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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2018 marks the centenary of Muriel Spark's birth. It's been wonderful seeing how this event has reinvigorated interest in Spark’s books. Many people and organizations have marked the occasion from Ali of HeavenAli's year-long read-a-long #ReadingMuriel100 to Virago Press publishing a beautiful new edition of “Memento Mori” (that also celebrates this essential publisher's 40th anniversary) to Adam's video commemorating Spark's birthday (his booktube channel is even named after this Spark novel.) My own interest in Spark's fiction unfortunately stopped early on as I've only previously read “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie”, "The Driver's Seat" and “The Finishing School” in 2004, the year it was published. The later turned out to be her final novel and it sadly felt lacklustre and slight to me which is why I didn't pursue reading any more of her earlier books. But now, having read “Memento Mori” I feel doubly inspired to pursue her back catalogue. It's so brilliantly clever and funny with its large cast of idiosyncratic elderly characters who are continuously hounded by a mysterious caller that regularly reminds them “Remember you must die.” The story is perfectly drawn to capture the tragicomic condition of old age as well as the great challenge of facing our own mortality.

Despite the creepy anonymous reminder many characters continue to spend their few remaining years getting into petty arguments, changing their wills out of revenge, desperately trying to hide age-old affairs from their partner, scheming to inherit money, amassing stacks of pointless statistics, routinely reading horoscopes or fighting the care staff that try to assist them. There’s something deliciously pleasurable in reading about characters who have supposedly reached the height of maturity but who act out so petulantly. It’s like a rebellion against the social norms we’re all constricted by, but it also serves as an example of how getting older doesn’t necessarily mean we get any wiser. The magnificent characters in this novel can be as undone by jealousy, pride, greed, lust and gluttony as anyone under seventy.

It’s also an incredible how Spark writes about serious subjects such as the onset of dementia and the fear of poverty in old age, but the story remains light and funny throughout. She writes in a minimalist way which only gives just enough information and the right amount of dialogue to make the reader feel they know the character implicitly without weighing the narrative down in detail. Also, Spark employs repetition with the instincts of a stand-up comedian. The more we get to know the characters and their tiresome tics, the funnier they become because their face-slapping predictability is wickedly humorous. We can almost foresee when Godfrey will comment how someone has lost their faculties or how Alec Warner will insist on gathering pointless data or that Dame Lettie Colston will change her will as a ploy to get what she wants. Although Spark may take the piss out her characters, she also treats them with a lot of care and affection. So when some characters abruptly die the reader feels their loss quite sharply.

The story is also impressively layered. Details of the characters’ complicated pasts and their various entanglements, deceptions and secrets are carefully distributed throughout the narrative to create a larger picture of why they act the way they do in the present. All the while there is the peculiar mystery of the morbid caller who harasses so many of them which in itself becomes quite comical, especially when none of his victims can agree on what his voice sounds like. I was very moved by the way this novel says so much about the human condition while also being fantastically entertaining. It’s impressive that Spark wrote this when she was only forty years old. My experience of the book was also enhanced by reading the entire novel aloud to my boyfriend during a week-long road trip we took around Scotland. It felt appropriate to read this Scottish writer in her native country (even though the novel is actually set in England.) The narrative and dialogue really came to life in reading it this way and gave us plenty of laughs along the way.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesMuriel Spark
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