My year in books: 2016

This was an interesting exercise last year, so I thought I’d do it again.  Obviously, 2016 is widely considered to have been a pretty terrible year for the world, and it was also a challenging year for me, personally, and for many people I know and love.  There will no doubt be a lot of thinkpieces in the next few weeks about what’s happened, and what we’ve all learned (or not learned), especially because some of what happened isn’t going to end in 2017, and we’ll all have to deal with the long-term consequences of things like Trump and Brexit. I look forward to anxiety-reading all about this in the next three weeks. (I enjoyed this piece from Slate, although it was published in July, back when Trump was just a nightmare and not a terrifying, Orwellian reality.)

2016 y u no end soon?

Is it over yet? Source.

All this preamble is to say that I was curious about whether my reading patterns would somehow reflect the crap year we all just lived through. I know that there was one major change, which I didn’t track through Goodreads: I read many more escapist romance novels this year than I ever have before. I don’t tend to count those toward my book total for the year because they are a) embarrassing to list in a public forum (sorry, I’m still kind of a snob), and b) I breeze through them so quickly that sometimes it’s like does this even count as reading. But in my own personal Terrible Months of July, August, September, and October, that was really all that I was reading, in between a lot of crying and anxiety-ranting at friends and family. (Anxiety-verbing is mostly what I spend my time doing, to be honest. Thanks, friends and family, for putting up with me.)

So anyway, my official number for this year as of December 8, 2016 is 80 books read, but it’s a bit higher than that, unofficially speaking. There’s more of a numbers breakdown below. Aside from reading more escapist fare this year (in addition to the uncounted romance novels, there was a lot of Georgette Heyer and YA fantasy), I don’t see very many patterns in my reading. As befits a year where a lot of things fell apart, most of the books I read seem to have been grabbed at random.

First, some superlatives (categories vary slightly from last year)…

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Best book I read: I absolutely loved The Inconvenient Indian by Thomas King. Funny, sharp, insightful, and never dull, written with an appealing blend of anger and dry humour. The Canadian government is doing a #GiftingReconciliation book list this holiday season, and so far they’ve made some great choices, including King’s book. It should be required reading for everyone in North America. My two runners-up are The Break by Katherena Vermette (a book I’d love to see on the #GiftingReconciliation list) and My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante (more below).

Worst book I read: Unlike last year, I didn’t have an immediate winner here. I very much did not care for The Friday Night Knitting Club by Kate Jacobs, but it wasn’t pretending to be anything other than what it was—a somewhat fluffy escapist read.

Most fun reading experience: This is a three-way tie between two really fun books, Live Alone and Like It by Marjorie Hillis and The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery, and one pretty ridiculous book that I loved despite myself (The Hating Game by Sally Thorne, but fair warning, it is ridiculous). The Blue Castle is a true delight. Let the back-cover copy convince you:

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original-imageMost disappointing reading experience: 
I read Bill Bryson’s newest book The Road to Little Dribbling when I was on vacation in the U.K., thinking that a book in which he wanders around the U.K. would be a perfect
thematic match for my trip. I love Bill Bryson so much that I read the book he wrote about the summer of 1927 in America even though I don’t especially care about 1927, aviation, U.S. presidents, or old-timey baseball players, and I loved it—I trust him to take any boring old subject and write about it well and with great humour. So I was very disappointed when I finished The Road to Little Dribbling, which has all the heart and gentle wit of a diary kept by a cranky octogenarian muttering about “kids these days,” which is to say, hardly any.

Best endings: Unquestionably Elena Ferrante. I’ve only read two of the Neapolitan novels so far—My Brilliant Friend and The Story of a New Name—and I have to admit I got a bit bogged down during the middle of the second one, but Ferrante knows how to build up steam before plunging her reader right into a devastating, dark, and perfectly unexpected ending. Those endings are seriously just killer. They’re not really cliffhangers, but both of the ones I’ve read (no spoilers, don’t worry) bring back a character, object, and/or motif that was important earlier in the book in such a surprising and perfect way that you think, “I can’t wait to read what happens next.”

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Best new-to-me author: I read Kurt Vonnegut for the first time this year (Slaughterhouse-Five) and was appropriately blown away, but my pick in this category is his polar opposite. My friend Jill (hi, Jill!) recommended Georgette Heyer to me ages ago, and this year I finally dove in. If you like Jane Austen, Heyer is the closest you can come to recreating that magic, and unlike Austen she was very prolific, so you’ll be occupied for a while. Her plots are formulaic, not as rich or surprising as Austen’s (but whose could be), and the characters are often quite silly—let’s say “lightly drawn”—but her books are thoroughly entertaining if you like the Regency period.

Best sequel: A Court of Mist and Fury, Sarah J. Maas’s follow-up to A Court of Thorns and Roses, veered sharply away from the track she laid during the first book, to great effect. Many long YA series can be frustrating because new situations and characters are thrown in only to create obstacles between the main character and the “real” love interest or to unnecessarily prolong the series. Maas herself is guilty of this in her Throne of Glass books, but in A Court of Mist and Fury, she reworks a lot of what was presented as unquestionably good in book one, and not in a way that just feels like she’s treading water waiting to get back to the original plot or love interest.

Best title: The title of Anne Tyler’s retelling of  27070127
Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew is great: Vinegar Girl. The book itself, less so. I wanted Tyler to dig a lot more
meat out of Shakespeare’s story, which she places in modern-ish Baltimore and retells with a light, mostly too light, touch.

Best revisionist history: My Lady Jane, co-written by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows, is an absurd but fun retelling of the story of Lady Jane Grey, who was Queen of England for nine days between Edward VI and Mary I, aka the two weaker prequels to Elizabeth I. In this version of Tudor England, the Protestant Reformation becomes a conflict between people who can turn into animals at will (Protestants like Edward VI) and those who can’t (Catholics like Mary I). I said it was absurd!

The Thomas Hardy Award for the book that took so long to read I forgot most of the plot: Moby-Dick. Obviously. I haven’t finished it yet, so I assume this award will have the same recipient in 2017, and possibly 2018… But my coworker gave me an adorable pop-up version of the book, so if I read that, it basically counts, right?

rush-ohBook I read because it seemed enough like Moby-Dick to count as working on reading Moby-DickShirley Barrett’s Rush Oh! is a charming coming-of-age story set in a small whaling town in New Zealand around the turn of the 20th century. Teenager Mary Davidson has to care for her many younger brothers and sisters while supporting her father and his whaling crew after her mother’s death. It’s a much funnier, gentler story than that summary suggests, and it reminded me very much of my beloved I Capture the Castle, which brings me to my next category…

Book I read because it seemed like a straight rip-off of I Capture the Castle and I am
here for that: 
This is a very specific-to-me category, but I’ll read any book set in a dusty old English castle that is about a girl who needs to marry rich. Thankfully for me, Patrice Kindl delivered with Keeping the Castle. It isn’t really a straight rip-off of ICtC, as it wasn’t written in the 1940s and therefore has a more tongue-in-cheek modern attitude about all the ridiculousness of decaying English aristocrats and life in a castle. It’s also set in the Regency period and its protagonist is much less dreamy and romantic than our 31122beloved Cassandra, but Keeping the Castle definitely scratches that “castle” itch. Keep the escapist castle books coming 13249217in 2017, world—we’re going to need them. Also, this seems like a good place to note that I wrote about ICtC for The Billfold this month, thus fulfilling my desire to proselytize about that novel to the world (or the portion of the world that reads The Billfold).

Best literary experience: Okay, so 2016 wasn’t all bad for me, because I took an amazing trip to the U.K. (pre-Brexit) and *drumroll* saw a BBC drama about the Brontës being filmed in their hometown of Haworth, West Yorkshire. Which, by the way, is both the most picturesque place I think I’ve ever been and where I had the most delicious afternoon tea. I also saw the couch Emily died on and Charlotte’s appallingly tiny “mourning shoes,” which she decorated with the hair of her dead siblings. The Brontës were far more metal than you or I will ever be.

Bonnets!

Bonnets!

It was a pretty literary trip, in fact: we saw a Shakespeare play at the Globe Theatre; I went to the British Library not once but twice to look at two different exhibits; I also wandered through Lambeth carrying Somerset Maugham’s Liza of Lambeth with me (doing a bit of research for some freelance work, more on that in 2017); I visited the Charles Dickens Museum and was extremely excited to learn that I have the same butter churn as ol’ Chuck; then, the Brontë pilgrimage; and finally, we popped in to the Writers’ Museum in Edinburgh to say hi to Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Robbie Burns. Definitely the highlight of the year.

I was very excited.

I was very excited. Also, The Black Bull was where Branwell went to get drunk. History! It’s everywhere, even in pubs.

And now, some numbers. In 2016, I read:

  • 80 books (as of December 8, with several more that I didn’t add to the official total—a complete list minus those extras can be found here);
  • 65 books by women and 15 books by men (crush the patriarchy etc.)*;
  • 66 novels, 11 nonfiction books, two mysteries, and one book of short stories;
  • 24 books I’d classify as young adult (though the lines between young adult, “new adult,” and regular old adult fiction are becoming ever more blurred);
  • six books inspired by Jane Austen in some way (four by Georgette Heyer, who was absolutely a Jane Austen fangirl, in addition to Dear Emma by Katie Heaney and the diary Emma Thompson kept while she was filming Sense and Sensibility);
  • five books by one author, Sarah J. Maas (the most books by any single author that I read this year);
  • four books about dating and/or being single, including Live Alone and Like It, about which I’ve gone on at length, but also All the Single Ladies by Rebecca Traister, Labour of Love by Moira Weigel, and Date-onomics by Jon Birger;
  • two books about food in some way (Consider the Fork by Bee Wilson and Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal);
  • only one book set during WWII, Slaughterhouse-Five (this feels like it can’t possibly be right since all books eventually get back to WWII somehow…);
  • and once again, nothing by Jonathan Franzen! Good riddance, 2016!
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My cat’s favourite read this year was Commonwealth by Ann Patchett.

*A note: This includes one book co-written by three women. In last year’s post I included only the author’s sex (which is just a best guess based on a quick Google search or prior knowledge; obviously we can’t always know an author’s true gender identity preference). It’s important to me to read diverse books (after this year more than ever), and I still do a pretty terrible job of it, so I need to make more of an effort. But giving a breakdown here of “white writers” vs. “writers of colour” also doesn’t feel like a great solution for a whole host of reasons—sometimes you know a writer’s background or race and sometimes you don’t, and I don’t want to assume anything about anyone or lump all writers of colour into one category. I do know that I need to get better at this, though, so I might start noting this more in 2017. 

My year in books

Here are some random thoughts about a few things I read this year.

acresBest book I read: I’m going to give this one to A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley, which is a modern(ish) retelling of King Lear set on a farm in Iowa. It works way better than that sentence suggests. Smiley masterfully creates layer upon layer of small tragedies, giving the novel a truly Shakespearean sense of inevitability and fatalism. And hey, it won the Pulitzer Prize. In 1992.

Worst book I read: Hands down, this dishonour belongs to You Disappear by Christian Jungersen. At book club, I read aloud a list of things I hated about it. How much jam can one Danish family eat?!

montmarayMost fun reading experience: I loved reading Michelle Cooper’s Montmaray Journals books, a young adult series that begins in the 1930s and is set on a fictional island kingdom off the coast of Spain. The books follow the ragtag group of teenagers who live alone on the island, having inherited the kingdom from their various dead parents. When World War II breaks out, their lives change forever. The later books in the series go surprisingly dark and feature a fairly chilling portrayal of life in London during the war. For people looking to fill the I Capture the Castle void.

SITTENFELD_Eligible[3]Most disappointing reading experience: Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld, book 4 in The Austen Project, a series of modern-day retellings of Jane Austen novels by different authors. Sittenfeld is an excellent writer, Pride and Prejudice is a great book, but Eligible fails to take off. It doesn’t come out until April 2016, so you have some time to gird your loins. All of the books in this series so far have been very disappointing. No one is taking any risks with the plots or characters so it is, literally, like reading watered-down Jane Austen, with iPhones and university degrees and much less sly, sparkling wit.

Book that still comes up in conversation: The Circle by Dave Eggers. It’s scarily relevant to These Modern Times. (Also my pick for worst sex scenes.)

Books from my list that I read but am not going to blog aboutAmericanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (really liked this one; will be seeking out her other books); Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy (see below); The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro (the narration in this is as brilliant as everyone says); Philomena by Martin Sixsmith (boring; the movie was better).

judeobscureBook that took me the longest to read: Thomas Hardy’s 800-something-page ode to the tragedy of what happens when two fools can’t make up their minds to get married, Jude the Obscure. I began this in Cuba in March, took it to a Lake Huron beach in August, and was still reading it in November during my commute to work. I’m done now, but sometimes I feel like I’m still reading it. It’s really a book only fans of Thomas Hardy could love. And even then…

Book that reminded me strongly of a superior book I read a few years ago: Peter Nichols’s The Rocks has a cover so similar to the wonderful Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter that I can only salute the marketing and art departments who came up with it, because that cover is why I read this book. Beautiful Ruins was a critically acclaimed bestseller and The Rocks was clearly designed to fill the niche of “book set in the Mediterranean featuring doomed romances and secrets that are gradually revealed.” Beautiful Ruins is great; The Rocks is not as great, although the way the plot unfolded in reverse worked well.

See what I mean?

See what I mean?

Book that was clearly designed to appeal directly to me: First and Then by Emma Mills was marketed as Pride and Prejudice meets Friday Night Lights. Shut up and take my money.

Most random book I read this year: I found a copy of Jane Heller’s Name Dropping at my grandparents’ house (I was probably trying to avoid Jude the Obscure) and read it in a few hours. Not the kind of thing I’d normally pick up, but it was pretty entertaining!

Book I put on hold at the library early in 2015 that I am STILL waiting for as of December: I Can’t Believe It’s Not Better by Monica Heisey. It’s finally on its way to me…

Best movie based on a book: Far From the Madding Crowd, based on the book of the same name by that old joker Thomas Hardy. Runner-up: Room, which was extremely faithful to Emma Donoghue’s novel and just as devastating.

Movie based on a book that has kicked off a new reading obsession: I saw In the Heart of the Sea, which was mediocre at best but is based on an by-all-accounts excellent non-fiction book by Nathaniel Philbrick. I am now obsessed with 19th-century whaling. I’m planning to read Moby Dick in 2016 and have also bookmarked some other books on the topic. I wonder if Moby Dick will take less time than Jude the Obscure.

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Chris Hemsworth looks like this in In the Heart of the Sea so maybe it’s still worth seeing? Image source.

You can see a complete list of what I read in 2015 on Goodreads.  And now, some numbers. In 2015, I read:

  • 77 books in total (as I write this mid-December, I’m hoping to squeeze in a few more before 2016);
  • 64 books by women, 12 books by men, and 1 book by multiple authors both male and female;
  • 52 novels, 18 non-fiction books of various genres, 5 mysteries, and 2 books of short stories;
  • 20 books that I classify as “young adult”;
  • 8 books primarily about diseases, medicine, and/or health, including a book about vaccines and immunity and one about cholera, a novel about a man with a traumatic brain injury (You Disappear by Christian Jungersen, do not read it), 2 young adult novels about tuberculosis (Queen of Hearts by Martha Brooks and Extraordinary Means by Robyn Schneider), and 2 books in which a mysterious illness breaks out at an all-girls’ school (Conversion by Katherine Howe and The Fever by Megan Abbott);
  • 5 books set at least partially during WWII;
  • 5 books by Agatha Christie;
  • 4 young adult novels about impoverished families who live in crumbling castles (3 of these were in the same series and 1 was a re-read);
  • 2 trilogies (Jane Smiley’s Last Hundred Years and Michelle Cooper’s Montmaray Journals);
  • 2 novels inspired by Jane Austen (Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld and Austenland by Shannon Hale);
  • 2 books about royal weddings (The Royal We by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan and Royal Wedding by Meg Cabot);
  • 1 Victorian novel, Jude the Obscure;
  • … and, to the tune of “and a partridge in a pear tree,” nothing by Jonathan Franzen!

Happy New Year!