Delicious!, by Ruth Reichl

>> Sunday, March 24, 2019

TITLE: Delicious!
AUTHOR: Ruth Reichl

COPYRIGHT: 2014
PAGES: 380
PUBLISHER: Random House

SETTING: Contemporary New York
TYPE: Fiction
SERIES: None

In her bestselling memoirs Ruth Reichl has long illuminated the theme of how food defines us, and never more so than in her dazzling fiction debut about sisters, family ties, and a young woman who must finally let go of guilt and grief to embrace her own true gifts.

Billie Breslin has traveled far from her California home to take a job at Delicious, the most iconic food magazine in New York and, thus, the world. When the publication is summarily shut down, the colorful staff, who have become an extended family for Billie, must pick up their lives and move on. Not Billie, though. She is offered a new job: staying behind in the magazine's deserted downtown mansion offices to uphold the "Delicious Guarantee"-a public relations hotline for complaints and recipe inquiries-until further notice. What she doesn't know is that this boring, lonely job will be the portal to a life-changing discovery.

Delicious! carries the reader to the colorful world of downtown New York restaurateurs and artisanal purveyors, and from the lively food shop in Little Italy where Billie works on weekends to a hidden room in the magazine's library where she discovers the letters of Lulu Swan, a plucky twelve-year-old, who wrote to the legendary chef James Beard during World War II. Lulu's letters lead Billie to a deeper understanding of history (and the history of food), but most important, Lulu's courage in the face of loss inspires Billie to come to terms with her own issues-the panic attacks that occur every time she even thinks about cooking, the truth about the big sister she adored, and her ability to open her heart to love.
Ruth Reichl is a food writer and journalist, and I understand her work is very well known in the US. She's written a few memoirs (including one I have on my TBR as well, covering her time as restaurant reviewer for the New York Times), but she's also written a novel, and this is it.

Billie Breslin is a young woman trying to make it in New York City. She happens to have an incredibly sensitive palate, and that and her fascination with food land her a job in the offices of famous food magazine Delicious. It's a lowly secretarial job, but there are definitely prospects for moving into journalism there, and Billie is soon taking steps in that direction.

And then suddenly, everything is up in the air. The magazine is closed down by the money-grubbing corporate owners, and the whole staff is out of a job. Everyone but Billie, that is, because there's one bit of Delicious that must continue. See, the magazine has always offered the "Delicious Guarantee", promising that if a recipe doesn't work, the reader gets their money back. And someone needs to deal with the enquiries that still regularly come in about it.

It is while answering sporadic Guarantee-related calls in the now-empty offices that Billie discovers some fascinating letters. It turns out that James Beard (even I have heard about him!) used to work for Delicious way back when, and the archive still contains letters sent to him by a young girl during the war. The girl's story, revealed through her side of the correspondence, grips Billie completely, and finding out the rest of the story requires her to embark on a treasure hunt designed by the ghost of librarians past.

I had such mixed feelings about this one! On one hand, Billie is the ultimate Mary Sue. She's got this supernatural palate, lands this amazing job through not real effort on her part, and everyone immediately adores her. She has a Very Tragic Past that makes her sad and stops her from doing what she's meant to be doing with her life, but absolutely no flaws. Everything about her feels clich├ęd. We even get a make-over scene where she figuratively takes off her glasses, gets some clothes that fit, and becomes a proper knock-out. Oh, and she's not only beautiful, but an instinctive genius at putting together incredibly cool outfits. That inborn genius matches well with her food-related inborn genius. Her story is basically wish-fulfilment, and she herself was incredibly boring.

The thing is, all the food stuff is the kind of wish fulfilment that works for me, unlike other kinds of wish-fulfilment books like the ones with the Plain Jane heroine falling for the rock star. Billie's New York City really is the city of dreams, filled with eccentric deli owners whose shops are veritable wonderlands and who want nothing but to feed the enchanting heroine mouth-watering morsels. That's a dream I can get behind!

So while I kept rolling my eyes as I was reading, I did enjoy myself quite a bit. The whole story-line about the letters was pretty ho-hum for me, but spending time in foodie New York with Billie and her cool friends was super fun in spite of my cynicism.

MY GRADE: It's a B-. Flawed, but it did work for me more than maybe it should have.

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The Reluctant Detective, by Martha Ockley

>> Friday, March 08, 2019

TITLE: The Reluctant Detective
AUTHOR: Martha Ockley

COPYRIGHT: 2010
PAGES: 256
PUBLISHER: Self-published

SETTING: Contemporary England
TYPE: Mystery
SERIES: First in the Faith Morgan series

Faith was a cop, and a good one. She and her boss (and boyfriend) Detective Inspector Ben Shorter tackled criminals and solved crimes across south-east England. They were a good team. But Faith grew disillusioned with Britain's tough police culture.

As her disquiet grows, she starts to ask bigger questions - and ends up as a priest in the Church of England, a job from which she considers she can do more good than any police investigation. In the process she and Ben part company: he can't stand God-botherers, and she finds his convictions-at-any-cost attitude treads on too many vulnerable people.

Faith may have quit the world of crime, but crime has not let her go. Newly ordained, she arrives in the village of Little Worthy, near Winchester, to look around the parish. Within an hour of her arrival she witnesses the sudden shocking death of a fellow priest. To her distress, the DI assigned to the case is Ben.

At the Bishop's urging, Faith stays on to look after the improbably named parish of Little Worthy. As she meets her parishioners she learns some surprising details about her apparently well-loved predecessor, and starts to suspect a motive for his death.

The cop may have donned a clerical collar, but the questions keep coming. How will she reconcile her present calling with her past instincts? Is she in danger herself? What should she do about Ben?
The Reluctant Detective's blurb put me in mind of one of my favourite mystery series, Julia Spencer-Fleming's books following Rev. Clare Fergusson and Chief of Police Russ Van Alstyn. Like Clare with her years in the military, Faith Morgan started out her life in a profession quite far from priesthood. She was a police detective, right up until she decided she couldn't do it any longer and decided to become a Church of England vicar. So she left her boyfriend, fellow detective Ben, and went off to pursue her calling.

As the book starts, Faith has just been ordained. The priest in the parish of Little Worthing (pretty much exactly the sort of small village the name evokes) is about to retire, and Faith has travelled there to take a look around, see if it seems like the right place for her. But she arrives just in time for a shocking event: the outgoing priest dies under suspicious circumstances, right while he's celebrating mass.

Faith is asked by the bishop to stick around for a while to help take care of the understandably shocked parishioners. She's not trying to investigate the death, just doing her (new) job and counselling her parishioners, but somehow she keeps discovering all sorts of interesting details that her police training tells her the investigators need to know. And the leading investigator happens to be none other than Ben.

This was... well, it was ok. I didn't love it, I didn't hate it. These sorts of reviews are the hardest to do!

There were good things about it. It flowed well, and the mystery was well-constructed. I was interested in finding out what had happened, and I liked that Faith is genuinely not trying to play detective. She behaves perfectly sensibly and reacts in what I thought were believable ways. And though the book was probably in the 'inspirational' subgenre, any inspirational elements were relatively subtle and definitely non-preachy (at least, nothing that annoyed this atheist reader).

There were also some things I didn't like. My main problem was that several characters felt a bit off. Everyone seems quite... well, the word that comes to mind is 'uncool'. That was fine for some of the characters, but for others that vibe really didn't fit.

I also got a bit frustrated because we get lots of hints about what exactly it was that drove Faith away from Ben, but we never do find out what happened, at least not in this book. I'm assuming this is something that Ockley is leaving for later, to develop in a future book. So since I didn't like this enough to keep reading, I'll never find out. Mildly annoying (but not enough to make me read further!).

MY GRADE: A very middle-of-the-road C.

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Unmarriageable: Pride and Prejudice in Pakistan, by Soniah Kamal

>> Wednesday, March 06, 2019

TITLE: Unmarriageable: Pride and Prejudice in Pakistan
AUTHOR: Soniah Kamal

COPYRIGHT: 2019
PAGES: 352
PUBLISHER: Ballantine

SETTING: Early 2000s Pakistan
TYPE: Fiction
SERIES: None

In this one-of-a-kind retelling of Pride and Prejudice set in modern-day Pakistan, Alys Binat has sworn never to marry—until an encounter with one Mr. Darsee at a wedding makes her reconsider.

A scandal and vicious rumor concerning the Binat family have destroyed their fortune and prospects for desirable marriages, but Alys, the second and most practical of the five Binat daughters, has found happiness teaching English literature to schoolgirls. Knowing that many of her students won’t make it to graduation before dropping out to marry and have children, Alys teaches them about Jane Austen and her other literary heroes and hopes to inspire the girls to dream of more.

When an invitation arrives to the biggest wedding their small town has seen in years, Mrs. Binat, certain that their luck is about to change, excitedly sets to work preparing her daughters to fish for rich, eligible bachelors. On the first night of the festivities, Alys’s lovely older sister, Jena, catches the eye of Fahad “Bungles” Bingla, the wildly successful—and single—entrepreneur. But Bungles’s friend Valentine Darsee is clearly unimpressed by the Binat family. Alys accidentally overhears his unflattering assessment of her and quickly dismisses him and his snobbish ways. As the days of lavish wedding parties unfold, the Binats wait breathlessly to see if Jena will land a proposal—and Alys begins to realize that Darsee’s brusque manner may be hiding a very different man from the one she saw at first glance.

Told with wry wit and colorful prose, Unmarriageable is a charming update on Jane Austen’s beloved novel and an exhilarating exploration of love, marriage, class, and sisterhood.
Well, the title says it all. In Unmarriageable, Kamal has taken Pride and Prejudice and set it in early 2000s Pakistan. In this incarnation, the Bennetts have become the Binats, a formerly prosperous family living a much-diminished life in tiny Dilipabad, where eldest sisters Jena and Alys teach at the British Schools. A rich former student of the school is getting married to an even richer society guy, and the wedding is going to be huge -and the Binat's are invited! Society people from different cities are going to be there as guests. To Mrs Binat, it's the perfect opportunity for her girls to find husbands. Especially Jena and Alys, who are already (gasp!) in their 30s.

One of the guests is Fahad Bingla, nicknamed 'Bungles', there with his two sisters. They are extremely rich, and well-known in high society. And so is Bungles' friend, Valentine Darsee. Bungles is immediately infatuated with Jena, to his family and friend's disapproval. They see the Binats as vulgar and not up to their standards. Which is obvious to Alys, and makes her, in turn, dislike them intensely, particularly arrogant Darsee.

This was fun. I liked the idea, and (mostly) liked the execution.

Rather than merely being a story playing with P&P, using the basic plot, this is almost a blow-by-blow retelling. It may not sound like it so much from the description above, because some details in the setup have been changed, but the events that drive the plot forward are just as in P&P. Exactly like in it. This was very good fun in some ways. It was really interesting to see just how Kamal would take a plot point that feels particularly of its time in P&P and make it perfectly natural in almost-present-day Pakistan. And she succeeds, every single time. On the other hand, though, it did make the plot a bit predictable. Knowing exactly what was going to happen robbed the book of some narrative tension.

The characters were well drawn, even the secondary ones. Alys is a bit different from Elizabeth Bennett, in that having been educated in an international school in Jeddah (when the family was in more prosperous circumstances), she has been exposed to more modern mores. She's explicitly a feminist having to cope with all the patriarchal bullshit, and not shy about calling it out, at least when it's safe to do so. Whereas Elizabeth, while aware that some of the stuff around her is bullshit, is more a woman of her time.

The setting was vivid. I loved seeing a different Pakistan from the one that comes through in the news. All the little details that were there not to make a particular point, but because that's what would be the reality... like how for a long-distance journey the Binat girls would of course take the Daewoo bus (that's what upper-middle class people would do in Uruguay as well... not Daewoo, in particular, but the same kind of buses. I once took a 24-hour journey to Paraguay in one of those things!). Anyway, it was tiny details like that that made this for me.

There were a few of negatives, though. First of all, there is a certain lack of subtlety in Kamal's writing, where points are sometimes made a bit too explicitly. This results in characters being a too cartoonish sometimes, but it isn't just that. For instance, we're told exactly why Darsee and Alys suit so well: the fact that they grew up in the multinational environment of an international school abroad, the way that has given them a particular outlook on life, their love of books, etc. It was actually really convincing, but did we need to hear this explicitly? It was pretty obvious already. I think it may have worked better if Kamal had trusted that she'd shown this enough, rather than feel she had to state it explicitly, and more than once! It's minor, but an example of something that's sprinkled throughout the whole book.

The one thing I hated, though, was that there was a meanness in some the characters that felt frankly startling. Some of the things Mrs Binat says I felt were genuinely unforgivable. A single example: the Charlotte Lucas character, Alys's friend Sherry, is unable to have children, which is one of the reasons she felt she should settle for the horrid Reverend Collins character. It's clearly something quite difficult for her. Mrs Binat, raging against the woman who 'stole' the man she intended should marry her daughter, calls her "Useless-Uterus Sherry". No. Just no. This was probably Mrs Binat's lowest moment, but there were several others that were close. The cruelty was truly jaw-dropping, and my jaw also got quite the workout with the younger sisters. The fat-shaming in the way Lady (Lydia) treated Qitty (I don't need to do this one, do I?) was revolting. We're talking constant insults. 'Behemoth', 'Whale', 'Cow'... it went on and on.

I think with these characters Kamal really missed the mark. Their equivalents in Pride and Prejudice can behave pretty badly, but there isn't the mean-spiritedness and cruelty that was in these characters. This meant that there was a sour note at the end. I did NOT want Mrs Binat to finish the novel triumphant, with two daughters making spectacular marriages, even though I liked those two daughters and was happy for them that they seemed set on marriages that could make them happy.

MY GRADE: A strong B, very much in spite of Mrs Binat!

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The Bone Garden, by Tess Gerritsen

>> Monday, March 04, 2019

TITLE: The Bone Garden
AUTHOR: Tess Gerritsen

COPYRIGHT: 2007
PAGES: 370
PUBLISHER: Bantam

SETTING: Present-day Massachusetts and 1830s Boston
TYPE: Mystery/thriller
SERIES: None

Present day: Julia Hamill has made a horrifying discovery on the grounds of her new home in rural Massachusetts: a skull buried in the rocky soil–human, female, and, according to the trained eye of Boston medical examiner Maura Isles, scarred with the unmistakable marks of murder. But whoever this nameless woman was, and whatever befell her, is knowledge lost to another time...

Boston, 1830: In order to pay for his education, Norris Marshall, a talented but penniless student at Boston Medical College, has joined the ranks of local “resurrectionists”–those who plunder graveyards and harvest the dead for sale on the black market. Yet even this ghoulish commerce pales beside the shocking murder of a nurse found mutilated on the university hospital grounds. And when a distinguished doctor meets the same grisly fate, Norris finds that trafficking in the illicit cadaver trade has made him a prime suspect.

To prove his innocence, Norris must track down the only witness to have glimpsed the killer: Rose Connolly, a beautiful seamstress from the Boston slums who fears she may be the next victim. Joined by a sardonic, keenly intelligent young man named Oliver Wendell Holmes, Norris and Rose comb the city–from its grim cemeteries and autopsy suites to its glittering mansions and centers of Brahmin power–on the trail of a maniacal fiend who lurks where least expected... and who waits for his next lethal opportunity.
This is one of those stories which mix the present with the past. It starts as, in the present day, recently divorced Julia Hamill discovers a skeleton buried in the gardens of her new house. It's an old one, a woman who clearly died violently, and Julia is intrigued by the mystery of who she might have been. And then she's contacted by an old man who was related to the former owner of the house, and who has a tonne of papers that could help find out more. Before long, Julia and her new friend are gleefully digging through them and discovering quite the story.

The story they unearth is what we spend most time on in the book, and it relates both to a serial killer called the West End Ripper, operating in 1830s Boston, and to the early life of Oliver Wendell Holmes (whom I confess I knew nothing about).

Our main characters in the 1830 storyline are Norris Marshall, a medical student, and Rose Connolly, a recently arrived Irish seamstress. They meet and become first friends, then something more, as each witnesses one of the West End Ripper's crimes. This brings them much attention by the police and suspicion that endangers them both. Rose is a penniless seamstress who's just been turned out of her home after the death in childbirth of her sister. She's desperate to keep her niece with her and alive. As for Norris, he's a bit of an odd one out amongst his peers, as he comes from a farming family and does not have money or connections. To be able to pay for medical school, he discreetly helps out the resurrectionist who keeps the school supplied with much needed corpses.

This was very promising, but it didn't quite deliver for me. There is some good stuff, in particular, learning about medicine at the time. That was very vivid and truly fascinating, and Gerritsen clearly has done her research.

The thing is, it felt like the history of medicine really was the main point of the book, with the actual story being more of an afterthought. I didn't find the characters or the plot particularly believable, with a lot of character actions and developments seeming to take place more to take the plot into a direction that would allow the author to explain a particularly fascinating nugget than to serve a story or be part of natural character development.

The present-day story was particularly pointless, with nothing really happening there. There are definite hints at first that there is some sort of mystery to solve in this storyline as well, some tension and danger, but all we really get is two people reading letters. It was just a framing device, nothing more.

Disappointing.

MY GRADE: A C+.

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A few DNFs

>> Saturday, March 02, 2019

TITLE: Too Hot To Handle
AUTHOR: Tessa Bailey

This starts a series about 4 siblings on a road trip to fulfil their mother's last wish: a winter dive into the ocean in New York. Too Hot To Handle focuses on Rita, the older sister, who followed her mother's steps and became a chef. She's not in a good place, since she just created a mess by going after a fellow contestant in a cooking show with a knife (!) and her mum's restaurant burnt down, for which she blames herself (with good reason). On the way from California to New York, the car breaks down and the siblings are rescued by Jasper Ellis, a bad boy who doesn't want to be a bad boy any more.

I gave up on this one relatively early on because all the characters' reactions and interactions felt fake. I was constantly going "huh?" and wondering why on earth a particular character was reacting in a particular way. Just didn't click with me, I guess.

MY GRADE: A DNF.

TITLE: One Cretan Evening and Other Stories
AUTHOR: Victoria Hislop

I was in Crete, so I thought I should try to read about Crete. But I read only the remarkably pointless title story. A man arrives to a small Cretan village and enters a house abandoned since the previous occupant's death. This was a woman who'd been ostracised by the village, seemingly for no good reason. I really didn't get the significance of the man's visit, or even the point of the story. I just pressed delete before wasting more time in the other stories.

Also to note that even though the book is short, a big chunk of it is an excerpt from one of Hislop's novels. Meh.

MY GRADE: A DNF.

TITLE: The Girl from Summer Hill
AUTHOR: Jude Deveraux

This sounded like fun, and I used to really like Jude Deveraux way back when. It's a Pride and Prejudice homage, centred around a local theatre company putting on a production of it. The heroine, Casey, is a chef who's catering for the cast, while the hero, Tate, is a famous actor who helps his cousin out by playing Darcy in the production the cousin is directing. But all the amateur actresses are so star-struck, that they can't handle playing Lizzie opposite Tate! Enter Casey, who has taken an immediate dislike to him and thinks he's an arrogant arsehole, and is therefore immune to his charm. So since she's the only one behaving as a normal human, she gets the part.

The setup was ok (although there's a fair bit of people acting like impetuous idiots), but it was the writing that made me put this down sharpish. It felt very simplistic, with a lot of telling and no showing at all. It was as if Deveraux was describing the skeleton of the thing and would come back to fill it in later, only she didn’t. It also felt very old-fashioned... the sort of book where beauty means being blonde and blue-eyed and that's it. I don't think there was a woman depicted as beautiful in the whole chunk that I read who didn't fit that pattern. Not for me.

MY GRADE: Yep, a DNF.

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