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.
Every year I set a vague goal for myself to “read more”. Much like the “exercise more” or “drink less” or “go to bed earlier” resolutions that dominate most people’s lists, “read more” actually means “change your lifestyle enough so that you have time for this activity that you love (and have always loved) but that requires a certain amount of your actual focus and attention, and is therefore difficult to wedge into the end of a 15 hour workday when your brain is screaming for the love of god, just turn on the television.”
My downfall when it comes to the “read more” resolution is usually an overly ambitious reading list. It’s all well and good if you already have the sort of life-schedule that allows you several hours of quality alone-time every day so that you can really sink into Moby Dick (on my list, btw). But if all you can manage is a half hour before you literally pass out mid sentence at the end of the day … well, that’s fine too but it’s not always conducive to really getting into heavy, dense 1,000 page tomes.
This year, I decided to be ambitious about quantity (50 books! Nearly one a week! Take that, 2015!) but less ambitious about quality. That doesn’t mean I’m reading garbage. 50 Shades of Grey is not on my list (although this blog about it is). I am, however, reading a pleasant mix of literature and just-plain-ol’-fiction. And I’m bringing non-fiction into the mix, because I find that when I get into non-fiction, I love it almost more than anything else I could be reading. But I rarely think to pick it up. Similar to the relationship I have with documentary films.
I’ve done two things this year that are going to immensely improve my numbers, and already have:
A) I got an e-reader. This one.
Let me confirm, first of all, that I am absolutely a “book person”. I love the feeling, the texture, the smell, the heft of real books. I don’t feel at home unless I’m surrounded by full-to-bursting bookshelves. I find it impossible to part with books. Even books I don’t particularly like, or ever plan to read again. I love (LOVE!) books.
But (there’s always a but, isn’t there) I can’t afford to buy every book I feel like reading, and I certainly don’t have the space for them all in my home. For better or worse, I’m used to being able to access most things close-to-instantaneously, because that’s my relationship to music and TV and films, so it’s annoying that I can’t do that when it comes to books. I use the Toronto Public Library system a lot, but sometimes I wait for months for a book I really want to read to come available, and by that point I’ve forgotten why I was so excited about it.
I also do a fair bit of reading for research and for work, and that reading usually comes in the form of PDFs – scripts, articles, excerpts from books and so on. I rarely find the time for this kind of reading during my workdays, and I’m not interested in printing thousands of pages to read at bedtime, so the only solution is to read it on a device. A device that’s not my iPad, that is, since that activity is apparently killing us all.
I’m also an avid transit-reader, and I ruin many books that way, by dragging them around in my messy, dirty backpack or wedging them into my too-small purse.
The e-reader addresses all of those problems and more. And I find the e-ink incredibly easy on the eyes.
B) I signed up for Audible.
Actually, Colin did. I log into his account on my phone and listen to books while I’m walking. I never thought I’d have the attention span for anything longer than a 30-ish minute podcast because I’m so easily distracted (I can’t listen to music while I work – too distracting), but in fact, I am loving the experience of having a book read to me by a disembodied voice. I’ve listened to two so far, and it’s been brilliant.
Anyway. It’s the beginning of March, so here’s my first book report! I’ve finished seven books. Three were actual paper books, one was on the e-reader, and three were audio.
1. The Widower’s Two Step, by Rick Riordan
Two summers ago I picked up a $0.50 book at a church sale, a pulp detective novel called Big Red Tequila. It was about a dryly-funny-literature-PhD-having-tai-chi-doing-Texas-living private eye called Tres Navarre. I found it really enjoyable (and not badly written). Turns out it was the first in a series of eight books. Last year, I bought the other seven online. The Widower’s Two Step is #2, and it finds Tres Navarre trying to solve a case of corruption and possibly murder in the country music scene of Nashville producers and aspiring songbirds. I’m looking forward to my third rendezvous with Mr. Navarre, but I’ll probably wait until summer. It is really holiday reading.
2. The Hellbound Heart, by Clive Barker
I’ve never ready any Clive Barker before, so I figured I’d start with the book that Hellraiser was based on. It was short, full of sharp descriptions and clear, efficient prose. It was like drinking an ice-cold glass of water. Bracing, refreshing, totally thirst quenching. It’s a deceptively simple novella, and in many ways more disturbing than the film. I loved the internal voice of Julia – a far uglier and better picture of selfishness than the more overtly evil Julia in the film. The book made me appreciate short-format-horror, perhaps for the first time? I’m looking forward to reading the Books of Blood and continuing the love affair with even shorter stories.
3. Clay’s Ark, by Octavia Butler
I’d never heard of Octavia Butler when Colin recommended her Parable of the Sower to me a few years ago. I was completely blown away. Why hadn’t anyone else ever told me that there was a brilliant female sci-fi author out there whose protagonists were always women of colour?! I’ve read several of her novels since, and each one has been perfect. Butler knows how to bring a post-apocalyptic world to life, but she’s even better at envisioning those terrifying moments just before the world ends, the moments after you realize the end is inevitable, but you have to soldier on anyway. Clay’s Ark featured the best version of an “alien virus that could kill us all” that I’ve ever read.
4. Lock In, by John Scalzi
This was my first Audible experience. It’s read by Wil Wheaton, which charmed me immediately, but then it turned out to be really fantastic sci-fi in its own right. Lock In is a murder mystery that takes place in a very plausible near future in which a large percentage of the population is afflicted with Haden’s, a disease that leaves sufferers “locked in”—fully awake and aware, but unable to move. Two new technologies emerge. One is a virtual-reality environment, in which the locked-in can interact with others. The second involves allowing the locked-in to operate in the “real world” through android bodies. It’s a good mystery that happens to take place in an incredibly well-realized world.
5. Unlocked: An Oral History of Haden’s Syndrome, by John Scalzi
This bonus novella was attached to the end of Lock In and featured “interviews” with everyone from scientists to politicians to members of the media and the public about the outbreak and spread of Haden’s Syndrome. How it got its name, how the new virus was identified, how the therapies were developed, what the early days were like, everything. Moments that were only subtly hinted at in the novel are described in great detail here. The novella felt like non-fiction, a government report about a real pandemic. Every author’s job is to make you believe in the world they’ve created. John Scalzi accomplished it better than most.
6. Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes
This ensemble-cast book weaves together a number of stories about a sculptor-turned-serial-killer, the detective who’s chasing him, her teenage daughter and daughter’s BFF, and an obnoxious blogger who falls into the middle of the investigation. This was my second audio book on Audible, and I found it less enjoyable than Lock In, but perhaps just because it was not as good a book. This one was read by several different voice actors, which I liked in principle, but I found it quite grating when the male actors would do “female voices” (not something I took issue with when Wil Wheaton did it, perhaps because he didn’t make the women sound lame).
7. The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt
This Pulitzer Prize winner was a title that Kobo recommended to me when I got the e-reader, so I thought “sure, why not” and bought it. It’s narrated by Theo Decker, who starts the story as a thirteen-year-old New Yorker who miraculously survives an accident that kills his mother. Over the next couple of decades, Theo’s life unfurls, his fate forever tied to a painting that he saw the day his mother died. I couldn’t wait to come back to this book every evening. Even at its most floridly-descriptive or rambling moments, it never fails to be a page-turner. Theo is a compelling narrator, and his observations are surprising and insightful.
That’s it for the first book report!
Books that I am currently reading and might appear on the next report include Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Collected Novellas, The Troop by Nick Cutter, The Authentic Animal: Inside the Odd and Obsessive World of Taxidermy by Dave Madden (non-fiction!), and The Genome, a novel by Sergei Lukyanenko, the Russian dude behind Night Watch.
My reading list is long, but I am always up for recommendations. If you want to share one with me (newer works especially, since I think my backlog of classics and older books is already too enormous), by all means!!