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The Best Books of 2015: Sunday Times Book Reviewers Choose Their Top Reads of the Year

The Best Books of 2015: Sunday Times Book Reviewers Choose Their Top Reads of the Year

Published in the Sunday Times

Sunday Times book reviewers look back at 2015 and name their books of the year.

The Burning GatesGreen LionWhat Will People SayBen Williams, Sunday Times books editor
My find of the year is Parker Bilal, which is the name the Anglo-Sudanese author Jamal Majoub uses when he writes crime fiction. His detective hero, Makana – an expat Sudanese living in Cairo who lacks a first name – shines light in dark Cairene places in The Burning Gates (Bloomsbury). And if readers missed Henrietta Rose-Innes’s Green Lion (Umuzi) or Rehana Rossouw’s What Will People Say? (Jacana), they’d best not let 2015 expire without acquainting themselves with these two fine books.

PleasantvilleModern RomanceJennifer Platt

Pleasantville, Attica Locke (Profile Books). A political thriller set in the late ’90s in an affluent African-American town in Texas. Locke makes one nostalgic about the past and hopeless about the future. Modern Romance, Aziz Ansari (Penguin Random House). Funny and filled with info to impress friends over drinks, like the fact that two billion swipes happen on Tinder every day.
The Magistrate of Gower101 DetectivesRick SteinMichele Magwood

The Magistrate of Gower, Claire Robertson, (Umuzi). Subtle, absorbing, affecting. Robertson is in a league of her own. 101 Detectives, Ivan Vladislavic, (Umuzi). Mordantly funny, acutely perceptive and exquisitely styled, this collection of short stories is a definitive showcase of Vladislavic’s talents. From Venice to Istanbul, Rick Stein (Penguin Random House). A glorious mix of recipes, images and anecdotes from the Eastern Mediterranean.
Recipes for Love and Murder: A Tannie Maria MysterySamantha Gibb

Recipes for Love and Murder: A Tannie Maria Mystery, Sally Andrew (Umuzi). The quintessential feel-good SA whodunit, complete with recipes and advice. A must read.
AdelineAubrey Paton

Adeline, Norah Vincent (Little, Brown). You don’t have to like Virginia Woolf or the Bloomsbury Group to be enthralled by this fictional biography delivered in an elegant pastiche of Woolf’s own style.
Incredible JourneyLet Me be Frank with YounullDiane Awerbuck

Jumani Clark’s short story, “Lift Club”, in the Incredible Journey anthology (Mercury) is fantastic: full of detail that starts off in a familiar place and ends up in the underworld. Let Me Be Frank with You, Richard Ford (Bloomsbury). Ford is vital; self-aware but not self-conscious. Florence and Watson and the Sugarbush Mouse, Dani Bischoff, Rob van Vuuren, illustrated by Lauren Fowler-Kierman. Local, beautiful and meaningful.
QuicksandAll InvolvedOne Midlife Crisis and a SpeedoSteven Sidley

Quicksand by Steven Totlz (Hodder & Stoughton). A look at the unbroken catastrophe of a life of one hapless loser; funny, poignant and sizzling with originality. All Involved by Ryan Gattis (Picador,). An LA-set story about an event among Latino gangs during the Rodney King riots. One Midlife Crisis and a Speedo, Darryl Bristow-Bovey (Zebra Press). Moving, funny and clever.
BeastkeeperFuriously HappyShe Will Build Him a CityTiah Beautement

Cat Hellisen turns an old fairytale on its head with Beastkeeper (Henry Holt & Company Inc) and it’s been a hit with my young writers club. Jenny Lawson’s memoir Furiously Happy (Pan Macmillan) is hilarious and contains the best description of mental illness I’ve read. Raj Kamal Jha’s surreal novel She Will Build Him a City (Bloomsbury) is unforgettable in its complexity, ingenuity and beauty.
The FishermenH is for HawkEkow Duker

Chigozie Obioma’s The Fishermen (Faber Factory Plus, R275). This haunting tale is deserving of its Man Booker 2015 nomination. H is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald (Penguin Random House). I listened to the audio book during my commute by train into Joburg. Macdonald’s speaking voice (she narrates the story) is as beautiful as her literary one.
We Are All Completely Beside OurselvesSweet CaressThe Narrow Road to the Deep NorthYvonne Fontyn

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler (Serpent’s Tale). The story leads you to a great philosophical dilemma. Sweet Caress, William Boyd (Bloomsbury). Fiction and nonfiction are intertwined to tell the story of photographer Amory Clay, who covered World War II and the Vietnam War. An inspiring chronicle of a woman in an eventful era. The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Richard Flanagan (Random House). A riveting account of Australian prisoners of war in Burma.
What Will People SayThe FetchH is for HawkMargaret von Klemperer

What Will People Say?, Rehana Rossouw. Rossouw delivers humour, happiness and tragedy in her story of a family’s struggle to survive on the Cape Flats. The Fetch, Finuala Dowling (Kwela). A sparkling comedy of manners, but under the froth there are serious issues, and it is Dowling’s sensitive handling of them that makes this such a lovely book. H is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald. A non-fiction triumph.
Guantanamo DiaryThe Magistrate of GowerRussell Clarke

Guantánamo Diary, Mohamedou Ould Slahi (Canongate). America’s shameful incarceration of terrorism suspects brought to life. The Magistrate of Gower, Claire Robertson. The Anglo-Boer war and the rise of Afrikaner nationalism appear at the centre of this elegant, finely-filigreed novel.
TightropeThis Thing of DarknessThe Root of All EvilWilliam Saunderson-Meyer
Tightrope, Simon Mawer (Little, Brown). A spy thriller that delves beyond the easy conventions of the genre. The Thing of Darkness, Harry Bingham (Orion). The disturbed, devious and brilliant Fiona Griffiths is the most fascinating police detective since Lisbeth Salander. The Root of All Evil, Roberto Constantini (Quercus). Set in Italian-controlled Libya on the eve of independence, Constantini’s second novel in the Evil trilogy is a masterful portrayal of guilt and atonement.
The RaftWastedOne of UsAnnetjie van Wynegaard

The Raft, Fred Strydom (Umuzi). Strydom blurs genre lines and leaves you with a story that lingers in the back of your mind. Wasted, Mark Winkler (Kwela). There’s a moment in the book that punches you in the gut and makes you realise, wow, this guy can write. One of Us, Åsne Seierstad (Little, Brown). A raw, in-depth account of the massacre that took place in Norway in 2011, when Anders Behring Breivik killed 77 people, 69 of them children.
A History of LonelinessThe Girl Who Fell from the SkyTightropeDavid Pike

John Boyne’s agonising novel confronting child abuse in the Irish Catholic Church, A History of Loneliness (Black Swan), was mesmerising. Simon Mawer’s The Girl Who Fell from the Sky (Little, Brown) and its sequel Tightrope would challenge even le Carré.
The Unlikely Hero of Room 13 BThe FetchGreen LionFiona Snyckers

The Unlikely Hero of Room 13B, Teresa Toten (Walker Books). My young adult read of the year. It is written with a warmth, compassion and sincerity that are rare in any genre. The Fetch, Finuala Dowling. Comparisons with Jane Austen are not misplaced. Green Lion, Henrietta Rose-Innes. Rose-Innes goes from strength to strength, refining her craft with each new book.
Ted HughesJohn Le CarreReunionCraig Higginson

Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Life, Jonathan Bate (William Collins Publishing). A rigorous examination of a poet whose life attracted more scandal than any other English poet since Lord Byron. John le Carré: The Biography, Adam Sisman (Bloomsbury). David Cornwell, aka le Carré, emerges as elliptical, brilliant and fundamentally humane. Reunion, Fred Uhlman (The Harvill Press). I haven’t been so moved by a piece of fiction in ages.
Eugene de KockAnother Man's WarJan SmutsHamilton Wende

Eugene de Kock, Anemari Jansen (Tafelberg). A gripping reminder of how twisted apartheid was and how deeply it affected our society. Another Man’s War, Barnaby Phillips (Oneworld). A fascinating look at the West Africans who fought for Britain against the Japanese in Burma during World War II. An account of an almost forgotten campaign. Jan Smuts: Unafraid of Greatness, Richard Steyn (Jonathan Ball). This is the book to read on Jan Smuts.
The Seed ThiefReliquariaNick Mulgrew

The Seed Thief, Jacqui L’Ange (Umuzi). A poetry-infused whirlwind of Southern Hemisphere mysticism and botanical espionage. An understated triumph. Reliquaria, RA Villanueva (University of Nebraska Press). The Filipino-American’s debut collection is the best book of poems I’ve read for a couple years.
Away from the DeadKholofelo Maenetsha

Away from the Dead, Karen Jennings (Holland Park Press). This collection of short stories stands out not only because of Jennings’s rich and poignant writing, but also for how she portrayed the chilling realities of those left behind as death lingers and finds its place within us.
What Will People SayOn the MoveDept. of SpeculationKate Sidley

What Will People Say?, Rehana Rossouw. I loved this book for its gritty, descriptive language and poignant evocation of life on the Cape Flats. On the Move by Dr Oliver Sacks (Macmillan). A brilliant polymath with consuming enthusiasms and odd eccentricities. Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill (Granta Books). The narrator is frazzled by motherhood, the dissolution of her marriage, and her struggles to be a writer.
Trigger WarningThree Moments of an Explosion: StoriesVanessa and Her SisterSally Partridge

Trigger Warning, Neil Gaiman (Headline). A strange assortment of stories by one of the world’s greatest fantasists. Three Moments of an Explosion, China Mieville (Del Rey Books). Exquisitely crafted, reflecting the skill of a master of the written word. Vanessa and Her Sister, Priya Parmar (Bloomsbury). A sumptuous read that depicts the tempestuous relationship between sisters Virginia (Woolf) and Vanessa Stephen, who were at the centre of the Bloomsbury Group.
My Fight Your FightThe Art of AskingMrs. HemingwayZoe Hinis

My Fight Your Fight, Ronda Rousey (Century). Rousey, the martial artist cage fighter, shares hard-won lessons in an honest and unapologetic voice. The Art of Asking or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help, Amanda Palmer (Little, Brown). The kind of book I wish I’d read as a teen. Just take the doughnuts! Mrs. Hemingway, Naomi Wood (Picador). The story of the four women who wanted to be Mrs H.
The FetchPiggy Boy's BluesHelené Prinsloo

The characters from The Fetch by Finuala Dowling haunted my dreams. The story led me to a garden cottage in the deep south where I kept waiting to happen upon someone like William. Piggy Boy’s Blues, Nakhane Touré (Blackbird). Touré made me feel like I was reading both a familiar and utterly foreign story at the same time.
The Strange LibraryPearl Boshomane

The Strange Library, Haruki Murakami (Harvill Secker). Any book lover adores that new book smell, but this book will please more than your olfactory senses: it’s a feast for the eyes, too. Illustrated by Suzanne Dean, it is a beauty from cover to cover. The story is just as beautiful, turning an old library into a place of adventure and danger.
The Mistborn TrilogyNoluthando Ncube

Mistborn Trilogy: The Final Empire, The Well of Ascension, The Hero of Ages, Brandon Sanderson (Gollanz box set). Sanderson delivers something new — if you like fantasy with minimum violence, excellent world-building and superb character development.
Memoirs of a Born FreeThe Book of ForgivingGirl at WarTinyiko Maluleke

Memoirs of a Born Free: Reflections on the Rainbow Nation, Malaika wa Azania (Jacana). Anyone who read this heartfelt book, whose author was 22 at the time of writing, would not have been surprised by the #RhodesMustFall, #OpenStellenbosch and #FeesMustFall movements. The Book of Forgiving: The fourfold Path for Healing Ourselves and our World, Desmond and Mpho Tutu (HarperCollins). Father and daughter use personal stories to fashion a philosophy of forgiveness. Girl at War, Sara Novic (Little, Brown). What is the most authentic perspective from which to look at war? Through the eyes and experiences of a 10-year-old girl caught up in it.
FeralWe Are All Completely Beside OurselvesChasing The Tails of My Father’s CattleJacqui L’Ange

George Monbiot’s treatise on rewilding ourselves and our landscapes, Feral (Penguin), is timeous and evocative. I couldn’t read another book for a month after Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. Trust me: just dive in. Sindiwe Magona makes the political intensely personal in Chasing the Tails of My Father’s Cattle (Seriti sa Sechaba), a magical story of how one family defies both tradition and modernity to take care of their own.
Green Lion101 DetectivesThe FishermenJennifer Malec

Green Lion, Henrietta Rose-Innes’s fourth book, is masterful. Ivan Vladislavic’s 101 Detectives is witty, enthralling and pleasurably disorientating. But my book of the year is The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma. It’s deceptively simple — although political undertones are there for you if you need them — and wholly engrossing.
H is for HawkA God in RuinsVanessa and Her SisterNikki Temkin

H is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald. A captivating meditation on grief. A God in Ruins, Kate Atkinson (Doubleday). The prequel to the wonderful Life After Life, with Atkinson’s unique turn of phrase and unforgettable characters. Vanessa and Her Sister, Priya Parmar. Jealousy, intrigue, madness and sexual awakening characterise this fascinating story of Virginia and Vanessa.
Why You Were TakenMy Grandmother Sends Her Regards and ApologisesBruce Dennill

Why You Were Taken, JT Lawrence (PULP Books). Thrilling sci-fi. My Grandmother Sends Her Regards And Apologises, Fredrik Backman (Hodder & Stoughton). The narrative is clever and creative, but its real power is in the way it highlights the importance of story-telling in helping people process grief, dreams, ambition and relationships.
101 DetectivesHomeless WanderersThe Good StorySophy Kohler

101 Detectives, Ivan Vladislavic. The stories are bewildering in their refusal to provide a clear resolution, but this is to their credit, in that each leaves a mystery to be solved. Homeless Wanderers: Movement and mental illness in the Cape Colony in the Nineteenth Century by Sally Swartz (UCT Press). Swartz’s portrait of lunatic asylums is an interdisciplinary feat. The Good Story: Exchanges on truth, fiction and psychotherapy by JM Coetzee and Arabella Kurtz (Penguin Random House). There is a tension between Coetzee and psychoanalyst Kurtz, which hinges on their differing conceptions of truth.
Ripley BogleArctic SummerRustum Kozain

Robert McLiam Wilson’s Ripley Bogle (Minerva). Ripleyends up wandering the streets of London. It’s Ulysses updated for Thatcher’s UK. Damon Galgut’s Arctic Summer (Umuzi) is a remarkable novel. Galgut has a fine hand when it comes to turning words we see every day into sentences that shimmer.
A Brief History of Seven KillingsTymon Smith

A Brief History of Seven Killings, Marlon James (Oneworld). Loosely focused around the assassination attempt on Bob Marley in 1976. Earning its author comparisons with everyone from Faulkner to Tarantino, this year’s Man Booker winner gives you faith in the power of literature.
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