old books with flowers

Books of 2018

2018 was a wild, crazy, wonderful year. Neil and I were fortunate enough to spend eight months of it on the road exploring Italy, Spain, Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Croatia, Sweden, France, Belgium, and the Netherlands. While Neil was working, I spent the time immersing myself in the history of the places we were visiting, and recapping our adventures. I am still trying to catch up, (very) slowly but surely. Every time I write a new post I get excited about everything that we saw and learned. Occasionally, I catch myself thinking things like, did we really visit Pompeii? I can’t believe we were actually in Venice! I wish then that I could write my blogs 20 times faster. I’m impatient to relive it all again, to further enrich our experiences by diving deeper into the history of where we were, and am excited to then finally share it with all of you.

It can be hard amidst all of this real-life excitement to find time and energy for my other great passion, reading! Luckily, this year I had a lot more luck finding books that I enjoyed than I did in 2017.

1. The Clockmaker’s Daughter, Kate Morton

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I was very excited when I learned that Kate Morton, my favourite author, was going to release a new book this year. I ordered a special edition because it had a beautiful floral dust jacket and a secret gold foil cover. Plus, it was signed by the author! There are many things that Morton and I share a love for, and one can count on being included in her novels: beautiful old Cotswold-style houses, family secrets, beautiful gardens framed by crumbling walls, the use of letters, diaries, and other correspondence, a historical curiosity functioning as a plot point, and the prominence of intelligent, articulate heroines.

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It’s the summer of 2017 and Elodie Winslow, working as an archivist in central London,  finds an old, forgotten leather satchel. Within the satchel, which is dated 1861, is a framed picture of a young woman and an artist’s sketchbook. The sketchbook contains a drawing of a house that seems hauntingly familiar, almost as if it belongs to a fairytale that Elodie’s mother used to tell her when she was young…

Birchwood Manor is an old house situated on the Upper Thames, and it has been a silent witness to the many people that have crossed its threshold. In World War II, it provided a safe escape for a mother and her three young children after they lost their London home during the Blitz. In the 19th century, it was a boarding school for young girls until a tragedy forced it to shutter its doors. In Tudor England, Catholic priests were hidden away within its folds to save them from persecution. It served as a summer painting retreat in 1862 for a small group of painters and their models, until one day a gunshot rang out and left one woman dead, and a priceless heirloom missing…

At  first, the only connection that the characters from the different historical periods seem to share is the time they spent in Birchwood Manor; as the story progresses, the reader finds out what other secrets tie them together. The house itself is a character, a time machine, a ghost. There is the perfect balance of suspense, romance, and tragedy. As soon as I finished this book, I immediately wanted to read it again. I admire how Morton is able to take so many historical subjects she is interested in (the pre-Raphaelite brotherhood of painters, London during the Blitz, Victorian philanthropy, English manor houses, priest holes in 16th century England, etc.) and craft a rich, interesting fictional story from all of them. It gives me hope that I can take some of the many different things I’m interested in and do the same. Today, my list would include: Ludwig II the Swan/Mad King of Bavaria; letter-locking; the French châteaux of the Loire Valley; Monet and Impressionist paintings; old Swedish farmhouses; Mary, Queen of Scots; secret gardens, time travel to London during the Blitz; and medieval city walls.

2. Blackout, and 3. All Clear, Connie Willis

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Connie Willis is a well-renowned science fiction writer who has created my favourite time-travel universe. She started it in a short story called “Fire Watch” and then expanded on it in two other novels I read this year, The Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog. These two books are also excellent reads, but the first one is a little depressing (it’s set in England during the outbreak of the Bubonic Plague in 1346) and the second one has a very comic tone (it reminds me of Oscar Wilde’s play The Importance of Being Earnest). The tone, the setting, the subject matter, the pacing, and the characters used in two other novels featuring this universe, Blackout and All Clear, are perfect. It was initially one novel, but then the idea became so expansive that it had to be split into two (and the reader is all the richer for it).

In Connie Willis’ time travel universe, it is the not-so-distant future (2060) and time travel is an area of study at Oxford University. Students get to go to different periods of history based on their thesis project. There are several departments dedicated to making sure the time travellers look and fit the role they are assigned to play (Wardrobe, Props, Transportation). They are given lessons in subjects such as using period-appropriate language, how to drive period-appropriate vehicles, how to dance the foxtrot, etc. They are given vaccinations, and have memory chips implanted to help them remember important facts relevant to their mission. Time travel is a mostly safe, contained, academic study of history.

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Blackout and All Clear feature characters who have selected various time travel assignments set in England during World War II. Merope is working in rural England as a maid at a grand estate, minding child evacuees from London. Polly is going to work as a shopgirl on Oxford street in London at the start of the Blitz. Mike is going to Dover, where he’ll be able to observe local fishermen going out in their boats to rescue soldiers stranded at Dunkirk. The three time travellers will be close enough to the activity to meet some remarkable people and see some incredible things, but they’ll still be far enough away from any serious action that they’ll be safe. And history will unfold around them as it is meant to.

But then the time machine stops working. Polly, Merope, and Mike can’t get back to Oxford in 2060, and Oxford can’t get to them. History suddenly becomes very real. And their actions are starting to have consequences. Is their presence turning the tide of war the other way around, towards German victory? Are they stuck here forever? Could they actually die?

Forget 2018, these are two of the best books I’ve ever read. Reading them is the next-best-thing to actually time travelling (and much safer!). Willis is a master at pacing and suspense; there is never a moment where I felt content putting the book down and coming back to it later. I had to know right now what was going to happen next. Here is the highest compliment I can pay: this is the book (or two!) I wish I had written.

4. They All Love Jack: Busting the Ripper, Bruce Robinson

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Jack the Ripper is arguably the most famous serial killer to haunt the streets of 19th century London. There’s a whole mythology surrounding him and his crimes known as “Ripperology.” He has become a cult figure, celebrated for his crimes, an icon for an age of gaslit streets and back alley murder. He is the dark foil to Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson and, at this point, almost as fictional. He is London’s greatest unsolved mystery, his true identity forever seemingly lost to time.

Except that author Bruce Robinson knows this is a load of bullshit. Jack the Ripper was hiding in plain sight. He was begging to be caught, knowing at the same time that the people responsible for doing so would never dare. He was one of them: upper-class, wealthy, well-respected, and a member of the same club—the Freemasons. If he was exposed, the entire class system of Victorian London would have been brought down with him. He worked Freemason mythology and ritual throughout all the details of his murders. To him it was all a “funny little game” and he was very entertained by his own cleverness. He played a cat-and-mouse game with senior police commissioner Charles Warren, also a Freemason who spent more time destroying evidence and covering up for Jack than he ever did trying to track him down. Coroners and police officials lied through their teeth. Crucial eyewitnesses were never questioned. The conspiracy to cover Jack up is extensive and appalling. And it showed how little value these men placed on the lives of the women that the killer targeted.

Clocking in at over 800 pages, this is an exceptional, staggering piece of work. It’s a condemnation of the entire political, legal, and social system of Victorian London, which was corrupt to the core. It took Robinson fifteen years to write this book. He had to force himself to stop; he could have easily written 3,000 pages, and still be going at the age of 81. Robinson’s passion, his rage, and a ruthless, in-depth examination of the case will leave you completely convinced of his theory. There are photocopies of letters written by Jack, and a composite sketch of the killer based on what an eyewitness had seen of him. I believe Robinson has found the right guy, and I hope that he collaborates with Netflix or HBO to make a 12-14 episode adaptation of this book so that everyone will finally know who this bastard is. He’s gotten away with it long enough.

Here’s a tease: “Jack the Ripper” was a nickname the killer came up with for himself. A year prior to the first murder in 1888, Robinson’s suspect, a popular English composer and singer, wrote a song called “They All Love Jack.”

5. I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer, Michelle McNamara

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A man in a leather hood entered the window of a house in Citrus Heights and sneaked up on a sixteen-year-old girl watching television alone in the den. He pointed a knife at her and issued a chilling warning: “Make one move and you’ll be silent forever and I’ll be gone in the dark.”

The Golden State Killer is the name that author Michelle McNamara gave to a serial killer, rapist, and prowler believed to be responsible for three different crime sprees in California from 1974-1986 that included 13 murders, over 50 rapes, and over 100 burglaries. McNamara was a freelance writer and true crime investigator who became obsessed with unmasking him. The case had become stone-cold in 2006 when she launched her blog, True Crime Diary, and in 2013-14 when she wrote several articles on the case for Los Angeles Magazine. She was determined to renew public interest in the case; in June 2016, local law enforcement agencies and the FBI announced that it had been officially reopened.

McNamara was convinced that if she and her fellow investigators looked hard enough, they would find the crucial clue or detail that would finally expose the killer. Sadly, Michelle passed away in April 2016 when she was midway through writing this book. Her husband, comedian Patton Oswalt, recruited Michelle’s co-investigator, Paul Haynes, and true crime writer Billy Jensen to finish it. The book was published on February 27, 2018. On April 24, 2018, not even two months later, Joseph James Dangelo, 72, was arrested.

What struck me most about this book was how powerful, absorbing, and empathetic McNamara’s writing was. She was an exceptional talent, both in her writing and in her passion for getting things right. My favourite anecdote in the book involved a time when McNamara met up with one of the lead investigators in the case to tour one of the neighbourhoods the killer had prowled. She brought along a playlist of songs on her iPod that would have been popular at the time that the crimes were being committed. No detail was too small. She was as compassionate as she was intelligent, the sincerity of her efforts earning her the trust of the police and the victims’ families alike. She had been given access to 37 banker’s boxes of files from the Orange County prosecutor, and they trusted her to take them off the premises and to her home. She had 3,500 files concerning the case on her hard drive. It can be easy for a true crime writer to be overwhelmed by the details and to lose the human impact a serial killer has on a community, to forget about including the trauma and terror that he inflicts. McNamara doesn’t do that.

At the end of the book, Haynes and Jensen predict that the Golden State Killer will be caught within the next five years, and that familial DNA will be how he is exposed. I finished reading the book in March. It was so fascinating that I couldn’t help talking to Neil at length about it, even though he doesn’t like true crime. It was surreal to me when, only a month later, the case was finally solved—44 years after it had first begun.

6. Stoned: Jewelry, Obsession & How Desire Shaped the World, Aja Roden

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Jewelry has long been used to express wealth, power, glamour, and success. Imagine Elizabeth Taylor dripping with diamonds. Think of a coronation crown so heavy with jewels that it strains a monarch’s neck. Imagine a parade float laden with a literal tonne of gold and silver, requiring hundreds of people to carry it at a time. In this book, Radan uses the history of eight different jewels to show how desire moves the world, and shapes the course of history. The author covers “the beads that bought Manhattan” and “the necklace that started the French Revolution.” There is a pearl coveted by rival sister queens. There are gold Fabergé eggs that were once gifted amongst the Russian Imperial family, and later used to fund the regime that came after them. The book also examines the rise of the diamond ring and cultured pearl industries. It offers a fascinating lens into world history and it was a timely read, as Neil and I were in the midst of touring some of the places that are featured (Antwerp, Bruges, Seville). The author does a good job of showing how “glittering surfaces have a singular power to reflect our desires back at us.”

7. Germany: Memories of a Nation, Neil MacGregor

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German history is different, and so this is not a straight-forward history book. Countries like Britain and France have been shaped by centuries of strong centralized power, all contained within a defined border. The border may change with various territorial conquests and defeats, but always with a solid idea that one side of it retained what it was to be “British” or “French.” Germany, on the other hand, did not exist as a single unified nation-state in this same manner until 1871. Prior to that, it was a compendium of autonomous states, free cities, kingdoms, duchies, grand duchies, principalities, and electorates loosely collected under the umbrella of The Holy Roman Empire. Political differences varied on a much more local level. There was no core area around which someone could draw a line and say “inside this, this has always been Germany.”

For example, during the wars with Napoleon, Bavaria fought on the side of the French against other German states. Frederick the Great of Prussia was a hero for his territorial conquests in Berlin, but a villain in Dresden, which he fire-bombed. Germany’s intellectual, cultural, and spiritual boundaries have always been fluid. When Martin Luther was condemned in one municipality, all he had to do was escape to the one next door. His ideas would have been crushed in a more centralized nation-state such as Britain, where the opposition against him would have been more swift and resolute. Instead, the Reformation was given the freedom it needed to flourish because of the political and religious diversity that existed within The Holy Roman Empire. (This “triumph of creative fragmentation” is, arguably, why Germany understands the role of the EU so much better than Britain and France. It has had a thousand years of practice).

For most of Germany’s history, there is no single national story. It is more accurate to say that Germany has a collection of histories, an “awareness of belonging to the same family”, and a “large number of widely shared memories of what Germans have done and experienced.” MacGregor uses this concept of shared memories as the basis for his book. He explores “through objects and buildings, people and places, some formative strands in Germany’s modern national identity.” He’ll begin a chapter with a concrete, material item or landmark such as the Gutenberg printing press, the Brandenburg Gate, the works of writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the Reichstag, Meissen porcelain, the Victory Column, or the diversity of German sausages. He’ll then use that as an object lesson to explain more expansive concepts such as the Holy Roman Empire, the Thirty Years’ War, the Third Reich, the GDR.

Of course, any work attempting to grapple with the enormity of German identity and history must address the “moral abyss” of the Nazi regime. The author comments that this is “in a profound sense a history so damaged that it cannot be repaired, but must be constantly revisited.” He examines how the country is doing that, particularly in Berlin which is still rebuilding after a long period of division. “I know of no other country in the world that at the heart of its national capital erects monuments to its own shame,” MacGregor states, in reference to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews in Europe.

This was an immensely readable, excellent book that Neil and I both thoroughly enjoyed. I had a brand-new highlighter that ran out of ink three-quarters of the way through the book due to heavy use. I’m sure I’ll refer to it often as I continue to recap the time we spent in Germany on our travel blog.

8. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari

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I took 27 pages of notes on this book, if that’s any indication of how interesting I found it.  Harari recounts the history of our species, homo sapiens, and has a fascinating premise: that sapiens rule the world because they are “the only animal that can believe in things that exist purely in its own imagination, such as gods, states, money and human rights.” Gossip and storytelling are two crucial competencies that enabled small bands of people to expand into broader networks. “Gossip comes so naturally to us that it seems as if our language evolved for this very purpose,” the author states. Of storytelling, he says “a truly unique feature of our language is the ability to transmit information about things that do not exist at all.” Our ability to fictionalize and create mythologies (“Careful! A lion!” → “The lion is the guardian spirit of our tribe”) has given sapiens “the ability to cooperate in extremely flexible ways with countless numbers of strangers.” The book details some of sapiens’ most successful mythologies: religion, capitalism, nation states, etc. It is a thoughtful and captivating read.

9. The Witches of New York, Ami McKay

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The year is 1880. An ancient Egyptian obelisk known as Cleopatra’s Needle is on its way to New York. So, too, is Beatrice Dunn. She has left her small town for the big city in hopes of being hired on as a shopgirl at Tea and Sympathy, which is run by Adelaide Thom (Mckay’s character Moth from her previous book, The Virgin Cure) and Eleanor St. Clair. The shop caters to women in Manhattan’s high society, offering them tea, palm readings, and potions. Adelaide and Eleanor are witches, and Beatrice has magical gifts of her own that she is set to discover. But there are always those who oppose women having any sort of power, especially if it’s supernatural. A priest stalks the streets, murdering those he believes have strayed from God’s light. Can the women stop him in time? Or will he find them first?

This is a perfect escapist novel, set in Gilded Age New York. There is a little fantasy, a little history, and a lot of great female characters and relationships. There’s a follow-up novella, Half Spent Was the Night, that I also read and enjoyed this year.

10. Transcription, Kate Atkinson

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Juliet Armstrong, 18, is working as a file clerk in 1940 London when she is given the opportunity of a lifetime: working as a spy with the British Security Service, MI5. Her boss, Godfrey Toby, is posing as a British Nazi sympathizer, and conducts meetings in an apartment with members of London high society who are actually hoping for and looking to help Hitler invade England. The apartment is bugged, and Juliet is responsible for transcribing the minutes of these clandestine meetings. The work is mostly mind-numbingly boring, as the people Godfrey meets with are not exactly the cream of the Nazi-spy crop. It’s almost easy to forget how very real the stakes are, and how desperate people will do anything to protect themselves…

Scenes of Juliet in 1940 are interspersed with Juliet in 1950. In 1950, she is working for the BBC radio producing education programs. Bored and unsatisfied with post-war life, she gets the sense she is being followed, and anonymous notes are being left for her. One ominously reads, “you will pay for what you did.”

Atkinson is a master at creating characters and plots that are not always what they seem. Her writing is vivid, funny, and absorbing. Juliet’s life in World War II really encapsulates the phrase that war is “months of interminable boredom punctuated by moments of extreme terror.” In this way, it feels like an honest depiction of an everyday person. There was a better life somewhere, Juliet supposed, if only she could be bothered to find it. But the book itself is never boring, as you can sense that there’s something going on behind the narrative scenes, and you’re trying to figure out what Atkinson is up to.

Special Mention:

11. The Diary of a Young Girl, Anne Frank.

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I didn’t feel it was appropriate to “rank” something as important as Anne Frank’s diary. Her work exists outside and above any reading list. I reread it last August when Neil and I were visiting Amsterdam in preparation for visiting the Secret Annex that she, her family, and four other people used to hide from the Nazis. It’s been over 20 years since I read it in elementary school and I highly recommend that others do so too. It’s an entirely new experience. Incredibly moving and heartbreaking, all over again. Did you know that in Germany circa 1930 that Jews made up only 0.7% of the population? When we were visiting the Anne Frank House we were asked to guess how many there had been, and our answer was 15-20%. Nope. A smaller than I could have imagined percentage of a population were targeted, scapegoated, and made to bear exceptional cruelty, prejudice, and atrocity.

Still chillingly relevant today.

Good (very entertaining, was able to put it down but still looked forward to picking it up again soon, would be excited if a friend had read it but might not otherwise bring it up in conversation):

12. The Light Between Two Oceans, M.L. Stedman
13. Love & Other Perishable Items, Laura Buzo
14. King’s Cage, Victoria Aveyard
15. The Alice Network, Kate Quinn
16. The Doomsday Book, Connie Willis
17. To Say Nothing of the Dog, Connie Willis
18. The Museum of Extraordinary Things, Alice Hoffman
19. To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, Jenny Han
20. Moranifesto, Caitlin Moran
21. Matchmaking for Beginners, Maddie Dawson
22. Half-Spent was the Night, Ami McKay

Medium (enjoyed many parts of it, would suggest to a friend who expressed interest in the subject or author):

23. Beartown, Fredrik Backman
24. Good Night From London, Jennifer Robson
25. Mary: Queen of Scots, Antonia Fraser
26. Crown of Thistles: The Fatal Inheritance of Mary, Queen of Scots, Linda Porter
27. At Home, Bill Bryson
28. The War of Art, Steven Pressfield
29. Sisters of Versailles, Sally Christie
30. The Stranger Beside Me, Ann Rule
31. To Marry an English Lord: Tales of Wealth and Marriage, Sex and Snobbery, Gail MacColl & Carol McD. Wallace
32. Milk & Honey, Rupi Kaur
33. The Psychopath Inside: A Neuroscientist’s Personal Journey into the Dark Side of the Brain, James Fallon
34. Vikings, Neil Oliver
35. Ma’am Darling: 99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret, Craig Brown
36. How to Be Famous, Caitlin Moran

Okay (an acceptable way to pass the time, some interesting parts, but would not bother recommending to a friend):

37. National Geographic’s London Book of Lists
38. Norse Mythology, Neil Gaiman
39. You Play the Girl, Carina Chocano
40. Time Travel: A History, James Gleick
41. The Little Paris Bookshop, Nina George
42. The Forgetting Time, Sarah Ruskin
43. The Widow, Fiona Barton
44. The Child, Fiona Barton
45. The Woman in Cabin 10, Ruth Ware
46. Into the Water, Paula Hawkins
47. Firewatch, Connie Willis
48. Human Croquet, Kate Atkinson

On the Verge of Disliking:

49. The Fire Starter Sessions, Danielle La Porte
50. The Road to Little Dribbling, Bill Bryson
51. 13 Blue Envelopes, Maureen Johnson
52. The Gifts of Imperfection, Brené Brown

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