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Best books of 2015

As the year draws to a close, we look back at the year’s reviews and the books that really stayed with us. Here are 10 of our favorites — first, five nonfiction titles, followed by five fiction. Any of them would make a great holiday present — or a gift to yourself.

BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME, by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Rushed into print as the country reeled from
Photo Credit: Spiegel and Grau

Rushed into print as the country reeled from the Ferguson protests and the #BlackLivesMatter campaign caught wind, Coates' memoiristic essay is about the painful realities of violence and African-American life. Partly inspired by James Baldwin's 1963 classic "The Fire Next Time," "Between the World and Me" is framed as a letter to Coates' teenage son, Samori -- an account of his own childhood with tough but loving parents; his immersion in black history, literature and struggle at the "Mecca" of Howard University; and the killing of a brilliant Howard friend at the hands of a police officer who was never punished. Rarely does a book speak so urgently to our historical moment. Read a review. (Spiegel & Grau, $24)

STALIN'S DAUGHTER, by Rosemary Sullivan

Many historians have written about the life of
Photo Credit: Harper

Many historians have written about the life of ruthless Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, but could his daughter Svetlana really be worthy of a biography of her own? In this compelling, heartbreaking book, Rosemary Sullivan proves that the answer is yes. Sullivan traces Svetlana's long odyssey, from a privileged childhood in the Kremlin, through the death of her mother and banishment of her teenage boyfriend, to her stunning defection to the West in 1967 and the unhappy rootless years that followed until her death in 2011. Informed by dozens of interviews and archival research in KGB and CIA files, "Stalin's Daughter" is Cold War history made moving and personal. Read a review. (Harper, $35)

DEAD WAKE: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, by Erik Larson

Thanks to James Cameron (and many eminent historians),
Photo Credit: Crown

Thanks to James Cameron (and many eminent historians), we all know the story of the Titanic's last voyage. But the fateful 1915 sailing of the Lusitania -- sunk by a German U-boat, with 1,198 dead, including 27 infants -- was lesser known before this gripping account by the author of "The Devil in the White City" and "In the Garden of the Beasts." Larson's account unspools from many perspectives, including the passengers aboard the luxury liner, the captain and crew of the submarine that unleashed the torpedo and the Woodrow Wilson White House. Larson's description of the Lusitania's final 18 minutes are haunting; "Dead Wake" is narrative history at its dramatic best. Read a review. (Crown, $28)

THE LIGHT OF THE WORLD, by Elizabeth Alexander

In 2012, artist and chef Ficre Ghebreyesus died
Photo Credit: Grand Central

In 2012, artist and chef Ficre Ghebreyesus died suddenly of a heart attack at home in New Haven, Connecticut, just four days after his 50th birthday party. "The Light of the World" is the memoir of his widow, poet Elizabeth Alexander, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and best known for reading at the 2009 inauguration of President Obama. This breathtakingly intimate book is in part a portrait of Ghebreyesus -- a refugee, at 16, from war in his native Eritrea -- and in part the story of a marriage, full of both blessings -- among them two sons -- and sadness. At once accessible, direct and lyrical, "The Light of the World" offers a window on the strangeness of grief and the consolations of love. Read a review. (Grand Central, $26)

THE WRIGHT BROTHERS, by David McCullough

This veteran historian -- a two-time winner of
Photo Credit: Simon and Schuster

This veteran historian -- a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, for "John Adams" and "Truman" -- brings his skills to bear on two of America's great innovators, Wilbur and Orville Wright. Their story is well known from grade-school textbooks -- they pioneered flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in 1903 -- but McCullough brings the brothers, their close-knit family and their long, painstaking scientific experiment to vivid life. It's a fascinating story, full of disappointments, reversals of fortune and an early 20th-century version of celebrity that the sober Midwestern brothers enjoyed but distrusted. McCullough relates their story with admirable clarity and economy. Read a review. (Simon and Schuster, $30)

A LITTLE LIFE, by Hanya Yanagihara

The sleeper hit of 2015 -- a finalist
Photo Credit: Doubleday

The sleeper hit of 2015 -- a finalist for both the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Award -- grabbed readers from the start and wouldn't let go for more than 700 unbelievably absorbing pages. "A Little Life" is the story of four college friends -- Jude, Willem, JB and Malcolm -- whose bonds are tested and transformed over the decades. At its center is the enigmatic figure of Jude, an orphan raised by monks, whose dark past is a mystery to his friends even as it leaves him damaged and sometimes unreachable. Yanagihara creates a richly realized and timeless world for her characters, and though her subject is dark, at times downright grim, the novel possesses a magnetic power that leaves few readers unmoved. Read a review. (Doubleday, $30)

THE TSAR OF LOVE AND TECHNO, by Anthony Marra

This collection of nine linked stories carries the
Photo Credit: Hogarth

This collection of nine linked stories carries the sweep and resonance of any novel. Set in Russia, Siberia and Chechnya during and after Soviet rule, "The Tsar of Love and Techno" opens with the ingenious tale of a portrait artist turned art censor under Stalin. The disgraced ballerina whom he reluctantly airbrushes out of a photo will reappear in the next story, along with her granddaughter, taking ballet lessons in a former labor camp. The censor's nephew, too, turns up later, along with the latter's son, who seeks to dodge military service in Chechnya. Marra's stories -- about memory, art, loyalty, betrayal and love, echoing across the generations -- are full of bitter ironies and straight-up gorgeous writing. Read a review. (Hogarth, $25)

THE STORY OF THE LOST CHILD, by Elena Ferrante

Not every literary novelist takes Twitter by storm
Photo Credit: Europa Editions

Not every literary novelist takes Twitter by storm with her own hashtag. But this was the year of #FerranteFever, when the pseudonymous Italian author -- whose real identity is unknown even to her American translator -- published the final volume of her Neapolitan series, which has been steadily winning over readers since the release of "My Brilliant Friend" in 2012. At the center of the books are two women, Elena and Lila, who grew up together in a poor, violent neighborhood of Naples in the 1950s; as the years and the volumes go by their lives diverge, but their complicated friendship remains the focus, passing through every imaginable phase of passionate identification, resentment, disconnection, disdain and love. Read a review. (Europa Editions, $18)

PURITY, by Jonathan Franzen

After winning a National Book Award for
Photo Credit: FSG

After winning a National Book Award for "The Corrections" (2001) and widespread acclaim for "Freedom" (2010), Franzen is just hitting his stride. He seems more limber and funnier than ever in his new novel, the wide-ranging tale of Purity "Pip" Tyler, a postgrad with $130,000 of debt; an overbearing, emotionally demanding mother and a father whose identity has never been revealed to her. In a quest to find him, Pip crosses paths with Andreas Wolf, a Julian Assange-like leaker who runs his Sunlight Project from the Bolivian jungle and carries some dark secrets from his youth in East Germany. Fluent, topical and wise, "Purity" is Franzen at his best. Read a review. (FSG, $28)

A MANUAL FOR CLEANING WOMEN, by Lucia Berlin

How is it that we didn't know about
Photo Credit: FSG

How is it that we didn't know about Lucia Berlin before now? This unique literary talent published dozens of stories, mostly below the radar, until her death in 2004 at age 68. "A Manual for Cleaning Women," edited by Stephen Emerson with a foreword by writer Lydia Davis, collects 43 of these tales. Berlin drew closely from her life in her fiction, spinning out narratives about single mothers who work as cleaning women or emergency room attendants and suffer through rehab. What blows you away from page 1 is Berlin's voice: shrewd, intimate, funny and painfully honest, given to sudden changes of direction and unexpected digressions. She belongs on the bookshelf with Raymond Carver, Grace Paley and Lorrie Moore, and thankfully she finally has our attention. Read a review. (FSG, $26)

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