2019 Reading List

1- 3. The Maisie Dobbs Series (Journey to Munich, In This Grave Hour, To Die But Once)
Jacqueline Winspear
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
Caroline Williams
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
Anne Girard
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
Pamela Paul
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
Sarah-Jane Stratford
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
Luke Barr
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
Heather O’Neill
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.

10. Unbecoming
Jenny Downham
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
Kathleen Tessaro
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
Kembrew McLeod
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
Lissa Evans
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
Ada Calhoun
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.

17. Vanishing New York: How a Great City Lost Its Soul
Jeremiah Moss
full review

18. Sweetland
Michael Crummy
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
Dawn Drzal
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
Katherine Reay
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
Michael Wex
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.