2017 Reviews, Long Fiction

Like Water for Chocolate

Like Water for Chocolate tells the strange and luscious story of the De la Garza family in Mexico at the turn of the century. Tita, forbidden to marry by the family matriarch and all but relegated to the kitchen, finds she is able to express her true self through cooking. When family and guests eat Tita’s food, they are overcome with overwhelming disgust, lust, anger, and sadness. Each chapter features a specific dish, and relates both Tita’s personal journey into a modern Mexican woman, but also the story of Mexico as it undergoes a revolution on the outskirts of Tita’s life. (Read my First Look here)

I’ll admit that the first four times I tried to find this book at my library, I thought they didn’t carry it. I thought they only carried a sort of study guide for book clubs, with monthly recipes. Turns out, that’s the book. Don’t be fooled like I was.

Each of us is born with a box of matches inside us but we can’t strike them all by ourselves; we need oxygen and a candle to help…Each person has to discover what will set off those explosions in order to live, since the combustion that occurs when one of them is ignited is what nourishes the soul…If one doesn’t find out in time what will set off these explosions, the box of matches dampens, and not a single match will ever be lighted.

Esquivel does a lovely job of throwing the reader directly into the kitchen to hear these tales. The narration for each chapter truly feels like a person relaying a recipe for you, and getting sidetracked on family tall-tales. Each chapter is about food, but also love, and also womanhood, and also revolution. The writing is sensual in every meaning of the word. There are scenes that are embarrassing and gross, and others erotic and heartbreaking. There is magical realism here, and unlike another MR behemoth (100 Years of Solitude) this magic feels much more human and maybe feminine. There is magic in Tita’s cooking, but also in all food, in sex, in stories, and in relationships.

I always want more magic in my magical realism. However, it wouldn’t make sense for the narrator of this tale to fawn over the magical details. Everything here comes through a sort of distanced retelling of old family stories; questioning the details is not only rude, but detrimental to the point of the retelling. The food and emotions are an exception, but overall this story is not as richly textured as others in the genre; settings and characters were both slightly shallow and one-dimensional. In these ways, LWfC feels more like a tall-tale than magical realism, but either way I enjoyed it.

This is a quick and fun read, with a little bit of heartbreak, lots of good food, and some sexy and funny stuff thrown in. Great book for all those aspiring kitchen witches out there. If you want to try out Magical Realism but don’t quite have the gumption to try 100 Years of Solitude right away, this is a great introduction to the genre.

Scent Notes: wet masa, sweat, crushed rose petals


2017 Reviews, Long Fiction

Under a Painted Sky

Samantha, a Chinese American, and Annamae, a runaway slave, flee West  towards California. Annamae is running from slavery and to find her brother, while Samantha is fleeing an accidental crime. Both girls are looking for a new start and freedom that they just can’t have in Missouri in 1845.

b052e9cd4014e17e426697fed22c534f.jpgThe girls disguise themselves as boys-Sammy and Andy- and join a band of three young cowboys for protection. The group romps through the Western genre: learning to ride horses and shoot guns, a stampede, a treacherous river crossing, animal attacks, dysentery, a fiddle/banjo battle. This book is seriously fun, and gives opportunity for the girls to use their own skills as well as learn new ones from the cowboys. Along the way they meet abolitionists and musicians, gold hunters and criminals, and many groups of people fleeing west for opportunity or freedom. Each character brings a cultural asset to the story- a refreshing reminder that the westward expansion wasn’t just a white Protestant story.

“After a thousand miles of trail, it seems to me that good luck is always just a few steps ahead of bad, and maybe the amount one receives of either simply depends on the distance traveled.”

untitled-design-2As the girls are pursued by the law, violent men in the wilderness, a supposedly murderous gang of escaped slaves, and their own grief, they become close friends. They also become close with the cowboys, but must always keep their real selves hidden. There are some laughs here, but also a decent look at gender norms as explained by young folk on the frontier. Sam and Andy’s experiences allow the reader to explore grief, xenophobia, racism, and misogyny. Though the book has moments of intense violence, including the underlying violence of bigotry, Under a Painted Sky is ultimately about was can happen when people are kind. What gets our two characters to their surprising but happy ending is goodness in unlikely circumstances and from unlikely people, the beauty of music and storytelling, and the determination and friendship of two brave young women.


This is a fun adventure that has a diverse cast of characters, explores time period issues through a race and gender lens, and shows the power of female friendships! A great book for teen readers* and adults.

Scent Notes: warm leather, violin polish, and rain on hot dirt

*CW: Book has more than one attempt at sexual violence perpetrated by adult men against young women. Also death, slavery, and murder are a regular element.