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Best of the Year; Best of the Decade

I’m looking back and doing my usual “Top Ten Books of the Year” list … and because everyone else has been doing it, and because I have these top ten lists going back far more than 10 years, I’m also thinking about 10 outstanding books I’d recommend from this whole decade. So here are both lists:

First of all — my Top Ten of 2019. These are in the order I read them, chronologically, not ranked bottom to top or anything. I read around 120 books this year, although there were several rereads (I re-read a couple of much loved series this year, and I obviously don’t consider rereads eligible for best-of lists). I’ve long since given up trying to rank them, and there’s always a level of arbitrariness. Going back through my book Pinterest board for this year, and these reviews, I found thirteen titles that really lingered in my mind long after reading them, and chose ten from those, but I could have easily gone with thirteen or even fifteen.

This year’s list includes four non-fiction (all audiobooks; I’ve decided that is the way to go for me for reading non-fiction) and six novels; there are four male writers and six women; three of my top ten books are by non-white writers (two of whom are indigenous). Those are the stats: here are the books, with links to my reviews:

  1. There There, by Tommy Orange. This book just took my breath away with its scope and brilliance.
  2. The Kingdom of Copper, by S.A. Chakraborty. The second volume of this trilogy was as good as the first, and I can’t wait for the conclusion!
  3. Fools and Mortals, by Bernard Cornwell. This one took me by surprise; I didn’t expect to love it as much as I did.
  4. Unshelteredby Barbara Kingsolver. This was the one that was tied with several others for a possible spot on the list, and I think it made the cut finally because something about the emotional tone of the story lingers with me months after reading it.
  5. A Mind Spread Out on the Groundby Alicia Elliott. This is probably the book I’ve recommended to the most people this year.
  6. Chimes of a Lost Cathedral, by Janet Fitch. This sweeping Russian epic captivated me.
  7. The Differenceby Marina Endicott. I said these aren’t ranked, and they’re not, but if they were this would be #1. My most enjoyable and engrossing reading experience this year.
  8. Son of a Critchby Mark Critch. I knew this would be funny but had no idea how funny. My biggest advice with this one is, if you can, please get the audiobook with Mark reading it himself. It’s priceless.
  9. The Five, by Hallie Rubenhold. Powerful history giving voiceless, forgotten women a story.
  10. Eyes to the Wind, by Ady Barkan. Moving and insightful memoir, beautifully read by Bradley Whitford on the audiobook.

As for a Top Books of the Decade list … that was even harder. I could have just picked one from each year, but there were years I read more great, list-worthy books. And my basic metric for a book making the list is “am I still thinking about it months later?”, so in looking at the whole decade, I tended to favour books from earlier in the 2010s that still linger with me years later, but that tends to disadvantage those that I read more recently. In the end, I threw a couple of this year’s books on the decade list, but only time will tell if they’ve really earned their place there.

Without further ado, I give you:

Ten of Trudy’s Favourite Stand-Alone Novels of the 2010s:

  1. Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel
  2. The Fault in our Stars, by John Green
  3. The Casual Vacancy, by J.K. Rowling
  4. Life After Lifeby Kate Atkinson
  5. Longbourn, by Jo Baker
  6. Frog Musicby Emma Donohue
  7. Turtles All the Way Downby John Green
  8. Golden Hill, by Francis Spufford
  9. The Weight of Ink, by Rachel Kadish
  10. The Differenceby Marina Endicott

Just to squeeze in some more books, I’m adding two sub-lists. Here are five of the best book series I read in the 2010s (though one was published much, much earlier and I only just discovered it a few years ago; another series is still not complete but I have faith that the third volume will fulfill the promise of the first two).

  1. The Lymond Chronicles, by Dorothy Dunnett
  2. The Lindchester novels by Catherine Fox
  3. The “Small Change” series by Jo Walton
  4. The Harold Fry/Queenie Hennessy duology by Rachel Joyce
  5. The Daevabad Trilogy: City of Brass/Kingdom of Copper/third volume yet to come, by S.A. Chakraborty

Finally, although you know I read mostly fiction, I have read a lot of great non-fiction in the last decade also. Here are five of my best non-fiction reads from the last decade:

  1. Take This Bread, by Sara Miles
  2. Wildby Cheryl Strayed
  3. Tiny Beautiful Things, by Cheryl Strayed
  4. Hunger, by Roxane Gay
  5. The Five, by Hallie Rubenhold

For fans of my podcast (or book podcasts generally), you can listen to a conversation between me and my daughter Emma about some of our best books of 2019 here.

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The Cazalet Chronicles, by Elizabeth Jane Howard

Elizabeth Jane Howard’s four Cazalet Chronicles – The Light Years, Marking Time, Confusion and Casting Off — were great favourites of mine when they came out in the 1990s, and I read them all avidly, the first couple of volumes several times (rereading them as each new one came out and a few more times for good measure). They tell the story of a wealthy English family (but not Downton-Abbey-wealthy: the Cazalets made their money in trade) in the pre-, during and post-WW2 years, from 1937 to 1947. The original tetralogy is practically the definition of “sweeping family epic”: it covers the experiences of three generations of a large extended family, ranging with a wonderful omniscient voice through the perspectives of children, teenagers, the middle-aged and the elderly as their lives are impacted by the war and all the changes it brings.

There are so many things Howard does brilliantly in this series: wonderful characterization, brilliant description, note-perfect analysis of social mores and personal relationships and so much more, that all I can say is, if this sounds like the kind of thing you might like, pick up The Light Years (the first volume) and give it a try.

When I decided to collect a proper matching set of these books instead of the random assortment I had acquired over the years, I was shocked to learn there were, not the four books I’d read and loved many years ago, but five. Eighteen years after publishing Casting Off, and not long before her own death, Howard wrote a fifth volume that jumps ten years ahead of the end of the series (covering the years from 1956-1958) and tells us where the characters are at that point. So, of course I had to read that too.

As you might expect of a one-volume sequel to such a long and complex series, both set and written many years after the original, the fifth volume (All Change) is a mixed success. I did love revisiting the characters, and some of the changes that were coming to the Cazalets by the late 1950s (deaths of older characters, threat to the family business, potential loss of the old family home) are absolutely what might be expected 10 years after the end of the war. A way of life is coming to an end; some characters are able to move forward relatively happily with it, while others find themselves clinging to a time that will never return. All of that was appropriate and well-handled.

Where things go off the rails a bit in All Change is in Howard’s gallant attempt to corral her vast cast of characters. Some of them simply get left out or forgotten about in this last book (only the most glancing of references to Jessica Castle’s entire family, who got chapters and chapters in the original series despite not even being Cazalets). Howard has always written children’s points of view really well, but in this book she spends too much time writing scenes about the under-10 generation of children who were born between Casting Off and All Change (who readers don’t know or care about) at the expense of telling us more about the teenagers and young adults whose childhoods were chronicled in the original series and who we’re anxious to know more about. (A particularly egregious example is when Hugh’s son Wills, barely mentioned throughout the entire book, doesn’t make it for the big family reunion at the end of the book, and someone offhandedly mentions that it’s too bad Wills decided to spend Christmas with his girlfriend’s family — you know darn well Howard simply forgot Wills existed and tossed in that sentence when an editor reminded her of him).

The relationships among the family members would differ of course, in such a large extended family, and not everyone would keep in touch, but some of the distance between characters simply doesn’t make sense. Why would Polly have to introduce her husband to Aunt Rachel when Rachel was at their wedding — and in the nine or ten years since then, while they weren’t likely hanging out much, surely they would have seen each other once or twice? Why would Neville not recognize his own half-sister Juliette, when that branch of the family is not estranged from one another in any way? Yes, a young adult out living on his own might not see whole lot of his teenaged half-sister and might be shocked at how grown-up she now looks, but … not to the extent Neville is, and certainly not with the same results! (Don’t even get me started on the Neville/Juliette subplot — this is something an editor should have taken a firm line on and simply said “You can’t do that; it makes no sense.”) Yes, catching up with the lives of so many different characters was probably near-impossible, but there were so many missed opportunities and so many pages wasted on characters we didn’t care about, that it was sometimes frustrating.

All this sounds like I didn’t enjoy All Change or didn’t think it was a good conclusion to the series, but that’s not really true — I enjoyed visiting this world one more time, and I’m in awe of what Howard accomplished, even if not every character resolution was exactly what I’d have hoped for. It’s a great series and one I’m sure I’ll reread again sometime a few more years down the road. Rereading it made for a wonderful December project.

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For My Great Folly, by Thomas B. Costain

greatfollyThis was an odd kind of find during my book-research process — I was trying to find out more about early 17th century pirates (it’s the period my new book series is set in, and pirates are involved, but it’s 100+ years too early for the “Golden Age of Piracy” so there’s less info available), and I came across the account of an English pirate called John Ward, who had a colourful career. Then I discovered that a Canadian-born, mid-20th century historical novelist called Thomas Costain had written a novel about John Ward, and then I found out my library had a copy! 

Actually, the book is more about a young man named Roger, from John Ward’s hometown, who idolizes Ward and ends up going to sea with him on a privateering adventure in the Mediterranean. It’s got some great period flavour and details, and I wish Thomas Costain was alive so I could bug him to find out what his sources were — definitely an interesting glimpse into that time period.

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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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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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Nothing Like the Sun, by Anthony Burgess

nothinglikethesunThis novel about Shakespeare, focusing on his romantic and sex-life, isn’t an easy read, but it did prove to be well worth reading. Burgess’s attempt to echo the language of Shakespeare’s era in his stream-of-consciousness narration reminded me a little of a much more recent novel, Michelle Butler Hallett’s This Marlowe. The authenticity of the language makes it a slow read for the modern reader, but ultimately, a rewarding one, even if (especially as a woman) I might not agree with every aspect of Burgess’s perspective on Shakespeare’s private life. The mysteries of Shakespeare’s marriage, the “dark lady” of the sonnets, and the attractive young man to whom some of the sonnets are also addressed, are all fully explored in this book. I found it worked better while I read if I imagined it more as a series of length prose poems in Shakespeare’s voice than a novel in the more traditional sense.

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The Long Song, by Andrea Levy

longsongOne of my favourite things about historical fiction is the opportunity to learn about another place and time in a way that completely immerses me in a person’s story. That was the case with The Long Song, a novel set during the final years of slavery on a Jamaican sugar plantation.

Of course, I knew that the use of enslaved African people had its start on the sugar plantations of the Caribbean, long before it came to the cotton fields of the American South. I also knew that slavery ended three decades earlier in the British Empire than it did in the US — that was the context for Canada being the ultimate destination for enslaved people fleeing the US via the Underground Railroad. What I didn’t know was any detail about how the institution of slavery ended in the Caribbean — the six-year period of “apprenticeship” workers were required to serve after supposedly being freed, the reactions of both enslaved people and slave owners to the change in status, the ways in which slave owners attempted to cripple their former chattels’ attempts to be independent and self-sufficient so that they would continue to have a source of cheap labour. 

This brutal story is told through the eyes of the elderly July, who grew up in slavery, was taken from her mother in childhood to become a personal maid to the plantation owner’s sister Caroline, and made the uneasy transition to freedom on a plantation ruled by Caroline and her overseer Robert Goodwin, a man who arrives in Jamaica from England full of noble ideas about justice and freedom for enslaved people, but quickly changes his views when confronted with the realities of plantation life. Through horrific treatment and injustice July emerges as a strong-willed, wry, witty commentator on the society changing so rapidly around her. Her voice and its dialect rhythms carries the reader into her world with vivid and convincing detail.

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