Erin’s Favourite Books in 2014

It is mid-March now, so I know this is a little late, but I did not want to ruin Julia’s and my tradition to share our favourite books from the previous year. This is our third year in a row, and are our past favourites can be found here:

So in 2014 I was on maternity leave for 10 months of the year, so I was a little pre-occupied much of the time. However, I still managed to read 41 books! Many of them were YA fiction, because they were easier to follow on very little sleep and with constant interruptions. Here are the five that I enjoyed the most:

The-Testing-TrilogyThe Testing Trilogy by Joelle Charbonneau

For fans of The Hunger Games, I strongly recommend this trilogy. The story is set in a dystopian future after the world was basically destroyed and left a wasteland by a devastating world war. Each year 20 students are chosen to attend University to be the leaders of the future and help rebuild the world. To get to University, however, they must go through a testing process that is not what it seems – which is what the first book focuses on. The second two books follow the same group characters (at least those who made it) through University and real world placements – as well as their struggle to end the Testing. I thoroughly enjoyed the books; almost more than The Hunger Games!

 

The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison  The Bluest Eye

The Bluest Eye was Toni Morrison’s first novel about a young, black girl, Pecola Breedlove, who wishes for her eyes to turn blue so that she will be as beautiful as the blond, blue-eyed children in her town. Set in the 1940s in Ohio, Pecola’s life is far from easy – it is painful and devastating – even more difficult than that of most black children considering the prevalence of racism at that time. The story is about fear and loneliness and yearning to fit in. I found The Bluest Eye powerful, despite the sometimes disturbing content. It was one of those novels you think about for weeks after you finish.

Columbine by Dave Cullen

ColumbineI was in Grade 10 when the events at Columbine High School occurred, and the events of April 20, 1999 affected me profusely as a high school student and as one who was certainly not going to be voted most popular. There were many myths and untruths that were reported in the days, months and years after Columbine and many are still believed today by a significant portion of the population. Acknowledged as an “expert” on the Columbine events, Cullen speaks to almost everyone who had any involvement in that day – he talks to the untruths spread by the media, the real motivations of the two boys who carried out this horrific crime, and the aftermath on the town and school. I found this book to be incredibly insightful, objective and informative, as well as well written and engaging.

Ragged Company by Richard Wagamese

Ragged CompanyRagged company follows the lives of four chronically homeless people–Amelia One Sky, Timber, Double Dick and Digger. The foursome seek refuge in a warm movie theatre when a severe cold front hits their city and ultimately they fall in love with the movies. During one of their trips, they meet Granite, a lonely journalist who also uses movies as an escape, and begin an unlikely friendship. After finding a winning $13.5-million lottery ticket, it seems their fortunes have changed, however each struggles with their past, present and future in different ways.  The book is emotional – devastating and hopeful all at the same time. I loved that you learned the background of each character and how it affected their lives both past and present. The book touches on various social problems – homelessness, alcoholism, drug abuse, poverty – and sheds
some light on the many shades of gray involved. Nothing is
black and white.

Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum

Thsoe Who Save Us“For fifty years, Anna Schlemmer has refused to talk about her life in Germany during World War II. Her daughter, Trudy, was only three when she and her mother were liberated by an American soldier and went to live with him in Minnesota. Trudy’s sole evidence of the past is an old photograph: a family portrait showing Anna, Trudy, and a Nazi officer, the Obersturmfuhrer of Buchenwald. Driven by the guilt of her heritage, Trudy, now a professor of German history, begins investigating the past and finally unearths the dramatic and heartbreaking truth of her mother’s life” (from the back of the book). I really enjoy books set during World War 2 and find those set from the perspective of Germans very interesting – as I believe that we often forget they suffered too and that the majority                                                                   were not Nazis. This particular novel was well-written and                                                           focused on the things humans are willing to endure to                                                                   survive and the legacy those choices leave.

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Book of the month – When Everything Feels Like The Movies by Raziel Reid

It’s freezing February! Thankfully it’s almost over.

Canada Reads final 5

Let’s see… what’s happened lately? Well, we voted on our favourite books of 2014, so you can check that out.

We got super excited about To Kill a Mockingbird author Harper Lee releasing a new novel. 

Our Kindle lovers are pumped about Kindle Unlimited coming to Canada (this almost makes me want a Kindle… almost.

And that’s about it. Basically, we’re been freezing our butts off in Ottawa and dreaming of spring. Or just any temperature above -10 degrees Celsius.

I realize the month if almost over, but our February book (chosen by yours truly) is When Everything Feels Like The Movies by Canadian author Raziel Reid. The book won the young adult Governor General’s award for literature in 2014 and was just named one of CBC Canada Read’s 2015 books, to be defended by our friend at The Social Lainey Lui.

It’s short (170 pages) and super controversial because of its very graphic language. It’s based on a true story – here’s an excerpt from this National Post story describing the basis for Reid’s novel:

On February 11, 2008, a 15-year-old boy asked another boy to be his valentine. The next day his crush, 14-year-old Brandon McInerney, came to class and shot him, twice, in the head, at point blank range. Larry Fobes King started wearing make-up in the eighth grade. High heels, too. He never made it out of junior high. His killer graduated while in prison, where he is serving a 21-year sentence.

Yup, that actually happened. And that’s what Reid’s novel is based on. We should also mention that, at 24, he’s the youngest author ever to win a GG award, which is pretty cool. Sadly, there is a petition going around demanding for his award to be rescinded because some Canadian authors feel the novel’s content is inappropriate for the “children’s lit” audience. The Canada Council for the Arts has refused, predictably.

It’s a juicy one! Check back for the review in the coming month.

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Our favourite books in 2014

I can’t believe this is the third time I’ve done a post like this!

Year after year,  it’s so much fun to look back on the 12 books we read and choose our favourites. Unfortunately I only read half the books this year, but I did manage to read our #1 choice… and it was in my top five too!

  1. January 2014 – Dear Life – Alice Munro
  2. February 2014 – Annabel – Kathleen Winter
  3. March 2014 – Where’d You Go, Bernadette – Maria Semple
  4. April 2014 – Jitterbug Perfume – Tom Robbins
  5. May 2014 – Attachments – Rainbow Rowell
  6. June 2014 – A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby
  7. July 2014 – The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
  8. August 2014 – The Bell Jar by Sarah Plath
  9. September 2014 – The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
  10. October 2014 – In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
  11. November 2014 – The Plum Tree by Ellen Marie Wiseman
  12. December 2014 – The Best Plaid Plans by Terry Fallis

In 2012, we shared our top three books. In 2013, we shared our top 4 because of some ties. This year, we’re back with our top three, but it was a close one – #4 and #5 weren’t far behind!

1. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

Personally, I was obsessed with this book. It took you along for the ride as the protagonist spiraled into depression… or did she? It’s for you to decide!

2. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

I didn’t get the chance to read this one, but it’s super short and apparently similar to The Color Purple, which I loved, so I’ll definitely been tackling it soon. The girls raved about it!

3. A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby

Apparently the book is great and the movie is just so-so. The premise is neat – five people meet on a rooftop on New Year’s Eve, determined to commit suicide, but they talk each other out of it. The novel follows their lives after that night.

What were your favourite books in 2014?

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Julia’s favourite books in 2014

It’s become a tradition for Erin and I to share our favourite books from the previous year. In fact, this is the third year in a row we’re doing it!

In case you’re interested, here are our past favourites:

And of course, our whole book club votes on our collective favourites (2012 here and 2013 here) – that post is coming soon!

It was really hard for me choose my personal favourites this year, because I only read 17 books – many of them easy, fun reads. But there were five that stood out for me, better than the rest.

1. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

This is a young adult novel that has taken the world by storm, first with the roller coaster, heart-wrenching novel, and now with the feature film that largely has the same effect. This is the kind of story everyone should read – it stays with you, and makes you see things differently. I’ll never forget my husband finding me bawling my eyes out in the bathtub as I whizzed through the last 10 pages. It was so worth it!

2. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

All the UBC girls can attest I was mildly obsessed with this one! For whatever reason, I was fascinated by Sylvia Plath, her life and her suicide, researching it while I was reading her novel (which is largely auto-biographical, although not officially). I found many parallels to Margaret Atwood’s The Edible Woman, which I loved. I even watched the movie, Sylvia, with Daniel Craig and Gwyneth Paltrow (but it wasn’t very good).

3. The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer

This is going back quite a ways. The Interestings was our December 2013 books, but I finished it in January 2014 and that’s why it’s on this list. This book, for me, was akin to Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, our third book ever. It was very long, very detailed, but the best thing the books had in common was the character development. Both authors masterfully create characters you know inside-out and backwards.  It’s a real art, and I loved it.

4. Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

I know Rainbow Rowell doesn’t claim to be any sort of literary genius, but this adorable little love story had me on the edge of my seat the whole time! I thought Attachments was cute and entertaining, so I picked this one up, and it was even better. Didn’t love the ending, but I didn’t like the ending in Attachments either.

5. The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith (J. K. Rowling)

Yes, like most of us, I’m a huge Harry Potter fan, and I am one of the few that LOVED (all caps) The Casual Vacancy, so I was really excited for this one. A little predictable, but super entertaining, I really enjoyed it. I heard it’s the first in a series now, and I’m not positive I’ll read the rest, but this was definite off the beaten path for me and I’m glad I read it.

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Book of the month – A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews

All sorts of interesting things today!

First of all, happy new year! You’re all probably setting our annual reading challenges over on Goodreads, like many of us are. I was a colossal failure in 2014, only reading five UBC books (ugh) and 17 books in total. #fail

Hopefully you did better than I did! Here’s to raising the bar in 2015.

Sooo… since our last update, you will know we were on the BBC’s World Book Club taking about The Dinner with author Herman Koch! That was cool.

We had Book Club Christmas Party (complete with our annual gift exchange) and it was epic, as always. A highlight – collectively singing The Twelve Days of Christmas and wearing moustaches.

Book Club Christmas Party

Sarah found this cool list of non-book gifts for book lovers... did any of you get or give any of that stuff? I still very badly want a set of these book bed sheets.

These 51 beautiful sentences from literature warmed my heart over the holidays. I know they say a picture says a thousand words, but some of these quotes make me think just a few words can say a thousand things.

We were all SUPER excited that the CBC’s Book of Negroes mini-series began. Have any of you watched it? I haven’t yet, but heard it’s amazing!

Could this be any more appropriate? 15 literary quotes to start the new year off right. My personal favourite:

“Isn’t it nice to think that tomorrow is a new day with no mistakes in it yet?”
― L.M. Montgomery

So there’s this guy who took a photo every time he saw someone reading on the subway. Mostly because he thinks books are going extinct. It’s pretty cool! I love that one guy is reading The Elements of Style. Classic.

BuzzFeed does it again with this book store engagement. So cute!

And most recently, Alex shared these amazing libraries from around the world. Looks like France has some of the best ones!

Right. So those were the cool and interesting book-related links since, ohh, the end of November. On to the business of the day – our first book of 2015!

Erin chose this month’s book, and since she’s a founding member, it’s her fourth time picking! She chose A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews, a very famous and renowned Canadian author. When it was published in 2004, it won the Governor General’s Award and was shortlisted for the Giller Prize. In 2006, it also won CBC’s Canada Reads! Sooo basically it’s a rockstar of a book and we’re definitely (surely) going to love it.

Happy New Year to all the book lovers out there!

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Book of the month – The Best Laid Plans by Terry Fallis

Merry Christmas from the UBC girls!

bookchristmasfeature1

Our December book is The Best Laid Plans by Terry Fallis.

Happy New Year!

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Our appearance on the BBC’s World Book Club!

Just about a year after we appeared on CTV’s The Social as the show’s book club expert, we were on the BBC!

Earlier this month, BBC World Service released its World Book Club episode on Herman Koch, author of The Dinner (which we read in August 2013). I was invited to participate in the episode and ask Koch a few questions.

You can hear my part at the 36:00-minute mark, but if you’ve read The Dinner, the whole show is terrific to listen to. I won’t spoil it, but the question I ask (on behalf of the UBC) is pretty controversial… and get a surprising reaction!

Click the link below to listen.

BBC World Service – World Book Club, Herman Koch, November 2014

Host Harriet GIlbert & author Herman Koch

The show was actually recorded in July, and I participated by phone from Calgary, where I was visiting friends and taking in the Calgary Stampede for the first time. It was a really cool experience to participate in an international show with such a massive following.

Big thanks to the BBC World Book Club for having us, and thanks to Herman Koch for writing such a great book to discuss!

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Book of the month – The Plum Tree by Ellen Marie Wiseman

Winter has arrived in Ottawa!

First things first – the Giller Prize winner! Sean Michaels won for his novel Us Conductors. It’s based on the life of Lev Thermen, the Russian-born inventor of the Theremin, which is a musical instrument I have never heard of. The novel flips back and forth between Stalinist Russia and 1920s New York.

I am extremely jealous of my dad, who was invited to a Giller Prize event recently and was given a copy of every book on the shortlist! He’s sailing around the Caribbean right now reading them and appropriately, he started with Us Conductors.

What’s happened since my last post? Well, Yael made us all melt at our last meeting with these cinnamon rolls. We devoured every last one. I ate two.

Miranda shared this awesome BuzzFeed list on the importance of reading. Gotta love it.

Our annual Book Club Christmas Party is coming up at the very end of November and Yvonne is hosting this year. She declared the dress code to be “All That Glitters”. Personally, I cannot freakin’ wait.

One reason to be excited for Valentine’s Day this year is the 50 Shades of Grey movie premiere. Talk about an interesting date night. Anyway, I am LOVING the Beyonce soundtrack. Excellent choice.

And that was our month! Kristy chose our November book – The Plum Tree by Ellen Marie Wiseman. It’s a World War II love story. Pretty fitting for November given Remembrance Day.

Have a cozy November!

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October Book Review – In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

Like Yael, my month of hosting/book-choosing coincidentally fell on my one year anniversary in the Unputdownable Book Club. This felt really special; my life has been greatly enriched by this group of women (and their vast literary and culinary selections) over the past year. Even though I was not able to host in my own home, I borrowed my parents’ living room for the evening, which felt cozy and sophisticated. We even had a champagne toast to celebrate the UBC’s 4th anniversary!

And nobody spilled anything!

And nobody spilled anything!

I had trouble choosing this month’s book, so I provided three options (which, coincidentally, were all non-fiction novels), and the girls voted to read In Cold Blood. As it turns out, it was a perfect choice for October: a book about murders to be read right around the creepiest time of year – Halloween!

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When the film “Capote” came out in 2005, I watched it with my dad, who had read In Cold Blood as a weekly serial in the newspaper back in the 60s. The movie is all about Truman Capote’s research and writing process of this book. It also has incredible acting (Philip Seymour Hoffman won an Oscar for best actor), and is quite captivating, whether you’ve read the book or not. I had never even heard of the book when I watched it. Ever since watching that film, though, I’ve wanted to read it.

I watched it again last week, but after reading the book this time. I recommended to all the girls that they do the same – and many did. I think it greatly enhanced our discussion!

Capote_Poster

Now, to discuss the book.

To summarize, in 1959 in Holcomb, Kansas, a well-respected family (Herb, Bonnie, Nancy, and Kenyon Clutter) was brutally murdered in their home. Their seemed to be no motive and very few clues apparent. Truman Capote (with help from Harper Lee) writes about these murders, the town’s reactions, the investigative process and hunt for the killers, the killers’ backgrounds and lives, and their 5-year-long process from trials, appeals, to eventual executions.

The murdered Clutters

The murdered Clutters

I think it’s important to note, again, that this is a work of non-fiction. It is not a murder mystery, nor is it intended to be, so don’t start the book hoping for a suspenseful thriller. Some of the UBC members were a bit disappointed that it wasn’t more exciting. The outcome of the story is commonly known, so the point of reading this book is not to be surprised, but rather, to better understand what happened. This was also the first book of its kind, so would have been an extremely progressive piece of literature back in 1966.

I think that what one can expect when reading this book is this: a beautifully-written, detailed account of the nature of Holcomb, the murdered Clutter family, and the murderers Dick Hickock and especially Perry Smith. Readers will learn about the histories of these two men, and what led them to committing these atrocious acts. Personally, I am fascinated by the idea of psychopaths – I want to know how someone ends up that way and what goes through their minds. Capote achieves this by helping readers sympathize with these men, and giving us quite the impression of the kinds of lives that Dick and Perry led.

Pictured left: Dick Hickock Pictured right: Perry Smith

Pictured left: Dick Hickock
Pictured right: Perry Smith

Some of the common complaints about this book in our discussion had to do with the sheer amount of detail that was included. It tended to get a bit confusing, even boring at times, since so much of the detail was not entirely relevant to the story – at least not in an obvious way. I am sure that Capote would argue that every detail was relevant in providing context. Apparently Capote and Lee wrote 8,000 pages of notes of research for this book. It took him 6 years to write it. No wonder it was so full of detail!

Overall, most of the book club rated it quite highly. The ratings ranged from 3.5 to 4.5 (out of 5). It did seem to be a struggle for many of our members to actually finish the book, though. Make sure you leave yourself enough time to read it, since it is not an easy read. I wouldn’t say it’s the kind of book you can sit down and read front-to-back in a weekend. However, despite the difficulty finishing it on time, most of the girls said they wanted to go on to finish it, and that they thought it was a really good pick. I have to agree. I loved the book, though admittedly it wasn’t easy, and it sparked lots of really good discussion.

If your book club wants to read it, recommend watching “Capote” as well! It really added to the context and to our debates.

Possible discussion questions for In Cold Blood:

– Does either Dick or Perry seem like a psychopath to you? Why or why not?

– How does Capote insert himself into the book while still remaining invisible to the reader?

– Did both Dick and Perry deserve the death penalty?

-Did you ever sympathize with the killers?

– How does Capote create suspense when the reader already likely knows the outcome of the story?

– Is this a work of journalism?

If you’ve also watched the film:

– Is Capote’s special relationship with Perry obvious when reading the book?

– Do you think that Capote was in love with Perry, or just fascinated by him?

-Was Capote against the death penalty in general, or was he just trying to delay the executions to give himself more time to gather information in order to finish his book?

-Why do you think that this is the last book that Capote ever published?

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September book review – The Ocean at the End of the Lane

If I had to describe The Ocean at the End of the Lane in one word, it would be unexpected.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

When picking our book for last month, what pulled us in to this one was the length (only 178 pages), the movie poster-esque cover, the fact that it was Goodreads’ choice 2013 winner, and the cliffhanger back-of-the-book description of an unremembered past that was “too strange, too frightening, too dangerous to have happened to anyone, let alone a small boy”. I think we all assumed that this unremembered past was going to involve a horrendous crime of some sort, however, this is where the book takes an unexpected turn into the fantasy world of Neil Gaiman’s imagination, filled with fleas, varmints, un-aging neighbours, fields of kittens, and oceans at the end of laneways.

A brief summary of the book: the main character is a middle-aged man who returns to his home in rural England to attend a funeral. While home, he ventures from his house down to the end of the lane where his friend Lettie Hempstock and her family used to live. This is when his memories begin flooding back and we are taken on a trip into a world of vivid fantasy. I don’t want to give too much away in this review, as the unexpectedness of the book is what made me really like it so much, and I wouldn’t want to deny discovering this world the way Gaiman intends to someone first reading the book. Also, I’m not sure you’d even believe me if I tried!

A book such as this one had the UBC members torn – our ratings ranged from high 4s to low 2s. What we did mostly all agree upon was the great use of imagery and descriptions Gaiman uses to aid your imagination in visualizing things we have never laid eyes on before. We also really enjoyed how he was able to write remarkably well from a child’s perspective, capturing the innocence of childhood and its many stark distinctions from adulthood. And I think we were all united in our hatred for Ursula Monkton, the book’s evil antagonist flea.

Personally, I rather enjoyed how Gaiman created this imaginary world and seemingly did not feel the need to justify it to the readers. He talks about things like “hunger birds” and “snipping and stitching” like they are everyday occurrences, and the reader is left to decide for his or herself what exactly is transpiring. It made things seem somewhat more real, if that’s even possible.

I also enjoyed how the book made me reflect on my own childhood memories and how there is so much that I have experienced yet can’t explicitly remember. I think that’s why, although fantasy based, this book is written for adults – because you need to read it from an adult perspective, with adult experience. In other words, you must be adult enough to miss childhood.

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