Edmonton Journal staff pick favourite books of the year


Edmonton Journal staff pick favourite books of the year

Alice Munro at the International Festival of Authors in Toronto in October 2009. The short story writer just won the Nobel Prize for Literature.


Every year, we ask Journal writers and editors to share the books that moved them the most in the previous 12 months.

They don’t have to be new books, although many were published in 2013. The choices include fiction and non-fiction, humour, thrillers, biographies and short story collections. Here are their recommendations:

The Fault in Our Stars

John Green

A young adult book for all ages, one that doesn’t talk down to its readers, The Fault in Our Stars by John Green is moving, extraordinary and beautiful. The book follows a teenage cancer patient, sharing her adventures, her first love and dreams. You’ll laugh and probably cry, and this book will stay with you long after you are finished its pages. The movie comes out in 2014, so read the book before it hits theatres.

— Brittney Le Blanc

One Summer: America 1927

Bill Bryson

Bryson’s focused encyclopedia is centred halfway through Prohibition, just a few years after the current season of Boardwalk Empire, and the book mimics the HBO opus in its magnetic character-flipping. We conquer the skies with pioneer aviator Charles Lindbergh, the taciturn first human to be in New York one day, Paris the next; roll around with Babe Ruth’s indiscriminate sexual conquests and soar with his home-run streak; shiver as a quartet of aloof money men light the long fuse of the Great Depression; observe President Calvin Coolidge’s naps and hypochondria. But the book’s focus point is the birth of a certain sort of focus itself. Bryson picked this year as an unofficial dawn of modern mass communication and global superstars, a time when murder led to pulp novels and Hollywood movies, and media propaganda ridiculously lionized Lindbergh, Al Capone, Babe Ruth and Al Jolson. It’s glittering journalism of an America leaping out of bed before a great stumble, and Bryson draws more than a few parallels to today. Solid.

— Fish Griwkowsky

Come Barbarians

Todd Babiak

In fiction, my favourite read of the year was Todd Babiak’s Come Barbarians, not only a surprising, gripping political thriller set in one of my favourite parts of the world, but also an exciting new direction for one of Canada’s best authors. In non-fiction, Ari Shavit’s brand-new, brilliant My Promised Land is simply the most illuminating, fascinating, non-judgmental work on Israel/Palestine ever written, absolutely a must-read for anyone remotely interested in the Gordian knot that is the Middle East.

— Alan Kellogg

The Years of Lyndon Johnson (4 separate volumes)

Robert Caro

My best read of 2013 was undoubtedly Robert Caro’s gigantic biography of Lyndon Johnson, now in four volumes (and admirers are all waiting for the final fifth volume to appear). Its story is constantly gripping, and its subject is so staggeringly contradictory, a character of Shakespearean proportions, from the heroic to the odious. At the same time, this stupendous biography has taught me more about U.S. politics than anything else I have ever read.

— Mark Morris


Margaret Atwood

I’ve read almost every novel Margaret Atwood has written, starting as an impressionable teenager with The Edible Woman. Aside from The Handmaid’s Tale, none moved me as much as her apocalyptic trilogy, Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood and, especially, the final chapter MaddAddam, released last summer. In the bleak world that follows a human-created pandemic that wipes out most of humanity, violence and chaos reign, but there is still love, and hope, and friendship — yes, even with strange hybrid creatures called pigoons. The story of Toby, Zeb, their fellow human survivors and the simple Crake people is oddly hopeful and even funny at times. Savour all three — MaddAddam won’t make sense unless you’ve read the first two.

— Keri Sweetman

Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead

Sheryl Sandberg

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg looks like 400 million bucks (her purported worth these days) in her Tedtalk prelude on this topic, which has garnered more than three million views to date on YouTube. But her book offers much more depth and insight into the question so many of us have these days: Why there aren’t more women in charge? Is culture holding us back — a fear of success, a reluctance to be too aggressive, a refusal to accept a life that values career over family? Sandberg examines all of that and offers some pithy and timely advice, too. It came out to conflicted reviews from a conflicted sisterhood. But it’s a must-read, for all.

— Margo Goodhand

Come Barbarians

Todd Babiak

Thrillers with real political ambiguity and complexity, and characters you care about? When does that happen? You have to cherish it when it does. If you’re a le Carré fan you already know that. Come Barbarians, the latest from former Journal columnist Todd Babiak’s latest, is a marvellous read, a page-turner with a powerful sense of place, muscular prose, suspense, and heart. It’s a perfect page-turner of a book, expertly turned out, with a flawed, guilt-tarnished, and intriguing leading man. Bravo.

— Liz Nicholls

Trust Me I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator

Ryan Holiday

You don’t believe everything you read online, do you? Ryan Holiday, who calls himself a media manipulator, explains the process by which marketers and advertisers plant stories in the media by feeding information to small blogs, which get picked up by larger blogs and eventually end up in the mainstream media. Holiday exposes how many popular websites use what is called ‘click bait’ to grab your attention and steal your time. If you want to understand how the Internet and the blogosphere works, this book is a must-read.

— Ryan Jackson

The Unconquered: In Search of the Amazon’s Last Uncontacted Tribes

Scott Wallace

In 2002, in a bid to locate the remote territorial homeland of the mysterious flecheiros (Arrow People), Brazilian explorer Sydney Possuelo led an expedition deep into the heart of the Amazon jungle. Possuelo, then a government official with Brazil’s Department of Isolated Indians, was the architect of a national “no contact” policy aimed at creating a protected area, Terra Indigenas, for vulnerable aboriginals who have never had contact with outsiders. In The Unconquered: In Search of the Amazon’s Last Uncontacted Tribes, National Geographic writer Scott Wallace accompanies Possuelo on this arduous three-month trek, by boat and on foot.

Along the way, he offers a vivid portrait of the Amazon’s cornucopia of dangers, from toxic plants and poisonous snakes to violent tribes, drug smugglers and illegal poachers and loggers. In the end, the group narrowly avoids direct contact with the flecheiros, stumbling on a just-emptied native village. But the evidence left behind shows they are thriving, and they are spotted later from the air. Wallace’s book is a gripping, close-up look at one of the world’s final frontiers, even if it’s a bit long at 512 pages (in paperback) and sometimes repetitive.

— Gary Lamphier

The Interestings

Meg Wolitzer

With her new heartbreaking novel The Interestings, Meg Wolitzer tackles frank questions of art, jealousy, success and what happens when ambition collides with your own personal ceiling of talent. An origami timeline follows six teenagers from a 1974 arts summer camp to the present day. Not all of them emerge intact. The results are both deliriously fun and terrifyingly sad, in a hundred unexpected ways.

— David Johnston


Stephen King

I’ve never read an 849-page book as quickly as I devoured Stephen King’s 11/22/63. Taut, almost mesmerizing, I couldn’t stop turning the pages about a time traveller going back to try to change one of America’s most fascinating dates — the day the assassination of John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Not nearly as preposterous or absurd as the last sentence may sound at face value, King keeps you glued in anticipation of what will happen next. Loved it.

— Curtis Stock

Black Skies

Arnaldur Indridason

If you want to get a sense of Reykjavik before Icelandair starts its service from Edmonton in March, check out Arnaldur Indridason’s novels. OK, they’re not bright travelogues or funny short stories about his family’s quirks — they’re dark crime novels featuring Detective Erlundur. And yes, he’s a lot like his Swedish and Norwegian cousins. He’s a messed-up loner, his staff is filled with misfits, and their cases sad, messy, difficult and usually a reflection of some sort of pressing socio-political issue. Where Indridason’s novels differ is in their scope. They’re not as sensational as those by Jo Nesbo, Henning Mankell or Stieg Larsson, and therefore, they feel much more human and within the realm of possibility. Black Skies, for example, stars one of Erlundur’s colleagues, Sigur Oli, who gets himself into an unexpected bind as he tries to solve a murder. What starts off as an innocuous favour to a friend almost ends up derailing Oli’s investigation — a pedestrian yet welcome twist in a genre often overwhelmed by serial killers, misogynistic freaks, and/or political coverups.

— Sandra Sperounes

A Place of Greater Safety

Hilary Mantel

Long , long before she wrote her Booker-Prize winners Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies, Mantel wrote her first book, an enormous, sprawling, ambitious, provocative novel about the French Revolution. No one wanted to publish it. When it finally came out in 1992, it got lukewarm reviews. But it was reissued in paperback in 2010, after Mantel became a literary superstar. And thank goodness. This is a truly great book — funny, sensual, political, emotionally intimate, yet brilliantly astute about human nature and the seductions of power. Mantel takes us deep inside the minds and moralities of three young friends, George Jacques Danton, Camille Desmoulins and Maximilien de Robespierre, who become the leaders and heroes of the French Revolution — and then, its villains and its victims. A brilliant, bravura novel, and a cautionary tale for would-be revolutionaries and reformers about the way idealism turned to obsession can corrupt, making it into that which we most despise.

— Paula Simons

Oh, My Darling

Shaena Lambert

There are some authors who hold the key to my heart. A few of their well-chosen words can make me weep, quite suddenly, or stop me cold with an insight. I put down the book and think: “Oh, yes. That’s exactly what it’s like. I, too, have felt just that way.” In doing so, such authors take the hard business of being human and make it a little less lonely. Authors who do that for me include Adam Gopnik, Ian McEwan and Carol Shields. And now, Shaena Lambert.

I read Lambert’s latest book, a collection of short stories called Oh, My Darling, while on a girls’ getaway weekend at the west coast. A friend had brought it along, and I picked it up while we were all having coffee in front of the fireplace one morning. I thought I could read a story or two while the conversation swirled around me, and then set it aside. But the book made me cry; I found myself trying to wipe the tears away surreptitiously, so no one would know I felt sad while surrounded by such warmth and friendship.

But that’s the thing, isn’t it? Good writing, good storytelling, can tear a little rent in your heart when you least expect it. Lambert’s characters are wistful, tragic, caught like the rest of us in the quotidian drama, wishing it was otherwise. A mother grieves a dead son. A married couple is locked in cruel co-dependence. A grown man tries, still, to please his aging father. And yet even through despair, Lambert paints a way out.

— Liane Faulder


Will Ferguson

Don’t let Calgary author Will Ferguson’s comic writing credentials limit your impression of him. With the award-winning 419, he’s proven he also has the chops to craft a page-turning international thriller on the ubiquitous email scam. Given that he also has a talent for travel writing, I assumed he must have visited Africa to research this multi-layered tale. Turns out he didn’t step foot there. Touché, Mr. Ferguson. You’ve pulled off a scam of your own, albeit one that leaves the reader richer.

— Karen Booth

My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer

Christian Wiman

For reasons I can’t explain, I find myself reading about cancer and God. As morbid as it sounds, it’s a liberating, life-endowing exercise. Answers crumble in the face of the inevitable. Putting yourself there — mentally, at least — can be winnowing.

Christian Wiman’s My Bright Abyss is a tiny, challenging book. The American poet received his incurable diagnosis on the afternoon of his 39th birthday, not long after he got married, and on a whim, began praying again.

It had been decades since Wiman left his Texas home and with it, his Baptist faith. Cancer awoke a latent yearning; suffering transformed and deepened it. Wiman darkened the door of a church, then immersed himself in the works of its greatest thinkers.

In the hands of just any writer, it could be sentimental or dreary. But who better to probe the mysteries of God and cancer than a poet?

— Brent Wittmeier

A Beautiful Truth

Colin McAdam

In this Canadian novel, a childless couple adopts a chimpanzee, names him Louee and raises him as a human. The story is set in Vermont in the 1970s, and right from the start you know, deep down, that it’s going to end badly. This is a powerful, imaginative, moving and strange (in a good way) book about humans’ relationship with the species we are most closely related to (and I’m a bit proud of the fact I read it before it won the 2013 Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize.) The scenes of life with Looee and his “parents” Walt and Judy range from sweet to nerve-racking to gut-busting. Before long, Looee is bigger and stronger, sexual and protective. The family’s extraordinary but precarious domestic bubble is contrasted against scenes from a language lab in Florida, where an assortment of chimpanzees is being studied. McAdam uses clever, though at times wearying, chimp-speak to describe the goings-on in the lab. One chimp, Mr Ghoul, likens movies to “being swung very gently by hands you cannot feel.” Wish I’d bought this, instead of borrowing from the library. Read it and weep.

— Elizabeth Withey

The Good Life Lab: Radical Experiments in Hands-On Living

Wendy Jehanara Tremayne

Tremayne’s eloquent treatise is a modern mash-up of Helen and Scott Nearing’s 1954 back-to-the-land bible, The Good Life, Amy Dacyzyn’s classic Tightwad Gazette, and Duane Elgin’s movement-making 1981 book, Voluntary Simplicity. Author of the Holy Scrap blog, Tremayne explores the post-consumer way of life, ranging from dumpster diving to homesteading to the emerging sharing and gift economies, with a sprinkling of Sufism thrown in. This is not just another story about two people who gave up city jobs to move to the country, though Tremayne and her partner, Mikey, moved to a rural plot near Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. Rather, it is a contemplative and inspiring account of a post-consumer life, mixed with recipes for homemade Kombucha and biofuel. A lovely read.

— Karen Kleiss

Dear Life

Alice Munro

Given the choice between a novel and a collection of short stories, I’ve always spent my reading hours immersed in novels. This 2012 short story collection, powerfully written by our country’s very own Nobel laureate, reminded me what I’ve been missing. Like a superb novel, this book is hard to put down. The first 10 stories are unvarnished portraits of ordinary people tripped up by life’s circumstances, usually created by their own flawed choices. The last four stories are autobiographical, a bonus for Alice Munro fans. “I believe they are the first and last — and the closest — things I have to say about my own life,” she writes in her introduction to these closing chapters of her final book.

— Janet Vlieg

Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owl

David Sedaris

This latest book by well-known humorist essayist David Sedaris has its share of strong and weaker pieces, like any collection, but the good were enough to make this one a winner for me.

Whether he’s riffing on French doctors and dentists, litter, language tapes, his own family’s foibles, love or taxidermy, Sedaris is truly a master of wry observations and slightly cranky humour. Definitely worth reading, recommending or buying for those on your Christmas list.

— Marta Gold



I had to have my copy of the ex-Smiths frontman’s autobiography mailed from England because I couldn’t wait for the North American edition. Full disclosure: I don’t listen to the Smiths all that much, and I’ve barely checked out any of Morrissey’s solo albums, but I’ve always appreciated the way he can straddle awkwardness, pretension and flat-out hilarity. That sums up the book, which isn’t great by any stretch but has some wonderful lines in among some genuinely bewildering passages. He’s at his best describing the early years in Manchester, but there are also some excellent, and vicious, reminiscences of hanging out with Arthur Kane of the New York Dolls and visiting the set of Friends.

— Tom Murray

The Fear Index

Robert Harris

Alfred Hitchcock would have been fascinated by this tale of a brilliant but secretive hedge fund creator, who is beset by a series of strange attacks and is pushed well out of his comfort zone to discover the truth of his assailant. While indulging in too much technical detail at points, Harris is a master at building a sense of dread and tension through the story, while also providing some insight into the soulless nature of high finance.

— Keith Gerein

Marta Gellhorn: A Life

Caroline Moorehead

My mother-in-law is a voracious reader who loves biographies. After reading Martha Gellhorn: A Life by Caroline Moorehead, she passed it along to me, saying it was about a female journalist and I might find it interesting. Gellhorn is considered one of the greatest war correspondents of the 20th century. She was also the third wife of American novelist Ernest Hemingway, with whom she had a stormy marriage.

As a journalist, it was fascinating to read about Gellhorn’s career and what it was like to cover some of the biggest news stories of the 20th century when men dominated the industry. Gellhorn was 89, ill and almost completely blind when she committed suicide in 1998. Moorehead, who was a friend of Gellhorn, did a great job capturing her love of travel and free spirit as well as her messy life with its numerous affairs.

— Chris Zdeb

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War

Max Brooks

My favourite read in 2013 hit the shelves five years ago. But I hadn’t heard of Max Brooks’s fictional apocalyptic tale of humanity’s fight against the undead until it became movie fodder last summer. Unable to get to the theatres, I picked up the book instead. I was so glad I did. Written in the form of first-person accounts from dozens of people across the globe collected under the guise of the United Nations Postwar Commission, it painted a gripping picture of the horror, terrible choices and mistakes civilization might face in this kind of disaster. It tells the stories of both individuals and government choices, the good and the bad. In an era of zombie overload, I thought World War Z might prove to be too much. But what started as a summer read quickly became my favourite book of the year.

— Sarah O’Donnell

Alice Munro at the International Festival of Authors in Toronto in October 2009. The short story writer just won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Alice Munro at the International Festival of Authors in Toronto in October 2009. The short story writer just won the Nobel Prize for Literature.


Alice Munro at the International Festival of Authors in Toronto in October 2009. The short story writer just won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
This book cover image released by Alfred A. Knopf shows Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg.
Colin McAdam won the $25,000 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize for A Beautiful Truth.
Margaret Atwood appeared in November at the Winspear Centre in Edmonton.
Come Barbarians by Todd Babiak is a thriller set in France.

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