Books Read 2014 Summary

Books Read: 138

62% female



76% fiction

24% nonfiction


47% fiction

17%  mystery

13% young adult

13% children’s

10% graphic novels


How I Count: I do not count abandoned books.  I count books I read aloud to kids because that’s reading time for me, too, and I won’t read anything to them that I don’t like.  I do not count picture books read to kids or to self.  I know I missed some.  I keep a list of and notes on books I read throughout the year.  Sometimes I forget to update the list.  I bought some books that I did not read.  Mea culpa.

Analysis: no surprise on the fiction to nonfiction ratio, but I thought I read more like 75% women.  I gave up reading challenges a while back, but I feel like I might be ready to try them again.  I need to read more internationally; I need to read more nonfiction; I need to write more often on this blog.


Perfume (1)

Patrick Suskind

Proust’s Overcoat (2)

Lorenza Foschini

Make Good Art (3)

Neil Gaiman

The Reluctant Journal of Henry K Larsen (4)

Susin Nielsen

The Silent Wife (5)

ASA Harrison

The Goldfinch (6)

Donna Tartt

The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches (7)

Alan Bradley

The Breadwinner (8)

Deborah Ellis

Cat’s Cradle (9)

Jo Rioux

Jane, the Fox and Me (10)

Fanny Britt

The Rules of Civility (11)

Amor Towles

Christine Falls (12)

Benjamin Black

The Perfect Scent (13)

Chandler Burr


February 2014

Perfumes: The A-Z Guide (14)

Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez

The Emperor of Scent (15)

Chandler Burr

Colossus (16)

Sylvia Plath

Sense and Sensibility (17)

Jane Austen

Sense and Sensibility (18)

Joanna Trollope

84, Charing Cross Road (19)

Helene Hanff

Herring on the Nile (20)

L.C. Tyler

Dancing Fish and Ammonites (21)

Penelope Lively

How to Be a Heroine (22)

Samantha Ellis

Wuthering Heights (23)

Charlotte Bronte


March 2014

Cold Comfort Farm (24)

Stella Gibbons

The End of the Beginning (25)


Raising Great Parents: How to Become the Parent Your Child Needs You to Be (26)

Doone Estey and Beverley Cathcart-Ross

Jane Eyre (27)

Charlotte Bronte, read by Juliet Stevenson

Why I Read (28)

Wendy Lesser

We’ll Always Have Paris (29)

Jennifer Coburn

The Silver Swan (30)

Benjamin Black

Elegy for April (31)

Benjamin Black

Canterbury Tales (32)

Retold by Marcia Williams

Canterbury Tales (33)

Retold by Kent Hieatt and Constance Hieatt


April 2014

A Death in Summer (34)

Benjamin Black

The ABC with Honora Lee (35)

Kate Di Goldi

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (36)

Karen Joy Fowler

The M Word: Conversations about Motherhood (37)

Edited by Kerry Clare

Don’t Pigeonhole Me! (38)

Mo Willems

Amazing Everything: The Art of Scott C.  (39-41)

The Great Showdowns

Great Showdowns: The Return

Scott Campbell

The Encyclopedia of Early Earth (42)

Isabel Greenberg

Rooftoppers (43)

Katherine Rundell

The Opposite of Loneliness (44)

Marina Keegan

Northanger Abbey (45)

Val McDermid

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time (46)

Mark Haddon

In Praise of Messy Lives (47)

Katie Roiphe

Half Bad (48)

Sally Green

The Late Scholar (49)

Jill Paton Walsh

Daughter of Smoke and Bone (50)

Liani Taylor


May 2014

Days of Blood and Starlight (51)

Laini Taylor

The Rosie Project (52)

Graeme Simsion

Dreams of Gods & Monsters (53)

Laini Taylor

Dreaming of Elsewhere: Observations on Home (54)

Esi Edugyan

Tenth of December (55)

George Saunders

Lexicon (56)

Max Barry

If I Were a Book (57)

José Jorge Letria

Call the Midwife (58)

Jennifer Worth

The Norfolk Mystery (59)

Ian Sansom

Roseanna (60)

Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö

Mr Dixon Disappears (61)

Ian Sansom

A Siege of Bitterns (62)

Steve Burrows

Birding with Yeats: A Memoir (63)

Lynn Thomson

This One Summer

Jillian and Mariko Tamaki (64)


June 2014

Boy, Snow, Bird (65)

Helen Oyeyemi

Among Others (66)

Jo Walton

What Makes This Book So Great? (67)

Jo Walton

All My Children (68)

Jo Walton

The Interior Life (69)

Katherine Blake

The Willoughbys (70)

Lois Lowry

The Shelf: Adventures in Extreme Reading (71)

Phyllis Rose

The Sun Also Rises (72)

Ernest Hemmingway

All Saints (73)

K.D. Miller


July 2014

Elizabeth is Missing (74)

Emma Healy

We Were Liars (75)

L. Lockhart

Juliet Was a Surprise (76)

Bill Gaston

Divergent (77)

Veronica Roth

Howl’s Moving Castle (78)

Diana Wynne Jones

Insurgent (79)

Veronica Roth

Horten’s Miraculous Mechanisms (80)

Lissa Evans

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (81)

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (82)

J.K. Rowling

Allegiant (83)

Veronica Roth

Outlander (84)

Diana Gabaldon

Orkney (85)

Amy Sackville

All Souls (86)

Javier Marias


August 2014

The Word Exchange (87)

Alena Graedon

Lost for Words (88)

Edward St. Aubyn

The Rise and Fall of Great Powers (89)

Tom Rachman

Thunderstruck (90)

Elizabeth McCracken

Blood Red Road (91)

Moira Young

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (92)

J.K. Rowling

Rebel  Heart (93)

Moira Young

Beyond the Page (94)

Words and Pictures (95)

Quentin Blake

Raging Star (96)

Moira Young

Virgin (97)

Amulet Books 1-6 (98-103)

Kazu Kibuishi

Claudine (104)

Barbara Palmer


September  2014

Girl Runner (105)

Carrie Snyder

Ellen in Pieces (106)

Caroline Adderson

All the Broken Things (107)

Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer

What Now? (108)

Ann Patchett

A Reliable Wife (109)

Robert Goolrick


October  2014

The Element (110)

Ken Robbins

Interference (111)

Michelle Berry

Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative (112)

Ken Robinson

How to Build a Girl (113)

Caitlin Moran

Station Eleven (114)

Emily St. John Mandel

The Stone Mattress (115)

Margaret Atwood

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher (116)

Hilary Mantel

Stoner (117)

John Williams

Script & Scribble: The Rise and Fall of Handwriting (118)

Kitty Burns Florey

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (119)

J.K. Rowling

Through the Woods (120)

Emily Carroll

Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog (121)

Kitty Burns Florey

The Victoria Vanishes (122)

Christopher Fowler

Celtic Pattern (123)

Adam Tetlow

Designa (124)

Wooden Books

How to Be Both (125)

Ali Smith


November  2014

The First Person (126)

Ali Smith

The Water Room (127)

Christopher Fowler

Hotel World (128)

Ali Smith

Seventy Seven Clocks (129)

Christopher Fowler

Joy in the Morning (130)

P.G. Wodehouse

Ten Second Staircase (131)

Christopher Fowler

Station Eleven (132)

Emily St. John Mandel

The Murdstone Trilogy (133)

Mal Peet


December  2014

Gregor the Overlander (134)

Suzanne Collins

An Unsuitable Job for a Woman (135)

P.D. James

Last Friends (136)

Jane Gardham

Adult Onset (137)

Ann-Marie MacDonald

Twelve Drummers Drumming (138)

C.C. Benison

scriptScript & Scribble: The Rise and Fall of Handwriting

Kitty Burns Florey

New York: Melville House, 2013.

A friend on Facebook recently alerted me about a pen and writing show coming to Toronto: Scriptus.  “Dangerous?” she asked.  “Dangerous” does not begin to cover it.

I need another pen like I need a hole in the head, but my superabundance of writing supplies never seems to stop me from looking at/for more.  The rainbows of coloured stationery!  The many hues of ink!  The tactile joy of letterpress printing!

This obsession of mine would be a lot more fun if I could share it with my near and dear ones, but the children really are not all that keen on pens and writing.  Eldest (13) was never really taught how to write, and neither print nor cursive was taught with any rigour.  I learned my lesson and made sure that Middlest (9) and Youngest (6) at least learned the stroke order for making letters.  Middlest learned cursive in school last year, but has, of course, reverted to print since no one requires cursive of him.  Do I want to be the mother who makes her kids do handwriting practice at home?  Well, I want to be the mother of kids who will go into adulthood able to write cursive.  So … I bought the Handwriting Without Tears books and have made stabs at teaching them at home.  When we can.  Sigh.  Not often enough.

I can see why it has fallen to the wayside at school: there are always so many other things to do.  I’m beginning to think we may have to compromise: 15 minutes of handwriting practice in exchange for 15 minutes of screen time….

Like Philip Hensher’s The Missing Ink, Script & Scribble (originally published in 2009, reissued by Melville in 2013) traces not only the history of the development of handwriting, but its demise as well.  It is a wonderful mix of memoir and history, and I loved the balance she found between the two.  There’s a wonderful history of writing implements, and she’s introduced me to new and dangerous wonderful places to find writing goodies.

I found Kitty Burns Florey’s history of handwriting instruction in America to be particularly interesting, and she discusses the ascendancy and decline of the North American styles of looped cursive taught in schools:

The Golden age of script began with the Spencerian style of the mid-1800s:


This was supplanted by the Palmer method in the early 1900s:


which was, in turn, supplanted by the D’Nealian style:


and the even less ornate (and upright) Handwriting Without Tears in the late 20th and early 21st centuries:


Each generation’s writing got a bit less ornate, a bit less fussy.  Until today, when the majority of kids will not have a cursive hand to call their own (insert grumbling here).  I have to admit that although I love the Handwriting Without Tears philosophy and method, I find it to be by far the least attractive of the lot.  But given that handwriting is no longer part of the curriculum (insert more grumbling here), it’s the one I brought home.

Well, I’ve come away from Script and Scribble with a new bee in my bonnet: why do we even have to have loopy writing?  Kitty Burns Florey asks this question herself, and she goes to a handwriting doctor to get her loops fixed.  She feels they are too juvenile, that her writing, with its overly rounded connectors has “a disagreeably girlish look that almost cries out for those dopey little circles dotting the i’s.”

The prescription?  She practices with an adult instructional book on Italic handwriting, which more or less brings us back to medieval Europe and the hand of Italian clerks, and she watches her writing go from “embarrassingly clumsy to terminally cool.”  Medieval roots, yes, but look!  Look at how lovely, stylish and easy to read it is!



And, like HWT, the Getty-Dubay instructional system comes in a six-book set!

I think it’s terminally cool because it looks more like the cursive that is still taught in England and Europe, where loops and scoops were never part of the prescribed method of writing cursive.

And if I can bribe encourage Middlest and Youngest to learn this style of writing, they, too, will be terminally cool.


untitledLost for Words

Edward St. Aubyn

New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014

The whole time I was reading this book, I was thinking what fun St. Aubyn must have had writing it.  I loved St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels.  They were so beautifully crafted, but, because the semi-autobiographical novels dealt with child abuse and substance abuse, they were also really rather bleak.  Lost for Words is a departure, a very pointed satire about the book prize industry, the kind of book prize St. Aubyn narrowly missed winning in 2006 for Mother’s Milk, one of the Melrose novels.

The novel follows members of the jury for the Elysian Prize (none of whom actually read the books in the running) and some of the possible winners of the prize (their psychological disorders run the gamut).  For most of the book, not one of them is in any way likeable, and if I have any quarrel with the book, it’s that three-quarters of the way through, the narrator decides that someone must emerge sympathetically from the blanket of his malice.  The softening for two of the characters at that point does not quite ring true, and I kept waiting for another skewering.

The novel is peppered with excerpts from the short-listed novels as well as the works of the jury members and their lovers.  They are, by far, the best value for money.  St. Aubyn imitates academic discourse, precious prose and trendy grammarless dialogue with uncanny precision.  Accomplished parody is not an easy thing to pull off, but he gets the tone so perfectly.  Here he is as Didier, a French cultural critic:

Nietzsche announced the death of God; Foucault announced the death of Man; the death of Nature announces itself; with no need for an intermediary.  As these three elements of our classical discourse dissolve in the acid rain of late Capitalism, we are offered the consolation of its own pale triumvirate: the producer, the consumer and the commodity.  Thanks to advertising, the producer sells the commodity to the consumer; thanks to the Internet, the consumer is the commodity sold to the producer.  This is the Utopia of borderless democracy: a shift of signifier in the desert of the Real. … In this desert it is forbidden to think.  Even if Capitalism is the crisis, Capitalism must be the solution!

Didier paused, waiting for a second preposterous paradox to pop into his head.  (132-35)

Sad to say, my laughter at this kind of absurdity was not all comfortable innocence.  I felt well rid of my own academic baggage reading that drivel.

The way St. Aubyn satirizes politicians, parents, academics and the press is sizzlingly good.  For most of the book, there’s really no one to like or to root for, and that can make it feel somewhat rudderless, but the plot has such a powerful engine that it’s not a big missing piece.  I devoured it and wanted more.

untitledThe Word Exchange

Alena Graedon

Toronto: Bond Street Books, 2014.

This is the perfect bibliophile’s beach read!  It has all the thrills and spills of a blockbuster summer read, but what the characters are fighting for is the fate of The Word, or words, in the shape of protecting the most recent and most comprehensive edition of  the North American Dictionary of the English Language.

The novel has 26 chapters, one for each letter of the alphabet, and each chapter begins with the definition of a word, but none of these is quite right.  Take A:

Alice n: a girl transformed by reflection

Alice, it turns out, is the code name for one of our narrators, Anana Johnson, whose father has vanished:

On a very cold and lonely Friday last November, my father disappeared from the Dictionary.  And not only from the big glass building on Broadway where its offices were housed.  On that night, my father, Douglas Samuel Johnson (!), Chief Editor of the North American Dictionary of the English Language, slipped from the actual artifact he’d helped compose.

That was before the Dictionary died, letters expiring on the page.  Before the virus.  Before our language dissolved like so much melting snow. … Before my father vanished, before the first signs of S0111 arrived, I’d reflected very little on our way of life.  The changing world I’d come of age in–slowly bereft of books and love letters, photographs and maps, takeout menus, timetables, liner notes, and diaries–was a world I’d come to accept.  If I was missing out on things, they were things I didn’t think to miss.  How could we miss words?  We were drowning in a sea of text.  A new one arrived, chiming, every minute. (3)

In this near future, we drown in words but they all lack meaning, and much of that absence of content can be blamed on our increasing dependence on our devices.  Instead of phones, the ubiquitous device is a Meme, and it serves not only as a means of communication, but also as an extension of self and a substitute consciousness.  When the narrator enters a restaurant at the beginning of the novel, her Meme brings up the menu, but it then overrides her drink order, replacing a tea with a hot toddy, because it knows that she needs a stiff drink.

Memes can also, crucially, give their owners the words or definitions they need if they have difficulty remembering a word or its meaning.  Five cents a word.  Touch of a button.  This exchange is where the novel plays out: in the space between our use of language and its digital and corporate control.

Definitions and their ownership are the territory over which the characters battle, and the book is a fun and rollicking ride through an alarmingly corrupt future.  I was reminded often of Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, and especially of Oryx and Crake in which Atwood does the heavy lifting of her world building.  They share the same kind of hysterical exaggeration of nefarious corporate interests that frightens, nevertheless, because, yes, people can be that stupid and that greedy.

At first, the struggle seems to be over the ownership of words and their definitions, but when a virus that corrupts spoken as well as digital communication begins to spread, the stakes get suddenly and critically higher.

This is a first novel for Graedon, a graduate of Brown and of Columbia’s MFA programme, and while the novel reveals its author to be whip smart and savvy about what makes a page-turner, I felt that her editor could have been more firm about eliminating some redundancies and tightening up some of the plot.  There are double and triple agents, but I never quite felt that the revelation had had the proper build up.  There was a bit too much slack in the reins, but not enough to spoil the ride.

Add this to your beach read haul for summer, though, and you’ll be reading well past sunset.

jeevesJeeves and the Wedding Bells

by Sebastian Faulks

London: Hutchinson, 2013.

I’ve been on rather a run of “in the style of” books lately.  I don’t know that I’ve ever read much “fan fiction.”  There was one, very terrible continuation of Pride and Prejudice that follows Elizabeth and Darcy into marriage.  I read that and swore I’d never go down that road again.

Val McDermid’s rewriting of Northanger Abbey was so clever, and Jo Baker’s alternate view of life below stairs in Pride and Prejudice was so compelling, though, that I am less and less afraid of venturing into fan fiction territory again.

And really, let’s face it, there was never any question as to whether I would read a (contemporary) homage to P.G. Wodehouse, which is what Sebastian Faulks prefers to call his Jeeves and the Wedding Bells.

The novel begins with a role reversal: Bertie Wooster is Bunburying again, in this case, pretending to be valet to Jeeve’s Lord Etringham.  This, in itself, is a wonderful plot idea: to make the gentleman and gentleman’s gentleman relationship a bit more appealing to contemporary readers by putting Bertie below stairs, or on an uncomfortable bed up in the attic, as the case may be.  The story that follows is a fun and diverting read, true to the spirit of Wodehouse, if never quite measuring up to his ability to provoke belly laughs.

It is no insult to say that my favourite bit of the book was Faulks’s introduction, where he explains that the novel was written in order to introduce Wodehouse to a younger readership:

To the old hands, meanwhile, I would say only this; that yes, I did understand the size of what I had taken on; and yes it was as hard as I expected.  Wodehouse’s prose is a glorious thing; and there’s the rub.  I didn’t want to write too close an imitation of that distinctive music for fear of sounding flat or sharp.  Nor did I want to drift into parody.  What I therefore tried to do was give people who haven’t read the Jeeves books a sense of what they sound like; while for those who know them well I tried to provide a nostalgic variation–in which a memory of the real thing provides the tune and these pages perhaps a line of harmony.

The novel does not betray his struggle; it does provide the sought-for line of harmony.  If I have anything with which to quarrel it is that there is too little of Jeeves, but then, I suspect, that is precisely the point.  Send the people back to the original for more.

Manfeels Park

Oh, this is all kinds of awesome.  Mansplaining via Jane Austen.  Check them out!



by Jo Baker

Toronto: Random House, 2013.

Jane Austen and her characters were focused on marriage; Jo Baker and hers have their eyes on the linens.  The opening sentences of Baker’s novel say it all:

There could be no wearing of clothes without their laundering, just as surely as there could be no going without clothes, not in Hertfordshire anyway, and not in September.  Washday could not be avoided, but the weekly purification of the household’s linen was nonetheless a dismal prospect for Sarah.

A far cry from “a truth universally acknowledged,” and more true to the spirit of Jane Eyre, which also echoes through this passage.  Sadly for Sarah, the Bennets’ maid, there is every possibility that a walk will be taken that day, and that the ladies will return with their petticoats three inches deep in mud.  The book is full of the details of the lives lived around the events that coat petticoats in mud, around the glittering glory of the Bennet girls at a dance or a dinner: the hours of preparation and clean-up that go into the glitter.  We learn that the velvet ribbon that trims the dress must be unpicked before every wash and then sewn on again so that the dye will not bleed.  We learn that the housemaids had to coat their hands in goose fat to soothe the chilblains that were caused by all the washing of linens.

Longbourn tells the story of Pride and Prejudice from below stairs, and we have the story (re)told in neat parallels.  A James Smith arrives in the household at the same time that Bingley arrives at Netherfield Park.  Sarah, like Lizzie, has two men to interest her.  There is mystery and romance and an awful lot of lovely detail.  Baker is marvellous at packing the novel full of sensory information: the sounds in the hedgerows in the early peppery-cold morning, foxes barking, the smell of spearmint, the pain of chilblains.

There is a good deal about reading in the book, too.  Sarah reads a lot, and often reads aloud to the servants.  Lizzie lends her Pamela, she burns through triple decker novels, and she learns a great deal about the mysterious footman, James Smith, by secretly looking through his books in his bedroom.  It is clear that books are a mixed blessing, though.  Through books, Sarah learns about the world beyond the walls of Longbourn,  and she chafes against the restrictions of her role and her sheltered life.  She yearns to travel and to get out from under the work that defines her.  Here she is during one brief escape, in the company of Ptolemy Bingley, a black servant of the Bingley household:

he drew her along into the little wilderness, and they followed the path through the tangled dead grass.  He lifted a low-hanging branch to let her pass.  The rowans still had a few scarlet berries unpecked by the birds, and everything was hung with raindrops, and smelling of rot.  Behind her, in her absence, the house was grinding along, its cogs turning and teeth linking, belts creaking, and there must come a moment–any moment now–when a cog would bite on nothing, and spin on air; some necessary act would go unperformed, some service would not be provided; the whole mechanism would crunch and splinter and shriek out in protest, and come to a juddering halt, because she was not there.

Mrs. Hill (she always gets the honourific) is a kindly woman, scrupulously fair and trusting, but she wants none of this kind of hanky panky from her staff.  She comes marching along to put a stop to what could easily have been a threshold moment for Sarah.  Sarah, to her credit, is smart enough to weigh her options as far as the men go, and while the plot travels neatly along the lines of the original for the first two volumes, the plot’s twists open up considerably in the third.  Wickham comes off decidedly less appealing than in the original.

I was transfixed at how well and apparently seamlessly Baker shaped her novel in neat parings and echoes of the original.  In addition to the lush detail about the house and its setting, I absolutely loved all of the information about life below stairs.  I often find myself wondering who is doing the cooking in the finer fictional households, and this book gives all the details that we might desire.  Baker also introduces into this retelling issues of race, slavery, class, inheritance, gender and homosexuality.  Refreshing, to be sure, but a little forced if I am to be honest.  I think that this book might have ticked fewer politically correct boxes and have been the stronger for it.

That is my only quibble, and it is a small one.  A delightful read.

Longbourn is released in paperback this week.



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