Thomas Quinn works up an appetite for Philip Kazan's tasty novel

Thomas Quinn May 10, 2013

"The hero is Nino, a Renaissance Jamie Oliver whose gift - a brilliant sense of taste - is also a curse"


Appetite by Philip Kazan, out on May 9 in hardback (Orion, £16.99)
Cooking with Bones by Jess Richards, out now in hardback (Sceptre, £17.99)
Bitter Almonds by Laurence Cossé, out now in paperback (Europa, £9.99)

As a nation we sit in wonder in front of our TV screens watching chefs create comp-licated feasts while we snack on ready meals. Food has become our obsession.

I’m not immune, which is why Appetite by Philip Kazan has had me salivating. Yes, Kazan writes good food. His setting is the Florence of the Medici and the Renaissance and, honestly, I’ve no idea how realistic it is – probably not very.

This Florence seems a bit clean, a bit too nice to be real. But it is wonderfully evoked nevertheless – an enjoyable place to spend some time.

The hero is Nino, a period-costumed Jamie Oliver. Nino is a soulful teen who rubs shoulders with the greatest artists of all time – we meet Botticelli and Leonardo da Vinci – but whose own art is expressed through pork, tripe and ravioli. His curse is his gift: a brilliant sense of taste that allows him to identify the exact valley in which a cheese was produced, the spices used in soup. Delicious stuff.

Cooking With Bones by Jess Richards had my taste buds raging, too. This is a very different book: science fiction, it has a young adult yet literary feel. And it’s nicely put together.

Amber lives in Paradon (paradise, London) and her “sister” is a “formwanderer” – a genetically engineered human being who reflects her desires back to her. An intriguing idea.

We live in the Facebook age of self-examination and self-promotion. We post “selfies” of ourselves, seek validation through our likes and shares. In the future, can this be taken further – creating entire beings designed to reflect back what we want to see?

Amber and Maya run away from Paradon, however, fearing that the authorities are going to clamp down on formwanderers – for acting on our darker thoughts. Could Maya commit a murder?

It feels quite teenage, but in a good way. And the portrait of the now – sci-fi is always about the now – is a bleak one. The countryside is impoverished, backward and cut off while in the city girls eat salad “to stay slender”, their days filled with studying for exams and making their parents happy.

When they escape, Amber revels in the smells and feel of the forest, the taste of previously unknown spices and jams, and in baking. This is sci-fi Mary Berry style, with a twist of gothic. Think gingerbread house, witches and power. 

Despite the title, there’s no cooking in Laurence Cossé’s fine, actually rather wonderful novel, Bitter Almonds. I loved her book A Novel Bookstore, published last year – a literary thriller about books and bookshops, it managed to be nostalgic and forward-thinking at the same time. 

This one is more delicate. A bookish translator volunteers to teach her 70-year-old Moroccan cleaner how to read. Words on a page: so easy to take for granted. But life without them clearly fascinated Cossé. The result is an intriguing, fact-filled study of life as an immigrant on the edge of society. 

And another thing… I enjoyed US author Robert Levine’s talk at the London Book Fair’s Digital Minds conference on how the internet has affected the music industry. He told of Charles Dickens’ fury on finding his books were being pirated by US publishers in the 1840s, before copyright. Dickens wanted to be paid. And so should every author working today.

For the Kindle - and free!

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1911)

Disagreeable Mary Lennox comes from India to England to live with an uncle when she is orphaned. Slowly she is coaxed out of her mawkishness by the natural world and warm companionship, in turn performing a similar miracle on her invalid cousin, Colin. Drawing on Burnett’s interest in Christian Science, the book’s central theme is regeneration, and although a ‘children’s classic’, the strength and simplicity of Burnett’s writing make it very pleasurable to read. Her attitude towards the Indian ‘natives’ (standard for the time) provides a few uncomfortable moments, otherwise her style and themes have travelled well.  Words: Kate Quarry