Book Review: In the Restaurant

“To eat together, to drink, to entrust oneself to others’ care: this turns the restaurant into a place where the open society is both celebrated and lived out every day.”

In the Restaurant, by Christoph Ribbat (translated by Jamie Searle Romanelli), provides a potted history of the restaurant alongside the sociology and psychology of those who work in and frequent such establishments. Written in short bites of piquant text each entry is easily digested. This is a fun and fascinating account of the eatery’s growth and development.

What a modern European would think of as a restaurant came into being in Paris around 1760. The upper classes were enticed to eat at a new style of the ubiquitous inn, one which served ‘restorative’ bouillons for those who considered their palates sensitive. Customers were given a table to themselves rather than having to share benches with strangers. They could choose when they wanted to eat and select their choice of dish from a menu. Ambience and service were of the utmost importance.

Unlike other upper class venues at the time, anyone who could pay for their food and drink was admitted. Restaurants were furnished with niches and alcoves enabling a degree of privacy despite the public setting. Unusually, men and women appeared together. Before long these early restaurants were serving more than just bouillon. Specialities developed with views on quality and innovation disseminated by newly emerging writers – the restaurant critic. Interest in these Parisian ventures encouraged others to open restaurants around the world.

From the beginning staff were stratified with rigid, snobbish hierarchies emerging. The chef ruled in the kitchen which was kept hidden from customers. Waiters were go-betweens, tasked with making the customer feel welcome and valued. Despite the hard work and long hours, salaries were low – mortality amongst employees subjected to the health hazards in busy kitchens was high.

Chefs published cookbooks to raise their profile and that of their place of work. The dishes they developed evolved as increased tourism brought with it new culinary skills, ideas and tastes. Increased efficiency in the kitchen was achieved by introducing specialisms.

George Orwell was one of the first authors to draw attention to the more unsavoury aspects of a restaurant’s kitchen practices, based of his experience working there. Meanwhile critics were feted and the famous fed for free to raise an establishment’s profile. Over time food fashions changed as chefs sought to capture the zeitgeist. Customers continued to seek

“sophistication rather than satiation”

From a simple idea the restaurant developed in many directions. Industrialisation and automation brought with it fast food chains. The quest for Michelin stars encouraged the creation of labour intensive art to be consumed. Staff are still badly paid.

“It is possible to make a living from only one in five jobs in the American food industry.”

Although presented in anecdotal style with reference to individuals and particular establishments, the source notes for the numerous entries in this book are extensive. Detailed references are provided in a section at the end. What comes across is how much has changed and yet also remained the same. The restaurant remains

“a theatre for all the senses”

The players rely on both the artisanal and industrial workers. While customers may be hedonistic, enjoying the performance and eating experience, there remains widespread exploitation of staff and those who provide the base ingredients.

There are now many types of restaurant with wide varieties of operating philosophies. These cater for: the time strapped; those seeking comfort food; demands for fresh produce; the semblance of ethical practices; health fads and fashions. Although now everyday destinations for many, at the high end of the market success brings its own problems. One example cited was of the newly listed three Michelan star establishment that was asked by a potential customer where they could land their helicopter. The cost of such meals may appear obscene while people go hungry. Demand remains.

And such tales add to the interest of what is an entertaining and intelligent glimpse into the kitchens and public spaces of restaurants operating within a multitude of environments: capitalist and communist states; bustling cities and small town America; remote Spanish beach sides and Nordic forest. The author treads lightly yet gets to the heart of the issues faced by staff and proprietors. This is an entertaining smorgasboard of reading pleasure for anyone who has worked in or frequented a restaurant.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Pushkin Press.

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Book Review: The Book of Alexander

The Book of Alexander, by Mark Carew, is a slow burn that is well worth persevering with. What may in the first half feel protracted is shown to be necessary to reel the reader in. Once the pace picks up sinister elements add to the tension. The trope of unreliable narrator is harnessed masterfully.

The story opens with a personal investigator being contracted to observe and write a report on a young arts student by the father of his girlfriend. Having ascertained where the young man lives the PI gains permission from a business opposite the house to use a disused showroom as his observation base. He watches. He follows. He makes notes on what he sees. As the days pass the reader will become aware of a growing number of inconsistencies in the narrative. Although somewhat discombobulating this will likely be accepted until understood for what it is.

The student, Alexander, socialises with beautiful women. They visit his house and the PI grows intrigued by what is happening inside each room. Eventually he gains entry and the reader learns of Alexander’s art project. Aspects of the backstory that have already started to shift become ever more unstable.

“The happy couple, and they did look happy, passed at a good distance from where I stood, partially hidden as I was behind a lamppost in the side street. I could see their faces, Melanie still wearing her trademark blue beret. I gave them a one-minute head start, enough time for them to cross the river and reach the other side, and then I climbed out of the car and followed them.”

Who is the PI? Who is Alexander? Who has asked for the report being written?

As the answers to these questions are revealed more complex mysteries bubble to the surface. Alexander wishes to reveal to his subjects how other’s see them. He asks that they observe themselves as a third party would. He is most interested in understanding himself in this way. He acts out roles to observe their effect.

His art is at times destructive. There are also suggestions of a more sinister history. Human skulls are mentioned as is an acquaintance who survived a fall from a great height. Parental support may be welcome but is not always benign.

From a gentle, at times sluggish beginning this tale develops into a disturbing, self-reflective chiller. The shifting perspectives demonstrate how filtered any observation of people will be. Alexander seeks subjects for his art. Readers may find themselves captured by his gaze.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Salt.

Book Review: Quartier Perdu

Quartier Perdu, by Sean O’Brien, is a collection of eighteen short stories. Many play on the suppressed fears of academics and writers – their desire for acclaim and to build a creative legacy. From within the rich, dark undercurrents much humour percolates. The author touches lightly on jealousies and ego yet gets to the heart of a quiet desperation. Those who regard themselves as successful bask in the company of:

“others wearing a thin blanket of carefully nursed resentment at their unsuccess”

The themes are vivid, often surreal. There is violence in association.

The collection opens with a story about an unbalanced relationship. Set in London during the Second World War, two young women employed by the BBC are vying for the attention of a colleague. In an attempt to gain the upper hand Vicky declares she has had enough and is going home, expecting Ray to accompany her. She ends up leaving alone. Unsure of her bearings she gets caught up in an air raid. Escaping underground she meets a ferryman. Their journey is cathartic.

The Sea-God is set in a remote, Greek bay at the end of the holiday season. A creative writing tutor has completed his contractual obligations and is enjoying a few days holiday. He is aware that, after close to twenty years, his star is on the wane.

“he and the public had begun to grow bored with his work, but readers of thrillers were a loyal bunch and would not wholly desert him for a while yet. After all, they had worked their way into their fifties with his books reliably to hand every summer. Why change now?”

Finding a journal in a drawer by his bedside he starts to translate the German text. His dreams become more vivid; his hosts pay him more attention. When a storm blows in he finds himself trapped in what many would regard as an idyll. He struggles to understand if what is happening to him can be real.

Several of the stories rely on drug taking to blur the edges between fear and reality. These drugs may be recreational, sinister, or administered by medical practitioners. There are those claiming to want to help. The protagonists struggle to retain control of their own minds and to convince others of their right to agency despite observed behaviour.

The legacy of dead writers is shown to be deeply personal and affecting. Quartier Perdu sees a young academic drawn into the dark world of the writer she has chosen to study for her PhD. Revenant explores the impact on a writer who believes he was the subject of another’s famous work.

Libraries feature in several of the stories. In The Good Stuff an academic is tasked with going through the meticulously maintained back catalogue of a recently deceased, prolific and popular author – one he does not regard as of much literary merit – to judge what should be bid for by his university. He discovers a sinister deal, one that could have ongoing consequences which would be hard to explain.

Ex Libris is a delicious dig at critics. A wealthy author takes exception to published views on his work and seeks vengeance.

Keeping Count is another tale of revenge. A self satisfied, aging poet agrees to be Master of Ceremonies at the interment of a supposed friend’s ashes.

“Of course, there was really nobody else to fill the role. He had gravitas, and he could still speak in sentences.”

As he muses on his plan to bed the widow he comes to realise that she has her own agenda.

A Green Shade is a wonderful satire on the modernisation of institutions of tertiary education. A new Head of Department, Todd, is using concerns over Health and Safety to cancel the long-standing tradition of an annual play. A retiring professor – whose Chair in Renaissance Studies will not be replaced – plans a swansong with the help of other discarded staff members who understand the true value of education.

“Todd’s Mission Vision, or whatever he was calling it, was of a merger with Media and Communications. ‘Let’s make English useful again!’ was his motto.”

An ancient play is resurrected and performed literally.

The final story, The Aspen Grove, introduces a writer in retirement who has settled in a quiet English backwater where he is trying to write a novel no one is pushing him for.

“People knew he wrote. He was said to have been working on a book for some years. Faced with his impermeable politeness on the topic, people had given up telling him that if they too had time on their hands like him they would also write books.”

Observing the habits of the locals living around him he misunderstands what actions are acceptable and suffers the consequences.

The writing in this collection is witty and at times piercing but always compelling. By blurring the edges of what may be defined as an individual’s reality, many ideas and their impact are touched upon. Carefully crafted to tell a story with penetrating understatement, this was an entertaining if occasionally sardonic read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Comma Press. 

Annual Roundup: My books of 2018

Another year has flown by. My decision at the end of last year to withdraw from participation in blog tours was absolutely the right choice for me but has meant I now feel somewhat removed from the wider book blogging community. Thankfully, by and large, publishers have not been deterred and I continue to receive many fabulous books to review. I have also made more of an effort to attend literary events. London remains an expensive trek but plenty of authors have travelled west and I have enjoyed meeting them in Bristol, Bath and Marlborough. To those bloggers who continue to support my writing by sharing posts on their social media channels – thank you.

From around 160 books read this year I have selected 15 as my books of 2018. To be included here the title had to be given a firm 5* on my first assessment, and to remain with me in the months after reading. It is an eclectic list, obviously reflecting my personal tastes. My book of the year though is one that I happily recommend everyone read.

Click on the title below to read my review. Click on the cover to learn more or purchase.

Poetry 

  

Recipe for being a Woman by Hermione Cameron, published by Ampersand Publishing
Lou Ham: Racing Anthropocene Statements by Paul Hawkins, published by Dostoyevsky Wannabe

Children’s fiction

Sunny and the Ghosts by Alison Moore, published by Salt

Non Fiction

Under the Rock: The Poetry of a Place by Benjamin Myers, published by Elliot & Thompson

Humorous fiction

 

Francis Plug: Writer in Residence by Paul Ewen, published by Galley Beggar Press
Their Brilliant Careers: The Fantastic Lives of Sixteen Extraordinary Australian Writers by Ryan O’Neill, published by Lightning Books

Deliciously disturbing fiction

The Weaning by Hannah Vincent, published by Salt

Challenging but worth it fiction

Three Dreams in the Key of G by Marc Nash, published by Dead Ink

Storytelling

  

Only Killers and Thieves by Paul Howarth, published by One (Pushkin Press)
Bridge of Clay by Markus Zusak, published by Doubleday

Damn good reads

  

Sight by Jessie Greengrass, published by John Murray
Murmur by Will Eaves, published by CB Editions

  

El Hacho by Luis Carrasco, published by époque press
Milkman by Anna Burns, published by Faber & Faber

My book of the year

Little by Edward Carey, published by Gallic Books

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If tempted to buy any of these titles do please consider visiting your local independent bookshop – you may also order from many of them online. Alternatively, small publishers in particular benefit from direct sales from their websites, thereby enabling the publication of more great books.

Book Review: The Teahouse Detective

“Crime interests me only when it resembles a clever game of chess, with many intricate moves”

First published in 1908, The Teahouse Detective: The Old Man in the Corner, by Baroness Orczy (probably best known for her Scarlet Pimpernel novels), is a collection of cosy crime mysteries of varying length that were serialised in magazines in response to the success of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories.

The unnamed sleuth is a pale, thin, balding man who sits down uninvited at a teashop table in London opposite a young journalist – Polly Burton. Noticing what she is reading he proceeds to explain to her how he has solved cases that have baffled the police and puzzled readers of daily newspapers – which provide details of ongoing investigations. He holds his own abilities in high regard and is contemptuous of the establishment tasked with apprehending and convicting law breakers.

“I never for a moment ventured to suggest that there were no mysteries to the police; I merely remarked that there were none where intelligence was brought to bear upon the investigation of crime.”

As he talks the old man habitually knots and unknots a length of string. He recalls details of each crime, producing photographs of key places and players which he shows to Molly. He tells her of related court hearings he attends, describing the people he observes there. He challenges Molly to learn from his methods of deduction and work out for herself who the true perpetrators could be.

Molly grows used to sitting with this man on subsequent visits to the teashop. She begins to ask him about particular cases that have intrigued her. Although at times nervous and somewhat excitable, the facts and views the man presents are as interesting as his detailed knowledge of them is puzzling.

The various crimes committed involve: murder, forgery, theft, deception. The settings vary but are mostly in British cities. The victims and villains are largely drawn from the wealthier classes. They are portrayed as gentlemen, the implication being that this means they should be trustworthy, although lifestyles described do not come across as noble to modern sensibilities. Women are presented as adjuncts despite several playing important roles. The testimony of servants is not granted as much weight as that from their employers.

The writing is very much of its time with the era well evoked and sympathetically rendered. Each story provides a puzzle that the reader may enjoy trying to solve before its final reveal. Violence is involved in many of the crimes yet these remain gently told tales. The reasoned deductions and carefully planted clues keep fresh an inquisitive reader’s interest in narrative from a bygone age.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Pushkin Press.

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Giveaway

If you would like to win a copy of this book then head over to my Twitter account here as, in true festive spirit, I am running a giveaway. To enter, follow me on Twitter and RT the relevant tweet by 8am GMT on 12 December 2018. Two winners will be drawn at random from all qualifying entries – the giveaway is UK only.

Winners will need to provide me with their postal address via Twitter DM within 48 hours of being notified of their win. I will pass these addresses on to the publisher who will post the books direct.

All personal data provided will be deleted by both myself and the publisher once the books have been sent. My thanks to Pushkin Press for providing this prize.

 

Book Review: A Small Dark Quiet

A Small Dark Quiet, by Miranda Gold, is a tale of people damaged by war and grief, who leave a legacy of suffering in the families they raise. The dislocation of the characters and their resolute but often failed attempts to integrate in a structured society make this a challenging read.

The story opens in London, 1945, just a few weeks before the end of the Second World War. Sylvie has given birth to twin boys – Harry and Arthur – but only one has lived. The body of little Arthur was removed, disposed of before his mother could even hold him. In a country where many mothers will never again see their beloved children, where a city and its people have suffered so much loss and destruction, Sylvie is admonished – told she should be feeling grateful for her surviving child.

Sylvie had little time to get to know her husband, Gerald, before he went off to fight in the war. She had travelled to London for work and a new life, and been swept away by his courtship. With only brief periods of leave during the war years, Sylvie’s mother-in-law made pointed allusions to the legitimacy of the babies during her pregnancy.

Gerald’s father returned from his earlier war a broken man and eventually could no longer be cared for at home so was taken to live in an institution – an abiding source of shame for his son. Sylvie is warned by his wife to get over her grief and be sure to welcome Gerald back home with calm and open arms.

Gerald eventually returns, affected by the war but determined to hold his nerve and still his shaking hands. He is dismayed that his smiling wife has also changed. To cure Sylvie’s enduring grief at the loss of their baby he suggests they adopt one of the orphaned children from abroad being offered by the government as part of their post-war negotiations. The couple take in a boy who is the same age as Harry and rename him Arthur.

Sylvie is kind to this second Arthur who harbours buried memories of the violent deaths he witnessed in his first few years of life. She tells him stories of her little Arthur that affect him deeply. Gerald struggles to contain his impatience with this small, frightened boy who is so different from his brother. In fits of suppressed rage Gerald pours forth words that shape Arthur’s sense of worth and self.

The tale moves forward along several time frames in parallel. These include memories of the boys’ childhood and Sylvie’s gradual disintegration. Gerald tries to turn his sons into little soldiers whilst denying their Jewish heritage – he saw too plainly what can happen to practising Jews in times of conflict. As a teenager Arthur secretly explores the world of the synagogue. I was unsure what to make of this religious segment which felt unnecessarily prolonged given its importance in the wider plot progression.

Of more interest in these childhood chapters was how the boys were treated by Sylvie before she gave herself up to her enduring grief, and how Gerald struggled to cope with a family that did not match the standard he himself was working so hard to attain. These complex threads eventually coalesce to offer an empathetic portrayal of PTSD.

The later time frame details Arthur’s attempts to break away from the effects of Gerald’s bullying and make an independent life for himself. Arthur is thwarted by his inability to sustain the strength to apply himself to endeavours: college, a job, a relationship. He ends up being used by a young woman, Lydia, who is herself damaged. His acceptance of her behaviour was frustrating to read.

Arthur is shown kindness by his landlord and another tenant – a Polish survivor of the German camps. This latter thread was not developed as I expected.

The fragmented timeline is presented piecemeal. At times it was disorientating but mostly held together. The cast are presented as they appeared to Arthur rather than with much depth in themselves.

The writing is strong if somewhat distressing in places – the author does not baulk from her subject matter. There is little to like about many of the characters but they are shown to be victims of circumstance and upbringing. Not everyone will find the strength to rise above the trials they face. As such there is little uplifting amidst a series of devastating experiences for the reader to consider.

Those who prefer a tale to be completed with all threads tied and a denouement reached may finish this book and feel dissatisfied. The interweaving of numerous messy lives is portrayed with the inherited damage caused and there is no neat ending. Although dark the final take from the tale is empathetic. It is a powerful if somewhat fractured read.

A Small Dark Quiet is published by Unbound.

Book Review: Liminal

“The rhythm of the glen, the rhythm of new life in the language of the old ones.”

Liminal, by Bee Lewis, takes a series of typically modern day problems and plays them out within the backdrop of a timeless and somewhat threatening wilderness. There are surreal elements and sections where the language and imagery are rich to the point of over indulgence. Dream sequences are necessarily mystical and somewhat disturbing. Their intensity requires interpretation that I’m not convinced I achieved.

The day to day sections are written as more standard domestic thriller with just a suggestion of the supernatural. The protagonists are struggling with a frustrating inability to communicate.

The story is told over the course of a week leading up to Easter. Esther and her husband, Dan, have uprooted their comfortable lives in the centre of vibrant Bristol to move to a remote glen in the Highlands of Scotland. They have purchased a long disused railway station which they intend to renovate and turn into a writers’ centre. Cut off from mobile phone signals and internet access, the radical change they have chosen is yet another challenging shift in lives already derailed.

Esther is newly pregnant and determined to make her faltering marriage work for the sake of their child. Her own childhood was difficult, although she now plans to try to build bridges. She regards the move as a fresh start and a way to remove Dan from the influence of his overbearingly religious father. Esther is still grieving two recent and significant losses. Dan is struggling to cope with his enforced change of career. Neither is able to talk to the other about their true feelings. Both are keeping secrets while blaming the other for not sharing.

Arriving at their new home they discover the fridge and cupboards unexpectedly stocked with food. A neighbour, Mike, pops by to introduce himself and explain that this is by way of welcome. When a thick fog settles over the land overnight it becomes too risky to leave the glen. Esther is suffering intense dreams where she is being hunted in the neighbouring forests. As an amputee her mobility is impaired.

The trees and the various creatures observe the new arrivals. Each day is a struggle to contain festering resentments. Esther is aware of her marital issues but tries to suppress their importance. These play out in her dreams which appear to offer both threat and potential for freedom. At times she feels inexplicably attuned to her surroundings but cannot understand what they are trying to tell her. Dan is concerned she is suffering some sort of breakdown.

Over the course of the coming days Mike is a regular visitor. He and Dan are at ease with each other – Esther has never previously seen her husband relax in this way. She is also drawn to Mike but unsure how to behave with him. Esther is unsettled, unable to quash her suspicion that Dan is once again hiding important facts from her. The fog renders them prisoners in a building that harbours its own secrets.

The failing marriage, the cut off setting and the enigmatic stranger are well portrayed. The dream sequences and anthropomorphised nature add to the spooky tension. The plot progression felt somewhat slow at times until the denouement. The reveal had been foreshadowed, but required a sudden character shift.

There were aspects of the story that I wanted to work – interesting ideas and suggestions. The writing conjured the requisite disturbance but ultimately lacked coherence. I wish it were otherwise but this affected my enjoyment. It was not a tale that worked for me.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Salt.