Monthly Archives: January 2018

Leo Africanus, by Amin Maalouf, translated by Peter Slugett

leoafricanusI decided to pick up this book (and when I say “pick up” I obviously mean “download” because it’s not like this translation of a 1986 French novel was just sitting on a bookshelf at my local chain bookstore) after I read The Badass Librarians of Timbuktu and reflected on how little I know about African history. This novel is a fictionalized account of the life of a real man who is known to history as Leo Africanus, though that is not the name he was born with. Nor was he African by birth: Hassan, as he was called, was born in Granada in the late 1480s or early 1490s, just as the Muslim civilization that flourished there fell to the Christian crusade of Ferdinand and Isabella. Hassan’s family fled, as many Muslims did, to Morocco, and it is the life that unfolded for him there — as a travelling merchant and eventually a diplomat — that led to him writing a book about his travels across North Africa. 

As always, a good historical novel is like a glimpse into another world. Through Hassan/Leo’s eyes the reader visits Granada, Fez, Timbuktu, Cairo and Rome in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. It was a taste of African history that I would like to get much more of, so any book recommendations are welcome!


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Everyone Brave is Forgiven, by Chris Cleave

everyonebraveI don’t know if Everyone Brave is Forgiven is, technically speaking, the “best” book I’ve read so far this year, but it certainly has been the most emotionally engrossing — to the point that I nearly stopped breathing at one point when a character’s life was in danger. 

All the characters’ lives are in danger, because the novel is set during the Second World War, in London and also at the front. One character, Alastair, serves in France before Dunkirk and later at the siege of Malta, a piece of the war I’d never read anything about before. The other two main characters, Mary and Tom, are doing war work on the home front during the London Blitz. On the simplest level, the novel is a love triangle among these three characters, but it’s so much more than that. It’s about how terrible times of stress and violence can bring out not only the best but also the worst in people, about questioning what your life’s purpose is, about love and friendship and survival, about how to put the pieces of your life back together after it’s been shattered.

The glimpses of London during the terrible year of 1940-1941 go far deeper than the historical cliches we all know so well about brave Londoners during the Blitz, to really explore how the brutality of life in a city at war exposes divisions along race, gender and class lines. The characters are so memorable and real that I cared deeply at once about what happened to them, and the writing is brilliant in the way Cleave is able to so quickly sketch a scene that reveals so much about that turbulent time and place. 

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Little Fires Everywhere, by Celeste Ng

littlefiresLittle Fires Everywhere is a book I heard recommended from all directions before I finally read it, and it did not disappoint. It’s a story about a neighbourhood, a family, and a woman, all which aspire to perfection, and another woman who moves into that neighbourhood and defies its expectations and norms. It’s a coming-of-age story about five teenagers — the three good, conforming children of Elena Richardson’s “perfect” family, along with that family’s black sheep Izzy, and their friend Pearl, daughter of artist and single-mom Mia. Mia and Pearl move into the Richardsons’ lives when Mia rents an apartment from them, but when she becomes their housecleaner and Pearl forges relationships with each of the Richardson teenagers, things get messy.

Complicating all this is a story that involves none of these main characters directly but which all of them get drawn into. A local couple, friends of the Richardsons, have adopted a Chinese baby after years of infertility. But this baby is not adopted from a Chinese orphanage: she was abandoned on the steps of the firehall, and the mother is a local woman who regrets her decision and fights to get her child back. As everyone takes a stand on the controversial case, cracks in relationships and turning point in people’s lives appear, and everyone is tested and changed.

I had a couple of very minor quibbles with this book — I thought Moody’s feelings towards, and relationship with, Pearl, would likely have been clarified before a particular crisis in the story hits, and I expected more of a surprising twist at the end than I actually got. But those were minor indeed for a book I enjoyed reading so much, and the very end packed such a huge emotional wallop that I was briefly knocked back — it was so right and so powerful. Mother/daughter relationships are a very central theme here, which is something I always find interesting, and the complexities of that relationship in its many forms are beautifully, and often painfully, explored in this book. I highly recommend it.

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Sing, Unburied, Sing, by Jesmyn Ward

unburiedSing, Unburied, Sing, is a short, intense, powerful novel set in contemporary rural Mississippi. At the heart of the novel is JoJo, a 13-year-old boy with a black mother and a white father who are both mostly absent from his life and that of his three-year-old sister Kayla. Their father, Michael, is finishing up a jail sentence; their mother, Leonie, is sometimes well-meaning but addicted to drugs and obsessed with her own problems (and her love for Michael, which looms far larger than her love for her children). The people who have cared for JoJo and Kayla all their lives are Leonie’s parents, whom JoJo calls Mam and Pop, in whose home they live. Mam is dying of cancer; Pop is the moral and emotional centre of JoJo’s fractured world.

There’s so much going on in this brief and powerful story. Plotwise, it’s very simple: over a period of a couple of days, Leonie takes her two children and a friend on a car trip to meet Michael as he’s being released from prison. Nothing much happens, though at one point it seems like it might. But this book is about so much: race in America, addiction, parents and children, mass incarceration, coming of age, and also, a ghost story. In fact, there are two ghosts — Riche, a boy JoJo’s age who was imprisoned with Pop decades ago, and who died tragically while attempting to escape, and Given, Leonie’s brother who was murdered by Michael’s cousin when they were teenagers. (This is less confusing in the book than it sounds in my synopsis).

Jesmyn Ward is a beautiful writer with a keen and unsparing eye for the details that reveal poverty, bigotry, courage, and hope. I found this a very powerful novel that will linger with me for a long time.

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The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

shadowofthewindThis novel came very highly recommended by several people whose reading tastes I trust completely, so I went into it with high expectations. While it is a very good book and I was not disappointed, I do wonder if I might have loved it more if I’d just stumbled across it by chance, rather than it having such a weight of expectation to support.

The Shadow of the Wind, translated from the original Spanish, is exactly the kind of literary mystery tailor-made to draw me in. Daniel Sempere is a young boy in Barcelona in 1945, the only son of a bookseller. He discovers a novel called The Shadow of the Wind and becomes obsessed with it. But when he tries to find out more about the book and its mysterious author, hoping to read more of his work, he discovers a mystery. The author is presumed dead under mysterious circumstances, and nobody seems to know (or be willing to say much about him). His few novels, which never sold well in his lifetime, are increasingly hard to find — largely because it appears that someone has been going around systematically trying to destroy every copy in existence.

This puzzle leads young Daniel on a quest that will consume the next ten years of his life and bring an array of colourful characters into his path. Eventually, the mystery is solved in a satisfying way, though it was a solution I was able to predict from early on, and that may have been part of the reason I wasn’t wholly enthralled by the book. I love it when author can surprise me, and since I’m pretty dim about plots and clues this happens a fair bit. In this case, however, the twist at the end was one I could see coming a long ways off so I missed the pleasure of being surprised. I also thought there was a bit too much reliance on the tropes of undying love, and beautiful women as objects of desire (without being fully developed characters in their own right). However, balanced against all this, the book was beautifully written and a joy to read. The scene-setting is very evocative, and there’s a truly wonderful cast of characters. If you like books about books, this is one you will want to check out.

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Top Ten Books of 2017

2017 was a good reading year … a few disappointments, but lots of great books. I read 89 books altogether, but not as many new books as usual since quite a few were re-reads (the release of Robin Hobb’s novel Assassin’s Fate prompted me to reread the 15 novels preceding it in the same series, so that I could fully appreciate the climax of the final book). I also reread a few Lord Peter Wimsey novels, as I tend to do most years, and I re-visited a couple of favourite trilogies — Lev Grossman’s The Magicians and Catherine Fox’s Lindchester novels.

The ten new favourites I’ve posted in the graphic below were, as always, hard to pick, though there were a few definite standouts. They’re shown in the order I read them in during the year, not in “Top Ten” ranked format, because I can’t really rank them. At the bottom of this post I’ve listed them by title and author with a link to my review of each book. And for those of you who like stats, I’ve also included below the graphic some stats about the kind of books and kinds of authors I read this year.


Of the 89 books I’m counting (totals vary among this blog, my Goodreads page, and my Pinterest board, mostly because I sometimes count re-reads and sometimes don’t, but I’m going with the Pinterest board because it’s the quickest and easiest to count), I read:

66 books by female authors
23 books by male authors

73 works of fiction
16 works of non-fiction

I don’t normally break down my reading by author’s country of origin but in the interests of promoting our local writing scene I will add that of the total, I read:

9 books by Canadian authors, of which
3 were by Newfoundlanders
(the rest were overwhelmingly by US or British writers, but I didn’t analyze it further).

I also made a concerted effort in 2017 to diversify my reading with more non-white writers. In cases where I knew for sure (and including mixed-race writers who identify with non-white communities and concerns in their writing, such as Jamie Ford’s representation of the Chinese-American experience), this attempt to diversify my list resulted in me reading 20 books by writers who identify as people of colour. This was a great initiative as it caused me to seek out some new authors whose work I wouldn’t have discovered otherwise.

As for how that variety over the year’s books translated into my year end favourites, the Top Ten were: 7 female, 3 male authors; only one non-fiction book (another, Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy, was a close contender and would have made the Top Eleven if I’d done such a list); 4/10 were non-white writers; only one of my Top Ten list was by a Canadian (that one was a major Canadian award winner, Do Not Say We Have Nothing).

You can read my reflections on each of these favourite books at the links below:

Golden Hill, by Francis Spufford
Do Not Say We Have Nothing, by Madeleine Thien
Assassin’s Fate, by Robin Hobb
The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas
Hunger, by Roxane Gay
The Almost Sisters, by Joshilyn Jackson
Home Fire, by Kamila Shamsie
Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders
Realms of Glory, by Catherine Fox
Turtles All the Way Down, by John Green

Here’s to more great reading in 2018! By the way, my favourite new project in 2017 was to start a (more or less) bi-weekly podcast where I talk with people about what they’re reading and books they have loved. If you haven’t already checked out Shelf Esteem, the podcast, give it a listen (on SoundCloud, iTunes, or wherever you listen to podcasts).

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In the Midst of Winter, by Isabel Allende

inthemidstIn the Midst of  Winter is many things. It’s a later-in-life romance about two people in their sixties. It’s an unsparing glimpse into the plight of illegal immigrants in the US and the situations that drive them to such desperation in their home countries. And it’s a cross between a crime novel and a screwball comedy as the three main characters try to dispose of a dead body for which none of them is responsible, but which they can’t simply walk away from.

A winter storm in Brooklyn, New York, brings the reclusive college professor Richard together with his tenant, Chilean visiting lecturer Lucia. Though both Richard and Lucia have plenty of broken romances in the past and are now well set in their single ways, there’s an attraction between them. But it doesn’t come to fruition until a minor car accident brings Evelyn, a girl from Guatemala now working as a nanny to a wealthy and sinister New Yorker’s family, into their lives. Evelyn, her employer’s car, and the inconvenient contents of its trunk.

All three characters’ backstories unfold throughout the novel. Evelyn’s early life in Guatemala, Lucia’s Chilean past, and Richard’s long-ago marriage to a vivacious Brazilian woman, are all rife with tragedy. Through their unlikely adventures, they form a bond and begin to create new lives out of the ruins of old.

I liked all the elements of this story and found the glimpses into Lucia’s and Evelyn’s lives particularly compelling — Evelyn’s story of illegal immigration is of course especially relevant in the light of current conflicts over immigration in the US. However, I found the style of writing less polished than I expected from Allende. I haven’t read a novel by her in many years, and I was surprised, since she is a very highly-acclaimed author, to find some of the same things I’ve complained about in Ken Follett novels — reams of telling instead of showing to convey information, very little subtlety, dialogue that’s often weighty with exposition and lacking in nuance. She definitely has a great story to tell here, but I feel like if this work had come from a beginning author rather than one with the weight of Allende’s name and reputation attached, an editor might have suggested working with it a little more, so that readers could draw some of their own conclusions rather than having the author wave morals and meanings in our faces as baldly as she does in some of this novel’s scenes.

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