These are my my favorites of the books I read in 2015. I read a total of 48 books in 2015 and seven were by Australian authors.
No. 4 Imperial Lane by Jonathan Weisman. This is the first novel for this political reporter for the New York Times, but you cannot tell it is a debut work. There are multiple plot lines and multiple settings in time and place, none of which was the present. The characters inhabit Margaret Thatcher's Britain, Portugal, and Guinea in the early 1970s. Wikipedia is your friend while you read this because some characters are historical figures. I loved the complexity of the plot, the unique characters, and the appealing resolution.
Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante. These four novels were addictive; I could hardly stop reading. Someone said the author writes like an angry Jane Austen and I found that an apt description. The soap opera that was the lives of the two women at the center of these books reflected the place and times they lived in. They were born in an impoverished neighborhood of Naples in 1944; the changes of fortune and social mores that occurred over their lifetime is well-told in these books.
A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson. The author tells the story of the air war during World War II using the younger sibling of a character who first appeared in Life After Life. Though she venerates the British pilots, she makes the point that they were being fed into the maw of war that was just as deadly as the trenches of World War I. She did this while creating characters I continue to cherish.
Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. I listened to this as an audiobook, then read bits of it in print. The self-talk of the characters as they go through a single day made an ideal audiobook, as the characters muse about their current lives and the distant past. These thoughts are mingled seamlessly with dialogue between characters and the author's narrative. The author's indictment of the doctors treating the mentally ill was especially poignant, given Woolf's suicide.
One Life: My Mother's Story by Kate Grenville. One of my favorite Australian writers told the story of her mother's life, a woman who was exceptional, but not a public figure. She was born in 1912 and her life tells the story of Australia in the 20th century. Several times she set out to write about her family and her life, and though it was not completed, it gave the author material for this book. At times I had to remind myself I was reading non-fiction. That's a well-written family history.
The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert. A book that includes historical figures of interest among the characters, has a gripping, multi-generational plot, and that engenders interest in scientific topics you didn't know you could enjoy is a terrific book. The plot wound its way from a voyage with Captain Cook to plant collecting for Kew Botanical Garden to the rich of Philadelphia where the main character is finally born. Eventually it's off to Tahiti and finally the main character lands in a great horticultural garden in Holland.
Time Present and Time Past by Deirdre Madden. It's the lovely characters in the Buckley family and their connections to each other that makes this one of my favorites for the year. The central figure is Fintan, the father, a placid fellow who does love his lunch and wants to stop time to remember happy moments with his family.
Man at the Helm by Nina Stibbe. The story is told by Lizzie, the wise 9-year old who, along with her sister, tries to "herd our mother into happiness." Things eventually improve and the mother gives what is perhaps my favorite bit of advice for the year. When Lizzie was crying and couldn't say why, her mother explains the weight she feels is the pig. "The pig arrives when one's feeling fed up. He arrives in the morning and pins you to the bed." When asked why, she explains "To make you think, to make you cry, and make you see. And when he visits, he's just trying to help. You must make him welcome and he'll soon be gone."
Passage to Juneau by Jonathan Raban. It's surprising that a person who has so little interest in boating would have this book in the exclusive company of Charlotte's Top Ten Books of the Year, but it's here, nevertheless. Jonathan Raban had the opportunity to make a solo boat trip between Seattle where he lived to Juneau. While the challenges of the boat are a major focus, his reflections on the area he passes through and the dramatic turns of his own life were memorable.
The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan. My favorite book of the year explores what people do in extreme circumstances, in this case the Japanese prisoners of war being worked to death building a railway in Burma. The leader of the prisoners, Dorrigo Evans acts heroically to protect them as much as possible, but rejects that idea of heroism, believing he was trapped by the needs of the prisoners to act as he did. The horrific head of the labor camp and his superior are humanized, as they share their love for Basho's "The Narrow Road to the Deep North." Another key aspect of the book is the story of lost love of Dorrigo and revelations that come 20 years after the war.