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The City of Brass, by S.A. Chakraborty

cityofbrassThis is the most engrossing, engaging new fantasy novel I’ve read in awhile. Set in the Middle East in the late 1700s and drawing heavily on Islamic mythologies about djinn and other magical creatures, this is a wonderful debut and I was only disappointed to realize that it’s the first of a trilogy and I have to wait for the next two to come out (I hate to wait).

On one level, Chakraborty is playing with some pretty familiar fantasy tropes. I tried to describe the plot to my husband, who also loves fantasy although we often feel quite differently about books. “So there’s this young girl, Nahri, who lives on the streets and is kind of a thief and a con artist, and she has these powers but has no idea what they mean or why she has them…”

“So, like Vin in Mistborn?” says Jason.

The thing is, he loved the Mistborn books and I … did not. And I found Vin’s character really irritating. I loved Nahri in City of Brass, but when he said that I had to admit … yeah, it is kinda the same thing. And then I went on,

“So she accidentally calls up a djinn, and she finds out that she’s part-djinn too, and she has to go to –“

“Hogwarts?”

“No, she has to go to Daevabad, which is this magical djinn city…”

“So basically, Hogwarts for djinn.”

So yeah, there are some familiar fantasy tropes here, but I found them really well done. Yes, Nahri is the classic kid-from-nowhere-who-turns-out-to-be-someone-secretly-powerful, and yes there is a romance plot that could be seen as a bit predictable, though I think the combination of the author’s writing style and the Middle Eastern backdrop kept me intrigued. (Also, the romance plot may be familiar, but the love interest is smoking hot, and not just metaphorically). But interwoven with Nahri’s story is another story, less familiar — that of Ali, second son of the king of Daevabad. Ali’s story is one of power struggles and palace intrigue, of a king who is holding in balance a (gorgeously depicted) city of unruly magical subjects, in which two very different groups of people — the shafit and the daeva — both believe they are marginalized and being treated unfairly by the king (but also hate each other and are easily used as weapons against each other). As Nahri and her djinn guide reach the city and her story begins to interweave with Ali’s palace plots, things hurtle toward a violent conclusion from which the eventual endgame of the series is anything but predictable.

Book 2 comes out next January, and I will be downloading it as fast as it’s available. I can’t wait for the rest of this series.

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Everything Happens for a Reason (And Other Lies I’ve Loved), by Kate Bowler

everythinghappensKate Bowler’s Everything Happens for a Reason, with its wonderful subtitle, is a memoir about a young, apparently healthy person with her whole life ahead of her, being diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer. Many readers will immediately think of the parallel to Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air, and there certainly are similarities — both very well-written and moving memoirs about an experience no-one is prepared to have in their mid-thirties.

For me there were two important differences. The first is that the unique perspective in Kalanithi’s book came from the author being a medical doctor and now finding himself a patient, looking at the experience of illness from both sides of the doctor’s desk. Kate Bowler’s added insight comes not from the area of medicine but spirituality. She is a professor of religion as well as a Christian herself, and not long before her diagnosis she published a book about her area of expertise: prosperity-gospel churches, that uniquely American type of name-it-and-claim-it theology in which God will give you a bigger house or a fancy car — or healing from cancer — if you just ask with enough faith. While Bowler had never been that kind of Christian herself, being diagnosed with cancer made her better appreciate why people are drawn to that belief — and also more keenly aware of its shortcomings, since it promises what it doesn’t provide.

The other big difference between the two books, of course, is that Kalanathi’s memoir was published posthumously, while Kate Bowler, thankfully, is still with us, living “scan to scan” as she says, with experimental treatments that prolong her life while never entirely removing the shadow of impending death. She hosts an insightful and funny podcast called Everything Happens, and an internet friend of mine got to meet her last week at a conference where she spoke. I’m so glad to know she’s doing well for now … but her book will remind you of the beauty and fragility of every day.

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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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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.

top10books

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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Love for the Lost, by Catherine Fox

loveforthelostThe third and final book in Fox’s earlier “trilogy” of loosely connected novels introduces us to Isobel, who was a minor character in The Benefits of Passion. Isobel was a fellow student of Annie Brown’s in that book, also studying for the ministry, and often mocked by Annie for her straitlaced, humourless approach to life. In Love for the Lost we are immersed in Isobel’s world as she serves in her first pastoral role, where she is the curate under a gentle, kindly and tolerant priest named Harry. Isobel is, indeed, strait-laced and overly sincere, though we learn a good deal in this story about her early life and what made her the person she is. A person who genuinely tries to be good and thinks she’s doing a pretty good job of it is a difficult character to write sympathetically, but Fox manages to make us feel for Isobel even as the reader sometimes wants to wring her neck.

Isobel believes it’s better to ignore emotional pain and get on with the job, and of course that policy of dealing with problems is always going to bite back at you in the end — most likely in real life, but definitely in fiction. When Isobel falls in love with one entirely unsuitable man and then sleeps with another (who might actually be suitable except for the fact that she doesn’t love him), her carefully constructed world falls apart. Meanwhile, the reader gradually becomes aware of what Isobel is completely oblivious to: a third man, waiting patiently in the wings, who may truly be able to offer her the kind of companionship and acceptance she can only dream of.

Once again, characters from the earlier two novels reappear here, some peripherally and at least one very central to the story. We find out what has become of Mara, John, Annie and Will, but we don’t find out, entirely, what becomes of Isobel. Catherine Fox shows again her fondness for the open-ended ending, leaving Isobel in a place where it’s possible for the reader to hope for a bright future for her, but also leaving many things unresolved, including the romance plot. In fact, if you had read this novel when it first came out, you would have had to wait nearly 20 years for a passing reference in one of the Lindchester novels to find out where the romance plot of Isobel’s storyline was heading. When I finished Love for the Lost I had to go back and skim through the middle Lindchester novel to see if my vague half-memory of some of those passing references was correct (obviously I didn’t pay much attention to them the first time, because not having read the original series I didn’t know the characters to which they were referring).

Now that I’ve read all six of these novels by Catherine Fox I am eager for her to write more (though apparently she’s going to back to writing YA sci-fi for the moment, which, while I’m sure she’s good at it, is not exactly what I’m in the mood to read). It was odd reading her work “in reverse,” as it were, because you can definitely see that she grew and matured as a writer in between the two trilogies. She remains a master at creating believable, real characters, and incorporating their spiritual struggles into stories just as naturally as sexual desire, career choices, and all the other things that characters deal with in the course of a story. I can’t think of anyone who writes better and more naturally about faith and spirituality in the context of the modern novel.

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The Benefits of Passion, by Catherine Fox

benefitsThe Benefits of Passion is the follow-up novel to Fox’s Angels and Men, which I reviewed in my last post. After spending 300 or so pages with the prickly, discontented main character Mara in the previous novel, The Benefits of Passion offers the reader a much lighter mood and a much funnier main character. Annie Brown is a young woman studying for the Anglican priesthood while also, on the side, pursuing a career as a writer (sections of the novel Annie is writing are interspersed here with her own story). Annie is a thirty-one-year-old, single, former teacher, a witty observer of the foibles of others, especially her fellow students. Though she feels she had a genuine call to the ministry, she is now wrestling not only with her vocation but with her faith in God. She’s also wrestling with her own sexual desires, which she personifies as a large, unruly dog called Libby (after a former student’s mispronunciation of “libido” as “Libby-do”). Libby must constantly be called to heel, especially after Annie meets an attractive but irascible young doctor who she finds abrasive and insulting yet somehow endlessly fascinating.

That’s the set-up for the classic romance novel, of course, but this being a Catherine Fox book, the story goes in some very un-romance-like directions, including into some very deep and thoughtful reflections on the nature of ministry and faith. This story takes place some ten years after Angels and Men and at first appears to have little to do with the earlier book except for being set at the same university. But as the novel progresses, Annie encounters both Johnny Whittaker and Mara Johns from the first book, and the reader gets updated on how their story turned out. There’ll be further updates in the last novel of the series, which I’m getting to … but this book focuses on Annie and her need to make a life for herself that is true to all aspects of who she is. It’s not an easily resolved struggle, and in Fox’s novels there are no simple answers. But there is a rewarding story about a character I found very easy to identify with.

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