My Favorite Books of 2015 (so far)

BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME by Ta-Nehisi Coates is a fully-charged, wholly-realized argument about where we stand as a society on the question of race — a searing, powerful, emotional memoir of what it means to grow up black in America. It takes the form of a series of letters Coates writes to his son, which means it’s also full of tender, often heartbreaking, observations. The writing here is so finely crafted that you occasionally find yourself holding your breath. Can a sentence so delicately constructed, you wonder, support the weight of the ideas it’s asked to contain? That it succeeds so magnificently is just part of why this book is the most important thing you’re likely to read this year. http://amzn.to/1UIFpeX

GHETTOSIDE by Jill Levoy is a book about murder in America — an argument about how lawlessness manifests itself in violence. Levoy, a writer for the LA Times, spent almost a decade embedded in the city police department, and for two of those years, she kept track of every homicide in Los Angeles County. The central narrative of the book hinges on the investigation of one death — the killing of Bryant Tennelle, the black son of an LAPD homicide detective. Her protagonist is John Skaggs, the complicated and deeply idealistic, cop assigned to work the case. As his team follows leads and tracks down suspects, Levoy zooms out to place this particular murder in the context of history to show the lack of value America has placed on the lives of young black men. This book is a rock-ribbed piece of old-school journalism that quivers with rage. http://amzn.to/1J4FLEo

A GOD IN RUINS by Kate Atkinson is the story of a Teddy Todd, a veteran, father and grandfather, whose life spans the 20th Century. It is also, technically, a sequel to LIFE AFTER LIFE, her best-selling 2013 novel about Teddy’s sister, Ursula — a woman who lives and dies repeatedly between and after the World Wars. Any review of LIFE AFTER LIFE begins with a description of its puzzle box structure — the way each chapter ends with Ursula’s death, then picks up after a different choice allows her life to continue and unfold in a new way. On its surface, A GOD IN RUINS doesn’t traffic in the same metaphysical pyrotechnics. But its structure, too, has tricks to play — jumps in time, shifts in perspective — which make it clear that Atkinson is operating on a different level. She has themes she wants to explore that play out in the narrative (about conflict and the changes to society that war can bring), but equally, she has ideas about the way that stories are told she wants us to examine as well. http://amzn.to/1LaXj5u

H IS FOR HAWK by Helen MacDonald is about how people process grief, birds of prey as culture artifacts, and how we take responsibility for things other than ourselves. It’s also, somehow, a literary biography of T.H. White. You think there’s just no way all those threads come together, but it works — and does so beautifully. That’s in part because MacDonald, a professor of history at Cambridge, is a crackerjack writer. Again and again, she takes small moments and quiets observations and transforms them into visions of pure wonder. http://amzn.to/1COXJ1q

KITCHENS OF THE GREAT MIDWEST by J. Ryan Stradal is a novel with big-hearted generosity for its setting and characters, but it’s also a book that quietly peels back the layers that define its location and skewers those who populate it. Eva Thorvald is the woman at its center — though we only see things from her perspective once, just before she turns 11 years old. The other chapters are narrated by her friends and family, colleagues and customers. She’s a woman with a gift — a palette that allows her to imagine new possibilities with food and provoke emotional responses with her menus. And this story is about how that gift develops, one dish at a time. It’s funny, full of life, and perfectly attuned to this particular moment in time. http://amzn.to/1LfOhXZ

THE LAST PILOT by Benjamin Johncock is a gorgeous, nostalgia-soaked debut novel about ambition, the Space Race, and loss. Jim Harrison is an Air Force test pilot in the aftermath of World War II, part of a team pushing jets to break the sound barrier over the Mojave Desert. At home, he and his wife, Grace, quietly grapple with their inability to have children. For a time, that changes. But the daughter they never expected is taken from them too soon, and each parent struggles to cope with that loss. Rather than grieve, Jim throws himself into work — joining the Gemini space program — until he’s forced to make a choice about what he actually values. This is a book constantly weaving in real history. Real people (like Chuck Yeagar, Jim Lovell, and Pancho Barnes) help shape its contours. But its well-earned humanity is very much a product of the fictional family at its center. http://amzn.to/1IWpWR4

THE STAR SIDE OF BIRD HILL by Naomi Jackson is a story about identity, family, and sense of place. Its heroines are a pair of sisters — Phaedra, just 10, and Dionne, 16. They’re sent from Brooklyn to spend a summer with their grandmother in Barbados and gradually asked to contend with who they are and where they belong. The magic of this story is in their voices. They’re real, these girls — with frustrations and faults that we can recognize. But they’re also incandescent — Phaedra through her observations of this world and Dionne through her force of will. And Naomi Jackson is more than enough of a poet to make their story sing. http://amzn.to/1g3zjaf

THE SHEPHERD’S LIFE by James Rebanks is an attempt to capture and distill life on a farm in the Lake District of northwest England. So it’s a study of a place with a deep history and sense of self. It succeeds because it features some knockdown beautiful writing about nature and our relationship to it. But it also works because Rebanks is more than just a keen observer of his family tradition who can turn a pretty phrase. He’s also an expert advisor to UNESCO on sustainable tourism — who can put his community into context and infuse his observations with meaning. http://amzn.to/1gNhP1Z

UPROOTED by Naomi Novik is as good a piece of stand-alone fantasy as you’ll find. It’s a fairy tale, rooted in a folklore tradition that stretches back for, you know, all of human history. But it’s a deeply modern piece of storytelling — with a core set of interesting, complicated characters and a world around them that’s fully formed. And even better, this book has a plot that moves — which helps to distinguish it from a lot of modern fantasy. Her stories have enough twists and turns to show off their depth, but Novik doesn’t need to lead you down every path to show off the breadth of her imagination. http://amzn.to/1DtnsHy

THE WATER KNIFE by Paolo Bacigalupi is near-future science fiction, set in the American Southwest a few decades from now. The entire region has been crippled by drought, and the local governments have learned to use every tool at their disposal to secure water rights — or they’ve collapsed altogether. Rumors of a new claim to a major water source brings together a lot of conflicting interests in Phoenix, bodies start to pile up, and shortly after, this book becomes becomes pretty much impossible to put down. http://amzn.to/1COXGCE

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