Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Hundred-Foot Journey by Richard C. Morais

Summary:"The Hundred-Foot Journey" is the story of Hassan Haji, a boy from Mumbai who embarks, along with his boisterous family, on a picaresque journey first to London and then across Europe, before they ultimately open a restaurant opposite a famous chef, Madame Mallory, in the remote French village of Lumiere. A culinary war ensues, pitting Hassan's Mumbai - toughened father against the imperious Michelin-starred cordon bleu, until she realizes that Hassan is a cook with natural talents far superior to her own. Full of eccentric characters, hilarious cultural mishaps, vivid settings and delicious meals described in rich, sensuous detail, Hassan's charming account lays bare the inner workings of the elite world of French haute cuisine, and provides a life-affirming and poignant coming-of-age tale.

My take: 3.5 looks
I know, I know. Again with the 1/2 look. I can't help it. The book was lovely in writing and so descriptive that I could smell and taste the words, but it didn't stay with me like a true 4-look-book does.

The story of Hassan and his family is beautifully painted by Morais from their time in Bombay to their eventual settling in France. The haute cuisine is a character in and of itself, making this a truly amazing journey.

On Bombay:
From the shantytown rose the pungent smells of charcoal fires and rotting garbage, and the hazy air itself was thick with the roar of roosters and bleating goats and the slap-thud of washing beaten on cement slabs. Here, children and adults shat in the streets.

On Harrod's Food Hall in Paris:
The Food Hall smelled of roasting guinea fowl and sour pickles. Under a ceiling suitable for a mosque, we found a football pitch devoted entirely to food and engaged in a din of worldly commerce. Around us: Victorian nymphs in clamshells, ceramic boars, a purple-tiled peacock, An oyster bar stood beside handing slabs of plastic meat, while the grounds were covered in a seemingly endless line of marble-and-glass counters. One entire counter, I recall, was filled with nothing but bacon -- "Smoked Streaky," "Oyster-Back," and "Suffolk Sweet Cure."

This beauty continues throughout the book, as Hassan meets the antagonist-turned-benefactor of the story: Madame Gertrude Mallory. A truly unlikable character, Madame Mallory's range of emotion, thoughts, experiences, and (finally) completely winsome charm is as full-bodied as a fine red wine. She surrounds herself with a variety of characters with whom the reader becomes attached, including Hassan's first lady-love, Margaret.

The journey continues as Hassan becomes famous in his own right, surpassing even his famous teacher. The delight of bringing forth cuisine morphs into the struggles of being in business. Like his father before him, Hassan grows to learn that passion always has a price.

There are so many layers to this book, it is impossible to list them here. Highly recommended.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Look Again by Lisa Scottoline

When reporter Ellen Gleeson gets a “Have You Seen This Child?” flyer in the mail, she almost throws it away. But something about it makes her look again, and her heart stops—the child in the photo is identical to her adopted son, Will. Her every instinct tells her to deny the similarity between the boys, because she knows her adoption was lawful. But she’s a journalist and won’t be able to stop thinking about the photo until she figures out the truth. And she can’t shake the question: if Will rightfully belongs to someone else, should she keep him or give him up? She investigates, uncovering clues no one was meant to discover, and when she digs too deep, she risks losing her own life—and that of the son she loves.

My take: 3.5 looks
I can't quite give this one 4 look because I reserve that for the books that I think of long after the last page; but, I have to tell you, I could not put this one down!

Ellen is a very likable character, and she is right-on with what a mother would do. Her co-worker Sarah plays the witch that we all know, but turns out to be perhaps a little more than meets the eye. The story with her father and boss top it all off nicely. As is common with Scottoline books, there is a marvelous twist at the end, a very satisfying conclusion, and when you read the last page, there is a breath of relief that all is well in the world you've just visited.

On a side note, I bought this book at a Friends of the Library book store, and it turns out to be signed by the author! Bonus!!


Thursday, October 16, 2014

Morality for Beautiful Girls by Alexander McCall Smith

THE NO.1 LADIES' DETECTIVE AGENCY published in 1998, introduced the world to the one and only Precious Ramotswe, the engaging and sassy owner of Botswana's only detective agency. TEARS OF THE GIRAFFE took us further into this world, and now, continuing the adventures of Mma Ramotswe, MORALITY FOR BEAUTIFUL GIRLS, finds her expanding her business to take in the world of car repair and a beauty pageant. Alexander McCall Smith's sense of humour and gentle charm have created a substantial cult following. MORALITY FOR BEAUTIFUL GIRLS will win him yet more fans.

My take: 3.5 looks
Another fun romp through Botswana, Africa ... solving mysteries and getting on with the lives of characters we met in the first book of this delightful series.

I was a little confused by the title of this one, since the "beautiful girls" issue was very late in the book. While it is a fun and catchy title, it doesn't do the story justice in the least. However, if that's the only thing that put me off, I'd say McCall Smith has another winner!

Looking forward to the next book in this series, and what happens with these men and women in whom I am becoming very invested!


Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Man Booker Prize Awarded

The Man Booker Prize for Fiction (formerly known as the Booker-McConnell Prize and commonly known simply as the Booker Prize) is a literary prize awarded each year for the best original novel, written in the English language, and published in the UK.

This year, the short list was:

Richard Flanagan, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
Joshua Ferris, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour
Karen Joy Fowler, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
Howard Jacobson, J
Neel Mukherjee, The Lives of Others
Ali Smith, How to be both
The winner, announced today is Richard Flanagan's The Narrow Road to the Deep North.

August, 1943. In the despair of a Japanese POW camp on the Thai-Burma Death Railway, Australian surgeon Dorrigo Evans is haunted by his affair with his uncle’s young wife two years earlier. His life is a daily struggle to save the men under his command from starvation, from cholera, from pitiless beatings. Until he receives a letter that will change him forever.

Moving deftly from the POW camp to contemporary Australia, from the experiences of Dorrigo and his comrades to those of the Japanese guards, this savagely beautiful novel tells a story of love, death, and family, exploring the many forms of good and evil, war and truth, guilt and transcendence, as one man comes of age, prospers, only to discover all that he has lost.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

A Land More Kind than Home by Wiley Cash

In a small, rural town in North Carolina, people keep to themselves and defend each other from outsiders. River Road Church of Christ in Signs Following is a church led by Carson Chambliss, who has its members hold poisonous snakes or drink poison to challenge their faith. A 13 year-old-boy, who is mute, is taken into the church to cure his muteness and something happens causing the boy's death. Then it is hard for the sheriff to get anyone to talk about what happened inside the church.

My take: 3 looks
Disturbingly real, and ripped from the headlines, this was a very fast-paced book. Living about 45 minutes from a church that handles snakes, I can relate to the fervor in which these congregations whip themselves while testing not only the scripture, but the Holy God Himself.

I come away with a fundamental question: how can people be so blinded by a man? Look at Hitler. Look at Jonestown and Jim Jones. This happens.

The book answers me: "It was like Mama was lost in the desert and had gotten so thirsty that she was willing to see anything that might make her feel better about being lost."

Simply said, these people are hungry for a leader, and once they find a charismatic and narcissistic man willing to lead them, they follow blindly. Even if it means dying.

Although, for those who are not this desperate, the book offers this explanation: "But since then I've learned to just go ahead and take fairness out of the equation. If you do, things stand the chance of making a whole lot more sense."

The book is more than a story of a church flock led astray. There are several dynamics here: marital issues, sibling relationships, friendships, and a dose of redemption. There is much more here than meets the eye. Maybe a little too much. It was on the heavy-side of drama in a number of areas, but the story moved nicely and it was a very interesting book with a satisfying resolution.

One of the best parts of the book was the Epigraph in the beginning:

Something has spoken to me in the night...and told me I shall die, I know not where. Saying:
"Death is to lose the earth you know, for greater knowing; to lose the life you have, for greater life; to leave the friends you loved, for greater loving; to find a land more kind than home, more large than earth."
 -- Thomas Wolfe, You Can't Go Home Again.


Friday, October 3, 2014

Tears of the Giraffe by Alexander McCall Smith


Precious Ramotswe is the eminently sensible and cunning proprietor of the only ladies’ detective agency in Botswana. In Tears of the Giraffe she tracks a wayward wife, uncovers an unscrupulous maid, and searches for an American man who disappeared into the plains many years ago. In the midst of resolving uncertainties, pondering her impending marriage to a good, kind man, Mr. J. L. B. Matekoni, and the promotion of her talented secretary (a graduate of the Botswana Secretarial College, with a mark of 97 per cent), she also finds her family suddenly and unexpectedly increased by two.

My take: 4 looks
Another delightful tale of Mma Ramotswe and her detective agency. Following the first book, and best if read in its series, we find out more of our main character, while becoming familiar with her fiancĂ© and her secretary.

Lovely descriptions of the African scenery, heartwarming tales from growing up in Africa, and intense national pride continue throughout the book, and bring a smile to my face. Mma Ramotswe is no Pollyanna. She does see the dark side of the country and its inhabitants, but continues to focus on the positive, while she does her part to rid her surroundings of undesirables.

The tactics she uses in her investigations and subsequent revelations are clever, and sometimes surprising. It's not easy to have the culprit confess and offer restitution, but that's exactly what our heroine sets out to do each time.

I love this series, and recommend it.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Blessings by Anna Quindlen

Late one night, a teenage couple drives up to the big white clapboard home on the Blessing estate and leaves a box. In that instant, the lives of those who live and work there are changed forever. Skip Cuddy, the caretaker, finds a baby girl asleep in that box and decides he wants to keep the child . . . while Lydia Blessing, the matriarch of the estate, for her own reasons, agrees to help him.

Blessings explores how the secrets of the past affect decisions and lives in the present; what makes a person or a life legitimate or illegitimate and who decides; and the unique resources people find in themselves and in a community. This is a powerful novel of love, redemption, and personal change by the Pulitzer Prize–winning writer about whom The Washington Post Book World said, “Quindlen knows that all the things we ever will be can be found in some forgotten fragment of family.”

My take: 3 looks

A nice tale of what happens to a number of settled lives when a baby arrives unexpectedly.

Lydia Blessings Carton is the matriarch of the Blessings Estate and, at 80 years old, she has experienced much. I liked the way her exterior was peeled away little by little in the story, much like an onion, until you finally get to the center which is described in one word: fidelity.

Skip is the groundskeeper at Blessings, and has made his share of wrong choices; but when he finds a baby in a box on the doorstep, he must make a decision that will affect more than just himself.

The supporting cast of Nadine, Meredith and Jennifer round out a pleasant and wide-ranging cast of characters. While there is not a nice and tidy ending to this story, it is very real and life-like. I think that's what made me like it so much. It is not a Disney fairytale, but a struggle to do the best you can do, regardless of the obvious, desired, or easy path.

The reason for not giving this more than 3 looks is that I often became confused in the back-in-time parts, merging them with the present and jumbling the story a bit. I don't know if this is reader-error or if it could have been written more tightly, but it impacted my overall impression of it.