The year is flying by and so many great books have already been newly published (including so many I’ve still not got reading). It was difficult making this list because I’ve read 48 books so far this year, many of which were excellent. I’m only going to mention 10 here. But I’d love to know some of your favourite books so please leave a comment to let me know about your top recent reads. If you want to know more of my thoughts about any of these click on the titles for my full reviews.

Go Went Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck – This is a novel, longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize, about a retired professor in Berlin who becomes involved in the lives of several refugees. It’s a topical story about immigration, but I think it’s also so much more than that too. It’s a really emotional story with a teasing mystery at the core of its protagonist and it also contains such profound philosophical thoughts about identity.

Sight by Jessie Greengrass – This debut novel was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize and I made a silly early prediction that it will win this year’s Booker Prize. Readers’ reactions to this novel have been very polarized. It’s a very particular kind of introspective story that won’t be for everyone. But personally I loved it for the way it shows the transition in identity from child to parent and the artful way it blends nonfiction with the pressing ontological issues its protagonist faces.

Crudo by Olivia Laing – Laing’s nonfiction has shown how she has a very personal and intelligent way of looking at historical figures. Her first novel Crudo really cleverly blends her passion for the writer Kathy Acker with her own preoccupations about modern life. The more I think about this novel the more it affects me. It speaks so meaningfully about this crisis we feel inhabiting our bodies and minds in a chaotic world where global politics that are increasingly bleak and how challenging it is wrestling with our own egos every day.

Tell Me How It Ends by Valeria Luiselli – I can’t think of another book that has proved to be so relevant to the immediate emergency Americans recently faced concerning illegal immigrants and refugees being forcibly separated from their children. Luiselli describes her experiences speaking to asylum seekers who are children and the reality of their crisis in a way that is incredibly enlightening. When I read this a few months ago I said this short book should be required reading for every school in America, but I think it should be required reading for every adult as well.

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The Sealwoman’s Gift by Sally Magnusson – This historical novel is based on the true story of a large group of Icelandic villagers kidnapped and enslaved by Barbary pirates in 1627. Many are forcefully taken to Algiers and this novel mainly focuses on the story of the plight of a reverend’s wife. It may sound bleak and there are distressing scenes but it is also richly detailed, beautifully told and intensely poignant in the way it asks questions about: where do you belong?

Beautiful Days by Joyce Carol Oates – A book of short stories that are intensely dramatic and show a magnificent range from tales of stark psychological realism about the conflict between lovers or the conflict between a mother and her son to stories that are slightly more surreal in tone like an ex-president forced to dig up the graves of all the victims of his policies or a girl trapped in a painting like some nightmare fairy tale. They are so imaginative and gripping and this is the second book of short stories Oates has published this year. Her other book Night Gaunts is equally as compelling and you can watch me talk at length about these HP Lovecraft-influenced stories in a video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ekmgrCyZqDg&t=155s

Fire Sermon by Jamie Quatro – This novel describes a woman who is a wife and mother and how she enters into an affair. It’s well-trodden fictional territory but Quatro speaks about it in such a thoughtful and considered way. It shows how challenging it is to grapple with our desires – not just our desire for sex – but also for an engagement with someone that is intellectual and spiritual. And it gives such a sobering take on how messy all this unruly passion is.

Problems by Jade Sharma – This debut novel is about an anti-hero named Maya who can’t connect with life in the way she knows she should. Her marriage is inane. Her lover is distant. Her job at a bookstore is going nowhere. Her thesis is unfinished. Her mother is nagging. Her drug habit is getting worse. She's self-conscious about her body size, her skin colour and her very non-PC sexual impulses. But through all this the author has a frank candour and humour which makes this novel oddly comforting in a way that acknowledges what a disaster all of our lives really are.

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Don’t Call Us Dead by Danez Smith – I was lucky enough to see Smith read some of the poetry from this book in person. He is such a passionate and lively reader. And these poems are so engaged and revelatory in how they speak about black bodies in America, gay culture and being HIV positive. They’re politically aware and playful and sexy. Even if you’re not someone who normally reads poetry, I think anyone can connect with this incredibly original and relevant writing.

And finally, not a new book, but a classic. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley! I’ve been reading more classic novels than I usually do – not just for some Rediscover the Classics campaigns that I’ve been curating – but also other books and it’s been so enlightening. And it was such a joy to read Frankenstein for the first time and it’s appropriate too since it’s been 200 years since this novel was first published. It really wasn’t what I expected as it was so much darker and complex and philosophical than I thought it’d be.

So those are my choices! I feel glad to have read such amazing books and I’m sure I’ll discover many more great reads in the next six months. Now I’d love to hear about what books you’ve most enjoyed so far this year.

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One of my goals this year is to read more poetry and I feel lucky to have started with a new book which totally gripped me with the intensity of its voice. The poems in “Don't Call Us Dead” by Danez Smith have the urgent force of a rallying cry. They pay tribute to individuals and groups who will not be silenced no matter how much they are oppressed, incarcerated or killed. Specifically Smith speaks powerfully about the experience of being a gay African American: how skin colour can lead someone to be targeted by the police or alternately excluded/fetishised in the gay community. These are poems drawn from somewhere very personal. They sometimes play off from lyrics from musicians like Billie Holiday or Diana Ross and use a unique variety of forms to convey meaning as much in their structure as they do in the choice of words. Like all great poetry it can be interpreted a number of different ways, but there is a clarity of self here which definitely has something to say.

Something that connected me to these poems so strongly is the way that Smith frequently makes broad statements while also drawing the reader into the emotional core of his reality. He states “i am a house swollen with the dead, but still a home.” How brilliantly this expresses the architecture of being! That we can encompass all who've come before us and/or those who haven't survived, but our very structure is designed to accommodate this Genealogy and invite others in to experience it. I was continuously jolted by how startlingly personal these poems felt but I also frequently stopped to contemplate how their meaning is so beautifully expansive. Smith speaks for himself as well as others when he writes a line with such dazzling beauty like “let's waste the moon's marble glow shouting our names to the stars until we are the stars.”

The Black Lives Matter movement has revolutionized our dialogue for speaking about both institutionalized and rogue violence inflicted upon black communities. The very spirit of not letting the deaths of young black men like Trayvon Martin or Michael Brown pass without testifying to their injustice and how they are endemic of systematic racism seems wrapped up in the line “don't fret, we don't die. they can't kill the boy on your shirt again.” But Smith is also conscientious of the fact that many people who die or experience stultifying oppression aren't memorialised in such a way: “i'm not the kind of black man who dies on the news.” This is because there is also a death of spirit which isn't visible and which is more broadly felt by groups of people continuously ground down. He expresses this so powerfully in the line “some of us are killed in pieces, some of us all at once”. There are also moments when Smith doesn't hesitate to give his poetry a startling directness “reader, what does it feel like to be safe? white? how does it feel to dance when you're not dancing away the ghost?”

Danez Smith reads 'Principles'

This collection is also a poignant testimony to the way romance and sex are experienced by a black gay man. Some poems speak directly about how race and skin colour are listed as turn on or turn offs on dating/hookup profiles. Yet there are gorgeously romantic instances in poems which yearn for a transcendence of these imposed boundaries: “if love is a hole wide enough to be God's mouth, let me plunge into that holy dark & forget the color of light.” The poem 'seroconversion' has the most innovative and creative way of eviscerating identity to describe a conflagration of coupling that results in radical transformations and self-divisions. Smith doesn't shy from the raw power and sensuality of gay sex “praise the endless tub of grease” or the numbing anonymity of it “i'm offered eight mouths, three asses & four dicks before i'm given a name”. Still others pay tribute to instances of aching personal hurt: “I was his fag sucked into ash his lungs my final resting place.”

Smith's poems are also very cognizant of the effect AIDS and STDs have upon the gay community. There's a bracingly sympathetic moment when someone is waiting for test results and pleas “ask him to wait before he gives me the test results, give me a moment of not knowing, sweet piece of ignorance, i want to go back to the question”. Then there are a number of structurally innovative poems such as 'it's not a death sentence anymore' where the words of this sentence are whittled down the page until you're simply left with “a sentence” with spaces in between. This speaks so powerfully about a shift in common thinking that because being HIV+ doesn't instantly equal death anymore, it shouldn't be such a concern. 'blood hangover' fiercely forms what Smith calls “an erasure” of Ross' popular song to acknowledge the serious after-effects of sex. Elsewhere the words “my blood” and “his blood” are repeated until they collide and rapturously mingle on the page in the poem 'litany with blood all over'. It's so heartening seeing these complex issues explored in Smith's poems while also capturing the joy, romance and steaminess of gay sex. I admire how new young poets like Smith and Andrew McMillan are so thoughtfully exploring layers of queer life in their writing. 

I was totally captivated by the urgency and power of “Don't Call Us Dead”. These are poems that are, of course, political and personal at once. They have an invigorating clarity while also being complex enough to yield multiple meanings from rereading. Most refreshingly, this is poetry which feels of the moment.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesDanez Smith