Daniel Carpenter: I’ve been a massive fan of Unsung Stories since I first read Aliya Whitley’s The Beauty towards the end of last year. After hearing they were going to be publishing a sci-fi noir written entirely in pentameter, I figured it wasn’t for me. Not so. Dark Star wound up being the most surprising book of the year for me. A bizarre mix of Phillip K Dick and Paradise Lost, Dark Star is a seriously good mystery with a hell of a conclusion. The style might seem odd at first, but two pages in and you won’t want to put it down until it’s over. Earlier in the year, I called Ben Johncock’s The Last Pilot, “one of the most confident, assured debut novels I have ever read.” I still agree with that. I love this book unconditionally. It’s the best book of the year, and it’s going to be one of those books I pass on to anyone who hasn’t read it.
Lucy Chatburn: Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways was the one that stood out for me this year. Sahota’s second novel follows a year in the lives of a group of Indian migrants in Sheffield, is carefully crafted, addictive reading which manages to humanise a topic that’s rarely out of the news at the moment.
Thom Cuell: It feels as though there hasn’t been a single outstanding candidate for best book of 2015. Trying to make my decision, I’ve flitted between the excellent characterisation of I’m Jack by Mark Blackman, Ros Barber’s Devotion, which fizzed with energy and ideas, the brilliantly polyphonic Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James, the intensity of The Vegetarian by Han Kang, the inventive and ambiguous How to be Both by Ali Smith, and the provocative and daring I Love Dick by Chris Kraus. Ultimately, though, my nomination goes to Pond by Clare-Louise Bennett [Ed. a book so good we reviewed it twice]. A psychological portrait of a solitary woman living in a coastal town, Pond is by turns sexy, caustic and poignant, with a Beckettian sense of humour running through it. More than any other book I’ve read in 2015 (with the possible exception of the Kraus), Pond pushes the boundaries of what a novel can be, whilst also displaying real emotional intensity. Unfairly excluded from the Goldsmith’s Prize shortlist, Pond marks the debut of a real literary talent.
Jim Dempsey: If you plan to follow your dreams in 2016, read David Vann’s A Mile Down first. This was his first book, from 2005, and released in the UK in 2015 in hardback. It’s not a novel but a cautionary true tale about giving up a good, stable job to live life on the sea. Vann bought a sailing boat, racked up a huge debt to fit it out, got caught in a storm and lost the boat. He’s apparently as skilled with the spoken word as he is with the written since he managed to convince the same people to lend him more money to buy another boat only to lose that as well. It’s an incredible story of how one man’s high took him lower and lower and lower. Literally.
James Doyle: On Writing is a selection of extracts from Charles Bukowski’s previously unpublished letters that collect his thoughts, frustrations and delight in learning the craft of writing. Every letter contains something quotable, or worth stealing to use as your own, and provokes admiration for Bukowski’s dedication. They display his fifty years of commitment to refining that Bukowski voice (a voice of uncluttered honesty, and equally honest awareness of his own, other people’s and the world’s faults) that has become one of the most identifiable styles among contemporary writers. Throughout the letters, and their tales of drunken disaster, poverty, the jobs and women that occur in his novels, short stories and poetry, the only constant is Bukowski’s time at the typewriter (or pen and paper when he sold the typewriter for drinking money): “the words are forming and churning, spinning and flying for me. The older I get, the more this magic madness seems to fall upon me.”
Ben Granger: Prior to the release of In the Night of Time, a masterful meditation on love, loss, time, infidelity as seen through the prism of his country’s tragic civil war, Spanish novelist Antonio Munoz Molina was fairly unknown in the English speaking world. And after its release… that’s still the case. A shame for the English speaking world, as it’s missing out on a superb work, epic in the truest and fullest sense, a marvellous achievement and a crime not to be read.
Valerie O’Riordan: I’ve read some stellar books this year, from new-to-me older novels like Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, to more recent releases like Louise O’Neill’s chilling YA dystopia, Only Every Yours. I’ve belatedly caught up with Paul Murray and was a big fan of The Mark and the Void (whatever Eileen Battersby has to say about it) and most recently I loved the latest story collection from the Curious Tales collective, Congregation of Innocents, and I’ve had a sneaky read of what’s going to surely be one of the knockout titles of 2016, Ian McGuire’s brutal historical thriller, The North Water. Top of my chart for 2015, though, has to be Lisa McInerney’s The Glorious Heresies: a grim and hilarious crime-slash-family saga set in contemporary Cork – don’t wait for the paperback; activate your inner hipster and get in before the hordes!
Joe Phelan: Kolyma Tales is a selection of the short stories written by Russian writer Varlam Shalamov based upon his experiences of spending up to 17 years in the Kolyma prison camps. Told in a cold dispassionate style the tales relate the unrelenting brutality of life for prisoners in the far north west of the old Soviet Union. Because of its isolation escape is virtually impossible though Shalamov does document a few attempts, all of which come to nothing. Winters in Kolyma are interminable and serve as the best warder the authorities could have. The prisoners humanity is eroded piece by piece as they struggle for basic survival in one of the most horrific detention camps known to man. The writing is precise and cold and you are left with no doubt that Shalamov is relating most of what he has experienced.
Tamim Sadikali: For my money the Booker is too conservative but I was delighted that Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island reached the shortlist. Any work can be picked apart, and Satin Island suffered from a pomposity that assaulted all the senses, but the writing was on a different plane to anything I read in 2015. McCarthy’s penmanship made me jealous – so he’s on the list. On the subject of the writer as artist, Mohamedou Ould Slahi can make no such claims – and yet that took absolutely nothing away from the power of Guantanamo Diary. As I wrote at the time, Slahi’s account of his “…journey across the world’s most notorious ‘black sites’, as he is passed like a ragdoll between CIA, FBI, Military Intelligence, foreign secret services, amateur interrogators and professional torturers, could be the worst written book in all history, and it would still be unputdownable.” I hope he is released soon. Finally, in these politically correct times, I was drawn to Jeremy Clarke’s Low Life like a bee to honey (or perhaps a fly to shit). Every observation of this professional dosser had me in stitches. It is worth noting that his affable, self-deprecating style takes the focus off just what a fine writer he is.
Fran Slater: There are two books I’ve been unable to stop thinking about this year, and remarkably (for me anyway) neither of them were works of fiction. The first of the two landed back in March. Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed is an investigation of public shamings in the age of social media. We hear from now infamous characters such as Justine Sacco, who made a slightly off colour Twitter joke while boarding a plane and landed to notoriety nine hours later, as Ronson delves deep into an attempt to understand our urge to make people pay in 140 characters or less. It’s a work of non-fiction, but it made me turn the pages quicker than any thriller I read this year. The second contender is a little more recent. Gulwali Passarley’s The Lightless Sky tells the story of the journey the auithor made as a twelve-year-old boy, from a life-threatening situation in Afghanistan to relative peace in the UK. The book unlocks a lot of mysteries surrounded the journeys of asylum seekers and it should be forced into the hands of anyone who thinks people come to this country for an easy life, or that they risk life and limb just to join our benefit system. It’s a powerful, upsetting, and inspirational read, documenting the life of a remarkable man.
Peter Wild: There were maybe a dozen novels I liked a whole lot this year (Julie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Member, Jonas Karlsson’s The Room, Denis Johnson’s The Laughing Monsters, Ian Sansom’s Death in Devon, TC Boyle’s The Harder They Come, Preparation for the Next Life by Atticus Lish, Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf, The Cartel by Don Winslow, Joy PA by Steve Sherrill, and Patrick DeWitt’s Undermajordomo Minor) but the book I’d urge on people the most is Rupert Thomson’s Katherine Carlyle. Thomson remains inexplicably not immensely famous despite decades of writing tremendous novels. Katherine Carlyle is right up there with his best and comes highly recommended from us.