Books I’m glad I read in 2016

The annual book recommendation blog! Here are 14 books I’m glad I read in 2016 – and that I think you might like, too! As with last year, I’ve mostly focused on books that I think aren’t as well known so while the Ancillary series was fantastic, and The Underground Railway just emotionally destroyed me, I’m not going to go into detail here because I’m pretty sure you’ve heard of those if they’re your kind of read. These are in my reading order because that’s how I wrote them down initially.

The Group (Mary McCarthy) and The Best of Everything (Rona Jaffe)
These were interesting to read within a month of each other because unfortunately there was a strong element of “The more things change…” Set in the 1930s and 1950s respectively, both follow a group of newly graduated women who experience everything good and bad that the world has to offer young, talented, privileged women. If you’re keen for some “oh, yeah, the past wasn’t all sepia toned ads for kitchenaid” then these are the books for you. Bonus: The Group famously inspired Sex and The City. Is that a pro or con? Don’t know.

Some of My Best Friends are Black (Tanner Colby)
I was a bit dubious about a book on segregation written by a white guy, but this is a truly thoughtful and well-researched book about how America got as segregated as it is. Colby realized one day that, um, actually, he didn’t have any black friends. How did that happen? He looks at the worlds of school, real estate, work, and church to figure it out.

Beauty Queens (Libba Bray)
This one’s not for everyone. It’s not exactly subtle (think early Ben Elton) but it sure was fun. A bunch of teen beauty queens get stranded on a (maybe not-so) deserted island and nothing goes as you might expect. A satire that includes a cast of smart, diverse young women, exploding beauty products, and a runaway boy band – it’s as silly as it sounds but smarter, too, and a damn good time.

Birdie (Tracey Lindberg)
This was one of the Canada Reads picks and I really liked it. It took me some time to get used to the writing style, but once I settled in I couldn’t put it down. The titular character is in something of a fugue state – she hasn’t gotten out of bed in days – as she revisits her childhood on a first nations’ reserve, teen years on the streets of Edmonton, a brief time in foster care and how she ended up working in a bakery in a small town in BC. Beautiful, thoughtful and funny.

Illustrado (Miguel Syjuco)
I’m struggling to describe this book, but I really liked it. It’s a weird episodic adventure following a man whose teacher – a famous Filipino author – is found dead in the Hudson River. The student flies to the Philippines in search of his last manuscript. Switching between excerpts of the author’s books, the story of his life, and the “present” of the hunt for the manuscript, it’s a darkly funny story about the history of the Philippines, family secrets and fame. If you like Mario Vargos Llosa then you’ll like this, too.

The Lights of Pointe Noire (Alan Mabanckou)
Alan left Pointe Noire, in the Republic of Congo, for Paris when he was 22 and returned 15 years later. This book is vignettes of his first trip home. Visiting his family, his childhood home, refamiliarizing with the customs he grew up with – it’s a fascinating and beautiful read that is simultaneously outsider and insider.

Waters of Versaille (Kelly Robson)
This novella is delightful. Smuggling a water spirit into Versailles to provide indoor plumbing might do wonders for your social status in the 17th century, but controlling her is going to prove more difficult than predicted!

Celia’s Song (Lee Maracle)
After I read Birdie I realized I’d read very few books by First Nations Canadian women. Unfortunately some of that turns out to be a supply issue, but this one was truly superb. It should come with a huge trigger warning because about half way through they rescue a child from horrendous abuse (this is not on the back or any description I found). That said, I’d still highly recommend it, just know what you’re in for. A fantastic story about change and identity, weaving traditional beliefs into modern challenges.

One Amazing Thing (Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni)
If someone asked you to tell them one amazing true story, what would yours be? A group of strangers trapped by an earthquake keep calm and bond through storytelling. I read Palace of Illusions last year and I really like Divakaruni’s writing and characters. She creates interesting, complex characters who are well-developed and whose decisions you may not agree with, but you understand – even when you know it won’t end well for them.

I Contain Multitudes (Ed Yong)
Go read this book! I’ve recommended this book to so many people. It’s about the relationship between microbes and animals – what we know, what we don’t, what we’re trying to work out. If you’ve read headlines like “Is your gut bacteria making you fat?”  and rolled your eyes then this is the book for you! For real, though. If you like science and books that make you go “huh!” then pick this up. When it comes out in paperback I’m buying 10 copies to give away.

Dreams in a Time of War (Ngugi wa Thiong’o)
A memoir from Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiong’o from his childhood in the 1940s and 50s. A very visual and vivid read about growing up in rural Kenya in the midst of a colonial crackdown under the British. Ngugi’s mother hopes that if he excels at school then he’ll make it out of the village. A wonderful memoir, and also a glimpse into a time and place in history that I didn’t know a lot about. If you want to be better informed about the impact of colonization on individuals, communities and countries then this is an important read.

The Book of Dahlia (Elisa Alberta)
This was a loan from a friend and it was an excellent recommendation. Dahlia is something of an antihero (refreshing to read a female version!) – stoner, unmotivated, directionless, kind of an asshole. Then she gets diagnosed with an incurable brain tumour. This book literally made me cry and laugh. I want to consume it and have it always be part of me. (I didn’t, I’m going to return it, I promise!) Go. Read it. I’ll talk to you later.

If you want more recommendations message me – otherwise I’ll be back with more next year! (And maybe other blogs before then… one can only hope.)

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

15 books I’m glad I read in 2015

I was going to do a “The 10 best books I read in 2015” but then I had 21 books and I cut that down but didn’t want to cull further.

Defining “best” is really hard, so one thing I’ve stuck to here is that I don’t think these are best sellers or widely recommended. The Martian was fantastic, so was Station Eleven and Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, but they’ve had quite a few headlines already so I’m throwing my support behind these lesser-known titles. Some you might not even have heard of, others are maybe floating around on a “some day” list and this will help solidify their place on your nightstand. Most aren’t from 2015, but this is when I read them.

In order of reading:

Ammonite, Nicola Griffiths

Fairly hard sci fi. An anthropologist visits a planet that was colonized 300 years ago, abandoned due to a virus, and where the few survivors have established a complex society.

Horrorstor, Grady Hendrix

This is the book that inspired the rule “If you put a pillow on top of it then it can’t get you” and also that made me scared of Ikea. I love horror books and this was top notch funny and scary.

The Inconvenient Indian, Thomas King

“A Curious History of Native People in North America” is the sub-title, and that about sums it up. Personal, funny and honest, King links the violence, land theft, government policies, and attempts at reparation between the US and Canada to give a comprehensive, if informal, history of North America post-colonization from the Native American/First Nation perspective.

Death and the Penguin, Andrey Kurkov

Russian surrealism about a man who has adopted a penguin from the zoo because the city can’t afford to feed the zoo animals. He’s a writer who gets an off-the-books job to write profiles of local power players… who then start turning up dead.

Fledgling, Octavia Butler

Look, I love a good vampire myth retelling so maybe I’m biased, but Butler is a great writer and if the whole Twilight overload thing tainted the idea of vampires then this could be the palate cleanser you need. Modern, complex, engrossing… it’s the vampire world you kind of hope might be true. (Also if you like this try Daylight, by Elizabeth Knox.)

This Blinding Absence of Light, Tehar Ben Jelloun

Based on the testimony of a man who spent 18 years in an underground prison in Morocco. Literally underground – no light, little space to move. I honestly don’t have word to describe this book. It’s beautiful and haunting and occasionally funny. Never a comfortable read, but a book that I do think everyone should read.

White is for Witching, Helen Oyeyemi

I love Helen Oyeyemi. She does such interesting and compelling things with narrative and language. I think this might be my favourite of hers, but I’m finding it hard to describe. Miranda is a twin whose mother is gone (but what kind of gone?). She has a compulsion to eat chalk and is haunted by the house she lives in. Or is the house haunted by generations of women who lived there before her? Stop reading my description and go read the book.

We Are All Completely Fine, Daryl Gregory

This was really fun and funny. What if every survivor of every horror movie/book met once a week for a support group? But what are the true motivations of the person who has brought them together… da da duuuuum.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, N. K. Jemisin

One of the richest, most compelling fantasy books I’ve read in ages. This is the first in a series, I bought the compendium and read them all straight through. A girl from an outer province is brought to the ruling city as a pawn in a game of who will be king, but she’s got former gods on her side (or trying to get her on their side) and more family politics than Game of Thrones (that’s probably not true, I just wanted to make a relevant high-fantasy reference). Go. Read it. Then read the next two books.

Being There, Jerzy Kosinski

A hilarious, but frighteningly believable, novella about a man who might end up ruling the world… accidentally.

To Say Nothing of the Dog, Connie Willis

I can’t believe I didn’t read anything by Connie Willis until this year! A great book about time travel where everyone knows the rules of time travel… and then one of them gets broken and they have to figure out what that means for the past and the future.

Widow Basquiat, Jennifer Clements

This is kind of a memoir and kind of a biography and kind of a poem. Jennifer Clements was close friends with Suzanne  Mallouk – Jean-Michel Basquiat’s long-time partner and muse – and recounts in vignettes their time together. It was Year of Basquiat for me and I loved it.

Lost Boi, Sassafras Lowry

You didn’t know you wanted to read a queer, punk, bdsm retelling of Peter Pan, did you? Well now you know and now it’s on your list!

Nevada, Imogen Binnie

Sardonic, self-distructive and disconnected from the world, Maria is a trans woman living in New York whose carefully balanced life tips over, leaving her reeling and trying to figure out what to do next… and whether $400 worth of heroin will help. Trans narratives by trans authors should be compulsory reading (see also: Redefining Realness by Janet Mock, and Gender Failure by Ivan Coyote).

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Remembering and reflecting

My grandfather William Verdun McIlveen fought in World War Two. He was part of a tank team and was mentioned in dispatches, was award a medal and delivered a baby in a ditch beside the road. He was also never the same.

I found this news article that mentions him and his commendation, which made me feel truly proud of him, but also sad about the “some half-dozen shot down” and curious about the 50+ people who surrendered at that site. We have simplified World War Two into such an easy narrative – there were good guys and bad guys. We were the good guys. The good guys won. But those half-dozen men who died in that piece of bush in France were not The Bad Guys. They were men, some may have been just boys, who were fighting for their country because that’s what was expected and demanded of them. They probably didn’t hate Jewish people, they probably weren’t all ardent Nazis, they were Germans who fought because their country was at war.

Remembrance Day we celebrate the freedom that was fought for on our behalf, but every battle comes down to individuals making decisions. To advance or retreat. To fight or run. To shoot or hide. The vast global factors that have caused the war meant little to them before they had to leave their lives and loved ones behind. And in the grand scheme it is hard to quantify any one individual’s affect on those global trends.

I’m glad my grandfather was brave and loyal. He saved the lives of other Canadians that day. Three of his four children were born after the war ended. But he and others suffered greatly because of that war and every war before and since.

Read the original article here: Hamilton Spectator WW2 article

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Books that should come with a warning label

I just finished reading An Untamed State, by Roxane Gay, and it got me thinking about how some books should have warning labels. I was so totally unprepared for how engrossing and emotional that book would be. It tore me to pieces. Would a warning have put me off? I don’t think so, but I might have been better prepared! Movies and TV shows come with ratings and warnings, so here are some proposed warning labels for books:

Warning: Will tear you to pieces
An Untamed State
Kindred
Everything is Illuminated
The Time Traveller’s Wife

Warning: Fun read but overhyped so now you’ll be disappointed
The Da Vinci Code
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Divergent
Actually every other YA trilogy released recently or in the future.

Warning: Will make you sad because you’ll never write a book this good
Everything by Jeffery Eugenides
The Thirteenth Tale
Season of Migration to the North
The Shining Girls

Warning: Awkward to read in public
How to be Black
How to be a Woman

Warning: Start of a series that you will get addicted to then have to wait years for the next book
Storm Front (The Dresden Files)
The Name of the Wind (The Kingkiller Chronicles)
Clan of the Cave Bear (Earth’s Children)
Naked in Death (In Death series)

What warning labels would you like to see? Which books would you put into these categories?

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Orphans and Orange onscreen: Stories about women are the new black

I don’t usually watch a lot of TV, I prefer to read (as earlier posts will indicate) but last weekend I watched about nine hours of TV – to the point that I got a headache and realized I hadn’t been outside the apartment all day. What had me so engaged? Like half the rest of the world, it was season two of Orange is the New Black (Team Sophia!). I paused it only to watch the latest episode of Orphan Black (Team Cosima!).

It was watching one after the other that made me realize the similarities between the two shows. No, there are no clones in OITNB, and the felons in Orphan Black aren’t locked up, but the parallels of the shows are there.

All about the women
The most obvious similarity is that both centre on women. Complicated, engaging, infuriating women who make terrible decisions, enormous sacrifices and amazing connections to their audience. There are so many female characters that simply fit an old trope or stereotype – the nagging wife, the desperate singleton, the catty best friend. It is frustrating to never see yourself represented on screen in any complexity so the fact that the women in these shows are anything but simple is so rewarding to watch.

Motivation
Some of the characters in both these shows make the dumbest decisions. Seriously. So. Dumb. But I always understand WHY they’re making that decision. There are no “villains” in the shows because we understand their motivation. We can hate a character one week, and the next week the writers will throw us head first down the rabbit hole of their backstory and suddenly we commiserate and sympathize with someone who seemed heartless. I’m still waiting for that to happen with Vee on OITNB. Oh she makes me so mad…

Diversity
Both shows have impressive diversity represented on screen, especially considering Orphan Black essentially has the least diverse cast ever. Orphan Black’s ethnic diversity could certainly be better, but its representation of LGBT characters is fantastic to see. I love the inclusion of Tony, the transgender clone that threw Felix for a loop last episode and I hope we see a lot more of him in the future! OITNB is even more impressive. Its ensemble cast includes a range of ages, races, ethnicities and classes that is rarely represented on screen and it doesn’t shy away from telling complicated and challenging stories.

Education
Science, politics, sociology and psychology – these shows delve into some of the biggest issues of our time and do it so flawlessly that you don’t even realize you’re learning. Debate around women owning their own bodies; the realities of the prison system; gender, sex and sexuality, there are few topics these shows won’t tackle. Considering how white bread and non-threatening most TV shows are it is refreshing to see complicated ideas explored through character experiences.

Moral of the story: If you’re not watching both these shows you are missing out! 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

What should have happened in Doctor Sleep

Note: Here there be spoilers for Stephen King’s latest novel, Doctor Sleep.

Disclaimer: I did actually enjoy this book quite a lot, despite all indications here to the contrary.

Doctor Sleep continues the story of Danny Torrance, the child from The Shining, as he fights his literal and figurative demons (ghosts and alcholism) and ends up plotting to bring down a centuries-old group of psychic “vampires” that eat the souls of people with psychic power. He teams up with 13-year-old super duper powerful Abra, as well as way too many boring men (Billy, Casey, John?, Abra’s Dad?) to defeat “The woman in the hat” – Rose – who leads the bad guys, called The True Knot.

Caitlin’s Alternate Ending:

The main issues I had with the book almost all revolve around Abra. a) She’s incredibly underdeveloped for someone who’s meant to be a main character and b) right from the start she’s stronger than Rose so there’s very little suspense in whether she’ll win. The book gets a little boring once Abra becomes a major part, so my suggestion would be to make her less substantial.

Instead of culminating when she’s 13, the main showdown should happen when Abra is six or seven – old enough to communicate and have some agency, but not old enough to actively problem solve. Then the main plot and character arc is Danny becoming a true good guy, a hero.

Abra’s a lighthouse of psychic power so of course the True Knot sense her when she’s still quite young and set out to find her. She feels the threat coming, and calls on Dan to help her (she’s already communicated with him a number of times by that age anyway). Dan, with just Billy’s help, goes in search of her and tries to figure out what he can about the True Knot. The climax of the book is Abra being found and kidnapped by the True Knot and a showdown between Dan and Rose, who seem much more evenly matched. Dan sacrifices himself for Abra, who goes home safely to her family but who will never forget. It’s nice because it reflects The Shining, with Dan in Dick Halloran’s place and it’s a less complex but more complete story.

King has always killed characters and it’s telling that no one important dies in Doctor Sleep. Is the King of Horror going soft on us?

As I said, I did enjoy Doctor Sleep but felt it should have been 100 pages shorter, and a bit faster paced. Now I have to figure out what other books I want to re-write the ending to.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Diversity beyond the prize lists

As I posted a few months back, I’m trying to improve author diversity in my reading lists. I’ve done pretty well as far as “worthy” books – the ones people review in prestigious publications or recommend to their book clubs – but one thing holding me back is in what I call my “in between” books.

Between all the great, worthy, moving, incredible reads, I like to read something lighter and fluffier. For example, last year before I read 14 Jim Butcher novels. Early this year I read 12 Suzanne Brockmann thriller/romance novels (which I would recommend if you like that kind of book – she’s very good). Nora Roberts, Linda Jackson, Karen Robard, Lee Childs – they’re fun, let me switch off for a bit and just enjoy a crazy adventure. But all those authors are white American. It’s been pretty easy to find amazing books by authors from all over the world and all walks of life, but if I really want to improve my overall diversity, I need to find equivalents for the books I read in two hours then hunt desperately at the library for the sequels.

Enter Beverly Jenkins. I just finished Edge of Dawn, about a woman whose father has been killed in a house fire. On her way home from burying him, she gets drawn into a terrifying international plot surrounding a diamond entrusted to her father before she was even born. Can she outwit, outlast and outplay the bad guys, while still finding time to fall in love, make witty quips, fire a rocket launcher from a car and meet long lost relatives who shoot first and ask questions later? Of course she can – that’s what kind of book this is 🙂

I’ll definitely pick up more by Jenkins – and check out some of the other recommendations I found under “If you like Barbara Jenkins you’ll love…” lists. Her characters are really fun, with the kind of details and personality tics that draw me to Nora Roberts, and at 350 pages it’s the perfect length for a palate cleanser between Worthy Books.

If anyone has other recommendations in this vein let me know in the comments. I’ve found lots of lists out of the US of things like “African American Romance Writers” or “Asian American Mystery Writers” but haven’t had as much luck finding things from outside the US. That might be because of how the market works, but I’d be interested in hearing recommendations from Canada, the UK etc. Or, if they’re available in translation, anywhere in the world. Next week I’m going to start hunting for the home-grown mystery novels being written in Nigeria and Japan and India (etc.).

Year to date:
Read 48 books
32 by women (66%)
12 by people of colour (25%)

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized