The geeky act of making lists of favourite books is a pleasure I don't think we should deny ourselves. What better way to get a snap-shot of someone's reading tastes and pick up on recommendations for great books you might have missed over the year. I read 112 books this year, many of them newly published in 2016 and many of them highly enjoyable. However, these ten books all show great craft but also feel personally significant to me. Click on the titles below to read my full reviews of each book. You can also watch my BookTube video talking about these ten books:

The Man Without a Shadow by Joyce Carol Oates

Anyone who knows how Oates is my favourite author might think it is an obvious choice for me to put a new novel by her on my list, but this is truly an excellent book. The more I think about it the more layers it yields about the meaning of personality and romance. An unusual love story between a man with short term memory loss and scientist Margot that explores the elusive mechanics of the mind.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

I can't ignore the significance of this novel coming out in an American election year when a campaign fuelled by racism and anti-immigration helped a politically-inexperienced misogynist enter The White House. This story about an escaped slave named Cora who travels a physical underground railroad to arrive in different states of racism America says something so significant about the times we live in.

The Lonely City by Olivia Laing

The state of loneliness is a curious psychological phenomenon which seems natural to the human condition, but one which is only increasing in an age of so-called online connectedness. Laing's incredibly personal and well-researched non-fiction book looks at the lives and work of many great queer artists to see how loneliness manifests in different ways. This is an incredibly touching and moving book.

Solar Bones by Mike McCormack

Although it may seem daunting to read a novel that is one continuous sentence it comes to seem quite a natural thing as you enter the consciousness of its Irish protagonist. It's a significant reflection of the times we live in as much as it is as a moving story of family and the working life. Reading it is an electrifying experience.

Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta

Great survival stories are both thrilling and heartening. This is a tale of a girl who survives a brutal civil war only to discover that her natural desire to love women goes against the religious beliefs of her family and community. She faces a very different kind of challenge to survive as she's pressured to settle down into marriage with a man and gradually assert what she really wants in life. It's a brutally honest and inspiring story which suggests strategies for unifying disparate communities which are bitterly embattled.

Dinosaurs on Other Planets by Danielle McLaughlin

Creating finely constructed short stories that give the impact of a full-length novel is a difficult challenge. But this is something McLaughlin accomplishes consistently and beautifully in this memorable and significant debut collection. Even though I read it at the very beginning of the year many of these stories about people across all levels of Irish society have remained clear in my mind. You can watch me discussing this and other great books of short stories from 2016 here.

The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain

Tremain's tremendous artistry for plucking an uncommon story from history and making it come alive is unparalleled. Here she writes about two boys in Switzerland in the time immediately following WWII, but moves backwards and then forwards in time to show the repercussions of political neutrality and hidden love. This is a beautifully accomplished novel.

Autumn by Ali Smith

There's no writer more daring and inventive than Ali Smith. Not only has she bravely planned a quartet of novels based around the seasons, but she's reflecting in them what's happening in society now. This novel focuses on the country's mood in the aftermath of the 2016 Brexit vote and an uncommon friendship between young Elisabeth and a mysterious old man Daniel. In doing so she addresses the meaning of nationality, the state of the modern world and the nature of language. She does this with great flair, humour and passion.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

Music has played a large part in many great novels this year – from Rose Tremain's novel to Julian Barnes' most recent novel “The Noise of Time” - but Thien skilfully shows how the art of composition and the compositions themselves fare under fifty years of living under the Maoist government. A girl follows her family's history in this complex, absorbing story which culminates in a depiction of the infamous student protests in Tiananmen Square. It's an epic novel.

The Tidal Zone by Sarah Moss

It's always an immense pleasure to discover an incredibly talented author I've not read before and one of this year's great finds for me is Sarah Moss. This novel takes a potential family tragedy and expands the story to explore the messiness of ordinary life in such a tender and poignant way. It also reflects back to the past to consider the meaning of loss using such a disarming style of narration which totally gripped me.


Have you read any of my choices? Which are you most interested to read? Let me know some of your favourite books of the year. I'm always eager to hear about books I might have missed reading.

One of the most exciting book prizes around that truly celebrates “fiction at its most novel” is The Goldsmiths Prize. Since 2013 its celebrated fiction that “breaks the mould or extends the possibilities of the novel form.” Last year’s winner was Kevin Barry’s fantastic, funny and wild novel “Beatlebone”. The shortlist of six novels was announced yesterday and the winner will be announced on November 9th.

They’re a diverse and exciting group including Deborah Levy’s “Hot Milk” which was one of my early books of the year so far and it’s also shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. It’s wonderful that people will see that this novel isn’t simply straightforward fiction, but Levy does something quite offbeat with both the characters and story.

I was also thrilled to see Mike McCormack’s “Solar Bones” on the list. There’s been a bit of controversy lately that this novel wasn’t considered for the Man Booker Prize because it’s by Tramp Press’ whose books only come out in Ireland. As I discussed in my post about it, the novel does something quite radical with form which perfectly suits the message that McCormack wants to convey.

Of course, Eimear McBride is famous for her highly unusual writing style after her first novel “A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing” won the Baileys Prize. Her most recent novel “The Lesser Bohemians” has also made the Goldsmiths Prize list and quite rightly because she continues working with an eccentric prose style, but with a different subject. Here she explores a first love in an entirely new and refreshing way.

I read Rachel Cusk’s novel “Outline” which is a prequel to her new novel “Transit” which has been listed for the prize. While I have a copy of this new book I’ve felt trepidation about starting it because of residual conflicted feelings I had about her novel. However, I’m curious to give it a try as “Outline” was a really enjoyable reading experience. I’ve also been meaning to read Anakana Schofield’s novel “Martin John” since early on this year when I read a story of hers in “The Long Gaze Back” anthology. Finally, I’ve heard great things about Sarah Ladipo Manyika’s novel “Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun” so I’m looking forward to reading it.

Are there any novels you’ve read this year which you feel really push the form of fiction?
Have you read any books on this shortlist and which novel do you think will win?

It's easy to scoff at literary fiction which experiments with form given our existing canon of literature which is already packed full of wildly eccentric novels. Everyone from Virginia Woolf to Samuel Beckett to Gertrude Stein to William S Burroughs to Eimear McBride has twisted not only conventional grammar but the shape of the story on the page to say something new about the experience of life and art. So a novel that is one long continuous sentence which lasts more than two hundred pages may seem like it's being wilfully unconventional, but really the style of Mick McCormack's “Solar Bones” perfectly suits the flow of thought for its meditative and entertaining narrator Marcus Conway.

Marcus is an ordinary Irish man who worked as an engineer in County Mayo with his wife and raised two children. Moving through his house he hears the chiming of a bell and this sound resonates throughout the whole novel as it captures a moment and highlights the way our lives are paced out in marked time alongside the flow of life around us. The novel has a poetic brilliance which shines through the very readable prose as Marcus sifts through the experiences of his life. He recounts the trials of his family life, the recent financial crisis in Ireland, local politics and a virulent strain of flu which made his wife very ill.

The effect of reading this extended sentence which is uninterrupted by any full stops made me feel like if I stopped reading I'd miss out on some crucial bit of information which was about to come next. So I was mesmerized and intrigued, but also frustrated because I naturally long for a conclusion or break point. Marcus himself gets frustrated when he wishes at points to halt the stream of his musing: “stop mother of Jesus stop this is how the mind unravels in nonsense and rubbish if given its head”. Really that's partly the point; there are no neat conclusions in our experience - just a continuous flow of thought running through our heads melding the past with imagination, an internal conversation with oneself and those we’ve known in the past. It makes you aware of the way you are a constant subjective witness to both your life and the world around you. You are both the absolute authority of this experience and someone utterly bewildered by it all.

McCormack is extraordinary at capturing the personal reaction we feel witnessing societal shifts which we feel powerless to stop. It felt particularly poignant to me with the recent referendum and the vote for the UK to leave the EU. At one point Marcus and other citizens of his town witness a large ship passing and he thinks “something in me recognizing this as a clear instance of the world forfeiting one of its better ideas, as if something for which there was once justified hope had proved to be a failure and the world had given up on some precious dream of itself, one of its better destinies”. The consequences of these changes and lost ideals reverberate through our personal and collective history. It makes us question the solidity of a society we need to believe in to go about daily life, but which we know in reality is just a collective agreement and, ultimately, an illusion.

He records this feeling when Marcus considers how in 2008 the profitable boom in the Irish economy turned to a nationwide recession. He reflects how “the whole thing ridiculously improbable, so unlikely in scale and consequence it's as if something that never was has finally collapsed or revealed itself to be constructed of air before eventually falling to ruin in that specific way which proved it never existed”. The ways in which we can personally react to these shifts in society are represented in the lives of Marcus' children. His daughter Agnes is an artist whose confrontational work thrusts her into becoming a local icon for a discontented generation. His son Darragh emigrated to Australia. The focus of his interests shifts from subject to subject so he's not able to focus in any substantial way. He becomes consumed with playing the video game Civilization which is a game I've also spent countless hours playing. The player in it leads the development of a civilization while also interacting and trying to dominate the rival nations which are simultaneously growing around you. It works poignantly in this novel as a way of showing how we seek to control the changing society around us, but in reality we are in many ways powerless.

Mike McCormack reads from Solar Bones at Kennys Bookshop

It's impressive the way this novel reflects how daily life can be so caught up in particular moments as global news is filtered through our brains. Marcus comments on how “dawn to dark six or seven news bulletins needing my attention all spaced out at regular intervals, the day structured like the monastic rule of some vigilant order synched to the world's rhythms and all its upheavals” so that his mind is constantly bombarded with outside information that slightly shifts or confirms his own points of view. It makes him feel both at the centre of a nexus of global change and like a helpless pawn being moved by larger forces.

This is a novel which many might feel hesitant about approaching because of its unusual style, but I bet if you start reading you’ll be hypnotised by its engaging and fascinating voice. Marcus’ gripes and wry perspective are very relatable plus the flow of language is a thing of fine-crafted beauty. Mike McCormack captures the movements of everyday life whether we feel engaged with the world or deeply resigned about it: “rites, rhythms and rituals upholding the world like solar bones, that rarefied amalgam of time and light whose extension through every minute of the day is visible”. It's an electrifying experience being swept so fully into one man's uninterrupted meditation on life.

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesMike McCormack
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