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The Mystery Writers of America Cookbook – a review

When an email dropped into my box asking if I would be interested in reviewing a copy of the Mystery Writers of America Cookbook it is true to say that I was rather overly excited. As you’ll know if you read my blog I am a huge fan of crime fiction. As you may not know although it’s still true, I am also a lover of a good cookbook. Notice I don’t say a lover of cooking. Don’t get me wrong when I’ve got the time I really enjoy cooking and I try as often as I can to make something new out of the very large collection of cookbooks I already own. Yet it’s more than that. I like reading cookbooks just as much as fiction sometimes. I love it when I get a new book that isn’t just recipes (although these have their place) but is also more than that. I like those that include history of the people behind the books, the chef’s perspective and what the recipes mean to them.

Therefore it is quite possible that this is my most favourite book in the world (it’s only downside being I’m a vegetarian and the book is American so clearly there is a lot of meat. Luckily Mr F is very far from a vegetarian and is pretty handy in the kitchen himself so all recipes will get some use!)

The book combines some great sounding recipes with some interesting crime facts. Did you know for example that Miss Marple drank 143 cups of tea during her stories. All the recipes are provided by authors, including some of my favourites such as Harlen Coben (myron’s crabmeat dip) and Lee Child (a pot of coffee so not the trickiest of recipes but easy to get wrong) The book is split into sections making it easy to follow, and as well as appetisers and mains there is even a section of drinks at the back.

Obviously as this is an american book there are alot of bits that we don’t have over here, however that’s the joy of the internet. If you can’t find them in the supermarket you know you’ll be able to source an alternative. The recipes are all reasonably simple, and many have a short list of ingredients which makes them nice and easy to follow.

Of course the proof of a good cook book is in the eating. So i wanted to try some recipes before reviewing. My attempts started well with Scott Turow’s ‘Innocent Frittata’ which was very tasty, and Alan Orloff’s ‘Killer Tofu’ which went well with a stir fry. However things went downhill when I attempted Linda Stasi’s baked cheesecake. I was heading to some friends for Sunday dinner so thought I’d enlist their help in testing a recipe and the cheesecake seemed to fit the bill. Unfortunately I’d never made a baked cheesecake before, and I don’t think I’ll be trying again in a hurry. Admittedly part of the problem was that I burnt it, one minute it looked liked a souffle that was about to explode, the next it was like I was building a scale model of the grand canyon, all brown and sunken. My friends being the true friends they are, valiantly battled on, scraping the burnt bits off and trying not to crack their teeth on the base but the remaining was truly dreadful, more scrambled egg than cheesecake. It was that bad even the dogs turned their noses up at it. Yet one bad cheesecake does not a bad book make.

The book is a beautiful thing, with lots of pictures and quotes from authors which makes it a pleasure to read. I love the style of the book with each recipe being introduced by the author saying where the recipe comes from. The Harrogate crime festival even gets a mention under Joseph Finder’s apple crumble. I would highly recommend this book for all fans of crime fiction, whether cooks or not, the only problem being I’ve now got a load of new authors to add to my to read list.

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Sharp objects by Gillian Flynn – a review

I should start this review by saying that I’ve previously read both of Gillian Flynn’s novels after seeing her at the festival in 2012. The reviews of Dark Places and Gone Girl can be read by following the links, but for those of you too busy with all your last minute Christmas shopping, its suffice to say I really enjoyed both those books. Therefore I was looking forward to reading Sharp Objects, which was actually the authors debut novel.
Camille is now a reporter in Chicago. She is told to return to her home town of Windy Gap where one young girl has been murdered and another recently disappeared. When the bodies turn up their teeth have been removed. Camille’s mother still lives in the small town and has a teenage daughter called Amma who she dotes on, almost to the point of obsession. She had a third daughter that both she and Camille adored, but Marian was a sickly child who died when young.
This story explores not only Camille’s relationship with her mother, but also her return to a small town where she was very unhappy. Alongside this it becomes obvious that Amma is not quite the sweet little girl that the family seem to think.
As mentioned earlier this was Gillian Flynn’s debut novel, but actually the third one of hers that I’d read. Unfortunately I didn’t think it was as good as the previous ones, but that’s probably to be expected. I imagine writing is like any skill it gets better with practice. The story itself is quite good, and the ending was sufficiently unpredictable, but I just felt it maybe wasn’t written as well as it could have been. The characters were all a bit unpleasant and I struggled to warm to any of them, especially Camille.
The portrayal of the small southern town was interesting. I felt it gave a good impression of the claustrophobia surrounding a small community. You could imagine how hard it would have been to grow up in that kind of place, especially if you didn’t particularly fit into any of the main groups. Yet I couldn’t bring myself to feel any sympathy for Camille. Her drinking seemed to sometimes be about to become a real issue, then it would be forgotten. Equally her habit involving words just annoyed me, plus some bits were downright silly, such as her having a drug fuelled evening with a bunch of 13 year olds. Yet other bits were very clever, and I didn’t guess the ending. I enjoyed the story and would recommend it although ideally read this first and then continue with her others.

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Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn – a review

This was another Harrogate purchase. Gillian was talking in the America’s Got Talent session at Harrogate which was one of my favourites. I had previously read her novel ‘Dark Places’ which you may remember I thought was excellent (and if you don’t remember it can be found here) so I was definitely excited to read this book.

Gone Girl begins with Nick’s wife Amy going missing. The story is told from his point of view, yet you soon realise what an unreliable narrator he is. For the first part of the book it looks a pretty much cut and dried case of abusive husband kills wife, at least that’s what her ‘doting’ parents think. However things soon become more complicated as Amy’s voice begins to be heard through her diary pages, and twists and turns being to mount.

I found this book utterly compelling and couldn’t wait to get to the end, whilst wanting it not to stop. It was a clever plot that meant you were constantly shifting your allegiances between characters. Whilst you start out believing Amy to be the innocent party and believing Nick to be a killer, this is clearly a case of both parties being as bad as each other. It was a great portrayal of a marriage that I suspect many can relate to, a couple scoring points against each other, blaming each other for mistakes in their own lives, generally only being happy when they’ve made the other one unhappy.

The writing was fast paced, and the differing view points were interesting and clearly defined. My only slight criticism was that the shortening of Nick’s sisters name to Go confused me a little at times, but then I’m easily confused!

I would definitely recommend this clever story to anyone who enjoys the likes of Sophie Hannah, and Greg Hurwitz. I think Gillian Flynn is well on the way to becoming one of my favourite authors.

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Dark Places by Gillian Fynn – A review

As previously mentioned, whilst on a nice long train journey to Edinburgh, I read Dark Places by Gillian Flynn.  This was the first of her books I’d read and she’s part of a session titled America’s Got Talent, where John Connolly will introduce four of America’s ‘hottest’ new writers.

Well I certainly didn’t need to reach for my buzzer whilst reading this book, it was excellent. I couldn’t put it down for the whole journey, and managed to finish it off in the bar the same evening. A man is in prison for killing his family, all except his sister, Libby. Libby is now grown up and is the main focus of the book. During the first few pages you assume that she is a victim about to turn killer. She is not particularly likeable, and comes across as believing that the world owes her a living to make up for the horror she had to endure when young. The donations that were given when she was a child have now run out and as she’s never had a job her only option is to look at doing public appearances. This brings her in contact with a group who believe her brother innocent and her need for cash leads her to try and seek the truth about what happened that night.

What starts off as a book you expect to go down the revenge seeking assassin route (or maybe that’s just me as this one based on my previous read) actually turns into a clever who dunnit, seen from the view of Libby.

The book swops between present day and flashbacks. The flashback scenes start a few months before the murder of her family, as they struggle under the weight of debt and fear of losing the farm. Her brother is a bit of a loner, always wanting to be accepted by the popular older boys but always being on the outside. Her Mum is desperate to keep the family together no matter what the cost, and their father is an unpleasant waste of space.

I felt that this was an excellent story that kept the reader guessing to the end. If I had to describe this book in one word I would say ‘chilling’. The characters are not likeable, yet despite that I was riveted. I think using flashback can be a bit of a risky business sometimes, and leave you feeling that you know what is going to happen, before the protagonist you are following does. However this isn’t the case with Libby. Throughout the story you find out things pretty much as and when she does, which builds the impression that you really are seeing things through her eyes.

Each chapter offered up new clues, yet it wasn’t until you look back over the story that you realise they are there. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and looking forward to seeing her at the festival, hopefully without any appearances from Simon Cowell!

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