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: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o7x_TPKvl7I&t=71s

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.

I was halfway through reading “The Underground Railroad” this past week when the American election results came through. It was difficult to do anything on that devastating day as I was so depressed, but I did keep reading Colson Whitehead’s novel because it took on an added poignancy. It merges a modern consciousness with representations of inequality, oppression and racial discrimination to create a new kind of historical novel about the struggle for freedom. It’s the tale of Cora who lives on a southern plantation owned by the Randall family in the 1820s. She’s invited by a fellow slave named Caesar to escape the enslavement of the south through a connection he has in The Underground Railroad. Her journey takes her through a number of states which all have distinct social characteristics and exhibit different forms of prejudice. Over time she’s pursued by vicious slave catcher Arnold Ridgeway who is motivated primarily by his belief that America belongs to whites and that he’s restoring order by profitably returning slaves to their owners. It’s a novel which is both fantastical for the way it invents a physical underground railroad used to transport escaped slaves and starkly realistic for the brutality with which slaves and abolitionists are suppressed, beaten and killed. Whitehead has created a story with phenomenal momentum and moving insights into our society.

We currently face at least four years of Trump leading America. Because his campaign was imbued with many overtly racist and isolationist statements, we’re going to have to keep asking ourselves over time: who does America belong to? The sentiment of Trump and many people who voted for him feels not too dissimilar from the logic of slavers in Whitehead’s novel: “If the white man wasn’t destined to take this new world, he wouldn’t own it now.” A bi-racial writer, orator and intellectual named Lander in the story states at one point: “America, too, is a delusion, the grandest one of all. The white race believes – believes with all its heart – that it is their right to take the land. To kill Indians. Make war. Enslave their brothers. This nation shouldn’t exist, if there is any justice in the world, for its foundations are murder, theft, and cruelty. Yet here we are.” To many people’s astonishment here we are in Trump’s America, a country half filled with citizens who believe they are entitled to imprison, throw out or build a wall against anyone who is different. It’s a reactionary stance which will no doubt lead to further discrimination and animosity between factions of society. Whitehead shows how little these sentiments have changed in America over time.

It’s fascinating how Cora finds various levels of tyranny in the different states she lives in and at the plantation she’s born into. After losing her imposing grandmother and her mother runs away from the plantation, Cora is left vulnerably alone and must live in a place called the Hob which is for female outcasts within the community of slaves. Amongst the slave cabins “There was no recourse, were no laws but the ones rewritten every day.” Here she has to learn to protect herself and what belongs to her not only against the slave owners and fierce overseer, but the threatening individuals amongst the slaves. Once Cora finds her freedom she becomes attuned to other forms of oppression including becoming an actor in a museum simulating white people’s ideas of African communities and slaver ships, sterilization, and all out annihilation of the black population. The logic behind these methods is to quell the difficulty and complication of difference. Rather than embrace the challenges involved with trying to live together they are radically inhumane strategies to maintain white people’s sole ownership of America.

Cora inhabits a series of different possibilities for how America can deal with its historically racist past. In this way Whitehead plays with history to say something urgent about the present. It’s remarked that “She had never learned history proper, but sometimes one’s eyes are teacher enough.” Although we should learn as much about the past as possible, you don’t need a special knowledge of it to see that the ideologies and values exemplified by Trump and his supporters will lead to a dangerously fractious society. I was greatly moved by the way “The Underground Railroad” depicted Cora’s struggle for both a mental and physical independence within this viciously divided America. Her journey and intellectual development elucidates strategies for survival in a country plagued by such deeply embedded prejudice. It’s foolish to pretend this doesn’t exist: “Here’s one delusion: that we can escape slavery. We can’t. Its scars will never fade.” It is this country’s original sin. Whitehead brings alive a large cast of characters who present different points of view to form a disarming portrait of America past, present and future.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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