2013 To Be Read (TBR) Challenge

book pileWell, I performed rather abysmally with last year’s challenge. I read and reviewed 6 of 12 books. I did read, but not review one other: Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I just didn’t get into last year’s list that much. Guess that’s why the books had sat in the pile for so long already.

The time has come (arguably, the time has passed) to make my 2013 list. I am late putting it together, so not officially registering the list with Roof Beam Reader’s blog to be eligible for prizes. Just making the list for my own purposes.

Remember the details. The goal is to finally read 12 books from my “to be read” pile, within the next 12 months. Each of the 12 books must have been on my bookshelf or “To Be Read” list for at least one full year. This means the book cannot have a publication date of 1/1/2012 or later. Two (2) alternates are allowed, just in case one or two of the books end up in the “can’t get through” pile. And so.

My Twelve Chosen:

  1. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
  2. Annabel by Kathleen Winter
  3. Dubliners by James Joyce
  4. A Short History of Progress by Ronald B. Wright
  5. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  6. A Fair Country by John Ralston Saul
  7. The Sentimentalists by Johanna Skibsrud

  8. Salem’s Lot by Stephen King
  9. Moral Disorder by Margaret Atwood
  10. The Navigator of New York by Wayne Johnson
  11. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
  12. Robert The Bruce: Steps to the Empty Throne by Nigel Tranter

Two Alternates:

  1. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte
  2. Complete Stories and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe

In addition, I also pleadge to read at least 40 books this year. Do you have a reading challenge for 2013? What’s on your list?


The Town That Died by Michael J Bird

town that diedOn December 6, 1917 the biggest man-made explosion before the nuclear bomb detonated in Halifax Harbour, destroying most of the town, killing more than 1900 people and injuring approximately 6000.

In one fiftieth of a second, the French ship vanished in a searing ball of flaming gases. With a thundering, staccato roar the blast waves from the exploding chemicals struck out at Halifax and Dartmouth with the violence of a hundred typhoons. The earth shook and the bed of the harbour split open…

When the sky emptied even then Hell was not yet finished with the stricken towns.

Bird’s book is a compelling mix of minute-by-minute events leading up to and immediately following the explosion, and first and second-hand accounts from survivors. He then wraps up the book with an account of the trial of the captains of the two colliding ships, the Imo  and the  Mont Blanc.

Bird follows a number of explosion survivors through the hours and days after the event, detailing the horrors they witnessed and the struggle to survive.

There is of course the well known and heroic tale of Vincent Coleman, telegraph operator. The immediate and generous response of the United States, with Boston and New York standing out as strong supporters.

And the lesser known tale of William King, presumed dead, his unconscious body taken to the morgue on Chebucto Road – where he awoke two days later. There is young Edith O’Connell, who lost her home and entire family, and 17 year old Lillian Atkins from Yarmouth, who miraculously survived the devastation at the Dominion Textile Company. These and so many more amazing and heartbreaking stories.

And then there are the other stories: the looting and profiteering. The crime. There are always those willing to take advantage of a city in peril.

Few thought Halifax harboured any would-be ghouls or vultures. The disaster showed how many. Men clambered over the bodies of the dead to get beer in the shattered breweries. Men taking advantage of the flight from the city because of the possibility of another explosion went into houses and shops and took whatever their thieving fingers could lay hold of.

With the 95th anniversary of the disaster this year, it seemed time for me to finally read this book in full, start to finish. I have owned it for years, but only ever treated it as a reference book, skimming through for facts or stories. As someone who knows the story well, I was unprepared for the power of Bird’s narrative.

Paperback: 192 pages
Publisher: Nimbus Publishing; illustrated edition (Jan 1 1995)
ISBN-10: 1551091267
ISBN-13: 978-1551091266


The Call of the Wild by Jack London

The-Call-of-The-WildBuck is snatched away from his easy life on a California ranch and thrown with little training or ceremony into the brutal life of a sled dog in the Canadian north. Here, he must learn to protect himself from cruel treatment by both men and other dogs, as he slowly ‘remembers’ his  ancestry as a wild beast. It is also here, in this harsh landscape, that he learns to love.

Before I write anything else, I need to say: I did not know this book was about a dog. That makes me sound so stupid. I mean, I knew there was a dog. There is a dog on the cover, even. I guess I just thought it was about a person and their dog. I was confused for the first few pages, then caught on to the fact that Buck was not human.

Aside from reading Black Beauty as a girl (and rereading it, multiple times) I generally don’t do books about animals. They just don’t appeal to me. I could possibly be tempted by a cat book, but even that sounds too cliché. I like my books to be about people, and more often than not, fictional people.

That now out of the way, I have to say I really enjoyed the book, despite and possibly more-so because of its perspective. This story could not have been told with a human protagonist. This is the other side of the North, and what humans have done there. Buck was there only to work and stay alive. He had no desire for gold or wealth, no longing for the comforts of the south. Setting the story around Buck allows the reader to see the north without human ambition getting in the way.

It was a short book, and an easy read. Still, it was beautiful. Poetic, even. Which was fabulous for a winter weekend where I was mostly confined to my couch with a head-cold.

But now I can’t help but think a little bit more would have been nice. More context. Where did the natives come from, and why did they attack three presumably innocent travellers? Why were the dogs traded so often – was this common practice, or bad luck? Plus numerous other small questions that came up while I was reading. Of course, the point may well have been that Buck did not know the context, and so the reader will not either?

A ‘dog-person’ may have a better perspective on this, but while I found Buck’s transformation fascinating, and hauntingly beautiful, I did not completely buy it. From content estate pet sleeping by the fire to wild dog roaming with the wolves in the span of a few years? Seems unlikely… but damn it makes a great story.

Paperback: 64 pages
Publisher: Dover Publications; First Edition edition (July 1, 1990)
ISBN-10: 0486264726
ISBN-13: 978-0486264721


Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth by Margaret Atwood

ImageFar from a financial self-help, in fact hardly about money at all, Atwood’s Payback looks at the concept of debt, and how various debts have been viewed culturally since the beginning of time. She looks at debts of  honour, service, friendship and money. She looks at the moral issues, debts to society, and the concept of debt as a sin. And she explores the consequences of not paying a debt, and the idea of justified revenge.

I have had this book on my shelf for years. The idea of it fascinated me. But I kept passing it by in favour of whatever new and trendy novel came my way. I have said it many times – non-fiction is not my thing. It just doesn’t capture me the way a story does. This one did. Yes, I had to get past the first 0 pages or so, and let myself adjust to the pace.

The great part was – I was still reading Margaret Atwood. This was no boring academic essay. Drawing on examples from myth and literature, ranging from  Eumenides to Doctor Faustus to A Christmas Carol, Atwood makes you rethink the very idea of debt. It may not have been the main objective, but she will also make you reconsider charging another pair of shoes to your credit card as well.

Paperback: 280 pages
Publisher: House of Anansi Press; Second Impression edition (October 7, 2008)
ISBN-10: 0887848001
ISBN-13: 978-0887848001


Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë

Working as a governess to teach and raise the spoiled rich children of England’s upper class, Agnes Grey discovers what it means to be invisible. Unappreciated and unacknowledged by those she works for and among, she struggles to hold onto her morals and her sense of self.

Her father’s dreams and impractical business plans slowly lead her family to financial ruin, so at the age of nineteen, Agnes begs to be allowed to take a position as a governess and earn her own keep. Filled with dreams of inspiring young minds and earning the love and devotion of the children entrusted to her, she soon discovers that her lack of social status leads to a lonely and empty life among the higher class families who employ her.

The novel is highly autobiographical, and at least one incident was later admitted by Charlotte Brontë as taken directly from Anne’s experiences as a governess.

As a huge fan of the work of the other Brontë sisters, most notably Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, I had hoped another Brontë novel would prove as darkly gothic as the others – in this I was disappointed. Had I done any advance research, I may have discovered that Agnes Grey was described by the critic George Moore as having “all the qualities of Jane Austen.” I am not an Austen fan. I could have been warned.

While there is nothing specifically wrong with Agnes Grey, it is a classic example of the moralising Victorian novel, and as such while well written and interesting (enough that I read it on one sitting), it was not particularly exciting (I read it while flying, and had nothing else to distract me).

Paperback: 248 pages

First Published: Thomas Cautlby Newby, December 1847

Current Edition: Oxford University Press, USA

ISBN-10: 0192834789

ISBN-13: 978-0192834782


The Divine Ryans by Wayne Johnston

Coming of age is difficult for anyone, but more especially so for Draper Doyle Ryan, whose recently deceased father keeps appearing in the house, yard, and local hockey rink, and whose family has produced such an overwhelming number of priests, nuns and martyrs that he can never escape their watchful and disapproving eyes.

Draper Doyle (always referred to by two names, much to his chagrin) just wants to play hockey and attend school like a normal boy, but instead he must learn to sing, dance and box like a good Catholic orphan (half-orphan, to be precise). As he and his family struggle to make sense of his father’s mysterious death, he grows closer to his strange (funny!) and reclusive uncle Reg and learns the key to controlling the overbearing Aunt Phil.

This is the second of Johnston’s books that I have read, and while the characters were of his typical humourous and engaging style, there was no real build or hook to the story itself. I was more than halfway through the novel before I could really pinpoint the central plotline, and when I left it in the office over a long weekend, I felt no pull to get back to it four days later, and if it wasn’t on my TBR list and due back at the library I could easily have forgotten to get back to it.

Still, when all is said and done I think it is safe to say I haven’t laughed at a book so much since reading Gordon Korman as a child. Truly entertaining.


The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie

As they plummet from the sky following the explosion of the jetliner carrying them to London, Indian actors Gibreel Farista & Saladin Chamcha experience revelations, vivid dreams and startling metamorphoses. Miraculously surviving the crash and awaking together on an English beach, they discover they have been transformed into the Angel Gabriel and a horned demon/ half-devil. What follows is a fantastical, over-the-top, often hilarious and occasionally blasphemous study of the nature of good and evil – and the art of a good Bollywood movie.

I quite honestly had no idea what to expect from this novel. I first heard about in 1989 – from my Catechism teacher, of all people – when we discussed the banning of the book and the fatwa or death sentence placed on Salman Rushdie by the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini. (Side note: that was easily the best year of Catechism classes. Along with this, we discussed relics, exorcism and haunted houses!)

The death sentence was a reaction to Rushdie’s portrayal of the prophet Muhammad, who Gibreel visits in two of his angel dream sequences, describing the origin of the satanic verses. (Explaining this would take forever, and not be particularly relevant to the review, so if you are interested, follow the link provided.)

The Satanic Verses was on last year’s TBR reading list, and I confess I was so intimidated by the book, I left it to the very end, only picking it up mid-December. While not a long read, it is heavy, and I did not finish by the end of the year. Rushdie uses elements of “magical realism” (think Like Water for Chocolate or 100 Years of Solitude) to skillfully weave the dreams, the metamorphoses and the miracle survival into an otherwise modern tale of Asian immigrant life in London. Along with troubling magical events, the characters are dealing with everyday life, including racial tension and rioting, marital woes, teen sex and career crises.

I admit it took a while to get into it – part of why it took about four weeks for this speed-reader to get through. But by the time I was about 100 pages in, I was hooked. Gibreel & Saladin are charming yet frustrating characters, as are their friends, rivals & family members. It is well worth the read if you have the time.

Paperback: 576 pages

Publisher: Vintage Canada; 1 edition (May 27 1997)

ISBN-10: 067697063X

ISBN-13: 978-0676970630