In 2015, I joined Goodreads and set myself a very ambitious goal of reading 50 books over the course of the year. I managed approximately 30, and I feel very good about that. It’s definitely a higher number of books than I had read the year before, or for a few years previous. For 2016, I’m setting a goal of 30, but given the fact that I’m due to have a baby in three months, I’ll consider myself lucky if I make it to 15. We’ll see how it goes.
Here’s a list of ten, in alphabetical order, all of which I really enjoyed. I don’t know how many of these books deserve to be on a lifetime-tops list, or whether all ten really knocked me on my ass, but each stayed with me for one reason or another and I enjoyed them all enough to recommend them.
One thing that made a difference to my reading pace was the fact that Colin and I got a subscription to Audible this year, which means that technically I didn’t “read” all of the books below – I listened to some. I thought that my listening attention span wouldn’t hold for a full-length novel (I do ok when it comes to podcasts, but the idea of listening to something that’s 10 or even 20 hours long … I was skeptical). I discovered a few things about my listening ability. I’m perfectly capable of listening to a 20-hour story and not letting my attention wander, as long as it’s a particular kind of book. Relatively straightforward, plot-driven fiction works. Headier lit or complex non-fiction doesn’t.
One of my favourite books of the year was the very dense José Saramago novel, The Double (which I read because the film Enemy is based on it). Great movie, by the way, and phenomenal book. I highly recommend both. I know that if I’d tried to listen to The Double, I would have given up. The language is too dense and lush and my mind would wander in ways that it never does when I’m looking at the words on a page. I gave up on Colson Whitehead’s Zone One on audio for the same reason, but might pick it up on paper at some point.
On the other hand, I really enjoyed listening to The Cuckoo’s Calling and The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith, books one and two in a straightforward-but-fun detective series that didn’t end up making it to my top ten. It turns out the books were actually written by J.K. “Harry Potter” Rowling under a pseudonym – an interesting piece of trivia that’s only relevant because I was shocked (after a number of enjoyable but disappointingly sexist hardboiled detective tales) to read one with interesting female characters that weren’t victimized in cliché ways (though it was still about a tough guy gumshoe). Turns out it was written by a woman. There are no coincidences in this world.
My top ten are listed below, in alphabetical order. I didn’t realize until I compiled the list that I ended up with a fairly even split between male and female authors (though men outnumber women on my total 2015 list), but I’m glad about that. The ones I listened to are marked with an (A).
Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting by Pamela Druckerman
I’ve been reading (or at least skimming) a lot of baby books. Many are helpful, many are just as unhelpful. Most thankfully show their biases early so that I can give up on them if they don’t seem to fit into my personal child rearing philosophies. This one was fun because a lot of the advice sounded sensible and useful (though some definitely did not!) but also because it was one mother’s personal memoir of the confounding early years of parenting. She was a sympathetic character to follow, and unlike a lot of books that focus on alarming what-ifs or the technical ins & outs of birthing and handling babies, this one was a bit more fun to read and left me feeling less stressed, rather than more.
Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes (A)
Colin put this book on his Audible wish list because it sounded intriguing and we both really enjoyed it. Lauren Beukes very skillfully blends good mystery plots with a hint of fantasy. The book follows a number of intersecting stories that circle tightly around the grisly and bizarre murder of a boy, ultimately converging on a pretty satisfying climax. After I finished it I sought out one of her earlier books, The Shining Girls, about a serial killer who seems to defy the laws of time. Both books really feel like crime stories, and the fantasy elements blend seamlessly in to her prose without ever feeling tacked on or outlandish. I’m not a fantasy fan (in the Lord of the Rings sense) but I am a huge fan of good magic realism, and that’s what this feels like. It’s really well done.
The Double by José Saramago
Beautifully written, confounding, funny and fantastical story about a mild mannered history teacher who discovers that, living in the very same city as him is his absolutely-identical double. Naturally, he becomes obsessed with confronting the double, a decision that is destined to lead to a lot of strange results. Hard to discuss this book in terms of “plot” because so much of it happens inside the heads of the two men. I sought out this book because I’m a big fan of the film that was adapted from it (Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy) and because I truly couldn’t imagine what the novel-version of that story could possibly look like. Very, very different from the film, as it turns out, and it gave me a few interesting perspectives on the choices made in the film, which play with the “explanation” in a way that’s quite different from the book.
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
In addition to signing up for Audible this year, I also bought an e-reader. The Goldfinch was recommended by Kobo and I bought it on a whim before I’d even heard of it or realized that it was a critically acclaimed, Pulitzer Prize winning bestseller. I found the lengthy memoir-esque story of Theodore Decker (who as a boy does one impulsive thing that changes the course of his entire life) incredibly engrossing. Beautifully written, with lots of true-feeling observations from childhood, and a character of a troubled Slavic best friend that I really thought nailed a lot of “Slavic characteristics” without resorting to stereotype. The Goldfinch is definitely not the sort of book I ever pick up for myself, but I enjoyed it a great deal.
The Group by Mary McCarthy
Another victory for the Kobo Marketing Machine™, The Group was recommended to me after I finished The Goldfinch, in that “if you liked that, you might like this” way that algorithms work. I have no idea what Kobo thinks the books have in common (they were both written by women? They are both about … people?) but I’m glad I took a chance on it. The book is about the post-graduation lives of eight female Vassar College grads (class of 1933). I had somehow (inexplicably) never heard of Mary McCarthy before, so at first I didn’t realize the book wasn’t contemporary, but was actually written by a woman who herself graduated from Vassar in 1933. I was really impressed with the way she captured the struggles of being a woman in the ’30s (in a way that feels incredibly relevant in the present day). Now that I know she lived through it, I’m marginally less surprised that she was able to capture it so well, but far more impressed with how much her observations about the inner struggles of these women (with marriage, career, children, everyday sexism, and so on) still ring true today.
Horrorstör by Grady Hendrix
Full disclosure: Grady is a friend of mine, but I promise that is not why his book made it onto my list. Grady’s one of the funniest people I know. He’s charming and fun and tells a great story and I always knew he was a talented writer (his Kaiju Shakedown column archive is totally worth your time), so of course I was hoping I’d like the book. I did. It’s really funny, and scary, and has some amazingly gross parts, and the ending is satisfying (it’s about an employee in an IKEA-knockoff shop who must contend with some unexpectedly supernatural problems on the job). Do I even need to say anything more than the phrase “haunted IKEA” to pique your interest? No. I’m thrilled that the book has been a big success and that I can honestly recommend it to people looking for a fun horror read. I’m looking forward to Grady’s next book, My Best Friend’s Exorcism, which is coming out very soon!
Lock In by John Scalzi (A)
I don’t read much sci-fi, but I listened to this book after Colin selected it on our Audible account, and I loved it. It’s a murder mystery that takes place in a very plausible near-future in which a large percentage of the population has been struck down by “Haden’s Syndrome”, a virus that causes total physical paralysis but leaves its victims completely ok mentally, “locking people in” to their own minds. In this near future, scientists have figured out how to allow “Hadens” (as they’re colloquially called) to re-join the physical world by letting them control robot bodies in which their minds can dwell while their physical selves lay in beds at home or in hospitals. The story is actually about an FBI agent (who happens to be a Haden) trying to solve a murder that may have involved another Haden. The mystery is good, but what’s truly fantastic about the book is how fully fleshed out this world actually is. It’s incredibly well thought out and detailed. Lock In was accompanied by a bonus novella, Unlocked: An Oral History of Haden’s Syndrome, which compiles the “testimony” of scientists, politicians, historians, survivors and sufferers into a complete account of how the disease spread, how treatments were researched and discovered, and how the world changed as a result. It feels disturbingly, eerily plausible.
Night Film by Marisha Pessl (A)
I don’t recall who recommended this book but I’m grateful to them, because it was definitely one of my top faves this year. Another “mystery story”, this time about the seeming suicide of Ashley Cordova, the daughter of a mysterious and enigmatic underground horror filmmaker, Stanislas Cordova (formerly prolific, now a total recluse). Bootlegs of Cordova’s works are traded and watched on a cinematic black market for people who seek out the most extreme and disturbing of experiences. Never appearing but totally omnipresent, the spectre of Cordova hangs over the book like an ominous cloud – a great counterpoint to the not-always-all-that-brilliant-or-competent Scott McGrath, the disgraced writer (disgraced after an article on Cordova nearly destroyed his career) and would-be detective who takes it upon himself to “solve” the case of Ashley’s death. I was so totally won over by Marisha Pessl’s complex story structure and engaging prose that I immediately sought out her previous novel, Special Topics In Calamity Physics, a winner on title alone. It’s high on my 2016 reading list.
Transferral by Kate Blair
Full disclosure: Kate is another friend on the list. I’ve known for years that she was a talented writer with a lot of determination and a hell of an impressive work ethic, so I was incredibly happy and proud of her this year when she published her debut novel. Transferral is a YA novel about an alternate-reality London in which the government has figured out how to transfer diseases from one person to another, and uses this as a way to punish criminals and keep the rest of the population healthy. When a prominent politician’s sixteen year old daughter gets tangled up in the case of a man who may have been the unfair victim of these policies, she decides to dig deeper and begins to question her father’s tough-on-crime policies as well as her own belief that the transferral program is good and just. Transferral was a fun, quick read that I will absolutely be buying for the young readers on my future Christmas and birthday lists.
The Troop by Nick Cutter (A)
I’m a fan of Craig Davidson, the Canadian author whose novel Rust and Bone was adapted to the 2012 Cannes hit & award winning film by the same name (I really disliked the film but that’s no fault of Mr Davidson’s). I’m currently reading Cataract City and really loving it too. I discovered this past year that Davidson has a horror alter-ego, Nick Cutter, and hoooooooly shit is he ever good at writing horror. I don’t read much horror but reading (or rather, listening to) The Troop was a very intense, visceral experience. I often only-semi-jokingly refer to it as an exercise in trying not to dry heave every five minutes. This book is about a scout troop camping on an isolated island off Canada’s east coast, who encounter a sick stranger whose “infection” the boys must now contend with. The prose – the descriptions of what exactly the disease is, and what it does to the human body – is so incredibly disgusting (in the best possible way, as I’m sure you understand), I was genuinely taken aback, and had to take frequent breaks while listening. I like to put on an audio book while I’m cooking sometimes. Not this one!! Cutter/Davidson did a phenomenal job of capturing the characters of the young scouts, too. It can be hard to get kids right, but he nails it, which makes it all the more upsetting when they start getting infected by the mysterious bug. Highly recommended, but only if you’ve got a very strong stomach.