2015 has already been a great year for books. With so much to celebrate from big-name authors—Judy Blume! Toni Morrison! Nick Hornby!—you’d be forgiven for missing a few of the lower-profile, oddball novels. Yet some of them are just as surprising, engaging, and thought-provoking as the big guys. Here are some of the best.
The Blondes, by Emily Schultz
The sky is falling, the sky is falling! Or so novels and movies keep telling us: there’s a war coming, or a famine, or a flu; maybe it will be climate change, maybe zombies, but something is going to wipe most of us out, and those who survive will be tasked with surviving postapocalypse.
No one’s catastrophic theory is as interesting, as intellectual, or is as much fun to watch play out, as Schultz’s in The Blondes, which introduces a particular, vicious sickness that turns fair women rabid. From the attack scenes — on subway platforms, in airports — to the efforts to quarantine certain populations, Schultz proves herself an adept chronicler of tense, even terrifying, situations. The Blondes stands out, in part because its author is as good at capturing small, perfect details as she is at maintaining her sense of humor.
The Life And Death of Sophie Stark, by Anna North
Few great novels have been written about artists or filmmakers, and for good reason. It’s hard to capture the power of a visual medium through a written one. Sophie Stark is the story of a difficult director—is there any other kind?—and in telling it, North manages to do the improbable: she makes us understand both what makes a genius so maddening and what makes her, and her art, so compelling.
Like Sophie’s various lovers, friends, and family members, from whose points of view her story is told, we become invested in Sophie as we learn more about her. We want to fix her, to hold her in place, to indulge and complete her; we want the talent without the damage, the love without the consequences. But Sophie refuses to compromise, and, appropriately, the novel refuses to compromise either, telegraphing its mission from the title and remaining true to it no matter what. This is a book about how people are rather than how we would like them to be. Its beauty cannot be ignored, even while its fury kicks at your heart.
A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara
Speaking of beauty and the kicking of hearts! A Little Life is the saddest book you will read this year, or maybe ever. It’s a book so all-encompassingly sad the last 50 pages should be nothing but tissues, so sad it will invade your dreams and your Facebook conversations, and yet you will not want or be able to put it down because it simultaneously just that good.
A Little Life is a story of abuse and cruelty, much of it visited upon children, of pain that cannot be made sense of, rationalized, or loved away. Equally, though, it is a story about human connection and the ways in which we cannot stop ourselves from trying to help each other. It’s a story of friendships that span decades: relationships that cannot fix the past but can, and do, make the present worth living.
Yanagihara has created something as stunning and well-constructed as a cathedral, and, like a cathedral, it will be admired for generations.
Get In Trouble, by Kelly Link
Too much realism can be, well, too much sometimes. At those moments, there’s nothing like relaxing into a narrative where anything goes. Perhaps a family of generally benevolent but occasionally vicious fairies lives up the street. Perhaps you’re a poor, awkward teenager living among superheroes. Perhaps the astronauts floating through space, being taken care of by their ship, have a very different mission than the one they thought they signed up for.
In this collection of Link’s short fiction, sci fi tropes flow into fantasy ones, and YA merges with both; pointless genre distinctions collapse altogether and something much more surprising takes their place. Like George Saunders, Link is an expert at capturing the lived experience of social and economic class in America, and she tweaks everyday life to make a point about its absurdity.
Especially at first, these stories can seem a bit opaque. Yet Link’s writing is so capable, her prose so assured and her understanding of her own worlds so complete, that you feel confident she knows what’s going on—with the Invisible Boyfriends and the Demon Lovers and the people born with two shadows—even when you don’t. Following her into the darkness is worth it every time.
The Love Song Of Miss Queenie Hennessy, by Rachel Joyce
If you were lucky enough to encounter Joyce’s sweet-tempered and generous first novel, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, you’re familiar with Queenie Hennessy, the dying woman and old friend for whom retiree Harold Fry sets out to walk across England. This second, equally lovely novel tells Queenie’s story.
Although Queenie has late-stage terminal cancer and is in hospice care, she is hardly passive: she’s no princess in a tower, waiting to be rescued by her knight. Similarly, though she’s languishing with only nuns—no partner or child—to take care of her, she’s no object of pity. Through a letter to Harold that she takes great pains to write, we learn about the choices she has made, her experiences and her regrets, the fullness of a life as reflected on by someone wise enough to appreciate both its flaws and its value. And while we keep her company, she continues to grow, refusing to be stunted by mortality the same way, in her earlier days, she refused to be limited by convention.
Queenie doesn’t mean to be inspiring, but she is anyway—to the other people in the hospice, to Harold Fry, and to us.