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.

This year is racing by! There has been a lot of depressing news lately so it feels all the more necessary to take the time to celebrate great books that have been published this year and recall that 2016 isn’t all doom and gloom. Since we’re at the midpoint here are ten of my favourite books so far. It’s been very difficult to whittle down this list as I’ve read 57 books so far this year and many have been excellent. (I should note Garth Greenwell's "What Belongs to You" would be on this list but I actually first read it last year) Click on the titles at the bottom to read my full thoughts about each of these outstanding books. You can also watch a video of me briefly discussing each of these books here:

Last year I ran a competition and it worked so well I want to do it again.
Here’s how to enter:
-    Leave a comment letting me know the best book you’ve read so far this year (it doesn’t have to be a new book).
-    Leave some kind of contact info (email or Twitter/GoodReads handle).
-    At the end of July I’ll pick one of your suggestions and send that person one of my favourite books from the below list below.
-    Open to anywhere in the world.

I’ll also read your suggestion by the end of the year. Last year, Poppy recommended to me the fantastic novel “Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness”.

Even if you don’t want to enter, please let me know what great books you’ve been reading this year or if you’ve read any of my choices.

Dinosaurs on Other Planets by Danielle McLaughlin
The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain
Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta
The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney
The Lonely City by Olivia Laing
What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi
Hot Milk by Deborah Levy
The Man Without a Shadow by Joyce Carol Oates
The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee
A Quiet Life by Natasha Walter

I had the pleasure of hearing Rose Tremain read from her new novel “The Gustav Sonata” at a special event at Waterstones Piccadilly several weeks ago. The section she read and her writing in general has a wonderful way of drawing you into the lives/experiences of her characters so I was eager to read this new novel – especially since I loved her previous book “The American Lover” which is a collection of short stories. It’s admirable how Tremain never sticks to writing about any one particular genre, subject matter, time period or area of the world. Her books span from historical novels set in the court of Charles II to the mid-1800s New Zealand gold rush to stories about migrant works in modern London. “The Gustav Sonata” primarily takes place in pre and post-WWII Switzerland (with a later leap to the more recent past). Given its location it gives an interesting slant on the war and the meaning of neutrality by focusing on the lives of two different families affected by the greater conflict. It’s a deeply immersive story about loyalty during times of conflict, ambition, betrayal and family strife that made me stay up late at night longing to read more.

The novel centres around a Swiss boy named Gustav whose single mother Emilie struggles to make ends meet while working in an Emmental cheese factory. His father Erich died at an early age, but was once an assistant police chief during the tense period in the lead up to the war. In 1948, a six year old Gustav befriends a new Jewish boy named Anton at school. Emilie resents her son’s companion because she blames their diminished circumstances on the influx of Jewish refugees. It’s not difficult to see how these embittered isolationist feelings still resonate today in current political opinions. Despite his mother’s objections, Gustav and Anton form a special bond which continues throughout their lives. Questions raised about how Emilie got to this difficult point are answered in the second part of the novel which moves back to 1937 to recount her tumultuous marriage with Erich. The third part of the book then skips far forward to the end of the 20th century to show how dilemmas about his family and his country’s past still resonate for Gustav in his later years.

Tremain skilfully raises many difficult questions about what happens to political allegiance, social responsibility and moral conscience when put under the pressure of warfare. Being only a boy during WWII, it takes Gustav a lifetime to untangle the truth and meaning of the decisions his parents and their friends took at the time. It’s remarked how “Europe is at war. Fairness is now becoming a word without meaning.” There is no balanced view when embroiled in the fear and terror of this conflict. When looking at specific actions from a historical point of view, it’s easy to judge what was right and wrong. But when facing conflict in the present when you’re aware of different negative outcomes no matter what decision you make, the choice is not always so clear. By moving backwards and forwards in time through different parts of this novel, Tremain artfully shows the true nightmarish dilemma faced by ordinary people caught in a large-scale battle.

I also greatly appreciated the dynamic view of transforming sexuality represented in the personal lives of her characters. Throughout their entire adult lives all of the characters find their desire changes which also transforms their points of view. Lottie, the wife of Erich’s friend Roger, is a particularly fascinating character who finds herself drawn to the forbidden and struggles to express her sexuality within the narrow confines of society. Also, there’s a particularly memorable and disturbing section where a mentally-disturbed young neighbour attempts to sexually abuse Gustav when he’s still a boy. Although this character and his actions are reprehensible, he is still treated in a balanced way as he is evidently a victim of shock treatment and other damaging medical therapies of the time. There is also an innocently intimate scene between Gustav and Anton as boys which is so delicately portrayed. Tremain has a tremendous ability for writing intelligently and sensitively about the ever-evolving sexuality of a broad range of characters.

A subterranean melody plays throughout Gustav’s journey in this novel. As a child Anton is an aspiring pianist and his desire for fame hangs upon him throughout his life despite his crippling performance anxiety. He frequently plays Beethoven and other composers to Gustav. It’s extraordinary how I started to almost hear this music playing as I progressed in reading the novel. Like great works of music, “The Gustav Sonata” has a subtly transformative effect saying what can’t be overtly stated by using a juxtaposition of characters, place and images. It also made me salivate to try Emilie’s favourite desert Nusstorte! This is an exceptionally beautiful and accomplished novel.

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesRose Tremain
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