Best Books I Read in 2015

In 2014, I reignited my love of literature by reading 25 books. Then, last year, I managed to do it again! Here are four of my favourites in no particular order.

If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller – Italo Calvino

if on a winter's night a traveller ©Vintage Classics

Like the world’s worst Choose Your Own Adventure book, this post-modern novel makes YOU the reader the star of the story and follows your linear but by-no-means-straightforward quest to return a misprinted copy of ‘If On A Winter’s Night a Traveller’ by Italo Calvino and find out how the book ends.

This is not as simple a task as it may seem. The book, like its title, is incomplete and every time the Reader – er, you – gets a new version of the book, it has a completely different story in it, and every time he/she reads the new story, they put the previous story to one side and become focussed on finding the rest of the new one, and there’s another Reader who’s having the same problem, and together you get caught up in an increasingly bizarre tale that starts with a simple printing error and unfolds into a sprawling international adventure.

It’s also far more engrossing, playful, clever, funny, charming, entertaining and easy to follow than any description of its story makes it seem.

What’s most impressive about the book is how it manages to forge a connection with the reader and make the second-person narration not feel like a pointless gimmick. When writing this novel, Calvino had to somehow make thousands of unknown Readers that he’d never met and would probably never meet feel personally involved in his genre-hopping tale and all he had to go on was the fact that the person bought this book, so he could discern that:

  • They read books.
  • They thought that a novel about someone who has quite a lot of trouble finishing a book would be worth reading.
  • They like a bit of post-modern gimmickry.

And that’s it. But he manages this difficult feat and I quickly got sucked in.

You might be wondering how a book like this would even work and it goes like this: every other chapter is ‘You’ doing something – getting ready to read, going to the bookshop to complain, meeting the Other Reader, travelling to a new place, getting the next chapter – and the rest are the chapters of the books that ‘You’ read, each one completely different in tone and genre and apparently unrelated to any that came before it.

The book is one big celebration of reading and language and it’s brilliant. Well done to the translator, too, who must have had a tricky job translating this meta-novel from the original Italian.

I would go on but unfortunately, because I read this right at the start of last year and stupidly decided to not write down any of my thoughts about it until now, the finer details of the story and the quality of the prose have become a bit smudged in my memory (not making that mistake again) but whatever I would have written would have probably ended with a summary that goes something like this:

If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller is one of the cleverest, loveliest books I’ve ever read and I’m looking forward to diving into this incredible Italian’s entire back catalogue.

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2015’s Top TV: FARGO Season Two

(Image ©FX)

One of the biggest surprises of 2014 was that this seemingly-superfluous series based on a film from two decades ago was actually very, very good.

Under the guidance of showrunner Noah Hawley, the show impressively maintained the best qualities of the Oscar-winning film that shared its name, which had a memorable mixture of shocking violence, quirky mobsters, endearing characters, funny accents, ordinary people ending up in bad situations due to even worse decisions, and a light touch of the absurd and the mythical.

After being hailed with praise, the show returned with increased confidence and it was great fun to watch.

This season went back in time to explore a case Molly Solverson’s dad Lou worked on in 1979. The case was briefly discussed in season one and it sounded pretty horrific.

As the characters get into deeper trouble, costly mistakes are made, the body count begins to rise and Old Lou’s words rattle round our heads, there’s an increasingly strong feeling of inevitable doom, that the characters are unknowingly heading towards a place where Something Terrible is going to happen and any attempts to avoid what’s coming will fail miserably.

The second season of Fargo is a more complicated affair than its predecessor, doubling the amount of main characters, widening its scope, including more political and historical commentary and playfully experimenting with the way it tells its ‘true’ story.

Unlike that other critically-acclaimed miniseries that returned for a second season last year, it manages to juggle many things – more characters, more locations, more intertwining storylines, a new look and tone which is drastically different to the previous season but still keeps what people liked about the show in the first place, and a clear but subtle opinion on the state of the nation at the time – without falling flat on its face and becoming an unlikeable, overwrought mess.

Setting all of this up does make the first three episodes a bit slow, aside from a messy confrontation at a diner that sets the events of the season into motion. They lay the groundwork for even messier outbreaks of violence later on with plenty of exceptionally well-written conversations and typically-quirky character moments.

Then the pace builds, the stakes rise and the tension often becomes unbearable as the season races towards a grisly climax in Sioux Falls. The final episode is a long exhalation of breath, a calm epilogue which wraps up loose ends, mops up the blood and examines how the survivors are coping with what they’ve experienced.

The show has an exceptional cast and even the minor characters get a memorable scene in their limited screen time. Kirsten Dunst is especially good as highly-strung hairdresser Peggy Blomquist. She and her dopey, long-suffering husband Ed (Jesse Plemons) get caught in the middle of a confrontation between the mob and a local crime family that could escalate into all-out war.

To show this conflict, the season tries out new televisual tricks in the same gleeful manner of a child that just got a lot of new toys for Christmas, jumping into black and white, messing with the aspect ratio, changing the framing device of the narrative for an episode, inserting flashbacks without warning, doing a few inventive montages, adding in a freeze-frame or two and using a lot of split-screen.

But every visual flourish has clearly been carefully thought out and it rarely feels indulgent. It’s oddly exciting. You never really know quite what sort of rabbit the show’s gonna pull out of its hat next, since it delights in subverting expectations and trying new things, and this applies to the storytelling as well as the show’s beautiful visual style.

It’s also complemented by an eclectic soundtrack of period-appropriate ’70s music and new versions of songs from other Coen brothers films.

Though it would be best to watch the show in order, and even watch the film, if you have time,  before the show, it’s not at all necessary. Many of the references to the film in season one and references to season one in season two won’t affect your enjoyment of the show and most of them are fairly minor.

Well, apart from one scene at the end of the most recent season where the writers bend over backwards to nonsensically link the fate of one character to another from season one, which was a rare mis-step for the show. But don’t let that put you off.

Since Hannibal has sadly had its last meal and that other miniseries that was on my 2014 Best Of list has nosedived in quality, Fargo has become my favourite show on TV… and it’s taking a year off. Sigh. At least it gives you lot plenty of time to catch up!

Yes, sadly, season three won’t be on our screens until 2017. But will it be worth the wait?

Oh, you betcha.