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richardderus

Expendable Mudge Muses Aloud

The Various Flavors of Coffee - Anthony Capella Rating: 3.875* of fiveThe Book Report: The book description says:From the internationally bestselling author of The Wedding Officer comes a novel whose stunning blend of exotic adventure and erotic passion will intoxicate every reader who tastes of its remarkable delights.When a woman gives a man coffee, it is a way of showing her desire.—Abyssinian proverbIt was a cup of coffee that changed Robert Wallis’s life—and a cup of very bad coffee at that. The impoverished poet is sitting in a London coffeehouse contemplating an uncertain future when he meets Samuel Pinker. The owner of Castle Coffee offers Wallace the very last thing a struggling young artiste in fin de siècle 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 hopelessly in love with his coworker, Pinker’s spirited suffragette daughter Emily, both will discover that you cannot awaken one set of senses without affecting 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 Wallis a single coffee bean, the mysteries of coffee and forbidden passion intermingle…and combine to change history and fate. My Review: Um. Well. Uh. I have a problem here. I started reading one book, thinking I was getting one kind of thing, and I ended up getting rather another, and along the way I oscillated between irked and amused often enough that I thought I was on some sort of story-magneto, swinging from pole to pole.There's a good deal of energy in this tale, no doubt about that. It's got a swinging pace, it's got an emotional charge from its characters' absurdities and failings, and it's set at a time of radical change which is always good for a sense of urgency.The irked pole on the mageto, for me, was narrator Robert himself. His studied, dandyish pose of Oscar Wildean epigrammatic speech made me homicidal. That the conceit of the book is a tale told in retrospect prevented me from hurling the damn thing aside, as the narrator-Robert shared my amused, then annoyed response to character-Robert, is both a good and a bad thing. I got the sense that narrator-Robert and I were in cahoots, smiling with impatient indulgence on the emotional excesses and self-delusions of Those Young People. It also popped me out of the story a good deal, at least until I'd made my peace with its narrative drag on the pace.Also on the irked pole of the swing was the romance Robert clearly has with himself, and extends to Emily, a Modern Girl (in the 1897 meaning of those words) working (!) in her father's firm before entering into marriage. As Robert is hired to create a coffee vocabulary with Emily's help, the story being told about coffee seemed to suffer from the superposition of A Romance. That the romance was doomed (not a spoiler, Robert says so) is no surprise whatsoever. No one's first love is his last. More to the point, Robert's constant use of prostitutes isn't gonna fly with a Modern Girl, and one can always rest assured that the secret one least wants revealed will be known by those one least wants to know it at the worst, most embarrassing moment. In fiction as in life. So the doomed-ness of the romance was crystal clear and left me waiting for the other shoe to drop, rather than being a sad case of readerly anticipation followed by a wistful sense of opportunity lost. It might be an inevitability of the retrospective structure used here. I would have thought, however, that the author would have expended more effort in making this Grand Passion more immediate, no matter the structure.But the real annoyance to me was the occasional interpolation of present-tense bits into this review of the life and times of Robert, when the PoV shifts to others. If these aren't Robert's memories, why are they here? So annoying to have the rules the author himself chose broken with such complete, unexplained violence. So. Annoying.But there were positive pole-swings, too, and really good ones. The author has narrator-Robert decrying the change from Victorian to Edwardian worlds, from hidden, gaslit Vices to unforgiving, electrically lit Morality...a point I found really interesting. The backdrop of Africa was also deeply felt and wonderfully evocative. I have no gauge to measure its accuracy, as I've never been to East Africa, but it felt wonderful and enfolding and right to me. The author, I will note, was born in Uganda. This makes me inclined to trust his evocation of place.But the main pleasure the book afforded me was coffee. The smell, the taste, the politics, the essence of the world in these pages is coffee. The vocabulary character-Robert develops with Emily, the first of its kind, is delightful. The descriptions of the coffees, their differences, their quirks, all superbly rendered and skillfully deployed to avoid both the dreaded info-dump and the (inexplicably, to me) less-dreaded light garnish or inadequate gilding of fact on a wodge of story that could be anywhere, anywhen, about anything and/or nothing.And while I've mentioned in positive terms the pace the author sets in the book, I can't overlook the sheer length of the opus. Over 500 pages. Oh dear. One hundred fewer, with the simple alteration of no annoying PoV switches, and I think this would have been a more exciting, more fully enfolding book.It's a good read that could have been excellent. *sigh*