For the last few years, the only consistent New Year’s Resolution I make and try my best to keep is to read 52 books, 1 for each week, over the course of a year. Then, at the end, I recap my top 10. This year, I managed to surpass my goal by reading 54 books. This was entirely because I got a couple of books for Christmas and wanted to read them right away.
Here are my top reads of 2019! Please let me know if there are any exceptionally good books you read this year, as I am always looking for recommendations.
1. The Huntress, Kate Quinn
This novel opens in the city of Cologne, Germany, in the year 1950. Former war correspondent Ian Graham has opened a private investigation office with his business partner, Anton (Tony) Rodomovsky. The two men are on the hunt for lesser-known Nazi war criminals who have managed to evade justice due to a lack of manpower, money, and interest in a Europe that is now more focused on conflict with Russia. But Ian and Tony’s experiences during the war have imbued them with a grim determination to seek out those who would otherwise go unpunished. They are hot on the trail of a woman known as Die Jägerin, the Huntress, whose cold-blooded wartime exploits include shooting six Polish children aged 4-9 years old, execution-style, after first feeding them a meal (based on a true event). The men are aided in their investigation by Nina Markova, a Siberian woman as fierce and deadly as the straight razor she wields, and Boston-area Jordan McBride, who aspires to be a trailblazing documentary photographer. Jordan becomes suspicious of her father’s second wife when, on their wedding day, she finds an Iron Cross hiding within the blooms of her soon-to-be stepmother’s bouquet. Who is Anneliese Weber? What did she really get up to during the war, and why is she hiding it?
The main plot line of The Huntress is sharp and full of page-flipping suspense but, for me, the best part of the novel was the part which involves the character and background story of Nina. Nina grows up in the 1930s in an isolated part of Russia in extreme poverty with her drunken, abusive father her only family. After he nearly drowns her in a lake, a chance encounter with a pilot and his small aircraft inspires Nina to escape by running away to an air club where she trains to be a pilot herself. She falls in love with flying, and is inspired by the example of legendary Soviet pilot Marina Raskova. Although Nina’s character is fictional, Raskova is very real. When Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, Raskova used her influence with Joseph Stalin to convince the military to form three combat regiments of female pilots. In The Huntress, the fictional Nina Markova joins one of these regiments—the 588th Night Bomber Aviation Regiment, whose deadly night-time assaults on the German army earned them the nickname Die Nachthexen (the “Night Witches”). In a war where English pilots counted themselves lucky to survive 20 bombing runs, these female Russian pilots often racked up more than 600; they would push to do 13 runs in a single night in planes that had wooden wings. And the heroics weren’t restricted to just the pilots: for example, the female armorers equipping the planes between each run would work bare-handed in blisteringly frigid weather (-30°C, -40°C, etc.), often losing fingers to the cold because they couldn’t attach bomb fuses while wearing gloves. Nina’s story, which is based on true accounts of these extraordinary women, is completely engrossing. The fierce devotion that all of these sisters-in-arms (sestras) feel for each other is the heart of this book. Nina ends up working as a navigator with a pilot named Yelena, and I truly felt like I was seated in the plane with them. I want more stories about Russia’s Night Witches. The Huntress is an exceptional place to start.
2. The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, Taylor Jenkins Reid
Taylor Jenkins Reid’s most recent work, Daisy Jones & the Six, was one of the buzziest books of 2019. I really liked that book and it does have its own place on my top-ten list a few entries below this one. However, after reading Daisy Jones, I felt compelled to pick up Evelyn Hugo and I found that I liked it even more—it was impossible to put this book down until I was finished. The novel opens in the present-day with Monique Grant, a relatively unknown writer who has recently landed a gig working for the glamorous magazine Vivant in New York City. One day Monique’s editor, Frankie, calls her with news of a surprising, life-changing opportunity. Evelyn Hugo, the fiercely private Old Hollywood star¹, has decided at the age of 79 to auction off 12 of her most famous dresses for charity with Christie’s, and she wants Vivant to do an in-depth profile on her to accompany the sale. For the first time in her career, which flared hottest from the 1940s-1970s, Evelyn is willing to talk candidly about everything, no holds barred. She’ll discuss her break-out role as Jo in Little Women, her performance as the title character in Anna Karenina, the filming of that scandalous scene in the racy French film Boute-en-Train, and more. She’ll delve into her famous rivalry with actress Celia St. James. She’ll also open up, for the first time, about what it was like to be a young Latina actress trying to prove herself in a studio system that insisted she look as white as possible. And, best of all, she’s ready to share the truth about the most gossip-worthy aspect of her life: her seven husbands. Evelyn’s only condition is that Monique Grant has to be the one to interview her and write the profile.
Monique has no idea why Evelyn Hugo insists on having her write the piece. The two women have never met, and she has no idea how Evelyn even heard about her in the first place. There are legions of writers better qualified than her. But Monique can’t let fear block her from what will be a career-making project. Monique meets with Evelyn, and quickly gets caught up in Evelyn’s stories about the men she married: there’s the starter husband, Ernie Diaz, who provided a desperate and poor Evelyn with the one-way ticket she needed into Hollywood; actor Don Adler, the abusive drunk whose love almost destroyed her; musician Mick Riva; co-star Rex North; manager Harry Cameron; director Max Girard; and, finally, Robert Jamison—brother of Evelyn’s rival, Celia St. James. Which husband made Evelyn truly happy? Did any of them? Many secrets are brought to light through the course of their conversations but the darkest one, the last one, will hit Monique the hardest.
¹Evelyn Hugo’s character was inspired in equal part by Elizabeth Taylor and Ava Gardner.
3. Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier
Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again…
Yes, I’m a little late to the appreciation party for this novel, which was first published in 1938. But better late than never, right? I picked up this book because Kate Morton, one of my favourite authors, mentioned in an interview that she considers it an essential foundational text. It’s easy to see why. A lot has changed in the 81 years since this novel was written, but not that timeless ability that some people have to haunt and destroy you. Rebecca‘s themes of love and obsession continue to resonate today.
The story opens in Monte Carlo where the narrator, an unnamed young woman in her 20s, is working as a companion to a wealthy American woman on holiday. The narrator meets a wealthy Englishman, George Fortescue Maximilian “Maxim” de Winter, a 42-year-old widower. After a short courtship, the narrator agrees to marry Maxim and return with him to his estate in Cornwall, Manderley. But the narrator’s happiness sours in the isolation of the countryside. She faces unrelenting antagonism from Manderley’s grim housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers. Mrs. Danvers was profoundly devoted to Maxim’s previous wife, Rebecca, who died in a mysterious boating accident around a year prior to the narrator’s arrival at Manderley. And so the narrator finds herself on a downward psychological spiral in which she finds she can never hope to live up to the example of beauty, accomplishment, and charisma that the first Mrs. de Winter seemed to have set. We never learn the narrator’s name but, like her, the reader can’t forget that of her predecessor. Rebecca is a hiss-whisper that follows the reader/narrator through every page and hall they tread. Rebecca is the spectral figure who knows every thought, sees every move, judges every feeling, and finds all of it wanting. Rebecca can’t be escaped—not by distance, not by time, not by fire or murder or madness. You may try but, inevitably, your mind will draw you back to the hazy ruins of Manderley, where she waits to haunt you, still.
A favourite passage (emphasis mine): “I am glad it cannot happen twice, the fever of first love. For it is a fever, and a burden, too, whatever the poets may say. They are not brave, the days when we are twenty-one. They are full of little cowardices, little fears without foundation, and one is so easily bruised, so swiftly wounded, one falls to the first barbed word.”
4. Dear Mrs. Bird, AJ Pearce
This is a delightful, endearing novel set in London during World War II. I know that sounds like a bit of an oxymoron, but the narrative style is fresh, upbeat, and sparkling; a sample phrase includes a character sharing her Everything is Absolutely Tip-Top smile. The heart of the novel is the friendship between Emmeline “Emmy” Lake and her best friend, Elizabeth “Bunty.” The Germans may be doing their best to blitz the city, but the girls are determined to Do Their Bit and Keep Their Chins Up. Emmy aspires to become a serious war-time correspondent but a misunderstanding results in her working at Woman’s Friend, a struggling woman’s magazine owned by the company she actually thought she was applying to. Emmy’s task is to screen and type up letters for the “agony aunt” advice column run by the formidable Henrietta Bird, who has strict rules about the subject matter she is wiling to address. Henrietta directs Emmy to throw away all letters that contain any sort of Unpleasantness including, but not limited to, issues relating to sex, war, religion, and politics. This rule excludes the majority of concerns that the female readers of war-torn London would feel inclined to write about, and that suits Henrietta just fine. Her interests keep her outside of the office most of the time, anyway. But Emmy feels differently as she reads letter after letter detailing the troubles of sad, frightened, and confused young women throughout the country. It doesn’t feel right to Emmy to just trash their heartfelt pleas for guidance. So, secretly, she begins to write back to them. There can be no harm in that, surely? In the meantime, war rages on and bombs continue to rain down on London. Will Emmy be exposed? Will her friendship with Bunty survive a horrific tragedy? This novel was inspired by the author’s research into several agony aunt advice columns of the period, and presents a fun and thoughtful tribute to the ordinary women of England who rose to meet the extraordinary challenges of their time. If you liked The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society as much as I did, you’ll find this book has a very similar charm.
5. Daisy Jones & the Six, Taylor Jenkins-Reid
Daisy Jones & The Six were the biggest thing in music in the late seventies. They flared hot on the scene due to the combined electric talent of The Six’s lead man, Billy Dunne, and Los Angeles “It Girl” Daisy Jones. Their hit album Aurora defined the peak era of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. But the group burned out just as fast with a final concert held in Chicago on July 12, 1979. What triggered the demise of the world’s biggest band at the height of its meteoric success? For the first and only time, the band members have finally decided to speak out in this oral history of Daisy Jones & The Six.
This novel is a fun, addictive, and creative read. It is structured as a series of interviews with the various band members, and reads like the transcript to an episode of VH1’s Behind the Music. Taylor Jenkins Reid has mentioned that she was inspired by bands such as Fleetwood Mac, the Eagles, and The Civil Wars. The author does a great job of bringing the band and its music to life, no small feat given the narrative style she employs. I felt like I was in the tour bus, in the studio, and getting ready to go on-stage with everyone else. The heat of the story comes from the love-hate relationship between reckless Daisy and reformed bad-boy Billy. But the other characters and their relationships are just as compelling. There’s Camila, Billy’s wife and muse who loves and supports his life on the road, but (rightly) refuses to suffer any of his bullshit. There’s Simone, Daisy’s friend, a disco star who is fascinating enough to potentially star in a documentary of her own. Then there are the supporting members of The Six, who have to contend with a leading man whose perfectionistic streak has him (knowingly or not) suppressing their artistic contributions: guitarist Graham Dunne (Billy’s brother); keyboardist Karen Sirko; brothers Eddie and Pete Loving on rhythm guitar and bass, respectively; as well as drummer Warren Rhodes. I could picture all these characters talking to the camera, leaning in conspiratorially to tell you what they really think of Billy/Daisy. I might even be forgiven for thinking, for a few minutes, that this was a real group whose songs resonate as deeply as Landslide or Go Your Own Way. Interestingly, this book is being adapted into a 13-episode television miniseries. Will the show be as good as the book? I really hope so! Will the music live up to the book’s promise? That will be a tricky feat to pull off, but I’m crossing my fingers.
A favourite passage: “When Graham and I were kids, our mom used to take us to this community pool during the summer. And this one time, Graham was sitting on the edge of the pool, toward the deep end. And this was before he could swim. And I stood there next to him, and my brain went, I could push him in. And that terrified the hell out of me. I didn’t want to push him in. I would never push him in but… it scared me that the thing between this moment of calm and the biggest tragedy of my life was me choosing not to do it. […] And that’s how it felt being around Daisy Jones.”
Another passage: “Art doesn’t owe anything to anyone. Songs are about how it felt, not the facts. Self-expression is about what it feels to live, not whether you had the right to claim any emotion at any time. Did I have a right to be mad at him? Did he do anything wrong? Who cares! Who cares? I hurt. So I wrote about it.”
6. Four Dead Queens, Astrid Scholte
The nation of Quadara is a matriarchy, with each of its four districts ruled by four queens. Iris oversees the agricultural island of Archia, located west of the mainland, which values simplicity, hard work, and nature. Corra manages the frozen northern region of Eonia, Quadara’s technological hub, where technology, evolution, and a harmonious society are prioritized. Marguerite reigns in the coastal district of Toria, Quadara’s centre of commerce, curiosity, and exploration. Stessa governs the coastal quadrant of Ludia, the artistic and cultural capital. The power of a queen can only be passed on to her daughter or closest living female relative in the event of her death or abdication. As such, a queen is required to produce an heir before the age of 45. However, she is forbidden to marry as love is seen as a distraction from her duties. As children, heirs to the queens are raised in their individual quadrants. When it is time for an heir to ascend to the throne, the individual is taken to the capital city of Concord to live in a palace with the other three queens for the rest of her life. Quadara has enjoyed a 400-year period of peace and prosperity under this system. But the nation is now at a point of crisis as, one-by-one, the queens are being murdered by an unknown assassin. Who is behind these attacks? And what will happen when the final queen falls?
17-year-old Keralie “Kera” Corrington is largely unconcerned about greater queenly politics. For the Torian citizen, it is just another ordinary day. She has come to the crowded public square outside the palace to pick pockets under the direction of her employer, Mackiel. He will later sell her purloined items at his auction house. Kera’s target is an Eonist messenger and his comm case. The theft itself is successful, but Kera is surprised when the messenger, Varin, later shows up at the auction house to reclaim his property. The comm case and the chips inside are more valuable than his life, and being held at gunpoint gives Kera enough reason to try and help him. But Mackiel catches them and, thinking Kera has double-crossed him, the situation escalates. As Kera and Varin escape, Kera discovers what information is being held on the chips: a clue to the identity of the royal assassin. Why is Mackiel willing to kill for these chips? Who was Varin supposed to deliver them to? Can Kera and Varin use this knowledge to save themselves, their loved ones, and the fate of the kingdom itself?
This was a gripping, action-packed novel that I couldn’t put down. The author is a masterful world builder, creating a fresh, immersive story that blends elements of science fiction and fantasy. I loved the experience of reading about a world that is ruled by four women. I really enjoyed the way the four quadrants and their citizens are structured in their effort to create an idealistic society—and how, of course, this breaks down on an individual level because humans (and the queens who rule them) could never entirely fall in line with what’s expected of them. The heart of the story is how Kera, through her relationship with Varin, grows from being a master trickster and deceiver into someone who learns to trust and care about someone other than herself. Varin’s motivation for working with Kera to uncover the truth about the royal assassin is also a touching issue that raises this book above many others I’ve read in this genre.
7. P.S. I Still Love You, Jenny Han
Shortly after watching the Netflix adaptation of Jenny Han’s first book in this series, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, I had to read the two that follow. This is the second in the trilogy. The premise of the first book and film adaptation centers on Lara Jean Covey, a shy high school junior who isn’t yet confident enough to express the romantic feelings she has for boys when she gets crushes on them. Instead, when the emotions become overwhelming, she writes them down in a letter. Then she seals them and hides them away in a hatbox, never ever intending for them to be sent. But fate has other plans. One of the letters finds its way to Peter Kavinsky, a childhood friend that Lara Jean hasn’t spoken to in years since he became one of the most popular kids in school. Although Lara Jean and Peter claim to not currently have romantic feelings for each other, they both have their reasons for deciding to pretend that they are in a relationship: Lara Jean wants another letter recipient, Josh, her older sister’s ex-boyfriend, to think she has moved on; Peter wants his ex-girlfriend, Genevieve “Gena”, to think the same. There are rules. But the lines become blurred when Lara Jean and Peter develop actual feelings for each other. The ending of the first book and the ending of the film differ slightly. At the end of the first book, Lara Jean and Peter have a fight that is left unresolved. At the end of the movie, the fight is resolved and they decide to date for real. But then another letter recipient, John Ambrose, shows up with a few follow-up questions…
The beginning of the second book, P.S. I Still Love You, picks up where the first left off. Lara Jean realizes that she has fallen for Peter, and she gathers the courage she needs to tell him that. They decide to date for real, and happily begin to celebrate authentic milestones: first real date, first real kiss, first real Valentine’s Day… One day, Lara Jean gets a letter in the mail from John Ambrose. He has read her letter, and is curious about what she’s been up to these last few years. They begin a friendly correspondence. Lara Jean also begins volunteering at a retirement home by running a scrapbooking class, and meets an interesting woman named Stormy. When Lara Jean learns that a neighbourhood treehouse is going to be cut down, she invites the childhood friends that she used to spend time with there for a reunion. These friends include Peter, John Ambrose, and Gena. Lara Jean has been having a hard time accepting Peter’s continued friendship with Gena, especially when she finds out that Peter knew Gena was behind a cruel act that humiliated her. Peter is unhappy to learn that Lara Jean has been writing to John Ambrose. Tensions escalate further at this reunion when the group decides to start up a round of an old childhood game, Assassins, that they used to play. Competition and jealousy drive Lara Jean and Peter to the edge of their relationship. Is Peter Kavinsky truly the best guy for Lara Jean? Are her feelings for John Ambrose worth exploring?
This whole series is really heart-warming and well-written. I found they provided a great escape from everyday life. I especially loved the relationship between Lara Jean and her two sisters, Margot and Kitty. Lara Jean reminds me a little of myself, in that at the beginning of the first book she finds it easier to hide behind her writing and she would rather spend her time reading romance novels than talking to boys because she isn’t yet brave enough to pursue these things in her real life. When the letters are mailed, she is forced to come out of her shell and find the courage and confidence she needs to finally ask for what she wants. The first book ranked at #19 on my Books of 2018 list. However, I found that I liked the sequel even more as I couldn’t wait to finish reading it. Towards the end, when I only had a couple of chapters left, I found myself in desperate need of going to the grocery store. I told myself that as soon as I accomplished that errand, I would reward myself when I got home by finishing the book. But I cheated, a little. I brought the book with me. After getting my groceries, I sat in the parking lot in my car and read until I was finished. It’s a rare book that haunts me to the point that I can’t finish a grocery excursion.
8. A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win WWII, Sonia Purnell
More people should know the story of Virginia Hall, an American woman who served as a spy during World War II in occupied France, first with Britain’s newly formed Special Operations Executive (SOE) and then with the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (OSS) Special Operations Branch. Virginia was the first Allied woman deployed behind enemy lines. She worked out of Vichy and quickly became a linchpin for the French resistance, coordinating activities in Toulouse and then Lyon. Her cover was as a correspondent for the New York Post. Virginia managed vast spy networks, mapped out and arranged for weapon and supply drops, guided deadly sabotage missions, set up safe houses, and rescued political prisoners. She provided London with valuable reports on German military numbers and movement. She trained three battalions of resistance forces in the art of guerrilla warfare; their activities later interfered with German attempts to move troops to Normandy to shore up their defences against the Allied invasion. The Gestapo called her “the most dangerous of all Allied spies” and they were determined to find and destroy her. Her face appeared on wanted posters and a bounty was put on her head.
It became extraordinarily dangerous for Virginia to remain in France, but she refused to leave because she had more work to do and lives to save. When she was finally forced to escape, she did so in a death-defying hike over the Pyrenees mountain range into Spain, covering up to 50 miles in two days. Her efforts are all the more remarkable, especially this intensive escape, because Virginia had a physical disability. She had lost her leg years earlier due to a hunting accident, and as a result had to wear a wooden prosthetic that she amusedly referred to as “Cuthbert.” A wooden leg restricted Virginia’s mobility and made it harder for her to go unnoticed—an essential part of being a spy— but she didn’t let it hold her back. Nor did her flight out of France into Spain. Within months of her escape, she had returned to occupied France. More work to do, more lives to save.
Because Virginia was a woman, many of her colleagues underestimated and even resented her. Fellow field agents resisted her leadership, despite her extensive experience and successful track record, and they actively worked at undermining her. Hot-heads who feel they have something to prove can be fatal. A male agent who despised working for Virginia had his cover blown when he took up with a mistress who reported on his activities to Nazi officers. Life as a spy is not like James Bond with flashy cars, bottomless martinis, and sexy companions. This book is really good at showing how isolating and emotionally damaging it can be. Virginia couldn’t, and didn’t, trust anybody. German spies were constantly infiltrating the French resistance, and people she cared about died when she mistakenly trusted the wrong person. Paranoia was her sole daily companion. One agent mentioned that the only dinner partner they felt safe with was the reflection they saw when they ate alone in front of a mirror. As a result, Virginia could be acerbic to interact with. That didn’t earn her any favours with men who expected her to be typically feminine and pleasing, including her supervisors back in London. Virginia didn’t have time for flattery or glad-handing. But she did earn the respect and fierce devotion of several colleagues who were able to look past their prejudices and recognize how good she was at her job.
The work was what mattered most to Virginia. She didn’t see her role in the war as one deserving of praise and flattery. When U.S. President Harry S. Truman wanted to honour her with a medal in a public ceremony, Virginia demurred. She insisted that she was “still operational and anxious to get busy.” That medal, the Distinguished Service Cross, was instead awarded to her personally by General William Joseph Donovan (the founding father of the CIA) in a private ceremony where less than a handful of people were present. The Distinguished Service Cross is the second-highest military award that can be given to a member of the U.S. army for extreme gallantry and risk of life in actual combat with an armed enemy force; Virginia’s was the only one awarded to a civilian woman in WWII. Virginia was also made an honorary Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) and was awarded the Croix de Guerre with Palme by France.
This is an excellent book about an extraordinary woman. I just learned that the book has been optioned as a film starring Daisy Ridley as Virginia Hall. The film is still in a production stage; I hope it actually gets made!
9. The House I Loved, Tatiana de Rosnay
The Haussmann Renovation of 1853-1870 was a massive public works program that transformed the street layout and sanitation system of Paris. It was commissioned by Napoleon III, who wanted Paris to look more like London with its grand parks and gardens, modern sewage system, and wide tree-lined avenues. The project was carried out by Seine prefect Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann. Many of the narrow medieval streets in the centre of the city were razed to the ground. 12,000 buildings were torn down and 137 kms (85 miles) of new avenues were created. There was a lot of opposition to the renovation as this involved the destruction of centuries-old neighbourhoods and the displacement of the people who lived there. Napoleon III and Haussmann argued that the renovation was being made in the interest of the health and safety of the city populace. On one hand this was certainly true, as Paris had experienced a population boom (from 759,000 inhabitants in 1831 to over a million in 1846) and its infrastructure was woefully lacking. The city was overcrowded and dirty, sanitation conditions were abysmal, and outbreaks of cholera and typhoid had killed tens of thousands of people. On the other hand, it certainly didn’t hurt that these wide new streets made it easier for the men in power (Napoleon III) to control the local populace. Seven armed uprisings had broken out in central Paris between 1830-1848. The residents were fond of using furniture and paving stones to build barricades across the narrow streets. It would be impossible to do this with wider streets, and the army could be dispatched quickly and in large numbers through them.
This is the true historical context in which this fictional novel takes place. Roze Bazelet’s home on the Rue Childebert is next up on the chopping block. Her neighbours have all relocated, and Rose’s daughter is expecting her to come stay with her in the countryside. But Rose has decided she is never going to leave. As the demolition crew goes about their work, drawing closer and closer to her house, Rose writes a series of letters to her late husband, Armand. It is his family home in which she resides. She has spent the happiest years of her life within its walls. As she writes, she recalls details of their life together. She remembers their shared joys and sorrows. She informs him about what changes have come to the Rue Childebert in the years since he died of illness. She tells him about her friendship with the woman, Alexandrine, who runs the flower shop on the ground floor beneath her apartment. As the workers approach her home, Rose finally reveals the dark secret that she and the house have hidden all these long years…
This was a quick, interesting read that I really enjoyed. I really liked reading a fictional account of the Haussmann renovation, as it was a subject I came across while researching a post I was writing about the Parisian neighbourhood of Le Marais.
10. The Colour of Time: A New History of the World, 1850-1960, Dan Jones & Marina Amiral
Marina Amiral is a Brazilian artist who specializes in the colourization of historical photographs. She caused an international stir when she colourized a historical photo of 21-year-old Lewis Powell, one of the men who was involved in the conspiracy to assassinate Abraham Lincoln. On the night of April 14, 1865, while John Wilkes Booth was carrying out his grim task a few streets away at Ford’s Theatre, Powell went into the home of U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward and stabbed him while he was sleeping. Seward was critically injured, but survived. Powell was arrested three days later. The original black-and-white photograph of Powell was taken by Alexander Gardner while Powell was awaiting trial. Historical colourization is a controversial issue, and good results can be tricky to achieve. But Marina dazzled the world with her photo of Lewis Powell. I won’t post the photo here in order to respect Marina’s copyright, but you can google it. What you’ll see is an image that could easily be the cover of a contemporary magazine, featuring a broody pop star. Suddenly, the person who sat for that photo over 150 years ago feels alive. History looks real.
The colourized photograph caught the attention of British historian Dan Jones. He asked Marina if she would be interested in collaborating on a project with him. This book is the result of their partnership. Marina colourized 200 photographs and Dan wrote the descriptions that accompany them. The book begins with the 1850s and moves, decade-by-decade, through to the 1950s. It covers a variety of historic figures and events, both prominent and everyday, as well as cultural activities, technological developments, land and cityscapes, archaeological and scientific discoveries, medical advances, etc. Some of my favourites include: an interior view of the Crystal Palace of London at the Great Exhibition in 1851; Roger Fenton, one of the world’s first war photographers, seated on the wine-merchant’s carriage that he had converted into a mobile dark room so he could photograph the Crimean War (1853-1856); a Paris street (the Rue de Constantine) in the opening stage of its Haussmann-ordained demolition circa 1858 (see book 9, above); Julia Margaret Cameron experimenting with soft focus photography in 1866; a young Thomas Edison in 1878; the Statue of Liberty, still under construction in 1881; French actress Sarah Bernhardt in 1890; entertainer “Mata Hari” in 1906—11 years prior to her execution by firing squad for spying on the French for Germany during WWI… I could go on! Instead, I’ll recommend that you pick up a copy of the book and revisit the parts of history that are most interesting to you, and see for yourself how colourization makes it feel fresh and immediate.
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):
11. Code Name Verity, Elizabeth E. Wein
12. Stay Sexy & Don’t Get Murdered: the Definitive How-To Guide, Georgia Hardstark & Karen Kilgariff
13. Unsheltered, Barbara Kingsolver
14. The Girl They Left Behind, Roxanne Veletzos
15. My Cousin Rachel, Daphne du Maurier
16. Normal People, Sally Rooney
17. The Orphan of Salt Winds, Elizabeth Brooks
18. Conversations with Friends, Sally Rooney
19. Where the Crawdads Sing, Delia Owens
20. The Light Keeper’s Daughters, Jean E. Pendziwol
21. High Heel, Summer Brennan
22. The Lost Girls of Paris, Pam Jenoff
23. War Storm, Victoria Aveyard
24. Always & Forever, Lara Jean, Jenny Han
25. Maybe in Another Life, Taylor Jenkins-Reid
Historical Research Books (a new category this year due to the number of entries, listed separately because the quality of a good research book is not the same as its readability. It occupies this middle place between “good” and “medium”):
26. Marie Antoinette: the Journey, Antonia Fraser
27. The Blitz on Britain: Day by Day, the Headlines as They Were Made, Maureen Hill & James Alexander
28. The Blitz: The British Under Attack, Juliet Gardiner
29. Versailles, Colin Jones
30. Versailles: A Biography of a Palace, Antony Spawforth
31. The Bletchley Girls, Tessa Dunlop
32. The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century, Ian Mortimer
33. The Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England, Ian Mortimer
34. Spitfire Girl: My Life in the Sky, Jackie Moggridge
35. A History of the World in 100 Objects, Neil MacGregor
36. Fashion Victims: The Dangers of Dress Past & Present, Alison Matthews David
37. Peacock & Vine, A.S. Byatt
Medium (enjoyed many parts of it, would suggest to a friend who expressed interest in the subject or author):
38. This Will Only Hurt a Little, Busy Phillips
39. Choose Your Own Disaster, Dana Schwartz
40. The Island of Lost Maps: A True Story of Cartographic Crime, Miles Harvey
41. The Light Over London, Julia Kelly
42. My Lady’s Choosing: An Interactive Romance Novel, Kitty Curran & Larissa Zageris
43. The Summer I Turned Pretty, Jenny Han
44. We’ll Always Have Summer, Jenny Han
45. It’s Not Summer Without You, Jenny Han
46. The German Girl, Armando Lucas Correa
47. The Haunting of Vancouver Island: Supernatural Encounters with the Other Side, Shanon Sinn
48. A Mind Spread Out on the Ground, Alicia Elliott
Okay (an acceptable way to pass the time, some interesting parts, but would not bother recommending to a friend):
49. Albatross, Terry Fallis
50. I Like to Watch: Arguing My Way Through the TV Revolution, Emily Nussbaum
51. Cruel Crown, Victoria Aveyard
52. The Man in the High Castle, Philip K. Dick (one of those rare instances where a film/tv adaptation is better than the source material).
53. And We’re Off, Dana Schwartz
On the Verge of Disliking:
54. The Woman in White, Wilkie Collins— I know, I know, it’s a classic! It was one of the first mystery/detective/sensation novels and a lot of what we now consider typical mystery tropes were used in this story for the first time. I really wanted to like it! But narrative styles have changed a lot since 1859, when it was written. It was just so slow-paced and exposition-heavy that I really struggled to finish it.
That’s it for 2019! If you are interested in reading anymore of my book review posts, go to the top right of this site and click on “blog.” You’ll find my lists for 2017 and 2018 there. You can also find more on my personal site, where I’ve been tracking my reading since 2012.