'True Confections' spiteful, delightful

When the time came to nail down details about the candy business for her fifth novel, "True Confections" (Shaye Areheart), Katharine Weber knew exactly where she had to go: Chicago.

Each spring at McCormick Place, the National Confectioners Association hosts the one trade show in all the world that ought to hand out complimentary drool buckets upon entrance. Sweets & Snacks Expo -- formerly known as the All-Candy Expo -- displays all the cool new candies for distributors, such as grocery stores. This year's event will run May 25 to 27.

It was at a previous expo that Weber acquired the inside skinny that makes her new novel the witty, sly and quite marvelous thing that it is. In her tale of a fictional family-owned candy company called Zip's -- creators of such made-up but somehow familiar-sounding treats as Tigermelts and Mumbo Jumbos -- Weber reminds us of the lies, crimes and compromises that seem to lurk in the shadows of great American businesses.

The grumpy narrator, Alice Tatnall Ziplinsky, enrobes her recitation of the company's dubious history in darkly luxurious folds of clumsy self-justification. Then the whole thing is sprinkled with delicious bits of double-crossing chicanery.

Weber's homework in Chicago paid off: "True Confections" is a nifty insider's guide to the candy biz.

"The first time I went to the candy convention, it was to find atmosphere," Weber said in a recent interview from her Connecticut home. "The second time, the novel was finished -- and I kept thinking I was going to turn the corner and see a booth for Zip's Candies."

The author of novels such as "Triangle" (2006), which dealt with the deadly 1911 fire at New York's Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, Weber writes with a lovely feel for the language and a passion for social justice. Happily, the latter never gets in the way of a good story.

Alice recalls her first sniff of paradise: "A certain burnt sugar and chocolate aroma hung in the air, that marvelous, inevitable, ineffable, just-right aura of Zip's Candies. ..."

But Alice herself is not so sweet -- and the candy business, too, has traditionally had a lot to answer for, Weber declared.

"The history of candy is the history of the world. And it can involve one of the most lethal kinds of slave labor," including, she said, the exploitation of children to harvest the seeds of the cacao tree in impoverished African countries.

For those who simply love a good sugar buzz from time to time, it's a lot to swallow. But Weber's blend of historical fact and delicious fiction -- and the unforgettable voice of the scheming Alice -- makes "True Confections" a real treat.

jikeller@tribune.com

Great moments in candy culture 1949: Candy Land, among the most successful board games and featuring -- in some versions -- Queen Frostine and Lord Licorice, is invented by Eleanor Abbott and released by Milton Bradley.1952: The famous candy factory episode in "I Love Lucy." Lucy and Ethel take jobs as candy wrappers, but a souped-up assembly line forces them to gorge on fast-flying candy pieces.1963: "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory." Roald Dahl's book for children about the odd candy-maker and his peculiar factory, which has twice been made into films: "Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory" (1971, with Gene Wilder, right) and "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" (2005).1968: "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang." The film that introduced Toot Sweets, the candy you can take to band practice.1999: "Chocolat." Novel by Joanne Harris about magical candies was made into 2000 film of the same name.2004: "Candyfreak: A Journey Through the Chocolate Underbelly of America" by Steve Almond. Hilarious essays about one man's obsession.2009: Universal announces plans for a film version of Candy Land.

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