Top Ten Books of 2016

Watch the video above to hear me talk about my favourite books of the year, find out about my upcoming book-related podcast, and throw your name in for a chance to win one of my favourite books of 2016. There’s a little more analysis in the post below:

It’s list-making time again! In 2016 I read (give or take a few I may have forgotten to record, and not including some re-reads of old favourites) 69 books. For a little breakdown into further categories, those 70 books included:

Fiction: 50
Non-fiction: 20

Books by women: 41
Books by men: 29

So my innate prejudices are still holding, but I am making some effort to redress the balance (not nearly enough non-fiction this year, though).

70 is a low-number reading year for me — I usually read over 80 — but, in addition to the fact that I spent some time re-reading an old favourite series, my new reading was slowed a few times this year by books or series I got bogged down in and read very slowly. Sometimes this was because, while the subject matter was interesting and well-written, the style of the book was just a long, slow read (Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton took me much of the summer to get through). In one case it was a six-book series that was fascinating and wonderful but so richly layered and densely written that I couldn’t race through it (Dorothy  Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles). In only one case it was due to books that I just couldn’t get into but persisted with anyway (the first two of Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series. I gave the first book of the series a kind of “OK, I guess” review here, slogged through the second, but finally gave up on the third, realizing I didn’t actually care that much how things turned out for the characters).

The video above gives a little more detail about each of my Top Ten choices, which are:

10. Hamilton: The Revolution, by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter
9. The Summer Before the War, by Helen Simonson
8. The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead
7. The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell
6. Children of Earth and Sky, by Guy Gavriel Kay
5. Born to Run, by Bruce Springsteen
4. Hungry Heart, by Jennifer Weiner
3. Checkmate (and the rest of the series!), by Dorothy Dunnet
2. The Wonder, by Emma Donoghue
1. The Opposite of Everyone, by Joshilyn Jackson

Interesting point (true of several past years): my reading list shows a definite bias towards books by women, but my best-of list is often, as this year, evenly balanced between male and female writers. I think this is because “novels by women” are so much my default reading, that I tend to pick them up without being too critical — I’ll read novels by women based on a single recommendation or just an attractive cover. With male writers I’m far less willing to take chances, so a man’s book has to either be very highly recommended, or by an author I already know and trust well — thus the fewer books by male authors I read, have a higher probability of being books I’ll really like (Brandon Sanderson very much the exception here as it turns out). Of course, I don’t analyze all this consciously while I’m buying and reading; I do it unconsciously and analyze it after the fact. That’s what the blog is for.

 

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The Memory of Us, by Camille di Maio

memoryofusThe Memory of Us is a historical novel loosely inspired by the Beatles’ song Eleanor Rigby. Beginning in late 1930s Liverpool, the novel tells the story of Julianne Westcott and Kyle McCarthy, divided by religion and social class but united by love. Their star-crossed romance unfolds over several decades as Kyle’s vocation to become  a Catholic priest, and Julianne’s family’s desire for her to make a socially advantageous marriage to a wealthy man, clash with the obvious attraction between the two. Then war intervenes and takes both their lives in a direction no-one — including this reader — expects.

I found the characters and their love story compelling, believable and (sometimes) sad. The historical setting was a bit more uneven for me. I know the author is a devout Catholic and I feel that her knowledge of chuch culture, even in another country and era, rang true. However, she’s also a modern American woman, and often the voice that comes through — whether it’s Julianne’s voice as a first-person narrator, or the voices of various characters in dialogue — sounds more like a modern American voice than like an Englishwoman of the 1930s. Dialogue in historical fiction is very hard to do correctly; all of us writers who attempt to travel to the past struggle with it. Though I felt the dialogue was the weakest point in The Memory of Us, it didn’t stop me from reading the novel in a couple of sittings and getting very immersed in the characters and their story. I’m expecting more historical fiction from Camille DiMaio in future and I will definitely be checking out her other work.

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The Witches of New York, by Ami McKay

witchesWhen I think about witches in history and historical fiction, I think, of course, of the Salem witch trials, and of women of that era in both Europe and the New World accused of witchcraft — often for nothing more sinister than living alone, or having a working knowledge of herbal medicine. Ami McKay’s new novel takes us into witches in a different world — 1890s New York City, where women’s ancient knowledge intersects with the fascination for spiritualism in late 19th-century New York to produce a trio of memorable women, the titular witches of New York.

Adelaide is a medium who passes on messages from the dead; she shares a storefront and living quarters with Eleanor, who practices traditional “witch” knowledge handed down from her mother. Into their lives, in response to a newspaper ad, comes young Beatrice, new to the city and looking for adventure, who turns out to have the abilit to see dead people. Together the three women face prejudice and misunderstanding and try to forge out a tiny space for witches in a rapidly modernizing world. 

I categorized this book both as historical fiction but also as fantasy, since it has elements that I would describe as a sort of urban fantasy — that is, the “witchcraft” elements of the story are real within the world of the story, so inexplicable and mysterious things do occur, and are not explained away rationally. This requires the reader to suspend disbelief, entering into the world of the story’s characters and believing what they believe.

All three women are engaging, well-drawn characters (Adelaide has been previously introduced to us under another name, Moth, as a young girl in McKay’s novel The Virgin Cure). They are survivors, strong and indomitable in world that wants to force women into a more compliant mold. Characters and setting are the strengths of this story — the plot, I thought, stumbled in a few places, perhaps because there are many characters in addition to the three witches and many plot threads, some of which seemed to me to be resolved a little too easily and others left dangling without any resolution at all. In spite of these dropped threads, the overall tapestry of this story was rich and enjoyable.

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Found Far and Wide, by Kevin Major

Layout 1Years ago, I noticed the interesting fact that one of Newfoundland’s greatest maritime disasters — the great sealing disaster of 1914, in which nearly 80 men perished when stranded out on the ice for two nights — occurred in 1914, a few months before World War One started and hundreds of Newfoundland young men went overseas, many to die in the trenches on the Western Front. I wondered if any men who were survivors of the sealing disaster subsequently went off to fight and die in the war, and thought of how interesting it would be to write about a character whose life intersected with both these events.

In fact, the life of Kevin Major’s main character in Found Far and Wide, Sam Kennedy, touches not just on these two events, but also on the 1920s era of Newfoundlanders working on the high steel in New York City, run-running during the US Prohibition years, and Sir Wilfred Grenfell’s work in Northern Newfoundland and Labrador. Sam’s a bit of a Newfoundland Forrest Gump in that sense, on the scene for so many key events of our history, but he’s no happy-go-lucky schumck like Gump. Sam’s a pretty intense guy, and it’s sometimes hard to get a handle on what motivates him. The events he lives through and experiences are depicted in vivid and memorable detail (I especially liked that the war experience we see up-close through Sam’s eyes is not the Battle of Beaumont Hamel, which has been written about so much by Newfoundland writers including Major himself in other works, but the earlier and lesser-known Gallipoli battle). The man himself, at the heart of these great occurrences, remains a bit of an enigma — perhaps to himself as much as to the reader.

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Buffering, by Hannah Hart

bufferingI bought Buffering as a Christmas gift for my teenage daughter and read the book in a day or so before wrapping it to give to her. Then she unwrapped it and read the whole book on Christmas day, so it’s safe to say it’s a very engaging read.

Hannah Hart is a YouTube star of whom my daughter is a big fan. I’ve been slower to come round to loving her; I’ve always liked her warm, frank, funny persona in her videos, but because she has so many young teenage fans, I’ve always been leery of the fact that her main channel is called “My Drunk Kitchen” (yes, it involves her cooking while slightly tipsy) because I feel like it normalizes alcohol use for teens. So I’ve seen (and I guess still see) Hannah Hart having a bit of a mixed message as a role model for young girls, which I think is a by-product of the fact that a lot of today’s young YouTube stars never set out to be role models. They started doing things online that they and their friends found fun and interesting (Hart made her first “Drunk Kitchen” video as a joke to cheer up a depressed friend), and along the way acquired legions of fans, many quite young, who look up to and admire them.

Buffering is a very well-written, frank memoir about Hannah Hart’s own life and her coming to terms with the weirdness of internet celebrity. She grew up in an environment that include a toxic mix of conservative religion (Jehovah’s Witnesses, mainly her father and stepmother), mental illness (her mother), neglect and outright abuse. It’s a pretty horrific story, very matter-of-factly told. As you read through Hart’s account of a very challenging childhood and adolescence, her coming out as lesbian, and her stumble into online stardom, it’s hard not to like this warm, confused, honest young woman — even if you might wish she would cook more and drink less when your kids are watching.

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Waiting for First Light, by Romeo Dallaire

waitingRomeo Dallaire’s memoir about surviving not just the Rwandan genocide (in his incredibly frustrating role as commander of the UN forces there), but living with the ravages of PTSD for the 20 years after Rwanda, is not an easy read. But it is a compelling one, and a necessary one. Dallaire intersperses his story of trauma and survival with brief chapters that flash back, as his own memories do, to the horrors of the genocide.

Dallaire is unsparing and scathing in discussing some of the things that contributed to his struggle, particularly as concerns institutions and their blind spots — the U.N., the Canadian Armed Forces, the Canadian government and its treatment of veterans. He is much more cautious when writing about individuals, especially his own family. He and his wife remain married after all these struggles, but lived apart for many years after Rwanda — ostensibly due to Daillaire’s work and his wife’s desire to raise the kids in the same community they had grown up in, but it’s clear that his PTSD put a huge strain on marriage and family life, and I actually respect that every didn’t write a tell-all memoir exposing a lot of personal information about his wife and kids — these are really people he loves, and I’m glad he showed some discretion there. The one person Dallaire is truly unsparing in writing about — even moreso than, say, the Department of Veterans’ Affairs — is himself. While recognizing that he suffered terribly, he also acknowledges that in dealing with that suffering he made many poor choices and hurt others as well as himself.

Dallaire’s hope in writing this book was to shed light on the struggles with PTSD that so many of our modern veterans experience, and I can’t imagine it will fail to do so. This is a very compelling book.

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Art Love Forgery, by Carolyn Morgan

artloveforgeryCarolyn (no relation) Morgan’s first novel, Art Love Forgery, illuminates a little-known true story from Newfoundland history, embellished with details from the author’s imagination.

The facts: a European artist named Alexander Pindikowsky painting murals on the ceiling of the governor’s mansion in St. John’s, in the 1880s. Pindikowsky was in prison at the time for forging cheques, and was permitted to reduce the term of his sentence by carrying out artwork for the governor — under guard, of course. At some point, Pindikowsky married and had a daughter with a Newfoundland woman named Ellen Dormody. Little is known beyond that, but you can see how that would be more than enough to pique a novelist’s imagination and get her itching to create the rest of the story.

In fact, author Carolyn Morgan has only recently come to fiction, having been for most of her career a visual artist. Her background not only explains her knowledge of and interest in Pindikowsky’s story; it also shines through in the lovingly detailed descriptions, not only of Pindikowsky’s murals but also of Ellen’s millinery creations, and most tellingly, the process of creation for both characters. For a story that takes a little-known oddity of local history and fleshes it out into a story with fully rounded characters and period detail, Art Love Forgery is a great read.

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