Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Ben McNally Bookstore's Summer Reading List

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By Monique Mathew, a budding writer, curator and OCAD graduate. She lives in Toronto.

Ben McNally Books hosted their Summer Reading Presentation on Thursday, June 11, offering a quick introduction to the best books of the season. The event was billed as a presentation of 45 books in 45 minutes and, quite remarkably, they accomplished just that. Despite the somewhat blustery rainy weather, there was a great turnout, and flagging spirits were easily buoyed by the wine and cheese. Ben McNally and his partner, Lynn Thompson, discussed each of the books with the gravity of serious readership, but the speed of their presentations and frequent time checks added an element of slapstick to the event that was very enjoyable.

In keeping with the list-y spirit of the evening, here is the list of the 45 books the Ben McNally bookstore recommends, complete with Thompson and McNally’s thoughts on the titles.


  1. The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt by T.J. Stiles
    Stiles explores the life and times of the first great American corporate tycoon who propelled the Gold Rush and was instrumental in developing early Manhattan and carving out the corporate model still in use today.
  2. Pauline Bonaparte: Venus of Empire by Flora Fraser
    The biography of Napoleon’s larger-than-life sister, whose appetite for romantic partners and a decadent lifestyle matched the intensity of her brother’s goal of global domination.
  3. Dead Aid: Why Aid is Not Working in Africa and How There is a Better Way for Africa by Dambisa Moyo
    McNally describes Moyo’s writing as “cogent and articulate” as she attempts to debunk the myth that aid helps Africa and offers alternate solutions for financing development in Africa.
  4. The Age of the Unthinkable: Why the New World Order Constantly Surprises Us and What We Can Do About It by Joshua Copper Ramo
    “Unpredictability and possibility in the new world order.” The book hypothesizes that the old Greenspan way of thinking is not working and calls for global change to address poverty and war.
  5. Columbine by Dave Cullen
    “A long, hard look at what really happened.”
  6. The Well-Dressed Ape: A Natural History of Myself by Hannah Holmes
    “A field guide to the human being.” McNally described Holmes’s effort to create a species profile of humans that covers common traits like colour blindness, the propensity to overeat and the differences between the sexes.
  7. The Bolter by Frances Osborne
    “High priestess of the Happy Valley set in Kenya.”
  8. Losing Mum and Pup by Christopher Buckley
    “The writer becomes a 50-year-old orphan.” McNally described the book as “funny, not just tragic.”
  9. Direct Red: A Surgeon's View of Her Life-or-Death Profession by Gabriel Weston
    Murmurs of approval from the audience affirmed Direct Red’s place on the list.
  10. The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything by Ken Robinson
  11. Grass, Sky, Song: Promise and Peril in the World of Grassland Birds by Trevor Herriot
  12. Grizzlyville: Adventures in bear country by Jake MacDonald
  13. The Widow Clicquot by Tilar J. Mazzeo
    “A biography of the woman who gave the world the champagne.” Also a period portrait of a moment in French history.
  14. Vanished Smile: The Mysterious Theft of Mona Lisa by R.A. Scotti
  15. Rogues’ Gallery: The Secret History of the Moguls and the Money that Made the Metropolitan Museum by Michael Gross
    The movers, the shakers, the power and the money.
  16. American Buffalo: In Search of a Lost Icon by Steven Rinella
    “A lottery winner, an exceptional American history lesson.” A modern man wins the chance to a hunt a buffalo.
  17. Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon by David Grann
    “A modern-day journalist on the cold trail of a vanished explorer.” Tracing an explorer who vanished in the Amazon.
  18. House of Cards: A Tale of Hubris and Wretched Excess on Wall Street by William Cohen
    “The demise of Bear Stearns exemplifies the economic collapse.” McNally called this the best book he had read this year. An introduction to and history of the firm with a long view into its corporate philosophy and eventual collapse.
  19. Annie’s Ghosts: A Journey into a Family Secret by Steve Luxenberg
    “Steve uncovers a secret about his mom.”
  20. Not Yet: A Memoir of Living and Almost Dying by Wayson Choy
    “A memoir of living and almost dying (twice.)” Thompson described the book as heartfelt, showing the value of friendship and life.
  21. Why Your World is About to Get a Whole Lot Smaller by Jeff Rubin
    “How and why the end of oil will affect our world.” What will happen when oil reaches $200 a barrel.
  22. The Cello Suites: J. S. Bach, Pablo Casals, and the Search for a Baroque Masterpiece by Eric Siblin
    One of Thompson’s favourite books of the year.
  23. Fiction

  24. Attachment by Isabel Fonseca
    “Love and marriage in the age of information overload.”
  25. Six Suspects by Vikas Swarup
    “Murder mystery by author of Slumdog Millionaire.”
  26. February by Lisa Moore
    “Complex love and cauterizing grief in Newfoundland.”
  27. Trouble by Kate Christensen
    “Female friendship and midlife sexual awakening.” McNally described Christensen’s writing as “urban, hip and readable” with “a very modern sensibility.”
  28. Border Songs by Jim Lynch
    “Funny (and satirical) look at life along the B.C/Washington border.”
  29. Selected Works of T.S. Spivet by Reif Larsen
    “Cartography and adolescence complete with illustrations.”
  30. Sunnyside by Glen David Gold
    “1916 and Charlie Chaplin in 800 places at once.”
  31. Little Bee by Chris Cleave
    “ A woman caught in an immigration centre.”
  32. Laura Rider’s Masterpiece by Jane Hamilton
    “Funny, sexy, provocative.”
  33. The Winter Vault by Anne Michaels
    “A poetic love story by the author of Fugitive Pieces.”
  34. The Maze of Cadiz by Aly Monroe
    “International conspiracy, spies, murder.” McNally called this a “murky, atmospheric first novel,” where a former soldier is sent into Spain to close up an operation.
  35. The Secret Speech by Tom Rob Smith
    “Secrets, vengeance, and political upheaval in post-Stalin Russia.” A great thriller and page-turner where the reader is never on firm ground.
  36. Road Dogs by Elmore Leonard
    “More fun and games in crime-ridden Florida.” From the writer of Get Shorty, Road Dogs features three characters from previous works in a new story.
  37. Between the Assassinations by Aravind Adiga
    “A mosaic of Indian life—the class struggle rendered personal.”
  38. Stone’s Fall by Iain Pears
    “Panoramic novel, riveting mystery, love story, satisfying puzzle.” McNally described Stone’s Fall as a “complex and accomplished novel” containing four different narrative threads and four viewpoints, all interconnected and beginning with a man falling to his death.
  39. The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters
    “What exactly is haunting this dusty old house in the English countryside?”
  40. Lowboy by John Wray
    “Non-stop suspense under the streets of New York.”
  41. The Believers by Zoe Heller
    “Your book club is going to love it.” McNally compared Heller’s formation of complex and unlikable characters to Martin Amis, and referred to the story as an excellent portrait of an “unremittingly obnoxious family” and how what you want to believe can hold you captive and become an inescapable trap.
  42. Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie
    “From Nagasaki to 9/11, one woman’s life story.” A love story, a discussion of global realities from partition in India, the relationship between Pakistan and Afghanistan and 9/11, all through the life of one woman.
  43. Brooklyn by Colm Toibin
    “An Irish girl moves to New York and faces a moral dilemma.”
  44. The Lieutenant by Kate Grenville
    “First contact with Australian aborigines.” The first fleet that set up in Sydney, told from the point of view of an astronomer in the group.
  45. The Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
    “An author, his house, and a mysterious patron.”
  46. The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt
    “Life and art in Britain’s Golden Age.” Thompson, when discussing the book, said, “it’s hard to describe what this book is about, because it’s about everything.” The novel centres around a woman who writes a fairytale for each of her children, but also covers the Arts and Crafts movement, pottery, the Metropolitan Museum and the relationships of parents and children. Thompson called the work a true masterpiece.

Thompson and McNally finished the list in record time and the audience broke into applause for their rapid literary synopsizing and excellent offering of books. Many of the people in attendance had been jotting down notes and immediately set off to find their chosen books. The store remained crowded following the presentation, and audience members, perusing their lists and sipping their glasses of wine, chatted and browsed through the summer’s titles.

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