Monthly Archives: March 2015

The School of Essential Ingredients by Erica Bauermeister

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The School of Essential Ingredients by Erica Bauermeister was a gentle read, if a little bland for my taste. A bit like white chocolate, which tastes nice, but isn’t particularly memorable. (Be warned, there are a lot of similes in this book).

The story is told in a series of chapters featuring characters whose only connection is their attendance at a cooking school. The teacher is a woman named Lillian, whose restaurant transforms into The School of Essential Ingredients every Monday night. Lillian and each of her students have a backstory, troubles or obstacles in their lives which bring them to the cooking school. Happily, they all leave with their issues resolved.

Most of the characters seemed too good to be true. Unfortunately, they were nearly all too kind, too generous and too good and eventually I became too bored with them to care about their stories. (I don’t think I’m a particularly bad person, but I’m like the character in LM Montgomery’s Anne of the Island who wants a hero who could be wicked, but won’t).

The food in this book is a character of its own. Various combinations of ingredients are given almost magical properties and are able to heal sadness, anger and emotional weaknesses and failings. In real life, this works for me too – chips (crisps) when I’m cross, toast when I’m tired and chocolate works for just about everything else.

I have a soft spot for books with good descriptions of food or with recipes. The School of Essential Ingredients didn’t have recipes, much to my disappointment, because the descriptions of Lillian’s cooking were very appealing and for me, the most enjoyable thing about this book.

 

 

 

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Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

coolI wish I had come across Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons years ago, so I could have had the pleasure of regularly re-reading this book.

Cold Comfort Farm tells the story of Flora Poste, a young English woman who is charming, clever and an excellent manager. When Flora is orphaned at the age of 19 with only 100 pounds per year, she writes to each of her relatives with the intention of determining who she will live with and after receiving their replies, decides that her cousins, the Starkadders at Cold Comfort Farm in Sussex, will suit her best.

I believe Flora, who reads Jane Austen when she wants to be soothed, will become of my favourite book heroines of all time.

The Starkadders turn out to be as Flora expected, stereotypes of rural people who are all eccentric in their own way. The Starkadder family is ruled by Aunt Ada Doom, who as a small child saw something nasty in the woodshed. Aunt Ada won’t allow any of the family to leave the farm, because “there have always been Starkadders at Cold Comfort Farm.”

The next generation include Amos, a hell-fire preaching religious zealot, and his wife Judith, who is jealously possessive of their son, Seth. Seth is a handsome and sexy lothario who does a lot of “mollocking” with local girls, (mullocking is best avoided, if you don’t want to fall pregnant to Seth), while Seth’s brother Reuben lives for the farm, although hampered by his father and grandmother. Amos and Judith also have a daughter, Elfine, who is beautiful, writes poetry and dances in the woods.

Other characters include old Adam and his beloved cows, Aimless, Graceless, Pointless and Feckless. There is a young female servant who falls pregnant all too often, and the wonderful Mrs Beetle, who does for the family and a number of cousins who live and work at the farm.  Flora also has sophisticated and loving friends who she regularly visits and communicates with, and a would-be romantic interest, in the form of a Mr Mybug, a writer.

Very soon after arriving at Cold Comfort Farm, Flora realises that changes are required for the Starkadders to be happy and she sets out to engineer them. Under Flora’s guidance, Amos is sent out into the world to preach to a greater audience, leaving Reuben to run the farm in a manner which will bring in a profit. Seth is introduced to a producer friend of Flora’s from Hollywood, who takes him away to become a star in the “talkies.” Judith and Elfine are also managed, as are the remaining Starkadders in ways which work out exactly as Flora plans.

Stella Gibbons is a very funny and clever writer. In the foreword, which is itself a joke, she tells the reader that she has marked her finer passages with stars, so they can be sure they are “Literature” rather than “sheer flapdoodle.” Sure enough, the most descriptive passages in the book are marked with two or three stars. I actually laughed aloud when I found the first stars.

The name throughout the book are wonderfully descriptive, with Cold Comfort Farm being located near the town of Howling, which has a pub called The Condemn’d Man. The bull’s name is Big Business. The author must have giggled to herself constantly while writing this book.

If anyone else has read Cold Comfort Farm, please tell me what you think the nasty thing was that Aunt Ada saw in the woodshed, as this is a mystery with the potential to drive me crazy, no doubt just as the writer intended.

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The Good Wife Strikes Back by Elizabeth Buchan

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The Good Wife Strikes Back by Elizabeth Buchan is the kind of book that a middle aged woman, tied down by a family who take her for granted and stuck in a dreary job, could read and begin imagining her own escape from real life.

The story is told by Fanny Savage, who is the wife of English politician Will Savage. Fanny has been a ‘good wife’ for over twenty years and gave up her own career in her father’s wine business to support Will’s ambitions. She regularly attends public engagements, undertakes behind the scenes work, dresses appropriately and never voices her true political opinions, except to Will.

During this time Fanny has also been virtually a single mother to her and Will’s daughter Cleo, and a carer for Will’s sister Meg, who is an alcoholic. Meg and her son Sasha also live with Fanny and Will.

Wine is Fanny’s true love and once Cleo leaves home to travel after she has finished her exams, Fanny realises she wants her freedom too.

There are a lot of secrets which come out during the telling of this story. I liked most of the characters, but was annoyed by Meg, who is a needy and manipulative woman who relies very heavily on Fanny. Will, although much more likeable than his sister, also needs Fanny much more than she needs him. I would have liked Fanny to have told Meg firmly to butt out of her and Will’s lives and grow up, and not to have allowed Will to use her the way he has, but if Fanny had followed my advice, there wouldn’t have been a story.

I really enjoyed Fanny’s voice in this novel. She has an Italian father and an English mother, and her words are very precise. I wanted her character to escape the confines that Will and Meg keep her in. I wanted her to visit Italy and resume her career and wear dresses without stockings.

I also really liked the cover art on this book, which sums up the characters perfectly. The trees are Cleo and Sasha, the basket of grapes represents Fanny’s father, the suitcase and hat is Fanny, the spilled wine has to be Meg and the sports car, separate to the others, is Will. The back cover has an Italian urn filled with flowers, which describes where Fanny would rather be and the iron depicts her actual life.

The Good Wife Strikes Back was quite an easy read and the story probably won’t stay with me, but while I was reading it, I enjoyed the escape. (Don’t think I’m identifying with Fanny, I love my job, love my husband and wouldn’t change a thing about my life, except to find a little more time to read).

 

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The Broken by Tamar Cohen

tamarThere is an important lesson to be learned reading The Broken by Tamar Cohen, which is; DO NOT get involved in other people’s marriage break-downs.

Josh and Hannah are a young married couple who are struggling. Money is tight, as Josh is a lowly paid school teacher and Hannah is a freelance writer, who needs to fit her work around looking after their four year old daughter, Lily. Josh and Hannah are best friends with a golden couple, Dan and Sasha, who are well off, attractive and who seem to have everything going for them. They all pop in and out of each other’s houses, eat out together, get drunk together and their respective children are playmates. (The other lesson in this book is probably to make sure you have a wide circle of friends, rather than an exclusive sort of friendship with just one other couple).

Dan, however, has been shagging around, and when he falls in love with a 24 year old model, he tells Josh. Josh tells Hannah, who tells Sasha and surprise, surprise, she is heartbroken. Dan and Sasha ask Josh and Hannah if Josh can move in with them temporarily, so their daughter, September, can adjust to their separation. In the beginning, Dan truly believes he and Sasha will have an amicable break up, while Sasha is convinced Dan will come to his senses and come crawling back to her. Josh and Hannah believe that they will be able to stay friends with both parties and are determined not to take sides, although Hannah hopes Dan and Sasha will reconcile.

Sasha’s unhappiness and anger grows as she realises that Dan is not coming home, and she imposes dreadfully on Hannah, who has never learned to say ‘no.’ This situation would probably have improved eventually, except that Sasha’s behaviour becomes more and more unhinged. Hell has no fury like a woman scorned and all of that.

Josh and Hannah’s marriage, which was already struggling, suffers from the added pressure Sasha and Dan put on them. All of the characters are dysfunctional in their own way, including the only person who I thought was sane, in a last minute twist which I didn’t see coming. The Broken is an apt title for a book with this particular set of characters. It is very difficult to know which of the character’s stories to believe.

To be fair to Josh and Hannah, it wouldn’t have mattered what they did when they were placed in this situation, because there was no right thing for them to do. Taking sides with their friends came back and bit them. Trying not to take sides didn’t work either. Sadly, the marriage break-downs of your friends in real life, although not as dreadful as Dan and Sasha’s, often means the loss of friendships too. Like everyone else, I know this from experience.

If you like psychological thrillers, The Broken will probably be up your alley. I wouldn’t go out of my way to read another book in this style, because I prefer more sweetness and light in my recreational reading, but that isn’t the author’s fault. I will heed the author’s warning and mind my own business when it comes to other people’s affairs. The most unlikely people can turn out to be bunny-boilers.

 

 

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Time and Time Again by Ben Elton

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Ben Elton has a very clever and intriguing idea behind Time and Time Again. To sum up, an upcoming glitch in time which is only known to a group of Cambridge scholars, will allow somebody from 2025 the opportunity to travel back through time to 1914, where they may be able to change the future (or what we think is our history).

Ben Elton has a knack of writing about topical subjects. Inconceivable was a story about relationships and IVF, Dead Famous was based on Big Brother at the very height of the reality television show’s popularity, while Chart Throb was set around The X Factor. Time travel is always going to be a popular ‘what if’ for conversations, movies or a books, and as such, this book may not date in the way the author’s other books might.

Time and Time Again begins in 2025, when the main character, Hugh ‘Guts’ Stanton, visits his old Master of Trinity, Professor Sally McClusky, on her request at Christmas. Hugh is a widower whose wife and children were killed in a hit and run accident the year before.

Hugh was a British soldier who earned the nickname ‘Guts’ because of his bravery. After becoming an internet celebrity, Hugh was eventually asked to leave his Regiment because his fame compromised his and his Regiment’s anonymity.

Professor McClusky and her fellow members of the Companions of Chronos open a sealed envelope from Sir Isaac Newton, telling them how to use a loop in time, and select Hugh to use the opportunity.

After much debate about which event (or events) to alter, Hugh is tasked with preventing the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, whose death started World War One in 1914.

The time travel itself goes to plan (more or less), and Hugh gets to experience a more gracious and beautiful world than that of 2025.  He visits cities which have been destroyed forever by war, at the height of their glory. Motorised vehicles are rare, food tastes better, smoking is everywhere and suffragettes are trying to get the vote. Mobile phones, computers and other modern devices may or may not ever come into existence, with Hugh attempting to save the world from war and the future which followed.

Hugh successfully prevents the death of the Archduke, but that is not the end of the story. This action is another beginning for the story.

There is romance and adventures and the most exotic travel imaginable in this book. At one point I found myself believing Time and Time Again completely and thinking, this could happen. We’re a long way from 2025, and dropping Sir Isaac Newton’s name into the mix makes the romantic idea of time travel seem possible. I wanted Hugh to succeed, so I could enjoy the glorious future that Hugh, Professor McClusky and the Companions of Chronos expected to follow.

But not everything happens in this story as you imagine it will and changing the past altered the future in ways that the Companions of Chronos had not envisaged. I won’t go into any details because this book should be read and enjoyed without spoilers, but I will say, there were so many twists in the last part of the story that I had to re-read the last chapters after rushing to the ending on my first read.

I could not put Time and Time Again down.

 

 

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Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

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It’s Friday the 13th, which is the perfect day to review Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

I have a confession to make. Before reading Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, I thought Dr Jekyll was the monster and My Hyde the normal human being. My assumption was based on the names, as to me Dr Jekyll sounded a stranger and more dangerous name than Hyde, with apologies to anyone reading this whose name is Jekyll.

I have another confession to make.

I didn’t like this story at all.

I know the story was cutting edge in it’s day (1886), shocking and frightening Stevenson’s audience. I know Stevenson was hailed as a genius and was enormously popular. I like being frightened when I read, so I know my opinion is based on being a reader from a different time and place, rather than on the quality of the story or the writing.

It seemed to me that the story, although very short, was never going to get to the point. There were too many words and the descriptions and the character’s sentences seemed to go on and on. (I know, I know, different time, different place). I was already familiar with the story of the good doctor who had an evil side (although I still got the names around the wrong way when I decided which was good and which evil), but I just didn’t feel the horror. This may have been because the evil events in this book aren’t as graphic as what can be seen on the nightly television news, or in a movie or a read in a Stephen King novel.

To sum up the story, Gabriel Utterson, who is a lawyer and a friend to everyone, including Dr Henry Jekyll, comes to know of Mr Hyde’s evil nature and deeds after making out a will for Dr Jekyll in favour of Mr Hyde. Mr Utterson meets Mr Hyde soon after hearing of him and finds him repulsive.

A year later, Mr Hyde is seen beating a man to death. Another of Mr Utterson’s friends dies of a shock, due to something he knew about  Dr Jekyll, who has retreated from society. Eventually Mr Utterson and another man break into Dr Jekyll’s laboratory to find Mr Hyde dead on the floor, wearing Dr Jekyll’s clothes. Letters to Mr Utterson revealed Dr Jekyll had been using potions which turned him into Mr Hyde, so he could indulge in his taste for killing and hurting others, and then turn back into the good Dr Jekyll. Changes to the available ingredients for the potions meant that Dr Jekyll was permanently becoming Mr Hyde, and so Dr Jekyll suicided.

The blurb on the back cover says that this book “gave birth to the popular idea of the split personality.” I’m sure the idea that people can be nice one day and nasty the next wasn’t really new, even at the time this book was written. We all have a dark side, although some people’s dark sides are blacker than others and we all hide our dark sides to get along in society. I suppose the naming of the condition was new though.

I feel a bit of a failure for not reading and loving Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, but since I loved Treasure Island, I’m sure I’ll get over it.

 

 

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Key Lime Pie Murder by Joanne Fluke

keyI lost interest in Key Lime Pie Murder by Joanne Fluke after the first few pages, but I continued reading to the end of the first chapter because there was a mention of Deep Fried Snickers and Milky Bars. So I read a little bit more.

The heroine, Hannah, was judging the baked goods at the local show when someone got murdered. The rest of the story is Hannah doing detective work, all the while eating, baking, judging other people’s cooking at the show and talking about food. I don’t know how the story turned out, because I lost interest again and started flipping through to find recipes.

I did find the description of what baking judges look for to be very interesting, and particularly liked learning about the difference between presentation and appearance in a baking competition (who knew? Not me). The author’s descriptions of cakes, biscuits and pies are fantastic, although goodness knows, there are a lot of them (see the list below).  I’d definitely read a recipe book by this author, but wouldn’t bother with another of her novels.

If anyone else is like me and lives for food with sugar in it, the following list are foods which get a mention, description or a recipe in this book. The items with asterisks have the recipes and the items with two asterisks are those I intend to make.

Deep Fried Milky Bars and Deep Fried Snickers Bars, Swedish Oatmeal Cookies*, Pineapple Delights**, Peanut M&Ms and Hershey’s Kisses with Fruit and Nut, Choc Cherry Chocolate Cake (yes, please), Moroccan Delight, Chocolate Baklava, Chocolate Cherry Coffee Cake, Sticky Buns, Doughnuts, Apple Coffee Cake, Cinnamon Raisin Bread, Walnut Date Chews**, Chocolate Highlander Cookie Bars, Peanut Butter Melts, Peach Pie with Custard Filling, Key Lime Pie*, Regular Lime Pie with Shortbread Cookie Crust*, One Crust Pies with Crumb Toppings, One Crust Pies with Whipped Cream, Pumpkin and Sweet Potato Pie, Latticework Crust Pies, Two Crust Fruit Pie, Novelty Pies (Pies with unusual ingredients), Mystery Cookies – made with Tomato Soup, Peanut Butter Cream Pie with Chocolate Crust (if there had been a recipe for this I would have made this for sure), Vanilla ice Cream pie with Caramel Sauce, Four Layer Pie – Peach Jam, Baker’s Custard, Vanilla Wafers and M&Ms, Mock Apple Pie (no apples were harmed in the making of this pie as the mystery ingredient is something called Saltines, which are known as Saladas in Australia), Pineapple Custard Pie, Paul Bunyan Burger – for the heroine’s cat, mind you (I’m Australian, so had to google this recipe. It looks like a heart attack on a plate to me), Popovers (Australians definitely don’t eat these. Apparently they are similar to Yorkshire Puddings, which we serve with roast beef. In this book, Popovers are served with sweet butters and jams, like a scone), Bernadette’s Popovers*, Honey Butter*, Almond Butter*, Cashew Butter*, Date Butter*, Orange Butter* and Lemon Butter* (serve these with the Popovers), Breakfast Omelet*, Cappuccino Royales*, Banana Bread, Zucchini Bread, Mango Bread*, Peach Bread* and Coffee and Date Bread, Spicy Dreams – a version of Ginger Cookies, Kitty’s Orange Cake*, Chocolate Sauerkraut Cake (Okay, this is getting ridiculous now. Chocolate Sauerkraut Cake? I don’t think so), Coconut Spice Cake, Soft Molasses and Raisin Cookies, Chippers* (another new-to-me biscuit recipe – biscuits which use salted potato chips [crisps] as an ingredient. I’m more likely to eat the chips out of the packet than to bake with them), Black Forest Cookies, Blonde Brownies* and last of all, Ruby’s Deep Fried Candy Bars*.

 

 

 

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The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Sparks

girls

The Girls of Slender Means, by Muriel Sparks is actually a very slender novel, and up until the last chapter, when the story unexpectedly made me cry, I would also have said that it was also a very slender story.

The book is set in 1945 in London. The girls live at a hostel called the May of Teck Club, which was founded by Queen Mary before she married King George. (She was known as Princess May of Teck). The girls are all poor and under thirty years of age, except for three older women who for reasons unknown, were allowed to stay on past the age of thirty when most were expected to leave the hostel.

The girls are a mixed bag. There is the beautiful Selina, who has oodles of lovers. Joanna, who has a captivating voice, teaches elocution and recites poetry and psalms.  Jane works in publishing, which she calls “the world of books,” while writing fake letters to authors with the intention of having them write back to her so she can sell their letters (and autographs) to her boss. Nancy is a nondescript clergyman’s daughter who is having an affair with a married man. Dorothy tells the others of her filthy luck when she falls “preggers,” and Pauline pretends to the other girls that she has a lover.

One of the girls owns a Schiaparelli dress, which all of the girls who can fit the dress, borrow. They count calories and sunbake and laugh. It is wartime, with rationing in place. Food and other necessities are scarce and London is a dangerous place.

Each word in the book seems to have been carefully chosen and is exactly the right word. The humour is clever and occasionally even laugh out loud funny. The characters are very human and range from good to bad to wicked.

The story seemed very slight to me, until a terrible event in the plot turned me on my head. After this, I couldn’t read fast enough to find out what was going to happen, and if all of the girls would escape unscathed. Sadly, they didn’t, (I didn’t expect to get teary on the train over this book either, but I did).

I haven’t read The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, which is probably the author’s most well known book, but will make the effort soon.

 

 

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Close Your Eyes. Hold Hands by Chris Bohjalian

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I’ve read other books by Chris Bohjalian and enjoyed them, namely Midwives and The Double Bind. Both had twists that I didn’t see coming. The twist in The Double Bind infuriated me so much that I still think about it, at least five years after I read the book.

Close Your Eyes. Hold Hands didn’t have a twist, but I kept expecting one, based on my previous experience. It didn’t matter though. The idea for the story is good, I liked the character telling the story and there was a beginning, a middle and an end. Perfect. No twist.

The story is told by Emily Shepherd, the teenage daughter of an engineer who was in charge of a nuclear power plant in Vermont which had a massive meltdown. Emily’s father is blamed by the media for the incident, as he has a history of drinking too much, as did Emily’s mother. Emily’s parents were both killed during the meltdown. Emily tells the story through her journal, which skips back and forwards in time as she thinks of what she wants to tell.

When the problems at the power plant started, Emily was at school. Very soon after the school students and community were evacuated, rumours that Emily’s father was to blame for the meltdown begin circulating. Her father’s reputation suffers in a trial by media, and he becomes the most hated man in the world. Emily is also conscious that her safety is endangered because of her father’s reputation. When Emily learns that the authorities are conducting an investigation and intend to interview her about her father’s possible drunkenness on the night of the meltdown, she runs away.

Emily hides her true identity, by calling herself ‘Abby Bliss’. For a while she lived in a group house, prostituting herself for money. She learns where she can steal food and clothes from, and starts using drugs and cutting herself. Eventually Emily leaves the group house and builds an igloo on the street made of rubbish bags and leaves. While she is living in the igloo she takes on the responsibility of an eleven year old boy called Cameron, who has been abused in foster care.

Eventually, things come to a head. Not surprisingly, even before the meltdown, Emily was a troubled teen. She is very bright, although she didn’t apply herself to her school work. The only thing she works hard at is writing poetry, and she keeps that a secret. Emily has enormous respect and admiration for Emily Dickinson and points out in her journal similarities in her own life to Emily Dickinson’s.

This book’s plot probably owes something to the Fukushima Daiicchi nuclear disaster in Japan in 2011, which was caused by a tsunami, which was in turn caused by an earthquake. I can imagine the author thinking “What if,” and this book being created as a result.

I’m grateful that Australia doesn’t have nuclear power. It is something I will never vote for. I’m not naïve, I know Australia will run out of fuel for power one day and we will need alternatives. I don’t know what the answer is. Wind turbines, (it is said), can’t provide all of the power we will need, although they are becoming more and more common here. They are certainly  noisy and ugly, but no one will ever die if things go wrong.

I recommend Close Your Eyes. Hold Hands to anyone who likes to think about a plot both while they are reading and after they have finished the book. I think this story will be with me for some time to come.

 

 

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