Books of 2015

girl reading

I feel like I didn’t get an awful lot of books read just for my own pleasure this year. The majority of my reading, when I look down the list I’ve kept, is made up of books I’ve taught, books I’ve read for school book clubs, and books I’ve read to learn things from that I then had to teach. Of the handful of books I chose myself, not many made a lasting impression. I was particularly disappointed by Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping; as an adoring fan of her Gilead trilogy, I was very surprised and not a little deflated to find that her first novel left me so cold. I’ve dabbled in a fair few of the British Library Crime Classics reprints, but none have matched up to the first one I read, Murder Underground, by Mavis Doriel Hay (what a name!) and unless someone fervently recommends another title to me, I don’t think I’ll read any more of them next year. They might have ridiculously pretty covers, but I can’t help but think there was probably a good reason none of those writers became another Agatha Christie.

So, negatives out of the way, what books did light my fire this year? Well, in actual fact, there were quite a few, and they are a very random selection that, when I think about it, does sum up my year uncannily well. The first is a book I have just finished, and am yet to review. It’s been sitting on my bookshelves for probably a good decade, ignored and unappreciated, and I feel quite ashamed for having abandoned it for so long. Rosamund Lehmann is a novelist I went through a binge read of just after I left university, and I found her a refreshing, interesting and beautifully lyrical writer whose words just danced on the page. For some reason, I decided to save Invitation to the Waltz for another day, however, and sadly that day took an absurdly long time to come. Never mind, because it has come at last, and I was absolutely enchanted by this brilliantly poetic, wonderfully atmospheric account of a girl’s first ball, and all of the attendant hopes, dreams and emotions that come with it. It’s exactly the sort of book I love – absolutely nothing happens, but within that nothingness contains everything that life is really all about. You must read it. I’m currently reading the sequel, The Weather in the Streets, which is just as marvellous, and I’ve fallen in love with Rosamund Lehmann all over again.

The second and third are Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies – no need for me to tell you what they’re about, I’m sure – only that they’re amongst the best written books I’ve ever read, and absolutely compulsive reading material. I was utterly sucked into the world she created, and the characters possessed my mind for weeks after I’d finished. If I could write like Hilary Mantel, I’d die a happy woman. If you haven’t tried her yet, you need to! Fourth on the list would be The Chateau by William Maxwell – a beautiful account of a long summer spent in post war France that is fully representative of the stunning prose and empathetic heart of Maxwell. He is such a fantastic writer, and though my favourite of his books will probably always be They Came like Swallows, The Chateau is superb, and a real treat for the mind.

Fifth and Sixth are two books about the First World War – the first a contemporary novel, The Happy Tree by Rosalind Murray, reprinted this year by Persephone Books. Not actually all that much about the war, as it turned out, but instead a very powerful book about regrets and hopes and learning to be content with what life hands you, and it has a stunningly written portrayal of a childhood home that took my breath away. I haven’t been enormously enamoured with Persephone’s choice of new books of late, but this one really reminded me of how superb their selections can be. The second book about the war was Pat Barker’s modern take on the war, Regeneration, which I inhaled over the course of a few days and found absolutely compelling. Barker’s writing style is so fresh and readable, and she chose a fascinating angle to explore in this account of Craiglockhart war hospital. If you’ve never read it, you must!

Two historical books take seventh and eighth place. I loved reading My Own Story by Emmeline Pankhurst after watching the powerful and moving Suffragette at the cinema. It is preachy and hyperbolic in places, and certainly not an unbiased account of affairs, but still an eye opening and passionate revelation of the hideous treatment of women in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and it really should be required reading for those who think that feminism is unnecessary. I was also amazed by what I learned from reading Neil Oliver’s A History of Ancient Britain – I may have had to read this for work, but I loved every moment of it. Who knew how sophisticated Stone Age Britons were? I certainly didn’t, and it gave me a real education. Neil Oliver writes with such zest, and he really manages to bring history to life. I’ve already got more of his books lined up to read.

Finally, my ninth book of the year is a YA novel, read for work, but again, a surprising delight and one that actually moved me to tears. I’d never read any Neil Gaiman before, and fantasy most certainly is not usually my cup of tea at all, but The Graveyard Book is a wonderfully imaginative, inventive and emotive exploration of a boy’s journey to young adulthood, in a very unusual setting, and it’s most definitely not just for kids. I’d really encourage you to give it a try.

So that’s my books of 2015. I have no reading plans at all for 2016, because I know from experience that there is no point, as I won’t stick to them anyway. I shall simply read whatever I feel like. Hopefully I’ll get through a fair few of the books I’ve had hanging around on my shelves for years, but with Oxfam’s biggest second hand book shop right next door to where I work, I wouldn’t bet on it…

Happy New Year everybody, and thank you once again for reading! See you in 2016!



  1. Zezee says:

    I’ve become a bit curious about Mantel’s books after recently listening to a talk with her on BBC Radio Bookclub podcast.

  2. A wonderful post from you as the year ends, Rachel. I haven’t read much myself this year, much to my dismay, and hope to settle in to some good reads, including some Christmas and birthday gifts, as the new year steps in. “Wolf Hall” in definitely on the top of the pile.
    I hope you had a Happy Christmas and wish you the best in the New Year.

  3. Jennifer says:

    I read Invitation to the Waltz six months or so ago and really loved it. I had no idea there was a sequel. I will have to order that. I have been debating trying Wolf Hall, I wasn’t sure it was my kind of book, but if you recommend it I will give it a try.

  4. I am determined that 2016 will be the year I read something by William Maxwell – mind you, I’ve said that every year since 2012. I’ve just been working on my own best of 2015 list and a book he edited is on there, but that’s as close as I’ve come. 2016 it must be!

    Happy New Year, Rachel, and very best wishes for 2016. I hope the new year brings you more time for the indulgent, purely recreational reading of books that are delightful, inspirational, and memorable.

  5. Laurence says:

    Many thanks again for your interesting list. I havé reader The Châreau and Wolf Hall and really enjoyed both books. Am now reading ” Only say the word ” by Niall Williams and enjoy it as much as is “Four letters of Love ”
    A ver happy New Year to you all.

  6. Mrs Ford says:

    Thanks very much for this interesting list. I’ve read two of the same books as you this year, “The Happy Tree” and “Housekeeping” and agree completely with you about both! I haven’t read any Rosamund Lehmann for a long while, but think that she might be just the thing to start the New Year. Hope you have a very happy and book-filled 2016.

  7. Maureen Davis says:

    Really interesting to hear your reviews Rachel. I too read the Regeneration Trilogy and as you seemed to have enjoyed them as much as me I thought you may be interested in a book I’m reading now: Wake by Anna Hope. she is an new author and this book voters the post 1914/1918 conflict from the perspective of three women with a tragic secret which ultimately connects them. Beautifully drawn characters and well written – truly well crafted

  8. Caroline says:

    Thank you for your lovely post, Rachel. I disovered it this morning and reading it felt like a good start into the new year. It is always reassuring to have a few books to turn to. That way I feel that the right book is there for me when I need it – I do not stick to reading lists either.
    I wish you a very happy new year.

  9. Lucinda Sans says:

    I’ve given Wolf Hall another go after two failed attempts. And I am loving it. I don’t want to race through it because I want to savour the language and characters. Even knowing there is another out and third on the way. This summer is my summer of Cromwell and Henry!

  10. BookerTalk says:

    I’m turning grey waiting for mantel to finish her Cromwell trilogy…. Poor woman must be under so much pressure especially because she could be in the running for the third booker prize

  11. I wish you a happy new year, Rachel.

  12. Vipula says:

    Thanks for sharing the list. I do agree with ‘having no reading plans for the year’ – I have often found it to be futile exercise. I like my reading to be varied and whenever I plan to read a genre or a writer for a year I fail miserably.
    Regarding the British Library Crime Classics – I think the pretty covers are really good ensnarement I read 3 of them and liked the ‘Mystery in White’ and ‘The Notting Hill’ (just because of the writing style). None of them are true mysteries per se. The Z Murders was really bad and I was kind of put off by the whole series by then.
    I am adding Marilynne Robinson to my list – have never heard of her.

  13. Chris says:

    I have tried Wolf Hall twice, have not been able to stick with it. Just finished reading Kate Atkinson’s A God In Ruins, the first book by this author that I have read. Very impressive, but I do think I need time to digest it.

  14. Royston Greenwood says:

    The last book that I recommended to you was “A Month in the Country”, which you enjoyed.

    Well, here’s another that I highly recommend. (It’s also a resurrected book – first published in 1967 – and written in the same style as ‘Stoner’ by John Williams, which I assume that you have read).

    The book that I am recommending is:

    ‘The Power of the Dog’ – by Thomas Savage (not to be confused with a more recent book with the same title but a different author.

    Savage’s book will pull you in, its psychology is remarkable, and the ending is … well, read on!

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