With the Fire on High: A (WIRoB) Review

This piece originally appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books:

cover art for With the Fire on High by Elizabeth AcevedoEmoni Santiago knows that when people see her name, they get an idea of the person they’re going to meet — the same way people thought they knew the kind of girl she was when she got pregnant her freshman year at Schomburg Charter High School.

She didn’t want to give away information like that for her daughter. Instead, she explains:

“I wanted to give Babygirl a nice name. The kind of name that doesn’t tell you too much before you meet her, the way mine does. Because nobody ever met a white girl named Emoni, and as soon as they see my name on a résumé or college application they think they know exactly what kind of girl they getting.”

But even if people who see her as a teen mother think they know her, Emoni knows they don’t see the full picture. They don’t understand that her top priority since Babygirl was born is to be a good mother.

Even with help from her grandmother, ‘Buela, at home, Emoni has a lot more than college plans on her mind at the start of senior year in Philadelphia. While her best friend, Angelia, is looking at the best graphic-arts programs and enjoying her relationship with her new girlfriend, Emoni is trying to decide if college (or a relationship) can have a place in her future alongside the hopes and dreams she wants to make a reality for Babygirl. And she wonders if it’s time to focus on doing rather than “spending four years pretending to do” in college.

When an opportunity to take an immersive culinary-arts class comes up at school, Emoni knows this is one thing she has to do even if she isn’t sure what to expect — or even if she can afford the class’ trip to Spain alongside the day-to-day costs of helping ‘Buela keep their house afloat.

“If you ask her to tell it, ‘Buela starts with the same story” of Emoni hopping up on a stool and seasoning her first meal at age 4. Emoni doesn’t know what to believe, but “ever since then ‘Buela is convinced I have magical hands when it comes to cooking. And I don’t know if I really have something special, or if her telling me I got something special has brainwashed me into believing it, but I do know I’m happier in the kitchen than anywhere else in the world. It’s the one place I let go and only need to focus on the basics: taste, smell, texture, fusion, beauty.”

Unfortunately, her natural affinity for food and years of experimentation in the kitchen don’t go far when it comes to prepping Emoni for the rigors of the culinary class. Chef Ayden wants to prepare them for work in a restaurant, but Emoni chafes under the structure and restrictions that seem designed to impede her creativity.

Emoni already knows a lot about taking care of herself and the people she loves, but over the course of her senior year, she’ll have to decide if she’s ready to learn even more about cooking, family, and opening her heart in With the Fire on High (2019) by Elizabeth Acevdo.

Find it on Bookshop.

Author Elizabeth Acevedo’s follow-up to her blockbuster verse-novel debut, The Poet X, is another sensational contemporary story. Broken into three parts, With the Fire on High follows the sour, savory, and bittersweet moments as Emoni moves toward graduation and tries to figure out what’s next both for herself and her family.

Emoni’s first-person narration is frank and introspective. She is confident and secure in who she is and the choices she has made, but she also knows that people may have misconceptions about her as a result — something that the novel explores especially well through Emoni’s rivalry and eventual cautious friendship with her classmate “Pretty Leslie Peterson,” about whom Emoni has her own preconceived notions.

Quick, evocative descriptions bring Emoni’s Philadelphia to life as she moves through her neighborhood, where “the sounds of West Allegheny Avenue rush in to greet [her]: cars honking, buses screeching to a stop, rapid Spanglish yelled from the corners as people greet one another, and mothers calling out last-minute instructions to their kids from open windows” and beyond to other parts of the city.

While a romance as sweet as any of her desserts unfolds between Emoni and a new student, the core of this story is the found family and support system that Emoni creates for herself and Babygirl — a family that gets even bigger once she is willing to ask for help when she needs it, because, “like Chef Ayden always says, sometimes you need a team to help you.”

With the Fire on High is a delectable confection filled with optimism, humor, and an obvious affection for each and every character — especially Emoni, a heroine readers will not soon forget.

Possible Pairings: A La Carte by Tanita S. Davis, Unclaimed Baggage by Jen Doll, The Way You Make Me Feel by Maurene Goo, Foolish Hearts by Emma Mills, Don’t Date Rosa Santos by Nina Moreno, Your Destination is On the Left by Lauren Spieller, Field Notes on Love by Jennifer E. Smith, Stay Sweet by Siobhan Vivian

The Silver Linings Playbook: A (book and movie) Review

The Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew QuickPat believes in happy endings. Even in the slightly messed up movie of his own life. When he can finally leave the bad place, Pat is sure that Apart Time with his beautiful wife is about to end. The movie has gone on long enough. It’s time for his happy ending.

To prove that Pat deserves his happy ending, he is doing all of the right things. He is trying to be kind instead of right. He is working out to get in better shape. He is reading literature so he and his wife will have things to talk about. He is even taking his meds (mostly).

But while Pat is desperate for Apart Time to end, distractions keep getting in the way. First he meets Tiffany–who is crazy. Crazier that Pat by a lot. Who insists on being his friend. Then he somehow becomes a part of his family’s complex game day rituals to cheer on the Eagles every Sunday.

Then things get really weird. Kenny G–the man Pat fears above all others–keeps turning up at inopportune moments. He is somehow part of a dance recital. And the Eagles might not make it to the playoffs at all.

Pat believes in happy endings. He knows he deserves his happy ending. What Pat doesn’t know is what to do when the happy ending he hoped for is the exact opposite of the one he might get in The Silver Linings Playbook (2008) by Matthew Quick.

If Matthew Quick is a rockstar writer, this book is his gold record complete with a cover (in the form of a movie adaptation).

I saw the movie for my birthday earlier this year and I really loved it. After seeing One Day in theaters and watching a character get hit by a bus, I had been weary of “grown up” movies (and books for that matter) but after some research I determined there weren’t any freak accidents in this story so I was good to go. Already being a fan of Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, I was ready to be impressed by the movie. And I was. Everything worked and everything came together to make a charming and engaging story.

Much later (because of the huge library hold queue) I was able to pick up a copy of the book that inspired the movie.

There are quite a few differences. The plot was tightened up and stretched for the movie to make it more cinematic (and plot-driven since we can’t just listen to Pat talk for two hours on-screen). The changes made sense and, above all, they worked for the new medium. The result was a book that was still gripping and incredibly well-written but a movie that was a bit more whimsical.

While the film touches the surface of Pat and Tiffany’s problems, the book shows that these characters are really broken. There are missing pieces, and parts that don’t fit, and they’re just trying to hold it all together one day at a time. That messiness isn’t as prevalent in the movie.

The main reason I enjoyed this book is its optimism. Pat’s a mess. Tiffany is a disaster. But they’re trying. They might even be learning. Along the way Pat has several pitfalls but he also makes friends and finally makes it to his own happy ending in a way that feels natural while still leaving room for the sense of wonder that Pat manages to find in even the smallest of silver linings.

All I Need: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

All I Need by Susane ColasantiSkye has great parents, good friends, and even a summer friend near her family’s summer house on the Jersey Shore. Still, Skye knows something is missing. She’s still waiting to find the right guy–the one that will make her feel complete and be the icing on the proverbial cake. That’s all Skye needs for her life to really be perfect.

Every summer Skye and her friend Adrienne joke that the summer will be different; something exciting will finally happen. Usually that isn’t the case. Then Skye sees him at the party and she knows, at last, that something big really is going to happen.

Seth didn’t want to join his friend at the beach party. His family doesn’t rent a house on the shore–his dad owns a roller rink there. Totally not the same. But then Seth sees her and he knows he was wrong and coming to the party was the exactly right thing to do.

After one magical night Skye and Seth know they’re meant to be. But before they get to a happy future they’ll have to deal with a present filled with missed connections, worried parents, troublesome friends, and the difficult realities of college (and long distances) in All I Need (2013) by Susane Colasanti.

All I Need is Colasanti’s sixth novel. Like her other books it is a standalone (though attentive readers might spot a cameo or two).

All I Need is written in the first person with dual narrations by Skye and Seth. Between the two narrators, Colasanti offers a nuanced story about the starts and stops of Skye and Seth’s fledgling relationship. Although the novel spans a wide space of time, this story is very grounded in the distinctive sense of possibility that summer brings. Colasanti expertly opens up both Skye and Seth’s futures as together (and apart) they realize the world has a lot to offer.

With a frothy blend of romance and fate Colasanti plays with the ideas of serendipity and inevitability as Seth and Skye work to find each other after their first fateful meeting. The two narratives cleverly overlap and intertwine throughout All I Need to create a delightfully romantic and thoughtful story.

Possible Pairings:Graffiti Moon by Cath Crowley, What Happened to Goodbye by Sarah Dessen, Prom and Prejudice by Elizabeth Eulberg, Just One Day by Gayle Forman, Lola and the Boy Next Door by Stephanie Perkins, The Statistical Probability of True Love at First Sight by Jennifer E. Smith

You can also read my exclusive interview with Susane Colasanti.

How to Murder a Millionaire: A (mysterious) Chick Lit Wednesday Review

How to Murder a Millionaire by Nancy MartinNora Blackbird was living the good life among the posh blue bloods of Philadelphia’s Main Line. True, she and her two sisters were widows, likely as a result of the Blackbird curse, but time heals all wounds–even the unexpected ones.

Unfortunately, as any good reader will know, the sins of the parents are always visited upon the children. In How to Murder a Millionaire (2002), Nancy Martin‘s first Blackbird Sisters mystery, those sins come in the form of tax evasion.

“To squander the last dollar left in the Blackbird family fortune, my parents threw a lawn party that would have made Jay Gatsby proud.”

Nora’s older sister, Libby, received the family furniture. Emma, the youngest Blackbird, landed the Blackbird art collection. Nora, our narrator, received the family homestead.

“Perhaps under the impression that I was the most responsible member of the family–which only means I’m the one who never entered a wet T-shirt contest–Mama and Daddy gave me the Bucks County farm. Then they blew the country for a sunny resort that catered to American tax evaders, leaving stardust in their wake and me with a delinquent property tax bill for two million dollars.”

Trained as a debutante, with little practical experience in anything else, Nora has a problem. Desperate for money to support herself (and funnel into IRS pockets), Nora gets a job as a society columnist for the Philadephia Intelligencer working as an assistant to Philadephia’s most-hated society columnist. It’s a change that surprises most of Nora’s wealthy friends and associates, but for most part, life as a society writer is stirkingly similar to life as a debutante, the main difference being the presence of a ubiquitous pen and notebook.

As Nora learns on her first assignment, the presence of a dead body is also different. When Nora finds the host of her first party assignment, a family friend and wealthy art collector, dead, Nora feels compelled to investigate. Complications arise when tough-talking Emma and free-spirit Libby decide to help.

Meanwhile, Nora is left to deal with the ever-present back taxes on her own as she contemplates her options (and the definitely sexy, possible mobster’s son, willing to buy up the farm’s extra property).

While it isn’t always laugh-out-loud funny, How to Murder a Millionaire is quirky and entertaining. Martin creates memorable characters, especially the sisters who unsurprisingly are at the core of the plot. Her prose is light and fast moving. Nora’s narration pulls no punches describing Philadelphia’s elite and all of their foibles. Other reviewers have suggested that this novel is unrealistic–not being a Philadelphia debutant I cannot judge that for myself save to say that everything seems as plausible as a fictitious story can.

If you enjoy this novel, the Blackbird Sisters make their next appearance in Dead Girls Don’t Wear Diamonds.