Category Archives: Uncategorized

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, by Arundhati Roy

This boutmosthappinesok took me quite awhile to get through. Not that it’s not brilliantly written — it is. But one of the issues with reading more diverse books from writers of different cultural backgrounds — which is something I am consciously trying to do — is that the introduction of a lot of unfamiliar setting, vocabulary, and background can slow the reader down, and it certainly did for me in this case. 

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is not a simple, easy to read novel. It may not be an easy read even for someone who is very familiar with life in contemporary India, the politics of the Punjab, and the roles of transgender people in Indian culture. The writing is dense, the story multilayered with many different points of view and characters whose stories don’t intersect till near the end of the book. It’s the story of Anjum, a transgender woman growing up in Delhi, eventually finding a niche in the community as part of a group of recognized-yet-outcast trans women called hijras. The role of the hijra in Indian society is fascinating and I did a little googling to learn more about it afterwards, but Roy writes (as is, I think, appropriate for a writer immersing a reader in a different culture) as though we already know all this, leaving the reader to piece together the bits of information. Then, just as we’re absorbing Anjum’s character and world, the scene shifts to a different place and time, a whole new cast of characters.

This book is very well done, but it’s also quite a lot of work. at least, it was for me — so readers who are not already very familiar with the world Roy is writing about should be prepared for a total-immersion course.


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Assassin’s Fate, by Robin Hobb (plus 15 previous books)


I’ve reviewed several Robin Hobb books here on this blog in the past, and I’ve been reading her books since before I started book-blogging. She’s pretty much my favourite fantasy author (maybe tied with Guy Gavriel Kay — I think they’re both criminally underrated by fantasy fans). With the release of her latest novel Assassin’s Fate this spring promising a conclusion to at least some of the major story lines in her “Realm of the Elderlings” cycle, if not to the entire series, I decided to embark on a massive re-read of all these interconnected books. I had read them all over a period of about fifteen years, widely spaced apart and sometimes out of order, and I really wanted to get the experience of reading the whole cycle in order so that all the characters and plot threads would be fresh in my mind when I came to reading Assassin’s Fate. It turned out to be a wonderful two-month immersion in an intricately-constructed, lovingly detailed fantasy world.

Note: in the paragraphs below I’ve tried to give an overview of this series and why I love it, with as few spoilers as possible. I can’t promise NO spoilers whatsoever, but I’ve made as much effort as I can to tell you enough about this series to whet your appetite without ruining any major plot points (I hope). However, if you’re in the midst of reading these books and you’re super-sensitive to even the vaguest spoilers, proceed with caution!

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The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, by Katherine Howe

deliverancedaneThis is in that category of books I should have loved, but didn’t. I normally love books where a contemporary character slips into a past world (whether through research or through magic!), but this novel, in which a Harvard graduate student uncovers her ancestor’s life during the era of the Salem witch trials, never really engaged me. There’s some nice detail in the colonial-era sections of the novel, but the modern-day story never felt convincing, and the main character did not seem well informed enough about the era she was supposedly studying to be a convincing grad student. This was a good concept that wasn’t nearly as well developed as it could have been.

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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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