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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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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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The Money Shot, by Glenn Deir

Layout 1The Money Shot is one of several novels coming out in the next few months or so that I have some insider knowledge of: it was one of the strongest entries in an unpublished-novel contest that I had the honour of judging a couple of years back. Glenn Deir’s tale (although I didn’t know it was Glenn Deir’s then, as the contest was blind-judged) of an unscrupulous, back-stabbing local news reporter was a wickedly fun romp from start to finish. When I found out that the author was someone who had considerable experience in that world of local journalism, I knew that even if The Money Shot is not a roman a clef about the local CBC station (and you kind of hope it’s not, because you’d hate to think your evening news is being brought to you by anyone as awful as Deir’s antihero, Sebastian Hunter), still, there’s got to be some kernels of truth there.

The Money Shot is a scathing, funny, wicked look at the world of local TV news: more cut-throat than you might think. It’s a page-turner and a thoroughly enjoyable read from start to finish.

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The Wonder, by Emma Donoghue

thewonder2The Wonder is the story of an eleven-year-old Irish girl, Anna, living in the mid-19th century (the years just after the potato famine), whose family claims she has gone four months without eating and is still in perfect health. To verify this apparent miracle, the local community hires two nurses to watch Anna 24/7 for two weeks and be sure she really is not eating. Could God be sustaining her by supernatural means? One of the nurses is a devout nun; the other, from whose point of view the story is told, is Lib Wright, a skeptical professional nurse, trained by Florence Nightengale during the Crimean War. Lib is convinced that either Anna, or her parents, or all of them together, are perpetrating a hoax. She has no time for miracles, mythology, or religion, and embarks on her duty with relish, sure she will soon debunk Anna’s claims.

This is a delicate, beautifully written novel in which the unfolding relationship between Lib and Anna threatens all of Lib’s preconceived notions, without ever shaking her faith in science or her skepticism about the superstitious world in which she is suddenly immersed. There are no good guys or bad guys in this novel, only people trying to do their best according to their understanding of how the world works. But those different understandings are about to clash in a dramatic climax to what has been, for most of its pages, a fairly slow and quiet novel.

I really loved The Wonder, and it will take its place along with Frog Music, Slammerkin, and Room as one of my favourite of Donoghue’s novels.

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Hamilton: The Revolution, by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter

hamiltonrevolutionAs you read down through the next few blog posts, you’ll see that a lot of my reading over the last few months has been inspired by my fascination with the musical Hamilton (I blogged about my love for the musical here, and will be seeing it live in New York in May!). Getting the “book of the musical” for my birthday was the next logical step.

Hamilton: The Revolution is a must-have for anyone who loves the musical. It contains the entire script — all the song lyrics for this sung-through musical — along with writer Lin-Manuel Miranda’s often hilarious footnotes about the writing process for each song. Between each of the songs is an essay about the process of writing, directing, casting and staging the musical, and there are lavish, full-colour photographs of the stage production throughout. It’s like everything you would ever want in the DVD extras of a movie or TV series you loved, all in a beautifully bound book that you can open and leaf through as often as you want. This is a coffee-table book that currently lives on my coffee table, and I’m loving it.

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Alexander Hamilton, by Ron Chernow

hamiltonFans of the hit Broadway musical Hamilton (which you’ll see from this series of reviews has been a bit of an obsession of mine for the past few months) know Ron Chernow’s biography as the book that started it all — the book that Lin-Manuel Miranda read that gave him the germ of an idea which eventually turned into a hip-hop musical about the guy on the ten-dollar bill, one of the US’s Founding Fathers. Hamilton is probably best known today for dying in a duel at the hands of his political enemy, Aaron Burr. Though his life ended tragically in his late forties, Hamilton had already accomplished a lifetime’s worth of work in helping to establish the fledgling United States as a cohesive nation. Though, unlike his compatriots (some friends, some enemies) Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Madison, he never became President, his personal story is fascinating and it’s not hard to see how it inspired a work as creative as the musical.

Hamilton was distinguished from most of the other Founding Fathers by his humble beginnings — he was born outside what were then the 13 colonies, to an impoverished Scotsman and a Frenchwoman of dubious reputation, who were not legally married to each other. In that extremely class-conscious era a man less talented, brilliant and hardworking than Alexander Hamilton would have been doomed to a life of poverty and obscurity, but Hamilton’s life was marked by his dogged determination to outrun his origins.

Hamilton accomplished a lot and was in many ways an engaging character, but he certainly had his flaws and made some crucial mistakes, and Chernow doesn’t spare his subject in revealing these. Though the biography is biased in the sense that Chernow clearly admires Hamilton, it does attempt to give that rounded picture, showing all sides of the man and meticulously examining the primary sources for his life, that a more creative portrait like the musical, or a novel, can’t capture. If you are interested in American history and like weighty, well-researched biographies, check this one out — even if you’re not a fan of the musical. (Though, why would you not be?)

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America’s First Daughter, by Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie

firstdaughterYet another book I picked up because of my Hamilton-inspired fascination with US history, this novel tells the story of Thomas Jefferson’s daughter Martha (usually known as “Patsy” for some reason) from her own point of view. Her famous father emerges as a great but flawed man, deeply loved and tirelessly served by his daughter (and indeed most of his family) but certainly not without his weaknesses.

If you think corruption and scandal in American politics are something new they invented for the 2016 election, you definitely should read some history. The scandals surrounding Jefferson’s extended family alone are enough to fill a book, and they do fill this one, while fleshing out the portrait of Martha as a woman of her time, who lives through incredible events and tries to carve out a life for herself and her family in the midst of those events. I found this an interesting and informative read.

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