Review: The Kitchen Front by Jennifer Ryan

 

Title: The Kitchen Front

Author: Jennifer Ryan

Published: 3rd March 2022, Pan Macmillan UK

Status: Read March 2022 courtesy Pan Macmillan/Netgalley 

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My Thoughts:

 

Loosely inspired by true events, The Kitchen Front is an enjoyable historical novel from Jennifer Ryan set in England during WWll.

Two years into WWII, food shortages have hit England hard and with rationing imposed, women are urged to make do with what they have when it comes to feeding their families. Advice comes from all quarters, including cooking demonstrations sponsored by the Ministry for Food, and weekly radio shows like the BBC’s ‘The Kitchen Front’, which is hosted by Ambrose Hart, a former travel writer obviously a little out of his depth. To increase their appeal to the housewives of Britain, the BBC asks Hart to hold a wartime cooking contest in his local village of Fenley, on London’s outskirts. Open to ‘professional’ cooks, three rounds over three months-Starter, Main and Dessert- scored out of ten will decide a winner who will become Hart’s cohost on the ‘The Kitchen Front’.

Five women join the competition-estranged sisters Lady Gwendoline Strickland and and war widowed mother of three boys, Audrey Langdon; manor house cook, Mrs Quince and her young assistant Nell Brown; and displaced Cordon Bleu trained chef, Zelda DuPont. All are determined to win, the prize offering each of them something they need.

Predictably, though not disappointingly so, the contest and its reward comes to matter less as the women are pushed together due to a series of circumstances, some convenient, others dramatic. Emphasising the themes of integrity, friendship and community, the women find the goals they hope to achieve through winning the competition-purpose, money, independence, and career ambition-are best met with the support of each other.

Along with the challenges of wartime on the home front, Ryan touches on many issues such as grief, domestic violence, patriotism and corruption. There’s romance for Nell too when she meets a handsome Italian prisoner of war billeted to Fenley Hall. I thought the pace was good and the story elements well balanced.

I found the details about rationing and wartime menus to be fascinating. Recent grocery store shortages and price rises due to CoVid and other disasters have been a struggle to cope with, I can’t imagine their struggle, or that I’d have any luck convincing my family to eat sheep head stew or whale meat pie (recipes for both, and more, are included in the book).

Celebrating women and friendship, The Kitchen Front is a pleasant, heartwarming read.

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Review: Moonlight and the Pearler’s Daughter by Lizzie Pook

 

Title: Moonlight and the Pearler’s Daughter

Author: Lizzie Pook

Published: 1st February 2022, Penguin Australia

Status: Read February 2022 courtesy Penguin Australia

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My Thoughts:

 

Moonlight and the Pearler’s Daughter is an atmospheric historical fiction debut from Lizzie Pook.

Set on the northern coast of Western Australia, Moonlight and the Pearler’s Daughter takes place during 1886. It’s in the fictional town of Bannin Bay that 20 year-old Eliza Brightwell awaits the return of her father and brother aboard their pearling lugger, the White Starling, after nine weeks at sea. When the ship finally sails in near dusk, its flag fluttering at half-mast, Eliza is told her beloved father disappeared overboard sometime during the previous night and is presumed dead. Eliza is devastated, and when the local constabulary immediately places blame upon one of her father’s most loyal divers, Eliza sets out to prove the man’s innocence, and learn the truth about her father’s fate.

With the early history of Australia’s pearling industry as a backdrop, Pook presents a story of mystery and adventure with a touch romance. It’s the disappearance of Charles Brightwell that dominates the plot as Eliza searches for information that will explain it, joined by Axel, a young German dry-sheller who offers Eliza his company. The quest leads the pair into a number of dangerous situations, including a harrowing sea journey on a lugger called Moonlight through shark and crocodile infested waters, providing some tense action and excitement. I’d guessed where the blame would ultimately fall, though not some of the reactions to it.

Eliza’s devotion to her family, despite the many flaws of Charles and Thomas, explains why she refuses to give up. An appealing heroine, it’s a little unlikely Eliza would be quite as capable as she seems to be in a couple of scenes for a young woman of her status during the time period, but her determination and daring is admirable.

It’s not exactly clear why Axel volunteers to accompany Eliza, other than he is a decent young man who seems to have admired Eliza from afar. Pook provides his character with an interesting background, but he felt somewhat underdeveloped.

Where the author excels with her vivid descriptions of the dry Kimberly landscape, the community’s streets and residents, and the changing conditions of the sea, effortlessly evoking harsh heat, salt air and crashing waves. Though I could clearly visualise Eliza’s environment, I would have liked to learn more about the daily operations of a pearling fleet. Pook does provide some general insight into the industry, and thoughtfully acknowledges the appalling treatment of First Nations people by the white settlers of the area.

Though I wasn’t wholly captivated by Moonlight and the Pearler’s Daughter, it is a solid debut, with a lot to recommend it.

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Review: The Good Son by Jacquelyn Mitchard

 

Title: The Good Son

Author: Jacquelyn Mitchard

Published: 19th January 2022, HQ Fiction

Status: Read January 2021 courtesy Harlequin Australia/Netgalley

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My Thoughts:

 

“I was picking my son up at the prison gates when I spotted the mother of the girl he had murdered.”

 

Nearly three years after being convicted for beating his girlfriend, Belinda McCormack, to death while high on a cocktail of drugs, 20 year old Stefan Christiansen is released from prison. Despite everything, his mother, university professor Thea, is determined to support Stefan and encourage him to rebuild his life. She knows it won’t be easy, though Stefan remembers nothing of the crime he confessed to he is tormented by remorse and self-loathing, and the family is subject to sustained harassment, not only from supporters of a campaign spearheaded by Belinda’s devastated mother, Jill, but also a hooded figure and an anonymous caller.

Unfolding from Thea’s perspective, Jacqueline Mitchard presents a provocative narrative that explores the themes of guilt, redemption and unconditional love in The Good Son.

Thea is an sympathetic character, contemplating myself and my ‘good son’ in such a situation is unnerving. I thought Thea’s inner conflict was well articulated as she struggled to reconcile her love for her son with the crime he committed. While I didn’t always agree with her actions, I felt her character behaved consistently. I liked that Mitchard explored the stigma Thea faced as the mother of a murderer, though I wondered if she went quite far enough.

In the main I felt Mitchard’s portrayal of Stefan’s character was believable, his mercurial attitude in the weeks after his release seemed genuine and appropriate to his age. His struggles to rejoin society were thoughtfully represented, raising issues I’d given little thought to. I found myself torn between sympathy for, and a kind of impatience with, Stefan, a dynamic which I think was skilfully exploited by the author to illustrate the maxim that each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.

While I think the premise of the story is powerful, the execution was quite uneven. The pacing was an issue for me, the middle third dragged, and it definitely affected the suspense related to the identity and motivations of the family’s stalker. I’m conflicted with regards to the ending too. I think the novel would have been stronger had Mitchard chosen another, less melodramatic and arguably more authentic, path.

Though not without its flaws, I did find The Good Son to be a thought-provoking read, and I do believe it would be a rewarding choice for a book club, as it explores issues sure to stimulate a lively discussion.

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Review: The Santa Suit by Mary Kay Andrews

Review: The Santa Suit

Author: Mary Kay Andrews

Published: 28th September 2021, St Martin’s Press

Status: Read December 2021

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My Thoughts:

Celebrating second chances, community and love, The Santa Suit by Mary Kay Andrews is exactly what you want from a Christmas novella – short, simple and sweet.

Looking for a fresh start, newly divorced Ivy Perkins buys an old farmhouse, sight unseen, in the tiny town of Tarburton in North Carolina. Full of abandoned furniture and flotsam, The Four Roses farm needs a little more work than the online advertising seemed to suggest, though the handsome real estate broker, Ezra Wheeler, is happy to offer his help. As Ivy begins clearing the house, she finds a finely tailored Santa Claus suit in a box at the top of a wardrobe, in the pocket is a child’s letter asking Santa to bring her father safely home from the war for Christmas. Moved by the wish, Ivy decides to find out what became of the little girl and her family, a search that will forge friendships, families and festive cheer.

I don’t have a lot to say about The Santa Suit. There are a couple of threads that Andrews brings together in a neat and satisfying way. The small town feel is charming, and the characters are appealing, though the brevity of the story doesn’t allow for much more than broad strokes.

Ultimately The Santa Suit was a quick, uplifting Christmas Eve read, combining a little mystery, romance & touch of seasonal magic.

+++++++++

Available from Pan Macmillan Australia 

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Review: The Safe Place by L.A. Larkin

 

Title: The Safe Place

Author: L.A. Larkin

Published: 9th November 2021, Bookouture

Status: Read November 2021 courtesy Bookoutre/Netgalley

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My Thoughts:

 

A year after finally gathering the courage to report her boyfriend and boss, hero fire captain Marcus Harstead, for domestic violence, Jessie Lewis is a pariah in her home town of Eagle Falls. Branded an unstable, vindictive liar by her charismatic ex and his supporters, including Sheriff John Cuffy, when first a local family with whom Jessie had a public spat is killed in an arson attack on their home, and then Jessie is linked to the scene of a second fatal fire, she is quickly labeled the prime suspect. With only a retired FBI agent willing to believe her innocent, Jessie realises she has no choice but to expose the arsonist before her life turns to ashes.

The Safe Place by L.A. Larkin is a fast-paced, action packed thriller that involves domestic violence, PTSD, conspiracy, arson and murder. The author has crafted an intriguing and dramatic plot as Jessie, victimised, threatened and hunted, repeatedly finds herself in incredibly tense confrontations in a desperate effort to clear her name. Jessie is certain she knows who is framing her for the arson, and why, but her ex is not the only person in Eagle Falls with secrets they’d kill to keep, and there are some gripping twists as Larkin reveals hidden motives.

However I found Jessie to be a frustrating character. She’s a bit of a mess, understandably so given her past and current situation. I wasn’t unsympathetic, and I was always rooting for her survival, but I really struggled with the way in which she consistently made the worst possible choice in almost every situation.

Nevertheless The Safe Place is a page-turner, a tense and exciting story that had had me enthralled.

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Review: A Women’s Place by Deepi Ahluwalia and Jessica Olah

 

Title: A Woman’s Place: The Inventors, Rumrunners, Lawbreakers, Scientists, and Single Moms Who Changed the World with Food

Author: Deepi Ahluwalia, Jessica Olah

Published: 5th March 2019, Little, Brown and Company

Status: Read November 2021

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My Thoughts:

“If a woman’s place has always been in the kitchen, then why does culinary history read like the guest list of some old boys’ club?”

This is the question that inspired Deepi Ahluwalia and Jessica Olah, who have four decades of experience in the food industry, to author A Woman’s Place aiming to share the stories of more than 80 women who have left a lasting mark on history, and whose contribution to the culinary world is often overlooked.

A Woman’s Place is divided into three sections, headed Innovators, Instigators, and Inventors.  Accompanied by full page illustrations, the biographies of each woman, or group of women, are quite short, no more than a page or two, and highlight their connection to food. Recipes accompany some of the entries.

As I was reading I decided to make a note of the entries that surprised or intrigued me to mention in this review, but the list quickly became very long. Ahluwalia and Olah start with Catherine de’ Medici who introduced both Italian ingredients and the use of the fork to the French in the 1500’s, and ends with the San Antonio Chili Queens who sparked the development of Tex-Mex, a popular and uniquely American cuisine. In between are women from varying countries and cultures, through the ages. It’s a joy that women’s historic contributions are finally being recognised and lauded.

A Woman’s Place can be read in one sitting, or browsed when you have a few spare minutes. It is suitable for a wide range of ages, and should appeal not only to foodies but readers interested in history, culture or feminism.

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#2021ReadNonFic: FOOD

Review: Before & Laughter by Jimmy Carr

 

Title: Before & Laughter: A Life Changing Book

Author: Jimmy Carr

Published: 28th September 2021, Quercus Publishing

Status: Read October 2021 courtesy Hachette Australia

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My Thoughts:

 

I ‘discovered’ Irish comedian Jimmy Carr when I stumbled upon the panel show ‘8 Out of 10 Cats’ on YouTube only a year or two ago. The show opened up an entire collection of British comedy programs I promptly binged, and given the incestuous nature of the business, Carr had a role in many of them. Whether acting as a host or  panellist, he often makes me laugh out loud, even if his humour tends to be more on the deliberately offensive, smutty side.

Billed as a memoir and self help book, I was somewhat surprised to find Before & Laughter leans far more into the latter than the former. There are glimpses of Carr here as he touches on his relationship with his parents, shares the story of throwing in his corporate job at Shell to take a chance on comedy, offers a mea culpa for his ‘tax thing’, and speaks of his partner and child, but largely this is a book of advice on how to find your purpose and be true to yourself.

Before & Laughter is funny as expected, with Jimmy sharing plenty of humorous anecdotes, but it’s also surprisingly sensible and insightful. There isn’t anything particularly unique about the essence of Carr’s advice, but his frame of reference – stand up comedy – is something different. Carr has an interesting perspective on life informed by the nature of his work, which involves more intense labour than you would expect. Though I don’t care much for self help blather generally, I think Carr offers some sound advice for anyone looking to enhance or change their life.

Whether you buy into the motivational message or not, Before & Laughter is an entertaining read.

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Available from Hachette Australia

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Review: The Moon, the Stars and Madame Burova by Ruth Hogan

 

Title: The Moon, the Stars and Madame Burova

Author: Ruth Hogan

Published: 21st September 2021, William Morrow

Status: Read September 2021 courtesy WilliamMorrow /Edelweiss

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My Thoughts:

 

The Moon, the Stars and Madame Burova is an engaging novel from Ruth Hogan about family, friendship and identity.

Billie is shocked when a letter from her father, passed on by the family solicitor, informs her that she was not the biological child of her late parents, but a ‘foundling’ discovered on the Brighton promenade, whom they adopted when she was just weeks old. Reeling with unanswered questions, a second letter follows from a Imelda Burova, purporting to have information for her. Though she suspects the woman, a fortune-teller with a booth on the prom, is just touting for business, Billie agrees to a meeting.

After more than forty years telling fortunes from her booth on the Brighton prom, as did her mother and grandmother before her, Madame Burova has recently retired but still keeps many of her clients secrets, amongst them is a gift for the infant she found abandoned in front of her booth. Sworn to secrecy, she can’t tell Billie who her mother is, but is willing to support her in her search for her father.

The story is told through two timelines, the early 1970’s and the present. The earlier timeline centers around Imelda and the entertainment employees of a Brighton holiday park, Larkins, where Imelda spends part of her time giving readings for guests, while the latter has Billie searching for information about her biological parents.

Unfolding at a good pace, there is a pleasing balance of drama, romance, tragedy and humour in the story, along with just enough tension to encourage interest. While the mystery surrounding Billie’s parentage is the main focus of the novel, Hogan also touches on issues such as racism, workplace sexual harassment, grief, and prejudice.

I liked both of the main characters well enough. Imelda is lovely, proving to be kind, thoughtful and loyal in both timelines. Billie’s upset at discovering her adoption so late in life is understandable, as is her desire to know more. I’m not sure where her affection for bowler hats comes from though. The larger cast of the novel is quite varied, with a handful having role in both timelines. Dog lovers will also appreciate Imelda’s relationship with her loyal and much loved canines.

I found The Moon, the Stars and Madame Burova to be a pleasant, entertaining read with an uplifting ending.

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Available from HarperCollins US

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Review: The Cat Who Saved Books by Sosuke Natsukawa

 

Title: The Cat Who Saved Books

Author: Sosuke Natsukawa; Translation: Louise Heal Kawai

Published: 14th September 2021, Picador

Status: Read September 2021 courtesy Pan Macmillan Australia

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My Thoughts:

 

Translated from the original Japanese, The Cat Who Saved Books by Sosuke Natsukawa is a quirky, fantastical tale that celebrates the importance of not only books and reading, but also human connection.

Seventeen year old Rintaro Natsuki is devastated by the sudden passing of the grandfather who has raised him, and takes refuge in the second hand bookshop he has inherited. When an orange tabby cat slinks into the store and speaks to him, Rintaro wonders if grief and stress have taken their toll, but the cat, who introduces itself as Tiger, insists that Rintaro’s help is desperately needed, and leads him through the store into an alternate world to conquer the first of what will be four challenges to ‘free’ books from various states of peril.

Each ‘labyrinth’ requires Rintaro to convince someone to recognise that books are more than just objects, from a wealthy man who hoards books as a status symbol, to a publisher who discards the old for the new. There isn’t anything subtle about the observations made in The Cat Who Saved Books, and they express ideas most inveterate readers would agree with. Eventually Rintaro is required to convince a wizened but sinister figure that books and reading have value to humanity, and hold a unique power.

“I think the power of books is that- they teach us to care about others. It’s a power that gives people courage and also supports them in turn….Empathy – that’s the power of books.”

In between these quests, Rintaro who identifies as a hikikomori (a Japanese term loosely translated as a shut-in or extreme introvert) is left to ponder on the lack of balance in his own life from his own habit of taking refuge in books to avoid human connection and experience. This is illustrated by the connection he forms with a persistent classmate, Sayo Yuzuki.

Though I feel the tone is skewed towards a young adult audience, The Cat Who Saved Books is a charming, uncomplicated story that will speak to the soul of book lovers.

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Review: See Jane Snap by Bethany Crandell

 

Title: See Jane Snap

Author: Bethany Crandell

Published: 7th September 2021, Montlake

Status: Read September 2021 courtesy Montlake/Netgalley

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My Thoughts:

 

Jane Osborne is desperately trying to preserve the facade of her ‘perfect life’, even though her handsome, successful husband of 18 years is sleeping with someone else (and not for the first time), her twelve year old daughter is getting in trouble at school, and, after a supermarket car park incident involving oranges and a purloined ecstasy tablet, she’s been ordered to attend a First Offender’s Group to avoid jail.

In this witty contemporary novel, Bethany Crandell explores the struggle of a wife and mother to keep it altogether while everything is falling apart. Jane is under tremendous pressure to protect her husband’s career, her daughter’s innocence, and her mother’s care needs, and expected to suppress her feelings of betrayal, guilt and anger. Though the specifics of Jane’s trials may not be familiar, it’s very easy to empathise with the strain she is under, and honestly who hasn’t been tempted to throw something at a person who insists on going through a 12 item only check out with twice as many groceries!

Jane’s parking lot meltdown, and the consequences of mistaking an ecstasy pill for Zoloft, had me laughing out loud. Though the event, and subsequent punishment, seems like it can only make everything worse, it serves as a catalyst for Jane to confront her situation, and figure out how to move forward. I really liked the friendships Jane developed in the group, and the unexpected romantic connection with her arresting officer. I was absolutely always on Jane’s side, and felt Crandell’s development of her character was thoughtful and realistic.

See Jane Snap is often funny but also provides some astute observations about the difficult balance many women face between the needs of others and themselves. This is a light, entertaining and engaging read.

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