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December 17, 2019

2019 Books of the Year

I am officially over Books of the Year lists. Part of this is because last year I was charged with writing three of them, which kind of underlined the arbitrary nature of the exercise, and also because seeing the same titles listed over and over is decidedly boring, and undermines the value these lists might possibly have. And finally because I have so many different kinds of connections to the books I’ve read this year, and it’s these connections that matter to me more than any hierarchical ranking. (Also: what about all the Best Books I haven’t read yet?)

So it’s the connections that I’m celebrating in my year-end books list for 2019, not THE best books, as much as MY best books, which also function as a record of how I spent my year, literary and otherwise. It was a good one.

The Coven Books

My friend Jennifer Robson’s smash hit The Gown was the first book I read in 2019, and it set the standard high for my literary year. I was also happy to celebrate the June arrival of our pal Marissa Stapley’s latest, The Last Resort, and had the great pleasure of interviewing both authors at events this year.

The January Books

January is hard. These were the books that delivered some light in the darkest time of year.

The Big Book

Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club, was big, bold and brave, like nothing I’d ever read before (except for Megan Gail Coles’ 2014 short story collection, which I loved). That it ended up on the Giller Shortlist was one of my favourite literary stories of the year. Maybe not a book for everybody, but what a better world we’d live in if it was. I loved this book (and Coles on CBC Q was radio gold.)

The Madeleine L’Engle Reading Project

The most significant part of my literary year was a deep dive into Madeleine L’Engle’s non-Wrinkle bibliography. In February, I stumbled upon attractive new editions of her Austins series, which I’d read without focus when I was young, but encountering them again was such a revelation. I read all the Austin books (which are realism, in comparison to her Wrinkle series) and the O’Keefe series (which bridges the other two), and then The Small Rain, L’Engle’s first novel, because decades later she’d written a sequel to it, A Severed Wasp, whose characters include Suzy Austin as a grownup. (I also took A Severed Wasp tour of New York City in May.)

It was the best.

Read my blog posts about the reading project here.

The Blew-My-Mind Book

This book would come to mean a lot to me, my most recommended title of the year, I think. I’d already chosen three titles for Briny Books before I read Crow, but knew as soon as I finished it that Crow would have to be part of the mix.

If you haven’t read this book yet, you’re missing out. I loved it. Oh, that epilogue. Still not over it.

The Briny Books

For the first half of the year, Briny Books was my TOP SECRET PROJECT. I wanted to find a way to take my book reviews and recommendations further, to put excellent fiction directly into the hands of readers. Featuring these titles has been an absolute pleasure, and such a joy too to have such a fantastic reader response, that other people love these books as much as I do.

Learn more about Briny Books.

The Lived-Up-To-All-The-Hype Book

Alicia Elliott is a treasure, and her debut essay collection is as generous as it is brilliant. I loved this collection for its craft, its analysis, and wide-ranging ideas, as well as its honesty and candour. Essay at their finest, and deserving of all its praise and acclaim.

The Opposed-to-Boxes Book

You’ve never read a novel like Bina, even if you’ve read Malarky and Martin John, all part of Anakana Schofield’s literary universe. A novel whose structure is a series of warnings scrawled on the backs of envelopes, warnings which must be considered in their specificity. Schofield’s work is proof that fiction can innovate without alienating its readers.

The Book that Changed How I Live in the World

I’ve never looked at a tree the same way since reading Treed, by Ariel Gordon, and I look at trees all the time. A book that dares to make sense of complicated ideas—what it means that death and decay are natural, forests in the city, loving nature at a moment of climate crisis. To me, this book was like a balm.

The Book I Spent My Birthday With

I turned 40 in June, and spent the weekend on the beach and in a hammock reading this terrific book by Atkinson, who I always love, from the series that awakened my love of detective fiction. I loved it so much.

The Cottage Reads

Does it even count as a holiday unless you’ve managed to read a book a day? I don’t think so. Luckily, my cottage week in July did not disappoint. I finally read Pachinko, became a Sally Rooney devotee after finding Conversation With Friends a bit meh, and indulged in some old school Meg Wolitzer. It was perfect.

You can read my round-up here.

The Stole-My-Heart Book

Honestly, she came out of nowhere, the novel about a woman who is obsessed with 19th century literature, set at the West Edmonton Mall. An obvious set-up? Right. Ha ha, no—but it was perfect. I loved this book, and while I think that it is meant for a more specific kind of readership instead of readers in general, I can count myself and some of the best people I know in that circle.

The Covered in Bugs Book

I took this novel camping in August and wasn’t sure about it at first, but then it grew on me—and did it ever—I couldn’t stop reading… Reading with my flashlight in the tent after everybody had gone to sleep, which attracted all the midges that got stuck between the pages. The book is now absolutely and disgustingly covered in bugs, but I loved it, and I am also really proud of the review I wrote about it, which begins, “I had an oddly optimistic revelation about the world the other day…” I KNOW.

The Perfect Summer Day Book

Watermark, by Christy Ann Conlin, was already pretty special to me even before I held an impromptu literary salon in my living room to celebrate it (which was definitely my favourite literary event of 2019!!). I read it over the course of a weekend in August, on the beach, at the playground, walking to the bakery to buy provisions for friends imminent arrival for dinner. I was compelled by its momentum, and enjoyed it start to finish. So yes, then it was such a pleasure to get to celebrate it IRL!!

The Freaked Me Out Book

This was one of those books that kept creeping onto my radar—I think it was a recommendation by Mary Laura Philpott that finally did it, after seeing it mentioned elsewhere. A sci-fi book for those who don’t necessarily like sci-fi. Oh, and it was on a recommended summer reads shelf at Book City in the Beaches, which was where I finally bought it, and with the first few pages, I was gripped. One of the weirdest and best novels about parenthood I’ve ever read.

The Hard to Track Down Book

My second favourite thing (after waiting in long lines at the bookstore till) is when a book is sold out everywhere. It took me two weeks and multiple bookstores to finally track down a copy of Trick Mirror, and what a good thing then that the essay collection turned out to be everything I’d hoped it would be. So worth the trouble.

The Gripping Plot Book

I adore Lynn Coady’s work, so it was no surprise that I ended up loving her latest novel so much. As always with Coady, the actual surprise was in the wonderfully strange and unexpected direction she pushes her work in, in the way she insists on writing unexplored corners and resisting expectations of what a woman should be writing about, or (at least) coming at these ideas from an innovative angle.

The So-Glad-I-Read-it-Twice Book

I had the opportunity to read Rebecca Fisseha’s debut novel as a manuscript last spring, and then to come back to it again in the fall in preparation for her book launch, where I interviewed her. And I am so grateful for a reason to read Daughters of Silence again—it’s such a puzzle of a novel, and to read it for a second time was a fascinating process of discovery.

The Read-A-Thon Winner

One of the highlights of this year for me as a reader was the opportunity to take part of the Turning the Page on Cancer read-a-thon. With generous support, I helped to raise more than $1500 and got to read for eight straight hours (!!!). Fortunately for me, quite a few of those hours were spent on Cherie Dimaline’s Empire of Wild, which I loved so much. I couldn’t put it down because I really couldn’t (and that was fine).

The As-Good-As-I’d-Hoped Book

“Should I buy The Dutch House?” was an honest-to-goodness dilemma for me—because I like Patchett well enough, but am not a devotee, and wondered if I wanted to buy the book just because everybody else was. Would I be disappointed? Mercifully, I wasn’t. The Dutch House was a delight, worth every single penny, and I loved it.

The Should-Be-On-Your-Radar Book

I’m honestly kind of sorry on behalf of Canadian readers coast-to-coast that we weren’t having Five Wives, by Joan Thomas forced in front of our faces all the time, especially after it was awarded the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction. Because it’s so great and I didn’t read it for ages—but Stephen Henighan on Twitter singing its praises and Thomas’s interview at 49thShelf made me finally pick it up. Good thing too. It’s terrific.

The More-Than-a-Feat-of-Endurance Book

What’s that quote by some guy about why he climbed a mountain? “Because it was there.” No, that is not the reason you ought to read Lucy Ellmann’s Everest of a novel, which for me was a three month project. No, you ought to read it because it’s fascinating, an exercise in blurring the line between fiction and reality (not just in the way the book gets into your head), and the preposterousness of modern life and the impossibility (or not?) for literature/fiction to contain it.

The Only Booker Winner We Need

There are a number of contenders for the title of BOOK I CAN’T SHUT UP ABOUT this year, but I think Evaristo’s Booker-winning novel takes the cake. Another book that, like Ducks, opens up wide to contain so many many stories—but I read this one in two days. It was DELIGHTFUL. If you put this title at the top of your holiday reading list, I promise you won’t be sorry.

Bonus Book

And one more—I haven’t had a chance to write about this book yet, but Sheree Fitch’s You Won’t Always Be This Sad is one of the most remarkable titles I’ve read this year. And yes, it is sad—poet Fitch is writing about the recent death of her adult son—but Fitch’s gift has always been to explore all sides of things, and she shares that with us here—there is so much love, and even joy. This book is a revelation.

8 thoughts on “2019 Books of the Year”

  1. Ariel Gordon says:

    This is so great, Kerry! Happy bookmas!

    1. Kerry says:

      thank you for being such a great part of my literary year!!

  2. Rohan says:

    Wonderful list, Kerry: I love the connections you make between your reading and your (reading) life as much as your thoughtful observations about the books themselves. Here’s to an equally book-rich 2020!

    1. Kerry says:

      Thank you, Rohan! Really appreciate your support (and always love to read your own reviews).

  3. theresa says:

    This is a wonderful list. I’d missed your review of The Need, a book I put aside the other night after reading the first ten pages or so. I was alone in a dark house (in a dark wood!) and I couldn’t bear the thought of all the trunks around, lids creaking or maybe not.

    1. Kerry says:

      Oh, that opening was SO creepy. I don’t blame you for not reading it when alone in a dark house…

  4. An amazing literary year indeed! So grateful for your blog and your book recommendations, Kerry. Cheers to you.

    1. Kerry says:

      Thank you, Elizabeth!

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