Friday, 31 January 2014

Gusto, Cheadle Hulme: Restaurant Review

In December, I had an evening with my friend Jen at Gusto in Cheadle Hulme. A popular chain, it’s a place we know we’ll get good food and enjoy a nice atmosphere.

Cheadle Hulme’s Gusto is situated on a main road, and has a full wall of floor-to-ceiling windows, often covered in beautiful little lights. It is large, high-ceilinged, and with heavy wooden furniture.

Gusto has an extensive menu, making it perfect for even the fussiest of eaters, and it means you can try something different each time. We decided to go classic on this trip – I opted for a pepperoni pizza, and Jen a Gusto burger. When it’s pouring down and freezing outside, all you want is brilliant comfort food!

The food was yummy as expected, and we both jumped at the chance to check the dessert menu. Jen had the hazelnut brownie, and I had little mini donuts. They come with chocolate and cream, but I don’t like cream so was given double chocolate – I’m not complaining at that one.

Sometimes, all you want in an evening out is to be warm, eat comforting, well-cooked food, and enjoy a place with nice energy and attentive staff. That’s exactly what Gusto provides.

A special mention has to go to our waitress, Laura. She was young, blonde, and incredibly smiley, and was exactly the right amount of friendly. I like to feel looked after, but there’s nothing worse than when the staff won’t leave you alone. She was great, and we made sure that was known on our comments card!

Gusto in Cheadle Hulme is a place I can’t really go wrong with… I’ll be back very, very soon.

Are you a Gusto fan?

Sophie x

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

The Reading List #16

This list is more taken up by ‘dip in and out books’, which can be a nice alternative if you’re short on time, or have just read a few novels in a go. There’s one novel nestled amongst them, too.

Grimms’ Fairy Tales, Brothers Grimm

This is a full collection of the tales, all really quite short, and some the seeds of more modernised fairy tales. The Grimm brothers were collectors of stories, and they then collected together the stories they received and heard from those people they met, hoping to save a folk tale tradition similar to that of other countries around the world.
There was a real mixture in here of stories we now know in a different form, of stories that have survived unchanged, and of tales I have never heard of. I bought this at a performance of a play, years ago, which was Carol Ann Duffy’s interpretation of some of the well-known tales. It’s a lovely little book, and I enjoyed dipping in and out of it.

The Forgotten Garden, Kate Morton

In 1913, a young girl is found abandoned. In 1975, Nell returns to England to investigate her past. In 2005, her granddaughter Nell returns to Cliff Cottage, her surprise inheritance. This took a fairly common form now, of a novel that revisits one family or place throughout the years, but Morton knows how to handle that well. The intrigue was sustained, and little twists kept coming. It was partially quite predictable, but this was made up for by those elements that came more out of the blue.
This book had nice characters, and a lot of well-included historical references. I also enjoyed the stories inserted as little clues throughout. It’s the type of book I’d happily take with me on a weekend away and just enjoy letting the story wash over me.

Love Letters of Great Men and Women, ed Ursula Doyle

This book is exactly what it says on the tin: a book of love letters. Half of the book are letters written by men, and half by women, and every letter has a biographical and contextual blurb before it. The names featured range from kings, queens and writers to anonymous soldiers and their wives.
The book arranges the letters chronologically, and it’s really interesting to see how language and ideas on love and romance have changed. Some letters were quite funny, some seem a bit dismissive, and some pull at the heartstrings. It’s a nice little book to have lying around, or to give as a gift to the type of friend who appreciates little volumes like this.

True Whit, Whitney Port with Sheryl Berk

I’ve recently been clearing out my room and shelves and came across this book that I bought a good few years ago. Who didn’t love The Hills and The City? This is Whitney’s guide to life in your twenties, including jobs, love, friendship, moving away from home, and generally learning to be a grown up. I thought it might be a little bit of a spin-off gimmick, but it’s actually packed with some pretty great advice.
The pictures, as you’d expect, are gorgeous, and it was just a glossy, fun read with some down-to-earth tips. Worth a flick through if you’re a Whitney fan, or just like glossy books about being a young woman!

A mixed bag as always!
What shall I read next?

Sophie x

Saturday, 25 January 2014

The Reading List #15

There’s another mixed list today, as I’m a big fan of just picking up a book and seeing where it takes me. Especially because I’m a fast reader, I don’t mind trying something a bit different, as I’m getting through so much anyway it doesn’t feel like wasted time. Here’s the latest update:

Agnes Grey, Anne Bronte

This has been tucked away on my bookshelf for a while, I think it may have been an extra reading suggestion at university that I never got around to. A fairly slim volume, it is the tales of a governess, and is based on Bronte’s own experiences. It covers the Victorian class system, moral and education, and dips into the households of a few different families. It’s a fascinating insight into both the period and into a governess’ role, and would be a good read for anyone interested in Victorian literature.

Sweet Tooth, Ian McEwan

In 1972, with the Cold War playing out, Serena is being groomed for MI5. During Operation Sweet Tooth, her subject is a writer, Tom Haley. She loves his stories, and then begins to fall for the man himself, blurring the lines between her job and her personal life.

I liked the literary background of this – the publishing deals, the fragments of stories – and the Cold War side was also intriguing. It seemed overall more like a love story than a spy novel, but it kept me reading, and my parents also enjoyed it.

Broken, Sara Davies

This is the author’s autobiographical account of her abusive childhood, and how that affected her through into later life, as well. It then moves onto her escape from this life, and her reflections on it now. It’s a well-written autobiography, not dwelling on anything, but equally missing out no detail.

It was a fairly fast-paced novel, and a difficult read, but with overall powerful and positive messages. It’s a brave book, and in interesting read.

Under a Blood Red Sky, Kate Furnivall

This novel begins in 1933, in a Siberian labour camp, and Sofia is desperate to escape, inspired by her friend Anna’s stories and the thought of reuniting her with those she loves. Russia is in the grip of communism and her journey is a hard one, showing the contrasts between industrial and rural lives, and constantly returning to Anna, in the camp. Sofia is in a world where she never knows who she can trust, or what motives others have. As ou read, you’re aware that Sofia’s time to save Anna is always running out.

This was a really gripping narrative, and pieced together the pasts of each character well. The imposing and scary world they are surrounded by is well-created, and I cared about the characters. A page-turning, interesting read.

So there we have it. Have you read any of these?

Sophie x

Sunday, 19 January 2014

The Reading List #14

Weekends are perfect for curling up with a new book, so here are my thoughts on the latest things I’ve been reading…

History of a Pleasure Seeker, Richard Mason

Piet Barol has found himself a job as a tutor in a wealthy Amsterdam mansion. The year is 1907 and he is a young man with big ambitions. The book follows his journey of self-discovery, and setting out on the path to earn his fortune.

I enjoyed the ‘bildungsroman’ premise and the overall storyline, although some elements I found a little too far-fetched. There are some quite intense sexual scenes, which were slightly unexpected and maybe overplayed a little, but they don’t keep appearing throughout the whole story, so it does fit with the period of his life. Overall, it’s a pretty good book, but I wouldn’t shout about it from the rooftops; I feel like it’s something that has been told many times before.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

In 1946, Juliet receives a letter from Dawsey Adams, of Guernsey, who has come into possession of one of her old books. They begin to exchange letters, and Juliet learns of a literary society that Adams was a part of during Guernsey’s years under German occupation. She decides to write a piece on the society, and begins exchanging letters with many other members, whilst also corresponding with her publishers and agent throughout.

The pace of the letters picks up dramatically as the book goes on, and it’s incredibly well woven together, considering it is only in letter form, and the letters are flying between so many different characters. It wasn’t confusing, and I didn’t lose the thread of the story. I’ve got to say, the second half of the book wasn’t as much my cup of tea, I’d have preferred it to stay where it was, but it’s a good little book. It’s also interesting to hear about Guernsey under occupation, as it’s a place I knew little about.

A Fraction of the Whole, Steve Toltz

Jasper tells the story of his father and his Uncle Terry, who led lives of crime and mischief. It includes a handbook for criminals, family, illness and extracts from journals, and parts are narrated by his father.

This is quite the epic family tale, and I was really impressed. It is hugely funny, but it is a clever, dark humour, often laughing at just how terrible some people have it… It was a classy, well-judged novel, and I’d recommend it to plenty of people.

The Soldier’s Wife, Joanna Trollope

Alexa’s wife Dan returns from Afghanistan, but his head doesn’t seem to have returned to family life. The whole family are trying to return to normal, but finding it a lot harder than they anticipated.

I loved parts of this – the frustrations, the tiptoeing around one another, and the struggles for the men on returning home were all well written.

I felt the storyline got a bit more dramatic than it needed to – focusing on struggles within just the one family would probably have been enough, but overall this was an easy read with a really interesting subject matter.

Have you read any of these books?

Sophie x

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

The Reading List #13

I can’t believe how many books I’m getting through at the moment. I’ve always been a fast reader, but recently I’ve got back into the mode of completely getting lost in a book, devouring it, and moving onto the next one! I’m watching less tv – which I’m sure can only be a good thing – and choosing to spend extra time reading, which is definitely helping me to relax, too. Here’s the latest instalment of The Reading List:

The Believers, Zoe Heller

Audrey makes a discovery about her husband, Joel, which makes her rethink everything about their forty-year marriage. At the same time, his children are all wrapped up in their own dilemmas, and it builds up into a family tale of drama and finding out the truth.

The writing of this novel was good, but something didn’t quite sit right for me. The characters all felt very separate from one another, and there wasn’t much emotion, especially considering some of the topics. It was fine, but I just wasn’t fussed about it.

Any Human Heart, William Boyd

These are the diaries of Logan Mountstuart, from his schooldays in the 1920s to his life as an old man. It is written as fact, and features footnotes and biographical additions, with the book sectioned into significant stages of his life.

I thought this was absolutely fantastic. A novel written as a journal can be difficult to sustain, and to keep believable, and this is the first I’ve read in a long time that really gets it right. Sometimes there are half-entries, or he can’t fully remember things, or he can’t be bothered writing for a few days or months at a time. You can create a fully-formed picture of the man you are reading about, and it takes you on a great journey through the twentieth century. Well worth a read.

Women, Work and the Art of Savoir Faire, Mireille Guiliano

Non-fiction now, and Guiliano has drawn on her own experiences of the business world to offer advice to other women. It is quite chatty, and not at all pushy, the general tone is along the lines of ‘this is what has worked for me and people I know, it could work for you’. It is a book about not underselling yourself, and covers areas such as communication, work/life balance, and stress.

Her advice is accessible and useful, and it’s just a good little read.

The Imperfectionists, Tom Rachman

This is set in the world of a newspaper that was originally founded in the 1950s. Circulation is now down and the future looks bleak for its writers. The novel focuses on both the early, booming years of the paper, and the current team, and reads like a collection of short stories.

There were witty and sad moments to this novel, and every character was so different, yet shared the fact that their life revolved around the newspaper. It’s brilliantly written, and I enjoyed it a lot.

So there we have it… Have you read any of these books?

Sophie x

Monday, 13 January 2014

Olivers, Woodford: Restaurant Review

In December, for our work Christmas meal, I had my first trip to Olivers, a restaurant in Woodford. They were offering a festive menu, but as I ate from the normal menu I thought it was more than worth sharing even though we’re now well into January.

Olivers is tucked away, just off a fairly main road, and is quite a small place. When we were there, there were multiple Christmas parties in, which meant the place was very full and very noisy. We had a drink at the bar whilst our table was laid. I opted for J2O, as I don’t drink alcohol, and the others had wines and gin and tonics. The bar doesn’t exactly lend itself to standing for a drink, as it means you’re completely blocking the entrance, but we weren’t there for too long.

We had a corner table, next to a window, and it was subtly decorated for the season. Jenny decided to jazz it up a little with her homemade decorations, which she has had in the office and was taking home for Christmas…

The service was friendly, and although it was busy our orders were taken quickly. We began with a variety of breads, with an olive oil and balsamic dip, and some olives. The bread was squishy and warm from the oven, which was great. Barrie and Garth opted for soup starters, which seemed to go down a treat.

Next was the main course, and I’ve not had steak for so, so long, so when I saw it on the menu it was an easy decision. It came with chips (thick-cut and delicious), mushrooms, tomatoes, garlic butter (oozy and moreish) and some salad (so I could pretend I was sensible). It was simple but effective, and cooked to perfection. Other meals round the table included beef and pork, and I’ve added a few of those pictures here.

I didn’t go for a dessert, as my main was so filling, but those who did were more than pleased. Banoffee cheescake proved to be particularly yummy for Jenny, if a little sweet.

Overall, I was impressed by the restaurant. It was a little over-crowded, and the staff became less and less attentive as the meal went on – we waited ages for our bill – but it was generally friendly and pleasant. The menu was quite diverse, and although I’m not particularly adventurous, there was certainly food to suit varied tastes.

Our coffees and liqueurs came with mini mince pies as an added treat, and rounded off a lovely late lunch to round off the working year.

Sophie x

Saturday, 11 January 2014

The Reading List #12

It’s that time again, and my next four books have been a mix yet again. I’m just going to get on with it…

The Auschwitz Violin, Maria Angels Anglada

In 1991 we see a violin being played, and then hear its story. Darwel, its creator, was a prisoner at Auschwitz, and made it during his time there. It is a short novel, but powerful, and the historical documents opening each chapter remind of the reality of these situations. It is about the power of music and memory, war and hardship, and is perfect for reading in one sitting.

This book was a bit of a gem, and a beautiful little meditation on a segment of the Second World War. It’s worth trying to grab a copy of.

Killer Queens, Rebecca Chance

This book features three overlapping stories of royalty: an American athlete in love with a European prince, an ordinary girl in love with the heir to the throne, and a princess who stages her own death. There are parallels between each story, and they all feature secrets and struggles, against a world of excess and tradition.

It really is a trashy read, and it’s a page-turner, but because it’s quite long you do actually get a reading experience out of it. It delivers what it claims to, and is good escapism, but nothing to shout from the rooftops about.

Let the Great World Spin, Colum McCann

In New York, in August 1974, a tightrope walker balanced between the Twin Towers. Below him the world goes on, and the novel explores the stories of multiple strangers who happen to be in this place on this day. It’s another of those ‘observing the ordinary world, beautifully’ books I seem to have read a fair few of recently.

This almost reads like lots of short stories which combine to create the overall picture. It was well written, although I might have preferred to hear a little more about the rope event and the tightrope walker himself. All in all though, I did enjoy it.

The Siege of Krishnapur, J G Farrell

This novel is set in 1897 Krishnapur, a part of British-occupied India. Its inhabitants lead a dull life, but the Collector senses danger lies ahead. When the revolt happens, it is in scenes surrounded by momentoes of the Great Exhibition, and challenges the British colonial position.

I can understand why it was a Booker winner, in terms of content and issues that it features, but I was quite unmoved by any of the characters, and more found it ‘interesting’ than a great novel. Details on the place and period were very well written, so it is worth a read from that aspect, but I wouldn’t pass it on as a ‘must-read’.

What are you reading at the moment?

Sophie x

Thursday, 9 January 2014

The Reading List #11

These posts are normally once a week, but I’m so behind where I’m actually up to in terms of reading that I thought I’d sneak in an extra post this week. I’m still in the phase of pulling things off the downstairs bookshelf and then seeing what I think, so it’s a mixture, as ever…

The Paris Wife, Paula McLain

This is a fictional telling of the life of Hadley, Earnest Hemingway’s wife, and is based on biographical events. It begins in 1920, when Hadley is a young girl caught up in the flushes of first love, and tells the story of her years as a wife and mother. I didn’t know much about Hemingway’s life, certainly not as much as I do about those of some of his contemporaries, so found it fascinating for that point of view.

This book was brilliantly written, and so sad at times. Hadley’s perspective is believable and one that would have remained unheard at the time. You understand the decisions she makes, but some are heartbreaking, or you will her to take action sooner. Against the backdrop of the literary scene of the 20s and 30s, it is a beautiful look at an ill-fated marriage, and well worth a read. I was a big fan.

Friday Nights, Joanna Trollope

This is my first Joanna Trollope novel, and she seems to fall into the ‘comfort read but not so trashy you’re embarrassed to admit to it’ category. A group of six women, all of different ages and life experiences, find comfort in spending their Friday evenings together. The novel is about what happens when some of these bonds are neglected or begin to fracture. As the characters’ priorities change, there are passages on friendship and on the passing of time, which are worth a look. There was an overarching sense of sadness and loneliness to the book which was maintained well, but not overplayed.

I think including six women was slightly too many when you then took into account all of the peripheral characters. I think it may have had a bit more impact if it was four or five women that we learned more about. I wouldn’t shout from the rooftops about this one, but it was a good read.

A Week in December, Sebastian Faulks

Faulks, to me, is a true ‘professional writer’. I can’t think of a book of his which has let me down, and his research is so thorough that he seems able to write about any topic with such authority. This novel covers seven days, and features seven characters, all from different walks of life. Altogether, it builds a picture of modern urban life.

Lots of complex stories were intertwining here, each with complex and fully-developed characters, but it never felt too much to keep track of. There were also a lot of potentially more controversial topics, such as Hassan’s religious views, that were handled with great care, and made fantastic reading. I’ve raved about this to so many people already, you just all need to grab a copy and get reading!

The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga

This was the 2008 Man Booker Prize winner, and I think I understand why. I was more than impressed. The novel takes the form of a letter from an Indian man, a self-proclaimed ‘servant, philosopher, entrepreneur, murderer’. It crafts an image of a certain slice of Indian society, and the author has a sharp eye for reality, but then delivers this with a hard satirical edge.

The ‘letter-writing’ voice was sustained throughout, and some of the descriptions were absolutely fascinating. This one man’s story illustrates certain issues in the society in which he is living, and I really enjoyed reading it.

So there we have it, one fine, one really good, and two fantastic – it was a successful period of reading!

Have you read any of these novels?

Sophie x
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