20

Better Late Than Never: 2015 in Review

You may have noticed that it’s 2016 now and therefore a post about 2015 probably should have already gone up. But I was away (with very limited internet access) and then I was lazy and so focused on reading X number of books to get to 150 that the review post, an obligatory part of blogging, was forgotten.

Until now.

Personally, 2015 was great. Until I got back from my dream honeymoon and then it was all rather challenging. Nothing that a fresh perspective in a new year can’t fix though right?

Reading wise, 2015 was decent. I discovered that I love John Steinbeck, that I am capable of enjoying science fiction (thanks to The Martian and Armada), and Chelsey @ Chels and a Book was totally right about Nick Hornby and I must read more. And thanks to Furiously Happy by Jenny Lawson, I managed to read 150 books this year.

That’s a lot of reading and a lot of books that could make it on my list of favourites. I don’t think that I’m going to do a numbered list. But here are some of the books that got me thinking, left me heartbroken, or made me want to tell everyone I know about it.

(Caveat: these are books I read this year, not necessarily books that were published this year. And they are in the order that I read them because I’m looking at my 50 Book Pledge list as I go.)

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins. As the year went by I feel like people started to judge this one a little harshly, perhaps unwilling to be persuaded by the reaction of the masses that this was an addictive, roller coaster read. Comparisons to Gone Girl were so unfair – both are equally able to stand on their own. I loved this one and loved it even harder when I got to see Paula Hawkins in conversation with Elaine Lui, aka Lainey Gossip, at the VanWriter’s Fest. If you haven’t already read this, please give it a chance.

Night Film by Marisha Pessl. This book was unlike anything I’d ever read before. Totally creepy, completely spell-binding. You should totally read it but do yourself a favour and get the paperback. That hardcover is heavy.

A History of Loneliness by John Boyne. Should possibly be required reading. This book made me so, so angry and left me devastated in it’s wake.

China Rich Girlfriend by Kevin Kwan. Those of you that have been around for a while know of my absolute devotion to Crazy Rich Asians. I had high hopes for the sequel and Kwan more than delivered. China Rich Girlfriend is funnier and more over-the-top and you all need to get on this bandwagon already.

Dead Wake by Erik Larson. Not sure Larson will ever write something that I don’t completely love. His novelistic non-fiction is just what the doctor ordered for those of you that think non-fiction isn’t for you.

Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum. I think this is the book most capable of dividing your book club into warring factions; people either loved or hated this book. I was in the former camp. Essbaum’s lyrical prose was a delight to read and the story of an expat wife and mother struggling in her new reality was really so good.

The Romanov Sisters by Helen Rappaport. Beautiful, clever and ultimately doomed, the daughters of Nicholas II never had a chance.

When Everything Feels Like the Movies by Raziel Reid. I read it thanks to Canada Reads and now I want the whole world to read it. Have tissues on hand.

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty. Probably one of the books I recommended the most this year. It’s perfect for beach reading, reading palate cleansing, and for when you just want something delicious. I ended up reading a lot of Moriarty this year because of this one. Don’t let the chick-lit style covers dissuade you – Moriarty has a lot to say.

East of Eden by John Steinbeck. Glad I finally read this. Sad it took me this long – I could have already embarked on a re-read by now!

The Royal We by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan. OMG just read this already!

Americanah by Chimimanda Ngozi Adiche. I was blown away by the force of her prose. Everything about this book was perfection. I also read and loved We Are All Feminists this year and am seriously considering gifting it to every woman I know and love.

The King’s Curse by Philippa Gregory. I thought that I would have to give up on Gregory after a few of her efforts fell short for me. But The King’s Curse was everything that I’ve come to love and expect from her. And then some. This one stands alone – if you haven’t read any of her work before, you could totally read this one first.

Unfinished Business: Men, Women, Work and Family by Anne-Marie Slaughter. I had two copies of this book and have since leant them out because this is such an important book. Talking about the importance of care, whether for our parents or our children, and how it needs to not only be shared by men and women equally but also needs to be taken into account by workplaces so that people don’t have to choose between work and family.

The Martian by Andy Weir. I put off reading this book forever. My husband finally forced me to because he wanted to see the movie. I hate science fiction. I loved this book. Well played Andy Weir, well played.

The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins. The weirdest, most violent, greatest book. It’s seriously bizarre. But so, so good.

A Train in Winter by Caroline Moorehead. Books like this, about the sacrifices and the fight of the men and women during WWII, are so important for us to read. To keep their stories in our minds so that we don’t allow the same things to happen. Well-written, meticulously researched, totally devastating, if you come across it, read it.

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff. You’ve heard it all before. Join us. Don’t be put off by Lotto’s half. The pay-off comes when you read about Mathilde.

Finding Audrey by Sophie Kinsella. A story about a teenaged girl struggling with mental illness but refusing to allow it to define who she is? Incredibly important to read and handled with aplomb by the genius of Kinsella.

The Sisters of Versailles by Sally Christie. I plan to put up a little review soon but this one is so good! It’s the first in a planned trilogy about the mistresses of Louis XV. Books 2 and 3 are set to be released in 2016!

When Books Went to War by Molly Guptill Manning. At just 194 pages, this is the perfect non-fiction book for the reader that loves books and thinks they dislike non-fiction!

Someone to Watch Over Me by Yrsa Sigurdardottir. Billed as Iceland’s answer to Stieg Larsson, this book more than lived up to the hype. Exploring ideas of ability and society’s role in caring for those who can’t always care for themselves, this was more than just a run-of-the-mill murder mystery.

Did you stick it out? Good for you. That was seriously so indulgent of me. Twenty-two books for the year. If I was the kind of blogger that was on top of sh*t, I could have got a few posts out of that and not overwhelmed you, dear reader.

Goal for 2016?

Here’s to more great books this year!

belle

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19

2015 TBR Pile Challenge Complete

Well guys, I did it. I completed the 2015 TBR Pile Challenge as hosted by Roof Beam Reader.

Samantha Shannon’s The Bone Season was the last book I needed to read, stepping in after that time I tried to read The Teleportation Accident and just couldn’t carry on.

bone season

The Bone Season is the story of Paige Mahoney, a high level clairvoyant living in London in 2059. She is part of an underground crime syndicate that pays her really well and keeps her off the radar of the people in charge. Clairvoyants like Paige are illegal in this world and the leaders of Scion (the collective in charge of London) hunt them. If you’re caught, you’re imprisoned in The Tower and probably killed.

Except when Paige is captured after an unfortunate incident on the Tube, she isn’t executed; she’s sent to this penal colony in Oxford, where ‘voyants like her are trained to protect their new overlords from these creatures called Emim.

Doesn’t sound like something I would normally read, right?

Yeah, I thought about not finishing this book a lot. In the end, the only reason I finished it was because this was the last book for the challenge. The thought of having to finish The Beautiful and the Damned if I didn’t finish The Bone Season was the only thing keeping me from abandoning it.

I really think that this time, it was completely me. Shannon is an incredibly imaginative writer – she’s created an entirely new world with a new government and social order. That’s no small feat. But there was almost too much new information, it’s too different from anything I know and I couldn’t keep up. I suspect that this is because I am old. My sister didn’t seem to have this issue at all.

I also had an issue with being told how Paige felt. It seemed like this was a late development, like suddenly Shannon thought “oh, maybe I should explore how this all makes Paige feel now!”

I had a houseguest when I had 40 pages left to read and it was torture to not be able to finish it and just be done with it already. I’m definitely not going to continue with the series. I’ll just have to be ok with never finding out what else happens.

But hey, I did it. I read the 12 books from my TBR List that I said I would and that feels pretty great. I know that Adam @ Roof Beam Reader isn’t doing the TBR Pile Challenge for 2016 but I’m teaming up with Holly and Amanda @ Gun in Act One to do our own version of this anyway!

15

2015 TBR Pile Challenge: A Train in Winter

I wrote this last week, before the horrific, devastating events in Paris. Having read this book now feels even more timely. I know that Parisians won’t let the senseless, cowardly attacks define them. The citizens of Paris, of France will always overcome. Vive la France!

I put off reading Caroline Moorehead’s A Train in Winter: An Extraordinary Story of Women, Friendship and Survival in World War Two* for a really long time.

I’ve owned a copy for well over a year and I put it on my 2015 TBR Pile Challenge list at the end of 2014. And still, I put off reading it ALL YEAR.

Why did I put off reading such an extraordinary and important book forever? I was scared. I was scared that it would make me sad, that it would be difficult to read, that I would cry.

I finally decided that Remembrance Day was the perfect day to spend with this book. It really, really was.

train

Moorehead packs a lot into 317 pages. The story of these women, mostly Communists in France, working at the beginnings of what would come to be known as the French Resistance, involves 230 individuals. Moorehead doesn’t tell all of their stories, but she tries. She tells us of the work they and their husbands, and sometimes their children, did to try and make life difficult for the occupying Nazis. They distributed pamphlets and flyers, plastered posters all over the city urging the French to resist against the enemy; they gathered information and weapons and moved them around the country to where they would be most useful; they helped Jews and other “undesirables” cross from the occupied territory into the demarcation zone, so that they might have a chance at leaving France; and eventually some of them were part of murdering Nazis, for which they would have to pay.

You learn about who these women were before the war, why it was important to them to fight for France. And when they found themselves imprisoned, the result of some very tenacious collaborative French police officers, they somehow found a way to keep going, to hold each other up even when some of them knew that their husbands were being shot just outside.

For a while I thought it wasn’t going to be so bad – the women were in French prisons but they had figured out a way to live together: they shared their food, put on plays that they could remember, sewed costumes and clothes for each other and wrote letters home. I thought maybe the train in the title was a metaphor for the fear that they all felt, all the time.

But no. Auschwitz beckoned. And everything you’ve read about it…it’s worse in this book. It’s not like I’ve never read about concentration camps – I have. There was just something about this book, though, that made it so much worse. Typhus, diphtheria, attack dogs, sadistic guards (there’s one horrifying photo of the guards at Auschwitz – I thought it was a vacation photo, these young men and women were SO happy and smiling and laughing), heinous living conditions, dying children, disgusting experiments conducted on inmates, filth, horrific punishments – all humanity stripped away.

There were 230 women that went on the train and only 49 of them walked back out two years later.

If you take a quick scan through the Goodreads ratings, a lot of people rate this book quite low. The big complaint seems to be that Moorehead talks about 230 women and it’s a lot of people to keep track of. I didn’t feel that way.  I thought she did an admirable job of telling the stories of these women, these extraordinarily brave wonderful women who managed to look after each other and share what little they had so that they might live together to see another day.

I am a wuss. Because, yes, reading it was difficult and unpleasant and shocking and sad. But the experience of these women was all that and so much worse. The least I could do is read about it so that when these incredible women are no longer with us, we will still know their story.

If you haven’t already, please read this book.

*Please note: the title may be slightly different in your neck of the woods. It’s also titled A Train in Winter: An Extraordinary Story of Women, Friendship and Resistance in Occupied France. I think the “…survival in world war two” version is more apt.

25

2015 TBR Pile Challenge: White Teeth

I’m really late to the White Teeth party.

When it came out in 1999, I wasn’t ready to read a book like this. A colleague leant me the book sometime around 2006 but I never read it then either.  But when I had the chance to come up with a list of books that had been on my list forever, thanks to the 2015 TBR Pile Challenge (hosted by Roof Beam Reader), I finally decided that the time had come to actually read this book.

For the sake of argument, let’s pretend that I’m not the last person to read this book and do a little synopsis. Zadie Smith’s White Teeth is the story of the unlikely friendship between Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal. Archie and Samad were in the same regiment during the end of the war. They got into things just as it was all winding down and aside from one final action, they didn’t have much to do with any of it. Years later they are both settled in the same North London neighbourhood, each married to much younger wives, expecting their first children. The novel is the story of all of their lives.

There is no doubt that Zadie Smith is a talented writer. Not many writers would be able to take on such a massive story – the lives of Archie and Iqbal, their wives Clara and Alsana, and their children, Irie, Millat and Magid. And then those of the Chalfens, a family of 4 boys that get involved with the Jones’ and the Iqbals after a run in with a joint at school. It’s a novel that deals with faith, race, patriotism, the old and new worlds clashing, eugenics – the scope of this book is huge.

Normally I love these kinds of novels. I love stories of generations of families, told within the confines of their time. But it took me a long time to care about White Teeth at all. I didn’t get that rush of joy when I was able to return to the story. I was missing some crucial connection. There were moments where I chuckled, passages that almost had me feel feelings, parts where I was blown away by Smith’s skills.

But overall, this book was just OK for me. I know. I can hear you guys yelling at me. Maybe it was the wrong time for me to read this book, maybe I wasn’t in the right headspace, or the weather was wrong or I forced it by putting it on a list and making it so that I HAD to read it. I don’t really know why this book didn’t send me into a spiral of delight, why it didn’t have me shouting to the world about how much I loved it. I wanted to love it. I just couldn’t.

This one is going to go back to the library for someone else to read and I feel no sorrow at that. I’m not scared off reading anything else Smith has written but I might give it some time…

Anyway, just two books left to complete the challenge! Are you participating? How’s it going for you?

29

Somebody Stop Me

 I have tons of unread books at home. When I finish the book I’m currently reading I could read Lady Anna by Anthony Trollope or Philippa Gregory’s The King’s Curse or Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin. I could dip my toes into the world of Victorian sensationalist journalism with The Invention of Murder or spend some time with my favourite, Maeve Binchy (I still have two copies of Scarlet Feather. For real, does anyone want one?). I recently bought a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird, intending on re-reading that soon, I could read that.

Instead, I found my feet carrying me to the library. It started innocently enough. I looked at my TBR Pile Challenge list and saw that most of the books still on it are books that I don’t own. So I logged into my account at the library and placed a hold on a couple of them. Because my library is awesome (shout out to the Metrotown branch of the Burnaby Public Library!) they were ready the same day.

I was just going to quickly pick them up and leave again. Then I got there and thought I would just quickly see what books they had displayed at the front. Five seconds later I already had two books in hand so I decided that I might as well meander over to the Mystery and Fiction sections and see what they had.

I left with eight books.

Here’s what I brought home:

Confessions of a Fairy’s Daughter: Growing Up with a Gay Dad by Alison Wearing. This was one of the books I had put a hold on, one of the reasons I went in the first place. This book has been on my list forever and I can’t wait to read it.

Happier at Home: Kiss More, Jump More, Abandon Self-Control, and My Other Experiments in Everyday Life by Gretchen Rubin. This was the other reason for my going to the library. The Happiness Project really changed the way I looked at my own happiness and for various reasons I’m kind of in the mood to revisit that whole idea.

Twisted Sisters by Jen Lancaster. Although I haven’t had much luck with Lancaster’s fiction attempts in the past, I’m a sucker for punishment and couldn’t help myself. Maybe this one will sting less if I don’t like it because it’s from the library? Or maybe Lancaster has finally found her fiction stride.

The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer. I was in the bookstore the other day and read a little of this book and decided that I was interested (ha) in reading it after all. I can’t remember why I was suddenly drawn to it – I think I read about it somewhere here…

Us by David Nicholls. I’ve been wanting to read this since it came out. I liked reading One Day (it was one of our first book club books!) but I LOVED the movie. That doesn’t happen very often. I watched the movie alone the first time and loved it so much I pretended I hadn’t watched it and watched it again the same day with my husband. Still there was enough about One Day that I liked that I’ve been wanting to read Nicholls’ follow up.

Funny Girl by Nick Hornby. I’ve never actually read anything of Hornby’s but I guess I have to start somewhere. The idea of a book set in 1960s London is kind of enough for me right now!

The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud. Every review of this book I’ve seen has made me want to read this more. I looked for it when I was at the bookstore the other day and they didn’t have it. At the library? Jackpot. I’m finally going to read this. More domestic noir? Bring it!

Love Over Scotland by Alexander McCall Smith. It’s been a while since I’ve visited my friends at 44 Scotland Street. I’m pretty hardcore about reading this series in order and Love Over Scotland was the next one. This was the first time it was actually at the library so naturally I wasted exactly zero seconds tucking it under my arm.

Have you read any of these? Where should I start? (OK full disclosure, I started reading Happier at Home outside the library already but I’m still in the middle of Renee Knight’s Disclaimer and I’m quite enjoying that too!) When exactly does book hoarding become an issue?

12

TBR Pile Challenge: The Woman in White

Thanks to the 2015 TBR Pile Challenge, hosted by Roof Beam Reader, I was able to cross off a book that was on the first page of my list! A book on the first page of my list (it’s in one of those Moleskine agendas) has probably been on my list for several YEARS.

This time, the book that had been waiting for a read was Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White.

For someone who professes to love crime fiction as much as I do, it astounds me that I only just now read one of the early examples of the genre!

womaninwhite

The plot is more or less thus: Walter Hartright, a drawing teacher, is about to take a position in Cumberland when he meets with a young woman dressed entirely in white one night. She is very agitated and asks for his help to make her way to London. He helps her and it’s only after he sees her safely into a cab that he finds out she has escaped from an asylum. He is completely unsettled by it and when he’s been in Cumberland for a day he makes a connection with the house he’s staying in and the woman in white. And that’s how Walter, his love Laura Fairlie and her half-sister Marian Halcombe come to be ensnared in the net that Sir Percival Glyde and Count Fosco have set.

This book was published in 1859 and in many ways it is very much a product of its time, especially when it comes to its portrayal of women. Women are constantly described as weak and hysterical, their memories can’t be counted on, they need to be protected from really horrible news because they can’t handle it and it’s best if they just stay home and endeavor to be calm. Count Fosco does have a soft spot for calm, collected, brilliant, lovely Marian Halcombe but stops short of full admiration because, after all, she is just a woman and not actually a worthy adversary.

I think that Count Fosco must have been the early inspiration for villains in pop culture. He’s described as an obscenely fat, old man, who moves as silently from room to room as any woman. He is always impeccably dressed and he has a menagerie of pets that he trains every morning and treats as his little children. And he’s completely diabolical. Obviously. While I was reading, I couldn’t help but think of him kind of like this:

gru

It took me a while to get through this book, certainly longer than any of its modern equivalents. Collins really spins his tale and is constantly teasing the reader about what’s to come. This probably has a lot to do with the fact that, like Dickens, Collins wrote this novel as a serial publication. But I really enjoyed it. Compared to modern crime fiction, the crime that’s been committed in The Woman in White is really very tame. There was a moment of “that’s it?” for me, but I quickly admonished myself. The ideas of criminality, of what could shock audiences in 1859 and what we need to shock us now are very different. Which reminds me, I really do need to read The Invention of Murder

So there. I read The Woman in White! And I have The Moonstone kicking around now too.

6

TBR Pile Challenge: And The Mountains Echoed

I remember when I read that Khaled Hosseini had another book coming out. After reading (and loving) The Kite Runner (so many tears) and A Thousand Splendid Suns (so many tears) I figured I’d be first in line to force the bookstore to take my money for And The Mountains Echoed.

I even wrote a post about the fact that I was excited about the advent of this book.

And then I just didn’t read it.

The 2015 TBR Pile Challenge, as hosted by Roof Beam Reader, gave me a chance to redeem myself in this respect.

mountains

Abdullah and his little sister, Pari, are everything to each other. In the wake of their mother’s death shortly after the birth of Pari, Abdullah does everything for her: feeds her, changes her, rocks her to sleep, holds her hands as she learns to walk. The family is very poor and their father, Saboor, works himself to the bone to eke out a living for them. His new wife gives him two more sons but after the older one dies because the winter is a harsh one and Saboor is unable to provide enough to keep them all warm, something has to be done. When Saboor takes his brother-in-law, Nabi, up on his offer, it will have devastating effects that will ripple through the family for generations.

At times it felt like this book was more of a collection of loosely related short stories. Each section of the book is another life, another perspective with a common, somewhat tenuous, thread running through them all. All the stories are reflective, most narrators telling their story looking back in time at the decisions they made, the things that happened to them. It seemed to me that most sections boiled down to one life lesson: cherish the time you have with your loved ones because you don’t know when it will end.

All the characters in the book are broken too. Some of them are physically shattered, others carry deep emotional scars. One character was hit in the head with an axe, another felled by a stroke; one drinks until the pain goes away, another runs away from life on a small island. All of them have to figure out how to carry on living, forever changed by their pain, trying to find some way to use it to better themselves or the world they inhabit.

As ever with Hosseini’s books, this one takes place largely in Afghanistan. Hosseini knows his country’s history and uses it to flesh out the history of his characters. In many ways his country’s history is the most devastating story he tells.

Unlike when I finished The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, I was not in pieces when I finished this book. There is no giant ending, no grand gesture to make it all worthwhile. This one ends with a whimper, an ode to all that could have been and wasn’t, a quiet kind of heartbreak.