The books I read in 2018

20181229_135440I’m taking a break from all of the holiday festivities to reflect on the books I read this year. While the amount of non-fiction books has gone up from the books I read in 2017 (and in 2016), I’m clearly still primarily a fiction reader…and probably always will be.

Stand-out books

The longest book I read

Skippy Dies by Paul Murray (661 pages)

The shortest book I read

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson (96 pages)

The book I expected to hate but didn’t

All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg. Why did I think I would hate it? I think it might have partly been the cover. It’s not that it’s an unattractive cover, but when I paired it with the title, I thought this was going to be a quirky story about a young woman who moves to the big city and learns to make it on her own. And I just didn’t feel like that was a story I wanted to read. But then I kept hearing how great this book was, so I decided to give it a chance. I’m so glad I did! I loved the character of Andrea and felt very connected to her.

The book I expected to love but didn’t

Census by Jesse Ball. I’d only read one book by Ball before this one (How to Set a Fire and Why). But I wanted to read this one mostly because there was a lot of buzz around it and the aspect of the father-son relationship and road trip sounded interesting. But I just couldn’t get into it. I partly blame myself for this, though, as I don’t know if I gave the book the concentration it deserved.

The book that had been on my TBR list for too long

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. I bought this more than a decade ago, when I was in university, but I never got around to it. I finally read it this year when it was selected for one of my book clubs. And, of course, I loved it and couldn’t believe I’d waited this long to read it.

The book that surprised me the most

Warlight by Michael Ondaatje. The only other Ondaatje book I’ve read is In the Skin of a Lion, which I picked up years ago. All I remember of it now is feeling confused and not enjoying it. So when I found out that Warlight was selected for book club, I wasn’t too keen to crack it open. But when I did, I was pleasantly surprised. I was immediately drawn by 14-year-old narrator Nathaniel and the mystery of his parents abandoning him and his sister, leaving them under the watch of a strange man they call “The Moth.” This wasn’t one of my favourite books that I read this year, but I did look forward to getting back to it–and it has made me more willing to pick up other Ondaatje titles.

The books with the most interesting structure

The Western Wind by Samantha Harvey and Machine Without Horses by Helen Humphreys. (I can’t choose just one.)

The Western Wind is a mystery told in reverse. The novel takes place in the 1400s in an English village after a man has drowned in the river. The story is told from the perspective of a priest as he tries to uncover whether the man has died by accident, suicide, or murder,

Machine Without Horses is a book in two parts. The first half is non-fiction, with Humphreys explaining her process of writing as she researches the life of salmon-fly dresser Megan Boyd. The second portion is the fictionalized account of Boyd’s life that Humphreys has based on her research.

The book I read at just the right time

For the Love of Mary by Christopher Meades. I bought this book last year, when the publisher, ECW Press, was having a sale. I hadn’t heard of the book before, but the marketing copy described it as a coming-of-age story that included family secrets, and that sounded like my kind of book. I didn’t read it until this summer, when I was in a bit of a reading slump and also feeling a bit down in general, and this book was hilarious and heartwarming and exactly what I needed to read at that time.

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

  • Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller (a girl returns to civilization after living in the woods for nearly a decade after being kidnapped by her survivalist father)
  • You Should Have Left by Daniel Kehlmann (a creepy novella about a screenwriter and his family renting a house for a week that may be haunted)
  • The Beloveds by Maureen Lindley (a thriller about sibling rivalry, delving into the mind of a woman whose envy of her sister is terrifying)

My 5 favourite books read in 2018

  • I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell (a memoir exploring 17 of the author’s near-death experiences)
  • Machine Without Horses by Helen Humphreys (an exploration of the life of a salmon-fly dresser and the author’s process of writing the story)
  • That Time I Loved You by Carrianne Leung (a collection of linked stories following the lives of suburban neighbours)
  • Rainbirds by Clarissa Goenawan (a man takes over his sister’s life as he tries to find out what happened to her after she was mysteriously stabbed to death)
  • The Library Book by Susan Orlean (part true crime, part memoir, and part meditation of the author’s love of libraries as she researches the 1986 fire in the Los Angeles Public Library)

By the numbers

Books bought: 53% (bought new: 48%, bought used: 5%)

Books borrowed from the library: 41%

Books received as gifts: 3%

Books won as prizes: 1.5%

Books borrowed from friends: 1.5%

Books written by Canadian writers: 30%

Books written by women: 65%

Books published in 2018: 47%

Fiction: 85%

Non-fiction: 15%

For 2019, I’d like to read some longer novels–ones I can really sink into–and I continue to want to get more into non-fiction. But, to be honest, more than anything I just want to keep reading whatever piques my interest.

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.)

Spring and summer reading: the books I want to read next

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It’s the end of May, so it’s basically already summer. For the next few months, I’ll be spending a lot of time with my books outside, sitting in a park or on a patio. Here are some of the books I plan to read.

Books released this spring or summer

Calypso by David Sedaris (May 2018)

I know when I need a laugh, David Sedaris is going pull through for me. So as soon as I heard Calypso was coming out, it went on my to-read list. As if Sedaris’ laugh-out-loud essays weren’t enough to make this suitable summertime reading, the essays in Calypso are apparently themed around Sedaris’ purchase of a beach house. So it’s kind of the perfect book to take to the beach.

Tin Man by Sarah Winman (May 2018)

The latest novel from Sarah Winman was released in the UK in 2017, and I’ve wanted to read it since I first heard rumblings about it. I’ll admit I wasn’t crazy about Winman’s last novel, but I can’t express how much I absolutely loved When God Was a Rabbit (I should really reread that book). Tin Man is about two boys who become friends at 12 years old and then the story jumps forward to many years later to examine what happened in the years in between. It’s described as “heartbreaking,” and I guess I sometimes I like it when books break my heart.

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata (June 2018)

Lately, I’ve been reading a lot of  translations of Japanese books. But I hadn’t heard about Convenience Store Woman until I saw @Booktrovert tweet about it as part of her summertime reading list. The story is about a 36-year-old woman who has worked in a convenience store in Tokyo for the past 18 years. My understanding is that it’s about societal expectations of employment and adulthood, and that it has it’s share of funny moments too.

Life in the Garden by Penelope Lively (June 2018)

I’ve recently developed more of an interest in plants and flowers. Because of this, I was looking up gardening memoirs a few weeks ago and came across Life in the Garden by Penelope Lively. Lively is British, and since the Brits use “garden” to describe what North Americans would call a “yard,” this is not exactly what I was looking for. But this sounds even better! I’m a sucker for books that are described as being part memoir and part meditation on a topic. This book is supposed to be not only a memoir about Lively’s experience with gardens, but it’s also an examination of gardens in literature. Sounds amazing!

Books that are slightly older

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway is our next pick for family book club. It’s been on my bookshelf for a while, but I’ve never read it (assigned reading in university that I never got to). I’m excited to have the push to finally crack this one open.

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami

I’ve been really into Haruki Murakami lately. After years of avoiding him because I thought his books would be too weird for my tastes, I am making up for lost time. I snagged a copy of Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World from a friend who was moving and getting rid of some books. (The bonus is that this was the Murakami title I already wanted to read next!)

Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore by Matthew Sullivan

A co-worker recently read Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore and recommended it to me. It’s about a bookstore patron who commits suicide and the bookstore employee who tries to solve the mystery left behind.

There are more books of course (there are always more books), but these are the ones I want to get to for the next little while. What are you looking forward to reading this summer?

Book clubs for readers who don’t like book clubs

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Book clubs can be a great way to read books you wouldn’t otherwise pick up, or to hear interpretations of books that are different from your own. But the traditional book club isn’t for every reader. Maybe you don’t want to read to a deadline, or maybe you find it hard to listen to someone tear apart a book that you absolutely adored.

If the traditional book club isn’t for you, but you still want to get together with other readers, here are a few ideas for different kinds of book clubs.

Book recommendations club

Get some readers together to share book recommendations (books you’re recently read or ones you read a long time ago and still think about).

#CurrentlyReading club

Gather around to discuss what each group member is reading right now (whether it’s a book you would recommend or not).

Bookish board games club

Meet in someone’s home to play a bookish board game or two. A few examples: The Great Penguin Bookchase, Bookopoly, and Paper Cuts.

Book swap

Instruct attendees to bring a book (or a few) to exchange for a book brought by another attendee. Note: This works best if you bring books you enjoyed and want to share with others, not if you are trying to get rid of books you couldn’t finish or hated.

Bookstore crawl

Get your bookish friends together to visit your favourite indie bookstores. Browse, grab that new release you have your eye on, or pick up a whole stack of new books (maybe bring a tote bag or two).

Literary event group

Check out event listings in your city for book events and organize a group to attend readings, talks, book sales, etc.

Silent reading party

Gather in a member’s home or a coffee shop/pub/park to read alone but together. This is a great option for readers who like the idea of a book club but who just want to read and not talk.

Do you have any other ideas for non-traditional book clubs?

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.