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Reading for pleasure

18 February 13

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

by John Keir, Tom Johnston, David J Dickson

The Cook

Wayne MacAuley (Quercus: £18.99; e-book £11.04)

At 17 Zac is given a choice: either go to a young offenders’ institute or to a rehabilitation programme. He chooses the latter and is assigned to a cookery course under the auspices of the disturbed Fabian and the shadowy and sinister Head Chef. Zac shines. He also swallows Head Chef’s mantra that there will always be rich people available to pay top dollar for the most fantastic of culinary creations.

Head Chef derides your mother’s risotto topped with arugula – so last decade. Within a few months Zac is preparing a little light lunch of rainbow trout fillet wrapped in a salted quail skin on a bed of slow-braised fennel in a lemon thyme consommé. He has also perfected his red wine and rosemary infused agnelet, by feeding its mother appropriately when the lamb was in utero.

One day he is suddenly and mysteriously whisked away to become personal chef to an über-rich family, acquaintances of Head Chef. The narrative of this book is, true to the blurb on the cover, unlike anything you have read. Zac’s story zings with the same panache as his food. As you go through the courses, you are entertained with the gentle parody of today’s foody-ism. But where is the book going?

Don’t worry. The twists in the tale explode like a Heston Blumenthal dessert. This book will leave you amused and well satisfied, with or without a smooth brandy to finish.

A Grain of Truth

Zygmunt Miloszewski (Bitter Lemon Press: £8.99; e-book £6.83)

With the current vogue for Scandinavian crime fiction, a trip across the Baltic might provide a welcome change of scenery. This is the second novel by Miloszewski featuring Tadeus Szacki, a star Polish state prosecutor. The historic city of Sandomierz and the uncomfortable legacy of anti-semitism in Poland provide the settings for this tale and give some interesting insights into Polish life and history. Prosecutors may read with envy how their Polish counterparts go about their work, although some literary licence must be allowed for.

Although not terribly original in construction or characterisation, it has all the right ingredients and is well balanced. Apart from a couple of Polish idioms which sound a bit odd, the translation is well done. This is a good read and the pages kept turning until all was revealed. Certainly worth a go.

Memory of the Abyss

Marcello Fois (tr Patrick Creagh) (Maclehose Press: £16.99; e-book £9.17)

"Now grant me speech. On the night of the killing, the full moon, hot and sweaty, had been squatting for hours on the crest of the mountains."

Thus begins the tale of Samuele Stocchino. Sardinian. Survivor. Sergeant and hero of two wars. Killer. From birth to the end, one is held fascinated by this fantastical story, from childhood escapes, rightings of wrongs and war exploits through to love and death. And, of course, memories of the abyss. If you enjoy the work of Carlos Castaneda, you'll like this.

Trains and Lovers

Alexander McCall Smith (Polygon: £9.99; e-book £5.50)

This slim volume is a delightful and uplifting read, perhaps best enjoyed in a couple of sittings. McCall Smith has a light touch, and here he is in top form as he relates four fellow travellers on the East Coast train from London to Edinburgh sharing their experiences of love lost, gained and elusive. David, who is unable to impart his feelings and must watch from a distance; Andrew, who had to secure his relationship despite the severe opposition of his girlfriend’s father; Kay, whose father left for Australia on the £10 ticket and found true love despite being the sole signalman on a remote line in the outback, but subsequently faced tragedy beyond words; and finally Hugh who reads far too much into what he hears about his girlfriend, despite his feelings for her, and is left realising "we have to trust people ... And not every love affair is safe, is it?". Secure in this realisation he is able to pick up the relationship.

As with all McCall Smith writes, there is something with which we can identify. This is a heartwarming and reflective book.

Mrs Queen Takes the Train

William Kuhn (Harper: £16.84; e-book £1.99)

This is yet another story based around a train journey, which sees a slightly fed up HMQ slip the leash and restraint of palace life dressed in a borrowed hoodie with a skull and bones motif on the hood. After visiting Paxton and Whitfield for some cheese for her favourite horse, she heads for the 1700 from King’s Cross to Edinburgh with the intention of visiting her favourite ship and scene of so many happy memories, Britannia, now moored as a tourist attraction and corporate function venue in Leith. The Queen reflects on her life and whether she has in fact brought any good to the monarchy, reflecting on her annus horrilibus with the fragmentation of Charles and Diana’s marriage. There are some moments of cliché, such as when the Queen is mistaken for Helen Mirren and there is talk and reflection on the film. I suspect written for the American market, but an interesting approach to the topic and bringing in some nice touches, such as one of the equerries returning from Afghanistan where he lost his best mate, which allows the author the opportunity to explore how individuals cope with grief. Parallels with Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader will undoubtedly be drawn, but this is an enjoyable, subtle, humorous read.
 

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