Recommended books: Winter 2016

Reading time: About 4 minutes

Looking for some recommended books in time Christmas gift-giving? Here’s my semi-annual roundup — this time of books I’ve read since June.  

I aim to read 52 books every 12 months and my habit is to post the names of them for you, twice a year. This past June, I told you about the 25 titles I’d read by that point.  Now, here is a description of the 28 other books I’ve enjoyed in the remainder of my reading year. Yes, I really do read more than a book a week. I give you this list in early December to help you with your Christmas gift book-buying plans or for your own holiday reading. 

I name the books I really liked in the “recommended” parts of the list. Books I really didn’t enjoy (remember: reading is personal) I’ve placed in the “other” list. Please note I don’t generally read mystery/thrillers (although there is one here this time), sci-fi or fantasy. I pass no judgment on those who do; my tastes just don’t run in those directions.    

RECOMMENDED FICTION (in order of preference)

  1. Smith, Dominic. The Last Painting of Sara de Vos. This compelling story of an illegally copied painting, told over several generations and continents, offers a riveting plot with very fine, layered writing. Easily, the best novel I read this year. (Detail from cover, pictured above.)
  2. Donoghue, Emma. The Wonder: A novel. Based on the true story of a young Irish girl who stopped eating — not long after the potato famine — this fictionalized account of the nurse who is paid to observe the girl is both gripping and sad. Donoghue is a very observant writer who has a fantastic ear for dialogue, too.
  3. Lee, Jonathan. High Dive: A Novel. A novel based on the true story of a 1984 bomb attack in Brighton targeting Margaret Thatcher. Terrific story told with beautiful writing. Almost impossible to believe that this is the author’s first novel. So smart!
  4. Baume, Sara. Spill, Simmer, Falter, Wither. I’m a cat person, not a dog one, but I couldn’t put down this exquisitely told story of a (troubled) man and his one-eyed dog. It had some of the best figurative language I’ve encountered this year.
  5. Hay, Elizabeth. A Student of Weather. The story of two sisters in small-town Saskatchewan and a man who enters both of their lives. Beautifully written with a engrossing plot.
  6. Cline, Emma. The Girls: A novel. This author can really write and the plot — based on the Charles Manson murders (with the names changed) — was interesting enough but something about the book didn’t fully work for me.
  7. Danler, Stephanie. Sweetbitter. This woman writes like a dream but plots like a nightmare, even though I was interested in the story: the life of a high-end New-York-based restaurant. So much great writing at the service of such a lame little story.
  8. Crummy, Michael. The Wreckage. I read this novel while in Newfoundland, where the book is partly set. It also takes place in a Japanese prisoner of war camp during the Second World War. Crummy is a very fine writer but I found the plot a bit overwrought.
  9. Alexis, Andre. Fifteen Dogs. The story — about 16 dogs who are suddenly given human consciousness and speech — didn’t move me, and the writing seemed a bit too detached, apart from one very lovely segment towards the end. But the book has won plenty of awards.
  10. McEwan, Ian. Nutshell. The story of a fetus waiting to be born. Clever idea but maybe a bit too clever, given that the mother and her boyfriend intend to kill someone. Spectacularly written but the plot left me yawning.
  11. Groff, Lauren. Fates & Furies. This book tells the story of a marriage, first from the husband’s point of view, then from the wife’s. She’s a good writer but I especially didn’t enjoy her dialogue, which was far too brittle for me.
  12. Theroux, Paul. Murder in Mount Holly. An early Theroux that I’d never before read, it’s a very brief, often very funny book, but not especially memorable.

 Other fiction

  1. Forman, Gayle. Leave Me.
  2. Parkurst, Carolyn. Harmony.
  3. Flynn, Gillian. The Grownup.

NON-FICTION (in order of preference)

  1. Szalavitz, Maia. Unbroken Brain. Incredibly thoughtful and sensitive exploration about how we ought to understand addiction — not as a moral failing or a disease but as a learning disability. Beautifully written by an award-winning science writer who used to be an addict.
  2. Klaff, Oren. Pitch Anything. Really well written book with inspiring and useful ideas about how to sell. Klaff is a former investment banker who really knows his stuff and writes about it in often very funny ways. (I’d love to see one of his presentations.)
  3. Marsh, Henry. Do No Harm. After hearing Marsh interviewed in a Fresh Air podcast I rushed to the library to order his book. Both depressing and uplifting I found his book to offer a very nuanced view of the life of a neurosurgeon, and his patients. He’s a lovely writer, too.
  4. Martin, Steve. Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life. Interesting, thoughtful reflections on the merits of hard work vs talent and into the celebrity life. Martin is a fine, clear writer.
  5. Long, Priscilla. The Writer’s Portable Mentor. If you’re a writer looking for a gift — for yourself or someone you love — you won’t go wrong with this wonderfully thoughtful and helpful companion. The book is remarkably useful, particularly for its well selected excerpts.
  6. Scamvougeras, Anton. Dysconnected. This unusual paperback coffee-table book presents black and white artwork, interspersed with quotes — from H.G. Wells to Pope Francis — reflecting on how smart phone usage is negatively affecting our lives. Really well done.
  7. Pink, Daniel. To Sell is Human. Some interesting and useful ideas in here but not nearly as well written as it should be. I’m somewhat surprised about all the fuss made over this author.
  8. Bailey, Chris. The Productivity Project. I’m a productivity fanatic who found this book slightly disappointing because the writing was only so-so (not nearly enough stories) and because it was hard to get a grasp of his tips and make them actionable. That, said, he offers great insight on the difference between time and energy + attention.
  9. Steinem, Gloria. My Life on the Road. This memoir relates the life of Gloria Steinem through the lens of her many, many travels. She’s an interesting woman but I was surprised by her writing which struck me as only mediocre.
  10. Jiang, Jia. Rejection Proof. Pretty good non-fiction book about a guy who was working at a Fortune 500 company but who had always dreamed about being an entrepreneur. Self-doubt plagued him, however, so he decided to embark on a “100 days of rejection” experiment.
  11. Cuddy, Amy. Presence. I’ve long been a fan of Amy Cuddy, the person who demonstrated in her lab how standing like Wonder Woman for two minutes can improve your performance in job interviews and public presentations. Sadly, her book doesn’t allow her ideas to shine. You might be better off watching her TED talk.
  12. Schoemperlen, Diane. This is Not My Life. Some women date bad men. Others date convicted murderers. This memoir offers one such case. Moderately well written but the writer’s profound lack of insight astounded me.
  13. Moxley, Mitch. Apologies to my Censor. The story of a Canadian reporter working abroad in China for three years. Seemed a bit self-indulgent. Also, it needed a way better editor.

What have been your favourite books of the year? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section, below. And congratulations to Gaye Lindfors, the winner of this month’s book prize, Make What You Say Pay by Ann Miller for a Nov. 22 comment on my blog. Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by Dec. 31/16 will be put in a draw for a copy of Fifteen Dogs, by Andre Alexis. To leave your own comment, please, scroll down to the section, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join the commenting software to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest.