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.

The sweet taste of The Ghost Orchard by Helen Humphreys

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What I read

The Ghost Orchard by Helen Humphreys

What it’s about

The Ghost Orchard‘s subtitle is The Hidden History of the Apple in North America. It’s not that this subtitle is inaccurate, but it doesn’t cover everything the book is about. Sure, Humphreys delves into details about the history of the fruit (which is much more fascinating than I expected), but the book is also partly a memoir.

Humphreys was inspired to write this book when she found the White Winter Pearmain variety growing near her home. At the same time, a friend of hers was in the process of dying.

In The Ghost Orchard, Humphreys starts with the apple but moves beyond it, creating a book about relationships, friendship, art and the human connection with nature.

Why I picked it up

I’ve read several of Humphreys’ books (I’ve also written about Wild Dogs), and so far I have liked everything I’ve read. There was a good chance I was going to pick this one up at some point. While browsing in the bookstore at IFOA this year, I saw The Ghost Orchard and read the first couple of pages. Sucked in by Humphreys’ writing style, I bought the book that evening.

What I liked about it

The book is broken up into five main sections, and one of these sections is about Robert Frost. Frost is one of my favourite poets, so I sort of expected to like this part as soon as I saw the heading. This section beautifully described Frost’s personal relationship with apples as well as his close friendship with poet Edward Thomas.

There is also a section on the United States Department of Agriculture watercolour artists. Here, Humphreys tells of the lives of the artists who used to paint apples before photographers ran them out of jobs. She also brings in stories of her grandfather, who used to paint pictures of plants for seed catalogues. It’s a job I’d never thought of, and I appreciated these stories of art and artists.

But the main thing I liked about this book is what I like about all of Humphreys’ books: her gorgeous prose. She writes so beautifully. It’s no surprise that she is not only a non-fiction writer and a novelist, but also a poet.

You’ll want to read it if…

Readers who will enjoy The Ghost Orchard the most are ones who like nature, or at least have an appreciation for it. It’s for readers who might be intrigued by the history of the apple, but who are even more fascinated by people and human relationships. And if you’re looking to develop more of an appreciation for agriculture, this might do the trick, too.

Recommended refreshments

This is too obvious. However, venture outside of your local grocery store to get your apples! For the ultimate refreshment, visit an orchard. Pick your apples off a tree! I must agree with Humphreys and Henry David Thoreau: The apple tastes best when it’s eaten outdoors.

(I know; it’s getting cold. A mug of hot apple cider while reading by the fire is also a good option.)

Little Fires Everywhere should be your next book club pick

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What I read

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

What it’s about

Little Fires Everywhere begins with a house fire and then reveals the series of events leading up to it. The events centre around two families: the Richardsons and the Warrens.

After years of moving from town to town, artist Mia Warren and her teenaged daughter, Pearl, arrive in to Shaker Heights, a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio, where they intend to set roots. They rent a home from the Richardsons, whose four teenaged children quickly befriend Pearl. But when an adoption case involving people close to both families forces the entire town to pick sides, Mrs. Richardson digs into her tenant’s past to find out just who she is renting to.

This novel will give you a lot to think about, as it examines themes such as race and class, secrets within families, motherhood, and suburban life.

Why I picked it up

It’s hard to remember where I first heard about Little Fires Everywhere. I’ve come across this title in several online lists and articles and have seen it all over social media, too. But I was curious to read it because I’ve also read Ng’s impressive debut novel, Everything I Never Told You. I picked up a copy at Book City’s Bloor West location.

What I liked about it

I loved how real the characters felt, especially the teenagers. Pearl and the Richardson children (Trip, Lexie, Moody and Izzy) are such distinct people with their own strengths, weaknesses and desires. I felt empathy for each of them at different points and for different reasons. And I was impressed that Ng could write a novel that deals with big ideas and themes and could connect them so beautifully. There were some elements of mystery in this book that had me hooked, too (the origin of the fire, Mia’s past). It was difficult to put this novel down, but it felt like such a treat whenever I could steal a moment to get back to it.

You’ll want to read it if…

Little Fires Everywhere will appeal to readers who like novels with realistic characters and some element of mystery. It’s also a good choice for readers interested in family dynamics and mother-daughter relationships in particular. This novel would make an excellent book club pick. I suspect it would initiate some interesting discussion.

Recommended refreshments

Leftover Chinese food, like the rice and sweet-and-sour pork rice Mia brings home after her shifts working at Lucky Palace.