My August 2019 Reading Round Up is quite a short one. Only three books on the list today. I’ve got a couple of other books that I plan to write separate reviews for. This month is a couple of mysteries, and one food biography.
When I first started reading crime fiction, my choices were mainly from the Golden Age of British crime writing. J.A. Jance and her creation J. P. Beaumont were the first American detective novels that I got into. Now I try and read series in order. Back then I grabbed whatever I could, usually from used book stores.
Taking the Fifth is actually a grocery store pick up. I thought I might be getting a relatively recent story. Turns out that this is one of the earlier Beaumont books. This is good as it fills in some of the gaps in the development of the characters.
The plot revolves around two seemingly disconnected murders. One of a transsexual woman, beaten with a high-heeled shoe, and the other of gay man dying of AIDS(the novel is old enough that AIDS is still a death sentence). There is also the discovery of drugs in the house of the victim whose death from AIDS is sped along by murder.
The prime suspect is a woman whose rock star career crashed out through drugs. She is in the process of reinventing herself as a singer of 40s and 50s songs. Beaumont, as is his wont, becomes too closely involved with her. At first he thinks he’s being set up, but it soon turns out there are a lot of people being set up. The mastermind of the plot turns out to be quite a surprise.
Taking the Fifth’s strong points
One of things I liked about this story, is it gave some space to developing the character of Ron Peters. Peters is Beaumont’s former partner. In this novel, he is still in hospital, recovering from injuries, that are partly Beaumont’s fault. We meet Amy his physio, and Peters eventually plays a vital role in helping solve the crime.
The other really strong point is that Jance does a good job of depicting the life of AIDS affected people. The public. at the time, still displays a lot of ignorance on the disease. As he comes into contact with several gay characters, we see Beaumont slowly start to gain a little understanding and compassion. On the order hand, Beaumont’s relationships with female suspects need improving.
Bruno, Chief of Police, and gourmand, is back. This makes me happy. I knew a new Bruno novel was scheduled to be released, but I wasn’t sure when it would end up on shelves. In this case I happened to be wandering through McNally Robinson when I saw it. I immediately picked up a copy.
The story revolves around the murder of a popular and beautiful young American woman scholar. She goes missing. Eventually being found at the bottom of the titular well. Suspicion immediately falls upon a young man just released from prison after a ten year sentence. His sentence was for a drunk driving accident that killed several Boy Scouts.
As with all Bruno books nothing can be as simple as it appears. The victim is wealthy, with even wealthier parents, who like to throw their weight around. It appears she was also investigating her mentor, a hero of the Resistance. The implications of this gives cause for J.J., the Brigadier, and yes, Isabelle to be involved. Along with these stalwarts, Walker we get a good dose of the locals, such as Pamela, Ahmed, Florence and the mayor.
One of the things I really like about this series is that Walker does a great job of weaving in the returning characters while introducing new ones. He also finds ways of expanding the roles of minor character. In this novel Amélie, the former political canditate, and her performance of Josephine Baker’s music is the prime example. It also allows for highlighting Baker’s work in the resistance, and her later creation of a large, diverse family.
Another thing I like about this installment is that it is, despite all the political elements. a much more local story. It is also a gentler story. The last few have had a lot of gun play and major injuries for the characters. Although there is some danger to Bruno at the climax it’s much more easily dealt with.
The Past Complicates the Present
The Bruno novels provide an interesting glimpse into 20th Century French history. In The Body in the Castle Well, this history is the complicated history of France in the Second World War. Art fraud and forgery and the role of the Vichy government all play a part in the story. In that way the Bruno novels remind me of the Gamache novels by Louise Penny. In that the murders are often rooted in old fights and hurts.
For Bruno, as a character, his own past is always complicating his present. This is particularly true as it relates to his relationships with Pamela and Isabelle. I can’t wait for the next novel, to see what direction these characters will all go and grow in.
Jen Agg is one of Canada’s most successful restaurateurs. Her most notable creation is The Black Hoof. I Hear She’s a Real Bitch chronicles her development as a restaurant owner. At the same time the book shines a light on the nature of the Chef Bro culture that exists in so many restaurants.
The book starts out with Agg laying down what she considers the right way to run restaurant. Right away this got me on board. Here is someone who cares deeply not just about the diners experience, but also teaching and training employees. Too few places, restaurants or otherwise, do this.
Then the book moves to her growing up years. It’s an abrupt transition, but it lays the groundwork for the rest of the book. Her’s is a fairly typical suburban upbringing. However, a couple of things stand out. Agg wasn’t particularly interested in fitting into any pre-set gender roles. Yet at the same time, she still recognized a desire to fit in and to go along with things and not to rock the boat. Especially when it came to holding onto to relationships with boys(men).
This is one thing I like about the book. Agg doesn’t represent herself as someone who was fighting the power from day one. Instead she walks honestly through her failures and learning experiences. Something that carried on into her early days owning a restaurant and continues to today. As she does this she also acknowledges that being a white woman with a stable and supportive family background meant she was a beneficiary of privilege.
This willingness to share her failings also describes well her restaurant ownership journey. Both in terms of learning to work with partners, and learning when to hold on to an idea, and when to let go.
Shining a Light on Restaurant Bros Culture
As her story of opening restaurants unfolds, she also becomes more aware of the effects of Bros Culture on the lives of women in the business. Agg calls things as she sees them. In men this is as a mark of character. In women this is seen as a character defect. As the title suggests, disapproval of such a woman, is often shared behind their backs in unflattering terms.
As Agg worked her way into a success in the business, she also learned that her privilege, could be put to good use. First, through her Twitter account, and later through organizing the Kitchen Bitches conference, she uses her voice to help other woman find a place in the conversation. The book is an extension of this.
One of the strengths of the book is that it isn’t a litany of horror stories. Instead Agg focuses on the constant small ways in which sexism in the restaurant industry plays out. Things like contractors immediately assuming here husband is the one making the business decisions. The men in the kitchen gossiping in conspiratorial fashion, then shutting up when she enters the restaurant.
Do you find the restaurant business interesting? Do you want to learn more about the challenges women face in the business, this is a great book to pick up. On the other hand, if you enjoy reading interesting and entertaining memoirs, this book is a great read.