2017 Reading List
I’m keeping track of all the books I’ve read in 2017. I’m trying to get through at least one per week, with an emphasis on books about women, by female authors.
Listings without a synopsis have a full review on the blog.
3. Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft & Mary Shelley
Examines the lives and struggles of the creator of Frankenstein and her feminist mother, including their shared fight for acceptance in society and the rights of women.
4. If Walls Could Talk
The companion book to the BBC series examining the history of the home, from technology to clothing, set out by room, and covering the Tudor period to present day. If you’re a fan of Worsley’s many TV documentaries, you’ll totally hear her voice when you read this.
5. Blitzed: Drugs in Nazi Germany
It’s a fairly well-known fact that Hitler was a drug addict, his personal doctor giving him daily “vitamin” shots that contained everything from amphetamines to cocaine to heroin. But Ohler discovers that most of the German army (plus factory workers and housewives) were also addicted to an early form of crystal meth in the form of pep pills. A bit on the dry side once you get the basic facts, but still an interesting read.
6. Dangerous Books For Girls: The Bad Reputation of Romance Novels Explained
A romance writer herself, Rodale holds her own on her side of the debate with regard to society’s attitudes towards romance novels. Why do we look down on them so much, really? Are they that subversive? Is it wrong for women to have safe outlets for their fantasies? However, she misses (or avoids) the main issue — it’s not the Fabio-haired bodice-ripping rakes and cliched, submissive heroines, it’s that many of these titles are just so poorly written that it makes most people cringe.
8. Bad Girls of Fashion
Jennifer Croll, illustrated by Ada Buchholc
9. Fashion Rebels: Style Icons Who Changed the World through Fashion
Carlyn Cerniglia Beccia
10. Rebel Rebel Anti-Style
Keanan Duffty with Paul Gorman
Read full review.
12: Nina Hamnett: Queen of Bohemia
I think I’ve figured out that “Queen of Bohemia” is code for “wasted her life away at the bottom of a bottle”, since so many of the women who were part of the London and Paris art scenes of the early 20th century seem to have spent more time drinking and partying than actually making art. Despite associations with Modigliani, The Bloomsbury Group, and even Alistair Crowley (plus pretty much everyone of note in the art scenes in both cities), Hamnett seemed to have spent most of her adult life impoverished and drunk. Which is a shame because her art is unique and quite moving, and she could have done so much more of/with it had she not been an alcoholic. A dry, mostly statistical account, but with a suitably tragic ending.
13: Face Value: The Hidden Ways Beauty Shapes Women’s Lives
14: Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk
A love letter to New York City as an elderly woman, once a famous ad exec, spends New Year’s Eve of 1984 wandering the city and remembering bits of her past. Uneven in a few spots, but generally quite a charming and intriguing story about female independence. (The character, while fictional, is based on a real person.)
15: Save Me the Waltz
While it’s a bit of a mess technically, at least by today’s standards, this is an important work, if only so modern readers can compare the story to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night, as they cover the same period and events. For years, people (men) in the publishing industry called Zelda a jealous dilettante, competing with her husband for attention because she was considered mentally ill, but opinions are turning and she is finally getting her due.
16. Catering to Nobody
Diane Mott Davidson
Get past the terrible covers and this long-running series (11 titles in total, since 1990) is actually delightful. So often food-themed fiction is just all food porn with little plot, and this series about a mystery-solving chef from Aspen is quite fun and engaging.
17. The Women Who Made New York
History books remember the men, but women were part of history too. Schelfo, with illustrations by Hallie Heald, honours the many women who built New York City, from the actual female engineers to the artists, philanthropists and fashion icons. Small criticisms — the book is sorted into categories and not everything feels like a good fit, and I dislike the author’s habit of creating segues from one woman to the next instead of just creating stand-alone entries. Still a great, interesting book to gives props to many amazing, inspiring women.
18. This Side of Paradise
F. Scott Fitzgerald
After reading Zelda, I had to go back and revisit Scott. The editor in me would like to write reams about style changes in fiction writing over the past century, because Fitzgerald’s work probably wouldn’t make it out of a slush pile today, but this is an intense piece of writing that, while meandering allegorically a bit too much for my taste (plus the disparate patchwork of styles that move from 1st to 3rd person, through gobs of poetry, and a 1-act play…), asks some questions that are still relevant today, if you can get past loathing the protagonist.
19. The Beautiful and the Damned
F. Scott Fitzgerald
Written shortly after Scott and Zelda married, he mined their lives, and her diary, for plot twists and witty phrasing. Basically, it’s terribly hard to be upper class and wealthy, you know.
20. Les Parisiennes
This is a wholly comprehensive look at Parisienne women during WW2. Edith Piaf, for instance, worked with the Germans so she could smuggle identity papers into concentration camps. Other women hid or smuggled Jews, catalogued stolen artwork, worked as spies, and spread resistance notices. Many women, like Colette, tried to ignore the whole thing, while some, like Chanel, thought their best bet was to collaborate. Masterfully researched, the book covers so many people it can sometimes be difficult to follow, but it does astound with the bravery and courage these women exhibited in the face of rape, torture, concentration camps, and death.
21. You May Also Like: Taste In an Age of Endless Choice
I was expecting this to be an analysis of current online rating systems and algorithms, and while Vanderbilt does touch on that, this book is more about our actual taste, what we like and why. Lots of discussion of the “but is it art?” variety. Frustrating in that “Augh I’m just like everybody else!” way.
22. The Girls in the Garden
I wanted to like this suspense/thriller book more than I did. The plot is well developed but many of the characters — including some of the important ones — are not well fleshed-out. Jewell works a bit too hard on the red herrings of the whodunnit plot, instead of giving us better insight into, well, everyone, and their motives. There was an effort to delve into into family connections, alternative lifestyles, teenage jealousy, relationships between mothers and daughters, and sexual coming of age, but it fell short just because few of the characters were knowable, let alone relatable.
23. Rubyfruit Jungle
Rita Mae Brown
This lesbian coming of age novel was one of the earliest examples of the genre and tends to be the benchmark. Funny, sad, witty, and inspiring, it tells the tale of Molly, who leaves the homophobic south to live her life freely in New York, struggling to survive with some semblance of integrity as she becomes a filmmaker in a traditionally male-dominated career. The likely inspiration for…
A young lesbian gets pregnant by her wealthy gay teacher, marries him, keeps his house for 10 years, and then flees with their youngest child. Oh, and she passes herself and her daughter off as black, despite the child being fair and blonde. Things come to a head when her two children, who have grown up not knowing each other, meet at university and end up in a courtroom together. The plot is reasonably predictable, but Zink captures her protagonist’s fear at being found (her husband had threatened to have her committed), the racism of the south, and the ways that people accept each other because of a perceived similarity.
25. So Much Love
This book has received huge accolades but something about it feels disjointed to me. Everyone is affected when a teenage boy and then a young woman go missing, even more so when the women escapes, killing her captor in the process. Rosemblum writes from the perspective of Catherine, the victim, but also that of her mother, her husband, and the teenage boy’s girlfriend. Which would be fine but chapters in the point of view of her English professor and the ghost of a poet she admires feel like the author is trying too hard to tie everything together somehow, or create a deeper meaning that feels precarious.
26. Men Walking On Water
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.
27. The Long Weekend – Life in the English Country House 1918 – 1939
This is less about G&Ts in the library after a day of riding to hounds and more of a history of the country house in general. Which is not a bad thing but does get a little dry what with all those Dukes and Marquesses and such. Basically, there were thousands of country piles and in the interwar years lots of them got knocked down because the Duke of Snootington lost all his money at cards. Not exactly that, but nobody could afford the upkeep once the riches of the industrial revolution gave way to war and the Great Depression.
28. The Secret Rooms
If you ever needed an excuse for the dissolution of the British aristocracy and the laws regarding estates and primogenitor, look no further than The Secret Rooms in which Bailey discovers a corrupt family secret about the machinations that prevented the sole male heir to a Dukeship from serving at the front during World War 1. Filed under “Holy shit, your mother is a piece of work!” Includes bribery, blackmail, and potentially selling your daughter’s virginity to secure a government official’s assistance to protect your son. Plus a massive castle, a celebrity relative, and rooms full of letters with the salient ones gone missing.
29. Modern Girls
Jennifer S. Brown
I am so ready for a sequel to Brown’s first novel. She does a magnificent job of contrasting new and old world interests when a Jewish mother and daughter both find themselves pregnant in 1935 NYC. Rose speaks little English and is still mourning the loss of a son to polio, while her daughter Dottie is young, naive and trying to determine her future. Lots of good suspense here, plus a bit of an uncertain ending that definitely needs a follow-up.
Rita Mae Brown
Honestly, this one is a head-scratcher. The cover shows four flappers on a beach with parasols, but the story is set in the early spring in Maryland in 1920. No flappers, no beach. Cakewalk is a prequel to Brown’s other books in the Runnymede series, but there doesn’t appear to be a central plot, other than plenty of excuses for teenage girls to get into smack-down style cat fights. Didn’t make me want to read the rest of the series.
32. Dying For Chocolate
Dianne Mott Davidson
The second book in Davidson’s food mystery series. Goldy needs to figure out who has murdered psychologist Philip Miller, a death that she is the only witness to. I’m not a huge mystery fan, but a series full of good food (with recipes) and a plot in which I didn’t figure out whodunnit before the big reveal is always an enjoyable read.
33. Speaking in Cod Tongues
I was looking forward to this book but ended up abandoning it about halfway through. It’s well-written and interesting, especially for what is essentially an academic text, but it suffers from both “preaching to the choir” syndrome (anyone who cares about Canadian food has already ready a dozen similar tomes), and over-generalizations because Canada is just too big to cover in a comprehensive manner in one book.
34. The Woman on the Orient Express
Lindsay Jane Ashford
A fictionalized account of Agatha Christie’s trip to Baghdad where she meets her second husband. This novel follows Christie, archaeologist Katherine Wooley, and a fictional character whom Christie at first believes to her her ex-husband’s mistress as they travel on the famous train. Nice interweaving of characters with a good amount of intrigue and suspense.
35. Little Sister
While I get what Gowdy is going for with this story of repressed memory and the links between sisters as well as mothers and daughters, I don’t love the mechanics of the main character inhabiting the body of a stranger. Verges too much into the realm of sci-fi/fantasy for me, which usually just makes me want to go read a lot of Colette.
36. Spoiled Brats: Stories
Oh, I get it now. Rich writes for SNL. People call him “the funniest man in America”. But I didn’t find the majority of the stories in this collection funny or even very witty. I also don’t find SNL very funny so that probably explains a lot. Or that I’m getting too old to read “funny” books by young people.
37. I Feel Bad About My Neck
I had always written Ephron off as the writer of popular but uninspiring rom-coms. Which is true but her essays are HIGH-larious.
38. The Art of Grace: On Moving Well Through Life
Less of a primer on how to have grace (and Kaufman, being a dance critic, focuses more on moving gracefully than of being gracious), this book looks at various people in the arts (film, dance, and sport) who exhibit grace. There are some references to acting graciously, including a primer written by George Washington, but those looking for a how-to guide should search elsewhere.
39. My Name Is Lucy Barton
Still musing on this one. It was a strong story but the disjointed chapters, almost like bits of memories or notes that should have been more fleshed out, felt weird. There’s always a resonance with stories that include childhood neglect and abuse, the now-adult narrator still carrying the scars and the abusive parents oblivious to the damage they’ve done. Which is hard truth but also frustrates the desire for closure.
Bryan Lee O’Malley
This graphic novel about a chef who angers her house spirit while trying to correct the wrongs from her past is cute and fun. Could use more character development, but I suspect that isn’t always easy with this format.
As a bookish introvert, I’m always looking for the justification to be alone as opposed to part of a crowd. Harris explores different types of solitude, or lack thereof, particularly with regards to the digital age, but doesn’t really get into the hows and whys of living a life alone.
42. The Cake Therapist
An uneven story about a baker returned to her hometown interwoven with a historical mystery. The food porn bits are food porn-y and the historical bits are historical, and they don’t really blend. Plus a main character with a type of synesthesia who associates flavours with people.
43. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking
Shut up, all of you, you’re too noisy and exuberant. Introverts are told to be more sociable, to talk more… well you know what, fuck that shit. Imma sit over here in the corner with a book and you can’t make me go to that party. And it’s okay. Susan Cain says it’s okay.
44. This Is Just My Face, Try Not to Stare
She’s much more than Precious. Gabourey Sidibe tells the story of her life in a selection of essays, and she’s brilliantly hilarious. She writes about her family life, her love/hate relationship with social media, and the bizarre story about how she came to take on her first starring role.
45. What a Wallflower Wants
Yup, that was a romance novel. And it was good, for a romance novel, I don’t really know. There was romance. And historical stuff, although some of it wasn’t particularly accurate. And it was fun and light and exactly what it was meant to be.
The restaurant/wine bits of this were accurate and well-written, it was when the author got into character development that it collapsed. Every story needs someone for the reader to relate to, and the narrator, Tess, was mostly just annoying to the point that I nearly ditched this book a few times.
47. I Hear She’s A Real Bitch
Another restaurant book? This bio of Toronto restaurateur Jen Agg is part a detailed account of the restaurant biz and part Agg’s life and sexuality. The two don’t always jive in terms of flow, but she gets points for her transparency and her ability to insert a pop culture reference into any paragraph. (“I don’t want to get all ‘old man yells at cloud’…”)
48. Men Explain Things to Me
Essays on feminism, and all the fun ways certain men try to silence women’s voices.
49. Bride of New France
The main complaint about this book on Goodreads is that the characters are all flat. Which is true, but my main gripe was that it was written in present tense. (“Laure kills the pig” as opposed to “killed”.) A really intense and interesting topic (about the women sent from French workhouses and asylums to marry farmers and trappers in the new world in the 1600s — the British had their own version of this in which the men paid the travel expenses of the women and “owned” them when they arrived in Virginia), that just needed more finesse overall.
50. The Little Paris Bookshop
A book about the power of books. This is an odd little story about a “road trip” (on a barge through the river ways of France), a romance (from the perspective of the male protagonist), and mourning loss. It came together in the end but maybe tried a bit too hard along the way.
This story overlaps Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice from the point of view of the below stairs staff in the Bennet household. There’s dirty linen (both kinds), homosexuality, children born out of wedlock, and that darn Mr. Wickham who is even creepier than you were previously led to believe. Individual opinions on this will vary depending on how you feel about Austen and her work — it will either be a bit of fun or a total travesty.
52. The Nazi Officer’s Wife
This true story about a Jew from Vienna who rode out the Holocaust in plain sight, using a friend’s identity papers and married to a member of the Nazi party. A different perspective on the horrors of WW2 that demonstrates how women had to be cunning and resourceful to stay alive.
53. Sex Object
While this is listed as a memoir, I expected this to be more a collection of essays than a traditional biography, so once it became clear that most of these stories were just lists of the guys Valenti gave hand jobs to in high school, I lost interest.
54. Julian Fellowes’s Belgravia
Julian Fellowes and Lindy Woodhead
A fairly formulaic Fellowes work that would fill your historical fiction bingo card: lines of secession; marrying out of your class; an out of wedlock child put up for adoption; a rogue who gets up to no good when he’s cut out of said line of secession, etc, etc. Plus some below stairs characters betraying their employers.
55. We Were Feminists Once: From Riotgrrl to Covergirl, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement
If everything is empowering to women, then nothing is actually empowering. Zeisler looks at the commodification of feminism and how it’s become just another way to sell things to women (while mostly still making us feel bad about ourselves). Read this, think about your choices, and understand both how you’re being marketed to and how to avoid it. Also, is “empowerment” just a pink, glittery, watered-down, inoffensive term for personal “power”?
56. The Dollhouse
Switching back and forth from present day to 1952, this novel set in the famous Barbizon Hotel in New York tells the story of a mysterious recluse who has been living at the hotel since the 1950s. Full of fashion, jazz, food, and enough twists to keep things interesting.
57. Toronto Public Etiquette Guide
This tiny little pocket-size guide is not what I was expecting. Discussing the peculiarities of Toronto’s local (and sometimes neighbourhood-specific) rules for living, it would be better as a full-size book with more in-depth background. Plus, etiquette or not, I’m not a fan of the subtle inferences in the cycling section that traffic laws are mere suggestions for anybody on two wheels.
58. The Jemima Code – Two Centuries of African American Cookbooks
This is a brilliant collection of cookbooks that traces the history of African American cooking, as well as a general history of how white people interacted with their black slaves/servants. From books and articles written in dialect purporting to be by older female cooks to collections written by white people who grew up on plantations, staking a claim to Mammy’s recipes and calling them their own. Plus the noted southern food writers who almost completely ignored the contribution of African Americans to the larger realm of southern cuisine.
59. Party of One: The Loners’ Manifesto
A justification for anybody who ever chose to sit at home with a book instead of heading out to a party or nightclub. Rufus dwells a bit too much on society’s supposed thoughts on loners (apparently the world thinks we’re all serial killers or terrorists), and spends a lot of time insisting that all loners are creative. I’d have preferred some wisdom — how to make the most of being a loner, how to tell when it’s time to get out and talk to another human being, that kind of thing.
60. One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter
I’m a bit torn on this one. I’m not sure the bits of dry, witty, funny, brilliant insight make up for the utterly self-involved parts. And there are a fair amount of utterly self-involved parts. Interesting as the voice of a woman of colour sharing her life experiences, but I feel as if the author doesn’t yet have the wisdom she thinks she does.
61. The Coincidence of Coconut Cake
Amy E. Reichert
This was a cute, light romance-type story that was ruined for me by the gaping plot hole regarding the main plot point of Al’s review (as in, that’s not how a review for a mainstream, established newspaper happens — EVER!) of Lou’s restaurant. Reichert could have managed to tell the story and keep to a similar — but more accurate — plot, but it would have taken more work and more research. Likely not noticeable or important to anyone not in the food writing field, but it wrecked an otherwise charming novel for me.
62. Difficult Women
Nope. I’m counting this one because I got more than halfway through it, but I didn’t like much at all about this collection of short stories about sad, depressed, often-abused women. I was expecting badass broads who take no shit, and got a collection of stories about women being raped and abused.
63. Hannah’s Dress: Berlin 1904 – 2014
I LOVED the premise of this book, which is not about a dress, but rather a small street and its history. The author, a French ex-pat, researches her street in Berlin, tracking down and telling the stories of some of the many people who lived there, including the descendants of some of the well-to-do Jews (lawyers, doctors) who fled or who were killed by the Nazis. She finds some German families too, with their own tales of woe, and even some recent neighbours (like Edgar Froese of Tangerine Dream, who hosted David Bowie in his flat during the 70s). The book falters in the translation, which is clunky in parts, and when Hugues is telling her own story about the present-day changes to the street, she often comes across as weirdly judgmental but this could also be a translation issue. Nonetheless, a really cool book that is worth a read.
64. The Painted Girls
Cathy Marie Buchanan
A fictional story of the girl who modeled for Degas’ Little Dancer of Fourteen Years statue that intertwines the stage, the philosophy of Emile Zola, and the impoverished living conditions — which led to crime and addiction — in Belle Epoque Paris. It was charming and engaging but perhaps not as memorable as it hoped to be.
65. Nature Fix
Hey! Go outside and sit under a tree. Do it regularly to feel better. Williams examines the science and philosophy of being out in nature and it turns out that it’s good for our brains.
66. The Sum of Small Things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class
While the Victorians bought all the things to impress those around them, today the “aspirational class” spends their money on less conspicuous purchases such as education, household services, and experiences such as travel. They buy fair trade coffee and heirloom tomatoes to feel important about their knowledge and understanding of the world around them. A fairly dry read with lots of data, which will probably make you hate rich people just a bit.
67. Jane Austen – The Secret Radical
If your experience of Austen is to look at her books as sweet romance novels, this might be an eye-opener. Under the guise of romance, verging on Gothic, Austen subtly slipped various serious themes into each book, dealing with slavery, primogeniture, enclosure laws, and other current issues of the time. Some of these will whiz over a modern reader’s head, whether because of the context and time frame of the issues or because Austen was making an effort to be intentionally subversive. Kelly does tend to go off on some speculative tangents, such as suggesting that Austen might actually have died of a drug overdose administered by those caring for her, but I will keep this in hand for the next time I read any of Austen’s novels.
68. The Secret Adversary
69. Partners In Crime
70. N or M?
71. By the Pricking of my Thumbs
72. Postern of Fate
The Tommy and Tuppence series by Christie spans her career (The Secret Adversary was her second published novel and Postern of Fate was her last), and they’re a really good snapshot of the rise and fall of her work. The married detective duo are sharp and witty in the first couple of novels and short story collection (Partners in Crime) set in the 1920s and then 1940, but by Postern of Fate (which I couldn’t bring myself to finish) things got tedious, repetitive, and lost. Christie aged the characters throughout the series to be concurrent with the present day of each publication but by the final novel, timelines — both for Tommy and Tuppence’s lives and within the plot itself — kind of went sideways, and I began to worry about permanent brain damage given the number of times people got bashed on the head and suffered concussions. I’d advise reading the first three titles and skipping the last two (set in 1968 and 1973, respectively), as they’re not great and don’t really live up to the sharpness and brilliance of Christie’s earlier work.
73. The Wonder
If it feels as if The Wonder gets off to a slow start, give it time. The slow burn as fasting girl Anna O’Donnelly wastes away and her nurse Lib tries to save her — from both her family and herself — builds to a crescendo that is satisfying and beautifully executed.
74. The Couple Next Door
Pros: It was an engaging thriller that I could not put down despite the… Cons: It was written in the present tense like a script for a mediocre cop show; I had the kidnapper figured out about halfway through; the characters were flat and not sympathetic in any way; the ending (and the related sub-plot) was just horrible, unnecessary, and might have ruined the whole experience of the book. This might have turned me off “best sellers” completely, as I don’t have great experiences with the things and this was the final straw.
75. To Dance at the Palais Royale
Based loosely on the experience of Mcnaughton’s aunts, To Dance at the Palais Royale tells the story of Aggie, a teenager from Scotland who travels to Toronto in the 1920s to earn money to bring the rest of her family to Canada. The story follows Aggie from Scotland on her journey across the ocean to Halifax, then by train to Toronto where she finds a job as a domestic for a wealthy but kind family. The college age son and his platonic female friend take a liking to Aggie and find ways to have her join them in their fun pursuits, such as dancing at the Palais Royale. The book, which appears to be aimed at young adult readers but didn’t feel too young for the average adult reader, is loosely split into three sections; Scotland and Aggie’s trip; working as a maid and her friendship and hi-jinks with Rodney and Rose; and her relationship with Will Collins and the arrival of her family. A sub-plot that sees Aggie befriend a young Russian Jew allows Mcnaughton to address the anti-Semitism prevalent in Toronto at the time while adding vivid descriptions of Kensington Market to her varied settings of Sunnyside, Union Station, Toronto Islands and of course, the Palais Royale. A lovely read suitable for ages 15 and up.
76. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine
This book has received well-deserved gushing accolades. The victim of a variety of traumatic events in her childhood, Eleanor is a loner who lacks basic social skills. She has no dreams or aspirations, no desire to improve herself in any way. But then she falls for a local musician and finds herself making changes that ultimately see her evolve. There is a dark undertone to the book, and it could well be triggering for anyone who suffered childhood abuse, but we end with hope and prospects for Eleanor. My one complaint is that Honeyman made Eleanor a little too “Kimmy Schmidt” in her worldview. Eleanor hasn’t been living in a bunker for the three decades of her life; certainly she must have heard YMCA by the Village People while wandering the aisles of Tesco at least once, or have some knowledge — gleaned from books or TV or her beloved crossword puzzles — that people dance at weddings. If the author hadn’t been quite so heavy-handed with the main character’s cluelessness, this would have been a perfect read.
77. The People One Knows
Short stories about Toronto’s literary scene in the early 90s. You can tell that’s what this book is about just by looking at the cover which is laughingly dated. And while Jones was a brilliant writer (he committed suicide before this book was published in 1994), the scene he writes about was pretentious to the point of being ludicrous. (Still is, really.) Edgy and punk rock in that Toronto way, Jones undoubtedly had the chops to be one of Canada’s greatest writers, but the drug addiction and mental health issues that he wrote about in this semi-autobiographical collection ultimately won.
78. Design For Dying
I loved this mystery set in 1930s Hollywood in which the main character works with costumer designer Edith Head to solve the case of a dead starlet — based on the clothes she’s wearing, of course. Super sharp writing, witty dialogue, and so many cameos from Bob Hope to Barbara Stanwyck in a fabulous car chase. There’s a second book in the series and I can’t wait to read it.
79. Vivienne Westwood: Unfashionable
Sometimes it’s better to not read biographies of people you admire, lest you find out all about how they act, or run their business, and then you end up not thinking so highly of them. The writing here is a bit all over the place; the author contradicts herself frequently in regards to Westwood’s behavior. Less interesting than I expected.
80. The Evening Chorus
The theme of birds and bird watching laces through this story of a WW2 prisoner of war, his young wife, and his sister. The descriptions of the settings are evocative and heart-tugging — without being overly flowery, Humphreys makes the reader long to be in the forest or the woods alongside the characters. A simple story with a deeper meaning, this is a beautiful book — my only criticism being the use of present tense, which is more of a personal quirk.
81. Au Revoir to All That
It used to be the case that French food was the pinnacle of haute cuisine. But fast food, excessive red tape, and the inability of chefs in France to embrace change has turned the country into a land of people who would rather eat McDo (that McDonald’s in France sources most ingredients locally might help this) than frog’s legs and foie gras. Can France find its place in the culinary world? Can it bear not being the best?
82. Modern Lovers
This book should have ticked all my boxes – former 80s punk band, partly set in a restaurant, Gen X ennui… but the whole story, so lacking in plot that it felt like a hot day in the desert, made me so frustrated. With the exception of Elizabeth (and then only towards the end) none of the characters have any qualities that makes the reader care about them. Hours of my life that I’ll never get back.
83. Death Plays a Part (Cornish Castle Mystery)
It was the cover that sold me on this cozy mystery — Dolly the Dachshund features on both Death Plays a Part and the second novel in this series. This is a cute mystery, and Conroy does a good job of keeping the murderer a secret until the end, but I found the protagonist Guinevere’s move into the role of detective a bit awkward (she’s a newly-arrived employee, and suddenly the detective in charge of the case has put her in charge of gathering evidence), and found that she speculated (correctly) a lot more than was reasonable. Needs more show and less tell, maybe?
84. American Housewife
This is a fun but weird collection of short stories, loosely based on Ellis’ life as a writer experiencing a dry spell. It’s full of dark snark, wacky characters, some celebrity cameos, and a lot of baggage about the publishing industry, book clubs, the role of women, the privilege of the rich, and other pop culture situations. I think you really only “get” most of it if you’re Helen Ellis, but what the rest of us can understand is enticingly bizarre. Probably the closest modern thing we’ll get to John Waters.
85. Eliza Rose
This work of fiction by historian Lucy Worsley is set during the reign of Henry the Eighth and focuses on Elizabeth Camperdowne, a cousin of Katherine Howard. Geared towards young adults, it’s a decent read for adults as well, full of historical detail that only Worsley could deliver. However, adult readers should understand that the story is a work of fiction for younger readers, so much of the politics, intrigue and drama of the actual events have been simplified.
86. The Lonely Hearts Hotel
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.
87. The Twelve Tribes of Hattie
I get what Mathis was trying to do with this work — billed as a novel but really, let’s be honest, it’s a collection of short stories — but it doesn’t really work for me. Twelve stories about Hattie, her children, or other relatives, arranged in chronological order starting in the early 1920s, and all linking back to Hattie as the common denominator are generally too disparate to be a cohesive story. Some pieces are fantastic as stand-alone works but there was no real thread for me to pull it all together.
88. Dangerous to Know
In the follow-up to Design For Dying, Lilian Frost and Edith Head are back and solving more crimes, this time involving Nazis in late-1930s Hollywood. Lots of celebrity cameos, fabulous clothes and glamorous settings. I LOVE this series so much.
89. Beauty Sick: How the Cultural Obsession with Appearance Hurts Girls and Women
This is an intense read that covers everything from street harassment to women’s “fat talk” (you know, when one woman talks about how fat she is and others list off their own supposed flabby faults). Englen attacks the problem from a scientific perspective, performing a variety of studies, interviews, and research to create a clear picture of how western society (gender roles, media, traditional expectations) influence how women view themselves. Most importantly, she offers concrete suggestions for actions that can be taken to change our attitudes on how we think about our appearance. Every woman and girl should read this.
90. The Little French Bistro
While some might find George’s work vividly descriptive, I find this style of writing a bit too flowery for my taste. The story starts off darkly, as Marianne jumps into the Seine to end her life, but she ultimately find herself in a small town on the coast of Brittany where she finds many reasons to live her life to the fullest. Possibly too many superfluous characters in this story for me, although I loved the idea of Brittany having the sames myths and Druidic history as places like Cornwall and Wales.
91. The Forgotten Flapper
She’s the gal whose name nobody remembers. Olive Thomas was set to be as famous as Mary Pickford. She was even married to Pickford’s brother. But her accidental death in 1920 — by drinking a mercury solution left out by her husband to treat his syphilis — meant that she was forgotten while others of her era went on to huge fame and fortune. The Forgotten Flapper is the story of Olive’s life as told by her ghost, which reportedly still roams the New Amsterdam theatre, where Thomas was a member of the Ziegfeld Follies. It’s a funny and well-written fictional account based closely on actual events. Good foreshadowing about Thomas’ poor life choices and where they’ll lead her, and I thought Giles’ really captured the banter and repartee of the era.
92. The Beauty of Discomfort
Athletes are advised to “work through the pain” and this book deals with all types of discomfort; physical, mental, and emotional. Lang offers elaborate stories about people who have overcome adversity to achieve their goals, and while they range in background, for me all of the athlete-centred chapters were a bit of a snore. Lang goes into almost too much detail in some cases. This is one of those books you pick up expecting that it will offer clear guidelines as to how to overcome your own difficulties but ultimately it just tells you about how other people did it.
93. Edible Stories: A Novel in Sixteen Parts
Similar to the The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, this collection of food-themed short stories is meant to be drawn together to create a novel. Kurlansky does a better job of this, interlacing both characters and foodstuffs (that bag of red sea salt gets passed around more often than a Christmas fruitcake), and achieves some level of reader empathy with the characters, although it does still tend to feel disjointed. One thing that bugged me a lot — Kurlansky is known for his meticulously-researched non-fiction (Cod, Salt), yet in the story Vegan, he writes about Tofurky, brand-specific, without appearing to have ever eaten or even seen one. His character serves a 20-pound version (does not exist) that splits open to reveal what Kurlansky describes in a way that makes me think of soft, curd-like tofu, instead of the thicker, bouncier, more meat-like product that Tofurky actually is. Research failure always annoys me and I had a hard time getting into the remaining stories after that.
A look at a variety of independent Canadian snack food companies, both past and present, and their meaning to Canadians. The book looks at company history, treatment of employees and the importance of these snack foods to the people that enjoy them.
96. We Are Never Meeting In Real Life
This hilarious collection of essays is from the creator of the blog Bitches Gotta Eat, and touches on everything from illness and disability to dating to her (possibly possessed by the devil) cat. Irby is honest and to the point, even in discussing abuse suffered as a child, and always manages to find the humour in things, even when they fill her with panic and anxiety.
97. The Ghost Orchard
An exploration of lost North American apple varieties, Humphreys traces her own search for the Winter White Pearmain, a heritage apple she discovers, but also spends time looking at Robert Frost and his love of apples, as well as the travels of Ann Jessop, who traveled the US with apple scions (those are the branches that are grafted onto existing trees, as opposed to planting seeds directly into the ground). This feels like a very personal work, as Humphreys tells stories from her own life as well as her family — her grandfather was an artist who painted fruit for seed catalogues. She ends with a massive list of lost apple varieties that will make anyone standing in the supermarket considering “red, green or yellow” tearful at what we’re all missing.
98. Flappers: Six Women of a Dangerous Generation
An exploration of the lives of six prominent women during the flapper era of the 1910s and 20s. Mackrell offers biographies of Nancy Cunard, Tallulah Bankhead, Zelda Fitzgerald, Tamara de Lempicka, Josephine Baker and Diana Cooper focusing on their contributions to the jazz age. An interesting primer for anyone learning about the era but maybe less informative than full-length biographies of each woman.
99. An Extravagant Hunger: The Passionate Years of M.F.K. Fisher
This biography of M.F.K. Fisher is based on access to personal letters and journals of the writer and her relatives. It chronicles her first two relationships and her growth as a writer but oddly, stops at about 1950, even though the author lived for another 40+ years. While the point of the work is to examine her relationship with Al Fisher and her affair/marriage with Dillwyn Parrish, there is a great deal of discussion about Mary’s unhappiness, to the point that it almost becomes redundant. I’d have preferred to have seen this edited down by about half and more of her later life included.
100. My Name Is Victoria
This fictional account of Victoria Conroy, real-life companion to Queen Victoria in her childhood looks at how the princess was affected by John Conroy’s “Kensington System”, a system of rules and regulations to protect Victoria and ensure her succession to the throne. Conroy’s system would have made him acting Regent through Victoria’s mother, and given him ultimate power over all of Britain and the Commonwealth. The princess rebels against Conroy (in real life he was exiled from court when she took the throne), but I’m not sure I love the final plot twist that places Victoria Conroy on the throne.
101. A Proposal to Die For
A cozy mystery set in the 1920s with an upper class heroine and a crime-solving partner who is a bit of a rogue. Who killed the wealthy art collector? Is the beautiful actress from America really his niece? Who keeps sending blackmail notes? The story had decent flow and character development but not much to make it feel as if it was actually taking place in the 1920s. No great descriptions of clothes or locations that would set the scene is a more visual-oriented format.
102. The Paris Architect
The more I read about WW2, the more fascinated I become with collaborators — or the people who were thought to be collaborators. Lucien Bernard is a struggling architect in Nazi-occupied Paris. The opportunity to design a factory, albeit one that will be used to produce arms for the Nazi war-machine, comes with a side-project that Bernard must take to gain the larger contract; design a hiding place in a private home to harbour Jews on the run. And with every factory contract comes the requirement to design yet another hiding place. Some of his designs work splendidly while others are discovered or fail, but the friendship he develops with a Nazi engineer saves the life of Bernard, his girlfriend, and three Jewish children as they escape from the Gestapo officer determined to find out who is helping the Jews escape. A very moving work, with occasionally overly-violent torture scenes.
103. Real Food/Fake Food
Is that parmesan on your pasta the real deal? What about that Kobe beef in your hotdog? Olmstead looks at the 21st century’s greatest food frauds, mostly perpetuated by the failure of countries like the US and Canada to honour DOC or GI certifications. The book really is written for a US audience, however, so quoted regulations don’t necessarily apply elsewhere. The scariest part — even if you know all the rules and certifications, it’s still really easy (and usually legal) for companies to mislabel food and charge more for inferior products.
104. Bellevue Square
Can I argue that a Giller-winning book just isn’t very good? Maybe not, but how about this wasn’t very good — for me?What is billed as a story about the various characters hanging around Bellevue Square in Toronto’s Kensington Market is actually a story about one woman’s mental illness/breakdown/brain malfunction/hallucinations in the form of a doppelganger who also hangs out in the market. Is protagonist Jean imagining it all? Is her doppelganger Ingrid/Inger real? Is Jean a figment of Ingrid’s imagination? It all gets a bit weird and my take on authors slipping fantasy elements into what seems to be a non-fantasy storyline is akin to a vegetarian secretly being fed meat. So yeah, I kind of hated this one, in the same way that I dislike the other Canadian bestsellers this year that did the same thing.
105. The City Baker’s Guide to Country Living
When lauded pastry chef Olivia Rawlings accidentally sets her workplace on fire, she heads for the hills, literally, disappearing to the mountains of Vermont where she picks up a new gig cooking at a small inn. Her boss is stern, her dog keeps getting loose, and she finds herself enveloped in the comfort of the McCrackens, a nearby family with a handsome youngest son. This is well-done chick-lit that transcends many of the usual tropes with really accurate, descriptive food writing and a charming, occasionally tear-jerking plot. Possibly a little took country for the more rock and roll readers (Olivia plays a banjo), it’s still an enjoyable read.
106. The Stranger in the Woods
It’s every introvert’s secret dream to wander off into the woods and live a life of limited (or no) contact with other people. In 1987 Chris Knight did just that and for 27 years he lived in rural Maine with no contact with other humans. Except those times when he broke into their cottages and stole their food, toiletries, batteries, mattresses, propane tanks, books… To be fair, Knight was careful and seldom took anything of real value. Some people even tried leaving things out for the “hermit”, which others left him a notepad and pen, suggesting he make a list of things he needed. Knight was finally caught in 2012 while raiding the kitchen of a kid’s camp (security systems improved a lot in a quarter century), and journalist Michael Finkel was one of the few people he would talk to while in jail. This is a really interesting read, although things sometimes don’t jibe — Knight had a radio but was unclear on the date when he was arrested. Still, to hide in near plain sight for so long (the closest cabin was a 3 minute walk from his camp) is pretty amazing. (Knight’s parole ends in March 2018… it will be interesting to see if he disappears once again.)
107. The Greedy Queen
Queen Victoria was one of the most interesting characters in history, whether you look at her from the perspective of royalty, parent, or politician. But what about Victoria’s life in food? She certainly did love to eat, as Dr. Annie Gray points out in this detailed work about not just Victoria’s own meals but about how food was procured, prepared, and eaten within the royal palaces during the Victorian era. From corruption and theft to kitchens that often flooded with backed-up sewage, right down to the variance in menus for staff, courtiers and the royal family (the kitchens sometimes needed to turn out thousands of meals per day, most with extensive multi-course menus), Gray covers it all from Victoria’s first meal last Queen to her last. There’s even a collection of recipes for some of Victoria’s favourite dishes.
108. Something Like Happy
Do one thing every day that makes you happy. Sounds easy enough, but if you’re dying of cancer, or just utterly and completely shut down after a series of bad life events, maybe it’s not. Based on a hashtag that took over the world (and bypassed me completely), the idea is a fine one (until everyone you know starts instagramming their coffee because that’s what made them happy that day). Woods creates a fine web of characters that all help to lift each other up as they deal with the last days and ultimately the loss of their friend Polly. Delightfully inspiring, as long as you keep that hashtag to yourself.
109. Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less
Alex Soojung-Kim Pang
In a magical world, the premise of this book would be mind-blowing. And maybe all of Pang’s examples (and this is really one of those books full of long, detailed examples of people who have achieved the author’s thesis while being short on practical advice) have got life figured out and have been able to organize their lives to be able to work this efficiently. But… big but… the majority of Pang’s examples, people who have time to write books or invent things, but also go for long walks or spend times with friends, are (white) men with wives and/or servants who did/do all the grunt work, leaving the genius in question to his brilliant tasks. Sure Dickens had time for a couple of two-hour walks each day — he didn’t have to cook dinner or do laundry. So, ultimately, Rest is most definitely not full of useful advice for anyone but wealthy CEOs who can afford to pay people to do their grunt work.
110. Woman Enters Left
This story of a 1950s Hollywood starlette and her 1920s flapper mother felt a bit disjointed at times as it jumps from 1952 back to 1925 in the form of letters and diaries. Louise returns to the east coast via Route 66, mirroring a trip to the west coast her mother and her best friend took in 1926, both of them expecting to die from the radiation they were exposed to in WW1. Lots of family secrets here, with lots of guilt to make them especially poignant. What I found odd is that Louise took the trip without fully reading the diaries of her mother and friend Florrie, yet she seemed to be on a quest to find the answers to questions based on those documents. An enjoyable story overall, though, although some sections are written in present tense which bugs me.
111. The Party
The class system is alive and well in present-day Britain, don’t you think for a second it isn’t. And don’t for a second think that the poor are ever going to get a fair shake or a fair share. Martin has always had a massive crush on his school friend Ben. And for all of their lives as friends, Ben has used this to his advantage. Sure, he’s shown charity to poor Martin, even welcomed him into his family home. But even as Martin takes the fall for Ben’s misdeeds, he is never really “one of them”. A point which becomes glaring obvious at Ben’s 40th birthday party when all hell breaks loose.