Tickling the English – Dara O Briain

Tickling the English cover

Date read: 13th July 2014
Publisher: Michael Joseph
Release Date: October 2009
Length: 310 pages
Format: Paperback
Source: The library

Goodreads description

Irishman Dara O’ Briain lives and works in England. When he’s not in London, he’s taking his show on tour up and down the country. Although he’s been doing this for years, it’s clear to him that his adopted home is still a a bit of an enigma. It is high time, he decides, to discover what makes the English so…well, English.

My review

I picked this book up on a whim from Campus Library when I was killing time before meeting a friend for dinner. Although I haven’t watched two shows that O Briain appears on regularly for a while (Mock the Week and QI), I find him a witty comedian to watch, and I like his programme on Dave which aims to make maths fun as well as interesting.

I thought that this book was going to be a bit more of a sociological discussion on the typical traits of the English, and it took me a while to realise that it was more of a tour diary, with a focus on funny audience members and the towns that the author had visited, in an attempt to find some sort of pattern. I enjoyed the sections in which he discussed the differences between the Irish and the British, both as nations and as comedy audiences with regard to what jokes work in front of which audiences.

The funniest bit of Dara’s show, at least as depicted in this book, is when he asks the audience to tell him whether they’ve ever interrupted a crime. From memory, as I’ve already taken the book back to the library, there was someone who interrupted a burglar who escaped the house – and dropped all the stuff he’d taken into the courgette patch! That bit made me laugh out loud. On a bus. Not cool…

In a nutshell, this book wasn’t exactly what I was expecting, but it was a quick, funny read, and definitely a good example of an impulse buy, or in this case, borrow!

Expecting – Ann Lewis Hamilton

Date read: 28th February 2014
Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark
Release Date: July 1st 2014
Length: 352 pages
Format: E-book
Source: I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review

Expecting cover

Goodreads description
Mom, dad(s), and baby make-four?

Laurie and Alan are thrilled to find out that they’ll finally be having a baby, until they discover the unthinkable: the doctor has impregnated Laurie with the wrong man’s sperm. Alan is reeling, torn about the new child that’s not his and suddenly unsure about any of his commitments. His shock is almost as great as that of Jack, a college junior who suddenly finds out he’s a father, and whose identity is discovered as he is juggling finals, his fraternity, a fund shortage, and two girlfriends. Frank, funny, and forthright, “Expecting” is the fascinating story of three people bound together by a fateful mistake, and a thoughtful exploration of what it really means to be a parent.

My review

Every week or so I have a browse through the titles on Netgalley, curse the fact that I’ll be denied quite a few due to living in the UK, and request titles that spark some interest in my tired brain. As soon as I saw that Ann Hamilton had written for Grey’s Anatomy, I clicked on ‘Request’ for Expecting, and read the description afterwards.

I used to devour chick-lit and wasn’t particularly choosy about what I read… anything that was on offer in the supermarket usually found its way into my cart. Then in 2008 I discovered Twilight, soon afterwards I made my way to the world of the book blog and from there on I made my way to the Young Adult shelves of the bookshop a heck of a lot more often than I used to.

Which is a story for another day… The point I’m making (badly) is that it’s been a while since I’ve read a women’s fiction novel by a ‘new to me’ author. So I was excited to try something new and see where I ended up. Similarly to the main characters in this novel, I’m not entirely sure where I’ve ended up.

The premise of the book is that Laurie and Alan are a blissfully happy couple who decide after a couple of years of marriage to try for a baby, but suffer fertility problems which can’t be explained, even after being poked, prodded, and forced to look at pictures of Jessica Alba. They opt to undergo in uterine fertilisation… Except there’s a vengeful ex-employee at the doctor’s office, who’s switched sperm samples. And although Laurie’s pregnant, it’s not Alan’s baby, but a 22-year old fifth year senior at UCLA who has no idea of the insanity which will ensue…

The book is written from multiple viewpoints, switching periodically between Laurie, Alan and Jack, which is a really effective way of showing how the mistake affects all three of them. If the story had been written in the same viewpoint throughout I think sympathy would have been lost, especially for Alan – although it’s completely understandable that he goes into a tailspin upon learning he hasn’t fathered his wife’s child, being able to hear it in his voice brings an immediacy to his panic and his decisions thereafter. Also learning what Jack thought of the whole situation makes him more than a UCLA frat boy but someone collapsing under the pressure of living up to his parents high expectations (whether real or imagined).

I think I’d get on well with all the characters in the book – and I desperately want Laurie’s job, helping her friend Grace find undiscovered experiences in the Valley area of California and writing about it for a publication, even though I’d rather not go hiking (my idea of exercise is walking from the kettle to the sofa and back). I loved Alan’s bad jokes, and could just tell that Jack was going to turn into a spectacular young man no matter what he ended up choosing as a profession, once he settled down with one girl and didn’t go for girls who stalk him and are named after French provinces, that is.

However, a couple of things about the book jarred with me – although I’m very glad that Hamilton chose not to make this a litigious novel (although I enjoy Jodi Picoult’s style of writing about this sort of situation, it was good to focus on the emotional and practical side) the threat of legal action was made swiftly once Laurie and Alan found out about the mistake, but unless I missed something, it wasn’t mentioned again. I find it difficult to believe that they wouldn’t have taken any action at all against Dr Julian – even if it was only with the aim of getting an official apology?

Also, although the plot points were wrapped up pretty well towards the end, I would have liked to read about how Laurie, Alan and Jack made their way through the first few years of parenthood. It would have been nice to see Laurie’s friend Grace’s reaction to the paternity scandal as well, rather than just hearing a conversation in the aftermath. But on the whole, I really enjoyed this book and will look forward to reading others by Ann Hamilton in the future!

Sous Chef – Michael Gibney

Date read: 11th June 2014

Publisher: Ballantine Books
Release Date: 25th March 2014
Length: 240 pages
Format: E-book
Source: Received from publisher via Netgalley in return for an honest review, thank you!

Goodreads description

The back must slave to feed the belly. . . . In this urgent and unique book, chef Michael Gibney uses twenty-four hours to animate the intricate camaraderie and culinary choreography in an upscale New York restaurant kitchen. Here readers will find all the details, in rapid-fire succession, of what it takes to deliver an exceptional plate of food—the journey to excellence by way of exhaustion.

Told in second-person narrative, Sous Chef is an immersive, adrenaline-fueled run that offers a fly-on-the-wall perspective on the food service industry, allowing readers to briefly inhabit the hidden world behind the kitchen doors, in real time. This exhilarating account provides regular diners and food enthusiasts alike a detailed insider’s perspective, while offering fledgling professional cooks an honest picture of what the future holds, ultimately giving voice to the hard work and dedication around which chefs have built their careers.

In a kitchen where the highest standards are upheld and one misstep can result in disaster, Sous Chef conjures a greater appreciation for the thought, care, and focus that go into creating memorable and delicious fare. With grit, wit, and remarkable prose, Michael Gibney renders a beautiful and raw account of this demanding and sometimes overlooked profession, offering a nuanced perspective on the craft and art of food and service.

My review

I love books that are written by people about their profession, especially the medical profession.  I’ve read an awful lot of books about the lives of doctors, a couple about nurses, a few about paramedics, two about vets…  I’ve never held a desire to do any kind of medical work other than what I do (working in a pharmacy), but something calls me to memoirs written by those in the thick of things.  (And if anyone wants to know about the secret life of pharmacy, read Pills, Thrills and Methadone Spills by Mr Dispenser.  It made me snort with laughter on more than one occasion whilst in a public place).

An author who’s made her name writing books set in professions is Imogen Edwards-Jones, who’s written (with various figures known only as ‘Anonymous’) about seven or eight books about hotel, airport, beach resort employees etc.  I really like her books – the writing isn’t the best in the world but the pace is incredible and I usually finish them in less than a day.  I was really looking forward to her latest, Restaurant Babylon, but when I got it from the library I was unexpectedly disappointed… I don’t know if she’s getting bored with the format she’s created or whether I wasn’t in the right frame of mind when reading it, but it was a 6 out of 10 at best for me, whereas the three I’d read by her previously were solid 8 or 9 out of 10.

When I saw Sous Chef on Netgalley, I hoped it would be what Restaurant Babylon was not, and for the most part it was.

I didn’t realise when I started reading Sous Chef that it was written in the second person… which I would have known had I read the Goodreads description properly.  Oops.  I’ve never really got to grips with second person narrative as I find it places an unnecessary distance between the writer and the subject, but this form of story-telling really, really worked with Sous Chef.  I’m not sure if it was because a lot of the book took place in the tumult of the kitchen, or the anti-social hours of both early morning and late night, but it almost added a dreaminess to the writing, as though Gibney himself was distanced from it and recounting it hypnotically.  It drew me in and took away almost all of my prejudices towards second person narrative.

The book takes place over 24 hours and follows Gibney through a day in the life of the restaurant in which he works, from walking in early on a Friday morning to stumbling in, late, dishevelled and hungover for the start of the Saturday brunch shift the next morning.  He makes clear in the prologue that the events of the day have been compacted from actual events that may have taken place over a longer period of time than depicted, which is a pretty standard practice with this sort of memoir so far as I can see.

The intensity of the work is almost humbling, and the frenetic pace during the evening service means I sped through the pages describing this – whenever anything went wrong, I started to worry as to how the service would get back on track (Raffy leaving service halfway through after throwing up in a bin comes to mind), but the amazing teamwork in any restaurant worth its salt means all make it through pretty much unscathed… and ready to do it all again the next day.

I will admit to skimming over the more technical details of what kitchen knife is used for what and the layout of the kitchen, only stopping to get a broad sense of what was in relation to where.  As people who know me will agree, my only interest in food is how quickly I can prepare it, and by no stretch of the imagination am I a gourmand.

I came away from this book with a real feeling of respect towards everyone who works in the restaurant business and can give so much of themselves day after day while retaining a sense of humour!  Although Gibney has a girlfriend, Vera, he only sees her for about ten minutes (she works as a server in a restaurant not far away from his), she’s asleep by the time he leaves the kitchen, and unless I’ve missed anything he doesn’t mention family or friends outside of the restaurant at all.  It’s a completely alien way of life to me, but one I feel I understand a lot more after reading this book, and I would recommend it to anyone who wants to find out more about the life of chefs and be entertained along the way.

We Were Liars – e.lockhart

Date read: 30th April 2014
Publisher: Hot Key Books
Release Date: 17th May 2014
Length: 240 pages
Format: E-book
Source: Received from publisher via Netgalley in return for an honest review, thank you!

My review

First of all, apologies for any formatting errors in this review – it’s the first piece of writing that I’ve done on my new. Kindle fire and it’s taking a little getting used to!

Also this review will be purposely vague, following the publisher’s request that no reviewers give the plot away. In my ARC there’s a letter from the vice-president of the publisher asking reviewers to keep the secret which is not something I’ve come across previously.

The vagueness of this review actually goes well with the dreamlike quality of the novel. It’s the first novel I’ve read by e.lockhart and I enjoy her style of writing – lots of staccato sentences and short sentences, yet she is still able to draw believable characters and move the pace of the book in such a way that I couldn’t put my Kindle down and read the book in less than a day.

The bare bones of the plot are these: Cadence, the main character, suffered an accident two years previously. She comes from a family with money, who own their own island (Sidenote, how cool would that be? I’d absolutely love to have my own island) and spend all their summers there with Cadence’s maternal grandparents.

And there I think I must stop… You’ll just have to read the book to find out what actually happens for yourselves.

Did I guess the twist? Unfortunately yes…but it only marginally affected my enjoyment of the book. As I said earlier in the review, I finished it in under a day,and I don’t think I could give it higher praise than that!

Flirting with Disaster – Ruthie Knox

Date read: March 26th 2014
Publisher: Random House – Loveswept
Release Date: June 13th 2013
Length: 448 pages
Format: E-book
Source: I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review

Flirting with Disaster cover

Goodreads description

In the latest eBook original novel in Ruthie Knox’s scorching-hot Camelot series, a no-strings fling looks an awful lot like falling in love—or flirting with disaster.

Fresh out of a fiasco of a marriage, Katie Clark has retreated to her hometown to start over. The new Katie is sophisticated, cavalier, and hell-bent on kicking butt at her job in her brother’s security firm. But on her first assignment—digging up the truth about the stalker threatening a world-famous singer-songwriter—Katie must endure the silent treatment from a stern but sexy partner who doesn’t want her help . . . or her company.

Sean Owens knows that if he opens his mouth around Katie, she’ll instantly remember him as the geeky kid who sat behind her in high school. Silence is golden, but he can’t keep quiet forever, not with Katie stampeding through their investigation. It’s time for Sean to step up and take control of the case, and his decade-old crush. If he can break through Katie’s newfound independence, they just might find they make a perfect team—on the road, on the job, and in bed.

My review

This is the third in Ruthie Knox’s Camelot series, and although you don’t have to have read the first two to thoroughly enjoy this title, I did feel at the beginning of the book that I was missing something. As the reader, you’re dropped into Katie and Sean’s lives unceremoniously, as though you should already know them, and at the start that was disconcerting. However, it didn’t take long to fall for the characters and to thoroughly enjoy their story.

As a lead character, you don’t get much of a sense of Katie’ life – but that’s how it should be, given that she’s suffered a horrible relationship and come back home to lick her wounds. She’s starting afresh, with her newly-engaged brother as support system, and boss. She’s desperate to move up the ranks of her brother Caleb’s security company, and thanks to a chance meeting with rock-star Judah, she just might get the chance.She faces a pretty daunting obstacle in the form of ex-classmate Sean, paired with her to get the details on a blackmail attempt, and determined not to talk to Katie at any point during the job.

Oh Sean… I loved him. Treated appallingly by his mother, but with no scars that anyone can see – they can hear them instead in the form of his stutter, which he’d worked hard to disguise. He’s managed it successfully – except when Katie’s around. He’s had a crush on her since high school, and is well aware that he can’t even say her name. So he doesn’t say anything.

I loved the interactions between these two, even before Sean was able to speak in front of her and used grunts and inclinations of the head to communicate. And Katie was just the person to help him get over all his issues, without him using her the way her ex-husband did. The story with Judah the rock star was predictable but none the less well written, and his turmoil was believable without being over the top.

I’m definitely going to seek out more of Ruthie Knox’s books – I started reading her novel serialisation Truly on Wattpad but didn’t get a chance to finish it before it was taken down prior to publication. I shall be seeking out the first two books in the Camelot series as soon as my enforced book-buying ban is over! Roll on Easter Sunday…

The Crown – Nancy Bilyeau

Date read: 19th March 2014
Publisher: Orion Books
Release Date: January 10th, 2012
Length: 490 pages
Format: Paperback
Source: Library

The Crown - Nancy Bilyeau

Goodreads description

In this debut historical thriller, an aristocratic young nun must find a legendary crown in order to save her father’s life and preserve all she holds dear from Cromwell’s ruthless terror.

When novice nun Joanna Stafford learns her rebel cousin is condemned by King Henry VIII to be burned at the stake, she makes the decision to break the sacred rule of enclosure and run away from her Dominican Order in Dartford to stand at her cousin’s side.

Arrested for interfering with king’s justice, Joanna, along with her father, Sir Richard Stafford, is sent to the Tower of London. Joanna’s father is brutally tortured by Stephen Gardiner, the Bishop of Winchester who leads the Catholic faction bent on saving England’s monasteries from destruction. In order to save her father, Joanna must submit to Gardiner’s will and become a pawn in the struggle between religious extremes. Gardiner forces Joanna to return to Dartford Priory with a mission: find the long hidden crown worn by Saxon King Athelstan in AD 937 during the historic battle that first united Britain. Gardiner believes the crown itself to possess a mystical power that will halt the Reformation.

Uncovering only dark betrayals and murder at Dartford, Joanna flees with Brother Edmund, a troubled young friar, and with time running out, their hunt for the crown leads them through royal castles, to Stonehenge, and finally to the tomb of the mysterious King Athelstan under Malmesbury Abbey. There Joanna learns the true secret of the crown, a secret tracing all the way back to Golgotha and the Relics of the Passion. Now, as Cromwell’s army of destruction advances, Joanna must finally determine who to trust and how far she is willing to go to protect a way of life that she passionately loves.

My review

I love reading about the Tudors (and the Wars of the Roses which preceded the Tudor dynasty), as I studied it at sixth-form college with a truly inspirational teacher who made the era come alive. She also inadvertently created a battle between me and my friend Emily, as I fervently believed that Henry VII was behind the disappearance of the Princes in the Tower, and she thought Richard III was the villain.

But I digress. I saw The Crown in Waterstones a few months ago and liked the description on the back cover, only not quite enough to purchase it, so I added it to my library wish list and eventually read it last week.

The first unusual thing about it is that the narrator is a nun from a noble family which has fallen out of favour. It’s hard to keep track of which families Henry VIII favoured and when, as his wrath fell on those who displeased him in whatever way quite frequently. Suffice it to say that the Staffords were an important family, but Joanna’s uncle led a rebellion against the King, was executed for his troubles, and Joanna’s parents were banished from court. Joanna joins a priory following a command from Catherine of Aragon, and after her cousin is executed for treason, finds herself a pawn in a battle with extremely high stakes – the Crown of Athelstan – as Henry VIII continues his destruction of the monasteries, abbeys and priories of the country.

I must admit to a bit of prejudice before I read this book – Nancy Bilyeau is American, and I was wary as to the style of writing she would use and whether I’d find it jarring. I’ve had a bad experience with a couple of other books trying to capture the Tudor period where the language just wasn’t right. I can’t remember the particulars (I’ve successfully blocked them from my mind, it turns out), but I gave up after a maximum of two chapters and gave the book to the charity shop. But I needn’t have worried in this case, I slipped straight into the Tudor world and Bilyeau’s writing is clear, concise, and makes you feel as though you’re in Tudor England from the very first page.

The book rattles along at pace and I found it a fairly easy read, although I struggled to keep track of what was happening and when at certain stages, I think that was more to do with me being distracted than the clarity of the writing. Joanna is a sympathetic character – she doesn’t want to return to the priory but a shady bishop has her father prisoner in the Tower of London and won’t release him until he gets results. When the bare facts of the book are laid out in my rather inept way it sounds as though the plot is pure melodrama, but it doesn’t play out that way at all. The supporting characters are all given enough personality to make them believable without taking over the plot for themselves, and Joanna’s devotion to her family and to God is admirable. Bilyeau makes the motivation of some characters ambiguous, which means you can never be sure who you’re willing Joanna to trust, and I didn’t see any of the plot twists coming at all which was a nice surprise. The only thing I was a little discomforted by was the hint of a love triangle, which seemed a little off, but it’s so in the background that it didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the book at all.

The book is fairly self-contained but there is another Joanna Stafford book – The Chalice – which I shall be seeking out soon I’m sure. I’ll be interested to see where the characters go next, Winifred, Edmund, Geoffrey and the nuns of Dartford Priory.

toptentuesday2Hosted by the wonderful ladies at The Broke and the Bookish.

This week’s topic is Top 10 Popular Authors I’ve Never Read. Here goes nothing (please don’t throw things at me)…

1) Jenny Han I KNOW. I have The Summer I Met You on my Kindle, and have had for a while, but have yet to dive in. Maybe because I’ve heard so many good things and am worried it will disappoint? I don’t know. But I will read it soon.

2) E. Lockhart See the above. I’m an idiot. I borrowed The Boyfriend List from the library ages ago and didn’t read it before I had to give it back. Bad Hannah.

3) Tahereh Mafi Everyone else seems to have read her books except for me… And they sound like they would be right up my street. I really have no excuses for this.

4) Stephen King Horror really doesn’t hold much interest for me, although I have a couple of friends who rave about his stuff and I’m sure he’s a good writer. Maybe one day.

5) Nora Roberts Given that she has two shelves all to herself in my local bookshop, I can’t complain that I have too few books of hers to choose from, and I’m partial to a romantic read every now and again…

6) Martina Cole So far as I can gather, she writes violent crime, East-End-of-London gangster books. Nothing about this appeals to me.

7) Catherine Cookson I suppose she’d still be described as popular – I think her books are still among the most borrowed in British libraries, anyway. Writer of depressing fiction about people with little money who have to do horrible things in order to survive – or at least, this is what I’ve gleaned from seeing snippets of TV adaptations over the years.

I can’t think of any more to add to the list… Although there are a couple that I wish I could add to my list if it would remove the memory of the books from my mind (Angels and Demons and Tess of the d’Urbevilles spring to mind. Ugh)