Chicago’s literary community is full of readers and writers, authors and agents, editors and publishers, publicists and marketers … a bevy of bibliophiles who read plenty of books during the course of any given year. We wanted to see what people have been reading, and so we asked a bunch of them what their favorite books of 2015 were. Some of their favorite books have local twists, others don’t, but they’re all favorites of some of the area’s finest literary forces. What you’ll find here is an interesting mix of titles for children, young adults, and grown-ups from some of the luminaries of Chicago’s lit scene. In addition to our Best Books of 2015 list (which will come out next week), our Summer 2015 Preview, our Fall 2015 Preview, and our 2015 Holiday Reading Guide, this list of a dozen titles proves to be yet another source of good reading.
So here goes: some of Chicago’s Favorite Books of 2015, brought to you by some of the area’s literary faves.
Atlas of an Anxious Man
by Christoph Ransmayr
University of Chicago Press
Imagine if W. G. Sebald went on a trip around the world and you’d pretty much have this book. Atlas of an Anxious Man is a memoir, history, travelogue, and seemingly everything else imaginable, written in near-perfect prose and struggling with what it means to be human,
no matter the geography.
—Noah Cruickshank, marketing manager, Open Books
Before I Go
by Colleen Oakley
Before I Go tells the story of a young woman trying to find a new wife for her husband before she dies of cancer. Equal parts heartbreaking and humorous, I cherished Oakley’s endearing and true-to-life characters and truly admired the way she was able to bring joy to such a dark theme; she’s a gifted storyteller. An uplifting tearjerker that drew me in from the very first page.
—Mary Kubica, bestselling author of The Good Girl and Pretty Baby
by Sarah Gerard
Two Dollar Radio
I read and reviewed nearly a hundred books in 2015 for our blog, but Sarah Gerard’s Binary Star easily stands out as one of the most memorable. Published by our neighbors in Ohio, the rapidly ascending indie press Two Dollar Radio, this semi-autobiographical tale recounts the sometimes darkly humorous horrors that come with twenty-something hipsters trying to grow up, in this case woven around a coast-to-coast road trip by a dysfunctional couple while our female narrator also struggles with an eating disorder. Poetic in its prose and like a trainwreck in its plot, this is a great example of all the daring things an indie publisher can get away with that mainstream presses can no longer afford to take a chance on.
—Jason Pettus, owner, Chicago Center for Literature and Photography
by Laura Ruby
Balzar + Bray
Bone Gap is a beautiful work of magical realism, set in a rural town, about a girl who is kidnapped and the boy who witnessed the crime, but can’t seem to identify the kidnapper. Ruby has a unique and poignant voice, telling a story that’s both quiet and deceivingly high-concept.
—Dana Kaye, founder of Kaye Publicity, Inc.
Girl Waits With Gun
by Amy Stewart
This is historical fiction at its finest. Girl Waits With Gun tells the story of the real-life Kopp sisters, who in 1914 find their quiet world upended after their buggy collides with the automobile driven by a bullying local factory owner. After the sisters—sturdy Constance, pigeon-obsessed Norma, and the theatrical Fleurette—demand he set things right, the local bully begins a campaign of intimidation to scare the sisters off. But instead of backing down, the Kopps gloriously fight back. Stewart’s sly humor hooked me from the first pages, and I adored the unconventional charms and strengths of Constance and her sisters. An absorbing, fun read.
—Kate Hannigan, author of the middle-grade historical detective novel The Detective’s Assistant (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2015)
The Meursault Investigation
The protagonist of this novel is Harun, the brother of ‘the Arab.’ Musa (with no name in The Stranger) is killed by Meursault, Albert Camus’s anti-hero in The Stranger. The opening line of The Stranger is “Mother died today.” Kamel’s The Meursault Investigation opens with “Mama is still alive today.” It is Daoud’s homage to Camus and a wonderful retelling of the story from the Arab’s perspective.
—Syed Afzal Haider, senior editor, Chicago Quarterly Review, and author, To Be With Her
High School students join a new social networking site that grants them what they most Need, but as they soon learn, that gift comes with a hefty price. I found the story compelling—it reminds me of Lois Duncan’s thrillers for teenagers. So I recommended it to my twelve-year-old son, Alex, and he’s halfway through it already. I asked him what he thought and said, “I really just want to know what comes next!”
—Susanna Calkins, author of The Masque of a Murderer (Lucy Campion mysteries/Minotaur-St. Martins)
by Kristin Hannah
St. Martin’s Press
I couldn’t put it down. So sad. And brave. And surprising. In books about World War 2, we tend to overlook the fact that people in the occupied countries suffered as well. This was a gentle but
—Libby Fischer Hellmann, author of The Incidental Spy,
a WW2 Novella
On the Way
by Cyn Vargas
In this compelling collection of contemporary short stories, Cyn Vargas plumbs the depths of loss, need, family, desire, and otherness, in situations great and small. Here is the man who works at the DMV and longs for the new driver behind the wheel; here is the daughter whose mother disappears while they are on a family trip to Guatemala; here is the young woman who comes face-to-face with her first abusive, then absent father at her grandmother’s funeral. There is no sugar coating on these stories, and that is part of what I love most about them. That, and the beautiful, straightforward voice and sense of story, the way Cyn lures me in with the ease of her storytelling, the way she holds me in the pages, reading, reading, reading, satisfied, but still (like her characters) wanting more.
—Patricia Ann McNair, author of The Temple of Air
Pretend I’m Dead
by Jen Beagin
Northwestern University Press
Meet Mona, a twenty-four-year-old house cleaner. She falls in love with a heroin addict, she moves away, she meets odd characters, such as the hippies next door who build their own instruments and make their own “music.” I simply couldn’t put this book down; Beagin creates characters and situations so vividly, you can see them. Like the hippies—I could hear their awful music. Through Mona’s journey, she uncovers some deep-buried secrets. You’re crying for her and laughing through this book.
—Mare Swallow, Executive Director, Chicago Writers Conference
Searching for Sunday
by Rachel Held Evans
Fatigued by the culture wars, hypocrisy, and scandals, Rachel Held Evans lost interest in attending church but could never fully let go. In this timely, beautifully written book, Evans echoes the cry of her millennial peers as she wrestles with her uprooted faith and searches for a spiritual home. It’s difficult to leave the evangelical world because it is uniquely gifted at forging committed, generous community; but when that generosity does not extend to friends who are LGBTQ, feminists, immigrants, and from other disenfranchised corners of society, it’s difficult to reconcile the divide. I loved reading this book because, as a former evangelical, I could identify with the tension Evans describes.
—Deborah Lee, author of Rescuing Jesus: How People of Color, Women and Queer Christians Are Reclaiming Evangelicalism (Beacon Press, 2015)
And, although a writer shouldn’t necessarily insert herself into her own feature, one of my own favorites of 2015 …
Fracture: Life & Culture in the West, 1918–1928
by Philipp Blom
The period between the wars (i.e., WWI and WWII) fascinates me, that strange mix of peace and optimism with war mongering and unfinished business. Philipp Blom divides this period into two spans: postwar and prewar, focusing on everything from music to technology to politics, noting that “progress and innovation were everywhere met with increasing racism and xenophobia.” Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. A great read for history buffs—and for anyone who wants to understand both the times we’ve lived through and the times we’re living in.
—Kelli Christiansen, founder bibliobibuli, Chicago Book Review, and Chicago Publishing Network
So, what’s your favorite? Chime in with your favorite book of 2015. The 25th person to comment noting their favorite book of this year will win a $25 bookstore gift card to start 2016 off with a good book!
Happy Holidays—and Happy Reading!