Top Books That I Read in 2016

104: That’s how many books I read this year.

That’s a lot, even for a book nerd such as myself.

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I tried to figure out how that number could possibly be correct. I keep track of books on Goodreads and on my VPL account, have a massive collection on Google,  and a stack that I read for work. Turns out my brain took in a whole lot of information this year that arrived in book form. 104 is correct.

When most people put their “Top” lists together for a given year, it’s assumed that the items on it will actually be something that came out in that span of time. That would make you think I have a whole lot to say about books published in 2016.

If that were the case though, the list would have a handful of books on it – out of the 104 I consumed over the last 12 months, 17 were published this year.

Much like my state of being, my reading for 2016 was all over the place. More aptly, an eclectic collection of a whole lot of years of people writing stuff down.

But, there was no shortage of books that reshaped me.  Check out the best stories I got lost in this past year:

Top Literary Fiction: The Shadow Of The Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

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Yes, it took me 45 years to read this novel. Don’t judge me.

In fact, I may have skipped it all together if it hadn’t been for my neighbour, who had given me the worst novel I have possibly ever abandoned, and apologized by offering up this one.

I’m breathless even thinking about The Shadow Of The Wind – set post-World War II in the remnants of the Spanish Civil War. This novel offered up a dark, heartless, cruel, yet entirely passionate story about a young boy, a secret world of books, hateful love and a sick discomfort with oneself.

This is a book lover’s novel. Its relentless pace, thick with the petulance and obsession that marks human frailty, launched it to the top of my all-time favourite list.

Top Memoir: Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety by Ann YK Choi

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I cannot even begin to tell you what a surprise joy this debut novel from Toronto writer Ann YK Choi proved to be.

A lifetime in the making, this memoir-styled novel takes a poignant look at the Korean immigrant experience in Canada.

Family dramas aren’t, for the most part, the kind of reading I enjoy. But, Choi changed it for me with a dark-humoured main character whose struggle with her identity and obligations as Korean and Canadian mirrored the sacrifice and regret of her entire family – in particular the women.

I found myself relating to the compromises and – in my view – unnecessary sacrifices generations of women in my own family found themselves beholden to – and my own selfish rebellion against them.

Choi and I met at the Vancouver Writers Fest and had a good, public cry over it all – which made me love this novel even more.

Top Cookbook: A Taste of Persia: A Cook’s Travels Through Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Iran and Kurdistan by Naomi Duguid.

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I use cooking like some people tap into creative spaces through music – preparing meals from the places I am writing about helps me understand daily life, create a more complete experience for readers. So, cookbooks from North Africa and the Middle East are all over the place at my house these days.

Naomi Duguid’s newest cookbook on Persian food is so much more than recipes. It is how the food of the Middle East defines the daily lives of the people of those regions.

I have spent more time with this book than any other in 2016 – making dozens of its recipes, immersing my family in my writerly food obsessions – and no one is complaining. We have discovered some new meal staples, developing a much more intimate worldview along the way.

Top Science Fiction Novel: The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis

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An oldie but goodie, this gem by Nebula Award-winning female sci-fi pioneer Connie Willis made for one of the most immersive reading adventures of my year. Time travel – exploration of the nature of evil – trapped between the worlds – battling your own darkness.

Willis and I have a sort of Kevin Bacon connection in that her long-time friend and writing partner, Cynthia Felice, is the mother of a good friend of mine from high school. I remember talking to Bob one day about his mom and my favourite sci-fi authors when he mentioned how they sat around the kitchen table with a guy by the name of George R.R. Martin editing each other’s books when we were teenagers.

Of course, I could not have cared less when I was 16. Now, my mind is blown.

Top Sensual Novel: The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant.

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I went on a Sarah Dunant binge this Summer, reading everything she has written, diving deep into the nuance and dichotomy of 16th century Italy. I started with The Birth of Venus and have to say that it was, by far, one of the most intoxicating debut novels from a writer I have ever taken in.

She takes the simplest of stories and turns it into an exploration of sensuality, denial, unrequited desires and a subtle, erotic love scene between the main character and Michelangelo that will send you racing for the coldest of showers. It would make the chilliest of souls spend their last dime to book a flight to Florence just on the mere chance of meeting up with passion itself.

Top Advance Read for 2017: Dragon Springs Road by Janie Chang.

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Full disclosure, Janie and I are friends. She graciously offered me an advance copy of her new historical fiction novel, Dragon Springs Road, and I pored through it with my jaw dropped the entire time.

Janie’s ability to take us all into the darkness of Shanghai alongside the often dark inner life of a girl struggling with her identity in the political tumult of the Chinese republic is astounding.

I gravitate toward stories from the Middle East and North Africa. So, Janie’s was not one I would walk into a bookstore and buy on my own. But, the journey of Jialing is so profound that it sent me in a new direction of storytelling.

It is widely released in mid-January, 2017. I recommend it to everyone.

Top Book I Would Never Have Read Unless I Was Researching A Novel: A History of Weapons: Crossbows, Caltrops, Catapults & Lots of Other Things That Can Seriously Mess You Up, by John O’Bryan

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It’s sort of like watching 1,000 Dumb Ways to Die – you want to look away, but curiosity sucks you in. That was how I came to rely upon John O’Bryan.

I picked up this compendium of weapons throughout time at the library as a reference for a cache of blades and other death mechanisms I was building for characters in my novel, The Seals of Annach.  

I ended up buying it.

O’Bryan is thorough and informative in his approach to cataloging weapons by culture and leader, with a dark sense of humour attached.

This is one of those books that I’m confident will spend a lot of time out of the stacks getting dog-eared and thumbed through. I’m always killing characters off and, since most of the people who die would have existed about 2,000 years ago, modern tools of the trade don’t apply.

It’s a dark line of work. I appreciate the small bit of levity without becoming non-chalant about it all.

Top Young Adult Novel: A Torch Against The Night by Sabaa Tahir

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This top pick was a tough one for me this year because my oldest daughter and I ripped through the first books of three YA trilogies that came out in 2015 and loved them all. All three second books came out in 2016. We loved them too.

LA-based writer Sabaa Tahir takes top honours, though, for her sheer ability to make the reader identify to different elements of each character in the novel.

The story, based in a fictionalized version of what is the ancient Mediterranean world, tackles modern issues such as racism, slavery, war, refugees, rebellions and the requirements of maintaining power. It drills down into the lives of Elias and Laia, who (of course) come from two different worlds. But, despite its common story structure, the characters and plot twists make this book one you read late into the night and wake up early to finish. The third installment is set to be a gem and Tahir is an approachable, warm author who loves her fans almost as much as her storytelling.

Top Biography: Cleopatra: A Life by Stacey Schiff

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It’s hard to dispute Stacey Schiff as one of the great re-creationists of women in history. Her book, The Witches: Salem 1692 is next up on my to-read list. But, Cleopatra: A Life is a brilliant examination of an exceptional woman that history sexualized into a tawdry seductress without political merit. She turns the trope of female leaders in history on its head, asking us all to re-examine how we as a society have been programmed to interpret the history of women.

There are so many more. But, I’ll leave you all with those gems.

I’d love to hear what you all loved reading this year (leave your faves in the comment’s section).

Happy reading in 2017!

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