It’s been a fantastic reading year as I discovered some excellent new debut authors, new books from great authors I’ve read before and several classic novels which I read for the first time. I’ve especially enjoyed following a number of book prizes this year including The Women’s Prize, The Dylan Thomas Prize, The Windham-Campbell Prize, The Booker Prize, The Books Are My Bag Awards and The Young Writer of the Year Award. Of course, what I enjoy most is all the debate and discussion these prizes encourage.

Reading isn’t a race and numbers aren’t important, but in total I read 96 books this year. I enjoyed the experience of reading so many of these but here are ten of my favourites. Click on the book titles to see my full reviews of each book.

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Women Talking by Miriam Toews

This novel based on real life recent events presents a dialogue between women who’ve been egregiously abused and raped by men within their own isolated religious community for years. But without the knowledge or even a common language to connect with the larger world they face the terrifying question: what should they do next? It’s an arresting conversation.

Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott

Truman Capote sought to immortalize his high society female friends in a great work of literature. But, having divulged their most closely-guarded secrets in public, he made himself into a social pariah. This novel imaginatively relates the perspectives of these betrayed women on one of the 20th century’s most infamous writers and how these ladies contributed to shaping the culture of their time. It’s a richly layered delicious feast.

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

Most individuals born into slavery never have the opportunity to realize their intellectual abilities and artistic talents. But Edugyan’s fantastical adventure novel imagines a rare space where a boy with a passion for science and skills at drawing can travel the world experimenting with different ways of being. This is a compulsively readable wondrous novel.

Fire Sermon by Jamie Quatro

One of the most difficult challenges of adulthood is navigating our desires as we change and grow as individuals. Quatro takes a very common story about an individual who enters into an affair and draws out of it a discussion so intimate and transformative it gave me a whole new perspective on my relationships to those closest to me and how I inhabit my own mind, body and soul.  

Problems by Jade Sharma

The wilful, outrageously outspoken and deeply troubled young woman at the centre of this novel should have everything going for her, but finds she can’t get herself together. This story is a frank and darkly hilarious account of her arduous struggle with addiction and deeply-felt struggle to find the will to carry on.  

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Memento Mori by Muriel Spark

This year included the centenary of Muriel Spark’s birth and the 40th anniversary of Virago, a publisher renowned for honouring and republishing great female authors. This beautiful new edition of Memento Mori is a synthesis of these celebrations and I loved discovering this outrageous and witty black comedy first published in 1959. It includes relentlessly entertaining characters while also conveying a profound meditation on life and death.

Circe by Madeline Miller

What would motivate an outcast nymph who resides on a remote island to turn sailors into pigs? Miller brilliantly answers this question while relating the life story of this spurned enchantress from Greek mythology. It’s a surprisingly emotional journey as Circe learns how to best harness her considerable powers and find contentment amidst immortality. This novel is so imaginative and gripping.

Hazards of Time Travel by Joyce Carol Oates

This new novel from America’s greatest writer is wonderfully surprising in how it presents a haunting dystopian tale while simultaneously relating a very autobiographical tale. It dynamically considers difficult questions about personal responsibility while living under questionable government and addresses some of the most pressing issues we face today. It’s a mesmerising story.

Sight by Jessie Greengrass

Greengrass’ first novel might not have won the Booker Prize this year, but it demonstrated the considerable talent of this young writer for creating a story which is deeply thoughtful, emotionally gripping and beautifully told. It inventively reaches into the past for answers to questions we hardly dare to speak aloud and reflects on potential ways of seeing.

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss

I’m amazed how a book so compact can contain such a moving and haunting tale. This novel about a unique archaeological weekend follows the journey of a young woman trapped under the influence of her wilful reactionary father. They embark on a dangerous experiment which raises pressing questions about what being English means. It’s an incredibly timely and original tale.

 

What have been some of your favourite books this year? Let me know your top picks or your thoughts about any of the above books in the comments below.

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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Many books focus on romantic affairs, but it takes something special to shed new light on this common subject. Two of my all-time favourite novels that explore the dynamics of an affair are Edith Wharton’s “The Age of Innocence” and Anne Enright’s “The Forgotten Waltz” which both feel so searingly honest in portraying the complicated emotions of all three of the people involved. Jamie Quatro’s “Fire Sermon” adds an entirely new dynamic charting the trajectory of an affair over her protagonist Maggie’s lifetime. Shifting back and forth through time, the story recounts the beginning of her marriage to Thomas, the intense moment when she and poet James decide to go to a hotel together and the complicated aftermath. In a series of letters (sent and unsent), conversations with a therapist and recollections of moments from Maggie’s life she searches for meaning and an understanding of her choices. Since she was raised religiously and continues to study religious texts, her reasoning is inflected with a complicated spiritual dynamic. The novel builds to a powerfully heartfelt and intense communion with the self.

Part of what drew me to reading this novel was Garth Greenwell’s enthusiastic endorsement of it. His novel “What Belongs to You” is one of the most striking and intensely-felt meditations on desire I’ve ever read.  Although the relationship dynamic Quatro portrays in her novel is entirely different from Greenwell’s story, these novels equally capture the complicated emotions we’re subject to when we find our desires pulling us towards actions and decisions we can’t understand. After giving birth to two children Maggie finds she doesn’t sexually desire her husband anymore, but often submits to sex with him because she feels “Her body isn’t hers anyhow, a toddler and an infant attached like appendages.” The tragedy of this feeling is compounded by her husband Thomas’ ardent desire to find some way to sexually reconnect with his wife which wavers between sympathetic suggestions to brutality. However, when Maggie meets James the passion is urgently felt.

In her first letter to James she quotes C.S. Lewis "A book sometimes crosses one's path which is so like the sound of one's native language in a strange country, it feels almost uncivil not to wave some kind of flag in answer."

In her first letter to James she quotes C.S. Lewis "A book sometimes crosses one's path which is so like the sound of one's native language in a strange country, it feels almost uncivil not to wave some kind of flag in answer."

It feels significant that the intense desire Maggie feels for James occurs before they even meet. After reading some of his poems she writes to him, they strike up a communication and eventually plan to meet. In their written dialogue she observes how “in these talks, I feel I’m discovering, or recovering, a deeper self, something at the core of my being.” Maggie connects with a part of herself that feels like its been lost from years of domestic routine culminating in children, a companionable marriage and stable home. James’ life exactly mirrors Maggie’s in many ways. So their connection isn’t entirely about an intellectual or sexual desire for each other but a wish to reclaim a unified sense of self that isn’t fragmented by the attachments which make up their daily lives. This draw towards an internal unity is reflected in the way she remarks how “The fact of their bodies – her own, James’s – had seemed beside the point. As if mouths and tongues and limbs were only in the way, something they had to get through in order to get to something else.”

Of course, sex is not just about the act itself. One of the most striking scenes is when Maggie and James undress to really see each other and observe how their bodies are aging. Part of their connection is based on reconciling with the fact their bodies are naturally transforming. It’s striking how Quatro captures the way coming to terms with one’s own desirability is a large part of our sexual connections. It’s as if only honestly seeing ourselves reflected in another’s eyes and still feeling wanted can induce peace of mind about our aging flesh. There are many other factors which also contribute to her desire for an affair with James, but many of them are to do with developing a deeper connection to and understanding of herself. So it seems natural that Maggie contemplates the meaning of meditation frequently and how this practice of speaking with oneself is realised in different religions which alternately seek to extinguish the self (as in Buddhism) or a unification with God (as in Christianity). What’s consistent in Maggie’s search throughout her life is a desire to communicate whether that be with her husband, James, God or herself. “Fire Sermon” beautifully charts this ongoing dialogue she maintains as a method of parsing the unruly desires which tug at her existence. 

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesJamie Quatro
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