Category Archives: General Fiction

Like Water for Chocolate

Mexican magic-realism romance

This is one of those books that everyone seems to nod knowingly when you mention its name. The title just rolls off young tongue when you say it, and is so evocative. I always thought it referred to the craving for water you often feel after eating chocolate. However, I later found out that it actually refers to a Spanish phrase meaning emotions almost boiling over, referring to how hot chocolate is made in Mexico. After watching the film adaptation of the book, I managed to somewhere find an incredibly battered copy of the book. The copy was so battered, it is literally the first book I think I’ve ever seen with an actual bookworm. Nevertheless, I was very ready to read it.

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My attempt at making one of the book’s recipes, cream fritters,. I think I under-cooked the custard, or under-beat the egg white, but anyway I only managed to fry up three of them before everything essentially disintegrated, so if any colleagues are reading this, I was going to bring this into work, but be grateful that I didn’t! Also, after the fiasco of trying to fry a fourth fritter, there was no chance I was going to attempt the complicated syrup recipe in the book (more egg white) so I just went went with golden syrup. They tasted OK in the end, like very rich eggy pancakes, but a far cry I’m sure from what Esquivel had in mind.

“Like Water for Chocolate: A Novel in Monthly Instalments with Recipes, Romances and Home Remedies” by Laura Esquivel and translated by Carol and Thomas Christensen is a Mexican magic-realism romance novel. The story follows Tita, the youngest of three daughters in the De La Garza family, who falls in love with a man called Pedro. However, as the youngest daughter, Tita is forbidden to marry by her mother who instead forces Tita to look after her until she dies. In an interesting twist of logic, Pedro decides to instead marry her sister Rosaura in order to remain close to Tita. However, confined by her duties and relegated to the kitchen cooking the most sumptuous meals, it isn’t long before Tita’s emotions start to seep out.

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My first book worm!

This book is simply delightful. I have a real soft spot for books that have recipes in them, and this entire book is peppered with traditional, hearty Mexican recipes. Real soul food. I love how intertwined Tita’s cooking was with her emotions, and I loved the subtlety of the magic that sweeps through the house whenever Tita becomes emotional. I also loved the story of Gertrudis, the middle sister, who is a beacon of sexual liberation and girl power. It’s a wild tale, with increasingly outrageous and unlikely events, and it is immensely fun to read. I really enjoyed Esquivel’s writing, and there is a tongue-in-cheek aspect to it throughout the entire novel.

I think that there were just a few things that were a bit annoying about this book. I found the interlude where Tita leaves the manor in a great state of depression to be really quite tedious, and the characters that were briefly introduced at that point to be pretty beige (although an interesting insight into the ethnic diversity of Mexico). I also wasn’t that sold on Pedro either, who seemed to be throughout the story an irredeemable idiot.

Nevertheless, a magical Mexican romp that will leave you in a state of incredulity. Definitely worth a read if you want something that doesn’t take itself too seriously.

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Like Water For Chocolate

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Filed under Book Reviews, Cookbooks, General Fiction, Magic Realism

Too Much Lip

Aboriginal family comedy-drama about love, land and luck

A new book club has started up at my work so of course I’m in the thick of it. We put together a list of critically-acclaimed and diverse books and encouraged people to choose whichever books piqued their interest from the list. Although this author’s work has been published extensively, I hadn’t heard of her before. I have been making a real effort to read more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander authors, so I thought I would start with this one.

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“Too Much Lip” by Melissa Lucashenko is a family drama about a woman called Kerry, on the run from police, who drops in to see her dying grandfather before fleeing across the border. When she arrives, her brother Ken is on edge, her mother Pretty Mary is a mess, and her nephew Donny won’t speak to anyone. Her girlfriend is in jail and she’s just met a dugai man who is very keen on her. The family’s beloved river is in danger, her backpack is missing and to top it off Kerry can’t keep her bloody mouth shut.

This is a necessary book that brings to life a dysfunctional but completely relatable family. Lucashenko has a real talent for realism and the small town of Durrongo and the Salter family are effortless to imagine. Piece by piece, she unpacks the family’s dynamics to uncover not only past traumas but to uncover a way forward. Kerry is a great point of view character through which Lucashenko explores the themes of power, racism and morality. Morally ambiguous herself, Kerry dances a fine line in almost every action she takes, seemingly pulled in several directions by respect for family, culture, money and doing what’s right. I thought Lucashenko did a really brilliant job of building empathy for the family while still being critical of their less-than-savoury actions.

Although I really enjoyed Lucashenko’s writing, characterisation and exploration of themes, I think the one thing I struggled with a bit was the plot. I completely get that part of the comedy was the outrageous actions and coincidences and everything being a bit extra, but there were a couple of parts in the story, particularly towards the end, that I would have liked a little more subtlety. I felt that Lucashenko already engaged the reader enough with the way she tackled real-life issues and wrote her characters, and some of the mayhem at the end of the book felt a bit superfluous.

Whichever way you look at it, this book is definitely a reality check. If you’re looking for an Aussie family drama about the kind of family that doesn’t get written about so often, this is a great book to try.

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Too Much Lip – Amazon Australia

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The Joy Luck Club

Intergenerational Chinese family drama about mothers and their daughters

This is one of those modern classics that I had never gotten around to reading. I think I picked up a copy at the Canberra Lifeline Book Fair , gathering dust, waiting for me to read it. Well, with the end of the year looming and me not nearly close enough to my 80th book, its slender spine beckoned and finally it was this book’s turn.

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“The Joy Luck Club” by Amy Tan is an intergererational family drama about four Chinese mothers and four of their daughters. Jing-Mei, An-Mei, Lindo and Ying-Ying all found their way to San Francisco in the 1940s and became close yet competitive friends over mahjong, food and gossip. However, while the mothers hold on to many of the old ways while keeping elements of their pasts secret, they have each become disconnected from their daughters who have been raised American. The books is divided into four parts, two of which focus on the mothers’ stories and two of which focus on the daughters’.

This is a rich story for such a short book. There is a real need for diverse stories, and Tan does an excellent job of taking eight women from similar backgrounds and showing just how diverse their experiences can be. I particularly enjoyed reading about the transition from traditional life as young women to being mothers in a new country.

It is a difficult task to conjure eight unique voices, and for the most part I think that Tan achieves it. However, because it is quite a short story and the point of view characters change so quickly, it was a little hard to keep track of who was who. Part of that difficulty is that the mothers themselves all changed quite a lot from when they were young and there weren’t always obvious connections between their past and present selves.

An important novel on the migrant experience, that is full of depth if occasionally a little muddy.

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The Joy Luck Club

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The Little Girl Who Was Too Fond of Matches (La petite fille qui aimait trop les allumettes)

Dark French Canadian novella about an isolated family

Content warning: death, neglect, numerous other things not mentioned in the review

So it was getting close to the end of the year, and my Goodreads 2018 Reading Challenge was stretching out in front of me looking mightily unattainable. I blame this book. To give myself a running chance at reaching my goal of 80 books, I decided to start aiming for shorter books. This one I think I must have picked up in the international literature section of the Lifeline Book Fair. It had a small spine. It would do.

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“The Little Girl Who Was Too Fond of Matches” by Gaétan Soucy and translated from the French by Sheila Fischman is a Canadian novella about a very isolated family. The unnamed narrator, one of two siblings, is awoken one morning with the discovery that their father is dead. Suddenly freed from the authoritarian existence he imposed upon them, the narrator decides to venture out to a nearby town to see about purchasing a coffin. However, upon arrival the narrator is faced with the revelation that their lives are not nearly as ordinary as they had thought.

This is a very short, intense book that juxtaposes flowery and archaic language with shocking revelations about the state of this family. Soucy uses the narrator’s extremely idiosyncratic way of speaking to obfuscate what is really going on, and piece by piece unveils the true nature of what has been happening on this isolated property through the narrator’s observations of other people’s reactions. It’s a very clever narrative structure, and an ingenious way to explore how what is horrifying to some can become normalised to others. An example of this is how the siblings treat their father’s body. They are both largely unphased by the death and the circumstances around it, and are surprisingly cavalier about arranging for his burial. The reasons for why they are both so desensitised to, and seemingly unaware of the significance of, his death slowly emerge as the story progresses.

Although this is a rich and layered book, it is not necessarily an easy one to read. I think that Fischman did a good job on the translation, but on a first read, a lot of the narrator’s thoughts and observations, as go over your head. I understand that it is meant to be a sort of anamorphosis, but in terms of readability, it is very dense and it’s easy to miss things. I think I also sometimes am a bit wearied with trauma being used as a plot device. A lot of books do it, sure, but I think I am started to get a bit frustrated with traumatic events being used as a ‘big reveal’. I would not consider this particular book to be misery lit. In fact, I think that it is a very literary noir novella. However, it is very heavy going thematically and becomes incredibly dark for such a short book.

A beautiful, intelligent and disturbing story that was delivered a lot for a $3 novella I picked up at the Lifeline Book Fair.

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(Adults Only) The Veiled Woman

Literary erotica by classic author

Content warning: sexual themes

A friend of mine has been introducing me to some feminist classics recently and bought me a copy of this book. I of course had heard of the author, probably most memorably through Jewel’s track “Morning Song“, which actually would be quite a nice accompaniment to this book. However, I have never read any of her work before, so again, thank you Kendall for continuing to expand my literary horizons.

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“The Veiled Woman” by Anaïs Nin is a small collection of erotic short stories. There are four stories in total and each one features young, accomplished characters who find an opportunity to explore their secret fantasies.

The interesting thing about this book is that although it is without a doubt intended to be erotic, it is incredibly literary. Nin writes with a delicate subtlety, relying on suggestion and inference to quickly build tension. Three of the stories are told from the perspective of women and one from the perspective of a man. The stories are quite playful, some with an unexpected twist or turn. Nin explores lesbian sex (Mandra), anonymous sex (Linda), voyeurism (Marianne) and power play, often placing one (or more) woman in a position of control and highlighting the strength and importance of female sexual desire. The stories were originally written in the 1940s and Nin without a doubt can be credited as a trailblazer for women in this genre. All of the encounters are very much consensual and the women are all very active participants.

It is a bit hard to critique erotica because it is a genre, like horror, that is designed to elicit a particular response. I think something can be well-written, but not necessarily good erotica, or vice versa. Of course, there is plenty of erotica out there that is poorly written and bad erotica (which, interestingly, seems to be awarded almost exclusively to men – though reading and writing erotica is of course very gendered). Although Nin is clearly an exceptional writer, and although these stories are obviously intended to be erotica, Nin lingers on the social detail of the stories and like your average novel, sex seems to be almost more a part of the story rather than the point. I think any erotic story needs to be a balance of the physical and the psychological. Nin’s stories in this collection perhaps teeter a little far on the side of psychological and could have done with a bit more lingering on the physical.

A book that was certainly incredibly risque for its time with exceptional writing, what it perhaps lacks in sexiness it definitely makes up for in compelling characters and scenarios. A very short book that is worth a read just for the historical value.

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A Perfect Marriage

Domestic noir novel about the aftermath of an abusive relationship

Content warning: domestic violence

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the author.

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“A Perfect Marriage” by Alison Booth is a domestic noir novel about a woman called Sally whose secret is preventing her from moving on from her dark past. Busy with her teenage daughter Charlie and her career as a geneticist, Sally decides to attend a conference in Spain. After a chance meeting on the flight over promises something more than just a professional relationship, Sally finds herself forced to confront her previous marriage and come clean with everyone she loves about how it really ended.

This is a subtle novel that delicately and sensitively explores the issue of domestic violence. A lot of stories explore the trauma of living through domestic violence, but I feel that far fewer examine the aftermath and the impact felt many years afterwards. Sally is a relatable character who really brings the truth that anyone can be a victim of domestic violence to the forefront. As a reader, you find yourself cheering for Sally and celebrating each little win.

I think the only thing that some people may have difficulty with in reading this novel is that it is a quiet book. It’s a slow burn that doesn’t have a lot of highs and lows, but rather matches the more ordinary rhythms of real life.

A very honest interpretation of a serious and sadly all too common scenario, this is a thoughtful and easy-to-read book.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, eBooks, General Fiction, Uncategorized

Crazy Rich Asians

Singaporean romantic comedy that pokes fun at the ridiculously wealthy

I had heard of this book a while ago, and meant to read it for one of my book clubs but didn’t quite get around to it. Then they made it into a film, and I thought – now’s the time. My mum had a copy and kindly lent it to me.

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“Crazy Rich Asians” by Kevin Kwan is a romantic comedy novel set among the upper echelons of Singaporean society. When American academic Rachel Chu is invited to a wedding in Singapore by her boyfriend Nicholas, she thinks that it’s going to be a low-key, romantic trip where she finally gets to meet his family. However, Nick hasn’t been completely upfront with Rachel about just how wealthy, and snobby, his family can be.

This book is a self-indulgent romp. Kwan has a very funny, irreverent style of writing and has a real talent for capturing conversation and dialogue. He flexibly swaps between Rachel’s perspective, catty conversations and frenzied texting and seasons his novel with lush descriptions of almost imaginable wealth and opulence. Having been to a few extravagant weddings in Singapore and Indonesia, I have to say that some of his descriptions were not that exaggerated. I really enjoyed how Kwan explored some of the nuance of how people throughout the Chinese diaspora view one another, and how arbitrary and exclusionary class lines can be.

However, as fun and gossipy as this novel is, the main plot, which is told from the perspective of Rachel, does at times feel like its sole purpose was to facilitate Kwan’s anthropological study of the Singapore elite. She is a useful lens to examine these families and their behaviour, but from the first chapter to the last chapter Rachel does not change much at all and while there is no shortage of drama, it does feel like it comes at the expense of character development.

Nevertheless, it’s a very enjoyable book and one that would make a great holiday read.

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