The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

shadowofthewindThis novel came very highly recommended by several people whose reading tastes I trust completely, so I went into it with high expectations. While it is a very good book and I was not disappointed, I do wonder if I might have loved it more if I’d just stumbled across it by chance, rather than it having such a weight of expectation to support.

The Shadow of the Wind, translated from the original Spanish, is exactly the kind of literary mystery tailor-made to draw me in. Daniel Sempere is a young boy in Barcelona in 1945, the only son of a bookseller. He discovers a novel called The Shadow of the Wind and becomes obsessed with it. But when he tries to find out more about the book and its mysterious author, hoping to read more of his work, he discovers a mystery. The author is presumed dead under mysterious circumstances, and nobody seems to know (or be willing to say much about him). His few novels, which never sold well in his lifetime, are increasingly hard to find — largely because it appears that someone has been going around systematically trying to destroy every copy in existence.

This puzzle leads young Daniel on a quest that will consume the next ten years of his life and bring an array of colourful characters into his path. Eventually, the mystery is solved in a satisfying way, though it was a solution I was able to predict from early on, and that may have been part of the reason I wasn’t wholly enthralled by the book. I love it when author can surprise me, and since I’m pretty dim about plots and clues this happens a fair bit. In this case, however, the twist at the end was one I could see coming a long ways off so I missed the pleasure of being surprised. I also thought there was a bit too much reliance on the tropes of undying love, and beautiful women as objects of desire (without being fully developed characters in their own right). However, balanced against all this, the book was beautifully written and a joy to read. The scene-setting is very evocative, and there’s a truly wonderful cast of characters. If you like books about books, this is one you will want to check out.

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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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In the Midst of Winter, by Isabel Allende

inthemidstIn the Midst of  Winter is many things. It’s a later-in-life romance about two people in their sixties. It’s an unsparing glimpse into the plight of illegal immigrants in the US and the situations that drive them to such desperation in their home countries. And it’s a cross between a crime novel and a screwball comedy as the three main characters try to dispose of a dead body for which none of them is responsible, but which they can’t simply walk away from.

A winter storm in Brooklyn, New York, brings the reclusive college professor Richard together with his tenant, Chilean visiting lecturer Lucia. Though both Richard and Lucia have plenty of broken romances in the past and are now well set in their single ways, there’s an attraction between them. But it doesn’t come to fruition until a minor car accident brings Evelyn, a girl from Guatemala now working as a nanny to a wealthy and sinister New Yorker’s family, into their lives. Evelyn, her employer’s car, and the inconvenient contents of its trunk.

All three characters’ backstories unfold throughout the novel. Evelyn’s early life in Guatemala, Lucia’s Chilean past, and Richard’s long-ago marriage to a vivacious Brazilian woman, are all rife with tragedy. Through their unlikely adventures, they form a bond and begin to create new lives out of the ruins of old.

I liked all the elements of this story and found the glimpses into Lucia’s and Evelyn’s lives particularly compelling — Evelyn’s story of illegal immigration is of course especially relevant in the light of current conflicts over immigration in the US. However, I found the style of writing less polished than I expected from Allende. I haven’t read a novel by her in many years, and I was surprised, since she is a very highly-acclaimed author, to find some of the same things I’ve complained about in Ken Follett novels — reams of telling instead of showing to convey information, very little subtlety, dialogue that’s often weighty with exposition and lacking in nuance. She definitely has a great story to tell here, but I feel like if this work had come from a beginning author rather than one with the weight of Allende’s name and reputation attached, an editor might have suggested working with it a little more, so that readers could draw some of their own conclusions rather than having the author wave morals and meanings in our faces as baldly as she does in some of this novel’s scenes.

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The Spring of the Ram, by Dorothy Dunnett

springoftheramThe last book I read in 2017 was the second volume of Dorothy Dunnett’s House of Niccolo series, in which the young hero, or anti-hero depending what you think of him at this point, Nicholas, travels to the kingdom of Trebizond on a trading mission and, of course, becomes embroiled in intrigue and danger. This is typical Dunnett in that it’s brilliantly researched, dense, not a quick read by any means, and the main character remains as morally ambiguous and difficult to get a hold on as always. Watching Nicholas’s skills as a merchant, a fighter, and master of intrigue grow throughout this novel is a joy — but be prepared for a solid gut-punch of an ending. Six more books to go in this series and I am prepared for a long, twisting, and intriguing ride.

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Saints for All Occasions, by J. Courtney Sullivan

saintsforallSaints for All Occasions is exactly the kind of sprawling family saga I love to read (and sometimes write). In the late 1950s, two Irish sisters, Nora and Theresa, set out for America. Nora is not so much following dreams as following a sense of obligation — to a fiancee she isn’t sure she wants to marry, who has already gone ahead of her to Boston. Theresa, her prettier, smarter, braver younger sister, has great dreams of life in America. Nora has only fears.

But before we even meet Nora and Theresa, we find out that in 2009, Nora’s fifty-year-old son Patrick, the eldest of her four children, dies in a car crash. The threads of story that link Patrick’s troubled life to his mother’s and aunt’s arrival in America half a century ago will make up the plot of the novel, along with a vivid overview of the Boston Irish immigrant experience over the second half of the twentieth century.

There’s everything here you would expect: family secrets, an iron-willed Irish matriarch, a family bound and torn by loyalties and rivalries. There are a few things you wouldn’t expect, like fascinating glimpses into the life of a convent of cloistered nuns in the post-Vatican II era. It’s all carried along with great characterization — not only Nora and Theresa but each of Nora’s four grown children are well-rounded, engaging and fascinating characters. All together it makes for a very competent depiction of family, community, and how the choices you make when you’re young shape the person you end up becoming, sometimes in unexpected ways.

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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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