Sunday, May 11, 2014

Sunday Salon: April (non) Reading and (non) Blogging Reflections

Ah, April. What happened?

Welcome to my worst reading month in probably more than 10 years and worst blogging month since I started blogging nearly 9 years ago. And you know what? Whilst I do wish I had read more because now I feel like I am behind, I also don't really regret not reading much at the time. I know that sounds contradictory but while I wasn't reading I was having a good month doing other stuff. And as far as blogging goes, well, we will see what happens with that. In the last two days I have managed to write more blog posts than I did for all of last month! No idea if I can maintain this or not!

I spent April reconnecting with old friends, and I went back to Adelaide on holidays. Whilst I was away I basically didn't check emails, write any posts, read or anything. Now, the reading part is not unusual. When I talk to people about going on holidays they always assume that I will read more than usual but that is very rarely the case. I generally don't read anything when I am on holidays and that is true whether I am away or just hanging around home.

Going back to Adelaide used to be something of a stressful time for me but these days it is a much more pleasant experience. This time my mum was away and my son went to stay with his dad and so basically I was able to do whatever I liked for the duration. This means that I was able to spend time with friends, some of whom I hadn't seen since before I moved overseas 20 years ago, some of whom I see most times I go to Adelaide. I went out to breakfast, for dinner, for coffee, to the beach, drove the new road  (which excited my friends no end) and more.

Now when you look at the list of books I read it does look as though there are a number of books here, but that is kind of misleading because four of those are audiobooks and one is a cookbook. Yes, that does mean that I only actually read one book for the whole month. One!!

Here's my monthly summary

The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith 4.5/5 (audiobook)
A Feast of Ice and Fire by Chelsea Monroe-Cassels and Sariann Lehrer 4/5
Blood Safari by Deon Meyer 4/5 (audiobook)
Convenient Marriage by Georgette Heyer 4/5 (audiobook)
Sylvester by Georgette Heyer 4/5 (audiobook/reread)
Bellagrand by Paullina Simons 3.5

In terms of challenges, there obviously was not a lot of progress although A Feast of Ice and Fire counted for the Once Upon a Time Challenge and Bellagrand counted for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

Currently Reading

A Star for Mrs Blake by April Smith and listening to Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Up Next

I am Livia by Phyllis Smith

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Weekend Cooking: Chef

A few days ago I went to see Jon Favreau's new movie Chef. If there is just one thing you need to know before seeing this film, it is this.....

Don't watch this movie if you are hungry!! Eat before you go to see it because the food in it looks delicious. Even the toasted cheese sandwiches look A-MAZ-ING!

Now that we have that out of the way, what is the movie about?

Chef Carl Casper (played by Jon Favreau) is about to have one of the most important nights in his career as a chef. His restaurant is about to be reviewed by the most influential food critic/blogger in the city. Carl has big plans to serve up the food that he is passionate about until the restaurant owner (Dustin Hoffman) insists that he needs to cook the tried, tested and somewhat tired menu that has been the restaurant staple for many years.

After a very bad review, Casper asks his son to teach him about Twitter and he somewhat naively and inexpertly reacts to the review, eventually trending on Twitter (you can view a short clip of Casper learning some of the intricacies of Twitter here).  This leads to him goading the food critic to come to the restaurant to eat the food that he wanted to cook in the first place. Once again the restaurant owner steps in and suddenly Casper finds himself without a job.

In order to spend some quality time with his son, Casper flies to Miami with his gorgeous ex-wife (Sofia Vergara). Miami is the place where his food journey began and for Casper it is a chance to start afresh, in this case with a food truck.  It is really once we get to this part of the movie that it picked up for me as the initial set up of the story took quite some time.

In some ways it seemed to me that this movie tried to do too many things. Whilst it is undoubtedly a foodie movie - an ode to Cuban food and to a certain extent music - it was also a father-son road trip movie giving us glimpses of places like Miami and New Orleans along the way, a commentary on the power of social media to make or break something or someone (the book lovers amongst us might recognise some of the chef/critic relationship in some of the author/critic/blogger dramas that breakout fairly regularly) and for good measure throw in a small tasting of misplaced romance.  Comedy wise there were times when this was kind of charming but other times when it played a little too obviously for laughs.

I have mentioned a few of the people who have roles in the movie but there are also a couple of other big names. Scarlet Johansson plays a maitre-d/love interest and Robert Downey Jr also plays a small role.

Whilst I quite enjoyed the movie despite the slow start and the fact that the father-son dynamic took too long to resolve, the reviews were mixed. My friend's review of the movie was "shite, shite, shite". We do have mixed success in going to the movies. This year we have been three times. The first time we saw The Book Thief which we both quite liked, then we went to see Monument Men with her husband. She hated it, I didn't mind it and her husband loved it. We did joke that maybe I should just go to the movies with her hubby from now on but that might be a bit odd!

I gave it 3.5 frying pans!


Weekend Cooking is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, quotations, photographs. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up anytime over the weekend. You do not have to post on the weekend. For more information, see the welcome post.

Thursday, May 08, 2014

The Shadow Queen by Sandra Gulland

Forgive me, fellow bloggers, for I have fallen off the blogging platform. It has been a month since my last post and more than a month since the last time I wrote a review of a novel. Now, I am sitting here on a Friday night when I am already tired, trying to start a review and it seems that my brain is a bit rusty! Let's see if we can get this thing going again.

When Claudette des Oeillets first meets the young girl Mademoiselle de Tonnay-Charente, who will in future be known as Athenais de Montespan, it is a chance encounter. After all Claudette is from a poor travelling theatre family, trying their best to get by in 17th century France and Athenais is the girl who in due course will become 'The Shadow Queen', mistress to Louis XIV of France.

Claudette is forced to grow up quickly, taking responsibility for her mother who barely seems to be able to hold it together unless she is on stage performing where she is exceptional, and also for her brother Gaston who is disabled. Whilst her mother is onstage performing plays by the most notable playwrights of the day, Claudette does anything and everything that she can to bring in a few extra sous to help make ends meet from cleaning and sewing to the occasional small onstage part. Claudette's story provides the viewer with ringside seats in the volatile world of French theatre, a world peopled by playwrights like Racine, Corneille and Moliere, the actors and actresses as well as all the fans from all walks of life.

I found much of the theatre aspect of the book very interesting, mainly because I don't remember reading a lot about the complex political and religious implications of theatre at this point of time. I was surprised by how badly any one associated with the theatre were treated by the church of the time - not allowed to enter the church or have communion and therefore if they died without renouncing the theatre unable to be buried in holy ground. And yes, despite these efforts to ostracise the performers and their families, there were still many actors and actresses who attracted many fanatics (from where we get some of our modern concepts of fandom), even from among the aristocracy. It is an interesting dichotomy.

Claudette's life changes immeasurably when she moves from the theatre world to the court of Louis XIV after she is appointed as the personal attendant and confidante to Athenais de Montespan, wife to a nobleman, mother of his children who live with him in another country but more importantly mistress to the king, and mother of his children. Athenais is desperate to protect her place as the king's main squeeze, resorting to charms and potions to keep his attention from wandering too far away and Claudette is a key player in helping her with this objective. This  ends up with Claudette being caught up in the Affair of the Poisons which rocked the royal court of the day.

I think that the publishers and marketers missed the mark with this book in a way. Firstly, in relation to the title, I must confess I am not 100% sure of the logic behind giving a book a title that actually doesn't relate to the main character. Sure, Athenais is the shadow queen but the reality is that the book is not about Athenais. It is about Claudette. Yes, for a large portion of the book Athenais is pretty much Claudette's main focus but as a title it didn't work that well for me.

The same could be said of the synopsis. Yes, all the things that are mentioned in the synopsis did happen but I was a little disappointed by how little depth there was when it came to some of those events. For example, in the synopsis it talks about the "increasingly uneasy relationship between two strong-willed women whose actions could shape the future of France". Whilst there was a confrontation I don't think I got the increasingly uneasy vibe let alone anything more. And if you google Claudette's name you will find that she was (in)famous for one thing and yet that was mainly inferred rather than explored and how that all came about felt a bit odd to be honest!

It is a bit disappointing to feel this way about this book, especially seeing as I did find many things in it interesting. I was a big fan of the Josephine B trilogy, and I liked Mistress of the Sun (just not quite as much) and as such I got excited when I learned that the author had a new book out. I think that will probably be still true for her next book but I do wonder how high I should set my expectations. Of course, maybe my reaction is tempered by the fact that in addition to not doing any blogging I haven't been reading much at all. Maybe this is just as much about me as it was about the book.

Rating 3.5/5

About the Tour

Tour Schedule:
Sandra Gulland's website.
Sandra Gulland on Facebook
Sandra Gulland on Twitter.
Sandra Gulland on Goodreads

About the Book

From the author of the beloved Josephine B. Trilogy, comes a spellbinding novel inspired by the true story of a young woman who rises from poverty to become confidante to the most powerful, provocative and dangerous woman in the 17th century French court: the mistress of the charismatic Sun King.

1660, Paris

Claudette’s life is like an ever-revolving stage set. From an impoverished childhood wandering the French countryside with her family’s acting troupe, Claudette finally witnesses her mother's astonishing rise to stardom in Parisian theaters. Working with playwrights Corneille, Molière and Racine, Claudette’s life is culturally rich, but like all in the theatrical world at the time, she's socially scorned.

A series of chance encounters gradually pull Claudette into the alluring orbit of Athénaïs de Montespan, mistress to Louis XIV and reigning "Shadow Queen." Needing someone to safeguard her secrets, Athénaïs offers to hire Claudette as her personal attendant.

Enticed by the promise of riches and respectability, Claudette leaves the world of the theater only to find that court is very much like a stage, with outward shows of loyalty masking more devious intentions. This parallel is not lost on Athénaïs, who fears political enemies are plotting her ruin as young courtesans angle to take the coveted spot in the king's bed.

Indeed, Claudette's "reputable" new position is marked by spying, illicit trysts and titanic power struggles. As Athénaïs, becomes ever more desperate to hold onto the King's favor, innocent love charms move into the realm of deadly Black Magic, and Claudette is forced to consider a move that will put her own life—and the family she loves so dearly—at risk.

Set against the gilded opulence of a newly-constructed Versailles and the War of Theaters, THE SHADOW QUEEN is a seductive, gripping novel about the lure of wealth, the illusion of power, and the increasingly uneasy relationship between two strong-willed women whose actions could shape the future of France.


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