Here are my top five books published in 2015 in alphabetical order according to author:

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff (Barack Obama cited this novel as his favourite book of the year, for one. Dip in and you’ll see why. Groff is at her best here, examining married life with deft insight.)

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Villa America by Liza Klaussmann (If you’re a fan of the Fitzgeralds, the Hemingways, Cole Porter, Picasso, or Sara and Gerald Murphy, this novel of the Twenties is waiting to dazzle you.)

VillaAmerica

West of Sunset by Stewart O’Nan (I’ll read anything O’Nan writes, but this one, about Scott Fitzgerald’s final years as a script doctor for MGM, is especially gorgeous in its telling.)

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Dear Mr. You by Mary-Louise Parker (This memoir in letters surprised me in its humour and tenderness. If you read it, you’ll understand why the cover art is pitch perfect.)

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Meanwhile There Are Letters: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and Ross Macdonald (Welty and Macdonald (a.k.a. Kenneth Millar) met at The Algonquin in NYC and thereafter nurtured an enduring friendship through their letters that reveal as much about themselves as they do about their writing lives. It is a privilege to begin to know them this way.)

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May12LuckiestGirlAlive

Forthcoming in May from Simon & Schuster, this debut is violent, shocking and at times darkly funny. Featuring the inner workings of a glossy NYC magazine with flashbacks to the protagonist’s troubled past, Jessica Knoll’s LUCKIEST GIRL ALIVE leaves room for a redemptive ending, even when telling the truth is the greatest risk of all.

FreedomsChild

 

In FREEDOM’S CHILD by Jax Miller, Freedom Oliver is under witness protection in Oregon, working at a local biker bar and getting liquored up most nights to try to blunt the pain of having given up both of her children years ago when she was accused of killing her husband, a cop. When she discovers her young adult daughter has possibly been kidnapped, she heads to Kentucky to try to find her. Told with whiplash narrative drive, this debut thriller is a doozy. Watch for it in June from Crown Publishing.

 

Feb24HushHush

Scrappy, savvy Baltimore P.I. Tess Monaghan is back, this time hired to assess Melisandre Dawes’ security needs. Dawes is hoping to reconcile with her two teenage daughters, after having killed their baby sister when she was not in her right mind a decade before. Tess, a new mother herself, and emotionally taxed to her limits finds it especially challenging to deal with the steely Melisandre. And, then a corpse shows up to complicate matters further. Smart, twisty, and compassionate.

If you are not already a fan of Lippman’s storytelling, leap in here. You’ll be a convert.

Jan27WolfWinter

It’s 1717 and thirty-something Maija, her husband Paavo, and their daughters, Frederika (14) and Dorotea (6) move to Swedish Lapland when they switch homesteads with Paavo’s uncle Eronen, hoping to leave behind the traumas of their past and begin again.

Frederika asks one of the locals what a “wolf winter” is. He is silent for a long time and then replies, “It’s the kind of winter that will remind us we are mortal. Mortal and alone.”

Although this is a debut novel, Cecilia Ekbäck is an enthralling storyteller and her thriller is as disturbing as it is compelling. The characters harbour secrets, plenty of them nasty ones, that inevitably become public as the central mystery, the murder of Eriksson, is solved.

At times the prose is poetic: “Grief ate away at people until they had a different shape from before.” And, Ekbäck knows all about the engine of narrative drive–how to keep you flipping pages well into the wee hours of the night.

WOLF WINTER is the perfect read for this dark, bleak time of the year.

To celebrate National Handwriting Day here are hand scribbled missives and manuscripts by some of my favourite writers:

ALAN BENNETT

“I’d be a great disappointment to meet–I’m best encountered on the page!”

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RAYMOND CHANDLER (Dedication to his wife Cissy, inside a copy of THE BIG SLEEP; wish I knew which Vincent he regifted it to.)

“For my Cissy who wants something much better, but was pleased even with this.

Raymio

La Jolla Jan 1939”

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JOAN DIDION (list of favourite books and writers)

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F. SCOTT FITZGERALD (The final lines of THE GREAT GATSBY)

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SEAMUS HEANEY (two stanzas from “Diary of One Who Vanished”)

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ERNEST HEMINGWAY (book dedication, on Valentine’s Day)

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JAMES JOYCE (“Circe” episode from ULYSSES)

ulyssesJoyceHandwriting

KURT VONNEGUT

vonnegutHandwriting

VIRGINIA WOOLF (letter to Katherine Mansfield, 13 February 1921)

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Jan20VanessaAndHerSister

One summer in my twenties I read everything I could find by and about the members of the Bloomsbury Group, so I was delighted to read this dazzling novel about their early years in London from 1905-1912.

Parmar has framed her narrative with correspondence between sisters Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf in which it’s clear that Virginia is seeking forgiveness for a transgression, a hope that Vanessa implies is nigh impossible: “There can be no beginning again. Love and forgiveness are not the same thing.”

Through Vanessa’s imagined diary (for she never kept one) threaded together with telegrams, postcards, and letters by other constituents including Lytton Strachey, Roger Fry, Leonard Woolf, Clive Bell and E.M. Forster, I was swept into their progressive world of literary and artistic salons and their many love affairs, plenty of them conducted in each others’ beds.

I enjoyed the diversions about les Fauves in Paris as well as the expat community there helmed by Gertrude Stein, who Clive notes “bought Matisse’s Woman with a Hat” and also spent a huge sum on Picasso’s work, who the previous winter had been so poor and “had no money to buy coal and so burnt his own drawings to keep warm.”

Parmar creates such an intimacy about the characters. Vanessa explains that Virginia “is using her travel desk from home. The wood is worn on the left top corner, where she pulls and paws when she cannot find the right word. Writing settles her. It gives her day a shape, a tempo.” Later, after discussing Forster’s A Room With A View, Vanessa suggests, “I had thought he had written himself as George Emerson, but it seems he is Lucy Honeychurch.” And, also, thinking about her conversation with him, recalls “the asymmetrical shapes of love…the inevitable destructive quality of secrets. Morgan’s ideal is to bring the muddle into the open. He does not try to solve the muddle, he just hopes not to hide it. What a small important thing he is doing.” Indeed, that is what Vanessa needs to do in her own life.

I loved everything about this book: the recounted hot bits, real and imagined, the insider’s perspective on the creative life and its costs, the use of a variety of writing forms true to the earliest years of the twentieth century to reveal the narrative. To me, everything seemed emotionally true. I’ll read anything Parmar writes now.

Twitter - Vanessa and her Sister2

Jan13GirlOnTheTrain

I read this gritty, twisty debut thriller in one sitting. Unreliable narrator Rachel, who takes the commuter train in and out of London every weekday even though she’s been fired for being drunk at work, had my heart thumping a paranoid tattoo.

The penultimate scene is equal parts terror and satisfaction and will have you looking at a corkscrew in an entirely new way.

The novel has already been optioned for the screen, and I suspect Hawkins is hard at work penning her next one. You’ll be hearing loads of buzz about The Girl on the Train and all of it is deserving.