Books Read in 2023: The Five-Stars

This one took me SO LONG. 

I figured out why I was a year behind reading the Giller Prize shortlist - something which is both screamingly obvious and surely important to no one but me, but it was nagging. The shortlist comes out in October, and duh, I didn't read them all by the end of the year, I spread them out into the next one. 

This is also the point in these posts where I start to realize books are missing. I forgot to add them to Goodreads, or Goodreads was screwed up, or I accidentally missed or deleted them while composing the posts. I know there's at least one for last year - Cemetery Boys, which I think was recommended by Marilyn (HI MARILYN). YA Fantasy, LGBTQ, really good, I remembered it when I was reviewing Promise Boys in this post. It doesn't make me feel happy that I read more books when this happens, it pisses me off that my total was WRONG and the posts are incomplete. Hmph.

Engie, international woman of mystery, decided to torture us all (or maybe just me) in her comment on the last post which read in part "I agree that is a 3.5-4 star read. It was good but not as good as I wanted it to be." PLEASE CLARIFY, ENGIE. Also, I know exactly what you mean about The Maid. I would not have read it except I was stuck for a book for 'most popular book at your library last year'. I am terrible for stubbornly refusing to read or watch things everyone else insists are wonderful, even if it's likely I will love them. It's particularly bad when it's my husband doing the suggesting. Why ARE we like this?

So out of the ones I managed to keep track of, last year I read 101 female authors, at least 2 non-binary, several queer, and 21 non-white women authors. Not terrible, but I could do better. I will try to this year, except when I forget. 

Five-Star Reads

YA

Katzenjammer by Francesca Zappia. Synopsis from Goodreads: American Horror Story meets the dark comedy of Kafka's The Metamorphosis as Cat searches for a way to escape her high school. A tale of family, love, tragedy, and masks--the ones others make for us, and the ones we make for ourselves. Katzenjammer will haunt fans of Chelsea Pitcher's This Lie Will Kill You and E. Lockhart's We Were Liars. Cat lives in her high school. She never leaves, and for a long time her school has provided her with everything she needs. But now things are changing. The hallways contract and expand along with the school's breathing, and the showers in the bathroom run a bloody red. Cat's best friend is slowly turning into cardboard, and instead of a face, Cat has a cat mask made of her own hardened flesh. Cat doesn't remember why she is trapped in her school or why half of them--Cat included--are slowly transforming. Escaping has always been the one impossibility in her school's upside-down world. But to save herself from the eventual self-destruction all the students face, Cat must find the way out. And to do that, she'll have to remember what put her there in the first place.


-”Urinals line one wall, sinks the other, and a few stalls on the far wall have been ripped out to make way for a portal to hell.

It’s a large black hole with a flagstone staircase leading downward.”


This sent chills through me, directing a merciless gaze on things that many of us have grown away from and yet can recall with perfect clarity. The surrealism of the imagery coupled with the plainness of the descriptions make everything more vivid than if it was told in a purely realistic style. It's terrible and weirdly beautiful and sometimes blackly hilarious and very sad. I read it in July and can still remember most of it. 




Promise Boys by Nick Brooks. Synopsis from Goodreads: A Boston Globe-Horn Book Award 2023 Honoree."Thrilling, captivating, and blade-sharp." ―Karen M. McManus, #1 New York Times bestselling author of One of Us Is Lying. The prestigious Urban Promise Prep school might look pristine on the outside, but deadly secrets lurk within. When the principal ends up murdered on school premises and the cops come sniffing around, a trio of students―J.B., Ramón, and Trey―emerge as the prime suspects. They had the means, they had the motive . . . and they may have had the murder weapon. But with all three maintaining their innocence, they must band together to track down the real killer before they are arrested. Or is the true culprit hiding among them? Find out who killed Principal Moore in Nick Brooks's murder mystery, Promise Boys ― The Hate U Give meets One of Us Is Lying.


-”Now I see the unfairness of the world turning him back to the angry boy I used to know. It fills me with fear, and sadness.

But I am past blame. I am seeking understanding. The last limpia showed me the truth: that the pure good soul of my youngest grandson is being injected with blood, a thousand tiny bleeding wounds, and it’s from walking in a world like this, and maybe even in a school like Promise. It wasn’t Moore’s blood that was in that bowl, it was my grandson’s.

Every day we send our children out into the world, they are inflicted with a thousand tiny cuts. And all the limpias in the world can’t clean it, because the wound is open.”

Propulsive and impactful. A good variety of viewpoints from several young POC with distinct personalities and home situations and hopes for the future. Really effective depiction of the  untenable situations these kids find themselves in, where every move is scrutinized, condemned or criminalized - I felt a fraction of that unbearable frustration and injustice just reading about it. No one should have too much power over a group of people, even if that person appears to have pure motives. There was one loose thread that I am baffled about regarding the female teacher - where was the editor? Did they just forget about it? What the heck? Did I miss something? But overall I feel like this book is timely and powerful.


Pet by Akwaeke Emezi. Synopsis from Goodreads: A thought-provoking and haunting novel about a creature that escapes from an artist's canvas, whose talent is sniffing out monsters in a world that claims they don't exist anymore. Perfect for fans of Akata Witch and Shadowshaper.  There are no monsters anymore, or so the children in the city of Lucille are taught. Jam and her best friend, Redemption, have grown up with this lesson all their life. But when Jam meets Pet, a creature made of horns and colors and claws, who emerges from one of her mother's paintings and a drop of Jam's blood, she must reconsider what she's been told. Pet has come to hunt a monster--and the shadow of something grim lurks in Redemption's house. Jam must fight not only to protect her best friend, but also uncover the truth, and the answer to the question How do you save the world from monsters if no one will admit they exist? In their riveting and timely young adult debut, acclaimed novelist Akwaeke Emezi asks difficult questions about what choices you can make when the society around you is in denial.

-”Bitter tilted her head, and something sad entered her eyes. ‘It is not easy to get rid of monsters,’ she said. ‘The angels, they had to do things underhand, dark things.’ The sadness in her eyes deepened, and Jam took her hand, not understanding what pain was coming up but feeling its ripples in the air. ‘Hard things,’ her mother continued. ‘You can’t sweet-talk a monster into anything else, when all it does want is monsterness. Good and innocent, they not the same thing; they don’t wear the same face.’”

So bold and confident and imaginative. With a hopeful vision of a future world - allowing children to explore the full spectrum of gender and sexuality, welcoming different family configurations, erasing inequality and injustice - but a sobering realization that, if humans are in charge of fixing things, humans are always susceptible to human failings. Interrogates our concept of 'monsters'. I can see how some would think it veers into preachiness at times, but it worked for me over all.

Sci-Fi/Fantasy/Horror

How High We Go in the Dark by Sequoia Nagamatsu. Synopsis from Goodreads: A debut that follows a cast of intricately linked characters over hundreds of years as humanity struggles to rebuild itself in the aftermath of a climate plague. Beginning in 2030, a grieving archeologist arrives in the Arctic Circle to continue the work of his recently deceased daughter at the Batagaika crater, where researchers are studying long-buried secrets now revealed in melting permafrost, including the perfectly preserved remains of a girl who appears to have died of an ancient virus.

Once unleashed, the Arctic Plague will reshape life on earth for generations to come, quickly traversing the globe, forcing humanity to devise a myriad of moving and inventive ways to embrace possibility in the face of tragedy. In a theme park designed for terminally ill children, a cynical employee falls in love with a mother desperate to hold on to her infected son. A heartbroken scientist searching for a cure finds a second chance at fatherhood when one of his test subjects—a pig—develops the capacity for human speech. A widowed painter and her teenaged granddaughter embark on a cosmic quest to locate a new home planet.
From funerary skyscrapers to hotels for the dead to interstellar starships, Sequoia Nagamatsu takes readers on a journey spanning continents, centuries, and even celestial bodies to tell a story about the resiliency of the human spirit, our infinite capacity to dream, and the connective threads that tie us all together in the universe.

I started this earlier in the year and abandoned it when it expired, then started again and finished it as the year came to an end. It's a series of linked stories relating to a pandemic that begins with thawing Arctic ice. Every chapter has something about living as an Asian - filial relationships, racism, etc. - subtly. It's so sad, and so beautiful - the living trying to find a compassionate way to care for the dying, the new relationships formed in the wake of tragedy, the luminous moments that come from squeezing all the love and joy possible out of the ruins of the previous world. And the pig story? Omg, sobbing mess. Soaring, elegaic, wonderful. And isn't Sequoia Nagamatsu an awesome name? 

The God of Endings by Jacqueline Holland. Synopsis from Goodreads: By turns suspenseful and enchanting, this breathtaking first novel weaves a story of love, family, history, and myth as seen through the eyes of one immortal woman. Collette LeSange is a lonely artist who heads an elite fine arts school for children in upstate New York. Her youthful beauty masks the dark truth of her life: she has endured centuries of turmoil and heartache in the wake of her grandfather’s long-ago decision to make her immortal like himself. Now in 1984, Collette finds her life upended by the arrival of a gifted child from a troubled home, the return of a stalking presence from her past, and her own mysteriously growing hunger. Combining brilliant prose with breathtaking suspense, The God of Endings serves as a larger exploration of the human condition in all its complexity, asking us the most fundamental question: is life in this world a gift or a curse?

This showed up as a hold and I had no memory of why I had requested it - Book Riot, Goodreads, a blog friend. This happens a lot. Never mind the plot, by the second chapter I was already smitten with the writing and the world-building - it's nominally a vampire novel, but not in the schlocky genre sense (not that those don't have their place, big fan).


The beauty and ugliness (book bingo square) comes up in the sense of living a long life and seeing much of what the world contains, geographically, historically and emotionally. The language is precise and deliberate and I could visualize everything clearly. This won't be for everyone, some Goodreads reviewers found the pace too slow, but it was perfect for me.

 Where They Wait by Scott Carson.  Synopsis from Goodreads: Recently laid-off from his newspaper and desperate for work, war correspondent Nick Bishop takes a humbling job: writing a profile of a new mindfulness app called Clarity. It’s easy money, and a chance to return to his hometown for the first time in years. The app itself seems like a retread of old ideas—relaxing white noise and guided meditations. But then there are the “Sleep Songs.” A woman’s hauntingly beautiful voice sings a ballad that is anything but soothing—it’s disturbing, and more of a warning than a relaxation—but it works. Deep, refreshing sleep follows. So do the nightmares. Vivid and chilling, they feature a dead woman who calls Nick by name and whispers guidance—or are they threats? And her voice follows him long after the song is done. As the effects of the nightmares begin to permeate his waking life, Nick makes a terrifying discovery: no one involved with Clarity has any interest in his article. Their interest is in him.

-"The night was silent and I was awake and alone. The hours passed as slowly as any I'd ever known, an interminable, purgatorial wait. Several times I thought about getting out of bed to read a book or watch a movie on my iPad or do any damn thing except stare at the blackness. I didn't move, though. It felt strangely out of my control. The wait for morning was supposed to be a long one, I thought, and I was required to endure it all."


Scott Carson is a pen name of Michael Koryta, who I've reviewed in past posts and appreciated as a fairly literary thriller writer. After this, though, I would prefer if he would devote himself wholeheartedly to writing horror - can anyone see if they can get him on board with that? A recipe for perfect horror for me is something like, take your average man or woman, probably experiencing some kind of life crisis or radical self-doubt, add in some kind of family issue, mix liberally with some kind of gnarly folklore - real or fake, I'm not picky - and tell it in a conversational style suffused with a kind of hopeful melancholy. All here. 

Knock Knock, Open Wide by Neil Sharpson. Synopsis from Goodreads: Knock Knock, Open Wide weaves horror and Celtic myth into a terrifying, heartbreaking supernatural tale of fractured family bonds, the secrets we carry, and the veiled forces that guide Irish life. Driving home late one night, Etain Larkin finds a corpse on a pitch-black country road deep in the Irish countryside. She takes the corpse to a remote farmhouse. So begins a night of unspeakable horror that will take her to the very brink of sanity. She will never speak of it again. Two decades later, Betty Fitzpatrick, newly arrived at college in Dublin, has already fallen in love with the drama society, and the beautiful but troubled Ashling Mallen. As their relationship blossoms, Ashling goes to great lengths to keep Betty away from her family, especially her alcoholic mother, Etain.  As their relationship blossoms, Betty learns her lover's terrifying family history, and Ashling's secret obsession. Ashling has become convinced that the horrors inflicted on her family are connected to a seemingly innocent children's TV show. Everyone in Ireland watched this show in their youth, but Ash soon discovers that no one remembers it quite the same way. And only Ashling seems to remember its a small black goat puppet who lives in a box and only comes out if you don’t behave. They say he’s never come out. Almost never.

-"It didn't matter that neither Feidhlim nor his neighbors could remember the details of his great-grandfather's transgression. Memory was ephemeral. Hatred was a rock."

-"She felt certain that if she were to turn her head to look out the window, she would see an awful, shambling mob of famine specters keeping pace with the car, skin hanging from their translucent bones, driven on by a hunger so fierce even death could not quiet it."


Folklore? Check, and it's Irish, so, you know... Family issues? Hoo boy, and how. Like all the best horror, a beautiful love story or two are at the heart of it, along with the fear of losing the ones you love. The modern university drama culture hangs beautifully on the Irish folktale framework, and the personalities are strong and compelling. Ashling and Betty - *dreamy sigh*. The sad parts are rendingly sad, but there's redemption also, and it was just a delicious and satisfying story. 

Lute by Jennifer Thorne. Synopsis from Goodreads: On the idyllic island of Lute, every seventh summer, seven people die. No more, no less. Lute and its inhabitants are blessed, year after year, with good weather, good health, and good fortune. They live a happy, superior life, untouched by the war that rages all around them. So it’s only fair that every seven years, on the day of the tithe, the island’s gift is honored. Nina Treadway is new to The Day. A Florida girl by birth, she became a Lady through her marriage to Lord Treadway, whose family has long protected the island. Nina’s heard about The Day, of course. Heard about the horrific tragedies, the lives lost, but she doesn’t believe in it. It's all superstitious nonsense. Stories told to keep keep newcomers at bay and youngsters in line. Then The Day begins. And it's a day of nightmares, of grief, of reckoning. But it is also a day of community. Of survival and strength. Of love, at its most pure and untamed. When The Day ends, Nina―and and Lute―will never be the same.

-”The wind blows, I blink, and when I look again, I’m not surprised to find her gone. Even when she was visible, that woman was gone, dead, vanished.

Dead is

whether it happened five minutes ago or a thousand years past. Time changes nothing. No wonder it’s so layered here, the past so present.”


-"And isn’t every day like this, really? We sit on the knife’s edge, enduring this gift for as long as it’s given to us, but this is the first time I’ve fully felt it in my blood, how brief it is. How horribly miraculous.”

Another one that could hardly have fallen more squarely in my wheelhouse. This fits the criteria for a horror novel, but it is so much more - frightening, yes, but also philosophical, thought-provoking, bittersweet, and beautiful. Nina is the perfect character to center in this story - the trauma of her past positioning her to be a skeptical, apprehensive voice against the apparent mythology of The Day on Lute when seven people must die in order to ensure the peace and prosperity for the intervening seven years. If it's true, would it be worth it? But it can't possibly be true, can it? There is no gore for gore's sake. The atmosphere of tension and unease is perfectly pitched, all the more so because of the island setting, and the cast of characters is perfectly varied and vivid. I felt for these people, and admired them and mourned for them. I just really loved this book.

Non-fiction

One Strong Girl by S. Leslie Buxton. Synopsis from Goodreads: One Strong Girl is a mother's vivid account of what it is like to lose her daughter, India, to a rare debilitating disease. The story is a bold description of what it means to deal with deep sorrow and still find balance and beauty in an age steeped in the denial of death. At ten, India climbed the highest on the rope at gymnastics, yet by sixteen was so weak she was unable to even dress herself. The narrative follows the six-year fight for answers from the medical community. Finally, after the genetic testing of India's DNA, it was discovered there were two mutations on her ASAH1 gene, a deadly combination. Today her cells are alive in a research lab at the University of Ottawa. This is a legacy that cuts both ways, a point of pride and pain. One Strong Girl is a story of what it's like to outlive an only child. It describes the intensity of loving a dying child and most importantly, the joy to be found, even amidst the sorrow.

India was a childhood friend of my friend's daughter, so I was peripherally aware of this family's monstrously unfair plight. I knew I had to read this book, although of course it was heartbreakingly sad the way only this kind of book can be. 

Frida Kahlo and My Left Leg by Emily Rapp Black. Synopsis from Goodreads: Frida Kahlo was an amputee in the last part of her life, and long before that her right leg was forever compromised by a childhood bout with polio. Since adolescence, Emily Rapp, herself an amputee since the age of four, felt that there were many things she had in common with Frida Kahlo. From the first sight of Kahlo's painting of the devastating bus crash that almost killed her, Rapp felt a sense of kinship with the artist. They both endured numerous operations; both alternately hid and revealed their altered bodies; and both found a way to live and create despite physical and emotional pain. In this riveting read, Rapp gets to the essence of Frida Kahlo through her art, her letters and her diaries. She tells her own story of losing a child to Tay-Sachs; finding love, and becoming pregnant with her daughter; and of how Kahlo's life and work helped her to find a way forward when all seemed lost. Containing several full colour images of Kahlo's art and clothing, Rapp offers a unique perspective on the artist and the challenges she faced.

I discovered this by accident when looking for books on Friday Kahlo in the library catalogue. I'm always up for a book where a writer uses a work of literature or art or an artist's life to mediate parts of their own experience. Rapp has a wide-ranging knowledge of art, literature, philosophy and religion, and a bracing willingness to be pissed off and express it using all of these. 

The Skin We're In: A Year of Black Resistance and Power by Desmond Cole. Synopsis from Goodreads: In his 2015 cover story for Toronto Life magazine, Desmond Cole exposed the racist actions of the Toronto police force, detailing the dozens of times he had been stopped and interrogated under the controversial practice of carding. The story quickly came to national prominence, shaking the country to its core and catapulting its author into the public sphere. Cole used his newfound profile to draw insistent, unyielding attention to the injustices faced by Black Canadians on a daily basis. Both Cole’s activism and journalism find vibrant expression in his first book, The Skin We’re In. Puncturing the bubble of Canadian smugness and naive assumptions of a post-racial nation, Cole chronicles just one year—2017—in the struggle against racism in this country. It was a year that saw calls for tighter borders when Black refugees braved frigid temperatures to cross into Manitoba from the States, Indigenous land and water protectors resisting the celebration of Canada’s 150th birthday, police across the country rallying around an officer accused of murder, and more. The year also witnessed the profound personal and professional ramifications of Desmond Cole’s unwavering determination to combat injustice. In April, Cole disrupted a Toronto police board meeting by calling for the destruction of all data collected through carding. Following the protest, Cole, a columnist with the Toronto Star, was summoned to a meeting with the paper’s opinions editor and informed that his activism violated company policy. Rather than limit his efforts defending Black lives, Cole chose to sever his relationship with the publication. Then in July, at another police board meeting, Cole challenged the board to respond to accusations of a police cover-up in the brutal beating of Dafonte Miller by an off-duty police officer and his brother. When Cole refused to leave the meeting until the question was publicly addressed, he was arrested. The image of Cole walking out of the meeting, handcuffed and flanked by officers, fortified the distrust between the city’s Black community and its police force. Month-by-month, Cole creates a comprehensive picture of entrenched, systemic inequality. Urgent, controversial, and unsparingly honest, The Skin We’re In is destined to become a vital text for anti-racist and social justice movements in Canada, as well as a potent antidote to the all-too-present complacency of many white Canadians.


-"It's a self-fulfilling prophecy -- white settlers deny Black communities the necessities of life, then blame us for the social dysfunction that follows."

-"Canada wanted Black women to prove they were exceptional in order to work as nurses, even while, in the immediate aftermath of the war, many places in Canada suffered from a shortage of qualified nurses."

Will put this on my shelf beside So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo. I really appreciated the format of following his experiences throughout a year to demonstrate the effects of institutional racism in Canada. To put it bluntly, it's all kinds of fucked up, and he has the facts and figures to back that up. Anyone who is still clinging to the "Canadians are such nice people" fallacy has to read this, and wake the hell up. 

The Drowned and the Saved by Primo Levi. Synopsis from Goodreads: Shortly after completing THE DROWNED AND THE SAVED, Primo Levi committed suicide. The matter of his death was sudden, violent and unpremeditated, and there were some who argue that he killed himself because he was tormented by guilt - guilt that he had survived the horrors of Auschwitz while others, better than he, had gone to the wall. THE DROWNED AND THE SAVED is Levi's impassioned attempt to understand the 'rationale' behind the concentration camps, was completed shortly before his tragic death in 1987. THE DROWNED AND THE SAVED dispels the myth that Primo Levi forgave the Germans for what they did to his people. He didn't and couldn't forgive. He refused, however, to indulge in what he called 'the bestial vice of hatred' which is an entirely different matter. The voice that sounds in his writing is that of a reasonable man...it warns and reminds us that the unimaginable can happen again. A would-be tyrant is waiting in the wings, with 'beautiful words' on his lips. The book is constantly impressing on us the need to learn from the past, to make sense of the senseless'.


This was my first buddy read with my daughter - we've given and recommended books to each other, but this was the first time we read the same book at the same time. She came home for break starting it for a course, and when I realized I hadn't read any Primo Levi, I ordered a copy. 
Sometimes I've wondered how anyone can stand to be called an 'intellectual', it seems to pretentious and bombastic. I think, with this book, I got it. Primo Levi lived the experience of the concentration camp, and yet he describes it, not unemotionally, but without letting emotion overcome his reason. He talks about occupants of the camp who informed on their neighbours to gain privileges, and says he can't condemn them because he's not sure he would have the strength of character to resist taking the same opportunity - this is amazing to me. I did some further reading on Levi afterwards, and I'm not comfortable with those who have decided that his death was absolutely a suicide - it seems to give in to the very mawkishness that he resisted in his writing. 

Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands by Kate Beaton. Synopsis from Goodreads: Before there was Kate Beaton, New York Times bestselling cartoonist of Hark A Vagrant fame, there was Katie Beaton of the Cape Breton Beatons, specifically Mabou, a tight-knit seaside community where the lobster is as abundant as beaches, fiddles, and Gaelic folk songs. After university, Beaton heads out west to take advantage of Alberta’s oil rush, part of the long tradition of East Coasters who seek gainful employment elsewhere when they can't find it in the homeland they love so much. With the singular goal of paying off her student loans, what the journey will actually cost Beaton will be far more than she anticipates. Arriving in Fort McMurray, Beaton finds work in the lucrative camps owned and operated by the world’s largest oil companies. Being one of the few women among thousands of men, the culture shock is palpable. It does not hit home until she moves to a spartan, isolated worksite for higher pay. She encounters the harsh reality of life in the oil sands where trauma is an everyday occurrence yet never discussed. Her wounds may never heal. Beaton’s natural cartooning prowess is on full display as she draws colossal machinery and mammoth vehicles set against a sublime Albertan backdrop of wildlife, Northern Lights, and Rocky Mountains. Her first full-length graphic narrative, Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands is an untold story of Canada: a country that prides itself on its egalitarian ethos and natural beauty while simultaneously exploiting both the riches of its land and the humanity of its people.


A Canada Reads book. With this, Kate Beaton becomes the author who has probably made me feel the most extreme range of emotions. Hark, a Vagrant and Step Aside, Pops, are so sharp and absurd and laugh-out-loud hilarious, and then this comes along and just rips your freaking heart out, still with pictures. 

Fiction

The Sleeping Car Porter by Suzette Mayr.  Synopsis from Goodreads: When a mudslide strands a train, Baxter, a queer Black sleeping car porter, must contend with the perils of white passengers, ghosts, and his secret love affair.  The Sleeping Car Porter brings to life an important part of Black history in North America, from the perspective of a queer man living in a culture that renders him invisible in two ways. Affecting, imaginative, and visceral enough that you’ll feel the rocking of the train, The Sleeping Car Porter is a stunning accomplishment. Baxter’s name isn’t George. But it’s 1929, and Baxter is lucky enough, as a Black man, to have a job as a sleeping car porter on a train that crisscrosses the country. So when the passengers call him George, he has to just smile and nod and act invisible. What he really wants is to go to dentistry school, but he’ll have to save up a lot of nickel and dime tips to get there, so he puts up with “George.” On this particular trip out west, the passengers are more unruly than usual, especially when the train is stalled for two extra days; their secrets start to leak out and blur with the sleep-deprivation hallucinations Baxter is having. When he finds a naughty postcard of two queer men, Baxter’s memories and longings are reawakened; keeping it puts his job in peril, but he can’t part with the postcard or his thoughts of Edwin Drew, Porter Instructor.

-”He jabs a five-dollar bill at Baxter, and Baxter reaches for it, dizzy at the gargantuan amount of money. Mango jerks it back and rips it in tow; he offers one half to Baxter and winks, his lips sneering around the cigar. Time lashes to a stop. Mango is one of those nasty types, one who wants Baxter as an alibi or witness for some stupid or terrible thing he hasn’t done yet but he knows he’s going to do. Baxter folds the half bill in two, slides its foulness into his uniform breast pocket. Baxter remembers that Mangos have big, obtrusive pits."


-”Every so often when Baxter blinks, he has a thimble-sized dream. One about a radish sprinkled with salt. Another in which he rides astride an ant."


I didn't realize until I had finished this book that I had read a previous book by the same author - Dr. Edith Vane and the Hares of Crowley Hall. I hated it. Thank goodness I didn't remember, or I might not have read this. This was the Giller Prize winner, along with the Governor General's Literary prize, both well-deserved. The writing style manages to capture perfectly the rhythmic, unceasing, slightly jerky motion of the train, and Baxter's aching, hyper-aware too-long-awakeness. The manifold indignities he has to endure cheerfully, and his dreams for the future (dentistry school - hey, if it's good enough for Hermey the Elf...). I love any book that can make historical fiction this immediate and personal.

Tom Lake by Ann Patchett. Synopsis from Goodreads: In this beautiful and moving novel about family, love, and growing up, Ann Patchett once again proves herself one of America’s finest writers. In the spring of 2020, Lara’s three daughters return to the family's orchard in Northern Michigan. While picking cherries, they beg their mother to tell them the story of Peter Duke, a famous actor with whom she shared both a stage and a romance years before at a theater company called Tom Lake. As Lara recalls the past, her daughters examine their own lives and relationship with their mother, and are forced to reconsider the world and everything they thought they knew. Tom Lake is a meditation on youthful love, married love, and the lives parents have led before their children were born. Both hopeful and elegiac, it explores what it means to be happy even when the world is falling apart. As in all of her novels, Ann Patchett combines compelling narrative artistry with piercing insights into family dynamics. The result is a rich and luminous story, told with profound intelligence and emotional subtlety, that demonstrates once again why she is one of the most revered and acclaimed literary talents working today.


I love Ann Patchett. Bel Canto is in my Top Ten of All Time. I first read her memoir about her friendship with Lucy Grealy, a troubled fellow writer whose face was disfigured by cancer in childhood. I then went on to her fiction, and her essays, which are both phenomenal. Her writing is so simple and non-show-offy, and the words just kind of fall down like raindrops and suddenly you're washed away in this tsunami of story. This is about different kinds of family, different kinds of love at different stages of life, different paths taken and not, and how to keep sowing and hoping for an abundant harvest even when it seems unlikely.

Fight Night by Miriam Toews. Synopsis from Goodreads: Fight Night is told in the unforgettable voice of Swiv, a nine-year-old living in Toronto with her pregnant mother, who is raising Swiv while caring for her own elderly, frail, yet extraordinarily lively mother. When Swiv is expelled from school, Grandma takes on the role of teacher and gives her the task of writing to Swiv's absent father about life in the household during the last trimester of the pregnancy. In turn, Swiv gives Grandma an assignment: to write a letter to "Gord," her unborn grandchild (and Swiv's soon-to-be brother or sister). "You’re a small thing," Grandma writes to Gord, "and you must learn to fight." As Swiv records her thoughts and observations, Fight Night unspools the pain, love, laughter, and above all, will to live a good life across three generations of women in a close-knit family. But it is Swiv’s exasperating, wise and irrepressible Grandma who is at the heart of this novel: someone who knows intimately what it costs to survive in this world, yet has found a way—painfully, joyously, ferociously—to love and fight to the end, on her own terms.

I was going to maybe flip this from the a book you want your child to read' bingo square to 'a book my child wanted me to read', but it also fit 'sat on your shelf for over a year'. I loved Miriam Toews before my daughter, but she may have lapped me in fandom. She gave me Fight Night for Christmas last year but it took me until recently to read it for... reasons, I dunno, I have a lot of books, I only read paper books when I won't wake up my husband with the light, whatever, leave me alone. Also refer back to the 'perversely refusing to read things I will love'. I am infinite, I contain super dumb multitudes.


LOVE LOVE LOVE LOVE LOVED it, I'm an asshole for not reading it sooner. It's written in the most perfectly rendered pre-teen kid voice since Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird, but with more swearing. I laughed out loud multiple times, all with the knowledge that it was at least as heartbreaking as it was funny because Swiv is only so fierce and profane because she is fighting as hard as she can to hold her bizarre family together. And her bonkers, infuriating, absolutely charming grandmother, and her pregnant actress mother round things out perfectly. I come from a family that deals with fear and sadness with black humour, so I don't know if this will be everyone's cup of tea, but I absolutely adored it.

Foster by Claire Keegan. Synopsis from Goodreads: A small girl is sent to live with foster parents on a farm in rural Ireland, without knowing when she will return home. In the strangers' house, she finds a warmth and affection she has not known before and slowly begins to blossom in their care. And then a secret is revealed and suddenly, she realizes how fragile her idyll is.
Winner of the Davy Byrnes Memorial Prize, Foster is now published in a revised and expanded version. Beautiful, sad and eerie, it is a story of astonishing emotional depth, showcasing Claire Keegan's great accomplishment and talent.

-”I wonder why my father lies about the hay. He is given to lying about things that would be nice, if they were true. Somewhere, farther off, someone has started up a chainsaw and it drones on like a big, stinging wasp for a while in the distance. I wish I was out there, working, as I’m unused to sitting still and do not know what to do with my hands. Part of me wants my father to leave me here while another part of me wants him to take me back, to what I know. I am in a spot where I can neither be what I always am nor turn into what I could be.”

This probably has the most meaning-to-word-count ratio of any book I've ever read. The tightly compressed story, the plain language with worlds of meaning shimmering just below the surface, made me feel like I could read this a dozen times and still not wring all of the significance out of it.


Hunting and Gathering by Anna Gavalda Synopsis from Goodreads: Camille is doing her best to disappear. She barely eats, works at night as a cleaner and lives in a tiny attic room. Downstairs in a beautiful, ornate apartment, lives Philibert Marquet de la Durbellière, a shy, erudite, upper-class man with an unlikely flatmate in the shape of the foul-mouthed but talented chef, Franck. One freezing evening Philibert overcomes his excruciating reticence to rescue Camille, unconscious, from her garret and bring her into his home.
As she recovers Camille learns more about Philibert; about Franck and his guilt for his beloved but fragile grandmother Paulette, who is all he has left in the world; and about herself. And slowly, this curious quartet of misfits all discover the importance of food, friendship and love.

Used this for 'a love story' in book bingo. My book club friend's husband (we trade books sometimes) found this in a Little Free Library and liked it, so passed it on. I don't tend to be an Anglophile or Francophile, but I have to say, lately I've been mainlining British murder mysteries on Britbox, and somehow murder in British is just ... better. And this book stripped down was basically a rom-com, but French, and thus ... better. Cock-eyed and weird and quirky, profane and even off-putting in a couple of places. The love in question is not only romantic but also familial and .... I can't think of an adjective that means the love between friends, but that (the internet says 'philia', but I don't like it, it is the suffix of too many gross words). It did nothing to disabuse me of my conviction that most, if not all, professional chefs are batshit crazy.

Black Cake by Charmaine Wilkerson. Synopsis from Goodreads: In present-day California, Eleanor Bennett’s death leaves behind a puzzling inheritance for her two children, Byron and Benny: a black cake, made from a family recipe with a long history, and a voice recording. In her message, Eleanor shares a tumultuous story about a headstrong young swimmer who escapes her island home under suspicion of murder. The heartbreaking tale Eleanor unfolds, the secrets she still holds back, and the mystery of a long-lost child challenge everything the siblings thought they knew about their lineage and themselves. Can Byron and Benny reclaim their once-close relationship, piece together Eleanor’s true history, and fulfill her final request to “share the black cake when the time is right”? Will their mother’s revelations bring them back together or leave them feeling more lost than ever? Charmaine Wilkerson’s debut novel is a story of how the inheritance of betrayals, secrets, memories, and even names can shape relationships and history. Deeply evocative and beautifully written, Black Cake is an extraordinary journey through the life of a family changed forever by the choices of its matriarch.


-"Most of the goods in her pa’s store were lost. The rest was too smoky to be sold. On the day after the blaze, she overheard Pearl telling the helper from next door that she didn’t think Mister Lin should have to be ruined because of someone else’s bad deeds. Mister Lin, Pearl said, was perfectly capable of ruining things for himself.”

-”Terrain and climate aside, food was often about who had colonized whom, who had been based where during wartime, who had been forced to feed what to their children when there was nothing else left. And, of course, it was about geography, too, so Marble decided to narrow her focus to traditional foods made with indigenous ingredients or foods that had been produced locally for more than a millennium.”

One of the first books I read in 2023. Book bingo square for Own Voices or Revenge. I loved it - I sometimes read straight fiction more slowly, but I couldn't stop reading this and couldn't wait to pick it up again. It has quite a few different characters and time periods but the author keeps it all in check. The Caribbean setting is beautifully rendered, all of the characters are wonderful and it really shows how even family members who love each other fervently can fall prey to stubbornness and misunderstandings. The threads of cooking/baking/nourishing, swimming/water and the particular intimacy that occurs between women are really effective.

Greenwood by Michael Christie. Synopsis from Goodreads: It's 2034 and Jake Greenwood is a storyteller and a liar, an overqualified tour guide babysitting ultra-rich vacationers in one of the world's last remaining forests. It's 2008 and Liam Greenwood is a carpenter, fallen from a ladder and sprawled on his broken back, calling out from the concrete floor of an empty mansion. It's 1974 and Willow Greenwood is out of jail, free after being locked up for one of her endless series of environmental protests: attempts at atonement for the sins of her father's once vast and violent timber empire. It's 1934 and Everett Greenwood is alone, as usual, in his maple syrup camp squat when he hears the cries of an abandoned infant and gets tangled up in the web of a crime that will cling to his family for decades. And throughout, there are trees: thrumming a steady, silent pulse beneath Christie's effortless sentences and working as a guiding metaphor for withering, weathering, and survival. A shining, intricate clockwork of a novel, Greenwood is a rain-soaked and sun-dappled story of the bonds and breaking points of money and love, wood and blood—and the hopeful, impossible task of growing toward the light.


-”’You think trees are sacred,’ he says. ‘That they love you. That they grow for your enjoyment. But those who really know trees know they’re also ruthless. They’ve been fighting a war for 

sunlight and sustenance since before we existed. And they’d gladly crush or poison every single one of us if it gave them any advantage.”


-”Her lips tighten over her teeth. ‘That must have been painful,’ she says. ‘To see all those people torn up like that.’ And her statement’s naked simplicity unlocks something in Everett’s chest. How easily she’s linked what he witnessed in the War with the disquiet that afflicted him afterwards, like a blade that’d entered him through his eyes and broken off inside his head.”


My fourth Canada Reads book last year. This was stunning. It is likened to Cloud Atlas and The Overstory in the description, both of which I loved. It's probably closer to the Overstory - the sections are less equal than Cloud Atlas, although they still start in the future, travel back, then return. It is about ecology and climate change (terrifyingly, appropriately) and also about family and heritage and the ways in which history and memory are corrupted and lost, and trees. There are fiercely principled characters who I admired and also kind of disliked, and and less scrupulously moral characters that I could understand. I read it interspersed with other books and it took me quite a while, but I always felt like I was newly immersed and engaged every time I came back.
Michael Christie has two kids named Lake and August and a wife with the unlikely name of Cedar Bowers, which seems equally pretentious and cool to me.

We Measure the Earth With Our Bodies by Tsering Yangzom Lama. Synopsis from Goodreads: In the wake of China's invasion of Tibet throughout the 1950s, Lhamo and her younger sister, Tenkyi, arrive at a refugee camp in Nepal. They survived the dangerous journey across the Himalayas, but their parents did not. As Lhamo-haunted by the loss of her homeland and her mother, a village oracle-tries to rebuild a life amid a shattered community, hope arrives in the form of a young man named Samphel and his uncle, who brings with him the ancient statue of the Nameless Saint-a relic known to vanish and reappear in times of need. Decades later, the sisters are separated, and Tenkyi is living with Lhamo's daughter, Dolma, in Toronto. While Tenkyi works as a cleaner and struggles with traumatic memories, Dolma vies for a place as a scholar of Tibetan Studies. But when Dolma comes across the Nameless Saint in a collector's vault, she must decide what she is willing to do for her community, even if it means risking her dreams.
Breathtaking in its scope and powerful in its intimacy, We Measure the Earth with Our Bodies is a gorgeously written meditation on colonization, displacement, and the lengths we'll go to remain connected to our families and ancestral lands. Told through the lives of four people over fifty years, this novel provides a nuanced, moving portrait of the little-known world of Tibetan exiles.

-”’You will smash every statue inside,’ the head soldier shouted. Our monastery had hundreds of statues, some so small that they could fit in my palm, while the largest was a three-story gold statue of Guru Rinpoche containing precious stones.

‘They will make bullets of the statues,’ Lhaksam whispered.

‘Don’t lie. How?’ I asked.

‘They melt the statues and use the metal to make bullets, Lhamo. Then they will kill us with our own gods.’”


-"Long ago, our world was full of enchantment. When Ama was alive, when we roamed our pastures and lived beside lakes and mountains filled with gods. Then we crossed over the mountains and magic snagged on the ridges. It slipped off our bodies and we lost our beauty."


Another Giller Prize shortlister. It's hard to believe this is a first novel. I didn't know a lot about the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1959 that resulted in large numbers of Tibetan refugees in camps on the border of Nepal. For the first few pages I felt like I wasn't going to be able to get into the story, and then I was ravenous for it. It goes back and forth between 1960s Nepal and present-day Toronto, and captures the experiences both of refugee camp life and exile in Toronto heartbreakingly well. Family, and the ramifications of intergenerational trauma and exile in several forms are woven throughout. I love the descriptions of how real the gods and spirits are to the Tibetan people. The title refers to pilgrims traveling by prostrations - lying down and then rising, over and over. This whole book felt like that kind of act of devotion.


Comments

Marilyn B said…
I also find it hard to find the right time to read paper books because of Keith’s delicate sensibilities and the fact that he can’t handle a sliver of light in the room when he’s sleeping. So I tend to stick to ebooks but there are a few books that don’t come in that format or books like Ducks that you really need to read in paper and I sometimes feel annoyed by that but really I do enjoy the tactile experience of reading on paper. Kate Beaton wrote one of my favourite picture books, Princess and the Pony, it’s very silly and funny. I highly recommend.
Nicole said…
So I also loved Fight Night, and I hate to admit this because she's a national treasure, but I just don't really enjoy Toews' work. I know. I know. Maybe it was me and my internal state at the time of reading, but other than Fight Night I haven't really enjoyed her books.
LOVED TOM LAKE OMGGGGGGG
I also really loved Black Cake.
The Frida Kahlo book sounds amazing, going to look right away for it.
NGS said…
The book was Yellowface. LOL. Clearly a 3.5-4 book, but I wanted it to be brilliant. So much disappointment. I guess I'm Babel or nothing with Kuang.

I need to read Ducks by Kate Beaton, but graphic novels (graphic memoirs? graphic nonfiction?) are always SO. HARD. for me because I am just not a visual person who can look at the panels and figure out what is going on. I like the words? This book is so highly recommended, though. I shall get it and read it.

Tom Lake is in The Maid category for me. Yeah, maybe I'd like it? (I don't know. I don't know if I really want to read a pandemic story ever.) But I don't like people telling me what to do.
StephLove said…
We saw the movie based on Foster (The Quiet Girl) and it was really good.
I have not read any of these! They all sound amazing! Why is there not more time in the day for reading?
So many good books, none of which I have read. Thank you for taking the time to write about them. My book club will be discussing "Tom Lake" later in the year. I am about # 489 on the library's list to get the kindle book.
Elisabeth said…
The only one I've heard of (and read) is Tom Lake. I feel like the one person on the planet who did not love this book. In fact, it was a DNF for me...and I don't DNF that often. I really feel like I MUST try this one again. I need Engie to do this for a Cool Blogger's Book Club selection.
Busy Bee Suz said…
I loved Tom Lake so much. I wanted to be one of the sisters, or the mother, or even the drug addict actor/lover. Bel Canto was wonderful too and I'm finishing up Ann's book of essays: These Precious Days. It's darn good.

I loved reading your five stars and will look for some of them soon.
Pat B said…
Thank you for this post! I believe it took a long time to write (as it took me days to get through)...mostly because I was looking books up, need ebooks as I'm in Mexico so only reading on my kobo. Finally decided I had to comment, make a list and get to these delightful recommendations when I can. I LOVED Black Cake, Tom Lake & These Precious Days so much! Was not able to get through Fight Night (also, gasp, not a Toews fan).
Jenny said…
I would echo Lis'as comment above- why is there not more time in the day for reading??? SO MANY BOOKS. I haven't read any of these. I need to take a year off work and just read (ha, I wish.) And I agree- British mysteries are just BETTER.

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