A selection of reviews I have written for "Between the Covers" in the Northern Rivers Echo weekly newspaper.

Let the Great World Spin - Colum McCann

Winner of The National Book Award. A story of colliding lives in NYC. Click here to read review.

The Winter Vault - Ann Michaels

Orange Prize winner Ann Michaels explores the landscape of grief and desire across three continents. Click here.

Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India - William Dalrymple

As India speeds ahead Dalrymple slows down in search of lives still steeped in ancient tradition. The stories he finds read stranger than fiction in this his sixth travel book.

Travelling from desert villages to city alleys, from temples to a hut in a cremation ground he explores diverse religious paths far removed from clichéd perceptions of ‘Mystic India’. Many live on the fringes of society in contrast to their forebears but the sacred, no matter how sidelined, holds tenaciously on.

These nine personable tales left me with a grassroots understanding of a complex India where castes and religions coexist with call-centres and shopping malls. In one sentence, Sri Kanda a deity sculptor recalls 700 years of unbroken lineage, then in the next accepts all his son wants is to play computers.

The characters Dalrymple meets are still points in “the eye of the storm.” Mohan, a village singer of Rajasthani epics contends with DVDs and cable as India gives way to the ‘shrine of the telly.’ Hari Das, a low caste Dalit, works as prison warder and well builder for nine months. Then for three he transforms into a dancing god worshipped by the very Brahmin who refused him drinking water.

Dalrymple engenders trust in the sincere way he prompts each story. There are delightful moments where his Scottish heritage shines, such as the description of Mohan’s dance costume, ‘as if designed by an Elizabethan couturier marooned on a jungle island.’ From the nine voices come wonderful anecdotes. Passang, the Tibetan monk, recalls his abbot’s reply to a Chinese colonel that it was “up to each man to liberate himself.” Sri Kanda describes how the idols he sculpts have horoscopes and their eyes can only be carved before dawn.     

To be privy to the thoughts of a Jain nun continuing a two thousand year lineage of asceticism was deeply affecting. Her decision, at 38, to begin sallekhana, the renunciation of food until death, was shocking. “But why?” Dalrymple asks. His questions are as candid as the replies and I finished this chapter understanding her choice rather than judging it. For me this is the essence of this empathetic and honest book.  

In the final chapter Kanai, a wandering minstrel says “the body is the true temple, the true mosque, the true church.” It’s as if he speaks for all nine lives. Through them an intimate India comes to life. I recommend brewing a pot of chai before settling down to the songs and stories of these living libraries.

Lunch in Paris - Elizabeth Bard

I plucked Lunch in Paris off the bookshelf thinking it would be another expat dalliance with the French dream – chic (never fat) women, romantically inclined men, bakeries, boutiques and galleries. And of course a restaurant or brasserie at every street corner offering endless variations on cream and butter sauces. Elizabeth Barker found all this to be true.

In her quest to feel like a Parisian, all roads lead to food. The book’s departure comes through Barker’s experiments with cooking and the family she inherits. Her new husband, Gwendal, grew up in a fishing village in Brittany. His father is French and mother from Casablancea. Barker is Jewish, brought up in New York on Kraft Singles, Grandma’s pork ribs and Aunt Joyce’s macaroons.

Part memoir, part cook book her writing comes to life whenever these cultures converge. It is here too that the recipes, found at the end of each chapter, become interesting - a tabouleh made with couscous and pink grapefruit juice or her grandmother’s tzimm, a stew “cooked to disintegrating Eastern European death”, transformed into a tagine worthy of Gwendal’s Algerian Godfather.

There’s something decadent about curling up on winter evenings and reading about food. I enjoyed the recipes as much as her existential crisis (in true New York style) and even here the cure turned out to be chocolate – Gwendal’s Quick and Dirty Chocolate Soufflé. I could hardly wait for the end of the chapter.

With the cookbook market at saturation perhaps this is the new genre for foodies. Every meal comes with a story. There are dishes remembered from childhood, learned from in-laws or inspired by the produce found at neighbourhood markets. Only a few recipes swim in cream.

Despite occasional lapses into the cute and cliché Barker’s fresh, chatty writing makes for an enjoyable, easily read. Her American go get um style optimism is tempered with self-deprecating analysis. She describes herself as, “a free spirit with a five year plan”. Her challenge is dealing with the French notion that “nothing is possible in the first place”.

This brings me to mayonnaise. I’ve never been able to make it. Barker has never been able to eat it. She watches her mother-in-law prepare a batch for a Poached Cod dish and the taste is a revelation. The recipe at the end of the chapter, like most on offer in the book, is uncomplicated, with minimal ingredients and steps.  I give it a try. Perfection.