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. 

A potential danger when reading novels is that we can become a passive audience. The narrative should be designed to lead us down the path of a story without giving all the answers. If you’re not questioning what’s being told or asking what’s missing from the tale, reading ceases to be a participatory experience. Too often in literature it’s the wives who are left by the wayside. It’s observed in this novel that “Women in narratives were always defined by their relations.” They become a prop within the narrative or part of the background to flesh out the meatier story of the husband. The atrocious thing about this isn’t just that the writer has failed to honour the psychological reality of the female characters, but that readers don’t always ask what the wives’ perspectives might be. Instead we can become complacent, receive what the author tells us about the heroic life of the man and wonder nothing more about their faithful wives. In “Fates and Furies” Lauren Groff gives us such a story and skewers it with an iron spear. She challenges the expectations of the reader and creates an invigoratingly new kind of novel about how the participants in a marriage are first and foremost individuals.

A man named Lancelot or “Lotto” struggles to succeed in life, but he's driven by an overwhelming conviction that he was destined for something great. Although he comes from a privileged background, Lotto experiences a difficult childhood. Groff has a particular talent for summing up great swaths of emotion with terse prose. She states: “The world was precarious, Lotto had learned. People could be subtracted from it with swift bad math.” He escapes from his troubled family life with teenage rebellion and a keen drive for sexual conquest – up until he meets Mathilde. Their spontaneous marriage provides a bedrock upon which he can build a career and realize his full potential.

Although Mathilde is always present in the narrative she hovers in the background and never gets a voice. But, with the second half of the novel, her story comes to the forefront and her life is (of course) much more complex than Lotto assumed it was. Both Lotto and Mathilde keep many secrets from each other. It's noted that “Marriage is made of lies. Kindly ones, mostly. Omissions.” Mostly this isn't done out of malice; overall their marriage is a successful and happy one. It's unusual to read about a couple who are married for so many years yet never lose their vigorous physical connection or break apart because of an affair. As a team they are well suited as Lotto harbours grand ambitions which Mathilde can support him in realizing. In turn, Lotto gives her stability and affection: things which she sorely lacked in her unusual and emotionally-deprived childhood. Even so, their long-term relationship isn't a happily ever after story. Chance plays a role in the highs and lows of their years together. Groff writes “There is no absolute anything. The gods love to fuck with us.”

Lauren Groff in conversation at Politics and Prose bookstore

The writing in this novel is so sharp and clever. I loved the astute observations Groff makes especially about the changes and transformations we make throughout our lives. When the very sociable couple find their circle of friends being whittled down over the years it's stated that “The ones who remained were heart wood, marrow.” This is such a beautiful way of summarizing how people that stay closest to us throughout our lives remain so because they are the people who feel vital. She's equally good at making observations about how the body changes over time. When Lotto looks down at himself one day in his middle age “He poked at the belly the size of a six-month-old baby glued to his midsection.” It's a comical way of describing how our bodies are things we inhabit our whole lives, but there is a curious distance between the way we feel we are and the way we physically appear in reality. Groff's wry humour amidst making pointed and often surprising observations makes this novel such a pleasure to read. She can take something as serious and personal as the loss of a dear loved one and comment upon the irrational behaviour that follows “What was grief but an extended tantrum to be salved by sex and candy?” The characters are handled sympathetically and their struggles feel so personal, but there is always a healthy level of objective distance taken.

There is a lot in this novel about the nature of storytelling itself. The characters are cast in dramas which subtly mimic mythic tales. Yet it feels so invigorating, new and relevant to our time period. There are tropes that are familiar, but “This isn’t Oliver Twist.” Long periods of Lotto's life are conveyed through the plays he writes. Mathilde's narrative is much more fragmented and skips around wildly between periods of her life – as is fitting for her mental state at the time we join her story. Groff could be speaking about her own impatience with traditional narratives when she writes in this novel “She was so tired of the old ways of telling stories, all those too-worn narrative paths, the familiar plot thickets, the fat social novels. She needed something messier, something sharper, something like a bomb going off.” For it's gripping richly-plotted drama and its deep understanding of the complexity of identity, “Fates and Furies” feels explosive.

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesLauren Groff
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