best 5 -- no, 6! -- reads of 2012

This is in response to John Wiswell's post about forming a list of the best reads of 2012. I was going to stick to a nice round list of five, but of course thought of another one at the last minute. I'm putting this on a page so I can write it now, on 12 December, and not wind up with it buried in the blog history by 26 December. Fiction first, then non-fiction.

Fiction

Alice Hearts Welsh Zombies

I've been a fan of publisher The Workhorsery ever since I met them at a small publisher's book fair. We had a hilarious discussion about how more people might read Canadian literature if it didn't... well, suck. Fortunately for Canada, there's some brilliant genre and alternative fiction out there, and Alice Hearts Welsh Zombies ably demonstrates it's not all canoes and angst in CanLit. This is a fast-paced, hilarious, touching story with zombies. I gave it a full review on Goodreads right after I read it.

The Night Circus

I was put off The Night Circus for a long time, because "protracted battle between two magicians" didn't sound that enticing. It turns out I was denying myself the chance to read an absolutely exquisite story — I almost couldn't bear for it to end. Each chapter is like a perfect little jewel, as finely shaped as any of the many extraordinary objects within the story itself. When all is said and done, the novel is actually not quite about a "protracted battle between two magicians" — in fact, the only negative reviews I've read of it are from those who complain they were cheated out of their protracted battle. It would be a spoiler to say any more about the plot, though.

The novel is a masterpiece of showing over telling, and the created world is so gorgeous and immersive that I'm not surprised in the least that people have used it as inspiration for their weddings. Now I'm starting to wonder if I could plan a birthday around it. It's five months until my next one...

Hybrids

I read the first book in Robert J. Sawyer's Hominids trilogy a couple of years ago, but had a rotten time finding the other two books in the series — they were always sold out when I went to get them at bookstores. I finally found them at Word on the Street, with the added bonus that the author was on hand to sign them (so I have the whole triology autographed!). All of Sawyer's work is another (very big) example of how great non-canoe Canadian fiction can be, but this trilogy is the favourite thing I've read by him so far. (Disclaimer: I've liked everything else too — just this is the set of stories I refer back to the most.)

The Hominids trilogy is a great "gateway" set of novels for people who think they wouldn't like science fiction. In fact, the first person I recommended them to was someone who only reads SF occasionally, but who reads a lot of romance novels. The characters are well-drawn, the plot has lots of action with strong logic to back it up, and the themes will have you thinking about everything from genetics to international relations to environmentalism to the history of technology. And yes, the central love story is both compelling and incredibly thought-provoking. It probably helps that Sawyer's acknowledgements and references section at the back of the book is longer than those for a lot of non-fiction books, yet the story never feels dry or overly didactic.

The premise is that in a parallel reality, Neanderthals have become the dominant hominid species on Earth, while Homo sapiens have become extinct. A pair of Neanderthal scientists have an experiment with a quantum computer go wrong... and the consequence is that they accidentally create a portal to our reality.

Never mind the premise. Just read them.

The Yiddish Policemen's Union

My friend Howard recommended this book to me years ago, and somehow I never got around to it until I was browsing my local Book City one day, and not only did the in-stock copy get noticed, but it sort of told me to buy it. So I did, and was pleasantly surprised.

If you are a writer as well as a reader, this is the book you read if you want to see the difference Voice makes to telling a story. Because there is Voice, a noticeable voice, one that almost makes you sad that it is fictional and that the city of Sitka cannot be visited except in text.

This is another science fiction pick, an alternative history murder mystery, almost a sort of anti-Blade Runner in that it's a noir set in a 1980s that never was, in a mostly-frozen city that never existed. It made me want to weep for what could have been, and weep more for the story-past that never was, yet in the end I can't say it's a "downer" book. Ultimately I believe it has a happy ending; just not an unproblematic one.

Non-Fiction

The Brendan Voyage

My brothers and I were the kind of nerdy kids who fought over our parents' subscription copy of National Geographic the second it came through the mailbox. When we were younger we would just look at the photos and read the captions; we started reading the full articles when we were old enough. Ironically, the National Geographic Society got me into a lot of my favourite fiction literature, from the Archy & Mehitabel poems by Don Marquis (from a science article that was probably called something like "Our Friend the Cockroach") to Charles Dickens.

One of my favourite all-time articles was about the voyage of a leather-hulled boat, which was sailed from Ireland to Newfoundland to prove that the mythical voyage of St. Brendan may be based on fact. One of St. Brendan's (and the modern Brendan voyage's) stops was in Iceland, and since I'm going there next September, it reminded me — what happened with that Brendan scientific voyage in the 1970s?

Amongst other things, the leader of the voyage, Tim Severin, wrote a book about it. It's an amazing story, and well-told. What's extra-interesting in these times of Mythbusters and Shark Week is how quiet a story it is. The weekend I read the book ('cos I couldn't put it down), I left the TV off, didn't listen to the stereo, stayed off the computer. I just let myself be carried back to the second half of the 1970s, and then in turn to the end of the first millennium AD. With the passage of time the book has become a double lesson; I couldn't help but wonder if the Brendan sailed today if it would encounter any pack ice at all, compared to the summer of 1977 when the ice was a major problem.

The Vegetarian Myth

Even if you're a happy vegetarian and have absolutely no interest in living any other way, you might want to check out this book. The author, Lierre Keith, was a vegan for decades. It would take a long time to explain why she stopped, but she goes into it in detail in the book.

I'm embarrassed to say that a lot of what Keith writes about in this book are things that I knew intuitively as a child growing up in a family of enthusiastic gardeners, but forgot when I went to university and met my first militant vegetarians. Things like: yes, animals eat plants, but plants also eat animals in turn. Or that factory monocrops of wheat, corn, or what-have-you are at least as terrible for the environment and the food we eat as factory feedlots. Or that humanity has destroyed a lot of wildlife habitat through the draining of swamps and the razing of forests in order to grow crops for ourselves.

Some vegetarians will read this and say, "Yes, uh huh, nothing new here, I knew that," and go on as before. Others... will get some nasty surprises, and might read things that send them into deep shock, anger, or denial. The same could be said for omnivores who support all forms of factory farming as necessary. Nevertheless, Keith's book is comprehensive, and for the most part well-argued (I admit the nutrition part dragged for me, but that may be because I'd already read the same points elsewhere.) I'm not saying everyone should read it and agree with every word. But if you care about food, humanity, and the future of the planet, you could do worse than to read this book and just use it as an opportunity to re-examine where you stand on things. I know I've changed some of my eating and grocery-buying habits since reading it.