NON FICTION REVIEWS 2012 N-T BY TITLE

ONLY IN SPAIN
Author: Nellie Bennett
Allen & Unwin RRP $27.99
Review: Monique Mulligan

Why don’t you?

Only in SpainThis deceptively simple question weaves its way throughout Nellie Bennett’s captivating memoir, Only in Spain, in a manner reminiscent of the evocative “Try me, test me, taste me” line in Joanne Harris’s Chocolat. It’s the big question in Nellie’s life as she juxtaposes her routine job as a shopgirl in a smart department store against the excitement of everything else she could be doing.

Disenchanted with the emptiness she feels inside and all around her, she falls in love with flamenco after discovering classes by chance in a classifieds section. “I’d expected flamenco to be passionate, but these girls actually looked mad … I couldn’t wait to get my shoes on and start stamping. After a day of First Class Service Rule #1Smile! it was exactly what I needed,” she writes of her first class. Once hooked, she lives for her classes; before long she wants more, and packing her suede shoes and a set of castanets, she travels to Seville to learn flamenco.

In Spain, Nellie learns that flamenco is a way of life. She tells how she fell in love with Spain as she walked towards her Seville dance school, with orange blossoms scenting the way:

“… flamenco music seemed to come from everywhere. It spilled down from open windows. A car drove past with flamenco blaring on the radio. A man chatting to a friend on the corner sang a few lines of a song, then went back to talking. Notes from a guitar floated towards us on the breeze. The five-minute walk from Ines’s place to the dance school was like a flamenco odyssey.”

Only in Spain shares her journey from Seville, back to Sydney and then to Madrid, where she learns to dance flamenco with the Spanish gypsies. It’s a time of romance – a wild and tempestuous gypsy catches her eye, then a tall, dark Basque chef catches her heart – but even more so, it’s a time of discovery as Nellie ponders her future. Is it with the man she loves, the man who “opened up a place in my heart that hadn’t existed before”? Or should she put on her red shoes and step forth into uncertainty and adventure?

I have yet to put on my red shoes (not sure if the shoes have a Dorothy/ruby slippers connection), so I love a good travel memoir. Only in Spain ticked all the boxes for me: like the dance it portrays, it’s passionate and energetic, fast-paced and full of heart. By turns descriptive and intimate, Nellie’s story had me wanting to find out more about Seville, Spain and flamenco … and walking outside to breathe in my orange blossoms. It inspired me to listen to flamenco music and see what it is that called to her so strongly. It’s a well-written book boosted by self-deprecating wit (I loved her dilemma of being a vegan in Spain) and the cover is a winner.

For anyone who is contemplating a change, who is stuck in a rut, or who is frustrated by the narrow focus our western life increasingly has (funny how computers can widen our horizons and close them at the same time), this is a great read.

Available from good bookstores and Allen & Unwin. This copy was courtesy of Allen & Unwin.


POMEGRANATES AND ROSES: MY PERSIAN FAMILY RECIPES

Author: Ariana Bundy
Simon & Schuster RRP $39.99
Review: Monique Mulligan

Beautifully photographed and threading a well-written memoir throughout,Pomegranates and Roses: My Persian Family Recipes is a cookbook that celebrates culture and cuisine with vibrancy.

Author Ariana Bundy is an Iranian-American French-trained chef who has, with this memoir/cookbook, paid tribute to the heritage that has shaped her approach to life, cooking and eating. She inherited her loved of food and cooking from her grandparents – who grew cherries, plums, apricots, apples, sugar beets, wheat and barley, bred sheep and goats for dairy, and had beautiful vineyards producing prized grapes – and from her father, who owned and ran the first fine dining French restaurant in Iran.

In an increasingly busy world, she has turned her focus to a time when life was simpler, family mattered above all else and eating together was of paramount importance. She recalls her mother putting effort into cooking elaborate meals – these meals and the sense of family they inspired, stayed with Ariana long after she left home. Some of the recipes are modern twists on traditional meals; all of the recipes celebrate the values and traditions important to her culture. Exotic ingredients such as pomegranates, saffron and barberries are paired with chicken, rice and lamb and yoghurt to create melt-in-the-mouth dishes that satisfy the soul as much as the body.

In addition to mouth-watering recipes such as Ice in Heaven and Pomegranate and Walnut Stew with Chicken, the book also provides insight to Iranian culture, in part through Ariana’s memoirs and in part through general information. I found it fascinating reading about hot and cold foods (as in temperament rather than temperature) and how they are suited to different body types – learning which body type you are and eating according to that type is key to enjoying Persian cookery. It’s not the exhaustive information you would find in a diet book, but it’s enough to stimulate interest.

While the availability of some of the ingredients will limit which recipes I can try from this book, there are a few that have piqued my interest. The chicken-barley broth sounds homely, wholesome and tasty, while the kababs – meat marinated in lemon juice and yoghurt – are sure to be appreciated at our next barbecue. The other thing that made me drool was the lovely Persian cutlery in the photos – where can I get some? It’s gorgeous!

Available from good bookstores. This copy was courtesy of Simon & Schuster.


THINGS MY DAUGHTER NEEDS TO KNOW

Author: Dilvin Yasa
Pan Australia RRP $19.99
Review: Monique Mulligan

As stepmother to a beautiful 11-year-old girl who hit puberty way too early (according to her father), I didn’t hesitate when asked to review this book. I still remember (it’s not that long ago) those questioning days when everything seemed embarrassing, weird and intensly personal.

Author Dilvin Yasa says that by the time she left home, she’d already dated a string of bad men, fallen prey to countless fashion faux pas and suffered too many awkward sex talks with her parents. Determined that the next generation should learn from her experiences, she wrote a series of letters for her young daughter to read when she reaches the eve of adulthood – sharing the things that only a mother can teach her daughter.

The book draws on the authors’s years of experience working for women’s magazines – and her own coming of age experiences – to give plenty of frank and often funny advice on the bittersweet, painful and exciting-scary journey into womanhood. Consider this: “In case you’re ever in a situation in which you’re getting dressed and pondering whether it’s okay to wear stockings with open-toed shoes … it’s not. EVER.” Or this: “Toxic friends aren’t worth your time. If a friend makes you feel like shit, always puts you down, gossips about you or flirts with your guys, it speaks volumes about their character and you should bail immediately.” And this: “Do not waste your life ironing bed sheets…” You get the picture.

With topics ranging from picking the right bra, avoiding full-moon parties, drugs, travelling, setting up the first home, eating right, “adding bling” tackling the dating game and flying the nest, and more (!), this is a comprehensive and well written book that’s part parenting guide, part self-help guide. For mothers wondering what to say to their teenage daughter about the things that matter, here’s a very good start. There are some things you’ll say differently, based on your beliefs and values – your spin. I’m not about to tell anyone to sleep with as many men they can before they get married so “you know what’s out there”. Sorry, that one doesn’t work for me. But, reading that tip has led me to think about what Ido want to say in my  way. Something has to be said, one way or another, like it or not.

Available from good bookstores and Pan MacMillan Australia. This copy was courtesy of Pan MacMillan.


SEX AND OTHER STUFF: THE A-Z OF EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW

Author: Annie Rose
Black Dog Books RRP $18.99
Review: Monique Mulligan.

The back of this book reads: ‘This little book contains heaps of facts. Facts about sex. Facts about the human body. Facts about the good, the bad and the ugly aspects of human behaviour. Facts that no-one else might tell you.’ It’s true. This book really does contain a lot of information.

Aimed at young adults, the book takes an honest and objective look at sex in a way that most parents (and even health ed teachers) would probably be unable to match. I’m still getting over reading Where Did I Come From about eight years ago (not to myself, to my boys)…I can still hear the “Well, that was disgusting” comment Monkey offered up at the end of that one. Nowadays my boys might have different views, I accept, and according to them, they know everything they need to know (yes, we’ve had the talk, I’m a brave mum), but the reality is, they probably need to know more. Check out these facts:

Bearing facts like this in mind, it could be argued that this sort of reading is probably essential for the young adult market.  I mean, if people (adults) tell them some of this information, they won’t listen, because they already know, right? Sadly, the facts tell us that many young adults either do not know, or they ignore what they’ve been told. Author Annie Rose has made it possible for young people to ‘save face’ – they can find out what they need to know without having to admit they didn’t already know.

PS. I admit I did learn a few things. And while I tried not to raise my eyebrows, I did a couple of times.

Available from good bookstores or Walker Books.


RILKA’S FEASTS: STORIES AND RECIPES FOR FAMILY AND FRIENDS

Author: Rilka Warbanoff
ABC Books RRP $27.99
Review: Monique Mulligan

“Nothing gives me greater pleasure than to share my table with friends and family, because food is such an essential component of our lives.” – Rilka Warbanoff

In Rilka’s Feasts: Stories and Recipes for Family and Friends,  ABC Local Radio foodie Rilka Warbanoff charts the course of her family′s journey from Bulgaria to contemporary Melbourne, through food. Through 180 recipes, she shares with readers happy, sad and frequently funny memories of family and food, from hiding her ‘foreign’ salami sandwiches under the front seat of the family car to recalling her beloved husband Bill relishing his favourite duck dish in hospital days before he died.

To Warbanoff, food is at the essence of enjoying life, particularly when shared with family and friends. I know what she means, for I love to share a good meal with family and friends; good food, especially simple and in-season food, has a way of bringing people together. Warbonoff has a lovely way with words, sharing her memories in a simple and friendly manner; reading this is like cooking in the kitchen with grandma. Her book is divided into several sections, each one creating the sense of a warm, inviting kitchen replete with heavenly scents. From ‘Breakfast’ and ‘Comfort Food’ to ‘How to Feed a Crowd’ and ‘How Bill Changed my Life’, readers will find a mix of Eastern European, Irish and contemporary Australian recipes sure to tempt most palates.

My mouth started watering at the beginning of this warm, gracious book…it’s still waiting for a taste of the recipes. I’ve already selected a number to try out over the next few days and I’m certain they will be well-enjoyed. For those who love the stories behind the recipes, this is a tasty morsel of a memoir that will satisfy on several levels.

Available from good bookstores and the ABC Shop.


THE SWEET LIFE

Author: Kate Bracks
Ebury Illustrated RRP $49.95
Review: Monique Mulligan

Those who know me, know I have a bit of a sweet tooth. In fact, as I am typing, some chocolate choc-chip mini muffins are baking ahead of a Meet the Author evening tonight. (I will have to taste them first, of course.) So, how could I possibly pass up the opportunity to review a book of desserts from Australia’s MasterChef 2011S Kate Bracks? The coffee-cake queen was the one I related to the most, so it really was the icing on the cake when she won.

The Sweet Life is a well-set out recipe book that takes aspiring chefs and home bakers from the basics to beyond. It includes techniques from sauce and syrup making to using gelatine and making pastry, as well as plenty of wow-factor techniques for those with more confidence. Just as Kate learnt to move from her comfort zone as a cook, readers are gently nudged along to give something new a go. Most recipes are complemented by a delectable photo, so tasty-looking that you almost want to lick it or stick your finger in when no one’s looking.

From the humble apple pie and chocolate cake to Brown Butter Cheesecake, and Raspberry and Pistachio Frozen Nougat, there is plenty in this lovely cookbook to tempt the those like me who love to indulge. I’ve tried a few recipes such as the Amaretto and the Chocolate Macadamia Brownies, and I’ve bookmarked plenty more. Now I just need to convince Blue Eyes to let me buy an ice-cream attachment for my Kenwood so I can make the sorbets…

Available from good bookstores and Random House.


RAINFOREST COUNTRY

Kaisa and Stanley Breeden

Fremantle Press RRP $75
Review: Monique Mulligan

The inquisitive little fellow on the front cover of Rainforest Country meets your eye with a hint of wariness; you can almost see its whiskers quivering in anticipation of quick flight to the trees mirrored in his bright eyes. Inside this stunning coffee table book the feast for the eyes continues – there is so much to take in, from the breadth of subject to the depth of detail.

Kaisa and Stanley Breeden first showcased their ability to push the boundaries of digital photography in Wildflower Country – an exploration of Australia’s southwest. In Rainforest Country, the couple bring their photographic innovation and vision to Queensland’s tropical rainforest — their home — with striking results.

Using a breath-taking selection of photos, the Breedens show why few places in Australia are of such pivotal ecological importance as the tropical rainforests of northeast Queensland. Their innovative technique, using a combination of focus stacking and macro photography, has a dazzling effect on the reader; the photos are so detailed, they almost look ‘unreal’. Some of the insects look like close-up embroideries or works of art – and isn’t that a beautiful way to think of nature? One of my favourites is titled Rain and Mist and shows tiny droplets of water resting on a dragonfly; the detail is mind-blowing.

Complementing the dazzling images are the authors’ voices; their words convey a sense of intimacy and joy – at times, almost a reverence. Kaisa writes from the heart: “you can feel the forest stretching and growing”; she writes how she feels about what she sees. Stan has a more measured, informative tone, fusing knowledge with description: “For about two-thirds of their height the trees and vines have neither leaves nor branches. These are high up catching the light to photosynthesise.”

This book is a celebration, not only of immense talent, but of a beautiful part of the world. It’s a keeper. Take your time to appreciate it fully, to go beyond the first impressions.

Rainforest Country is available in April 2012 from good bookstores and Fremantle Press.


SICILY, IT’S NOT QUITE TUSCANY

Author: Shamus Sillar
Arena $24.99
Review: Monique Mulligan

I have a ‘thing’ for travel memoirs set in Italy, probably because it’s the closest I’ll get to living there myself. So, when Sicily, It’s Not Quite Tuscany landed on my desk, I was eager to dive in once again and experience Italy vicariously. Even if Tuscany was at the top of my wishlist.

Author Shamus Sillar, who has a PhD in Roman History and has taught Classics in China, tells how he and his wife, Gill, sought a Mediterranean sea change in Catania, the ‘anti-Tuscany’ of Italy. Any romantic notions the newlyweds might have cherished were gone once they arrived at their grim apartment with two single beds, Mount Etna erupted and they crashed a Vespa within minutes of hopping aboard. Top marks to the couple, who stuck it out for a year.

Sillar writes well. This book – his first – is funny and completely engaging from start to finish. His dry, self-deprecating wit carries the narrative through some gritty experiences; you laugh with him, rather than at him as he describes some of the funnier, somewhat irritating and “what the” moments of life in Sicily. It has a particularly male point of view that would resonate with readers who prefer more immediacy and less flowery description.

Case in point: ‘Along the waterfront, gleaming like a rescue beacon, is an open restaurant. It specialises in organic salads. Under normal circumstances, I’d rather eat a computer mousepad. But I’m too hungry to care. We place an order and soon a bowl of leaves arrives which we chew methodically like giraffes, extracting all the necessary ingredients of survival.’
I enjoyed this book and the overarching sense of optimism that takes the reader on a laugh-out-loud journey into the thick of Sicilian life.

Sicily, It’s Not Quite Tuscany is available from good bookstores and Allen & Unwin.