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.)