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General Election Night, 1983. The staff and diners at the upscale Oyster House restaurant on Jermyn Street, London, are ready for an evening of hard work and hard celebration of the Tory victory, but everything changes when two masked gunmen burst in and take them hostage in the downstairs kitchen. On the outside, the Police mobilise themselves to try and end the siege in the most peaceful way, while on the inside, the hostages realise that they are trapped with a psychopath who is armed and very dangerous.

This book is an undemanding and quick read, which starts with the onset of the siege and then alternates between the current time with the gunmen and hostages in the kitchen, and the past, where one of the gunmen’s back story is revealed in stages until we find out how he came to part of the events. We also have several chapters from the point of view of the Police – in particular that of Sergeant Willy Cosgrove, an honest man with an unusual idea of how to end the siege, and his commanding Officer Petersen, who is perhaps less honest and less bothered about a peaceful ending.

As you might expect from an author who is better known as a food critic, the action is intercut with scenes of cooking some intricate and delicious meals (which seemed slightly implausible  under the circumstances, but just believable enough not to annoy me) – if nothing else, this book has definitely made me determined to try a Rum Baba!

The story moves on at a fast pace, even allowing for the chapters set in the past, which are necessary to understand Nathan, the main hostage taker, whose story is told bit by bit. However, apart from Nathan and his lifelong friend Kingston, most of the characters weren’t that roundly developed. I don’t feel that I knew any more about the two cooks Tony and Stevie for instance by the end of the book than I did at the beginning. That said however, it didn’t detract from the enjoyment of the book.

I’m not sure how I feel about the ending, but I won’t post any spoilers here; what I will say is that while I’m not sure I liked it, I definitely wasn’t expecting it, so that’s a good thing.

Overall, I think I probably would read more by Jay Rayner in future, and would probably recommend this novel to fans of thrillers and very dark humour.

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A disclaimer: If you are hoping to find a positive review of this book, you may want to stop reading right now.  I really did not like this book at all, for many reasons, and I always blog with honesty about films and books.  Many many people have praised this book, and this review is entirely my own opinion!  Please understand that I have no criticism of France or French people – my problems are entirely with this book and the author.

The book is part memoir, part diet advice.  The writer, talks about how France does not have the obesity problem which the US – and increasingly the UK – has.  She attributes this to the French attitude to food and eating, and suggests how everyone can adopt the same attitude, and in so doing, maintain a healthy weight without depriving themselves of the food they love.  Sounds great?  Well yes, but I have a few problems with this book.

First, the author (correctly) starts off criticising crash diets, pointing out that they rarely work long term, and can lead to a cycle of bingeing/dieting.  While this is absolutely correct, she then goes on to suggest that the eating plan laid out in this book should start with a weekend of eating nothing but leek soup – made with leeks and water.  In other words – a crash diet!  Not only is this unhealthy, but it is also possibly the first step on a binge/diet cycle, which is the very thing that people should be avoiding!  (She also speaks with delight of how she lost weight after several days of eating just yoghurt and a peach for lunch – this is hardly a varied diet, and should not be advocated.)

Second, while the book contains many recipes, some of which admittedly do sound lovely, there is nothing here that you won’t find in other decent cookbooks.  At one point, the author suggests piling salad leaves on a plate, adding tomatoes and crumbly cheese.  In other words – make a salad.  This is hardly radical or new advice.  The author also constantly mentions alcohol, to the point where I actually wondered if she had a drink problem.  It seems that she does not consider a meal worth having if there’s not champagne or wine involved.  There is in fact a whole section dedicated to champagne, and the author seems to practically worship the drink.  (She is the CEO of a champagne producing company, which also made me think that she might have her own agenda in such blatant promotion of the fizzy stuff.)

Third, while the author is married to an American man and actually lives in America, I found her attitude to the USA (and to a lesser extent the UK), to be very condescending.  The message seems to be – America is backward and silly, and France is brilliant and better in every respect.  She described how she visited a friend who was in hospital in America, and took a bottle of champagne as a gift, only to be told by the nurse that she couldn’t take the champagne in.  The author seemed utterly aghast at this, and compares it unfavourably with what she calls the French attitude (and which I suspect is really just her own attitude).  She is absolutely correct that there is an obesity problem in America, and Britain looks to be heading the same way.  I have no issue with her pointing this out, and suggesting the possible cause of the problem.  But her constant criticism of American attitudes, American lifestyle -in fact anything American – did get wearing after a while. 

Additionally, the dietary advice provided is somewhat obvious – eat more good stuff, eat less junk, and exercise.  Hardly news for anyone hoping to lose weight.  What the book fails to do is address the psychological reasons that people gain weight.  She is correct that people should not expect to have to give up simple pleasures like good chocolate or the odd dessert, but the problem is not that people don’t know that such things should only be an occasional treat – the problem is how to get your head around the issue.

Finally – while it is obvious that the author had a very privileged upbringing, and still has plenty of money to spend on the very best quality fruit and vegetables – she seems to forget that most of the advice she gives is just not reasonable for people living on an average salary.  While she can hardly wait to tell the reader that she eats at restaurants 300 days or nights per year, she also regularly mentions how people should spend more to get the best quality.  This may well be true, but for many people, the things she suggets are just not realistic.  In the aforementioned section devoted to champagne, Guiliano recommends buying a particular brand (surely not coincidence that it’s made by the company she works for) and using it to cook with and drink with the meal – this is just not practical for most people, and not affordable either.

There was one part of the book I enjoyed – in the chapter about chocolate, the author discusses the history of chocolate, and how it became the food we all know it as today.  She also says that rather than eating the cheap chocolate which is so widely available today, people should have the best quality chocolate, but only in small amounts (which I tend to agree with).  This particular section was interesting, but sadly not nearly good enough to make up for the rest of the book.

I was very disappointed with this book, especially as I had been looking forward to reading it.  I did not and do not need or wish to lose weight, but I had a very uneasy love/hate relationship with food in my teens, some of which occasionally crops up to this day – and I had hoped to find at least some insight into the psychological causes of such relationships with food.  Unfortunately, I did not find this at all.  I’d love to be able to recommend this book, but unfortunately simply cannot do so.

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On the day before her 9th birthday, while eating her mother’s lemon cake, Rose Edelstein realises that she has a unique ability – when she eats anything, she can taste the emotions of the person who made the food.  In this way she discovers that her apparently happy and contented mother is in fact hiding feelings of sadness and fear.

Soon, all food becomes a chore to Rose – she can’t eat her brother’s toast, and even cookies from the local bakery reveal secrets about people she doesn’t know.  Worst of all is realising the true feelings of her family, despite their attempts to hide them.  As she grows older, her ‘skill’ sharpens and she is able to tell where each individual ingredient in a meal was grown or produced.  If she never really accepts her ability, she somehow learns to live with it.  But there are some things that her ability can’t tell her, and eventually she discovers another secret – one which she never could have predicted.

This was such an unusual book.  I definitely enjoyed reading it – it was obviously necessary to suspend disbelief, and sometimes I find that hard to do, but in this instance it was not a problem at all (although a storyline involving Rose’s brother Joseph did have me scratching my head at one point).  The whole story seems infused with an air of melancholy and dreaminess.  It’s narrated by Rose herself, and I thought her character was very well drawn, as were the characters of Rose’s parents and brother.  I found it difficult to warm to the mother, but I really liked the father; however my favourite character was George, the best friend of Joseph and the object of Rose’s crush.  He was also the only person who Rose felt able to confide in about her secret.

The writing flows well, and this book is actually a very quick read; with more time on my hands I would probably have read it in one sitting.  I was eager to find out how it ended, and if it wasn’t the ending I might have hoped for, it was certainly the ending that seemed most appropriate.

One word of warning – there are no speech marks in this book!  It didn’t particularly bother me, but I know that some people find this off-putting, and very occasionally it did lead to slight confusion about where Rose’s narration to the reader ended and her dialogue with another character began.  However, this did not detract from my enjoyment of the book.

This story was unusual and held my attention throughout – I would definitely read something else by this author.

(Author’s website can be found here.)

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