Reading for pleasure
This month's selection of leisure reading, chosen by the Journal's book review editor
The Ten (Food) Commandments
Jay Rayner (Penguin Books: £6; e-book £4.49)
It is rare to meet one’s heroes, and doing so will always be a risk. The risk is doubled when they are in a different milieu from the norm. For all that Jay Rayner does appear on radio (if you are not familiar with the excellent Kitchen Cabinet on Radio 4 on Saturday mornings, rectify that at once), we know him primarily as a writer. A very fine writer, one of the best restaurant reviewers in the business. Yet my introduction to this, his latest book, came via a stage performance. As Rayner himself writes, we are crying out for guidance when it comes to our relationship with food. What we need, he tells us, is our very own culinary Moses. “I know just the man”, he proclaims. “Who else? I have a beard flecked with grey, shaggy hair and I look hot in flowing robes.” I can confirm the first two parts (the beard and the hair, that is). He does indeed arrive on stage in flowing robes: beyond that I venture no comment.
The first half of the performance is a skedaddle through the book. (Yes, I will come to that – a little patience if you please.) The second part was entirely interactive, proving that he is as witty, eloquent and entertaining in person as in print. And also charming in dealing with the long line of people in the booksigning queue.
The book comprises 10 (naturally) fairly short chapters. Sensible sections, such as Thou shalt always worship leftovers. Ponder whether our ancestors would even have used the term. A heartfelt advice to all restaurant critics – Thou shalt choose thy dining companions bloody carefully. There is excellent culinary advice, as in Thou shalt not cut off the fat; strange advice from a Jewish writer – Honour thy pig; and a great deal more whimsical stuff. But in amongst the splendid entertainment, there are some serious points. Commandment 9, Thou shalt not mistake food for pharmaceuticals, is a reminder of the chicanery which is out there in the food world and also gives an insight into Rayner’s depth of knowledge.
This is great fun. My friend The Curmudgeon, a serious non-foodie, loved it. So should you all. Jay Rayner remains one of my food heroes. I simply wish that my own food scribblings were on a par.
Candice Fox (Arrow: £6.99; e-book £4.99)
For quite a while now, fans of crime writing have been keeping a close eye on the steady stream of works in translation coming out of Scandinavia. Perhaps it’s time, though, that we looked a bit further south for the Next Big Thing, as there are clear signs that Australian crime fiction is going through a bit of a golden age. In 2017 alone, British readers have, for example, been treated to outstanding debut novels by Jane Harper (The Dry) and Emma Viskic (Resurrection Bay). And the more established writers have been on top form as well: Crimson Lake is the fourth novel from the exceptional Candice Fox, and the first to feature former detective Ted Conkaffey as the lead character.
After being acquitted, to widespread scepticism, of the sexually-motivated abduction and murder of a 13 year old girl, Ted relocates to the humid, swampy far north of Australia under a false name, hoping to stay under the radar and drink his days away. However, his true identity is uncovered quickly, and he attracts the attention of local vigilantes, national media and a couple of thuggish policemen, determined to see Ted behind bars. Meantime, he sets up a somewhat improbable partnership with skittish private detective Amanda Pharrell, herself convicted years before of a violent crime which shocked the country. While Ted digs into Amanda’s history, an anxious woman hires the two of them to investigate the disappearance and probable death of her husband, celebrity author Jake Scully, parts of whom have been found inside a crocodile’s stomach. Crimson Lake is richly atmospheric and skilfully plotted; and Ted and Amanda are complex, flawed protagonists with dirt under their fingernails. Candice Fox is a considerable talent.
The Story of the Great British Bake Off
Anita Singh (Anima: £20; e-book £6.99)
Described by some as an unexpected hit, the Great British Bake Off has near national institution status – so much so, that the decision of the production company to leave the BBC was headline news rife with speculation whether the revered Mary Berry would join Paul Hollywood. This excellent book is the history of the programme, with soggy bottoms, bingate (remember when a contestant threw his creation in the bin in despair?) and the great custard mix up. Just like the best fairy cake: a real treat. Light, fluffy and delicious.
Adventures in Modern Marriage
William Nicholson (Quercus: £19.99; e-book £4.99)
William Nicholson is one of the foremost writers. This is a stunning example of his work. The main focus of the book is on Henry and Laura Broad. Both work. However, in middle age, while they remain in love and close, sex is infrequent; more anticipated by Henry than Laura. Middle life angst kicks in. Their daughter Carrie returns home but is distant and detached, declining to leave her room. Retired judge Christopher Vickery, divorced, wants to live life to the full for what time is left to him. Liz Dickenson's mother lies dying, but remains a fierce and forceful presence in her daughter's life. Alan and Annie, lovers when young, bull into each other....
All of modern, middle aged life is beautifully encapsulated and observed. Nicholson draws you in to his characters and you empathise. This is a book to savour.