Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The Confectioner's Tale by Laura Madeleine (2015)

It's 1909 and Guillerme du Frere is leaving the provincial town of Bordeaux to travel to Paris to work on the railways. At the same time, in 1988 PhD candidate Padra Stevenson is struggling to cope with her grandfather's death. She is also gravely worried, because when clearing out his effects she found an old photo of her grandfather with two other people, with "Claremont" and "Forgive me" written on the back. What did her lovely, kind and brilliant grandfather do in early 20th Century Paris that he needed to ask for forgiveness so blankly?

Guillerme steps off the train from Bordeaux onto a crowed platform in Paris. He is swept away by the crowd and bumps into a beautiful wealthy woman, knocking them both to their feet. Before he can speak, she is pulled to her feet and away, but he remembers her ice-blue eyes. His new job soon dominates his everyday life but, after receiving his first pay packet, he and his workmates go out on the town. After (unknowingly) trying opium for the first time, Gui wakes up in a gutter, with his pockets completely empty. Trying to find help he wanders down an alley, bumping into delivery men delivering sugar and flour to one of the favourite locations of Paris' wealthy: Cremont's Patisserie. To his surprise, standing there with a clipboard monitoring the deliveries is none other than the beautiful woman from the train platform, Jeanne Clermont. The delivery men want to chase him away but seeing the state he is in, she allows him to sit quietly and drink chocolate chaud until he is feeling better. To show his thanks, he agrees to return the following weekend to help with deliveries. From there, his relationship with Jeanne and Clermont's develops.

Back in the 1980s, Padra is not having a good time. She is very behind on her PhD thesis and has been placed on academic probation. Even though she knows she should be working on her thesis, she can't stop thinking about her grandfather's life in Paris and what he did that he was so sorry for. To make matters worse, another scholar is writing a biography of her grandfather and has promised to expose his scandalous secret. Petra is terrified that her grandfather's reputation will be tarnished for the sake of a publishing success. Helped by her friends and supervisor, she starts an investigative race with the would-be biographer to find out her grandfather's secret before he does and, hopefully, also find her place in the world.

The book alternates chapters from Guillerme and Padra. This is the second book I've read with this structure in a month (the last one being The Girl in the Photograph) and, as with that book, I much preferred the story set in the past than the more recent one. Madeleine very effectively paints a picture of Paris just after the turn of the century: the poverty living alongside the wealth; the seediness of the brothels and dancing girls; and the feeling of falling in love. As a postgraduate student, I really understood how Padra feels - the vague sense of panic every time someone brings up your thesis and the constant feeling that you should always be writing. I also loved the 80s touches - typewriters and fax machines and rotary telephones. However, the 80s is just not as fun as fin-de-siecle France!

To me, The Confectioner's Tale felt like a movie. The plot was simple and direct, the secondary characters had no inner life of their own and existed only to help the protagonists and the resolution was obvious but very satisfying. This is not a problem - I love movies! But, although it is very well told and engaging, there is not a lot of depth to this story. I actually kind of hope someone does makes a film of this book because it would be gorgeous, sumptuous and lovely to behold. Three and a half stars.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Cookbook Friday: Good and Cheap by Leanne Brown (2015) POCKET REVIEW

I read a lot of cookbooks. I used to buy a lot of cookbooks, but then I mostly read them once or twice and then left them sitting on my shelf unused until, after a decent period of time, I donated them to the local op shop, so I put myself on a cookbook ban for a while. Then I discovered that my local library has an excellent cookbook selection and my cookbook fetish has continued unchecked every since!

I think a full review of a cookbook can only be accurate when a few of the recipes have been been tested, which I don't do unless a recipe really grabs me. Instead, here I give you my pocket cookbook reviews: basically, a description of the feelings invoked by the cookbook when I read it. I have a lot of opinions of a lot of cookbooks, so I can see this becoming a regular feature...

Good and Cheap by Leanne Brown

Having been a student for much of my life (a lot more than half of it!) I am a big fan cookbooks that investigate how to make healthy food cheaply, so when I saw this on Netgalley, I requested it immediately. On reading it, I realised that it is a printed version of a PDF that Leanne Brown, a food studies scholar, developed for people on low incomes (particularly those on SNAP and food stamps). Leanne's website is here and it sounds like she's done a lot of good - she did a kickstarter to fund the printing of this book and was able to distribute it to low-income families in America and Canada and the PDF is available for free. 

Now, about the cookbook itself. Basically, it does what it says on the cover - delivers good and cheap recipes. As well as the standard tips to save money (use your freezer, buy food that can be used for multiple meals to reduce food wastage), Brown's recipes work well together, and she highlights when leftovers can be used for other recipes (as a carboholic, I am familiar with her technique of "try this on toast" and I love it!). She plays around with flavours well (for example the eight different versions of oatmeal) and uses ingredients cleverly (like the corn soup which makes a broth from the corn cobs). I have only tried the one recipe - the chocolate zucchini breakfast muffins. They were delicious and I ate them every day for breakfast for a fortnight. I also liked that this book was very vegetable focused, which is healthy (for the planet and for the individuals eating the veggies). I have definitely scheduled some good and cheap cooking sessions in the future!

Good and Cheap is not as sophisticated as Sandra Reynolds' The $120 Food Challenge or Jamie Oliver's Save with Jamie but it delivers good, cheap and tasty food for those on a budget. I would recommend the PDF to anyone who needs to budget their food money and the printed book as a great gift for students who have just moved out of home.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

What She Left by TR Richmond (2015)

Alice Salmon, 25, talented and beautiful, has drowned in the lake in her university town Southampton. Drunk and with cocaine in her blood, her story captures the imagination of the nation's media. Is she a cautionary tale of what happens when girls go wild in a binge-drinking culture? Or did something more sinister cause the inebriated Alice to fall into the freezing cold water in the middle of a dark winter's night?

In the aftermath of her death, Alice's former professor Jeremy Cooke, an anthropologist, starts a new research project. He decides to attempt to map Alice's life using her online footprint as well as information collected from those who knew her and loved her to, as he describes it, "put her back together again." But why is this fusty old professor, who still prefers to write longhand and cycles over campus on an ancient bike, so concerned with telling this story; putting this particular life back together again?

What She Left is the most modern of epistolary novels. It's chapters are made up of blog posts from Alice's best friend Meagan, online forums, Alice's own diary, letters from Alice's boyfriend, transcripts of police interviews, long, pompous longhand letters from Cooke to his best friend, another scientist whose work far outshone Cooke's own and assorted other forms of modern-day communication such as online news articles and Twitter postings. This is very cleverly done, with a complete picture of Alice and the web of relationships surrounding her slowly being built up, all working towards the answer of one question: how did Alice die?

This a really enjoyable, engaging book. Four and a half stars (I dropped half a star because Cooke was such a repulsive character. I don't need to like the characters in the books I read, but he was really icky.)

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The Girl in the Photograph by Kate Riordan (2015)

Firecombe is a place of secrets. They fret among the uppermost branches of the beech trees and brood at the cold bottom of the stream that cleaves the valley in two. The past has seeped into the soil here, like spilt blood. If you listen closely enough you can almost hear what's gone before, particularly on the stillest days. Sometimes the very air seems to hum with anticipation. At other times it's as though a collective breath has been drawn in and held. It waits, or so it seems to me

The prologue of the book opens in 1936, in a strange and eerie place that the narrator, Alice, has been in for three years. This place, she tells us, has changed her in imaginable ways, and now, three years after her arrival, it is time for her to acknowledge the uhealed rifts in the valley by telling their story.

The novel then journeys back to London in 1932. Alice, unlike most women in her time, has graduated from grammar school. Educated and intelligent, she is bored in her job as a typist and disconnected from her working class parents (in particular her mother), who thinks she has ideas above herself and should quit her job and work in a shop where she can meet a man. On on "particularly silent, stultifying day", the handsome and charming James Elton walks into her office and Alice is in love. James is married but (in a tale as old as time) he is going to leave his wife...until he doesn't, leaving Alice pregnant and alone in a time where being a single mum is not an option. Alice's mum sends Alice to Fiercombe Manor in the countryside, where an old school friend of hers works as a housekeeper. Once Alice has her baby, she will return to London and put it up for adoption.

Fiercombe Manor is an unusual place, where unusual things happen. It's at the bottom of a valley and, as she descends in an old horse-and-carriage driven by the gardener, Ruck, her watch stops working. The motif time as stopped, stilled or moving in unusual ways continues throughout the novel. The housekeeper and her mother's friend, Mrs Jelphs. Mrs Jelphs is also an unusual character: alternately friendly, open, reserved, withdrawn and oddly over-protective. The house seems to have a life of its own, and at night while she sleeps Alice feels presences wandering around. She is convinced there is a secret to be found and, quietly, she starts to investigate the story of the family who own the house but who never, ever go there.

Once Alice arrives at Fiercombe, a new voice is introduced into the novel. Elizabeth was the mistress of Fiercombe 40 years before Alice arrived there, but a different Fiercombe. She lived in Stanton House, an imposing monstrosity built in the Italian style; a house that was so huge it changed the feel of the valley but now gone, leaving no trace. Like Alice, Elizabeth is pregnant and apprehensive about what will come after her baby leaves her body. Linked by the new lives within them and their strange connection to the place in which they live, The Girl in the Photograph tells Alice and Elizabeth's stories, culminating in a dramatic, shocking end.

The Girl in the Photograph has strongly gothic overtones. These are quite overt: Mrs Jelphs and Alice eat in the Red Room and at one stage Alice jokes about having Mr Rochester as a husband. It reminded me a lot of Rebecca, with an overwhelming sense of mystery and intrigue and hidden knowledge. Unfortunately, with this type of storytelling it's a problem if one of the stories is more interesting than the other one - I liked the Elizabeth storyline a lot better than the Alice one, mainly because the Alice one was all in her own head and she just wasn't as interesting as Elizabeth was! I found the book engaging and well-written but quite slow moving. The author really needed to either cut out about 100 pages or really beef up the secondary characters. Using Rebecca again as a model - it is much shorter than The Girl in the Photograph while covering the same sort of area and it therefore packs much more of a punch.

The Girl in the Photograph was interesting and engaging but ultimately too long and slow-moving book: three stars. I will definitely keep an eye out for this author's work in the future.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

I'll Have What She's Having: My Adventures in Celebrity Dieting by Rebecca Harrington (2015)

The hardest line for me to write of a review is the first. Always, every time, I struggle to find the right words to capture the essence of the capture of the book I am trying to express. So, week after week, I open my review explaining how I got to be reading a particular book...

This week is no different. I found the author Rebecca Harrington through her hilarious series in NY Mag in which she trials the different almost always crazy diets of the stars. It's got everything - bizarre mixes of sour cream and cottage cheese (why, the seventies, why?), poking gentle fun at the stars, and loving Gwenyth the way she should be loved. I then read her novel, Penelope, which I liked a lot but did not love (which, by the way, is better than many of the books I read, which so often bore, infuriate and frustrate me that if I added up the first 50 pages of books I then either threw at the wall or calmly returned to the library, I'd read about 300 books a year). I periodically kept checking the NY Mag series and it was with delight that I discovered Harrington would be writing a book based on her adventures in celebrity dieting.

"Yipee!" I said, and immediately requested that my lovely local library purchase a copy. They did, and I impatiently waited for it to arrive, refreshing the "reservation" screen every time I hit a roadblock in my own writing (read: quite often). The "your item is in stock" notification came in, I picked up the book and I was kind of disappointed.

Firstly, the book is tiny.

It's just slightly taller than a DVD case but a bit thinner. Not very substantial in modern publishing terms.

The opening was great:

I have always noticed diets. Diets are everywhere. You can't be a woman and not think you need to go on a diet or get a face transplant. Preferably the face of a famous person so that you can never get lost. But noticing diets is completely different from doing many of them in succession. Who would do that? Me. Here is the story.

The premise of the book is that Harrington purchases a celebrity's diet book (or that of their personal chef) as well as the book/DVD of their exercise plan. The first one is Gwenyth's, which is (unsurprisingly) completely fab and incredibly ridiculously expensive. The celebrities go from Classic Hollywood (Greta Garbo was a notorious calorie counter who followed fad diets her entire life; she ate a ridiculously disgusting celery pie), Classical-ish Hollywood (Elizabeth Taylor is "an excellent broad with really bad taste in food") through to modern hardcore dieters like Elizabeth Hurley ("I wish I could stop finding diets that Liz Hurley has done. Then I could stop this nightmare" - Harrington only lasted four days following Hurley's punishing routine). It's really funny! Harrington is able to effectively identify the ridiculousness of celebrity lifestyles while gently and affectionately poking fun at the celebrities and those of us who emulate their lifestyles. The thing is, it's just her NY Mag series printed in a book. Other than a few extra celeb diets (maybe three or four?), there's nothing in here that I couldn't get from the mag itself. So, I would absolutely recommend this book, but I would also find it hard to explain why they should pay for content that they can just get for free from the Internet.

Finally, one thing that I found really disconcerting was the typesetting of the book. There were really huge gaps between each paragraph:

Usually that indicates a new section but it didn't here - they were all consisently that size. It was weird and annoying.

Overall, a funny book but with some major flaws. Three stars, but Rebecca, I would come to any of your dinner parties any time! Let's be friends :)

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins (2015)

Every morning, Rachel gets up and catches the 8.04 commuter train from Ashbury to London. Every day, about halfway through the journey it stops at a signal in Witney, sometimes for a few seconds, sometimes for a few minutes. While sitting their waiting, Rachel can see into the houses that back onto the line. She watches the people inside, having breakfast, getting ready to leave and she imagines lives for them, assigning them them names and careers. Her favourites are Jess and Jason. Jess, a beautiful blonde, Rachel has decided works in the fashion industry and is an artist. Her handsome husband Jason is a doctor, whose frequent absences Rachel attributes to a doctor who specialises in foreign aid. Jess and Jason are very much in love and remind Rachel of her true love, Tom, and the blissfully happy times they spent together. In the evening, Rachel takes the 17.56 home and she checks in on the Witney residents. These events structure her day and, I suspect, her life. 

The interest Rachel has in Witney is intense. Her day is structured around those two stops and her surveillance is constant and odd. While reading, I started to ask myself why does she care so much; why is she so invested in other people's lives? As we start learn more about Rachel, we find out she was happy and now she is not. Something happened, something big, that resulted in her happy loving marriage ending and Racel lodging with a university friend Cathy, a woman she describes as "a nice person, in a forceful sort of way She makes you notice her niceness. Her niceness is writ large, it is her defining quality and she needs it acknowledged, often, daily almost, which can be tiring." Something bad has happened for Rachel to be in the place where she is, and the spectre of this bad thing hangs over the opening chapters of this novel, building tension and setting up Rachel as one of my favourite literary figures - the unreliable narrator.

One morning, Rachel is shocked to see Jess kissing another man, betraying Jason, who Rachel has decided is the perfect husband. The next day, she is shocked to see Jess's face plastered all over the news. Her name is actually Megan she has gone missing. Her husband is not Jason but Scott, who works in IT and is prime suspect number one. Rachel is convinced he is innocent and has decided she must tell him and the police that Rachel was unfaithful, but can she leave the isolated half-life she's been living in order to do this? Is she able to take the step from being the girl on the train to being involved in a real-life missing person's case?

I really enjoyed this book. The tension at the centre of the tale is established early and effectively and grows steadily throughout the book as the story is told by different characters, including Megan. Comparisons have been made between The Girl on the Train and Gone Girl. They are both tense psychological thrillers but they are different in that The Girl on the Train is less dark than Gone Girl and the characters will be much less polarising. I think if you liked Gone Girl you will probably like this but also the audience for The Girl on the Train will find the book less polarising.

A cracking read that I finished in an afternoon. Five stars.