My Top Reads of 2015

Thursday, 31 December 2015

I've read a lot of books this year – some published, some unpublished. But I haven't read as much as I would have liked to. When reading is your job, and you've spent all day staring at words on a screen, reading isn't always the ideal way to relax!

I've picked five books to talk about below. If you've read any of them and have a different take, please let me know, either in the comments box or on Twitter at @Julie_Fergusson

Not all of these books were published in 2015. Some are a few years older, but I read them this year so on my 2015 list they go. 

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

by Karen Joy Fowler

Rosemary is mysteriously separated from her twin sister, Fern, at the age of five. Fern never returns home and Rosemary’s grief haunts her as she grows into an adult.


We join Rosemary in her early twenties, in the middle of the story, and the timeline loops between past and present throughout. In this way we explore Rosemary’s memories and the varying perspectives of different characters on the same events.


Unhappy and unsettled, Rosemary still holds herself responsible for something she did as a five year old. As we learn more about her strange past, we see how the loss of Fern affected the rest of her troubled family.


It’s impossible to say much else about this book without giving anything away. This is a novel about family and betrayal, memory and guilt. It is about coming to terms with your past and learning who you are. It is heartbreaking and touching and inspiring. What does it mean to be family? What does it mean to be human? 


by Alissa Nutting

This is not an easy read. As you can probably tell from the cover, the aim of this book is to shock.


The novel was inspired by the case of Debra Lafave, a twenty-four-year-old teacher who was arrested for having a sexual relationship with her fourteen-year-old student, but escaped jail time when her defence team argued that she was ‘too pretty for prison’. If you look up details of that case, or reviews of this book, you will find dozens of comments espousing the belief that Debra’s actions were not rape or abuse, that the victim was 'lucky', it’s every teenage boy’s dream to be seduced by their ‘hot teacher’. This novel exposes that double standard by depicting Celeste’s extreme predatory behaviour in constant, unflinching detail. There is no rest for the reader, no moment of respite where Celeste is humanised, where we feel sorry for her or have any understanding for her. She is cold, focused and sociopathic.  


There are obvious parallels with Nabokov’s Lolita, but this is a very different book. Humbert Humbert sets out to entrance and persuade his reader, couching his version of events in beautiful language and word play. Celeste’s story is blunt, unvarnished and shocking. At times it made me feel physically sick.


There is not much nuance to this book; like Celeste, it has one focus. It is one of my picks not because I enjoyed it. Being inside a paedophile’s mind is not a pleasant place to be – the triumph of this book is that the mind in question belongs to a woman, forcing the reader to confront their own prejudices about whether an attractive woman can ever be a rapist.  

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Asking For It

by Louise O'Neill

This is another uncomfortable read, but completely gripping. I sat down to read the first few pages of this and didn’t stop until I was finished. 


Eighteen-year-old Emma O’Donovan is raped at a party by a group of her male peers. When she wakes up the next day she has no memory of what happened or why she is in pain – but it doesn’t take long to find out, the photographic evidence is all over Facebook. Emma finds herself immediately ostracised at school, branded a slut and a whore. Despite the fact that she looks barely conscious in the photographs, she is derided and vilified for her ‘choices’. Previously one of the most popular girls at school, it seems that everyone is now delighted at the opportunity to tear her down.


On the night of the attack, she was drinking and taking drugs. She was dressed provocatively and flirting with her attackers. Was it her fault? Did she deserve this? She is told that these men’s lives are now ruined – because of her. 


A year later, Emma is depressed and struggling with anxiety; she no longer attends school and it is a struggle to even venture outside. While much of her community has banded around the men, Emma feels completely alone and pushes away the one friend who genuinely cares about her. Most heartbreaking of all is the slow destruction of Emma’s family as her parents and brother struggle to come to terms with what has happened. 


This book throws the reader headfirst into the hellish repercussions of our victim-blaming culture. What happens to Emma could happen to anyone and whether she is a bitchy mean girl or angelic virgin should make no difference. Emma’s community is quick to judge her but, after reading this book, hopefully O’Neill’s readers won’t be.


As Emma says, ‘They are all innocent until proven guilty. But not me. I am a liar until I am proven honest.’

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The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution

by Jonathan Eig

In this day and age, especially in the UK, it’s easy to take the access we have to contraceptives for granted. This book lays out the years of hard work, research and social struggle that went into producing the ‘Pill’, such a seismic cultural event that it needed no other name.


Gregory Pincus was the eccentric scientist who devoted his life to the search for a new form of hormonal contraceptive, funded by Margaret Sanger and Katharine McCormick. Both in their seventies, these two women were determined to see their dream of a safe and reliable form of contraception realised during their lifetimes. The fourth member of this team was John Rock, a charismatic – and, more importantly, Catholic – doctor, whose job it was to endorse the Pill to the American public and convince them of its coherence with Catholic doctrine.


But it wasn’t just religious opposition that they had to face. In 1950s America, sex was a taboo subject and there was little interest in conducting research into contraception. Securing funding and support was a constant battle; many of the clinical trials took place in Puerto Rico.   


The release of the Pill wasn’t just a scientific breakthrough, it was a social one too. It launched a sexual revolution and allowed women to forge careers outside of the home, able to define themselves, if they so chose, as something other than wives and mothers.


This is an important piece of history and a reminder of the struggles faced by those who came before us to give us what we take for granted today.

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She Matters: A Life in Friendships

by Susanna Sonnenberg

Susanna Sonnenberg explores her life through the female friendships she has made and lost along the way. From the childhood best friend with whom she is awkwardly reunited as an adult, to friends, girlfriends, rivals and mother figures, we meet the women who have been important in Sonnenberg’s life. We feel her pain at friendships lost and her growing acceptance as an adult of the often fleeting nature of human relationships.


By observing the author at different moments of her life, and seeing the variations of self that are brought out by these different women, we begin to piece together something resembling a whole. At times, Sonnenberg comes across as selfish and self-obsessed, and I often wondered whether this was an intended analysis of her personality or if she was inadvertently giving something away about herself that she perhaps doesn’t see. For the most part, however, Sonnenberg doesn’t shy away from recounting her flaws. She is not always a good friend; she is not always likeable.


This is a fascinating read, not just for what Sonnenberg tells us, but for what she doesn’t. It is a self-portrait in collage, a collection of the glimpses of herself she has seen in the eyes of others.

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