Book Reviews: “Proof” & “Dial M for Merlot”

I must be the most frustrating book reviewer in the world.  When I agree to review a book relevant to food and wine enthusiasts, the publicist sends me a promotional copy.  And then… they wait.  Sometimes for quite a while. Because I have two habits that virtually guarantee my review will miss the critical 6-8 week period following release:

  1. I read the entire book .  Most reviewers see this behavior as inefficient. Farcical, even. But a fair review requires an understanding of the book’s gestalt, not just a skim of a few pages.  Besides, if I struggle to finish the book in a timely manner it usually means other readers will too.
  2. I don’t enjoy publishing bad reviews.  I know how difficult it is to craft a compelling story and tell it in an engaging manner. But a desire to caution readers from investing time and money on a book they may not enjoy eventually means the review gets publish.

I apologize to the publicists for being so late to the party.

Dial M for Merlot, by Howard K

20141207_161416This is the first effort from author “Howard K”, who spins an interesting tale.  But sadly, that tale was told via the prose of a novice author employing metaphors so clumsy they were sometimes painful to read. In addition, Mr. K uses a rather liberal hand in sprinkling gratuitous sex throughout his story, with female characters that seem to have sprung from one of Ian Fleming’s old James Bond series – fun, pretty baubles to adorn a male protagonist.

And finally, Mr. K requires the reader to suspend belief and accept the absurdity that a virgin computer nerd / Star Trek enthusiast without any interest in fine wine or food, can transmogrify into an expert wine taster and womanizer within a few short months.

That said, by making his protagonist a wine novice, Howard K has a convenient reason for diving into some substantial details about wine, and doing so without ever making his story seem like a dry reference piece.  It is a great conceit for leading the general public to a greater appreciation of this ancient and noble beverage.  In addition, he has woven a story of intrigue, in fact one that I think could be easily adapted to the big screen.   The story line is engaging despite the author’s shortcomings as a writer, which improve over the course of the book.  Quite dramatically, in fact.  

Which gives me hope that Howard K’s next book will be even better.  

2.5 out of 5 stars.

Proof – The Science of Booze – Adam Rogers


Rogers’s book is just the opposite.  An experience writer (for Wired Magazine), he sprinkles his dry humor throughout this dry subject, well researched and supported with a 19-page notes section.  A book about booze being dry?  Well, yes and no.  The subject is near and dear to the heart of any fan of wine/beer/cocktails, but READING about yeast/distillation/fermentation and hangovers is about as engaging as reading a manual on good sex.  It’s more enjoyable to put down the book and actually partake.

That said, those willing to read through the tough parts will find many valuable nuggets as they mine this book for fun and useful information. The well-researched chapters don’t really flow in a cohesive narrative, but that also makes them easy to serve as stand-alone topics.  I confess to not reading this book in sequence, as my interest in yeast or sugar are not as great as those of Aging, Smell & Taste, or Body & Brain, each of which I found to be useful chapters.  I’ve taken notes for future classes and presentation from each of these chapters.  Valuable nuggets abound for those willing to do a little hard rock mining.

All in all, this is a book for which any enthusiast of wine/beer/spirits will gladly make room on their bookshelf.

3.5 out of 5 stars.

Cheers! Dave

Book Review: The Vintage Caper, Peter Mayle

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My wife and I enjoy our family time, but it leaves few opportunities for adult conversations.  We sometimes make up for this by reading to each other, each of us alternating chapters, from a book of mutual interest.  We don’t do this often, but it was something we did on our honeymoon, where we were joined by Ruth Reichl (brought to life through her book, Garlic & Saphires…)  and we’ve enjoyed it ever since.

When Peter Mayle’s latest book – The Vintage Caper – arrived in the mail, my wife said “I was just about to buy that for you!”  I’m an unabashed (i.e., slightly jealous) fan of Peter Mayle’s writing as well as his life in France. His descriptions of French wine, food and culture are masterful works born of his keen observations and engaging storytelling ability. An imaginative reader can easily picture Mayle telling his story with a twinkle of delight in his eye.

Click to see all Mayle's works.

Sadly, the same is not true of his fictional works.  I’ve read four of them over the years (yes, you’d think I’d learn by now) and none capture the same zest as his delightful observational works.  His fictional stories are formulaic and unnatural, as if he finds writing such things dreary work.  My wife described his view of women as “a little backwards”, though I tend to excuse him his shortcomings, as his world view was set by his coming of age in the world of 1960’s advertising (I easily imagine him as a copywriter from Mad Men).

By contrast, he seems to find writing about life in France a more joyful way to spend his day.  I can hardly blame him, frankly.  Any Francophile or food lover is well rewarded by a full collection of these delightful books.

His non-fiction track record continues with his latest mystery, The vintage Caper.  With its dual setting in L.A. and Marseilles and its story of thievery in one of the world’s best cellars (ripped from the headlines, as they say), we REALLY wanted to enjoy this book.  Instead we found it only partly engaging.

Wine fans will appreciate his description of the wines and cellars as well as some choice cafe settings – the accuracy of his painstakingly researched wine notes is unsurpassed.  But the characters themselves were thinly developed and barely believable.

If you’re thinking of shelling out a few hard-earned shekels for “Vintage Capers” I encourage you to click instead on Mayle’s image, above – that will take you to a complete listing of his works.  Try instead any of his non-fiction stories about life in Provence, and your rare and treasured hours reserved for reading will be much more enjoyably spent.

Happy Reading!