Friday 4 October 2013

Cooking with bones by Jess Richards




I wanted to like this book but had several issues with it that detracted from my enjoyment. The book is told from 3 different POV characters, Amber – a difficult and rebellious child, Maya  - her sister who is a “formwanderer”  (she subconsciously determines the desires of everyone she meets and then fulfils them as best she can) and Kip a child whose job it is to collect the “Fair”, a tithe given to “Old Kelp” the witch of the village. The same Old Kelp alternatively blesses and curses the small seaside village with cake based spells which Kip collects when dropping off the Fair.


Amber & Maya start the book living in the future utopian(?) society of Paradon and when they are assigned jobs which will split them up they decide to run away. They come to live in a cottage that seems to be waiting for them and Amber settles into the role of baking cakes using bone implements, that is how she becomes Old Kelp. This was a bit of head scratcher for me, and is never satisfactorily explained. Old Kelp existed before the sisters arrive, the sisters arrive and Amber becomes Old Kelp. The villagers notice  no break in continuity. There is a scene where Amber finds graves, of previous Old Kelps,  going back hundreds of years but the villagers stories of Old Kelp only go back to the grandparents of Kip’s parents. Time here is uncertain.


I never got a grip on the setting either, some sort of post collapse society? Kip’s village is within walking distance of a modern utopia (which has genetic engineering, nanotechnology and climate control), a utopia that some people leave for reasons that aren’t really explored (as well as the sisters there are a few other characters from Paradon in the village). The small village where the action takes place in has holiday homes to let, Kip’s mother looks after but are never let during the events of the story. There are telephones and cars, doctors and police and Paradon has its own climate control (causing Maya to spend a whole chapter trying to work out what weather is for) but there doesn’t seem to be any computer network and the society of the village seems more rural medieval.


I didn’t really get the whole concept of formwanderer either, Amber’s desire is for a twin so to her Maya is a twin, one of the villagers has always wanted a pet Grizzly bear so to him she’s a pet grizzly bear. OK so far so Red Dwarf Polymorph but Maya is a person, grown in a vat perhaps, but a living person created from Amber’s parents donated sperm & egg. It’s explained at the beginning, in a clumsy piece of exposition – Amber is watching a TV report on Formwanderers and seems to find the information a surprise, although she’s been living with one for an unknown period of time (but long enough for them to go to school together for some years it seems).  The presentation says  Our initial intention in genetically engineering these humans, using nanotechnology, was to enhance the development of their mirror neuron pathways and make them deeply empathic. With nanotechnology also causing their skin cells to be reflective, technically speaking they are astounding creations, able to mirror desired behaviours and appearances


Maya’s voice is unique also, often “jumbling” when anxious, her character and language are not fixed - Mysister grabbed my hand and said stop it, satellites send the sun in. They’re too strongThe sun shone into my eyes. I was dazzle blind. Our shrinking silhouettes danced with my laughing sound; clang clang! I brimmed yellow-joy. Every reflection that lives in infinityland was blanked out HAHAHAHA!  and considering she is one of only 3 narrators it’s a little off putting.


When the book starts the sisters seem child-like and then they are removed from school and given jobs, causing them to run away. Later Amber remembers a distant past where she was treated badly by former lovers in Paradon, this didn’t really fit my perception of the character at the beginning of the book where I’d thought they were early teens. Nothing to say that early teens can’t be sexually precocious but it seemed like an inconsistency in character. I can only think the inconsistencies are deliberate, jumbling like Maya, the book formwandering itself. However the effect is such that the shifting sands are subliminal and make the story untrustworthy.


Throughout there are recipes to make different cakes which are also spells and whilst this is a potentially cool idea the outcome of any of these spells is never explicit, nor who they work upon (although sometimes hinted it is the  villagers). However every day Amber leaves out the same old honey cakes for the villagers, who gladly take them, regardless of what the recipe says in her chapters.


Is Richards deliberately obfuscating or is she just poor at getting her meaning across? I really can’t tell. Is it SF? Fantasy? Magic realism? Modern fairy tale? Well yes it wanders back and forth from one to another of these creating an unhealthy chimera of all of them.


Overall – Very interesting but problematical, I never really got it YMMV

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