New Read: Lives of Notorious Cooks

At the start of March, having tackled some big and/or challenging books in the previous two months, I decided that I needed to treat myself to some shorter, lighter reads. With that in mind, I finally picked up the Lives of Notorious Cooks by Brendan Connell, a fictionalised collection of biographies of famous cooks. Which was published back in 2012 and embarrassingly not long after that, I realise now, I must have received a copy from the author.

Making up for lost time, I went into this not really knowing what to expect and the blurb wasn’t much help either, as it simply told me I would ‘Learn of the outrageous and sometimes dubious lives of Peng Zu and fifty other notorious cooks from the pages of history and legend, in a picaresque dictionary of delicious and playful story-telling’. Well it certainly sounded interesting, if a little mysterious too. On reading the book, what I discovered was a collection of very short biographies of fifty cooks, known of whom I can claim to have heard of before, which were written in a surreal prose style.

These cooks included: Peng Zu, a legendary Chinese figure known for cooking excellent soup; Marie-Antione Carême, an early exponent of the elaborate French grande cuisine; Joseph Cooper, a cook to Charles 1, in 1654; Coroebus (Koroibos) of Elis, an Ancient Greek baker and athlete; Lala Sukh Lal Jain, founder of the Ghantewala sweet shop in Delhi, India in 1790; Robert May, author of The Accomplisht Cook (1660); Marcus Vergilius Eurysaces – a Roman baker, whose tomb can still be seen today in Rome; and Ibn Sayyār al-Warrāq, compiler of the earliest known Arabic cookbook, in the tenth century.

As you can see, Connell’s has included a wide range of interesting figures, from across history and the world in his collection: spanning the cultures of Ancient Rome, Greece, Egypt, China, Japan, Europe and the Middle East. Having not heard of any of them before it meant I learnt a fair bit, even with most of the biographies being very brief. The unusual style in which they were written reminded me of poetry, and so the collection did have a nice flow to it, but at the same time it wasn’t always clear if the cooks were legendary or real. I did find myself looking up the figures on the internet to find out more and to better understand what I was reading.

Overall, I found the Lives of Notorious Cooks to be an interesting collection of  surreal, succinct biographies of cooks from across the globe and throughout history. Not the type of book I would usually go for, however it made a nice change and I was able to dip in and out whenever I liked, thus making it the lighter, shorter read I was looking for. Okay read.

Thank you to the author for providing a review copy of this book in exchange for my honest opinion.

Have you read this? Have you read any biographies of famous chefs, past or present?

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New Read: Origin

Knowing how much I had loved Angels & Demons, The Da Vinci Code and Inferno, my dad bought me a paperback copy of Origin by Dan Brown for Christmas. So excited was I to find out what Robert Langdon would possibly get up to next, I bumped this straight to the top of my to-be-read pile.

This new, thrilling adventure starts as Robert Langdon, Harvard professor of symbology and religious iconology, arrives at the ultramodern Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain to attend the unveiling of a controversial scientific discovery. The evening’s host is one of Langdon’s former students, Edmond Kirsch, who is now a dazzling high-tech billionaire and futurist. But before Kirsch’s precious discovery can be revealed, the meticulously orchestrated evening erupts into chaos. Reeling with shock and fearing imminent danger, Langdon flees with Ambra Vidal, the elegant museum director, to Barcelona on a perilous quest to locate a cryptic password that will unlock Kirsch’s secret.

Gripped, I was borne along the dark corridors of hidden history and extreme religion, as Langdon and Vidal follow a trail of modern art and enigmatic symbols, which will take them from the Guggenheim Museum, to Gaudí’s Casa Milà and Sagrada Família, and Barcelona’s Supercomputing Center. All the whilst trying to evade an eerily, all-knowing enemy, who seems to emanate from Spain’s Royal Palace and who will stop at nothing to silence Kirsch’s discovery forever. Racing around fascinating locations is one of my favourite, quintessential elements of Langdon’s adventures, and this one was no exception, although the locations were of a more modern nature than I usually prefer.

Another quintessential element of these books is controversy! After uncovering all the clues, Langdon and Vidal are able to reveal Kirsch’s shocking discovery and the breath-taking truth that has long eluded us: Where did we come from? Where are we going? A truth that Brown builds us up, throughout the novel, to believe will shake the major religions to their core… However for me, who is happy to have science and God, it wasn’t really that Earth-shattering, although I did find it very interesting. There was also an absolutely spine-chilling twist at the end – Unfortunately I had already guessed at it about half way through, but had put it to the back of my mind!

So while Origin was another thrilling adventure, that gripped and fascinated me in parts, it is sadly not to become one of my favourites of the Langdon series. Although it was very good, escapist fun and I did enjoy it more than The Lost Symbol. Good read.

Have you read this? Or other books from the Langdon series?

New Read: The Story of Reality

As a practicing Christian, I like to read Christian literature to help with the growth of my faith and I am very lucky that my church has it’s own book club to help me with this. In January, we met to discuss the classic, Christian allegorical novel, The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. Next up was non-fiction The Story of Reality by speaker and bestselling author Gregory Koukl, which the group met to discuss last week.

In this book, Koukl makes the big claim that he will tell us how the world began, how the world will end and everything important that happens in between! Starting with creation and moving through to Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, and finally, judgement day; Koukl takes the reader step by step – in concise, bite-size chapters – through how Biblical Christianity is more than just another private religious view. More than just a personal relationship with God. More than just a source of moral teaching. But how instead Christianity is a picture of reality.

Initially, I found Koukl’s style a little patronising and dismissive, however I was soon pulled into his interesting discourse on different world views, including: Matter-ism, Mind-ism (officially known as Monism) and Nihilism, as well as Creationism, of course. While I am not one for taking the stories of God making the world in seven days, and Adam and Eve being the first humans completely literally (although I got the feeling Koukl might), I do find myself most definitely falling into the Creationism camp and I feel Koukl made some very interesting points and comparisons of the different views.

Then Koukl went on to chapters discussing the role of man, who Jesus was, and what happened at the cross – All of which were interesting and I continued to make many notes, but it wasn’t till I got to part about the resurrection that I really found myself grabbed again. I thought Koukl made some very persuasive arguments for the resurrection, based on the great sacrifice and suffering endured by those who attested to Jesus rising from the dead. Plus the miraculous U-turns of the sceptic James and the infamous enemy of Christ’s followers, Saul. However sadly Koukl did lose me again when discussing the burning fires of Hell a little too literally for me again.

So I went into my book club meeting, last week, with mixed feelings and many, many pages of notes. I certainly wasn’t the only one who had some misgivings about the literal view on the creation story and Hell, and it fuelled a great discussion on how you can believe in the Big Bang, evolution and God! A discussion which proves the Atheist view of Christians  being ignorant and backwards, presented in this book, wrong straight away. Except for this issue though, everyone else really enjoyed and felt it had been a worthwhile read, and I did thoroughly enjoy sharing mine and hearing others’ favourite parts, quotes and ideas.

All in all, I found The Story of Reality to be an interesting, thought-provoking and challenging read, that I had to take my time with – Generally only reading one or two chapters at a time to give myself chance to reflect. It did however generate a great discussion in our meeting and I definitely think it is good to be challenged once in a while, especially about one’s belief. Our next read is The Death of Western Christianity by Patrick Sookhdeo. Good read.

Have you read this? Or any other books on religious and world views?

New Read: Bellewether

Back in January, I escaped the busyness of life and the dreary weather with Bellewether, the latest dual-narrative novel from, one of my favourite authors, Susanna Kearsley. Having previously read, and loved, six of her previous novels, I eagerly ripped through this anticipating a good dose of mystery, romance and history, and I wasn’t to be disappointed!

It all begins with a house: the Wilde House, which dates back to 1682, when Jacob Wilde came across from England and picked a spot above a small cove in Messaquamik Bay, Long Island to build his family a home. In the present day, it is a museum to Jacob’s famous descendent: the dashing, adventurer Benjamin Wilde, who captained the fair Bellewether. Sadly the house has been neglected over recent years, so the board decide to appoint a new curator: Charley Van Hoek, who has recently moved to the area after the sudden death of her brother to take care of her teenage niece.

I instantly liked Charley because she is a smart, practical and down-to-earth woman, with her head well and truly screwed on. Not the type for flights of fancy, and yet, one night, in the woods behind the house, Charley would swear she saw a ghostly, swinging lamp; which is linked to the legend of Benjamin Wilde’s sister, Lydia and her doomed romance with a French officer. As Charley starts to delve deeper into the history of the Wilde House, she discovers it holds many secrets and that Lydia’s legend may be based on some truth… but not quite the whole truth.

The second narrative of the novel follows Lydia Wilde in 1759, where the North American colonies are being torn apart by the continuing war between Britain and France. Whilst Lydia is already struggling to keep her fractured family together – following her mother’s death – she little needs the added trouble of two captured French officers, brought to them for their parole of honour. Neither does the French-Canadian lieutenant Jean-Philippe de Sabran have any desire to be there, but by the war’s end they’ll both learn love, honour, and duty can form tangled bonds that are not broken easily.

Again Kearsley has weaved together two immersive, believable narratives, with two strong, compelling heroines. All delivered in her comforting and familiar writing style, which I have come to love so much; like a favourite jumper. I must admit I wasn’t initially thrilled when I learnt that this was set in America – I do have a biased preference for her previous settings of the British Isles and Italy – however I was proven very wrong. This was a really interesting setting and time period, that Kearsley brought to life beautifully, which made for a refreshing change and taught me quite a bit too. Although it does all wrap up a little abruptly at the end.

All in all, I thought Bellewether was a wonderful escapist read, with a lovely blend of history, war, romance and mystery. It isn’t about to topple my old favourites The Rose Garden and Mariana, but it is a nice edition to Kearsley’s burgeoning canon of work. Great read.

Thank you to the publisher Sourcebooks Landmark for providing a copy of this book via NetGalley in exchange for my honest opinion.

Have you read this? Have you read any of Susanna Kearsley’s other novels?

New Read: Theatre Royal

Last year, through Endeavour Press’ weekly e-newsletter, I got a free copy of their republication of Theatre Royal by Michael Coren. Never having heard of the author before, I was spurred on to try it after absolutely loving another theatre history, Seven Stages by Geoffrey Trease, from this publisher, so I had high hopes for this one too.

First published in 1981, this history chronicles a hundred years of The Theatre Royal, Stratford East. From its opening night, with Lord Lytton’s popular drama Richelieu, in 1884. To its glory days, in the 1960s, under the enigmatic and controversial Joan Littlewood, with Gerry Raffles and their ground-breaking ensemble Theatre Workshop; who are perhaps best known for their wacky, hard-hitting musical, Oh, What a Lovely War! Finally, to how in the 1970s, it sadly struggled to move on and forge a new identity once Littlewood left, and how it was holding on in the 1980s with hope for the future.

I have to admit I went into this not really knowing what to expect – what with me knowing nothing about The Theatre Royal, Stratford East. What I found was a straightforward and detailed history that charts the origins and ups and downs of this out-of-town theatre. It most certainly must have been a hardy place and had some staunch supporters, because it managed to survive two world wars, a dearth of funds, many failed projects and many more failed plays. All of which was brought starkly to life with quotes from glaring critics, bitter directors, as well as faithful actors.

Earlier, I said I didn’t know anything about this theatre or so I thought, because actually when I read more I realised I did know of Joan Littlewood and Theatre Workshop. I presume I must have studied them at some point at university, but I didn’t recall them or this theatre before. Otherwise though, everything in this book was new to me. My only reservation with the book was that its sole focus is on the productions and logistics of keeping the theatre going. Impersonally listing production after production and the critics opinions of them. Which is fine for a theatre student, but could be dry and hard going for regular readers.

Overall, I thought the Theatre Royal was an excellent, comprehensive history of the highs and lows of this famous theatre – which is still going now, even if this history stops in the ’80s – however this wasn’t as entertaining a read as my previous theatre book from this publisher. Good read.

Have you read this? Or any other histories of famous theatres?

New Read: The Tower is Full of Ghosts Today

During the crazy-busyness of Christmas, I squeezed in a couple of short reads. First the festive e-short Agatha Raisin and the Christmas Crumble by M. C. Beaton. Then The Tower is Full of Ghosts Today by Alison Weir, an e-short companion piece to Anne Boleyn: A King’s Obsession, the second book in Weir’s fantastic, historical Six Tudor Queens series.

In the modern day, Jo, a historian and long-term admirer of Anne Boleyn, has organised for a group to take a guided tour of the Tower of London, to walk in the shoes of her Tudor heroine. Jo is thrilled by their tour guide’s full Anne Boleyn costume and historical accuracy. However while Jo really wants to lose herself in the dramatic setting that she has come to love and the guide’s realistic portrayal of the queen, something nags at the back of her mind, it’s almost like there is a ghostly presence lurking around them…

We take the tour with Jo, experiencing the guide’s excellent performance and the growing mystery of the crying, young woman, that only Jo and ourselves seem to be able to see. I could feel that a twist was coming and when it did, it didn’t disappoint. However the length of the story did – this is a very short, e-short. In fact, the story itself was only about 10% of the book. The rest was made up of teaser, first chapters for Katherine of Aragorn: The True Queen, Anne Boleyn: A King’s Obsession and Jane Seymour: The Haunted Queen – Two of which I have already read, so were of little interest to me.

So, overall, I thought The Tower is Full of Ghosts Today was an interesting little tale of history, mystery and ghosts, with a cool twist at the end. Fortunately, this was being offered for free though, because I would have been really disappointed if I had paid for it. Sadly, It has put me off paying for any of the other e-short companion pieces, but I still very much look forward to reading the next novel about Jane Seymour from the series. Okay read.

Have you read this? Or any other books from the Six Tudor Queens series?

New Read: Agatha Raisin and the Christmas Crumble

Over the crazy-busyness of Christmas, I escaped, when I found a few quiet moments, away into Agatha Raisin and the Christmas Crumble by M. C. Beaton, a festive e-short from Beaton’s long-running, cosy-crime series.

At home alone for the holidays, our smart dressing, retired-PR executive Agatha Raisin decides to show her generous side by inviting over six lonely, local ‘crumblies’ for a slap up Christmas dinner… Only problem is Agatha can’t cook! While she employs swanky caterers to prepare her starter and main, she mistakenly decides to make the pudding herself. And, when her monstrous creation is unceremoniously dumped on lecherous, 85-year-old Len Leech’s head – killing him instantly – the mysteries start to mount up higher than the season’s snowfall.

While only short, I thought this was a well-rounded mystery and our formerly sharp, bossy and cajoling Agatha is on top form. First, as she tries to be kind, softer and homely, but for all her heart being in the right place it all goes horribly wrong, of course! Which is perfect for us, because it means plenty of laughs and it sets Agatha off on another eccentric, bumbling amateur investigation. Along the way she is helped, hindered and warned off by several of the regular cast from the series, including my personal favourites: the lovely vicar’s wife, Mrs Bloxby and the funny Detective Constable Wong.

All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed another trip to the charming village of Carsely in Agatha Raisin and the Christmas Pudding for a quick, fun cosy mystery. Nothing ground-breaking here, but a perfect book to enjoy snuggled up in a blanket, when I had chance over the Christmas period. I now look forward even more to reading the next full-length book from the series, Agatha Raisin and the Terrible Tourist. Good read.

Have you read this? Have you read any other cosy-crime recently?

This also ticked off a title with a season in it and so completed my What’s in a Name 2018 reading challenge. (6/6)