The geeky act of making lists of favourite books is a pleasure I don't think we should deny ourselves. What better way to get a snap-shot of someone's reading tastes and pick up on recommendations for great books you might have missed over the year. I read 112 books this year, many of them newly published in 2016 and many of them highly enjoyable. However, these ten books all show great craft but also feel personally significant to me. Click on the titles below to read my full reviews of each book. You can also watch my BookTube video talking about these ten books:

The Man Without a Shadow by Joyce Carol Oates

Anyone who knows how Oates is my favourite author might think it is an obvious choice for me to put a new novel by her on my list, but this is truly an excellent book. The more I think about it the more layers it yields about the meaning of personality and romance. An unusual love story between a man with short term memory loss and scientist Margot that explores the elusive mechanics of the mind.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

I can't ignore the significance of this novel coming out in an American election year when a campaign fuelled by racism and anti-immigration helped a politically-inexperienced misogynist enter The White House. This story about an escaped slave named Cora who travels a physical underground railroad to arrive in different states of racism America says something so significant about the times we live in.

The Lonely City by Olivia Laing

The state of loneliness is a curious psychological phenomenon which seems natural to the human condition, but one which is only increasing in an age of so-called online connectedness. Laing's incredibly personal and well-researched non-fiction book looks at the lives and work of many great queer artists to see how loneliness manifests in different ways. This is an incredibly touching and moving book.

Solar Bones by Mike McCormack

Although it may seem daunting to read a novel that is one continuous sentence it comes to seem quite a natural thing as you enter the consciousness of its Irish protagonist. It's a significant reflection of the times we live in as much as it is as a moving story of family and the working life. Reading it is an electrifying experience.

Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta

Great survival stories are both thrilling and heartening. This is a tale of a girl who survives a brutal civil war only to discover that her natural desire to love women goes against the religious beliefs of her family and community. She faces a very different kind of challenge to survive as she's pressured to settle down into marriage with a man and gradually assert what she really wants in life. It's a brutally honest and inspiring story which suggests strategies for unifying disparate communities which are bitterly embattled.

Dinosaurs on Other Planets by Danielle McLaughlin

Creating finely constructed short stories that give the impact of a full-length novel is a difficult challenge. But this is something McLaughlin accomplishes consistently and beautifully in this memorable and significant debut collection. Even though I read it at the very beginning of the year many of these stories about people across all levels of Irish society have remained clear in my mind. You can watch me discussing this and other great books of short stories from 2016 here.

The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain

Tremain's tremendous artistry for plucking an uncommon story from history and making it come alive is unparalleled. Here she writes about two boys in Switzerland in the time immediately following WWII, but moves backwards and then forwards in time to show the repercussions of political neutrality and hidden love. This is a beautifully accomplished novel.

Autumn by Ali Smith

There's no writer more daring and inventive than Ali Smith. Not only has she bravely planned a quartet of novels based around the seasons, but she's reflecting in them what's happening in society now. This novel focuses on the country's mood in the aftermath of the 2016 Brexit vote and an uncommon friendship between young Elisabeth and a mysterious old man Daniel. In doing so she addresses the meaning of nationality, the state of the modern world and the nature of language. She does this with great flair, humour and passion.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

Music has played a large part in many great novels this year – from Rose Tremain's novel to Julian Barnes' most recent novel “The Noise of Time” - but Thien skilfully shows how the art of composition and the compositions themselves fare under fifty years of living under the Maoist government. A girl follows her family's history in this complex, absorbing story which culminates in a depiction of the infamous student protests in Tiananmen Square. It's an epic novel.

The Tidal Zone by Sarah Moss

It's always an immense pleasure to discover an incredibly talented author I've not read before and one of this year's great finds for me is Sarah Moss. This novel takes a potential family tragedy and expands the story to explore the messiness of ordinary life in such a tender and poignant way. It also reflects back to the past to consider the meaning of loss using such a disarming style of narration which totally gripped me.


Have you read any of my choices? Which are you most interested to read? Let me know some of your favourite books of the year. I'm always eager to hear about books I might have missed reading.

This year is racing by! There has been a lot of depressing news lately so it feels all the more necessary to take the time to celebrate great books that have been published this year and recall that 2016 isn’t all doom and gloom. Since we’re at the midpoint here are ten of my favourite books so far. It’s been very difficult to whittle down this list as I’ve read 57 books so far this year and many have been excellent. (I should note Garth Greenwell's "What Belongs to You" would be on this list but I actually first read it last year) Click on the titles at the bottom to read my full thoughts about each of these outstanding books. You can also watch a video of me briefly discussing each of these books here:

Last year I ran a competition and it worked so well I want to do it again.
Here’s how to enter:
-    Leave a comment letting me know the best book you’ve read so far this year (it doesn’t have to be a new book).
-    Leave some kind of contact info (email or Twitter/GoodReads handle).
-    At the end of July I’ll pick one of your suggestions and send that person one of my favourite books from the below list below.
-    Open to anywhere in the world.

I’ll also read your suggestion by the end of the year. Last year, Poppy recommended to me the fantastic novel “Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness”.

Even if you don’t want to enter, please let me know what great books you’ve been reading this year or if you’ve read any of my choices.

Dinosaurs on Other Planets by Danielle McLaughlin
The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain
Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta
The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney
The Lonely City by Olivia Laing
What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi
Hot Milk by Deborah Levy
The Man Without a Shadow by Joyce Carol Oates
The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee
A Quiet Life by Natasha Walter

It's not till the last part of this debut short story collection by author Danielle McLaughlin that you reach the title story. If you've read all the stories in order (as I did) then you'll already have a sense of the title's more complex meaning. It’s a phrase taken from a conversation in one story where a child speculates that if dinosaurs were made extinct after a meteor hit Earth there could still be dinosaurs on other planets. However, a more layered understanding of how this image’s meaning connects with human relationships comes from the interactions of the characters throughout all of the stories. They convey a sensation that, even if we are emotionally destroyed in our own circumscribed existence, other lives still carry on independently. There is a feeling running through many of these varied and skilfully-written tales that the existence of others happens at a far remove from you and your own internal reality. Even if we live in close proximity to each other and especially if we're in a relationship with someone, the bulk of these other lives remains distinct and private. McLaughlin subtly handles this by creating deeply immersive and compelling stories which show a keen sense of how people relate to each other.

These stories centre on a broad spectrum of people from a university girl to a working class young man to a philandering husband to a grandmother. I admire how the author represents many different classes of Irish society. There is a story about a poor father and daughter who run a mink farm who take extreme actions to secure feed for their livestock. Another story directly references the Irish property bubble where a working mother loses faith in her husband who is searching for a job and she wanders through her decimated community which resembles a kind of post-apocalyptic landscape. The story ‘A Different Country’ shows the divide in understanding between urban dwellers and rural fishermen who take action against seals who meddle with their fishing nets. In ‘All About Alice’ a 45 year old woman feels bound to still live with and care for her father so on the rare occasions he is away she explores her hidden lascivious side. Together these stories form a complex portrait of society made up of different social groups all functioning in relative independence from each other.

McLaughlin also shows a complex understanding of gender. The first story 'The Art of Foot-Binding' features a daughter who takes a class project about an antiquated sexist practice to heart using it as a form of self harm because of her own insecurities about her weight. At the same time, her mother Janice emotionally binds herself in another way desperately trying to keep up appearances for her faltering relationship. Interspersed with Janice’s account are instructions about foot-binding coated in a poetic language which perversely emphasizes the barbarity of the practice. The juxtaposition of these instructions with the mother’s story creates a powerful new understanding about the way women have harmed themselves and each other throughout time because of social and misogynistic expectations that they live under.

Lily mistakenly identifies flowers by the side of her train as oleanders just as she mis-identifies the meaning of someone's friendly gesture

Lily mistakenly identifies flowers by the side of her train as oleanders just as she mis-identifies the meaning of someone's friendly gesture

Other stories present very different kinds of challenges that women face. In 'Not Oleanders' a woman named Lily unexpectedly travels abroad in Italy when her companion cancels on her. On the train she meets a younger woman and believes that there is romantic potential between them. Interestingly, this is the first piece of fiction I’ve read that highlights a person’s clavicles as a part of the body to be desired! Because of some wrongfooted signals, there is a tragic misunderstanding. McLaughlin writes a beautiful line about the experience of humiliation: “The humiliation of earlier had faded a little. It would return, of course, as humiliations always did, it would wait for her in the long grass of memory.” I love how this captures the way in which our instances of shame recur in our minds over and over throughout our lives. The character of Aileen in ‘Silhouette’ lives in London but nervously returns to visit her mother in Ireland to tell her she’s pregnant. However, her aged and ailing mother has very traditional narrow values and Aileen is unwed and having an affair with a married man. A girl going to university in 'The Smell of Dead Flowers' acts somewhat as an agent of chaos in a household where she submits to a lodger's sexual advances and distracts her relative from the care of her mentally disabled daughter.

The author writes just as compellingly about struggles particular to men. In 'Those That I Fight I Do Not Hate' a married man attends a children’s party for the child of his former lover creating a tense environment for her and her husband. His intentions feel unknown even to himself. The man at the centre of 'Along the Heron-Studded River' has a wife with mental health issues who cares for their young child while he’s at work. There is a sense that care and attention for her must be handled delicately or there could be disastrous results. This is represented in a powerful image of him driving across icy pockets of water in wintertime “shattering membranes of ice stretched across the puddles.” In 'Night of the Silver Fox' a young man named Gerard finds his burgeoning feelings of romance squashed in the face of hard world economic realities. Throughout all of these diverse stories it’s compelling the way McLaughlin presents such varied portraits of the way gender roles can play into the way we relate to each other.

I first heard about this book when I attended an event chaired by Thomas Morris at the Southbank Centre in London towards the end of last year featuring authors Colin Barrett, Claire-Louise Bennett and Kevin Barry – all part of the so-called Irish New Wave. Barrett mentioned that this is one of the strongest books he’s read recently which made me really intrigued since I admired his debut story collection so much. I found each story in “Dinosaurs on Other Planets” captivating in its own way. McLaughlin has a talent for creating tension in her scenes of everyday reality so that every detail reflects deeper stories of hidden affairs, desperation, financial insecurity or love that has gone sour. I felt compelled to go back to the beginning of some stories after I finished them and reread them now that I had a fuller understanding of the characters. This is the mark of great fiction as these stories have real depth which isn’t immediately apparent. They are also so entertaining and beautifully-written that they made me want to spend more time with them. As this is only a debut collection, I think Danielle McLaughlin demonstrates tremendous skill and confidence in her writing. This is definitely a book to be savoured.