I love ‘Best of…’ lists, especially ‘Best books’ lists. Here’s my annual offering – I hope you find something to look for on your next visit to the library! (Note: although I read the following books last year, many of them were not published in 2016.)
my grandmother asked me to tell you she’s sorry – Fredrik Backman
My favourite novel this year. Blurring the lines between fairy tale and reality, the author introduces us to Elsa, an “almost 8 year-old” whose granny invented a magical fairyland for her called “the Land-Of-Almost-Awake.” Granny sets Elsa the task of delivering letters to people she needs to apologize to. As she meets each person, Elsa begins to make connections between her granny’s beloved fairy tales and these people. Laugh out loud funny in places, devastating in others, heart breakingly beautiful and broken throughout. A triumph.
With racism, xenophobia and nationalism front and center in our newsfeeds this year, I chose to immerse myself in fiction set in World War 2 and the Shoah, to remind myself just how terrifying these movements can become.
I began with Rose Under Fire, by Elizabeth Wein. A harrowing account of life in Ravensbruck women’s concentration camp, told from the perspective of an 18 year-old American transport pilot, mistakenly sent there after being captured. An unrelentingly painful and disturbing narrative that somehow still manages to capture the beauty of unlikely friendships forged in unbearable circumstances.
A Thread of Grace by Mary Doria Russell. Regardless of genre, Russell never disappoints. A powerful portrayal of the new-to-me story of how Italian peasants hid tens of thousands of European Jewish refugees during the German occupation of Italy from ’44-’45. Compelling characters, unflinching and brutal, her story allows no fairy-tale ending for the main characters.
Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys. Four characters flee from the advancing Russian army in Poland, trying to get to ships the German army has arranged to evacuate the populace and wounded soldiers. As the story unfolds it becomes a rarely-told account of the worst maritime disaster ever: 9,000 people (5,000 of them children) drowning in icy waters after a Russian submarine torpedoes the Wilhelmina Gustloff.
The Berlin Boxing Club by Robert Sharenow. I read this in a single sitting. An absolutely riveting story of a German Jewish teenager in the late ’30s who does not identify as Jewish, which makes the narrative voice quite different than similar novels. Boxing becomes his salvation and the occasional mentoring he receives from champion and German hero Max Schmeling leads to a tense and brutal conclusion. Fantastic.
The Hummingbird by Stephen P. Kieran. Deborah Birch is assigned to be the latest hospice nurse for a crotchety retired professor. As she slowly earns his trust, they are both surprised by what they gain from each other: he, someone to read him his controversial final book about a WW2 Japanese pilot who fire-bombed the Oregon forests; she, insight into her PTSD-suffering husband. Absolutely riveting, beautifully written, with an authentic, hopeful ending.
In murder mysteries, How the Light Gets In by Louise Penny was the standout this year. The ninth outing for the Québécois opens with Chief Superintendent Francouer decimating Chief Inspector Gamache’s homicide unit, his blatant intent to drive Gamache into retirement before he uncovers the details of the conspiracy he has long investigated. Gamache returns to Three Pines following the murder of an old friend of a village resident, and the various plot lines unfold with increasing tension before the breath-taking climax. Simply stunning. Again.
The Stages by Thom Satterlee offers a fascinating first-person perspective for a crime thriller. An American expert in Kierkegaard who lives with Asperger’s becomes the chief suspect in a murder enquiry in Copenhagen. His inability to appreciate other peoples’ emotions continually creates problems for him during the investigation. Very different, very enjoyable.
I’m always on the look out for new series in this genre, and the standout character I discovered this year was Joe Pickett, C. J. Box’s Wyoming game warden. The series opener is Open Season, in which a series of murders leads to Pickett’s uncovering of a conspiracy centering on a small mammal his daughter finds. A cracking adventure, with a likable character.
In fantasy, The Well of Ascension, the second book in Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series was the clear winner. Truly worthy of the appellation “epic,” the story continues with Elend Venture awakening to the new world wrought by the destruction of the immortal Lord Ruler. But he and his beloved Vin have no time to enjoy his dream of a more just society, as three rival armies descend upon his capital city to besiege it. Vin becomes entangled with Elend’s half-brother, a fellow Mistborn, as well as coming to believe that she might be the messiah-like figure of legend to bring about the true new world. Sanderson’s ability to create compelling fully-realized worlds is quite amazing.
Our kids continue to be voracious readers – I think Maggie averaged 3 books a week this year. Of the ones I read with them, these three were my favourites:
Breaking Stalin’s Nose by Eugene Velchin captures the brutalizing fear and suspicion endemic of Stalin’s Russia through the eyes of Sasha, a middle-schooler whose whole world is turned upside-down in just two days.
The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman is a novel inspired by and highly reminiscent of the Jungle Book. A toddler is saved from his parent’s murderer by ghosts, who raise him as Bod (“Nobody”) in their graveyard. A series of short adventures unfolds as the boy grows up, culminating in the revelation of why he was targeted for death. Fantastic, as Gaiman always is.
Dodger by the sorely-missed Terry Pratchett, is the story of a street urchin in Victorian London who makes a living scavenging in the sewers. He saves an upper class girl from being kidnapped, and then, with the unlikely assistance of Charles Dickens, the police and some noblemen, saves the realm from a political nightmare, and possibly war. Fabulous.
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