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A year in books: my 52 book challenge

station eleven
In 2013 I gave myself a 50 book challenge, which I completed. It was hard. I found myself finishing up pretty close to the end of last December, stressed that I wouldn’t make the December 31st cutoff. I did, and in a moment of cockiness and euphoria after crushing my goal, decided to push myself further this year by committing to two more books in 2014. Two books: that’s nothing in the scheme of things, right?

Wrong. Fifty-two books is a book a week. That leaves no buffer. No room for accidentally choosing a boring, long book. No room for getting addicted to a podcast or a game on my phone to take up precious commuting time. No room for laziness. No room for slacking.

I’m happy to say that despite this daunting goal, I made it. In fact, I finished my books earlier this year than last year, even with two additional titles. And if all goes according to plan I’ll actually make it to 53.

How did I do it? Kind of like this:

  • I read 100% of the 52 books on my Kobo Aura
  • I borrowed probably 80% of the books from the Toronto Public Library’s Overdrive program; the rest I purchased from Kobo
  • Because I borrowed so many books from the library, the order I read everything was fairly random and relied upon the availability of titles
  • While many of the books were released in 2014, lots of them were older, so these aren’t my favourite books of the year – they’re just books I read this year
  • Forty-nine books were fiction; two were autobiographies; one was a collection of short stories
  • Fifteen books were written by men (16 if you count Robert Galbraith, who is actually J.K. Rowling)
  • My favourite books were the first and the 50th read
  • Much of my reading took place on Toronto’s subway
  • Many titles were recommended by friends (Kara – I’m looking at you!); others were recommended by critics; some were chosen just because I really liked the title or the cover

So, with that, here are the best and the worst that I read this year.

My Favourite Books (in no particular order…except for the first two)

1. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. It was the first book I read of 2014, and the best by a long shot. It seems cliched to say it Goldfinchwas my favourite book this year as it did win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, but it’s just so damned good. If you haven’t read it, pick it up. You won’t regret it.

2. Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel. This was the 50th book I finished, and it truly blew me away. The writing is fantastic, the post-apocalyptic story is compelling and the characters are rich. Entertainment Weekly named it the best book of the year, and I understand why. A brilliant book.

3. The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson. Another Pulitzer Prize winner from a few years back, this one follows the crazy life story of a man in North Korea. It’s a book that’s stayed with me since reading it early this year and one that seems even more relevant now in the wake of all of the controversy surrounding The Interview. It’s heavy and often hard to stomach, but worth the work.

4. Bird Box by Josh Malerman. This one scared the bejeezus out of me. In a post-apocalyptic world people can’t look outside, because if they do and see an unknown *something* they go insane and kill themselves. This is the world in which a woman tries to survive with two small children. It’s creepy, disturbing and keeps the foot on the gas the whole way through.

5. Bellweather Rhapsody by Kate Racculia. A mystery set in an old hotel hosting a high school music festival. It’s a bit of a ghost story, a bit of a coming of age story, a bit of a mystery and a bit of a soap opera. Loved it.

6. Yes Please by Amy Poehler. God, I love Amy Poehler. She’s funny, smart, honest and utterly relatable. I’m not sure this is a work of genius, but I read it at exactly the right time and I love her for it.

7. The Confabulist by Steven Galloway. The story of the rise and fall of Harry Houdini. I found this fascinating. And I love the-confabulisthistorical fiction. And I love magic.

8. All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews. I just finished this a few weeks ago, but it hasn’t left my brain. It’s a tough one – a woman desperately wants to convince her suicidal sister to want to live. It’s raw, real, unvarnished and sometimes really, really sad, but as with all of her writing it just resonates. Don’t read this if life sucks – tackle it when things are good.

9. One More Thing by B.J. Novak. Yes, that B.J. Novak. It’s a book of pretty great short stories. Not every one’s a home run, but there were enough to have me snickering to myself on the subway to make me add it to this list.

10. The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker. A fantastical novel about two otherworldly characters – a golem made of clay by a disgraced rabbi who practices dark Kabbalist magic, and a jinni (or genie) set free from an old copper flask. The two are set loose in 1899 New York and turn out to be some of my favourite characters that I encountered this year.

The Worst of the Lot (in no particular order)

1. Bittersweet by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore. Ugh. This was supposed to be *the* beach read of the summer. It was not. The story is self-indulgent, transparent and just kind of lame. Definitely worth skipping.

2. The Divorce Papers by Susan Rieger. Holy crap I hated this book. Told entirely through correspondence, a lifeboatlawyer….actually who cares? It’s just bad. it makes Bridget Jones seem deep and eloquent. Blah.

3. The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan. A ship sinks in 2014 and a handful of survivors are stuck together on a lifeboat in the middle of the Atlantic. Should be good, right? Nope. Hated the characters, thought the writing was dull and couldn’t have cared less if the protagonist was thrown to the sharks. Awful.

4. How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky by Lydia Netzer. Come for the discussions on astrophysics, stay for the sham psychics. Hated this.

5. Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead. I love the ballet. In fact, I went to The Nutcracker just this week. So, a book set in the world of the ballet circa the 1970s should be right  up my alley. Unfortunately this just wasn’t. Boring, badly plotted and written, this just kind of sucked. I did like the book’s cover, though. And I don’t blame the ballet.

6. Stella Bain by Anita Shreve. Oh, man. This one’s bad. A woman loses her memory in WWI and slowly tries to rebuild her past. The writing is so clunky and almost embarrassing. Bad.

7. All the Broken Things by Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer. Agent Orange, bear fighting, the carnival circuit in early 1980s Ontario. Should be okay. Nah. Not so much.

8. N-W by Zadie Smith. It feels wrong to put Zadie Smith on a list of my least favourite books of the year, but I just didn’t dig this one. Skip it and read White Teeth.vanishers

9. Goodnight June by Sarah Jio. Predictable fluff. It felt like it was written for Meg Ryan circa 1992 to star in the movie adaptation.

10. The Vanishers by Heidi Julavits. I hesitate putting this on my least favourite books, but it just rubbed me the wrong way. Not terrible, but not something I’d want to read again.

The Rest (Lots of these are very good. Check them out.)

Thanks to everyone who cheered me on this year. I’m looking forward to another year of reading and debating and good storytelling.

So, what do you think: go back to 50 books next year, keep it at 52 or bump it up? I’ll decide before January 1st.

kp

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Three for me, three for the kid

I’m 52% through my 2014 book challenge, and apparently two books ahead of schedule with 27 out of 52 books read. Not bad, but there are no room for dry duds to pop up and slow me down.planb

I’ve read three books since my last post: one good, one meh and one great.

The good was Plan B by Jonathan Tropper. I’ve read a few of his more recent books, and this debut was as solid as the rest. A just-turned-30 year old, freshly divorced, conspires with three other old college cronies to kidnap and rehabilitate another college friend who’s become a coke head. He also happens to be a movie star. Things, obviously, don’t play out as anyone imagines, but the characters are interesting, the plot is fun and the book is full of late 90s pop culture gems.  It’s an easy read and a good intro to Tropper’s work. This Is Where I Leave You (the first book of his I read) is going to be a movie soon with Tina Fey and Jason Bateman, so there’s that.astonish-me

The meh was Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead. I really wanted this to be good. It takes place in the ballet world of the 1970s and the 1990s, focusing on a corps ballet dancer who helps a Soviet ballet star escape in the 1970s. Years later, she’s raising a son to be a dancer with her devoted husband and hiding a whole lot of secrets. Let’s just say it didn’t astonish me, though I will say it ended better than it began. It really started to hit its stride around 80% through – not nearly soon enough.

the-confabulistThe great was The Confabulist by Steven Galloway. It weaves the story of Harry Houdini’s rise to fame and the behind the scenes intrigue of his life with that of Martin Strauss, a man who can’t seem to determine which of his memories are real and which are made up. It dives into how Houdini performed some of his most famous tricks, and focuses on his determination to debunk spiritualists who prey on people’s grief for money. This book is fantastic. So well written and so intriguing. I loved it.

I’ve also read a few books with the kid. We’re a big reading family, and both Chad and I want to have a hand in her literary discovery, so every night I read a few chapters of a book with her, Chad reads a few chapters of a different book with her and then she reads on her own in bed. She’s got to have crazy dreams.

Aside from my own book challenge, I’ve read a number of “chapter books” with her lately. Here are a few.

Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh. I loved this book as a kid and was excited to find the 50th Anniversary edition at Chapters, so picked it harrietup and read it with Scarlett. It’s about an only child growing up in New York, who dreams of being a spy – and tries her spying skills out on everyone in the neighbourhood, including her friends. One day she loses her notebook, which records all of her truthful and sometimes hurtful spying activity and finds herself shunned by the friends she’s been spying on. A great, honest novel about friendship and growing up. It was one of the first books I read – probably right before I dove into Judy Blume – that didn’t sugar coat childhood. This is a great one to read with your kid as there’s lots to discuss. A gem.

We also recently read The School for Good and Evil by Soman Chainani. Scarlett and I watched the The-School-For-Good-And-Eviltrailer for this book a long time ago and decided this was a “must read”. It’s a pretty complex story about two friends – one beautiful, charming and princess-like, the other ugly, morose and witch-like – who are stolen away from their home in the woods to attend the School for Good and Evil, a place where all fairy tale characters get their start. The twist is that the beauty is thrown into the school for evil, while the witch-like girl is put into the school for good. Why were they switched? How can they get back to their proper spots? Will their friendship last? Unlike a lot of fairytales, this one really dives into the meaning of beauty and ugliness, good and evil, and how nothing is truly definitive. My one gripe with this – there’s a sequel. Clocking in at around 500 pages, this isn’t a quick nighttime novel, and jumping into the next one right away feels like a bit much. I think we’ll end up reading it, but we (I) need a bit of a break.

The last book we read together was Doll Bones by Holly Black, the co-creator of The Spiderwick Chronicles. This is not for the easily-scared child or one who is prone to nightmares. The book is about Zach, Poppy and Alice, three friends in dollbonesthe 10 to 12 age range who have been playing this amazing and imaginative game with old dolls and action figures, creating their own world of adventure, ruled by the bone china doll in Poppy’s mom’s china cabinet. When Zach’s dad throws his figures out because he thinks he should focus on  more age appropriate activities, their world is thrown upside down until Poppy starts having vivid dreams about the china doll and claims she’s visited by the ghost of a girl who won’t rest until the doll is buried in her empty grave. The three set off to put this spirit to rest, but nothing goes to plan. Well written, kind of disturbing, and super creepy. We both liked it.

Next up: Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris.

Next up for me and the kid: Who Could That Be at This Hour? (All the Wrong Questions) by Lemony Snicket.

kp

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Box. Boat. Boom. Bust.

Finished up two more books in the last while: one amazing, one kind of terrible.

birdbox

The first was Bird Box by Josh Malerman – a hell of a debut for the author. This is a scare-the-pants-off-you book taking place in a near, dystopian future. One day out of the blue people around the world start going crazy and killing themselves, seemingly for no reason. Quickly, it’s determined that it’s because they’re seeing an unidentified “something”. A newly pregnant woman quickly left on her own finds her way to a safe house filled with other survivors, who have covered all windows, stockpiled a pantry and have created blindfolds for whenever they need to go out their door.  The book jumps between these early days of settling into this new reality and four years later when she attempts to make her way someplace else.

It’s scary, riveting and a serious page turner. A great, fun read. Check out this book trailer for a sense of the tone.

The second was The LIfeboat by Charlotte Rogan. Truthfully, this is a bit of a dud. In the summer of 1914, a newly married young woman winds up in a lifeboat when the steamer ship she and her lifeboathusband were on sinks into the Atlantic. The book divides itself between the politics, hardships and sometimes violence on  the nearly over-capacity lifeboat and a court case back in the U.S. questioning the conduct of the lifeboat’s passengers.

This should have been good. I liked Titanic. I can get behind Edwardian-era settings. I like the idea of the cut-throat tensions between people who desperately want to survive. But this is just plodding, not to mention that the main character is detestable. If she’d thrown herself overboard it would have been a better read.

Skip the boat, pick up the box. You’ll be happy you did.

Next up: Plan B by Jonathan Tropper.

kp

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Two more books and an explanation

Yesterday a group of colleagues (and friends) went to high tea to celebrate the upcoming birth of Lauren’s baby boy. Lauren is a HUGE reader – this girl burns through books, so we talked a bit about what we are reading. I mentioned that I’m currently reading Bird Box by John Malerman, and gave everyone a quick rundown on its terrifying dystopian plot. At this point, Sarah asked me why I would like a book like that, but have zero interest in the Game of Thrones series (which she’s currently burning through). game of thrones

It was a good question. Everyone loves Game of Thrones, right? Not me.

For me, books just don’t resonate if I can’t ground them in reality. I love books that twist and reshape reality, but I like to think about what could happen in the world we live in, and simply don’t really care about worlds that don’t really exist. Imagined kingdoms and lands just don’t do it for me.

So, Harry Potter? Yes. Lord of the Rings? No. Zombies? Yes. Aliens? Not really.

As with all types of art, this is purely a personal preference and something unlikely to change too much, though there are always exceptions to every rule. For Chad, the more hard core the sci-fi or the fantasy novel the better, which means it’s a rare and exciting book when both of us read it and enjoy it (which is currently the case with Bird Box. More on that when I finish it).

I’m sure I’m going to get an earful on how wrong I am and how I should give certain things a chance, and that’s fine…but it’s not likely going to happen.

Anyway, back to my latest reads. I’m up to 22 books read in 2014 and have two to talk about.

The first is Still Life with Bread Crumbs by Anna Quindlen.  I’ve read a few other books by her back in the days when I was reading everything Oprah recommended, and thought she was fine, but not still lifetoo memorable. A few months ago I heard her interviewed about this book on CBC and really liked her as a person, so thought I’d throw this request into the library.

My memory of her writing was pretty bang on. This book is fine, but not too memorable. A once famous photographer with dwindling resources, sublets her New York apartment and moves to a cabin in upstate New York where she revives her career and begins a new life with the locals. Fine. Not too memorable. It took me too long to get through, not because it was a tough read at all – in fact, it’s an extremely easy read. I just didn’t really feel motivated or compelled to pick it up.

The second book, though…holy crap.

Bellweather Rhapsody by Kate Racculia blew me away. This book was nearly impossible to put down.

It starts in the early 1980s with a 12 year old girl, bored of bridesmaid duties at her sister’s wedding, running around the Bellweather Hotel. On the seventh floor she stumbles onto a horrifying scene – a groom in a tuxedo shot in the chest, and a bride in her wedding gown, hanging from an extension cord in Room 712. Fifteen years later to the date, the weekend of a high school statewide music workshop,  this girl returns to face her fears, only to find that something else is going on in Room 712. Told from the perspective of several characters including Minnie (the bellweathergirl), a twin brother and sister (bassoonist and singer respectively) who have secrets of their own, their music teacher chaperone, the hotel’s haunted concierge, the orchestra’s conductor and the ice cold head of the music program, this novel is as close to an old-school Agatha Christie mystery as I’ve read in a long time. Great characters, a fantastic setting, and a plot that leaves you guessing to the end.

Love, love, loved this book.

As I said, Bird Box is on the go now. Should be done this weekend.

Cheers,

kp

Also…I hate the Game of Thrones TV series. There. I said it.

 

 

 

 

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Hug a librarian

Apparently yesterday was “Hug a Librarian Day“. 

My kid at the Frances Morrison Library in Saskatoon

My kid at the Frances Morrison Library in Saskatoon

 

I didn’t get around to hugging any librarians (though I know and have huge respect for several – I’m looking at you, Michelle, Krista, Sonya and Betty), but I wanted to write a post today about how the library has tangibly changed the quality of life for my family.

If you dig back into the archives of this blog, you’ll see that a few years ago my mom was diagnosed with something called Mycobacterium avium complex, or Lady Windermere Syndrome. It was good news at the time, because it was treatable and curable, as opposed to the fourth stage lung cancer they initially thought it was. Three and a half years later, she still has it, and after a few very intense and long courses of treatment, she’s just not responding. Her lungs are shot. They’ve been described by her doctor as old underwear – no elasticity left.

As such, she doesn’t get out much. She’s around 85 pounds and is susceptible to illness, so big shopping trips or outings are just not a good idea.

Last summer when we were visiting her, I took her to the library and signed her up for a card. She’d had one years ago, but it had lapsed and she hadn’t got around to renewing it.

Since then, I’ve taken on the role as her own librarian – going online, choosing and requesting books for her that the library then puts on hold. My sister, who lives in the same city as my mom, then goes and picks up a stack of new books and returns the finished ones. Since September, I’d wager she’s read at least 150 books, and that number is probably conservative. She’s close to reading a book a day.

These books, which range in genre and era, have changed her life. They take her places she can’t physically go. They give her something to think about beyond what’s outside of her window or the rattle in her chest. They’re keeping her mind sharp and her wits intact. They make her laugh and keep her riveted and always give her something to talk about. They keep her company while my sister’s at work and the temperature is -40 degrees Celsius (it really is that cold in Saskatoon).

So, while I didn’t hug a librarian yesterday, I’m so thankful for them and for libraries. My mom is, too.

kp

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