2021 reading: half-time update

We’re halfway through 2021 (which seems wild to me, by the way), so it felt like a good time to reflect on some of my favourite reads so far this year and share some of the books I’m anticipating.

5 books I’ve read and loved this year

Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro (March 16)

I tore through this novel that made me love a robot more than I’ve loved many human characters (and I don’t typically read science fiction). Several months later, I still think about Klara.

The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex (March 16)

I relished the different layers in this beautiful novel and in all the characters’ secrets as they were slowly revealed.

Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson (April 13)

This short novel broke my heart with its examination of race and masculinity and the barriers to maintaining a connection.

The First Day of Spring by Nancy Tucker (May 18)

Disturbing and dark from the first sentence, this story is told through the first-person perspective of an 8-year-old girl who murders a younger child. It’s difficult subject matter for sure, but the story is gripping and moving.

Animal by Lisa Taddeo (June 8)

A man shoots himself in front of a woman, compelling her to escape New York City and finally confront her traumatic childhood. Gritty, raw, and so engaging.

5 books I’m looking forward to this summer

Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead by Emily Austin (July 6)

A woman struggling with anxiety is mistaken for a job applicant to replace a recently deceased church receptionist. After getting hired, she becomes fixated on her predecessor’s mysterious death.

The Case of the Murderous Dr. Cream: The Hunt for a Victorian Era Serial Killer by Dean Cobb (July 13)

The true story of a Victorian doctor who committed murders in the United States, Canada, and Britain.

We Want What We Want by Alix Ohlin (July 27)

These short stories are described by the publisher as “surprising” and “darkly funny.”

All’s Well by Mona Awad (August 3)

A theatre professor with chronic pain is at the end of her rope when she decides to work on a production of Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well.

Three Rooms by Jo Hamya (August 31)

A young woman lives in rented rooms and on the sofas of strangers as she searches for her own home and a place in the world.

5 books I’m looking forward to this fall

The Pump by Sydney Warner Brooman (September 7)

A gothic collection of linked short stories set in a southern Ontario town called “The Pump.”

Unreconciled: Family, Truth, and Indigenous Resistance by Jesse Wente (September 21)

A non-fiction work that examines relations between white and Indigenous peoples in Canada.

The Strangers by Katherena Vermette (September 28)

A family saga following generations of the Strangers.

Dog Park by Sofi Oksanen (October 5)

A woman sits on a bench, watching a family play in a dog park. Someone sits next to her, and the woman realizes it is a person whose life she ruined decades ago.

People from My Neighborhood by Hiromi Kawakami (November 30)

A tiny book of short stories about the different people belonging to a neighbourhood.

The books I read in 2020

Back in March, when COVID-19 first infiltrated our lives here in Canada, there were a few weeks where my reading habits changed. I found it difficult to concentrate. When I could concentrate, I certainly didn’t want to read anything too dark or heavy. But it wasn’t very long until, for the most part, I got back to my regular reading habits. I’ve read almost as many books in 2020 as I did in 2019.

It’s been a strange year (what an understatement!). As 2020 comes to a close, there’s a lot I don’t want to think about–a lot of things I wish I didn’t have to think about. It’s nice to take a break to reflect on the things I do want to hold on to, including the books I’ve read during these past 12 months.

Stand-out books

The longest book I read

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (588 pages)

The shortest book I read

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton (99 pages)

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

Reproduction by Ian Williams. I probably wouldn’t have read Reproduction if it weren’t for the Giller Prize. And that’s not because the novel won the 2019 prize, either. During the award ceremony, before the winner was announced, I tuned in to the broadcast and heard Williams describe his book. I was sold. Prior to that, I didn’t know much about the novel. I had picked it up at the bookstore once and flipped through it, noticed that it was a bit experimental, and decided I wasn’t feeling that. I’m glad I was swayed to read this because I loved this story of an unconventional family in the Greater Toronto Area in the 1990s. And the experimental structure turned out to be a delight!

The book I expected to love but didn’t

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky. It’s no secret that I’m partial to a good coming-of-age tale. This one is a classic–one I’ve heard about for many years and that has been adapted into film. This might be a case of me expecting too much from a book, but there are many novels in this genre that have spoken to me more than this one did. I didn’t hate this book, but it was a bit forgettable.

The book that is perfect for everyone to read right now

Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times by Katherine May. I read about Wintering somewhere online (of course I don’t remember where) and promptly added it to my to-read list on Goodreads. I do this with a lot of titles, and many remain on the list for some time (or never leave it). However, it was only the next day or so after I added Wintering that I was in the bookstore and, not looking for this book, happened upon a copy on a table. I was compelled to buy it. Wintering is partly a memoir and partly a meditation on the times in life when things are just, well, bad. Instead of fighting against our difficulties, why not try to accept them and comfort ourselves instead? In this beautifully written book, May looks at her own experiences and also shares examples from nature about resting and retreating during dark times.

The book that made me LOL

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman. This book has been out for a couple of years, but it previously hadn’t interested me enough to pick it up. But then, when the pandemic hit, I was looking for something lighter to read, something that might make me laugh. And Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine delivered. This novel about a socially awkward woman learning how to open up and deal with her dark past is very funny and uplifting without being corny or overly sentimental. It was just what I needed.

The book that had been sitting on my bookcase unread for too long

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters. I can’t believe I hadn’t read this novel until this year. I bought it a few years ago, after The Paying Guests came out (the first Waters book I’ve ever read.) After reading that one, which I adored, I kept hearing Fingersmith was Waters’ real masterpiece. I picked it up at the bookstore and then just never got to it. I even read The Little Stranger in the meantime, which remains one of my favourite books ever. And yet Fingersmith sat and waited for me. And then this year, when the libraries were still closed and the bookstores weren’t open for browsing, I finally picked it up. Fingersmith is an engrossing twisty novel about petty thieves in Victorian England, and I enjoyed it immensely (but not as much as I enjoyed The Little Stranger).

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

  • Daniil and Vanya by Marie-Helene Larochelle, translated by Michelle Winters: A story about a couple who adopt twin baby boys, but the happy family they imagined doesn’t quite work out.
  • We Keep the Dead Close: A Murder at Harvard and a Half Century of Silence by Becky Cooper: A true story about the 1969 murder of a female Harvard anthropology student that remained unsolved for 40 years until Cooper first hears rumours about the murder as an undergrad. She then spends the next 10 years looking into what happened, trying to find justice for the victim.
  • Throw Down Your Shadows by Deborah Hemming: A coming-of-age story set in rural Nova Scotia about manipulation and the dark side of teenage relationships.
  • Here Is the Beehive by Sarah Crossan: A compelling novel about a lawyer who learns the client she has been having an extramarital affair with has tragically died. The story follows her as she befriends his widow as she tries to make sense of his death and of their relationship.

My 5 favourite books read in 2020

  • Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family by Robert Kolker: An incredible and true story of mental illness and a thought-provoking exploration of family. My favourite book read this year.
  • Rabbit Foot Bill by Helen Humphreys: Based on a true story, this novel is about a boy in 1940s Saskatchewan who befriends the local tramp, Rabbit Foot Bill, and witnesses him commit a violent murder.
  • Sad Janet by Lucie Britsch: A hilarious novel about being sad and basically being okay with that, even if others aren’t. A real gem.
  • Reproduction by Ian Williams: A quirky, poetic novel about an unconventional family that combines serious subject matter with humour and an experimental structure.
  • The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Daré: An impressive debut novel about a Nigerian girl who, despite being sold into marriage by her father, is determined to get an education and have her voice heard.

By the numbers

Books bought: 56% (bought new: 53%, bought used: 3%)

Books borrowed from the library: 31%

Books received as gifts: 7%

Books borrowed from friends: 6%

Books written by Canadian writers: 22%

Books published in 2020: 46%

Fiction: 82%

Non-fiction: 18%

I felt like I had read more non-fiction than in past years, but, in actuality, the number has gone down a bit. Maybe it just feels like more because the non-fiction books that I did read were so damn good. Without being able to browse in bookstores for much of the year, and with the libraries being closed for a few months, I cracked open some of the books that had been on my shelves for months or even years. That being said, almost half of what I read this year was published in 2020 (I do like my contemporary titles).

I finally accepted that it’s okay to not finish a book. I mean, I’ve not finished books in the past, but it’s never been a regular practice for me. Usually, if I am not enjoying a book, I stick with it, hoping something will pull me in. But, in 2020, I put aside more unfinished books than ever before, and I feel good about that. Sometimes the book just isn’t for me, but sometimes it’s just not the right time for that particular title. I like to think of these books as not being “left unfinished,” but more as being “put aside for now.” Sometimes a book will serve us better at a different time in our lives. I like knowing I can return to them later on, when they might be just what I need.

As always (but perhaps this year more than ever before), I am grateful for books. I am thankful for the authors who write them, the publishers who get them out into the world, the journalists and bloggers who promote them, and the bookstores and libraries who get them into the hands of us readers. I don’t know what 2021 will bring, but I am betting that whatever comes our way, books will help us get through it.

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.

That Time I Loved You shares the secrets of a suburban community

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What I read

That Time I Loved You by Carrianne Leung

What it’s about

This collection of linked stories takes place in the Toronto suburb of Scarborough in the 1970s after a spate of suicides in the community. Each story centres on one of the neighbours–adults and children–and provides a glimpse of their various experiences during this time.

Why I picked it up

I came across That Time I Loved You while browsing in my local indie bookstore. I was initially drawn by the title and cover image. Then I pulled it off the shelf and read the first sentence: “1979: This was the year the parents in my neighbourhood began killing themselves.” I didn’t need to read any further to know I was walking out of the store with this book.

What I liked about it

I didn’t realize That Time I Loved You was a book of linked stories until I got it home. (It says so in the book flap, but I guess I skimmed over that part.) Short stories and essays have been speaking to me lately. Maybe that’s because it’s summer, and it’s nice to have a book that’s easy to pick up and put down. The linked stories mean you get a book you can dip in and out of while still allowing you to immerse yourself into one group of characters, the way you can with a novel.

I loved how reading each story resembled wandering through the streets and peering through the windows of the houses, seeing who and what was inside. The reader learns about the secrets that the neighbours keep from each other. I loved the suburban setting being a character in itself–how the landscape affected the characters in different ways. I finished this book earlier this week, so it’s not incredibly strange that I’m still thinking about it. But I believe these characters and their experiences will stay with me for a long time.

These stories touch on many serious issues (racism, homophobia, sexual abuse, mental illness, alcoholism, infidelity). However, it doesn’t feel like a heavy book: There is lightness and joy and humour in these stories, too.

You’ll want to read it if…

This is a great choice if you are interested in character over plot, if you want to learn the secrets and get into the heads of the people you read about. Also, if you’re a fan of novels but want to try the short story genre, this book is a great entry point.

Recommended refreshments

A glass of spiked punch that the neighbourhood kids drink during a party in the book’s final story. (Just remember to go easy. You don’t know how much alcohol is in there.)

All We Shall Know: an emotional roller coaster you’ll want to ride

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What I read

All We Shall Know by Donal Ryan

What it’s about

Melody Shee, a 33-year-old woman, is pregnant, but the father isn’t her husband, whom she’s been with since high school. The father is Martin Toppy, the 17-year-old boy Melody has been teaching to read inside her home.

Melody’s husband has left her, and she can’t find Martin. In her search for Martin, Melody befriends a young woman named Mary Crothery, who is dealing with her own troubles. The two women develop a bond while they deal with family feuds and town gossip.

Most of this story is introspective, where the reader gets much more information from Melody than the characters do. Melody tells of the mistakes she has made leading up to the pregnancy and some of the secrets she has kept from others in her life. But Mary might be able to help Melody right some of her wrongs.

Why I picked it up

I heard about this book back in the summer, marked it on my TBR list, and then forgot about it. Browsing in the bookstore earlier this month, the spine jumped out at me. The title was familiar. I read the back cover copy and was reminded of my desire to read this one. So, of course, I bought it.

What I liked about it

At first, I was drawn in by the idea of the affair. I wanted to know what led to Melody taking advantage of her student, and I wanted to find out what would happen with her marriage. But I quickly realized there is a lot more going on in this book. I thought I had a handle on things only to discover there was more to it, reinforcing the idea that things aren’t always as they seem.

Melody isn’t exactly a likeable character. She’s made some terrible life choices and her decisions weren’t always ones I had empathy for. But she did feel believable, and I was hooked on trying to understand her decisions. At times I was shocked by the things she did, but I wanted to see her somehow redeem herself.

You’ll want to read it if…

If you like emotional roller coasters, this one’s for you. At only 180 pages, you’ll wonder how you could experience a wide range of emotions so quickly, how you could go up and down so much in such a short span of time.

This is also a great choice for readers who like to get into the psyche of characters, even if those characters aren’t necessarily people you’d like in real life.

Recommended refreshments

A cappuccino, like the ones Melody and Mary order at a cafe in town (Mary, who has never had one before, endearingly calls it a “coffacheeno”) and/or the KitKats that the two women share sitting in Melody’s kitchen one day.