Books I’ve Read This Week: The Book Pile

My New Year’s Resolution for 2018 is to read a book (or listen to an unabridged audiobook) every day: 365 books by December 31. I will post my reviews here each week and provide regular updates on Twitter and Goodreads. Recommendations are always welcome!

Week 33: The Book Pile: In mid-August, I read books from a variety of genres including Canadian history, science fiction, autobiography, mythology, comedy and fun novels. There was no real theme beyond the fact that all these books captured my interest and most are by authors who I have read before. Here are this week’s reviews:

#225 of 365 A Short History of Canada: Seventh Edition by Desmond Morton

Genre: History

Date Read: August 10-14, 2018

Acquired: Borrowed from Toronto Public Library

Format: Paperback, 432 pages

Review: AlthoughA Short History of Canada is over 400 pages long, it is a little too short, especially in the early chapters prior to Confederation in 1867. The book focuses primarily on political and economic developments with a small amount of social and cultural history, including some bleak depictions of pioneer life on the frozen frontier. The strongest chapters discuss how Canada’s economy changed over time as well as the different visions of Canada by successive Prime Ministers. There are a few mentions of royal tours but the impact of the constitutional monarchy and Canadian responses to this system of government receive little attention. The book would benefit from the inclusion of a bibliography and further reading suggestions considering how quickly major historical developments are summarized in the text. Well written and readable but too short, even for a short history, considering the breadth of the material.

#226 of 365 The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North

Date Read: August 11, 2018

Genre: Science Fiction

Acquired: Found at Home

Format: Paperback, 432 pages

Review: Having read Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, I was curious to read another novel with the premise that the protagonist lives the same life multiple times and has to decide whether to make dramatic changes to historic events. While Life After Life focuses on a single family with the ability relive their own lives, Harry August discovers a Cronus Club of people like himself who pass messages through the centuries. When the messages indicate that the end of the world is occurring sooner than expected, Harry August must take action and the story builds to a dramatic showdown with another time traveler like himself.

There are moments of dry humour in the book including how Harry laments in numerous lives that central heating takes a long time to become ubiquitous. His discovery of the Cronus Club through the newspaper classified ads is also an entertaining twist. Amidst the action, there are some interesting philosophical discussions about the effect that time travel for even a few seconds would have on the course of human history. A fun and interesting read.

#227 of 365 The Massey Murder: A Maid, Her Master And The Trial That Shocked a Nation by Charlotte Gray

Genre: History

Date Read: August 12, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from BMV Books, Toronto

Format: Paperback, 336 pages

Review: A absorbing book by one of my favourite authors of Canadian history.The Massey Murder: A Maid, Her Master And The Trial That Shocked a Nation is not just the story of a murder trial but a social history of Toronto during the First World War. Gray examines how the shooting of Bert Massey by his housemaid, Carrie Davies, was perceived in the Toronto newspapers and how responses to the trial reflected the values of the time. There is a lot of interesting analysis of women’s rapidly changing roles in society both among the elites and in domestic service. There is also extensive discussion of the justice system of the time and how the reputations of the accused and the deceased had the ability to shape the outcome of the trial. The book concludes with an examination of the source material and the reasons why the trial passed into obscurity.

#228 of 365 My History: A Memoir of Growing Up by Antonia Fraser

Genre: Memoir

Date Read: August 13-14, 2018

Acquired: Found at Home

Format: Hardcover, 268 pages

Review: I greatly enjoyed the beginning and end of this memoir. Lady Antonia Fraser is one of three generations of royal biographers, Elizabeth Longford, Antonia Fraser and Flora Fraser. She begins her reminiscences with the observation “The study of History has always been an essential part of the enjoyment of life,” a sentiment that I share. The last chapter of the book is fascinating, detailing her travels while researching her biography of Mary, Queen of Scots including conflicts with the tour guides of Sterling Castle and noting how myths about historical figures become popular knowledge. In between, however, there are too many tangents about Fraser’s extended family and social circle and not enough about her development as a historian. I would have liked to read more about Fraser’s historical interests and less about high society during the 1940s.

#229 of 365 Ragnarok: The End of the Gods by A.S.Byatt

Genre: Fiction/Mythology

Dates Read: August 16-17, 2018

Acquired: Borrowed from Icelandair 

Format: Audiobook, 4 hours

Review:   “The Gods created and sun and moon and with them time.” Not just about Norse mythology but the experience of reading mythology and discovering that these stories are unlike any others. A British “thin child” with asthma is evacuated to the countryside during the Blitz in the Second World War and becomes fascinated by Norse myths about the battle between the Gods and the end of the world. The thin child enjoys reading books from beginning to end, including their introductions but she does not enjoy analysis of how the Norse myths relate to other creation stories as she wishes to keep them entirely separate from every other story she has ever heard.

The narrative goes back and forth between the myths and the thin child’s pursuit of knowledge as “she liked seeing, and learning, and naming things. Daisies. Days-eyes.” The Gods are all larger than life figures except for Loki, who shows wit and a distinct personality. The book ends with A.S. Byatt’s own views on reading mythology and how they informed the novel.

#230 of 365 When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris

Genre: Comedy/Memoir

Dates Read: August 16-18, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from BMV Books

Format: Hardcover, 323 pages

Review:  An entertaining essay collection. The best sections were about his travels and book tours, including how his taste in hotels changed until he became an “insufferable snob,” the quirks of his fellow airline passengers and cultural differences that he encounters as he visits different places around the world. There is London where everything is “painfully expensive,” Paris where tourists argue underneath his window and Tokyo where he encounters curious translations of everyday instructions. What to do “When you are engulfed in flames” comes from the Japanese hotel fire safety instructions. There are not quite enough vignettes about his parents and siblings compared to his other books and “the smoking section” about his efforts to quit goes on a bit too long but much of this book is hilarious.

#231 of 365 The Unbearable Lightness of Scones by Alexander McCall Smith

Genre: Fiction

Date Read: August 18-19, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Re-Reading Books, Toronto

Format: Paperback, 368 pages

Review: The 5th installment in the 44 Scotland Street series. The characters continue to be charming and the Scottish setting engaging but the plot lines are starting to become repetitive. Bertie continues to rebel against his mother and have difficulties with Olive at school. Bruce continues to be overly concerned with his appearance and Angus is focused on the adventures of his dog, Cyril. I was surprised that Pat, a major character in the previous books only appeared briefly in this volume as a guest at Matthew’s wedding. I would have liked a few scenes about how everything was going at the art gallery while Matthew and Elspeth were on their honeymoon. A enjoyable read but I preferred some of the earlier books in the series.

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