This has been an exciting year of reading for me. For the first time ever, I kept a list of the books I read. The year began with a book I listed only as “stupid Jane Austen takeoff” and ended with one of my favourite books of all time. I read at least 64 books. I discovered and devoured three mystery series. I read newly published books and old chestnuts—both of which made my top 10 list. As I look through the long list of books I read, there are books that were good enough to make that top 10 but didn’t—it’s been that rich of a year of reading. I read, for instance, Go Set a Watchman – and was one of very few reviewers who actually really enjoyed the book, although more as a book that requires a coming of age for readers of To Kill a Mockingbird than as something brilliant.
What was most exciting to me this year in this list of books was that there were books that literally changed how I read, that demanded within their structure to be read a certain way. That feels remarkable. I read through the three mystery series the way one reads mysteries: devouring them the way you do a bowl full of potato chips. But there were three books on the list that made me read differently.
There’s sad reading news, too: for the last five or so years, I’ve been part of what I call The Book of the Week Club, where I review books for our local paper, The Record. I have been paid in review copies of books, some I might never have otherwise read. With the retirement of the books editor this month, the paper has decided to review its book page, likely having the reviews come either from a newswire or at least a more central group of reviewers. I’m sorry to see that happen both for readers and reviewers.
But without further ado, on to the list. My numbering system – other than the top two or three books—is pretty much random. Assume all 10 books are great, not that 7 is worse than 5.
10. S by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst – This was the first book that made me read differently. Abrams, the creator of Lost, had an idea for a book and worked with writer Doug Dorst to develop it. The premise is somewhat complicated: The book itself is a dark and somewhat boring book called The Ship of Theseus but it appears to be a copy that has been marked up with marginal notes by two different readers, who have also stuck bits and pieces – letters, maps, postcards, etc – into the pages of the book. In fact the entire creation (book, marginal notes and ephemera) has been composed by Abrams and Dorst in an elaborate story within a story. I first heard about this book when a friend on social media asked if anyone knew how to read the book – the marginal conversation notes take place between two characters who read the book multiple times, with some notes being newer than others. A thorough reading might involve reading The Ship of Theseus straight through, then reading the first set of notes through and then the second set after that, reading the bits and pieces as it seemed appropriate. Perhaps people have invested in the book to that degree. I found myself drawn to the marginal notes and abandoning the original novel itself. I’m not sure the idea is entirely realized but it was innovative and enjoyable enough to merit making it to this list. It becomes a kind of love letter to books and words – and the notes we collect and keep. In a digital age, this book celebrates artifacts. I borrowed my copy from the public library and would recommend that approach to this creative reading experience.
9. The Life and Culinary Times of Sir John A. Macdonald by Lindy Mechefske — It turns out that our first Prime Minister was quite a foodie—food author Mechefske deftly weaves in Macdonald’s culinary history to his political and personal history, from the simplest of Scottish fare early in Macdonald’s life to more exotic and glamorous meals later on. Each chapter ends with a recipe taken from an early Canadian source, many of which could be reproduced today. In my review of this book, I said, “This book is eminently readable—would that all history were written like this!—and interesting, offering both the clearest example of 19th century Canadian politics and very human insights into a very human architect of our country.” This is a small, quirky and highly enjoyable book.
8. The Story of Owen by E.K. Johnston – Johnston is a local writer who writes about locations familiar to many southwestern Ontario readers with one critical element added to revise everything: in this alternate reality there are dragons. The dragons are drawn most especially to carbon—cars, factories, bonfires—but they don’t hesitate to polish off people or to destroy everything in their wake. This young adult novel is brilliant, witty and extremely well told. The book is not what the reader might expect in any way, whether the expectation has to do with dragon stories, or teenaged protagonists. It’s a story about community and friendship, sacrifice and finding a place in the world. It’s also a story about how we tell stories, the various versions of reality we present to various audiences. Highly recommended. (PS there’s a sequel!)
7. High Tide in Tucson by Barbara Kingsolver – This book is not new but somehow despite the fact that Kingsolver is who I would like to be when I grow up, I missed reading this book of essays before. Kingsolver wrote this book in 1995 when she was quite young and her insights into writing, nature and humanity are just breathtakingly lovely, at turns passionate and humourous. It made me wish that I could sit down with her over a cup of coffee even if I never could be her.
6. The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton – This summer I decided I needed to read some classics I had missed reading before. Some of the classics felt dated or just didn’t appeal to me, but not so The Age of Innocence. The word I would use to best describe this book is exquisite. It’s a stunning portrait of New York City high society in its Gilded Age, a world Wharton herself knew well. This was a book that enveloped me in its world and characters, with their constraining conventions inhibiting but never destroying their passions. Apparently the 1993 film adaptation, starring Daniel Day Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer and Winona Ryder, was well received but even watching a trailer of the movie convinced me that it could never live up to the subtle brilliance of this novel, for which Wharton became the first female winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1921.
5. The Singing Sands by Josephine Tey – I used to say that I read murder mysteries only when my life became out of control—mysteries had the comfort of a solution by the end of them, unlike much of life—but in the last few years, either my life has fully spun out of control or I have learned to appreciate mysteries for their own merits. This year I enjoyed three series of mysteries: the Guido Brunetti mysteries of Donna Leon which are set in Venice and are both terrific and still being written; Sicilian writer Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano novels which I actually don’t really recommend as they are fairly crude, reflecting the underbelly of an area of Italy dominated by corruption and Mafia; the novels of Josephine Tey. I discovered Tey in an article about the Golden Age of the detective novel. The article referenced Agatha Christie, of course, and Dorothy Sayers and Ngaio Marsh, all of whom I had read extensively—but it called Tey something like the queen of the genre. I had never heard of her before but I headed off to the library to discover her books. Her canon is small—only nine novels—but while all of these books involve the same world of characters, they are remarkably unique, lacking the murder mystery’s formula. English murder mysteries, I have come to see, often have a flawed or wounded detective in them—think Lord Peter Wimsey’s shellshock. Tey’s lovely Inspector Alan Grant is more human than most in that in some books he is very capable and robust while in others he struggles with mental and physical health issues as an occupational hazard. The book I chose to include on this last falls into the latter category: to his enormous chagrin and frustration, Grant has become claustrophobic and takes a medical leave of absence to attempt to recover. Of course, on the train to his beloved Scotland, he discovers a body, but his involvement in the case and his parallel recovery are anything but formulaic and at times have a lyrical quality to them. If you have never read Tey’s books, I urge you to do so. My only disappointment was to reach the end of her books far too quickly.
4. Awakening at Midlife by Kathleen A. Brehony – This year I turned 46 and my oldest child graduated from high school. I found myself exploring issues about midlife in my own writing and journal writing—as well as in my daily life – and so I thought I would do a bit of reading on the topic. I was fortunate and deeply happy to discover Brehony’s writing. A licensed psychologist and Jungian psychotherapist, Brehony approaches midlife as an important stage in adult development, noting that we are wrong as a culture to believe that the end of adolescence involves the end of personality development. So much of this book resonated with me and elevated the struggles and challenges people face at this time of life—in a way that was so opposite to popular culture’s description of a midlife crisis as involving fast cars and tattoos. The book won’t be for everyone but I found it deeply insightful.
3. The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow – As readers of my annual list will know, Erin Bow is a writer in my writers group as well as being internationally acclaimed for her powerful, intelligent young adult novels. I’ve had the privilege to read this book from its earliest drafts to its final spectacular published version. I say that all of her novels are terrific, whip-smart, tremendously dark but still hopeful, and laugh-out-loud-funny, but this particular book is one that makes me fangirl her writing. The Scorpion Rules is set in a world where the children of world leaders are hostaged together with their lives being forfeit if their countries go to war. This world is run by Talis, an artificial intelligence who is perhaps the best character you will read in fiction this year or even decade. Trust me on this one and get it for your kids or for yourself. It’s a great read—with a strong sequel in the works.
2. The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone – In a normal year, this would be my favourite book of all. It still could be. It was the bestselling book in the year of its publication (1961) despite being a massive 776 pages long. The book is a biographical novel of Michelangelo, lovingly researched by Stone who not only had all of Michelangelo’s nearly 500 letters translated and read extensively from the many biographies of the artist, but also lived in Italy and learned to sculpt stone from a Canadian sculptor. As I read this book, it felt like a neverending story in the very best way. The book begins with a 13 year old Michelangelo and traces in great detail the rest of his life. It is the opposite of a thriller and has no narrative arc to it. Instead, as a reader, I felt as though I was living a parallel life as I climbed into bed each night and read a bit more of Michelangelo’s life. I found everything about the book fascinating and most especially both his passion for sculpture and the agonies and ecstasies he faced particularly at the hands of his patrons. The insights into the artistic life—both its process and the challenges of supporting an artistic life—are remarkable. I did not want this book to end. It was a library book I picked up serendipitously from the same shelf as a book I planned to take out, but it is one I can see buying and reading and re-reading often.
1. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel – I read this novel in May and declared then that this would be the best book I would read all year—and, with the possible exception of the Michelangelo book—it absolutely was. Technically, this is a science fiction book but please, please don’t let that put you off reading it. My warning about the book, however, is not to read it if you are getting sick (as I did) or if you are on a plane. The book begins with the start of a massive, global pandemic which wipes out 99% of the world’s population in a stunningly short time, and then picks up twenty years later with the tiny percentage of the population that has survived. As you might imagine, the beginning of the book is fast-paced as crises tend to be. I read it at that same pace. What intrigued me most about this book was that once the dust settled, and the world as we know it ground to a halt, many of the people and events glossed over in those first few pages of the book were revisited. I found myself going back to those first pages and paying much more attention to what happened and what was said than I did on my first read. And that was the supreme value of this book: it forces the reader to pay attention and to have a sense of wonder and appreciation for things that are or could be potentially ephemeral. What is further interesting is the fact that where most books celebrate the loss of the beauties of the natural world, this book honours lost technology and culture, showing us the near-miracle that is air travel, email, telephone, film, antibiotics, etc. The reader will find herself or himself paying attention to tools we too often take for granted. One of the fascinating issues in this book is the question of what survives: this can refer to the people who survive the pandemic but also the artefacts. Much of the later world of the book centres around The Traveling Symphony, a Shakespearean company of actors whose motto comes from a line in Star Trek: because survival is insufficient. Other bits and pieces of culture survive and come to play significant roles in the story. This is neither a gory apocalyptic book nor a hopeless book, despite its dark subject. It affirms culture and humanity and new life. I hope you will read it.
Let me know what your favourites for the year are–and what you think of these books too.