This is not a “Best Books of 2015” list because, frankly, I didn’t even scratch the surface when it comes to the best books released this year. In fact, I didn’t even reach my personal goal of books to read in 2015, WHICH MAKES ME MAD. But I’m letting it go because, well, there’s nothing I can do about it now!
So, instead of a best of list, I’m going to mention five 2015 titles I really enjoyed as well as a few other titles I read this year that I would also recommend.
If you're interested in buying any of these books, please consider ordering them through the links provided in this post. Thank you!
THE DEEP BY NICK CUTTER – I counted Nick Cutter’s previous horror novel The Troop as one of my favorites of 2014. Because I loved that book, I considered Cutter’s next horror story The Deep to be among my most anticipated novels of 2015. It didn’t disappoint.
The Deep tells the story of the world dealing with an apocalyptic disease called the ‘Gets. The disease causes people to forget things. Little things at first. Where’d I leave the keys? What’d I have for breakfast this morning? Then you forget your family, your name, how to chew your food, and eventually how to breathe. It’s like Alzheimer’s on a massive scale.
The scientific community has discovered a strange substance in the Pacific Ocean that might be a cure-all. The problem is it’s located at the deepest part of the ocean — eight miles down — and so they must build a facility there in order to harvest and study the discovery. But this strange new biological substance may not be the miracle they’re all hoping it to be. The stuff might actually be evil incarnate. . . and it’s drawn some of the greatest scientific minds in the world down to the dark depths for a bit of fun.
This book is relentless and unforgiving. The horrors that haunt the characters never seem willing to let them go, and we’re stuck down in the deep with them. After one bad thing is just barely survived, something else even worse pops up. I’d previously been of the opinion that you need some space between the scares to build suspense, but Cutter succeeds by never letting the reader get a chance to catch his/her breath. It’s like an extended chase sequence through a haunted house and every door has something bad waiting behind it. Almost all your fears get checked off the list one by one. If you’re scared of something, chances are The Deep has it covered.
Like The Troop, The Deep has its fair share of body horror and nastiness. But this time we get more psychological horror as well. Also like The Troop, the action of The Deep is broken up by jumping into other places in the timeline. The Troop did this with newspaper clippings set after the incidents of the book, The Deep gives us flashbacks of tragedies and dark drama set before the events of the book. If I’m being honest, I liked The Troop’s newspaper stuff more because it helped build dread, but the flashbacks here serve to build a more complex central character. Our hero Luke Nelson suffered a lot in his life before ever finding himself at the bottom of the ocean dealing with giant hands, undead test animals, and evil goo. The horrors of the deep get into his head and force him to replay much of that trauma over again on the underwater station. It’s dark stuff and not often pleasant, but the horror and suspense make for a story that’s difficult to put down, with scenes that linger on long after the book is closed.
The Deep is one of the most frightening haunted house stories I’ve ever read. It just happens to take place eight miles beneath the surface of the ocean. Great book.
THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN BY PAULA HAWKINS – The Girl on the Train is one of 2015’s most popular books. Sometimes I feel the need to seek out the biggest bestsellers not because they sound particularly interesting to me but rather because I want to know what everybody’s reading and why. So, why did Paula Hawkins’ debut novel The Girl on the Train become such a huge success? Well, I don’t know, exactly. As much as we’d like to think there’s a science to these things, there really isn’t. But it helps that the book is good.
Rachel is a depressed alcoholic with holes in her memory. She rides the train every day to create the illusion that she still has a job. On one of the stops that brings her close to her ex-husband’s home, Rachel stares out the train’s window at a happy couple. She has named them Jason and Jess and she dreams up all sorts of scenarios of their happy life. Rachel lives in fantasies, dreaming about other people’s joy because she has none of her own. One day, she spots Jess with another man, and all those fantasies fall apart. When Jess – real name Megan – soon goes missing and is presumed dead, Rachel takes it upon herself to investigate. But Rachel’s not looking to help so much as she is looking for something to do. She wants – needs – to be a part of something bigger, something more. So, she weasels her way into other people’s lives, creating lies about how she knew the missing Jess/Megan, in an attempt to feel useful again.
I was struggling with something for most of the book but by the end I was sure of it: I don’t like anyone in this story. Not really. Everyone’s a liar, a cheat, and in some cases violent and malicious. Megan’s cheating on “Jason”, Rachel says she’s trying to do the right thing but she’s doing it for all the wrong reasons, Anna is mean-spirited and ugly, and almost all the men are controlling or potentially violent. I liked Rachel most out of the group because it’s clear she has issues and can’t always help herself. But I wouldn't ever want to know these people.
The Girl on the Train is a bit like a mixture of two classic Alfred Hitchcock thrillers: Rear Window and The Lady Vanishes. Like Rear Window, our Rachel views something from afar and only has a few of the necessary pieces to the mystery, but she can’t stop herself from getting involved. And like The Lady Vanishes… there’s a train and a lady vanishes. In a lot of ways, I think The Girl on the Train would’ve made a good Hitchcock film. I think it works better as a mystery than it does as a thriller, personally. The twists in the mystery are unpredictable and I can honestly say that I didn’t see the end coming. If you want to call it a thriller, then I’d say that the tension could’ve been ramped up a bit. But as a whodunit, The Girl on the Train is solid.
SLADE HOUSE BY DAVID MITCHELL – David Mitchell’s 2014 novel The Bone Clocks is one of those books that is easy to admire but difficult to love. The novel tells the epic story, set across many decades, about soul vampires and a secret war of immortals played out in the shadows of our world. Slade House is set in the same universe of The Bone Clocks but it’s not necessary to read the earlier book first. This isn’t a sequel so much as a spin-off, I guess. What’s interesting is how Mitchell presents the story in a very similar fashion: it’s set across multiple decades, with multiple first-person narrators passing the baton to one another as they progress the story – it’s almost like a series of short stories that makes up a novel-length narrative. But ignoring the obvious similarities, I found Slade House to be a very different book from The Bone Clocks. The 2014 epic (624 pages) is a contemporary fantasy with ‘magical realism’ played out with some rather big ideas – the 2015 Slade House is much shorter (238 pages) and is a creepy little haunted house story that’s more at ease, more fun.
I admire The Bone Clocks, but I adore Slade House.
Mitchell seems to be playing things a bit more loosely here and having more fun in the process. The result is an often terrifying and mystifying horror story where nothing’s ever quite as it seems. You’ve heard of unreliable narrators? Much of Slade House takes place in an unreliable universe.
There exists a door in Slade Alley that only appears once every nine years, allowing entrance to Slade House, an old mansion that’s trapped in time. Once you pass through that door, you’re caught in a web of lies and danger. Over the course of the book, we learn more about the house’s powers and its strange past. Curiosity begins drawing more and more people to Slade House after all the mysterious disappearances, which only brings more sacrifices to those who dwell behind the supernatural gateway.
It’s very cool stuff.
STAR WARS: AFTERMATH BY CHUCK WENDIG – Along with the rebooted timeline that came with the new Star Wars movies, we’re also getting new books that figure into the new vision of the post-Return of the Jedi universe. Right now dubbed Journey to The Force Awakens, these books help explain how the Empire never really died after the Emperor got thrown down that shaft, and also serve as a way of making Disney MORE MONEY.
Chuck Wendig’s Star Wars: Aftermath was the book I was most interested in, mostly because I love the guy’s website and I dig his style. The book follows a Rebel pilot named Norra, who has returned to her little-known planet Akiva to collect her son who she’d abandoned when she went off to war. The Empire has been dealt a blow after the destruction of the Death Star and the loss of Palpatine and Vader, but the Empire hopes to reclaim its glory in a counterattack. Unfortunately for Norra and her son, the Empire has chosen Akiva to be the place where the Empire’s remaining leaders meet to discuss their next course of action. Norra and her allies must alert the Rebel Alliance before the Empire claims Akiva and begins to retake this part of the galaxy.
Spread out among the pages are occasional Interludes to action and drama taking place across the galaxy. At first I didn’t take to this method of storytelling — it’s almost like short stories intercut throughout the novel to give the story more scope — but I came to enjoy and look forward to these sections. It’s here that Aftermath becomes a more mature Star Wars story, really detailing the aftermath of the war, the workings of the Empire, and the suffering of the people who now taste freedom after so long. Aftermath is a more political Star Wars story and actually brings the universe closer to a dystopian sort of vision, while still keeping the basic spirit intact. It’s cool.
When I picked up Aftermath, I expected to learn some things about The Force Awakens and the new characters featured in the film. ‘Journey to the Force Awakens’ seems to suggest as much. FYI: going in with those expectations could possibly lead to disappointment. Instead of being a Prologue to The Force Awakens, Aftermath is more of an extended Epilogue to Return of the Jedi. There’s no Kylo Ren, Rey, or Finn to be found here (though there is the planet Jakku!). Also, returning fan favorites are kept to supporting roles. Wedge Antilles and Admiral Ackbar get the most to do, Han and Chewie get a cameo that seems to set up the next book, and most other heroes/villains just get mentioned from time to time. Aftermath is a side-story, a thriller built around new characters that are left in the rubble of the conflict from Return of the Jedi. It does serve to help build up the new universe that leads to The Force Awakens but it’s not exactly a teaser of things to come.
I had a good deal of fun reading the book. The added scope provided in the Interludes was a nice surprise. The characters are complex and memorable — and as a plus, none of them are instantly comparable to other existing Star Wars characters. These are original characters, part Wendig-part SW, and I enjoyed spending the book with them. I’ll definitely be checking out Aftermath’s 2016 sequel, Life Debt.
ARMADA BY ERNEST CLINE – This is some geeky sci-fi reading, my friends. Like, do geeks of this level exist in the real world or do they only exist within the mind of Ernest Cline and the crowded halls of Comic-Con? To be clear, I consider myself a geek. I know the name of that dude with the pointy Scorpion mask on the Jedi Council. I loved Godzilla movies back when people said they were just stupid men in suit movies. I know the lyrics to some MST3K songs. I judge others based on what movies they have on their shelves (can’t help it. It’s just how I do). So yeah, kind of a geek. Still, Armada was some geeky stuff, man. I understood probably 80% of the references the book makes and I wasn’t always proud of it, either.
I’ll just say this: if you’re not well-versed in pop culture or geek culture, you’re gonna be lost here. Armada is about how the US government has been using science fiction to help cushion us for the blow when it’s revealed that aliens mean to invade some point in the future. A videogame called Armada is a training exercise which picks out the best candidates. Young Zack Lightman is damn good at Armada so he’s just been selected to join the resistance forces. Before it was all a game, now it’s all do or die. Can Zack and the other geek champions save the day?
Does that sound a little like The Last Starfighter? Ender’s Game? I think Ernest Cline thought so, too. The Last Starfighter and Ender are name-dropped on occasion. So is everything else. Armada exists in this super geek culture world, where our favorite genre shows, icons, and scientists are all part of this massive conspiracy theory cover-up about aliens.
I enjoyed Armada. It’s fun. It makes so many references to sci-fi classics and yet it still manages to feel like something different. Not sure how Cline pulled that off. By the half-way point I was hooked, eager to see where things were going and rushing towards the end. Like a good videogame, I found Armada rather addicting after I understood how it played.
CAT’S CRADLE BY KURT VONNEGUT – I discovered the books of Kurt Vonnegut sometime after the author’s death. The first one I read was his most well-known novel Slaughterhouse-Five and I absolutely loved it. I think I consider that novel one of my Top 3 favorite books. Since Slaughterhouse-Five, I’ve returned to the works of Vonnegut a couple times every year. Mother Night is a masterpiece. Breakfast of Champions is perhaps the funniest book of his that I’ve read but it’s not the deepest. The Sirens of Titan isn’t as ‘easy’ as the other books but it’s also great. So now I come to Cat’s Cradle, also one of the author’s most revered works.
Cat’s Cradle is frequently hilarious, often thought-provoking, and always leads the reader to places unexpected.
The narrator of the story – a young man named Jonah, whose last name remains a curious mystery – is setting out to write a story about the day the bomb was dropped on Japan. He wants to get the views of those who were close to the project, how they felt on the day, at the very moment of detonation. He’s not investigating J. Robert Oppenheimer – the real-world creator of the bomb who goes unmentioned in this novel -- but rather Felix Hoenikker, a fictional creation and pretty much a stand-in for Oppenheimer. Dr. Hoenikker is dead by the time that Jonah begins his research, so he searches out Hoenikker’s children instead: the midget youngest son Newt, the daughter Angela who is married to a weapons inventor, and oldest son Frank who has been missing for some time. During his investigative trek, Jonah is taken to the island country of San Lorenzo where he discovers the religion of Bokonon, and his life is changed forever.
In Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut tackled war and wartime tragedies with the use of sci-fi time-travel and black humor. He again returned to those themes for Mother Night with the use of espionage and identity thriller trappings. Cat’s Cradle isn’t so much about war but it does have many of the same thoughts on the subject, particularly mankind’s willingness to destroy himself in pursuit of... what, exactly?
As Bokonon tells us: “Beware of the man who works hard to learn something, learns it, and finds himself no wiser than before.”
DROOD BY DAN SIMMONS – Drood is a literary historical horror novel that revolves around the relationship between two authors: Charles Dickens and our narrator Wilkie Collins. It begins with the famed Staplehurst train accident, which Dickens survived (and would later die on the anniversary of). In this telling of the story, Dickens claims to have met a strange man (if indeed he is a man) named Drood, who seemed to steal life away from the wounded survivors of the derailment. Dickens tells these things to his friend and occasional co-writer Wilkie Collins, and soon the two begin a twisting search for Drood. But the closer they get to Drood, the darker and stranger things get, forever changing the two men.
I listened to Drood as an audiobook. While I’m sure the ink on the page reads just as well, I gotta recommend the audiobook version of the tale. Simon Prebble’s reading is fantastic. So often I forgot I was listening to fiction read by an actor – I started thinking I was hearing Wilkie Collins recount his tale on tape. It’s a marvelous performance, one of the best audiobook readings I’ve ever heard.
I guess I’d say that Drood is sort of like Nosferatu meets Amadeus. I believe it’s the Amadeus part of the story – and not the horror elements – that make it into such an interesting book. While Drood and the shadowy world he inhabits are effectively creepy and at times quite shocking, the novel’s rarely truly frightening and I don’t know if horror fans are going to be totally satisfied. By comparison, the Amadeus-like rivalry between the master Dickens and his artist friend who is secretly plotting his murder is much more interesting. Wilkie Collins wants Dickens dead – and Dickens doesn’t seem to suspect a thing. It becomes clear as the story progresses that Wilkie may not be the most reliable of narrators. He grows increasingly dependent on drugs in order to survive his day-to-day and he imagines phantoms everywhere.
It’s an ambitious novel. Simmons’ prose is excellent and I feel I really got into the head of Wilkie. I liked watching this artist go from friendly admirer, to frightened conspirator, and then to resentful madman. It’s one of the most interesting looks at the evolution of a character I’ve seen in a long while. The novel may leave something to be desired in the horror department for some readers, but I quite liked it. It’s a bold, unpredictable novel. And again, I loved Simon Prebble’s reading in the audiobook. This is my first Dan Simmons book but it will not be the last. I think I’ll be checking out The Terror very soon.
GODZILLA: RULERS OF EARTH BY CHRIS MOWRY, MATT FRANK, AND JEFF ZORNOW – So, I love Godzilla. I think I might’ve mentioned that before. IDW’s done some great working bringing us original Godzilla comics over the last couple years. I want to single out Godzilla: Rulers of Earth (the longest running Godzilla comic series ever), which came to an end this past summer. Rulers of Earth takes place across multiple volumes, written by Chris Mowry with excellent art by Matt Frank and Jeff Zornow. It’s the most colorful G-comic, full of fun fan-service – it’s a comic written for Godzilla geeks by Godzilla geeks. I loved keeping up with this comic. I hope IDW keeps putting out more similar books because I’d love to read them, especially if they’re done with the sense of wonder and fun found in Rulers of Earth.
WOOL BY HUGH HOWEY – Wool is the story of silos which house humanity sometime after a global apocalypse. They run deep and are maintained by tireless work and no small amount of secrets. If you get out of line or are too critical about the way things work, you’ll be banished from the Silo (“put out to cleaning”) and die outside in the wastes.
I’m reminded very much of the recent film Snowpiercer from Joon-ho Bong (and I’d strongly recommend that film to anyone who enjoyed Wool). Like Snowpiercer, Wool deals with the different classes of people who live and operate at opposite ends of the facility they live in. And like Snowpiercer, revolution is always on the minds of the people who live in the pits.
Wool is a story well told, full of interesting characters and some cool new ideas. One of the things that impressed me most, though, was how author Hugh Howey repeatedly took the story into directions I didn’t see coming. So often Wool lets you think you know what’s going to happen next, but I was wrong more often than not. Howey was always one step ahead of me, which made for a very addicting book.
Wool lives up to the hype.
Reading plans for 2016
There are a few titles that are definitely on my radar for 2016. Joe Hill’s The Fireman, Chuck Wendig’s Life Debt, and Stephen King’s End of Watch are currently at the top of my list for new releases.
I also hope to work my way through the stacks of books I’ve bought but never read like S., Micro, Doctor Sleep, The Hot Zone, and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. And I’m sure there’s going to be plenty of surprises, too.
What about you? Any favorite books this year? Any you’re looking forward to reading next year?
Writer of horror, science fiction, and dark fantasy. Lover of books and film. Lifelong Godzilla fan. Reluctant blogger.
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