Thursday, April 19, 2007

Miss Alice Merriwether's Long Lost Cakes

While it's undoubtedly a boon—for those of us who live a good ways from the nearest bookstore—to be able to purchase books via the Internet, practicality's gain is often serendipity's loss. Online book sites are excellent—as long as you know precisely what you want. In a real bookstore, however, the customer is free to wander the aisles at will, pull this or that book off the shelf purely on the basis of a whim, read the jacket copy and perhaps a paragraph or two, and decide if this relationship is meant to be. It's pleasing to emerge from a bookstore with a book you went in knowing you wanted; it's even more pleasing to come out with a book that you had no idea existed.

Christopher discovered Barry Aitchison's Miss Alice Merriwether's Long Lost Cakes & Further Arcane Inducements to Wonder (Velluminous Press, 2006) on a table in a Barnes & Noble in New York this past January. I don't know what about the book particularly caught his eye; perhaps the eye on the cover caught him. At any rate, it was added to our purchases, and Christopher read it not long after we got home. Searching the shelves the other night for something to read, I spotted this title, and remembered that Christopher had enjoyed it; and having just finished it, I can say with some confidence that a good many people will enjoy Aitchison's romp, which is part-fantasy, part-science fiction, and part-small town comedy. It concerns the small midwestern town of Parcival—pop. 2800 or so—which, one Sunday evening, disappears off the face of the Earth. Unfortunately, no one—including the Parcivalians—notices this fact until Tuesday morning.

The finger of suspicion immediately points to mysterious newcomer Quentin C. Coriander, who arrived in Parcival one day without anyone seeing him: he was simply there, a part of the landscape, and accepted by the townsfolk as something of an odd duck, but essentially harmless. However, once Parcival and its inhabitants find themselves nowhere on Earth, people start disappearing, and Coriander displays a seemingly unwholesome interest in fresh-cooked meat—despite the considerable inducements of Miss Merriwether's spectacular cakes, made specially for him—the townsfolk decide that Something Must Be Done, although they're not quite sure what.

Aitchison—whose first novel this is—displays a sure touch, juggling a large cast of characters and telling the story in brief bites which tell just enough to move the plot along, but always leave you on tenterhooks, wanting to turn the pages faster to see how this particular plot strand develops. His observations of small-town life are spot on, and the book is laugh-out-loud funny in spots. Beware: it's the kind of book that you shouldn't read with other people in the room, or you'll spend a lot of time reading bits out to them while trying not to laugh too hard. You'll also develop a serious craving for baked goods, after reading the author's descriptions of some of Miss Alice's cakes. Aitchison has included recipes for some of Alice's creations; if anyone bakes up the non-poisonous version of the 'Gourmet Chocolate and Brandy Cream Cake', I'd be much obliged for a slice.

1 comment:

Barry Aitchison said...

Barbara,
I have just found your wonderful review on Miss Alice Merriwether. I'm so pleased you liked it and I thank you for your generous words. The book did receive some great reviews but sadly not much activity in the sales department. Perhaps something more conventional next?

Barry Aitchison