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Best books to give (and get): Top fiction picks of 2015

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2015 fiction picks
Here's to diving into new lives and new worlds: The top fiction picks of 2015.
Courtesy of publishers

This week, The Thread is looking back at some of our favorite books of the year. If you're on the hunt for a great read — or a good gift — don't miss these must-reads.

Fiction picks

"The Sympathizer" by Viet Thanh Nguyen

This is the Vietnam story you haven't heard before. A group of South Vietnamese soldiers flee Saigon for Los Angeles after the war, but they don't know that a spy is among them. The double agent, a former captain in the army, reports back to the Viet Cong all about life in America, even as he settles in.

"The Sympathizer" follows his assimilation and betrayals, delivering a spy novel steeped in politics and untold histories.

"Gold Fame Citrus" by Claire Vaye Watkins

In a not-so-distant future, drought has ravaged the West, leaving California a wasteland abandoned by all but a few lost souls. That's where Watkins dives in, introducing a young couple living in a starlet's empty mansion.

When the couple encounters a strange child, they're drawn east after rumors of a colony with water, tucked in the unchartable dunes. The unnervingly realistic climate shift and original characters make for a smart spin on the end-of-the-world trend in literature.

"City on Fire" by Garth Risk Hallberg

"City on Fire" isn't just a book. It's a tome. Clocking in at 900 pages, Hallberg's debut novel earned a record $2 million advance from the publisher.

It's a kaleidoscopic view of New York City in the 1970s, when anarchistic punks mix with lonely teens, wannabe writers, rich heirs and a fireworks aficionado. Timelines and lives overlap, revealing unexpected connections and a looming disaster.

"Here" by Richard McGuire

Picture the corner of a living room — a plain, unremarkable place. Now imagine the lives that have swept through that space over the decades and centuries: the people, the drama, the transformations.

McGuire's graphic novel focuses on just such a corner, popping in and out of eras, from 1609 to 2007 to 1943, from a playpen to a bison to Benjamin Franklin.  It's a dizzying, dazzling conceit that digs into what truly defines place.

"Hall of Small Mammals: Stories" by Thomas Pierce

Pace yourself with Pierce's stories — you don't want to run out too soon. Pierce's wild wit and brutally dark sense of humor deliver story after story that dance just outside of reality. There's the miniature wooly mammoth brought to life. The plague-stricken body circling the world on a container ship. A physicist with an imaginary husband.

The collection invites you through the carnival fun house that is Pierce's brain; enjoy the ride.

"A Little Life" by Hanya Yanagihara

Yanagihara follows four classmates from a small Massachusetts college as they try to make their way in New York City. Over the decades, their friendship and alliances shift and strain under the pressure of setbacks and successes.

It's a beautiful, heartbreaking meditation on friendship and memory. A finalist for the National Book Award and longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, "A Little Life" won the 2015 Kirkus Prize for fiction.

"Girl on the Train" by Paula Hawkins

Hailed as the heir to the "Gone Girl" throne, "Girl on the Train" is the psychologically twisty thriller that had everyone talking this year. Addictive and haunting, it's likely to make you think twice about your daily commute.

When Rachel catches sight of something on the train for an instant, it changes her life forever. More details than that will reveal too much.

"Pablo," written by Julie Birman and illustrated by Clement Oubrerie

Art lovers rejoice: Birman and Oubrerie have composed a stunning portrait of Picasso's life and career in this new graphic novel.

One of the most recognized artists in the world, Picasso spent his youth in bohemian Paris, forging friendships with other legendary artists. Oubrerie's illustrations take readers through the making of the master, from his early life to his signature cubism.

"Country of Ice Cream Star" by Sandra Newman

The post-apocalyptic trend is going strong, and "Country of Ice Cream Star" is one of the most original spins on the disaster-obsessed subgenre. With shades of "The Handmaid's Tale" and "Cloud Atlas," Newman introduces Ice Cream Star, a 15-year-old girl born to a world in chaos.

When a plague sweeps through the remnants of a collapsed America, Ice Cream Star must lead a quest to save the few who remain.

"Mrs. Engels" by Gavin McCrea

Friedrich Engels is a frequent name in history books. He was Karl Marx's Communist collaborator, penning several influential texts of the era. It may seem surprising, then, considering his academic pedigree, that his wife was illiterate and uneducated — but truth is often stranger than fiction.

McCrea turns the larger-than-life character of Lizzie Burns, Engels' common-law wife, into one of the most compelling protagonists of the year. "Mrs. Engels" is historical fiction of the finest kind, where fact and fiction mix for the better of both.

"Outline" by Rachel Cusk

In "Outline," Cusk refuses to play by the rules. Her novel follows a creative writing professor summering in Greece, but Cusk crafts the story entirely through 10 conversations.

The professor talks to her seatmate on the plane, to strangers, to students. Each conversation strikes at how — and why — we tell the stories of our lives.

"Delicious Foods" by James Hannaham

"Delicious Foods" is partially narrated by a drug — literally, crack tells the story of a family torn apart by addiction and modern-day slavery in America. The book takes on the darkest parts of humanity, but also delivers the vibrant, unforgettable mother-son pair of Darlene and Eddie.

Hannaham's emotional page-turner is a brutal but redeeming read; it's a sharp social critique that skewers everything from corporate greed to racial inequity in a fresh and unforgettable voice.

Books covered by The Thread are available for sale through the Public Radio Market. Your purchase supports our work.