Monthly Archives: June 2014

Book review: The Art of Baking Blind

The Art of Baking Blind by Sarah Vaughan 9-6-14If you like making cakes, you’ll enjoy this book. It’s full of recipes, ingredients, mixing, kneading, weighing and baking. The Art of Baking Blind by Sarah Vaughan is a two tier story. In the 1960s, Kathleen Eaden’s husband owns a supermarket and she becomes an overnight marketing sensation. Now, a baking competition is announced in Eaden’s Monthly, the supermarket’s own magazine. Four women and one man reach the final.

The book reminded me of the Julia Child film, Julie & Julia, starring Amy Adams and Meryl Streep. In an attempt to emulate Julia Child, played by Streep, Adams cooks her way through Child’s cookbook. In a similar way, this story is told with Kathleen Eaden as its spine. Her diary entries and excerpts from her books feature heavily. Baking is at the centre of the story. It is a lightweight, enjoyable, holiday read.

Two confessions from me. One, I kept getting the women muddled – the only one I was clear about was Jenny. Two, I was slightly niggled that we didn’t get the point of view of the male competitor, Mike, until quite a way in. I missed his voice. Disappointingly, Mike remains a mystery, lightly-drawn, unsatisfying. Sarah Vaughan [below] writes with confidence about baking, I just know she baked the cakes and pies she writes about.

[photo: hodder]

[photo: hodder]

There are lots of innuendos about kneading dough and rising temperatures. All five competitors seem to lack love and sex, leading me to the rather simplistic assumption that baking replaces sex, which seems a little unfair. So which question made me turn the page – who will win the competition, what is Karen’s secret, or who will shag who? Rather contrarily, the sections I enjoyed reading belonged to Kathleen Eaden because it was obvious that all was not as the supermarket marketing image suggested.

By the end I could have done with less cake description. I was left with a feeling of irony that there were competitors seeking to be the new Mrs Eaden, when the real Mrs Eaden was a marketing invention. All four women – and Mike – must re-examine who they are and what they want.

If you want to watch a video about how to make perfect pie crust, something which features heavily in the book, watch Nana’s video at You Tube here.
Follow Sarah Vaughan on Facebook here.
To read how Sarah Vaughan got published, click here.

‘The Art of Baking Blind’ by Sarah Vaughan [pub. in the UK on July 3, 2014 by Hodder & Stoughton]

Book review: Summer House with Swimming Pool

summer house with swimming pool by herman koch 21-5-14Dr Marc Schlosser is popular with his patients because he doesn’t tell them they smoke too much or drink too much, he doesn’t tell them to lose weight, he doesn’t lecture them. So he becomes a popular general practitioner amongst the arty set. They invite him to their premieres, he doesn’t want to go. Basically, he takes the easy way out; if a patient presents with a symptom he doesn’t recognise or is disgusting, he refers the patient to a specialist. Except Ralph Meier, the famous actor. Although Marc doesn’t like Ralph, he is sucked into the actor’s entourage.

This is the story of one summer when Marc’s family stays at the summer villa rented by Ralph. Throw their wives into the mix, two teenage Meier sons and two teenage Schlosser daughters, plus a film director and his decorative girlfriend, summer heat, a swimming pool and a beach, and you can see trouble looming. It’s how Marc reacts to that trouble that makes the story. I found myself thinking ‘he’s not really going to do that is he? Oh, he has.’

Marc is a very unreliable narrator, skilfully handled by Koch [below]. I didn’t trust him, I didn’t like him, but he made me laugh. His intolerances and lack of patience struck a chord with me [which should get me worried!]. Is it a story of medical incompetence or murder, I will let you decide. It is certainly a story of misunderstandings. The people are unlikeable, but the story draws you on. It is an excellent book to throw into the discussion about why all characters in fiction must be nice: we are not all nice, we all have light and dark in us, we all have habits we would rather keep to ourselves. So fiction should be populated by realistic characters.

But I am pleased Dr Marc Schlosser is not my doctor.

[photo: Mark Kohn-Hollandse Hoogte]

[photo: Mark Kohn-Hollandse Hoogte]

Here are two reviews of Koch’s previous book, the award-winning The Dinner:-
Click here for The Guardian’s review…
… and here for the NY Times review.
‘Summer House with Swimming Pool’ by Herman Koch [published in the UK July 3, 2014 by Atlantic Books]

Book review: In Ark

In Ark by lisa devaney 18-6-14It is 2044 and New Yorkers are living through The Change. The food they eat is mostly artificial or fresh and prohibitively expensive, a cab costs $600 and they cannot go outside in summer without protective clothing. This is the life Mya Brand leads, until she is abducted and taken to The Ark, an eco-survivalist commune. Once there, she must face the demons of her past life and make a difficult decision about her future. Should she stay and be safe, but not see her family and friends ever again? Or should she walk away from the commune and risk a difficult life and an early death as the climate worsens?

In Ark is part of a newish genre called cli-fi, or climate fiction, featuring titles such as Solar by Ian McEwan and State of Fear by Michael Crichton. This is the first of three cli-fi novels about The Ark planned by new American indie author Lisa Devaney [below]. Lisa Devaney 23-5-14The context is fascinating and I can see it working well as a movie. Devaney writes with precision about climate change and the effect this has on day-to-day life, as well as on society as a whole. It is clear that Devaney is an enthusiast for her genre. I would have liked The Ark to be more sinister, perhaps that will come in Book Two. It reminded me a little of the world created by Veronica Roth in Divergent, though I must point out that In Ark is most definitely an adult book rather than YA. There are a couple of vividly-written drug-fuelled sex scenes which are the sort that teenage readers would read and re-read, and some adults too.

Overall the concept of the trilogy is very different from anything else I have read, the plotting did seem a trifle slow but that is partly because the society needs to be explained so the story in Book Two and Book Three can progress.

If you like science fiction, fantasy or dystopian fiction, then cli-fi is for you.

To read a Huffington Post article explaining the cli-fi genre, click here.
To visit Lisa Devaney’s website, click here.
To order In Ark at Amazon, click here.

‘In Ark’ A Promise of Survival’ by Lisa Devaney [available on Kindle now]

A poem to read in the bath… ‘Lost Acres’

I often read poetry, often in the bath, so this is the first of an occasional series sharing with you my discoveries. I often read them aloud, which for some reason seems to aid my understanding and stress the rhythm of the language.

My first poem is by Robert Graves [1895-1985] a writer known in the UK for his First World War poems and his war memoir Goodbye to All That. His novel I, Claudius won literary prizes and has been turned into numerous television series and films. Graves [below] was Professor of Poetry at Oxford from 1961-1966. robert graves 13-6-14My favourite is ‘Lost Acres’. Because of copyright restrictions I am unable to reproduce the poem in full, but please search it out in an anthology or at your local library.

‘Lost Acres’
These acres, always again lost
By every new ordnance-survey
And searched for at exhausting cost
Of time and thought, are still away.

This makes me think of rural Yorkshire where I grew up in The Sixties, roaming the fields free to explore, never thinking about lines on a map or county boundaries.

For more about this collection of Graves’ poems, click here.

selected poems by robert graves 13-6-14


‘Selected Poems’ by Robert Graves [faber and faber]

Book review: The Silent and the Damned

the silent and the damned by robert wilson 24-2-14Second in the Javier Falcón series set in Seville. Santa Clara is a wealthy neighbourhood where people stay inside their elegant air-conditioned homes and don’t mix much with their neighbours. Very un-Spanish. And then people start dying.

First, a husband and wife. Was it one murder and a suicide, or a double-murder? Falcón investigates only to find, living opposite the murdered couple, the wife of his last murder victim [in The Blind Man of Seville]. And this is how Robert Wilson neatly intertwines the back story from the first novel, bringing forward the things a new reader needs to know. Falcón has moved on since then, gone are the formal suits, now he wears a shirt and chinos and seems more relaxed, more at peace with himself. But this is a detective novel, and detectives are traditionally troubled souls so it is not long before the cracks appear.

The deaths keeping coming in the 40° heat, Falcón must deal with the impending marriage of his ex-wife plus the growing suspicion that all is not well at police headquarters. There are links to characters in the first book, dodgy characters, further crimes are hinted at. Will he be allowed to continue his investigation, or will higher powers decree his case unviable? And does Javier Falcón have the mental energy left to care?

An excellent follow-up to The Blind Man of Seville, click here for my review. I read this book quicker than the first, I think because of the familiarity of the character. I understand now why the books were serialised on Sky Atlantic.

Click here to find out how this second book got its name, and why Robert Wilson originally wanted to call it The Vanished Hands.

Click here to watch Robert Wilson interviewed on The Murder Room. He talks about writing crime fiction, why people want to read about criminals, and why the crime novel he most admires is George V Higgins’s The Friends of Eddie Coyle.
‘The Silent and the Damned’ by Robert Wilson

Book review: The Unfinished Symphony of You and Me

The Unfinished Symphony of You and Me by Lucy Robinson 9-6-14I wanted this book to start in a different place. The story is about Sally Howlett, wardrobe mistress at the Royal Opera House, who sings opera… in the wardrobe.

There are so many good things about this book that make it a pleasurable read, but throughout I had the nagging doubt that there was a different book trying to get out. A book better than the prologue, or ‘Overture’ as it is called to match the opera theme, a book better than the cover, a book seriously about opera and more concerned with life’s big themes. Instead it seemed trapped inside its rather lightweight cover.

The Overture starts with a person trapped in a wardrobe with a teddy bear called Carrot. This person is Sally Howlett, who the next day starts a post-graduate diploma in opera at the Royal College of Music. I don’t always have a problem with Prologues –although I know there is a view that it demonstrates nervousness on the part of the writer and a need to explain stuff ‘up front’ – but I did have a problem with this one. It was confusing. In the first paragraph, the person looks in the mirror and sees a ‘boggle’, a boggle which has spent most of the day in a wardrobe with a teddy bear. How old is this person? My instant reaction was that the story was starting when the hero was a child. I was wrong. Second, there was too much exposition. There’s an unexpected visitor who we are told will change Sally’s life but who I thought was ballet dancer Barry, but Barry lives with Sally. She mentions a friend, Bea, and starts to write an e-mail; but not to Bea, to her cousin Fiona. It felt in need of a strong editor’s hand. Despite my irritation and confusion I kept reading, lured by the opera storyline.

For me the story starts at Chapter 1 with the child Sally who grows up on a council estate in Stourbridge, decidedly not a centre of opera appreciation. Playing on the radio she hears an aria from Madame Butterfly and is entranced. It is the beginning of a lifelong obsession which leads to her not singing opera at the Royal Opera House but working there as a wardrobe mistress. The story of Sally’s life story is told by weaving together the strands of her childhood with her emotionally-repressed family, her life as a wardrobe mistress, a short visit to New York to work costumes for a production at The Met, and now as Sally begins to study opera.

What I found strange was the chick-lit language, girl-about-town bad language – talking about poo and farts like a six-year-old – in combination with the opera strand. I apologise if I am making unfair generalisations.

What kept me reading? The storyline, I wanted to know what happened in New York to make Sally study opera at the RCM when she couldn’t get beyond singing in the wardrobe. The ending did seem inevitable, I thought I guessed the reason but I was wrong.

What were the bigger themes trying to get out? A few life lessons. That helping others is all well and good, but you must do things for yourself and not simply to please someone else. That family loyalty is important, but you also owe a duty to yourself. To never give up. And finally, Sally learns that it is not just her that struggles for self-belief, everyone does. When she understands this, she becomes an adult and an opera singer.

Please don’t let this review put you off, this is a page-turning read for your summer holiday suitcase. I worry that it could have been more. Lucy Robinson 9-6-14Follow Lucy Robinson [above] on Twitter @lucy_robinson or Facebook.
Watch an interview with Lucy on You Tube here.
‘The Unfinished Symphony of You and Me’ by Lucy Robinson [published in the UK on June 19, 2014 by Penguin]

Book review: Elizabeth is Missing

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey 31-5-14Can there be a more unreliable narrator than an 81-year old woman with dementia?

Maud lives on her own, she has carers visiting, they leave prepared food for her and tell her not to use the cooker. But she does love toast. There is a rebelliousness about Maud which immediately made me connect with her. She reminded me of my mother, who suffered from dementia. I was impressed with the way Maud’s condition is portrayed, in convincing detail, slowly deteriorating as the story progresses. Maud writes herself notes, as memory prompts, and keeps them in her pockets and around the house. The note she re-reads most often is ‘Elizabeth is missing’. Elizabeth is Maud’s friend, and she is not at her house. The story has a cyclical motion as Maud finds the note, goes out to hunt for Elizabeth, and then is told by someone that Elisabeth is not missing, that she is fine. And then Maud finds the note again, and the cycle re-starts.

Interwoven with Maud’s search for Elizabeth, is a narrative strand set in 1946 when she lives with her parents and lodger Douglas. People are displaced as a population comes to terms with the end of the conflict, a poor economy, returning soldiers who are not the husbands they were when they went away to fight. Post-war rationing makes meals difficult, people grow vegetables, forage for fruit, make their own clothes. Maud’s older sister Sukey is good at dressmaking and she gives Maud items to wear. The sisters are close. And then Sukey disappears, no-one knows where she has gone, including her husband Frank.

I am a little unsure how a reader will react if they have no experience of dementia. Maud’s thought processes are, by the nature of her illness, repetitive. But her memories are key to understanding the mystery of Sukey’s disappearance. You, I, the reader, is the detective. It is up to us to sift through the clues, keeping them and discarding them.

In the background, throughout the novel, is the attitude of people towards dementia sufferers. The impatience, the lack of empathy, the unwillingness to understand someone obviously not in their full senses, and also the kindness, gentleness, the fondness, the helpfulness of strangers.

For example the police sergeant who repeatedly takes down the information when Maud reports Elizabeth as missing.
“‘Same as usual?’ he says, his voice sounding metallic through the speakers.
‘Usual?’ I say.
‘Elizabeth, is it?’ He nods, as if encouraging me to say a line in a play.
‘Elizabeth, yes,’ I say, amazed. Of course, that’s what I’ve come for. I’ve come for her.”

It is a nice touch that he appears at the end of the story, closing the circle.

This is the debut novel by Emma Healey [below] and was the talking point amongst the book world at the 2013 London Book Fair. I had heard a lot about it, and was not disappointed. I devoured this book, like cake.



Click here for Emma Healey’s website.
Connect with Emma Healey on Facebook here.
To learn more about dementia, visit the website of the Alzheimer’s Association.
‘Elizabeth is Missing’ by Emma Healey [pub. in the UK on June 5, 2014 by Viking Books]

Great opening paragraph 56… ‘Lord of the Flies’ #amwriting #FirstPara

William Golding“The boy with the fair hair lowered himself down the last few feet of rock and began to pick his way towards the lagoon. Though he had taken off his school sweater and trailed it now from one hand, his grey shirt stuck to him and his hair was plastered to his forehead. All round him the long scar smashed into the jungle was a bath of heat. He was clambering heavily among the creepers and the broken trunks when a bird, a vision of red and yellow, flashed upwards with a witch-like cry; and this cry was echoed by another.”
‘Lord of the Flies’ by William Golding

Try one of these 1st paras & discover a new author:-
‘Death in Summer’ by William Trevor
‘Fair Exchange’ by Michele Forbes
‘Herzog’ by Saul Bellow

And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
A great 1st para: LORD OF THE FLIES by William Golding #books via @SandraDanby

Great opening paragraph…56

Lord of the Flies“The boy with the fair hair lowered himself down the last few feet of rock and began to pick his way towards the lagoon. Though he had taken off his school sweater and trailed it now from one hand, his grey shirt stuck to him and his hair was plastered to his forehead. All round him the long scar smashed into the jungle was a bath of heat. He was clambering heavily among the creepers and the broken trunks when a bird, a vision of red and yellow, flashed upwards with a witch-like cry; and this cry was echoed by another.”

‘Lord of the Flies’ by William Golding