James Acaster’s Classic Scrapes, by James Acaster

classicscrapesJames Acaster is my daughter’s favourite comedian, and she asked for this book of his “scrapes” — hilarious/ridiculous incidents allegedly culled from his real life — for Christmas. After picking up her copy to read a little bit I was convinced I had to get this as an audiobook, because with comedians, their own voice almost always makes it better. If you like James Acaster, you have to read (or better yet, hear) this book, and if you’ve never heard of him, you have to check him out. He’s one of my favourites too.

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The Dark Lady’s Mask, by Mary Sharratt

darkladysmaskAnother excellent foray into the late 16th/early 17th century with Mary Sharratt. This novel takes a real woman — Aemilia Bassano, daughter of an Italian musician at the court of Elizabeth I and a musician and poet in her own right. Bassano had an eventful life even based on the historical evidence available (which, as always for women in past eras, leaves a lot of gaps), which culminated in her being the first English woman to publish a book of her own poetry under her own name. However, the novel goes beyond that, to explore the theory that she might also have been the “Dark Lady” of Shakespeare’s sonnets — not only a friend and lover of the Bard but also a collaborator in some of his plays.

Sharratt points out quite clearly in her Afterward that the identification of Bassano as the “Dark Lady” is a very controversial theory that most scholars do not think at all likely, and admits she chose it simply because it makes a great story — which of course is the liberating joy of writing historical fiction: to be able to choose the version that makes the best story. She certainly creates a memorable character in Aemilia Bassano and believable relationships not just with Shakespeare but with many other people in her life (mostly real historical characters, but also some great fictional ones such as her maids, the three Weir sisters, who might have become transformed into Macbeth’s Three Weird Sisters).

I found this novel paired very well with Rachel Kadish’s The Weight of Ink in exploring what possibilities were open to an intelligent, educated woman in the early 17th century, in this case fleshing out the story of a real woman who was one of the few with the determination and opportunity to leave her name inscribed on the pages of English literature, if only in the margins.

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Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows, by Balli Kaur Jaswal

punjabiwidowsPersonally I don’t see how anyone could avoid picking up a book titled Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows, but that might just be me. Oh, and in case you were wondering, while this book is not exactly what the title suggests, there are examples in here of the titular erotic stories, and they are a little explicit, though in a very gentle way, so you might want to be aware of that.

Really, though, this is a fun contemporary novel set in London’s Sikh community. The main character is Nikki, a girl in her early 20s who has an uneasy relationship with her Sikh family and community. She’s not estranged from her family exactly, but her mother and sister are both more traditional that she is (sister Mindi is seeking an arranged marriage, which horrifies Nikki), and Nikki still feels guilty about the fact that her father died of a heart attack soon after she announced she was dropping out of law school: she’s afraid that disappointment over her career choice might have killed him. Nikki still sees her mom and sister, but she doesn’t live with them; she lives in an apartment over the bar where she works while she’s trying to figure out what to do next with her life.

What comes next is unexpected: Nikki ends up teaching a class for Punjabi women at a Sikh temple. She thinks it’s going to be a creative writing course; the women come expecting a basic literacy class. What emerges is something quite different from both, as the women begin sharing stories of forbidden fantasies and Nikki discovers that beneath the sedate and proper exterior of the widow lies a turbulent blend of desire, memory and fantasy.

I’ve called this a “fun” novel and the tone is quite light and often funny, and includes a sweet romance subplot. However, it does deal with some quite heavy and serious issues, particularly around the experience of a young woman named Maya whose tragic death is still a very fresh and recent wound for many people in the community. Maya’s story, which Nikki becomes intrigued with, lays bare many of the pressures faced by women in traditional communities — forced marriage, the pressure to conform, the obsession with a woman’s and a family’s honour. While the overall tone of the book is usually light-hearted, there’s a darkness around the edges that is dealt with seriously.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and would definitely recommend it if you don’t mind a few vividly-described scenes of sexual fantasy, allegedly written by devout Sikh widows.

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The Vanishing Point, by Mary Sharratt

vanishing pointAfter reading Mary Sharratt’s Ecstasy last year, I discovered Sharratt had written three books set in the early 17th century, the period I’m currently researching and writing about, so I started in on those. The first one I read, The Vanishing Point, deals with two English sisters, May and Hannah, whose widowed father is a doctor. While the clever and dutiful Hannah serves as her father’s apprentice despite being a girl, beautiful May avoids offers of marriage, sleeps with every boy in the village, and ruins her reputation to the point where the only hope of salvaging her future is for her to be shipped to the American colonies and married off to a distant cousin. Once she is in Virginia, communication back home is limited to a letter once a year. Hannah, who plans to join her sister in the colony once their father dies, knows very little about what is actually happening to May in the new world. When she finally does make the journey across the Atlantic herself, what she finds awaiting her is very different from what she expected.

May and Hannah are both, in their way, engaging characters, and the mystery of what actually happens to May, which Hannah has to untangle once she gets there, is played out in an intriguing way that kept me turning pages. Neither Hannah nor the reader is entirely sure who to trust, and this tension is held in balance throughout so that the ending was never at all predictable. The book is full of wonderful detail about early colonial life which is personally interesting to me because of my own project, but also, it’s just a really good read.

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Top Ten Books of 2018

top10books2018 Well, it’s that time again. I’m looking back at the 100 books I read in 2018, and trying to pick a Top Ten. Some were VERY easy choices — there were books that as soon as I saw them, I knew they’d be among my favourites of the year. Then there was a second tier of books that I really loved, but if included them all, it would be WAY more than ten. (Ten is, of course, an arbitrary number. One year I did a Top Thirteen. But this year I was aiming to trim it to ten).

Some great books got left off this list. But these are ten books I loved this year — all novels, in this case, though I did read some good non-fiction too — and in the end my decision was almost always based on emotional resonance. Which books not only were interesting and well-written, but which did I feel strongly about while I read them, strongly enough that the feeling lingered sometimes months after I finished reading?

Before I link to my reviews of each of these books, a few stats about my reading this year.  100 books is more than I’ve read in any year since I started tracking my reading in 2006, and I’m not sure why, unless it’s that we travelled a fair bit this year and I always read a lot when travelling. For whatever reason, I’m happy to have had the chance to devour so many good books this year.

I like seeing trends and patterns, and some patterns remain consistent year to year because that’s just how I read. As always fiction outnumbers non-fiction by nearly 3:1, and books by women outnumber books by men about 2:1 (also, this was the first year I had a book by a non-binary author to include).
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Preferring fiction by women is hardly a new trend for me, but I tried to mix up my reading a bit more this year by consciously seeking out more books by writers of colour. This effort introduced me to many wonderful books I would never have found otherwise. In tallying up how this affected my overall reading patterns, I had to make a few judgement calls. “Person of colour” or “non-white” is obviously a bit of an amorphous category, especially for mixed-race writers, but in general I went with how writers identify themselves. I find that I’m still reading a majority of white writers (a bit more than 2:1), but I’m finding a lot more great books by writers of colour, including three of my Top Ten picks (all three by Muslim women, as it happened).
2018colourAlso, out of curiosity, I looked into where the writers I read came from. Again, this is a vague category, because writers don’t always live and work in the same country they were born or grew up in, and again, I tended to go for the most part with where writers are currently living unless they identify themselves as “an American writer living in England” or something like that. I found that I read about the same number of books by British writers as by Canadians, but that I read more American writers than both of those combined — and very few (6) from countries other than the US, Canada, and the UK. (Also, 2 of those 6 were Australian, which means only 4/100 books were by writers from other than English-speaking countries).
2018countriesSo, that’s what I’ve been reading in 2018. You can see my full booklist on Goodreads, or on my Pinterest board, or by scrolling back through the full year’s worth of reviews here on my blog. Here are the links to my reviews of my 10 favourites, in the order I read them throughout the year:

  1. Everyone Brave is Forgiven, by Chris Cleave
  2. We’ll All Be Burnt in our Beds Some Night, by Joel Thomas Hynes
  3. The City of Brass, by S.A. Chakraborty
  4. Young Jane Young, by Gabrielle Zevin
  5. The Humans, by Matt Haig
  6. A Place for Us, by Fatima Farheen Mirza
  7. The Map of Salt and Stars, by Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar
  8. An Absolutely Remarkable Thing, by Hank Green
  9. The Great Believers, by Rebecca Makkai
  10. The Weight of Ink, by Rachel Kadish

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The Weight of Ink, by Rachel Kadish

weightofinkI’ve been working on my Top Ten list of 2018 for a few weeks now, and I had a couple of possible books I was juggling for the last couple of open spots. Then I read The Weight of Ink, a book that had been on my radar for a long time but that I didn’t actually get a chance to read till the last week of the year. And one of those maybe-books on the Top Ten list had to go, because The Weight of Ink is definitely one of the best books I’ve read this year.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog you probably know my opinions about the sub-genre I like to call “Adventures in Research” (if not, check out some of my reviews of books that fall in that category: look at the first few reviews here). Great examples of this genre include Geraldine Brooks’s People of the Book, A.S. Byatt’s Possession, and the criminally underrated Gospel by Wilton Barnhardt. Bad examples include The DaVinci Code. I knew from reading the description of The Weight of Ink that it was going to be a great example of this genre: the story of a trove of seventeenth-century documents linked to London’s Jewish community, hinting at the possibility of a female scholar in the household of a learned rabbi.

For an “adventures in research” novel to be great, the historical story of the document and its creator(s) needs to be compelling, as does the present-day story of the scholars trying to translate/preserve/capture it. The present-day protagonists of The Weight of Ink are Helen Watt, a historian whose career is being mercilessly cut short by Parkinson’s Disease, and her brash young American assistant, Aaron Levy, who has demons of his own to battle. Together, they piece together the story of Ester, a young Jewish orphan who travels from Amsterdam to London in the household of the blind rabbi who has offered shelter to Ester and her brother. Both stories are vivid and compelling, with the details of Ester’s life in 1660s London so perfectly rendered that I felt like I was there. As a writer currently trying to recreate a seventeenth-century world in my own work-in-progress, I was overwhelmed by envy at Kadish’s skill.

The author has said in interviews that the story was originally inspired by Virginia Woolf’s hypothetical question “What if Shakespeare had had an equally talented sister?”, which led her to imagine what a woman would have to do to be able to read, write, study and think in a place and time like Jacobean England. Ester is limited not only by her gender but by poverty, lack of family, and prejudice both within and against the Jewish community, yet she has the fierce desire and determination to fight for her own right to learn against incredible odds. Her story is not true, but by the end I desperately wanted to believe it was. I find it so easy to get angry about all the wasted talent and brilliance of women in the past who were never allowed to learn and teach and work and write and lead. It’s at least a little comforting to think that some of them, like Ester, fought to do so even if we never learned their names.

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An Ocean of Minutes, by Thea Lim

oceanofminutesThis is a dystopian novel I could actually cope with (I usually can’t handle dystopia because I’m so afraid of it coming true) because the dystopian future is … in our past? Anyway, this is kind of an alternative version of history where a deadly flu epidemic wipes out much of the population of the US in the early 1980s. But also, in this world there’s time travel, although it operates with a lot of inconvenient limitations. The main character of the novel, Polly, agrees in 1981 to travel to the year 1993 to help rebuild civilization, in exchange for life-saving medical treatment for her dying fiance, Frank.

Frank and Polly agree to meet up in 1993; he will gladly wait 12 years for the woman who saved his life, while for Polly the trip will take only a few hours and she looks forward to a quick reunion with her beloved Frank.

Of course, things don’t work out that way. First of all, Polly gets re-routed to 1998 instead of 1993. Secondly, things are not that great for indentured workers in 1998 and Polly finds it hard to get any information about where Frank might be, 17 years after she said goodbye to him.

Like a lot of literary sci-fi, this is not really a hardcore science fiction novel in that there’s a lot of things about this alternative dystopia and the mechanics of how time travel works there that don’t really make a lot of sense if you examine it too closely. That’s not really what the book is about: it’s about using the flu epidemic, and the resulting dystopia, and the time travel, to explore ideas. Ideas about how we make and remake our culture, about immigration and the lines we draw to divide people into desirable and undesirable groups, and most importantly, about love and what endures over time. The reader may find, as Polly does, that the love that endures is not the one you expected — I can’t say more without spoiling this excellent novel, but it is well worth a read.

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