Saturday, December 21, 2013
I am not a big short story fan. I find the format really limiting in that I prefer longer, more involved stories and the craft involved in writing short stories - and it is a format that requires a lot of skill and work to do effectively - is not necessarily the type that I admire the most. Given this disinclination, when I saw Sue Grafton had written a book of short stories featuring my favourite female detective Kinsey Millhone, it took me rather a long time get around to borrowing it from the library.
Well, after finishing this book I cannot believe how stupid I was to let my silly prejudices prevent me from reading this book for so long! Kinsey and Me is a collection of short stories, the stories are divided up into two separate sections. The first section are detective stories starring Ms Millhone, which are fun and entertaining and everything I've come to expect from Sue Grafton. However, it was the second section that really surprised me and that I enjoyed the most.
I think sometimes we don't think of authors in the same way we do celebrities in that we don't form an attachment to them but to the characters they write. We may associate authors with a particular genre, style of writing and set of characters but I know that I rarely think of their lives beyond the books they publish. Even though Sue Grafton is an actual living breathing person and Kinsey Millhone is not, it is Kinsey who feels more real to me. Or, should I say, did before reading this book. The second section is stories about Kit Blue, who Sue Grafton tells us is a fictionalised representation of her. Grafton says she wrote the stories to deal with her feelings following the death of her mother, who was an alcoholic, and the result is hauntingly beautiful exquisitely crafted moments in a life that say so much using so few words. They were poignant and sad but hopeful and loving - I enjoyed them very much and, as much as I love Kinsey, using these tales as a basis I hope that Grafton does write more non-Kinsey novels.
Tuesday, November 26, 2013
Michael Pollan’s contention in Cooked is that it is through the act of cooking food that we can address the health and environmental issues concerning food and food practices that permeate our culture. Not only is cooking at home healthier than eating processed food, it both encourages and allows consumers to be closer to the food chain process and, in the process through the act of sharing meals, foster a better family environment.
This is the first Pollan book I have read. I was familiar with his food philosophy – “Eat food. Mainly plants. Not too much”, which I think is an excellent way to approach eating (although, based on the amount of meat he says he eats in this book, he doesn’t practice what he preaches). I also like his idea that you can eat whatever you want – as long as you make it yourself. He argues that it is the easy access to high calorie foods that were previously labour intensive that has led to widespread health problems. Previously, making French fries or potato chips was a labour-intensive time-consuming process that, because it was difficult to do, was done less often. Now, not only is access to potato chips and French fries easy, it is cheap – cheaper than other nutrient-dense lower-calorie foods. In this book, Pollan extends his food philosophy to the practice of cooking by developing his basic cooking skills in four different cooking practices: grilling with fire (bbq), cooking with liquid (braising), baking bread and fermenting (brewing beer). He was “surprised and pleased” to find these elements just happen to coincide with the classical elements of earth: Fire, Water, Air and Earth. What a happy coincidence! Warning: do not read this book if eye-rolling is an issue for you because situations such as this abound throughout the pages of Cooked.
I had two thoughts when reading this book. Firstly, Pollan does go on a bit. He talked about onions for many more pages than I felt was justified – we get it, onions are a big deal. I imagine in person he’s a man who very much likes the sound of his own voice. I found this very wearying and I admit that I did skip the last chapter on brewing completely because I felt that if he can be so unbearable on the subject of onions, then what would he be like on the infinitely more wanky subject of homebrewing? I did find his tone quite offputting and, in places, a bit patronising.
Secondly, there seems to be a huge disconnect between Pollan’s understanding and interaction with the cooking process and actual real life. I am not implying that Pollan is some sort of cyborg and not a real person; rather, that he has no concept of how the average person interacts with food and cooking in their everyday life. For example, he makes a convincing point that cooking is important and that everyone should cook at home. But to develop his cooking skills, he hires a chef to come into his house once a week and teach him to cook. No one I know would consider that a reasonable option. In another section, he waxes lyrical about how well the bread-making process fits in to his personal writing schedule. If you work in an office to which you have to commute, fitting regular bread baking into your schedule is very difficult. At one stage he realises that if you set aside time on the weekend to make meals in advance, it is cheaper and healthier than buying takeaway or microwaving meals. No shit, Sherlock – do you reckon? Not only is that information included in most cookbooks (which I have noticed now tend to contain a helpful key that indicates whether meals are freezer friendly, vegetarian, gluten-free, etc), the kind of person who would read a book called Cooked by a food philosopher and activist already knows that.
This leads me to the central paradox of Cooked. It says some really important stuff! The links between poor health and processed food are persuasively outlined and the case for cooking more (by both genders, he is clear to state) is convincingly made. But while he identifies the problem (current food consumption practices are bad for us and the planet) and the solution (cook more, especially more local food) there’s no bridge between those two positions. It’s like asking ‘How do I produce more knitted objects?’ and then answering ‘Knit more’. Well sure, but unless I stop paying rent or seeing my friends or exercising, that’s not actually a useful solution at all. I’m not sure there’s a point of identifying a solution, even a really really good solution, if there’s no way of implementing it. (Although, I do admit that after reading Cooked I put a book on making sourdough bread on reserve at the library and I’m going to have another go at creating a starter of my own…I’m very suggestible when it comes to bread baking!)
Cooked raises an important topic but is lacking in its delivery and execution. I give it a tentative three stars.
Thursday, November 7, 2013
I've been a huge fan of the blog Hyperbole and a Half for a years so when I saw Allie Brosh's book Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem and Other Things That Happened on Netgalley, I requested it immediately. Out of all the books I've ever requested, it was the first one that had me compulsively checking my email waiting for notification of my approval so I could start reading it straightaway. Once the approval came through, I devoured the book immediately.
And I enjoyed every page.
Most people who have spent even a minimal amount of time on the internet will be familiar with Brosh's distinctive humour and visual style. Her images and word have sparked a number of memes, the most famous being Clean All The Things, which she is excellently happy for people to use as they will. Her work recounts experiences from her life with humour and pathos and the style of the book is very faithful to her blog. I was actually amazed at how well this internet comic lends itself to a print format - if anything, it's funnier having the (very slightly) delayed gratification of turning the page before seeing the next comic.
This leads me to my first concern with the book, in that many of the chapters are lifted directly from the blog with little or no modification. This is not a huge issue for me - I think Adventures in depression and Depression Part Two are wonderful, meaningful and poignant and I would have been disappointed if they hadn't been included in the print version. However, I know that reprinting blog content is an issue that many people have with print versions of blogs - why should they pay for something they got for free before (I tend to think why shouldn't a blogger profit from their own hard work? But that's just my view.)
The second concern that I have is the book's structure. It is basically a collection of illustrated short stories without any link other than they feature Brosh's pink cartoon alter ego, leading to the odd editorial situation where we have an entire (hilarious) chapter devoted The Simple Dog but then have a section in another chapter where the dog is introduced and its simpleness explained, which I found a bit jarring. Also, it isn't clear to me why the chapters are structured the way that they are - there's adult Allie stories interpersed with child Allie stories without a clear thematic link. The last chapter is really really sad, so after reading that one I had to go back and re-read a happier funnier chapter. My Hollywood training has taught me that things should end on an up note! But again, this is probably only a thing for me and no-one else.
The unexpected sadness and poignancy of this book is one of the reasons I will wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone who will listen. I literally laughed out loud in several parts and in one place giggled so hard I needed to stop reading for a bit, yet other chapters of it made me feel sad and want to reach into the pages and hug the author who was writing with pain that felt so real. So everyone - buy this book, read this book, buy more copies of this book and give them away to others so they can read this book. It is a very good book.
Sunday, October 27, 2013
My library, which I love, adore and think is completely fabulous, recently started using the BorrowBox system. With this system, library members download the BorrowBox app and use it to borrow eBooks and audiobooks. I'm always happy to give anything that increases my access to books a go (especially if I can access the books for free without leaving the house!) so I was pretty keen to try it out. There aren't many ebooks available so my choice was pretty limited. The first book I downloaded was Jennifer Love Hewitt's The Day I Shot Cupid but it was so terrible that even with my deep and abiding love of celebrity memoirs and/or lifestyle guides I could not get past the first chapter. I cannot emphasise how really really terrible that book is (Wikipedia tells me it inspired the popularisaiton of the term "vajazzling": decorating woman's pubic area with crystals. Shoot me now). Urgh.
However, I had more luck with my second title, The Marx Sisters. Mystery novels are one of my favourite genres. I love a world-weary detective, impelled to investigate a world of crime and corruption that confirms his or her dark view of humanity. I love the ability of good mystery writers to use murder as a way to capture entire characters in a few pages while setting these characters, who only briefly feature in the story as part of a murder investigation, against the backdrop of the personal life of the detective, which develops across a series. Some of my favourite series are the Kinsey Milhone Alphabet stories (I have W for Wasted sitting on my bedside table waiting for a day where I have nothing planned so I can spend the whole day lying in bed, drinking hot chocolate and devour it all in one go!) and the first 12 Inspector Lynley novels (seriously, stop at A Place of Hiding. I have read all of them and Elizabeth George spends all of her time in the later novels doing horrible things to the characters we have grown to love. I briefly reviewed the most recent one, Believing the Lie, on Goodreads [review here] and if my review can prevent one person from reading it, then I have done good). I also adore Philip Kerr's Bernie Gunther books and very much enjoyed the first twelve or so Stephanie Plum novels. Because I have strong series loyalty, I'm always on the lookout for new authors and detectives so, when I saw this book was the first in a series that has been rated consistently highly on Goodreads, I was sold.
The book features two detectives, homicide detective Kathy Kolla and Scotland Yard Chief Inspector David Brock. They are set the task of investigating the death of Meredith Winters, an old woman who lives in an odd enclave in London called Jerusalem Lane. In Jerusalem Lane, tensions left over from World War II still simmer within a diverse group of people including British nationals and German immigrants. It's an unusual part of London that seems to these detectives like a remnant from another time; a forgotten moment of London's history caught in a particular space. However, the property is in the middle of London and desired by developers with an eye for profit. Meredith held papers that may or may not have belonged to the great Karl Marx that were desperately wanted by an American academic whose career had stalled and Meredith's son was pressuring her to sell so he could liquidate her assets for his hair salon chain. It soon becomes clear that solving this murder is not going to be an simple matter.
The book was released in 1994 and it was really odd reading a police procedural without the technology that is so ubiquitous in crime stories today. There were fingerprint checks and a bit of mention of DNA testing but the characters communicated via fax rather than email and establishing the provenance of an academic at an American university involved writing letters rather than just visiting the university's website. In 1994 I was at high school and I remember having to find books in the library using a card catalogue so it's not like this past is completely foreign to me, but it is amazing reflecting on how far we have come in technologically in just under 20 years. However, despite this slightly jarring historical issue, I enjoyed reading this book. It is the first in the series so it does serve the function of establishing characters, meaning there's a bit more exposition than there usually is in later books but, importantly, it is interesting enough to make me want to read the later books. I give this novel three stars and, as soon as I can figure out how to return it electronically via the BorrowBox app, I will download the next one.
Concerning the BorrowBox app - it does seem to be really focused at audiobook listeners rather than ebook readers, because the range of audiobooks is much larger and has more recent and popular titles than the ebook range. I couldn't find any functionally to change the size of the text like you can with the Kindle app - it looked like the pages were fully typeset and fixed. This meant that the type was a little bit small on my iPhone but would be perfect for an iPad or other tablet. I will keep borrowing books from it because it is so convenient; but, based on its current catalogue, I might run out of books that I want to read sooner rather than later.
Sunday, October 20, 2013
A victim of the economic slowdown due to the global financial crisis, Clay Jannon is an unemployed marketing graduate. His one career job was design and marketing for New Bagel, a company run by former Googlers who developed a machine that would make perfect bagels that were completely identical every time. When it turned out that the market didn’t want perfect identical bagels, the machine was refigured to produce burnt irregular ones. New Bagel went under, the Googlers moved on and Clay started looking for another job.
With his job search hampered by the myriad distractions offered by the internet, Clay starts printing out job applications and walking to the park to read them. One day while walking home, Clay sees an ad for help wanted in the window of a 24-hour bookstore. He enters, applies, gets the job and immediately begins work as a clerk at Mr Penumbra’s 24-hour bookstore. Mr Penumbra’s is a bookstore made in two parts – the used bookstore in the front of the shop and the Waybacklist, a collection of old books that have never been registered on any official book database, that go up the walls of the odd, tall space. In his quest to digitise the store, Clay uncovers a secret society that has been searching for answers for 400 years and, with his friends who each have their own quirky technological specialities, goes on a quest to find the answers.
These two instances, where the new (perfectly identical bagels, the internet, technology) is compared and contrasted with the old (imperfect bagels, the printed page, a bookstore) and then integrated is the key theme of this book and I think whether or not you like Mr Penumbra's will depend on how well you think this theme was executed. I am honestly not sure if I liked this book or not. I think questions about the integration of technology with publishing and the book industry are interesting. I think the digitisation of books is good because it makes book more widely available, often much cheaper and has much less stress on the planet because we’re not chopping down trees to print them and then shipping the printed book all over the world. However, I worry that the models used by Amazon and Google mean that authors aren’t getting enough of the royalties for the book industry to remain sustainable (not a lot of use having models to sell books if no good books are being written!). I also recognise that a shift to a largely electronic book marketplace will result in changes in the labour market in that some jobs will be lost (printers, probably some designers and typesetters) and some will be created (digital distribution). I think this book acknowledges this tension and explores it to some extent but, by reducing it to a question followed by an unrealistic and cheesy conclusion, it dismisses the complexities of the argument in favour of a Hollywood ‘let’s all just be friends’ happy ending.
This book is very computer driven. I am certain that I missed a whole bunch of references to computer stuff that probably affected how much I enjoyed the book. I didn’t know which of the computer language/design things were real and which were invented for diegetic purposes and I didn’t care enough to look them up. Also interesting with this book were the references to Google. Clay dates a girl, Kat, who is a Google employee and devotee and the book is quite critical of the role Google play in the digital world. I was surprised that Google allowed their name to be used, especially in such a negative portrayal. In the digital/analogue binary that this book divides the world into, Google is just a digital modern-day cult; a more public version of the secret society that funds Mr Penumbra’s 24-hour bookstore.
I’m going to reluctantly give this book three stars. I would be hesitant to recommend it to anyone I know (bad) but it has given me food for thought (good), so I’m placing it right in the middle of the star scale. If you’ve read it and have thoughts, I’d love to hear them but don’t let this review in any way influence your decision to pick it up.
Saturday, September 14, 2013
I am a huge fan of ‘Tartan Noir’ – that brand of murder mystery set in Scotland, usually Edinburgh, featuring a detective or policeman who has/had a drinking problem, issues with his family and is involved in a dark, murky criminal underworld. I think my favourite Tartan Noir is any book by Ian Rankin but, and this is a big but, these worlds are so masculine. Women are hookers or wives, mothers or daughters but rarely detectives or protagonists. Because of this, I was delighted to discover Chris Brookmyre’s Sharp Investigations series, a female-focused Tartan Noir set in a dark, corrupt Edinburgh.
The first two books in the series (which I read PB (pre-blog)) are Where the Bodies are Buried and When the Devil Drives. The first features Jasmine Sharp, a wannabe actress who, following the death of her mother, starts working for her uncle’s private investigation company. When her uncle goes missing, she meets Detective Catherine McLeod, a policewoman who has her own family and profession problems in the course of the investigation. It’s a great, very entertaining book, and the follow-up, which has a stronger focus on police corruption, was just as good. Within one hour of finding out there was a third one in the series I had tracked down a copy, had it in my hand and I could not wait to start! But, unfortunately, this third novel was a huge disappointment.
For starters, it starts really really slowly. The book contains three separate stories, each one with its own timeframe and featuring a different character. Additionally, each chapter is told from the perspective of a different character and these characters are sometimes separated by time and space and sometimes not, so it was really hard to get into the novel or develop any affinity for any of the characters. Once I hit page 150 and the disparate storylines began to become more related to each other, the pace quickened up a little bit but with the attention spread over so many characters, I never really engaged with the text.
The biggest problem for me was that the thing I enjoyed most about the previous books, the strong female characters, was missing in this one. This is a book about men and about fathers, both good and bad. Jasmine and Catherine barely rate a mention and their concerns are merely glanced at within the traditionally Tartan Noir masculine universe of police, gangs and crime. Even worse, there is a twist ending that doesn’t work at all, especially within the context of the other two books in the series. I can’t say any more without giving away spoilers but it just doesn’t make any sense! Very, very frustrating.
Chris Brookmyre is a good writer and I might have liked it more if I hadn’t read the first two in the series and liked them so much (four stars each). But I did, so I give Flesh Wound two stars.
Monday, September 2, 2013
Out of all the many types of crime novels on the market, without any doubt my absolute favourite type of story that involves death and mayhem can also be described as cosy - it's the craft-themed murder mystery novel. When done well, these books are seriously the best. They usually revolve around a shop that has been passed on by a grandmother to her granddaughter (the mother never understands) who, for whatever reason, has left her previous life (most probably in the Big City) in need of support and comfort, which is supplied by the group of usually women crafters who visit and/or work in the store. Someone tangentially related to the store/town/granddaughter dies and the group of crafters band together to solve the murder. In the process, the granddaughter falls in love.
At their worst, these books are trite and just plain awful (Maggie Sefton and the Lambspun series, I'm looking straight at you) but the best are like a real hot chocolate - classic, sweet and the perfect way to spend a lazy afternoon. The Double Wedding Ring by Clare O'Dohohue falls into the second category. It is the fifth book in the Someday Quilts series but the first by this author that I have read, and in this book Nell Fitzgerald (the granddaughter) has left a cheating fiance in New York City and is attending art school and working with in her grandmother's quilt shop (Someday Quilts) in the picturesque town of Archers Rest. One night Nell goes to have dinner at her boyfriend's house and notes a man sitting in his car outside. She doesn't think anything of it until the next morning, when the man is discovered dead.
A lot happens in this book. Nell's grandmother Eleanor is getting married and considering closing Someday Quilts. Nell is about to start her final semester at art school and needs to decide what to do with her future, both professionally and in her relationship. A kitten is found (kittens are the best! Why are they not in every story?) and, since this is a murder mystery, the killer of the dead man - who was a cop with Nell's boyfriend (the current Archers Rest chief of police) in New York - must also be found. Because there is so much happening, the story moves along briskly and there is no chance of the reader getting bored. My favourite parts of the books, though, were those that dealt with quilting. I'm a knitter not a quilter (for proof, see here) but I felt the descriptions of time spent crafting and the relationship of individuals to the making process were authentic and true to my own experience. You do want to give those you love stuff made by your own hand but not just any old thing - these gifts need to be perfect.
I enjoyed this book very much and have since ordered the first four novels so I can catch up on what happened before the former New York cop died. I am pleased to have found another fun craft murder mystery series to add to my shelf and hope that the unusually high per-capita death rate in Archers Rest continues so I can continue to read about it. Three stars.
This book was supplied to me by the publisher via Netgalley but the opinions written in this review are my own.
Friday, August 23, 2013
Jane Hatton is happily married with three kids. At the request of her English husband, Andrew, she gives up her life in New York, including her gorgeous apartment in Manhattan, exciting lifestyle and demanding but rewarding job, and moves to a house that was previously a Vicarage in a remote village in England, Gosford, where the weather is cold and the wind always blows. Hating her lifestyle and resenting her husband for asking her to move, Jane lethargically floats around their new spacious house, acting like a teenager and wallowing in her misery. One day, while lethargically and ineffectively attempting to paint the second pantry, she uncovers a shopping list that says:
Beef joint for Weltons, 2lb, 2/3d
Potatoes, 5lb, 6d
Tea, ¼ lb, 4d
Mint Humbugs for David, 1d.
This shopping list sparks an interest in the people who had previous lived in her house and Jane soon discovers that the list was most likely written by Alice James, a vicar’s wife who lived in her house before the war. Jane feels a connection to Alice that she doesn’t feel to any other part of her new life and slowly starts to investigate Alice’s quiet story.
The book then moves back in time to tell the story of Alice, the daughter of a Cambridge scholar who falls in love with one of her father’s former students, David James, who has become a vicar in the remote English town of (you guessed it) Gosford. The book then takes turns following Jane and Alice’s stories as they try to find their place in their families and the town to which they both somewhat reluctantly moved.
Over the course of the novel, Jane discovers the lifestyle she loved had had an unexpected impact on her family and her place within it. While Jane is becoming more self-aware, the lovely Alice is growing up and developing her own strength and identity. My main criticism of this book is that Jane is such a sook and a complainer! She goes on and on about how bad her life is without taking any sort of responsibility for her own decisions and role in her predicament. Fortunately, Alice’s story provides a respite from Jane’s unrelenting whinging and, in the end, Jane’s sourness works well in comparison to Alice’s sweetness. The feminist in me did object to the overarching message that it is the role of the mother to create a home but that was balanced by a realistic depiction of the drudgery that is involved in being the primary homemaker.
The Vicar’s Wife is not a particularly deep or complex story but I did enjoy reading it very much. It is a very relaxing, easy read that is perfect to take on holiday or to use to help you unwind at the end of a rough day. Three stars.
A copy of the book was provided to me by the publisher via Netgalley but the opinions in this review are my own.
Thursday, August 22, 2013
I started reading this book after being intrigued a Salon piece written by a journalist (Tracie McMillan) who goes undercover to investigate the field-to-plate journey of food in America. I enjoyed Nickel and Dimed and I found the article well written and intriguing, so I was looking forward to this deeper picture of America’s relationship with food this book would provide.
However, I wish I had not wasted my time. White female privileged smug middle-class journalist Tracie McMillan decides to go investigate three aspects of the food industry – agriculture, distribution and preparation – by pretending to be a poor person and working as a labourer, at Walmart and in the kitchen at Applebees. This is similar to what Barbara Ehrenreich did in Nickel and Dimed. The difference between Ehrenreich and McMillan’s books is that Ehrenreich acknowledges her privilege and states on a number of occasions that she understands that what she is doing is at best an imitation of the life of an actual poor person. McMillan not only doesn’t seen to understand her privilege, her poverty tourism actually causes harm to the very people her book seeks to give a voice to.
For example, McMillan’s first job is working in the fields in California. She concocts a not-very-believable reason for why an educated, well-spoken white woman is looking for manual labour and then proceeds to find a job, aiming to live on the money she earns from her own labour. The first problem with this is that the first two places she lives in are owned by friends or acquaintances of hers and she doesn’t have to pay rent. Her privilege, as evidenced by her strong social network, is already providing an (unacknowledged by her) benefit to her that the people whose lives she is investigating do not have. Through her neighbour, who lives with six other people in a two-bedroom trailer that she pays rent for, she finds a a job picking grapes. In this job, pickers work in groups of three and are paid on the number of boxes (cajas) of grapes the group can pick. Due to her inexperience, McMillan can only fill nine boxes, meaning her group members earned over 30% less than they normally would. Even though she did picked fewer grapes than others, the payment is divided three ways equally. She says: “There’s only one word to define what just happened: charity. And I know I am in no position to refuse it.” YES YOU ARE! You have an education and a strong social network and a well-paying job and an apartment that you live in on your own in New York City. It is reprehensible that your little games of poverty tourism literally took food out of the mouths of people who need it much, much more than you do. Tracie McMillan, you should be ashamed of yourself.
It doesn’t get any better. To study the distribution of food, McMillan gets a job at Walmart. She manages to find a place to rent where the landlord provides her with food staples – more free stuff. She comes up short on her rent because she has been going out for sushi, so she puts the difference on her credit card. Heads up, Tracie, the reason you were able to go out for sushi is because you are able to do things like put the rent on your credit card and then pay your credit card using your regular job. Actual poor people don’t do things like that, because if they did they would actually get evicted and not be able to call on their extensive social network for free housing or to just, you know, return to their NY apartment. When McMillan’s sister gets cross at her when Tracie says she “can’t afford” to go to a Christmas party which involves baking two dozen cookies, I had to stop reading for a while until I calmed down in order to prevent me throwing the book at the wall. McMillan’s sisters are a lot more refrained with her than I am with mine – if either of them had pulled that crap with me I would have sat them down and had a serious conversation with them about privilege and being an obnoxious dick. After the cookie party, McMillan decides she’s had enough of playing poor and quits her job and I quit reading the book.
Investigative journalists are important. They can provide a window into another way of life and expose, like Ehrenreich did, the appalling conditions some people work under and the human cost of the first-world consumer life we live. Tracie McMillan is a talented writer and the research in this book was excellent. But her particular type of privileged poverty tourism that caused harm to those she was aiming to write about is appalling. I give this book one star.