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22 May 2017

Book Review: New Boy by Tracy Chevalier

Tracy Chevalier’s novel New Boy is the third book I’ve read in Vintage’s series of modern interpretations of Shakespeare plays. I enjoyed Vinegar Girl (Anne Tyler’s retelling of The Taming of the Shrew), and Hagseed (Margaret Atwood’s clever re-imaging of The Tempest), and I like the sound of Edward St Aubyn’s forthcoming Dunbar (his take on King Lear).

In New Boy, Chevalier transports the story of Othello to a suburban Washington DC schoolyard in the 1970s. The titular new boy is Osei (‘O’), the Ghanaian son of a diplomat, who has lived in a number of different countries and who is used to being the perennial new boy. Amazingly, given that a lot happens, the action in the novel takes place over the course of a single day — Osei’s first at this DC school — in the final weeks of sixth grade. Setting the story among 11- and 12-year-olds is a bold but somehow fitting move. These children — who would now be dubbed ‘tweens’ — are the kings and queens of elementary school and have formed firm friendships, which could soon been uprooted as they move on to their various junior high schools and start again at the bottom of the hierarchy. There is a heady mix of confidence and uncertainty among the characters in New Boy, and great precociousness.

This is 1970s DC and the pupils and even the teachers are wary of having a black boy join their school. And Osei, who has lived in London, Rome and New York, among other places, is confident and well-travelled, and this very worldliness acts as a catalyst, bringing out both the best and the worst in his various schoolmates. Popular future homecoming-queen Dee is the only character who immediately warms to Osei, and they end up sitting next to each other, trading pencil cases and even — in this world where relationships form and disintegrate within the space of a single day — agreeing to ‘go with’ each other. Later, Dee questions her own motives as to why she is so drawn to the new boy, but compared to her classmates, whose reactions vary from wary to downright furious, she is warm, welcoming and protective of her new friend.

The course of true love never did run smooth, however, and especially not in the sixth grade. Our antagonist Ian watches the new boy with shrewd, calculating eyes and, with a textbook youngest-son inferiority complex, realises that his own power within the schoolyard could soon be under threat, especially when he sees the sudden alliance between Osei and Dee. To nip this possibility in the bud, Ian quickly crafts a plan involving his minion Rod, girlfriend Mimi, Dee’s friend Blanca, Casper — the most popular boy in school — and a strawberry pencil case. The consequences are devastating for the whole school.

Chevalier’s novel is powerful, compelling and often shocking, with convincingly written characters who, as they deal with love (or something like it), friendship, jealousy and betrayal, and grapple with their own — often racist — beliefs. Although Othello works all too well in this sixth-grade 1970s setting, the teachers in New Boy are no better than their pupils. Some catch themselves before they explain how they always knew that a “bl—a new boy” would cause such disruption to their comfortable school ecosystem. Others barely bother to disguise their prejudices. 40 years after Chevalier set New Boy and over 400 years after Shakespeare penned Othello, and we still have a lot to learn from the story. New Boy demonstrates that — in the words of Lindsey Lee Johnson — school really can be the most dangerous place on Earth.

Disclaimer: New Boy was published by Vintage Books / Hogarth on 11 May 2017. I received a pre-release copy via NetGalley. All opinions are my own.

19 May 2017

Weekend Brunch at Dirty Bones, Soho

The latest venue for my monthly girls' brunch club was the newest location of meat-centric modern American restaurant Dirty Bones. As soon as I saw the extensive and varied brunch menu, with everything from avocado on crumpets (yes!) to chicken and waffles, I knew it was our kind of place. We were only able to get a reservation for our group for 10:30 am in the new Denman Street restaurant (NB: don't confuse this branch with their 'Carnaby' location, which is also technically in Soho), but I quite enjoyed walking from the Tube through the near-deserted streets of Soho.

The restaurant's exterior is so low-key that it's easy to walk right past — two of our party did — but I rather like the minimalist design and typography. The interiors are also dark and rather sexy with exposed-brick walls, velour banquettes and low lighting.

Most of my friend ordered the Dirty Mary cocktail (£9) to start, which came with lemon and pickle juices, hot sauce and a sour cream Pringle rim. They looked great and I almost regretted my choice until my lavender martini (£9) showed up. I'm a sucker for lavender, but the lemon juice and Tanqueray gin prevented it from being too cloying. It also arrived with a dried lavender stem, which the waitress promptly set alight — my second smoking cocktail in a month. Needless to say, I was impressed. Note: if you're feeling boozier than we were, you can order a 'Boozy Brunch Flight', which allows you to order up to four drinks from a set list.

Deciding which food to order was much trickier because there were so many dishes that sounded fantastic. Crumpets are one of the Soho Dirty Bones' signature dishes and I really liked the sound of the crumpets with beef short rib. But then there were the fish tacos and the egg-dishes...and that's before I even get started on the sweet options. In the end, though, I went for the burger (£11). Not just any burger, though: the Mac Daddy is a regular steak burger topped with both pulled beef short rib and mac and cheese. A little excessive, perhaps (and reminiscent of my recent OTT burger experience in Boston), but it was an excellent choice. The burger was perfectly medium rare and the 'toppings' were also delicious. I shared some fries with one of my friends but honestly, they were somewhat surplus to the requirements (especially given that it was barely 11:00 am). My friends' dishes — which included the chicken and waffles, crumpets, spicy chicken burger and short rib hash — all got the thumbs-up too.

The dessert menu arrived and it included a peanut butter cookie cup (£6.50), which sounded amazing. My usual rule is that if a pudding involves chocolate, peanut butter and caramel, I will order it no matter how full I am, but alas, this was one time I had to break it. That just means I'll have to find an excuse to return a little later in the day when I'm more likely to manage a second course.

Dirty Bones Soho. 14 Denman Street, London, W1D 7HJ (Tube: Piccadilly Circus). Website. Twitter. Instagram.

17 May 2017

At Pique-Nique, Bermondsey, a Chicken Coup

I've been eagerly awaiting the arrival of Pique-Nique, a restaurant specialising in rotisserie chicken from Bresse in Eastern France, for almost a year. The sister restaurant of the excellent Casse-Croûte on Bermondsey Street, Pique-Nique is located just around the corner in the historic, mock-Tudor shelter in Tanner Street Park. I signed up to their mailing list some time ago, but a little thing I like to call the day job prevented me from securing a table during their sold-out soft launch over the weekend. Luckily, my brother and his wife scored a table for the three of us on Monday night with a 50% discount on food.

As we walked to the restaurant, the heavens opened but we didn't mind much because the park offers excellent dog-spotting opportunities. The restaurant itself is small, elegant and very much in keeping with the original design. It's just as lovely inside with about 30 or 40 covers spread across small, marble-topped tables, bar stools and a larger, farmhouse-style table, which would be great for groups. The interiors are gorgeous, and the space is bright and beautifully designed.

Like at Casse-Croûte, the menu is brief, with three starters (all at £8.50 or £9.50) and three mains (£18.50–£22.50) on offer. The entrecôte sounded great, but where was the celebrated chicken? We then realised we had skimmed over the Menu Autour du Poulet de Bresse (£38), which directed us to the board above the bar for further details. Our waitress explained what this entailed, but I'll admit that I wasn't paying as much attention as I perhaps should have done. The take-homes were that there were five chicken courses followed by a pudding. This seemed a tad indulgent for a Monday night but we decided to go for it (and with the special menu, everyone in the party has to opt in, presumably to prevent the non-poulet-consumers feeling too hard-done-by).

The drinks menu focused on wine, of course, and my brother and sister-in-law enjoyed a couple of different well-priced reds, but I went for a Jinzu G&T (£8), which was lovely and citrusy.

Then the food began to arrive. Courses one and two were, thankfully, small: chicken liver pâté, served with freshly baked bread, and a chicken croquette with onion jam. I've never liked pâté, but I figured that this was the perfect time to try it. Although I could have done with some more bread — we shared one small baguette between the three of us — it was creamy, rich and delicious. The croquette — bone-in — was also very tasty.

The next course was more challenging for me, my decade of vegetarianism coming back to haunt me. A consommé with asparagus came served with a skewer of offal: the comb, gizzard, heart and sweetbreads. The comb wasn't really my thing, but the others were incredibly flavoursome, even if I did have to work up the courage to try them.

Next up was the chicken breast served with the creamiest, most gorgeous mashed potato I've ever had (it usually comes with morel mushrooms, but they catered to my mushroom misgivings and served mine sans morille), followed by chicken thighs with a green salad. I thought the breast and thighs were both excellent, although my brother was a little less impressed with the thighs, which weren't quite so juicy and tender.

None of us had room for a pudding but it was hard to resist the call of the chocolate moelleux, which my sister and I both had, and which was incredibly rich, oozed with molten chocolate and came served with hazelnut ice cream. My brother's blueberry soufflé also got the thumbs up.

Even without a soft-launch discount, the autour du poulet menu is good value, given the quality of the food and the experience. We felt that it was a bit of a shame there wasn't a simple roast-chicken-and-mash option on the menu — because some nights require comfort food rather than six-course meals — but I'd like to go back to try the steak and the breakfast menu. And I'm sure this won't be my last adventure all around the chicken in six courses, either, especially as the park is only ten minutes' walk from my home.

Pique-Nique. Tanner Street Park, London, SE1 3LD (Tube: London Bridge). Website. Twitter. Instagram.

12 May 2017

Book Review: Startup by Doree Shafrir

If you like your summer reads served with a hefty side order of tweets, selfies and slack channels, you will probably enjoy BuzzFeed writer Doree Shafrir's novel Startup, a darkly comic, smart and keenly observed cautionary tale set in New York's fast-paced, social-media-saturated tech startup world.

The novel opens at a booze-free, pre-breakfast Morning Rave in a gentrified factory in hinterland between Williamsburg and Greenpoint. The young, the hip and the tech-savvy are all there to dance, network and post hashtag-hijacked selfies to their Instagram accounts. Present at the party are two twenty-somethings: Mack McAllister, the ambitious founder of a fledgling startup called TakeOff, and Katya Pasternack, a budding reporter struggling to prove her worth at online tech news outlet TechScene.

Mack needs to secure investment to launch the new-and-improved version of TakeOff app, a mindfulness app that scans your texts, social media posts and other data, in order to anticipate how you might be feeling at a given time and offer motivational suggestions to improve your mood. However, scaling up a small business into a larger, slicker operation — especially in New York, thousands of miles from Silicon Valley — comes with its challenges, and Mack himself, as a high-profile figure in the industry who has grand, perhaps even hubristic ambitions, is just one inappropriate text or tweet away from a crushing fall from grace.

Meanwhile, the founders of TechScene want the reporters to stop going for the low-hanging clickbait stories that bring in a steep but transient spike of page views and seek out the stories that yield greater engagement: repeat visits, comments, social media shares and 'scroll depth'. This is no mean feat when you can spend weeks reporting on a story only to be scooped by a single tweet spoiling the take-home message if you wait too long before publishing.

Fate brings Mack and Katya together a Katya accidentally stumbles on a potential lead that could secure her future at TechScene while destroying Mack's career. But nothing is straightforward in the incestuous New York tech world, where a reporter's boss might be married to someone who works for the company the reporter is writing about, and where publishing the story might also harm the reporter's relationship with her own boyfriend, who also runs a startup.

Shafrir's novel is sharp, fast-paced and all too familiar — particularly for anyone who works in technology, new media, social media or digital marketing. The point of view alternates between several key characters (most of them female, refreshingly); some are more likeable than others, but most are convincingly written. Mack sees himself as Steve Jobs, but others are less confident in his leadership and talent. He reminded me more of Jesse Eisenberg's portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network; at one point, he literally clicks refresh in an app waiting for a response, mirroring the final scene of David Fincher's film. Katya, as the young, solitary, single-minded hack, is a recognisable trope too, but Shafrir's writing brings verve and wit to the character.

I finished Startup in a single day and it's a tightly plotted, compelling tragicomedy of the digital age. It would also make a nice companion piece to Jon Ronson's So You've Been Publicly Shamed — or, of course, The Social Network, if you haven't already seen it.

Disclaimer: Startup was published by Little, Brown on 25 April. I received a pre-release copy via NetGalley. All opinions are my own.

10 May 2017

Welsh Weekend II: The Mawddach in May

I last visited Wales two years ago and I outlined some of my family's history with the county of Gwynedd in north-western Wales. In particular, many of our family holidays in my youth were spent in and around the towns of Barmouth and Dolgellau, hiking, exploring and — usually — getting wet. But I didn't explain the main reason we returned to the area so often, which was that my dad's West Midlands grammar school has, for the past 50 years, owned a small outward-bounds centre at Farchynys, four miles east of Barmouth along the northern side of the estuary of the Mawddach (pronounced mao-thach; the final ch is pronounced as in loch) River.

My dad spent many happy weeks as a pupil at Farchynys and has been returning to region ever since. In fact, he has such fond memories of the Mawddach, that he has written a book about the area and his school's history with this lovely part of the world (if you're interested, you can pre-order a copy of Marians on the Mawddach from Foyles). The book's Welsh launch was held on Saturday at Farchynys and my brother and I went along for the ride.

And yes, it was quite a ride... We had to take a train from Euston at the ungodly hour of 6:20 am on Saturday, but after only one change at the frustratingly Pret-free Birmingham International, we arrived at Machynlleth at 10:45 am, taking a taxi to Farchynys, to save some time. (If you are taking the train from London to Barmouth, the final stretch of the journey after Machynlleth is particularly beautiful as the train winds its way along the Cambrian Coast.)

I've been to the school's centre briefly before but this time we got the full tour along with the dozens of former staff and pupils and friends of the school who were there. We went on a gentle hike over some of the Farchynys headland, which offered some stunning views over the estuary. Unfortunately, the sun didn't come out so my photos were on the 'moody' side but at least it didn't rain.

Afterwards, we drove into Barmouth for a walk over the town's iconic railway bridge, which celebrates its 150th anniversary later this year. Barmouth in Welsh is Abermaw, which comes from aber (estuary) and Maw(ddach), and the bridge affords wonderful views both out into Cardigan Bay and of the estuary.

In the town itself, I spent some time browsing the excellent homewares and interiors store, Pieces for Places, which now has a second location selling jewellery and accessories. I was tempted by several Welsh blankets and throws, including one made from recycled plastic bottles, but mindful of my small bag and the long journey back to London, I restrained myself.

Next door to the smaller shop, though, I spotted the words "speciality coffee" and did a double take. Generally a "mug of cappuccino" tends to be the norm in these parts, but we all went into Bradshaw's (located at 2 Church Street) and ordered two macchiatos and a cappuccino. My brother was impressed with his cappuccino and my macchiato was nice too, if slightly too hot. The coffee is from Poblado Coffi, roasted locally in Nantlle Valley. They had several bags of retail coffee for sale and had they not already run out of the whole bean bags (a good sign!), I would definitely have bought some of the Ethiopian. Bradshaw's has only been open for a few weeks but I hope it is here to stay — and a sign of things to come in Barmouth.

We had a big group dinner on Saturday night at the George III Hotel in Penmaenpool, which is on the other side of the Mawddach, close to Dolgellau. There is still a working toll bridge by the hotel, which — when it's open — saves a good three miles of driving when en route from Penmaenpool to Farchynys or Barmouth. I've stayed at the hotel a few times but not for a couple of decades; it doesn't seem to have changed much.

We were staying at Farchynys Farm B&B again, and despite being tired from a long day, my brother and I got up relatively early to go for a run. Two of the B&B's rooms have lovely views over the estuary and as the sun was out too, I couldn't resist taking a picture of my Aeropress-brewed Weanie Beans coffee with a rather more picturesque background than usual.

Our run was short but steep — leaving from the B&B, we turned right onto the main road and then took the first public footpath on the left, a few hundred metres down the road. We ran through the woods and were worried a) where we would end up (the path isn't on Google Maps) and b) that there would be no viewpoint. Luckily, our fears were misplaced and soon we were jumping for joy in the glorious sunshine with spectacular views down over the Mawddach and along to Barmouth Bridge. You can follow the path further and loop back down to the main road, but we didn't have time; after all, we had earned our fab cooked breakfast back at the B&B.

We drove back to the West Midlands with my parents, stopping for a quick lunch at Churncote Farm Shop near Shrewsbury, and then on to visit my grandparents, before catching the train from Walsall back to London. The journey home wasn't really any quicker than the train, but as there is only one train from on Sundays, leaving Barmouth at about 3:00 pm and arriving into Euston over five hours later, at least we made it home slightly earlier. If you're thinking of visiting Barmouth or Dolgellau from London for the weekend — and you should — try to take a half or all of Friday off work so that you can have a full day on Saturday.

5 May 2017

Apéros at Giant Robot, Canary Wharf

I've long been a fan of the street food emporia run by the Street Feast team (see also my reviews of Hawker House in Canada Water, Model Market in Lewisham and Hawker House in Hackney) and when my Instagram was bombarded recently with pictures of delicious food and drinks at the latest venue, I knew it wouldn't take long for me to visit.

Giant Robot is located in Crossrail Place in Canary Wharf and it's an ambitious venture that feels quite different to the other Street Feast venues I've visited. I often struggle to navigate in the labyrinthine tunnels of Canary Wharf but made it out into the daylight of Crossrail Place in just over five minutes' walk from the Jubilee Line. It was a beautiful Saturday and the building that houses Giant Robot looked suitably futuristic and robotic, glinting in the early evening sunshine. No, Toto, we are not in Lewisham anymore.

My brother, sister-in-law and I rode the escalators up to the rooftop and, to our surprise, found ourselves in a verdant park — a sort of 'sky garden', if you will (if only the real Sky Garden was more like this and less like an airport terminal). There were even birds — nature!

We headed over to the Giant Robot entrance and wandered inside. Unlike some of the other Street Feast venues, this one is entirely indoors — there is a wrap-around balcony, with some nice views of Docklands and the cable car, but on a sunny evening, there were a fair few smokers out there. The big glass windows mean you will probably also get a good view from wherever you're sitting indoors. Perhaps because Giant Robot is new and perhaps because it was a Saturday in Canary Wharf, it wasn't as packed with people as I had been expecting, which has been my experience at most other Street Feasts. There was a nice ambiance and enough people to give it some energy, particularly later in the evening, but there were plenty of tables and we didn't have to queue.

Another difference I noticed was that there were only four food vendors, plus a few bars serving craft beer, wine and cocktails. BOB's Lobster — purveyors of one London's finest lobster rolls — was there and so was Yum Bun, whose Taiwanese buns I've enjoyed at various street food markets over the years. There was also BBQ chicken shop, Thunderbird, and Little José, a tapas bar from Bermondsey-Street-based José Pizarro. Before I arrived, I'd planned to eat at Thunderbird, but a change of dinner plans meant we decided just to get starters at Giant Robot, and Little José seemed like the perfect venue.

Between three of us, we shared the spicy prawn fritters (£8), which were probably the winner; croquetas with ham (£6.50); and the Iberico ham on tomato bread (£8.50). These light viands weren't especially cheap but they were delicious and just about the right amount of food.

Drinks-wise, I tried a few different cocktails, most of which were £9-10 (a little pricier than the other Street Feasts, but this is Canary Wharf...). The negroni sbagliato was rather good, as was Little José's take on the G&T, with Gin Mare and rosemary. The cocktail bar was particularly well stocked — I spotted my favourite Death's Door gin on the shelf — but my brother was a little frustrated to discover that ordering off the (somewhat limited and not particularly creative) cocktail menu wasn't possible. I can understand why when it's super busy but it was relatively quiet when we were there.

I'd like to go back to Giant Robot on a week night to see what it's like then — at least, I think I would; perhaps it's insanely busy with the banking crowd. Giant Robot also feels the most corporate of all the Street Feasts I've visited. This is entirely unsurprising given the probable target audience. I think having one or two more vendors to provide more variety might also help, although I could quite happily eat lobster rolls, BBQ and tapas all night long! And for those of us with winter birthdays, the indoor nature of Giant Robot makes it a great destination for an informal celebration with a group.

As for where we went for dinner, on arriving in the rooftop garden, we spotted the Canary Wharf branch of a surf-turf family favourite of ours, The Big Easy, and couldn't resist putting our name down for a table. The food was great as usual and the restaurant was buzzing, but the constant, shameless up-selling ("my personal recommendation is the steak and lobster") was a little off-putting. After dinner, we went back to Giant Robot for another drink or two.

Giant Robot. Garden Level, Crossrail Place, Canary Wharf, London, E14 5AR (Tube: Canary Wharf). Website. Twitter. Instagram. Open every day, 11 am until late.