Monthly Archives: December 2018

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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Washington Black, by Esi Edugyan

washingtonblackThis highly acclaimed recent novel reminded me at first very much of one I read earlier this year: Andrea Levy’s The Long Song. Both begin as the story of a young enslaved person on a Caribbean island in the waning days of slavery (in the British Empire, that is — of course it continued in the US for another 30+ years). Each young person falls under the influence of a white slave-owner who takes a personal interest in them. But young Wash Black’s life takes a radically different direction than July’s life does in The Long Song. Because of the eccentricities of the plantation owner’s brother Titch, who takes Wash on as his apprentice, Washington Black embarks on a life of unexpected adventures that take him far from the Barbados plantation where he grew up.

While Washington Black’s adventures may strain credibility in places, they do provide fascinating glimpses into many different slices of life in the mid-19th century and what it might have been like to live as a black person in many different worlds. I felt that the ending of the novel did not resolve the story as much as I had hoped, though I’m sure this was the writer’s intention. She takes us on an intriguing journey and leaves much up to the reader in terms of where this journey may ultimately end up.

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If You Come Softly, by Jacqueline Woodson

softlyI picked up this YA novel, now 20 years old, because of an online book club I’m part of that was reading it. It tells the story of a romance between two high school students in New York City. Both Ellie and Miah (short for Jeremiah) are smart, sensitive kids from well-off families who meet at private school. But Ellie’s family is white and Jewish (though not observant), while Miah, whose dad is a famous movie producer, is black. Afraid of prejudice against their interracial romance, Ellie and Miah keep their relationship quiet for awhile, especially from Ellie’s fairly dysfunctional family. Then the outside world intervenes in a shattering way.

This is a short and in many ways fairly simple story of young love meeting racism and hate, by the always-poetic Jacqueline Woodson. I thought many of its themes were more powerfully explored in a more recent novel, Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give, but I did enjoy If You Come Softly.

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Bridge of Clay, by Markus Zusak

bridgeofclayI read several disappointed reviews by readers who said that Zusak’s Bridge of Clay is nothing like his blockbuster hit The Book Thief, but I actually thought that structurally they were very similar. Bridge of Clay doesn’t have the Holocaust/WW2 background that made The Book Thief instantly fascinating and emotionally powerful for so many readers. Instead, it is set in present-day Australia, and the only historical event outside the characters’ lives that makes any impact is the Cold War, as we learn that Penny, the narrator’s mother, defected from Eastern Europe in the 1980s. Other than that, this is a novel very tightly focused on the lives of a single family: Penny, the man who becomes her husband, Michael, and the five sons they have together. It’s no spoiler (since you find this out very early in the novel) to say that Penny dies and Michael leaves the family when the boys are still relatively young, leaving them to pretty much raise themselves through the teenage and young-adult years — and yes, for everyone who immediately jumps to that comparison, the atmosphere in the household is not unlike a very literary Australian version of The Outsiders in its recklessless and anarchy.

For me, the similarities to The Book Thief came in the patient, roundabout way Zusak unfolds his story. I think people who read The Book Thief years ago and loved it sometime forget how slowly that story builds, how you get introduced to characters and events via hints and oblique references and may only learn hundreds of pages later why that person is important or how that seemingly-unimportant event played out. Bridge of Clay does the same thing, but even moreso, and I think over a much longer book (I read it as an e-book so it’s hard to be sure but it felt quite long, though not in a bad say). Some people will definitely find this frustrating; the book demands a lot of patience and attention, but I felt it paid off beautifully.

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Exit West, by Mohsin Hamid

exitwestThis is a novel about immigration, with a slight magic-realism twist. Saeed and Nadia are two young people who meet and fall in love in an unidentified city in the Middle East — a city on the brink of civil war between the government and fundamentalist militants. As life becomes more and more impossible, Saeed and Nadia think, as so many people do, about getting out, starting a new life somewhere else.

This is where the magic realism twist comes in. Saeed and Natasha’s world is pretty much our contemporary world, with one important exception: there are magical doors that you can walk through in one part of the world and emerge in another. These doors can appear randomly, anywhere — in the closet of any ordinary house, for example. You step through, and find yourself — well, on the island of Mykonos, in Greece, for example, which is where the door that Saaed and Nadia step through takes them.

I read a review by a person who was absolutely enraged by this concept — they clearly were not prepared for any magic realism and thought it was a ridiculous way to sidestep the actual business of emigrating from one place to another. I thought it was brilliant. It allows Hamid, in a relatively short book, to focus on the experience of adjusting to a new life, which is what the book is about — how migration changes people. 

The device of the doors does another thing — it removes the natural barriers of distance, deserts, oceans and other things that make travel difficult and dangerous during our current migrant/refugee crisis. If people could simply step through doors from strife-torn countries and appear in wealthy, safe cities thousands of miles away, Western countries would be overloaded with a flood of refugees far greater than they were able to cope with, and the rising threat of nationalist, anti-immigrant violence would become unmanageable. That’s the situation Nadia and Saaed find themselves when they step through a second door from the refugee camp on Mykonos to a London neighbourhood bursting with refugees.

Exit West not only puts our real-world problems with refugees under the magnifying glass of fiction, it also puts one particular couple’s relationship under a microscope, using Nadia and Saaed’s love story as a way to explore the pressures that change, hardship and upheaval can subject a relationship to. The book has an ending that, despite the difficult subject matter, is suprisingly hopeful. I don’t know if you’d call it a happy ending, but I found it satisfying.

 

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