The books I read in 2019

20191230_202211

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.

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

20180715_152624

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

20180219_100631

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 books I read in 2017

20171228_155818

As 2017 comes to a close, I’m taking some time to reflect on the books I read in the past year. When I reread the post I wrote at the end of 2016, I found the percentage of Canadian books I’ve read hasn’t changed, the books I buy and the ones I borrow from the library remain pretty equal, and I’m still a sucker for a compelling coming-of-age tale. The years change but some things stay the same.

Stand-out books

The longest book I read

The Nix by Nathan Hill (737 pages)

The shortest book I read

Animal Farm by George Orwell (95 pages)

The book I expected to hate but didn’t

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. This book received so much praise that it might be surprising to hear I didn’t think I’d like it. But, the thing is, I’m not usually a fan of science fiction. I really only read this book because it was a book club selection. I didn’t totally get into the parts that take place in the future, but I was drawn in by the parts that occur in modern day. Above all, I loved the connection between characters over the different time periods.

The book I expected to love but didn’t

Smile by Roddy Doyle. I liked this book more at the beginning, but, as it went on, I was disappointed in the direction it took and I found the end somewhat predictable.

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

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. I first read Plath’s poetry when I was a brooding teen and I’ve continued to turn to her poems throughout my adult life. But I never got around to reading her novel The Bell Jar until this year. I had a dream that I came across a copy in a used bookstore. Later that week, I was in a used bookstore and, without looking for the book, I found myself face to face with The Bell Jar. I took it as a sign that it was time to read this book, and I’m so glad I did.

The book that surprised me the most

Bellevue Square by Michael Redhill. I put this book on hold at the library when it was longlisted for the Giller Prize. I was intrigued by the premise of a woman trying to meet her doppelgänger, but I wasn’t totally sure I’d get into it. A few days after the book won the Giller, my hold arrived. The entire time I was reading this book, I kept thinking WTF? And yet I thoroughly enjoyed it. I definitely wasn’t expecting this book to have so much going on.

The book that gave me a life lesson when I wasn’t expecting one

Clothes, Clothes, Clothes, Music, Music, Music, Boys, Boys, Boys by Viv Albertine. I hadn’t heard any music by The Slits before, but I wanted to read the autobiography of the band’s lead guitarist because I wanted to hear the perspective of a female musician during the ’70s punk era. I didn’t expect to get some general life advice that I’ve found myself returning to.

In a section of the book where Albertine discusses trying to say yes to more opportunities in her life, she also mentions that sometimes the best thing is to “say yes to nothing.” Sometimes none of the options available to us are good for us. “If your choice is either the wrong thing or nothing, however frightened you are, you’ve got to take nothing.” I don’t know if that will make as much sense without the context of the rest of the book, but it’s something that really hit home for me.

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

My 5 favourite books read in 2017

By the numbers

Books I bought: 45% (bought new: 40%, bought used: 5%)

Books borrowed from the library: 47%

Books received as gifts: 3%

Books borrowed from friends or family: 5%

Books written by Canadian writers: 35%

Books written by women: 63%

Books written by men: 37%

Books published in 2017: 44%

Fiction: 90%

Non-fiction: 10%

Lessons learned

Sometimes the buzz is warranted, but sometimes it’s just noise.

I am guilty of buying into the hype. I won’t read just any book that gets a 5-star review, but if the premise sounds interesting the title gets a lot of praise, too often I’ll get excited, thinking the book will change my life or something. And of course that isn’t being fair–to me or to the book. I still plan to read book reviews and turn to social media to find out about new books, but I also want to make more of an effort to find those titles that aren’t getting that kind of attention. I love it when I pick up a book at the bookstore or library on a whim and find an absolute gem. I want more of that.

Don’t dismiss an entire genre.

Of course I’ve always known this in theory, but I do have a bad habit of seeing a book categorized as a certain genre and deciding it’s not for me. But this year I read some science fiction and horror–genres I tend to avoid–and found that I liked some of these books. So I’m going to try to give more genres a chance.

It doesn’t matter how long it takes to read a book.

Sometimes I feel a bit guilty if it takes me longer than usual to finish a book, especially if it is a book I really enjoy. But I’ve been trying to remind myself that I’ve got other things going on, too. Some weeks, I have more time to read, and other weeks, I end up being more social or busy with other interests. There’s nothing wrong with being a reader who does things other than read.