WILEY’S FAVORITE BOOKS OF 2015

by Wiley Brooks

 

Boys-in-the-Boat

I know no one has been sitting on the edge of their seats waiting for my second annual list of favorite books. Too bad! I’m going to share it anyway.

This has been a big year for me and books. As many of you know, I do almost all my “reading” with my ears through Audible. I love how Audible has changed my life. Before Audible, I read two or three books a year. In 2015, I read 58! And some of them were huge tomes.

One of my goals entering this year was to broaden my library. I do most of my reading while working out and found that face-paced novels kept me pumping. Slower stories, at least I feared, would let my mind wander too much. What I found this year was that it’s not slower stories that enabled my brain to take a hike, but poorly written ones. My goal to diversify paid rewards, some of which make it into my list of favorites.

As I looked away from fast-paced fiction, I found a home in historical fiction, non-fiction and biographies. You’ll see that I spent a lot of time in the 1930s and ‘40s. I suspect that I’ll carry that focus into 2016. So, without further delay, here’s my favorite books of 2015. (Not in any particular order.)

The Boys in the Boat. By Daniel James Brown. The story of the 1936 Olympic gold medal crew from the University of Washington was my last complete read for 2015. I chose to download it for a couple reasons. First, 2015 has been the year that I got into rowing at the gym. I love it. I can get lost in the stroke. Perhaps, I thought, I would be able to relate to the story because of it. The second reason was that it went on the bestsellers list in 2014 and stayed there. Thousands of Audible reviewers gave it a 4.74 rating (out of 5). That’s rarified air. Well, this book is so beautifully written that it deserves every accolade that it gets. Non-fiction at its best. If you read and liked Unbroken or Seabiscuit, this is the book for you. The narrator is Edward Hermann and he’s magnificent. Wow. You have to read this book! #TheBoysInTheBoat

All the Light We Cannot See. By Anthony Doerr. This novel also broke onto the bestsellers lists in 2014 and stayed there. Fast-paced novels by big names often break into the bestsellers, hang around for a bit, then fade. Books like All the Light. . . don’t fade because they are so good that word of mouth keeps bringing new readers. This is a wonderfully told story about two children before World War 2 who come of age during the war. One is a German boy and the other a younger blind French girl whose paths eventually cross as each tries to survive the war in their own ways. Before this year, I had little interest in things WW2, but as you read my favorites list here you’ll see that many of my choices came from that period. Even The Boy in the Boat is a lot about Hitler and the Germany of 1936. All the Light. . . made me more interested in another one set in France during WW2. The Nightingale was also an awesome read. It’s about a young Parisian girl who is betrayed by her boyfriend and then becomes a hero in the resistance movement. While The Nightingale is fiction, she is based on a real-life character. #AllTheLightWeCannotSee  #TheNightingale

The Winds of War. By Herman Wouk. This book was published in 1971, right after I graduated from college. I had managed to not read it. I’m so glad that I now have. This a fact-based fictional story about the lead-up to WW2. It follows families from the US, England, Germany and Russia. The insights into the pre-war world are eye-opening. The detail fantastic. The story compelling. It’s a long book, but worth the effort. Most of my reads are 12 to 18 hours in length. This one was just shy of 46 hours. It was so good, though, that I immediately followed it up with the 56-hour sequel, War and Remembrance, that followed the same families through to the end of the war. Of the two books, The Winds of War was my favorite, but I’d recommend both to anyone who hasn’t read them. #WindsOfWar   #WarAndRemembrance

Society’s Child: My Autobiography. By Janis Ian. Janis Ian reads and sings in this audiobook (published in print in 2008; audio in 2012). It won a Grammy for Spoken Word in 2013. This is a wonderful listen as we hear, first hand, the story of her life, which had its share of ups and downs. Janis Ian’s first big hit, Society’s Child, came out in 1966, my senior year in high school. I became an instant fan. Now I can fill in the gaps of when she seemed to drop off the face of the earth, came back, then drop off again. This is such a heart-warming story and she uses bits and pieces of her songs, sung in her distinctive style, at just the right times in the story. This is a book that I am sure is far better in audio than it is to just read. If you like Janis Ian, you can follow her on Facebook at www.Facebook.com/janisianpage/ . She’s fun to follow. #SocietysChild

The Bone Tree. By Greg Iles. A good old-fashioned good guys versus bad guys story set in Mississippi. Elements of the KKK, corrupt police, crusading journalists, and, of course, the hero, a former prosecutor named Penn Cage. This is a tightly told whodunit. The pace of the story never lets up. A bittersweet ending. This book is a sequel to Natchez Burning, which I have yet to read. #TheBoneTree

Pretty Girls. By Karin Slaughter. First, a word of warning: the backstory to this novel is revolting, so I was glad that it stayed largely woven into the background. Enough said about that. The front story is a great one where the women characters are the strong ones. In every way. This book has love, loss, redemption and sweet (though violent) revenge. At its core, it’s a mystery with a complex, intelligent plot, fully defined characters and wicked writing. #PrettyGirls

The Girl With All the Gifts. By M.R. Carey. 14. By Peter Clines. I don’t read a lot of science fiction, but thoroughly enjoyed both of these novels. In 14, Nate, a down-on-his-luck worker-bee, finds an incredible deal on an apartment in the Kavach Building in old part of L.A. But strange forces lurk just out of sight at the Kavach. Nate first notices that the mutant cockroaches are iridescent. One by one, he enlists others in the building. Eventually, what they find hints at the apocalypse. Fun from the beginning to the end. In a completely different way, The Girl With All the Gifts is also a thrill ride. Set in Britain about 10 years after a zombie apocalypse, the world is reduced to small pockets of humans hiding or walled off from the undead. The story here, though, is about a young zombie girl named Melanie who lives, at least at the start of the book, in a human outpost in order to be studied. Unlike the other wild and crazy zombies, she and her schoolmates have evolved. They can speak, learn and think. Still, they’re zombies, so a whiff of human can set them off. But as Melanie shows us, they can get beyond that. I had a good time listening to this one! #14  #TheGirlWithAllTheGifts

Alexander Hamilton. By Ron Chernow. A well written tome on one of the most influential fathers of our country. It’s filled with personal details about the man and his many achievements and handful of foibles. I didn’t previously know just how key he was in creating our entire financial system, nor did I appreciate the breadth of his role in shaping the entire government through his writing of so many of the Federalist Papers, not to mention his articles in newspapers under various fake names. I think what I might have liked most about this book were the insights it gave me into other key figures of Hamilton’s time, most notably George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. I came away with a full understanding of why Alexander Hamilton is on the 10-dollar bill and why I hope he never loses that enduring recognition. I still don’t know how they made a Broadway musical from this book, but Hamilton the musical is a huge hit. Got to see it someday. #AlexanderHamilton

 

A Few Others Worth Note. . .

I enjoyed The Girl on the Train, though not as much as lots of reviewers. I read three of the Gabriel Allon series (Israeli spy/world renown art restorer) by Daniel Silva. My favorite was The Rembrandt Affair. Allon is not your Jack Reacher type of secret agent. He’s a far more complex guy and while the books have action, he’s not so macho. I enjoyed a novel called I Am Pilgrim. It’s about a forensic pathologist who gets sucked into a case when someone is using the book he wrote to commit untraceable murders. Then things really get bad as the true target is revealed and the clock is running (isn’t it always?). This one is likely headed to the Big Screen. Writing as Robert Galbraith, Harry Potter’s J.K. Rowling’s series about a one-legged London private detective named Cormoran Strike had a new, fun entry called Career of Evil. What can I say? The lady can write. This is an entertaining series that I’m sure I’ll download as each new one is released. #TheGirlOnTheTrain  #TheRembrandtAffair  #IAmPilgrim  #CareerOfEvil

 

Biggest Fail on My List. . .

Finally, my biggest disappointment of the year was Rogue Lawyer by John Grisham. I so much wanted Grisham to be as good as he used to be. Didn’t happen for me. Blows my mind that it was No. 1 on the NY Times bestsellers list last week. I guess there are a lot of people like me who keep hoping he’ll do something good again. We’re making him richer. That’s about all that can be said for it. #RogueLawyer