Thursday, October 27


From the back of the book-
Once upon a time, there were three mums-Mum A, Mum B and Mum C.
Bored with their suburban existence, they decided to add some spice to their lives. For three months, they would dare each other to do things.
Mum B would find herself wearing firecracker red lipstick for a whole week (yes, even to swimming lessons); Mum C would tell her atheist husband she'd found religion; and Mum A would have a secret tryst with Santa in a shopping centre.
They also dared each other to tell the truth... The truth about motherhood. The truth about their lives. The truth about who they'd become compared to who they wanted to be.'

This book basically says what all parents, if they're being honest, know-motherhood is hard. It is exhausting, unrelenting, mind-numbing, dull, repetative work. Sure we love our children and wouldn't swap them for the world etc, etc but that doesn't mean we don't pine for the women we were Before Children or mourn the Woman We Could Have Been.
I could relate to a lot of what these women were saying about their mothering experience and sitting surrounded in the mummy-zombie suburbs even be a little jealous that they found each other.
The dares and their responses to them were fun. The truths were open, honest and at times confronting. Both are presented in an engaging, easy to read way. However the book left me with mixed feelings.
For all I knew where these women were coming from part of me (a judgemental, contemptuous part) couldn't help but want to give them a good shake and tell them to wake up to themselves. In the grand scheme of things they have it good. Their problems are most definitely first-world, middle-class ones and not even difficult first world ones. They weren't faced with the death or disability of their partners or children, poverty or abuse.
In all fairness they never claim that their lives are particularly difficult in any way other than motherhood and the book is about loss of identity and regaining self not social justice. I find it interesting that it provoked such a response in me and it has made me examine my world view.
A deceptively light read that will have many nodding in agreement and some wondering why.-Lynn

Tuesday, October 25

Cooking the Books - Kerry Greenwood

Corinna Chapman, baker par excellence and proprietor of Earthly Delights, is doing nothing during her holidays. Her trainee Jason has taken off to learn how to surf, her partner Daniel is busy tracking down corporate fiscal shenanigans, and her waif-like assistants Kylie and Goss are auditioning as extras on a new soap. Without care or responsibility, Corinna should be enjoying the down time, but she's bored.
Which is what allows her to succumb to the emotional blackmail of a former school mate, assisting her on the set of "Kiss the Bride" - coincidentally the same soap Kylie and Goss have got parts on.

There are so many delightful things about this series, from the oddments I flag for follow up (Kipling's Puck of Pook's Hill, the not safe for work song 'The Sexual Life of the Camel') and the meticulously seamless plot to the way traditionally-build Greenwood describes life as a fat woman
"But I haven't got long - I have a dinner date."
"You?" she asked with that touch of incredulity which flicks a fat woman on the raw. I resolved that I would try to do the Christian thing and forgive my enemoes, but that did not require me to turn the other cheek...
She had aged badly, looked haggard and lined. One advantage of being fat is that one does not wrinkly like the slim and gorgeous.
There's bullying, intrigue, a lion, high drama, a tiny bit of Doctor Who, a literary scavenger hunt, the tyranny of the thin-is-healthy obsessed, and bullying of all sorts. There's also the deep satisfaction of just desserts and righteous comeuppances, and the city of Melbourne as integral to the soul of the novel as a character:
The weather was temperate, which is a signal that it is about to change. In Melbourne, a city whose climate can only be called 'unstable'. If by unstable you mean that it is blowing a hot gale before lunch and raining like the Flood after lunch. This makes Melburnians flexible and agile. You have to be, to dodge he hailstones. Some of them are as big as tennis balls, I swear.
Not a breath of a lie! Greenwood's best book, and this is one of that predominant number, are so beautifully constructed, intricate and masterfully crafted that it is impossible to do them justice. It is a mystery greater than any Corinna or her 'twenties counterpart Phrynne have ever solved that she is not more greatly lauded and renown. - Alex the Fan Girl

The Corinna Chapman series:
Earthly Delights; Heavenly Pleasures; Devil's Food; Trick or Treat; Forbidden Fruit; Cooking the Books

Friday, October 21

Echo Burning – Lee Child

Thanks to an unfortunate run-in with an off-duty cop, Reacher finds himself hitching out of a small Texan town in the height of summer’s midday heat. Expecting to wait hours, he’s surprised to be picked up in minutes, by the kind of driver least likely to stop for a tall, heavily-built man in his prime – a delicate young woman. He’s even less prepared for Carmen’s request – to kill the abusive husband who, jailed for tax evasion, is about to be released early. Reacher is, and has been, many things, but not a killer for hire. He does agree, however, to go to the ranch where Carmen, her beloved daughter Ellie, and her in-laws live.
The fifth in this series about a former MP who goes where the road takes him, righting wrongs along the way, has the same elements as almost all the rest of the Reacher novels I’ve read so far - innocent victims, unrelentingly bad opponents, tensely perilous situations cunningly outwitted, good triumphing over villainy, and our hero riding off into the sunset. As with the rest of the series there’s no need to have read any of Child’s work before – all the back story you need is seamlessly woven into the first few pages, and except where needed for verisimilitude plays second fiddle to the plot. It is Child’s genius that transforms what would, in lesser hands, be formulaic pap into a compelling read that kept me up until late in the night. His characters are fully fleshed, dialogue compelling, sentence structure economical but somehow detailed, and a plot that satisfyingly doubled back on itself. Reacher is always a step ahead – of the other characters, and of at least this reader.
Echo Burning also has one of the nicest dedications I’ve come across in quite a while.
I thoroughly enjoyed Echo Burning and look forward to my next encounter with the laconic, idealised Reacher. – Alex

The Jack Reacher novels
Killing Floor; Die Trying; Tripwire; The Visitor; Echo Burning; Without Fail; Persuader;The Enemy; One Shot; The Hard Way; Bad Luck and Trouble; Nothing to Lose; Gone Tomorrow; 61 Hours; Worth Dying For

Before I Go to Sleep - SJ Watson

Christine wakes one morning in an unfamiliar bed next to a stranger with grey hair and a wedding ring. Though they're usually younger and single, the experience isn't a new one, but Christine has no recollection of the night before. she tiptoes to the bathroom, and that's when things start to become strange - her hands are wrong, old, and she's got a band on her left ring finger. Startled, she looks in the mirror and sees the face of a stranger - an old woman.
According to the man, Ben, eighteen years earlier Chris was in an accident that caused a rare form of amnesia - she can retain information for a day, but as soon as you gos to sleep for more than a nap it all goes. Sometimes she can remember parts of her twenties, and sometimes she thinks she's a girl, but she never remembers anything leading up to the accident or following it.
That premise is what lead me to pick up Before I Go to Sleep, and the idea of an exploration of identity reconstruction is fascinating. However, Watson's added a tense element - Chris discovers a journal, kept for weeks, where her previous selves details fragments they remember of their old life and secret therapy sessions with Dr Nash, a psychologist Ben refused to let see her. She learns about things Ben has kept from her, apparently to reduce distress, including the existence and death of their son. And on the cover of the journal, underlined, is the warning "Don't trust Ben!"
As the journal progresses Chris learns more about herself and her life, and becomes increasingly distrustful - about Ben, her therapist, and the reliability of the journal entries she wrote but can't remember. She also discovers that the act of writing things down has, as Dr Nash hoped, has allowed the waking her to retain some of that information. It also let her build up a more coherent picture of her post-accident life, including a lengthy stay is a psychiatric unit.
Perhaps my favourite aspect of Before I Go to Sleep is the beautifully executed unreliable narrator - like the very different but equally compelling We Need to Talk About Kevin, the single voice illuminates and clouds, creating a nivel that is both literary and genuinely gripping. As Anita Shreve says on the jacket, Before I Go to Sleep is "Brilliant in its pacing, profound in its central question, suspenseful on very page." I absolutely couldn't say it better myself. - Alex

Saturday, October 15

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake – Aimee Bender

In the week of her ninth birthday Rose Edlestein’s restive, restless mother bakes a cake. She’s made them before, and the ingredients are the same, but the usually distinctive flavours of chocolate and lemon are drowned out by absence, hunger, emptiness.
It’s not just her mother’s food – Rose can now taste the emotions of everyone who cooks her food or contributes to the ingredients – the nastiness of the farmer who grew that parsley, the cows whose milk is in this cheddar, the wholly factory-processed chocolate chips. In a world where despair, sadness, anger and desperation are rife, it is the latter that literally saves Rose’s life in adolescence, when the comforting nothingness of foods untouched by human hand offer her the only respite from an onslaught of gustatory emotion. And in the process Rose becomes familiar with the unique qualities of every large scale farm and processing plant in the US, as well as many around the world.
The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is a unique novel that looks like another story of family dysfunction - loving but distant father, needy and unchallenged mother, brilliant but strange and removed older brother, introspective and responsible narrator. The theme of children compromising themselves for their parents is not new, but it is very well handled here, and the first person voice neatly walks the line between girl and retrospective woman. The familial functional dysfunction aspect is well done, and the use of tasting emotion through food is really interesting route, that not only allows Rose to discover and describe the emotions of those around her but also explore the nature of isolation.
I was for some reason strongly reminded of the very different Perfume, which I was sure I reviewed but can't find anywhere. I'm not sure why the evocation was so strong - perhaps because of the detailed and nuanced descriptions illuminating aspects of a sense to which most of us are comparatively oblivious.
What is very different about The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, though, is the surprising SF element that appears midway through an otherwise more literary narrative. Always somewhat different, Joe seems to vanish without notice – at first for short periods and then for progressively longer periods of time, never talking about what he did or where he went, and looking less well on each return. At first this seems like relatively unremarkable adolescent behaviour, but quite late in the book we discover a clearly paranormal occurrence (not at all in the sense of magic or vampires-and-werewolves, more like Gould’s Jumper). The concept is woven into elements already present in the text, particularly right near the end, but I didn’t find this added illumination so much as surprise, for up until that point I’d thought I was reading something at the more literary end of book group fodder. Rose’s ability is certainly fantastical, but did not break my willing suspension of disbelief. This talent (or, possibly, propensity) of Joe’s. However, is most definitely fantasy/science fiction territory, and I’m not sure the genre mix is entirely comfortable.
This is not in any way to suggest that SF is inherently unliterary, nor that I’m opposed to crossing genres. Some of the best writing I enjoy falls firmly into the former category (this includes the redoubtable Sawyer and the magnificent Bujold among others), and some lauded literary writers have created what are unquestionably works of FSF (from Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale to 1984, Brave New World and Farenheit 451). While I can think of none off the top of my head, I know I’ve enjoyed unusual genre combinations in the past. I’ve given this no little thought and am quite frustrated that I can't think of any, so suggestions are expressly invited!
I did get a strong Book Group feel from The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake; I was not wholly involved with it but curious to see how it (and Rose) would unfold. I’m not sorry I read The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, which I picked up as a 3-for-2 offer recently, but had no strong desire to read more of Bender’s work. Writing this review, though, has unexpectedly piqued my curiosity though, so watch this space. – Alex

Thursday, October 13

The Nurse's Christmas Wish - Sarah Morgan

Mac (or, on p. 11 of my copy, Matt) Sullivan adores Cornwall, enjoys working with his brother Josh, and is dedicated to his work as an Accident and Emergency consultant - particularly since the death of his wife two years earlier. He has no interest in relationships but his brother has other plans.
Enter Louisa Young - not just a nurse, Josh has hired her to act as Mac's housekeeper, something Louisa only discovers after breaking in to the house. With nowhere else to stay the pair are trapped, at least for a while. Will it be long enough for them to find love?
Yes, of course it will be. This is my second experience of Morgan's medical romances (I reviewed the first a couple of weeks ago), and I have to confess I was disappointed. In comparison with the similarly Yule-themed the Midwife's Christmas Miracle the writing is less nuanced, the characters less subtle, the plot more shallow and the medical scenes are marked by clumsy exposition.
Louisa is a paragon of efficiency and good humour - she cleans, she cooks, she bubbles like an adult Pollyanna, trailing happiness behind her. She takes in strays, charms the hardest hearted, and invites patients into her (or rather, Jake's home) for a Christmas feast he doesn't want, complete with tree and boughs of greenery.
And not only is Louisa untouched, Jake is able to detect this once he takes her virginity in a glorious cascade of simultaneous orgasm. It must be because of the greater sensitivity of the unclad penis and the emotional integrity of our hero.
This is my least favourite romance novel trope, hands down. I can handle a virgin heroine if there's context - the era, her age, a protected upbringing, a strong religious conviction, the reckless sexual behaviour she witnessed as a child, uncomfortable with her own attractiveness or sexuality, whatever. Here there's none of that - she's attractive, straight, able to orgasm with penetration and precious little foreplay, and though she had a deprived childhood there's no mention of abuse of any kind.
I liked the other Morgan novel as much as I disliked this, and so I'll give both the author and the genre another run, though perhaps not for a wee while. In the interim I have no shortage of other novels to be making my way through. - Alex

Sunday, October 9

The 17 Day Diet - Dr Mike Moreno

The 17 Day Diet is a four stage program aimed at rapid weight loss through a combination of low carb, high lean protein, probiotics and (like every diet) calorie restriction - like many diets this last part is not explicit in the directions but a consequence of the program.
The first three stages (Accelerate, Activate and Achieve) run for 17 days each, while the fourth stage (Arrive) is ongoing maintenance. The underlying premise is that altering intake (in terms of both caloric value and composition) causes 'body confusion,' preventing a slowing in metabolism that might otherwise occur. Why seventeen days? No idea - it must be magic.
Stage 1 is the most restrictive. Though a sample 17 day menu's provided, the formula is the same for every day: a glass of hot water with the juice of half a lemon and three cups of green tea (to speed metabolism), three servings of lean animal protein in the form of poultry, fish and eggs
(though tofu can be substituted), one large salad with olive or linseed oil and vinegar, one large serving of steamed vegetables, two servings of fruit and two servings of probiotic (Yakult, yoghurt, kefir, tempeh). With the exception of Yakult (a small bottle) and salad dressing (one tablespoon of oil, two of balsamic vinegar) there's no restriction on serving sizes; the variety of allowable foods, though extensive, is limited to "low sugar" produce, and eggs are only allowed daily, in the form of two whole eggs, one whole and two whites, or four egg whites. The program also allows unlimited amounts of salsa and other low-calorie condiments.
So day 1 is:
2 scrambled egg whites
1/2 grapefruit of other fresh fruit
1 cup of green tea

Large green salad topped with tuna and dressing
1 cup of green tea
Plenty of grilled chicken with liberal amounts of any vegetable on the list, raw or steamed
1 cup of green tea

175g sugar-free natural yoghurt or other probiotic serving mixed with 1 - 2 tablespoons sugar-free jam
1 serving of fruit from the list
Moreno's clearly not particularly interested in food as cuisine - the suggested snacks devolve by day 6 to "2nd serving of fruit, 2nd serving of probiotic." There are twenty-two recipes included, ranging from the 17 ingredient (coincidence?) "Dr Mike's Power Cookie" to the blending of kefir, fruit and yoghurt into a "Yoghurt Fruitshake" and I see online that US participants in some places have the option of meal delivery. I found it particularly annoying that the recipes, which are included as an appendix, aren't in any particular order - time of day, occurrence in the program, or alphabetical, making it harder than it needs to be to see what exactly the "Taco Salad" comprises.
The 'Activate' stage starts on day 18 and introduces alternate day additions - a wider range of proteins (shellfish and lean cuts of red meat), limited quantities of low GI (though he doesn't say that) grains, pulses and starchy vegetables.
A sample menu at random:
25g porridge oats, cooked (I assume in water but Moreno doesn't specify)
4 egg whites, scrambled
1 peach, sliced
1 cup of green tea

Prawn salad: cooked prawns, 30g of chopped onion, generous bed of lettuce leaves, 1 tomato (large) and 1 tablespoon of olive oil
1 baked sweet potato, medium
1 cup of green tea

Pork chops, grilled
Steamed veggies
1 cup of green tea

150g blueberries with 175g sugar-free fruit-flavoured yoghurt
175g sugar free fruit-flavoured yoghurt or 240ml kefir
Stage 3 ('Achieve') kicks in at day 35 and adds an optional glass of wine per day; a slightly expanded protein range (fat-free turkey bacon, some game); a slice of multi- or wholegrain bread, cereal and pasta; and wider ranges of fruit, vegetables, dairy, snacks and fats (including nuts and avocado).
A sample day:
225g sugar free fruit-flavoured yoghurt
45g Muesli or organic granola
1 piece of fresh fruit (i.e., 1 peach, 1/4 cantaloupe, 1/2 grapefruit or 1 orange)
1 cup of green tea
Tomato stuffed with crab salad: mix lump crab meat with 1 tablespoon light mayonnaise, 2 tablespoons chopped celery and serve on a generous bed of lettuce
Medium jacket potato with 1 tablespoon of fat-free sour cream or 100g brown or Basmati rice
1 medium eating apple
1 cup of green tea
Roast beef, silverside
Courgette, sauteed with 1 tablespoon olive oil and Italian spices
1 cup of green tea
2nd probiotic, dairy or dairy substitute serving
1 frozen fruit bar
"Courgette"? Yes, though bought in Australia this is the British version of The 17 Day Diet, so all the weights are given in both metric and Imperial, and "lorries" are used to explain biochemical processes. There are also references to tilapia, which are cultivated in the UK and US but categorised as noxious invaders in Australia.
The final stage ('Arrive') is a modified program aimed at long-term adherence - for five days a week follow any of the menus from stages one to three, with a more liberal (but not wholly abandoned) approach from Friday night
over the weekend. Still, Moreno cautions, avoid binging and maintain moderation, just loosen things a little. He also recommends exercise throughout the program, once again magically - 17 minutes of gentle daily exercise during the first phase, doubling that up for the second stage, and maybe increasing the intensity for the duration.
There are several things I really like about The 17 Day Diet, at least in theory. There's acknowledgment that menstruation derails programs, and a corresponding modification for that week (including brazil nuts for selenium and a little dark chocolate if craved); there are cultural adaptations for a number of culinary tastes, with corresponding differences in emphasis on flavours and produce; and I believe this is the first program I've seen that specifically addresses the problem of shift work, particularly when carbohydrate intake is prohibited after a set time (in this case 2PM).
For the most part Moreno gives an explanation for his restrictions and requirements, citing studies about rapid weight loss, diet-linked conditions (like heart disease), and the impetus for the program appears to be strongly tied to his clinical practice as a physician.
This is also the first diet book I've seen that mentions any of the benefits of being fat, from improved bone density to better heart disease and diabetes statistics for women with fatter thighs. The whole book, however, is strongly weighted to women readers - in the section discussing health benefits of his program Moreno references slipping in to a little black dress, which leaves out any non-girly women and all but the cross-dressing men, and his description of research into improved sex with weight loss focuses only on extremely obese women who have a poor body image.
There were several thing I didn't like about The 17 Day Diet. I'm not a huge fan of programs that eliminate whole categories of food, but at least the 17 Day Diet reintroduces them after a comparatively short time.
I am extremely dubious about the power of hot water and lemon juice to detox, increase metabolic rate, aid digestion or in fact do much more than create ritual and ensure adequate vitamin C intake, but this element is common in many diets.
There's also the warning to consume fruit or carbohydrates after two o'clock, when they'll magically turn from energy to fat, although carb-rich vegetables are included in dinner. There are other unexplained magical elements, like 17 day cycles and 17 minutes of exercise, but I think the bullshit factor's lower than most programs. I'm starting it today, so check our other blog for how it works out in practice. - Alex

Sunday, October 2

The Midwife's Christmas Miracle - Sarah Morgan

Miranda Harding only meant to go for a walk in the beautiful Lake District; with much to think about, it seemed an appropriate place to ponder in peace. She'd never liked Christmas, and recent events had nothing to change that. Unfortunately, while deep in thought she failed to notice the change in weather and, unfamiliar with the area, was unequipped for the sudden knee-high snow that not only bit to the bone but obliterated any sign of the way she'd come.
Jake Blackwell was pleased his closest friends had patched up their marriage, but seeing them so happy only brought home his own single state, and his longing for Christy, despite all the practice he'd had putting her out of his mind. Walks in sunshine were fine, but he preferred the tempestuous, unpredictable winter weather, and a gentle hike was just the thing to distract him. Until he was distracted by a wan, shivering girl almost hidden in the snow.
A recent review on Smart Bitches lead me to check what Morgan romances my library held, and though I'm not usually a fan of medical romances - all that longing gazes over full bedpans thing strikes me as highly unlikely, and in my experience doctors are far more prone to hooking up with other doctors now women comprise over half of graduates - I'm open to persuasion. The SBTB review was for a non-medical category romance that sounded intriguing enough that I forwent my usual aversion, and I have to admit I was pleasantly surprised.
Jake is an obstetric consultant, Miranda is a new midwife on his unit - and she's pregnant, which he doesn't realise until after he's rescued, chastised, recovered and soundly kissed her. In fact, it's not until he sees her at work the following day that the penny drops - and it's to Morgan's credit that this seems plausible.
What I particularly liked was the intelligence of both characters - both in general and clinically. Jake is, of course, a brilliant clinician, but Miranda holds her own, and if Morgan wasn't a clinician herself then she's done research that's incorporated in to the novel without any head-hitting signage.
She also avoids the too-common romance trope of equating conflict with passion - practitioner conflict is restricted to other clinicians, and though there are obstacles to their HEA (chief of which, unsurprisingly, is Miranda's pregnancy) they don't read as contrived or ludicrous.
I so enjoyed the Midwife's Christmas Miracle that I've borrowed another of Morgan's medical romances. - Alex