Category Archives: Maclehose Publishing

The Cook – Wayne Macauley

Living with a trained chef, it seems that an interest in all things foodie has become part of my life through osmosis. Actually, let’s rephrase that. Living with a trained chef the technical side of cooking, flavours and presentation has become part of my life through osmosis. I have always taken a possibly slightly beyond healthy interest in food and experience fine dining when I can. Note – living with a chef means I am never allowed to cook, or if I do it is always wrong (yes you can even stir a stir fry wrong, apparently). So books with a foodie slant have an interest to this household and having not read one for a while and it being Kimbofo’s ANZ Literature Month it seemed the perfect time to read Wayne Macauley’s The Cook.

Quercus Books, paperback, 2013, fiction, 256 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Zac is a young offender who, after having committed an act of violence, is given the option of either going into a young offenders institute or of joining Cook School, an initiative set up by a celebrity Head Chef who wants to do good for the community and also quite possibly for his own PR. Here Zac learns all the trick of the trade, from slaughtering to sautéing, of cooking under the eyes of Sous Chef Fabian and occasionally the Head Chef himself. Zac soon gets a taste (sorry) for the world of cooking and as he watches the life the Head Chef lives, and the delights celebrity can bring, Zac decides that is the life for him and he will do anything to achieve it.

Head Chef stopped stalking the bench. It was a bit religious he had his arms out palms up his wedding ring was huge. You have been chosen he said each and every one of you it could have been anyone but of all the young people wandering the suburbs wasting their lives you and only you have been chosen. Do not waste this opportunity. You have a kitchen the envy of a Michelin-star restaurant the best teaching talent in the country fresh produce at your door it is up to you to use these resources and not waste them. Remember you are flying the flag for good taste gentlemen. If you are not prepared to aim higher and higher again I suggest you take your supermarket chops and go and eat them with the dogs.

Initially you could be fooled into thinking that The Cook is simply a satire on the cooking world and all the cookery shows, from Masterchef to the recent show Taste with Nigella and co, and at first glance it is. As we learn, grimly fascinated as the descriptions are quite full on, how you slaughter various animals after having reared them in fancy ways to make the most of your meat. We also learn how the finest chefs make everything top line with basic ingredients and maximum price, you know what I mean; mushroom foam, a piece of pork the size of an iPod mini with the tiniest stokes of sauce surrounding it. And also how the upper classes will happily pay through their noses for it. Highlighted all the more when Zac becomes an ‘in house’ chef.

Yet The Cook is actually so much more than that. At it’s very (cold, dark) heart this is a book about class, something I am learning Australian authors are very interested in. We watch as Zac watches the upper classes and all the while Macauley is saying ‘look how outrageous this is’. What I think Macauley then does which is very clever is break this, possibly subliminally, is then have it running into three strands. Firstly we see how the upper classes are not always based on the money people actually have and also the fall from grace when recession hits both at the Head Chef’s idyllic school and then in the rich suburbs of the cities.

Secondly, through Zac, we look at how this affects the younger people of today who are striving to find (let alone make) a place in this world when even the most privileged are struggling, even if it is behind closed doors. Zac was from the wrong streets before he became a wrong’en and therefore he has to work harder and harder and harder in order work against the preconceptions people will have of him, even the preconception of himself. Macauley creates a fascinating psychology being Zac as a boy who believes himself lower than the low and who may want the trappings of fame if he can’t become part of the elite then he can at least aim to be the highest of the lowest of the low, if that makes sense.

I don’t want to work for a boss who props me up just above drowning I want to work for a customer who knows I am below them and who knows that I know. This is my shame it is a shame I want to be proud of. The money is elsewhere it’s always been elsewhere that is the truth of our lives someone else is holding the string dangling it in front of our eyes do we jump like dogs for a treat or do we flatten our ears say I’m your dog you’re my master give him shame out of every pour make him feel so big and special that he can’t help dropping something down for you. It’s not up to us to change them our job is to lick their boots kiss their arses let them make the money they’re the ones who know how to and let’s be thankful for what trickles down.

This means that thirdly we look at the question ‘is there actually power in servitude?’ This is not something that is answered in The Cook instead it is a question that hangs in the air, or just behind the dining room doors. We are to go away and think about it and with the sudden dark twist, which should not be given away because when it happens its brilliant, at the end there is no doubt you will be thinking about it long after you have read it.

However, some of you may not get there because I occasionally struggled. You see Macauley’s cleverest trick with The Cook is also something that I occasionally found hard to work with and that was Zac himself as our narrator. Let me explain. Zac’s narration is initially very monotone whilst having the verbals. Everything comes out at once, Macauley doing this by having not a single comma (no not a one) in the book at all. He is also slightly cold, I couldn’t decide if this was some condition, lack of education or just his personality. This occasionally becomes slightly overbearing and so I needed to have a bit of space with him now and again. Yet his voice does change slowly over time and having continued I was fascinated as he goes from determined to delude to desperate. I was very glad I persevered.

I think that The Cook is a rather fascinating book, relatively small, utterly brimming full of themes and ideas. Macauley’s creation of Zac and his ways of narration are a risk that pays off with an ending that I will be left thinking about for quite some time. Less a satire for me and more an unabashed and often confronting look at society, the class divide and the future for those who are young and sometimes make mistakes and the messages of aspiration that we are sending them. Well worth a read.

ANZ-LitMonth-200pixWho else has read this and what did you think of it? Have you read any of Macauley’s other books, which I don’t think have crossed the water here yet, and if so what did you make of them? You can see other reviews of the book from ANZ Lit Lovers, FarmlaneBooks, The First Tuesday Book Club and Kim of Reading Matters. Kim has recommended the book to me many a time and so it only seemed right that I read it for her ANZ Literature Month this May. For more info on that head here. Back to The Cook… I do like a book with a dark little heart and one that builds and builds giving a final twist, can you recommend any others in that sort of style?

 

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Filed under Maclehose Publishing, Quercus Publishing, Review, Wayne Macauley

In The Dutch Mountains – Cees Nooteboom

Before I go any further I think that Cees Nooteboom may have the best name for an author ever. There, now that’s out of the way we may move on as usual, well possibly after saying Cees Nooteboom again a few more time to ourselves, see it is an amazing name. In the latest post during my week ‘going Dutch’ with you all (friends will note I may have been going Dutch on the blog but alas not in the real world, sorry) we take a look at an author who is often described as ‘one of the best living Dutch authors, Cees Nooteboom, and his recently reissued novella aptly named ‘In The Dutch Mountains’.

Maclehose Press, 1984 (2013 edition), paperback, translated by Adrienne Dixon, 159 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

I should state that any book which starts with ‘Once upon a time there was…’ is going to most likely become a firm favourite with me, fairytales are not something that I have grown out of though I will admit I do now prefer the full ‘uncut’ originals to the Disney versions. So the signs were good from the very start of ‘In The Dutch Mountains’ and got even better when I discovered that not only was this going to be a retelling of Hans Christian Anderson’s ‘The Snow Queen’ it is also a book that looks at what makes a fairytale and the nature of writing one.

In the heat of the summer a road inspector sits in an empty classroom and writes. Inspired by one of the years he spent inspecting the roads from the North to the South of the Netherlands he is inspired to retell the tale of ‘The Snow Queen’ only set in a more current climate and one that shows the harsh differences of the same country in its northern and southern divides. He tells the tale of two circus children, perfect beyond compare, who become lovers and marry until the interest in circuses wanes and who must seek stardom in some other way. Reality TV could be the answer but it is short lives and so they must descend to the darker side of the country and indeed the land of the woman many call the Snow Queen.

As Alfonso, our narrator and also third person in many ways, writes on he simply cannot stop himself from interweaving himself and his thoughts, as a road inspector who also writes, about the world of books, writing and literature into the narrative thread himself. Thus creating a really interesting mixture tale and tale telling and also a sense of oral storytelling yet via print on the page, it is very cleverly delivered so that, as could easily be the case, it never gets on your nerves or really interrupts the flow of the actual story, on the whole.

As we have been formed by the conventions of European literary culture, there is little scope for an individual writer to exercise his imagination; the terminology has been fixed ever since writing began. Lucia’s hair was, of course, golden. (Like honyseime, the fat of the honey, as someone in the South was to say later.) She had clear blue eyes like a summer sky, her lips were red as cherries, her teeth as white as milk. Anyone who tries to think of other words is mad.

As the book went on I found myself thoroughly enjoying Alfonso (well Nooteboom) and his modern twist on the famous fairytale and also hoping that every page or two he would pop in with a few comments. Towards the end I have to admit there were a couple of occasions that this didn’t work quite as well. At one point when he went on about God and religion for a little too long and I frowned and that really jarred with me. In another Alfonso ends up having a conversation with Plato, Christian Anderson which threw me completely though in the context, and in hindsight, I rather liked.

What is so marvellous about this book is it a case of ‘meta-fiction’ where a story is told, the story behind the story and the telling of it is told and a conversation between the author, or in this cases authors, and reader all plays out in one go simultaneously. It is the first time that this very cunning trick has worked so effectively on me and actually made me want more. The discussion about fairytales, their history, their rules and them vs. myths was so fascinating and so brilliantly done I was hoping Nooteboom, no Alfonso sorry, would decide at the end to retell another so we could natter about it further… in my head, which makes this all sound very weird but is what happens.

‘In The Dutch Mountains’ not only reminded me of why I love a fairy tale but also why I love them…

As soon as you have said “once upon a time”, you have created an extratemporal and extraterritorial reality in which anything is possible. A free-for-all. The characters travel by wild goose or reindeer.

I think it is that sense of endless possibility and escapism that sums up not only what I love about fairytales but what I love about reading. No, I know you might not find characters travelling by reindeer or wild goose in a book by every book you pick up, yet the excitement of experience something ‘other’ is always there when you open the first page. It is rare a book makes you talk to the author, metaphorically and in a one way conversion, about this yet somehow as if by magic that is what Nooteboom does when you go on a journey with him and Alfonso ‘In The Dutch Mountains’.

Have a gander at Stu of Winstons Dad Blog for more thoughts on the book. Who else has read this and what did you make of it? Are you a Nooteboom (I can’t get enough of that surname) and if so which other of his novels would you recommend? What are your thoughts about meta-fiction and those narrators who interject and discuss things with the reader, does it work for you or simply put you off?

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Filed under Cees Nooteboom, Maclehose Publishing, Quercus Publishing, Review

Alex – Pierre Lemaitre

I teased you yesterday telling you that I was going to talk about a thriller that almost made ‘Gone Girl’ look tame, but what could it be? The book in question is ‘Alex’ by Pierre Lemaitre which is one of those very, very few books that made me so hooked that I managed, with everything going on, to read it in two sittings straight. One of those rare books that inspires that old cliché ‘a book you literally can’t put down’. It is not a book for the faint of heart mind, but should you dare to delve into its pages and have a read it will make your head spin, in a good way.

MacLehose Press, 2013, paperback, 354 pages, translated by Frank Wynne, kindly sent by the publisher

When we first meet ‘Alex’ she is in a shop in Paris trying on wigs and silly glasses, she’s a woman who feels she goes unnoticed and wants to change her look. She is also, it seems, somewhat of a loner, as she is on the way to take herself out for a meal, she temps where she can get work, she moves about not seeming to befriend anyone and seems very distant from her family. In fact you start to think she might end up a crazy cat lady one day, that is until after her meal for one (in a fancy restaurant where she makes eyes at a stranger) when she gets kidnapped. That sudden. But that is only shock and twist number one that Lemaitre has up his sleeve for you.

Fortunately someone does see what happens, though not very clearly and so the police are called in. Step forward our Commandent, Camille Verhoeven, who is put on the case though he is far from happy about it as his wife was kidnapped and killed when pregnant several years ago. He has avoided cases like this for as long as he can, sods law then that the one he ends up heading is the most mysterious case they have had in some time, they have no clues at all. No one saw the kidnapper and what’s more no one seems to be able to find out anything about the woman who was kidnapped.

“They are getting nowhere. The magistrate, the weather, the investigation, nothing’s going right. Even Le Guen is in a state. And then there’s the girl, about whom they still know nothing. Camille has finished up his reports; he’s hanging around. He never really feels like going home. If it weren’t for Doudouche waiting for him…
They’re working ten hour days, they’ve taken dozens of witness statements, reread dozens of reports and charge sheets, correlated information, checked details, times, questioned people. And come up with nothing. It makes you wonder.”

I won’t give anything else away about the book as I wouldn’t want to spoil what lies ahead because it is just brilliant. Lemaitre manages to put you in the mindset of the Commandent and Alex whilst also throwing in twist after twist that you simply won’t expect, and I can vouch for that as I had guessed that the book was going to be twisty but was still saying ‘noooo!’ out loud rather a lot. Lemaitre also manages to weave both Alex and Camille’s back stories too drip feeding you with morsels that add to the overall effect of a book. He also knows exactly how to end every chapter on a real cliff hanger…

“That is what I smell like, she thinks; I smell of shit and piss and vomit. It smells carrion.
The rat rears up on his hind paws, sniffing.
Alex’s eyes move up along the rope.
Two other rats have just begun their descent towards the cage.”

How can you not read on wide eyed after that? If you don’t like rats by the way this book won’t make you like them any the more. This of course brings me, in a roundabout way and probably not the way your thinking from the above excerpt, to the fact that the book is quite gory. There is kidnap, torture and murder and Lemaitre doesn’t shy away from it, yet the book never makes you feel complicit in what is going on.

What Lemaitre actually does with ‘Alex’, which is far more interesting and potent is make you question, as the twists come, what you think is and isn’t morally right and soon this gripping thriller starts to ask so really serious questions of its reader and their ethics. A very clever move indeed, provide a book that makes you think hard about what you might do or what you find to be the ‘right’ thing for someone to do whilst also creating a read which is a complete page turner that has the readers jaw dropping as they go. That is what has made it my thriller of the year so far, it’s genius and I personally cannot wait for the next one in the Camille series. Who knows what Lemaitre will do next?

Note: I have used the paperback image, as I have the trade edition, because the cover is just stunning!

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Filed under Books of 2013, Maclehose Publishing, Pierre Lemaitre, Review

The Library of Unrequited Love – Sophie Divry

If ever a recently published book was going to be read by me on the title alone then it would be ‘The Library of Unrequited Love’ throw in the gorgeous cover and it seemed that its fate was sealed. I love a book about books or about libraries and so from the title alone I was hoping this was what it would be about, though of course you shouldn’t always judge a book by its title should you? Fortunately not only was this very much a book about books and libraries it was also an unusual and quirky book that gave me much more than I was initially expecting.

*** MacLehose Press, hardback, 2013, fiction, 92 pages, translated Sian Reynolds, kindly sent by the publisher

If you were a librarian, working in the basement section, you might be a little disconcerted upon finding a random stranger sleeping in your section after having been locked in overnight. This is not the case in ‘The Library of Unrequited Love’ as our unnamed protagonist sees this as a chance to get much off her chest, it seems she has been waiting for this moment for quite some time and has no plans on letting this opportunity go to waste. So starts a monologue which covers her thoughts on libraries and books, some of the history of France, the state of society today and indeed an unrequited love that she has for a young man who comes to the history section every day.

I think it might be the ‘mono’ in monologue that always makes me think they are going to be rather dull, or just a rant about the state of things. I shouldn’t think this as I have read and listened to many of Alan Bennett’s ‘Talking Heads’ and interestingly Sophie Divry’s debut novel reminded me of them a little, especially the lonely woman who rambles on being at the heart of it. ‘The Library of Unrequited Love’ is, in a way, rather a rant and it does have a lot to say about the state of the modern world, mainly libraries as a resource and what on earth is happening to the book in society, yet it does so with as much a sense of humour as it can whilst also being incredibly impassioned about books and their importance.

“Love, for me, is something I find in books. I read a lot, it’s comforting. You’re never alone if you live surrounded by books. They lift my spirit. The main thing is to be uplifted.”

Our unnamed protagonist is one of the reasons that the book becomes so much more than just a tirade on the importance of literature, as is the way that she talks to the person she finds asleep in section 900 – 910, who of course becomes us. She lives a very solitary life, surrounded by books she might be yet she is clearly very lonely with it. She looks at everything with an arched eye and occasionally I thought there was a much darker undertone to her character. Divry wonderfully takes us on a journey of a character as in some moments we feel sorry for her, sometimes concerned for her (and her mental state) and then we laugh with her and even sometimes as her, just as the person who has been captive all night in the library does.

My only slight quibble with the book was not the fact that you never understood why the listener kept listening, as I felt they were like me and simply couldn’t tear themselves away watching this woman unravelling, yet the character and the idea behind the book slightly contradicted themselves. On the one hand this is a book about the importance of libraries and books, yet the protagonist has clearly been driven mad surrounding herself with them day in day out through her job. Maybe I am over thinking it though?

I would definitely recommend every book lover give ‘The Library of Unrequited Love’ a whirl, at a mere 92 pages you can devour it in a single sitting. I also think, aside from all the book love which makes it a joy to read for the booklover in anyone, it is an intense and grimly fascinating portrayal and explanation of character. I was left wondering what might be on the horizon for this woman, thank goodness no one mentioned the K***** word to her that is for sure – the results could be horrific. With a short quirky debut like this I am very much looking forward to seeing what Sophie Divry comes up with next, be it a darkly epic masterpiece or another short tale I will definitely be reading it.

Who else has read ‘The Library of Unrequited Love’ and what did you make of it? Does anyone else get drawn to any book with ‘book’ or ‘library’ in the title like I do?

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Filed under Books About Books, Maclehose Publishing, Quercus Publishing, Review, Sophie Divry

The Upright Piano Player – David Abbott

Well, it seems like if you hanker after some great debut fiction then the list of ‘The Culture Show’s 12 Debut Novelists’ is pretty much the ideal place to go because so far, apart from one which maybe I should try again, every one of them I have tried has been a book I have really enjoyed, or been enthralled with. That includes the latest one I decided to try which was David Abbott’s ‘The Upright Piano Player’, as it shot up the TBR pile after hearing it raved about by Ann Kingman on ‘Books on the Nightstand’ a few weeks ago.

‘The Upright Piano Player’ has possibly one of the most gripping, horrifying and gut wrenching opening chapters I think I have come across in a long time. One that isn’t reflective of the book general style, though that doesn’t mean you will lose interest swiftly from then on, it’s a book that hooks you into someone’s life only rather near the end of the tale instead of the beginning. When we first meet Henry Cage in May 2004, we are taken with him to a funeral, of whose I will not say though you know by the end of the first chapter and it’s rather upsetting, especially as we are lead to the event of the death of said person in a flashback.

“He had chased after them screaming himself, God knows what – not words he thought, just a scream, a never-ending scream. He ran until his knee gave way. They found him crawling along the side of the road.”

Interesting then, and it had me wondering which is always good, why we are then taken back to November 1999. What Abbott does is to get us to know the background to the event that happens. Not in a ‘this is why it happened’ way, though there is some of that in part, rather in a way that we get to know just how fragile Henry’s world is, and indeed the world of those around him, in the five years from that point. There is forced retirement, estranged children and bitter whilst rather balmy ex-wives. Initially you think that Henry Cage has it all, the company, the flashy car, the nice property. As we read on we realise this is a lonely man on the edge of unravelling one that is sparked further by an act of random violence on New Year’s Eve, one which comes to haunt him again and again and leads to an unravelling.

What’s fascinating is how we watch Henry unravel whilst everyone else think things are fine. We see his reaction when he is kicked out of the very company he founded, he takes it gracefully outwardly and then we see him weeping in the toilets when no one else is around. He tells the police he is fine, and then can’t sleep for fear. In fact it’s the one of the master strokes in Abbott’s story, we are often given insights into the person Henry is via other people. We might join them for a chapter at a certain point in their life when Henry may only meet them for the briefest of moments, for example when he takes a chance on Maude Singer when no one else wants to employ her, though saying that she does appear again. I liked this strange style of personal and impersonal moments. I also thought Abbott summed up the ‘London’ attitude of forgetting people the moment they leave a company or the city.

“He’s bored probably – and unhappy, too, I would guess. Have you seen him since he left?”
“Afraid not – miserable people make me miserable too, so I avoid them.”

Things move forward due to his ex-wife, who summons him to her home in Florida. She has a her reasons, and those of course you would have to read the book to discover. It adds a certain twist to the book, another interesting strand and Abbott does do this at regular intervals, lost of things are happening in the background all the time. Are they pointers to what’s to come or merely just how life is? I did find the break up scene between Henry and Nessa rather emotional and added to the turmoil of all that’s to come, has gone, and is going on.

“She left the room on tiptoe, as if in the presence of the sick. She closed the door quietly behind her and he heard the clatter of her accelerated feet on the staircase. She could not wait to be gone. The real nastiness would start later.”

I didn’t think initially I would warm to Henry. I was worried he was going to be the stereotypical late fifties uncaring bastard what-sit and initially I was slightly proved right. He is a little arrogant, but he is also incredibly fragile and a bit of a home body, which is something he and I had in common, along with his love of books (in fact books become a theme). He’s human, he has his foibles yet at the same time he is a man prepared to admit when he’s wrong and fight passionately for what he believes in when he needs too. I enjoyed spending time with him, even if occasionally (after I had finished laughing at something awful he had done) I wanted to tell him to get a grip. He is also rather lonely and rather vulnerable, if also rather difficult. I liked him.

“His suitcase held few clothes, but was heavy with books. His great fear was of being stranded with nothing to read – so along with recent novels, he took bankers – books he knew he would enjoy reading again should the new titles disappoint. Light Years by James Salter always travelled with him and he invariably packed William Maxwell’s The Chateau. Thus insured, even Christmas could be endured.”

So were there any faults to the book? I would say there were two small ones, and yet they are going to sound bonkers because they are also strengths. Abbott creates characters which are fully formed people. So fully formed that sometimes he adds strands to them you want to learn more about, an example – if slightly selfish one – is of his son and daughter-in-laws book shop which I could have read lots and lots more about, he then closes the door on them either for good or for a while. It feels like some of the strands he starts off don’t quite get finished. He also tells the story in a very random order. One minute we are in 2004, then back to 1999 but not following a straight chronological trajectory as we get varying flashbacks along the way. It’s well done, it’s an interesting style, yet I would imagine it could confuse or put people off. For me it worked, I just put the effort in and read a paragraph or two once or twice to place them.

Overall, I really, really liked ‘The Upright Piano Player’. I am quite cross with David Abbott for not writing something sooner, he waited until he retired, but then I wonder if this book is just so good because its been fermenting in his brain for so long? I am hoping that we get another one soon as this is my sort of book, and I wasn’t really expecting it which makes it all the better. 9.5/10

This book was kindly sent by the publisher.

Has anyone else read this novel, if so what did you think? There have been, not by me, some comparisons to Ian McEwan with David Abbott’s debut. I can in part see where those are coming from, mainly in terms of the violent or bizarre moments that change someones life and outlook. If you love McEwan then you will probably love this. Yet if you loathe McEwan don’t avoid reading this book, David Abbott is also an author in his own right and a different one, yet one who definitely deserves to shift as many copies as McEwan’s latest did.

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Filed under Books of 2011, David Abbott, Maclehose Publishing, Quercus Publishing, Review