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Dinner At Mine By Chris Smyth

Journalist Chris Smyth’s debut novel Dinner At Mine is the reading book which has accompanied me on my way to work for a week – and it definitely made the bus trip seem a lot shorter which must mean that I enjoyed this book immensely!

One of the reasons why I picked up this book was because it’s loosely based on the concept of TV’s Come Dine With Me; a show of which I’m a massive fan. To be honest, I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like Come Dine With Me and many countries actually have their own version of the show – some of which I’ve seen and enjoyed. Even though the show has been around since 2005 (nearly ten years. My goodness!) it’s still as popular as ever with viewers despite slight changes to the format and for a while the nation went Come Dine With Me crazy, hosting their own dinner party events with friends.

 

And that is basically the concept for this book: a group of friends get together and compete to see who can hold the best dinner party. Even though they got the idea from the TV show, there are some fundamental differences:

  • Dinner parties are hosted in pairs rather than by four or five individual hosts.
  • Dinners are hosted once a week over a four week period rather than on consecutive nights.
  • There is no cash prize – they’re competing purely for glory!
  • Sadly, there is no voiceover from Dave Lamb. Shame!

The couples hosting dinners are: happily-marrieds Rosie and Stephen, proud parents of baby Jonathan; career couple, secretly-yearning-to-be wed Sarah and her ultra-competitive boyfriend Marcus; socially conscious vegetarian Justin and his beautiful,  American, artist girlfriend, Barbara, and reluctant singletons, Charlotte and Matthew who are thrown together by Rosie  in the hope that dinner won’t be the only thing cooking between the two of them!

 

The competition is Rosie’s idea and she is the one responsible for selecting this eclectic group of people, some of whom are good friends, while others are acquaintances and some are meeting the others for the first time. What should be simple and straight-forward proves to be anything but. Despite Marcus being the most competitive, determined to find fault with the other teams, friendship counts for nothing as everyone wants to be the best and win despite there not being any prizes – and they will go to any lengths to achieve their moment of glory.

 

The actual dinner party events are secondary to the tensions and problems in the lives of the competitors which is further exacerbated by the competition causing jealousies, insecurities and hostilities to come to the fore thus creating friendships and relationships to collapse faster than a cheese soufflé. There is tension between best friends Matthew and Stephen regarding lawyer Matthew’s former relationship with Rosie while the three friends were at university; Sarah is questioning her career and relationship choices;  Barbara’s career is in decline and she’s having trouble renewing her visa, both of which impact heavily on her relationship with Justin, and trouble-making loudmouth Charlotte can’t help stirring the pot every opportunity she gets.

 

I found this book to be a real page-turner; I couldn’t wait to get to the end. I really liked how the novel was divided into four parts, where each part focused on a different party which gives the reader a real sense of where they are in the story. The characters decide the best way to deliver votes is by email and I thoroughly enjoyed reading their overly frank comments and ridiculous reasons for why points were being deducted (tactical scoring of course!) And there were a few twists in the tale too – some of which really surprised me.

 

Smyth tells a great tale of what happens when an element of competition is introduced within a circle of friends. It could even be a metaphor for modern day society in which manners; honesty, and consideration towards others count for nothing as it’s every man for himself, and indeed many of the characters do exactly as they please and take what they want at the expense of the others. All the characters are flawed in one way or another but I have to say that  by the end of the novel, I really couldn’t stand most of them. Gossipy, bitchy, uptight, highly-strung, back-stabbing… all thanks to a three-course meal! It also seemed quite obvious to me that one character had an alcohol problem while another seemed to be suffering from a mild form of depression but neither of these issues were touched upon. I was also quite disappointed that the endings to some of the sub-plots were not neatly tied-up but were just left hanging.

However, I really did enjoy reading Dinner At Mine. It was thoroughly entertaining. I’m sure many of my fellow commuters thought I was a bit of a lunatic, grinning away to myself, but there were also moments were I felt quite sorry for some of the characters, and believe me, if I could have climbed into this book and given some of the characters a good slap – I would have!

A great book published by Simon and Schuster in 2012. I can’t wait to read Smyth’s next novel.

 

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The Unexpected Tale Of The Flypaper

 

Being a fan of quality television and having an intense dislike for most of the reality rubbish that is on these days, I’ve taken to watching old episodes of Tales Of The Unexpected – the show which features dancing silhouettes emerging from flames in its opening credits along with a freakish yet seductive theme tune which has something of a carousel vibe! It was very popular in the 1980s although I didn’t get to see many episodes due to it being on way past my bedtime!

 

But I’m making up for lost time now and really enjoying the episodes. As usual every episode ends with an unexpected twist – and I spend the last ten minutes of every episode trying to suss out the twist. I’m happy to say that I’m usually wrong as I like the element of surprise.

 

However one episode which left me more than just a little surprised is the notorious The Flypaper written  by Elizabeth Taylor (no, not that Elizabeth Taylor!) I have yet to watch every episode of Tales of The Unexpected but I’m sure when I do I won’t find any that is as chilling and disturbing as The Flypaper. It was so creepy it was all I could think about for days.

The story centres around recently orphaned Sylvia Wilkinson who lives with her cold and uncaring old battle-axe of a grandmother. At this particular time, there is a child killer on the loose and Sylvia becomes anxious as she catches glimpses of a middle-aged man who she thinks might be following her. He manages to board her bus one day just as she thinks she has escaped him and starts to harass the timid schoolgirl. Thankfully for Sylvia, a kind and motherly lady witnesses the man’s behaviour and comes to Sylvia’s rescue… but far from being safe, Sylvia’s nightmare has just begun. The viewer can definitely empathise with Sylvia and sense her acute fear; her feelings of powerlessness and the overwhelming feeling of claustrophobia.

The underlying message of the tale is that you can’t trust anyone and really brings home the issue of ‘stranger danger.’ What made the episode even more dark and macabre is that despite it having been made more than 30 years ago, with today’s dangers of stalking, abuse, abduction and child disappearances, it is probably more relevant today than it was back then.

It is such an effective piece of drama that I actually think it might be an idea to show it in schools in order to explain to schoolchildren why they should be careful of people they don’t know. Even though The Flypaper probably didn’t intend to be, it’s quite an educational episode. The only problem is that there’d be a lot of irate mums and dads who’d have to put up with their kids taking refuge in their rooms (just like I used to!)

 

One of the good things about this episode is that it has introduced me to the work of Elizabeth Taylor (the non-Oscar winner!) and I’m interested in reading her novels and short stories. I can’t wait to watch the rest of the episodes… although I know that none of them will be anything like The Flypaper

 

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