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.

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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.

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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.

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There’s something so wonderful about being wholly drawn into a richly imagined historical novel that both illuminates a somewhat forgotten or not-widely-known period of history and gives voice to people who are only glancingly referred to in the history books. Sally Magnusson does all this in her debut novel “The Sealwoman’s Gift” which recounts the abduction of over four hundred Icelandic citizens from their homes in the year 1627 by pirates from Morocco and Algeria. These prisoners were sold into slavery and a ransom for their release wasn’t obtained until several years later – by which point many of those abducted had either died, been irretrievably lost or converted/integrated into life along the Barbary Coast. Copies still exist of a famous account of these abductions written by a Reverend who was captured himself, but Magnusson focuses her novel more on the journey and inner-struggles of his wife Ásta. It’s noted how “others may have written their own accounts of captivity. Men, of course. Does it matter that nobody will know how it was to be a woman?” In doing so, this novel brilliantly engages with many of the heartrending conflicts a woman in Ásta’s position must have faced while also powerfully illuminating the cultural importance of storytelling and the complicated dynamics of love.

A number of years ago I visited Iceland and took a road trip around the country. It’s such a bizarre alien-like landscape with its flat volcanic-soil and coastal shores dotted with black & white puffins and their colourful beaks. I admired how the stark beauty and bleakness of this striking environment is powerfully evoked in this novel. But the author also brings to life the culture and daily life of its people from the production of Skyr (a yogurt-like foodstuff traditionally made from sheep’s milk) to the use of puffin bones to keep the kitchen fires going or the frequent retelling of Icelandic Sagas which are such a rich part of the country’s oral tradition. I also got such a strong sense of how the country basically operates as one small hardworking community. As Magnusson notes, it’s easy to empathize with how the kidnapping of over 400 citizens back in the 1600s would deeply traumatize the entirety of this sparsely-populated country. The story also conveys what an enormous culture shock it’d be for these very isolated Christian people who were abducted to suddenly be engulfed in the brightly-coloured multi-national predominantly-Muslim community of Algiers.

I’ve always been fascinated by the psychological implications of a diaspora, especially when people are forcibly removed from their native homeland or are forced to leave because of severe problems in their birth country. The real heart of this novel lies in Ásta’s dilemma as she’s suddenly left on her own in Algiers with a daughter and an infant son. Her rambunctious husband Ólafur is swiftly used as a negotiator between the Ottoman Empire that was seeking ransom for these slaves and the king of Denmark (because Iceland was under Danish rule). Throughout the many years of their separation Ásta is torn between maintaining her faith in their rescue and building a new life in this foreign land. This includes conflicted feelings about religion, loyalty to family and maintaining her own sense of cultural identity. There comes a point when the workings of time create a certain psychological distance from her homeland. Her existence beforehand becomes idealized and nostalgia takes on a life of its own: “memory is like that, always so eager to aid you in missing what you can no longer have and forgetting the rest.” Magnusson writes poignantly about how story-telling is a means of psychological escape from the horrors of reality as well as a way of maintaining a connection with one’s own culture and personal genealogical history.

Barbary corsairs

Barbary corsairs

The author also weaves into her story two somewhat fantastical elements and characters who tread the border between myth and reality. One is an eccentric old woman who has visions and believes herself to be a seal that has lost its skin and is consequently stranded on land in the shape of a woman. Another is an elf from the legends Ásta heard in her youth. At first I thought this later character was merely an eccentric quirk within the story or simply a fanciful notion within Ásta’s imagination, but his inclusion comes to powerfully represent her character’s inner conflict, her stymied desires and a representation of her own “otherness” as someone that doesn’t necessarily fit anywhere. These characters also show the way that our daily lives are composed of both the hard fact of reality and our subjective experience of the world.

As I neared the end of reading this tale it became something much more for me than simply a vividly-imagined historical novel, but a personally touching meditation on the choices we’re forced to make in life. Over the years we’re inevitably presented with crossroads where we must choose to take one path or another and it’s difficult not to be consumed with grief for the potential joys we’ve had to sacrifice in making these hard decisions. But Magnusson writes how “we cannot live in two worlds. And in lamenting too long what belongs in the other we bring upon ourselves and others only destruction.” In dramatically bringing to life Ásta’s story she sympathetically presents a fully rounded understanding of this turmoil and the importance of fostering the lives we’ve chosen. “The Sealwoman’s Gift” also powerfully shows the numerous and complicated repercussions of how the evil industry of slavery caused rifts in communities which have never been and can never be repaired. 

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesSally Magnusson
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