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Reading for pleasure

14 October 13

This month's selection of leisure reading chosen by the Journal's Book Review Editor

by Tom Johnston, David J Dickson

How to Eat Out

Lessons learned from a life lived mostly in restaurants

Giles Coren (Hodder: £8.99; e-book £4.99)

I have never warmed to Coren, G, restaurant critic of The Times. His writing has always struck me as trying just too hard to be clever, as one might expect from an offspring of the funniest man of the second half of the 20th century, the legendary Alan. Coren Minor’s prose smacks of a slight desperation to be noticed, often marred by controversy for its own sake. The early parts of this book do nothing to suggest that my assessment is flawed. Part autobiography, it shows the veneration for his dear late Pop. Nothing wrong with that, but enough clues as to why his judgment is so slanted and skewed as to miss the mark on many occasions. A food critic who claims never to have had a good meal in Italy? Please. Is he bored of his job, but unable to do anything else?

So, with my own biases and prejudices firmly outed, what did I make of this book? In truth, I loved it. Some chapters are extensions of previously published reviews. Giles seems more at ease with the longer format, and is genuinely funny as well as informative. The Dim Sum chapter gets the juices going, and the book rattles through views and diatribes on matters as varied as steaks, France today, vegetarianism and his longrunning feud with Pizza Express. In between chapters are many helpful tips on eating out – how to complain, how to order wine etc. These are genuinely sound and helpful hints on dealing with tricky situations which can sour an expensive piece of entertainment.

His last paragraph tells us he’s bored with it and wouldn’t care if he never went to another restaurant again as long as he lives. Is this tongue in cheek? I suspect there is a lot of truth in it, but that doesn’t detract from a thoroughly entertaining work.

PS Why, I hear you ask, doesn’t this august Journal have its own restaurant critic? That is another story.

Hobart

Peter Timms (NewSouth: e-book only in the UK £11.25)

Hobart is the state capital of Tasmania, lying just under 11,000 miles from Scotland. Tasmania itself is famous for its devils – which sadly face extinction, valiantly fought by locals – great Pinot Noir and a stunning landscape whether on the coast or interior. The area was settled in 1803 as a penal colony, which a year later was moved to the site of present day Hobart due to the rivulet running from the glorious Mount Wellington, which sits majestically overlooking the city and Derwent River from 4,000 feet.

Peter Timms writes about a city he clearly respects, but offers a critical eye, opening for the reader more of life in the Tasman Sea than one might anticipate. Writing of a city this size (211,000), he covers how close knit a community can be, whether in dealing with proposed redevelopment of land, the closure of churches, music, the wider arts, or crime. Hobart is clearly a close knit community, facing problems that bedevil any city: lack of sufficient finance, the need to regenerate the city whether through arts events or redevelopment, or, as in the case of Hobart, looking perhaps to rely on the generosity of a local boy made good – David Walsh, who has brought this delightful city to wider attention through his Museum of the Old and New Art (MONA). The arts play an important part of city life, whether with the oldest theatre in Australia or the successful fight to save the Hobart Symphony Orchestra.

Sitting as it does in a cove, Hobart has a vibrant waterfront, enhanced and regenerated. Great seafood, restaurants and local wine all add to the appeal, and together Timms shows us a city very much embarking on a new ascendancy.

Timms writes of Hobart seeking to move away from its convict past, despite the "Convict Trail" in Tasmania around some of the former colonies, while recognising the impact that history had on the indigenous Mouheneener people. He does that ably, showing how a city and its people moves forward, ever adapting.

Hobart is far away, but just under 20% of its population are from abroad, many from the UK. If you consider visiting, Australia do yourself a favour and visit Van Dieman's land. With a copy of Peter Timms' beautifully written book, head to Hobart, envelop yourself and savour.

Bertie's Guide to Life and Mothers

Alexander McCall Smith (Polygon: £16.99; e-book £8.99)

This is the ninth instalment of the brilliantly witty and engaging "Scotland Street" series. This book sees Domenica and Angus Lordie married and settling into the conjoined flat that incorporates that of their previous neighbour Antonia Collie, who comes to visit with a fellow nun from her new home, a convent in Italy, resulting in some old wounds being reopened. Matthew and Elspeth now have an assistant au pair to help the resident au pair raise the triplets Tobermory, Fergus and Rognvald. Other familiar and well known characters appear, including a particularly moving storyline for Big Lou.

However, Bertie of the title can only wish and look forward to his 18th birthday, when he will not endure the birthdays organised by his mother and move to the dear green place, Glasgow. We commiserate with Bertie as he opens his birthday presents when he turns seven. Full of enthusiasm, ready to take on the world, telling his mother he can decide for himself what he can do and it will no longer include yoga. But those presents...

As always, McCall Smith brings a gentle, soothing approach to the daily trauma of his characters, while also ensuring that the reader enveloped in this glorious world is equally contented - "the human heart... where kindness makes its home".

Prayer

Philip Kerr (Quercus: £18.99; e-book £10.40)

Kerr is well known for his series of books set in Nazi Berlin and the post-war era, which see Bernie Gunther, a member of the Berlin homicide police, the Kripo, investigate murders, and in his latest novel investigate the murder of Polish officers in the Katyn Wood as well as the July 1944 plot to kill Hitler.

This novel is a standalone work and is fresh, vibrant, stimulating and riveting.

Gil Martins, a Scottish Catholic brought up in Glasgow but who as a child relocates with his parents to the United States, sees his marriage to an evangelical Christian fall apart, mainly due to his scepticism of Christianity as evidenced by his wide collection of books authored by well known atheists, who challenge Christian faith.

Martins is an OCD-afflicted FBI officer working in the Houston office on domestic terrorism, having ceased his legal career to join the FBI following the events of 9/11. He is made aware of the deaths of a number of these high profile individuals, and persuades his boss to permit limited investigation. A theme develops and culminates in his discovery of an undercover reporter who believes she has come across the real cause of the deaths: the power of prayer, prayer directed by a vengeful, fear-inducing God.

The book is fast paced, the reader braced for the ending where one anticipates rational detective work to uncover rational causes for the deaths. The ending is as unexpected as it is climactic, and written with a pace that envelopes the reader in the action.

It is difficult to compartmentalise this book – no bad thing – being neither detective novel nor thriller. A book centred around personal redemption based on a nuanced reading of the Bible, the book is provocative but in a new and unique approach to that taken by Dawkins, Hitchens and co.

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