Shelf Control #187: The Last Chinese Chef by Nicole Mones

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Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

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cropped-flourish-31609_1280-e1421474289435.pngTitle: The Last Chinese Chef
Author: Nicole Mones
Published: 2007
Length: 278 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

This alluring novel of friendship, love, and cuisine brings the best-selling author of Lost in Translation and A Cup of Light to one of the great Chinese subjects: food. As in her previous novels, Mones’s captivating story also brings into focus a changing China — this time the hidden world of high culinary culture.

When Maggie McElroy, a widowed American food writer, learns of a Chinese paternity claim against her late husband’s estate, she has to go immediately to Beijing. She asks her magazine for time off, but her editor counters with an assignment: to profile the rising culinary star Sam Liang.

In China Maggie unties the knots of her husband’s past, finding out more than she expected about him and about herself. With Sam as her guide, she is also drawn deep into a world of food rooted in centuries of history and philosophy. To her surprise she begins to be transformed by the cuisine, by Sam’s family — a querulous but loving pack of cooks and diners — and most of all by Sam himself. The Last Chinese Chef is the exhilarating story of a woman regaining her soul in the most unexpected of places.

How and when I got it:

I picked it up at a library book sale sometime in the last five years or so.

Why I want to read it:

I’ve read one book by Nicole Mones previously, Lost in Translation, and while I don’t remember a whole lot of plot details at this point, I do remember that it was pretty thought-provoking and really interesting to read. I don’t usually gravitate to foodie books, but this one sounds quite good, especially as it combines unearthing family secrets with a cultural exploration.

What do you think? Would you read this book?

Please share your thoughts!

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Take A Peek Book Review: Meet Me at the Cupcake Café by Jenny Colgan

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.

 

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

Issy Randall can bake. No, Issy can create stunning, mouthwateringly divine cakes. After a childhood spent in her beloved Grampa Joe’s bakery, Issy has undoubtedly inherited his talent. She’s much better at baking than she is at filing, so when she’s laid off from her desk job and loses her boyfriend, Issy decides to open her own little café. But she soon learns that her piece-of-cake recipe for a fresh start might be a little more complicated than throwing some sugar and butter together.

A smart, quirky contemporary confection of recipes and friendship, Meet Me at the Cupcake Café is about how life might not always taste like you expect, but there’s always room for dessert!

My Thoughts:

When I need a light and fluffy book, sweet as a fresh-baked cupcake, I know Jenny Colgan is my go-to book goddess. Her books tend to combine yummy, tempting treats, plucky heroines, family touches, and a good, lovely romance. Yes, it can feel a bit formulaic if you read enough of her books — but that doesn’t take away from the joy of indulging (much like the joy of scarfing down one of Issy’s amazing confections).

Issy is a little bit clueless when it comes to love, involved in an office romance that turns out to be a terribly-kept secret — with a guy so jerky that he drops her off in a rainstorm to walk to the office rather than driving her all the way there and having them enter together. Ugh, Issy, he’s awful! When Issy is laid off, after a good long mope, she turns to the joy that baking has always given her, and with a little support from her friends and an attractive banker, decides to turned an unused storefront into the bakery of her dreams.

It’s quite fun to read about Issy’s ups and downs, the hard work of opening her cafe, the women who become her fast friends and the ever-widening circle of people whose lives become entwined with Issy and the Cupcake Cafe. Issy is also dealing with the sorrow of her grandfather’s decline, which is quite sad and touching. Her romantic choices are really clunkers, and she’s clearly making bad decisions. Likewise, a misunderstanding with the cute banker gets blown out of all proportion, which doesn’t make sense for two straight-forward, honest people.

Meet Me at the Cupcake Café was Jenny Colgan’s first novel, originally published in 2011, and reissued this summer by Sourcebooks Landmark (with a really sweet cover!). It’s a perfect summertime book, with enough plot ups and downs to keep it entertaining, but not at all heavy or serious. Plus, cakes! Issy’s recipes (and often hilarious commentary) are sprinkled throughout (plus a few more recipes tucked in at the end.) I’m not a cook or a baker AT ALL, so I skipped over the recipes for the most part, but I’m sure someone who is a true foodie will adore giving them a try! (And if you do make Issy’s cakes, can I have some? Please?)

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The details:

Title: Meet Me at the Cupcake Café 
Author: Jenny Colgan
Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark
Publication date: July 2, 2019
Length: 416 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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Book Review: Summer at Little Beach Street Bakery by Jenny Colgan

Summer has arrived in the Cornish town of Mount Polbearne and Polly Waterford couldn’t be happier. Because Polly is in love: she’s in love with the beautiful seaside town she calls home, she’s in love with running the bakery on Beach Street, and she’s in love with her boyfriend, Huckle.

And yet there’s something unsettling about the gentle summer breeze that’s floating through town. Selina, recently widowed, hopes that moving to Mount Polbearne will ease her grief, but Polly has a secret that could destroy her friend’s fragile recovery. Responsibilities that Huckle thought he’d left behind are back and Polly finds it hard to cope with his increasingly long periods of absence.

Polly sifts flour, kneads dough and bakes bread, but nothing can calm the storm she knows is coming: is Polly about to lose everything she loves?

Summer at Little Beach Street Bakery is the 2nd in a series of three (which starts with Little Beach Street Bakery, reviewed here). As I mentioned in my review of book #1, Jenny Colgan writes escapist fiction more or less to a formula, but it’s a formula that works: Young woman, beat down by city life, escapes to a remote, quaint location, and discovers joy and meaning in her new life. Plus a dreamy, hot love interest. Quirky locals who embrace the new arrival are an added bonus.

In Summer at Little Beach Street Bakery, Polly is well-established in Mount Polbearne after living there for about a year, running a successful bakery, living with her hot American boyfriend Huckle (who’s utterly devoted to her), and continuing her obsession with the puffin who’s decided he’s her pet. At the end of book #1, Polly and Huckle decided to buy the decrepit town lighthouse and make it their home. Now living in the lighthouse, they love its charm, but it needs a ton of work, and both are decidedly short on cash for anything but the basics.

Polly’s world gets upended when the old woman who owns the bakery passes away, and her sister (who lives far away) decides to put her worthless son in charge of the place. He immediately takes a dislike to Polly and everything she does, not seeing the value in her high-end ingredients and artisanal breads and instead wanting to make everything cheap and efficient. Eventually, he outright fires Polly, throwing her into despair.

To make ends meet and create a fund from which Polly can invest in a new business venture, Huckle decides to go work on the family farm back in America for a short time in order to make some money. (Is farming really that lucrative? This doesn’t seem like the most realistic plan to me.) So now, on top of her bakery woes, Polly is living without Huckle for a while, and is miserable.

Meanwhile, there are further complications. Polly realizes that Neil the puffin should be wild, but has a hard time letting go. The widow of a man she inadvertently had an affair with (he didn’t disclose his marital status) has moved back to town, and Polly befriends her, without telling her what happened with her husband. Polly and Huckle’s new brainstorm is to convert a food truck into a bread truck, which is a challenging venture that the new bakery owner is determined to ruin. And then a storm blows in, bringing danger to Polly and the people she cares about.

Overall, I really enjoyed Summer — it was a perfect choice for a week when I was looking for a low-involvement, fun, sweet escape. Even when there are problems and peril, it’s a totally safe bet that everything will work out okay in the end.

I did have some confusion about Polly’s business model. In the first book, she opened the bakery in an abandoned old storefront and totally transformed it, creating something special that reinfused the town with fresh life. Polly’s arrangement was to pay rent to the woman who owned the property, but the bakery was essentially hers to run as she saw fit. In this book, when the jerky Malcolm gets involved, Polly is treated as a mere employee and then fired. But the place wouldn’t exist without her! At one point, a very rich friend offers to buy the bakery for Polly, but she turns him down because she wants to make it on her own. Time for a reality check! Take the rich friend’s offer, Polly! I mean, she could always pay him back (not that he cares), but isn’t that a better alternative to having the bakery she created ripped away from her?

You don’t read Jenny Colgan books for harsh doses of reality — they’re meant to be light and lovely, and Summer succeeds in being just that. I enjoyed it, even while feeling that Huckle is TOO perfect, that Neil the puffin is TOO ridiculous as a house-bird, and that Polly finds success maybe a bit TOO easily. But that’s okay.

I really like spending time with Polly and all the quirky people (and seabirds) around her, and will definitely be back for more! The third book is Christmas at Little Beach Street Bakery, and I can’t wait to read it.

Side note: These books WILL make you hungry. So much delicious bread! There are even recipes at the end. I need one of Polly’s fresh-made loaves NOW.

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The details:

Title: Summer at Little Beach Street Bakery
Author: Jenny Colgan
Publisher: Sphere
Publication date: February 26, 2015
Length: 396 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Purchased

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Book Review: Little Beach Street Bakery by Jenny Colgan

For fans of Sophie Kinsella, Jojo Moyes, and Jennifer Weiner, a moving, laugh-out-loud novel—with recipes!—about a young woman who begins her life anew as a baker in Cornwall.

Amid the ruins of her latest relationship, Polly Waterford moves far away to the sleepy seaside resort of Polbearne, where she lives in a small, lonely flat above an abandoned shop.

To distract her from her troubles, Polly throws herself into her favorite hobby: making bread. But her relaxing weekend diversion quickly develops into a passion. As she pours her emotions into kneading and pounding the dough, each loaf becomes better than the last. Soon, Polly is working her magic with nuts and seeds, olives and chorizo, and the local honey-courtesy of a handsome local beekeeper. Drawing on reserves of determination and creativity Polly never knew she had, she bakes and bakes . . . and discovers a bright new life where she least expected it.

This is my third Jenny Colgan book — and in each, the pattern seems to be: Young woman, beat down by city life, escapes to a remote, quaint location, and discovers joy and meaning in her new life. Plus a dreamy, hot love interest. And hey, it may be a pattern, but it works!

In Little Beach Street Bakery, Polly and her grumpy ex have been driven into bankruptcy by the failure of their graphic design business (he’s the designer, she handles the office). With no money, the relationship in tatters, and no place to live, Polly chances upon a flat for rent in Mount Polbearne, a location she remembers fondly from childhood field trips. Polbearne is an island attached to Cornwall by a causeway that’s only accessible when the tide is out. The town features a fishing fleet, a pub, some worn-down local businesses, and for Polly, a place of refuge to lick her wounds and retreat from the world.

It’s Polly’s love of bread that finally draws her out of her shell. The one and only bakery on the island is run by a grumpy old woman, Polly’s landlady, who makes atrocious bread but refuses to allow anyone to sell anything else. Polly starts baking as a hobby, to relieve her own stress and anxiety, but as her baking becomes popular with the local fishermen, she starts to find a place for herself in this isolated community.

Little Beach Street Bakery is quite a fun read. Polly is a relatable young woman, who has been through tough times but still maintains enough hope to start rebuilding. She’s goofy too — after rescuing an injured puffin, she develops a quirky relationship with the bird and the two become inseparable. (Side note, I’ve only just discovered that the author has written some children’s books about Polly and Neil the Puffin — how adorable is that?)

The love story in this book takes a while to build, and Polly makes a big mistake along the way. (Not her fault — he didn’t tell her he was married! Ahem.) But eventually, she realizes who it is that she really loves and wants, and after a prolonged period of misunderstanding, there are fireworks. (Yes, there really are fireworks!)

Along the way, we meet a host of quirky locals, get immersed in the battle between newly arrived trendy folks who want to modernize and the old-timers who want to keep things as they are, experience the trauma of waiting for the fishing fleet to come home after a storm, and get to know a beautiful little corner of the world. It’s no wonder Polly loves it there!

This is pure escapist delight. Who wouldn’t want to run away to a remote, gorgeous location and find true love, friendship, and a way to turn a favorite pastime into a successful and fulfilling career?

I had a lot of fun reading this book. Sometimes, light and frothy is just the right choice! Once again, many thanks to my book group for picking this book for discussion. After a bunch of heavier reads, it’s nice to turn to something that just feels good.

A note on the covers: The image at the top of this post is the cover of the Kindle edition, which I find a little funny, since Polly is a bread baker and never once mentioned baking cupcakes. The audiobook image — with loaves of bread, a jar of honey, and a view of the sea — is a much better fit for the story, in my humble opinion. And just yummy.

And a final comment: There are two follow-up books, Summer at Little Beach Street Bakery and Christmas at Little Beach Street Bakery. I’m not planning to read them immediately (SO much else to read right now!)… but I’ll definitely keep them in mind for when I need a nice little reading getaway.

 

 

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The details:

Title: Little Beach Street Bakery
Author: Jenny Colgan
Publisher: William Morrow
Publication date: March 13, 2014
Length: 448 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Purchased

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