Sunday Book Review – 1/10/21

Bookshelf books, photo by Alien Motives

Cooking Out of This World by Anne McCaffrey (1973, Ballantine)

Compilation cookbooks, containing recipes from a variety of contributors, date back to at least the 14th century, although they didn’t become popular until the first half of the 20th century. Cookbooks by popular authors have been novelty publications, typically arising from featuring recurring characters who are chefs or gastronomes. In 1973, Ballantine Books decided to combine the two for Cooking Out of This World.

The book contains recipes from a variety of prominent science fiction authors of the day, some of whom have only grown more famous over time. The results are dramatically uneven, which is not necessarily negative.

First, the bad: the grouping of the recipes is nonexistent. Entries are provided alphabetically by author and authors were not asked to submit particular styles of food. One page may feature a dessert, the next a drink, the next three entrees, then back to a dessert, then a soup. The style is equally inconsistent; one author will provide just a recipe, another a series of anecdotes about their recipe; a third small introductions to four distinct recipes. The difficulty also ranges dramatically; some call for a handful of actions and common ingredients, while another is creating a cocktail using dry ice. Lastly, many of the recipes have aged poorly; while it was exotic to explain to Western audiences how to prepare a Japanese or Mexican dish in the 1970s, those cuisines have since integrated into the general culture.

Then, the good: the broad range of complexity and ingredient rarity means that there are recipes here which can be performed by a beginner in the kitchen as well as some which will be of interest to an experienced cook, but every recipe was designed to showcase the author’s talents. These are old family recipes set beside personal creations of which the writers were particularly proud. Also, as it was written by professional wordsmiths, the supplemental material for the recipes (when it’s provided) tends to be informative and amusing.

The book was later re-released by Wildside Press in a print-on-demand version, allowing anyone interested to find a copy fairly cheaply. For those who are interested in cooking and speculative fiction alike, it’s worth purchasing; I can’t say the same for the sequel book, Serve It Forth, which attempted to recreate the odd lightning-in-a-bottle of the first book but generally fell short.

Darker Than Amber by John D. MacDonald (1966, Fawcett)

This isn’t the book I’d wanted to review. That one was The Green Ripper, but I couldn’t find it. I’ll explain why at the end.

The Travis McGee series is considered by many to be one of the best in detective fiction. It was published as a series of paperback originals at the rate of roughly one per year in the 1960s, 70s and the beginning of the 1980s. The books follow the adventures of a professional “salvage expert” who lives in Florida on a boat won in a poker match.

The odd residence fits McGee perfectly. He lives through risk, surviving and flourishing through his wits and his fists. His “salvage” work is not the typical Floridian boat efforts, but rather a word-of-mouth business for which he recovers items – usually cash – for people who have been cheated or robbed. He charges a fifty percent fee.

The high price keeps away those who aren’t desperate, and allows Travis to maintain a semi-constant state of “retirement”. The episodes in between provide the meat of the novels, and through the series the reader gets to experience the change of Florida’s coast from beachland to developed properties.

In Darker than Amber McDonald bypasses McGee’s normal method of acquiring a case and instead literally drops a young woman in front of Travis. McGee and his closest friend are fishing under a bridge at night when a woman plummets into the water, getting tangled in McGee’s line. He saves the girl’s life and in the course of helping her to recover learns of a prostitution and murder ring that he feels obliged to end.

The action is believable and violent, the progression of events natural, and there is a strong sense of dramatic tension built for the various secondary characters. MacDonald intersperses casual philosophy and analyses of the human condition with action and description, displaying an ease born of decades of experience. Perhaps best of all, McGee is insightful but far from perfect, inspiring the reader to consider the ramifications of some of his decisions.

Individually, the books are excellent. Together, they can be a touch repetitive, as MacDonald’s views on what constitutes a healthy personality can only be reiterated in so many ways. Still, they’re worth visiting for anyone who’s a fan of mysteries, thrillers or action novels.

So, why did I want to review the Green Ripper?

Because that’s the book where McGee loses the love of his life to a domestic terrorist cult and goes on a bloody rampage, annihilating them one by one before they can slaughter innocents. It’s a rare book in the series which only truly works if one is already intimately familiar with the troubles McGee has experienced in the past, as the reader gets a ringside seat at the psychological breakdown of an action hero, but for some reason it just seemed to resonate with me more at the moment.

Go figure.

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About AlienMotives 1972 Articles
Ex-Navy Reactor Operator turned bookseller. Father of an amazing girl and husband to an amazing wife. Tired of willful political blindness, but never tired of politics. Hopeful for the future.