2012 Recommended books

The Cook by Wayne Macauley

The Cook

Five words from the blurb: young offender, rehabilitation, course, cook, succeed

I love cooking and watching reality television programs in which celebrities train the unemployed to do a useful skill (eg Jamie’s Fifteen, Gordon’s Bad Boys and Mary Portas’ Bottom Line); so I was instantly drawn towards The Cook, a novel that follows one young offender who has been given the opportunity to take part in a reality television show organised by a celebrity chef.

This book shows life in a professional kitchen and the dedication required to succeed in this competitive industry. Zac is just 17-years-old, but he is determined to perfect his culinary technique. He quickly discovers that the best food relies on sourcing quality ingredients and so he begins to look after a range of animals, feeding them with the herbs and flavourings he’d like in his final dishes. His extra effort is noticed and Zac begins his rise to the top, but this book questions just how much an individual should do to succeed.

The writing was vivid and engaging, but the lack of punctuation was initially confusing. Zac’s strong personality made up for this and after a while I got used to the rhythm and I barely noticed the lack of commas.

It was strange how calm I felt cooking had done this all my old anger melting like butter and me saying hit me kick me I don’t care I’m here to serve. How many times did they tell me to pull my head in well look here I am my head’s in I hope they’re happy cops social workers all that I’m going to do what I am told

The book showed the preparation of various dishes. I initially loved this, but towards the middle of the book it became a bit repetitive. I wish some of these sections had been removed to allow the story to progress faster, or for other cookery techniques to be investigated.

This fault was forgiven once I made it to the end. The Cook is now leading the competition for my mythical “2012 Ending of the Year Award”. To say any more would ruin it, but I haven’t enjoyed an ending as much as this in a long time.

If you can cope with harsh language and the occasional slaughter scene then you will be rewarded with an original, gripping novel that questions the way our society operates. Highly recommended.


The thoughts of other bloggers:

…a dark parable that deserves to race up international best-seller lists. ANZ Lit Lovers Litblog

The Cook is a confident and potent piece of work. The Medusa vs. The Odalisque

….a real talking point… Eleutherophobia





2012 Books in Translation

The Finno-Ugrian Vampire by Noémi Szécsi

The Finno-Ugrian Vampire Translated from the Hungarian by Peter Sherwood

Five words from the blurb: Hungarian, grandmother, vampires, traditional, independence

The Finno-Ugrian Vampire is set in Hungary and focuses on Jerne, a young woman who has just found a job in a small publishing company. Her 200-year-old grandmother is disappointed – she wanted Jerne to abandon her modern ways and become a fully-fledged vampire. I accepted this book for review because I was looking for a spooky Halloween read and was interested in how an East European would re-invent the traditional vampire story. Unfortunately this book contained a lot of Hungarian satire that went over my head, but that is due to my inadequate knowledge of the country rather than a fault of the author.

The book was light and easy to read with many sections that made me smile.

A herd of rats was frolicking on the carpet, while two of the bigger ones were fighting it out over a large bone in the kitchen.
‘I hope you don’t mind them taking refuge here. The exterminators could be here any moment and I had to make sure they were somewhere safe,’ Grandma said by way of welcome, badly and without a hint of an apology.
‘Grandma, you have frightened the caretaker’s wife half to death with your creatures.’
‘I have the right to keep whatever household pets I want.’
‘Right. Well, you go and explain to her that these are your pets.’
‘She is too stupid to understand.’
‘It’s you who are stupid. Not everyone delights in seeing slimy rats fattened on cat food popping up from the toilet bowl. She could have dropped dead from the sight.’

The black comedy continued with a string bizarre scenes, including one in which Grandpa is put through a meat mincer.

Unfortunately things went downhill and I found myself increasingly unable to understand the jokes. There were a lot of references to aspects of Hungarian society I knew nothing about (eg. Magyars & Komi) and even when I did recognise something (eg an artist or composer)  I didn’t feel I knew enough to appreciate the humor.

If you are familiar with Hungary and its culture I think you’ll love this book, but I’m afraid it wasn’t for me.


1980s Books in Translation

The Cow by Beat Sterchi

The Cow Translated from the German by Michael Hofmann

Five words from the blurb: cow, relationship, man, abattoir, village

I was drawn towards The Cow because it is set in a small Swiss farming village at a time when Swiss mountain dogs were used to herd cattle and pull milk carts. As the owner of a Bernese mountain dog I was keen to learn more about their working life on the alpine slopes and was rewarded with some wonderful scenes of dogs working with cattle.

The book begins with Ambrosio, a Spanish man, arriving in the Swiss highlands in order to work for farmer Knuchel. The rest of the local farms are busy installing milking machines, but Knuchel is determined to avoid modernisation and stick to traditional methods. The book captured the time when life on these farms changed and by alternating modern scenes with ones from the past it was possible to see exactly what has been lost.

All the cows are named and some scenes are written from their perspective. It was unusual, but it worked really well and I came to know the cows; understanding their personalities and feeling their fears.

The only real negative was that this book contains horrific scenes from an abattoir and I have to admit that some sections were too disturbing for me. This is an example from the start of a scene – I think you can imagine how it progresses to become deeply disturbing:

The cow lifts her head. All wobbles and trembles: she pulls her weight on to her front feet. She’s trying to get up.
With nostrils dripping red, she trumpets through the slaughterhouse. She sits there and rolls her head round to the right, the left, the right again. I retreat……I close my eyes, with my back to the wall, I slip down into a crouch, and try not to think any more.

These scenes had more impact because they were surrounded by tranquil images of the cows enjoying life on the Alpine pastures, each with their own individual cow bell. Some of the abattoir descriptions were necessary to convey the issues, but there were too many for my taste.

Some reviews have suggested that this book will turn the reader into a vegetarian, but I found it simply encouraged the responsible sourcing of meat. Modern mass production of food is displayed in all its ugly glory and this book left me craving a time when all the animals were known as individuals, treated with love and respect, and never knew fear.

This is a disturbing book, but it carries an important message. Recommended to those with a strong stomach.

For more German language recommendations take a look at German literature month organised by Lizzy and Caroline.

British Libraries

London: A Life in Maps by Peter Whitfield







London: A Life in Maps is a beautiful A4-sized paperback containing approximately 200 important maps from the mid-sixteenth century to the present day.

The book is divided into four sections:

  • London Before the Great Fire
  • The Age of Elegance
  • The Victorian Metropolis
  • The Shock of the New

Each of these contains about 50 pages of maps, illustrations and photographs to show how London has changed over the ages.

As an example, here is a map highlighted to show the principle aristocratic estates present in London’s West End in the 18th and early 19th centuries:

The maps on the right-hand-side of the page show Mayfair in 1664 and 1790. All these images are accompanied by a text that details the key changes and the reasons behind them.

Anyone interested in seeing how London has changed and developed will be fascinated by this book containing old maps of London. 


2012 Books in Translation

The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson

The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared Translated from the Swedish by Rod Bradbury

Five words from the blurb: escaping, unlikely, journey, momentous, life

The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared is the word-of-mouth bestseller of 2012. Positive reviews seem to be cropping up on a daily basis – so I thought I’d add another one to its arsenal.

The book begins with Allan jumping out of his bedroom window just before his 100th birthday party. Tired of being cooped up in his retirement home he decides to escape and have one last adventure. He begins an unrealistic journey involving murder, a suitcase of stolen money, and many narrow escapes from the police. Over the course of his travels we learn about his life; an equally unlikely story about meeting the greatest leaders of the last century at key moments in history.

This book was totally mad, but it had a heartwarming charm that thoroughly entertained me.

The corpse fell forwards and hit his forehead on an iron handle.
‘That would have been really painful if the circumstances had been a little different,’ said Allan.
‘There are undoubtedly advantages to being dead,’ said Julius.

My only problem was that I felt the book was a bit too long. I enjoyed seeing Allan meet Harry Truman, Chairman Mao and Churchill, but by the time he met Kim Il Sung I thought the joke was wearing a bit thin – there are only so many world leaders a person can meet without the stories becoming a bit repetitive. I think it might have been better if he’d been an ordinary citizen having a mad adventure, instead of a book that included so many famous people and a potted history of the 21st century.

Overall this was an entertaining, original book and as long as you don’t take it too seriously I’m sure you’ll be charmed by it too.


The thoughts of other bloggers:

It’s very funny with enough intelligence in the historical flashbacks to keep more serious readers engrossed. The Tattooed Book

…fresh, funny and different, but I can’t say that it is very good. Swamp of Boredom

…one of the most unique books I’ve read this year. The Savvy Reader

1950s Classics

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury







Five words from the blurb: fireman, burns, books, media, insight

Ray Bradbury is one of those authors I’ve been meaning to try for a long time, so when I was offered a Folio Society edition of Fahrenheit 451 I jumped at the chance to review it.

The book is set in the near future and depicts a world where books are banned. Any books that are discovered are burned by special firemen:

And so when houses were finally fireproofed completely, all over the world (you were correct in that assumption the other night) there was no longer need of firemen for the old purposes. They were given the new job, as custodians of our piece of mind, the focus of our understandable and rightful dread of being inferior: official censors, judges, and executors.

I’m pleased I’ve read this classic piece of literature, but it wasn’t as good as I’d hoped. My main problem was that it was overly verbose. It was difficult to understand the meaning of any given paragraph and I frequently found myself re-reading sections in order to work out what was happening. This meant reading was more of a chore than a delight.

I also think that society has unfortunately reached a stage dangerously close to the one described by Bradbury. Our attention span has been reduced, we enjoy Twitter’s 140 characters and like everything as simple as possible. So, although I was impressed by his predictive powers, I don’t think it had the impact it would have done had I read it 50 years earlier. (I can also see the irony of the complaint in my previous paragraph – it just proves how society has corrupted me!)

On a positive note, there was some fantastic imagery in this book and I can see why it has become a classic. Now I’ve made it to the end I can appreciate all that Bradbury was trying to achieve and think I’ll remember it for a long time. It is one of those classics everyone should read, even if the experience isn’t entirely positive.


A note on the Folio edition
The book comes in a study slip case and is well constructed with quality paper. The illustrations were beautiful, but I was slightly disappointed to discover that there were only six in the entire book. This was my favourite: