Best fiction 2015: where the critics agree

It’s that time of the year when media proclaim the best books published over the past 12 months. I’m not sure the lists offer much more than a chance for readers to check off the ones they’ve read and ones they’ve missed. Are these lists really representing the best books published in 2015? What about the books the organization didn’t review, maybe one from a small press that didn’t get noticed? Paul Harding’s novel Tinkers comes to mind, which won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. The New York Times didn’t review it.

A favorite task I love to do with end-of-year best fiction lists is cross-reference a few to see if one novel stands out as an agreed upon favorite. This year, I worked with lists from The New York Times, Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly, The Washington Post and the The Boston Globe. I worked with the longer “notable fiction books” lists rather than the top ten lists, which mix all genres; however, I did include the top ten list from The Washington Post. Their top 10 selections don’t appear in their long list of bests, while The New York Times does include theirs.

These five publications all agreed on, not one, but two books, both listed among their best/notable fiction for 2015. NPR’s critic Maureen Corrigan also claimed the two among her year’s favorites. Here they are:

A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia BerlinA Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories by Lucia Berlin
Laird Hunt on August 26 in The Washington Post wrote: “Through measured use of sentence fragments, unexpected word choices and fascinating juxtapositions, Berlin’s stories embody rather than merely describe the challenges faced by her marginalized narrators and protagonists. At their most inventive, these stories switch direction as frequently as the buses in the title story, which comprises a house cleaner’s wry journal that she writes on public transportation. …In the meantime, those not lucky enough to have yet encountered the writing of Lucia Berlin are in for some high-grade pleasure when they make first contact. As Lydia Davis writes in her thoughtful introduction to A Manual for Cleaning Women, ‘This is exhilarating writing.’”

Layout 1The Story of the Lost Child. Book 4, The Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante
I’ve embarked on reading this series, having completed the first book, My Brilliant Friend. NPR critic Maureen Corrigan writes: “The Story of the Lost Child, the fourth and final installment of Elena Ferrante’s remarkable ‘Neapolitan Novels,’ is a stunner … but you will only realize how stunning it is if you do yourself a favor and read the three earlier novels in the series first.”

To give you an idea of how the series starts, from Alex Clark in The Guardian: “In the prologue to My Brilliant Friend, the first book in the series – before we’re plunged into the pair’s childhood, with its vivid vignettes and its atmosphere of fairytale menace – present-day Elena tells us that Lila, now in her 60s, has disappeared without a trace. Elena is not alarmed, because she believes that Lila is simply making good on a long-held promise to absent herself . …But the news prompts Elena to write their story…”

Below are five novels and two short story collections that four out of the five publications agreed upon. I thought the list was interesting, and so wanted to include it.

Beauty Is a Wound by Eka Kurniawan
Delicious Foods by James Hannaham
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
The Sellout by Paul Beatty
The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
The Tsar of Love and Techno: Stories by Anthony Marra
The Visiting Privilege: New and Collected Stories by Joy Williams