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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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The Waiting Room, by Leah Kaminsky

thewaitingroomThis was a book I picked up on impulse — judging it by its back-cover blurb — and while it wasn’t a bad read, the premise promises a little more than it delivers, I think. The main character, Dina, is a doctor in modern-day Israel. She’s from Australia, but married to an Israeli, and she finds life in a country where terrorist threats are a daily reality almost unbearably stressful — especially as she worries about the well-being of her young son and unborn daughter, and her native-born husband sees her fears as a sign of weakness. To top it off, Dina is haunted, almost literally, by memories of her late mother, a Holocaust survivor. Violence past and present casts its shadow over Dina’s life. The story unfolds over a single day with many flashbacks, and I wanted to be really drawn into it, but I found Dina a strangely distant main character, and the pacing of the story was odd and kept throwing me off. However, a lot of that may have just been me as a reader, and if the summary sounds interesting to you, you should definitely pick it up and see what you think. 

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Seven Fallen Feathers, by Tanya Talaga

sevenfeathersAgain, as with my last non-fiction read, this is a book that several people have recommended to me. It’s not an easy read but it is definitely important.

Specifically, it’s an in-depth analysis of the deaths of seven First Nations teenagers over a period of several years in the Ontario town of Thunder Bay. All were high schools students from remote Northern communities; all were boarding in the city, sometimes with family and sometimes with strangers; most of the deaths were drownings; none of them was adequately or promptly investigated by police. The stories of these seven tragedies are compelling in and of themselves but the author also makes very clear that this is not just the story of seven dead young people in Thunder Bay but also the much broader story of Canada’s treatment of its First Nations people — from the generational repercussions of the horror of the residential school system to the substandard living conditions on many First Nations reserves still today. 

As Canadians we like to pride ourselves on our tolerance and inclusivity, but there are many places where this complacent national self-image rubs harshly against reality, and this is never more true than when it comes to the treatment of our indigenous people. Seven Fallen Feathers shines a harsh light on the results of Canadian bigotry towards First Nations people, and challenges us as a nation to do better.

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