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Book Reviews

Famous Last Words Toronto

September 12, 2017
The cocktail menu at Famous Last Words in Toronto.

Joining a book club was one of the best decisions I’ve made. It gives me the opportunity to read fascinating books I might otherwise have missed out on, the women in my group are amazing and on top of that, I discovered Famous Last Words — a book-themed bar in Toronto.  Famous Last Words takes reading seriously — their cocktail list is novella-sized and each drink is named after a well-known novel, their bar is made of Scrabble tiles and the book theme carries through all their decor. But for book clubs the best part might just be the signature cocktail they make when you reserve a table for your group discussion.

On our first visit, we had two books to discuss — Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic, which is about the power of creativity, and Zoe Whittall’s The Best Kind of People, which is a dark and nuanced literary novel — and the bartender did not disappoint. For Big Magic we had a fun yellow cocktail that changed colours when you added bitters and for The Best Kind of People we had a custom take on a dark and stormy, both perfectly paired with the books. For the record, I got a lot from Big Magic (not everyone agreed) and if you’re a writer or artist, it’s worth checking out. And The Best Kind of People was a brilliant, twisty read that everyone agreed was well-written and interesting.

Mona Awad's 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat GirlFor our recent visit, we had read Mona Awad’s 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, which was a book I found extremely powerful. It’s a literary novel about one woman’s struggles with her weight and the way it infuses every part of her life. For this one, the bartender made us a vodka-based take on a cleanse with lemon and a hint of habanero. It was spicy and tart and a pretty good compliment to a complex and compelling read.

Not a drinker? Famous Last Words has that covered in style — they have an extensive YA menu, featuring mocktails based on Young Adult classics. Our group loved The Hunger Games and it’s nice to see so much craft and care going into all the drinks available. We felt totally comfortable that those who choose not to have a cocktail would still have a great experience with us.

A "Cleanse" themed cocktail at Famous Last WordsFamous Last Words is worth seeking out whether you want to take your book club out on the town or just want to have casual drinks in a relaxed and unique atmosphere. They host events throughout the year and be sure to call ahead if you’re bringing a group and hoping for a custom concoction!

Planning a visit? They’re at 392 Pacific Avenue in Toronto.

Thanks to the amazing Amy who suggested this post. She’s a book club regular, a dance class bestie and a FODMAP expert – be sure to check out her site, The FODMAP Formula if that’s a diet you need to follow.

And, for the record, this is not a sponsored post. I just really like this bar and think you will too.

 

Book Reviews

Champagne, Uncorked By Alan Tardi

August 15, 2016
Champagne Uncorked by Alan Tardi

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When I started taking wine classes, I was instantly enchanted with Champagne. The unique terroir, the traditions of the region, the exacting process of making the bubbles so perfectly, it all drew me in. Since then, I’ve had the pleasure of trying several Champagnes, but never Krug, the subject of this book by wine and food writer Alan Tardi. After reading Champagne, Uncorked: The House of Krug and the Timeless Allure of the World’s Most Celebrated Drink, I feel like I need to rectify this very soon.

Champagne Uncorked by Alan TardiTardi immersed himself in the world of Krug over the course of a year – an entire vintage production cycle. Along with this hands-on experience of every aspect of producing Krug Champagne, he interspersed the history of this famous Champagne house. It’s a little like the recent documentary, A Year in Champagne, with a lot more history and a stronger sense of the personality of the author.

I felt throughout the book as though I’d like to have a glass of Champagne with Tardi one day. He doesn’t come off as stuffy and affected, but as genuinely passionate about his subject and not afraid to admit that, even after years of wine writing, he’s still a little unsure in some wine-related situations – like when he was suddenly asked to add his opinion during a rapid-fire tasting to help choose the blend. I’m sure I would have been immobilized in that moment (especially given my pokey nature as a taster) and it was comforting to know that Tardi was a bit thrown, though he recovers quickly.

I quite enjoyed this book, taking away a wealth of new knowledge about Champagne, the House of Krug and the changing world of Champagne production (in particular as ownership of many big houses shifts away from families to large corporations). I would highly recommended this one for wine-lovers and bubble obsessives alike. I liked it so much that I’ve already added Tardi’s other book, Romancing the Vine: Life, Love, and Transformation in the Vineyards of Barolo, to my reading list.

Like wine books? Check out all my recent book reviews!

Have you read Champagne Uncorked? Do you plan to? Share your thoughts below or on social

*While I received a review copy of this book, all opinions are my own.

Book Reviews

Nose: A Novel

June 20, 2016
A review of Nose, a novel by James Conaway

I recently finished another novel set in the wine world, as I play catch-up on my backlog of wine reading. Nose is a novel by wine critic James Conaway that has been sitting on my shelf for about a year. It tells the story of a mystery wine that blows away a pompous, old school wine critic and leads him on a quest to find out who made this incredible wine.

The story starts out with wine critic Clyde Craven-Jones, but CJ is far from the only character whose perspective is shared—there’s Les, a young journalist turned wine obsessive and makeshift PI, Claire, CJ’s long-suffering wife, Sara, a medical technician and the daughter of a California wine scion struggling under debt, Cotton, an environmentally conscious winemaker devastated by the loss of his great love and seething over the role of Sara’s father in that tragedy and Sam, the owner of Glass Works, the wine bar where everything comes together at some point or another.

All these characters (and a few others of less import) weave in and out of the narrative, as we piece together the complex story of this wine and the people in its orbit. There’s also Nose, the gossipy wine blog that bedevils CJ (an old school wine critic annoyed by a blogger – that would never happen, right?), as his own publication struggles.

There’s a lot going on in this book. I might argue that there’s actually way too much going on, since I often found myself losing the plot threads. But I would say the biggest flaw with this book is that you stay with the characters for such a short time that you don’t really understand (or even like) them. Les seems like the central character, and is something of an anti-hero, but I found myself mostly confused and annoyed by his behaviour. C.J. flits back and forth between pompous fop and misunderstood genius and Claire, who is the most likable character in the beginning, drifts off in a very weird direction by the end.

The mystery of the wine isn’t terribly mysterious (it’s fairly obvious where this part of the plot is going from early on), but there were a few surprising twists and turns along the way. Conaway clearly knows and understands the California wine industry and I suspect some of the characters are based on the people he’s met along the way. Unlike real life, though, sometimes it’s better to try and tell the story from fewer perspectives to have the most impact.

I have a few more Conaway books on my list for 2016 and I’m excited to see how I feel about his non-fiction. Novels are a personal thing, so I’d be interested in hearing from others who have read Nose and their thoughts on the book! Share your reviews of Nose in the comments or on social.

Book Reviews

Gin Glorious Gin

May 30, 2016
Gin Glorious Gin book

It’s hard not to be horrified by some of the history chronicled in Gin Glorious Gin—the story of gin in London through the ages—children drinking pints of straight gin, drunken revelers so sauced they have to crash in the helpful piles of straw bars provided in the 1700s, or gin cut with such lovely items as turpentine. But this book is far from dour, author Olivia Williams has written a rousing history that starts off with the first references to gin in London and moves through to modern times.

Gin Glorious Gin bookI found myself reading passages out loud to Shawn on a recent drive to Niagara—completely entranced by the little old ladies who, drunk on gin, were a constant source of frustration to London police in the 1800s. It seems that the spirit made their behaviour less than exemplary, but somewhat amusing when viewed through a modern lens.

There’s a cautionary tale here to be sure. While Britain managed to make it through history without prohibition, they learned the hard way that unlimited access to alcohol—gin for the most part—was a recipe for disaster. The drunken madness that reigned in the 1700s until almost the First World War left a dark legacy. But, like most of the developed world, England started to regulate and manage alcohol consumption and it levelled off to where it is today. People discovered vodka and wine, leaving gin to flounder in the post-1960s.

For me, that was where the magic of this book started to wane a bit. The history of gin in London was just so vibrant and horrifying in pre-WWI that the post-war calm and cocktail craze seems practically quaint. The history of producers is interesting, though, and the notes about famous gin drinkers like author Kingsley Amis made for great additions. It was also neat to learn about the cocktails created for Royal weddings and that time the Queen’s butler had to break the rules to bring her preferred gin to an event.

I also enjoyed the final chapter, where Williams sets out distilling methods, explains the botanicals most commonly used in production and outlines where to drink the best gin cocktails in London. There’s some great info in this section that I was able to reference in my recent Introduction to Spirits course.

For those who are interested in the history of spirits, this book will make a fabulous addition to your library. While focusing solely on London was a bold choice, it turns out there’s more than enough from the city to make for a substantial read. Just be prepared to cringe and recoil in horror while reading about the excess and awfulness of alcohol consumption in the London’s early years.

And if you’re craving a gin cocktail now, I can recommend a few from Dillon’s Distillery in Niagara, Ontario. Shawn and I are big fans of the strawberry gin and are looking forward to cracking our bottle soon. Strawberry gin is best drunk on its own to fully appreciate the delicate flavours, but Dillon’s Unfiltered Gin 22 is a great base for cocktails, like the Blue Spruce or The Gin 22.

Do you have a favourite gin? Share it in the comments below or on social!