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.

Like many people I first came to George Eliot when I was at university reading “Middlemarch.” I’ve rated it highly as one of my favourite novels ever since. Later on, I started an online discussion forum with the mission to read all of her books – although I still haven’t read “Felix Holt, the Radical” or “Daniel Deronda.” Eliot is an endlessly fascinating author who took serious ideas and wove them into fantastic tales. With “Sophie and the Sibyl” Patricia Duncker has taken the historical author George Eliot – referred to primarily as The Sibyl within the novel – and inserted fictional characters to interact alongside her within the historical framework of the final eight years of the author’s life. It’s written in the style of a Victorian comedy of manners/romance, yet there are sections where Patricia Duncker herself intrudes to comment upon the characters or give her thoughts on literary traditions. This all sounds very self-conscious and artificial, but this novel works both as a stunning tribute to George Eliot and a gripping, moving, spectacular story in its own right.

Max Duncker is the younger brother of George Eliot’s German publisher Wolfgang Duncker. (It’s not a coincidence that they share a name with the author of this book.) He’s been roped into the family business when he really wants to spend most of his time gambling or visiting whore houses. He’s sent on a mission to meet Eliot who lives with the writer George Lewes (who was famously and scandalously already married). Eliot takes a shine to the star-struck boy, but only ever shows fraternal feeling for him. Sophie is a teenage countess and heiress to a great fortune. She’s also the daughter of Count Wilhelm von Hahn who is also published by the Duncker brothers. The Count and Wolfgang plan that Max and Sophie should marry as it is an arrangement that is socially and financially advantageous to both of them. The couple are willing to do this, but there is disruption when George Eliot unexpectedly comes between them through a series of dramatic events.

Sophie is an ardent fan of Eliot’s writing, but her opinion changes when she feels betrayed by the writer. The books we love have a way of deeply affecting us and sometimes that ardour can spill into a fanaticism for the individual author herself. Eliot inspired many to feel this way. One character Edith Simcox spends all her days hovering outside Eliot’s residence hoping for scraps of information from people associated with her or a brief audience with Eliot. Although we can sometimes feel a spiritual connection to authors, we don’t really know that person. This novel beautifully encompasses this complicated relationship between writer and reader.

“Sophie and the Sibyl” is also a powerful story about the degree to which our egos play into relationships in general. Late in the novel it’s observed that “We barge into other people’s lives, desperate to make ourselves heard, to have our feelings noticed, our rage and blame taken into account.” Much ardent passion and many romantic entanglements come out of a desire to “play out” feelings which are pent up within us. Yet, to be seen as someone worthy of this attention is a beautiful thing and can lead to meaningful connections. At one point in the novel Eliot states: “This is undoubtedly the deepest pleasure on this earth: to deserve the love of those close to us, and to see that diffusive goodness spreading ever outwards.”

Patricia Duncker observes within this novel how Eliot is subject to a ferocious desire to be wanted as well. Specifically in regards to Edith Simcox she notes: “George Eliot loved to be loved. We have had to wait a hundred years for all the lesbian attachments to be revealed, and even now I’ll be accused of tendentious anachronism for even mentioning that fatal word, and for suggesting that the great writer herself harboured Sapphic sentiments.” Although any possible lesbian relations Eliot might have had don’t play into the primary plot of this novel, Duncker gives a fascinatingly “queer” spin on the tale and doesn’t hide the fact she’s giving an interpretation on Eliot’s life coloured by her own agenda.

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  “The men are simply generic: husband, son. It’s the women who count. This struggle between women marks the spiritual history of the whole world.”

“The men are simply generic: husband, son. It’s the women who count. This struggle between women marks the spiritual history of the whole world.”

One of the most refreshing things about this novel is the way Patricia Duncker directly participates in it. Somehow it’s as if she becomes the reader of the story alongside you, providing commentary and observations while you’re reading. You might assume that such a device could be too intrusive, but for me this only added to the gusto of the story’s flow. It’s as if Duncker has combined the 19th century comedy/romance novel form (for instance, each chapter heading lays out what that chapter will contain) and the experimental meta-fictional sense of Ali Smith to create an entirely new novel form which enlightens the reader while entertaining them. I truly cared about these characters even though I was frequently being reminded that they were only characters in a story. Part of why Duncker is so successful at this is the emphatic deep-feeling and meaningful ideas she addresses in this novel ranging from the question of physical/spiritual beauty to contemplations about the nature of mortality. This is a seriously intelligent novel, but never reads like an essay because the concepts are deeply felt by the actors (characters) in the drama Duncker has created.

This book is the most beautiful love letter to George Eliot. Reading the dialogue between Eliot and other characters, I felt as if I could actually hear Eliot’s voice in my mind. Of course, like all idols we aren’t blind to their foibles. Duncker admits that “I have not loved her unchangeably.” Towards the end, Eliot’s motives and the way she engaged with people comes under scrutiny, but there is no question that she was a tremendously intelligent and important figure. Duncker states that by creating this story she “wanted fiction and history, as the historian Richard Holmes once put it, speaking of the biographer and his subject, to shake hands across time.” It will be fascinating to come back to this novel again and again to pick out what’s real and what Duncker made up especially after (re)reading Eliot’s novels and the many biographies written about her. That’s something I really want to do now: run out and read things by and about George Eliot. It’s brilliant that a novel can inspire this kind of feeling. I absolutely loved “Sophie and the Sibyl” and I don’t think you need to be an Eliot fan to appreciate what a revolutionary book and fantastic story it is.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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