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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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Angels and Men, by Catherine Fox

angels-and-menHaving loved Catherine Fox’s recent trilogy of Lindchester novels to a ridiculous degree, I decided to travel back in time to read her three earlier novels, written in the late 90s. These three books form not exactly a trilogy, but they are linked, with recurring characters carrying over from one book to another. 

The first novel, Angels and Men, tells the story of Mara Johns, a graduate student who is trying to pick up the threads of her “normal” life after both she and her sister got involved with a cult-like religious sect, with tragic results. While Mara is obviously scarred by what happened to her sister, I often felt like the impact of the tragedy, particularly the family’s reaction to it, was not as fully explored or developed as it needed to be. Much more time was spend on Mara’s inner turmoil and her relationships with three young men: Rupert Anderson, Johnny Whittaker, and Andrew Jacks. Andrew, who is her neighbour in college residence, goes from being the thorn in her side to being, at least some of the time, a true friend. He’s also not a contender for her romantic affections, but both Rupert and Johnny, who are both studying for Anglican ministry, are. Mara is, to some degree, attracted to both of them, though far more deeply attracted to the charismatic Johnny, who is just as brilliant and just as tormented as she is.

Overall, I found this to be an intriguing novel, though unsatisfying in many ways — appropriately, I think, for a first novel by someone whose later work I already know is going to turn out to be brilliant. As I said, there are threads undeveloped here that I thought deserved more attention, and there were other things that troubled me — acts of violence within all of Mara’s relationships with the men in the novel that seemed to be just taken for granted as the sort of thing people with a passionate, intense nature are likely to do, but which seemed seriously unhealthy to me (and weren’t dealt with seriously enough to account for that, if you see what I mean). Mara herself is an often unlikeable and difficult character, but I liked that — I like to be inside the head of young female characters who are angry and intractable and don’t fit well into romance-style plots.

The book ends on a very open-ended cliffhanger, but we’ll be meeting some of these characters again in later books, so the lack of resolution wasn’t, in the long run, a big problem for me.

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His Majesty’s Dragon, by Naomi Novik

hismajestysdragonThis is the first book in a series that my husband read and really loved. I was more in the “liked it, didn’t love it” category. The premise is brilliant and definitely drew me in — historical fiction mixed with fantasy, in that it takes place during the Napoleonic  Wars, but dragons are a thing. So England and France, as well as fighting on sea and land, are also fighting in the air with the trained squadrons of dragons. The main character of the story, Lawrence, is a naval officer whose life takes an unexpected turn when a dragon’s egg hatches on the deck of the ship he’s commanding. Since dragons bond to the first human they encounter upon hatching, Lawrence’s life is now bound up with that of the dragon Temeraire, and he has to leave the Navy to take up a new life as a dragon-rider.

So far, so good. Brilliant premise, and there’s a lot of great work done here by Novik in blending the historical world of the Napoleonic Wars with the fantastical world of dragons. But in this first volume, which deals with Temeraire’s training and how Lawrence adapts to his new life, there’s just not enough high-stakes conflict to keep me on the edge of my seat. Every conflict that Lawrence and Temeraire encounter seems to be resolved a little bit too easily, as though this is a world where nothing can go too seriously wrong. And as a huge fan of Robin Hobb’s novels, in which dragons are an arrogant species who believe that they, and not humans, deserve to rule the world, it’s hard to accept that a species as intelligent and powerful as dragons would be unquestioningly content with their role serving humans and fighting in human wars, as they are here.

His Majesty’s Dragon is the first in a long series of novels, and I found the characters and the world interesting enough that I will probably revisit it and read some of the others since they’re on my iPad now from Jason reading them. But I hope the plots get more high-stakes and compelling, because I really want to believe things can go terribly wrong for these characters, so that I can feel I just have to read on.

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