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. 

Reading and judging the many submissions for The Green Carnation Prize was one of the toughest things I’ve done this year, but it’s also been one of the most fulfilling. Championing new writing is important to me and I’m grateful for this platform that raises awareness of some of the best LGBT authors working today. Meeting with the judges was like participating in the most rigorous and enjoyable book club ever. We discussed the books from many angles. Since this is a prize open to books in every genre it felt particularly difficult to compare them against each other. Also, it sounds like a cliché, but the short list was particularly strong. When we went into our final meeting to select a winner I truly felt any of these six accomplished books could win.

This year there was an added challenge to the selection process. We began reading submission in July, but during the course of the judging process Marlon James’ “A Brief History of Seven Killings” won the Booker Prize – one of the most high profile book prizes in the UK. It’d be impossible to ignore the weight of this phenomenon where James’ long, complicated novel rose from relative obscurity to one of the most talked about books of the year. It also filled the shop front windows of many bookstores. Is it really right to award another book prize to a novel that’s become so high profile? Wouldn’t it be better to raise awareness for a foreign author like Erwin Mortier, an incredibly impressive debut author like Gavin McCrea, an established author that has stayed true to his subject matter like Patrick Gale or an accomplished literary trickster like Patricia Duncker (all of whom deserve to be more widely read)? But the prize isn’t about the author or the social landscape of publishing, it’s about the book.

“Sophie & The Sibyl” and “Mrs Engels” did stand out as particularly skilful accomplishments. Duncker’s novel is an engrossing tale told with humour, intelligence and pays tribute to one of the greatest writers in English literature. McCrea’s literary drag act of a book gives voice to a woman who was a footnote in the history books and creates a story which can be read in relation to many of the most pressing issues today – everything from the recent global recession to gay marriage.

But, when the judges sat down to talk long and hard over all the shortlist, the book that stood out as a shining masterpiece was “A Brief History of Seven Killings.” This is a challenging novel. No doubt. And I’m sure many people who bought a copy after it won the Booker didn’t finish reading it. I hope that with this award people decide to go back and read it again – if for no other reason than to enjoy two of the most original gay characters to appear in a novel for years.

Holding the crystal shard of a prize

Holding the crystal shard of a prize

Something many people probably haven’t considered about this novel is what a brave challenge it is to include such characters and explicit gay sex scenes. This novel centres around Bob Marley, one of the most celebrated figures in Jamaican history. While it goes past this extraordinary event surrounding the icon singer also considering many aspects of the drug trade, political & gang warfare and relations between the US & Jamaica, the fact it includes compelling openly gay characters will make it difficult for many people in Jamaica to accept. James has talked about this in a recent interview with Jeanette Winterson in the Guardian where he stated: “In this book, there’s a gay sex scene. And I thought the scene was important, because experiencing sex from a character was the only way he could accept any level of his queerness, which is why it is a blow-by-blow sex scene. The Jamaicans weren’t happy.”

Aside from any politics or book prizes, this novel is simply a stunning accomplishment that everyone should read.

I am a big fan of debut fiction. So I was thrilled to see the Guardian First Book Award long list appear today and with such a fascinatingly diverse group of titles. As many of you probably know, I’ve been a huge supporter of Mrs Engels from the day it came out. Gavin McCrea is an astoundingly good writer. The Fish Ladder is a fantastically beautiful and original memoir I read early in the year. The Shore was long listed for the Baileys Prize and I was hoping it would make the short list as it’s a strange and surprising family saga. Coincidentally, I’m already in the middle of reading the startling and beautiful poems in Andrew McMillan’s book Physical. The Fishermen is also on this year's Booker long list. I’ve been hearing such praise for Grief is the Thing with Feathers and The Wallcreeper so I’d really like to read these as well.

What do you think of the list? Have you read any of the below titles? Are there any outstanding debut books you’ve read this year that you think deserve more attention?

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson

It’s hard to believe it but we’re nearly halfway through 2015 already! Thinking back on some of the best books I’ve read so far this year titles like Anne Enright’s “The Green Road”, Patrick Gale’s “A Place Called Winter”, Joyce Carol Oates' "The Sacrifice", Marilynne Robinson’s “Lila” and the short stories by Megan Mayhew Bergman “Almost Famous Women” are up there. But Gavin McCrea’s debut novel “Mrs Engels” has lingered in my mind more than most because of the power and originality of the central character Lizzie. She’s such a strong creation with a mesmerizing voice and the story is so engaging I’ve been recommending this novel to everyone. I feel so strongly about it I want to give you a chance to read it too!

But I want to know about what books I’ve been missing out on. So let’s do a trade! You tell me about the book you’ve read this year which is your absolute favourite. I’ll select one comment as the winner to send Gavin McCrea’s novel to and before 2015 ends I’ll also read the winner's favourite book (it doesn’t need to be a new book published this year). Sound fun?

To win a signed copy of Mrs Engels comment on this post telling me what is the best book you’ve read so far this year. At the end of June the winner will be chosen through a very sophisticated selection process (I’ll pull a name out of a hat). Be sure to include your email or twitter handle so I can get in touch for your address to mail the book to you if you win. You can enter from anywhere in the world. Good luck!

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
19 CommentsPost a comment

It astounds me when an author can create such a convincing voice for a character based on a real historical figure from an entirely different era - one which pays tribute to the real person, intellectually engages with the social politics of the day and makes that voice so compelling you want to hang upon every word she says. Debut author Gavin McCrea has done that with Lizzie Burns, a working-class woman of Irish descent who moved to London in 1870 with celebrated theorist Friedrich Engels. This was a time when Engels and Marx were engaged with founding a political philosophy which would change the world. McCrea is more concerned with the domestic side of this story. I don’t just mean the household duties and complex emotional bond between Lizzie and Friedrich – although the novel does deal meaningfully with these intricacies. What he’s created is a challenge to how the overarching ideals of this communist movement hold up when viewed through the lens of a woman with little means, bad lungs and a ferocious heart.

Lizzie has quite a complex attitude towards love and relationships. Part of her is highly conscious of the financial ramifications partnerships create. At the beginning of the novel she is vociferous on this point about practicality superseding love. Later she affirms that “I’ve seen enough of this world to know that most of us have to accept men we don’t feel for, and I’m not sure it’s for the worst in the end. A marriage of emotions can’t be lasting. It wouldn’t be healthful if it was.” Lizzie and Friedrich’s relationship is built largely upon an arrangement not entirely based on love. Friedrich is a wealthy heir to an industrial business. Lizzie keeps the house, manages the servants and runs errands for Friedrich. For Lizzie relationships are an exchange: financial and sexual. She states “A love with no interest does not exist. We always expect something for what we give.” Yet, as the novel goes on, her hardness of feeling yields to more intricately-shaded emotions and the desires she holds at bay come forth.

McCrea skilfully brings Lizzie to life through a sympathetic portrayal of her tightly-contained emotions and also through her physicality. Although feisty, she is not all hardness. She contemplates “I sometimes think that because my shoulders are wide and my waist doesn’t go in, that because my speaking holds its share of Irish, I’m taken for solid, when it’s tender I really am in broad light and with sober senses.” She is emotional and sensual. As well as enjoying pleasure with Friedrich, she also longs for other men. She has a glancing but powerful sexual attraction for a black musician she sees performing during an enforced retreat in Ramsgate. There is also a former lover that she shares a tumultuous past with and whose presence in her mind threatens to undo the order of her current arrangement. It’s with a jaded heart that she observes “Love buys cheap and seeks to sell at a higher price; our greed is for gain that lies outside our reach. We desire those who don’t desire us in return.” It’s tremendously moving the way Lizzie pays tribute to those desires which stir her the most while remaining loyal to the household she’s made.

There is a terrible insecurity overshadowing Lizzie’s relationship with Friedrich. The novel moves back and forth between their time in London and their past life in Manchester where Friedrich had a long relationship with Mary, a woman very close to both of them. Lizzie also suspects Friedrich of being a philanderer. With her wry awareness of the ways of men she accepts this but melancholically notes when she suspects him of keeping secrets “Is there a loneliness more lonely than mistrust?” Surely this is a sentiment anyone who mulls over their own suspicions while in a relationship can relate to. As the story shows, sometimes it’s these stormy thoughts which can be binding as well as damaging. McCrea presents the complicated motivations and variances of desire astonishingly well in this rich, engrossing story.

What I appreciated most in this novel are the astute observations about our human compulsion to envision multiple paths in life. Journeying into an established life in London with Friedrich at the novel’s beginning, Lizzie states “My heart feels faint, which can happen when you make the acquaintance of a real future to replace the what-might-be.” In this statement you can feel what alternatives in life Lizzie has sacrificed having taken decisive action and stuck with Friedrich. Yet she also acknowledges the element of chance in coming to certain places in life: “An animal, that’s what chance makes of me.” Although she lives in a highly civilized way, it gradually becomes clear how emotionally debased she feels because of the way fate has closed around her. As the novel progresses you learn how very different things might have been for her and Friedrich in Manchester if the wheel had spun another way.

Lizzie comes across a now-extinct quagga (half zebra, half donkey) in the zoo. Like this animal she is two halves of different things.

Lizzie comes across a now-extinct quagga (half zebra, half donkey) in the zoo. Like this animal she is two halves of different things.

Friedrich Engels looms large in the history books as a thinker whose ideas went on to reshape much of our civilization in ways very different from how he and Karl Marx intended. This novel considers him from another angle because as Lizzie states “They call him a genius… Me, I can only know what I know, and that’s the man, the meat and bones of him.” In fact, we’re informed quite a lot about this man’s meat! There are also some stupendous descriptions of Marx: “whiskers like bramble on my face, his lips like dried-out sausage.” It’s in the flesh we’re made to really feel these men’s devotion to a cause which supersedes their own circumstances whilst being aware that these are men with faults and foibles which are all too human. In addition, we find out that Friedrich is someone that Lizzie underestimates in some crucial ways. Eleanor Marx, nicknamed Tussy, is also fascinatingly portrayed as an emotionally-fraught teenager – a somewhat sad foreshadowing of the tumultuous route her life would eventually take.

Before I started this novel I was entirely unaware of who Lizzie Burns was and after reading a few chapters I couldn’t resist looking on Wikipedia to get the outline of her life. In a way this spoiled part of the plot as McCrea is naturally faithful to following the thread of her real life. Several realizations are made as Lizzie’s past is gradually recounted. It obviously didn’t spoil the experience, but part of me wishes I had experienced it all knowing nothing and then read up more afterwards. This is just a small caution to any readers saying you might want to resist this impulse.

‘Mrs Engels’ is an absolutely engrossing read which has left a lasting impression with me. Taking a punt on new authors is a risky business, but Gavin McCrea’s story is so confidently told with humour and sympathy he’s clearly a masterful storyteller. I hope everyone reads this new author who has unearthed and given a voice to a fascinating woman from history.