Review: The Art of Baking Blind

The Art of Baking Blind Sarah Vaughan

Title: The Art of Baking Blind
Author: Sarah Vaughan
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Year originally published: 2014

I was lucky enough to get my hands on a paperback proof of The Art of Baking Blind when I won a Goodreads giveaway back in May. Finally, exams and May Week behind me, I settled down to read it on a blisteringly hot morning in June, seated under the arches of bustling Borough Market. The aforementioned market is a notorious foodie destination that has rightfully gained worldwide fame thanks to the variety and quality of food on offer at its various stalls. One of these is Bread Ahead, which I’ve raved about countless times on my lifestyle blog. Its tables are laden with delectable pastries, nut-encrusted gooey brownies, sturdy-looking loaves and, most delightful of all, the doughnuts filled with light whipped crème pâtissière, crafted with a secret recipe that made Gellatly famous during his days at St. John Bread & Wine.

It was in this culinary setting that I ploughed through the first half of the book – the perfect place to read about a baking competition in the style of The Great British Bake Off. Vaughan introduces five competing amateur bakers to us, each with their own personal drama. Interwoven among these plotlines is the tale of Kathleen Eaden, a cookery writer from the 60s in the mould of Isabella Beeton of Mrs. Beeton’s Cookbook Fame, and whose success each competitor hopes to replicate; the cookery competition is entitled ‘The Search for the New Mrs. Eaden’. Although Mrs. Eaden’s writing presents an idealised view of domestic life, it turns out that her life was never plain sailing, with her repeated – and tragic – efforts to conceive reminding me of The Help. This revelation conveys a message to both the contestants and reader: ‘While perfection might be possible in baking, in life, well, it’s impossible.’ Amen to that.

My verdict: 3/5
Vaughan has created some truly intriguing characters in this novel, but the problem with having five main characters (six, if you count Kathleen) is that some have necessarily been given a great deal more focus than others. The result was that, like a child at an overpopulated birthday party, I was left feeling like I’d missed out on a slice of cake big enough to curb my appetite. Kathleen and Jenny’s stories were compelling enough, though, to have me reading avidly all the way to the end. Like the contestants’ lives, the story is not perfect, but it’s a commendable debut from Vaughan. The Art of Baking Blind will be published on July 3 – perfect for getting us into the spirit for the next season of The Great British Bakeoff in August!

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Review: The Three

Sarah Lotz The Three Title: The Three
Author: Sarah Lotz
Publisher: Hodder
Year originally published: 2014

I’d pegged The Three as my post-finals reward months ago. The concept sounded fantastic, and the narrative of four planes being brought down on one day eerily similar to the tragic news of the missing Malaysia Airlines MH370 plane. I couldn’t stop tweeting about how excited I was after reading the Kindle excerpt. Suffice to say that my expectations were riding extremely high indeed.

Let’s start with the aesthetics. I am an art historian, after all – my sole academic purpose over the past four years has been to judge books by their covers. Or paintings…by their canvases. Whatever. The UK version of the cover is great. Dark and slightly waxy to the touch, it features a plane hovering ominously over four tally marks. Three of the four are bloodred, further accentuated with photographs of three young children in each (the eponymous Three), while the fourth is dark. Not to spoil, but I do love a cover that hints at the narrative within. Four planes have crashed almost simultaneously on 12 January 2012, a date that comes to be known as Black Thursday, etched into the minds of the men and women who inhabit this world just as 9/11 is seared into ours. Yet, inexplicably, three children survive – one from a flight that crashes in the Aokigahara suicide forest in Japan, one from a plane swallowed up by the Florida Everglades, and one who has clung to shrapnel off the coast of Portugal. A media frenzy quickly develops, labelling the children as ‘The Three’.

The form of the novel follows a structure similar to Max Brooks’ World War Z. That is, conventional first person narrative comes together with blog posts, transcribed Dictaphone recordings and Skype interviews, instant messages and forum posts. This mixture of reports meshes together to form Lotz’s book within a book, a novel published by fictional journalist Elspeth Martins, entitled From Crash to Conspiracy. The collated reports are drawn from global sources (the planes having crashed in Europe, America, Africa and Asia) and I think Lotz carries off the Babel-like cacophony of international voices extraordinarily well. Her knack for the South African voice in accounts peppered with Afrikaans discloses her own nationality, but the Japanese elements seem equally authentic, with reference to the hikikomori phenomenon, the ‘2chan’ forum and the Aokigahara forest, the latter which I’d only ever seen before in a video on Vice. It’s clear that Lotz has put a lot of research into this novel, which is fantastic for me as a reader.

Although the narrative would ostensibly seem to focus on the enigma and possible horror surrounding the child survivors, I think it does more to highlight the repugnance of humanity. In the wake of the crashes, conspiracy theorists and fundamental Christian groups seize on the event as a way of manipulating the public for their own political ends. Meanwhile, Elspeth Martins herself is revealed to be an unreliable source, accused of cherry-picking the most sensational quotes and anecdotes from her sources when constructing her novel, which calls the credibility of the accounts themselves into question. Indeed, the questions at the heart of this story are never really fully answered, and throughout the novel I found myself, like the characters, constantly speculating as to whether the source of Black Thursday and its child survivors was supernatural or the result of human delusions and paranoia. The conclusions we are brought to at the novel’s close, however, are deeply chilling – enough to disturb my dreams the night I finished the book.

My verdict: 4.5/5 This book falls just short of five stars for me because given that I had been building this book up during my literature-starved months of finals revision, it was inevitable that it couldn’t quite live up to the standards I’d imposed on it. And yet the standards it did reach were incredibly high. Lotz has expertly woven a chorus of voices together to form a tapestry that reflects on the state of humanity in the 21st century, from its dependence on the Internet as a means of communication to the fame-hungry who employ tragic events as a means to grabbing their fifteen minutes. I thoroughly enjoyed this book – a cluster of fictional catastrophes and ensuing paranoia was just the ticket for post-examination escapism. One word of warning: do not take this book on a plane!