Monday, June 30, 2014

Review: The Art of Baking Blind Sarah Vaughn

There is something satisfying in hearing the prongs of a hand mixer hit the side of a bowl, puffs of chalky flour erupting, enveloping in a gooey mass, poured out, and raised into something sinful. I love baking, I consider myself a baker – we aren’t talking Nigella Lawson, or Cake Boss baker, but a baker nonetheless. So this tome had me at the opening line.
Based around the 1966 baking bible, The Art of Baking, by Kathleen Eden, a cookery writer and wife of a supermarket magnate. The book that every household held, and every baker, chef, or cook referred too. Now five bakers battle it out for the new title of New Mrs. Eden.

A Masterchef meets The Great British Bake Off lovechild of sorts.

First we meet Vicki, who has turned her life upside down to be home with her little boy, halting a career she loved. Jenny, whose children have fled the nest. Then there is Claire, who at sixteen sacrificed everything for her daughter. Mike, a widower looking after two kids; and Karen, the perfect who is desperate not to let her disguise slip. As each of these characters bake their way into your heart, and through the competition secrets, hardships and difficulties are unearthed.

Sarah Vaughn’s debut does a magnificent job in portraying the most basic need to feed, comfort and bake. Her characters are wholesome, stark and lovable even when they aren’t. This is no literary escapade or stark portrayal of ambition, the woman in the kitchen or the way we interact – no, this is a novel filled to the brim with goodness, love, passion, talent and a pinch of salt. The calm to the Wolf Hall’s of your previous reading escapade, and the tribute to your kitchen.

If this novel doesn’t have you baking a Victoria Sponge by the end of it, I’ll eat eight brownies. Ha, as if you could bend my rubber arm.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Review: The Collected Works of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

It's not very often you come across a book that changes your perspective. As if your entire reading career had prepared you for that exact moment when the book changes your life; as if in preparation for a Book Ephiany.

Gabrielle Zevin struck me more as a Young Adult writer with her Anya Balanchine series about a young daughter of a mob boss, who is forced to take over the family business. 

"It is a book that sings to our literary hearts, and it is one of the most precious books I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading, and I will likely reread it a thousand of times." Zoe Hinis, The Book Aramada

This has to be the best description for A.J. Fikry, from The Book Armada's review of this book. A novel set around a bookstore on a remote island, run by a rather irate, semi-alcoholic, and grumpy manager called A.J Fikry. AJ is recently widowed and is slowly coming to terms with living without his wife and all round love of his life, not only is AJ missing her, but the store misses her; once vibrant and active, it is now a dull struggle of a bookstore - something many bookstores are grappling with at this moment.

We meet Amelia, she is a sales rep for a very niche publishing house, and AJ's bookstore is one of her customers. It isnt until a young child is left on bookstore's front step, with a note, does AJ's life begin to change. Maya, is the child's name, immediately worms her way into AJs heart and he decides to keep her.

This is far from a book about books, but a love letter to books, booksellers, and book lovers. It is a story about family, friends, life, and how books tie us all together with love stories, and words on a page. It'll be an extreme feat if you don't fall instantly head over heels for this book, it's characters and lines so masterful you wish you had written this book yourself.

You need this book. If you don't love it, then books are simply wasted on you...

'A place isn't a place without a bookstore' - The Collected Works of A.J Fikry

The Collected Works of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin features on this month’s Exclusive Books Recommends for June.

Happy Reading.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Review: Help for the Haunted by John Searles

I can blame books for many various idiosyncrasies that rule my life; such as lack of food when a book sale starts, my dry sarcasm when moody, and the lack of restraint when faced with piles of elegant covers and pages. I can also blame Stephen King for my fear of Clowns,  J.K. Rowling for the disappointment of never receiving a letter from Hogwarts, and I now blame John Searles for NEVER buying a rag doll (or any type of doll) ever again. 

I think about those words a lot, and I think about their spirits too.
If you believe in those sorts of things.
I do and I don't believe.
But mostly—mostly, mostly—I do.

This is the story of the Mason Family. They aren't just any family - you see, because, Mr and Mrs Mason (Sylvester & Rose Mason) are ghost hunters. By splurging the supernatural for financial gain - think ghost-believers conventions, people who believe they themselves, or family members, are possessed.

It isn't till one night when their youngest daughter, Sylvie, is woken up to her parents having a fight downstairs. A normal occurrence since her eldest sister Rosie was sent away. They pack little Sylvie, half-asleep, into the car and park outside a church. Between sleep and wake, Sylvie hears two gunshots... and her parents never come out.

Told through Sylvie's eyes - past and present - the reader slowly begins to uncover just how insane the lives the Mason's led were.

What would happen when Stephen King and Gillian Flynn had a literary child... It would be John Searles.  Help for the Haunted is best described as Supernatural meets Night Film, a darkly written novel about ghosts and murders all gift-wrapped with lies. Once you have gotten over the shock a creepy doll named Annie, or the missing young girl said to be possessed, or the witnessing of your parents murder in a church, only after all this will Mr Searles settle you into an easy read before hitting you with a twist that will make your head spin so fast it may just fall off.

Beware this is not for the faint-hearted readers...

Monday, June 2, 2014

Review: The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt

History is always in embroiled in the successes of men; well some histories that is. When reading the blurb of The Blazing World, I couldn’t help but chuckle as the rather clichéd saying ‘Behind every great man is a woman’ – it wasn’t a patronising chuckle, but one that rang true. It’s no secret that the art world, in all its successes and beauty, has always – somehow – not shown the talents of women. This is the rather simplistic basis of Siri Hustvedt’s novel.

Hustvedt flays it open in a rather unique way, divulging the life of Harriet (Harry) Burden, a struggling embittered artist, who is paid hopelessly no attention for her work. So begins a rather complicated experiment; Harriet decides to create three identities to hide behind – think Mary Ann Evans who was the amazing George Eliot – in order to get her work recognized. One thing is clear is that Harriet’s involvement with her third identity is shady, and brutal.

My inner feminist shouted out in glee with this novel, but it was the inner book lover that truly went off the rails. It was Hustvedt’s technique in presenting Harriet’s story in a posthumous tome of interviews, essays and personal diaries; all varying in opinion and story – each eluding more and more to the mystery that is Harriet Burden, as the reader is forced to confront the truth behind each mask of identity Harriet is consumed by.

This is a crème brulee of a novel, you never order it every time after dinner, but it’s on that special occasion your eye drifts to the milky-thick-decadent dessert offered (oh, and mind you, one never eats crème brulee just anywhere...); it’s that slight echo of a crack that unleashes a soft gooey centre of all things good in this world. You take each bite, slowly, luxuriously; savoring its craftsmanship.

That is how you should approach this novel, with the respect of an incredibly talented author who can wrap their reader in a story to the point of osmosis. Each word is meant or at least it feels like it, you savor it as it slowly bleeds to something bigger.

This cannot be a book for the sake of reading books. It’s the big guns that you whip out on lonely nights with wine and coffee; you don’t take books like this on holiday, or on the train. You sip it slowly. It’s a great read, literary, and elegant, regal, almost – but beware, you need all your energy for this one, well worth it, but don’t just pick it willy-nilly.

Happy Reading

The Blazing World By Siri Hustvedt features on this month’s Exclusive Books Recommends for May..

Friday, May 2, 2014

Review: One Shot by Amanda Coetzee

It's no secret that I am a huge Amanda Coetzee fan. Having worked with her, read her first sensational crime novel, Bad Blood, in manuscript form (straight from the slush pile). 

Perhaps it's her dark hero, Harry 'Badger' O'Connor that has me tripping like a blushing school girl. I mean who wouldn't love a strong, fighter, covered in tattoos with a lilting Irish accent to keep you warm at night?

Amanda now brings her amazing fourth novel, One Shot. In this fast-paced stellar crime novel, Badger is pitted against an ex-British Force sniper, Tom. When a body turns up face down, the Bedford Police suspect it's gang related. Badger is thrown into his brooding-action-suave, that he does so well, to try find the killer. It isn't that simple, of course, because as the gangs start to unravel and panic at being ratted out, they send a rather gruesome message. It's this kill that sends Badger and his team into 'solve-crime' overload. 

So how is Tom, the sniper involved? And each victim seems to be part of a bigger scheme of killing for good... Oh, I'll leave that up to you to find out.

The plot seems incredibly complicated, but Coetzee pulls it off with such ease and carried off by strong character relationships - hello, Adam and Sofia. It's the Ma de Quincey character that I have always loved - her strong presence on the page she emits is credit to Amanda's talent, and is loosely drawn from Amanda's childhood. With the skill of a killer herself, Coetzee draws the reader in with her ability to harness relationships between her characters while throwing them rather sadistically into hot water - I know Amanda, and a sweeter lady you'll never find, a proverbial shock to the system. 

It's a fast-paced, lusciously enigmatic, strong description and hellishly-gruesome crimes. A great read for crime lovers looking for that tour-de-force required reading for a lazy reading weekend.

Happy Reading

Friday, April 25, 2014

Review: & Sons by David Gilbert

A novel set to make waves; thick in volume, boasting the New York skyline on its cover and with rumors of publisher, Fourth Estate, printing more galleys than Gilbert's first novel, The Normals, printed in finished copy totality. 

It's a different novel, one I wouldn't pick up, it's too long, too manly and too well-written. Ok, you have me there, a novel that is too well-written is completely perfect, so I digress.

It all starts with AN Dyer, a famous author whose great work, Ampersand, is a Salinger-type classic work, and set work for schools across the USA. AN. Dyer is about to give a eulogy at his best friend's (Charles Topping) funeral, told from the view of a son, not AN Dyer's but Charles' son. 

Centering itself around the relationships of fathers and their sons, this epic tome threads itself against the picturesque setting that is upper east side NYC. Faced with the heartbreak and certain regret that now awaits him and his determined demise (death) AN Dyer is determined to play a sort of 'make-up' with his sons; cleverly referred to in the title, are overshadowed by their father's success - Ampersand.

It truly is an epic tale to say the least but about 90 pages in, I felt as if I swam through exotic chocolate that I couldn't afford. While gorgeously crafted, I have to - sadly and regretfully - say that this book found me at the wrong time. Written with a slight hand, I found I couldn't identify with the seemingly all-male cast (and a handful of what seemed to be ambitious women who were downplayed). 

Oh, gosh, I don't want to be the one banging the feminist stick, but I am. I need at least one bat shit crazy woman (think Penelope Cruz in Vicky Christina Barcelona) to challenge these men, or at least make them work harder. Perhaps that is the point though, that fathers do think they have enough time with their sons, or wish their sons turn out a certain way. All end up disappointed in one way or another.

This is a John Irving style of writing, challenging but rewarding, even though I didn't manage to fully read this set-to-be-great novel, I will emphasize that patience is required for this novel, something I don't have now, but the basis is there with Gilbert's slight of comedic plotting, characters dutifully crafted to play their parts, and a setting worth writing about. Perhaps, when I can be found on a beach with endless hours ahead of me... Maybe then.

& Sons by David Gilbert features on this month’s Exclusive Books Recommends for April.

Happy Reading

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Review: The One Plus One by Jojo Moyes

It is no secret that I am a Jojo Moyes fan. It was when I first picked up Me Before You, a novel that broke my heart in every way possible, that made me adore this master piece of a story. Moyes has a lightness of touch in her writing, as if she writes in nothing but homemade rock buns and knitted jerseys - comfortable and lush.

The One Plus One is the story of a single mother (Jess) trying, or should I say battling, to keep her family afloat. She has a step-son who is being bullied, a mathematical genius for a daughter, a dog and a sleaze-bag husband who has done a runner. She tries her best to keep everyone going, working two jobs as a cleaner by day and a waitress by night, she is constantly washing, cleaning and mothering.

Then we have Ed, a nerdy businessman who stumbled on his fortune 500 company, but would much rather be back in the 'old days' creating than actually being a CEO. When Ed is surrounded in controversy involving a slightly underhanded woman and a seedy affair. 

Moyes creates a perfect set up for these two characters to crash together, because Jess cleans Ed's house, but this isn't where their story begins. When Jess's car breaks down on the way to Tanzie's (her daughter) mathematics Olympiad, one that will gain her entry into a school that Jess cannot afford, on full scholarship, and so arrives Ed, not in the knight in shining armour type of way, but by pure happenstance - who agrees to take Jess and her family to the Olympiad. So begins the journey of this very odd and motley crew, discovering and learning, but with a hint of emotion. Each learning more about each other the closer they get to their destination.

This is where we see Moyes's pure skill, and motherly care for her characters. She gives them the idiosyncrasies, the mood swings, the arbitrary quirks and holds them out for you to lap up.

Now, let the gushing end - I didn't think this was Moyes' best work. Perhaps, I gave too much of myself to Me Before You and with it lost so much more; that is not to say that Moyes lost her touch with this novel, to say the least, she certainly didnt. I still couldn't help feeling irritated, rolling my eyes and 'ugh'-ing about, but perhaps that is the point. I finished the novel, not regretting one bit that it had taken me two days to finish, but I felt like something was missing, perhaps I expected too much and didn't just let Moyes work her magic in her own way. Still one to add to your Moyes collection.

This is a perfect on for the long weekend ahead...

Happy Reading.

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