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Favorite books featuring food

Food can be a really powerful motif in books. It can be a sign of trust or distrust, a tool for worldbuilding, a way to show the preferences and background of characters. But sometimes it becomes really central to the story, even beyond that. Here are a couple of books where the main characters have a really important relationship with food in some way.


Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen: I loved the way the magic of the garden and plants intertwine with the magic of food in this book. The gentle, textured way Allen talks about Claire’s gift and her relationship to cooking make this probably my favorite book by Sarah Addison Allen.

all the Amor et Chocolat books by Laura Florand: No, I mean, I really tried to pick one here. I love The Chocolate Kiss deeply and truly, and I especially love Magalie’s gift, and Aunt Aja’s tea. But then there’s Gabriel’s rose from The Chocolate Rose, and and–basically, if you like food, this is the romance series for you!

To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han: One of the (many) things I loved about this book was the way Lara Jean used baking to express herself, and also as an expression of how much she cares about the important people in her life.

Bread and Jam for Frances by Russell Hoban: This is a bit of an outlier in the rest of this list given that it’s a picture book. But the memory of Albert’s lunch and the very particular way he eats it has remained with me so vividly for so long that I just had to include it anyway.

Relish by Lucy Knisley: I have a few reservations about the kind of–cultural tourism, is maybe the term I’m looking for?–in this book, but I also genuinely enjoy Knisley’s grapic novel memoir. The art is lovely, and each chapter has a hand-illustrated recipe to accompany it!

The Book of Atrix Wolfe by Patricia McKillip: I re-read this book last year for my McKillip reading notes series, and I was hungry the entire time. The descriptions of the feasts are mouthwatering, but they’re also sometimes surprising. I loved the sense that McKillip gives of the economy of the kitchens, and the way they are their own world.

Sunshine by Robin McKinley: Rae is, of course, a baker and Sunshine is FULL of things like cinnamon rolls as big as your head and the intriguingly titled Death of Marat (I hear someone has made a recipe for this and I want to try it! baked good and jokes about the French Revolution). Making food is an important part of Rae’s life and McKinley definitely shows that.

The Floating Islands by Rachel Neumeier: I’m maybe stretching just a tad here, because this is less focused on food and more on taste–Araenè, one of the main characters, experiences magic as a taste. I loved the way Neumeier used this description to create a sense of magic that’s really vivid and different.

Silver Phoenix by Cindy Pon: I really enjoyed Silver Phoenix and its sequel when they came out a few years ago. One of the things I liked is the fact that Ai Ling unabashedly enjoys food. She thinks about it, she looks forward to eating it. It seems like often characters, especially female characters, aren’t allowed to do that.

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Out of the woods: books set in forests

I’m not entirely sure why forests are such a powerful setting and symbol in fantasy. Maybe it’s something to do with fairy tales, maybe something to do with how much of the land we now inhabit was once covered with vast acres of trees. Regardless, I love books that have forests as a main setting and I wanted to highlight some of them. They might engage with the mythology of forests in different ways, but they’re all playing with that sense of magic and danger.

out of the woods

The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black: The forest that Hazel and Ben enter plays a major part in this haunting book.

The Jinx trilogy by Sage Blackwood: The Jinx trilogy is almost entirely set in the Urwald, a magical forest that’s full of danger and secrets.

Sorrow’s Knot by Erin Bow: In Otter’s world any shadow can hold one of the deadly White Hands, and so the forest that surrounds her home is both beautiful and terrifying.

Through the Woods by Emily Carroll: Carroll draws on fairy tale influences to weave her extremely creepy story of a girl who goes out into the dark woods.

The Ordinary Princess by M.M. Kaye: The forest in this book is more benign than many of the others I’m featuring here, but it’s extremely delightful.

Some Kind of Happiness by Claire LeGrand: Finley’s semi-imagined forest, the Everwood, drives a lot of this book, as well as being the place Finley feels the safest.

In the Forests of Serre (and several others) by Patricia McKillip: McKillip loves to write about forests, and she often does so with a sense of the edges where they turn magical.

Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne: Like the woods in The Ordinary Princess, The Hundred-Acre Woods are more benign than most of these stories. It’s still a magical and enchanting land.

The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater: A magical forest where the trees speak Latin and time is out of joint should definitely be on this list.

The Enchanted Forest Chronicles by Patricia C. Wrede: I mean, they’re called The Enchanted Forest Chronicles. Also, a wonderful mix of funny and serious.


Am I missing a favorite book set in a forest or woods? Let me know! I’d love to read more of them.





bookish posts reading notes reviews

Patricia McKillip reading notes: Harpist in the Wind

Note: Throughout July, I’ll be re-reading and reviewing books by Patricia McKillip. While I don’t think there are any huge spoilers below, I can’t swear that there are none, so tread with caution if that’s something you’re concerned about.

hitw1Harpist in the Wind is the third and final book of the Riddle-Master trilogy and also in some ways the weirdest. We switch point of view characters back to Morgon from Raederle (sigh), but we do get quite a bit of Raederle because she’s determined to come with Morgon wherever he goes. As she says early in the book, “I am doing no more waiting.” (I can’t help reading this as a response to Arwen, and while I do think Arwen tends to get a bad rap, I also get it.)

I’ve talked a little bit about how I see Tolkien and Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain books as the precursors to this one. But I also see the trilogy, and perhaps especially this book, as precursors to Naomi Novik’s Uprooted. Ana talked in her review about the combination of personal and epic, and that “Saving the world matters, and so does saving the people you love, and Agnieszka is given room to care about both.” I think that applies to a certain extent here, and I was interested to see how much Morgon clings to his love of Hed and his family, even as they’re stripped away from him.

But then, in the end, they’re given back. Not entirely, and not in the same way, but it’s clear that as Morgon is given land-rule over the whole realm, he is given Hed back. You cannot go home, but he does. I find this especially interesting in light of the fact that McKillip is writing about the end of an age–she says so over and over, and yet at the end of the book, there is grief and loss but nothing has actually changed. The Elves have not set sail into the West.hitw3

Except, in a way they have. The Earth-Masters, revealed to be the shape-changers, have gone. Morgon binds them until their death or his. Deth is gone, leaving behind a legacy for Morgon which he now must take up. But I never felt the sea change, the diminishing of the world which Tolkien wrote so well (“Land of the Valley of Singing Gold, that was it, once upon a time. Now it is the Dreamflower”). All the human systems remain intact, with Morgon to step into the High One’s place and Eliard to step into his.

Quite a bit of the book is centered on the emotional landscape between Raederle and Morgon as they journey around the world of the book. Morgon keeps trying to get Raederle to stay behind and Raederle refuses. They fight, over large and small things, and in the end they find each other again. I found that by the end of the story I did believe in their relationship and that they would find their way.

If throughout the first two books, hidden natures and hidden names were a big theme, then here what was hidden is revealed. At least, by the end; Deth spends a significant portion of the book disguised as the wizard Yrth. Or rather the High One has put off his Deth-guise and put on his Yrth-guise? This book is weird, and I feel like not everything is ever truly explained. In a certain sense, I didn’t need it to be: the emotional journey of Morgon and Raederle rang true and I accept the whole thing in some way that I can’t quite articulate.

hitw2However, I will admit that I have a hard time with Deth/Yrth/the High One’s actions in forcing Morgon through the experiences of the book. It’s true that parts of it were out of his control, and that he couldn’t reveal himself too soon, and yet. I love what McKillip was writing towards: that moment when everything is explained, when sorrows are transmuted, when you can find the deep secrets in your own nature without losing who you are. But as much as I love that, as much as I love the ultimate choices Morgon makes, I don’t think she quite pulls it off.

Despite this, just as I remembered loving the opening of Riddle-Master, I remembered loving the ending of Harpist. And I do, I truly do. There’s a sense of homecoming, of things ending and things beginning. And the last line is one of my favorites: “Peace, tremulous, unexpected, sent a taproot out of nowhere into Morgon’s heart.”

Book source: public library

Book information: 1979, Atheneum; adult fantasy

bookish posts reading notes reviews

Patricia McKillip reading notes: Heir of Sea and Fire

Note: Throughout July, I’ll be re-reading and reviewing books by Patricia McKillip. While I don’t think there are any huge spoilers below, I can’t swear that there are none, so tread with caution if that’s something you’re concerned about.

hosaf1As discussed yesterday, the Riddle-Master trilogy–or Riddle of Stars–is Patricia McKillip’s entry into the epic fantasy subgenre. When I first read it in 2008, I noted that it felt like “a bit like a grown up version of the Prydain Chronicles” and I stand by that, although I suspect she was writing in response to Tolkien as well.

While I felt somewhat frustrated with The Riddle-Master of Hed, I found that I really enjoyed Heir of Sea and Fire. This is mostly due to one thing: we switch main characters, from Morgon to Raederle. And I love Raederle! She’s impulsive and stubborn and loyal, and when it comes down to it she knows her own heart.

This book begins, in a nice echo of the opening of Riddle-Master, with the arrival of ships and a family argument. As with Morgon, Eliard, and Tristan, I really liked the complex warmth, humor, and tensions of Mathom’s family. The tensions are largely because Mathom never tells anyone anything if he can help it, and then he leaves An to go to Erlenstar mountain after word comes that Morgon is dead and the land-rule has passed to Eliard.

But Raederle doesn’t wait to find out what has happened. She convinces her father’s ship-master and Lyra of Herun to go to Erlenstar Mountain with her. And they are joined by Tristan, Morgon’s sister. None of them are entirely convinced that Morgon is dead, and even if he is, they want to find out why. Deth, the High One’s harpist and emissary, has disappeared as well, and they want answers.hosaf2

So, as I was reading this one, I wrote down: “Hmmm, so I like this one and it’s all the women. Hmmm.” I like what I like, I guess, and although their quest is defined by Morgon, I find all of the women McKillip writes in this book to be complex & interesting–and perhaps most of all, allowed to sometimes make mistakes without being judged it for it. I’m curious–if anyone knows the history of epic fantasy better than I do, are there any earlier examples of women as major pov characters? And especially any groups of women doing questy things? This is the earliest I could find.

hosaf4At any rate, a lot of this book revolves around Raederle’s struggle with her heritage. One of her ancestors was a shape-changer, the same deadly enemy that the realm is now fighting against. And her own power and desires come in part from this shape-changer, Ylon, who had an unhappy life and a sad destiny. How can Raederle accept her power and her heritage without becoming the thing that she hates and fears, that Morgon hates and fears?

One of the things that McKillip does nicely, I think, is show how it’s not just Morgon whose life is changed forever. Nearly everyone ends up involved in the story, in one way or another. Raederle is one who clearly falls into this category, whose journey into power and into herself echoes Morgon’s to a certain extent. But she also is herself, and she is more willing to use what she has than Morgon, who wishes so much to stand aside from what he holds.

There’s a theme of trust running through these books: Deth asks Morgon to trust him “beyond logic, beyond reason, beyond hope” just before betraying him. Raederle must learn to trust herself, to open herself to the heritage she does not want to accept as well as the one she does. But Deth’s betrayal also has echoes: Raederle says to Deth at one point, “Did you think you were betraying only Morgon?” and it’s clear that for her, the personal hurt is nearly as great as that she feels on Morgon’s behalf. hosaf3

And there’s quite a bit about legends as well: the High One, the legends of Lungold and the wizards; even the riddles which may be simply parables but which may have also happened. As Deth says, “Legends have a grim way of twisting into truth,” and part of this book is about discovering which is which.

So yes–in many ways, Heir of Sea and Fire is my favorite book of the trilogy. I find Raederle and her reactions to her heritage, the relationship she has with Lyra and Tristan, and her determination to find out the truth to be engaging and compelling. Perhaps most of all, she acts where Morgon tends to react (at least in the first book) and I found this to be much nicer to read about.

Book source: personal library

Book information: 1977, Atheneum; adult fantasy

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Patricia McKillip reading notes: Riddle-Master of Hed

Note: Throughout July, I’ll be re-reading and reviewing books by Patricia McKillip. While I don’t think there are any huge spoilers below, I can’t swear that there are none, so tread with caution if that’s something you’re concerned about.

rmh3The Riddle-Master of Hed is the first volume in a trilogy commonly known as the Riddle-Master books or Riddle of Stars. It was first published in 1976, as the epic fantasy genre was exploding and beginning to define itself. (Lord of the Rings had become popular in the late 1960s, The Chronicles of Prydain were published from 1964-1968, and The Sword of Shannara would be published in 1977.) The Riddle-Master of Hed is certainly McKillip’s entry in the subgenre, and her response to it. I suspect that she was writing largely in response to Tolkien, though I see some similarities to Alexander’s Prydain books as well.

In terms of my personal reading history, I read the trilogy for the first time in 2008, and have re-read it several times since then. I have fond associations with it, but hadn’t re-read any of the books in at least four years.

I love the opening of this book, in memory and in fact. McKillip’s word picture of Hed, of Morgon, Eliard, and Tristan, and of their comfortable, familial world is so vivid and enchanting that although events quickly move us away from it, its function as Morgon’s anchor throughout the story works very well for me. It gives a sense of family and community that is warm, even though it’s full of bickering and disagreements.

It’s worth noting that, as with Alphabet of Thorn, Riddle-Master is set against a time of change. Of course in terms of the wider scope of the world, this is true. But it’s also the case for Hed and for Morgon’s family: their parents have died recently and their father’s land-rule passed to Morgon. This loss, which happens before the book begins, actually drives much of rest of the story, as does Morgon’s riddle-match with Peven and the fact that he won Peven’s crown from him. These two off-stage actions echo through the story, but it only begins when Deth, the High One’s harpist, comes to Hed and meets Morgon for the first time.

rmh2The land-rule is one of the more interesting aspects of McKillip’s world in the Riddle-Master books. She is often concerned with the passage of inheritance and power from one ruler to another, but the idea of the land-rule, the sense of the land itself and responsibility for it is neat. I think other writers have since played with the idea although just at this moment I’m unable to come up with any specific examples.

At any rate, when Deth comes, the plot swings into motion. Morgon is going to An, so he can see Raederle, whose hand he accidentally won when he won Peven’s crown. But he was born with three stars on his forehead and with that comes destiny. So far, so standard; Morgon’s promise to Eliard that he’ll come back to Hed is touching, but as the story gets going, it seems familiar. They’re going on a quest! Things will happen! Swords will be drawn!

And then Morgon refuses to take up the quest. For almost half the book, he insists that he’s going home to Hed, that he has a choice that has nothing to do with the stars on his face, nothing to do with his parents’ deaths, nothing to do with Peven’s crown. Since there are two more books, this seems unlikely. And yet, it takes ages for Morgon to act rather than react.

My reaction to this is fairly mixed. I can’t decide whether it’s excellent writing–it is, after all, closer to the way most people make big decisions than many epics show–or whether it should have been edited down because GOOD GRIEF. The whole story seems rather opaque; there’s a point to it, but the reactions of the characters seem contradictory and frustrating, and the themes take awhile to develop. There’s an odd shapelessness to the threat, as well.

rmh1When the themes do develop, they’re quite interesting. Like Tolkien, McKillip is intentionally and explicitly writing about the end of an age. But who or what is ending remains unclear. Her concern with names and true natures being hidden is already apparent. Some of the characters are deliberate hiding who they are, others don’t even know themselves. I also found it nice that while Morgon is clearly the Chosen One, he needs others and relies on their help and friendship, as well as his sense of Hed and his family.

But the most major theme of this book is the weight of destiny, this thing that Morgon has in no way chosen but which will shape his life. He says it perhaps most clearly to Lyra in Herun: “Because it’s not death I’m afraid of–it’s losing everything I love for a name and a sword and a destiny I did not choose and will not accept.” The real tension of the book lies in his refusal to accept and the reader’s knowledge that he will in some way be forced to.

As I was reading this time, I found myself frustrated by this volume, by Morgon and his stubbornness. Having finished the trilogy and considering it again, I find myself still frustrated, but this time by the fact that this is the set up for the payoff which comes two books later. The reasons for the Tour of The Kingdoms make so much more sense in the context of Morgon’s eventual fate. But on its own, I didn’t enjoy this book nearly as much as I expected to, mostly because of the apparent aimlessness of the story and Morgon’s stubborn passiveness.

Book source: personal library

Book information: 1976, Atheneum; adult fantasy

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Patricia McKillip reading notes: Alphabet of Thorn

alphabet of thornAs far as I can tell, I first read Alphabet of Thorn in 2009. At that point I said, “This is one of McKillip’s strongest books, with a lot of palace intrigue and politics, fascinating characters, and a feeling of strangeness lurking just around the corner.” I do think it’s one of her stronger books, and one that holds up to re-reading, although its strengths surprised me.

Alphabet of Thorn has four point of view characters from the kingdom of Raine, each with their own chapters: Nepenthe, Bourne, Vevay, and Tessera. There is also the book which Nepenthe translates, the Alphabet of Thorn itself, which tells another narrative, from another time and place. At first the connection between these two narratives, the layers of story, is felt rather than said. Images and thoughts are repeated in one or the other, but we are not told what exactly they mean; there’s a kind of poetic tension in the breaks between chapters, like the break between stanzas.

Although we do have four points of view, we begin with Nepenthe, and she is the most obvious main character. She is an orphan, left on a cliff and brought up by the royal librarians who called her Nepenthe because they had gotten to the letter N. When Tessera, the new queen of Raine, is crowned, and Nepenthe ends up with a book written in an alphabet of thorn, the narrative begins. The story is set against a time of change, both outwardly on the political stage as Tessera struggles to truly become queen and the country faces turmoil on several fronts, and inwardly in the hearts of the main characters–especially Nepenthe, Bourne, and Tessera.

There’s a thread running throughout this book of recognition. Hearts meet and know each other, not once but several times. People recognize power, recognize magic. And on the other hand, they are hidden from each other; Kane hides her true self and name so successfully that the person she was is utterly forgotten; Vevay and Tessera can’t see each other clearly; Laidley insists on seeing Nepenthe as she isn’t. Nepenthe’s real name is lost, and so is Kane’s; their stories resonate with each other. Those who are supposed to see, do so instantly; those who don’t understand the truth miss it even though it’s in plain sight.

Another thread is the idea of history and myth as opposed to reality. This is clearest in the story of Axis and Kane, which is told as Nepenthe translates it. There are many myths of Axis and Kane, and they are all wrong. We, along with Nepenthe, are given the true story and with it the personal rather than political history. If I have a criticism of the book, it lies here: Axis and Kane leave so much destruction in their wake, and yet none of it matters to the story. We are supposed to sympathise with them–especially Kane–and I did, and yet I couldn’t help thinking of this part as the equivalent of the innocent bystanders in superhero movies.

But there is also Mermion, the first king of Raine, who is supposed to be not dead but merely sleeping in his tomb in the cliffs under the castle. When he is needed, he will wake. And he does wake, in the early days of Tessera’s reign, except that the legends got it all wrong: Mermion was the first queen of Raine. I could see this not working in other circumstances, but it echoes Kane’s hidden identity and gender, and I also felt that it was making a point about assumptions which did work for me.

Nepenthe is central to the story, but on this read through, I found myself noticing Tessera. At first she’s shown as a cipher, a timid girl who can’t quite take up the mantle of royalty that her father left behind. But as the story goes on, it becomes clear that she has quiet, stubborn strength. And in fact, the scenes when she is in the wood are some of my favorites in the book now. The way she interacts with the brambles and thorns and the way McKillip uses them as a metaphor for her stubborn strength is so lovely (and oddly, heart-achingly evocative of “The Subtle Briar” from Rose Under Fire).

I love stories where people who are overlooked end up being the key, and this is perhaps doubly true in Alphabet of Thorn. Tessera, “who understood small, unnoticed, powerful things” and Nepenthe, who lives in the depths of the cliff, but who is the axis of the whole story, are both characters for whom power is an uneasy thing but who wield it well precisely because of that.

For me, at least on this read, the pacing of the story seemed slightly off. The ending is a little abrupt, although I love Kane’s choice which feels both inevitable and right. And it circles back to the thread of names and identities; the fact that for her whole life, her identity has been defined by Axis and that the turning point of the story is her making a choice about who she wants to be. But after that, the resolution felt a little hasty and over-simplified, although satisfying from a personal point of view.

I will also note that there are a number of women in this story. Four of the six major characters, counting Axis and Kane, are women, and their relationships to each other are not only central but the driving force of the whole story. While Bourne, Laidley, and Felan are all present, they seemed to me (with the possible exception of Bourne) more muted and less complex than the female characters.

Finally, I will note that Nepenthe, who has brown skin, black hair, and changeable eyes–either green or brown–is described as a person of color, although the geography of the world in the book is too distant from ours to say if she’s meant to be from a particular culture or place (I was getting vague echoes of Egypt but I’m not at all sure this is right). Sadly, it appears that Kinuko Craft’s otherwise gorgeous cover severely whitewashes Nepenthe, and presumably Kane as well.

In the end, I found Alphabet of Thorn to be a rich book, densely packed and yet intensely personal. I loved Nepenthe and Tessera, and the way the threats of danger were in a certain way turned inside out. The writing and language are really beautiful in this one, and I’m grateful to have read it again.

Book source: public library

Book information: 2004, Ace Books; adult fantasy (good YA crossover for certain teens)

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Patricia McKillip readalikes

I’ve been re-reading Patricia McKillip’s Song for the Basilisk recently, and I wanted to come up with a list of readalikes for her books. This proved to be more difficult than I anticipated.

There is certainly Rachel Neumeier, whose City in the Lake was directly inspired by McKillip, and whose House of Shadows would probably also work for McKillip fans.

And then–

Well, more tenuously there are Martha Wells (especially perhaps Wheel of the Infinite, which has the sense of setting that McKillip so often does), and Lois McMaster Bujold’s Chalion books.

There are obviously many people who write fairy tale retellings, and Robin McKinley occasionally writes magic in a similar way. Franny Billingsley seems like she writes in a similar continuum.

But beyond that, I came up with a blank. So, any suggestions for McKillip-like writers?

Rachel Neumeier says: “1. The Shapechanger’s Wife by Sharon Shinn is actually very McKillip-y, more so than her other books.

2. A Dark Horn Blowing by Dahlov Ipcar has something of the same feel.”

Charlotte suggests The Witch’s Boy by Kelly Barnhill

Katy says, “Juliette Marillier, and also found Summer and Bird by Katherine Catmull popped up in my blog when I searched for McKillip”

On Twitter, Erin Bow suggested Shannon Hale’s Goose Girl books and Cecelia Larsen suggested Caroline Stevermer’s College of Magics/Scholar of Magics as readalikes for some but not all of McKillip.