Category: Top Picks

Top 5 Fiction Reads of 2013

These are my favourite fiction titles read or reviewed (not necessarily published) in 2013. Click the title for links to full reviews. My top 5 non-fiction titles for 2013 will go up Thursday.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena (ISBN 978-0-7704-3640-7)

Cover image for A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony MarraAnthony Marra’s debut novel is set in Chechnya around five days in 2004. From the woods behind her home, eight-year-old Havaa watches as her father, Dokka, is “disappeared” by Russian soldiers. Desperate to save Havaa from the same fate, Ahkmed, the incompetent village doctor who dreams of being an artist, delivers her to a nearby hospital, and into the reluctant care of Sonja, a British-trained physician trapped in Chechnya by the war. Marra’s lyrical prose contrasts with the brutal reality of the war torn country in which his story takes place. Dark and depressing on one hand, and buoyed by hope on the other, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena delivers the highs and lows life under difficult circumstances. Full of beautiful, striking details, this moving and resonant novel captures the heartache of war, and the depths of human resourcefulness in a narrative that will remain with you long after the final page.

Categories: Contemporary

The Ocean at the End of the Lane (ISBN 978-0-06-228022-0)

Cover image for The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil GaimanA man returns home to Sussex for a family funeral, but instead of attending the wake, he finds himself revisting the ancient Hempstock Farm, home of his childhood friend, Lettie. As he sits next to the pond that Lettie called her Ocean, he recalls seemingly impossible events from his childhood. When he was seven years old, the suicide of a boarder at the edge of this ancient property set off a chain of supernatural events, unleashing a malevolent force convinced of its own beneficence. A relatively short novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane simply distills everything that is wonderful about Neil Gaiman’s work into a smaller, more concentrated story that highlights his skill as a story teller for all ages.  This novel is for those adults who do still want to read about daft things like “Narnia, about secret islands and smugglers and dangerous fairies.”

Categories: Speculative Fiction, Fantasy

The Golem and the Jinni (ISBN 978-0-06-211083-1)

Cover image for The Golem and the Jinni by Helene WeckerDebut novelist Helene Wecker combines mythology from the Jewish and Arabic traditions to tell the stories of two magical creatures who arrive in the diverse  immigrant community of New York in the late 1800s. Chava is a masterless golem, brought to life from clay by a disgraced rabbi who practices dark Kabbalistic magic . The jinni emerges from an ancient flask taken to a Syrian metal smith for repair. Strangers in an unfamiliar land, both the golem and the jinni struggle to find a place in their new home, while trying to conceal their true natures from the people around them. Wecker brings the immigrant communities to life as the two beings forge an unlikely friendship despite their opposing natures. Their relationship between them and their two communities will be key to defeating the evil forces that are converging around them. This novel is rich in both mythology and historical detail.

Categories: Fantasy, Historical Fiction

The Dirty Streets of Heaven (ISBN 978-00-7564-0768-1)

Cover image for The Dirty Streets of Heaven by Tad WilliamsEarthbound angel Doloriel, also known as Bobby Dollar, is a heavenly advocate, charged with defending the souls of the recently departed at their final judgement. He goes head-to-head with the demonic advocates who want to claim those same souls for the ranks of hell. Closer to humans than angels, Bobby has never met God, isn’t much of one for prayer, and doesn’t really trust the angels and principalities higher up the heavenly food chain. There’s no love lost on their side either, so when a soul Bobby is supposed to be representing disappears before judgement, he worries that he will be held responsible if he can’t track it down. But of course, this case runs deeper than one missing soul.  Tad Williams masterfully blends urban fantasy with noir detective fiction in a fast-paced adventure that engages with Christian lore and puts a new spin on angels and demons. Book two, Happy Hour in Hell, also deserves an honourable mention as one of the best books I read in 2013. 

Categories: Urban Fantasy, Mystery

Eleanor & Park (ISBN 978-1-250-01257-9)

eleanor-and-parkEleanor and Park couldn’t be more different from one another. Park has had a normal middle class upbringing, even if he was occasionally teased because his mother is Korean. Eleanor, on the other hand, was kicked out of her home by an abusive step father, and spent a year living with family friends who didn’t really want her. Eventually Richie lets her come home, but the abuse has only gotten worse in her absence. Eleanor sticks out like a sore thumb at her new school making her a target for bullying, but sitting next to Park on the bus offers her some measure of protection. One bus ride at a time, they build a tentative friendship that quickly becomes first love, even as the situation seems to doom their romance to failure. Rainbow Rowell has written a YA novel that is at once hard and brutally truthful, but also beautiful and touching. Slow paced and yet never boring, Eleanor & Park is an entire book made up, almost exclusively, of tiny, amazing, resonant, details. Rowell’s second novel of 2013, Fangirl, also deserves an honourable mention.

Categories: Young Adult, Romance 

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Looking for more excellent reading? Check out my top fiction reads from 2012.

Top 5 Non-Fiction Reads of 2012

These are my favourite non-fiction titles read (not necessarily published) in 2012. Click the title for links to full reviews, where applicable. You can see my top 5 fiction titles for the year here.

Quiet (978-0307352149)

Cover image for Quiet by Susan CainThis title is at the top of a number of booklists for 2012 with good reason. Bookish folks, myself included, related powerfully to Susan Cain’s passionate message about the undervaluation of introversion in Western culture. The book cuts a broad swath, from outlining the rise of the extrovert ideal, to the psychological roots of introversion, to the perception of introversion in other cultures, to tips on how introverts and extroverts can work better together. Cain strips away the cultural stigma attached to introversion and examines the unique and underutilized skills of the quiet folks. This title was incredibly well written and researched, and Cain’s voice is passionate and compelling. You can watch Cain’s TED Talk on the power of introverts here.

Categories: Psychology

Joseph Anton (978-0812992786)

Cover Image for Joseph Anton by Salman RushdieSalman Rushdie thinks of himself first and foremost as a writer, but for over a decade, his life was dominated by disparate public perceptions stemming from the aftermath of the fatwa in which Ayatollah Khomeini issued a death sentence for the blasphemous contents of his 1988 novel The Satanic Verses. Rushdie gives a compelling account of his struggles to hold on to his identity as a writer, and to continue to produce fiction under the incredibly trying circumstances of a protection. He filled many roles during this time, planning safe houses, engaging in free speech advocacy, lobbying the British government to intercede on his behalf, and struggling to secure a paperback edition of the book. I picked this book up because I admire Rushdie’s commitment to intellectual freedom, but I came away with much more respect for his integrity and determination as a writer, even as I felt I had seen the darkest and least flattering parts of the man.

Categories: Autobiography

The Portable Atheist (978-0306816086)

Cover Image for the Portable Atheist by Christopher HitchensStretching from Greek philosophy to contemporary humour and science writing, The Portable Atheist contains a broad selection of essays chronicling the evolution of atheist, agnostic and humanist thought in Western culture. The essays are selected and introduced by “New Atheist” writer Christopher Hitchens, but the pieces demonstrate that some of our currents ideas about atheism have very old roots indeed. This volume was slow, hefty reading, but extremely rewarding.

Categories: History, Philosophy

Elizabeth the Queen (978-0812979794)

Cover image for Elizabeth the Queen by  Sally Bedell SmithWhether you are a royalist, and abolitionist, or simply indifferent to the British royal family, Elizabeth Windsor has had a long and interesting life and reign, presiding over six decades of rapid change. Queen Elizabeth II is simultaneously one of the most public figures in the world, and yet intensely private, so it is fascinating to catch in glimpse into her world, particularly in a way that so humanizing. Sally Bedell Smith profiles the Queen with the same attention to detail she is known for in her previous works on the Kennedys and the Clintons. This title focuses on Elizabeth’s time as queen with little attention to her childhood, and the author is certainly friendly to her subject, but overall this was a well-written and informative read.

Categories: Biography

The Storytelling Animal (978-0547391403)

Cover Image for The Storytelling AnimalThe storytelling phenomenon appears across time and cultures, raising the questions of what purpose, if any, it serves in human evolution. Gottschall examines contexts in which our desire to impose narrative order on the world is useful (recognizing patterns) and detrimental (eyewitness testimony is unreliable due to the plasticity of memory). Dreams and daydreams, the pretend play of children, and the relationship between empathy and fiction are all examined in this brief and tantalizing introduction to the neuroscience behind our narrative impulses.

Categories: Literary Criticism, Science

 

Top 5 Fiction Reads of 2012

These are my favourite fiction titles read (not necessarily published) in 2012. Click the title for links to full reviews, where applicable. My top 5 non-fiction titles for the year will go up Thursday.

1Q84 (978-0307593313) 

Cover image for 1Q84In 1984, personal trainer Aomame disembarks from a taxi in the middle of a Tokyo Expressway and climbs down an emergency exit in order to make an important appointment. But the world at the bottom of the emergency exit is subtly different from the world she left behind. Also in Tokyo, author Tengo is approached by a publishing contact with an offer to ghostwrite a beautiful and unusual fantasy novel written by a peculiar seventeen year old girl with a troubled past. Haruki Murakami weaves elements of mystery, fantasy and dystopia together brilliantly to reveal the connection between Aomame and Tengo and their seemingly disparate stories.

Categories: Fantasy, Dystopia


Lamb
(978-0380813810)

Cover image for Lamb by Christopher MooreWith his signature wit and humour, Christopher Moore brings a bright new perspective to the life of Christ and the many myths surrounding it by retelling it from the point of view of his dedicated and clumsy childhood pal, Biff. Biff has been reincarnated to tell the tale of the missing years of Christ’s life, between his childhood and his ministry. Their travels through Asia might more aptly be styled misadventures, but they all lead back to the fate that waits for “Joshua” on Calvary. Moore’s Gospel according to Biff is irreverent and hilarious.

Categories: Humour, Mythology

The Night Circus (978-0307744432)

Cover Image for The Night Circus by Erin MorgensternTwo great magicians with a long-standing rivalry pit their apprentices against one another in a battle of skill and wits with an unusual setting: a magical black and white circus which operates only at night. Celia and Marco are bound to the struggle but their growing feelings for one another and frustration with their mentors cause them to rebel against their fate. And the luminous circus setting in which they face off has serious consequences for the other denizens of the circus as the competition stretches on. Erin Morgenstern brings the circus to life in the mind’s eye in stunning detail.

Categories: Fantasy, Romance

The Wolf Gift (978-0-307-59511-9)

Cover Image for The Wolf Gift by Anne RiceReturning to the world of supernatural fiction, Anne Rice puts her own spin on the legend of the werewolf. Reuben Golding is a young reporter from a wealthy San Francisco family. He has a budding career and beautiful girlfriend, but his life is turned on its head when he is invited to Nideck Point, a majestic and isolated manor on the Mendocino coast. His hostess is murdered, and he is ravaged by a werewolf. When he transforms himself, he is compelled to answer the cries of suffering innocents, and is left to struggle with the moral implications of the violence he inflicts on their tormentors. Anne Rice blends philosophic introspection and supernatural mystery along with her unusual talent for describing houses and landscapes. The sequel, The Wolves of Midwinter, has been announced for October 2013.

Categories: Fantasy, Horror

Song of Achilles (978-0062060624)

Cover image for Song of Achilles by Madeleine MillerThe legend of Achilles and his role in the fall of Troy are exquisitely reimagined by Madeleine Miller, told from the perspective of his dedicated companion, Patroclus. Former prince Patroclus is an unwanted exile in the court of King Peleus. Despite his dark past, Patroclus is gentle and disinclined towards the martial arts he is expected to master. Achilles is a natural warrior, destined for great conquests by the ambition of his goddess mother, Thetis. Their opposing natures bind them together into a steadfast friendship that grows into a romance that will see Patroclus follow Achilles to the walls of Troy, despite Thetis’s determined efforts to drive them apart. Miller delivers a moving tale of friendship and romance doomed by its setting on the stage of history.

Categories: LGBT, Mythology, Romance