I don’t browse in bookstores much these days. When I visit Renaud-Bray, or Indigo, I usually have a pretty good idea of what I’m looking for. The truth is, my to-read pile is towering high enough as it is, no need to add serendipity to the mix!
The exception is cookbooks, because browsing is just part of the process of discovering good recipes – and also because it’s hard for me to resist the cookbook aisle. But there’s another context in which I allow myself to browse through books: the airport.
I always pack a book when I leave on a trip. Because iPods can malfunction, and Nintendo DS consoles can run out of juice, but it’s pretty hard to get into a situation where you can’t crack open a good novel (although I do remember a nocturnal transatlantic flight where neither the TV screens nor the reading lights were working, and they wouldn’t leave the main lights on because some people wanted to sleep – that was a long nine hours). But I’m always afraid of running out of reading material, and there’s not a whole lot to do in airports, so I always wind up spending a lot of time at the bookstore. They don’t have a lot of choices, and most of their books are either trendy or lowbrow, but it gets me to look at books that I normally don’t even glance at.
Another recent trend in my reading habits is that I am irresistibly attracted to any book that has to do with food. I’m not talking about factual books: I do pick some of those up on occasion (why wouldn’t I want to learn all about the history of salt?), but I know a lifetime wouldn’t be enough to read everything that’s out there. No, I’m talking about fiction that revolves around food. It’s gotten to the point where I snatch up anything that has a food-related word in the title. In The Kitchen, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, Le cuisinier – it’s all good. Sometimes, the book ends up not being much about food after all, but it's always interesting to see where food does factor in.
It’s not always great literature, of course. But I’m a versatile reader, and I like a little bit of everything in small doses, so I’m usually content, even if I have yet to have my mind blown. Recently, however, I read a food novel that reassured me that I still have standards: Joanne Fluke’s Devil’s Food Cake Murder.
I picked this one up at, you guessed it, the airport. At first glance, it looked right up my alley: a young female baker who solves crime on the side, how could I go wrong? The main character even has a mischievous and demanding cat, something I can definitely relate to. But in the end, I was disappointed.
Of course, one needs to keep in mind that this is part of a long-running series, with recurring characters and themes. So, not having read any of the previous books, it’s understandable that I had a little difficulty relating to the giant cast of characters, most of whom were introduced without any major description or development, with the assumption that the reader was already familiar with them. Fair enough, but a good book should be able work around this problem, and involve new readers even in the middle of a series.
Worse than any format-related issues, however, was the fact that the style was mostly flat, the vocabulary unimaginative. See for example the heroine’s account of an awkward scene with her beau: “He left a couple of messages, but he sounded… […] cold. He sounded cold like he was talking to a stranger. And when he came back he was cold, too. He gave me a hug and thanked me for keeping [his cat], but… he was cold. I don’t know any other way to describe it.” Evidently not. Of course, I’m aware that this is a light series, not a Virginia Woolf novel: it’s meant to be read casually, not dissected. But fun books can be well-written, too – or at least use synonyms.
The crime story itself was decently entertaining, albeit not without its plot holes – but I’ll give that a pass, as I’m pretty sure the sleuth aspect is not supposed to be the main focus of this series. But there were some seriously awkward moments in the dialogue, which, along with the stylistic problems, made me keep a sceptical distance from everything – and I’m usually a pretty immersed reader. Some conversations felt like filler, more than anything else. I think the worst moment, for me, was a character’s reaction to a murder by shooting: “He was shot? […] Oh, dear! That’s just awful! I wish he’d been stabbed, or bludgeoned, or smothered, or something.” This insensitive response is followed by a page-and-a-half long rant where the character expresses her fears that politicians will use this incident to enforce gun control in their state, and goes on to enthusiastically explain why guns are both fun and useful. Regardless of anyone’s personal stance on the issue, that just came out of nowhere, and was in poor taste to say the least.
Okay, but what about the food? After all, it was the food theme that initially drew me to this book. Well, the good news is, there’s a lot of it in this book, and not just sweet stuff: in addition to the devil’s food cake mentioned in the title, you’ll find cookies, bars, soup, brisket, and even a special cake for cats (which looks so incredibly rich that I would never dream of giving even a teaspoon of the stuff to my kitty Paprika). People eat so much in this book, it’s amazing they don’t all have waistlines a yard wide (maybe they do, but with the lack of description, how am I to know?). But there isn’t much in the way of food description: dishes are succinctly described as “wonderful,” absolutely perfect,” or “delicious.” Not quite enough to get my mouth watering.
There are, however, recipes included for nearly all the treats and dishes mentioned in the book, which gives us a little more insight into how all these “delicious” morsels actually taste. Most are intended for novice bakers and cooks, with very detailed instructions and easy-to-find ingredients. One recipe in particular caught my eye, but more because of the title ingredient than because of the characters’ reaction to it: raspberry vinegar cookies. I was curious as to how these could possibly taste good, so of course I had to try making them.
In the end, the vinegar wasn’t a flavour factor at all: its role was just to interact with the baking soda and create a chemical reaction, leading to a particularly light, aerated cookie. Maybe I was heavy-handed with it, because my cookies came out especially brittle, whereas they were supposed to be more similar to shortbread in texture. Regardless, I really liked these cookies (infinitely more than I liked the book), and they seemed to please people when I brought them to a meeting. The only downside to their brittleness was that everyone ended up with crumbs on their shirts…
I haven’t changed much to the original recipe, just added more pecans, and made the cookies a little bigger.
Raspberry Vinegar Cookies
Slightly adapted from Johanne Fluke’s Devil’s Food Cake Murder
Yields 3 dozen
200g (1 cup) butter, softened
190g (1 cup) sugar
1 tsp raspberry vinegar
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp rum extract
210g (1 1/2 cup) flour
375 ml (1 1/2 cup) chopped toasted pecans
Preheat oven to 160ºC (325ºF).
Cream the butter with the sugar. Mix in the vinegar and the baking soda, then the rum extract. Add the flour, and stir until well incorporated.
Line four baking sheets with parchment paper. Drop tablespoonfuls of cookie dough onto the sheets, spacing them out (about 9 cookies per sheet).
Bake the cookies in batches for around 20 minutes, until golden around the edges and on top. Let cool on sheets for two minutes, then transfer the cookies to a wire rack and cool completely.
Store in an airtight container.