The Return of My Once-Voracious Reading Habit
An End-of-Year Book/Cookbook List for Both Cooks and Lovers of Books!
I love this time of year--when friends all over the world share what filled up their downtime, Amazon shopping cart, and library book bag over the course of the year. What challenged their views, warmed their hearts, even satisfied a guilty pleasure. Whether it's a now-all-the-rage romance novel, a Pulitzer- or Booker-Prize winner, or an under-the-radar discovery, I enjoy reading my friends' takes and adding to my own to-read pile.
Running a brick-and-mortar over the past 4+ years didn't leave me a lot of spare time for reading other than recipes and the headnotes for them, but after closing Spoonfoolery in August, I found myself with some much-needed brain space to fill with stories of all kinds! Here's my list for August to December, 2022 (the months prior were dedicated to the business's close and family relocation to Raleigh, NC).
NOTE: This list is in the order in which I read books this fall/winter, not necessarily a ranking of them. It was hard to pick just one as my top read! Truthfully, I had not read a fiction or nonfiction work all the way through since January 2020, pre-pandemic. Being a food service owner, mom of two school-age kids and four fur kids, and the overwhelming grief of losing three of those fur babies AND a parent over the past year robbed me of the ability to focus on much of anything leisure until this fall. I do all formats: Kindle, print, and audio and have indicated which format per entry, and hyperlinks have been provided where possible. You can also follow me on Goodreads, as I start 2023 afresh, with plenty already in my to-read pile! I would love to hear what you think of my synopses and also what YOU read last year!
The Four Winds, by Kristin Hannah (audio): Hannah utilizes acclaimed narrator and author Julia Whalen for many of her titles, and this one, about the Dust Bowl period of the 1930s, benefited from Whalen's renowned ability to inhabit the historical period at hand. Both author and narrator are known for doing deep dives into the history of their current work, and I enjoyed their conversation at the end as much as I did this rich account of a family matriarch and how she crossed the country with her two children, during the Depression, to forge a path of her own. I am embarrassed to admit that I knew nothing, really, about the Dust Bowl until I read this book, as clearly, my primary education fell down on the job of teaching me about this tragedy of American history. But one can almost always rely on Hannah to do right in acquainting us to it via her detailed storytelling.
The Henna Artist, by Alka Joshi (audio): I'm a sucker for Indian female author fiction. When I was younger, I loved a good Indian chick lit book like any other, but now that I'm <ahem> a little seasoned in this Book of Life, I appreciate the historical fiction ones more, especially the ones set in India at various times in history. The Henna Artist is the first in Joshi's Jaipur Trilogy, and it sets the stage for following henna artisan and herbalist, Lakshmi Shastri, through her rise (and fall) among the post-Indian Independence City of Jaipur elite. Listening to narrator Sneha Mathan weave this tale in her perfect native Indian lilt was so engrossing, I blasted through it in a matter of days, sneaking an earbud in my ear while unpacking our new house and shushing my family away into other rooms so I could keep listening and working. I read the second in the series, The Secret Keeper of Jaipur (print) in September in hardcover and instantly found myself reading it with Mathan's voice in my head. The follow-up was borne out of numerous inquiries Joshi fielded asking for more story on Lakshmi's assistant, Malik, as he grows up and forges his own path in Jaipur. As is usually the case with me, I tend to like the first in a series more than the follow up, but I am excited for the arrival of The Perfumist of Paris this spring, which focuses on the life Lakshmi's sister Radha builds for herself in Paris.
The Last Flight, by Julie Clark (print): This was my first read with a local book club, and it grabbed on and held tight for a suspenseful story about the wife of a political wunderkind from a prominent and rooted political family. I believe I read somewhere that it was fashioned after JFK, Jr. and Carolyn Bessette, taking liberties with the possible abusive relationship the two had. I liked the writing and both female characters in the story a lot and it made for a great discussion in an all-female book club!
The Lost Apothecary, by Sarah Penner (audio): This came recommended by both a neighbor and Audible.com, and I wanted to like it more than I did. The story flashes back and forth between the late 1700s and present-day England, about an underground apothecary of poisons specifically for women seeking to "dispense" of bad men. I had a hard time listening to one of the narrators, which probably contributed to my overall lukewarm impression of the story. In the end, it basically felt like a rut in the road of really good reads I'd had since I started back at reading in August. You win some and lose some!
One True Loves, by Taylor Jenkins Reid (audio): My book club's September pick and my first Reid book ever! I'm late to the game of finding this author, and I'm glad I finally did! I enjoy her style, her heroines, that Julia Whelan is also a narrator of her books, and the stories she weaves. This one is in the Cast Away movie model, in that the hero is literally lost at sea while the heroine awaits his return. And then she stops waiting and moves on, only to have this first love return and well, muck things up. It's a love story, so I can't say it's for everyone. But it was a good, easy summer read.
The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo (Kindle): So of course I had to follow up a Reid read with another one, especially the one that's been the talk of the reading town. So many friends were posting about this one, and I went into it thinking she must have fashioned the main character after the infamous Liz Taylor. Who doesn't want to read about Liz, fake or real?! But suffice to say, it was not at all what I expected--on any level! Great storytelling, engaging characters, but the ending felt extremely rushed, and I have a billion questions about many, many things that really could have been resolved in just one more chapter. It's not my favorite Reid book (that one is coming up!), but I will watch the movie when it comes out. It'll be interesting to see whether Hollywood can do right by this storyline or will, as always, view a story set in the 1950s through today's lens. We seem hard-wired for that these days, and it's a detriment to every form of art, in my opinion.
Such a Fun Age, by Kiley Reid (audio): This story is about a young black female college graduate through that tough period post-college where friends are getting great jobs, but you still don't know what you want to do or be yet. And that confusion can land you employment doing something you love for someone you don't even like. I appreciated how this author handled race relations between two working women of two completely different means and the very new-millenium type of incident that initiates their tumultuous relationship. Nicole Lewis is another gem of a narrator, and her ability to voice characters of multi-ethnic backgrounds and ages is unsurpassed. The movie rights have also been secured for this one, and I can't wait to see it!
Verity, by Colleen Hoover (audio): I enjoyed Colleen Hoover's YA series, Slammed, years ago, pre-kids, when I could blow through a 3-novel series, especially YA, in no time. But this was not the adult one of hers to get started with. Ugh. I cannot say one good thing about this one. I detested all of the characters, and for me to enjoy even a smidge of a book, I need to like at least one of the people in it. I didn't even like the kid, and for me--a mom who adores mine and an after-school educator the past 12 years--that is saying A LOT. I love kids--all of them! Just not the one in this book. Sigh... There are so many better Hoover books (I review a better one coming up!), so my recommendation is to pass on this one and go for the ones with more heart.
I'm Glad My Mom Died, by Jennette McCurdy (audio): When I first heard about this book, I was a bit mortified that anyone would ever say that. Someone posted about it in my new book club's Facebook group, and several folks explained how this actress endured an extremely difficult relationship with her mother and then wrote (very well) about it. I didn't know anything about the Nickelodeon series iCarly or this actress, but listening to her account of growing up and being forced into childhood acting by an overzealous, narcissistic, clearly mentally ill mother was eye-opening. It made me wonder just how many Hollywood kids had experienced life like this: poor self-esteem, anorexia, bulimia, taken advantage of by parents and mentors. Although I wasn't a fan of McCurdy's delivery and inflection and probably would have preferred to read it in print (her writing is very good), it was a moving and heart-breaking read that I think any fan of television should bear witness to. We need to know what the industry does to children, and especially what parents who might want something way more than a kid does can do to their own children.
It Girl, by Ruth Ware (audio): Another new book club pick, this one is a murder mystery set in England and Scotland, flashing back and forth between 10 years ago, when a group of friends attended Oxford, and present day, when the events of a campus murder catch up with them. It was suspenseful, albeit more probably because of the narrator, Imogen Church, and her delivery. The last quarter of the book was needlessly long and really could have been shortened by a chapter or two. But it was a good audio read to keep me awake on a long solo drive!
Daisy Jones & the Six, by Taylor Jenkins Reid (audio): This was an engulfing listen, and I'm so grateful to the friend who recommended I do it on audio! The stellar cast (including Jennifer Beals and Benjamin Bratt!) really made the audio version shine, but really, Reid's way with words, how she shaped these individual rock star personalities, her clearly ferocious research into rock band culture of the 1970s--all of it baked up a larger-than-life story about the rise and fall of a fictitious rock band and the internal tension among its members. Supposedly, she loosely based it on Fleetwood Mac and the sticky relationship between Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham, but honestly, I think it could have been about a compilation of many that existed at that time. This was the first audiobook I've done that had many narrators, having cast roles instead of utilizing a single narrator talented in making different tones and inflections. This was among my top reads of the year! I loved it so much, I bought the hardcover so that I can go back and reread it in that format sometime. It's becoming a 12-part limited series on Amazon Prime this spring, and I'll be watching. I highly suggest reading it before then, if you plan to watch!
The Mothers, by Brit Bennett (print): Another strong, much-needed young female African-American voice in contemporary literature, Brit Bennett's debut novel is a look into where small-town religion, young love, and difficult decisions can lead you. Bennett's Stanford BFA and Michigan MFA show through brightly and beautifully in prose that captures you from the first paragraph to the last. All the characters are likable, despite doing very unlikable things, and for me, any author who can keep you engaged in that antithetical combination is deserving of accolades. I was so engrossed by this novel, that as soon as I saw her follow-up, The Vanishing Half, on my library's shelves, I snagged it and am currently wrapped up in it. Bennett is one to watch!
It Ends With Us, by Colleen Hoover (print): Thank goodness for this one, highly recommended from many friends, because it redeemed having endured Verity! This is a page-turning romance novel that weaves a couple of important topics (domestic abuse and teen homelessness) into an engaging story about very young love lost and the effects of childhood trauma on even the smartest, most capable and aware individuals. I did feel at times the maturity of the main character was a misrepresentation of young women that age. But then, there's a lot of growing up a person who witnessed her parents' abusive relationship must go through in a short amount of time. The story is semi-autobiographical, in that Hoover models the main character's parents after her own. And the author does a superb job illustrating abusive relationships and why people stay. I don't want to dwell on the darkness of the book too much, because it is in fact an easy read, full of witty banter and flowing conversation. It's part of a 2-book series, and I've already dug into It Starts With Us, the follow-up.
The Naughty, The Nice, and The Nanny, by Willa Nash (audio): I ended my adult reads of the year on a fluffy note, with this rather light-hearted, laugh-out-loud first in a 3-book series that follows three accomplished brothers and their holiday romantic escapades. Each book focuses on one of the three brothers and his hot holiday romance. It's the same time period in each book, and you'll re-meet some of the characters in different contexts in the others. I'm already on #2, Three Bells, Two Bows and One Brother's Best Friend, which is equally light and refreshing. There are a few steamy sex scenes, so this one may really be for the ladies. I have to say, I am laughing myself silly at the fact that these audiobooks have men reading the male parts, instead of women using deep baritone voices. I love that there actors out there willing to do this! But honestly, if you want some good, quick, uplifting listens for working out, walking the dog, or cooking, these are the ones for you. I swear I can go longer on the elliptical with books like these!
Happy Howlidays (Dog Diaries #2), by James Patterson and Steven Butler (audio): My kids and I stumbled across this one on a day running pre-Christmas errands around town and we ended up purposely taking the long way around to places just so we could keep listening. I know next to nothing about James Patterson and have never read a lick of his contemporary fiction. I know he's a star, and his collaborations with famous folks are equally revered. But discovering this series about Junior the dog and his holiday hooligans has been a true joy! All told from Junior's point of view and narrated by co-author Steven Butler, an actor and playwright, you'll be laughing yourself silly at the various names this dog gives things: Fangsgiving, Mom Lady, Food Room (for the kitchen), and my favorite: Person Carrier Box on Wheels (for the car). In our house, we are now calling all those things all those words! We started this series out of order because we just wanted a holiday listen for the season, so we are currently backtracking and doing #1, Double-Dog Dare, and loving it just as much.
Finally, the Cookbooks!
As this was a year of gargantuan change for me, which entailed closing a business, selling off assets, selling a house, packing it up, buying a new one, and moving across the country, I must admit, not much of it was spent cooking. Spoonfoolery was closed additional months of the year beyond our final closure in August, so there wasn't much experimentation either. But I enjoyed coursing through three cookbooks in particular toward the end of the year. For cookie lovers, check out The Perfect Cookie, an America's Test Kitchen gold star. Unique takes on old favorites, more types of chocolate chip cookies and oatmeal cookies than you can ever imagine, and brownies of all flavors to (mixing) bowl you over, plus much, much more are packed into this monstrous volume. A reviewer at this Amazon link gives you a nice, long cheat sheet of all the included recipes.
If pies are more your thing, then definitely take a gander at Pieometry, by Lauren Ko of LoKo Kitchen, perhaps the most artistic pie book I've ever come across. I'm not a big follower of the food influencers any more. I went from salivating after all the fancy Michelin-starred French chefs after culinary school, to following only a few tried-and-true baking blogs while running the business. Since closing up shop, I am rarely on Instagram, so the way I discovered Lauren's work was by sending the family to the library and simply saying, "Just pick up a couple of cookbooks for Mommy." And this is what came home. And now I want to make every single crust option she has in there! From carrot crust to Everything Bagel Seasoning crust, she's experimented with it. I'm reviewing this even though I haven't baked anything out of it because I've read enough recipes in my lifetime to tell you this girl's got it. And if you're artistic enough to try out her pie decor, then you're golden!
Erin Jeanne McDowell of Savory Baking is another food influencer I knew nothing about until I stopped off at a holiday baking table setup at our local library. And wowza! If you've reduced sugar in your diet like I have, but you're still a baker at heart, this one is for you. From salmon breakfast buns to parmesan sablés, she has taken some of the sweetest doughs to work with (sweet roll and shortbread doughs for those two) and turned them into stuff you can serve as a meal or side instead of dessert. Again, I'm reviewing this one even though I haven't baked from it yet because I'm a baker at heart. It's what I went to culinary school to learn how to do professionally, and I can tell you, this author is an expert. Those salmon breakfast buns are the first thing I'm making. I will report back when done!
And That's a Wrap!
Thanks for making it this far in my ramblings on this year's reads. I'm excited about having returned to what was once a longtime hobby of mine--reading! I was lucky enough to have learned how to read at age 4, and even had the opportunity for many years in my early editorial career to have read for a living. Maybe this will be the year all this reading inspires me to write more at this blog. Happy New Year to you all, and keep on reading (and cooking and baking)!