15 Worthwhile Books You Might Have Missed in 2015

As the major year-end literary retrospectives arrive and kick off occasionally heated debate, we thought we’d offer a different kind of list. Here are the books we think you should give a second look. Maybe they’re thundering stories that came from a small, independent press that lacked the resources for a big publicity push  — or are even self-published. Maybe they’re big press books which tell a quiet story. Maybe they defy categorization — are they adult or YA? Queer or ethnic? Poetry or prose? Maybe we just missed them the first time around, or liked them so much we wanted to give them a boost in December amidst all the debate about Purity and A Little Life. 

No matter the reason a book might get missed, it’s always best to double back, to search for the best books you passed over the first time through. With this in mind, we’ve put together a list of great overlooked books, and we hope you give them a shot.

garcia

White Light, Vanessa Garcia (Shade Mountain Press)

Garcia explores life of Veronica, a Cuban-American artist from Miami on the verge of success and personal catastrophe at the same time, in this debut. “Veronica’s story is a relentless engine, told in rich, smart prose and lucid detail — equal parts elegy and portrait of an artist,” wrote Kirkus. “A lush, vibrant portrayal of the creative pro
cess, a daughter’s love, and the unstoppable maelstrom of grief.”  — Sarah Seltzer

vila-matas

Because She Never Asked, Enrique Vila-Matas  (trans. Valerie Miles) (New Directions) 

This year was something of an American coming-out party for Vila-Matas, whose A Brief History of Portable Literature I wrote about here. In that book, the author reshapes literary history and identity to suggest that some of his favorite writers belonged to a secret society. In this book, Vila-Matas’ narrator, a woman who very much wants to be the artist Sophie Calle, likewise plays with identity and allows him to fictionalize reality.  — Jonathon Sturgeon


vladislavic

The Folly, Ivan Vladislavić (Archipelago)

This is the first U.S. publication of Vladislavić’s debut, which was taken to be an absurdist allegorical fiction about apartheid. Praised by the likes of Coetzee and others — it’s not hard to see why — The Folly tells the story of a man who seems to be reenacting, as one reviewer wrote, “the basics of a civilized life,” while he is watched from a nearby house by a couple known as “Mr. and Mrs.” The upbuilding sense of chaos might remind you of our own time. — JS

The Ghost Network

The Ghost Network, Catie DiSabato (Melville House)

A series of embedded journalistic narratives, “edited” and “compiled” by DiSabato, all surround the mysterious disappearance of Gaga-like pop superstar Molly Metropolis. Part clever satire, part obsession-driven exploration of Chicago mass transit, the Situationists, and Guy Debord, this debut is perfect for those looking for something a little bit different in conception, that remains playful and fun to read, with a satirical bite. — SS

teran

Ana of California, Andi Teran (Penguin)

Anne of Green Gables transported to a California Farm, with a young Latina heroine who is too precocious and questioning for foster care and a pair of hippies who agree to give her a final shot at redemption. Since I read it this summer, the gorgeous descriptions of the farmland that Ana makes her home have stayed with me, a landscape of the mind alongside L.M. Montgomery’s Prince Edward Island. — SS

Juventud

Juventud, Vanessa Blakeslee (Curbside Splendor)

Born into secluded privilege in Colombia, Mercedes has her life upended entirely by a fateful love affair with an activist. She moves to the United States, but is drawn back to her native country years later to look for answers that of course remain waiting. Blakeslee’s novel is an ambitious look at international intrigue. — SS

rejane

Re Jane, Patricia Park, (Viking)

Jane Eyre reimagined in Brooklyn, with a Korean au pair as the protagonist and a pair of disaffected helicopter parents in place of Mr. Rochester. Rather than delving into the sexual magnetism and patriarchal anger of the original, Park looks at displacement, race, class, and family with insight and melancholy.  — SS

asking for it

Asking For It, Kate Harding (Da Capo)

This witty, super-feminist look at rape culture could not have been more timely in 2015. Harding offers the clearest possible explanation for the way the media and the culture at large stacks the deck against rape victims and makes it harder to imagine a world where justice and sexual equality go hand and hand.  But in addition to diagnosing the problem, Harding provides perfect handbook for  articulating a solution, and explaining why the status quo can’t last. — SS

walls

Gaza, Wyoming, Seth Colter Walls (Self-Published)

The year’s best self-published fiction is an unabashedly Pynchonian romp that imagines what would have happened if Mitt Romney had won the last election. (The name of the novel should give you some clue.) No more or less crazy than Margaret Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last, to which it likewise bears some resemblance.  — JS

werth

33 Days, Léon Werth (trans. Austin Denis Johnston) (Melville House)

Werth’s devastating firsthand account of fleeing the Nazi defense force (while looking for his missing son) was lost for decades, but now that it has been recovered and translated, it turns out that it was smuggled out of France by the author’s friend, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, whose introduction is among the most moving pieces of writing you’ll read all year. –JS

lax_uncovered

Uncovered, Leah Lax, (She Writes Press)

In this moment of ascendance for politics of  identity, here is a memoir whose protagonist crosses back and forth across seemingly impermeable boundaries of self-definition. Teenage Leah Lax , reeling from family instability, willingly enters the ultra-Othodox world. Decades later, an obedient wife and mother, Lax finds that enrolling in writing classes and learning to question accepted wisdom has led her to another realization. She was gay and she wants out. First she became “a Hasidic mother escaping to her lesbian lover.” Later, she is an artist and feminist, living a new life. Dealing with abortion, LGBT identity, and Hasidic life, this story is too complex to fit neatly into the “ex-Hasidic memoir craze” — but that makes it all the richer. — SS

emma unsworth

Animals, Emma Jane Unsworth (Europa)

Female friendship novels are hot right now, but this takes that conceit and turns it on its head, quite tipsily. The characters are the contemporary female equivalent of Kerouac and Hunter S. Thompson’s pill-popping, hard-drink, questing bros, but without even the pretense of the quest. They can’t stop themselves from constantly indulging in sex and drugs, but the seduction of the night feels incredibly real in these pages. The subject matter may be the kind of raw, female-fuck-up stuff we longed for in 2015, but what actually makes this novel exceptional is the way it’s written, with a current of pathos and longing buried, but occasionally emergent, under a surface that is scattered with drug paraphernalia and bodily functions. —SS

armantrout

Itself, Rae Armantrout (Wesleyan)

I enjoyed this collection of poems from Armantrout as much as any of her last three, including the 2010 Pulitzer-winning Versed. Built of short lines and ingenious jump cuts, the material world and human language, the poems are quick but deep, sharp but clean. — JS

bove

Henri Duchemin and His Shadows, Emmanuel Bove (trans. Alyson Waters) (NYRB) 

I had no book in my bag more this year than this reissued collection of short fiction by Emmanuel Bove, whom I affectionately call “France Kafka.” And although that comparison does bear out, Bove was his own writer, and his characters, who seem to lack volition in any meaningful sense (although they have no shortage of hurt feelings) are unlike any you’ll encounter elsewhere in literature. — JS


lovehotel

Love Hotel, Jane Unrue (New Directions)

A mysterious object, a poem-fiction that seems to fulfill its promise: the book is a love hotel, one where the speaker reminds us “there is no detective work to do” among bodies breathing in space. It’s hard to think of a more glaring example of erotics trumping interpretation. — JS