the lessons the world must learn before it happens again.

—Max Fisher

Ghettoside by Jill Leovy (nonfiction)

Here's how highly Vox recommends Ghettoside: I had to beat out three other staffers to call dibs on writing about the book for this story.

It's rare for books about crime to appeal to both a general audience and to wonks like me. "Criminal justice" journalists get to write about the big picture; "true crime" journalists get to tell the really good stories. Ghettoside is a great story, and I dare you to read it without gasping aloud. But it's also the most intellectually rigorous and provocative work about criminal justice to come out in years.

If you think it sounds a little like The Wire, you're not wrong. But remember, The Wire is based on reporting that's 20 years old at this point. Ghettoside is firmly of a moment when the national debate about policing can be summarized by "Black Lives Matter" on one side and "What about black-on-black crime?" on the other.

The book will challenge anyone's ideological priors, but Jill Leovy is far too subtle a writer to make a capital-A Argument. Instead, she's composed a gripping narrative that, if you're alive to its intellectual implications, will give you brain food for months to come.

—Dara Lind

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain (nonfiction)

What drives extroverts and introverts? In Quiet, Susan Cain thoughtfully explores the question through anecdotes and scientific research. She recognizes that a mix of personalities is ultimately beneficial, and that most people will find themselves somewhere on a spectrum. But she also makes a case for the importance of valuing the softer voices in the room, pointing to famous introverts like Rosa Parks, Dr. Seuss, and Steve Wozniak as evidence.

You might find pieces of yourself in these stories about those who struggle to fit into a world that emphasizes extroversion. Some of the traits described in the book mirrored my thoughts and actions so closely that it felt like the words were written just for me. Or maybe you'll recognize the tendencies of someone you know. Either way, it's worth thinking about how people act in various situations. As Cain writes, people's place on the extrovert-introvert spectrum influences everything from their choice of friends and significant others to how they make conversation to whether they succeed in their careers. This book helps readers understand why introverts are the way they are. And that's an eye-opening opportunity for society as a whole to shift their thinking.

—Lauren Katz


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