Winter 2016 reads


When there’s snow on the ground, I tend to reach for moody, heavy, heart-wrenching books. But this winter, in an attempt to balance things out (and save on Kleenex), I picked reads from all different genres—memoir, historical fiction, mystery, and a couple of funny, lighthearted ones.

I hope this list inspires you to get reading this winter…

Tales from the Back Row cover

Tales from the Back Row: An Outsider’s View from Inside the Fashion Industry by Amy Odell (2015)

I’m off to New York for Christmas vacay and this book will be coming along with me. Sounds like the perfect in-flight read!

Synopsis from Amazon.ca: Cosmopolitan.com editor Amy Odell knows what it’s really like to be a young woman working in the fashion industry.

In Tales from the Back Row, Amy—funny and fearless—takes readers behind the stage of New York’s hottest fashion shows to meet the world’s most influential models, designers, celebrities, editors, and photographers. But first, she has to push her way through the crowds outside, where we see the lengths people go to be noticed by the lurking paparazzi, and weave her way through the packed venue, from the very back row to the front.

And as Amy climbs the ladder (with tips about how you can, too), she introduces an industry powered by larger-than-life characters: she meets the intimidating Anna Wintour and the surprisingly gracious Rachel Zoe, not to mention the hilarious Chelsea Handler, and more. As she describes the allure of Alexander Wang’s ripped tights and Marchesa’s Oscar-worthy dresses, Amy artfully layers in something else: ultimately this book is about how the fashion industry is an exaggerated mirror of human fallibility—reflecting our desperate desire to belong, to make a mark, to be included. For Amy is the first to admit that as much as she is embarrassed by the thrill she gets when she receives an invitation to an exclusive after-party, she can’t help but RSVP “yes.”

Just Mercy cover

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson (2014)

Earlier this year, I watched Bryan Stevenson’s incredibly inspiring TED talk, We need to talk about an injustice and immediately added this important book to my must-read list.

Synopsis from Penguin Random House Canada: Bryan Stevenson was a young lawyer when he founded the Equal Justice Initiative, a legal practice dedicated to defending those most desperate and in need: the poor, the wrongly condemned, and women and children trapped in the farthest reaches of our criminal justice system. One of his first cases was that of Walter McMillian, a young man who was sentenced to die for a notorious murder he insisted he didn’t commit. The case drew Bryan into a tangle of conspiracy, political machination, and legal brinksmanship—and transformed his understanding of mercy and justice forever.

Just Mercy is at once an unforgettable account of an idealistic, gifted young lawyer’s coming of age, a moving window into the lives of those he has defended, and an inspiring argument for compassion in the pursuit of true justice.

Descent cover

Descent by Tim Johnston (2015)

I spotted this thriller in the Best Bets section at the library.

Synopsis from Amazon.ca: The Rocky Mountains have cast their spell over the Courtlands, a young family from the plains taking a last summer vacation before their daughter begins college. For eighteen-year-old Caitlin, the mountains loom as the ultimate test of her runner’s heart, while her parents hope that so much beauty, so much grandeur, will somehow repair a damaged marriage. But when Caitlin and her younger brother, Sean, go out for an early morning run and only Sean returns, the mountains become as terrifying as they are majestic, as suddenly this family find themselves living the kind of nightmare they’ve only read about in headlines or seen on TV.

As their world comes undone, the Courtlands are drawn into a vortex of dread and recrimination. Why weren’t they more careful? What has happened to their daughter? Is she alive? Will they ever know? Caitlin’s disappearance, all the more devastating for its mystery, is the beginning of the family’s harrowing journey down increasingly divergent and solitary paths until all that continues to bind them together are the questions they can never bring themselves to ask: At what point does a family stop searching? At what point will a girl stop fighting for her life?

The Shell Seekers cover

The Shell Seekers by Rosamunde Pilcher (1987)

This beloved international bestseller came out in paperback this year—that’s 28 years after it was first published! I’ve heard nothing but amazing things about it.

Synopsis from Amazon.ca: An instant bestseller when it was first published, The Shell Seekers is an enduring classic which has touched the hearts of millions of readers worldwide. A novel of connection, it is the story of one family―mothers and daughters, husbands and lovers–and of the passions and heartbreak that have held them together for three generations. This magical novel―the kind of reading experience that comes along only once in a long while―is the perfect read, whether you are returning to it again, or opening the cover for the first time.

At the end of a long and useful life, Penelope Keeling’s prized possession is The Shell Seekers, painted by her father, and symbolizing her unconventional life, from bohemian childhood to wartime romance. When her grown children learn their grandfather’s work is now worth a fortune, each has an idea as to what Penelope should do. But as she recalls the passions, tragedies, and secrets of her life, she knows there is only one answer…and it lies in her heart.

Missoula cover

Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town by Jon Krakauer (2015)

Over the past five years, sexual assault on college campuses has been a hot-button issue fueling a wave of student protests across U.S. campuses. Back in November, The Hunting Ground—CNN’s groundbreaking and controversial documentary film about sexual assault on American college campuses—made its network debut. If you missed it, CNN will be airing it this Sunday, December 27. While I anticipate Missoula will be a bit of a tough read, it’s an incredibly important and timely one.

Synopsis from Penguin Random House Canada: Missoula, Montana, is a typical college town, home to a highly regarded state university whose beloved football team inspires a passionately loyal fan base. Between January 2008 and May 2012, hundreds of students reported sexual assaults to the local police. Few of the cases were properly handled by either the university or local authorities. In this, Missoula is also typical.

In these pages, acclaimed journalist Jon Krakauer investigates a spate of campus rapes that occurred in Missoula over a four-year period. Taking the town as a case study for a crime that is sadly prevalent throughout the nation, Krakauer documents the experiences of five victims: their fear and self-doubt in the aftermath; the skepticism directed at them by police, prosecutors, and the public; their bravery in pushing forward and what it cost them.

2 A.M. at the Cat's Pajamas cover

2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas by Marie-Helene Bertino (2014)

I spotted this debut novel in the bookstore just last week thanks to that gorgeous cover!

Synopsis from Penguin Random House Canada: Madeleine Altimari is a smart-mouthed, rebellious nine-year-old who also happens to be an aspiring jazz singer. Still mourning the recent death of her mother, and caring for her grief-stricken father, she doesn’t realize that on the eve of Christmas Eve she is about to have the most extraordinary day—and night—of her life. After bravely facing down mean-spirited classmates and rejection at school, Madeleine doggedly searches for Philadelphia’s legendary jazz club The Cat’s Pajamas, where she’s determined to make her on-stage debut. On the same day, her fifth grade teacher Sarina Greene, who’s just moved back to Philly after a divorce, is nervously looking forward to a dinner party that will reunite her with an old high school crush, afraid to hope that sparks might fly again. And across town at The Cat’s Pajamas, club owner Lorca discovers that his beloved haunt may have to close forever, unless someone can find a way to quickly raise the $30,000 that would save it.

As these three lost souls search for love, music and hope on the snow-covered streets of Philadelphia, together they will discover life’s endless possibilities over the course of one magical night. A vivacious, charming and moving debut, 2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas will capture your heart and have you laughing out loud.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society cover

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows (2008)

This epistolary novel has been recommended by so many people over the years.

Synopsis from Penguin Random House Canada: “I wonder how the book got to Guernsey? Perhaps there is some sort of secret homing instinct in books that brings them to their perfect readers.” January 1946: London is emerging from the shadow of the Second World War, and writer Juliet Ashton is looking for her next book subject. Who could imagine that she would find it in a letter from a man she’s never met, a native of the island of Guernsey, who has come across her name written inside a book by Charles Lamb….

As Juliet and her new correspondent exchange letters, Juliet is drawn into the world of this man and his friends—and what a wonderfully eccentric world it is. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society—born as a spur-of-the-moment alibi when its members were discovered breaking curfew by the Germans occupying their island—boasts a charming, funny, deeply human cast of characters, from pig farmers to phrenologists, literature lovers all.

Juliet begins a remarkable correspondence with the society’s members, learning about their island, their taste in books, and the impact the recent German occupation has had on their lives. Captivated by their stories, she sets sail for Guernsey, and what she finds will change her forever.

Nickel and Dimed cover

Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich (2001)

If this book hadn’t been recommended to me, I doubt it would have made it onto my reading list. Sounds like an extremely important read.

Synopsis from Amazon.ca: Millions of Americans work full time, year round, for poverty-level wages. In 1998, Barbara Ehrenreich decided to join them. She was inspired in part by the rhetoric surrounding welfare reform, which promised that a job—any job—can be the ticket to a better life. But how does anyone survive, let alone prosper, on $6 an hour? To find out, Ehrenreich left her home, took the cheapest lodgings she could find, and accepted whatever jobs she was offered. Moving from Florida to Maine to Minnesota, she worked as a waitress, a hotel maid, a cleaning woman, a nursing-home aide, and a Wal-Mart sales clerk. She lived in trailer parks and crumbling residential motels. Very quickly, she discovered that no job is truly “unskilled,” that even the lowliest occupations require exhausting mental and muscular effort. She also learned that one job is not enough; you need at least two if you int to live indoors.

Nickel and Dimed reveals low-rent America in all its tenacity, anxiety, and surprising generosity—a land of Big Boxes, fast food, and a thousand desperate stratagems for survival. Read it for the smoldering clarity of Ehrenreich’s perspective and for a rare view of how “prosperity” looks from the bottom. You will never see anything—from a motel bathroom to a restaurant meal—in quite the same way again.

The Far Side of the Sky cover

The Far Side of the Sky: A Novel of Love and Death in Shanghai by Daniel Kalla (2011)

I am really looking forward to reading this first installment in the trilogy by emergency room doctor, Daniel Kalla. Sounds like the perfect page-turner for long winter nights.

Synopsis from Amazon.ca: On November 9, 1938—Kristallnacht—the Nazis carry out a shocking attack upon the Jewish citizens of Germany and Austria. Franz Adler, a secular Austrian Jew and surgeon, is desperate to find safety for himself and his family, but, like others seeking to escape the Nazi threat, finds only closed doors at the embassies and consulates.

When Franz learns that European Jews are able to travel without a visa to Shanghai, the cosmopolitan “Paris of the East,” he and his family set off on a risky journey that will take them to an unknown future halfway around the world.

Weaving together political intrigue, romance and medical drama, The Far Side of the Sky brings to life an extraordinary chapter of Second World War history, when the cultures of Europe and Asia converged and heroic sacrifices were part of the everyday quest for survival. This sweeping account of a world in tumult is a moving, ultimately hopeful story about the value of family and courage in the darkest of times.

Stay Up With Me cover

Stay Up With Me: stories by Tom Barbash (2013)

I’ve been dying to read Barbash’s short story collection for ages.

Synopsis from Amazon.ca: The stories in Tom Barbash’s wondrous and evocative collection explore the myriad ways we try to connect with one another and with the sometimes cruel world around us. The characters in Stay Up With Me find new truths when the old ones have given out or shifted course. Barbash laces his narratives with sharp humour, psychological acuity and pathos, creating deeply resonant and engaging stories that pierce the heart and linger in the imagination.

Find Me Unafraid cover

Find Me Unafraid: Love, Loss, and Hope in an African Slum by Kennedy Odede and Jessica Posner (2015)

This fall release made my list thanks to all the glowing praise it received from critics. Liberian president and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf calls it, “a bright beacon, an important tale of perseverance, calling for the female leadership Africa needs and must have.”

Synopsis from Amazon.ca: This is the story of two young people from completely different worlds: Kennedy Odede from Kibera, the largest slum in Africa, and Jessica Posner from Denver, Colorado.  Kennedy foraged for food, lived on the street, and taught himself to read with old newspapers. When an American volunteer gave him the work of Mandela, Garvey, and King, teenaged Kennedy decided he was going to change his life and his community. He bought a soccer ball and started a youth empowerment group he called Shining Hope for Communities (SHOFCO). Then in 2007, Wesleyan undergraduate Jessica Posner spent a semester abroad in Kenya working with SHOFCO. Breaking all convention, she decided to live in Kibera with Kennedy, and they fell in love.Their connection persisted, and Jessica helped Kennedy to escape political violence and fulfill his lifelong dream of an education, at Wesleyan University.

Their work has changed the lives of many of Kibera’s most vulnerable population: its girls. Jess and Kennedy founded Kibera’s first tuition-free school for girls, a large, bright blue building, which stands as a bastion of hope in what once felt like a hopeless place.

Ultimately this is a love story about a fight against poverty and hopelessness, the transformation made possible by a true love, and the power of young people to have a deep impact on the world.

Punishment cover

Punishment by Linden MacIntyre (2014)

I’ve never read any of MacIntyre’s novels, but people keep encouraging me to give the Canadian author a chance.

Synopsis from Penguin Random House Canada: Forced to retire early from his job as a corrections officer in Kingston Penitentiary, Tony Breau has limped back to the village where he grew up to lick his wounds, only to find that Dwayne Strickland, a young con he’d had dealings with in prison is back there too–and once again in trouble. Strickland has just been arrested following the suspicious death of a teenage girl, the granddaughter of Caddy Stewart, Tony’s first love.

Tony is soon caught in a fierce emotional struggle between the outcast Strickland and the still alluring Caddy. And then another figure from Tony’s past, the forceful Neil Archie MacDonald–just retired in murky circumstances from the Boston police force–stokes the community’s anger and suspicion and an irresistible demand for punishment. As Tony struggles to resist the vortex of vigilante action, Punishment builds into a total page-turner that blindsides you with twists and betrayals.

The Silkworm cover

The Silkworm: A Cormoran Strike Novel by Robert Galbraith (2014)

This summer, I picked up The Cuckoo’s Calling on a whim and flew through it in just a few days.

Synopsis from Amazon.ca: When novelist Owen Quine goes missing, his wife calls in private detective Cormoran Strike. At first, Mrs. Quine just thinks her husband has gone off by himself for a few days—as he has done before—and she wants Strike to find him and bring him home.

But as Strike investigates, it becomes clear that there is more to Quine’s disappearance than his wife realizes. The novelist has just completed a manuscript featuring poisonous pen-portraits of almost everyone he knows. If the novel were to be published, it would ruin lives—meaning that there are a lot of people who might want him silenced.

When Quine is found brutally murdered under bizarre circumstances, it becomes a race against time to understand the motivation of a ruthless killer, a killer unlike any Strike has encountered before…
The Plum Tree cover

The Plum Tree by Ellen Marie Wiseman (2012)

I recently picked up Wiseman’s latest novel, Coal River but decided to read her debut novel first.

Synopsis from Penguin Random House Canada: “Bloom where you’re planted,” is the advice Christine Bölz receives from her beloved Oma. But seventeen-year-old domestic Christine knows there is a whole world waiting beyond her small German village. It’s a world she’s begun to glimpse through music, books—and through Isaac Bauerman, the cultured son of the wealthy Jewish family she works for.

Yet the future she and Isaac dream of sharing faces greater challenges than their difference in stations. In the fall of 1938, Germany is changing rapidly under Hitler’s regime. Anti-Jewish posters are everywhere, dissenting talk is silenced, and a new law forbids Christine from returning to her job—and from having any relationship with Isaac. In the months and years that follow, Christine will confront the Gestapo’s wrath and the horrors of Dachau, desperate to be with the man she loves, to survive—and finally, to speak out.

Set against the backdrop of the German homefront, this is an unforgettable novel of courage and resolve, of the inhumanity of war, and the heartbreak and hope left in its wake.
The Glass Castle cover
 The Glass Castle: A Memoir by Jeannette Walls (2005)
I swear I’m always the last to pick up the super popular reads. But when I found out there’s a movie in the works, I immediately added this bestselling memoir to my list.

Synopsis from Amazon.ca: The Glass Castle is a remarkable memoir of resilience and redemption, and a revelatory look into a family at once deeply dysfunctional and uniquely vibrant. When sober, Jeannette’s brilliant and charismatic father captured his children’s imagination, teaching them physics, geology, and how to embrace life fearlessly. But when he drank, he was dishonest and destructive. Her mother was a free spirit who abhorred the idea of domesticity and didn’t want the responsibility of raising a family.

The Walls children learned to take care of themselves. They fed, clothed, and protected one another, and eventually found their way to New York. Their parents followed them, choosing to be homeless even as their children prospered.

The Glass Castle is truly astonishing—a memoir permeated by the intense love of a peculiar but loyal family.

Have you read any of my picks? Which books are you most looking forward to reading this winter?
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4 thoughts on “Winter 2016 reads

  1. Victoria says:

    I’ve read “The Guernsey Literary . . .” (loved it!), “Nickel and Dimed” (several years ago – I believe Ehrenreich’s findings are even more important today than when her book was published and that everyone in this increasingly divided nation should read it), and “The Silkworm” (as Robert Galbraith, J.K. Rowling’s Cormoran Stryke novels are definitely not for children, and definitely gripping, compelling, and very, very good). My book group is reading “Missoula” for our next meeting and like you I’m looking forward to “The Far Side of the Sky,” which I hadn’t heard of before.Thanks for the list!

    • donzwebb says:

      Thanks for sharing, Victoria! I’ve been meaning to read Guernsey for a while now. An employee at my neighborhood bookstore recommended Nickel and Dimed and I can’t wait to get started. I enjoyed The Cuckoo’s Calling so I’m really excited to get into The Silkworm! I’m hoping Missoula won’t be too much of a heavy read.
      Happy New Year and happy reading!

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