It's always exciting talking about people's favourite books of the year. For me, it's not so much about ranking books as it's just a good opportunity to highlight some ones that really spoke to me this year. Obviously, I've been really engaged by and immensely enjoyed reading most of the books I've read this year (otherwise I wouldn't have taken the time to write blog posts about them). But here are a mixture of books that include some of my favourite authors and other writers who I've read for the first time.

I'd love to discuss any of these books with you if you've read them or if you're now eager to read them. Click on the titles below to read my full thoughts about them or you can watch me discuss them in this Booktube video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W2q8PB6JB34&t=21s 

What have been some of your favourite reads of 2017?

A Book of American Martyrs by Joyce Carol Oates

The Parcel by Anosh Irani

A State of Freedom by Neel Mukherjee

Such Small Hands by Andres Barba

When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife by Meena Kandasamy

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Winter by Ali Smith

The End We Start From by Megan Hunter

Tin Man by Sarah Winman

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Dear Friend, from My Life I Write To You in Your Life by Yiyun Li

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It feels like historical fiction is such a flabby term that's better for booksellers than readers. Really all novels are historical because even ones set in the future are an author imaginatively writing about the world as they've seen and know it. But mostly it feels like historical fiction means books set in the distant past and I especially like ones about periods of time I don't know much about. How would you define historical fiction? And what's the best historical novel you've read this year?

Here are my picks of eight great historical novels from 2017. There's fiction about suffragettes, a female viceroy of Sicily, a WWII naval shipyard worker, the fate of a much-desired man, a dysfunctional ancient Greek family, Nazis in the Ukraine, an axe murder and a president’s grief. Click on the titles to see my full posts about them or you can also watch me discuss these in this video (where a fox makes a surprise appearance): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kAXFfOMC-X4&t=146s

The Night Brother by Rosie Garland

The Revolution of the Moon by Andrea Camilleri (translated by Stephen Sartarelli)

Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan

The Sparsholt Affair by Alan Hollinghurst

House of Names by Colm Toibin

A Boy in Winter by Rachel Seiffert

See What I have Done by Sarah Schmidt

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

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It’s been quite a ride following the Man Booker Prize this year from the astounding quality of the novels on the long list to the heated race between the six books on the short list. When I first read “Lincoln in the Bardo” in March I was completely awestruck by this unique and powerful reading experience. So it threw me into such a quandary about whether this should win or Ali Smith’s wonderfully rambunctious and relevant “Autumn.” Of course, last year’s surprise winner “The Sellout” taught me how difficult it is to gauge what the judges might decide. So it felt equally plausible that this year’s winner could have been the accomplished novels “Exit West”, “History of Wolves” or “Elmet.” The oddball for me this year was Paul Auster’s “4321” which I’ve still not finished reading. There’s a lot to admire about it, but it seems overlong and the novel’s concept means that some of it feels quite repetitive. It must have been a really difficult decision picking a winner, but I’m glad Saunders' novel got the award. The chair of judges Lola, Baroness Young commented “The form and style of this utterly original novel, reveals a witty, intelligent, and deeply moving narrative.” 

Special presentation editions made for the shortlisted authors

Special presentation editions made for the shortlisted authors

With Ali Smith at the Guildhall

With Ali Smith at the Guildhall

I spotted Mohsin Hamid chatting with the Duchess of Cornwall

I spotted Mohsin Hamid chatting with the Duchess of Cornwall

Last night I was lucky enough to be invited to the pre-reception drinks before the award announcement at the Guildhall. There was a beautiful display of special editions of all the shortlisted novels. These unique designs really capture the spirit of the books. I decided to root for Ali Smith to win especially after the powerful reading she gave at the Booker shortlist readings on Monday night. It literally brought tears to my eyes hearing her describe the mood of the country in her narrative. There were hundreds of people in the Royal Festival Hall audience and it struck me how accurately she had captured all the complex and contradictory feelings of the country and how everyone in that room recognized and related to her words. Ali has told me before that her spirit animal is a pink armadillo so I had a special t-shirt made with an illustration of this adorable creature surrounded by Autumn leaves. She was wonderfully calm and sincerely talked about how it doesn’t matter who wins since they are all such excellent novels. That certainly chimes with why I love a prize like the Booker because the real pleasure of it is debating the different qualities of several great novels. I also went to some of the publishers’ parties and right up to the announcement I was still discussing the books on the list with people, many of whom had a different favourite. The prize is also an opportunity for me to place a cheeky little bet which I did right after this year’s longlist was announced. I went with my instinct that George Saunders would win and it’s paid off!

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I’m already looking forward to what new gems will come up on next year’s Man Booker International Prize as well as the main prize!

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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It’s sobering to look back on my post about mid-year favourite books in 2016 and recall how depressing the global news was at that point. Who’d have thought things could turn even more sour a year later? More than ever I’m convinced it’s important to celebrate good things like great new books being published and delve within them to understand the perspective of people and characters whose lives are so different from our own. This isn’t an act of escape from the world; it’s a way of embracing it!

I’ve read 45 books so far this year. My reading feels like it’s slowed down recently because life has been so busy. I feel really privileged to receive so many new and forthcoming publications, but I’m continuously struck with guilt that I don’t have time to read (let alone review) them all. I am aware it’s a good problem to have! But I’m glad I can at least mention all the wonderfully promising new books I want to read in regular “Book haul” videos that I film for my Youtube/Booktube channel. So (while this mid-year list is far from comprehensive) I hope I’ll have time to read more of the exciting other new books published this year which sit temptingly on my shelves at some point soon.

Here are my top ten books of the year (so far.) All of them except the anthology “The Good Immigrant” were first published in 2017. 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: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HSkLuQ10uPA

In past years, I ran a competition that 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 recently published 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’m really curious to know about the best books you’ve read this year so whether you want to be entered in the competition or not please let me know in the comments below. But also let me know if you are intrigued to read any of my choices.

The Good Immigrant by Nikesh Shukla
The End We Start From by Megan Hunter
Dear Friend From My Life I Write to You in Your Life by Yiyun Li
One of the Boys by Daniel Magariel
Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo
A Book of American Martyrs by Joyce Carol Oates
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
A Boy in Winter by Rachel Seiffert

Every once in a while a new book will remind me how novels are really lawless. Of course, the very word novel means that every iteration of this form of storytelling makes its own rules. But some fiction like the jubilantly inventive books of Ali Smith or the wide experimental canvass of Joyce Carol Oates audaciously twist structures we’ve become accustomed to, subvert genres and play with language to produce exciting results. I was thrilled to find George Saunders’ first novel “Lincoln in the Bardo” accomplishes this as well. I’ve read some of his stories in the past, but this novel confirms for me that his high level of literary esteem is entirely warranted. He takes a melodramatic subject like Abraham Lincoln visiting his son’s grave and makes it profoundly emotional. He embraces clichés about the afterlife to create uproariously funny or terrifying scenes of possession, haunting and the judgement day. He picks out quotes from period documents and nonfiction, but interjects his own history between the lines. He writes dialogue as if this were a play to form a chorus of witnesses to the incredibly intimate scene of a father saying goodbye to his deceased boy. In short, he grabs the historical novel and flips it on its head.

Although their son Willie is suffering terribly from a case of typhoid, the Lincolns can’t cancel a grand party being thrown at the White House. During the night the stricken boy passes away and is put to rest in a graveyard – except his spirit doesn’t rest. He now exists in the realm of the Bardo which is a Tibetan word that means an intermediate state where the soul is still connected to earthly attachments before it can pass onto another life. Here the laws of nature are broken for the stricken spirits who dwell there so their physical characteristics are muddled with the strident emotions they experienced towards the ends of their lives. The two main spirit protagonists are deformed so that Hans Vollman is lumbered with a horrendous oversized erection from the marriage he never consummated with his young bride and the features of Roger Bevins III are crowded with a multiple ears, mouths and noses after his botched suicide. Along with the troubled spirit of The Reverend Everly Thomas, these beings seek to guide the young spirit of Willie in his afterlife.

There are a profusion of aberrations in appearance and behaviour for the many other beings that crowd this graveyard. Most especially, some spirits are locked in perpetual battles that have carried on into the afterlife such as a demonic couple with unholy cravings, a professor and pickle producer stuck in an endless circle of mutual adoration and a white supremacist that is endlessly beaten by the black man he demeans. In a nightmarish way, this portrait of the unsettled hereafter depicts our conflicts of class, race, romance and sexuality trapped in a painful circle. It's like endless episodes of those trashy sensational talk shows, but written in a way which is surreal and brilliantly insightful. There is a beyond which these spirits cannot move onto because they can’t let go of their attachment to these irresolvable struggles. The heartrending conflict at the centre of this book is the fight for the boy Willie’s soul between the spirits who want to usher him on to the next realm and the father who cannot let him go.

There have been other novels which have intelligently played out the psychological and social conflicts of existence in a version of the afterlife. Most notably, Hilary Mantel’s “Beyond Black” depicts a medium plagued by her own demons and Will Self’s “How the Dead Live” depicts a woman who died of cancer guided through the guilt-laden landscape of the hereafter. However, the book that most came to mind when reading Saunders’ novel was the ‘Nighttown’ or ‘Circle’ episode in James Joyce’s “Ulysses”. Not only is this also written like a play script, but it becomes a hallucinatory experience as the fears and passions of the protagonist are externalized. Similarly, in Saunders’ distorted physical plane traditional linear notions of time collapse and the ravenous ego runs riot. The ensuing chaotic drama is a physical realization of the unchained dark side of consciousness where every private part of being takes shape before our eyes. It’s an experience that is both liberating and utterly terrifying.

William Wallace "Willie" Lincoln

William Wallace "Willie" Lincoln

Gradually I began to feel that this eccentric narrative isn’t so much about its fascinating enormous cast of characters, but the quiet man at the novel’s centre which is Lincoln himself. Here is an individual trying to deal with a horrendous personal tragedy amidst leading a country in the early years of the Civil War. His thoughts and feelings aren’t ever depicted except for when some of the spirits briefly inhabit his body. Instead what we get are a multitude of perspectives about this mortal man at the centre of history’s maelstrom. Accounts quoted throughout the text alternatively depict him as a benevolent saint and the scourge who has torn the nation apart. The conflicting opinions range from Lincoln’s physical characteristics to his political policies. This juxtaposition of public views obliterate Lincoln’s mortality and turn him into a mythic figurehead, a controversial man who has gone on to be the celebrated national hero credited for breaking the chains of slavery. Yet Saunders re-endows Lincoln with the solemn dignity of a mere man in mourning by also showing him through the eyes of the souls that dwell in the graveyard. To them he’s only a gangly melancholy figure clinging to the body of his dead son.

“Lincoln in the Bardo” is an experience like no other. By the end I truly mourned for the fascinatingly diverse cast of characters. The story is hilariously funny, frightening, devastatingly sad, and consistently surprising. It’s unquestionably disorientating to read at first, but soon it becomes utterly mesmerising so that by the end all I wanted to do was read it again from the beginning to pick up on all the nuances of character, bizarre feats of narrative and historical encounters it contains. It’s extraordinary.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesGeorge Saunders
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