Saturday, November 06, 2010

Weekend Cooking: The Various Flavors of Coffee by Anthony Capella

Do you ever take the time to look back over the posts that you have done for Weekend Cooking? I did this week, and it was a pleasant way to spend a few minutes. I looked back over some food related memories, some new recipes that I had tried and liked, some old favourites, and only one dismal failure!

I was also reminded that I had never actually posted my review of The Various Flavours of Coffee by Anthony Capella, despite the fact that we had played the guess the title game a while ago now, so that is what my Weekend Coffee post is this week:

It was a cup of coffee that changed Robert Wallis's life - and a very bad cup of coffee at that. The impoverished poet is sitting in a London coffeehouse contemplating an uncertain future when he meets Samuel Pinker. The coffee merchant offers Wallis the very last thing a struggling young artiste in fin de siecle England could possibly want: a job.

But the job Wallis accepts - employing his palate and talent for words to compose a "vocabulary of coffee" based on its many subtle and elusive flavors - is only the beginning of an extraordinary adventure in which Wallis will experience the dizzying heights of desire and the excruciating pain of loss. As Wallis finds himself falling in love with his coworker, Pinker's spirited daughter Emily, both will discover that you cannot affect one set of senses without awakening all the others.

Their love is tested when Wallis is dispatched on a journey to North Africa in search of the legendary Arab mocca. As he travels to coffee's fabled birthplace - and learns the fiercely guarded secrets of the trade - Wallis meets Fikre, the defiant, seductive slave of a powerful coffee merchant, who serves him in the traditional Abyssinian coffee ceremony. And when Fikre dares to slip Walllis a single coffee bean, the mysteries of coffee and forbidden passion intermingle...and combine to change history and fate.
This is the third book that I have read from Anthony Capella, but it was the first one that I have been disappointed in, and it is going to be hard to quantify, because the topics covered are all quite interesting but when combined into one story it didn't quite work. One of the main reasons for this is because the main character, Robert Wallis, is quite unlikeable and to my mind Capella didn't manage to rehabilitate him to this reader.

The man we first meet in a coffee shop in London, drinking a very average cup of coffee, is a younger son whose father has told him that he needs to find a way to support himself after having been sent down from university. To be honest, I can't think of many positive elements of his character. He is a spendthrift, he frequents prostitutes regularly, thinks nothing of dabbling in drugs, and certainly doesn't want to have to work for a living.

What he does do well is use words, and it is this trait along with the fact that Robert seems to have a good palate for different flavours which attracts the attention of Mr Pinker, a wealthy coffee merchant with a big idea! His idea is to  create a kind of reference library of tastes so that when he is ordering coffee beans from all round the world they can refer to the vocabulary and he will know exactly what flavours he can expect to receive in his shipment.

To develop this reference guide, Wallis begins to work closely with Mr Pinker's daughter Emily and they soon develop a relationship, with Robert thinking that he may well soon find himself more than just an employee to Mr Pinker, yet he doesn't really have much to recommend him other than he is quite dapper, generally paid for through borrowing from loan sharks. Take this example:

I considered carefully what to wear for dinner at Pinker's. On the one hand it was almost one's duty, as an aesthete, to make a striking show at table. One the other, I wanted Pinker to think of me as a possible future son-in-law. I should wear something impressive, I decided: something that declared that I was, if not quite his equal, then somebody of distinction within my own sphere. After some consideration I found the very thing: an ornate jacket of green Jacquard silk, inlaid with gems, which seemed to shimmer with the opulent iridescence of a mallard's neck. It was on display in Liberty, along with a magnificent turban in blue, at the fastening of which was a sumptuous brooch of red garnet. The only problem was that the ensemble cost six pounds, a sum I could no longer afford.

There were moments during this book which were very amusing. For example,  when Wallis turns up for dinner in the above outfit, one of the other characters (a dour Scotman who plays a pivotal role in the lives of both Robert and Emily) says

"they'd warned me that ye were a pote, Wallish, but they'd no' warned me that ye might forget your clothes."

"I beg your pardon?" I said, frowning.

"Ye've turned up to dinner in your dreshing gown, man."

Robert finds himself sent to Africa to build up a coffee plantation, and there comes into contact with a beautiful slave named Fikre, and he once again finds himself distracted from the task at hand. Instead of concentrating on the problems of getting the coffee plantation running, dealing with the locals he finds himself embarking on a torrid relationship that can only end in disaster, one way or the other.

It is difficult to say much more without giving away too much of the plot, but I will say that later Robert finds himself involved with the passionate, rebellious and somewhat dangerous women who were involved in the suffragette movement and also in efforts to break the coffee trading block that was prevalent at the time enabling a couple of families to dominate the world coffee trade.

Whilst there were glimpses of all the things that I have enjoyed in his previous novels, it seemed to me that the author tried too hard to include too many different elements within the story all framed around an unlikeable character. Whilst he was better by the end, the improvement wasn't enough to overcome the distaste I had for him earlier in the book.

By trying to lend the book various flavours, instead of coming up with an enjoyable brew, we ended up with a muddy cup of sludge.

Pass the instant coffee.

Weekend Cooking is hosted by Beth Fish Reads and is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, fabulous quotations, photographs.

This also counts as my entry for the letter V for Historical Tapestry's Alphabet in Historical Fiction.


  1. Shoot -- so sorry that this one disappointed. The concept is great though. But then, I'm a coffee freak.

  2. I have this one in my TBR. I've been petting it for a while now, and it's on the nightstand waiting for me. Having doubts about it...ah well...I'll give it a shot (sometime).

    Thanks for the review Marg! :D

  3. A love a good cup of coffee! But it is not that easy to find ;)

    Fun Weekend Cooking post - enjoy your weekend!

  4. Sorry it wasn't a winner for you. Interesting concept but a cup o' sludge is disappointing.

  5. Sorry this one didn't work for you. You did a lovely job of reviewing it however.

  6. I haven't read this but it sounded like it would be good. Now, not so sure. Thanks for an interesting review. Maybe some day I'll give it a go... I do love coffee but not unlikeable characters.

  7. The premise sounds interesing and the cover is beautiful! Too bad it was weak.

  8. muddy cup of sludge..ok, that is pretty bad.
    see, the problem is that everyone knows coffee is just an inferior drink to tea...tea should have been at the center. and tea is never muddy.

  9. I enjoyed your review and now I want a good cup of coffee, eeks, decaf perhaps.

  10. Sorry the book was disappointing, but I did enjoy your review... especially the last two sentences! I love a good cup of coffee, too.

  11. Oh, so sorry to hear that this one let you down.

    I saw a good coffee quote the other day: Buying a cup of decaffeinated coffee is like buying a silent harmonica.

    Just wanted to share that with you, since this post was about coffee.

  12. That last quote was quite funny. I can see what you mean by the author trying to cover too many things and details. Oh well. I love coffee too but I'll pass on this one :)



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