It’s that time of year again. Time for the best books of the year. It’s been a bit more challenging this year because my amazing gig as a book reviewer for the local paper came to an end late last fall—they fired all of us to save costs. Not that they ever paid any of us…but I digress.
This year I’ve made use of the public library, Little Free Libraries around my neighbourhood (https://littlefreelibrary.org/) , our beloved Words Worth books (http://www.wordsworthbooks.com/), the occasional Kobo book, and my favourite—abebooks.com—which is fantastic for finding out of print books as well as great deals on books.
But without further ado, let’s move on to the countdown of my top 10 books of 2016:
10 Number ten is not so much a book as an author. I think I’ve mentioned before that when my life is stressful, I turn to murder mysteries. My theory is that the appeal of them at stressful times is that things get wrapped up in the end. This is not always true in real life, so murder mysteries—which I’ve also heard of as disposable because once you’ve read it, you’re unlikely to go back and reread it—have an appeal during difficult times. This year, I stumbled upon a prolific author of murder mysteries I quite enjoyed: Robert Barnard. Barnard only died a few years ago but he was a clear fan of Agatha Christie and Charlotte Bronte, so his style is an older one. The quality of his books is quite variable (I suggest the library) but the good ones are well worth the read, and the characters stayed with me long after I finished the books. Even the ones I didn’t enjoy as much are most definitely worth reading. I was impressed that in his 40+ books, there is no formula and no same old-same old to them. I also read a couple of his books of short stories—and really did not enjoy them. The short stories were far darker and more sardonic than the novels.
9 The Broken Way by Ann Voskamp. Ann Voskamp is known as the New York Times bestselling author of faith-based book One Thousand Gifts, in which she explores gratitude. I will be honest that I am not even finished this second book of hers, but I’m enjoying it even more. In The Broken Way, Voskamp looks at how God uses brokenness and how we don’t have to have it all together. It’s an honest and beautiful book, with a more accessible reading style than her previous book. I recommend this one to you, mostly even if you are a person of faith but perhaps even if you aren’t.
8 Hope Makes Love – Can former major league baseball player make his ex-wife fall back in love with him? He hires neuroscientist Hope to try to do so. The title might suggest chick lit or something like it but it is anything but—and by the end, the reader understands this perfect title on so many levels. There’s humour and pathos mixed together, especially as we learn more about each character. I stayed up one night until 2 am because I could not put this book down. I highly recommend this book by Canadian writer, Trevor Cole.
7 The Confessions of X by Susanne M Wolfe. I met Wolfe’s husband (Gregory Wolfe is the publisher and editor of Image Journal) at an arts conference he hosted a decade ago. This year, I heard that Susanne had a novel out and I knew I wanted to read it. Wolfe inhabits the voice of the concubine-wife of Augustine, and titles her book after Augustine’s Confessions. This woman is mentioned in Augustine’s book but is never named—nor is she named here. The prose is luminous and the character compelling in her love and humanity. A very strong read.
6 A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles – The book I am currently writing is set, in part, in Moscow, so when I heard about this new novel, I was interested in it. The book begins in 1922 with Count Alexander Rostov being sentenced for his aristocracy by the Bolsheviks to house arrest in the Metropol, a grand hotel across from the Kremlin—for the rest of his life. How he does so is traced over the next thirty years by a masterful writer. The book is both charming and meaningful at the same time, and ultimately is a delightfully hopeful book filled with wonderful characters. Rostov spends his time in exile figuring out what it means to be a “man of purpose” and how to do so under sometimes difficult conditions. In a word, the book is enchanting.
5 The Most Beautiful House in the World by Witold Rybczynski. The book I am writing has to do with building a home for oneself, and an architect friend put me onto Canadian architect/writer Rybczynski. This book details Rybczynski’s building of his own home—he says, “The most beautiful house in the world is the one that you build for yourself.” The book is non-fiction and the author weaves in history about architecture in a compelling way, but ultimately it is an examination of home-building even more than house-building. The book won’t be for everyone but this is a strong author for those who like to think about the effect of place on people.
4 Memoirs of a Geisha – This book by Arthur Golden is nearly 20 years old, although it has been described as a “runaway bestseller” when it was published. Here’s the thing: I was nearly halfway into this book before I discovered—and I hesitate to say this to you now—that it was fiction. The book rings true, even though I had no idea of the world of geishas in Japan before and after the second world war. This is one of those books where the reader is clearly in the hands of a master storyteller from beginning to end ( A Gentleman in Moscow is another) and I loved it.
3 The Kindness of Enemies by Leila Aboulela – This book captivated me. It does for Islam what I would hope to do for Christianity: create real characters of faith in extraordinary situations. This book offers two stories –a present-day one in Scotland where a young Muslim man is arrested as a suspected terrorist, and the story of Imam Shamil, the 19th century Muslim leader who led the anti-Russian resistance in the Caucasian War. I rate this book so highly, and read others by the same author this year, even though I didn’t find the present-day story anywhere near as compelling as the 19th century one. The story of Imam Shamil and the young woman he captures as a hostage are worth the price of this book. This is a passionate story about who we are and what we will do for what we believe in. Its title shows the complicated nature of enemies and allies. Oh, it is a beautiful book.
2 Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life by Richard Rohr. I began reading this book, a birthday gift I requested, on the evening of my 47th birthday, during a rainstorm. It was not the lightning that made the hair stand up on the back of my neck, so much as the thought, early on, that I was potentially (and if I am fortunate) at the exact halfway point of my life—which is precisely what this book is about. Rohr, a Franciscan friar, writes well about a deeper spirituality and the new questions that arise at midlife: what looks like life falling apart, he argues, may be exactly life falling upward in a much more profound way. This is a book of contemplation and requires contemplative reading. I have already returned to it again and again. I’m not sure it is a book for people under 40 but it is definitely for the rest of us.
1 Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain. Late last winter, I took on a work project that was far more than any person should ever take on. The work was brutal and relentless. One evening I took a break and turned on Netflix. I had just finished Downton Abbey a few months before, and so when I saw a World War I drama called Testament of Youth, I decided to watch it. The movie was luminous, following the story of a young woman who desperately wants the opportunities for higher education that her upper class world wants to deny her—only to have the opportunity granted when the war breaks out. After so many of the young men she loves—fraternally, platonically and romantically—are killed, she becomes a nurse through the remainder of the war. At the end of the movie, it was revealed that the story was a true one and was based on the main character’s real 1933 memoir of the same name. Despite my relentless schedule, I read Vera’s memoir and felt I was in the war with her, in a sense. This is a deeply passionate book, a deeply sorrowful book and a deeply hopeful book. Vera Brittain was an ardent feminist and eventually an ardent pacifist. Her daughter is long-serving British politician Shirley Williams. Years ago, I read the LM Montgomery book Rilla of Ingleside and heard it described as largely unique because it told the story of the war on the home front. Vera Brittain did not stay at home but she offers a unique perspective on war that speaks profoundly to our time as well as her own. This is a thick and long book but it was one that spoke to me more than any other this year.
How about you? I’d love to hear your recommendations for good reads.