Best Books of 2017

It’s that time of year again, when we go through the nail-biting process of sorting through our goodreads shelves and blog reviews to compile a list of the year’s best books! Although I fell short of my personal record for number of books read in a single year (hitting 65 versus 79 in 2016), I’m mollified by the fact that this figure includes the 1,300 page behemoth that is War & Peace (sadly appearing not on this list, but among my Worst Reads of 2017). This list of my favourite books of 2017 includes both books that were published this year and older titles that I read for the first time in 2017.

Honourable mentions (in alphabetical order): The Absolutist by John Boyne, And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie, If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers, More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera, and Now I Rise by Kirsten White.

3407695210. The Language of Thorns by Leigh Bardugo
To be honest, this list should be more of a Top 9. Any one of my honourable mentions above could easily also fill this final slot of my favourite books for 2017, but I’ve opted for a Leigh Bardugo’s The Language of Thorns, an imaginative collection of short stories set in the same universe as her Grisha trilogy and Six of Crows duology. I’m usually not a huge fan of fairy tales, or of short stories, and yet The Language of Thorns held me in thrall like the King by Scheherazade. The six tales highlight Bardugo’s keen storytelling ability as she uses stock characters and tropes, but twists them in unique and unexpected ways. I found the stories where she draws inspiration from existing properties to be more effective than her wholly original tales, but all six of these stories are worth reading, and are notable for the diversity they organically incorporate. Special mention must be made of the gorgeous illustrations by Sara Kipin, which frame the pages of each story in vibrant teal and red patterns and designs, that grow and change over the course of the tale.

“Bad fates do not always follow those who deserve them.”

253532869. Provenance by Ann Leckie
Looking at the other science-fiction entries on my list this year, I’m definitely sensing a pattern. It turns out I like my sci-fi less intense and more intimate and character-driven. Ann Leckie’s Provenance fits the bill with this intelligent, and hard to classify, standalone novel that’s part political thriller, part mystery, and part coming-of-age story. Provenance is set among the Hwae, a people who place enormous significance on “vestiges”, documents and artifacts that commemorate a specific event of personal or historical importance. When the narrative reveals that many of the vestiges that the Hwae hold dear are actually fakes, Leckie uses this to pose questions about the way we document historical events. Does a document need to be genuine to be important? Or can it gain significance through what it represents, even if it is based on a lie? As a Librarian who took a number of Archives classes in grad school, I kind of loved this book. Although naive and privileged, protagonist Ingray Aughskold is an immensely likable and resourceful heroine, and the supporting characters are equally well-written. Ultimately, Provenance is a deeply satisfying coming of age story about finding your place and your family, and about recognizing that the road everyone expects you to take is not always the right one.

“’I had never really thought about it that way before. Who are we if our vestiges aren’t real?’
‘You never really thought of it before because nobody has ever really questioned your being who you say you are. No one has ever told you your own vestiges are false, or that they mean you’re not really entirely Hwaean.'”

255288018. Exit, Pursued by a Bear by E.K. Johnston
Loosely based on Shakespeare’s play The Winter’s Tale, and taking its name from the famous stage direction, Exit, Pursued by a Bear is the rare YA contemporary novel that stuck with me. During a party at summer cheerleading camp, someone slips something in co-captain Hermione’s drink and she blacks out. The novel deftly depicts the lead up to, and aftermath of, the rape, as Hermione tries to figure out how to move on with her life. There are a million ways in which this book could have been a disaster and/or a cliche, but Exit, Pursued by a Bear differs from other rape survivor stories by providing Hermione with a strong support system of friends and family. The novel doesn’t sugarcoat the assault or the aftermath, but Johnston’s story is primarily about regaining agency after it is stolen from you. Figuratively and literally Johnston puts the power back into Hermione’s hands in this insightful examination of strength and support in the face of trauma.

“If you think I’m going to apologize for being drugged and raped, you have another thing coming.”

AncillarySword7. Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie
After a lengthy stay on my TBR, I finally got around to reading Ann Leckie’s critically acclaimed Imperial Radch series this year and yes, it was every bit as wonderful as I had hoped. The first volume, Ancillary Justice, pitted Breq, a blunt centuries-old spaceship AI inhabiting a single human ancillary body, against the powerful Lord of the Radch in a high stakes quest for vengeance. I expected the second book in this trilogy to be an action-packed continuation of the saga, but what I got was something much rarer. Ancillary Sword focuses in on a single planet for an intimate, thoughtful sequel that delivers both subtle character development and sharp social commentary. Much of the book explores themes of identity, power, and privilege, delivering a pointed critique of colonialism. All this is wrapped up in a package that includes some of the most unique and detailed world-building I’ve ever encountered, characters I adored, and some genuinely moving moments. I cannot recommend this series highly enough.

“You take what you want at the end of a gun, you murder and rape and steal, and you call it bringing civilization. And what is civilization, to you, but us being properly grateful to be murdered and raped and stolen from? You said you knew justice when you heard it. Well, what is your justice but you allowed to treat us as you like, and us condemned for even attempting to defend ourselves?”

2qir5w76. A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers
I went back and forth over whether to include both of Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers books in the same entry on this list, but ultimately bumped her debut, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet to my Honorable Mentions, because as much as I loved its series of vignettes about the diverse crew of a spaceship, it was the standalone sequel, A Closed and Common Orbit, that blew me away. Told through alternating chapters, this science-fiction novel consists of parallel narratives. The primary story follows the ship’s AI formerly known as Lovelace as she adjusts to life in an artificial body that was never meant for her and grapples with issues of identity. Twenty years in the past, the secondary storyline follows a ten-year-old girl created as part of a slave class for labour. Despite never seeing the sky before, she takes advantage of an industrial accident to escape the factory and spends her teenage years building a way off the planet. I found it incredibly empowering to read about two women from tragic pasts who start over, gain autonomy, and shape their own identities, quite literally naming themselves. The imagination on display here, particularly in the creation of alien species, is something to behold, and I loved the positive message represented in the idea that the families and friendships you choose are every bit as, if not more, important than romantic love.

“It was hard to play it cool when you wore your heart on your face.”

362368035. Swansong by Vale Aida
When I read Elegy, the first volume of the Magpie Ballad duology, last year, it felt like it had been written for me. The Dorothy Dunnett-esque style of writing, intricate plotting, and complicated, enigmatic, flawed characters combined to make a fantasy novel I wholeheartedly adored. I just finished Swansong last night, so you can expect a full review singing its praises in the next couple of days, but suffice it to say that it lived up to my sky high expectations. This was one of those books where I was torn between wanting to finish right away and see how everything was resolved, and putting it off because I couldn’t bare to say goodbye to the characters I so loved. Set in Cassarah, a country on the brink of war with neighbouring Sarei, disgraced actor-cum-soldier Savonn Silvertongue returns to face his nemesis and one-time lover The Empath. Meanwhile, his closest friends Hiraen and Iyone Safin engage in their own struggle to defend the city, but it’s only a matter of time before they too are wrapped up in Savonn’s spiderweb of intrigue and their secrets are dragged into the light. I can’t count the number of times I felt my heart seize in my chest as I read certain scenes. The characters, even the villains, are rendered with depth and pathos, and I felt invested in the relationships between them, be they romantic, familial, or platonic. I also loved that lesbian and gay characters and relationships figure so prominently in the text. The prose is witty and elegant, the pace maintained throughout, and Vale Aida wraps up her duology in a deeply satisfying way that gives each of the characters resolution.

“‘People would believe anything about you as long as it was scandalous enough. But it’s all lies, isn’t it?’
‘You ridiculous pastry,’ said Savonn. He sounded almost tender. ‘Is that what you think?'”

15q8eaf4. The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden
I have never been more quickly hooked and reeled in by a book than I was by Katherine Arden’s enthralling debut. The quintessential winter read, The Bear and the Nightingale makes me want to curl up under a warm blanket with a cup of tea and watch the snow fall outside. The story is based on medieval Russian folklore and mythology, and tells the tale of the winter king and Vasilisa, a brave and wild, yet compassionate, maiden. Arden’s prose is lyrical and compelling, and her writing appeals to the senses so strongly that I could almost feel the residual warmth from the family’s giant oven. Most of all though, I loved Vasilisa. She’s a tremendous heroine. Vasilisa is striking and direct, yet she is also kind, doing all she can to help the household spirits, the horses her family owns, and to the other members of her family. This means that she is often caught between doing what is expected of her as a woman and doing what she knows to be right. Magical and atmospheric, The Bear and the Nightingale is a book that I will remember for years to come, and I wouldn’t be surprised if, every winter when snow covers the ground, I feel a pull to re-read.

“Now hear me. Before the end, you will pluck snowdrops at midwinter, die by your own choosing, and weep for a nightingale.”

AConjuringOfLight3. A Conjuring of Light by V.E. Schwab
When it comes to epic stories I need them to have consequences. I love books where the characters are irrevocably altered by what they have experienced, and Schwab delivers on this, bringing the Shades of Magic trilogy to a satisfying conclusion in A Conjuring of Light. Continuing the saga of Kell Maresh, a magic user who can travel across four parallel, but unique, Londons (Black, White, Red, and Grey), the stakes feel higher this time, as Kell’s vibrant, magic-filled, Red London home is threatened. I adore the world building in this series, the way in which each London is differentiated from its counterparts, and, like Narnia, the Shire, or Hogwarts, I found myself wishing that I could slip into Red London and explore its night market. Tension is maintained throughout the novel for a story that kept me on the edge of my seat, but the greatest draw here is Schwab’s tremendously likable cast of characters. Bidding goodbye, or at least Anoshe, to Lila, Kell, Rhy, and Alucard early this year was certainly bittersweet, so I’m thrilled to know that Schwab will be writing additional stories in this world!

“There were a hundred shades between a truth and lie, and she knew them all.”

Right up until the moment I hit publish, I kept changing my mind about which of my favourite two books of the year would land the coveted spot at the top of my list. In another five minutes I’ll probably change my mind again, so this is virtually a tie. Suffice it to say that both of my choices are books that I highly recommend!

Pachinko2. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
Following four generations of the Baeks, a Korean family, through the twentieth century, this historical epic depicts the discrimination and hardship faced by ethnic Koreans, known as “Zainichi” (or foreign residents), living in Japan. As someone who knew very little about Japanese-Korean relations, or the history of both countries, I found the novel incredibly interesting and informative, but it’s the immensely likable, hard-working characters who make this novel so special. The Baek family’s story is one of survival and of sacrifice in order to provide a better life for the next generation. I adored the entire cast of characters, from kindly Hoonie, a cleft-palated fisherman, and his resilient daughter Sunja, to earnest Christian missionary Isak, and sister Kyunghee, who provides a lightness to the novel and to Sunja’s life. Lee’s elegant prose richly captures the myriad of different settings, from the small Korean fishing village where Sunja is born to Japanese cities, and although Pachinko is nearly 500 pages, it’s perfectly paced, so the novel never feels long. Months later, Pachinko has stuck with me; I still find myself thinking about the characters and the journeys they undergo, and I know this is a book that I will want to re-read in the future. I was profoundly moved by the story, which was by turns heartbreaking and inspiring, and by Min Jin Lee’s deft exploration of home and cultural identity in a way that’s both accessible and engaging.

“Living everyday in the presence of those who refuse to acknowledge your humanity takes great courage”

332532151. The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne
From the very first page of John Boyne’s sweeping saga about growing up in twentieth century Ireland as a gay man, the black humour and engaging style of writing enthralled me. The first-person narration by Cyril Avery is hilarious, poignant, and even tragic as it deals with such heavy topics as the hypocrisy of the Irish Catholic Church, homosexuality in twentieth century Ireland, adoption, and AIDS, yet the author’s masterful balance of humour and drama keeps the The Heart’s Invisible Furies from feeling like a tragedy. John Boyne has a gift for writing characters who are monumentally flawed, yet incredibly sympathetic. I may not have agreed with the choices Cyril makes throughout the novel, yet I understood the reasoning behind them and continued to root for him, because he acts without cruelty of intent. More than any other novel this year, The Heart’s Invisible Furies held me in its thrall. I COULD NOT PUT IT DOWN, finishing the 580 page hardcover in just a few days and reading well into the night! The pacing is swift, the characters funny, flawed, and engaging, and the tragedy tempered with a sense of humour that had me literally laughing out loud, although the moving narration also had me in tears of a different kind before the end.

“’You look like a Greek God sent down by the immortal Zeus from Mount Olympus to taunt the rest of us inferior beings with your astonishing beauty,’ I said, which somehow in translation came out as ‘you look fine, why?’”

I’d love to know your thoughts! Have you read any of these books, or are you planning to? What were your favourite books of 2017? Please comment and let me know!

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Books: The Absolutist

13414716The Absolutist by John Boyne
Published July 10, 2012
star-4-half
John Boyne’s The Absolutist may not have absolutely wrecked me, as his The Heart’s Invisible Furies did earlier this year, but it’s no less moving a tale. Told in the first person, the story is set in 1919 as twenty-one-year-old Tristan Sadler embarks on a long-delayed errand to deliver letters written by Will Bancroft, a man he served alongside during the Great War, to his sister Marian in Norwich. Flashbacks explore the relationship between these two men, as Tristan’s ulterior motive for delivering the letters in person is slowly revealed.

Boyne’s efficient yet compelling prose is deceptively simple; He examines complex feelings and themes, including guilt, shame, courage, and cowardice in clear and carefully chosen words that left me reflecting on them long after I finished the book. Each word, in fact, seems perfectly chosen for what Boyne is trying to convey, and the true-to-life dialogue is a highlight. At just over 300 pages, The Absolutist is a quick read, but the pacing never lags or feels too fast.

Perhaps Boyne’s greatest skill is his ability to create monumentally flawed characters who we care about. Tristan is one such character. Cyril in The Heart’s Invisible Furies another. Both are fundamentally human. They experience jealousy, betrayal, and make impulsive choices that will impact their lives, and the lives of those around them, forever, yet are written with such sympathy and compassion that you can’t help but root for them. Supporting characters, particularly Marian Bancroft, are no less engaging.

World War I and II settings are usually more of a detractor than a draw for me, so I worried that the novel might rely too heavily on descriptions of battle or on the gory aftermath. The Absolutist avoids those traps, focusing more on the initial training Tristan undergoes before shipping out, and then on both the day-to-day lives of soldiers in the trenches and the sense of loss as Tristan’s regiment loses more and more men over the course of the war. The result is a subtle, but effective, examination of the cost of war, both physically and emotionally, on soldiers and on their families and loved ones left behind.

It’s a poignant, even haunting, read that will definitely stay with me, yet The Absolutist didn’t wreck me in the same way that The Heart’s Invisible Furies did. This may be because I went into John Boyne’s first novel completely blind, while my expectations this time were sky high, having read, and cried over, his work previously. I also found The Absolutist to be somewhat more predictable, and guessed some aspects of the plot well before the novel’s climax, which diminished my emotional response. Still, The Absolutist ultimately wounds, with one scene in particular landing like a well-placed punch to the gut.

Once more John Boyne delivers a story sure to move even the most stone-hearted of readers. It’s a little rougher than The Heart’s Invisible Furies perhaps, but contains the same compelling prose and sympathetic, flawed characters, cementing Boyne as a must-read author for me. I look forward to delving further into his catalog of works in 2018.

Books: Forest of a Thousand Lanterns

33958230Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie C. Dao
Published October 10, 2017
star-3-half
I’m in the minority here but I’ve never been a big fan of fairy stories, so retellings aren’t usually a genre that interests me. Mythology and general trope twisting yes, fairy tales not so much. Perhaps this explains why Naomi Novik’s Uprooted, which charmed so many other readers, left me cold. Forest of a Thousand Lanterns, an East-Asian inspired fantasy retelling of The Evil Queen, may not have swept me off my feet, but it’s a very solid debut from author Julie C. Dao. Featuring an unabashedly ruthless anti-heroine, and a richly imagined world that draws inspiration from Chinese mythology, Forest of a Thousand Lanterns subtly sets in place all the building blocks of the Snow White mythos, ensuring readers will eagerly await the second book in this planned trilogy.

Raised in a poor rural village by her abusive Aunt, the witch Guma, eighteen-year-old Xifeng has always known that she was destined for greater things. Xifeng applies herself to studying art, music, and poetry, so that she has the markings of a well-born lady, and dreams of the day when she will be Empress of Feng Lu, as Guma’s cards have foretold. When an opportunity presents itself, she flees Guma’s cruel home with her childhood lover Wei, taking the first steps towards her destiny. But the palace is full of antagonistic eunuchs and conniving concubines and Xifeng will need all her beauty and wits to claw her way to the top.

Xifeng is an intriguing protagonist. Unabashedly ruthless, she’s not a likable character as she plots her way into the palace, reigning Empress Lihua’s good graces, and even into the orbit of the Emperor. Yet she’s striking. Few YA protagonists are anti-heroes in the way that Xifeng is allowed to be here, and even fewer young women. Xifeng’s background of poverty and abuse, and the fact that she has been brought up since birth to believe that she is destined to become Empress of Feng Lu make her climb to power understandable. Even though I didn’t always agree with the choices she made, I couldn’t help but admire Xifeng’s determination, her ruthlessness, and her ability.

In fact, I enjoyed most of the characters. Traveling companion Shiro, a dwarf ambassador of Kamatsu, is kind and capable, Empress Lihua is rendered with grace and sympathy, and the Emperor has an intelligent, yet intimidating, presence. I wish that some of the more villainous characters (besides Guma, the parasitic unhealthy relationship between her and Xifeng is a strength of the novel) has been depicted with more depth though, for the eunuchs only ever seem surface deep, and I had the same issue with the cold and vain principal concubine, Lady Sun.

I loved the refreshingly diverse East Asia-inspired setting of the five kingdoms of Feng Lu though. Drawing on Chinese and Japanese influences, the world feels unique, albeit a little claustrophobic (as much of the narrative takes place in just two locations – Xifeng’s peasant village and the palace). Instead of European folklore and gods, Forest of a Thousand Lanterns introduces us to a serpent god, and to the tengaru, demon guardians of the forest.

With a tale as well-known (and Disney-fied) as “Snow White”, I feared that the author would fall into the trap of heavy-handed references, but Dao has an admirably subtle hand. Although she sets in place all the pieces for the sequel, including a kind dwarf character, an exiled princess, and Xifeng’s vanity about her appearance, these references to “Snow White” never impede the book. Forest of a Thousand Lanterns also owes a great deal to the original Brothers Grimm story, as its a deliberately darker, bloodier, and even gory retelling.

For all that I loved about this novel, I did have some issues with it, which account for my 3.5 star rating. First of all, the pacing is off. I suspect the book is such a slow starter because Dao felt she must spend time depicting Xifeng’s background and her awful home life in order to have the reader sympathize with and understand her motivations. It’s an understandable choice, but the result is a novel that drags in the beginning and feels long, despite it’s reasonable under 400 page count.

What really fell flat though was the supposed romance. The relationship between Xifeng and Wei is meant to be unbalanced, but I found it completely one-sided and had trouble believing that Xifeng cared about Wei at all beyond seeing him as a means to an end, a placeholder until greater things came along. It’s an interesting way of depicting a romantic pairing, to have a male character who is more invested in a relationship than the heroine, especially in YA – traditionally a very romance-centric genre of fiction, but the narrative doesn’t fully commit to this point of view. Instead the book appears to emphasize Xifeng sacrificing Wei for power and position, when she never actually seems very conflicted about her decision.

Those who enjoy complicated female characters, unique retellings, and diverse worlds with a dose of darkness will love Forest of a Thousand Lanterns, and even those, like me, who aren’t big fans of the Snow White-Evil Queen fairy tale will find this debut compelling. It’s a solid effort and I look forward to seeing where Xifeng’s story goes next.

 

Books: The Blood of Flowers

348632The Blood of Flowers by Anita Amirrezvani
Published June 5, 2007
star-4
The call for diverse fiction is slowly being answered, but when it comes to novels set outside of Western Europe, the historical fiction genre still has a ways to go. I’m as interested in Tudor England and the Regency as the next person, but often I find myself longing for something different. Iranian-American author Anita Amirrezvani’s The Blood of Flowers is that much-needed breath of fresh air. Its lush prose and richly detailed descriptions are transporting, carrying readers along on a journey to seventeenth-century Persia (modern-day Iran), as the author skillfully depicts the artistry and hard work involved in carpet weaving.

The story is told by a purposely unnamed narrator who, according to the author’s notes, is a tribute to the anonymous artisans of Iran. Eager to learn, hard-working, and creative, she is also rash and naïve, making decisions in the heat of the moment that impact both her and her family negatively, a characteristic attributed in the narrative to the bad fortune brought by a comet that passes over her village.

We first meet the anonymous protagonist as a teenage girl hoping to make a suitable marriage within her village. When the sudden death of her father casts both the girl and her mother into poverty, they travel to the city of Isfatar to throw themselves on the charity of the narrator’s half-uncle, a well-off designer of carpets for the Shah.

Amirrezvani lovingly depicts the ingenuity that goes into each carpet’s design, from the patterns chosen and drawn, to the thoughtful choice of colours, to the work involved in knotting them. It’s clear that this is an art form that means a great deal to her and when I finished the book, I had a strong desire to learn more about, and to view, some of the beautiful carpets she describes.

The prose is lush and enveloping; It wraps the reader up in words and paints a vivid picture of life in 1600s Persia. Superbly researched, The Blood of Flowers is a feast for the senses that integrates rich detail on dishes sampled, scents smelled, and textures felt for a world that feels real.

The author also infuses The Blood of Flowers with retellings of Persian myths and legends, which are relayed either by the narrator or by her storytelling mother. Beginning with a variation on ‘Once Upon a Time’, the novel has a fairy tale aspect, but it soon becomes clear that The Blood of Flowers is a grittier and more realistic twist on the common fairy tale. Our narrator is not rescued by a dashing prince or a fairy godmother, instead she must carve out a place for herself in a male-dominated world where few options are open to her, a woman who has neither dowry or social standing.

Amirrezvani’s greatest strength is undoubtedly her prose, but I also enjoyed the well-researched depiction of 17th century Persia and the many flawed but interesting characters that populate this novel. The half-uncle, who teaches our narrator about the art of carpet-making and lends her money for the materials to create her own carpet as a dowry, but after she makes a mistake he hits her. Hard. So that she cannot work for days until the swelling subsides. The narrator’s closest friend, who seems at times a true friend, and at others a selfish creature interested only in furthering her own interests. And, of course, the narrator herself. Although hardworking and intelligent, at times she acts like the teenage girl she is, young and impulsive without thought for the consequences of her actions.

Admittedly I found some of the violence against and treatment of women in this book uncomfortable, but I believe it reflects the societal norms and class structures in place at the time. Those put off by this description will likely be mollified by the fact that the book is ultimately about a woman who breaks free and finds a way to live life by her own wits and craftsmanship.

Although I found the pace a little rushed towards the end, I really enjoyed The Blood of Flowers. I look forward to diving back into the author’s rich prose and world-building with Equal of the Sun, a standalone novel set in sixteenth-century Persia, sometime in 2018.

 

 

A-Z Bookish Tag

I wasn’t tagged in this one, but I came across it on Steph from Lost Purple Quill’s blog and couldn’t resist!

A. Author you’ve read the most books from

As an adult, I believe it’s Lois McMaster Bujold. I’ve been slowly picking away at her Vorkosigan Saga space opera series when I have a gap between books, and have also read the first in her fantasy series, The Curse of Chalion.

B. Best sequel ever

I have to go with Steph here and say Maggie Stiefvater’s The Dream Thieves. As much as I enjoyed the first book in the series, The Dream Thieves was so much better and focused on showing Ronan Lynch’s depth. It’s a wonderful book. OH actually, also Sarah Monette’s The Virtu. One of my favourite books of all time (although her Doctrine of Labyrinths series is heavy on the trigger warnings), and improves upon the first book in the series, Melusine.

C. Currently reading

33958230
Forest of a Thousand Lanterns
by Julie Dao. Its an East Asian-inspired fantasy re-imagining of The Evil Queen legend. So far I love the world building and I find Xifeng really interesting.

D. Drink of choice

If I could only drink one thing for the rest of my life it would be cold water. I am such a fan of plain, cold water. While reading though I love a cup of flavored black tea!

E. E-reader or physical book

I prefer physical books.

F. Fictional character you probably would have dated in high school.

I was too shy to date anyone in high school. I definitely had a crush on Elijah Wood’s Frodo though.

G. Glad you gave this book a chance

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Room by Emma Donoghue. It’s not something I would have picked up if my book club hadn’t chosen it, because the subject matter just does not appeal to me, but I wound up really loving it. The narrative voice of a five-year-old was perfect, and just when the routine of mama and Jack’s days was getting dull, Donoghue changes it up.

H. Hidden gem


I’m honestly so baffled that Robert Jackson Bennett hasn’t received the sort of attention that some fantasy authors have. I didn’t love the third book in the series as much, but City of Stairs and City of Blades are brilliant. They feature intelligent, courageous WoC protagonists, exquisite world building, and engaging plots that deal with the lasting impact of colonialism. I highly recommend this series!

I. Important moment in your reading life

The moment when I finished the last course of my English degree in University. I read a few really excellent books during my degree, largely due to a wonderful professor who taught a Science Fiction and Fantasy course, but I also read a lot of really meh or just plain bad books, and picking them apart to analyze took away from my enjoyment of books. After I graduated, I rediscovered reading for pleasure and read voraciously. Also, when I worked at Chapters, the major bookstore chain in Canada, and met people who were similarly passionate about reading and recommended books to me.

J. Just finished

The Blood of Flowers by Anita Amirrezvani, about 17th century Persian carpet weavers. I really enjoyed the flowing prose, sensory world building, and the storytelling aspect to it.

K. Kind of book you won’t read

Horror.

L. Longest book you’ve read

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Yes, you guessed it, it’s still Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. Despite the length, and Hugo’s occasional digressions, it’s very much worth reading and moved me deeply.

M. Major book hangover because of…

When I finish a series that I really love, it’s so hard to move on and say goodbye to the characters I’ve loved so much. Sometimes the desire to just re-read immediately is overwhelming. I had a really hard time finishing and moving on from Crooked Kingdom, A Conjuring of Light, The Raven King, and Checkmate.

N. Number of bookshelves you own

Just two in my apartment (each with six shelves), and I also have one in my bedroom at my parents’ house holding some of my additional books. I’m trying to avoid expanding to a third by only buying keeper copies of books I love and new copies of books I can’t wait to read, and by periodically weeding my collection.

O. One book you’ve read multiple times

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I’ve read The Game of Kings three times? I think, and I’m beginning it for a fourth in 2018!

P. Preferred place to read

It depends on the season! I do a lot of pool-side (outdoor) or balcony reading when it’s warm enough in Toronto, but this time of year I love to read on the couch beside my Christmas tree!

Q. Quote that inspires you

I’m really not one for inspiring quotes, but I do like Rowling’s “It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live.” 

R. Reading regrets

Why oh why did I read The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu this year? What a taste of time. 500 dense pages of so misogynistic it’s hard to believe people praise this book at all. The first book had redeemable qualities but this one just didn’t.

S. Series you’ve started and need to finish

I have a few historical fiction series like this, so I’ll say Sandra Gulland’s Josephine Bonaparte trilogy and Sharon Kay Penman’s Welsh Princes series.

T. Three of your time favorite books


U: Unapologetic fangirl

I tend to be all-in when it comes to fandoms, but especially Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows duology, Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Cycle, and Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles.

V. Very excited for this release more than others

There aren’t many upcoming releases that I’m excited about actually – but longer term I can’t wait for the Nikolai series promised by Leigh Bardugo, as well as the Dreamer Trilogy that Maggie Stiefvater is working on!

W. Worst bookish habit

Returning books late to the library! I’m really bad for that and end up having to pay down my fines periodically.

X. X marks the spot: Pick the 27th book from the top left shelf

None of my bookshelves are wide enough for this!

Y: Your Latest Purchase

It’s been awhile actually, possibly An Arrow’s Flight which I bought second-hand on Steph’s recommendation.

Z. Z snatcher–book that kept you up way too late

I read A Little Life in a matter of days despite it being 700 pages because I just COULDN’T PUT IT DOWN.

I wasn’t tagged so I won’t tag anyone in turn, but feel free to do this tag if you’re interested. It’s a lot of fun!

Five-Star Read Predictions

Rachel of pace, amore, libri challenged me to choose five books on my TBR that I think I will be 5-star reads, and I’ve accepted… with one caveat! Since I use half-stars in my ranking system, fewer of the books I read are wholeheartedly 5-star choices. For this reason, I’m choosing books that I think will either be 4.5 or 5-star reads.

The challenge was started by Mercedes on booktube. To participate, you pick out 5 books on your TBR that you think will be 5-star reads. When you finish, you can come back and make a post letting everyone know how you got on.


My 5-Star Predictions:

The Absolutist by John Boyne
Nothing makes me add a book to my TBR quicker than Rachel and Steph, my book blogging partners in crime, giving it five-stars! After we all read and loved and cried over John Boyne’s brilliant The Heart’s Invisible Furies (one of, if not my absolute, favourite books this year), it was a given that I would read more by Boyne in the future. Back in October I saw a copy of The Absolutist in a Toronto used bookstore and picked it up, and then went back for a second copy to gift to Rachel when we met up in Vermont. She read it first and offered this endorsement by text:

painful

Rachel, Steph, and I have a penchant for painful books that hurt the heart, but in the best possible way, so I can’t wait to pick up The Absolutist later this month!

Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier
The first book of this trilogy was recommended to me by a former co-worker from my days working retail in a bookstore. We have similar tastes in books and bonded over fantasy titles like A Song of Ice and Fire and The Name of the Wind at the time. Although I don’t see her very often, we continue to share recs through goodreads and have both flailed over the Shades of Magic series, Six of Crows, and The Bear and the Nightingale. She LOVED this one, a fantasy novel inspired by Celtic/Gaelic mythology, and it sounds right up my alley as well!

Swansong by Vale Aida
I fell in love with Elegy, the first book in this fantasy duology, last year and immediately wanted more! It’s plotty and political fantasy fiction filled with multi-faceted, flawed characters, from enigmatic actor-turned-soldier Savonn Silvertongue, to precious Cinnamon Roll Emaris. I loved the world building, the queer representation, and the prose, and I can’t wait to read Swansong later this month!

Fire From Heaven by Mary Renault
Mary Renault feels like one of those foundational authors in the genre of historical fiction. I’ve known about her, primarily classical Grecian-set, novels for years now and have always meant to give her work a try, but never quite got around to it. As a huge fan of Greek myths, and someone with an interest in ancient Greek history, I fully expect to love Fire From Heaven and her other novels though, especially since they come highly endorsed by a close friend of mine.

Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham
I’ve never read any of W. Somerset Maugham’s works, but I went to see a play adaptation of Of Human Bondage earlier this year and I adored it. Rarely has my heart hurt like that after a show. I know the book was a favourite of Rachel’s, so I’m sure it’s something that I will love as well.

Have you read any of these books? Let me know what you thought in the comments! If you make a 5-star prediction post of your own, please ping back so I can read your choices!

T5T: New to Me Authors in 2017

Top 5 Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by the wonderful Bionic Book Worm.  This week’s topic:

DECEMBER 12TH – Top 5 (OR 10!) new to me authors in 2017

In an attempt to branch out of my comfort zone, I read a lot of works by authors I hadn’t previously discovered. Here were my top five favourites of the year, and another bonus five authors that I was also happy to discover:

253532861. Ann Leckie
As someone who keeps, at least vaguely, tabs on what’s happening the world of science-fiction and fantasy books, Ann Leckie’s name has been on my radar for ages. Each year, her Imperial Radch trilogy seemed to be on my TBR but I never quite got around to reading them. So this year I finally picked up Ancillary Justice. I loved it. The world building was exquisite, different from anything else I’d ever read before, and the use of default female pronouns through me for a loop. Two of Leckie’s books, Ancillary Sword and her standalone novel Provenance, will make my Top 10 List of the best books I’ve read in 2017, which makes her my favourite new author discovery of the year!

332532152. John Boyne
I’ve only read one of Boyne’s novels so far (I’m planning to read The Absolutist before the end of the year), but what a novel it was! From its first page The Heart’s Invisible Furies hooked me with its black humour, cynical criticism of the Catholic Church, and flawed but fascinating characters. I loved The Heart’s Invisible Furies so much that it’s in contention for my favourite book of the year! I can’t wait to dive into The Absolutist and have my heart broken by John Boyne once again, and I will definitely be going through his back catalog and reading the rest of his works over the next few years.

2qir5w73. Becky Chambers
I don’t read much in the way of science-fiction, I really prefer fantasy, so it says a lot about the caliber of the authors’ work that there are two science-fiction writers in my Top 5 this week! Becky Chambers’ cozy sci-fi novel The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is a character study in which very little actually happens, but you don’t even care because the characters are so damn enjoyable. It reads more like a series of vignettes that concentrate on the relationships between crew members on a rundown spaceship than it does a novel with any overarching plot. It works surprisingly well, but I was even more taken with her sequel. I found something empowering in reading the parallel narratives in A Closed and Common Orbit about young women who are shaped by tragic pasts, but who start over, gain autonomy, and shape their own identities. I was genuinely moved by both novels in her Wayfarers series and look forward to reading more by Chambers in the future.

Pachinko4. Min Jin Lee
Although I’ve only read one of her novels, I loved Pachinko so much that I would pick up any new novel she writes based on the strength of it alone. A multigenerational novel about an ethnic Korean family living in Korea under Japanese rule and then in Japan itself, it’s an evocative beautifully written book that I would recommend to absolutely everyone. Lee has a way with words, and although the book appears daunting due to its length, it’s a quick read with prose that is simple, yet elegant. Where Pachinko really excels though is in its depiction of characters who are kind, flawed, and hard-working. I look forward to seeing what else Min Jin Lee can do in the future.

255288015. E. K. Johnston
I absolutely loved Exit, Pursued by a Bear. I’m so sick of stories where rape is used as plot device or to show how dark and gritty a world is, but Johnston’s story is focused on the girl impacted by sexual assault. She refuses to be a victim, and the narrative empowers her at every turn, putting the decision about how to move past what’s happened to her and what to do about the assailant in her hands. Exit, Pursued by a Bear also gives protagonist Hermione a rock solid support system. It’s absolutely brilliant. I was less impressed by That Inevitable Victorian Thing, but the creativity in concept and diversity in the novel was terrific to read about. Of course I also love that she’s a Canadian author!

Honourable mention to:

Lisa See – I’ve only read The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, but I really enjoyed it and have been told that it’s not her best work, so I will definitely read more of her books in 2018.

Adam Silvera – I often find YA a little light and fluffy for my tastes, so what a relief to find Adam Silvera’s work! I adored More Happy Than Not, which is unusually bleak for the genre, yet fascinating to read. I wasn’t as taken with the other book of his I’ve read, History Is All You Left Me, but I still solidly enjoyed it and intend to read more of his works.

Katherine Arden – The opinions I’ve read about The Girl in the Tower are more mixed, so I’m cautious about putting her on my list, but The Bear and the Nightingale was such an unmitigated delight. Atmospheric with a protagonist who is brave and intelligent, yet kind, I loved it from the first page.

Anita Amirrezvani – I read The Blood of Flowers, a historical fiction novel about carpet weavers in 17th century Iran (Persia), recently and loved the flowing prose and the elegant world building. The setting was a completely unique one for me, and such a refreshing change from the usual England and European-set hist fic novels. I see she has another novel about Persia, which I intend to read next year.

Kathryn Ormsbee – Tash Hearts Tolstoy resonated so much with me for its positive asexual representation. I don’t know if this is a one-off, or if more asexual characters will appear in her work, but it was also a charming YA novel in its own right. I would definitely pick up future work by Ormsbee.

Have you read books by any of these authors this year? Which new (to you) authors did you discover in 2017? Let me know in the comments!

Monthly Wrap-Up: November

I’ve been a negligent blogger this month, so my very late wrap-up of November reads and shows is coming a whole third of the way into December. Oops.

My free time for blogging suffered as I first attended 7 performances of the National Ballet of Canada in November, wrote a combined 3,000+ words on my two favourite ballets (Nijinsky and The Winter’s Tale) for My Entertainment World, battled a touch of sickness that left me drained, and then launched right into preparing for Christmas. About the only thing that didn’t suffer was my reading. That forty minute commute to work by train does wonders for my page count!

In November I FINALLY finished the dreaded War & Peace, and it was like pulling teeth to get to the end, which reads more like the conclusion to a dissertation than any ending to a fictional story. Fortunately, my other reads were much more enjoyable. 4 of the 6 books I read this month received a rating of 4 stars or above from me as I sought to reward myself for finishing War & Peace with some newer releases that had been on my TBR for awhile.


Elegy
(re-read) by Vale Aida  small 4 half stars  +Review
War & Peace by Leo Tolstoy  small-2-stars  + Review
That Inevitable Victorian Thing by E.K. Johnston  small 3 half stars  + Review
Provenance by Ann Leckie  small 4 half stars  + Review
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng  small 4 stars  + Review
Wonder Woman: Warbringer by Leigh Bardugo  small 4 stars  + Review

Book of the Month: A tie between Vale Aida’s Elegy and Ann Leckie’s Provenance. Elegy was a re-read for me, which I usually don’t count in my rankings for what I loved each month (or in my best of year-end lists) but since it’s a lesser known title, I’m including it here. I loved the obviously Dunnett-inspired political machinations, prose, and complicated enigmatic protagonist, Savonn Silvertongue. Leckie’s standalone novel Provanance was an absolute delight. I loved the characters, especially resourceful but naive Ingray, the world-building, and the genre-defying plot.

Least Favourite: I am so relieved that I FINALLY finished War & Peace because it was a slog. I spent the last several hundred pages just wanting it to be over. Never have I been more relieved to finish a book!

***

Seen on Stage: In case you’re wondering why I’ve been so scarce on here, the answer is because I’ve been at the ballet!

When the National Ballet of Canada made its season announcement back in February, I very nearly screamed at my computer. I did double-check it multiple times to make sure I wasn’t dreaming and then walked around all day with a dopey grin on my face because my favourite ballet of all time, Nijinsky, was returning and in the same month as my second favourite ballet, The Winter’s Tale. Nijinsky has an especially personal connection to me, which I may write about later in a companion piece, but suffice it to say that I hadn’t in a million years thought that I would see it again so soon. Naturally, I bought multiple sets of tickets and yes, it’s return was everything I hoped it would be.

I’ve written two (very detailed) multi-cast reviews for My Entertainment World, which I’ve linked to below. Editor, Kelly Bedard, is the only person I’ve met who has the same passion for the National Ballet of Canada and strongly held opinions about the company, so it’s been a great joy to discuss my thoughts with her and have pieces published on her site. I’ve also been extremely flattered to receive some attention for my reviews! A principal dancer with the company, Jurgita Dronina, re-tweeted my review of The Winter’s Tale, calling it truly detailed and tagging the show’s choreographer! My review of Nijinsky was re-tweeted by principal dancer Guillaume Cote, and Skylar Campbell, a favourite of mine in the company and to dance the role, replied to my review, saying it was “thoughtfully written and very in depth!” Needless to say, I am still a little overwhelmed and incredibly flattered by the response!

I also hit a few theatre shows. A smaller independent Irish play, Dublin Carol, I also reviewed for My Entertainment World, and I plan on writing reviews for Musical Stage Company’s Uncovered Concert, and Bat Out of Hell (the Meatloaf musical) later this month, so stay tuned for those.

Bat Out of Hell (musical) Mirvish + RTC
Uncovered: Bob Dylan and Springsteen concert + RTC
The Winter’s Tale (ballet) by The National Ballet of Canada (x3) – Reviewed for My Entertainment World
Dublin Carol (play) by Fly on the Wall – Reviewed for My Entertainment World
Nijinsky (ballet) by The National Ballet of Canada (x4) – Reviewed for My Entertainment World

***

Coming up in December: I actually have December pretty mapped out! I’ve finished Anita Amirrezvani’s historical fiction novel The Blood of Flowers, and am currently reading Julie Dao’s Forest of a Thousand Lanterns. On my list for this month is John Boyne’s The Absolutist since Rachel and Steph have both RAVED about it, and Boyne’s newest novel The Heart’s Invisible Furies is one of the best books I’ve read this year. After two months and multiple customer service emails, the copy of Swansong, the second part in Vale Aida’s Magpie Ballads Duology finally showed up, so I’m really looking forward to finishing that series! Before I lead a buddy read of Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles, beginning in January with Rachel, Steph, and Hadeer, I’m hoping to get to Dunnett’s standalone King Hereafter, about the historical Macbeth, as well.

Happy holiday season reading everyone!