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.)

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 books I read in 2017

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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.

 

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.)