Reading List

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.

1. Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay
2. The Story of the Lost Child
Elena Ferrante
Read full review.

3. Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft & Mary Shelley
Charlotte Gordon
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
Lucy Worsley
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
Norman Ohler
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
Maya Rodale
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 clichéd, submissive heroines, it’s that many of these titles are just so poorly written that it makes most people cringe.

7. Rejected Princesses
Jason Porath
Read full review.

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.

11. This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism
Ashton Applewhite
Read full review.

12: Nina Hamnett: Queen of Bohemia
Denise Hooker
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 
Autumn Whitefield-Madrano
Read review.

14: Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk
Kathleen Rooney
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 intriquing story about female independence. (The character, while fictional, is based on a real person.)

15: Save Me the Waltz
Zelda Fitzgerald
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
Julie Scelfo
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 desperate 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
Anne Sebba
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
Tom Vanderbilt
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
Lisa Jewell
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…

24. Mislaid
Nell Zink
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
Rebecca Rosenblum
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 moreso 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
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.

27. The Long Weekend – Life in the English Country House 1918 – 1939
Adrian Tinniswood
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
Catherine Bailey
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.

30. Cakewalk
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.

31. Lily and the Octopus
Steven Rowley
Read full review.

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.