Happy 2016 all!
Each year, I keep a running list of the books that I've read in an attempt to remember both my own journeys through the 12 months, as well as what was popular throughout that time. (You can find my past lists here: 2012, 2013 and 2014).
Looking back on my list from this year, it's a mix of new and old, bestsellers and completely random picks. I made an effort to add more Canadian literature to my repertoire for the first time since university, and to my delight, found hilarious, enthralling and completely diverse works that drove home just what I'd been missing by assuming it was all Stone Angel, all the time.
Anything I loved has an asterisk beside it.
So, here goes!
Unruly Places: Lost Spaces, Secret Cities, and Other Inscrutable Geographies - Alistair Bonnett. I loved the idea of this book, which looked at cities (both real and imagined) that exist somewhere outside of the conventional map. Combining fantasy with geography, it's a great work for the fiction reader who wants some non-fiction in their life.
*Americanah - Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. This fictional exploration of race by someone who hasn't even considered the word until she comes to North America reveals so much about how society works. And Adichie's writing is almost flawless in its depictions and sense of place.
Visitation Street - Ivy Pochoda. Part mystery, part New York narrative, this book does an excellent job portraying a teenage girl's confusion in the wake of her adolescence and the disappearance of her best friend.
*The Enchanted - Rene Denfeld. I can't believe it was only this year that I read this book - it feels like it's been with me for so much longer. A story of death row inmates set against elements of magical realism, it draws you in in ways you wouldn't expect, and at times, seemingly against your will.
Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore - Robin Sloan. Combining the old (books) with the new (Google), this tale of an ex-tech geek who gets involved in ... well, let's just say more visceral pursuits is charming, funny and a great quick read.
Friendship - Emily Gould. This book, by the former Gawker editor, is ostensibly about women's friendships in New York in their 30s, which should have made it appealing to me (I hit two of the three main characteristics, after all). Plus, I think Gould is a great writer. But I found it somewhat wanting in its plot and execution and the characters off-putting.
The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food - Dan Barber. I love reading about food, and will devour pretty much anything Michael Pollan writes. Which could be why I wasn't quite as in love with this book about various people doing inventive things in the fields of growing and cultivating what we put in our mouths. While there were moments of interest that have stuck with me, like the mixed crops methods that have revitalized fields in the eastern U.S., it wasn't as inspirational as I would have liked.
*Station Eleven - Emily St. John Mandel. Probably one of my favourite books ever. If a combination of an apocalyptic future, scenes of Toronto and a love of Shakespeare doesn't pique your interest, it might not be for you, but Mandel's imagination is so vast and the plot so compelling, it's impossible not to get into.
The Girl on the Train - Paula Hawkins. Did anyone not read this book this year? There was literally a time when I looked around me on the streetcar and every person I saw had it in their hands. It inherited the Gone Girl "with a twist!" audience from the previous year, but was a solid, imminently readable book in its own right, despite a highly unlikable main character.
My Brilliant Friend - Elena Ferrante. I'm going to be in the minority of readers here, but I just could not get into this, the first of the Neapolitan Novels (and therefore did not go on to read the rest). While Ferrante's prose is rich in its descriptions of this Italian neighbourhood and its minutiae, the characters didn't make me want to read on about them. I'm sorry, someone convince me otherwise.
Girls Fall Down - Maggie Helwig. This was suggested to me as I went on about my love for Station Eleven, but despite its similar setting (Toronto) and theme (world falling apart), it was very different, and not quite as good. People who lived through the SARS epidemic will recognize the emotions evoked by the plot, for better or for worse.
The Magician's Land - Lev Grossman. A satisfying conclusion for the Magicians trilogy, to be sure. Grossman is unforgiving in expecting readers to recall details of the past books, so there may be some gaps in memory (there definitely were for me), but overall, a fun, adventurous finish.
*The Royal We - Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan. This Will and Kate fan fiction, as I came to call it, was such a fun romp, it actually makes you feel like you know the royal family a bit better (and makes you disbelieve every headline). Bits of the Fug Girls' wonderful writing comes through, but mostly, they show they know how to write a completely compelling story.
The Secret Place - Tana French. A book that's ostensibly about a murder at a girls' school, but ends up feeling like so much more. The author's insights into teenage girls and the nature of friendship rings uncomfortably (or heartbreakingly) true, while the structure of the narrative - from both the detectives' and girls' perspectives - adds that much more depth.
A Tale For The Time Being - Ruth Ozeki. This was one of those books that helped me understand books - or specifically, authors - I've read in the past. I have a limited knowledge of Japanese literature, but this helped me get Murakami in ways I hadn't before, such as the focus on dream states. The story, about a young Japanese-American girl trying to navigate her life in Tokyo, takes unexpected leaps of faith in the midst of what seems to be a straightforward tale.
The Rise and Fall of Great Powers - Tom Rachman. It doesn't sound fun, but it is. This story of confusing identities gives the reader no option but to trust it to its eventual satisfying conclusion.
I Pity The Poor Immigrant - Zachary Lazar. The book has a great premise - gangster Meyer Lansky (shoutout to all the Boardwalk Empire fans) appeals to the Israeli government for citizenship when the U.S. wants him to stand trial. But then it gets thrown into the modern day, and unnecessarily confusing, so was a bit of a bust for me.
The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry - Most anyone who loves books can't help but love reading about how others fall in love with reading. This charming story about a man and his adopted daughter (along with the tragic circumstances of how they came to be together) is a love story to literature, and hard to resist.
Astonish Me - Maggie Shipstead. This tale of a ballerina and the associated parts of her life - her husband, her ex-lover who she helped escape from Russia - is not as good as Shipstead's previous work, but still manages to intricately weave together realistic characters with an attention to detail that those who love dance, but don't participate in it, can appreciate.
The Betrayers - David Bezmozgis. Taken at face value - the story of an Israeli politician who flees a scandal at home, only to come face-to-face with the man who betrayed him years ago in Crimea - it's an interesting tale. But Bezmozgis imbues it with enough emotion, modern politics and sly observations about human nature to make it something that could just be considered a classic.
We Are Pirates - Daniel Handler. As someone who loves Handler's strange and funny ways with words and worlds, this story about a father and his teenage daughter and their individual quests for freedom was a disappointment - just very hard to get into or care about.
Funny Girl - Nick Hornby. This cute novel about the cast of a 1960s sitcom is a lovely little romp - not quite as fun or funny as previous Hornby works, but a sweet tribute to a time and place that can now be regarded with rose-coloured glasses.
An Inconvenient Indian - Thomas King. I'm glad I read this work, as the story of Native Canadians is obviously an important and integral part of Canadian history, but to be honest, I found King's tone off-putting at times, and blatantly sarcastic at others. That said, if you want to educate yourself on the topic, this is a good place to start.
I Am Pilgrim - Terry Hayes. This long, great, thriller is not my usual kind of book but engrossed me nonetheless. It wove together many ideas, from religious terrorism to spy tactics to bioterrorism in a pretty smooth way, and I loved the pacing and the jumping around. Who knows, maybe it is my kind of book after all.
*All My Puny Sorrows - Miriam Toews. Incredible, heartbreaking, hilarious, with beautiful turns of phrase. Toews has an extraordinary gift for taking seemingly hopeless situations and finding humour in them - kind of the way we'd all like to think we would react given the circumstances. The story of sisters and family who carry each other's burdens throughout their lives, with a narrator who is all too human, and relatable for that. Another great work that speaks about depression in an honest, recognizable way.
In The Unlikely Event - Judy Blume. A good, but not great fictional account of the plane crashes that happened in Blume's real life hometown when she was a child. It went on a bit long, but because she's Judy Blume, I kept reading of course. (Side note: if you also loved Blume as a child/teen and ever have the chance to see her in person, do it. She's just as wonderful as you will have hoped.)
A God In Ruins - Kate Atkinson. This accompaniment to Life After Life (calling it a sequel feels disingenuous) is almost as good as the former, in my opinion, and depending on your interests, possibly even better. Focusing on Teddy, the brother of the previous main character, it follows him through the war, weaving in pieces of the other book, answering a few questions you may have had remaining, and generally creating a fulsome life for him. It stands on its own, but is even better when read one after the other.
*We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves - Karen Joy Fowler. What happens when your father is a psychologist, and he decides you will be his main subject? This wonderfully written book is smart and funny and sad, speaking to the ties of family and the ways in which we analyze our own lives to create personal truths.
The Truth And Other Lies - Sascha Arango. You never know quite where you stand with this book, which is exactly how the author intends it, but its mystery (about a famous author and his wife and his mistress) gets you wrapped up before you know it.
Get In Trouble - Kelly Link. My one and only short stories for the year, these were fantastical while still staying rooted in the world we know, inventive and different and thought-provoking, and well worth a read.
Modern Romance - Aziz Ansari. If you've watched Master of None, Ansari's Netflix show, you've already seen much of what's in this book, but if you haven't (or want more), this is an interesting, surprisingly well-researched (read: focus group-tested) look at what it means to date today, with plenty of good, recognizable truths.
Two Years, Eight Months and Twenty Eight Nights - Salman Rushdie. Yes, I read my first Rushdie in the lead up to interviewing him, and I'll admit, it was much less intimidating than I anticipated (both the book and the interview). A strange and really funny work, it tells of the place where religion and reason go to war, coupled with a uniquely Indian/Middle Eastern method of storytelling.
After Birth - Elisa Albert. As a new-ish mom, this novel was a more personal read for me, focused as it is on so many of the hot button issues for parents (C-sections, breastfeeding, etc.). I've loved Albert's writing in the past, but thanks to my own feelings on the topics covered, I actually had to look up an interview with the author to ensure she didn't actually believe all the things she was writing about childbirth/motherhood in order to keep going (spoiler: she doesn't, at least not fully). This take on the so-called mommy wars contained a lot of anger, but it was an interesting chance to see motherhood from that perspective, even if I disagreed with most of it.
We Were Liars - E. Lockhart. Last year, I discovered some of the best books being written today are YA novels, and this one is just more proof of it. Addictively readable, it seems to be about a privileged family in Martha's Vineyard, but it's so much more interesting and poetic than that. And frankly, I had no idea it was a YA novel until I finished it.
After You - Jojo Moyes. If you loved Me Before You, don't read this sequel. I've done the work for you, and trust me, it's just not worth it - let the characters remain as they were in the original.
*Between Gods - Alison Pick. This is another wonderful book that's stayed with me long after reading it. A memoir of learning about yourself and your religion and culture in a way that few have an opportunity to, Pick is a beautiful writer who isn't afraid to delve into truly intimate places. It made me contemplate my own religion is ways I hadn't previously, while also keeping it fraught with personal meaning.
*Kitchens of the Great Midwest - J. Ryan Stradal. As I've told many people, this is a great book with a not-so-great title, but don't let that deter you. The story of a girl with a passion for cooking she can't quite explain, it's written in such an original way, and filled with .. not quite whimsy, but sweetness. Though I know nothing about the Midwest, I imagine it evokes that exact spirit.
*This Is Happy - Camilla Gibb. This memoir runs the gamut from over-the-top happiness to postpartum difficulties, and everywhere in between, but through it all, Gibb writes with an honesty and sense of self that could not have been easy to attain. Readers are well-served by exploring the journey with her.
I Take You - Eliza Kennedy. Beach read in the purest sense of the term, about a woman on the cusp of marriage, her kooky family and lots of sex.
*Why Not Me - Mindy Kaling. If you love The Mindy Project (and why wouldn't you?), you'll love this book. The bonus of being able to "hear" Mindy's voice and intonations in your head makes it that much funnier, and her more personal moments (like having to announce an Emmy award for which she know she wasn't nominated) strike just the right note of vulnerability and strength.
The Slade House - David Mitchell. Mitchell can't really write a bad book, but this continuation of his Bone Clocks world is really just for the initiated, and hopefully, a precursor to something longer in the same vein. That said, it's a quick, inventive read if you already love him.
*Close To Hugh - Marina Endicott. I've compared this book to the great Canadian TV show Slings and Arrows, and while I believe that's warranted for a few reasons, this story of a fictional Peterborough and its citizens deserves its own time in the spotlight. Combining the worlds of theatre and art with a real sense of searching for own's true home, it's at times hilarious, painful and achingly honest about what it means to age, what it means to love, what it means to face up to your past.
The Empathy Exams - Leslie Jamison. I wanted to like this collection of essays more than I did, and there are some gems in there (like the title piece), but I did find the tales dragged in some instances. Perhaps a book meant to be read in pieces, rather than all at once.
Us Conductors - Sean Michaels. The winner of last year's Giller Prize was more than deserving of the accolades in this fictional work based on the real life inventor of the theremin, an instrument many people wouldn't have heard of for a lot of the reasons explained within. Taking in plot points from love stories to spy missions, but somehow without feeling over-the-top or dramatic, Michaels does an excellent job making you care about a man you might otherwise overlook entirely.
The First Bad Man - Miranda July. As a fan of July's other works (film and writing), I expected a certain level of enjoyable strangeness, but this story of an almost middle-aged woman who faces a coming of age she never expected is ... well, it's weird. A bit too much for me, but I can definitely see the appeal in pushing the boundaries.
*The Sellout - Paul Beatty. This is one of those books where I don't want to say too much about it and just tell people to read it, but because descriptions help to convince others, it's about a black man who decides to save his small California town by turning to segregation - and the obvious challenges that will come with that. Equal parts hilarious, brutally honest and unflinchingly realistic, this is both a commentary on race in America and the parts of human nature we might prefer to ignore.
The Ward: The Life and Loss of Toronto's First Immigrant Neighbourhood - John Lorinc, Michael McClelland, Ellen Scheinberg. As a third-generation Torontonian, I'll never stop being fascinated by stories of how this city came to be what it is today, and The Ward does its part in building up that exact foundation. But perhaps most interesting in these historical essays about a slum neighbourhood that existed in an area that now houses some of the most expensive buildings in the city is how relevant many of the exact issues still are today. Particularly at a time when people are coming to Toronto as a place of refuge, it feels important to remember that cities are never exactly what the established populace think they are, but instead, an ever-evolving space that can accommodate so many different realities.
MORE ON HUFFPOST: