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.

BestBooksGroup2.jpg

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.  

BestBooksGroup3.jpg

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.

TopBooks2018_1.jpg

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.

TopBooks2018_2.jpg

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.

I’ve said it before, but it really does feel like the first holiday of a year when the longlist for The Women’s Prize for Fiction gets announced. It’s one of my favourite book prizes and I love reading/discussing/debating all the titles this award honours. It’s particularly exciting that the prize this year is known under it’s new title The Women’s Prize for Fiction (formerly the Baileys Prize.) Some weeks ago I made a video with my friend Anna about what books we’d like to see on the longlist for the prize. Between us we guessed 9 of the 16. You can watch me discuss my reaction to this year’s longlist here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C-DCtqkk_78&t=27s

Group.jpg

After I finish reading Joanna Cannon’s novel I’ll have six more on the list to read. I’ll be meeting with Naomi from TheWritesofWomen and other members of our Shadow Group to discuss the longlist and pick our own fan favourite shortlist/winner for the prize. So there’s a lot of fun discussion to come! Let me know in the comments what books from the longlist you’re eager to read or what you’d like to see win. The official shortlist will be announced on April 23rd and the winner will be announced on June 6th.

A lot of people will bemoan the fact Ali Smith’s “Winter” isn’t included on this list and its absence is a great shame. I have no special inside knowledge or insight into the judging process, but I’d just point out that we don’t know if the novel was even submitted for the prize. Novels that are eligible aren’t always put forward for a prize and there can be any number of reasons for this. That’s just part of the mysterious alchemy of book prizes!

For the books that I’ve already read and reviewed you can click on the titles below to see my full thoughts.

H(A)PPY by Nicola Barker
Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan
Sight by Jessie Greengrass
When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife by Meena Kandasamy
Elmet by Fiona Mozley
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy
See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt
A Boy in Winter by Rachel Seiffert
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
The Idiot by Elif Batuman
Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon
Miss Burma by Charmaine Craig
The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gower
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie
The Trick to Time by Kit de Waal

Sight.jpg

The prospect of having children can be exciting, but also terrifying. Luckily, it's something I've never strongly desired so I'm satisfied in the role of uncle, godfather and sometimes babysitter to friends' children. However, some reasons I'd be frightened of having children (beyond a total ignorance of how to care for them) is a dread of making some irreparable mistake and also the inability of protecting them from experiencing pain at some point. Jessie Greengrass describes this as “the overwhelming fear of fucking up that having children brings, the awareness of the impossibility of not causing hurt like falling into endless water”. Her debut novel “Sight” is a reflection on the process of having children and why her narrator is particularly self conscious about the continuation of her lineage. But, more than that, it's a remarkably poignant meditation on the internal and external levels of our mental and physical reality. The narrator is a young woman who cared for her mother during her terminal illness and now faces the prospect of becoming a mother herself. She sifts through her personal past and considers the lives of disparate individuals such as Sigmund & (his daughter) Anna Freud, Wilhelm Röntgen (the first man who produced and published scientific studies of X-rays) and scientist/surgeon John Hunter. In doing so, she embarks on a journey into how she might allow her child to see the multiple layers of life and thus pass on an abiding sense of happiness.

As demonstrated in her superb short story collection “An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It”, Greengrass has a particular creative talent for not only plucking out and creatively reimagining unusual stories from history, but finding a wondrous pertinence in them. It's fascinating when talented writers can pair distinct elements of fiction and nonfiction to create a story which is still deeply emotional. Ali Smith also accomplished this in her novel “Artful” where she essentially took a series of her lectures and threaded them together around the story of a narrator who is grieving for (her or his – the narrator's gender is never specified) lost lover. It still worked as a piece of fiction for me because I felt drawn into the journey this narrator took towards a new understanding through intensely contemplating these different subjects. Greengrass similarly pairs her narrator's struggle with accepting the identity of motherhood by considering the multiple innovative methods particular historical figures took in seeing one's self: whether that be the bones of our bodies, the internal workings of a woman's womb or a method of understanding the unconscious mind.

Sometimes it's not what these figures found which the narrator identifies with, but their process. For instance, she speculates “if we could understand these moments and the weeks that followed them when Röntgen, alone, placed object after object in front of his machine and saw them all transformed, then we too might know what it is to have the hidden made manifest: the components of ourselves, the world, the space between.” In her connection with the challenges and moments of revelation these individuals experienced over a century ago their scientific practices act as touchstones and channels towards the narrator's own working towards a cohesive sense of being.

The sections where Greengrass recounts Freud's professional/familial relationship with his daughter Anna take on a very personal feel for the narrator. Her grandmother, who referred to herself as Doctor K, was a psychoanalyst so her ideas were directly inherited from Freud and influenced the icy grandmother-grandaughter interactions at her Hampstead Heath home. This challenging relationship combined with her mother's terminal illness heavily colour the narrator's complicated distress over the prospect of motherhood. They make her yearn for that clarity of vision which can be passed on, but she also acknowledges with caution that “the price of sight is wonder’s diminishment.”

X-ray of Bertha Rontgen's hand

X-ray of Bertha Rontgen's hand

One lovely moment in the book which will no doubt be highly relatable to avid readers/introverts is the default compulsion the narrator feels to read. At one point she states “I read not with any particular object in mind, nor really with the intention of retaining any information about the subjects that I chose but rather because the act of reading was a habit, and because it was soothing and, perhaps, from a lifetime's inculcated faith in the explanatory power of books, the half-held belief that somewhere in those hectares upon hectares of printed pages I might find that fact which would make sense of my growing unhappiness, allowing me to peel back the obscurant layers of myself and lay bare at last the solid structure underneath.” Part of the joy of this novel is in its inherent belief in the power that reading has to connect us to the past and ideas when we're grappling with life's challenges – even when we only turn to books in a disconsolate and disordered way.

The way that Greengrass combines disparate elements from the past with her narrator's dilemmas is done with such fluidity that it reads with stunning ease. Like Virginia Woolf's writing it's often poetic and philosophical at the same time making statements such as “what are we if not a totality of days, a sum of interactions; and a glimpse of what is underneath the surface, the skeleton on which the outer face is hung, cannot undo the knowledge of skin but only give it context, the way it rises and falls, its puckering, its flaws.” This novel seeks to account for the unruly fluctuations of emotions and disparate elements which make up our existence. As a deeply introspective work of fiction it won't appeal to everyone because its drama is primarily in how it marks the subtleties of transitions in life (from child to adult, from daughter to mother.) But it does so in such a captivating and meaningful way that sensitive readers will find “Sight” utterly gripping and profound.

In this video I predict why I think "Sight" will win the Booker Prize in 2018: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jbwWlqMJqaA

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
4 CommentsPost a comment