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Review: How to Bake a Man

how to bake a manHow to Bake a Man by Jessica Barksdale Inclán
Ghostwoods Books 2014
ARC (paperback)
222 pages
Fiction; Chick-lit; Romance



If you’re looking for a fun and sometimes surprising chick-lit romance full of food references (and recipes), you might want to pick up a copy of How to Bake a Man. While there are some more serious themes at play here – the young, working generation’s struggle to find meaningful, satisfying work and a purpose in life; difficult people in the workplace; overcoming fear and taking risks – at its heart this story is a celebration of comfort food and love.

Becca Muchmore is twenty-seven, single, and trying to do something with her life by spending her savings on an MBA. Only, her first day back at uni is a humiliating experience for her, and she feels so out-of-place that she’s ready to pack it in, go home and bake cookies. As her best friend Dez says, “But what are you going to do? You’re in school and hate it. You quite your job that took forever to find. You can’t make cookies your entire life.” Yet that’s exactly what Becca decides to do, despite her friend’s wise words, despite her mother’s theatrical sighs and criticisms. Within the space of just twenty-four hours, she’s done the paperwork for the permits and licenses she’ll need, and followed a connection from Dez’s husband and secured a trial deal, selling baked goods to the staff at a law firm in a San Francisco skyscraper. Now she needs to bake, and bake some more.

Luckily, she has help: one of her neighbours and the de facto superintendent of her apartment building, Salvatore Souza, puts his arm muscles to work, mixing the tough dough for honey nuts. A man of many part-time trades, Sal is liberal with advice on women and love – of which he has plenty of experience – and lets Becca know that he’s available to help her with her new business, should she need it. As Becca launches her new business, Becca’s Best, at Winston, Janszen and LeGuin, she realises the job comes with an unexpected – and unpleasant – surprise: one of the lawyers, Jennifer Regan, is her doppelgänger. The resemblance between Becca and Jennifer would be nothing but a funny story if it weren’t for the fact that Jennifer is the office cow, a deeply angry, mean-spirited and foul-mouthed woman with a sharp tongue and no interpersonal skills. She also happens to have a wonderful, handsome, genuinely nice boyfriend, a lawyer from another firm called Jeff, who Becca feels herself falling for, fast.

Over the next few days, Becca finds herself becoming increasingly obsessed with the resemblance she shares with Jennifer, how someone like Jeff could be with her, and what’s going on between Jennifer and another of the firm’s lawyers, Brad. While she bakes by night and tries to figure things out by day, the one thing Becca can’t see is the truth in front of her: that there’s a loyal, resourceful and uncomplicated man who’s perfect for her, working alongside her, waiting for her to figure things out.

There is much to enjoy about How to Bake a Man. First of all, I find it hard to go past a book that so prominently features cooking, especially baking – I don’t seek them out, but when they come my way they score (consider Baking Cakes in Kigali, Sweet Nothings and Sugar Spun Sister as good examples). Secondly, romance and baking just go so well together, don’t they? (And in Baking Cakes in Kigali, cakes and detectives!) But this is also a coming-of-age story for Becca, as she figures out what she wants to do and goes for it. That’s not easy to do, especially when you have confidence issues like Becca does.

I will say that Becca’s ability to quickly set up her own company and acquire a client did strike me as a bit too easy, a bit quick and convenient. She started small-scale, it’s true, but the focus of the story was on her emotional hang-ups, her would-be romance with clean-cut, preppy Jeff, and her obsession with Jennifer. The baking was a way in to that, albeit a consistently relevant one. Things just seemed to work out a bit too easily and cleanly for her, she didn’t experience the blows and set-backs of most small businesses. I’m also unconvinced that anyone would readily buy baked goods twice a day, every day (just as I have no idea how she could cook that much in a day – making more than one recipe in a day is exhausting in my experience!). I’m not sure that her business, as structured, would actually work the way it’s described here. You have to suspend disbelief and focus on the same things Becca’s focussed on: namely, Jeff and Jennifer.

The physical likeness between Becca and Jennifer – which some people see immediately and others pick up on more slowly – was an interesting plot tactic, not something I’d read before, and used as justification for Becca’s personal interest in Jennifer’s life. Not sure I’m entirely convinced, but it makes for fun reading (there is some stalking involved). Really, the star of this story – the one character you can’t help but love and appreciate from the beginning – is of course Sal (with, surprisingly, Becca’s mother in second place). Unlike stories like Bridget Jones’s Diary, the real love interest is portrayed as a good guy from the beginning. The only strikes against him, from Becca’s perspective, are that he’s a womaniser (which is just an impression she’s picked up) and that he doesn’t have a “real job” – and when you’re white and middle class, that’s important. But through helping Becca get her business going, she sees that he’s reliable, dependable, loyal, useful, intelligent, friendly, and likeable. Like most people, she judges on appearances, and those are generally always shown to be misleading.

Becca can be frustratingly slow at times, though, especially on picking up Sal’s none-too-subtle signals. But she has to go through a cycle of falling for the kind of man your parents would like to see you bring home, to realising it’s just an infatuation and getting it out of your system, before you can see the man you really love, who was there all along. It’s not original, but it’s a classic.

With recipes for all the baked goodies talked about at the back of the book (in American measurements etc. – you’ll need to do a bit of translating if you want to cook any of them), the story comes full circle. The commonly-held belief that “the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach” is perhaps at the heart of this book, or at least is its structure, but really this is a story about a young woman coming into her own, realising her full potential, going after what she wants and succeeding at it. It’s a story about strong women, lonely women, women in love and women in the wrong relationships. The tone is a nice balance of light-hearted and ‘let’s be serious for a minute here folks’, though I found the scene with Jeff on Becca’s couch a bit odd and disturbing. Maybe because the whole Jeff thing was so wrong for Becca, and that was the point where she seemed to realise it too – or be on the brink of realising it. Overall, a fun tale and some new recipes to try someday!

My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book via TLC Book Tours.

tlc tour host-1
________________________________

More stops on the tour:

Monday, October 13th: A Chick Who Reads
Tuesday, October 14th: girlichef
Wednesday, October 15th: Nightly Reading
Thursday, October 16th: Bookchickdi
Monday, October 20th: Bewitched Bookworms
Tuesday, October 21st: Giraffe Days
Wednesday, October 22nd: WV Stitcher
Thursday, October 23rd: Leigh Kramer
Friday, October 24th: Books à la Mode
Monday, October 27th: Peeking Between the Pages
Tuesday, October 28th: From the TBR Pile
Monday, November 3rd: Kritter’s Ramblings
Tuesday, November 4th: Kahakai Kitchen
Friday, November 7th: Satisfaction for Insatiable Readers
Date TBD: Book Marks the Spot

The First Page ~ The Narrow Road to the Deep North

man booker prizeLast week we were all very excited to hear of Tasmanian author Richard Flanagan’s Man Booker win with his recent novel – a book I’ve had on my shelf since watching the discussion about it on the ABC’s The Book Club in December 2013 (back when I wasn’t working and could stay up past 10pm on a Tuesday to watch it!), though I haven’t had a chance to read it yet. Flanagan is originally from Longford, which isn’t far from where I grew up, and his first book, Death of a River Guide, was a surprising hit in local terms. He’s since written The Sound of One Hand Clapping (which was the first time I ever saw deckle-cut pages on a book, a fairly common thing these days) – this book, also set in Tasmania, was turned into a movie which Flanagan directed; Gould’s Book of Fish, The Unknown Terrorist and Wanting. I have read the last two in that list, and have copies of all his other books too. Flanagan is only the third Australian author to win the Man Booker prize, after Thomas Keneally for Schindler’s Ark in 1982 and Peter Carey (twice, for Oscar and Lucinda and True History of the Kelly Gang). The prize is worth £50,000 and the winner is known as the “greatest literary writer in the English-speaking world” (as I’ve read in various write-ups), so winning it is a big deal.

I’ll leave it to you to click on the Book Club link above to learn more about the novel, or the Man Booker link; here, in this space, for The First Page feature, I’m going to share the first page with you. It is very lovely and, I find, gripping.



Why at the beginning of things is there always light? Dorrigo Evans’ earliest memories were of sun flooding a church hall in which he sat with his mother and grandmother. A wooden church hall. Blinding light and him toddling back and forth, in and out of its transcendent welcome, into the arms of women. Women who loved him. Like entering the sea and returning to the beach. Over and over.

Bless you, his mother says as she holds him and lets him go. Bless you, boy.

That must have been 1915 or 1916. He would have been one or two. Shadows came later in the form of a forearm rising up, its black outline leaping in the greasy light of a kerosene lantern. Jackie Maguire was sitting in the Evanses’ small dark kitchen, crying. No one cried then, except babies. Jackie Maguire was an old man, maybe forty, perhaps older, and he was trying to brush the tears away from his pockmarked face with the back of his hand. Or was it with his fingers?

From: The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan. Sydney: Vintage, 2013.

narrow road to the deep north narrow road UK narrow road US

The Shelves Are Groaning - XIV/10

I haven’t been buying or otherwise acquiring many books lately – a marked change from my habits of last year! – but here are the few titles that I’ve added to my shelves recently.


decorating cakes gap science of what separates us from other animals

Decorating Cakes by the Australian Women’s Weekly – Cookbook.

Publisher’s Summary: “Have you always dreamed of decorating your own cakes but never thought you could? This collection of gorgeous and lavishly embellished cakes will teach you all you need to know. With step-by-step photographs and clear instructions, Decorating Cakes will turn a novice into a master. Now you can turn a simple home-made cake into a beautiful work of art. Decorating Cakes encourages new decorators to have a go, and those with a little experience to try something more challenging. This elegant collection is laid out in three clear sections – Easy, Experienced and Expert. Step-by-step photographs help you to create your own masterpieces, and there are more than thirty pages dedicated to the ‘mechanics’ of cake decorating. It’s an exquisite collection, perfect for all your special occasions.”

The Gap: The Science of What Separates Us From Other Animals by Thomas Suddendorf – Non-fiction: History; Science; Anthropology.

I came across this book while looking something up for one of the classes I teach; it wasn’t relevant but thanks Google, this book piqued my interest anyhow! (You just never know where you’ll come across the next promising title, do you?) “There exists an undeniable chasm between the capacities of humans and those of animals. Our minds have spawned civilizations and technologies that have changed the face of the Earth, whereas even our closest animal relatives sit unobtrusively in their dwindling habitats. Yet despite longstanding debates, the nature of this apparent gap has remained unclear. What exactly is the difference between our minds and theirs? In The Gap, psychologist Thomas Suddendorf provides a definitive account of the mental qualities that separate humans from other animals, as well as how these differences arose. Weaving together the latest findings in animal behavior, child development, anthropology, psychology, and neuroscience, this book will change the way we think about our place in nature. A major argument for reconsidering what makes us human, The Gap is essential reading for anyone interested in our evolutionary origins and our relationship with the rest of the animal kingdom.”

protected mothers and daughters orchard

The Protected by Claire Zorn – YA Fiction.

I loved Zorn’s previous book, The Sky So Heavy, so I was keen to read her new one. “I have three months left to call Katie my older sister. Then the gap will close and I will pass her. I will get older. But Katie will always be fifteen, eleven months and twenty-one days old. Hannah’s world is in pieces and she doesn’t need the school counsellor to tell her she has deep-seated psychological issues. With a seriously depressed mum, an injured dad and a dead sister, who wouldn’t have problems? Hannah should feel terrible but for the first time in ages, she feels a glimmer of hope and isn’t afraid anymore. Is it because the elusive Josh is taking an interest in her? Or does it run deeper than that? In a family torn apart by grief and guilt, one girl’s struggle to come to terms with years of torment shows just how long old wounds can take to heal.”

Mothers and Daughters by Kylie Ladd – Fiction.

I read a couple of weeks ago and really enjoyed it. Review coming soon. “Four mothers. Four teenage daughters. An isolated tropical paradise with no internet or mobile phone reception. What could possibly go wrong? There’s tension, bitchiness, bullying, sex, drunken confessions, bad behaviour and breakdowns – and wait till you see what the teenagers get up to… How can we let our daughters go to forge lives of their own when what we most want to do is hold them close and never let them go? How do we let them grow and keep them protected from the dark things in the world at the same time? And how can mothers and daughters navigate the troubled, stormy waters of adolescence without hurting themselves and each other? A clear-eyed, insightful and wildly entertaining look into the complicated, emotional world of mothers and daughters by the acclaimed author of Into My Arms, Last Summer and After the Fall.”

The Orchard by Drusilla Modjeska – Fiction.

I found this at my local Salvos, started reading the first page and was instantly caught up in it. Modjeska’s latest book, The Mountain, was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award in 2013. “How does a woman find the shape of her own life? How does she come into a maturity that is truly her own? Taking the essay as ‘a porous, conversational, sometimes moody creature’ and combining it with fiction, The Orchard continues Drusilla Modjeska’s inquiry into the histories of women overshadowed by the stories of men. Rich in character, it is a meditation on mid-life, when a woman ‘reaches both ways’ towards the generations above and below. The narrator, the ‘I’ of the essays, picks her way through a crisis with her eyesight and the dilemmas of her forties, looking back to her past and forward to the possibilities indicated by Ettie, who, at 80, lives in the mountains with a garden on the edge of a scarp. Can she and her friend Louise find their own place of engagement and retreat? Can they offer a steady hand to the young and troubled Clara? Three central essays – on parenthood and adultery, on solitude and sight, on memories of school – are held together by the Central European folk-tale of the Handless Maiden, in which a girl has her hands cut off by her father in a pact with the devil. As a result, the girl leaves her family and sets out into the world alone. When a king sees her wandering in his palace orchard, he watches as she pulls a pear towards her with the bound stumps of her arms. He falls in love with her sad beauty, fashions a pair of silver hands for her and takes her as his wife. When, due to more meddling by the devil, she leaves the palace, she escapes into the wilderness with her child, alone again for many years, until, at last, her hands grow back. Only then is she reunited with the king and returned to the palace, which she can now truly occupy as queen.”

dead man's chest goldfinch us - david nichols

Dead Man’s Chest by Kerry Greenwood – Historical Fiction; Mystery; Detective Fiction.

This is the 18th book in the Phryne Fisher Murder Mystery series, though you don’t need to read them in order. I found this copy at my local Salvos – score! “Travelling at high speed in her beloved Hispano-Suiza accompanied by her maid and trusted companion Dot, her two adoptive daughters Jane and Ruth and their dog Molly, The Hon Miss Phryne Fisher is off to Queenscliff. She’d promised everyone a nice holiday by the sea with absolutely no murders, but when they arrive at their rented accommodation that doesn’t seem likely at all. An empty house, a gang of teenage louts, a fisherboy saved, and the mystery of a missing butler and his wife seem to lead inexorably towards a hunt for buried treasure by the sea. But what information might the curious Surrealists be able to contribute? Phryne knows to what depths people will sink for greed but with a glass of champagne in one hand and a pearl-handled Beretta in the other, no one is getting past her.”

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt – Fiction.

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2014. “Aged thirteen, Theo Decker, son of a devoted mother and a reckless, largely absent father, survives an accident that otherwise tears his life apart. Alone and rudderless in New York, he is taken in by the family of a wealthy friend. He is tormented by an unbearable longing for his mother, and down the years clings to the thing that most reminds him of her: a small, strangely captivating painting that ultimately draws him into the criminal underworld. As he grows up, Theo learns to glide between the drawing rooms of the rich and the dusty antiques store where he works. He is alienated and in love – and his talisman, the painting, places him at the centre of a narrowing, ever more dangerous circle. The Goldfinch is a haunted odyssey through present-day America and a drama of enthralling power. Combining unforgettably vivid characters and thrilling suspense, it is a beautiful, addictive triumph – a sweeping story of loss and obsession, of survival and self-invention, of the deepest mysteries of love, identity and fate.”

Us by David Nicholls – Fiction.

Received for review from the publisher for TLC Book Tours. Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2014. “Douglas Petersen may be mild mannered, but behind his reserve lies a sense of humor that, against all odds, seduces beautiful Connie into a second date . . . and eventually into marriage. Now, almost three decades after their relationship first blossomed in London, they live more or less happily in the suburbs with their moody seventeen-year-old son, Albie. Then Connie tells Douglas that she thinks she wants a divorce. The timing couldn’t be worse. Hoping to encourage her son’s artistic interests, Connie has planned a month-long tour of European capitals, a chance to experience the world’s greatest works of art as a family, and she can’t bring herself to cancel. And maybe going ahead with the original plan is for the best, anyway? Douglas is privately convinced that this landmark trip will rekindle the romance in the marriage, and may even help him to bond with Albie.”

Celebrating Miles Franklin

Miles Franklin Award logo

Miles_franklinToday (14th October) is Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin‘s 135th birthday, which I learnt thanks to Google’s main search page. (There’s a name they have for those special occasion designs but I can’t remember what it is.) Better known as Miles Franklin, she is best known for her classic 1901 novel, My Brilliant Career. While she never achieved wealth, her will “left provision for the foundation of a literary prize, originally intended to be called ‘the Franklin Award’. Its aim was the ‘advancement, improvement and betterment of Australian Literature.’” The award, now called the Miles Franklin Literary Award, is still going strong and showcases some of Australia’s best literary talent (alongside our other major literary award, The Stella Prize).

The list of past winners is an interesting collection of well-known and obscure names. Some of these books have fallen out of print, while others have been resurrected by imprints like Text Classics, which is great.

I have to confess, most of these books I’ve never heard of, and I’ve only read four of them: Oscar and Lucinda, Eucalyptus, Cloudstreet and All That I Am. I have several others on my shelf, waiting to be read. Sadly, one of the most famous (or infamous) winners is The Hand That Signed the Paper because the author pretended to be Ukranian, writing down her family’s oral history. Nevertheless, this provides an interesting reading list, as would the nominated titles that didn’t win.

Which of these have you read, and what would you recommend?

2014 – All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld
2013 – Questions of Travel by Michelle de Kretser
2012 – All That I Am by Anna Funder
2011 – That Deadman Dance by Kim Scott
2010 – Truth by Peter Temple
2009 – Breath by Tim Winton
2008 – The Time We Have Taken by Steven Carroll
2007 – Carpentaria by Alexis Wright
2006 – The Ballad of Desmond Kale by Roger McDonald
2005 – The White Earth by Andrew McGahan
2004 – The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard
2003 – Journey to the Stone Country by Alex Miller
2002 – Dirt Music by Tim Winton
2001 – The Dark Palace by Frank Moorhouse
2000 – Drylands by Thea Astley and Benang by Kim Scott
1999 – Eucalyptus by Murray Bail
1998 – Jack Maggs by Peter Carey
1997 – The Glade Within the Grove by David Foster
1996 – Highways to a War by Christopher Koch
1995 – The Hand That Signed the Paper by Helen Demidenko
1994 – The Grisly Wife by Rodney Hall
1993 – The Ancestor Game by Alex Miller
1992 – Cloudstreet by Tim Winton
1991 – The Great World by David Malouf
1990 – Oceana Fine by Tom Flood
1989 – Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey
1988 – The year of the Award was changed to the year granted rather than the year published
1987 – Dancing on Coral by Glenda Adams
1986 – The Well by Elizabeth Jolley
1985 – The Doubleman by Christopher Koch
1984 – Shallows by Tim Winton
1983 – No award
1982 – Just Relations by Rodney Hall
1981 – Bliss by Peter Carey
1980 – The Impersonators by Jessica Anderson
1979 – A Woman of the Future by David Ireland
1978 – Tirra Lirra by the River by Jessica Anderson
1977 – Swords and Crowns and Rings by Ruth Park
1976 – The Glass Canoe by David Ireland
1975 – Poor Fellow My Country by Xavier Herbert
1974 – The Mango Tree by Ronald McKie
1973 – No award
1972 – The Acolyte by Thea Astley
1971 – The Unknown Industrial Prisoner by David Ireland
1970 – A Horse of Air by Dal Stivens
1969 – Clean Straw for Nothing by George Johnston
1968 – Three Cheers for the Paraclete by Thomas Keneally
1967 – Bring Larks and Heroes by Thomas Keneally
1966 – Trap by Peter Mathers
1965 – The Slow Natives by Thea Astley
1964 – My Brother Jack by George Johnston
1963 – Careful, He Might Hear You by Sumner Locke Elliott and The Cupboard Under the Stairs by George Turner
1962 – The Well Dressed Explorer by Thea Astley
1961 – Riders in the Chariot by Patrick White
1960 – The Irishman by Elizabeth O’Conner
1959 – The Big Fellow by Vance Palmer
1958 – To the Islands by Randolph Stow
1957 – Voss by Patrick White

The First Page ~ The Opposite House

The First Page is a new spot here where I share those wonderful first pages of books that so grab me and make me want to read on. Today’s first page is from a book I haven’t read yet, The Opposite House, but the premise is awesome and the writing clear, richly detailed and fresh.


opposite house opposite house UK



Sometimes a child with wise eyes is born.

Then some people will call that child an old soul.

That is enough to make God laugh. For instance there is Yemaya Saramagua, who lives in the somewherehouse.

A somewherehouse is a brittle tower of worn brick and cedar wood, its roof cradled in a net of brushwood. Around it is a hush, the wrong quiet of woods when the birds are afraid. The somewherehouse is four floors tall. The attic is a friendly crawl of linked rooms, aglister with brilliant mirrors propped against walls and window ledges. On the second floor, rooms and rooms and rooms, some so tiny, pale and clean that they are no more than fancies, sugar-cubed afterthoughts stacked behind doorways. Below is a basement pillared with stone. Spiders zigzag their gluey webs all over the chairs. The basement’s back wall holds two doors. One door takes Yemaya straight out into London and the ragged hum of a city after dark. The other door opens out onto the striped flag and cooking-smell cheer of that tattered jester, Lagos – always, this door leads to a place that is floridly day.

From: The Opposite House by Helen Oyeyemi. New York: Anchor Books, 2008 (2007).

Review: The God of Small Things

god of small thingsThe God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
Fourth Estate 2009 (1997)
Trade Paperback
340 pages
Fiction; Historical Fiction
India flag


In December 1969, Rahel and her twin brother Estha accompany their mother, Ammu, their great-aunt, Baby Kochamma, and their uncle, Chacko, in Chacko’s skyblue Plymouth to Cochin. They’re going to see The Sound of Music for the third time, but also – more importantly to the adults – to collect Chacko’s ex-wife and daughter from the airport. Margaret Kochamma is English, and mourning for her second husband, Joe, who died earlier that year. It is the first time Rahel and Estha have met their cousin, Sophie Mol, but it will prove to be disastrous. This is the December that Sophie Mol drowns, Ammu is ostracised, and an Untouchable is beaten to death for breaching the laws that spell out who can be loved. The connection between these three events is not simply the twins, it is India’s culture, caste system, and the fragility of the mother-child bond. It is miscommunication, a child’s need to play, a woman’s need to be loved, and a man’s need to be touched.

With some books, when it comes time for me to review them, I find myself reliving the best bits, focussed on the story’s strengths, and end up bumping up my rating because the things that I had thought were holding me back from enjoying it more turn out to be insignificant, or just simply vanish. Sometimes it’s good to let a little time go by between finishing a book and reviewing it; other times, it’s detrimental. This may be one of those cases. I finished reading this in early August and am only now, two months later, writing this review. I had given the book a “I really liked it” ranking on Goodreads, but now I don’t know why. I think, at the time, I was letting the writing and all the nifty literary stuff hold sway. Now, I mostly think of it as a story, and all the things that made this a slow read for me, all the things that bored me a bit or made it hard to follow are rising to the surface like oil in a broth, and the meaty stuff has sunk out of sight. Still there, but it’s a cloudy view.

In truth, I have left it too late to write this review and do the book justice. Details are slipping away from me, but what remains is a messy jumble of the big truths that this story deals with – which it does not in a gentle way, but in a firm-gripped, wrestled-to-the-ground kind of way. It is both subtle and obvious, sometimes vacillating between the two states, sometimes being both at the same time. It is full of fine details, details that become relevant personas through repetition, like Rahel’s “Love-in-Tokyo” hair band and Estha’s “puff” hairdo. The Love-in-Tokyo is a rubber band with two beads on it, “two beads on a rubber band”. Possibly a metaphor for Rahel and Estha – and it’s this that preoccupies your reading, constantly wondering about the importance of things. You could read into the details, characters and themes almost endlessly, and that makes it an exhausting book to read.

Roy has her own unique, distinctive style, and it’s not one that I find easy to read. It took concentration and mental effort, something that might ease with repeated readings. It really makes you aware of that vast pool of consciousness that a culture creates with a shared language, so that when you are speaking the same language you are sharing more than just grammar, you are sharing deeper connotations. But for The God of Small Things, there is no shared or borrowed cultural understanding between the Western reader and the Indian author: the flow of words isn’t familiar and soothing, you can’t predict the end of the a sentence, or what direction you’ll go in next. Roy writes in perfect English, but with an unfamiliar, exotic and artistic handle on the words and grammar that is both fascinating and confounding. She breathes new life into the language, but it is so constant that I found it exhausting just as much as I found it beautiful, exciting, invigorating, insightful.

Long flatfeet.

Airport garbage in their baby bins.

The smallest one stretched its neck like people in English films who loosen their ties after office. The middle one rummaged in her pouch for a long cigarette stub to smoke. She found an old cashew nut in a dim plastic bag. She gnawed it with her front teeth like a rodent. The large one wobbled the standing up sign that said Kerala Tourism Development Corporation Welcomes You with a kathakali dancer doing a namaste. Another sign, unwobbled by a kangaroo, said: emocleW ot eht ecipS tsaoC fo aidnI.

Urgently, Ambassador Rahel burrowed through the press of people to her brother and co-Ambassador.

Estha look! Look Estha, look!

Ambassador Estha wouldn’t. Didn’t want to. He watched the bumpy landing with his tap-water Eagle flask slung around him, and a bottomless-bottomful feeling: the Orangedrink Lemondrink Man knew where to find him. In the factory in Ayemenem. On the banks of the Meenchal.

Ammu watched with her handbag.

Chacko with his roses.

Baby Kochamma with her sticking out neckmole. [p.139-140]

That’s just a random passage to use as an example, which also shows the curious narrator who speaks both with Rahel and Estha’s perspective and voice, and something else too. It is another mark of strangeness that is this writing: written in third person omniscient from, often, the perspective of the children, it yet manages to convey the sense that there is no narrator. Even when the “narrator” makes direct comments, they just seem to Be. It’s quite intriguing. Even so, the language, the perspective, the voice, they are like the different tools in an artist’s hands, each given just as much weight and attention. Through the twins’ obsessions over certain words, phrases, games, misunderstandings, through repetition and a non-linear structure, you are constantly aware that a real artist is at work here.

But as I said, the real strengths of this novel are the story itself, and the characters, which of course wouldn’t have been the same if the writing had been more conventional. The two main parts of the novel that will really dig into your heart and squeeze, are those in which Rahel feels she has lost her mother’s love – a grey moth resides on her heart when her mother tells her that when she’s bad, she makes people “love her a little less” – and Estha is sexually molested by the “Orangedrink Lemondrink Man” at the theatre and lives in fear that the man will turn up in their village; and Velutha, the Untouchable, a character who naturally resonates with the Western reader because the very concept of his lowly status and the way people treat him for no reason other than a seemingly arbitrary caste system is abhorrent, and has tragic consequences. Or rather, characters ignoring the caste system results in tragedy. There is a distinction.

There is, throughout the novel, a sense of being trapped, of being restricted by caste, gender, wealth, poverty, expectations and custom in absolutely everything, for everyone. No one is exempt, and, it seems, no one is happy either. Time is fluid, the story shifting back and forth willy-nilly, moving sometimes into the “present” when Rahel and Estha are adults – still young, but damaged, moving about like ghosts. It is a damaged country, Roy seems to say, trying to maintain some semblance of order and control by obeying senseless traditions. It is a story, ultimately, about “the tragic fate of a family which ;tampered with the laws that lay down who should be loved, and how’.” (I can’t find that quote just now so I’m borrowing from Christina Patterson’s review for the Observer, quoted on the back cover.) In today’s Western culture, such a story would be futuristic science fiction, probably labelled “dystopian” in the Young Adult market; but for India, it’s a very real and very turgid past and present. With strains of political machinations and Communist manoeuvrings, life in India after the British left sees a slight shuffle as the high-status families jockey to maintain their position, which necessitates keeping the low-born, low. You can’t mix, love and marry, you just can’t. But Rahel and Estha see just what happens, when you try.

Casual Tourist 2014

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Other Reviews:

The God of Small Things is nominally the story of young twins Rahel and Estha and the rest of their family, but the book feels like a million stories spinning out indefinitely; it is the product of a genius child-mind that takes everything in and transforms it in an alchemy of poetry. The God of Small Things is at once exotic and familiar to the Western reader, written in an English that’s completely new and invigorated by the Asian Indian influences of culture and language.” The Book Addict Blog

“If you are looking for something lighthearted and quick to read, this is not for you. It took me awhile to get through the book, even with the beautiful writing, and there are some pretty dark subject matters that come to play. Things that could never be called pleasant. This book is wonderful though, when all said an done. It will be a bit challenging at first, but if you are open to that I think you will love this novel.” Definitely Not For the Birds

Missed yours? Leave me a link and I’ll add it.

Weekend Cooking: Experimenting with Cheesecake

BakeI don’t have a specific cookbook to review or recommend today, but I thought I’d share my recent cooking experiment before I forget what I did and what worked. We had friends over for dinner during the week and I love the opportunity to make some fancy dessert I’ve previously only salivated over. Trouble is, there’s always too much choice! I wanted something light and summery (even though it’s only spring and lately it’s been overcast and sometimes chilly), with maybe some fruit, maybe a tart or a pie. Only I also didn’t want to have to buy too many new, pricey ingredients, and this isn’t the best time of year for fresh fruit. In the end, I found myself drawn to a recipe for mini white chocolate and raspberry cheesecakes from the August 2014 edition of Taste magazine (Taste.com.au is an excellent online database of recipes; they started putting out a magazine a year ago).

But I didn’t want to make four smaller cheesecakes, nor did I have the smaller, 10cm-diameter tins needed. I wanted to make one big one to share. So then I found a recipe for a white chocolate cheesecake in one of the Taste anthology cookbook-magazines, called Bake (pictured), which you can buy at the supermarket. I decided to combine the recipes, and for the most part it worked.

(As usual, my photos are a bit crap, but hopefully does it justice.)

White Chocolate & Raspberry Cheesecake

250g Arnott’s butternut snap biscuits
250g Arnott’s granita biscuits
200g butter, melted
500g (2 packets) cream cheese, softened
100ml sour cream
1 tsp vanilla bean paste (or if you can’t get hold of it, use regular, natural vanilla essence)
1/2 cup caster sugar
2 Tablespoons cornflour
2 eggs
180g white chocolate, melted and cooled
200g fresh or frozen raspberries

Line the bottom of a 22cm springform cake tin and lightly grease the sides.

In a food processor, whiz the biscuits in batches until finely crushed and tip into a mixing bowl. Add the melted butter and mix to combine. Tip into the tin and, using a straight-sided glass, spread evenly across the bottom and sides. Cover with plastic wrap and put in the fridge for 30 minutes to set.

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Preheat the oven to 160 C. In a mixer, beat the cream cheese and sour cream until smooth and lump-free. Add the vanilla paste and sugar and beat. With the mixer still going, add the eggs one at a time, and then the cornflour and finally the melted chocolate.

Good opportunity to show off my new Kenwood mixer, too!

Good opportunity to show off my new Kenwood mixer, too!

Pour the mixture into the prepared tin. Scatter raspberries on top and gently fold them in.

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Bake for 1 hour, then leave in the oven with the door ajar for a further hour. Serve at room temperature or chilled.

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Recipe Break-down:

There are a few things I would change for next time. I was using a bigger tin than the one in the recipe and I wasn’t sure of my quantities, which is why I have so much crumb coming up the sides – baked cheesecake usually rise a bit but it didn’t rise enough. Or did it? Maybe it’s good this way.

I made too much crumb mixture, mostly because the packets are 250g, not 200g (as required in the original recipe), and I hate having just a couple of biscuits left over, plus I thought with the bigger tin it’d be alright. Also, a good crumb makes a wonderful cheesecake. But I still probably had too much.

The full cheesecake recipe called for 3 eggs, but I ad-libbed using my favourite baked cheesecake recipe which I’ve made loads of times before, and that only uses 2 (and makes a big cheesecake). But increasing the eggs to three, and using more cream would probably have made more filling for this size of tin.

The original recipe, from Bake, required you to not only leave the cheesecake in the oven for 2 hours (or until cooled completely), but also to chill in the fridge for another 4 hours. I didn’t have time to do that, but I worried what it would mean to my cheesecake setting. So I increased the cornflour from 1 tablespoon to 2. I’m not actually sure if that’s the role of the flour or not but it seemed logical. If I had endless time and ingredients I could experiment to find out, but I’ve neither so I gambled. Well, it was set, but I think I left it in the oven a bit too long, as it’s more browned on top than I intended.

I used frozen raspberries, as raspberries are ridiculously expensive to buy fresh in Australia (we grow lots, be we export them and there’s not much left over), and there weren’t actually any on sale that day anyway. But when I opened my bag of frozen raspberries, I saw more ice than fruit! I had to grab a couple of handfuls and defrost them slowly in the microwave so I could separate the fruit from the ice. I didn’t have much in the end, and I had to fold them in carefully to prevent more bleeding of juice than there was, but it did work out. Would have been a lot easier to use fresh of course!

Flavour: you could definitely taste the white chocolate, and the raspberries, but neither was over-powering. There was a good cheesecake-to-crumb ratio I thought (I love the crumb!) and the crumb was good and nutty and buttery. I would still like, one day, to do the brûlée topping as in the mini cheesecake recipe – sprinkle some caster sugar on top then pop under the grill for a minute (or, if you have one, use a chef’s blowtorch to caramelise the sugar).

So that’s me. What would you do to adapt this recipe?

From Taste magazine (August 2014, p.102)

From Taste magazine (August 2014, p.102)



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weekend cookingWeekend Cooking, hosted by Beth Fish Reads, is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, quotations, photographs. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up anytime over the weekend. You do not have to post on the weekend. Please link to your specific post, not your blog’s home page. For more information, see the welcome post.


Flash Fiction ~ The Record Player

Friday Fictioneers is hosted by Rochelle Wisoff-Fields and the task is a simple but challenging one: to write a short story of 100 words or less in response to the photo prompt (see below). I’ve been loving the ones author Claire Fuller puts up on her blog, and thought I’d give it a try.

I’m hoping that the more of these I do, the better I’ll get, but it’s not easy writing in only a hundred words. Practice, right? I’m not sure that my story has a beginning, middle and end per se, but I wanted to see if I could reveal a beginning, middle and end through this snippet. I think my main fear is being unoriginal, but you do need to work through the clichés to get to the new. Oh, and I got stumped on the title.

Credit: Rochelle Wisoff-Fields

Photo Prompt Credit: Rochelle Wisoff-Fields

The Record Player

“There’s nothing here that I want,” she said, squinting into the garage, trying to make sense of the debris of her father’s life.

Her mother picked up an old record player. One corner of the glass cover was cracked. There was a record still inside. Tears For Fears. “He would want you to have this, I’m sure.”

A reluctant laugh came out, rough-edged and broken. “Christ. We should have buried it with him.”

“Couldn’t,” her mother replied. “I needed it to play his favourite songs at the funeral.”

She took it from her mother, held it awkwardly, looked away. “Thanks Mum.”

{101 words}
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Constructive feedback welcome. Check out more of this week’s Friday Fictioneers here.