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The best books of 2015

riki blanco for the boston globe

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Fiction

“A Strangeness in My Mind,” Orhan Pamuk, translated from the Turkish by Ekin Oklap (Knopf)

Pamuk delivers a soaring love letter to Istanbul in the finishing decades of the 20th century, told through the eyes of a street vendor with love problems.

“Thirteen Ways of Looking,” Colum McCann (Random House)

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After a brutal attack that landed him in the hospital, McCann spans the globe in these short stories, imagining the ways in which violence can seem not just possible, but necessary.

“The Musical Brain: And Other Stories,’’ César Aira, translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews (New Directions)

The Argentine writer so niftily makes metaphysical Frisbees of the stories in this collection they seem to take flight by the power of whimsy alone.

“The Heart Goes Last,’’ Margaret Atwood (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday)

A dystopian satiric ballad as if written to be sung by Tom Waits, in which two economically destitute Americans join a prison experiment of hideous proportions.

“August, October,’’ Andrés Barba, translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman (Hispabooks)

A 14-year-old boy witnesses, but does not fully participate in a brutal assault, then struggles with the memory of that day in this short, gorgeous novel.

“The Sellout,’’ Paul Beatty (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Not even Chris Rock could keep up with the humor and rage of this novel, a blistering coming-of-age racial satire about a black farmer in Los Angeles undergirded by so much tenderness you almost don’t realize it is breaking your heart.

“A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories,’’ Lucia Berlin, edited by Stephen Emerson (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

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These abrupt, gritty tales of smashed relationships and horizonless jobs recall the work of Raymond Carver and have happily, finally, brought Berlin her due.

“The Story of the Lost Child,’’ Elena Ferrante, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein (Europa)

This volume marks the culmination of the reclusive writer’s Neapolitan books, a meganovel about the lives of two women friends, family, and the way education makes it hard to ever go home again.

“The Visiting Privilege: New and Collected Stories,’’ Joy Williams (Knopf)

Here in these few grim, hilarious, powerful stories from a master is the mind of a Flannery O’Connor grappling with a world without God.

“In Certain Circles,’’ Elizabeth Harrower (Text)

Pulled from publication and shoved in a drawer when the Australian novelist withdrew from public life, this magnificently sad and funny novel about two sets of brothers and sisters was released for the first time in 2015 and is the best skewering of life between the sexes since Mary McCarthy’s “The Group.’’

“Our Souls at Night,’’ Kent Haruf (Knopf)

Haruf’s series of novels set in Holt, Colo., come to a twilit close in this elegant little novel about an elderly couple, love after grief, and last beginnings.

“Beauty Is a Wound,’’ Eka Kurniawan, translated from the Indonesian by Annie Tucker (New Directions)

Set in a fictional Indonesian city, this sprawling, loquacious tale speaks through the influence of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and revolves around the youngest, ugliest daughter of a prostitute.

“The Complete Stories,’’ Clarice Lispector, translated from the Portuguese by Katrina Dodson, edited by Benjamin Moser (New Directions)

This compendium of tales by the great Brazilian weaves a spell so narcotic it lends credence to the belief that the author, long dead, still speaks.

“Paris Nocturne,’’ Patrick Modiano, translated from the French by Phoebe Weston-Evans (Yale)

A swift nighttime noir from the recent Nobel laureate begins when its teenager narrator is hit by a driver whom he vaguely recognizes.

“The Mark and the Void,’’ Paul Murray (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

A ragingly intelligent comedy about how the banking crisis and its solutions have remade who we are in the modern world.

“The Meursault Investigation” Kamel Daoud, translated from the French by John Cullen (Other)

Destined to become a necessary companion to Camus, as Michael Cunningham has become to Virginia Woolf, this Prix Goncourt-winning debut retells “The Stranger” from the Arab murder victim’s perspective.

“My Documents,” Alejandro Zambra, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell (McSweeney’s)

Zambra’s dazzlingly funny and playful collection of tales makes clear that to fully comprehend Chilean history one must entertain a sense of the surreal.

JOHN FREEMAN

Nonfiction

“Between the World and Me,’’ Ta-Nehisi Coates (Spiegel and Grau)

Part memoir, part essay, Coates’s National Book Award-winning title takes the form of a letter to his young son about race in America — a direct, often devastating assessment of a harsh landscape.

“The Witches: Salem 1692,’’ Stacy Schiff (Little, Brown)

In this beautiful retelling of one of our ugliest tales, Schiff describes the sheer strangeness of the trials and the society from which they sprang; it is the story, she writes, “of what happens when a set of unanswerable questions meets a set of unquestioned answers.”

“Dietrich & Riefenstahl: Hollywood, Berlin, and a Century in Two Lives,’’ Karin Wieland, translated from the German by Shelley Frisch (Liveright)

Born less than a year apart, Marlene Dietrich and Leni Riefenstahl were both beautiful, proud Berliners, hugely influential and ambitious. While one condemned Hitler, the other glorified him, and this dual biography charts two lives whose differences and similarities still fascinate.

“Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic,’’ Sam Quinones (Bloomsbury)

Quinones recounts individual tales — from junkies in Portland, Ore., to pill mills in Appalachia to entrepreneurial heroin traffickers from small-town Mexico — to describe a “catastrophic synergy” in which over-prescription of opioid painkillers begets addicts, many of whom then turn to heroin, which is cheaper and just as ubiquitous.

“The Light of the World,’’ Elizabeth Alexander (Grand Central)

In this deeply affecting memoir, the poet and scholar writes of her magical marriage to a painter cut short by his sudden death at 50; a tender tale of grief and joy.

“Rain: A Natural and Cultural History,’’ Cynthia Barnett (Crown)

A lyrical blend of science writing, travelogue, and cultural criticism, “Rain” argues for the importance, even beauty, of our most unloved weather.

“Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America,’’ Jill Leovy (Spiegel and Grau)

Covering one killing in South Los Angeles, Leovy’s book functions as a snappy police procedural and a searing indictment of the legal neglect suffered by poor black citizens in neighborhoods where they are hassled for minor offenses, but rarely protected from murderers.

“Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America,’’ Ari Berman (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Fifty years after the Voting Rights Act, we’re still struggling to live up to its ideals; investigative journalist Berman details the hard work that went into expanding our most basic civil right and how much more is required.

“H Is for Hawk,’’ Helen Macdonald (Grove)

Confronting her father’s death and her own devastating grief, MacDonald dives into the world of falconry, where she finds solace and a kind of wild sympathy.

“NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity,’’ Steve Silberman (Avery)

Weaving together cultural context and a rich cast of characters, Silberman’s book casts the history of autism as a medical page-turner and describes how those with autism have sought to empower themselves.

“One of Us: The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway,’’ Åsne Seierstad, translated from the Norwegian by Sarah Death (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

A Norwegian journalist’s unforgettable account of her country’s most chilling crime and the stunted, misguided man who committed it.

“The Pentagon’s Brain: An Uncensored History of DARPA, America’s Top-Secret Military Research Agency,’’ Annie Jacobsen (Little, Brown)

In the third in Jacobson’s trilogy that explores hidden corners of American military history, the author brings rigorous research to uncovering the secretive agency that brought us the Internet, drone warfare, and GPS technology.

“Showdown: Thurgood Marshall and the Supreme Court Nomination That Changed America,’’ Wil Haygood (Knopf)

Former Globe reporter Haygood tells the story of Thurgood Marshall’s life, pivoting off the contentious Senate hearing on his boundary-shattering confirmation as the first African-American justice on the Supreme Court,

“Speak Now: Marriage Equality on Trial,’’ Kenji Yoshino (Crown)

A New York University professor of law, Yoshino compellingly chronicles the legal and philosophical court battle to overturn California’s Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage.

“Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga,’’ Pamela Newkirk (Amistad)

Newkirk’s thoughtful book tells the story of Ota Benga, a Congolese man kept in a cage in the Bronx Zoo in 1906; the author powerfully indicts a civilization whose “cruelty was cloaked in civility,” leaving us to examine its remnants.

“Stalin’s Daughter: The Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyeva,’’ Rosemary Sullivan (Harper)

A child of the Kremlin who as an adult defected to the United States, Svetlana led a strange and often sad life; Sullivan brings deep scholarship and sympathy to her story.

“St. Marks Is Dead: The Many Lives of America’s Hippest Street,’’ Ada Calhoun (Norton)

Everyone from W.H. Auden to the Ramones hung out on this short stretch of New York cityscape, a microcosm of cosmopolitan cool; raised on St. Marks, Calhoun gathers scores of voices to sketch an intimate history of her influential neighborhood.

“We Believe the Children: A Moral Panic in the 1980s,’’ Richard Beck (PublicAffairs)

“Social hysteria is born of an unmanageable surplus of anxiety and fear,” Richard Beck writes in this deft examination of the McMartin preschool case, a nightmare of ritual Satanic abuse and sexual exploitation of children that shocked the nation — and was never, even for a second, true.

KATE TUTTLE

Kids

“Buddy and Earl,” Maureen Fergus, illustrated by Carey Sookocheff(Groundwood, ages 4-7)

When a lovable, but gullible dog and a prickly hedgehog meet, a cross-species friendship is forged through adventures in imagination in this warm, moving book, which is the first in a planned series.

“My Cousin Momo,” Zachariah OHora (Dial, ages 3-5)

What at first seems like a silly tale about a modern hipster — a flying squirrel with an unusual fashion sense and an unwillingness to take flight — turns out to be a deeper, old-fashioned story about difference and acceptance.

“Float,” Daniel Miyares (Simon and Schuster, ages 4-8)

Simple pleasures — a paper boat and a paper airplane — amuse and entertain a boy on a rainy day in this delightful wordless picture book whose end pages offer DIY instructions.

“Some Things I’ve Lost,” Cybèle Young (Groundwood, ages 4-7)

Everyday, lost objects get elaborate, fantastical makeovers, their transformations captured in exquisite Japanese paper sculptures.

“Two Mice,” Sergio Ruzzier (Clarion, ages 4-7)

This small counting book uses just a few words and a few numbers — one, two, and three — to tell a tale of nuanced friendship and bold adventure.

“Boats for Papa,” Jessixa Bagley (Roaring Brook, ages 3-7)

Soulful beavers — a mother and son — find both indirect and explicit ways to connect with love as they grieve.

“Last Stop on Market Street,” Matt De La Peña, illustrated by Christian Robinson (Putnam, ages 3-5)

A boy and his grandmother — remarkably well-developed characters — travel through the city reflecting on and marveling over the life they see.

“Home,” Carson Ellis (Candlewick, ages 4-8)

A diary of gorgeously illustrated houses and their inhabitants shows both the diversity of the world and an idea that unites its people.

“Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World’s Most Famous Bear,” Lindsay Mattick, illustrated by Sophie Blackall (Little, Brown, ages 3-6)

This layered story about the real-life origins of the famous bear is a triumph of craft and storytelling.

“The World in a Second,” Isabel Minhós Martins, illustrated by Bernardo Carvalho, translated from the Portuguese by Lyn Miller-Lachmann (Enchanted Lion, ages 4-8)

For curious children who wonder what people are doing all over the world in the same moment, this book provides many richly illustrated, specific answers.

“It’s Only Stanley,” Jon Agee (Dial, ages 5-8)

A clever dog keeps his human family awake with mysterious construction projects in this cleverly rhyming read-aloud hit.

“Leo: A Ghost Story,” Mac Barnett, illustrated by Christian Robinson (Chronicle, ages 3-5)

Arresting cool blue tones give an otherworldly glow to this otherwise down-to-earth and touching tale about a ghost in search of a place to belong.

“Waiting,” Kevin Henkes (Greenwillow, ages 4-8)

In a book that manages to be both deeply philosophical and eminently relatable, a master of children’s books takes on the experience of the passage of time in childhood from the point of view of toys on a shelf.

“Enormous Smallness: A Story of E. E. Cummings,” Matthew Burgess, illustrated by Kris Di Giacomo (Enchanted Lion, ages 4-8)

Words and images mix gracefully on the pages of this book, which details how Cummings’s early affinity for nature and his warm, loving childhood shaped his work.

NICOLE LAMY

Young Adult 

“A Song for Ella Grey,” David Almond (Delacorte)

Set in northern England, this dark and lyrical novel by an astoundingly talented writer reinterprets the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice as a magical, contemporary, coming-of-age story.

“Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad,” M.T. Anderson (Candlewick)

This deeply researched work of nonfiction by a former National Book Award recipient examines the life of composer Dmitri Shostakovich, the horrors of the Siege of Leningrad, and the life-affirming power of music.

“There Will Be Lies,” Nick Lake (Bloomsbury)

After Shelby Cooper gets hit by a car, the 17-year-old is left with a broken foot, visions that take her to a mystical place called the “The Dreaming,” and the knowledge that she has to separate the lies of her life from the truths in this thought-provoking thriller by a 2013 Printz winner.

“The Ghosts of Heaven,” Marcus Sedgwick (Roaring Brook)

Erudite without being inaccessible, this lovely new novel from winner of the 2014 Printz Award for “Midwinterblood” offers four distinct stories — each set in a different era (from prehistory to the distant future), but all connected by a singular form: the spiral.

“The Hired Girl,” Laura Amy Schlitz (Candlewick)

Newbery winner Schlitz unfurls another relatable and authentic work of historical fiction in this tale of 14-year-old Joan Skraggs, who leaves her family’s farm in Pennsylvania in the early 20th century to pursue the life of freedom her late mother had imagined for her.

“Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War,” Steve Sheinkin (Roaring Brook)

Sheinkin, author of “Bomb” and other lauded works of YA nonfiction, tells the story of Daniel Ellsberg, the Pentagon Papers, Watergate, the downfall of President Nixon, and the devastation of the Vietnam War, with the pacing of a skilled storyteller and the authority of a historian.

“Challenger Deep,” Neal Shusterman, illustrated by Brendan Shusterman (HarperTeen)

Winner of this year’s National Book Award for young people’s literature, this fantastical, skillfully disjointed novel about a teen boy caught between reality and the pirate ship of his mental illness is raw, lovely, and powerful.

“The Alex Crow,” Andrew Smith (Dutton)

Smith, a 2014 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award recipient, crafts a story about a teenage refugee who must survive a sketchy West Virginia summer camp, a failed Arctic expedition, and a man who hears Stalin in his head into a heart-piercing, laugh-until-you-cry narrative.

“Goodbye Stranger,” Rebecca Stead (Wendy Lamb)

New York City seventh grader Bridge Barsamian and her friends must contend with the new challenges and confusions that arrive with adolescence in a story by the 2010 Newbery winner that is deeply empathetic and honest.

“The Walls Around Us,” Nova Ren Suma (Algonquin)

Dark, disturbing, and lovely, this ghost story/thriller/literary achievement about the secrets between two best friends (both ballerinas), murder, and the inmates of a juvenile detention center is absolutely unputdownable.

CHELSEY PHILPOT

Mystery

“Gun Street Girl,’’ Adrian McKinty (Seventh Street)

McKinty’s Sean Duffy, policing the mean streets of 1985 Northern Ireland, tackles gun runners, arms dealers, MI5, and a mysterious double murder — or is it a triple? — in the fourth installment of this terrific series.

Glasgow trilogy (“The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter,’’ “How A Gunman Says Goodbye,’’ “The Sudden Arrival of Violence’’), Malcolm Mackay (Mulholland)

Mackay’s lean prose is the perfect medium — and up-and-coming hitman Calum MacLean the perfect protagonist — for channeling the menacing atmosphere of Glasgow’s criminal underworld.

“Splinter the Silence,’’ Val McDermid (Atlantic Monthly)

Former detective Carol Jordan and profiler Tony Hill make a welcome return in this whiz-bang brain twister of an investigation into the suspicious deaths of several women that encompasses the ugly side of Internet trolls as well as the inner (read: dubious) machinations of policing at its highest levels.

“Canary,’’ Duane Swierczynski (Mulholland)

Smart-aleck college student Sarie Holland is forced into becoming a confidential informant for the police, tangling with drug dealers, killers, and other baddies in a novel whose spot-on humor doesn’t water down a single aspect of its pitch-black undercurrents.

“Dead Soon Enough’’ Steph Cha, (Minotaur)

Newly-minted PI Juniper Song, hired to make sure a surrogate mother comes to no harm during pregnancy, finds herself deeply immersed in a riveting case of complicated family affairs and political strife within L.A.’s Armenian-American community.

“Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940s & ’50s,’’ edited by Sarah Weinman (Library of America)

This two-volume set contains eight classics, including Patricia Highsmith’s “The Blunderer,’’ Vera Caspary’s “Laura,’’ and Dorothy B. Hughes’s “In A Lonely Place.’’

“Icarus,’’ Deon Meyer (Atlantic Monthly)

An ashleymadison.com-style website-related murder and a parallel plot that delves into the dregs of South Africa’s wine industry keep Benny Griessel and his cadre of Cape Town coppers on their toes.

“Blood, Salt, Water,’’ Denise Mina (Little, Brown)

In a small seaside town a visitor goes missing, immersing Detective Inspector Alex Morrow in a tale that ranges from arson and extortion to bleak-hearted murder, while also allowing for Mina’s keen, canny, and clear-eyed observations of Scotland’s social and political landscape.

“Those We Left Behind,’’ Stuart Neville (Soho Crime)

A police procedural that follows the long-term impact of a horrific murder of a foster father on its survivors, including two brothers, now grown, is made all the more effective by the way Neville creates his characters with both intensity and intent.

“The Jezebel Remedy,’’ Martin Clark (Knopf)

Married legal eagles Joe and Lisa Stone tackle big pharma shenanigans on their eccentric client’s behalf, but the real pleasure here is the way Clark’s fourth outing blends legal thriller with the more whimsical elements of a freewheeling, picaresque novel.

“Taking Pity,’’ David Mark (Blue Rider)

In a masterful balancing act, a decades-old case lands Detective Sergeant Aector McAvoy deep in the recesses of England’s contemporary gangsterland, while Mark adds another dark piece of violence-infused intrigue to his ongoing organized-crime story arc.

“Dead Girl Walking,’’ Christopher Brookmyre (Atlantic Monthly)

Murder goes on tour in Brookmyre’s clever take on the vagaries of the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, giving his recurring journalist-investigator Jack Parlabane myriad opportunities for sleuthing, hacking, and, yes, even a spot of late-night parkour after a beautiful musician goes missing.

“The Killing Kind,’’ Chris Holm (Mulholland)

Holm’s canny thriller about a hitman who kills other hitmen and becomes a target himself, is a twisty, turbo-charged emotional roller-coaster that will leave you wrung out — and ready for more.

“X,’’ Sue Grafton (Marian Wood/Putnam)

As though realizing she’s closing in on her “Z is for . . . ” series ender, Grafton ramps up her game both in terms of this intricately plotted double mystery — entertainingly peppered with Xs in names, locations and logos — as well as enhancing PI Kinsey Millhone’s astute, determined, and fiercely independent approach with a growing modicum of emotional intelligence.

“Hush Hush,’’ Laura Lippman (William Morrow)

PI Tess Monaghan takes on a security-consultant role for a woman acquitted of her young daughter’s death a decade earlier in this murder mystery that’s equally rife with the mysteries of familial function and dysfunction.

DANEET STEFFENS

Sports

“A Game of Their Own: Voices of Contemporary Women in Baseball,’’ Jennifer Ring (University of Nebraska)

Ring interviewed members of the American national women’s team about the challenges and joys of their careers on the diamond in this oral history of the 2010 Women’s World Cup Tournament.

“Dancing with the Devil in the City of God: Rio de Janeiro on the Brink,’’Juliana Barbassa(Touchstone)

Brazilian journalist Barbassa examines the blessings, curses, and complexities of Rio’s hosting the 2016 Summer Olympics.

“Great Men Die Twice: The Selected Works of Mark Kram,’’ edited by Mark Kram Jr. (St. Martin’s Griffin)

The son collects some of the terrific writing his legendary sportswriter father did for Sports Illustrated and other outlets, including pieces on the rivalry between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier and Olympic gold medal sprinter Edwin Moses.

“The Professor in the Cage: Why Men Fight and Why We Like to Watch,’’ Jonathan Gottschall (Penguin)

An out-of-shape English professor in a funk and on the brink of middle age leaves his office, walks across the street to a mixed martial arts gym to train, gets clobbered, does some clobbering, and learns a lot.

“Course Correction: A Story of Rowing and Resilience in the Wake of Title IX,’’ Ginny Gilder (Beacon)

A young woman struggling with personal turmoil takes up rowing in college and traces what she learns over the years as she turns herself into an elite athlete in this heartfelt memoir.

“Speed Kings: The 1932 Winter Olympics and the Fastest Men in the World,’’ Andy Bull (Avery)

In this epic tale, the “speed kings” are four unlikely teammates, each with a fascinating back story, who got down the bobsled run faster than anybody else at the first Lake Placid Games as the world slid toward war.

“Tribal: College Football and the Secret Heart of America,’’ Diane Roberts (Harper)

English professor Roberts attempts to reconcile her lifelong love for Florida State football with her feminist politics and misgivings about the ethical and financial issues surrounding big-time college sports.

“Molina: The Story of the Father Who Raised an Unlikely Baseball Dynasty’’ Bengie Molina with Joan Ryan (Simon and Schuster)

A grateful son offers his appreciation of a dad who raised three catchers who made it to the major leagues and taught lots and lots of other underprivileged Puerto Rican kids to play baseball, along with some solid personal values.

“The Betrayal: The 1919 World Series and the Birth of Modern Baseball,’’ Charles Fountain (Oxford University)

Northeastern journalism professor Fountain delivers a literate and fascinating reconsideration of the 1919 Black Sox scandal and how it changed the way professional baseball conducted its business and managed

its image.

“The Domino Diaries: My Decade Boxing With Olympic Champions and Chasing Hemingway’s Ghost in the Last Days of Castro’s Cuba,’’ Brin-Jonathan Butler (Picador)

Butler produces a thoughtful and revealing examination of Cuba between 2000 and 2012 by focusing on what athletes who remained on the island and those who fled gained and lost because of their decisions.

“Billion-Dollar Ball: A Journey Through the Big-Money Culture of College Football,’’ Gilbert M. Gaul (Viking)

A Pulitzer winner takes a look at the multibillion-dollar college football industry and how it has come to dominate the life and culture of various campuses around the nation.

“The Ugly Game: The Corruption of FIFA and the Qatari Plot to Buy the World Cup,’’ Heidi Blake and Jonathan Calvert (Scribner)

By examining how Qatar landed the 2022 World Cup, two investigative journalists, armed with internal documents, take apart the continuing FIFA corruption controversy.

BILL LITTLEFIELD

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