Monday, May 30, 2016

The secret of the Black Taj

Some books just catch you in their net of stories and once you are in, it is very hard to convince yourself to return to the everyday reality. Even if your reality is made of many other bookish stories.
There is something special about the Black Taj, and it is not only the good storytelling art of the author. The love story between two people belonging to different religions is predictable and at a great extent, except some moments of high tensions, the happy ending is too. The story it is placed one year after the destruction of a mosque in Uttar Pradesh by Hindu activists, which reignited old inimities and resentments between the two communities.
For me, as a historian and someone passionate about culture and religious clashes, the insertion of the Indian partition story into the narrative was, by far, the most fascinating part of the novel. The open or more discrete ways in which a decade-old historical trauma is still present into the everyday life were very well, and realistically represented. The same about the daily life in the Indian countryside, where strong traditions - and prejudices too -  and precarious health conditions are more specific than the glamour we are used to see in the glossy reviews or the Bollywood shows. In my opinion, the real India you are introduced to in Black Taj  is much easier to fall in love with.
I recommend this book to everyone interested to meet India and its beautiful stories, even some of them might be difficult to understand at the first sight. 
Rating: 3 stars
Disclaimer: Book offered by the publisher in exchange of an honest review

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Summer reads: Secret lives of the Barbican

This book starts like just one of those summer reads about the mediocre life adventures of some middle class Brits living in the fancy Barbican. And maybe some booze and breaking ups and discovering love next door. But, surprise revelations and tragi-comical confusions twist the stories of three of the residents to unexpected ends.
You only have 24 hours and the merry-go-round moves to fast that past the middle of the book you may think that you are also too drunk to understand what is going on in the story and very high to predict how things will finally end. If it is really an ending.
I must confess that I've found some of the time sequences quite unrealistic, like the one involving Claire's day and some of the characters unclearly featured - although Dennis is my favourite and the most realistic, but Henriette and Trixie could have been much better. There is no adrenaline all over the stories, but some slow-downs, easy going moments, but the merit of the book is to keep you confused and wandering what will happen next and why. 
A fast, unconventional read for a rainy summer afternoon. 
Rating: 3 stars
Disclaimer: Book offered by the publisher via

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Book review: Happy people read and drink coffee

My relationship with this book started with a coup-de-foudre and ended up in a big disappointment. The good part: I love the title very much and, yes, I believe that 'happy people read and drink coffee' and having this as a name of a bookstore is even greater choice. I am one of them and enjoying it. Second, the description of Diane's grief following the sudden death of both her husband and daughter and her immersion into depression are very well written and keeps you curious about what will happen to her next. The writing is good and although I was reading a translation from French, it seems that the main good features of the writing were maintained. 
But...Diane's sentimental attachment while in Ireland to the caveman Edward - predictable outcome - destroyed my magic with the book. This Edward abuses her verbally, is rude and plus, when they are about to enter a sentimental episode just abandon her without any justification for her lost love Megan and stop talking with her for a couple of days is awkward. Meanwhile he saves Diana from flirting with a barman in the pub, but just to keep him away of her, too drunk to control herself. Nothing besides kisses happens to them, and she leaves Ireland where she tried to recover after her loss, returning to Paris for finally and fully assuming responsibility for her bookstore. While she keeps thinking about him. Too kitschy for me, sorry. This time, I am not curious at all about the continuation.
Rating: 2 stars
Disclaimer: Book received from the publisher in exchange of an honest review

Monday, May 16, 2016

Why and how to travel to North Korea

I have a confession to make: I've spent the first years of life in a crazy dictatorship, where one of the best foreign movies on the two-hour TV program were North Korean movies. I will never forget the one where in the front of his track, a peasant is crying over and over again when he was delivered the news about the death of the Great leader no.1. Don't forget about the gigantesque shows on stadium, where huge images were made up of small people carrying each and every one a piece of puzzle. And so on and so forth. Dictatorships changed, leaders died, but North Korea remains the one and only crazy cuckoo nest with (oops) nuclear powers, where people are starving and sent for years in internments camps.
Wendy E. Simmons book is not a political manifesto or a thoughtful serious intellectual analysis of the North Korean system, but somehow it offers more authenticity and food for thought than any theoretical evaluations because it is built based on the travel writer skills. It observes, analyses, ask questions and, yes, laugh a lot because, seriously, this is the best weapon against dictatorships. For your information, people in North Korea do not have this priviledge. It is a real Dadaland, populated with real brain washed people and many generals. 'Everyone in NoKo lies to you about everything all the time', and I am thinking how many decades will it take to get used to say the truth again. During the ten days spent there, under the close supervision of 'handlers' - most probably attached to various local intelligence structures, this is my hint not the author's  - the boring to tears official version of the country delivered makes you suspect there is much more hidden under the beautiful carpets of Pyongyang. 
'North Korea is a country of secrets, lies and questions and no answers. It was as much as psychological journey as a tourist experience for me, and I was profoundly affected by me time there'.  The more testimonies the better, for understanding all the fine details of a world whose subtleties are mostly foreign to the Western reader or observer.
Rating: 4 stars
Disclaimer: Book offered by the publisher in exchange of an honest review

Sunday, May 15, 2016

A Cold War thriller to remember: Moskva

I am very cautious about Cold War thrillers because most of them are kitschy predictable: close to the middle of the book you already know who is black and who is white and why and until the end is just the confirmation of the generally accepted narrative. This happens not always intentionally, but due to the general historical circumstances chosen by the author as the background for the action. 
Moskva has the advantage of relying on two very different, confuse and not fully documented circumstances: the war against Germany, including the Russian conquest of Berlin, and the year(s) of Gorbatchov, when new and old guards co-existed and old conflicts were doubled by the fast-forwarding wars  for power of the new yet deeply rooted in the system elites. These times of transition, incertain about the final results are interesting to observe from outside for their rich events and fierce fight for supremacy with unpredictable results. The plot is built around the unknown disappearance of the stepdaughter of the UK's ambassador to Moscow and the stubborn search for her by major Tom Fox, former priest and military active in Ireland, whose daughter killed herself at almost the same age as the girl.  Meanwhile, young boys disappear and are found dead and Wolf got to know strange people, children or gran-children of vetarans of the Great War, belonging to different layers of the Soviet nomenklatura. 
Cruel stories during the war, including of cannibalism, stilhaunting the memory of the then child soldiers are terrifying and creates well written moments of tension and expectations for the worse. The book is well documented and has a taste of authenticity which is one of the big assets of the story. There is a lot of high speed and surprising situations and unexpected explanations. 
Moskva it is one of those books to remember and that you can willingly read more than once, because is simply that good. 
Rating: 5-stars
Disclaimer: Book offered by the publisher via in exchange of an honest review

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Weekend reads: The little village bakery

First installment of the Honeybourne series, The little village bakery is a sweet story about taking love seriously and the risk of starting life anew. Millie is a nice young lady relocated to the quiet but quite curious community of Honeybourne. The old bakery where she lives, bought to start a new life providing cakes and meeting place for the locals, is situated opposite the house of the local playboy, Dylan, the brother of the eccentric yet good hearted Jasmine. At the end of his 20s, Dylan is about to take the decision of settling down and Millie seems to be the right companion on this new path, but Jasmine keeps an eye on them, careful to avoid that the new girl in town will be just one of the his brother's many victims. A jewellery artist with a musician husband and very active triplets, Jasmine supported her from the beginning, and even included her as part of her business endeavours, encouraging Millie to complement her presence at a local fair by producing some handmade cosmetics. Her husband, Rich, is skeptical and warns her that maybe Millie may have a dark past and a reason why she just left everything to start anew.
On her side, Millie is trying to become part of the community, by offering, for instance various new-age potions to the local residents, either for calming arthritis crisis or a marital drama. Attracted by Dylan but unsure how and what and why to do next, she is shy and, yes, she is hiding a secret that is suggested by the author at the beginning of the book. I liked how the tension around her story was built, through progressive allusions until the big drama unfolds. A drama with a couple of conflicts and curious characters...
Actually, there is no dull or boring moment into this story, straight until the end. There are many other things taking place into the story, but as of now I leave some more surprises for the readers. 
The writing is good, with interesting interactions between characters, revealing their true colours and creating a quite animated big story, made up by very well coordinated small stories. Eveything is well, except that there is almost no baking in this book - except  some coconut sponge cake. Maybe the next book, as this first part ends with the official opening of the bakery. Maybe. Personally, I am very curious about the next stories. Recommended lecture for an insightful yet cozy weekend. 
Rating: 4 stars
Disclaimer: Book offered by the publisher via, in exchange of an honest review.  

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Solo travel ideas for women

A relatively new travel reality, solo women travelers are nowadays more than an exotic adventurous temptations. You want to travel and do not have any significant other to follow your journey? Do you have some special travel requirements and a full agenda that makes it almost impossible for anyone else but you to follow? Just feel the need to be alone with your plans and feelings? You only have to pack and go!
Malini White book is for this special, constantly growing category of independent women: self aware, bold and ready to discover the world, one solo travel at once. 'Being selfish from time to time, in the right circumstances, is good for the soul'. I fully agree with it.
Although it has less than 50 pages and some ideas are repeating at least once, it has useful, simply written advices to consider before or after you reach your destination. You will find advice about how to choose the solo destination, open your eyes for new opportunities, how to dress, how to keep in touch with your family, how to meet people while on the move. In the author's words: 'As you can see, lone female travel is all about keeping your wits about you, but this should not deter you from having the time of your life'.
Available just in time before the big summer season, this book can be just the last encouragement you need before starting to book your first solo trip. Because we all need some travel in our lives.
Rating: 4 stars
Disclaimer: Book offered by the author in exchange of an honest review

Book review: Rosalia's Bittersweet Pastry Shop

Reader of this book, expect mouthwatering descriptions and inspiration for a long trip top Sicily. I recognize I am into both so I am the predictable victim of such lovely books, but somehow, the repertoire of sweets - with recipes at the end of the book - is far beying many other similar books I've read before.
An American journalist with Italian origins, Claudia is landing to a nun convent ready to write a book about the famous pastry produced there, especially by Sorella Agata who is the co-author of it. Away from the fast paced NYC life, she is becoming the story partner of Sorella's dramatic life and her outstanding achievements. 
Most of the story is placed in the impoverished post-war Italy. As a teenager, Rosalia, a tailor's daughter, is the victim of a rapist who will never be caught. Escaping by herself from the caves where she was held prisoner, she arrived at a convent where she will be the superior later in her life. For the beginning, she is decided only to stay until she will recover and will find out her family, but things are getting more complicated. Based on a letter Rosalia was forced to write by her captor where she wrote that she is pregnant and married him, her parents left the hometown, ashamed by what they considered the dishonour she brought to them. Meanwhile, she is learning to prepare the pastry and felt in love with the young Antonia, who aspired to be a chef trained by the famous French establishment Cordon Bleu. They got engaged but everything fells apart after he was accepted for a scholarship at the famous school, as Rosalia still hopes to find her family and cannot believe they just abandonned her. Heartbroken, Antonio leaves for Paris still hoping that one day she will follow him, although only temporarily. Things were meant to be different. Rosalia decided to become a nun and dedicates the rest of her time to pastry and helping women in need, many going through the same dramatic experiences as she does years ago. 
Pastry is for her an emotional healing: 'While she prepared her prized sweets, she emptied her mind of all worries and just focused on the task before her'. This was probably, together with her tears, the secret ingredient everyone was suspecting her to use for the well-known casata cake. With patience and hope she will find or be found by his parents and her sister, and will meet again Antonio too. 
The story is slow paced, without being boring or uneventful, with many savory descriptions that can inspire the food writer too. There is a funny musical confusion, as the song 'Mambo Italiano' is attributed to Carla Bruni instead of Carla Boni. Non-Christian, I find many religious references or stories surprising, like the cakes in the shape the breasts of a lady who was tortured for her resilience by cutting her breasts off.
I strongly recommend this book to the foodie and traveler in you or just for savoring a good story during a sunny weekend. 
Rating: 4 stars
Disclaimer: Book offered by the publisher via