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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It’s been such an interesting year for the Booker Prize, not only in its Man Booker 50 celebrations but also in the dynamic and controversial longlist that this year’s judges created. I’ve enjoyed reading so many of the nominated books and discussing the prize with other readers. While I’d have loved to see novels like Jessie Greengrass’ “Sight” or Sophie Mackintosh’s “The Water Cure” in the final running, this is an absolutely fascinating and impressive shortlist. In past years, I’ve been able to make fairly confident predictions about winners such as Marlon James’ “A Brief History of Seven Killings” or George Saunders’ “Lincoln in the Bardo”. But I think it’s really too difficult to call this year! So I’ll try to weigh all the options that I’d consider if I were a judge.

“The Overstory” is so impressive for the way Powers’ language and style of writing changes the way the reader conceives of time by shifting focus to nature and the pace of trees. It’s also filled with such compelling characters and, while I didn’t think all the storylines worked, I was drawn into their complex emotional journey and the urgent message of their struggles. But I can already imagine the enormous outcry if another weighty American novel wins the prize since Yanks have snatched the trophy for two years running. It’s the novel most people are predicting will win, but I think we may be surprised.

There’s also the fact that a female author hasn’t won the prize since Eleanor Catton’s “The Luminaries” in 2013. While I don’t think gender should be a determining factor in picking a prize that simply seeks to honour “the best novel in the opinion of the judges” you have to hope that men won’t come out on top year after year. Thankfully, since there are four women on this year’s shortlist, the odds are in favour of one of them taking the prize. Certainly, “Milkman” is an equally impressive feat for the vivid way it immerses the reader into a culture of fear and distrust in a country so violently divided by politics and religion. It’s certainly a challenging read, but if it wins I feel like the judges would be declaring “Trust us. Stick with it. It’s worth it!” And they’d be right to make that statement because Anna Burns’ writing is incredibly moving and powerful in certain sections of the book.

“Everything Under” is also a uniquely challenging reading experience for the way Daisy Johnson presents a fragmented portrait of broken families and outside individuals. But her prose are so invigorating, lyrical and give such a unique perspective on identity and language that I found this novel so moving. And, given that Johnson is the youngest ever shortlisted author for this prize, it’d be very encouraging to see a new writer of such talent and who represents such a refreshing perspective win the Booker.

I have to say for me it feels like “The Mars Room” is the weakest novel on the list but (like with Anna Burns’ novel) I felt there were sections of it which shone very powerfully. I really admire the way Rachel Kushner chose to highlight the complex lives of incarcerated individuals, but I felt the novel wasn’t structured in the best way. I think rereading Kushner’s novel (as the Booker judges are meant to read all the novels on the shortlist multiple times) would probably emphasize the problems in this novel’s unnecessary subplots.

I’m guessing the opposite would be true for Robin Robertson’s “The Long Take” which is a book I would really like to reread at one point. It’s so clever how he pairs the narrator’s tortured journey meeting the beleaguered and forgotten people of America with flashbacks to his traumatic experiences in the military and his pre-war life with his family. All this is told with such poetic power that I’m sure revisiting this narrative (especially by reading it aloud) would emphasize what a beautiful piece of storytelling it is.

However, the novel I keep thinking back on and which really captured my heart is Esi Edugyan’s “Washington Black”. It’s a book that takes the reader on such an immersive and imaginative journey that I was totally captivated throughout. Some readers may be sceptical about the borderline fantastical elements of the plot. But I think it’s making such a positive message amidst so much suffering that individuals who have little opportunity to realise their full potential can discover ways to traverse the narrowmindedness and oppression of their times. Leaving aside any politics or other considerations, I think it’s the most accomplished novel on the list. I hope it wins.

The winner will be announced on the evening of Tuesday, October 16th. What book do you hope will win the Booker Prize this year?

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Here are the six books shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize. I’m so thrilled to see “Washington Black” and “Everything Under” on the list, but quite disappointed that “The Water Cure” and “Normal People” didn’t make it. Like I explained in my post about “Milkman” there are parts of it which are so brilliant and mesmerising, but other sections were a slog to get through so I have mixed feelings about it. I also felt conflicted about “The Mars Room” for different reasons. But I am glad to see them both on the list because it means more people will be discussing them and giving their opinions. I’m currently reading “The Overstory”. And “The Long Take” is a novel I’m so intrigued by so I’m glad I have an excuse to go buy a copy now. It’s tough to say, but initially I feel like the winning book will be a race between Esi Edugyan & Richard Powers

How do you feel about the shortlist? If you want to watch more of my thoughts comparing nominated books and discussing the prize I made a video you can watch here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=luSnqLHUkwQ&t=289s

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When considering the immeasurable evil of slavery it’s difficult to fully fathom the ramifications it had amongst so many individuals' lives. Not only were people’s freedom and lives brutally curtailed, controlled and cut short, but their talent and potential was also squandered. Esi Edugyan evocatively portrays the life of George Washington Black or “Wash”, a character with the aptitude to be a great artist and scientist were he not born into slavery on a Barbados plantation in 1818. But she grants him the potential to partially foster his talents when he comes under the apprenticeship of an eccentric scientist who is the brother of the plantation owner/overseer. What follows is a fantastically imaginative, heartrending and compulsively readable tale of his journey and growth into early adulthood. It’s a richly immersive story that also powerfully shows the perspective of slaves who feel “We had been estranged from the potential of our own bodies, from the revelation of everything our bodies and minds could accomplish.” This psychological state is complexly rendered as are the way characters surrounding Wash fail to fully empathize with him and understand the ramifications of slavery. “Washington Black” is an astounding novel.

Edugyan perceptively shows the way that the development of children are so atrociously twisted growing up in slavery, how relationships become perverted and emotionally disrupted. Not only does she portray this in her protagonist but it’s also poignantly rendered in the character of a slave girl who is seen only fleetingly, but Wash observes at one point that she has become pregnant and we’re left to horrifically wonder how this eleven year old’s pregnancy came about. The author also sympathetically shows the challenging emotional state of a boy going through adolescence where new feelings of stimulation are so often mixed with a sense of shame: “I would wake aroused against the sheets, feeling all at once thrillingly alive in my skin, and ashamed.” Wash encounters many challenges that prevent him from feeling pride in either his body or mind. His journey is both an inner struggle to fully foster and own his natural gifts as well as a physical quest to survive the confines of his restricted circumstances. Amidst the immediate action of Wash’s trials, there are intriguing mysteries in the background which gradually unfold over the course of the book.

Detail from a 1657 map of Barbados, showing plantations and escaped slaves.

Detail from a 1657 map of Barbados, showing plantations and escaped slaves.

I also really appreciated the beautiful writing in this novel, particularly when Edugyan is portraying the natural world and Wash’s scientific study of it. Maybe I just have an affinity for scenes in stories that take place under water, but just like Egan’s “Manhattan Beach” there’s a stunning scene in this book when Wash dives underwater and discovers a liberating space. Edugyan writes “How luminous the world was, in the shallows. I could see all the golden light of the dying morning, I could see the debris in it stirring, coming alive. Blue, purple, gold cilia turned in the watery shafts of light slicing down. In the gilded blur I caught the flashing eyes of shrimp, alien and sinewy… all this I let drop away, so that I hung with my arms suspended at my sides, the soft current tugging at me. The cold sucked at me and the light weakened, and I was finally, mercifully, nothing.” It’s as if the only place Wash can be liberated from the constrictions of his identity is in this alien underwater world where he can never truly belong.

In its very title this book asks a powerful open-ended question about all the people in history who possessed innate talent and intelligence, but whose skin colour and status dictated whether they realized their potential or were forced to squander it. Even though it’s a historical novel it makes a powerful political statement naming its slave hero after the first US president. In this era after Obama’s presidency it seems horrifically regressive that the current president is someone who only achieved his position through money and an old-world sense of superiority. It feels like Edugyan is challenging us to consider under what terms we want to found our future: superficial details or real capability? There are so many impactful themes and ideas in “Washington Black”, but what makes the novel so gripping are the surprising twists the story takes that left me desperate to discover what will happen next.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesEsi Edugyan