Book Review: With The Fire On High

with the fire on highWith The Fire On High
by Elizabeth Acevedo
Young Adult / Contemporary Fiction
388 pages
Published May 2019

With this book, Elizabeth Acevedo has solidified her position as one of my must-read authors. The Poet X was EXCELLENT, and this one is every bit as good, which is awesome, considering the wildly different formats of the two books. The Poet X was a novel in poem form, being the collected poems of a teenage girl. This book is a more traditional novel, written in prose. It loses none of the lyrical, enchanting quality of Acevedo’s writing, however.

With The Fire On High centers on Emoni Santiago, a teenage mother struggling to graduate from high school on time. When a culinary arts elective is offered during her senior year of school, she takes it despite feeling like she should be spending her energy on her daughter’s future instead of realizing her own dreams. The elective opens up an entire world for her, however, taking her from whipping up magic alone in her own kitchen to being recognized by talented chefs as having something special. The added hours spent on cooking begin to affect her other responsibilities, however, and Emoni struggles to balance everything in her life, a fight that is very nearly upended by the new, very cute boy who just transferred to her school.

Emoni deals admirably with the vast responsibilities of being a parent, the complications of her own somewhat unusual home life (she’s been raised by her grandmother after her mother’s death and her father’s absence), and the pressures of high school. Especially a school where she spent freshman year pregnant. Rather luckily, her daughter’s father goes to a different school, so at least she doesn’t have to deal with him every day.

Similar to The Poet X, the book deals with the intersection of black American culture and Puerto Rican culture, a combination I’ve been seeing more and more in Young Adult. (Well, The Poet X was Dominican, but they have very similar worries, mostly revolving around feeling “not black enough.”)

I loved Emoni, I loved Malachi (the cute transfer student), I loved Abuela and Baby Girl/Emma. I even didn’t mind Tyrone too much. For being a player, he was trying to do right by his daughter. Acevedo has such a talent for characters. Angelica (Emoni’s best friend) and her girlfriend were a delight, too.

If you see a book by Elizabeth Acevedo, pick it up. You won’t be disappointed. I can’t wait to pick up her next book, which appears to be another novel in verse called Clap When You Land, due out next year!

From the cover of With The Fire On High:

Ever since she got pregnant freshman year, Emoni Santiago’s life has been about making the tough decisions, doing what has to be done for her daughter and her abuela. The one place she can let all that go is in the kitchen. There, she lets her hands tell her what to cook, listening to her intuition and adding a little something magical every time, turning her food into straight-up goodness.

Even though she’s always dreamed of working in a kitchen after she graduates, Emoni knows that it’s not worth her time to pursue the impossible. Yet despite the rules she’s made for her life – and everyone else’s rules, which she refuses to play by – once Emoni starts cooking, her only choice is to let her talent break free.

From the author of National Book Award winner The Poet X comes a dazzling story of a girl with talent, pride, and a drive to create that keeps her fire burning bright.

Advertisements

Book Review: Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors

pride prejudice and other flavorsPride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors
by Sonali Dev
Contemporary Fiction / Retelling
481 pages
Published May 2019

This is yet another Pride and Prejudice retelling, as evidenced by the title. It seems to be a popular thing to do of late, but they’ve all been very good, so I’m not complaining! This one, more than the others, really deconstructed the story and put it all back together in a unique way.

Probably the biggest change here is that while Darcy is still a man with a younger sister and no other family, the roles of the two families have been switched. Darcy is the poor one, and Trisha (Lizzie Bennett) is the rich one. Wickham still plays the villain, though in a slightly different manner, and Darcy is not the friend of Trisha/Lizzie’s elder sister’s beau. (Though the elder sister does still have romantic problems!)

I really liked the swapped roles; it made for a radically different plotline than the story it’s based on. What I did not like is the lack of sparks between DJ/Darcy and Trisha. They butted heads like they should, but unlike the original and most of the retellings, I didn’t feel the underlying sexual tension. Trisha seemed more enamored of DJ’s cooking than of DJ, and I don’t know what DJ saw in Trisha at ALL.

The author also kept pulling me out of my immersion in the story with her repeated use of “XXXX” was what I WANTED to say, but of course I didn’t say it, instead I simply replied “YYYY.” Just – over and over, with multiple characters. I appreciate you’re trying to show us what they’re thinking vs. what they’re saying, but change it up.

I did enjoy the book overall; I love seeing other cultures take on this trope, from the Pakistani Unmarriageable to the Brooklyn African-American Pride, to this mix of Indian-American and British-Indian. I think Unmarriageable was my favorite of these three, but it really was excellent.

So this was good, but not outstanding.

From the cover of Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors:

It is a truth universally acknowledged that only in an overachieving Indian American family can a genius daughter be considered a black sheep.

Dr. Trisha Raje is San Francisco’s most acclaimed neurosurgeon. But that’s not enough for the Rajes,  her influential immigrant family, who have achieved power by making their own nonnegotiable rules:

  • Never trust an outsider
  • Never do anything to jeopardize your brother’s political aspirations
  • And never, ever defy your family

Trisha is guilty of breaking all three rules. But now she has a chance to redeem herself. So long as she doesn’t repeat her old mistakes.

Up-and-coming chef DJ Caine has known people like Trisha before, people who judge him by his rough beginnings and who place pedigree above character. He needs the lucrative job the Rajes offer him, but he values his pride too much to indulge Trisha’s arrogance. And then he discovers that she’s the only surgeon who can save his sister’s life.

As the two clash, their assumptions crumble like the spun sugar on one of DJ’s stunning desserts. But before they can savor the future, they need to reckon with the past . . . .

A family trying to build a home in a new land.
A man who has never felt at home anywhere.
And a choice to be made between the two.

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. 

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.