5 Books Featuring Food

There are two types of people: those who eat to live and those who live to eat. I form part of the latter category, I guess part of that includes reading about food as well. As you can guess, here are 5 of my fave foodie books.

5. Roald Dahl – Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

That was the cover of the edition I read back in 1986. Anyway a lot of Roald Dahl’s book contain food but I think Charlie.. is the best of the lot. Inspired by Dahl’s days as a chocolate bar tester for Cadbury, this story about a boy who wins a tour of a chocolate factory, along with four of the worst children to walk the earth is now considered a classic.

Ali Smith – There but for the

Ever attended a bad dinner party? Well in There but for the, Ali Smith creates the dinner party from hell. Imagine sitting with a bunch of people who are racist, homophobic, boring and think they know everything. Furthermore this party scene takes up half the book. Obviously this represents Ali Smith’s way of discussing politics, art and technology but it’s also a fascinating read.

3. Aimee Bender – The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake

Magical realism and food always tend to be a create combination. In Aimee Bender’s book, a girl can feel the emotions of people in the food they make. Which means that if someone is depressed and gives the narrator a cake they baked, the second the narrator eats it, she’ll know that the creator is depressed. I’ll won’t go on about how the book develops because there’s some little surprises on the way.

2. Nigel Slater – Toast

If you read one food bio, make it this one.

1 Lucy Ellmann – Ducks, Newburyport

A cheat because I’m only halfway through the book but this one sentence (more or less due to a reoccurring subplot) 1030 page novel is a foodie’s paradise. The main protagonist bakes pies so there’s tips on latticing cherry pies and the types of cherries one must use, the art of the perfect cinnamon roll, the dangers of fast food, how meat eating is a sign of a degenerate society and even a stock take of a freezer and I’m only mentioning a tiny bit of the foodie passages. I’m sure there’s more to come.

Honorable mentions : Laura Esquivel – Like Water for Chocolate, Philip Roth – Portnoy’s Complaint, John Kennedy Toole – A Confederacy of Dunces, Irvine Welsh – Filth

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Booker Prize 2019 Longlist Prediction

On Wednesday 24th The Booker Prize Longlist will be announced. As always it’s fun guessing what’s on the list. The Booker has a history of being unpredictable but it’s still a fun game. Generally a Booker Longlist consists of a couple of experimental novels, some established authors, a couple of Booker returns and the curveball novel. Unfortunately as Ali Smith has announced that she will not let her publisher submit any of her books for the prize, I will be leaving Spring out. Here’s my list (click on the highlighted title for my review):

Laila Lalami – The Other Americans

Madhuri Vijay – The Far Field

Ocean Vuong – On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous

Nicola Barker – I am Sovereign

Bernardine Evaristo – Girl, Woman Other

Elif Shafak – 10 Minutes, 38 Seconds in this Strange World

Jan Carson – The Fire Starters

Lucy Ellmann – Ducks, Newburyport

Deborah Levy – The Man who saw Everything

Colson Whitehead – The Nickel Boys

Sandra Newman – The Heavens

Max Porter – Lanny

Valeria Luiselli – Lost Children Archive

Ray Robinson – The Mating Habits of Stags

Once again that weird book symmetry has cropped up. The last book I read was based in the Welsh countryside and featured the more animalistic side of human nature. The Mating Habits of Stags takes place in the Yorkshire farmlands and has people behaving according to their instincts.

Jake is on the run, he has just committed a crime and has escaped into the woods to hide. His only friend Sheila does not want him to stay with her. Why does Jake commit this crime? and more importantly why is Shelia bearing the repercussions of Jake’s actions when she didn’t have anything to do with the felony committed?

I may make this sound like a thriller but The Mating Habits of Stags is not that. This is a book about profound relationships. How the love for a person may affect you? How one can overcome problems and love someone no matter the circumstances. As more clues are revealed in the book we reader’s find out that both characters have made sacrifices in order to love, be it a partner or child. No matter what the circumstances are love prevails.

Robinson’s writing is beautiful, there are passages about nature, which I had to reread, same with Jake’s first dalliances with true love. However the writing also shifts according to the character. When there’s a rough character then the writing shifts a bit into Northern dialect, the more sensitive people have poetic writing.

The Mating Habits of Stags works on all levels. It is a pleasure to read. There are fully formed characters and it examines feelings in a deep and sensitive manner. It is also worth noting that the book started life as a short film before, also written by Ray Robinson and worth watching.

Many thanks to Lightning Books for providing a requested copy of The Mating Habits of Stags in exchange for an honest review.

Lucie McKnight Hardy – Water Shall Refuse Them

At the moment Malta is going through a heatwave. When you go out the sun’s heat pounds at your head, sweat drips off you and everything is hazy. Thankfully I read Water Shall Refuse them in my air-conditioned living room but I could definitely relate to the book.

The setting is the UK heatwave of 1976, the one that lasted a month and a half and temperatures went as high as 36 C. Nif’s (short for Jennifer) family (mother,father and younger brother) have just suffered a tragedy and are staying in rural Wales for a month in order to sort themselves out. Nif already has started some eccentric habits which she takes with her on this trip.

Nif then meets Mal and she discovers a kindred soul and in the process uncover the secrets the village and unearth some peculiarities.

Water Shall Refuse Them has a creepy factor which gets more intense as secrets are revealed. Mcknight cleverly does not reveal everything in the first chapter, rather teasing the reader and dropping clues and exposing secrets gradually. As I read the last half of the novel in the dark, I do admit that I did feel uneasy, especially during the conclusion. At times I was reminded of the looming sinister atmosphere that Iain Banks’ Wasp factory exudes, with the pastoral traces of The Wicker Man and the intensity of Ari Aster’s Hereditary, all reference points are positive for me.

I enjoyed reading Water Shall Refuse Them. In a time where coming of age stories are common it’s refreshing to find one that stands out. Not only does this debut suck you in from page one but also manages to evoke that hot feeling of a heatwave. An immersive novel.

Claire McGlasson – The Rapture

When I heard that Claire McGlasson’s debut novel The Rapture, was about cults, I just HAD to read it. Cults fascinate me. Why? I don’t know but they just do. What made The Rapture even more enticing was that the cult mentioned is The Panacea Society, which actually did exist and I’ve never heard of before.

Briefly, The Panacea Society was by Mabel Barltrop (who renamed herself Octavia) in 1919, Bedford, England and followed the teachings of Joanna Southcott. Members of the society had to live pure lives and reporting sinful behaviour to the leader was encouraged. The main objective, though was to persuade Anglican bishops to open a sealed box which Southcott left behind.

The book itself focuses on Dily, who, at first is devout but as she sees that Octavia’s obsessions become threatening she has to find a way to escape. Something which is difficult.

Mixing fact with fiction, I did find parts of the book interesting and it is well written but that does not mean the book has flaws. I did think that it was overlong at times and there were too many descriptions about Dilys indecision towards the cult. It was a learning experience though and it has deepened my fascination towards cults.

Is The Rapture worth a read? I guess so but focus on the workings of the cult and you’ll be satisfied.

Many thanks to Faber and Faber for providing a requested copy of The rapture in exchange for an honest review

5 Essential Ali Smith Books

Readers of this blog know that I am a huge Ali Smith fan. I like the way she plays around with the novel, stuffs a ton of topics in her plots and yet is accessible at the same time. Although I have not read ALL of Ali Smith’s publications (I have one short story collection left and I’m looking for a decently priced used copy of her her play The Seer) I think at this juncture I can list the ones you HAVE to read.

5. Hotel World

Hotel World is a series of interconnected short stories all taking place in different hotel rooms. The fun part is piecing together the event that links all the guests together.

4. Girl meets Boy

Ali Smith’s entry in the Canongate Myth series is a stunner; a retelling of Ovid in Ali Smith style. cf her retelling of Antigone, which inspired Kamila Shamsie to write her Women’s Prize winning novel, Home Fire.

3. The Accidental

Ali Smith’s third novel, The Accidental ,displays Ali Smith breaking from the confines of a normal novel and developing the signature style which she still utilises in her writings today. The plot focuses on a girl disrupting a normal family. Blank pages, weird formatting and loads of quirk. A good place to start (alongside Autumn) for Ali Smith novices.

2. Spring

The latest entry in the seasonal quartet (Summer is coming out in 2020) is the best one so far. To be honest all three should be here but I do feel that Spring tops Autumn and Winter in plot structure and cleverness.

1 How to be Both

I’ve gone on about this one many times. All I’ll say is that this is the ultimate Ali Smith work and HAS to be read.

Honourable mentions: Autumn, Winter, There but for the, The Story of Antigone, Public Library.

Ali Smith – Like

When you have an author like Ali Smith, who writes experimental novels, it is interesting to see where everything started from. Like is Smith’s debut novel and…. well.. let’s get on with the review.

A typical Ali Smith novel will have bouncing interconnected timelines, jokes, wordplay, funny moments. Sometimes ghosts appear and there’s the criticism of contemporary society, politics, media, bureaucracy and art.

All of that is in Like.

The novel is divided into two halves. The first part is about Amy and her daughter Kate. Amy has a low paid job but manages to get by. At one point she visits her mother and her and Kate go to Naples for a holiday. The crucial section of the book happens when Amy receives a call from a journalist asking her about her friend Aisling McCarthy. This part of the novel focuses mostly on wordplay and language.

The second part is from Aisling’s diaries. The reader gets her point of view of life and her friendship with Amy. This is the more politically driven section of the book and is about the differences between Scotland and U.K (and to a certain extent the U.S.)

My problem with Like is that it feels stuffed. Generally an Ali Smith book does not use justification, has short sentences and a large font. That is absent in Like and for a 350 page novel, it can be a bit of a slog. Passages tend to feel like an info dump and the traditional structure doesn’t work too well. I felt quite unsatisfied by the end of the book. When compared to the rest of her faultless bibliography, Like could be seen as her weakest novel.

If there is an advantage is that all the major themes of Smith’s novels can be found in Like. It’s just that in later years they are structured in a more accessible way. Like is definitely not recommended for someone starting with Ali Smith but is important as well just for seeing where her thematic roots originate from.