Biography, Criticism, Graphic Novel, Memoir, Non-Fiction, Poetry, Top Picks, Young Adult

Top 5 Non-Fiction Reads of 2014

These are my favourite non-fiction titles read or reviewed (not necessarily published) in 2014. 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.

Brown Girl Dreaming

ISBN 9780399252518

Cover image for Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline WoodsonI received an advance reader copy of this memoir in verse at ALA Annual in Las Vegas this summer. I had been asking publishing house representatives at various booths about books with diverse protagonists, when a lovely rep for Penguin Young Readers excitedly pressed a copy of Brown Girl Dreaming into my hands. I’d never read anything by Jacqueline Woodson, and a memoir in verse didn’t really sound like my thing, but the rep’s excitement stuck with me, and I took the book home. Then, in November, I was following the National Book Awards on Twitter when the watermelon incident unfolded. I hadn’t yet read Brown Girl Dreaming, but it seemed like time to pick it up. I read the entire book in less than twenty-four hours. Far from being a challenging read, Woodson’s flowing free verse slides down easily, telling the story of a black girl who is born in the North in the 1960s, but grows up at her grandparent’s home in the South at the height of the Civil Rights movement. This beautifully written memoir is both timely and a pleasure to read. I never wrote a review because I didn’t make a single note while I was reading, but I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

Categories: Young Adult, Poetry, Memoir

Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, and Me

ISBN 9781592407323

Cover image for Marbles by Ellen ForneyShortly before her  thirtieth birthday, artist Ellen Forney was diagnosed with Bipolar I Disorder. Worried that medication would damage her creativity and destroy her ability to earn a living as an artist, Forney resisted treatment until she become so depressed she couldn’t function. Marbles chronicles the trial and error process of finding the right medication to treat her illness, while also exploring the relationship between mental illness and creativity that has plagued so many artists. At the same time, she must come to terms the fact that things she once considered part of her personality and identity are in fact symptoms of her disease. Forney’s evocative black and white images capture the experiences of depression and mania in a way that is entirely different from the many prose novels about the subject.

Categories: Memoir, Graphic Novel

My Life in Middlemarch (US)/The Road to Middlemarch (UK)

ISBN 9781482973556

Cover image for My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca MeadOne of my favourite reads of the year, I listened to My Life in Middlemarch as an audiobook, performed by the unsurpassed Kate Reading, who as far as I am concerned can read all of my audiobooks to me forever. Unfortunately for my blog readers, I almost never review audiobooks, since I don’t make any notes while I’m listening. My Life in Middlemarch combines memoir with literary criticism and biography. Writer Rebecca Mead tracks her long relationship with George Eliot’s famous novel from her first reading at the age of seventeen, to more recent revisitations in middle age. With each reread, it is not Middlemarch that has changed, but Mead, who finds her focus shifting to different aspects of this multifaceted novel as she moves through adulthood. Interspersed with her own memoir and musings are reflections on the life of George Eliot, also known as Mary Ann Evans, who herself led a very interesting life that defied social expectations of the period.

Categories: Biography, Memoir, Criticism

The End of Your Life Book Club

ISBN 978-0-307-96111-2

Cover image for The End of Your Life Book Club by Will SchwalbeIn 2007, Will Schwalbe’s mother, Mary Anne, returned from a humanitarian trip to the Middle East with what initially looked like hepatitis, but which turned out to be Stage IV pancreatic cancer. As she began treatment to slow the disease and hopefully prolong her life, mother and son started trading books, and discussing them when he drove her to medical appointments. Their books become a proxy for important conversations about mortality and end-of-life care, helping them navigate the difficulties of Mary Anne’s final months. Packed with wonderful book recommendations, and a great story about a mother-son relationship, The End of Your Life Book Club is especially recommended for those who agree with Mary Anne, that “reading isn’t the opposite of doing; it’s the opposite of dying.”

Categories: Memoir

Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine, and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood

ISBN 9780062242167

Cover image for Tinseltown by William J. MannThis true crime mystery set in silent film era Hollywood investigates the unsolved murder of film director William Desmond Taylor, who was killed in his home on the night of February 1, 1922. William J. Mann profiles three actresses who may have been involved in Taylor’s death, including two prominent stars, and reveals the secrets hiding behind Taylor’s cultured facade. Like any true crime writer, Mann believes he has cracked the cold case, but what really sets Tinseltown apart is his grasp of the history and politics of Hollywood. Mann situates Taylor’s murder in the broader context of the scandals that were plaguing the film industry in the 1920s, with particular attention to  the damage control done by Adolph Zukor, the CEO of Famous Players-Lasky, the largest film conglomerate of the period. This is a great pick for film lovers and mystery readers alike.

Categories: True Crime

That’s it for me! What were your favourite non-fiction reads of 2014?

Non-Fiction, True Crime


Cover image for Tinseltown by William J. Mannby William J. Mann

ISBN 9780062242167

This is the story of a murder, of a single soft-nosed bullet that traveled upwards through a man’s rib cage, piercing his lung and lodging in his neck after being fired by an unknown assailant ninety-two years ago on a cold Los Angeles night.

On the morning of February 2, 1922, film director William Desmond Taylor was found murdered in his Hollywood hills bungalow. The previous night, he had entertained his long-time friend, silent film star Mabel Normand. Shortly after Mabel departed, Taylor’s neighbours heard a sound that may have been a gun shot, and witnessed a man leaving his house. They did not investigate, and Taylor’s body was not found until the next morning, when his valet Henry Peavey arrived for work. In the time before the death was declared a murder, Paramount studio representative Charles Eyton took the opportunity to remove many of Taylor’s papers from the house. Subsequent mishandling of evidence by the district attorney further complicated the investigation, and the murder was never solved. This cold case is delved into by William J. Mann, the biographer of other Hollywood legends including Katharine Hepburn, and a historian whose biography of actor William Haines won the Lambda Literary Award in 1999. Mann examines the evidence, and puts forward his own candidate for the murder of William Desmond Taylor, while also rendering a perceptive portrait of 1920s Hollywood.

After describing the discovery of the body, Mann goes back in time several years and presents the significant events leading up to the murder. Even if you know nothing about the silent film era, Tinseltown is an accessible and engaging read, as Mann paints a fascinating picture of the rise of studio system in order to contextualize the murder mystery. Mann slowly lays out the players, assembles the evidence, and unspools the details, tantalizing the reader with secrets, and amping up the suspense and foreshadowing as the date of Taylor’s death draws near. 1920s Hollywood was erupting with scandals, from the suicide of actress Olive Thomas, to the multiple trials of comedian Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle for rape and manslaughter. Taylor’s friend, Mabel Normand, who was with him the night of the murder, was rumoured to be a drug addict. Taylor, a respected and seemingly upright citizen who was a spokesperson for defending films from censorship, turned out to have more secrets than anyone would have suspected.

More than just following the suspects and witnesses involves with Taylor’s murder, Mann portrays the tense public atmosphere into which the scandal of Taylor’s murder erupted. Key to this portrait is the head of the Famous Players-Lasky theatre chain, Adolph Zukor, who also controlled Paramount studios, which produced the films screened in his theatres. Zukor was a shrewd businessman who had built an empire out of nothing after coming to America from Hungary as a seventeen-year-old orphan. By 1920, film was the fourth largest industry in America, and the power and influence of the pictures was causing heart palpitations among those who were concerned about the morality of the stories and the lives of the actors playing them out on screen.  Each new scandal in the press increased the calls for censorship, as the same church ladies who had advocated for Prohibition a few years before turned their attention to arranging boycotts of the films of scandal-plagued actors. Zukor’s fears were two-fold: censorship of films, and regulation of the industry that would break up his vertically integrated business model. Tinseltown is an education in Old Hollywood politics, as Zukor maneuvers to try avoid an anti-trust lawsuit, and manage the scandals that were driving the demand for censorship.

Like most true crime writers, Mann believes he has discovered the correct solution, even though he is writing about a murder that is nearing its centennial. Admittedly, his solution hinges on an uncorroborated death bed confession that relies on one man’s word about what he heard. But from that word, Mann extrapolates an intriguing theory that jibes with both the physical and circumstantial evidence in ways the popular suspects of the day never did. Ultimately, it is too late to know for sure, but Mann builds a plausible case while also entertaining and educating. You could take the question of whodunit out it entirely, and still have a riveting portrait of silent film era Hollywood.


Challenge Badge for the 2014 Eclectic Reader Challenge hosted by Book'd OutThis title fulfills the True Crime requirement for my participation in the 2014 Eclectic Reader Challenge hosted by Book’d Out.


Harper Collins Fall Non-Fiction Preview

I spent last weekend in blazing hot Las Vegas at the American Library Association’s annual conference. Between attending workshops and author signings, I got up bright and early Monday morning to attend the Harper Collins Book Buzz event, since I am a Super Reader for their Voyager imprint. I blogged about their fall fiction catalogue last week, and here’s your sneak peak at the non-fiction list:

Cover image for Tinseltown by William J. MannTinseltown by William J. Mann. Described by the publicist as “The Devil in the White City for Hollywood,” Tinseltown chronicles the rise of the studio system in Roaring Twenties Los Angeles. Author William J. Mann, who has previously written about Katharine Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, and Barbara Streisand, reopens the mystery of the unsolved murder of Motion Picture Directors Association president William Desmond Taylor, drawing on newly released FBI case files. Recommended for fans of Nathanael West and Erik Larson, Tinseltown hits the shelves October 14, 2014.

Cover image for GI Brides by Duncan Barrett and Nuala Calvi GI Brides: The Wartime Girls Who Crossed the Atlantic for Love by Duncan Barrett and Nuala Calvi. After the United States joined WWII, more than a million American soldiers passed through Britain on their way to the continent. GI Brides follows the lives of four English women who fell in love with some of these men, and moved across the ocean to America, where they began new lives in an unfamiliar culture with husbands they barely knew. Available on September 2, 2014, GI Brides is suggested for fans of The Astronaut Wives Club and The Girls of the Atomic City.

Cover image for A Deadly Wandering by Matt Richtel A Deadly Wandering by Matt Richtel. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Matt Richtel takes on the story of Reggie Shaw, a nineteen-year-old college student from Utah whose momentary inattention behind the wheel caused an accident that took the lives of two scientists. This texting-and-driving accident changes Shaw’s life forever, and Richtel follows him through the investigation and court case, to his advocacy for Utah’s distracted driving laws, while also examining the cognitive science behind attention and distraction. Look for A Deadly Wandering in stores on September 23, 2014.

Cover image for The Return of George Washington by Edward J. LarsonThe Return of George Washington by Edward J. Larson. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Edward J. Larson is the first scholar-in-residence at the new George Washington Presidential Library. Recommended for fans of David McCullough, The Return of George Washington focuses on the period between 1873 and 1879, and Washington’s decision to come out of retirement in order to lead the Constitutional Convention, and eventually become the first President of the United States. Available October 7, 2014.

Cover image for Don't Give Up, Don't Give In by Louis Zamperini and David RensinDon’t Give Up, Don’t Give In by Louis Zamperini and David Rensin. World War II veteran Louis Zamperini’s story became famous with Laura Hillenbrand’s 2009 bestseller Unbroken, which is now being made into a film directed and produced by Angelina Jolie. After crash landing in the Pacific and surviving days lost at sea, Zamperini spent two years in a Japanese POW camp. This title won’t be for everyone, as it has a strong focus on Zamperini’s Christian faith, but fans of Unbroken won’t want to miss Zamperini’s first book about his own experiences, especially after the author passed away on July 2, 2014. Don’t Give Up, Don’t Give In comes out November 18, 2014.

the-wild-truthThe Wild Truth by Carine McCandless. Chris McCandless’ life and death in the Alaskan wilderness became famous with Jon Krakauer’s 1996 bestseller Into the Wild. Sean Penn reignited interest in 2007 with his film of the same name. In The Wild Truth, Chris’ sister Carine McCandless shares the dysfunctional childhood that gives context to her brother’s unbelievable decision to give away his savings, and disappear into the wilderness on  a journey of self discovery. Available October 21, 2014.

These and a number of other interesting-looking non-fiction titles will be available from Harper Collins this fall. Check back next week to hear about some of the great fall titles coming from other publishers in 2014.