This has been a year of great personal change for me. More than ever, I'm aware of how books work like a conversation informing our lives and that it's important to talk back. (This blog is me talking back.) My reading this year increased somewhat largely because I joined in on a shadow jury for the Baileys Prize and as a judge for this year’s Green Carnation Prize. I read 96 books in total, but this doesn’t count the dozens of books I started but put aside after fifty or even two hundred pages. I’ve become more cutthroat because the truth is there isn’t enough time to keep reading a book that’s not doing it for you. You might not connect with it only because of where you are in your life, but I think it’s best to move onto something you feel passionately engaged with rather than slogging through something you feel you should read. There are rare examples like “The Country of Ice Cream Star” which took me longer to read than any other book this year and which I found incredibly difficult. Ultimately it was rewarding and I’m glad I stuck with it till the end, but such cases are rare.

There are dozens of really superb books I’ve read this year. I’m always passionate about reading short stories and the books I’ve read by Donal RyanTom Barbash, Ali Smith, Mahesh Rao, Stuart Evers and Thomas Morris all contain stories which have really stuck with me. Because the Green Carnation Prize is open to books in all genres, I also read more memoirs, young adult novels, poetry and nonfiction than I usually do. I hope to continue reading more widely as some of these books like Erwin Mortier’s profound/heart-wrenching memoir and Mark Vonhoenacker’s meditation on flying have been truly fantastic.

Book podcasts have also been a welcome new presence for me this year. I’ve always avidly listened to The Readers, hosted by two of my favourite book bloggers. But I’ve also started regularly listening to Sinéad Gleeson’s The Book Show and Castaway’s Bookish, hosted by the owners of two Irish bookshops. These two definitely have struck a chord with me because I’ve been reading so much Irish fiction. The country does seem to be going through something of a renaissance producing a profuse amount of writing of sterling quality. This has been debated about in the media such as this Irish Times article about a Guardian article which highlighted the “new Irish literary boom.” Although, to my mind, the best Irish book of the year is Mrs Engels which seems strangely missing from all these lists.
If you have favourite book podcasts please do comment and let me know about them as I enjoy finding more.

Finally, here are my top ten books of the year which have all made such a strong impact on me and left me thinking about them long after finishing the last page. Click on each title's name to read my full thoughts about these books.

A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James
It’s funny looking back on this post I made last year about books I wanted to read and hadn’t yet got to (including this one). At that point, Marlon James’ most recent novel had received praise from critics, but hadn’t made many sales. I didn’t get to reading it until this summer as part of judging the Green Carnation Prize. It went on to win as well as taking that obscure award called the Booker. What a difference a year can make in the life of a book!

The Green Road by Anne Enright
I felt slightly suspicious starting this novel because I was worried it wouldn’t do anything new, but Enright proves again with this novel that she's an enormously creative writer. She creates a fresh structure for this book and takes her characters into territories unlike any of her other tremendous novels. It all works to present a complex and entirely new kind of portrait of a family.

Mrs Engels by Gavin McCrea
Lizzie is headstrong and tough, but she possesses rare passion which bleeds through every page of this beautiful novel. It pierced my heart and stayed with me like nothing else I’ve read this year. Sometimes it's like I can still feel her near me with all her earnest judgement, wisdom, humour and tender feeling. I'm deeply saddened she isn't a part of my life any more.

Lila by Marilynne Robinson
I wasn’t expecting to like this novel much since I’d only felt a mild response to Robinson’s writing in the past. To my delight, it gripped me and held me all the way through. Lila is a girl who came from nothing but through the generosity of a scant few people and her own determination she makes a life for herself and finds a rare kind of love. This is writing which is profoundly moving and it’s a story which completely captured my imagination.

Almost Famous Women by Megan Mayhew Bergman
History books are strewn with footnotes about fascinating women like Lizzie Burns in "Mrs Engels" who probably never became more famous because of the simple fact that they were women or from a lower class. Bergman honours a select and fascinating few to create mesmerizing short stories with immense emotional depth. The points of view they pose allow us to re-enter history and question what we find there.

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff
I was introduced to Groff’s writing last year when I read her impactful story in the Best American Short Stories 2014. What a thrill it was to discover that her compressed and strong style of writing can also work in such a long novel. This book was an absolute pleasure to read giving such a unique perspective on relationships and the secrets we keep from those closest to us.

The Lost Landscape by Joyce Carol Oates
It’s so rare for Oates to reflect on her own life in her writing. It’s unsurprising that she approaches the subject of childhood and her formative years in a deeply questioning and philosophical manner. In this creative and deeply-personal book she reflectively looks at her own life and her life as a writer/reader to produce a profoundly surprising point of view about the nature of identity.

The Long Gaze Back edited by Sinéad Gleeson
Many anthologies of short stories are a patchwork of good and fair stories, but few contain great after great like this revelatory volume of Irish women writers. Several stories are by writers whose books I've read and admired over the past couple of years such as Anne Enright, Mary Costello, Eimear McBride and Belinda McKeon. Other writers like Kate O'Brien, Maeve Brennan, Molly McCloskey and Anakana Schofield are new to me. There are stories of high drama and stories of subtle power, but all utilise language to capture exactly what it is they need to say. In addition to the fascinating diversity of styles and subject matters covered in this entertaining and lovingly-assembled anthology this book serves as a fantastic jumping off point for reading more of these talented writers' work which I'm now eager to track down. Each story is prefaced by compelling short bios for each writer which serve as helpful prompts for discovering more. This is a book to always keep by your bedside. 

Sophie and the Sybil by Patricia Duncker
It’s rare that I find a book where I love every minute of the reading experience. This novel which functions as both a love letter and critique of George Eliot is tremendously fun, immensely clever and makes a truly romantic story. It takes a lot of bravado for an author to insert herself into a narrative, but Duncker does so with fantastic results.

Physical by Andrew McMillan
Poetry can be such an intimidating form of writing to engage with because much of it can feel opaque. McMillan’s extraordinary writing spoke directly to me. I’ve found myself going back to several poems in this book again and again. I’ve also recommended this book to a huge amount of people because I think these revelatory poems will connect with many.


Have you read any of these or are you now curious to give them a try? I've enjoyed reading through many end of year book lists so please comment to let me know your own favourites. 

Last year I read Donal Ryan’s novel “The Thing About December.” I was drawn in by the powerfully distinctive voice he’d created for the central character who is a sensitive loner. Some authors like Richard Ford or Anita Brookner are able to establish an engaging narrative voice which they repeat throughout multiple books and, while it may be consistently impressive, it doesn’t show much variation. I wondered if that would be the case with Ryan so I was somewhat hesitant to start this book of short stories. I was delighted to discover a rich array of characters throughout the many stories in this collection whose voices are all individually distinct. These characters range in age, class, sex and race to create a dynamic and layered portrayal of Irish life. It’s impressive that each story finds its own rhythm to relate a particular character’s point of view. We see the world through each character’s eyes as they see it. Brought together, the engaging voices in “A Slanting of the Sun” give a rich understanding of the world, tell a series of dramatically entertaining stories and honour the diversity of individual experience.

Since almost all of these stories are set in Ireland one of the most fascinating things about this collection is the sense of ebb and flow it portrays amongst the national population. There are characters with strong roots in Ireland who face the tough decision of whether to leave for London or Australia to seek out employment and a new life. Conversely, the story ‘Grace’ gives voice to a woman who left the Democratic Republic of the Congo under terrifying circumstances to find unofficial factory work and face a different kind of fear when riding the bus in Ireland. The story ‘Trouble’ portrays how certain groups of the population like Irish travellers face longstanding oppression and social stigma. Other stories like ‘Hanora Ryan, 1998’ show characters who live in the country as if time has stood still. In this story a woman recalls a man she admired and lost in WWI as if it were yesterday even though more than eighty years have passed. 

Many of the impassioned voices which narrate these stories seem to start in mid-flow so it’s only till you get through half their tale that you are able to sufficiently orientate yourself to the situation. I particularly enjoyed it when these stories made my sympathy unexpectedly switch away from the character narrating it once I grasped their full story. In ‘The Squad’ the narrator and his friends take the law into their own hands and find they must live with the consequences forever more. This movingly shows the useless life-destroying circular nature of violence: “All of naught, to naught, for naught, year upon year of moments, of time slowly marked, of silence filled with empty words.” The scale of injustices and crimes committed by protagonists vary from small instances of betrayal and theft like in ‘Losers Weepers’ to outrageous institutional abuse in ‘Nephthys and The Lark’ to horrific murder in ‘Retirement Do.’ These stories draw the reader in to really see the internal struggles of these difficult individuals giving you a more complicated understanding of situations which you might see more simplistically from a distanced outsiders’ perspective.

Listen to Donal Ryan read from the mysterious, chilling story 'From a Starless Night'

While I appreciated all of the stories in this collection, there are some which stand out as personal favourites. These stories in particular are impressive for the way they give a sense of the enormity of the universe and the place that particular life experiences have within it. The story ‘Sky’ is narrated by an aging, lonely man named William who is irreligious but doesn’t see the harm in sending his prayers up to the sky. He gets a computer in the hope of finding the nephew he lost touch with, but stuffs it in a closet and looks to the stars instead. ‘Ragnarok’ features a fairly average office worker who finds himself suddenly overwhelmed by emotion. In ‘Physiotherapy’ a woman recalls her life, the choices she made and creates a uniquely complex view of existence. This story also shows a breathtaking vision of how memory can make time into a fluid thing so all experience occurs simultaneously: “I’m seventy-seven and I’m twenty, my child is dead and he hasn’t yet been born.” The title story ‘A Slanting of the Sun’ shows a tremendously surprising instance of forgiveness and sense of kinship for someone who committed a horrendous crime. It’s also the story which closes this book and allows it to end with a hard-won, uplifting sensation.

I was struck many times throughout this book of short stories by the astounding beauty of certain sentences. It’s so accomplished how Donal Ryan can write from the points of view of characters with very different experiences and ways of speaking, but always draws upon language and phrasing which accurately pinpoints a subtly of feeling and pays tribute to the full complexity of human emotion. He can perfectly encapsulate a common feeling like the importance phones play in young people’s lives: “Her daughter’s world seemed compressed sometimes into the screen of that telephone; all of her tides turned at the pull of its gravity, her whole existence seemed wedded to it.” Or he can present a contradiction so that the character’s reasoning reflects his particular emotional state: “Cursed we are with health, my family, stout unfailing hearts, years to go till death for me.” All of it sings with a life-force which is enthralling and demands to be listened to.

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesDonal Ryan