Trying to decide how to use that bookstore gift card you got for Christmas? We’re here to help with a few of our favorites (and not-so-favorites) from 2015. Happy reading.
Books I loved: All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doer. This historical drama follows the lives of French teen Marie-Laure, who is blind, and German orphan Werner, whose mechanical genius leads him out of poverty into the elite Hitler Youth. A quick read even at almost 550 pages, this novel is a perfect balance of the two World War II stories.
The Luckiest Girl Alive, by Jessica Knoll. The lucky girl is Ani, a 20-something who seemingly has it all. She has a perfect job at a trendy women’s magazine with access to the clothes closet, and a perfect family diamond from her rich and handsome fiance. Don’t be fooled though; this is not chick lit. Ani’s flawless life is a fake. Knoll’s debut novel, however, is no fake.
Those Girls, by Chevy Stevens. What makes this book so good is how bad its title characters are. Stevens’ “girls” are the three Campbell sisters, whom we meet on the night they kill their father. Dani, Courtney and Jess are poor teens whose mother died and left them with an abusive drunk for a father. These girls are not pushovers. They can shoot and fight, and they fiercely protect each other. Unfortunately after that deadly night, their lives go from bad to worse.
But these girls are survivors. They don’t give an inch without a fight. They never give up. These bad girls’ story is so good.
Wish I’d read: Any of the “Outlander” books by Diana Gabaldon. I know, I know, I’m like the last female in the world who hasn’t read them. I’ve heard over and over for years from my girlfriends about Jamie and his kilt. Some of my reservations include that I don’t usually read sci-fi or time-travel books, I usually hate books in a series, and Scottish history ... well, not so much. But OK, I was flipping through the channels one night and, lo and behold, the hottie in the kilt was sweeping Claire off her feet, literally.
So, I am saying to my girlfriends right here in print, I wish I’d read them and now I will.
Big disappointment: The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins. I read the previews and reviews that promised this year’s Gone Girl. Not so much. So there’s a girl, Rachel, who rides a train. Yes, she’s a dubious narrator, like Gone Girl’s Amy, but that’s where the similarities end. Crazy Amy kept us guessing and never failed to shock us with her demented ways. Poor Rachel is pretty predicable. Luckily, we also get narration from Megan, the woman Rachel is stalking from the train, and Anna, Rachel’s ex-husband’s new wife. While Amy was calculating and manipulative, Rachel gets by in a drunken fantasyland she creates in her mind every day she rides the train. Eventually Rachel gets off the train and drunkenly stumbles into the real lives of neighbors Megan and Anna.
Rachel’s ex-husband, Megan’s husband and even a police investigator become part of the crazy train. Unfortunately, nothing about Rachel’s sobering plot twists are enough to save this girl’s story. She’s just not as amazing as Amy.
Jean Marie Brown
Books I loved: Mat Johnson’s Pym — a clever and satirical look at race in America using Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket.
Jabari Asim’s Only the Strong. The political and social unrest of the 1970s is explored through the lens of Gateway City, a fictional Midwestern city.
Guilty pleasure: Jodi Thomas’ Ransom Canyon. The engaging introduction to Thomas’ latest serial was a wonderful meet and greet in a small Texas town.
Wish I read: Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies. A look at truth and honesty in marriage — apparently not always the best thing — is top of my list to read during the holiday break.
Big disappointment: Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman. This sequel to To Kill A Mockingbird should have never been published.
Books I loved: James M. Scott’s Target Tokyo: Jimmy Doolittle and the Raid that Avenged Pearl Harbor. Supplemented with new historical resources, Scott’s book revisits the legendary American mission with a splendid dramatic narrative.
Erik Larson’s Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania. The gifted Larson expounds on our primary understanding by putting faces to one of the world’s great tragedies in an intimate portrait.
Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger’s Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates. The authors won’t be mistaken for the masters of this craft, such as David McCullough or Doris Kearns Goodwin, but the two have provided a timely account that provides perspective on current events.
Christopher Dickey’s Our Man in Charleston. The little-known tale of British diplomat Robert Bunch, the savvy attaché who led a double life in Civil War-era South Carolina.
Guilty pleasure: Brad Meltzer’s The President’s Shadow. Bestselling author crafts winding tale of murder and intrigue at the White House.
Wish I’d read: Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman. The author, the controversies, the original are all magnets of curiosity.
Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train. The New York Times bestseller was a talker for most of 2015.
McCullough’s The Wright Brothers. I can’t imagine a better choice of telling the story of the original fliers than the Pulitzer Prize-winning author.
Books I loved: Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire. A deeply ambitious first novel, surveying no less than the sum of 1970s New York City, with a Dickensian eye for detail and richness of character. It pulls the reader in and leaves you wanting more.
Don Winslow’s The Cartel. The second half of a literary diptych about the grueling ineffectiveness of the drug war raging across the American and Mexican borders, this gripping, gruesome and sophisticated novel is masterful.
Richard Price’s The Whites. Writing under the pen name Harry Brandt, acclaimed novelist Price plunges you deep inside a complex murder investigation, watching all the strands come together, even as the detectives begin to unravel.
Guilty pleasure: Judd Apatow’s Sick in the Head. This collection of interviews with comedy legends, from Jerry Seinfeld to Steve Allen to Amy Schumer, conducted over three decades by Apatow, is as hilarious as it is fascinating.
Wish I’d read: T.C. Boyle’s The Harder They Come. Among the many novels I’d hoped to crack open but didn’t get to in 2015 was this reportedly riveting character study and finely wrought thriller.
Big disappointment: Jonathan Franzen’s Purity. This densely plotted, overwrought soap opera takes the scenic route to arrive at a destination that isn’t particularly inspiring, stopping along the way to wring hands about the demise of print journalism and the Internet’s iron grip on us all.
Favorite book with a Texas connection: Former Star-Telegram editor Julia Heaberlin’s Black-Eyed Susans is classic psychological suspense set in good old Fort Worth. The heroine, Tessa Cartwright, is an artist and single mother haunted by her past. When she was 16, she was discovered in a field of black-eyed Susans among the bones of other girls; all victims of a serial killer. Now, it seems like the killer might be back, and she might have sent the wrong man to Death Row all those years ago. The book has already been optioned for a movie, but read it now for a page-turning thrill.
Favorite book overall: I love the first four of Kate Morton’s novels. She’s Australia’s bestselling author and her newest book, The Lake House, is even better than the ones that came before. This tale of family secrets and a beautiful crumbling estate in Cornwall is the one to cozy up with on long winter nights.
Favorite listens: I started listening to Sophie Kinsella’s completely fun “Shopaholic” books when my 22-year-old daughter was a middle schooler, and we enjoyed them via cassette tape on morning commutes to her school. Shopaholic to the Rescue is the latest in the series and is pure comedic pleasure. Plus, it’s read by a narrator with a lovely British accent.
Alan Bradley continued his Flavia de Luce series with As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust, in which our heroine finds herself in a Canadian boarding school unraveling mysteries and learning about her own family’s secrets. Whip-smart Flavia is one of my all-time favorite characters. Plus, it’s also read by a narrator with a lovely British accent.
Least favorite read: Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman. I guess publishing this novel proved that Lee was capable of writing something less amazing than the simply perfect To Kill a Mockingbird. But really, I think it was just a way for the publisher to make some easy money. There was a reason Lee’s editor had her overhaul this so-so book into the classic we all love.
Favorite cookbook: A Girl and Her Greens: Hearty Meals From the Garden by April Bloomfield is filled with ideas for what to do with all your fresh vegetables. The recipes I’ve tried have all been creative and over-the-top delicious.
Books I loved: Daniel Silva’s The English Spy. Silva tops my list every year. He’s the best espionage writer in the business. This one involves the assassination of a Princess Diana type, unrest in Northern Ireland, Iran’s efforts to become a nuclear power and a growing threat from Russia.
Stephen Hunter’s I, Ripper. A bloody good thriller in which the author ghost-writes passages from Jack the Ripper’s diary. Hunter re-creates the sites, the people and the vibe of dodgy Whitechapel so vividly you feel like you’re there alongside Jack.
Joseph Kanon’s Leaving Berlin. An atmospheric and fast-paced historical thriller set in Cold War-era East Berlin. The protagonist is a celebrated Jewish author who fled Germany before the Holocaust. Now he’s back, playing a dangerous game as a novice spy.
Favorite author interviews: Matthew Quick, for Love May Fail. The author, best known for The Silver Linings Playbook, and I bonded over our love of It’s a Wonderful Life, ET and Lynda Carter (TV’s Wonder Woman). But I can’t say I share his passion for hair-metal rockers Mötley Crüe.
James Rollins, for The Bone Labyrinth. He revealed his biggest headache as a writer: Too many ideas! “I’m constantly discarding things from my idea box. Don’t want one box to become two boxes to become four boxes to become James Rollins-in-an-episode-of-Hoarders.”
Biggest disappointments: Robin Cook’s Host. I didn’t mind that it’s a redo of 1977’s Coma. Botched-surgery horror stories are still compelling. But every time the hero leaves the hospital, it becomes a pedestrian thriller. Plus, too many annoying copy-editing errors for a $26.95 hardcover.
Elmore Leonard’s Charlie Martz and Other Stories. I let high expectations get the better of me. If these previously unpublished short stories, written in the 1950s and early ’60s, were up to Dutch’s usual standards, they’d have been published years ago.
Guilty pleasure: Anthony Horowitz’s Trigger Mortis. It felt like reading Ian Fleming again: 007 drives in a Grand Prix race to prevent an assassination, uncovers a SMERSH scheme to sabotage a rocket test and teams up with a beautiful American agent (Jeopardy Lane!) to foil a bombing.
Wish I’d read: Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train. I had two thrillers, both billed as the next Gone Girl, and could choose only one to review. Picked The Kind Worth Killing by Peter Swanson, which is good, but not the sensation that The Girl on the Train turned out to be.
Looking forward to: Skip Hollandsworth’s The Midnight Assassin. A true crime story about a vicious serial killer who terrorized Austin in 1885, written by one of Texas Monthly’s best contributors. Coming March 15.
Justin’s Cronin’s The City of Mirrors. Have been waiting for years for the final installment of “The Passage” trilogy. Book two, The Twelve, came out way back in 2012. The waiting ends May 24.
Books I loved: The subtitle tells all in Chris Taylor’s How Star Wars Conquered the Universe: The Past, Present and Future of a Multibillion-Dollar Franchise. Taylor, a fan himself, explores just about every nook and cranny of George Lucas’ franchise and the ensuing fandom without ever losing his sense of wonder and humor. A 2014 book, but recently updated to include more The Force Awakens-related material.
At 670 pages, Elvis Costello’s memoir Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink rambles a bit, especially since Costello opts against a traditional chronological approach.
Longtime (and now former) Village Voice music critic Robert Christgau’s memoir Going Into the City gets a little too introspective in some spots and verges on TMI in others (especially when he’s talking about his sex life). But when he latches on to something he loves — Crime and Punishment, punk-era group Television’s boundary-stretching album Marquee Moon — the book takes off.
Guilty pleasure: Billy Idol’s memoir Dancing With Myself is more standard rock-star stuff: Struggle, success, debauchery, decline, comeback. But Idol lets you in on so much dirt about himself that it’s hard to resist his approach.
Wish I’d read: I read a lot of pop-culture nonfiction, but on my to-read list is some pop-culture-inspired fiction: City on Fire, Garth Risk Hallberg’s epic novel about mid-’70s New York that climaxes with the chaos of the July 13, 1977, blackout.