Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Tastemakers-David Sax

Tastemakers: Why We're Crazy for Cupcakes but Fed Up with Fondue-David Sax

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 336
gender: M
nationality: USA
year: 2014
non-fiction, cultural studies

Greek yogurt. Spicy chipotle mayo. Honeycrisp apples. The Cronut. These days, it seems we are constantly discovering a new food that will make us healthier, happier, or even somehow smarter. After a brief life as a novelty houseplant and "I Love the '80s" punchline, chia seeds are suddenly a superfood. Speaking of which, what ever happened to pomegranate juice? Or acai berries? Did they suddenly cease to be healthy in 2010? And by the way, what exactly is a superfood again?


Excellent narrative voice by Sax. He has clearly done his research into the modern world of food trends and has pulled apart various trends as case studies for each chapter. His information is usually balanced (especially well done with food trucks-a chapter where you're not sure which side of the debate to fall on) and presented rather neutrally but never without losing a sense of narrative which keeps you reading. He presents complex information about the hierarchy of supermarket chains and how chefs do or don't control food trends in a format that never feels heavy and always keeps you reading. If you are at all interested in the social mechanics of food trends-this is the book to read. 

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Solomon the Peacemaker-Hunter Welles

Solomon the Peacemaker-Hunter Welles

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 232
gender: M
nationality: USA
year: 2014
novel

Fast-paced and mysterious, Solomon the Peacemaker takes the reader to the twenty-second century, where cultural norms have changed the way people interact with technology. Humanoid robots, though ubiquitous, are confined inside private homes, giving the impression that all is well with the world. And this may be the case. But in the basement of the Church of Incarnations, one man believes that human beings may already be in the thrall of these robots and The Peacemaker, the incredible computer built as a storehouse for human memory. 


Fantastic. Welles does his world-building subtly, slowly cluing you into the ways that 2178 is vastly different from our own. He creates this dystopic future without actually condemning everything in it-it is simply the first-person narrator's world. The format is refreshing as it is first person narrator with the interrogator's questions omitted-a device that functions both as a constant reminder of the authoritarian state and as a thought exercise in which you occasionally take a moment to consider what question is being answered. And we know I enjoy well done unreliable narrators and this narrator, V, with his drugs and potentially manipulated memory is one. Welles's prose is clear and fluid rendering what could have been a complicated morass of a mystery into a seamless narrative about the role of memory and our relationship to technology. I was kept avidly reading until the ending.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Eleven Days-Stav Sherez

Eleven Days-Stav Sherez

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 368
gender: M
nationality: UK
year: 2014
novel

A fire rages through a sleepy West London square, engulfing a small convent hidden away among the residential houses. When DI Jack Carrigan and DS Geneva Miller arrive at the scene they discover eleven bodies, yet there were only supposed to be ten nuns in residence.
It's eleven days before Christmas, and despite their superiors wanting the case solved before the holidays, Carrigan and Miller start to suspect that the nuns were not who they were made out to be. Why did they make no move to escape the fire? Who is the eleventh victim, whose body was found separate to the others? And where is the convent's priest, the one man who can answer their questions?

What a well constructed mystery. There wasn't anything of fluff in this mystery-it was a hard gritty set of too little and then too much information filled with some red herrings so interesting you didn't resent having to read them. The research put into this book paid off. The prose gets a bit heavy, the book overall is quite grim, almost venturing into a modern noir. The descriptions are thorough, sometimes too thorough but nevertheless always clear and concise while not being didactic. My main issue was the ending-something I won't go into here but will leave it as...implausible.


The detectives, Carrigan and Miller, are refreshingly free of romances rendering them an excellent, professional team. This is actually the second book with them and I enjoyed them and Sherez's prose so much I'd happily seek out the first in the series, A Dark Redemption.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Entry Island-Peter May

Entry Island-Peter May

the facts
satisfaction: side/up
pages: 544
gender: M
nationality: UK
year: 2013
novel

When Detective Sime Mackenzie boards a light aircraft at Montreal's St. Hubert airfield, he does so without looking back. For Sime, the 850-mile journey ahead represents an opportunity to escape the bitter blend of loneliness and regret that has come to characterise his life in the city.

Travelling as part of an eight-officer investigation team, Sime's destination lies in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Only two kilometres wide and three long, Entry Island is home to a population of around 130 inhabitants – the wealthiest of which has just been discovered murdered in his home.

The investigation itself appears little more than a formality. The evidence points to a crime of passion: the victim's wife the vengeful culprit. But for Sime the investigation is turned on its head when he comes face to face with the prime suspect, and is convinced that he knows her – even though they have never met.

I found this such a fascinating use of the history of the Highland Clearances. The novel was two stories in one really: the story of a man fleeing the Clearances and the modern murder case.

I personally preferred the historical fiction. The details and action were much more vividly imagined and I was drawn in. The modern murder investigation was alright-I didn't resent it being in the novel but nor did I particularly end up caring very much. The conclusion seemed a bit too obvious (not to say that I knew who the killer was) from the start and I could guess at the coming culmination. Maybe I liked the historical fiction aspect because the historical Sime was much more open-ended in terms of conclusion. That really showed well May can write.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Trying to Be Cool-Leo Braudy

Trying to Be Cool-Leo Braudy

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 272
gender: M
nationality: USA
year: 2013
non-fiction memoir

Philadelphia in the '50s: Barson's Soda Shop at 60th and Cedar was the center of the universe, hanging out was the point, and the height of cool was to be kicked out of the Cedar Theatre for public displays of passion. In this engaging memoir of teenage life amid the transformations of post-World War II America, Leo Braudy reveals his younger self as a somewhat clueless narrator in the throes of deciphering the innuendo and subterfuge of a confusing world. Was rock 'n' roll really a Communist plot? Was "juvenile delinquency" actually a threat to social order? Was "conformity" truly the era's norm? Weaving a personal narrative through the wider social context of disillusionment and apocalyptic fears, Trying To Be Cool reveals the vibrant eclecticism of a decade too often dismissed as a period of conventionality.

I really enjoyed this memoir about growing up in Philadelphia. Despite the fact that I've spent rather a lot of time in Philadelphia (considering that I don't actually live in the USA), I know so little about the nitty gritty of its history. I know it best through its architectural styles so I really enjoyed this glimpse into teenagehood in 1950s Philadelphia.


Braudy is a cultural historian and it shows-he writes intelligently and passionately about being a teenager in the first generation have teenagers. It's easy, nowadays, to see the 1950s as cheesy, conservative, and naïve and in some ways, yeah, Braudy did not disabuse me of this notion but I grew fascinated by his dissection of what makes 'cool'. Especially since it was still a concept close to what I knew as a teenager in the 2000s. Braudy was a rock n' roll teenager in a Philadelphia that functioned as a town-he hung around on street corners and danced for fun. The dance pervades the book, there's a distinct physicality to his descriptions that almost makes you wish you were there-even if you had to have pimples. His book captures not him as a teenager but rather the scene around him beyond the stereotypes and cultural images pervasive today. You meet all sorts of characters who range from funny to hilarious (Satre as a 'jerk-off' book) to absurd. And below all of this is the pervasive scars of the depression, the politics of war, and life in an age before vaccines which makes the memoir more than a light-hearted exploration of teenage culture.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Agnes Grey-Anne Bronte

Agnes Grey-Anne Bronte

the facts
satisfaction: side/up
pages: 172
gender: F
nationality: UK
year: 1847
novel

In her daring first novel, the youngest Brontë sister drew upon her own experiences to tell the unvarnished truth about life as a governess. Like Agnes Grey, Anne Brontë was a young middle-class Victorian lady whose family fortunes had faltered. Like so many other unmarried women of the nineteenth century, Brontë accepted the only "respectable" employment available--and entered a world of hardship, humiliation, and loneliness.


Honestly, I found Agnes to be too self-righteous and the romance was so very Christian. Agnes was so judgmental but at the same time, I completely understand why she was judging left and right. Anne uses the juxtaposition of the treatment of animals and the treatment of 'lower classes' to great effect to subtly but firmly make a point. The isolation that Anne describes is visceral-as a governess is a bit of a liminal or subversive figure in the hierarchy of a household and so is neither servant nor friend. This isolation is perhaps most visible in that the story mainly showcases her charges making her a bit of an invisible person even within her own narration. Then there is the moral of the story-the commentary on the institution of marriage and the prison of beauty as well as the isolation of the plain. The book feels more like a non-fiction memoir of the life of a governess rather than a novel and so it comes as no surprise that Anne herself worked as a governess for several years. It is an earnest book that seems to come from the heart.

Read for Back to the Classics

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Outcast Dead-Elly Griffiths

The Outcast Dead-Elly Griffiths

the facts
satisfaction: side
pages: 384
gender: F
nationality: UK
year: 2014
novel in a series

Forensic archaeologist Ruth Galloway uncovers the bones of a Victorian murderess while a baby snatcher threatens modern-day Norfolk in this exciting new entry in a beloved series.

I did not really get into this thriller as a horror/thriller I feel it was supposed to be. Maybe it is that I'm childfree by choice but I never really got into the whole horror of almost losing a child and the whole thing seemed a bit melodramatic. I don't mean to say that I didn't care if the police found the children in time or not but rather that it did not make me feel viscerally.

I however deeply enjoyed the recasting of (the fictional) Mother Hook. It was a lovely feminist reinterpretation of a too-familiar (despite being fictional) trope of the grotesque subversion of motherhood/femineity. The archaeology is comical with the juxtaposition of the TV idea of archaeology (and its entertainment value) and the actual academics involved. As someone who has witnessed something similar in two different countries, I found myself chuckling left and right.


So despite that the thriller/horror did not work on me, it still worked very well as a novel full of good characters, humor for those in the know, and feminism.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

A Pleasure and a Calling-Phil Hogan

A Pleasure and a Calling-Phil Hogan

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 288
gender: M
nationality: UK
year: 2014
novel

You won't remember Mr Heming. He showed you round your comfortable home, suggested a sustainable financial package, negotiated a price with the owner and called you with the good news. The less good news is that, all these years later, he still has the key.

Excellently voiced. Really, the almost mild narration was the perfect blend of dry and matter of fact inside the head of Mr. Heming, a scheming and creepy man ruled by obsession-the perfect unreliable narrator really. All the cliches of a serial killer actually but Hogan stays (mostly) in the innocuous arena and that makes Heming much creepier. He is an excellent blend of justification and eccentricity which lends him realism. Everything is perfectly reasonable in this book but you, as the reader, know it's wrong too. One might even say the other characters are not as well fleshed out but since this is a book in Heming's head, one expects that.


The plot? I daren't say as I'd probably run into spoilers!

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

We Need New Names-NoViolet Bulawayo

We Need New Names-NoViolet Bulawayo

the facts
satisfaction: up/side
pages: 298
gender: F
nationality: Zimbabwe
year: 2013
novel

Darling is only ten years old, and yet she must navigate a fragile and violent world. In Zimbabwe, Darling and her friends steal guavas, try to get the baby out of young Chipo's belly, and grasp at memories of Before. Before their homes were destroyed by paramilitary policemen, before the school closed, before the fathers left for dangerous jobs abroad.

I thought this started off super well. I liked Darling, the child's perspective (a bit of a rarity for me) because it was not overly twee or too-precocious but rather preoccupied with a child's obsessions. It was an excellent way to humanize Paradise, the slum in Zimbabwe. Then...a more 'poetic' chapter came along followed by the USA (no where near as long as Zimbabwe) which leads to another poetic transition to when Darling was established in the USA only to finish off the book with another poetic transition. As much as the sections set in the USA were as realistic and well written as the beginning, something just felt a bit off about the transitions-almost as if they were written for something else. Otherwise, I thought it an excellent tale of the immigrant experience-one foot in the past, another in the present and fitting in absolutely nowhere.


I also really enjoyed Bulawayo's prose-it's strong, strident and clear. A bit of an unusual voice actually.

Read for around the world and GWC.