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Highlights In The Charts

The Year of Miracles (Recipes About Love & Grief & Growing Things) by Ella Risbridger

Review by Natalie Beckett

I have a book review to write on the hottest day of the year, a record breaking forty-one degrees to be exact. The book happens to be a cookbook and I decided last week I would make the 'Rhubarb and Custard Cake' on page 131. So now I’m standing in my kitchen and in both senses of the word, I’m baking.

As you might guess from the title, Risbridger’s The Year of Miracles is so much more than a cookbook full of recipes, although the recipes are wonderful. It's about the power of cooking as an outlet for emotion as well as being a source of great emotion. And how, often, cooking is one way we show our love for others.

What started out in early 2020 as a book about “lovely dinner parties and chatting,” quickly changed tone when dinner parties were no longer possible. As Ella explains in an interview about the book on the Desert Islands Dishes podcast, she didn’t want to write a book “that was like oh remember dinner parties weren’t they wonderful.” Instead, it follows the author's new life since the passing of her partner Jim. Broken down into the twelve months of the year, Ella walks the reader through her favourite recipes. Each one comes with its own beautiful personal essay and equally beautiful illustration created by Elisa Cunningham. In a world of Instagram-perfect dishes, this cookbook is as refreshingly unpretentious as it comes. It also manages to do the one thing that most cookbooks fail terribly at: encompassing the all-consuming joy of cooking.

Through descriptions that read as if Ella herself is speaking aloud, she teaches us that cabbage can be poetic and that leaning into “Quadruple Carb Soup” is a good thing. She proves that brownies can be made with three ingredients and reminds us that it’s important not to be too precious about things, especially marinades. Friendship is a large and very welcome theme. We get to know her new flat mate Jo and what Ella cooks for Jo. She muses about a virtual cooking friendship that has blossomed with a friend called Georgie who lives in the countryside. I particularly like the bits about treasured morning walks with her best friend Nancy and Beezle the dog. Ella confesses she falls in love with people at first sight; knowing they are going to matter.

The cake is now finished and it’s a soft yellow sponge with egg-yolk coloured icing, covered in striking pink freeze-dried raspberries. The raspberries are cooling and perfectly sharp against the sweet sponge. The baking in baking heat has been worth it. I pass slices of the cake around to family and friends and we talk about how beautiful and touching Ella’s book is. Later, as I turn the final few colourful pages and tidy up the cake, the book leaves one lasting message: do with what you have.

The Swimmers by Chloe Lane

Review by Madeleine Lily

The Swimmers follows a few days in the life of twenty-six-year-old Erin as readers witness her actions and emotions as she takes on the knowledge that her mother has decided she wants to take her own life through assisted suicide after living with motor neurone disease for more than a year.

I have never read a book including MND and I have learnt a lot about the cruel disease and the impact it can have on those around it. The story had a sombre tone with dashes of humour throughout which was definitely needed to lighten moments between the heavy subject matter. The disjointed family were facing the task of helping fulfil her mother’s final requests and you get a real sense of a family unit being forced together through circumstance, with all their imperfections and secrets slowly being revealed as the book progresses.

It is easy to feel for Erin at certain parts in the book and though some of her decisions were reckless, it is easy to understand why she makes them. There is one bit in particular that involved a panda that was heart breaking it is sure to stay in my mind for a time after finishing this book! The book only follows a short time frame, but Lane works hard to make readers feel a connection with Erin. She faces her own emotions, questionable neighbours and her complicated family of former competitive swimmers. The subtle moments written in great detail assist the reader in understanding her circumstances.

A favourite character was Aunty Wynn who I loved getting to know more as the book went on. The details of the swimming competitions the characters used to compete in were a good comparison for how they approach their everyday lives. As a fan of New Zealand, I also loved the little details added about the country.

The Swimmers was really like nothing I've read before. I am now a big fan of Chloe Lane's subtle writing style and I want to read more books from New Zealand!


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