Author: Shay Shortt

Empire of Wild

Cover image for Empire of Wild by Cherie Dimalineby Cherie Dimaline

ISBN 978-0-73552-7718-2

Note: This title is currently available in Canada and will be released in the US on July 28, 2020.

 “Joan was anxious. She hated this cheap version of Victor, filled with so many lies. She couldn’t sit still any longer.”

It has been nearly a year since Joan’s husband Victor went missing from their land on the shores of Georgian Bay, but she refuses to give up hope, even as her family grows increasingly doubtful. Despite the fight they had the night Victor disappeared, Joan cannot really bring herself to believe that he has abandoned her. After a night of hard drinking with her cousin, Joan stumbles into a church revival tent in a Wal-Mart parking lot. At first she is unsure what drew her in, but when the preacher takes the stage, everything becomes clear in a moment. The man at the pulpit looks exactly like her missing husband, yet does not seem to recognize her at all. As far as he is concerned, he is the Reverend Eugene Wolff. But Joan knows her husband when she sees him, and despite the doubts of those around her, she will stop at nothing to extract him from the clutches of the travelling missionaries, and whatever powers they are using to keep Victor in their grasp.

Empire of Wild is told in alternating chapters, with Joan and Victor as the primary narrators. While Joan is bent on her quest to save her husband, Victor isn’t sure where he really is, or what has become of him. He just knows that something isn’t quite right. Dimaline also incorporates Joan’s nephew Zeus and community elder Ajean, as well as antagonists in the form of the mission’s leader, Thomas Heiser, and his right hand assistant, Cecile, a reformed hippie who has found God, and aspires to marrying the Revered Wolff.

In Empire of Wild, Cherie Dimaline takes the legend of the rogarou and blends it with the daily life of the Georgian Bay Métis community of rural Ontario. In all other respects, Joan’s life and family seem unremarkable, at least on the surface. But as the rogarou haunts her community, aspects of myth and magic slip between the cracks of daily life, revealing that Joan’s people are anything but ordinary. Among them, “girls are taught to fear the rogarou. Boys are taught to fear becoming him.” Violence against innocents and betrayal can bring on the transformation, and in this way the rogarou becomes a haunting metaphor for intergenerational trauma.

There is a certain disturbing aspect to the idea that Joan has to be the one to save Victor from his own darker impulses, and from the well-earned consequences of the betrayal he tried to press upon her in their final fight. Nor is this power she seems to possess entirely without consequence. Even the act of rescue can be fraught; sometimes when you try to save something, you risk destroying it by that very same effort. Increasingly, Joan’s family pays the price of her obsession. The death of Joan’s grandmother sends the family into mourning, and puts the community on high alert.

Although set in the present day, Empire of Wild has all the atmosphere of Dimaline’s post-apocalyptic hit The Marrow Thieves. There are dystopic elements, but they deal with the real, everyday infringement on Indigenous lands and dignity. What is cottage country for the summer people is home to Joan and her family, and they’ve had to fight for every inch of lakefront they control, with everything from tourism to pipelines threatening their home and their way of life. This real dystopia is only made more eerie by Heiser’s attempts to use Christianity to lure Indigenous people off their land, making for a charged, unforgettable atmosphere that truly makes this novel stand out.

Spinning Silver

Cover image for Spinning Silver by Naomi Novikby Naomi Novik

ISBN 978-0-399-18099-6

 “Thrice, mortal maiden… Thrice you shall turn silver to gold for me, or be changed to ice yourself. And then, if you manage it, I will make you my queen.”

Winter is long in the kingdom of Lithvas, and every year it seems to grow longer. With scant harvests and crops ruined by frost, no one wants to repay their debts. Miryem’s family has been driven into poverty by her father’s soft heart, and inability to collect what is owed him. But when her mother falls ill, Miryem hardens herself, and sets out to gather back that which has been loaned. Soon she garners a fierce reputation for being able to turn silver into gold, and her family prospers, even as resentment towards them grows. Worse, her reputation attracts not just the mutters of their resentful neighbours, but the attention of the Staryk, winter fey with a rapacious appetite for gold. One winter’s night, the king of the Staryk knocks at her door, demanding three impossible feats. If she fails, her life is forfeit. If she succeeds, he promises—or perhaps threatens—to make her his queen.

Spinning Silver includes three primary narrators; Miryem the Jewish moneylender, her gentile servant girl, Wanda, and Irina, ill-favoured daughter of the Duke of Vysnia. However, as the story goes on, Novik freely incorporates additional perspectives, including Wanda’s youngest brother, Stepon; Magreta, nurse and chaperone to Irina; and Mirnatius, Tsar of Lithvas. Each perspective is distinct, and as the new ones are added, we are offered the opportunity to see the preceding characters through their eyes. When Wanda comes to Miryem’s house, she perceives the prayer they say over their dinner as a spell, and the math that Miryem uses to keep her accounts as magic. But soon Miryem becomes familiar to Wanda, and later, when Stepon’s voice is added, we review the confounding events through the innocent aspect of a child.

Hunger runs through the book, motivating each character in their own way. Wanda’s hunger is what drives her to Miryem’s doorstep, her farmer father unable to repay the money he has borrowed, because he drinks away what little he manages to earn, hungering after oblivion. At Miryem’s table, Wanda finds food, work, and comfort, satisfying appetites and ambitions she could never acknowledge at home. But she is also positioned to see just how Miryem’s hunger to never live in poverty again puts them all in terrible danger, first from the resentful neighbours, and then from supernatural forces beyond their ken. Meanwhile, mortal men hunger for faerie silver, enabling Miryem to perform the impossible feats demanded of her, while sun-warmed human gold is hungered after by the Staryk, for unknown ends. Worst of all, a demon who has made a particularly advantageous bargain possesses an appetite that threatens to swallow both Lithvas, and the Staryk realms.

Naomi Novik takes the greed that underpins the faerie tale of Rumpelstiltskin, and affixes it to the anti-Semitism that is tied up in the history of money lending in Europe. Miryem’s literal ability to lend out silver, and then consolidate the interest into gold at her grandfather’s bank makes her both useful and hated within her village, and coveted by a faerie king who has no other use for a mortal girl. Whereas Uprooted was based in the Polish Catholic roots of her mother’s family Novik attributes some of this inspiration to the history of her father’s Lithuanian Jewish family, though Jewish reviewers have had mixed reactions to her execution.

As a counterpart to Novik’s preceding book, Uprooted, Spinning Silver is much in the same vein. It is only loosely inspired by any particular faerie tale, and both stories play with elements of a magical being who takes a mortal girl as his captive helper for his own ends. Neither man figures on the agency or ingenuity of the girl. Both are set in a fantastical version of Eastern Europe in the Middle Ages, though they are not explicitly the same world, and do not overlap outright. If the fact of Uprooted’s being a standalone left you wanting more, Spinning Silver might just scratch that itch.

You might also like Sorcery of Thorns by Margaret Rogerson

A Mind Spread Out on the Ground

Cover image for A Mind Spread Out on the Ground by Alicia Elliott

ISBN 978-0-385-69238-0

Content Warnings: Racism, sexual violence, domestic violence, mental illness, and suicide.

 “Our parents were far from perfect, but their main barriers to being better parents were poverty, intergenerational trauma and mental illness—things neither social workers nor police officers have ever been equipped to address, yet are both allowed, even encouraged, to patrol.”

Alicia Elliot grew up largely on the Six Nations Reserve, home of her father’s people, with a gaggle of younger siblings. Her mother lived with them only intermittently; whenever her bipolar disorder became too pronounced, Elliott’s father would shuttle her mother across the New York border, and have her involuntarily committed. Her childhood was shaped by poverty, intergenerational trauma, and mental illness, all of which she reflects on in a series of essays. Her debut collection has amassed an impressive array of blurbs, including Eden Robinson and Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, and the acknowledgements include thanks to the likes of Roxane Gay, Waubgeshig Rice, Cherie Dimaline, and Tanya Talaga.

The collection opens with the award-winning titular essay, which is a rough English translation of the Mohawk word for depression or mental illness. This proves a central theme of the collection, as many of Elliot’s stories are about her mother’s bipolar disorder, and how it shaped and warped their family life for most of her childhood. The essay “Crude Collages of My Mother” fruitlessly attempts to piece together the divide she created in her mind between her mother when she was well, and when she was sick, and the fundamental unity and yet irreconcilability of the two halves. It also means eventually confronting her own depression and anxiety, and the fact that suicide rates among her people are twice the national average thanks to a complicated history of colonialism and genocide.

A significant part of Elliott’s collection also deals with perceptions of Indigineity. For her parents, this is the push-pull between her mother’s white Catholic identity, and her father’s desire to more deeply connect with his Indigenous heritage. For her it means confronting the perceptions and misconceptions of being half-white, and the choice to pass, or not, in various contexts. When she becomes a mother at eighteen, it means grappling with the fact that her child, who has a white father, does not have status, and the simultaneous guilt and gratitude for the fact that the child is white-passing. She calls out the internalized racism. “No one should have to feel thankful that their child is not dark-skinned,” she laments.

Another theme that runs through the essays is the power of seeing your reflection in literature, and how that impacts a young writer’s ability to create the kind of work they need to make. However, Elliott is equally critical of how the concept of diversity has been positioned in the literary sphere, arguing that it is the publishing world’s equivalent of the “ethnic” restaurant, fundamentally designed to cater to the white palate rather than reflect the tastes or concerns of the community from which it springs. While proud to be labelled a “Native writer” by other Native people, Elliott notes that being labelled a “Native writer” by non-Native people “is more often than not an act of literary colonialism, showing paternalism, ownership and a desire to keep us inside a neatly labelled box where they deem us a non-threat.” Outside their own communities, it is a label that calls even their accolades into question, as Elliott cites from a thesis in which the work of Thomson Highway is deemed to have been “canonized” simply because it came along just at the time when concerns were being raised about the pervasive whiteness of Canadian literature.

Elliott’s essays range from highly personal, to more academic, though they all incorporate a personal component. Some essays, such as “Dark Matters,” use poetic license on a scholarly concept, such as dark matter in physics, to draw a parallel: “Racism for many people seems to occupy space in very much the same way as dark matter: it forms the skeleton of our world, yet remains ultimately invisible, undetectable,” Elliott analogizes. The most academic of these is “Sontag, in Snapshots” which begins with her reflections on why she hates having her photograph taken, and how her friends have often refused to respect this boundary. However, it quickly expands into a more wide-sweeping critical examination of how white artists and photographers like George Catlin and Edward Curtis co-opted the public depiction of Native people, so that they were seen as “frozen in time, relics of the past, beautifully tragic vanishing Indians.” Building on the Sontag essay on which she is reflecting, Elliott critiques how the agency of white photographers has been given priority over the agency of their non-white subjects, cementing the photos as facts, even when the situation has been highly manipulated, or the image is taken out of context.

Across these many themes, A Mind Spread Out on the Ground blends the personal and the critical into incisive essays that cut to the heart of colonialism, and its effects on identity, community, and Canada’s conception of itself.

You might also like:

One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter by Scaachi Koul

Highway of Tears by Jessica McDiarmid

She-Wolves

Cover image for She-Wolves by Helen Castorby Helen Castor

ISBN 9780571237050

“Amid the chaos and confusion, one thing alone was certain: for the first time, a woman would sit upon the throne of England.”

When King Edward VI died in July 1553, the Tudor line of succession was in a peculiar position. Henry VIII had left behind one son—now dead—and two supposedly illegitimate daughters from earlier marriages. Henry VIII also had two sisters, Mary and Margaret, whose living descendants were all daughters. Thus, all the potential claimants to the throne were women, and while the identity of the next occupant of the English throne was by no means certain, the fact that England would have its first reigning Queen seemed indisputable. In order to contextualize the succession crises that followed Edward VI’s death, historian Helen Castor examines four precedents for female power in England, from the Empress Matilda in the 12th century, to Margaret of Anjou in the 15th.

Of the four women Castor profiles in She-Wolves, only one was an English-born princess who aimed to rule the country in her own right. She was also the earliest. When her father Henry I died without any living legitimate sons in 1135, his daughter Matilda, widow of the Holy Roman Emperor, was named as his heir and sought to claim his throne, but was usurped by her cousin, Stephen, who moved decisively to claim the crown. With her illegitimate half-brother at the head of her armies, Matilda fought for her rights, but the fact the she was unable to lead troops herself is one of the many factors Castor cites in her inability to gain a decisive advantage. The result was a civil war that tore the country apart for a generation, and ended only with a compromise; Matilda would never rule in her own right, but her son, Henry II would be Stephen’s heir. It would be another four hundred years before the country was faced with the prospect of being ruled by a woman outright.

The remaining three women were not English by birth, but French-born princesses and duchesses who married into the English royal family, the first being Matilda’s daughter-in-law, Eleanor, Duchess of Aquitaine. Here were three more typical examples of the means by which women could expect to wield power, in the names of their husbands and sons. From crusades to foreign wars to mental incapacity and long minorities, there were a variety of extenuating circumstances in which English Queens Consort or Queen Mothers might temporarily take hold of the reins of power. But as Castor’s account makes clear, the prospect of being reigned by a woman rarely sat easily, or lasted long, save in the hands of the cleverest politicians. Isabella of France would seize power from her inept husband, Edward II, in the name of their young son, only to succumb to the same excesses that had made her husband so deeply unpopular, and live to see that power seized back by the teenage son for whom she claimed to rule.

Castor acknowledges the difficulties inherent in writing about these four women particularly that, despite being Queens, the records of their lives are shockingly spotty. In many places, it is necessary to infer what their actions or motives might have been based on the surrounding context of documented English politics and history of the period. Castor relies on contemporary chroniclers, but duly notes their sympathies and prejudices, mindful of the fact that their accounts are often coloured by their own loyalties and preferences. In many places there are long gaps, such as the fifteen year period when Eleanor of Aquitaine was kept under house arrest after leading her sons into rebellion against their father. If it is not quite possible to know the personalities of these women, however, their strengths and weaknesses as politicians at least come into focus.

Overall, She-Wolves stands out due to the unique structure Castor employs, in which she opens with Edward VI’s death, turns back the clock to profile the four Queens, and then returns to the Tudor succession crisis to view it in light of what we have learned. The result is a unique take on a period of history that is already well-covered. Fans of the Tudors should note that while they frame this story, they are not the primary focus, and that the bulk of the text is dedicated to the women who preceded them.

You might also like:

How to Be a Tudor by Ruth Goodman

Wars of the Roses by Dan Jones

Faith and Treason by Antonia Fraser

Highway of Tears

Cover image for Highway of Tears by Jessica McDiarmidby Jessica McDiarmid

978-0-385-68757-7

 “Many of the girls who vanished were not hitchhiking, nor were they sex workers, nor were they doing anything much different than many other young people. But to many of the people living in predominantly white communities, it seemed as though disappearing off the face of the earth was something that happened to other people. And it was, because this is a country where Ramona Wilson was six times more likely to be murdered than me.”

In June 1994, sixteen-year-old Ramona Wilson disappeared from Smithers in a remote part of British Columbia. It was graduation weekend in the small town of about five thousand, and it was several days before her friends and family realized she was gone. It would be nearly a year before someone stumbled upon her remains in the woods near the airport. In that time, two more Indigenous teenage girls were found murdered along the highway that strung together the small communities they called home. Wilson was neither the first nor the last young Indigenous woman to disappear from the area, but for white journalist Jessica McDiarmid, whose focus on human rights abuses and social justice would eventually bring her home to northern British Columbia to tell this story, Wilson’s was the first face on a missing poster that she remembered. For decades, women and girls disappeared along this remote stretch of road, until it earned the Highway of Tears moniker. McDiarmid’s account centres the stories of the missing, and those they left behind, examining the cultural tension between settlers and Indigenous peoples, and between the Indigenous peoples and the colonial police forces charged with both policing those communities and investigating the disappearances and murders that plagued them.

I grew up in Prince George, a city in central British Columbia that marks the eastern end of the stretch of Highway 16 most commonly known as the Highway of Tears. Author Jessica McDiarmid was raised in Smithers, a small, alpine-style village about halfway between Prince George and Prince Rupert, the city that marks the highway’s western terminus at the Pacific Ocean. On the far side of Prince George, the highway carries on eastward, through Jasper and the Rocky Mountains, and on to Edmonton, the capital of Alberta. Some definitions of the Highway of Tears extend to encompass that eastern stretch as well, but the heart of McDiarmid’s story lies on that “lonesome road that runs across a lonesome land” from Prince George to Prince Rupert. This book traversed familiar territory, bringing to life young women who were posters on telephone poles, and faces on the news throughout my childhood.

McDiarmid focuses largely on the missing and murdered Indigenous women who define the typical victim of the Highway of Tears. However, one significant case also covered is that of the white tree planter Nicole Hoar, who disappeared from a gas station at the western edge of Prince George while trying to hitch a ride to Smithers in June 2002. McDiarmid’s account of Hoar’s case highlights the discrepancy in resources, and the importance of the connections of the missing person’s family. Hoar’s case garnered national and international attention precisely because she did not fit the typical victim profile. Her family was well enough off to be able to travel in from out of the province, and spend months searching for her, and advocating her case to the police and media. Her sister worked in communications, and her father’s employer, the Hudson’s Bay Company, helped put up a reward for information about her disappearance. McDiarmid profiles the Hoar case in the middle of the book, and by that point the contrast with the investigations and resources available to the other, Indigenous families is appallingly, starkly clear. Nevertheless, Hoar’s case remains unsolved.

Highway of Tears centres on the missing and murdered indigenous women of this particular British Columbia corridor, but as McDiarmid highlights, the issue is by no means restricted to that region. In the latter part of the book McDiarmid profiles Walk4Justice, a project that collected 3000 names of missing women in a cross country trek from British Columbia to Ottawa in 2008. When the walkers arrived in Ottawa after an eighty-three day journey, Prime Minister Stephen Harper declined to meet with them. The issue is not just British Columbia’s shame, but as advocate Gladys Radek put it, “Canada’s dirtiest secret.”

Highway of Tears is a true crime narrative, but one that does its best to focus on the lives of the victims, and the perspectives of their families, as well as the cultural forces that both placed them in danger, and left their cases largely unsolved. McDiarmid’s familiarity with the region is evident, and her sympathy for the families clear as she synthesizes the stories of so many missing women, from Virginia Sampare who disappeared in 1971 to Mackie Basil who went missing in 2013. Highway of Tears makes for a harrowing read, but one that is essential if we are to understand the complex factors that continue to endanger Indigenous women and girls to this day.

You might also like The Five by Hallie Rubenhold

Deadly Little Scandals (Debutantes #2)

Cover image for Deadly Little Scandals by Jennifer Lynn Barnesby Jennifer Lynn Barnes

ISBN 978-1-3680-1517-2

 “I couldn’t forgive my mom for deceiving me, but every day, I got up and let Aunt Olivia and Lily and John David go about life like normal. It was hard not to feel like the apple hadn’t fallen far from the tree.”

Last year, Sawyer Taft became a debutante, infiltrating the high society world her mother left behind, for the sole purpose of finding her biological father, the man who was responsible for the teen pregnancy that got Ellie Taft disowned. Of course, it didn’t hurt that her grandmother Lillian Taft was also offering Sawyer a trust fund that would more than pay her college tuition. But the family secrets she uncovered ended up being more than Sawyer bargained for, and the revelation of her birth father’s true identity threatens to destroy the family she has only just regained. So when her cousin Lily convinces her to participate in the pledge process of an elusive secret society composed solely of women, known as the White Gloves, Sawyer throws herself into the distraction. After all, these well connected women from her mother’s world might just have the answers to the unsolved half of Sawyer’s mystery—what happened to the other girl who got pregnant at the same time as Ellie, and where is her baby now?

After the events of Little White Lies, Sawyer is still grappling with the revelation that her Uncle JD, Aunt Olivia’s husband, and Lily’s dad, is her dad, too. Her mother had long led her to suspect that Senator Ames was her real father, but the events surrounding his downfall and arrest led to the awful truth. Sawyer can’t bring herself to tell Lily and Aunt Olivia what she knows, but the fact that her then twenty-three-year-old uncle slept with her then eighteen-year-old mother, who was deliberately trying to get pregnant as part of a pact with two other girls, has threatened to bring Sawyer’s world crashing down around her, and challenged everything she thought she knew about herself and her family. To be honest, the revelation of the pregnancy pact from book one continued to squick me out in book two, and the fact that Ellie was technically of age didn’t make the situation feel any less icky. Sawyer is similarly disturbed, and becomes increasingly desperate to find the one other child in the world who came into existence the same way, and might be able to relate to her plight. But her mother’s friend Ana proves elusive, and her child even more so.

Like the previous volume, the main part of the story is intercut with flash forwards, which feature Sawyer and Sadie-Grace trapped at the bottom of a hole, waiting for the drugs that are immobilizing them to wear off. The main part of the action takes place over the course of a summer, which the Taft family spends at their summer home on Regal Lake. Lily, Sawyer, Sadie-Grace and Campbell are all trying to pledge the White Gloves, but only eight new girls will be chosen. However, Deadly Little Scandals incorporates a third timeline as well. Set twenty-five years earlier, it features the parents of many of the main characters, in the summer after Edward Taft’s death, and before their senior year of high school. Jennifer Lynn Barnes carefully balances the three intertwining parts to a twisty conclusion, as old secrets finally come to light.

After spending Little White Lies carefully building up Sawyer’s friendships, and rebuilding her extended family, Barnes threatens to tear it all down in Deadly Little Scandals. The “perfect” family that Sawyer found a place in against all the odds isn’t so perfect after all, but Sawyer is afraid to be the one who causes it to implode, even as her secret festers. She despises her mother for keeping the secret for so long, but somehow ends up joining in keeping it from the people it will affect most. It is challenging to top the revelations of the first volume, but Barnes delivers, even as the plot twists often stretch credulity. Nothing can be taken for granted, but at the same time Deadly Little Scandals remains a great romp through the world of debutantes and secret societies.

You might also like The Naturals by Jennifer Lynn Barnes

Top 5 Non-Fiction 2019

This year proved to be a great year for reading non-fiction, with many wonderful books to choose from. These are my favourite non-fiction titles read or reviewed (not necessarily published) in 2019. Click the title for a link to the full review where applicable. See the previous post for my top five fiction reads of the year!

The Best We Could Do

Cover image for The Best We Could Do by Thi BuiThi Bui’s haunting, beautifully illustrated graphic memoir opens on the birth of the author’s first child in an American hospital. Her arrival at the milestone of parenthood prompts her to reflect on her family history, and the difficult choices her parents had to make as refugees who came to America from South Vietnam in the 1970s after an unlikely courtship. The reality of creating her own family prompts new reflections on the one she was born into, and sympathy for choices she had previously struggled to understand. The result is a poignant reckoning with both her family history and her heritage, and the fraught relationship between the two countries at the root of her identity. The Best We Could Do captures the dreams that parents hold for their children, contrasted with the harsher realities those children are often born into, and yet pervaded by hope for the next generation. The result is a moving work that seeks to bridge the gap of silence between those generations.

Categories: Memoir, Graphic Novel 

Covering

Cover image for Covering by Kenji YoshinoKenji Yoshino is a legal scholar of civil rights, known for his work on marriage equality. Covering addresses what he perceives to be the next frontier for civil rights. Today, the gay people who are most often penalized for their identity are those who act “too gay,” who refuse to cover behavioural aspects of their identity in order to make those around them more comfortable. In the legal sphere, Yoshino cites numerous cases in which “courts have often interpreted these [civil rights] laws to protect statuses but not behaviors, being but not doing,” thus creating a legal enforcement of this state of affairs. Yoshino is arguing not only for our rights to our identities, but our rights to say and express those identities, and reject demands to convert, pass, or cover our differences. Although Yoshino is a legal scholar, his style is literary. Because he integrates elements of his own story within the broader argument, it is possible to locate this stylistic choice in his earlier dreams of being a writer or poet. His command of language, both legal and literary, puts him in a unique position to articulate the gaps that remain, and the legal challenges that stand in the way of bridging them.

Categories: Social Justice, LGBTQ+

The Five

Cover image for The Five by Hallie RubenholdIn 1888, in one of London’s poorest neighbourhoods, five women were murdered between August 31 and November 9, setting off a panic amongst Whitechapel’s residents, and an obsession in the public mind that survives to this day. The five women, Polly Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elisabeth Stride, Kate Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly were the victims of the killer who would come to be known as Jack the Ripper. In The Five, historian Hallie Rubenhold places the five so-called “canonical victims” of Jack the Ripper at the centre of her narrative, focusing not on their deaths, but on the lives and social circumstances that brought them to a common end. Although Jack the Ripper’s victims are remembered as prostitutes, Rubenhold contests this narrative, laying bare the cultural assumptions that gave rise to an equivalency between homeless women and sex work that is difficult to substantiate. The Five felt neither voyeuristic or nor obsessive, two qualities that often leave me feeling uncomfortable with true crime narratives. Rubenhold’s stylistic avoidance of the killer is clean; he is elided and deemphasized at every turn. The substance of the work is given up to their lives, and their surrounding social circumstances, not their gruesome ends.

Categories: History

Range

Cover image for Range by David EpsteinMost people by now are familiar with the ten thousand hour rule. Journalist David Epstein examines an opposing approach to learning, putting aside the concept of early specialization, followed by many hours of deliberate practice, in order to explore the potential benefits of wide sampling for learning, creativity, and problem solving, before specialization takes place. His inquiry takes the reader through the unconventional career paths of famous innovators such as Vincent Van Gogh, tracks the surprising scientific breakthroughs made by outsiders in fields in which they have no formal training, and highlights how the ability to integrate broadly remains a uniquely human strength. It is important to note that Epstein is not dismissing this earlier research, or discounting specialization altogether. Rather, Range is interested in dissecting our mythologization of this one method of learning, and figuring out in which realms this strategy is applicable, and in what areas it puts us at a disadvantage. The resulting reporting reveals a fascinating range of situations where unusual training paths, and outside collaborators have had an outsize influence on innovation, creativity, and problem solving.

Categories: Science

A Woman of No Importance

Cover image for A Woman of No Importance by Sonia PurnellIn the midst of Nazi-occupied France, an American woman with a prosthetic leg who appears to be working as a journalist seems an unlikely candidate for one of World War II’s most successful spies. However, it was precisely this uncanny set of circumstances combined with her language skills and unique personality that allowed Virginia Hall to become an instrumental force in arming and organizing the French resistance movement. In contrast to many of her peers, she was so good at recruiting and coordinating that she gained a dangerous level of infamy in Lyon and beyond as The Limping Woman, soon becoming one of the Nazi’s most-wanted, until she was forced to flee over the Pyrenees into Spain on foot. A Woman of No Importance brings to light the accomplishments of one of the war’s quietest heroes, a woman who avoided recognition, and even turned down a White House ceremony when it found her anyway. Sonia Purnell’s fascinating account takes the reader deep into the underground of the French Resistance, and behind the scenes of how the Allies worked to arm and coordinate with fighters inside the occupied country to end the war. Hall’s remarkable adventures make for a gripping, if bittersweet read.

Categories: History

Honourable mentions go to Because Internet by Gretchen McCulloch, and Shakespeare’s Library by Stuart Kells. I really was spoiled for choice this year, and it was terribly hard to narrow it down!

What were your top non-fiction reads of 2019?

Top 5 Fiction 2019

Another year of reading draws to a close. These are my favourite fiction books read or reviewed (not necessarily published) in 2019. You can click the titles for links to the full reviews. Check back on Thursday for my top non-fiction picks!

The Confessions of Frannie Langton

Cover image for The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara CollinsFrances Langton was born on a sugar estate in Jamaica, the property of a depraved scientist who gave her his name, and educated her for his own ends. But Sara Collins’ novel is the story of Frances’ free life in London, and how she came to be accused of murdering her employers. The Mulatta Murderess is a broadsheet sensation, the talk of London, the boogieman in the Old Bailey, but Frannie is a woman determined to tell her own story, and to be seen as a real person, one who loved and was loved, and paid a terrible price for daring to reach above her station. By far the strongest feature of the novel is Frances’ voice. She is an avid reader, and that love of language seeps into her own writing, colouring her descriptions and insights. She consciously writes back against the slave narrative, the formulaic accounts peddled by abolitionists and anti-slavers to further their cause. Although framed by a murder mystery, The Confessions of Frannie Langton is, at heart, a tragic gothic romance.

Categories: Historical Fiction, LGBTQ+

The Dragon Republic

Cover image for The Dragon Republic by R. F. KuangGrappling with the consequences of her genocidal actions in Mugen, her involvement in Altan’s death, and her new responsibility for the Cike, Runin “Rin” Fang turns increasingly to opium to dampen the whispers of the god of fire and vengeance. Her mission to assassinate the Empress is the only thing giving her purpose, but to do so she will need to make common cause with Yin Vaisra, the Dragon Warlord, and father of her old school rival, Nezha. Vaisra promises a democratic republic that will usher in a new age of prosperity for Nikara, but when the other warlords refuse to join him, he turns to Hesperia for help. While The Poppy War focused on the conflict between Mugen and Nikara, with The Dragon Republic attention begins to turn back towards the old wounds left by Hesperia’s imperialist ambitions. In her second novel, R.F. Kuang brings all the strengths of The Poppy War, and continues to combine 20th century Chinese history with the best conventions of dark fantasy, taking the series to new highs as Rin continues to fight for her future, and try to figure out how best to wield her power for the good of Nikara, despite terrible trauma and impossible choices.

Categories: Fantasy

The Kingdom of Copper

Cover image for The Kingdom of Copper by S. A. ChakrabortyIt has been five years since Nahri and Muntadhir were forced into a marriage alliance, and Ali was exiled to Am Gezira. Ghassan’s iron-fisted rule has only tightened on the hidden djinn city of Daevabad. In the second volume of S.A. Chakraborty’s Daevabad Trilogy, rival factions collide, and war is brewing. Tensions between the clans within the magical city are escalating, with the half-blood shafit always paying the largest price for the conflict between the Daevas and the Geziri. Chakraborty has developed a fraught dynamic by granting the reader access to multiple narrative perspectives. The warring groups are not speaking to, or sometimes even aware of, one another, but the reader can see the collision course that is being charted as the generation festival of Navasatem approaches. Their prejudices threaten to poison everything, and even Nahri is not immune to this thinking as she struggles to find her way out from under Ghassan’s thumb.

Categories: Fantasy 

Ninth House

Cover image for Ninth House by Leigh BardugoAlex Stern never expected to end up at Yale. She spent most of her teen years going from fix to fix, looking to numb out, to forget. But when an overdose lands her in the hospital, she wakes up to an unexpected visitor. Dean Sandow of Yale University knows much more about her than any stranger should, and he has an offer to make Alex; come to Yale on a full scholarship, in exchange for serving as the watchdog to Yale’s secret societies. When she arrives on campus, Alex descends into a world of privilege and magic, monitoring the arcane rights of the societies, and ensuring that they follow the proper occult forms for their rituals. Told in alternating chapters, Ninth House toggles between Alex’s arrival at Yale in the autumn, and the investigation into the murder of Tara Hutchins during the winter. Leigh Bardugo carefully peels back the layers, doling out information in dribs and drabs. This novel might be best described as a dark fantasy with horror vibes. It is set in our own world, but to the privilege of wealth is added the privilege of magic, the one contributing to the other. The fact that it feels just one step to the left of what is real only serves to make it that much more eerie.

(Trigger warnings for this title include, but are not limited to: rape and sexual assault, ritual gore, drug use, and self-harm. Bardugo is examining these events from the point of view of the victims and survivors, but nevertheless, some of these occurrences make for difficult reading.)

Categories: Fantasy, Horror

Sorcery of Thorns

Cover image for Sorcery of Thorns by Margaret RogersonAs a child of the Great Libraries of Austermeer, orphaned Elisabeth Scrivener has been raised surrounded by the magical grimoires that house the arcane secrets of the kingdom. Since sorcery is only possible via demonic bargain, magic users are necessary to the security of the kingdom, but also suspect, and never to be trusted. Librarians and their apprentices, like Elisabeth, tightly control access to magical knowledge, and are responsible for containing and protecting the most dangerous books. Worse, if a grimoire is a damaged, it can transform into a violent Malefict, wreaking havoc until it is bound or destroyed. When a disaster at the Great Library of Summershall forces Elisabeth to ally with the taciturn young sorcerer Nathaniel Thorn, and his demonic servant, the precepts of the Great Libraries are called into question, with the fate of Austermeer hanging in the balance. In Sorcery of Thorns, Margaret Rogerson has created a tantalizing world, both filled with magic, and where magical knowledge is forbidden, with the practice of sorcery tightly controlled by law. But while sorcerers are dangerous, they are also powerful, and the checks and balances of power in such a world make for intriguing politics. Who gets access to knowledge, and who gets to decide?

Categories: Young Adult, Fantasy 

Looking for more great reads? You can check out my Top Picks from past years. Or check back later this week, when I’ll feature my top non-fiction reads of the year.

What were your top fiction reads of 2019?