Welcome to Shelf Care, where I review three books related by a theme. These aren’t necessarily the latest releases, but are hopefully books you can’t believe you missed.

This column’s theme: Magic on the menu – books where enchanted food and drink are essential ingredients.

Now the idea of enchanted food has been around for quite a while, from Snow White’s apple, to Alice knocking back potions, but at best the magic is just there to spice up the plot a little. These three books serve up a number of different takes with magical food being the main course, so if you’ve got an appetite for reading, then get ready to tuck in with any of the following…

So if you like

Clever female protagonists in fantasy novels
Characters that have to think their way out of fights
New uses for baked goods
Piers Anthony’s Xanth books without the pun

You might like

A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking, by T. Kingfisher

Overview

Mona’s job at the bakery is made easier by her minor magical talent of being able to encourage dough to be better, but when somebody starts killing wizards, that’s not going to help her at all. Or will it?

Sample passage

When I first started working in my aunt’s bakery, I was just ten, and really scared that I’d screw something up. My magic tended to do weird things to recipes sometimes. So I was put in charge of tending her sourdough starter, which she’d been using since she started the bakery, and which was really important, because Aunt Tabitha’s bread was famous.

And…I don’t know if I gave it too much flour or too much water or not enough of either, but it dried up and nearly died. When I found that out, I was so scared that I stuck both hands into it (and it was pretty icky, let me tell you) and ordered it not to die. Live! I told it. C’mon, don’t die on me, live! Grow! Eat! Don’t dry up!

Well, I was ten, and I was really scared, and sometimes being scared does weird things to the magic. Supercharges it, for one thing. The starter didn’t die, and it grew. A lot. It foamed out of the jar and over my hands and I started yelling for Aunt Tabitha, but by the time she got there, the starter had reached the sack of flour I’d been using to feed it and ate the whole thing. I started crying but Aunt Tabitha just put her hands on her hips and said, “It’s still alive, it’ll be fine,” and scraped it into a much bigger jar and that was the beginning of Bob.

I’m not actually sure if we could kill him any more. One time the city froze so hard that nobody could go anywhere, and Aunt Tabitha was stuck across town for three days and I couldn’t get down the block, and nobody fed Bob. I expected to come back and find him frozen or starved or something.

Instead, the bucket had moved across the basement, and there were the remains of a couple of rats scattered around. He hadn’t eaten the bones. That was how we figured out that Bob could feed himself. I’m still not sure how he moves—like a slime-mold maybe. I’m not going to pick the bucket up and find out. I doubt there’s a bottom on it any more, but I don’t want to risk annoying Bob.

Takeaway
This 2020 Nebula award winner is a very well written young adult read. It manages to walk the line of what might be a silly premise (the magical and carnivorous sourdough starter Bob being an example) and playing it straight such that everything is interesting and not ridiculous. Along with that, the plot moves smoothly, the characters are well defined, there are some interesting twists, and a number of well thought out instances where Mona has to creatively use her magic to get out of jams. My only complaint is that you’re probably going to want to have some sort of baked good around while you’re reading it…

Or if you like

Mixed drinks
Knowing for sure that last cocktail made you invincible
Strong female protagonists
The millennial struggle
Urban fantasy

You might like

Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge, by Paul Krueger

Overview

A secret society of bartenders mix strong drinks that make their imbibers even stronger, because they’ve got work to do.

Sample passage

“I picked the martini because it’s a good way to show you this is the real deal without risking my deposit.” He went on. “But there’s a lot you can do, depending on the liquor. A tequila slammer lets you make these awesome force fields. Drink a White Russian, and you can walk on air. And if you’ve ever wanted to know what it’s like to breathe underwater, I make a sick Tom Collins.”

Bailey’s mind was in overdrive. “So you’re saying someone can just get hammered and turn into a one-girl army?”

“No amount of cosmos will make me a one-girl anything,” Zane said. “And no, actually. So there’s this energy inside you, right?”

Bailey wrinkled her nose. “Sounds New Agey.”

“Nah,” he said. “I mean, we’re alive, right? And that’s pretty incredible. There’s this little bit of magic, and everybody has it. But for magic to do something, it needs a focus and a territory. For us, the focus is a drink. The territory’s you. The alcohol frees up that spark, and the other ingredients shape how you can use it. Make sense?”

Bailey nodded slowly.

“Okay. So imbibe too much alcohol, and you’ll lose your hold on that spark, just like any other reflex. You might end up having a pretty good night, but it won’t be a magical one. Not literally anyway.” Zane shrugged. “But yeah, that’s pretty much it. Magic.”

“Magic,” she repeated.

“Magic.” He wiggled his fingers.

Bailey stared. “You’re telling me the secret to magic, something humankind’s obsessed over since, I don’t know, forever, is … booze?

Takeaway

Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge is an interesting and fairly fast read that follows recent college graduate Bailey Chen as she figures out what she wants out of life, and how this strange society of bartenders and the things they’re handling should or shouldn’t be a part of it. While the arc of the story is pretty much the Hero’s Journey, the concept of bartenders using their wares to wage a bigger war was one I’d not seen before, so to me it was an interesting exploration of the idea. Plus, if you’re a fan of cocktails, each chapter ends with a recipe for a featured one, though it probably won’t give you the advertised super powers, even if you do mix it correctly.

Or if you like

Smart-ass coworkers
Buffy The Vampire Slayer
Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential

You might like

Envy Of Angels: A Sin du Jour Affair, by Matt Wallace

Overview

Two new chefs are hired as temps in a restaurant that serves supernatural meals to supernatural clients, and have to do some soul searching when they discover the evening’s main course is angel.

Sample passage

That has always been Bronko’s model for living, and integral to his perception of himself. He’s a gambler who bucked popular wisdom at every turn and came out ahead for the risk.

They told him not to put the word “dead” in the name of a restaurant he was trying to brand, that it was guaranteed to kill his idea before the first review.

It became one of the largest and most successful American gastropub chains of the ’90s.

They told him calling a high-end restaurant The Monkey’s Paw would never fly on the New York scene. They said it was an unappetizing moniker that would remind people of a stew joint in Bangkok.

It won a Michelin star and a James Beard Award, and made Bronko one of the most famous chefs in the country.

They told him not to gamble with a thing as precious and singular as his soul.

He probably should’ve listened to that one.

Takeaway

The bummer here is that the best quotes for a sample passage give away key plot details, and I’ve got some regrets about mentioning the menu, as that shows up about a third of the way into the book*, but I know I would be really intrigued by stories about a place willing to put angel on the menu. That said, the book executes its concept well. There’s the guy running the place, who clearly has some interesting history in kitchens. There are the new chefs, showing the reader around the place as they start work. And then there’s the acquisition team – the guys that actually have to go out and get the exotic ingredients using a combination of cunning, magic, and extreme violence.

*I hate summaries that give away the plot, ‘cause until that thing they mentioned on the back cover happens, I’m spending every minute up to that point going ‘OK. When is this gonna surprise me?’, and it tends to make that part of the book about as interesting as whatever happens before the first face gets eaten in a zombie movie.

So, what other books should be on this list? Leave your thoughts and best playlists in the comments, and stay tuned for my next column.

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