Alice Fleck’s Recipes for Disaster – by Rachelle Delaney
Puffin Canada, 2021
Alice and her father, James, a culinary historian, share a close bond, although lately it has been altered a bit by his new relationship with Hana, a Victorian scholar. The cooking connection is so much a part of Alice and her father’s life together that he affectionately calls her his “sous-chef.” Alice’s mother is not in the picture. She is alive, they are not divorced, but she appears in the novel’s backstory. Right away, this single-parent household is somewhat different than the ones which figure in many middle-grade novels. The further you read, the more distinctive the cast of characters becomes.
James is a lovely, kind man. He is proud of his daughter, and also of the independence which the two of them have achieved together. When he meets Hana Holmes, Alice becomes afraid that too many cooks will spoil the proverbial broth, the broth being their family. Readers empathize with Alice, although the author tests our tolerance when the young cook’s aggression boils over. Fortunately, Alice has the support of some truly loyal friends, Octavia Sapphire and Henry Oh. (Yes, characters’ names are key ingredients in this contemporary story with some Victorian flavor.)
Alice and James are set to participate in a cooking contest for their favorite obscure reality TV show, Culinary Chronicles, which unfortunately is transformed into Culinary Combat. There’s lots of humor about ratings-driven programming sinking to the lowest common denominator. When events take a suspicious turn, the book becomes a mystery in which each contestant and staff member may become a prime suspect. These kids are sharp, persistent, and full of a thirst for justice. Rachelle Delaney does a notable job of propelling the mystery forward while also allowing the changing events of Alice’s family life to develop. They aren’t just a side dish, but part of the main course.
Since the show is filmed at a restored manor’s Victorian festival, there are some truly imaginative dishes to prepare, some of which fall outside the historical parameters of the era. I’ll just mention the challenge of baking peacock pie. Don’t worry; the author is not advocating for eating this beautiful bird. Like many other historically accurate details, it is a plot point stirred into the brew. There are references to other elements of Victorian history, enlivening the novel even for readers who are not food obsessed. Hana is a thoroughly believable academic, somewhat obsessed with her specialty, but also aware of her need to meet the real world on her terms. I really liked her! So is James, even if he does wear a good-luck scarf. By the end of the book, everything falls together, much like the carefully constructed ladyfingers of a perfect charlotte russe.