Charlotte’s Best Books for September 2019

You’ve finished your stack of beach books, right? Make room on your shelf for the 5 best books of September 2019, including a celebration of fashion as pop culture, Sara and Tegan’s high school memoir (their teen years were just as messy as yours) and a Nordic murder mystery that’s cold, dark and creepy.

Fashion: The Definitive Visual Guide by DK Publishing.
Fashion: The Definitive Visual Guide by DK Publishing.

Fashion: The Definitive Visual Guide

When you walk out the door, you’re making a statement. Even if you claim you’re not into fashion, what you wear tells the world who you think you are. Or want to be.

And that’s why the new edition of Fashion: The Definitive Guide (DK Publishing, 2019) is a fascinating coffee table classic.

Divided into 10 Chapters, Fashion takes you on a whirlwind tour of how fashion reflects people, places and social norms from ancient Egypt through to the legendary fashion houses like Chanel, Dior and Yves St. Laurent, and contemporary cutting-edge designers like Alexander Wang and Molly Goddard.

Expert commentary puts social context to fashion turning points: when hemlines rose to reveal a shocking glimpse of stocking (1915), when jeans became a fashion statement (the ‘50s), who invented the pant suit (YSL, ‘60s) and how the red carpet became the runway (Halle Berry, 2000 Golden Globes).

Illustrated by a stunning combination of original fashion plates, archive images and commissioned photography, Fashion: The Definitive Guide offers a crash course on everything ever worn. Seriously. 

The Reference section at the back is your smarty-pants fashion Coles Notes.

Illustrations and photos chronicle 3000 years of womenswear and menswear – an Ancient Greek dress fastened at the shoulders looks surprisingly on trend today, 400 years of women’s shoes – Vivienne Westwood’s 1993 patent leather platforms shriek Lady Gaga, 200 years of women’s hats and bags – I’m not sure Fascinators should be legal, and 300 years of body shapers – the 1895 corset with a low, flat front designed to push the hips back looks very naughty.

Fashion: The Definitive Visual Guide is a stunning celebration of art and design, imagination and innovation, and the role fashion plays in shaping pop culture.

The Math Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained by DK Publishing.
The Math Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained by DK Publishing.

The Math Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained

Math has never been my friend. Sure, I have the basics down – add, subtract, multiply, divide, pay my bills and balance my bank account.

But I couldn’t even spell Pythagoras, never mind understand his theorem – it’s the relationship between the sides of a right-angled triangle, just so you know.

How do I know that? The Math Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained (DK Publishing, 2019).

Using the Big Ideas Simply Explained series’ awesome combo of easy-to-understand text and imaginative graphics, The Math Book explores mathematical ideas and inventions from 6000 BCE to today, with snappy explanations, memorable quotes, playful illustrations and timeline sidebars that put context to the big events.  

It’s the modern math that’s the most interesting, though, mostly because you don’t think of the outcomes such as the Internet and AI as math based.

In 1929, Hungarian writer Frigyes Karinthy coined the phrase “six degrees of separation” setting in motion a small world experiment in 1967 and a mathematical analysis of social networks in 1979.

You have a range of connections to different people from different parts of your life, right? These connections have links to other groups of people. Further links to people who are three steps removed – a friend of a friend of a friend – and voila, we are all, on average, six steps away from each other. That’s math, Facebook.

AI? Starts with something called fuzzy logic, a many-valued (fuzzy) reasoning system that allows for a range of truth values, not just the old school true or false logic. It’s the fuzziness of AI that creates the illusion of self-direction when in fact AI is really the product of a pre-programmed set of values.

Have I lost you? Well, here’s an example of AI at work. A humanoid robot using AI works at the front desk of a Henn-na hotel in Tokyo, apparently the world’s first hotel with robotic staff. Yup – math again.

The Math Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained is a perfect gift for your tech nerdy best friend. Or math obsessed niece. Or anyone curious about the role math plays in the everyday world. 

Canadian song twins Tegan & Sara pen High School.
Canadian song twins Tegan & Sara pen High School.

High School

As you already know if you’re a fan – and who isn’t, really – Tegan and Sara, identical twins, grew up in Calgary in the 90s – grunge, rave culture, drugs, Beverly Hills 90210. And like many of us, they struggled with who they were and who they would become as they skipped school, dropped acid, drank, grappled with their parents’ divorce and generally experienced full out teenage angst. 

High School, the LGBTQ icons’ coming-of-age memoir, chronicles all that, from first loves and sexual awakenings to set-tos with parents to secret song writing and finally musical collaboration.

Written in alternating chapters from Tegan’s point of view and then Sara’s, High School captures how each of them experienced those tumultuous years. Sometimes their memories jibe and sometimes they don’t, as they assert their independence from each other at the same time as they recognize their twin bond.

High School is an intimate and often uncomfortable accounting that reads like a diary – I sometimes felt like a voyeur TBH. But it serves up a rare peek into Sara and Tegan’s formative years and the strength and courage they found to follow their own never-easy path to personal freedom and, of course, stardom.

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The Chestnut Man by Soren Sveistrup.
The Chestnut Man by Soren Sveistrup.

The Chestnut Man

The debut novel from the writer behind the acclaimed Scandinavian crime series The Killing is Nordic noir at its finest – a murder mystery that’s cold, dark, creepy and can’t-put-down compelling. 

The Chestnut Man opens on October 31, 1989. Marious Larsen, senior cop at a suburban Copenhagen police station whose wife thinks he’s retiring in a week but he isn’t, drives out to a remote farm to tell the owner his cows have made a break for it and the neighbours aren’t happy.

What he discovers is a bloody massacre. Two teenagers and their mom have been hacked to pieces. A boy, dishevelled, and barely breathing. In the basement, a young girl, frightened but alive. And a shelf crammed with chestnut men, tiny dolls made from chestnuts and toothpicks. Then – an axe strikes his jaw.

Fast forward to October 5, present day. Detective Naia Thulin and Mark Hess, an ex-Europol investigator banished to the backwoods (we don’t now why) are investigating a string of brutal murders – all women.  Beaten. Tortured. Hands amputated. And a chestnut man left at each crime scene, like a calling card.

The unlikely partners suspect the murders are tied to the daughter of the Minister for Social Affairs, who vanished the year before. There’s a lot of pushback from the detectives who investigated the disappearance and forced a confession out a nasty man who is doing time for the murders. Thulin and Hess don’t think he did it.

The media-seeking, ladder-climbing Chief doesn’t want the case reopened. Not good for his brand. But the duo press on – aided and abetted, of course, by the requisite Forensic guy -certain that unless they catch the real murderer, more deaths will follow.

The plot of The Chestnut Man is complicated. There is a huge cast and a bunch of subplots – very streaming series, actually. But because you won’t be able to put it down, you’ll have no trouble navigating the story till the bitter end. Which you will not see coming.

Emma Donoghue's Akin.
Emma Donoghue’s Akin.


Emma Donoghue, award-winning author of dozens of novels and short stories including the runaway Room, is back with a tender exploration of how an old man and a young boy unpack their backstories and being to write a fresh one together.

Seventy-nine-year-old Noah Selvaggio, widower and retired university prof, has planned a trip to Nice, his first since his mother put the four-year-old on a boat to join his dad in America in 1942. She followed at the end of the war.

His granddad was a famous photographer, and his mom worked as his 24/7 assistant. When Noah’s sister dies, he discovers an envelope of unusual pictures, presumably taken by his mom, of people and places in Nice.

Several days before he boards his plane a social worker calls. Could Noah make a temporary home for his 11-year-old great nephew, Michael, who he has never met? Michael’s mom, Amber, is in jail for dealing (she claims she’s innocent) his dad, Victor, Noah’s nephew, is dead from a drug overdose and Michael’s grandma, with whom he lives, has just passed.

The social worker is trying to track down Amber’s sister but in the meantime, if Noah doesn’t step up, Michael will become a ward of the state and be placed in care.

Against his better judgement, Noah agrees and the unlikely pair set off for Nice.

Michael is a tween from the ‘hood. He knows gang members, has experienced gun violence, has seen people murdered – f*** is pretty much his favourite word, used indiscriminately as a noun, verb, adjective and adverb.

But he’s also an accomplished phone photographer with a penchant for theatrical selfies and a keen eye for lighting, framing and juxtaposition. And he is, of course, a tech know-it-all.

So despite their constant bickering, Michael offers valuable support as Noah sets out to answer the questions raised by the photographs: what role did his mom play during the last years of the war? Collaborator? Or Resistance fighter.

There is a happy ending, of course, and while you see it coming, Noah and Michael are so carefully crafted, totally imperfect and wonderfully real in their rendering that you want to meet them both. And they earn their happy ending.

Written by Charlotte Empey. Illustrations produced on iPad Pro with Apple Pencil by Mark Scheibmayr.

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