Books 2017: Four-Star Non-Fiction and Fiction


Not My Father's Son by Alan Cumming. Synopsis from Goodreads: Dark, painful memories can be put away to be forgotten. Until one day they all flood back in horrible detail.
When television producers approached Alan Cumming to appear on a popular celebrity genealogy show, he hoped to solve the mystery of his maternal grandfather's disappearance that had long cast a shadow over his family. But this was not the only mystery laid before Alan.
Alan grew up in the grip of a man who held his family hostage, someone who meted out violence with a frightening ease, who waged a silent war with himself that sometimes spilled over onto everyone around him. That man was Alex Cumming, Alan's father, whom Alan had not seen or spoken to for more than a decade when he reconnected just before filming for Who Do You Think You Are? began. He had a secret he had to share, one that would shock his son to his very core and set into motion a journey that would change Alan's life forever.
With ribald humor, wit, and incredible insight, Alan seamlessly moves back and forth in time, integrating stories from his childhood in Scotland and his experiences today as the celebrated actor of film, television, and stage. At times suspenseful, at times deeply moving, but always incredibly brave and honest, Not My Father's Son is a powerful story of embracing the best aspects of the past and triumphantly pushing the darkness aside.

Lovely and bittersweet. He sounds like a lovely man. I've loved him as an actor, which made me approach this with trepidation, because, you know, safer to never meet your heroes (or read autobiographical writing by them).  No worries - this was written with pathos, suspense and poignant, gracious humour.

Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution by Laurie Penny. Synopsis from Goodreads: Shortlisted for the Green Carnation Prize 2014
Smart, clear-eyed, and irreverent, Unspeakable Things is a fresh look at gender and power in the twenty-first century, which asks difficult questions about dissent and desire, money and masculinity, sexual violence, menial work, mental health, queer politics, and the Internet.
Celebrated journalist and activist Laurie Penny draws on a broad history of feminist thought and her own experience in radical subcultures in America and Britain to take on cultural phenomena from the Occupy movement to online dating, give her unique spin on economic justice and freedom of speech, and provide candid personal insight to rally the defensive against eating disorders, sexual assault, and internet trolls. Unspeakable Things is a book that is eye-opening not only in the critique it provides, but also in the revolutionary alternatives it imagines.

Mostly I liked this very much. When she wrote it she was much younger than I am and very angry. The angry I still relate to. There are areas where it feels like she's a bit too much in love with her own fiery rhetoric and piles up a bunch of vivid images and clever turns of phrase until I had kind of lost the point, but that's not the worst thing in the world. A lot of this stuff has already worked its way into the vocabulary of feminism, which is a good thing. Overall - I'm now satisfied that her non-fiction writing is as good as her fiction, which I have loved; reading this as an older feminist made me both admiring of her energy and very, very tired; and I have to do some reading on neoliberalism now.

The Three-Pound Enigma: The Human Brain and the Quest to Unlock Its Mysteries by Shannon Moffet. Synopsis from Goodreads: The average human brain weighs three pounds—80 percent of which is water—and yet it's capable of outstripping the computational and storage capacities of the most complex computer. But how the mind works remains one of humankind's greatest mysteries.
With boundless curiosity and enthusiasm, Shannon Moffett, a Stanford medical student, takes us down the halls of neuroscience to the front lines of cutting-edge research and medicine to meet some of today's most extraordinary scientists and thinkers, all grappling with provocative questions: Why do we dream? How does memory work? How do we see? What happens when we think?
Each chapter delves into a different aspect of the brain, following the experts as they chart new ground. Moffett takes us to a lab where fMRI scans reveal the multitude of stimuli that our brains unconsciously take in; inside an operating room where a neurosurgeon removes a bullet from a patient's skull; to the lab of Christof Koch, a neuroscientist tracking individual neurons in order to crack the code of consciousness; and to a research lab where scientists are investigating the relationship between dreams and waking life. She also takes us beyond the scientific world—to a Zen monk's zendo, where she explores the effects of meditation on the brain; inside the home of a woman suffering from dissociative identity disorder; to a conference with the philosopher Daniel Dennett, who uses illusions, magic, tricks, and logic to challenge our assumptions about the mind; and to the home of the late Nobel Laureate Francis Crick, co-discoverer with James Watson of DNA's double-helix structure.
Filled with fascinating case studies and featuring a timeline that tracks the development of the brain from conception to death, The Three Pound Enigma is a remarkable exploration of what it means to be human.

I really liked this, and I felt like I learned a lot, but as with many things at this stage of my life, it's hard to get it to stick. It's such a deep, sprawling subject, and I felt like she did a good job carving out a path through it, and mixing hard science with character studies of people in the field and more easily digestible passages about more popular areas of neuroscience. I find this subject endlessly fascinating - how do you study the brain while using your brain, so you're inside the brain but outside the brain at the same time? I will probably reread this at least once. 

Fiction, But With Superheroes and Fairies and Flying People and Stuff

I'm not sure why I decided to put these here instead of with the other fantasy books. They just seemed a little more on the magical realism side than actual fantasy, although if I'd let myself brood on it more I probably could have moved more title back and forth. So I decided not to overthink it. This might actually be my very favourite kind of novel - realistic, but admitting that sometimes reality has some give to it.

All My Friends are Superheroes by Andrew Kaufman. Synopsis from GoodreadsAll Tom's friends really are superheroes.
There's the Ear, the Spooner, the Impossible Man. Tom even married a superhero, the Perfectionist. But at their wedding, the Perfectionist was hypnotized (by ex-boyfriend Hypno, of course) to believe that Tom is invisible. Nothing he does can make her see him. Six months later, she's sure that Tom has abandoned her.
So she's moving to Vancouver. She'll use her superpower to make Vancouver perfect and leave all the heartbreak in Toronto. With no idea Tom's beside her, she boards an airplane in Toronto. Tom has until the wheels touch the ground in Vancouver to convince her he's visible, or he loses her forever.

I had this on my Kindle forever until a guy at our regular bar night mentioned that he had read it - that seemed coincidental enough that it prompted me to read it. It's a very quiet, melancholy kind of superhero tale. The superheros involved have powers like knowing what the perfect song or bottle of wine for any occasion is, or wandering into people's houses in the middle of the night and cuddling them when they need it. Very sad and lovely. 

The Hum and the Shiver by Alex Bledsoe. Synopsis from Goodreads: No one knows where the Tufa came from, or how they ended up in the Smoky Mountains of East Tennessee, yet when the first Europeans arrived, they were already there. Dark-haired, enigmatic, and suspicious of outsiders, the Tufa live quiet lives in the hills and valleys of Cloud County. While their origins may be lost to history, there are clues in their music, hints of their true nature buried in the songs they have passed down for generations.
Private Bronwyn Hyatt returns from Iraq wounded in body and in spirit, only to face the very things that drove her away in the first place: her family, her obligations to the Tufa, and her dangerous ex-boyfriend. But more trouble lurks in the mountains and hollows of her childhood home. Cryptic omens warn of impending tragedy, and a restless "haint" lurks nearby, waiting to reveal Bronwyn's darkest secrets. Worst of all, Bronwyn has lost touch with the music that was once a vital part of her identity.
With death stalking her family, Bronwyn will need to summon the strength to take her place among the true Tufa and once again fly on the night winds…
The Hum and the Shiver is a Kirkus Reviews Best of 2011: Science Fiction & Fantasy title.

In the wrong hands, this could have easily been too Harlequin Romance for my liking, but it bends the tropes enough that it's just a readable story with a brush of the otherworldly. The Tufa lore is so convincing that I actually looked up whether it had any basis in fact. It slightly resembles the fiction of Charles de Lint, who I love. 

Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough. Synopsis from Goodreads: Louise is a single mom, a secretary, stuck in a modern-day rut. On a rare night out, she meets a man in a bar and sparks fly. Though he leaves after they kiss, she’s thrilled she finally connected with someone.
When Louise arrives at work on Monday, she meets her new boss, David. The man from the bar. The very married man from the bar…who says the kiss was a terrible mistake but who still can’t keep his eyes off Louise.
And then Louise bumps into Adele, who’s new to town and in need of a friend, but she also just happens to be married to David. David and Adele look like the picture-perfect husband and wife, but then why is David so controlling, and why is Adele so scared of him?

As Louise is drawn into David and Adele’s orbit, she uncovers more puzzling questions than answers. The only thing that is crystal clear is that something in this marriage is very, very wrong, but Louise can’t guess how wrong―and how far a person might go to protect their marriage’s secrets.

Sarah Pinborough is always interesting to read - you never know exactly what you're getting into. I wavered between three and four stars here, and I don't want to say too much because I think this is a better read if you go in with few expectations.

Some Kind of Fairy Tale by Graham Joyce. Synopsis from Goodreads: It is Christmas afternoon and Peter Martin gets an unexpected phone call from his parents, asking him to come round. It pulls him away from his wife and children and into a bewildering mystery.
He arrives at his parents house and discovers that they have a visitor. His sister Tara. Not so unusual you might think, this is Christmas after all, a time when families get together. But twenty years ago Tara took a walk into the woods and never came back and as the years have gone by with no word from her the family have, unspoken, assumed that she was dead. Now she's back, tired, dirty, disheveled, but happy and full of stories about twenty years spent traveling the world, an epic odyssey taken on a whim.
But her stories don't quite hang together and once she has cleaned herself up and got some sleep it becomes apparent that the intervening years have been very kind to Tara. She really does look no different from the young woman who walked out the door twenty years ago. Peter's parents are just delighted to have their little girl back, but Peter and his best friend Richie, Tara's one time boyfriend, are not so sure. Tara seems happy enough but there is something about her. A haunted, otherworldly quality. Some would say it's as if she's off with the fairies. And as the months go by Peter begins to suspect that the woods around their homes are not finished with Tara and his family.

Oh man, I loved this so much. Why did I not five-star it? I should have five-starred it. It has everything I need for a wholly gratifying reading experience. It's just a really great story with a bittersweet flavour of fairy tales. 

At the Edge of the Universe by Shaun David Hutchinson. Synopsis from Goodreads: Tommy and Ozzie have been best friends since second grade, and boyfriends since eighth. They spent countless days dreaming of escaping their small town—and then Tommy vanished.
More accurately, he ceased to exist, erased from the minds and memories of everyone who knew him. Everyone except Ozzie.
Ozzie doesn’t know how to navigate life without Tommy, and soon suspects that something else is going on: that the universe is shrinking.
When Ozzie is paired up with new student Calvin on a physics project, he begins to wonder if Calvin could somehow be involved. But the more time they spend together, the harder it is for him to deny the feelings developing between them, even if he still loves Tommy.
But Ozzie knows there isn’t much time left to find Tommy–that once the door closes, it can’t be opened again. And he’s determined to keep it open as long as possible.

So grateful to this book, which busted me out of a reading rut. I liked the way this was fairly realistic fiction that played out within a framework of magical realism - and the magical device is a very apt metaphor for Ozzie's mental state. I also admired the frank addressing of adolescent sexuality and sexual diversity. Good writing, great story.


Pavilion of Women: A Novel of Life in the Women's Quarters by Pearl S. Buck. Synopsis from Goodreads: On her fortieth birthday, Madame Wu carries out a decision she has been planning for a long time: she tells her husband that after twenty-four years their physical life together is now over and she wishes him to take a second wife. The House of Wu, one of the oldest and most revered in China, is thrown into an uproar by her decision, but Madame Wu will not be dissuaded and arranges for a young country girl to come take her place in bed. Elegant and detached, Madame Wu orchestrates this change as she manages everything in the extended household of more than sixty relatives and servants. Alone in her own quarters, she relishes her freedom and reads books she has never been allowed to touch. When her son begins English lessons, she listens, and is soon learning from the foreigner, a free-thinking priest named Brother Andre, who will change her life. Few books raise so many questions about the nature and roles of men and women, about self-discipline and happiness.

This was my second attempt to read a book by Pearl S. Buck, after being somewhat underwhelmed by The Eternal Wonder. I wondered initially about cultural appropriation, but Buck's parents were missionaries and she spent most of the first half of her life in China, which doesn't erase those concerns, but mitigates them. This was a really interesting read, and the thinking illustrated by the character of Madame Wu is quite startlingly modern and progressive. The sense of place and the illustration of the quotidian customs and atmosphere is also vividly rendered. This one has stuck with me. 

Maps for Lost Lovers by Nadeem Aslam. Synopsis from Goodreads: If Gabriel García Márquez had chosen to write about Pakistani immigrants in England, he might have produced a novel as beautiful and devastating as Maps for Lost Lovers. 
Jugnu and Chanda have disappeared. Like thousands of people all over England, they were lovers and living together out of wedlock. To Chanda’s family, however, the disgrace was unforgivable. Perhaps enough so as to warrant murder.As he explores the disappearance and its aftermath through the eyes of Jugnu’s worldly older brother, Shamas, and his devout wife, Kaukab, Nadeem Aslam creates a closely observed and affecting portrait of people whose traditions threaten to bury them alive. The result is a tour de force, intimate, affecting, tragic and suspenseful. 

These two titles had no connection in my head until just now, when I realize that the themes are intriguingly similar. I had to process this one for quite a while. I think I bought it as a bargain book years ago, so I'm grateful that the Book Bingo challenge spurred me to read it ("a book by a Muslim author"). A few reviews criticized it as flowery; when I started reading I thought they were exaggerating. A little ways in I realized that hoo boy, the imagery was thick with this one. I started counting similes and it was rare to find only one to a page - often there were four or five, and some were fairly tortured. By halfway through, either I or the author relaxed into the style and it didn't seem so intrusive.
Much of the novel seems like a fairly harsh indictment of Islam, and not just extremism. Kaukab, the wife of the main character, strives to be a virtuous Muslim and to instill the same values in her children, but this ends up hurting them and alienating them from her. Honour killings are a central theme, as well as the constant need for women to be on their guard lest they be considered unchaste, usually unfairly. 
Overall, it's a really sad story, told beautifully for the most part.

Darwin's Wink: A Novel of Nature and Love by Alison Anderson. Synopsis from Goodreads: Alison Anderson's Darwin's Wink is the story of an exquisite romance between two naturalists working to save a rare bird species on an island off the coast of Mauritius. Both are devastated by their pasts: Fran mourns the unexplained death of her Mauritian lover; Christian, a former Red Cross worker, has recently left war-torn Bosnia after the mysterious disappearance of his fiancée. As they slowly teach each other to trust again, the two must also contend with strange attacks on the island that place both their lives and livelihoods in grave danger.

I was noodling around looking for a book for the Bingo prompt 'a book whose author has the same name as you'. As soon as I saw this one, I remembered reading her book Hidden Latitudes, which was a fictional imagining of Amelia Earhart after she crashed her plane on a remote island. She was with a man - I can't remember if he was her engineer and on the plane with her or there for some other reason - and they fall in love. So after reading this book, I sort of feel like Anderson has a thing for unconventional romances that take place on islands, but I still really liked this - some beautiful writing about nature and evolution, trying to preserve fragile things against the onslaught of 'progress', and difficult relationships that would only ever take place in a very specific environment. 

Fault Lines by Nancy Huston. Synopsis from Goodreads: A best seller in France, with over 400,000 copies sold, and currently being translated into eighteen languages, Fault Lines is the new novel from internationally-acclaimed and best-selling author Nancy Huston. Huston's novel is a profound and poetic story that traces four generations of a single family from present-day California to WW II era Germany. Fault Lines begins with Sol, a gifted, terrifying child whose mother believes he is destined for greatness partly because he has a birthmark like his dad, his grandmother, and his great-grandmother. When Sol's family makes an unexpected trip to Germany, secrets begin to emerge about their history during World War II. It seems birthmarks are not all that's been passed down through the bloodlines. Closely observed, lyrically told, and epic in scope, Fault Lines is a touching, fearless, and unusual novel about four generations of children and their parents. The story moves from the West Coast of the United States to the East, from Haifa to Toronto to Munich, as secrets unwind back through time until a devastating truth about the family's origins is reached. Huston tells a riveting, vigorous tale in which love, music, and faith rage against the shape of evil.

I've always found Huston to be a really remarkable writer. Her style is striking and affecting while being completely devoid of sentimentality - she seems to see human motivations, flaws and frailties with merciless clarity. This story is told in four parts by four different six-year-olds, going backwards in time. The child's perspective is completely effective and convincing (terrifying, in some cases). I always find reading about children caught in bad circumstances beyond their control heartwrenching to read about, especially when it's done well. This one will be hard to forget.

This is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz. Synopsis from Goodreads: On a beach in the Dominican Republic, a doomed relationship flounders. In the heat of a hospital laundry room in New Jersey, a woman does her lover’s washing and thinks about his wife. In Boston, a man buys his love child, his only son, a first baseball bat and glove. At the heart of these stories is the irrepressible, irresistible Yunior, a young hardhead whose longing for love is equaled only by his recklessness--and by the extraordinary women he loves and loses: artistic Alma; the aging Miss Lora; Magdalena, who thinks all Dominican men are cheaters; and the love of his life, whose heartbreak ultimately becomes his own. 
In prose that is endlessly energetic, inventive, tender, and funny, the stories in This Is How You Lose Her lay bare the infinite longing and inevitable weakness of the human heart. They remind us that passion always triumphs over experience, and that “the half-life of love is forever.”

I've been meaning to read Junot Diaz for a while, so I grabbed this from the library while picking up holds. I guess I can't say it kept me up all night because at the time I read it I was up all night most nights anyway, but it kept me company all night. What an amazing voice - I felt completely submerged in a culture and way of life that was previously completely unknown to me. And I felt sympathy for a character who was in many ways unsympathetic, which requires some really good writing.

All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld. Synopsis from Goodreads: From one of Granta's Best Young British Novelists, a stunningly insightful, emotionally powerful new novel about an outsider haunted by an inescapable past: a story of loneliness and survival, guilt and loss, and the power of forgiveness.
Jake Whyte is living on her own in an old farmhouse on a craggy British island, a place of ceaseless rains and battering winds. Her disobedient collie, Dog, and a flock of sheep are her sole companions, which is how she wanted it to be. But every few nights something—or someone—picks off one of the sheep and sets off a new deep pulse of terror. There are foxes in the woods, a strange boy and a strange man, rumors of an obscure, formidable beast. But there is also Jake's past—hidden thousands of miles away and years ago, held in the silences about her family and the scars that stripe her back—a past that threatens to break into the present. 
With exceptional artistry and empathy, All the Birds, Singingreveals an isolated life in all its struggles and stubborn hopes, unexpected beauty, and hard-won redemption.

Spare, unflinching and almost unbearably sad. The sense of place (sheep, wilderness, heat) and small details of setting were uncomfortably sharp. I found the present section moving forward and the past section moving backwards really effective once I got used to it. Jake is an unusual, nontraditional female protagonist which was refreshing. I'm not sure redemption was really in the cards here, and I appreciated that no punches were pulled.

Some Luck (Last Hundred Years: A Family Saga #1) by Jane Smiley. Synopsis from GoodreadsOn their farm in Denby, Iowa, Rosanna and Walter Langdon abide by time-honored values that they pass on to their five wildly different yet equally remarkable children: Frank, the brilliant, stubborn first-born; Joe, whose love of animals makes him the natural heir to his family's land; Lillian, an angelic child who enters a fairy-tale marriage with a man only she will fully know; Henry, the bookworm who's not afraid to be different; and Claire, who earns the highest place in her father's heart. Moving from post-World War I America through the early 1950s, Some Luck gives us an intimate look at this family's triumphs and tragedies, zooming in on the realities of farm life, while casting-as the children grow up and scatter to New York, California, and everywhere in between-a panoramic eye on the monumental changes that marked the first half of the twentieth century. Rich with humor and wisdom, twists and surprises, Some Luck takes us through deeply emotional cycles of births and deaths, passions, and betrayals, displaying Smiley's dazzling virtuosity, compassion, and understanding of human nature and the nature of history, never discounting the role of fate and chance. This potent conjuring of many lives across generations is a stunning tour de force.

I had to read a book with "Some" in the title for a bingo book challenge and the search came up with this. It was the first "this happened, then this happened" book I've read for a while. It took me forever to read, more because of a suddenly-crazed life schedule than any lacking in the book - I always looked forward to resuming. I liked the differences in the personalities of the children and the description of farm life, and how certain personalities are more suited to farm life. I don't know if I'll continue the trilogy, since the ending seemed natural and right to me.

Congratulations on Everything by Nathan Whitlock. Synopsis from GoodreadsAmbition, failure, sex, and the service industry 
A dark and comic novel, Congratulations On Everything tracks the struggles, frailties, and cruelly pyrrhic victories of the middle-aged owner of a bar-restaurant and a 30ish lunch-shift waitress.
Jeremy has bought into the teachings of an empowerment and success guru, hook, line, and sinker. A Toronto service industry lifer, he’s risen through the ranks until he finally takes the keys to his destiny and opens his own place, The Ice Shack.
Everyone assumes Ice Shack daytime waitress Charlene is innocent and empathetic, but in reality she’s desperately unhappy and looking for a way out of her marriage to her high-school sweetheart. A drunken encounter sends Charlene and her boss careening. The Ice Shack stops being an oasis of sanity and, as Jeremy struggles to keep his business afloat, he’ll stop at nothing to maintain his successful, good guy self-image.
In an era when the gourmand rules and chefs become superstars, Congratulations On Everything is a hilarious and occasionally uncomfortable dose of anti-foodie reality that reveals what goes on when the customers and Instagrammers aren’t around — and even sometimes when they are.

Really enjoyed this, although finding it sort of difficult to articulate what it's about. Jeremy is a flawed but ultimately sympathetic character - Charlene I had a harder time getting a handle on. Very Canadian flavour. I laughed out loud a few times. Whitlock is a friend of a friend I hang out in a bar with every Tuesday evening and I've been promising him I'd read this for a while.


Holy smoke! This is a treasure trove. Book recommendations galore! Thank you for this.
StephLove said…
Explain this book bingo thing to me. Is it something you're doing with other people?

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