1- 3. The Maisie Dobbs Series (Journey to Munich, In This Grave Hour, To Die But Once)
I’m addicted to this mystery series about a woman in the late 1920s who, through a series of smarts, luck, and life events has pulled herself up out of a job as a maid to become a respected detective. I devoured the last three titles of the series as my first reads of 2019. The series moves forward through time and, at book 15, is now in the middle of WW2, but there are shadows of the first war in almost every book as PTSD is a recurrent theme for almost all characters. Different titles deal with storylines about travellers, racism, the Spanish Civil War, art thieves, and fascism. These are cozy-style mysteries with no graphic sex or violence, and Winspear does a great job of mixing up Dobbs’ assignments, including some government spy work, so the books aren’t presented as straight-up Christie-style whodunnits. Wonderful for the historical fiction aspect, as well as the ongoing character development, and for the way in which Winspear makes each story relevant and appealing to modern day. The next title is released in March and I’m waiting impatiently.
4. My Plastic Brain
Williams is a British science journalist who spent a year studying and participating in various tests by neurologists to see if we can actually take advantage of the brain’s plasticity to learn new techniques and fight aging.
5. Platinum Doll
I’m not the biggest Jean Harlow fan, and this fictionalized account of her early years in Hollywood did nothing to make me more interested in her life. Felt very flat and clichéd (alcoholic husband, over-bearing stage mother, etc).
6. My Life With Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues
I wondered how Paul would flesh out a book about what is essentially a list, no different from this list I’m keeping here, only longer, as she started hers as a teenager and has maintained it into adulthood. She discusses life events and the books relating to those, tying in Bob itself with only middling success. There is a weird current of snobbery within Paul’s discussion of the classics and literary education; I came away feeling as if Paul perhaps negatively judged people who only read romances or mysteries or other genres written purely for entertainment value based on plot, and not big discussions of life and literary technique (I’m watching Les Misérables starring Dominic West on TV right now, I don’t need 1300 pages of some old French dude’s meandering thoughts on the philosophy of the second French revolution to know and enjoy the story). This essentially boils down to a memoir but Paul tells her own story with little commitment, discussing her hunger strike, life abroad, and the couple of near misses with being assaulted/kidnapped/raped while travelling alone as amusing anecdotes that she perhaps overheard at a party instead of the potentially traumatic events they must have been. I’d have been far more interested if My Life With Bob actually included the contents of Bob, since it was Paul’s effusive discussions of the books she loved, not her life events, that were the most interesting bits.
7. Radio Girls
Set in the very early days of the BBC, Radio Girls weaves a fictional plot around real life characters such as Hilda Matheson and John Reith. Protagonist Maisie Musgrave joins the BBC staff as a secretary and under the mentorship of Matheson, works her way up through the ranks. The sub-plot of “Mousy Maisie” finding her voice (and the confidence to be a spy) is a bit clunky, as is the whole “find the evidence that everyone is a fascist” game, but Stratford does a good job of pulling together the looming spectre of WW2, as well as demonstrating the dichotomy of the Beeb’s conservative ethos while also being one of the most modern, pro-female employers of the time. A fun story for historical fiction buffs.
8. Provence, 1970
When I trained as a chef some 20 years ago, almost the entire course was based on the premise that all food begins and ends with French cuisine, French techniques. “Tell that to a cook in Ethiopia or Thailand,” I’d mutter under my breath while straining consomme. We believe in the fallacy of French because so much of Western food culture was created by writers and chefs who worshiped all things French, but by 1970, even the greats such as Fisher, Beard, and Child were turning away to newer cuisines. This book is about a month in 1970 when the major players of the US food scene spent time in Provence, in various groups, for various dinners, and realized it was time to move on. Based on journals and letters, Luke Barr smoothly pieces together a storyline based on rivalry, gossip (What? Bitchy food writers? Surely you jest!), and a growing unease with the changing culture of rural France. Probably only truly engaging if you’re a chef, food writer, or fan of Beard, Child, Olney, Fisher et al, but well-written and evocative.
9. Wisdom in Nonsense: Invaluable Lessons From My Father
Since 2017 and The Lonely Hearts Hotel, I’ve worked my way through the work of Heather O’Neill and adore every word she puts on the page. This tiny book is a collection of wacky advice (ie. never keep a diary, it can be used against you…) given to her by her father. Father figures, often of the petty criminal sort, loom large in O’Neill’s work and one can clearly see where her inspiration lies.
This could easily have fallen into the “three generations of women” cliche, but as the story progresses and we watch the eldest woman, Mary, drift into dementia, it plays out almost like a thriller — can her daughter and granddaughter unlock Mary’s memories before they’re lost forever? Downham writes from the POV of Mary and her granddaughter Katie, and I would have liked to have seen chapters from Caroline, the daughter, as well; I think this would have rounded out the story more fully than the discovery of the characters’ pasts via Mary’s gauzy memories and discovered correspondence.
11. The Bitch Is Back: Older, Wiser and (Getting) Happier
Cathi Hanauer, editor
This collection of essays is a follow-up to The Bitch in the House, published in 2002. Some of the works are by the same writers, all of the pieces reflect on life for women in their 40s or older. Depending on your perspective some are innately relatable, others will be of no interest. Deals with issue of sexuality, relationships, children and body positivity.
12. Rare Objects
Maeve Fanning disguises her past of loose morals and time spent in a mental hospital by bleaching her hair and applying for a job that would otherwise be out of her league (and interest). She becomes entwined with the wealthy Van Der Laar family (who are also not what they seem at first glance), only to discover that everybody, including her Ma, carry some very personal secrets. This was a fun bit of historical fiction, set in the very segregated and racist Boston of the 1930s. I wanted a bigger plot twist than what Tessaro gave, but her very detailed descriptions and debates about philosophy and history save this from being fluffy chick lit.
13. Blondie’s Parallel Lines – 33 1/3
A fun read about my favourite album of all time. Possibly too much backstory about the NYC music scene of the early 70s, but the interviews with the band about their musical influences, and their choice to knowingly step away from the restrictive punk scene to make an album with pure disco influences were fantastically informative and entertaining. Knowing that their first choice to produce the album was actually Phil Specter or Benny and Bjorn from ABBA gives rise to a whole new perspective on the finished record.
14. The Memento
Christy Ann Conlin
This novel set in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley was a bit of a slog at points and cutting it down by 50 to 75 pages would have made for a tighter, more succinct read. I had issues with some plot points, especially the timeline, which doesn’t jibe unless Fancy, the narrator and main character, is in the future as she’s telling the story. Additionally, being the 12th child of the 12th child, which supposedly gives her powers to see spirits, wouldn’t she have a big whack of siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins to care for her when her grandfather dies? The whereabouts of these relatives is never explained and she’s left in the care of a family friend, working at a crumbling mansion belonging to a family with their own pile of horrid secrets. Beautiful descriptions of the surrounding nature and geography, but uneven pacing, and plot points that are easy to figure out before they’re revealed.
15. Crooked Heart
From the “only in olde tymes” file, where evacuated London children are placed with people during the Blitz and absolutely no screening whatsoever has been done to ensure the foster family is safe, loving and, oh, not criminals. This is how Noel, a boy of 10 with no living family, ends up under the wing of Vera, a petty criminal. With Noel’s brains and Vera’s cunning, they hatch a plan to scam people out of money intended for a plethora of charities. Some fun twists of karma here, with a good and heartwarming ending.
16. St. Mark’s Is Dead
Tracing the 400-year history of St. Mark’s, from Stuyvesant’s farm to the current influx of condos. Every generation declares themselves the real bohemians of St. Mark’s and that it’s all going downhill from here. From the labour activists of the 20s, beatniks in the 50s, hippies in the 60s, and punks in the 70s every generation experiences the iconical street differently. With fun stories from former and current residents.
When the government of Newfoundland offers incentives for the residents of Sweetland Island to relocate to the mainland, Mose Sweetland is the only holdout, and his ultimate acceptance of the package causes a horrible event to occur. He fakes his own death in order to return to the island and spends a winter living alone with only an abandoned dog and the island’s many ghosts for company. This got a bit too mystical for me, but Crummy does a good job at creating tension within the plot — are the ghosts real or is Mose going crazy, haunted by the past and his own cabin fever and loneliness?
19. The Bread and the Knife
This alphabetical collection of food essays (inspired by M.F. K. Fisher’s The Gastronomical Me) by noted food editor and writer Dawn Drzal is both fantastic and a bit of a snooze. Drzal is brilliant in the piece D is for Dinner Party, where what she remembers as a memorable evening of connection is revealed to have been much less important and meaningful for her guests), but some pieces such as X for Xanthan Gum meander a bit too much, to the point where I meandered on to the next piece. Worth reading for the story about how she nearly kills Fisher with poultry, but it’s sometimes hard to keep track of which ex-husband she’s referring to, so it becomes a bit convoluted and self-involved.
20. The Best American Food Writing 2018
Ruth Reichl, editor
It’s hard to believe that last year was the first for an official collection of American food writing, but it seems to be the case. Reichl has sorted through a collection of mostly professionally-published long-form works from mainstream publications that cover topics such as Driscoll’s berries, southern rice, and the glut of US dairy (anyone wanna bet on a post-Brexit UK getting flooded with US government cheese?). Like any collection of this sort, most readers will pick and choose based on topic. And while all the pieces I read were professional, in-depth writing, I would have like to have seen a wider variety of styles. There is a pseudo-restaurant review from the late Jonathan Gold (RIP) of the Los Angeles Times, but nothing in the way of fiction.
21. The German Girl
Armando Lucas Correa
Fascinating topic, but the execution is clunky. Based on the true story of the MS St. Louis, the ocean liner full of Jews fleeing Germany in 1939 that arrived in Cuba only to be turned back, with a mere 28 passengers (out of more than 900) permitted to disembark. Correa works to create many correlations between modern-day Anna and her great-aunt Hannah in 1939, but writing both parts in the first person voice offers little differentiation between the two character’s voices. Timelines feel off but work out as the plot progresses however there’s no clear answer to the main plot point of the story, which is why did Hannah’s mother, and Hannah herself after her mother’s death, remain in a country they hated, especially when they had the money to go to America after the end of WW2 and at the onset of the Cuban revolution? With better editing (again, this work is clunky, often slow, and long-winded) this could have been a great YA novel. Geared to adults, it’s less engaging, although, again the topic itself is both fascinating and horrible, so kudos to Correa for giving it light after so many decades.
22. Sweet Expectations
Mary Ellen Taylor
A food-themed romance/chick-lit/mystery/ghost story that had a reasonable plot (even with the ghosts), but which was short on continuity and spell-checking. Seriously, this was published by Penguin, but was littered with misspellings that any version of spellcheck should have caught. Characters’ ages change from one chapter to the next. Most of it felt like an awkward first draft. I was ready to forgive the clumsiness until I discovered that this was the second in a series, and the synopsis for the first book sounds almost the same as the second, complete with a found object and a ghost who needs the heroine to unravel their mystery.
23. Dear. Mr Knightly
This is an updated version of the 1912 novel Daddy Long Legs in which an anonymous (male) benefactor funds the education of a young woman and surreptitiously inserts himself into her life where she falls in love with him. The premise doesn’t get any less creepy when it’s updated by a hundred years and embellished with characters quoting bits of Jane Austen stories. Also weirdly creepy is that the the last third of the book it suddenly got really, really religious, to the point where some reviewers on Goodreads have it tagged as “Christian fiction”, something that would have been nice to know before investing the time to read it. Generally clunky, with characters that were either annoying or under-developed. And did I mention creepy?
24. Rhapsody In Schmaltz: Yiddish Food and Why We Can’t Stop Eating It
One of the highlights of my food writing career was judging a gefilte fish contest, and while most of my Jewish friends think my love of the stuff is bizarre, I’ve been a fan of Yiddish food (the food of Eastern-European Askenazi Jews) since I first moved to Toronto and found comfort in the many Jewish delis that used to dot my neighbourhood. Wex points out that everything comes back to religion, and the rules about Kosher foods, which can get a bit confusing/tedious if you’re not actually Jewish. But his exploration of different foodstuffs (some of which, like cheesecake, aren’t even “Jewish” at all) is enlightening. I’ll never eat another store-bought bagel (Ha! As if I ever did!), after Wex’s thorough explanation of the differences between bagels from Montreal vs New York, and handmade versus those from a commercial bakery. Super-informative and sharply witty.
25. The Other Typist
The premise of this is great; a con woman/bootlegger in 1920s New York scores a job in the typing pool at a police precinct in order to make charges against her staff go away. However the twist, which tries to turn the story into some sort of psychological thriller, falls apart on closer examination. Great setting and plot but full of factual/historical errors which the reader is not sure whether to attribute to poor writing and fact checking or the premise of the “unreliable narrator”.
26. The Complete Patrick Melrose Novels
Edward St. Aubyn
I’m counting this as one entry because I didn’t read all four books, having watched the miniseries that is almost exactly based on the books. I mostly just wanted to see how St. Aubyn dealt with the very shocking material from an omniscient point of view and his decision to be in literally every character’s head at the same time is an excellent one (although it was probably really difficult to write). Sharp, witty and painful, takes full aim at the British aristocracy.
27. Goodbye Things: The New Japanese Minimalism
When minimalism is to the max: The epub version of this book was 47mb compared to 2mb for an average novel.
When minimalism is just gross: owning a single towel to dry everything, including your dishes and yourself.
When minimalism is really fucking elitist: not owning enough dishes to have a dinner party so suggesting your friends meet you at a restaurant.
When minimalism is sizeist: apparently all minimalists are “slim”. Because when you get rid of your stuff you lose weight. No, really.
Takes the premise of a minimalist lifestyle to a hypocritical extreme (if you get rid of all your books and CDS to replace them with digital versions, are you really living a minimal lifestyle??).
28. A Fist Around the Heart
The premise of this work is great (two Jewish Russian sisters emigrate to Winnipeg in the late 1800s, growing up to live very divergent lives), but journalist Chisvin buries the lede in her first work of fiction. Not only does the plot meander a bit with flashbacks inside other flashbacks, but instances of depth of feeling are so rare that the characters feel very flat. And the whole point of the story — why did Esther, returning from a visit in New York with her sister Anna, jump in front of a train at the Winnipeg train station (she enters the station on “If Day” — a real event where the City of Winnipeg simulated a Nazi invasion — but doesn’t realize it’s fake) — is revealed at the end, but its concealment doesn’t work with what the various characters should have been doing/asking throughout the story.
29. The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo
Taylor Jenkins Reid
Aging Hollywood actress Evelyn Hugo grants the story of her life to Monique, an aspiring writer, explaining her life in Hollywood from the 1950s to present day. Hugo is egocentric and manipulative but reveals that her ruthless persona is partially a put-on and was mostly created to protect herself and the people she loves. This is a really well-crafted story that touches on race, misogyny, LGBT issues, domestic abuse, alcoholism, gossip, media manipulation, aging, and right-to-die choices. There’s an excellent twist at the end that reveals why Evelyn chose Monique to tell her story to, and both characters are complex and intense. Loved this one.
30. Chop Suey Nation: The Legion Cafe and Other Stories From Canada’s Chinese Restaurants
The Globe and Mail journalist travels across Canada in search of chop suey restaurants, like the one her parents ran when they first came to this country. She intertwines her father’s life story with meetings and interviews with families and individuals who run local Chinese restaurants from Vancouver Island in British Columbia to Fogo Island in Newfoundland. Across the way, she finds people willing to give up their lives, often working 18 hour days, to make a better life for the rest of their family, much as her parents did for her. A very interesting, heart-felt read that will probably make you crave chow mein and chicken balls in that neon red sauce.
The biography of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir based on her journals and letters. Honestly, this is a DNF for me, as I just couldn’t get past what a dick Sartre was, both to Beauvoir and the many women he had relationships with. Plus Beauvoir grooming her young high school-aged students to become his lovers was also way creepy.
32. The American Agent
Another fantastic novel in the Maisie Dobbs mystery series, this one taking place during the Blitz in the fall of 1940. Winspear has maintained Dobbs through 15 novels now and they remain sharp, intriguing, and well-written. Many red herrings and twisty paths, as usual, the murderer turns out to be a complete surprise.
33. Life Admin
Elizabeth F. Emens
One of those books that talks about theoretical issues rather than offering much in the way of concrete advice, if nothing else it will give the reader pause to consider how much of our life is unavoidable admin work (grocery lists, permission slips, taxes). Also, an understanding about how different people approach admin tasks, and how some things that require our attention feel like a waste of time.
34. Rage Becomes Her
An important read, but it can come off cluttered at times and doesn’t really offer much new insight into all of the things women have to be angry about. Unequal pay, harassment, mansplaining… it’s all here, and Chemaly offers concise details, but there’s little in the way of concrete advice. At best, you read this to get worked up at the injustice against women and then come up with your own ideas to fight it.
35. How to Be Famous
The second book of a trilogy (How to Build a Girl #2) loosely based on Moran’s early adult life as a music writer. This starts out clunky and I almost discarded it, but it picks up and becomes a great story and a love letter to young women. Seriously, worth reading just for protagonist Dolly’s letter to her rock star boyfriend about the power and energy of young female music fans, and how the music industry — so dependent on the custom of teenage girls — treats them with misogynistic disdain. Rating: a hearty Fuck Yeah!
36 & 37. Highland Fling & Christmas Pudding
The first two books from The Penguin Complete Novels of Nancy Mitford. Mitford was a London socialite in the early 20th century, one of a family of sisters, a few of whom were closely linked with the Nazi party during WW2. While Mitford’s writing is said to improve with her later works, the first two novels were not well-received at the time of publication and mostly deal with the gender gap within the aristocracy between the old guard and the Bright Young People. Lots of country estates, hunting, characters with names like Squibby, and discussions about how much inheritance per year would justify marrying someone you didn’t love. Characters were mostly based on Mitford’s friends so didn’t really translate well to the rest of the population. I may come back to the later novels at some point but these two just made me despise silly rich people.
38. The New Me
This is one of those new-fangled books about Millennial ennui, and Butler’s character Millie is scathing, cynical, and sarcastic, covering up some fairly severe depression and self-loathing. It’s ultimately a flip-off to Western society’s promise of the reinvention of the self through consumerism (that lipstick, rug, cereal, car, yoga class, or facial treatment will make your life so much better!). The narrative jumps from Millie’s point of view to that of other characters in some chapters, and this would work better if more of it came back to Millie in some way. It’s meant to show the universality of our depressing work/life treadmill and how we try to improve it, mostly by purchasing stuff, but it could have been tighter and more succinct if the characters had more interaction.
39. Maeve in America: Essays By a Girl From Somewhere Else
Irish comedian Maeve Higgins has spent the last few years in the United States, and this collection of witty and often funny essays detail her accounts of swimming with dolphins, renting a ballgown for an awards ceremony, body acceptance and family. An enjoyable read that made me hope she tours Canada as I’d love to see her perform live.
40. You Have the Right to Remain Fat
Tovar’s claim to fame might not be fat activism, but rather that she incorrectly accused another fat activist of plagiarizing part of this book in the TV series Shrill. (This claim was debunked by the fact that Tovar’s book was released after the scene in question — fat girl pool party — was filmed.) This was successful in getting Tovar plenty of free publicity, but not all of it positive. Unfortunately, the book doesn’t go anywhere new in the realm of fat activism and is mostly more preaching to the choir. Tovar makes good points (it’s not fat people who have to change, but the mainstream attitudes towards them), but amidst the noise about stolen ideas, those issues will not be heard by the people who need to make the actual changes.
41. On Being 40(ish)
While a few of these essays do actually touch on issues all women face in mid-life, far too many of them were along the lines of “here’s something that happened to me when I was 40”, as opposed to “because I was 40”. So many of the essays in this small collection didn’t feel especially relevant. “Soul Mates: A Timeline in Clothing” by Catherine Newman, detailing a lifelong friendship that ultimately ends when one of the friends dies of ovarian cancer might have been the best piece in the book. I was hoping for a lot more from this collection.
42. How to Be Alone
I nabbed this originally thinking it was a book on psychology and self-acceptance, but it turns out Moore is a writer, comedian, and musician who escaped a troubled home riddled with FLEAs (frightening lasting effects of abuse), and is just trying to find healthy relationships, both in terms of friendship and romance, that don’t trigger issues from her past. The writing is slightly too meandering train-of-though for me, but I empathize with Moore’s life situation, although it does feel disingenuous for a writer to claim they have nobody to spend Christmas with and then include hundreds of people in the acknowledgements.
43. Between Meals: An Appetite For Paris
A. J. Leibling
Leibling, one of the most under-appreciated food writers of the 20th century, spent time in Paris in 1927, 1939, 1944 and again in the 1950s. While his gluttonous (let’s be honest) appetite affected his health, he had such a distinct understanding for food, especially French food, that he must be considered an expert on the subject. This book does spend a lot of time bemoaning lost Parisian restaurants and condemning people, both chefs and diners, who don’t understand French cuisine, but in the 1950s Leibling predicted the end of the world’s love affair with French food before food writers such as Child, Fisher and Beard (see my review of Provence 1970 above) had any clue it was happening.
44. Don’t Label Me: An Incredible Conversation for Divided Times
I’ve been a fan of Manji since her time in Toronto hosting Queer TV, and this book, while stylistically sometimes hard to get into, delves into how all sides of the political spectrum need to spend more time listening to each other and less time trying to prove they’re right. The book is written as a conversation between Manji and her dog, Lily, and this can sometimes come off as patronizing. Also, in some chapters, the dog talks back (yes, really) and this is weirdly disconcerting, as if two drafts of the manuscript have been pieced together. Still worth reading (and re-reading) though, because Manji offers such a balanced perspective. She’s also got no patience with social justice warriors or folks who proclaim themselves “woke”, which makes this book a winner in my eyes.
45. Habits of a Happy Brain
Loretta Graziano Breuning
I’m more than a little interested in neuroplasticity and Breuning explores how the brain creates and uses chemicals such as dopamine, seratonin, oxytocin and endorphin, as well as the not so happy chemical of cortisol. The explanations are a little basic, however, and the habits to create bursts of the good chemicals (and be happy) are a bit trite. We’re not happy all the time and are not meant to be, and ours brains create these chemicals anyway, without us do anything special to make more of them.
46. Social Creature
Tara Isabella Burton
The trope here is one we all know; two friends move in together, one takes over the other’s life. It’s Single White Female, or The Other Typist (see review above). Only in this case, the protagonist is the ultimate anti-hero, and by the end of the book, the reader is unsure who is the most messed up, Lavinia, the rich and manic narcissist, or Louise the roommate who kills her and uses social media to pretend her friend is alive and well in order to live in her house and have access to her bank account and credit cards. This is written in a weird, choppy style that jumps in tone and the author drops so many red herrings that it starts to stink after a while. “And that’s when Louise really fucked up…” Except there’s never any reckoning with the action. A snarky look at New York’s literary/party scene with characters that are maybe too close to caricatures. A fun read, all the same, but a bit of an eye roller.
47. Shakespeare’s Dark Lady: Amelia Bassano Lanier — The Woman Behind Shakespeare’s Plays
There’s long been speculation that Willy Shakes never wrote a word of any of the plays or poems that bear his name and factual evidence (at the time of his death, he owned no books, no paper, even unused, and no copies of his past works) seems to support this. But who did? John Hudson offers a long, somewhat detailed theory that it was a woman of Jewish Italian descent named Amelia Bassano. Bassano ticks all the boxes in terms of the life experience and knowledge the playwright would have to have had: knew Italian, Hebrew and Latin, knew music and instrument making, knew court life, including many events and in-jokes, knew Denmark and Venetian culture and geography, knew about the military, the law, housewifery, falconry (yes, really), and was a feminist. Hudson even compares stylistic aspects of Bassano’s writing under her own name with that of Shakespeare and believes that the same person wrote the works of both. Oh, and that many of the works are satirical commentary on Christianity. If nothing else, the fact that the person spelled his name differently on all legal documents and that “Shakespeare” would have been a Tudor-era pun for masturbation should give cause for doubt.