Wednesday, 18 June 2014

GQ Eats: The Cookbook for men of seriously good taste - Paul Henderson

A while ago I wrote about how Twitter has revolutionised the customer-supplier relationship, and how the publishing industry is no exception to this change.  In order to get people talking about new publications, publishing houses directly address readers through twitter take-overs, games and competitions. I've often tried to win books through a simple 're-tweet' or 'favourite' but when Octopus Books announced its Father's Day competition in which they offered copies of the GQ Eats cookbook as prizes for the best explanations of why 'your dad is the best chef', I just had to give it a go.

This wasn't just a random shot in the dark, my dad honestly is the best cook I know! (I dare you to find someone who makes better gravy than him).

The tweet went something like this:

'because every time I eat out I say "it's nice, but it's not as good as dad's" #GravyKing'

Granted, the word limited restricted me somewhat, but I think it made the point and, lo and behold, I won!

A few days after direct messaging my address, the GQ Eats cookbook (signed by Paul Henderson!) arrived to the thrill of myself and my dad. Although I could go on forever about his cooking, this is a literature blog, not a food one, therefore I turn instead to my first review of a non-fiction text on The Reading Thing:

When I took the GQ Eats book out of the package the first adjectives that came to find were sleek, sexy, sophisticated. With a classic black, matt finish and striking red and gold font making an asymmetric shape, the outside cover matches every bit with its tag line: 'the cookbook for men of seriously good taste'. Taste, is exactly what it exudes.

The classy look is continued throughout the book as the content ranges from 'brilliant breakfasts to 'cocktail hour', with recipes for all occasions in between. The images of the dishes err on the side of art rather than food - most of them look good enough to eat, while just a few look too darn pretty to touch! The composition of the images and the simple, refined look of the dishes are perfectly in keeping with the overall tone of the cookbook.

The pictures are accompanied by concise, clear recipes of delicious, healthy dishes contributed by a collection of top chefs including Heston Blumenthal, Michel Roux Jr, Gordon Ramsay and Raymond Blanc.

As this is a GQ publication, it is ultimately aimed at men, however a sneaky line on the back page declares that 'this is the best of British food for men who want to cook and for women who want to know what to feed them' - fat chance of the latter in my house!

I was certainly impressed by the cookbook which, I must confess, I may never have come across had I not seen the Twitter competition. It really is a perfect gift for a dad, brother or boyfriend who loves to cook!

On looks and content the GQ Eats cookbook seems to tick all the boxes - I suppose all that's left to do is taste!

The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden - Jonas Jonasson

As a literature lover, its unsurprising that the first thing I did after weeks of reading, writing and revising for exams was to go book shopping - what else?!

I bought We Were Liars and you can find my review of it just below. I was looking for something fun and interesting to take on holiday and decided to give the Waterstones 'Book of the Month' a go; that is, Jonas Jonasson's The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden.

Having yet to read Jonasson's debut novel the 100-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared, despite hearing good things about it, I wasn't at all sure what to expect from this orange and black book with an unusual title.

Unusual I think is a fitting word for the novel. Unique, funny, smart - The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden is unlike anything I'd read before. Cute and unashamedly contrived, the novel traces the life of Nobemko who, having grown up in the slums of South Africa and worked in the sanitation department as a lavatory emptier, somehow gets caught up with South Africa's atomic weapons plans while living in the world's most neutral, war-free country - Sweden. Everything goes wrong in a funny, comical - almost slapstick - manner, yet the novel retains a clear underlying political current. Drawing upon real life circumstances, people and events, Jonasson uses history to create fiction, or does he use fiction to tell history? Either way the clever, obvious intermingling of fact and fiction makes The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden a really interesting read - I can see why Waterstones are backing it!

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

We Were Liars - Emily Lockhart

The publicity campaign for Emily Lockhart's latest novel was so impressive and covered my twitter feed for days that it just had to be next on my reading list.

We Were Liars presents the Sinclair family who spend their summer holidays on their private island, Beechwood, gorging on delicious food in houses decorated floor to ceiling in opulence, taking boats out to sea and relaxing on private beaches - living beautiful, rich existences. Despite their seemingly perfect summers, however, the Sinclair family is rotting from within and it is only the three eldest grandchildren Johnny, Mirren and Cadence, and the fourth member of their clan, Gat, who seem to notice.

In 'summer fifteen' everything changes and as Cadence Sinclair attempts to piece together the truth about her accident, which is being kept secret from her, the suspense of the novel builds. The first person narrative of Cadence draws the reader into her amnesic, confused state, as the palpable tension in the prose makes it clear that something sinister has happened.

Drawing on various literary tropes and genres, including that of the star-crossed lovers and the fairy tale, Lockhart demonstrates an exquisitely refined art of story telling. With prose which is both sparse and succinct yet simultaneously lyrical and beautiful - poetic, even - Lockhart lures the reader in all sorts of directions before presenting one final plot twist.

We Were Liars is intriguing from beginning to end, even the front cover evokes a certain mystery; the dazzling sunlight that partially obscures the image and the movement of the water which is appropriated into the font design perfectly evoke the relationship between the blissful setting and the ominous confusion that epitomises the novel. It is often so tempting to just buy e-book versions of publications these days, but I think We Were Liars is a perfect example of the value print copies add to the reading experience and it is a shame for the creation of such cover work to be overlooked in favour of practicality and cost.


We Were Liars is the kind of novel that you read in one sitting and then immediately turn to the beginning to start again - perfect in length, yet over far too soon.

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

English and French at Warwick - The Literature Highlights

Having now completed my English and French degree, I thought it would be fitting for my next post to be a list of the Top 10 most memorable reads from my time at Warwick. So, without further ado, here they are:

1. City Gates by Elias Khoury is a post-modern novel depicting the civil war in Beirut. As the 'stranger' protagonist re-adjusts to the city after a bombardment, Khoury contorts and manipulates language to evoke the confusion and disorientation caused by a bomb blast, where the city becomes unrecognisable. City Gates is a fairly short novel but is nevertheless challenging as the reader is thrust into the state of bewilderment felt by the character. I felt great satisfaction in decoding Khoury's poetic use of symbolism - the novel really is a strikingly written piece of prose.

2. The Baghdad Blog by Salam Pax (pseudonym of Salam Abdulmunem) is a collection of blog posts by the once anonymous Iraqi blogger. Blogging about the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the West, Pax bluntly and unforgivingly wrote almost daily accounts of the lead up to and experience of the invasion from an Iraqi perspective, contesting the Western rhetoric of the war. The Guardian eventually located the blogger and Atlantic Books published a collection of his posts in a book format. This text has certainly added a new dimension to my perspective on literature, blog writing, and politics and I would recommend everybody to read it. (He still publishes online too!)

3. Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë needs no introduction. The tragic love story of Heathcliff and Catherine is the book that sparked my love of English literature and I needed no convincing to re-read it for my degree.

4. La Peste by Albert Camus is a twentieth century classic. The city of Oran, swept by the plague, is closed off from the rest of Algeria as its inhabitants are left to fend for themselves. Set in the 1940s, La Peste metaphorically represents the French resistance to the Nazis and is an allegorical depiction of the human condition; an exploration of human relationships, dependency, corruption and ultimately, strength. There is a profound depth to the way in which Camus writes which makes him without doubt my favourite French author and alongside La Peste I'd recommend anyone to read L'Etranger.

5. Lignes de Faille by Nancy Huston opens with the narrative of Sol, an egocentric, sexually perverse six year old child who is aroused by images from the Iraq war of dismembered limbs and abused children. The shocking opening part makes for uncomfortable reading but the narrative perspective is somehow endearing. The next three parts are narrated from the childhood perspectives of Sol's father, grandmother, great grandmother respectively. As the novel progresses we learn more about the traumas the family has suffered, and how such traumas are inherited by the next generation, culminating in Sol's perspective. This novel is a truly innovative and original depiction of the enduring consequences of the loss of identity caused by war.

6. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez is a must-read. Telling the story of the Buendia family who live in the village of Macondo, Marquez writes a politically engaged novel in the magic realist style for which he is renowned. Time is suspended, human life is extended, reality is contorted and the fantastic is ordinary. There are so many layers to this novel that each time you read it you discover something new.

7. The Story of Zahra by Hanan al-Shaykh depicts the social, political and personal landscape of a Lebanese family in the midst of civil war. Zahra is beaten as a child by her father because of her mother's infidelity, causing her to withdraw into her shell and become self-destructive as she grows up. When she falls in love with the lone rooftop sniper this self destruction reaches its climax as al-Shaykh provides a social commentary on the futility of civil war and the way in which the political and personal are so fully enmeshed. The 'Scars of Peace' that mark Zahra's body are the result of not just political violence, but the violence suffered in the familial sphere; the novel shows that even in times of 'peace', wounds are made.

8. Forty Signs of Rain by Kim Stanley Robinson imagines the flooding of Washington DC as the seemingly indestructible superpower that is the United States of America is forced to acknowledge the consequences of climate change. The first part of a trilogy, this novel engages with the way in which climate change has been absorbed into political rhetoric and has become a part of our perception of normality. Perhaps the most important aspect of this novel is that it narrates a story that is entirely plausible.

9. La Possibilité d'une île by Michel Houellebecq is a controversial text envisaging the decline of civilisation caused by the narcissistic, selfish, promiscuous modern day citizens who donate their DNA to the Elohimite religion in the hope of attaining immortality. Through a dual narrative which alternates between the diary of the modern-day Daniel and his neo-human clone, Houellebecq depicts the direct evolutionary consequences of a hedonist, immoral way of life. Echoing the post-apocalyptic state of Atwood's Oryx and the Crake but in a more overtly critical presentation of contemporary French society, Houellebecq is explicit in every detail of his presentation of the human condition, sometimes uncomfortably so.

10. NW by Zadie Smith is a story about growing up in a council estate in north west London. Drawing on topical issues of knife crime, university education and the challenges of adulthood in twenty-first century society, Smith composes four formally innovative parts in the novel which narrate the lives of her four protagonists. The prose is fractured and disjointed as the syntax evokes the disjuncture the characters feel in their adult lives. At times the dialogue between the characters is so cold and empty that it is somehow overwhelmingly abounding with feeling. NW is a challenging novel that isn't an easy bed-time read but its originality is what makes it so compelling.

From Zola to Beigbeder, Austen to Atwood, the list could go on and on, but those ten texts are certainly the ones that have shaped my literary tastes over the past four years.