Books of the year

My favourite books of 2012

Books-of-the-yearAs the year draws to a close, it’s time to choose my favourite reads of 2012.

Until I sat down to do this task, I would have described the past 12 months as a fairly average reading year.  I read a lot of books I awarded four stars and several that I thought worthy of five stars, but there were few that really stood out in the memory. And yet, when I went back through my archives, I recalled so many fabulous books that I began to find it hard to narrow it down to just 10 titles.

Without further ado, here’s what made the cut. The books have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s surname. Hyperlinks take you to my original review.

Pilgrimage

The Pilgrimage by John Broderick (1961)

I loved this book for its insights into human nature, its political and social commentary, its spotlight on hypocrisy in the Church and people’s spiritual obsessions — all told in such a simple, crisp prose style and at a surprisingly gripping pace.

Plainsong-original

Plainsong by Kent Haruf (2001)

Plainsong is a beautiful, sincere story about real people with complicated, messy lives — and I loved every single carefully chosen word of it.

Gillespie-and-I

Gillespie and I by Jane Harris (2011)

I can’t remember the last time I had so much fun reading a novel. It transports you into a strange world of art, deception, troubled families, disturbed children, grumpy housemaids and caged greenfinches, and then takes you on a rollicking good ride that you don’t want to end.

Devil_I_Know

The Devil I Know by Claire Kilroy (2012)

The Devil I Know, came out in the summer and I greedily gulped it down in a matter of days. It is an extraordinarily funny satire about the recent collapse of the Irish economy — and certainly the best Irish book I read all year.


Colour-of-milk

The Colour of Milk by Nell Leyshon (2012)

The Colour of Milk is a truly compelling book because Mary’s voice is so urgent and authentic. And the ending, which is shocking, unexpected and heart-breaking, is the kind that makes you gasp out loud — and then you want to have a big sob.


Fly-away-peter

Fly Away Peter by David Malouf (1999)

This is a truly beautiful and devastating story set before and during the Great War. I read it in two sittings and felt stunned by the sheer power and emotion that Malouf wrings from just 144 pages of eloquently written prose.


The_Lighthouse

The Lighthouse by Alison Moore (2012)

I loved that from such a tiny package — the book is less than 200 pages and can be comfortably read in a handful of sittings — Moore has crafted a delightful, tightly crafted and incredibly suspenseful story.


Everybody_has_everything

Everybody Has Everything by Katrina Onstad (2012)

It is so filled with home truths — about relationships, friends, family and society — that if you don’t recognise yourself within these pages you will see someone else you know, perhaps a friend, a sibling or work colleague.


Imposter-bridge

The Imposter Bride
by Nancy Richler (2012)

I loved the detailed world that Richler creates here — her characters are wonderfully alive, flawed and judgemental, but also hard-working, determined and independent. Her prose style is clean and elegant, and she has a terrific ear for dialogue so it feels like you are eavesdropping on real-life conversations.


Heaven-and-hell

Heaven and Hell by Jón Kalman Stefánsson (2011)

Heaven and Hell is a powerful story about friendship, redemption, despair and the ocean. It was an unexpected delight to read it and certainly the most enchanting book I have read this year. It deserves a wide audience.

Have you read any from this list? Or has it encouraged you to try one or two? Care to share your own top 10?

5 books, Book lists

5 books on the 2012 Giller Prize shortlist

5-books-200pixNext Monday the winner of the 2012 Giller Prize will be announced. As most of you will know, I’ve spent the past month working my way through the shortlist and reviewing each book as I go as part of the Shadow Giller chaired by KevinfromCanada.

In the next day or so we will name the book we think should win in advance of the real winner — do keep your eye on Kevin’s blog for our announcement.

In the meantime, here’s a rundown of the books in alphabetical order according to author’s surname. I’ve included a short extract from my review. Hyperlinks take you to my complete review.


419419′ by Will Ferguson

For me, the best kind of literature is the kind that makes you look at something afresh or takes you to a location (or time in history) that you would never normally visit. Will Ferguson’s 419 is that kind of literature. In short, it is about a Canadian man who gets stung by a Nigerian email scam, but it is also about the cultural and financial disparity between Africa and the West. It is a heady mix of adventure story, crime fiction and global thriller — albeit with a distinctive 21st century twist.


Inside_UK_editionInside’ by Alix Ohlin

Inside is about four characters — Grace, Mitch, Tug and Annie — whose stories are told in interleaved and interconnected narrative threads. Grace, a therapist, is the lynch pin of the novel, because she is divorced from Mitch (who is also a therapist), and Tug is the man she accidentally saves from suicide (I’ll return to this in a bit), while Annie is one of her troubled teenage patients, who ends up running away to begin life as an actor, first on the stage in New York, then later in a television series filmed in Los Angeles.


Ru_UK_edition‘Ru’ by Kim Thúy

Ru is an elegantly written tale about a woman who emigrates to Canada from Vietnam as a boat person. The narrator, Nguyên An Tinh, was born during the Tet Offensive, in the early days of the Year of the Monkey. The book reads very much like a fictionalised memoir, but it doesn’t follow the normal conventions,  particularly in terms of structure and narrative. In some ways it feels like a long poem, broken into extended stanzas (short chapters), in which the narrator recalls certain incidences from her life, and the lives of her parents, cousins and other relations, in non-chronological order.


Imposter-bridge
The Imposter Bride’ by Nancy Richler

Nancy Richler’s The Imposter Bride is set in post-war Montreal and tells the story of a Jewish refugee and the daughter she abandoned a few months after her birth. The narrative, which spans more than 50 years, is told in alternate third-person and first-person chapters. The third-person element tells Lily’s side of the story but covers the short period between her arrival in Canada and her disappearance. The first-person element is from her daughter Ruth’s perspective, told as an elderly woman looking back on her life, so that we see her grow from a young girl to a married woman with three children of her own. During this time, the only connection she has with her mother is a series of rocks sent to her anonymously during her childhood, the first of which arrives on her sixth birthday and is accompanied by a note stating: “South shore of Gem Lake, Manitboa, 08:45, Apil 12th, 1953, clear, 31 degrees F, light wind.”


Whirl_awayWhirl Away’ by Russell Wangersky

Each story in Whirl Away is an ideal bite-sized read, perfect if you want something to devour in your lunch hour or during a short journey by public transport. But Wangersky adopts a similar tone and prose style in each story, so there’s only the subject matter to differentiate them. When he writes in the first person, all the characters sound the same. He is much better in the third person. And he’s a master at catching the reader’s attention, either by throwing a curve ball in the form of something completely unexpected — usually towards the end of the story — or by making his characters, many of whom are curiously self-deluded, behave in such a way that they continue to live on in your head long after you’ve reached the conclusion…

Would you like to hazard a guess as to which book will win the real prize and which will win the shadow prize?

Author, Book review, Canada, Fiction, HarperCollins Canada, historical fiction, literary fiction, Nancy Richler, Publisher, Setting

‘The Imposter Bride’ by Nancy Richler

Imposter-bridge

Fiction – hardcover; Harper Collins Canada; 352 pages; 2012.

Nancy Richler’s The Imposter Bride is set in post-war Montreal and tells the story of a Jewish refugee and the daughter she abandoned a few months after her birth.

A Polish refugee

Lily Azerov is Polish and has no living relatives. She hopes to start a new life in Canada, where she is due to marry a man with whom she has been corresponding for some time. But when Sol Kramer sees her step off the train, he rejects her as “damaged goods”.

All, however, is not lost. Sol’s younger brother, Nathan, marries her instead, and the couple set up home with Nathan’s widowed mother, Bella.

But Lily, presumably grief-stricken by the loss of so many family members in the Second World War, cannot really function properly and holes herself up in her room, too miserable and depressed to talk to anyone. When she gives birth to the couple’s first child, a daughter called Ruth, things do not get any easier, and one day, under the pretense of going out to buy a quart of milk, she never returns.

This sets up the premise for a multi-layered, finely crafted novel about the ways in which these two women’s lives are forever bound to one another, and how one decision — to walk out on someone you love — can have a lifetime’s worth of repercussions.

A stolen identity

But there’s much more to this tale than initially meets the eye. Lily is not really Lily. She has taken the identity of a woman, whose body she found in a Polish village in 1944. Her one mistake is not simply to take the woman’s identity card, her diary, some items of clothing and a rough, uncut diamond, but to make contact with the woman’s cousin, Sonya, in Palestine (presumably to gain some information about the family in order to make her new identity fit better).

The cousin’s suspicions are raised immediately, but she agrees not to expose “Lily” and helps arrange her marriage in Canada. Sonya writes to her relatives in Montreal — Ida Pearl, a jewellery shop owner, and her teenage daughter, Elka — and tells them: “The lucky bridegroom’s name is Kramer. Go to her wedding and weep.”

They do — and promptly become entwined in the lives of the Kramers. Indeed, Elka eventually marries Sol and becomes Lily’s sister-in-law. But this sets into  play an element of danger — now that Ida and Elka know that Lily is an imposter, will they expose her secret to the world?

Dual narrative

The narrative, which spans more than 50 years, is told in alternate third-person and first-person chapters.

The third-person element tells Lily’s side of the story but covers the short period between her arrival in Canada and her disappearance.

The first-person element is from her daughter Ruth’s perspective, told as an elderly woman looking back on her life, so that we see her grow from a young girl to a married woman with three children of her own. During this time, the only connection she has with her mother is a series of rocks sent to her anonymously during her childhood, the first of which arrives on her sixth birthday and is accompanied by a note stating: “South shore of Gem Lake, Manitboa, 08:45, Apil 12th, 1953, clear, 31 degrees F, light wind.”

A story about family

There are lots of strands to this novel, which explores in great depth the outfall of Lily’s disappearance on her new family, including her husband, mother-in-law, sister-in-law and even Ida Pearl, all of whom gather round Ruth and bring her up surrounded by love and support.

This is a story about a family — and its secrets  — but it is also about grief and loss and the long-lasting psychological impact of the Second World War on ordinary people.

I loved the detailed world that Richler creates here — her characters are wonderfully alive, flawed and judgemental, but also hard-working, determined and independent. Her prose style is clean and elegant, and she has a terrific ear for dialogue so it feels like you are eavesdropping on real-life conversations.

But what I liked most, apart from the polished perfection of the plot and the seamlessly intertwined narrative threads, is her ability to make you empathise with everyone without turning The Imposter Bride into a sentimental, saccharine tale. Towards the end Richler deftly juggles a high-wire act that could have gone either way, but she pulls it off with aplomb and I was left with the lump the size of a golf ball in my throat.

While the world’s bookshelves are already groaning under the weight of countless books about Jewish immigrants, this one isn’t your usual run-of-the-mill story. It brims with dark secrets and hidden pasts, but above all it is about survival, hope, love and acceptance, and I would be very happy to see this one take the 2012 Giller Prize when it is announced next week — that’s if Will Ferguson’s 419 doesn’t get there first.