Heidi’s Top 10 of 2014 (Plus a few more)

This year I really got into nonfiction. Whether it was personal essays by women I admire or lifestyle observations from experts, I was floored by how much great nonfiction made my list this year. Here are my Top 10 Books of 2014, in very particular order:

Unspeakable10. The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion, by Meghan Daum

While I didn’t relate to most of these essays (she loves Dogs, doesn’t want children, was not devastated by the loss of her mother, and is not a foodie), I was still taken with Meghan Daum’s candid writing. In a year that saw so many amazing essay collections by women writers, this is one that stood out.

BirdBoxTheFever9. TIE: The Fever, by Megan Abbott and Bird Box, by Josh Mallerman

These two books are my idea of the perfect beach reads. Smartly written, fast-paced, psychological thrillers, with subtle thematic critiques of society and culture. (Do you like how I sneaked an extra book in here?)

NotThatKindOfGirl8. Not That Kind of Girl, by Lena Dunham

Another fantastic essay collection. This one had me laughing, crying, feeling uncomfortable, and relating. This was the year I got addicted to Lena Dunham’s HBO show, Girls, and the publication of this book cemented me as one of her biggest fans.

Essentialism7. Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, by Greg McKeown

Greg McKeown is my new lifestyle guru, and in the spirit of this book, that is all I’ll say.

AllJoyNoFun6. All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood, by Jennifer Senior

An incredibly concise and clear-eyed sociological examination of what it means to be a parent in today’s world. For anyone who is a parent, wants to be a parent, or knows a parent.

UntamedState5. An Untamed State, by Roxane Gay

This is one of those books that I would hesitate to call a “favorite” because it is so painful to read, but definitely one of the best books I read this year. It’s about a woman who is kidnapped and brutally raped in Haiti. The subtlety and insight Roxane Gay brings to this material is impressive. I can’t wait to read her essay collection, Bad Feminist, which she also published this year.

BoneClocks4. The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell

Was this a perfect book? No. Did it live up to my ridiculously high expectations? No. Were parts of it so blindingly brilliant that it still edged into my Top 5? Yep. It is David Mitchell, after all. Even at his worst, he is better than most.

AllTheBirds3. All the Birds Singing, by Evie Wyld

This strange, sad, slim little book left an indelible impression on me. Evie Wyld is definitely one to watch.

dept2. Dept. of Speculation, by Jenny Offill

I loved Jenny Offill’s sparse, experimental portrait of a marriage. It was an entirely unique reading experience in which I alternated between extreme emotional resonance and awe at her beautiful writing. You can read this one in a day and I highly recommend you do.

StationEleven1. Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel

Very rarely does a book actually live up to, and then surpass, my over-hyped expectations. This happened two years ago with Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars, and it happened again this year with Station Eleven. An exquisitely told story about a traveling troupe of actors and musicians in the post-apocalyptic United States, this book hit all the right notes. Great story (and story within a story), compelling characters, a philosophical treatise on the persistence of art and culture in a desolate world, and beautiful writing. This is one of my new all-time favorites and I can’t recommend it enough.

MenExplainThingstoMeHonorable mention: The first essay in Men Explain Things to Me, by Rebecca Solnit

Yes, this is another way to sneak in an extra book! While I felt the collection as a whole was not quite substantial enough to make it into my Top 10, this first essay is a bombshell. It perfectly illustrates the insipid art of “mansplaining.”

PayingGuestsMost disappointing and overrated book of the year: The Paying Guests, by Sarah Waters

I really do not understand the hype around this book, or why it ended up on so many year-end best lists. Sure, Sarah Waters is a great writer, but really? This book was so underwhelming and cliched.

Books I haven’t read yet published in 2014 that might have ended up on my list if I had read them: 10:04, by Ben Lerner; Bad Feminist, by Roxane Gay; A Brief History of Seven Killings, by Marlon James; The Secret Place, by Tana French; We Are Not Ourselves, by Matthew Thomas; Wolf in White Van, by John Darnielle; and Yes Please, by Amy Poehler. (I’ll be reading all of these in January and February).

Books I read in 2014 that weren’t published in 2014 that would have made my list if I were willing to include books published in previous years: The Likeness, by Tana French; We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler; The Woman Who Lost Her Soul, by Bob Shacochis.

Well, that’s it folks! I’d love to hear from you. What were your favourites this year? Least favourites? Please tell me in the comments, and have a wonderful holiday season! The Top Shelf will be on holiday until the New Year.

#readwomen2014 Essay Collections

This has been a great year for women writers. Back in late 2013/early 2014, the hashtag #readwomen2014 began gaining traction as a response to the perceived sexism by book reviewers and the publishing industry. You can read more about the movement here.

Suffice it to say, I have been impressed and inspired by the amazing essay collections published by women writers this year. Here are a few you should check out:

badfeministBad Feminist, by Roxane Gay

I haven’t read this one yet, but I loved her novel, which also came out this year, and follow her blog, and am pretty sure this book is going to be amazing.

empathyexamsThe Empathy Exams, by Leslie Jamison

A collection that explores empathy in all its many forms and iterations.

MenExplainThingstoMeMen Explain Things to Me, by Rebecca Solnit

If you only read one feminist essay this year, may it be the title essay in this collection. The others are also great, but the essay about her encounter with a man who explained the importance of her book to her, without knowing she had written it, is priceless and perfectly illustrative of the issues women face when it comes to being taken seriously in the world.

NotThatKindOfGirlNot That Kind of Girl, by Lena Dunham

Lena Dunham’s essay collection is sassy, touching, courageous and controversial. Need I say more?

UnspeakableThe Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion, by Meghan Daum

Described as a “bold and witty” “report from early middle age.”  “With perfect precision, she reveals the absurdities of the marriage-industrial complex, of the New Age dating market, and of the peculiar habits of the young and digital. Elsewhere, she writes searchingly about cultural nostalgia, Joni Mitchell, and the alternating heartbreak and liberation of choosing not to have children. Combining the piercing insight of Joan Didion with a warm humor reminiscent of Nora Ephron, Daum dissects our culture’s most dangerous illusions, blind spots, and sentimentalities while retaining her own joy and compassion. Through it all, she dramatizes the search for an authentic self in a world where achieving an identity is never simple and never complete.”

WomenInClothesWomen in Clothes, by Sheila Heti

Short essays on what, why and how we get dressed by more than 600 women, edited by the Toronto novelist Sheila Heti.


Heidi’s Fall 2014 Picks

I know I might offend some people by saying this, but I am so ready for Fall. Sweaters! New leather boots! Crisp days and cool nights!

But most importantly, publishers seem to tap into our atavistic back-to-school mentally with their Fall releases. It’s when they bring out the big guns: the heavyweight authors, big ideas, meaty tomes we want to sink our teeth into with the end of Summer’s languorousness. (Yes that is a real word, I looked it up).

Here are the books I can’t wait to get into this Fall:

WeAreNotOurselvesWe Are Not Ourselves, by Matthew Thomas (Aug. 19)

Entertainment Weekly gave this WWI-era family saga an A, calling it an “absolutely devastating debut (that) is a very traditional novel written with minimal flair.”

BoneClocksThe Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell (Sept. 2)

If I have to tell you why I’m excited for this book, we can’t be friends anymore.

StationElevenStation Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel (Sept. 9)

A post-apocalyptic novel about the power of art in a world that has been upturned by a pandemic. The main character, Kirsten, is an actress with the Traveling Symphony, a small troupe that moves between the settlements of an altered world, performing Shakespeare and music for scattered communities of survivors. Tattooed on her arm is a line from Star Trek: “Because survival is insufficient.”

PayingGuestsThe Paying Guests, by Sarah Waters (Sept. 16)

I am a fan of Sarah Waters’ spooky historical novels, and this one is getting rave reviews. For example, this is what Michael Dirda has to say about it in the Washington Post: “Some novels are so good, so gripping or shattering that they leave you uncertain whether you should have ever started them. You open “The Paying Guests” and immediately surrender to the smooth assuredness of Sarah Waters’s silken prose. Nothing jars. You relax. You turn more pages. You start turning them faster. Before long, you resemble Coleridge’s Wedding-Guest: You cannot choose but read. The book has you in thrall. You will follow Waters and her story anywhere. Yet when that story ends, you find yourself emotionally sucked dry, as much stunned as exhilarated by the power of art.

UsUs, by David Nicholls (Sept. 30)

I LOVED David Nicholls’ One Day, so I have high hopes for this follow up about marriage and parenthood in London.

NotThatKindOfGirlNot That Kind of Girl, by Lena Dunham (Sept. 30)

Lena Dunahm (of Girls‘ fame) could write a post card and I’d be excited to read it, so I’m really looking forward to her first collection of essays.

What about you? What are you excited to read this Fall?



Women’s Prize Longlist & Party!

BaileysYou all know Patricia and I get pretty darn excited for literary prizes. But did you know we get downright goofy about the Women’s Prize for Fiction?

Formerly known as the Orange Prize, the award is now sponsored by Baileys (yes, as in the Irish Cream manufacturer, Baileys!) and celebrates “excellence, originality, and accessibility in writing by women in English from throughout the world.” Past winners have included Zadie Smith, Barbara Kingsolver, Anne Patchett, Lionel Shriver, and Carol Shields.

Patricia and I get so excited for this prize, in fact, that we have decided to host a Women’s Prize Party and contest! The celebration will be held on the evening of Wednesday, June 4th — the day the winner is announced — and will feature excerpt readings from the shortlisted books, drinks and refreshments, and the announcement of the winning book according to North Shore readers. Oh, and fabulous prizes!

For more information on the party and to register, check out our events calendar page.

And here is how the contest will work:

  • As soon as the shortlist is announced on April 7th, you will be able to vote for your favourite shortlisted book through a survey we will create and post on our website.
  • On the eve before the winner is announced, we will tally up the votes.
  • At the party on June 4th, we will announce OUR winner, and one lucky voter will also win a fabulous prize!

In the meantime, we invite you to join Patricia and me in reading this scrumptious longlist of 20 novels, and stay tuned for more on the shortlist, contest and party!

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – Americanah:A young woman from Nigeria leaves behind her home and her first love to start a new life in America, only to find her dreams are not all she expected.

Margaret Atwood – MaddAddam: Combining adventure, humour, romance, superb storytelling, and an imagination that is at once dazzlingly inventive and grounded in a recognizable world, MaddAddam is vintage Margaret Atwood, and a moving and dramatic conclusion to her internationally celebrated dystopian trilogy.

Suzanne Berne –  The Dogs of Littlefield: A wry exploration of the discontent concealed behind the manicured lawns and picket fences of darkest suburbia. (On order)
Fatima Bhutto – The Shadow of the Crescent Moon: This debut novel chronicles the lives of five young people trying to live and love in a small town in Pakistan’s Tribal Areas close to the Afghan border. Individuals are pushed to make terrible choices. And, as the events of this single morning unfold, one woman is at the centre of it all. (On order)

Claire Cameron –  The Bear: The Bear is the story of Anna and her little brother, Stick–two young children forced to fend for themselves in Algonquin Park after a black bear attacks their parents. A gripping and mesmerizing exploration of the child psyche, this is a survival story unlike any other, one that asks what it takes to survive in the wilderness and what happens when predation comes from within.

Lea Carpenter – Eleven Days: A debut novel–unexpected, tautly written, suspenseful–that touches on some of the most profound questions we have about war as it tells us a haunting story of a single mother, and her Navy SEAL son.
M.J. Carter – The Strangler Vine: Calcutta 1837. The East India Company rules India – or most of it; and its most notorious and celebrated son, Xavier Mountstuart, has gone missing. William Avery, a down-at-heel junior officer in the Company’s army, is sent to find him, in the unlikely company of the enigmatic and uncouth Jeremiah Blake. (On order)

Eleanor Catton – The Luminaries: Arriving in New Zealand in 1866 to seek his fortune in the goldfields, Walter Moody finds himself drawn into a series of unsolved crimes and complex mysteries. Winner of the 2013 Man Booker Prize for fiction.

Deborah Kay Davies – Reasons She Goes to the Wood: Pearl can be very, very good. More often she is very, very bad. But she s just a child, a mystery to all who know her. A little girl who has her own secret reasons for escaping to the nearby woods. What might those reasons be? And how can she feel so at home in the dark, sinister, sensual woods, a wonder of secrets and mystery? (On order)

Elizabeth Gilbert – The Signature of All Things: The best-selling author of Eat, Pray, Love traces the multi-generational saga of the Whittaker family, whose progenitor makes a fortune in the quinine trade before his daughter, a gifted botanist, researches the mysteries of evolution while falling in love with an utopian artist against a backdrop of the Age of Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution.

Hannah Kent – Burial Rites: Set against Iceland’s stark landscape, Hannah Kent brings to vivid life the story of Agnes, who, charged with the brutal murder of her former master, is sent to an isolated farm to await execution. Horrified at the prospect of housing a convicted murderer, the family at first avoids Agnes. Only Tóti, a priest Agnes has mysteriously chosen to be her spiritual guardian, seeks to understand her.

Rachel Kushner – The Flamethrowers: Reno comes to New York intent on turning her fascination with motorcycles and speed into art. Her arrival coincides with an explosion of activity — artists colonize a deserted and industrial SoHo, stage actions in the East Village blur the line between life and art. Reno is submitted to a sentimental education of sorts-by dreamers, poseurs, and raconteurs.
Jhumpa Lahiri – The Lowland: Brothers Subhash and Udayan Mitra pursue vastly different lives–Udayan in rebellion-torn Calcutta, Subhash in a quiet corner of America–until a shattering tragedy compels Subhash to return to India, where he endeavors to heal family wounds.

Audrey Magee – The Undertaking: Desperate to escape the Eastern front, Peter Faber, an ordinary German soldier, marries Katharina Spinell, a woman he has never met. With ten days’ leave secured, Peter visits his new wife in Berlin, and both are surprised by the attraction that develops between them. When Peter returns to the horror of the front, it is only the dream of Katharina that sustains him as he approaches Stalingrad.

Eimear McBride – A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing: The story of a young woman’s relationship with her brother who is living with the after effects of a brain tumour. Not so much a stream of consciousness, as an unconscious railing against a life that makes little sense, and a shocking and intimate insight into the thoughts, feelings and sensual urges of a vulnerable and isolated protagonist, to read A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing is to plunge inside its narrator’s head, experiencing her world first-hand. (On order)

Charlotte Mendelson – Almost English: In a tiny flat in West London, 16-year-old Marina lives with her emotionally delicate mother, Laura, and three ancient Hungarian relatives. Imprisoned by her family’s crushing expectations and their fierce un-English pride, by their strange traditions and stranger foods, she knows she must escape. But the place she runs to makes her feel even more of an outsider.

Anna Quindlen – Still Life with Bread Crumbs: Moving to a small country cabin, a once world-famous photographer bonds with a local man and begins to see the world around her in new, deeper dimensions while evaluating second chances at love, career, and self-understanding.

Elizabeth Strout – The Burgess Boys: Catalyzed by a nephew’s thoughtless prank, a pair of brothers confront painful psychological issues surrounding the freak accident that killed their father when they were boys, a loss linked to a heartbreaking deception that shaped their personal and professional lives.

Donna Tartt – The Goldfinch: A young boy in New York City, Theo Decker, miraculously survives an accident that takes the life of his mother. Alone and abandoned by his father, Theo is taken in by a friend’s family and struggles to make sense of his new life. In the years that follow, he becomes entranced by one of the few things that reminds him of his mother: a small, mysteriously captivating painting that ultimately draws Theo into the art underworld.

Evie Wyld – All The Birds, Singing: Jake Whyte is living on her own in an old farmhouse on a craggy British island, a place of ceaseless rains and battering winds. Her disobedient collie, Dog, and a flock of sheep are her sole companions, which is how she wanted it to be. But every few nights something–or someone–picks off one of the sheep and sounds a new deep pulse of terror. There are foxes in the woods, a strange boy and a strange man, rumors of an obscure, formidable beast. And there is also Jake’s past–hidden thousands of miles away and years ago, held in the silences about her family and the scars that stripe her back–a past that threatens to break into the present.

Any predictions on who will get shortlisted? I predict Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Clair Cameron, Rachel Kushner, Donna Tartt, Evie Wyld.

Book News Roundup — January 31

MalcomGladwellHow’s this for criminal justice: A judge sentences a fugitive environmental activist to read Malcom Gladwell’s David and Goliath.

The newest literary award celebrates the best book from… 30 years ago.

More good news for Gone Girl fans: Trent Reznor is composing the movie score.

For those of you non-football fans who will suffer through the Superbowl this Sunday, try this. (This Seattle girl will most definitely be glued to the screen. Go hawks!)

Need suggestions for #readwomen2014? Here you go!

Image via.

To finish, or not to finish…

I’m reading Sue Monk Kidd’s The Invention of Wings right now.  I’ve been reading it for a couple of weeks and I’m well over halfway through.  When I first started it, I looked forward to picking it up each evening:  I found Handful’s relationship with her mother touching; I was eager to read how Sarah’s intuitive revulsion toward slavery took shape.  Reading and the importance of literacy plays an important role in the story, in theory I should want to know what happens next… but I don’t.  Will I finish the book?  I don’t know.  Should I?


Common wisdom tells us that it’s not the destination it’s the journey that is meaningful.   But does this wisdom apply when we’re talking about books?  This week I’m opening things up to you.  What kind of reader are you:  do you always finish a book no matter how joylessly you have to trudge through the final chapters?  or do you abandon books when they no longer work for you?

Take our poll, or let us know in the comments below.   


*Thanks to NetGalley for an advanced readers copy of this title.

Book News Roundup — January 24







2014– the year of reading women! #readwomen2014

Fans of Hilary Mantel’s acclaimed Thomas Cromwell tomes may want to book a trip to England for the Royal Shakespeare Company’s adaptation of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies.

Harry Potter fans, on the other hand, should start planning their trip to Universal Studios soon.

A library without books. Is this the future?

In praise of punctuation, courtesy of Vulture.

(Image via).