Jennifer’s Favorite Reads of 2015

I read so many amazing books in 2015, however, my feeling is that many of them would not be of interest to a lot of folks, as they are books I’ve read as research. Captivating for me; maybe not so much for others. Dean Jennings author of WE ONLY KILL EACH OTHERFor instance, I devoured WE ONLY KILL EACH OTHER: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF BUGSY SIEGEL by Dean Jennings, a book that is a total cliche with its potboiler talk and author photo complete with lit cigarette in hand as the author leans over his typewriter, but its not one I could recommend to anyone not researching gangsters of the 1920s (which I am for my current writing project). Ditto the books on socialism, the Depression, and birth control in the early 1900s.

But happily, I found time to read for pleasure as well. And what a pleasure it’s been! It should come as no surprise that I am a huge fan of historical fiction. I believe strongly in “write what you like to read.” Being swept into a different time period fulfills all my Midnight in Paris fantasies of other times being more exciting than the one we live in. I dream of a life before smart phones and DVRs and yelling at children, “Get off that Xbox right THIS MINUTE!” And nowhere can that happen as in a great historical novel. But I also like to break out of genre now and then, experience the world at large. So this is a sampling of my books that I read during 2015 that were my favorites (though not all the books were published in 2015):

The book that made me wish I had taken journalism courses


WHITE COLLAR GIRL by Renée Rosen: I read this book in a single weekend. I ignored my family to pretend I was asleep so they’d leave me alone so I could finish this book. This book drew me into a place I knew nothing about (the “Daley Machine” years of Chicago, which was the 1950s). It had all the elements I love: a strong, well-rounded feminist main character, descriptions that brought the Chicago Tribune newsroom to life, and an ending that was completely satisfying.

The book that honest-to-goodness made an unfeeling person like me both laugh and cry


A MAN CALLED OVE by Fredrik Backman: This book made unemotional-me careen from laughing out loud (seriously—my kids were freaked out by my random guffaws) to being weepy. I don’t cry over books. Ever. And I won’t say that a tear squeaked out because that would be too out of character, though it is possible it happened. Ove is a cantankerous old man, and I don’t want to say too much about this book because I don’t want to spoil any surprises, but it is absolutely worth being on the top of your to-read pile. So. Much. Fun.

The book that had me rewatching old Louise Brooks films


THE CHAPERONE by Laura Moriarty: Cora is a Midwestern woman living a very proper life, who acts as a chaperone in New York for the young Louise Brooks, before she was a star. But the story is all Cora’s as she tries to discover her own past, a girl sent to the Midwest on an orphan train, through her adult years as a woman in a marriage that is not all it could be. The novel is rich with historical details that so beautifully allow the time period to come back to life.

The book that showed me a glimpse of the world in all its harsh realities in the mid-twentieth century


WHEREVER THERE IS LIGHT by Peter Golden: This story of a gangster, Julian Rose, who falls in love with an African American woman, spans decades in New York, New Jersey, Paris, and Florida. The details of each location immerse you into each place, and I loved how Golden captured each time period—I really felt like I was seeing a different era. The novel went off in directions I never expected, but I was happy to be along for the ride, and I looked forward to each new chapter.

The book about baseball that really has nothing to do with baseball


THE ART OF FIELDING by Chad Harbach: Saying I don’t like baseball is a huge understatement; I’ve always agreed with Homer Simpson: “I never realized how boring this game is without beer.” So when friends recommended this book, I put it off for a long time. Oops! My bad! This book, which yes, has a smidgen of baseball, is really about people and relationships, and it’s so beautifully written that I enjoyed every page of it.

The bestselling book I was determined not to like but fell in love with anyway


ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE by Anthony Doerr: I hesitate to mention this book not because it isn’t wonderful (oh my God, it is wonderful!) but because it’s a book everyone already knows about. Yet this book swept me away. I thought I had read all there was to read about World War II, but Doerr gives such a different story that I ate the chapters like candy.

The book that made an unlikable character truly lovable


THE ICE CREAM QUEEN OF ORCHARD STREET by Susan Jane Gilman: Creating an unlikable main character for whom we still cheer is so difficult, but I rooted for the Leona Helmsley-like main character the whole way through. In 1912, Lillian Dunkle was a Jewish immigrant child named Malka, but after an accident with a cart, she is left with a bum leg and an Italian family that takes her in. The story continues through the decades all the way to the 1980s, as she learns the ice cream business and builds an empire. The historical details liven the story tremendously and it’s just such a fun read.

The book that made me scared to get on an airplane

STATION ELEVEN by Emily St. John Mandel: Normally dystopian novels aren’t my thing. But I had a lot of pressure from friends to read this so I finally gave in. This is one of those novel that stayed with me long after I read it, as I turned the story over and over in my mind. It wasn’t always the easiest read for me, but ultimately the ending of the book was so lovely, and the writing so beautiful, that I have to say, yes, I did like this book, and I would absolutely recommend it to others.

The book that piqued my interest in the Red Scare era of the U.S.


THE HOURS COUNT by Jillian Cantor: A couple of (alleged) Communists (Julius and Ethel Rosenberg), a marriage gone bad, a son with autism before anyone knew what autism was: THE HOURS swept me into 1950s New York and the Red Scare, and showed me a world I thought I knew but clearly didn’t.

The book that is most definitely not a new release

ALL-OF-A-KIND FAMILY by Sydney Taylor: I’m not sure how I missed this book when I was growing up, but when I heard about the re-issue by editor Lizzie Skurnick, I snatched up the entire series. So far, I’ve read the first two aloud with my ten-year-old daughter, and we are both completely caught up in the tale of the Ella, Henny, Sarah, Charlotte, and Gertie and their lives on the Lower East Side of New York in the early 1900s. The story is autobiographical, which makes the details rich, and I confess that I learned a lot about Jewish life in the early twentieth century from it.

What books did I miss last year? What books shouldn’t I miss in 2016? You can follow me on Goodreads to see what I’ll be reading in 2016.

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Jennifer S. Brown is the author of MODERN GIRLS (NAL/Penguin). The novel, set in 1935 in the Lower East Side of New York, is about a Russian-born Jewish mother and her American-born unmarried daughter. Each discovers that she is expecting, although the pregnancies are unplanned and unwanted, in this story about women’s roles, standards, and choices, set against the backdrop of the impending war. Learn more at www.jennifersbrown.com.

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This article has 6 Comments

  1. Oh, the All-of-a-Kind Family books were my Little House on the Prairie. All of my friends loved the western frontier life. I wanted turn of the century New York when I was in the third grade. I should find the re-issues and re-read them. 😀

    1. I wish I had found them when I was a kid! But we’re enjoying them now. I threatened my kids with hiding buttons to make them clean. Didn’t have quite the same effect on them that it had on the All-of-a-Kind girls. 🙂

    1. Sometimes I’m too stubborn for my own good when it comes to books, but luckily, I have great friends who completely wear me down. If you have any book suggestions for me, Lauren, I’d love to hear them! Always looking for my next read.

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