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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I’ve always had very conflicted feelings about Truman Capote. This is the author who wrote the achingly beautiful autobiographical short story ‘A Christmas Memory’ which my cousin read to an enraptured audience every year at his annual Christmas party. And, of course, he penned the novella ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ whose whiff of glamour surrounding Holly Golightly’s tale of self-creation made the teenage me desperate to move to a city. But Capote was also the man who spat venom about countless figures I admire from my favourite author Joyce Carol Oates who he called “a joke monster who ought to be beheaded in a public auditorium” to Meryl Streep who he called “the Creep. Ooh, God, she looks like a chicken.” Many years later, Oates had the last word and proved who really succeeded and endured by tweeting on October 14th 2013: “Ironic that I am a judge for the Truman Capote award when Capote in a druggy interview said he hated me & that I should be executed. LOL.” So I’ve never made the effort to read some of Capote’s most enduring works like “In Cold Blood” and “Music for Chameleons” and certainly not his notorious unfinished novel “Answered Prayers”. But I was thrilled to better come to understand an interpretation and look at Capote’s complex, spirited and ultimately tragic life through reading Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott’s novel “Swan Song” about the high-society heroines Capote befriended and shockingly betrayed.

In 1975, Capote published excerpts from his unfinished novel “Answered Prayers” in Esquire which presented thinly veiled portraits of several wealthy, powerful trend-setters and their husbands. He spilled all the tea about their romantic trysts and dirty laundry. These women such as Babe Paley (a style icon), Slim Keith (a socialite credited with discovering Lauren Bacall), Gloria Guinness (a beauty rumoured to have once been a Nazi spy) and Lee Radziwill (Jackie Kennedy’s younger sister) had confided in Capote over the years and made him a firm fixture of their elite circle. He had a charisma, wit and talent for giving people what they needed. Capote sought to immortalize their stories in literature and reveal the sordid truth about their husbands by writing his new novel which he envisioned as a 20th century version of “Remembrance of Things Past”. The women didn’t see it this way and expelled him from their group, turning him into a social outcast. Capote sought to turn these flesh and blood women who he referred to as his “swans” into characters, but Greenberg-Jephcott endeavours to give them their voices and identities back in her novel. It’s narrated from their collective perspective as they observe Capote’s downfall as well as devoting sections to their individual stories. Fascinatingly, the author also includes multiple versions of Capote’s life tailored to appeal to the different women’s personalities. It builds to a complex portrait that raises questions about the difference between fact and fiction, the boundaries between self-creation and self-delusion and the real meaning of love/friendship.

These are all themes threaded throughout Capote’s own work so it’s fascinating the way Greenberg-Jephcott posits how he grappled with these problems within his own life. It also asks what the difference is between drawing upon real life for the sake of art and the degree to which an author exploits those closest to him. Of course, decades after all the dust has settled, almost no one cares about the particulars of these women’s affairs which were once tabloid headlines. If Capote was able to capture something about universal concepts of ambition and betrayal while also describing the particulars of a bygone age of American history his writing would have lasting value. But what responsibility should he have had to respecting his friends’ privacy? And how much was he motivated to write these things as an elaborate revenge upon the high society which shunned his mother and drove her to suicide? Greenberg-Jephcott weaves ideas into her narrative about Capote’s lowly upbringing, the community and family who rejected him and his intense longing for his mother’s approval. It’s fascinating how the author shows Capote to be at once a fragile boy and a vindictive genius in one alcohol/drug-fuelled gluttonous man.

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All this is such rich material that it’s almost easy to forget the admirable writing skills Greenberg-Jephcott deploys in bringing this complex story to life. The novel bursts with details about some of the most important figures of the age that these women mingled with – everyone from the Kennedys to Hollywood bigwigs to Diego Rivera to macho blowhards like Ernst Hemingway and Gore Vidal – as well as honouring the admirable accomplishments of the women themselves. There are such evocative descriptions of place from the rural landscape of Capote’s Louisiana upbringing to sun-bleached afternoons on the Italian Riviera to glitzy parties in New York City. The author captures inflections of speech from Southern drawls to society slang. It makes for vivid and mesmerising reading. I was particularly interested in the descriptions of Capote’s relationship to his childhood friend Harper Lee who mostly existed on the periphery of his life but played an important part. In a way, it seems a shame that he didn’t value and cultivate this continuous friendship over the course of his life rather than seek to gain favour with the high society he aspired to join. If he’d sought favour with his intellectual equals rather than needlessly trashing them out of what I can only suppose was jealousy he might have established more stable and enduring friendships. But his example shows how even a genius with great psychological insight can be toppled by the mechanisms of his own ego. He was also the product of a part of American culture that’s relentlessly aspirational and wealth-driven in a way that often leads to bloated excess and dissolution.

The wonderful thing is that “Swan Song” doesn’t read like a tragic tale, but a celebration of beauty and art and intimacy. There is peril, loss and a price to pay, but there’s also an infectious spirit to the many scintillating personalities the author brilliantly portrays that made me want to lean in and listen.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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