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.

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It’s a common trope in Young Adult novels to feature a teenage protagonist in a dystopian future who is penalized for fighting against an oppressive system. That’s exactly the story Joyce Carol Oates writes in her new novel HAZARDS OF TIME TRAVEL. However, this is not a Young Adult novel. Oates is certainly familiar with the form and nature of YA fiction having written several books in this genre. It’d be natural to assume that she’s utilizing her expertise in this form and is also making a departure from her typically realistic fiction to branch into feminist dystopian fiction. There is a cycle of novels in this form particularly prevalent in literature today (as described by Alexandra Alter in a recent New York Times article ‘How Feminist Dystopian Fiction is Channeling Women’s Anger and Anxiety’ in which she cites Oates’s novel.) But the journey and outcome of Oates’s highly unusual new novel is much more startling and darkly subversive than any tale that could be categorized as Young Adult. Instead, HAZARDS OF TIME TRAVEL engages with ideas of behavioural psychology and Cold War politics to form an utterly unique commentary on society today. It also incorporates many autobiographical elements which surprisingly might make it one of Oates’s most personal and reflective novels yet.

The year is NAS-23 in the 16th Federal District, Eastern-Atlantic States. To put this in perspective, this novel actually takes place only a few years in the future. History proceeding the 9/11 attacks has been erased and dates in the North American States (NAS) begin from this point. In this newly reconstituted country which has absorbed the territories of Mexico and Canada, free speech and private thoughts are tightly controlled by the government. People are segmented into official racial categories determined by skin colour. Adriane Strohl is a curious and intelligent high school student who has been recognized as the class valedictorian and she’s invited to give a speech to the student body. She takes this opportunity to ask general questions which the government doesn’t like to be asked. As a consequence she’s punished by being designated an EI (Exiled Individual) and transported back through time to Zone 9. Here it is the year 1959 and she’s required to attend a university in Wisconsin “to train yourself in a socially useful profession.” She is equipped only with a new name (Mary Ellen Enright) and a list of instructions which prohibit her from leaving the area, developing intimate relationships or speaking about the future. Adriane knows that any deviation will result in her being “Deleted” – an example of what being deleted entails is vividly and terrifyingly portrayed in an opening section. From this point, she sets out to navigate this tricky and unfamiliar landscape of the past.

According to Greg Johnson’s biography of Oates, INVISIBLE WRITER, the author was also a valedictorian given the dubious honour of making a speech to the student body. Like Adriane, Oates was terrified about making this speech. It’s interesting how Oates’ own apparent fears and preoccupations manifest throughout the entire novel. In effect, Adriane is transported back in time to live through Joyce Carol Oates’ own university years in a region analogous to Syracuse University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison where the author earned her graduate and post-graduate degrees. Like Oates, Adriane/Mary Ellen finds it necessary to earn her keep while she’s a student by working gruelling hours in a part time job in a library for a pitiful amount of money. Some of Oates’s fiction, most notably MARYA: A LIFE and I’LL TAKE YOU THERE, revolve around periods of adolescent experience which are very similar to Oates’ own. HAZARDS OF TIME TRAVEL is a novel that seems to borrow more freely from her autobiographical experience. As such, I believe the author uses her own past as a metafictional device to creatively explore issues concerning memory, guilt, free will, psychology and history.

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At university Adriane is plagued by feelings of loneliness and she becomes fixated with an assistant professor of psychology named Ira Wolfman. Not only does she feel a romantic desire towards him, but he is also revealed to be an Exiled Individual from the future serving out a punishment. At one point, Wolfman calls into question the validity of their surroundings: “’Exile’? ‘Teletransportation’? ‘Zone Nine’? None of this is real, Adriane. It’s a construct.” This introduces dilemmas poised somewhere between the metaphysical issues raised in the films Blade Runner and The Matrix. Are these characters only imagining that they’re from the future? If they’ve been exiled to the past are they really being monitored? Is their “rehabilitation” really a part of a larger design? Adding to these sinister questions are those raised by Adriane’s classes on B.F. Skinner and his morally dubious behaviouralist experiments. The novel begins with the epigram from Skinner “A self is simply a device for representing a functionally unified system of responses.” Are Adriane’s choices and decisions ultimately the result of her environment and the government she lives under? How much agency does she have to enact change in her surroundings and determine her own future? These questions pile on top of each other over the course of the story and build into a fever of paranoia and uncertainty so that the novel’s conclusion (which would be considered positive in any other circumstance) feels incredibly sinister and horrific.

The many issues this novel raises over the course of the story powerfully coalesce to reflect anxieties and fears about the current political climate in America today. It also allows Oates opportunities for more playful commentary about the direction our culture is taking. In NAS-23 there are no democrats or republicans; there is just the Patriot Party. Voting is performed by placing a smiling emoji next to the candidate of choice. But Oates also pokes fun of some antiquated aspects of culture from the 50s and 60s. Adriane observes how agonizing it is wearing hair curlers to bed. Paper feels horribly inadequate to her as a reading device. Adriane’s unique point of view also casts new light on the Red Scare and threat of nuclear war which coloured this time period. By considering a period of personal and political upheaval in US history through this form of speculative fiction, Oates prompts us to question what are the real threats to the country as well as deeper anxieties about how our society is evolving. At one point Adriane/Mary Ellen states “time turns back upon itself. You believe that you are making progress, but it is an illusion. Yet, this is progress of a kind.” Given our proximity in time to NAS-23, Oates appears to be postulating how we need to step back before leaping forward.

This review also appeared on Bearing Witness: Joyce Carol Oates Studies

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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