Book Review: Love à la Mode

love a la modeLove à la Mode
by Stephanie Kate Strohm
Young Adult/Romance/Contemporary Fiction
323 pages
Published November 2018

I’m a baker. I absolutely love baking, it centers me when I’m being scatter-brained and grounds me when I’m in a bad mood. So I instantly identified with Rosie in this novel, who wants to be a pastry chef, currently at a culinary school that focuses more on cooking savory things. I’ve been there. Granted, my culinary school was basically a crash course two-year program at a community college, not “the most prestigious cooking program for teens in the entire world” but I identify with the feeling of being a fish not-quite-out of water. I’d also never seen this put into words before:

“…it was that not knowing that Rosie hated. That was why she loved baking. Baking was all knowing. If you followed the recipe, you got exactly what you intended. An apple pie never surprisingly turned into lemon meringue halfway through the baking process.”

I have some mild anxiety, and I hadn’t realized WHY baking helped, just that it did. But it’s true – baking is about knowing. That quote is in the second chapter, and I knew from then on I was going to love this book. (I was already pretty sure, but that moment drove it home.)

The descriptions of food in this novel – food and cooking, and WHY some people cook – are mouth-watering. I loved seeing the backgrounds of the various culinary students, as they came from all over the world to École Denis Laurent, the prestigious school in Paris. I liked the point made, eventually, that what looks like the “cool kids clique” from outside might not be what it seems. The book even addressed toxic masculinity in the form of Henry’s unwillingness to ask for help from his friends when he was struggling.

At its heart, Love à la Mode is a sweet, fluffy, clean romance with a romantic backdrop of Paris and good food. Sometimes a little bit of happy, lighthearted escapist fiction is what we all need. Especially when it doesn’t neglect representation to do it – there’s only a tiny bit of LGBT+ rep in the book, but the characters come from all kinds of ethnic backgrounds.

From the cover of Love à la Mode:

Take two American teen chefs, add one heaping cup of Paris, toss in a pinch of romance, and stir . . . 

Rosie Radeke firmly believes that happiness can be found at the bottom of a mixing bowl. But she never expected that she, a random nobody from East Liberty, Ohio, would be accepted to celebrity chef Denis Laurent’s school in Paris, the most prestigious cooking program for teens in the entire world. Life in Paris, however, isn’t all cream puffs and crêpes. Faced with a challenging curriculum and a nightmare professor, Rosie begins to doubt her dishes.

Henry Yi grew up in his dad’s restaurant in Chicago, and his lifelong love affair with food landed him a coveted spot in Chef Laurent’s school. He quickly connects with Rosie, but academic pressure from home and his jealousy over Rosie’s growing friendship with gorgeous bad-boy baker Bodie Tal makes Henry lash out and push his dream girl away.

Desperate to prove themselves, Rosie and Henry cook like never before while sparks fly between them. But as they reach their breaking points, they wonder whether they have what it takes to become real chefs.

Perfect for lovers of Chopped Teen Tournament and Kids Baking Championship, as well as anyone who dreams of a romantic trip to France, Love à la Mode follows Rose and Henry as they fall in love with food, with Paris, and ultimately, with each other. 

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Book Review: Cinnamon and Gunpowder

cinnamon and gunpowderCinnamon and Gunpowder
by Eli Brown
Pirate Adventure
318 pages
Published 2013

Cinnamon and Gunpowder reminds me a lot of Treasure Island. Or at least of my childhood memories of reading Treasure Island, as it’s been decades since I read it. The book is told from the viewpoint of Owen Wedgwood, a chef who finds himself kidnapped by a famous pirate and forced to cook gourmet meals for her in exchange for his life. As a home cook who’s had a small amount of actual training, I really enjoyed his descriptions of making do with only the cooking tools the ship has on hand and whatever rations he could lay his hands on. The creativity he displays in making amazing meals out of almost nothing is one of the best parts of the book. (And the descriptions of those meals – YUM.)

The formatting is set up as a kind of personal ship’s log, each part dated and written down after the events happen. Wedgwood (or “Spoons,” as the crew calls him) even mentions how he hides it and leaves out a decoy log, since he also writes down his dreams (and plans!) of escaping the pirates.

Some of the events in the book are incredibly predictable, but there are still a few surprises. I was a little disappointed when one thing in particular happened; I saw it coming but hoped that wasn’t where the author was going with it. I know that’s vague, but I don’t want to spoil anything!

I enjoyed learning about Mad Hannah’s background and why she’s a pirate; she’s fighting against the opium trade, and she actually gives Wedgwood a pretty accurate summary of the terrible things the opium trade was responsible for.

Any book that can combine sumptuous description of exotic meals with action and cannonballs will have my attention. And Brown does not shy away from proper action scenes. These are pirates, and fights get brutal. Men lose limbs if not their lives to storms and Navy bombardments. Keeping order on a pirate ship involves lashings and brute force. The book doesn’t shrink from those, but it also gets philosophical with Wedgwood’s description of flavors, and almost comedic with the images of using cannonballs as pestles for grinding herbs. It’s that contrast and variety that makes this book so much fun to read.

From the cover of Cinnamon and Gunpowder:

In Cinnamon and Gunpowder, the prizewinning author Eli Brown serves up the audacious tale of a fiery pirate captain, her reluctant chef, and their adventures aboard a battered vessel, the Flying Rose. As these unlikely shipmates traverse the oceans, intrigue, betrayal, and bloodshed churn the waters.

The year is 1819, and Owen Wedgwood, famed as the Caesar of Sauces, has been kidnapped by the ruthless captain Mad Hannah Mabbot. After using her jade-handled pistols on his employwer, lord of the booming tea trade, Mabbot announces to the terrified cook that he will be spared only as long as he puts an exquisite meal in front of her every Sunday without fail.

To appease the red-haired tyrant, Wedgwood works wonders with the meager supplies he finds on board, including weevil-infested cornmeal and salted meat he suspects was once a horse. His first triumph is that rarest of luxuries on a pirate ship: real bread, made from a sourdough starter that he keeps safe in a tin under his shirt. Soon he’s making tea-smoked eel and brewing pineapple-banana cider.

Even as she holds him hostage, Mabbot exerts a curious draw on the chef; he senses a softness behind the swagger and the roar. Stalked by a deadly privateer, plagued by a hidden saboteur, and outnumbered in epic clashes with England’s greatest ships of the line, Captain Mabbot pushes her crew past exhaustion in her hunt for the notorious King of Thieves. As Wedgwood begins to understand the method to Mabbot’s madness, he must rely on the bizarre crew members he once feared: Mr. Apples, the fearsome giant who loves to knit; Feng and Bai, martial arts masters sworn to defend their captain; and Joshua, the strangely mute cabin boy.

A giddy, anarchic tale of love and appetite, Cinnamon and Gunpowder is a wildly original feat of the imagination, deep and startling as the sea itself.