THIS WEEK’S NEW BOOKS REVIEWED | FEATURE
THE EMPEROR’S FEAST: A HISTORY OF CHINA IN TWELVE MEALS
Jonathan Clements (Hodder & Stoughton)
The Emperor’s Feast is neither a cookbook nor a history book, but a wonderful hybrid of both genres. Not to be mistaken for a recipe collection, the text instead focuses on the much more interesting story of how certain dishes were popularised and why they were created in the first place.
In the opening pages of the book, there is a list of dynasties and political periods, alongside detailed maps, to give context to those not familiar with China’s history. Each chapter begins with a handy synopsis of the key facts about the dish: creation date, ingredients, cooking method and other reasons why the dish is noteworthy. “Early use of chopsticks” and “the appearance of the first teas” serve as two such examples. This is followed by a historical quote offering a sometimes poetic, always informative contemporary opinion before the story begins.
Jonathan Clements’ writing style is easy and approachable. Personal anecdotes alongside the historical backdrop mean readers are not overwhelmed, rather gently acquainted with the story of the dishes. Throughout the text, the 12 recipes act as central plot points, creating a novel perspective on traditional history book tropes that will engage both foodies and historians alike.
Price: £25/£19.99 audiobook. Info: here
words ELOUISE HOBBS
HOW THE ONE-ARMED SISTER SWEEPS HER HOUSE
Cherie Jones (Tinder Press)
Caribbean author Cherie Jones’ debut novel is an unsettling insight to the violent life of a young, first-time mother called Lala. The darkness, so beautifully contrasted by sunny, sea-aired paradise, takes the reader on a journey of Lala’s abnormal arrival into existence and all her grievous, unfolding woes. Barbados is not quite the dream one might hope.
If not for Lala’s unprecedented fascination with a loveable fairground performer – Adan – things might have been different. She’s skilled with braiding, making the heads of tourists stylish beneath the sun’s unforgiving heat, and she’s keen to save all that she earns for a better future. But the promise of kindness and frivolity from Adan, the clown-come-criminal, evolves into a frightening matrimony.
Heartache. Pain. Fear. Murder. Loss. Lala carries it on her weary, beaten and bloody shoulders. But will she ever find solace in a world so wracked with nightmares?
The intricacies of the plot are admirable and all-consuming. Much about the story throttles your emotions as its protagonists – so powerful in their creation – almost literally beg for reader intervention. It felt as if I’d taken a deep breath on page one, held it, held it and at last released it on the final paragraph. Cherie Jones, you are one to watch.
Price: £16.99. Info: here
words KARLA BRADING
Jenni Fagan (William Heinemann)
“The sea won’t take me. I am the Devil’s daughter.”
Luckenbooth, Jenni Fagan’s gloriously gothic third novel, is littered with lines like this. The sort of lines that demand to be read and reread: splendid in isolation, electric in combination. Fagan writes with drama. She can pick out the fine detail, in neat brush strokes, no doubt, but it is in drawing her arm back and attacking a story with great, sweeping lyricism that she propels Luckenbooth forward, dragging the reader through the 20th century, as experienced by a compelling cast of characters. All are drawn together through their residence at No.10 Luckenbooth Close, an Edinburgh tenement, witness to diabolical acts which echo throughout the story’s 90-year span.
The book is set within Edinburgh, but so intensely depicted are the city’s streets, overlooked by gargoyles “craning their necks”, that it acts almost as another character, alongside the colourful ensemble of misfit tenants of the central tenement. These include Flora, 33, gorgeous and debauched, snorting and dancing her way through the late 1920s; the American, Levi, a self-described Southern gent, working at the bone library (a veterinary college, where Fagan herself was poet in residence for a time), as war breaks out in Europe; and a curious cameo from William Burroughs, whose pithy back-and-forths with his lover are a particular high point. All exist on the fringes of the mainstream and all are bound together by their stay in the imposing, nine-storey building, within which this unique and wonderful tale unravels.
Price: £16.99. Info: here
words HUGH RUSSELL
NO ONE IS TALKING ABOUT THIS
Patricia Lockwood (Bloomsbury)
It’s sometimes proposed reviews should be assigned to a plurality of critics, to avoid a sole person’s perspective sealing the fate of someone’s artistic endeavour. Even if this were more practical than it is, I’d still be largely sceptical, but on occasion you understand the motive. It would be intriguing to foist this book, the debut novel by American writer Patricia Lockwood, on a reader with a solid literary grounding but zero experience in the lore and dense ethical codes of social media – my mother, for example – and see how much makes any sense whatsoever.
No One Is Talking About This concerns a woman who gives much of her life over to Twitter (only ever referred to as “the portal” here), gains a following for her surreal strain of humour and parlays this into a career. This life, taking place as it does in contemporary America, is not carefree, but exists at a degree of reserve from the worst of the real world: safe behind a screen, you might say. For a long time there is very little plot, more a steady meteor shower of discrete observations that give the impression of having been rescued from Lockwood’s Notes app and fixed together with connective literary tissue.
This ironist’s idyll is punctured with the news of her sister’s unborn baby, and its rare and devastating genetic defect. Suddenly, life is imbued with clearer purpose, and No One… becomes accordingly more structured. “If all she was was funny, and none of this was funny, where did that leave her?” asks the narrative at one point – a question that countless entertainers, or just frivolous-natured people, must have pondered during grave moments. It also speaks to this book’s quasi-autobiographical status: Lockwood, who has already published a memoir, first found popularity through tweets and now holds an editorial position at the London Review Of Books among other titles. None of which is likely to convince doubters that Twitter amounts to more than a petri dish of trivia and ephemera, but No One… isn’t designed as a case for its defence.
Price: £14.99. Info: here
words NOEL GARDNER
THE TALL OWL: AND OTHER STORIES
Colum Sanson-Regan (Wordcatcher)
The Tall Owl is the second book by Colum Sanson-Regan [pictured, top], and as it turns out, when he’s not jamming on the south Wales pub gig scene, playing David Tennant’s body double in Doctor Who, or writing novels (namely The Fly Guy), he’s also got a wonderfully unique talent for writing short stories.
There are 10 such stories in this collection, all standalone pieces, but which read particularly poignantly one after the other. While taking place on different continents with mostly dissimilar characters, there are threads that bind them: they all navigate the line between love and duty, and they subvert what we know to be reality with the kind of magical realism whose scope we are left to decide.
One striking sentiment, from the story Poison, resonates throughout the book: the notion that the more life there is, the more death there is. Or rather, that life is a balancing act subject to the individual living it. The stories help us weigh up life and death, the value of each, the inevitability of each. They leave us to ponder human conditions like grief, love, guilt, shame and pleasure, whether we have a choice over those feelings, and what we have the power to change.
Price: £8.99/£2.99 Kindle. Info: here
words MEGAN THOMAS