The books I read in 2019

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The 2019 best-of book lists are out, and, if you’re like me, you’ve added a few (or many) titles to your to-read list. While I get excited thinking of all the books I want to read, I also like to reflect on what I’ve read in the past year (as I’ve done in 2018, 2017 and 2016). So I’m putting down my mug of tea and plate of shortbread cookies to break it down. Maybe you’ll find another book or few to add to your to-read list?

Stand-out books

The longest book I read

The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne (592 pages):

The shortest book I read

84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff (97 pages)

The book I didn’t expect to like but ended up loving

Salt Slow by Julia Armfield. I had heard good things, so I was intrigued, but I didn’t think this book sounded up my alley. I’ve often been dismissive of magic realism, and, while I’ve been really into linked short stories in the past few years, other short story collections haven’t appealed to me as much. But I loved this collection. Armfield does an amazing job of using fantastical elements to illustrate real and universal female experiences. I borrowed a copy from the library, but I may buy one, too (I already want to reread some of these stories).

The book I expected to love but didn’t

The Factory by Hiroko Oyamada. This is a case where formatting really affected my enjoyment of the writing. This book is filled with long paragraphs. I think the only places there were paragraph breaks were when there were time breaks. I found it especially difficult with dialogue, as I’d lose track of who was speaking or even if it was dialogue or narration. It’s too bad because the story was a wonderfully weird take on modern life–about three unrelated characters who work in different areas of a factory–but I had so much trouble following that I couldn’t really get into it.

The book that I loved to hate

Dead Heat by Benedek Totth. I was attracted to this book because I’d heard it compared to Trainspotting (which I am a big fan of) and because I love coming-of-age stories (this one about a group of teenagers on a swim team in Hungary). But I didn’t expect it to be quite so raw and violent and gritty. I didn’t expect so much of the book to make me feel physically ill or for it to make me angry in so many places. I’m impressed by any writer who can evoke those kinds of feelings in a reader. It certainly is well-written. I can’t call this book “enjoyable,” but reading it was quite an experience.

The book I knew I wanted to read from the title alone

The Grammarians by Cathleen Schine. I read my share of non-fiction books about language, as many word nerds do. But a work of fiction called The Grammarians? This novel had my heart before I knew the premise. I fell in love with this one because of its playfulness with language and its humour. But I liked it even more because Schine tied these aspects with a more poignant story of two sisters who are inseparable and how they come apart.

The book that taught me a lesson I didn’t know I needed

Semicolon: The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark by Cecelia Watson. I’ve thought about privilege in many ways in the past few years. What I hadn’t given much thought to was my privilege as a native English speaker as someone who lives in Canada. This book made me think about that a lot. And it has me thinking about how I can use my passion for language in ways that are more beneficial to others.

The book I wouldn’t have read if I hadn’t taken part in the Toronto Public Library’s reading challenge

Was She Pretty? by Leanne Shapton. To be honest, there were several books I wouldn’t have read this year if I hadn’t participated in the library’s reading challenge. But some of these were books that had been on my to-read list for years, or ones that I could see myself stumbling across eventually. But I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have picked up this one in any other circumstance. I read the library’s blog post about non-prose books and saw this one as a suggestion. The book consists of mostly drawings with minimal text, and explores jealousy in relationships.

The books that had me saying “Just one more chapter”

  • The Body in Question by Jill Ciment: The story centres on two sequestered jurors on a murder trial who have an affair…but there’s so much more going on in this one, too.
  • The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides: An excellent psychological, twisty and unputdownable thriller about a woman who kills her husband, then refuses to talk, and the therapist who is determined to get her to speak.
  • Educated by Tara Westover: An incredible memoir that tells the story of a woman who is born into a family of survivalists.

My 5 favourite books read in 2019

  • An Orchestra of Minorities by Chigozie Obioma: A heartbreaking story about a Nigerian poultry farmer who will do anything to be with the woman he loves.
  • My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite: A fun and dark thriller (love this combo!) about a woman who is constantly having to clean up her sister’s messes–the murders of her sister’s boyfriends.
  • How to Behave in a Crowd by Camille Bordas: A story about adolescence, sibling relationships and tragedy. This book was sweet, sad and very funny, too. I adored the narration of protagonist Isidore Mazal–the youngest of six siblings–who is 11 years old when the book opens and 13 when it ends.
  • Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson: A woman begins looking after her former roommate’s stepchildren: twins who have the ability to spontaneously combust. It’s so weird and funny and touching all at the same time.
  • Salt Slow by Julia Armfield: A collection of short stories that blend realistic depictions of female experiences with beautiful fantastical elements.

By the numbers

Books bought: 47% (bought new: 44%, bought used: 3%)

Books borrowed from the library: 39%

Books received as gifts: 7%

Books borrowed from friends: 7%

Books written by Canadian writers: 27%

Books written by women: 70%

Books published in 2019: 49%

Fiction: 78%

Non-fiction: 22%

So it looks like I did increase my non-fiction books and have read some genres and writing styles I have avoided in the past. For one thing, I think I have to stop saying I’m not into magic realism. Not sure when it happened, but I think I actually really am into it…like, maybe even a lot?

I said I wanted to read bigger books in 2019…but that didn’t really happen. I’d like to take that goal into 2020. But, even more, I’d like to not put too much pressure on myself. I’m continuing to grow as a reader, and that’s good enough for me.

What I learned about writing while writing a novel

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For the past few years, I’ve been working on a manuscript–a coming-of-age novel that I’m quite proud of. This novel isn’t published (yet), but even if it never graces the shelves of the local bookshop, getting the manuscript into its current form has taught me a lot. If you’re in the process of writing a book, or if you’re considering starting, maybe this post will help.

Find what works for you and stick to it

It’s good to remind yourself that there’s no rush, that the manuscript will take as long as it takes. But don’t use that as an excuse to procrastinate. If, like me, you work full-time and/or have other commitments, writing every single day might not be possible. What worked best for me was setting a weekly word count goal of 5,000 words. This way, I didn’t beat myself up if I was too busy to write one day; I could get the words in later in the week. Yes, there were weeks when I didn’t meet my goal, but most of the time I met or even surpassed it.

I’ve heard of other writers who swear by writing 1,000 words every day–some who even wake up at 5 a.m. to ensure it’s done before they do anything else. I’ve heard of others who write on their lunch hour, writers who “binge write” on weekends, or others who write on their commute. The point is, you just have to find what works for you. That might take some trial and error. But when you find it, hold yourself accountable to meet your own goals.

It can be painful, but it can also feel incredible

I didn’t always feel like sitting down to write. Sometimes it took a while to get going, and I’d spend the first while staring at a blank screen. It could be extremely frustrating and discouraging. But that didn’t always happen. Some writing sessions were productive from the moment I opened my Word doc. And when that happened, I felt amazing for the rest of the day.

Maybe even better than that was when a session started off terribly, when I was convinced I was going to sit there for an hour doing nothing before I could give myself permission to call it day. And then, somehow, I’d get going and the story would take off. Remembering that feeling, reminding yourself of how good things can be–well, that can be very motivating when things aren’t going as well.

It’s not all about you

Yes, writing is a solitary act. And if you’re writing just to get something that’s inside you out onto a page, then, sure, it can be all about you. But if you’re hoping to publish, writing is where the solitude ends.

I was lucky enough to have a mentor throughout my writing process–a writer who had been through everything I was going through, who I could turn to with questions. I also had a great group of early readers who provided excellent feedback. The manuscript has become stronger because of them. All of this is before you start to build relationships with editors, publishers, agents, booksellers, and–eventually–your readers.

Writing isn’t for everyone. And for those of us who do write, it doesn’t mean you have to be published (or even want to be published). But whether you want to see your book on the shelves of bookstores or want to write for your eyes only, if you have any desire to write, I encourage you to do so. It’s a very rewarding experience. And when you do, I’d be interested to hear what you learned from the experience.

Q&A with author Brian Francis

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Brian Francis (photo credit: Samuel Engelking)

Brian Francis is a Toronto-based writer whose third book–a YA novel entitled Break in Case of Emergency–will be released in September 2019. I recently asked Brian about his upcoming novel, his motivation for helping other writers, and how he ended up writing a play. I also didn’t miss the chance to find out which refreshment Brian recommends you enjoy when you crack open his newest book this fall.

Can you describe what Break in Case of Emergency is about in five sentences or fewer?

The book is about a teenage girl named Toby growing up on her grandparents’ dairy farm. Her mom died by suicide and Toby is convinced she’s destined to follow in her mom’s footsteps. Those plans go astray when she receives the news that her father, someone she’s never met, is returning home. And that he’s a female impersonator.

How did you come up with the title?

I didn’t. My editor, Suzanne Sutherland, did. We were struggling to find the right title for the book and she offered up this gem. It stuck. Thank god for editors is all I have to say. Otherwise, this book would be called Book.

What was different about the experience of writing Break in Case of Emergency from writing your other novels, Fruit and Natural Order?

Given that Break is a YA book, I had a stronger sense of the intended audience. Not so with the other two books. I think Break is my tightest book in terms of storytelling. But I guess readers will be ultimate judge of that.

In the book reviews I’ve posted on my blog, I suggest some recommended refreshments. What refreshment(s) would you recommend readers enjoy while reading Break in Case of Emergency?

Hmm. Well, if you’re Arthur (Toby’s father), I’d recommend a stiff martini or two. But if you’re underage, then I’d recommend milk, since Toby lives on a dairy farm.

How does having a day job at the Toronto Public Library inform or affect your writing?

It’s nice to be in an environment that celebrates and recognizes the value of books and reading (as opposed to, say, working in an accounting firm.) So my work isn’t at odds with my writing in that respect.

I met you when I took a class you taught called “Kick-Start Your Creative Writing.” What or who helped you to kick-start your creative writing?

I took a class at Ryerson, which really helped. It gave me the focus and structure I needed. It can be hard to keep yourself motivated when you’re the only holding yourself accountable. Paying out money for a course changes the dynamic. Writing becomes work. And you start taking it seriously. Which you should.

In addition to your experience teaching, you also write an advice column for Quill and Quire. Why is helping other writers important to you?

I just remember feeling really shitty and alone when I was first starting out. I wasn’t friends with other writers, so I had to figure a lot of stuff out on my own. When I help other writers, I help the writer I used to be. I want writers to understand that there is no secret formula and that all of us are struggling in our own ways. But none of us are alone.

Are you still teaching, or do you have any future plans to teach?

No, none at the present time. It was a nice run, and I enjoyed doing it, but it’s a lot of work. I might go back to it at some point.

What are some of your favourite books, or who are some of your favourite writers?

I love me some Alice Munro. David Sedaris, too. Margaret Laurence. Some great books I’ve read in the past year include Dear Current Occupant by Chelene Knight, Medicine Walk by Richard Wagamese and Little Fish by Casey Plett.

Is there a book or a writer you love to read that you think deserves more attention and readers should know about?

Honestly, I think most writers deserve more attention.

You used to run a blog called Caker Cooking, and you write a food column for Taddle Creek called “The Kitch.” What got you interested in food writing?

I don’t think I got interested in food writing, per se. It was more about the recipes, if that makes sense. I’m not one of those “mouth feel” people. And I generally don’t like food blogs because they make you wade through 25 variations of the same damn shot before you get to the recipe. But I’m interested in the history of recipes. They’re like snapshots to me, little souvenirs, not only of my life, but also of the world I grew up in.

You also wrote a play based on your real life experience called Box 4901, and you’ve starred in the production as well. What made you want to try this different art form and type of writing?

Initially, I thought it might be a website or a podcast or a book. But certainly not a play. But when I approached director Rob Kempson with the material and asked him what he thought, he basically said, “This is a performance piece. And you’re in it.” So it wasn’t deliberate on my part at all. But it’s been a great experience so far. And I’m glad I did it. It’s taken me out of my comfort zone.

You always seem to have some creative project on the go. What are you currently working on?

I bought a paper mache book a few weeks back for a dollar and I’m going to try making a pencil holder. Wish me luck.

Brian’s Francis’ new novel, Break in Case of Emergency, will be available in Canada in September 2019 from HarperCollins and in the U.S. in February 2020 from Inkyard Press. You can find out more about Brian’s writing and his other projects by visiting his website at www.brian-francis.com.

On the desire to be better at gifting books

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books on display at The Paper Hound in Vancouver, BC

Surprise, surprise: I love books. I love buying books, browsing books, borrowing books, looking at books, learning about books and, of course, reading books. But, as much as I love gifting books, I’ve been doubting how good I am at it.

I’ve written about why books make the best gifts, and I truly enjoy going into bookstores, thinking about the recipient and choosing something I think they will like based on their interests/life/other books they’ve read and liked. But, as much as I like doing this, I don’t know if I’ve really done a good job of getting it right.

When I think about it some more, it’s not even just gifting books. It’s also giving book recommendations, or lending books to people when they ask for “whatever you think I’ll like.” I like it when people do that, but how many times have people come back and said they loved the book? (Well, it’s happened for sure. I don’t always get it wrong. But I guess I’m saying I wish it happened more.) Thankfully, booksellers and librarians are there to help.

Maybe I’m putting too much pressure on myself. After all, I don’t always love the books people give or recommend to me, but I do always, always appreciate it when I can see the thought that was put into that selection, when I can see how the person had my interests/life/books I’ve read and liked in mind.

I’ll continue giving books to people (sorry if you’re a person in my life who hasn’t liked what I’ve picked out for you in the past). I can’t help it; I love sharing the book love way too much to stop now.

Are you good at gifting books or offering personalized recommendations? What do you think about when deciding which book to gift or lend someone?

5 Canadian books to look for this spring

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In just a few more days, it will officially–finally–be spring. That means I’m starting to picture myself getting out from under these blankets and taking my books to a patio or to the park. Here are a few CanLit titles coming out this spring that I can’t wait to take with me.

Coconut Dreams by Derek Mascarenhas (April 15)

I am not the biggest fan of short-story collections, but I’ve developed a particular fondness for collections where the stories are interconnected. Coconut Dreams is a collection of linked stories following a family and focusing on two siblings. The siblings are first-generation Canadians, and the stories explore their South Asian roots and the family’s experiences as new immigrants.

26 Knots by Bindu Suresh (May 1)

Bindu Suresh’s debut novel, 26 Knots, begins when two journalists meet while covering a fire in Montreal. One journalist falls in love with the other, while the other is in love with someone else…and that person is married to another. Described as being about love, betrayal and obsession, it sounds messy and complicated and very, very good.

Worst Case, We Get Married by Sophie Bienvenu, Translated by JC Sutcliffe (May 8)

Originally published in French, Worst Case, We Get Married is a novel in translation that follows a precocious 13-year-old girl in Montreal. The book is a confessional novel, written as the protagonist’s statement to her social worker, and it sounds like it is quite gritty. The novel was made into a film, but I haven’t seen it yet…and I won’t (at least not until I’ve read the book).

Frying Plantain by Zalika Reid-Benta (June 4)

Frying Plantain is about a Jamaican-Canadian girl struggling to find her identity as she grows up in Toronto’s Little Jamaica. These linked short stories follow the girl from elementary school to high school graduation and explore themes of discrimination, peer pressure, and family relationships. I am a sucker for a good coming-of-age story, and this debut sounds stunning.

Bunny by Mona Awad (June 11)

I seem to have a thing for dark humour in fiction…or at I least I do lately. Bunny–described as a darkly funny book–is a story about a grad student who abandons her only friend and gets in with a clique of popular girls. I eat up stories about outsiders, and I loved Mona Awad’s first book, 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, so I am super excited about this one.

Which CanLit titles are you looking forward to reading this spring? Any of these? Something else? I’d love to know.