Best Fiction of 2017

Last year, I managed to read 111 books. It was actually closer to 120 but there were a few I didn’t include on my big list, either for personal reasons (self-help or psychology books), or because I bailed less than halfway through. But I wanted to take a look back at my favourite titles and compile a Top 10. So here are my 10 favourite fiction books from 2017…

1. The Lonely Hearts Hotel
Heather O’Neill
This was perhaps the most breathtaking book I’ve read all year. It had gangsters, nightclubs, masochistic nuns, millionaires, twists of fate, junkies, rollerskating, imaginary bears, bejeweled apples, a pair of young star-crossed lovers and… clowns. A dark, gritty story about a pair of children who meet in an orphanage and discover they have special talents, who are then parted and have to find each other again. O’Neill’s descriptions are gorgeously vivid, her metaphors like bits of poetry. Her female protagonist Rose kicks ass throughout the whole story, and I love that O’Neill has made her so strong, such a great survivor. I so want to see this made into a film.

2. The Napoli Novels
Elena Ferrante
Counting these (as one entry) because I read 2 of the 4 in 2017. They’re fighting with The Lonely Hearts Hotel for 1st place, honestly. 
Read full review.

3. Men Walking On Water
Emily Schulz
An exquisitely woven story about Detroit-Windsor rumrunners near the end of prohibition. Schulz offers robust character development, a logical yet intricate plot, and a well-written, well-researched novel. Great flow makes it a quick read, even at over 500 pages.

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The Long Road to the Pot of Gold

When I came up with the idea to write a book about the Halifax Explosion, back in 2004, I didn’t think it would be a 13-year journey. The bulk of the writing was done in ’04-’05, but just as I was getting ready to send the manuscript out to agents, I took a header on the front walk and ended up with a broken arm. By the time I had healed I was working on two different food-writing gigs and so set the MS aside. I had been advised by a friend within the publishing industry to get my name out there by doing some other writing, that it would be an encouragement to potential publishers, so I did that.

Fast forward to 2014 or so, and after writing a different book, editing a collection of other people’s writing, and generally writing about the Toronto food scene for a decade, I thought it might be time to dust off Pot of Gold. I had always thought to publish it closer to the 100th anniversary of the Halifax Explosion, which is an anchoring event within the plot, and so, after a few more drafts (making the final version maybe the 10th draft overall) I sent it out into the world. 

Except the timing of the mainstream publishing industry is slow like a molasses-covered turtle, and with each agent taking months to reply/reject, by the beginning of 2017, I realized that it wouldn’t get published in time unless I did it myself. Which is never ideal because there’s no promotion, it’s not on store shelves… but the explosion is such a major part of the book — even though the bulk of the story is set more than a decade later — and I really want to acknowledge what was, for me, a big part of my childhood, and something that I think every Haligonian has as part of their own family history in some way. So even if I don’t sell a single copy, at least I know I did it and that it’s out there, as my tribute to the city I grew up in and the people who lived and died during this devastating event.

Over the years I have read every single book published about the explosion, it’s a topic of fascination still. There are a number of non-fiction works that delve into minute detail of the events of December 6th, and in recent years the number of fiction titles has grown as well, adding different voices and points of view to the two “classic” (tired, cliched, misogynistic) titles that for years were the only works of fiction about the subject.

I hope that, some day, Pot of Gold stands proudly with those other works as yet another voice, another point of view, about the horrific events that destroyed the lives of so many innocent people.

To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Halifax Explosion, I have included the relevant chapter here for free. While the rest of the novel takes place between 1929 and 1945, the prologue and the explosion establish the characters, their relationships, and many aspects of their lives.

Please visit the Pot of Gold book page to read the prologue.

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Book Review – The Theoretical Foot

The Theoretical Foot
M.F.K. Fisher

So when an unpublished book by your favourite writer ever is discovered and published, you’re kind of excited, right? When I finally got my hands on a copy of M.F.K. Fisher’s The Theoretical Foot, I was almost shaking with anticipation. And then…

There’s a reason why Fisher’s novel was never published in her lifetime, A few in fact. First was that she based all the characters on real people (it’s quite close to being autobiographical), and people featured in the book found it to be mean-spirited and harsh. Second was that, sadly, it’s just not very good.

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Book Review – 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl

fatgirl13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl
Mona Awad

It’s not easy being a fat girl. It’s hard to find clothes, airplane seats and uncomfortable and everybody seems to have an opinion on your girth. Especially yourself.

Mona Awad’s 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl is a collection of 13 short stories presented as a novel (the title and format cribbed from Wallace Stevens’ 13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird), telling the story of Lizzie/Beth/Elizabeth from her teenage years to adulthood and her ongoing struggle with her weight.

Each story explores Lizzie’s self-loathing at her body, mostly from her own first person point of view, but occasionally as viewed by someone else in her life. These stories are dark, and not just because the character is part of Toronto’s Goth scene in the earlier part of the book (Awad actually places her characters at a Goth concert that I promoted in 1997, leading me to believe that at least some of the material is auto-biographical, because I distinctly remember the two girls she bases Lizzie and her friend Mel, on)… Awad seems to find the worst traits of her characters and magnifies them to make nobody, least of all Lizzie, sympathetic.

As she matures and loses weight, Lizzie renames Beth, then Elizabeth. She struggles to stay thin, to the detriment of many relationships, and her personal style changes from Goth to something more indie and then finally to someone who shows up to work BBQs in too-tight designer dresses. She counts every calorie eaten and burned and begins to realize that it won’t actually change much.

While I found Awad’s writing sumptuously beautiful – gal can turn a phrase like nobody’s business – I wanted a better ending than what she gave readers. Of course, life seldom has perfect storybook endings, and in that respect, Awad is far more honest about her subject than many. But like so many other reviewers, I wanted some form of redemption for Lizzie – some self-acceptance or self-compassion, a way of using the death of her mother as a catalyst for positive change instead of just becoming the living embodiment of her. But by the end, Lizzie is still drowning in her loathing – both of herself and of other women, and you just want to find her and give her a hug and maybe some cheese.

13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl is a very concise picture of how western society views women’s bodies, what we all do to win approval for how we look – especially from men, and the attitudes we develop when we care too much about appearances. The cover wittily shows the word “fat” as partially erased, reflecting how Lizzie has erased her personality along with her body fat. Almost every other review I’ve come across mentions how Lizzie is such a terrible person for the things she does and how she treats people, and how she lets herself be treated, and I think that’s a concise assessment.

If losing weight and staying thin means counting every calorie and fighting over gym equipment and generally being miserable, then finding some way to love yourself, stretch marks and all, seems like a much better goal for the fat girls of the world.

This is an important work, one that all women, of all sizes, should read. But the moral taken away should really be one of love yourself, love your life, accept who you are, and stop fucking trying so hard, it’s not worth it.

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Book Review – Four Great Books About Strong, Amazing Women

lilacgirlsNot by design, my fiction selections recently have all been about strong, amazing women, and have all been written by women. This is the general inclination of my taste in fiction anyway (more Colette, less Hemingway), but there seems to be a general consensus in the mainstream that there just aren’t great stories about strong women out there. I think that’s an incorrect assumption. There might not be as many stories with female protagonists as there are male, but there is some great fiction available featuring fabulous gals doing memorable things.

Lilac Girls
Martha Hall Kelly

What do a New York socialite, a Polish underground resistance fighter and a Nazi doctor all have in common? Not much, actually, but in Martha Hall Kelly’s Lilac Girls their stories weave together through the time period of WW2 and the following decades. Polish teenager Kasia is sent to the all-female concentration camp Ravensbruck where Herta, a young German doctor, takes part in experiments on Kasia and her sister. Years later the sisters are helped by socialite Caroline to receive medical treatment to fix the damage done by the Nazi testing, as well as to track down Herta to ensure she can no longer practice medicine.

The strongest of the stories here, and the most heart-wrenching is Kasia’s, based on the true story of Nina Ivanska, which details the treatment of the camp prisoners, including the tests done on the “rabbits” of Ravensbruck. The guilt she feels at causing her sister, mother and some neighbours to also be picked up in the sweeps of Polish resistance fighters plagues her long after she is free from the torture of the camp. I felt that Herta was not explored in as much detail as she could have been, and there are whole periods where we do not hear from her (such as her time in jail, trial at Nuremberg, etc) that might have, if not made her more sympathetic, at least been a window into what she felt, or was thinking, during the tests she did on innocent women. We get her emotions and thoughts when she first arrives at the camp, and when she is fleeing from the allies, but not much to help us understand the why of her actions during the tests.

As Caroline doesn’t interact with Kasia until decades after the war, Kelly has given Caroline a fictional storyline to interweave her plot with the other main characters. While this love story would be a great novel on its own, it felt distracting interspersed with what was going on with the other characters.

Overall, though, a truly interesting story that had me searching the internet for more information about the Ravensbruck rabbits and how they recovered from their atrocious treatment.

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