Matt’s Weekly Reads, December 31, 2022


When We Lost Our Heads, Heather O’Neill (2022)

Marie Antoine lives a charmed life with her doting flour baron father in Montreal’s Golden Mile. Her neighbour Sadie’s irrepressible spirit puts her at odds with her parents, who want nothing more than to be accepted by the city’s privileged class. Meanwhile, across town a girl named George grows up in a brothel throwing gender conventions to the wind, and another named Mary toils in Marie’s father’s flour factory. As they grow up, the ties that connect them and the lines that divine them bring all four women’s lives together in an explosion of female rage and class warfare.

This is a very smart book, a kind of lower-stakes French Revolution set in Gilded Age Montreal. The characters are wonderfully drawn and realistic in their motivations, strengths, and faults. It also does a great job at highlighting the gendered aspect of the class divisions of the nineteenth century — a fact often hidden in the way the history of the labour movement is told. As impressive as I found this book, however, I can’t really say I enjoyed it. At times it felt like more a list of grievances than a story, and all of the characters, while realistic, are ultimately hard to like or cheer for. So ultimately, the book was a success, but part of its success was in making it a bit of a tough hang.

Read this if you’re interested in:

  • Historical Fiction
  • Retellings
  • Montreal
  • Canadian History
  • Feminism
  • Economic History

My Rating: Premise 10, Atmosphere 10, Main Characters 10, Plot 8, Intrigue 9, Relationships 9, Success 9, Writing 10, Enjoyment 6, Meaning 6: TOTAL 87

Weekly Roundup

  • Small Angels, Lauren Owen (2022), 97: Stories of strange happenings in the Mockbeggar Woods haunted a small English village for centuries until tragedy struck ten years ago. The resulting uneasy calm is shattered one weekend when a wedding party arrives at the nearby church and stirs up ghosts long thought dead. I love, love, loved this contemporary gothic novel. It has all the atmosphere and paranormal creepiness you want from the genre and, unlikely many, sticks the landing perfectly. (Gothic Novels, Paranormal, Small Towns)
  • The Glass Hotel, Emily St. John Mandel (2020), 84: This fascinating novel is a a multi-perspectival look at the impacts of a massive ponzi scheme — and its collapse. I find myself internally polarized on this one. The good is very good, even brilliant: the explorations of responsibility, complicity, and knowledge, the commentary on wealth and poverty being countries of their own, the writing — these are Mandel at her absolute best. But, there was also a lot about this that did not work for me, particularly how Paul, half of the brother-sister pair around which the book revolves, is completely disconnected from the main plots, and the titular hotel feels like an unnecessary contrivance. I guess, ultimately I’d have preferred the book to be a bit tighter. But WOW does the stuff that works work. (Literary Fiction, Crime, Fraud, Responsibility, Wealth)
  • Cryptid Club, Sarah Andersen (2022), 95: If you’re on the internet at all (and I know you are), you’ll know doubt be familiar with Sarah Andersen’s wonderfully memeable comics. This collection is no exception, featuring the exploits of various cryptids (Big Foot, Mothman, ghosts, sirens, and so on) who really just want to be loved. Pure delight. (Humour, Comics, Paranormal, Cryptids)
  • The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame (1908), 69: Mole explores outside his crowded home and discovers a vast world of adventure with the help of a number of new friends. I was torn on this Edwardian classic; I loved the scenes of Rat mentoring Mole in the ways of the world, but really disliked the Toad plotline, which reappears throughout the book. I think he’s supposed to come across as charming despite his overly exuberant ways, but I just found him an entitled jackass and really didn’t want to spend time around him. (Childrens Literature, Classics, Romanticism, Pastoralism, Home, Found Family)
  • We Met in December, Rosie Curtis (2019), 79: Jess feels lucky to have a friend with room to rent as she starts her new life in London; she feels a little less lucky when the man of her dreams is one of her flatmates — and very much off-limits. This is a fun little romance that does what it needs to do, but not much more than that. (Romance, Christmas, London, Urban Living, Contemporary Dating)
  • Carols and Chaos, Cindy Anstey (2018), 74: Our heroine Kate, a lady’s maid in Regency-era Kent, has her well-laid plans for her life turned upside down when the handsome valet Matt arrives to prepare for his gentleman’s arrival at the manor for Christmas. I enjoyed a lot about this, but there was a big secondary plot involving a counterfeiting ring that felt completely unnecessary to me. (Historical Romance, Christmas)
  • Hot Comb, Ebony Flowers (2019), 73: This is a collection of graphic short stories about the relationship Black women have with their hair. I liked the premise quite a bit, but was ultimately a bit disappointed by what the author did with it. I think there’s a lot more that could have been explored here. (Graphic Novel, Short Stories, Black Culture, Feminism, Fashion)
  • 25 Days ‘Til Christmas, Poppy Alexander (2018), 73: War widow Kate faces battles on all sides just to keep life going for her and her six-year-old son Jack, while Jack asks Santa for a Christmas Miracle: a new dad. If you’re looking for a feel-good Christmas story, this is not the place to turn; while there is the typical swing up, it doesn’t come until very late, and most of the book seems to revel in the most heartless aspects of contemporary society. (Romance, Christmas, Heartless Institutions)
  • Wisdom Distilled from Daily Life, Joan D. Chittister, OSB (1990), 82: This is an accessible introduction to Benedictine spirituality, exploring the major themes of the Rule of St Benedict and how they play out in community life. While I wasn’t ‘won over’ by it — the aspects of Benedictine spirituality that made me uncomfortable before still do — it does a good job of demystifying the tradition and explaining the importance and relevance of various aspects of Christian life inside the monastery and without. (Christian Spirituality, Monasticism, Benedictine Spirituality)

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