I read 93 adult books in 2012, up from 52 in 2011. My changing professional role was reflected in the fact that I only read 28 children's and teens books (compared to 77 in 2011).
In 2013, I hope to keep increasing those adult numbers, and since this is my last year as a judge for the CLA Book of the Year for Children, make the children's books I read great ones that I choose myself for a change! It has been a great joy to be on the BOYCA committee, but I will not miss the speed-reading of 60-odd children's novels by Canadian authors with varying degrees of talent.
Without further ado, here it is, my pretties: the top 10 of 2012!
- Gold by Chris Cleave: Chris’s writing has a way of grabbing you firmly by the heart and pulling, hard. The protagonists in this story are three Olympic bike racers, getting a bit long in the tooth in their early 30s and facing their last Olympics (London 2012). Despite not being at all interested in competitive sport, I could not put this down. There is much about the competitive spirit of world-class athletes in here, but there is also a love triangle, a child struggling with cancer, and a sensitive exploration of the choices we make in life, and the paths we choose and can also change. There are some absolute gems of phrasing and emotion in here. Read it. Some readers have compared the relationship in this novel between two strong women as reminiscent of Atwood’s The Robber Bride (my favourite of hers), and that is somewhat apt. For other heart-wrenching tales, however (for you masochists who like to cry while reading), I would recommend Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones or The Tower, the Zoo and the Tortoise by Julia Stuart.
- Joseph Anton by Salman Rushdie: You may or may not know that I heart Rushdie, but we have a fraught relationship. On the one hand, Imaginary Homelands changed my life, Midnight's Children acted as a closing bookend of sorts to my thesis about E. M. Forster, and I will watch any interview / attend any reading Rushdie gives, because I find him a fascinating and erudite speaker whose perspective I often find completely refreshing. On the other hand, I didn't finish The Satanic Verses, and have a low threshold for some of Rushdie's bombast. So, I embarked on Joseph Anton unsure how we were going to get along. Turns out I couldn't put it down, even if sometimes it drove me crazy (which probably encapsulates how I feel about Rushdie overall, frankly). I didn't mind the 2nd person narrative, found his unravelling of the Gordian Knot of his time under the fatwa deeply moving, vehemently agreed with many of his conclusions and observations about Western society's complex relationship with Islam, and found his stories about the supportive friendships that sustained him during his time in hiding (including a lovely one about a trip to Canada, involving being hugged by Bob Rae and serenaded by Adrienne Clarkson) compelling (I kept following the Husband around saying, "Listen to this!"). As a thank you of sorts to those who stood by him, and a statement about East/West relations during a tumultuous time in modern history, this is a tremendous book. As an indictment of those who abandoned, or outright criticised him, this book is less effective: Rushdie doesn't mince words, and in many cases rightly so, but sometimes a more unflattering spite seeps out of the pages, which is a pity. This is still an absolute must-read, however. Frankly, it's hard to begrudge him a little spite sometimes.
Astray by Emma Donoghue: These stories are all about people on the move: between identities, places, or lives. I read this on the train, which was unintentionally perfectly appropriate. All of the stories are based on real-life people, and Donoghue follows each tale with a description of the actual events, whether it be a newpaper clipping about a female con artist or a series of letters between a husband and wife separated by an ocean (that story made me cry). The Guardian used the word frustrating when talking about the brevity of these tales; that is something that often bothers me in short stories, but here I felt that each story was so perfectly crafted that I didn't mind. Plus, frankly, I am happy to see that the pre-Room Donoghue is still around.
- South Riding by Winifred Holtby: see review here. Readers who enjoyed Emma Brown (completed from Charlotte Brontë’s draft by Clare Boylan), Muriel Spark or our own massively-underappreciated Gwethalyn Graham will enjoy this novel.
- Shine shine shine by Lydia Netzer: see review here.
- Sleeping funny by Miranda Hill: Well, I already loved Miranda for Project Bookmark, and now I just love her extra. These short stories all have an element of the magical, or just plain odd, about them, from a suspicious neighbour who may just have dropped out of a fairy tale, to a group of children who are afflicted with visions of their own conception (some surprises there!). These stories made me laugh out loud, and also cry. Warning: the one that won the Journey Prize was actually my least-favourite in the collection....
- This is how you lose her by Junot Diaz: no, your eyes do not deceive you. I, an avowedly lukewarm reader of short stories, have chosen three collections in my top 10 this year. In October, I admitted that I was, indeed, oddly sympathetic with the rat narrator of this collection, especially for someone who spent four years with her very own serial philanderer. These stories, about the Yunior you may be familiar with from Drown, will break your heart as they draw you into the flawed but somehow tender heart of a troubled young man.
- The grief of others by Leah Hager Cohen: Ricky Ryrie blames her husband John for a lot, but she blames herself for more, in this story of family secrets and new beginnings. The Ryries, parents to two living children and one recently-deceased baby boy, are struggling to move forward through their grief when John’s older daughter from a previous relationship shows up on their doorstep unexpectedly. Cohen’s writing gave me goose bumps; speaking about the Ryries’ dead child, she writes, “He wore, during his short life, a white cotton shirt with a single covered side snap, a white flannel receiving blanket, and a white cotton cap. … He was given two diaper changes, the second proving unnecessary.” It’s easy to see how this gem of a book made it on the Orange Prize longlist. . It has been a long time since I have rooted so strongly for a young girl, as I did for the Elizabeth “Biscuit” Ryrie, who we first meet when she has stolen a library book about funeral rites and falls into the Hudson River after a ritual for her dead baby brother goes wrong. Everyone in this book is barely coping with their grief (over the baby but also over their own personal tragedies and changing relationships with one another), but the story is somehow still gentle, hopeful and beautiful. If the past is a foreign country, so too is the grief of others, even those closest to us. This one is for readers who enjoy Joyce Carol Oates, Julia Glass, Kim Edwards’s The Memory Keeper’s Daughter or Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout.
- Everybody has everything by Katrina Onstad: Onstad captures perfectly the human spirit that lurks below a veneer of suits, heels, polished front doors, and shiny car windows in downtown Toronto. Ana and James are one such couple: half suit, half wrinkled artsy type, muddling towards early middle age childless and drifting apart (maybe). Into this mix falls small Finn, the young child of their good friends, left in their care after a car accident that claims Finn’s father and leaves his mother in a coma. Thrust into temporary parenthood (they wonder if Robert Crumb is appropriate bedtime reading as it’s the only illustrated book they have), Ana and James re-think their roles in their marriage, and the choices they have made without always realizing something was chosen. This is a character novel, and, to be frank without giving too much away, it’s about James wanting Finn desperately and Ana discovering that she doesn’t. Sure to divide readers, Ana’s struggles will hopefully spark meaningful book club discussions about what modern women can, or should, want for themselves.
- Gillespie and I by Jane Harris: Also on the Orange Prize longlist, this jewel of a book perfectly captures the voice of its Scottish, Victorian-era (unreliable) narrator, 35-year-old nosy spinster Harriet Baxter. Harriet, living on her own and with a small income that allows her to be a patron of the arts (as she would put it), endeavors to set the story straight for us about her relationship with the members of the Gillespie family, to whom a great tragedy has befallen (although it takes Harriet awhile to spit out the details). By the time she is out with it, however, her story begins to look more like something by Wilkie Collins than the gentle memoirs of a thoughtful family friend. Interspersing the story of her friendship with dashing young artist Ned Gillespie with her present life as an elderly woman in a mysterious stand-off with a possibly deranged maid, Harriet keeps readers under her thumb, revealing only what she wants us to see – but with an occasional slip. This is chilling, masterful, psychological drama at its best. For fans of Iain Pears’s The Portrait or Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture.