Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Books Made Into Movies (page 1 of 10)

Like Water For Chocolate – Laura Esquivel

Let’s kick this off with a fun fact, shall we? Like Water For Chocolate, the 1989 novel by Laura Esquivel, takes its name from the Spanish phrase como agua para chocolate, which is an expression to say that one’s emotions are on the verge of boiling over. It’s a neat nod to the book’s contents, the story of a woman named Tita whose overwhelming emotions are often cooked into the delicious food she serves to her family. This edition was translated into English by Carol Christensen and Thomas Christensen.

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The front cover of Like Water For Chocolate promises “a novel in monthly instalments with recipes, romances and home remedies” – and that’s exactly what you get. Even though the timeline of the story is far longer than a year, it’s divided into twelve months, each preceded by a recipe that the characters cook in the following chapter. Hot tip: make sure you’re not hungry when you pick this one up, because the recipes and cooking chat will have you drooling!

The story is a bizarre history of sorts, of the De La Garzas: Mama Elena (husband deceased), her daughters (Gertrudis, Rosarua, and Tita), the cook (Nacha), and the maid (Chencha), all narrated by Tita’s grand-niece sometime in an unspecified future. They live on a ranch in Mexico, near the U.S. border. The family legend is bolstered in the South American style of magical realism, where tears can turn into rivers and bitterness alone can kill.

It begins in January with a recipe for Christmas Rolls (not one of the more delicious offerings: sardines, chorizo, and chiles serranos? Ho, ho, no!). They are youngest daughter Tita’s favourite dish. Tita is the star of Like Water For Chocolate, though her supporting cast is also stellar. As the youngest, she is forbidden – by long-standing family tradition – from marrying, so that she can stay home and care for her mother for the rest of her life. Tita’s fine with this, until she meets the hunk-a-spunk Pedro. It’s love at first sight, for both of them, but Mama Elena isn’t having a bar of it.

When Pedro comes to ask for Tita’s hand, Mama Elena suggests that he marry Rosarua instead. Pedro reluctantly agrees, reasoning that at least marrying into the family will allow him to stay close to his true love, Tita, for life. Yeah, yeah, that’s a little problematic, but let’s not let it ruin the romance, eh?

The only thing Tita loves as much as she loves Pedro is cooking. Unfortunately, her dishes are infused with her emotions, sometimes with disastrous consequences. The lust of her rose petal sauce (made from the roses Pedro gave her) causes her sister Gertrudis to run away naked and work in a brothel. Tita’s desperate longing baked into Rosarua’s wedding cake causes everyone who attends the wedding to become violently ill (and delays consummation, ahem!). This supernatural effect is woven into the narrative very naturally, so that it almost feels like a given.

Despite the looming specters of death and heart-break, Like Water For Chocolate reads like a well-written rom-com. It’s certainly a lot more fun than, say, One Hundred Years Of Solitude – I’d say it’s closer to the love-child of My Brilliant Friend and The Alchemist, with a sprinkle of romance and magic. It’s easy to read, but it’s not without substance. The recipes are a neat hook, but that’s not all there is to love about this short, bittersweet family saga.

Like Water For Chocolate has sold over a million copies in Spain and Hispanic America, and a whole bunch more in translation around the world. It was also made into an award-winning film of the same name (no, I won’t bother watching it, the book was delightful enough and I’m worried they’d ruin it). I can certainly understand its enduring popularity, and I’d recommend it to anyone who wants to wade into the pool of South American literature, rather than diving all the way into the deep end.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Like Water For Chocolate:

  • “Read this or stab yourself in the eye? Stab yourself in the eye. Hands down the worst thing I’ve ever read (and I’ve read ‘Mansfield Park’).” – Ben

Little Fires Everywhere – Celeste Ng

Little Fires Everywhere is Celeste Ng’s second novel, the one that catapulted her to book club stardom. It was famously endorsed by Reese Witherspoon, who said: “It’s a deep psychological mystery about the power of motherhood, the intensity of teenage love, and the danger of perfection,”. It also made her cry, so. There’s that.

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The story starts in 1998, in the “placid, progressive suburb” of Shaker Heights, Ohio (where, it turns out, Ng herself grew up). Elena Richardson, and three of her four children, gather in the driveway and watch their house burn down. This was no wayward candle or cigarette accident, the firefighters tell them; several small fires, using an accelerant, were lit on each of their beds. This seems to be the natural climax of some very inflamed tensions.

Ng then takes the reader back to 1997, when Elena Richardson rented out her investment property to Mia Warren, an artist and a single mother to teenager Pearl. Previously, they’d lived all over the States, picking up and leaving town at the drop of a hat when the muses moved Mia to do so. But it seems they’re ready to settle now, in Shaker Heights, and quickly enmesh themselves in the lives of the Richardson family.

Pearl becomes particularly close – and quick! – to the second-youngest Richardson kid, Moody. They share a love of teenage angst and manic Pixie adventures. The eldest Richardson kid, Lexie, also takes Pearl under her wing, showing her how to wear cool clothes and eyeshadow and stuff. Trip, the middle Richardson brother, is Pearl’s forbidden fruit; she knows Moody has a crush on her, but the jockish hunk of teen-man-meat that is Trip proves too tasty to resist. Izzy, the youngest Richardson, just tramps in and out being mad at the world; she and Pearl don’t really spend much time together, but she is drawn to Mia, the artist who actually takes her seriously (a powerful spell to cast on a teen girl with a lot of misdirected rage).

The adults – Elena and Mia – watch their kids become close with some concern. Elena thinks she’s Mother Theresa for offering Mia a job as the Richardson’s housekeeper, for “pocket money” while she’s doing her little art projects. Mia accepts, if only to keep an eye on Pearl and the Richardson kids, making sure they’re not getting up to too much trouble (which, of course, they do). As a debate sparks in the community about whether an adopted Chinese-American infant should be returned to her birth mother, Mia’s disregard for “the rules” becomes a sore point between them all, and Elena’s charity reaches its limits.

Ng manages to weave together multiple perspectives and time periods throughout Little Fires Everywhere, but she does so very naturally. There are no abrupt jumps backwards or forwards; in fact, you’ll barely notice it happening, unless you pause to take stock of what you’ve just read.

Everyone in this story has their own secrets and motivations, but not in a schlocky way. This is closer to An American Marriage than it is to Big Little Lies (both of which I’ve seen floated as comparison titles, the former more accurately, in my opinion).

In case it’s not clear, I’ll spell it out: I. LOVED. THIS. BOOK. Little Fires Everywhere is masterfully written. It’s an issue novel, but one that doesn’t beat you over the head with a foregone moral position. It’s a psychological thriller, without the hack writing or “plot twists” you can sniff out a mile off. It’s a family drama with a family that actually feels like a family, lots of little dramas unfolding in each of their lives. Little Fires Everywhere is one of those rare much-hyped novels that actually lives up.

I haven’t seen the mini-series adaptation (produced by, and starring, the book’s biggest advocate, Reese Witherspoon), but I once I finished the book I watched the trailer on YouTube. It seems to make the story a lot FLASHIER, a lot more DRAMATIC, with lots of shouting and violins. I hope they were just hamming it up for the trailer cut, because that would seem to betray the subtlety that makes this book genius.

Ng has definitely won a fan in me – immediately after I finished Little Fires Everywhere, I added her debut – Everything I Never Told You – to my wishlist, and I’ll eagerly await anything else she writes from now on.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Little Fires Everywhere:

  • “I did not read this book I watched the show and then I bought the book for my mom when she asked for my Hulu password so she could watch the show. She needs to read a book.” – Marina Oglesby
  • “Burning ball of mommy issues!” – Molly Koeneman (she / her)
  • “The men do not get much space in this book. The author focuses mostly on the mother-daughter relationship. It is a very good read.” – L FischbachAmazon Customer
  • “Was somewhat like reading War andPeace….in Chinese” – janeeyrehead

The Other Boleyn Girl – Philippa Gregory

I’ve had The Other Boleyn Girl on the shelf for quite a while, but it was listening to the Sentimental Garbage podcast that inspired me to finally pick it up. I saw the movie a long time ago, and remember really enjoying it. I figured as well that it might be a good warm-up for Wolf Hall, another historical fiction take on the reign of Henry VIII. I would proffer a spoiler warning here, but honestly, if you don’t already know about Henry’s wives and divorces and executions and what-not, I don’t know how to help you.

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Philippa Gregory has a PhD in 18th century literature. She’s written a number of historical romance novels about the Boleyns and Tudors (“The Tudor Court Novels”), and other books of contemporary fiction, but The Other Boleyn Girl is surely the book for which she’s best known. It’s a semi-speculative historical romance, which posits that Henry VIII originally fell in love with then-14-year-old Mary Boleyn before famously divorcing his wife, and England from the Vatican, to marry her older sister Anne.

The story is told from Mary’s perspective, and is loosely based on the true historical record of her life (though so little is known about her, there’s basically just her name and a few murky autobiographical details for Gregory to work from). It begins with the execution of Mary’s uncle, in 1521. He’d been foolish enough to say out loud that the King wasn’t capable of siring a “natural heir” (i.e., a son), and when word got back to Henry, he was not pleased.

Mary was 13 years old at that time, newly married to William Carey (a man much her senior), and freshly appointed to the royal court as a lady-in-waiting to Queen Catharine of Aragon. She was certain that Henry would pardon her uncle, so it was quite the shock when his head was lopped off – portending much darker things to come for the Boleyn family.

That was one of my favourite things about The Other Boleyn Girl and Gregory’s writing: the *chef’s kiss* ominous foreshadowing. When Mary is first favoured by the King, and her family plots to use the attraction to advance themselves, Anne says to her: “If I were in your shoes it would be the king or nothing for me… I’d put my neck on the block for a chance at him.” Nailed it!

Your standard historical fiction romance novel might focus only on the Mary and Henry storyline, but that takes up only about the first third of The Other Boleyn Girl. Henry knocks Mary up a couple of times, and motherhood ages her very quickly. As she becomes more interested in, y’know, raising her kids, as opposed to sneaking off to boink the King while his wife’s not looking, Henry finds his eyes wandering… all the way over to Mary’s sister, Anne.

That’s where the story comes to more familiar (i.e., slightly-more-accurate) ground. Anne encourages the King’s attraction – as do all of the Boleyn family, Mary really couldn’t give a shit by this point – and starts pressuring him to wrangle his way out of his marriage to Catherine so that she can solidify her position as the most powerful woman in England give him an heir.

I’m telling you all about the ladies’ action and motivation here, because the men are all incredibly gross, with their unnatural inclination towards barely-teen girls (EW!) and constant pissing contests. The only exceptions, really, are William Stafford (whom Mary goes on to marry, after the King marries Anne, and Mary’s first husband dies of “sweating sickness”), and the closeted Boleyn brother, George. The latter ends up being executed, alongside Anne, for his “crimes”, which is the biggest bummer of the book.

I thought The Other Boleyn Girl would be steamier, so I was disappointed by the (mostly) closed-door sex scenes. There was a lot of politics, a lot of gossip, a few pregnancies and how-to tutorials, but very little actual smut.

The absence of steam also meant that the story dragged a bit: waiting for Henry to get his divorce, and then waiting for Anne to conceive the heir she’d promised him… Perhaps that’s because I was all-too-aware of what was coming. When the story finally reached its climax, and what we all knew would happen happens, it all felt a bit… well, anti-climactic.

Reviews of The Other Boleyn Girl were mixed. Fans praised its depiction of “claustrophobic palace life in Tudor England”, while critics pilloried Gregory for “lack of historical accuracy”. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: if you’re coming to romance novels for “accuracy”, you have bigger problems. That certainly wasn’t an issue I took with Gregory’s telling of the Boleyn saga. As I’ve said, I was disappointed in Gregory skipping over the dirty bits, and had to plod through all the politics before reaching the inevitable conclusion, but her creativity in imagining the role that Mary might have played at court, and the aforementioned genius foreshadowing, made up for it.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Other Boleyn Girl:

  • “If OK magazine and Penthouse had been writing in the 1500’s this is what they would have come up with.” – Kindle Customer
  • “could be better” – Cameron
  • “Yes henryVIII was a womanizing pig. yes he chased everything in a skirt under 20 with a pulse. yes he wanted a son. but why all the sexual bs gregory freak us out write a novel without the bleedung sex please” – virginia corley

Bridgerton: The Duke And I – Julia Quinn

Okay, fine, I’ll cop to it: I’m a basic bitch. I binged the Bridgerton series on Netflix. Twice. And when I saw the book on sale at KMart (with the basic-bitch movie cover, no less!) for twelve bucks, I snapped it up. For those of you who have been living under a particularly large rock, this is a Regency romance series based on the series of books by Julia Quinn. The Duke And I is the first book in the series, focusing on the marital prospects of the eldest Bridgerton daughter, Daphne.

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Julia Quinn has written over two dozen historical romances, with a writing career spanning decades. Originally, she envisioned the Bridgerton books as a trilogy, but the series grew and there are now eight full-length novels (one for each of the children in the fictional family), plus a few extra bits and pieces. She was always very popular among romance readers, but the Netflix adaptation has catapulted her into the mainstream. It premiered just six-ish months ago, and has already been watched by over 82 million households, making it the most-watched-ever series on the platform. Naturally, Quinn saw a corresponding boost in book sales, and her twenty-year-old Regency romance went skyrocketing up best-seller charts.

The Duke And I is set in 1813 (think Austen’s era), in London’s “ton” during “the season”. No shame if you don’t know what that means (I didn’t before I watched/read!): the “ton” was Britain’s high society during the late Regency, and once each year these high-falootin’ folks would gather in the city so that young ladies could make their debut into society (i.e., swan around looking pretty in an effort to snag a husband).

The Bridgertons are a powerful and well-liked family, and a big one at that. The patriarch has passed, but there’s still Mama and her eight (eight!) children, so the house is hardly empty. Their gimmick is that the kids are named in alphabetical order, from oldest to youngest: Anthony, Benedict, Colin, Daphne, Eloise, Francesca, Gregory, and Hyacinth. Daphne is the middle child, but the oldest girl, so the first to make her debut – much to the delight of the ton’s gossip mongers.

Quinn positions Daphne as your typical girl-next-door: beautiful, but “cool” and friends-with-all-the-boys, so none of them want her in the romantic sense. Of course, that’s a disaster, because money and prestige were all tied up in marriage at the time, and the rules of polite society dictate that Daphne must marry before any of her younger sisters can debut themselves. She’s well aware of the weight of expectation upon her slender shoulders, but she’s still got enough self-respect to be a bit choosy.

“[She] wasn’t holding out for a true love match… but was it really too much to hope for a husband for whom one had at least some affection?”

Bridgerton: The Duke And I (page 17)

Enter, the Duke: Simon Basset, Duke of Hastings and notorious rake. He has recently returned to London, but he has every intention of staying above the fray of the ton and living out his days as a confirmed bachelor. Of course, it wouldn’t be called The Duke And I unless there was a meet cute. Here it is: the Duke walks in on Daphne punching an overly-amorous would-be suitor.

They get to talking, and decide to forge ahead with the trope a plan that suits them both: a fake romance! If they appear to be in love and an engagement imminent, Daphne’s stock will rise (make-them-all-see-her-in-a-new-light-et-cetera) and the Duke will be left alone (because obviously all the ladies will be throwing themselves willy-nilly at a bloke with his looks and title, despite the fact that he’s actually a bit of a dick). It works a charm… at first.

All of the local gossip is communicated by the pseudonymously-authored Lady Whisteldown’s Society Papers. It’s a very clever narrative technique used to great effect by Quinn. As she explains herself in the author interview section at the end of my edition, the Papers give her the chance to explain context to reader without having to cram a whole bunch of exposition into the dialogue. Fun fact: in that same interview, she also reveals that she actually had no idea or plan for the true identity of Lady Whistledown when she first started writing the series!

And – I can’t help myself – here we come to the compare-and-contrast part of the review. Naturally, spoilers abound, so look away now if you care.

The Duke And I introduces the Duke’s father’s abuses far earlier than the Netflix series ever did. The latter treated it as a “reveal” later on, once we’d formed a bond with the characters, while Quinn put it all up front in the Prologue. It was a heart-wrenching way for a romance novel to begin, and set a very different tone.

The diversity and representation for which the Netflix series is famous isn’t as explicit in the novel, though. For instance, the Duke – played by Rege-Jean Page in the series, a British-Zimbabwean actor – is described as having “icy blue eyes” and presumably white skin. The sole exception is that of Lady Danbury, a side character who plays a much smaller role in the book, but her use of a cane for mobility is mentioned sensitively and often. (And if you’re going to come down in the comments and have a sook about the Netflix series not being “accurate” because there were people of colour among the gentry, save it. Black people didn’t miraculously appear in England sometime in the 20th century, they were there all along – read Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race. Plus, if you’re coming to romance novels for “accuracy”, you have bigger problems.)

The Duke gets a lot more narrative time in The Duke And I than he did in the Bridgerton show (and he’d want to, being a titular character and all). The reader is privy to a lot more of his inner world and turmoil than the viewer ever was. That’s nice and all, but personally I kind of liked the element of mystery better – he’s supposed to be an enigmatic love interest, after all. Plus all that narrative space has to edge out something, and I’m sorry to say that Eloise and Penelope’s characters are completely submerged in the book, along with many other side characters and plots. I suppose they all come out in later books, but I’m not sure I’ll be reading that far to find out.

And, my biggest bug bear: The Duke And I is nowhere near as steamy as the show. I’m sure all the pearl-clutchers are happy about that, but it ticked me off. In the first hundred pages, there was just one reference to an erection. The story revolves around kids and marriage, without all the rooting that made the Netflix series fun. I threw an actual tantrum when – after 274 pages of build up – Quinn threw in a fade to black chapter break on the wedding night! She opened the door shortly after, but still, the momentum was totally lost.

Here’s the weirdest twist: the book leaves a lot more open-ended questions and unresolved plot points than the Bridgerton show (despite the fact that it’s been renewed for a second season, one that will undoubtedly disappoint given that the sexy Duke will not be returning, gah!). All told, I’d say The Duke And I was fine, but probably not worth the twelve bucks I splashed out on it. I haven’t read enough Regency romance to make a call on where it stands in the canon, but if you’re thinking of picking it up because the Bridgerton series hooked you the way it did me, I’d say don’t bother. Save your eyeballs for (yet another) re-watch instead.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Bridgerton: The Duke And I:

  • “Quick reading very entertaining
    .will finish the whole series to see who is Lady Whistledow also the sex of Daphnes” – Xiomara E. Delgado
  • “With the production of the TV Bridgerton the book prices have gone up terribly. Just not fair!” – victoria belin-pauline
  • “I get that it’s problmetic, but it’s a romance book, though. But I wish you new show fans could chill just a little bit?” – Samo
  • “A very light read that may make you blush. Mrs Whistle down is the best part. Content is 18+ with some violence. Did not leave me feeling enlightened.” – CB

Thank You For Smoking – Christopher Buckley

One of my favourite movies of all time is Thank You For Smoking (2005). It follows Nick Naylor, chief spokesperson for a major tobacco lobby, as he tries to convince the world that cigarettes won’t kill you (or, if they do, at least you’ll die with liberty). The thing is, I didn’t even realise it was a book, the 1994 novel Thank You For Smoking, until I scored this copy for $4.99 in a remainder book shop while I was waiting for a train. How basic of me!

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Cards on the table: I’ve had an on-again-off-again relationship with cigarettes for too many years. At the time of reading Thank You For Smoking, it was (mostly) off, and I was hoping this would be the book to help me kick the cancer sticks for good. It’s basically the anti-West Wing: a biting satirical caricature of Washington politics, corporate greed, media spin, and Hollywood bullshit.

The opening line sets the tone:

“Nick Naylor had been called many things since becoming chief spokesman for the Academy of Tobacco Studies, but until now no one had actually compared him to Satan.”

Thank You For Smoking (Page 3)

As in the movie, Nick is a cigarette company flack, and a pretty damn good one (despite his boss’s suspicions otherwise). He’s a scoundrel, through and through, out for chicks and cash and cigarettes – usually in that order, but not always. His offices are just a few blocks from the White House, and he glad-hands with all the bigwigs in town (when he’s not being flown cross-country in his boss’s private jet). He loves his job, and he’ll defend cigarettes passionately to anyone who’ll listen, but deep down he knows he’s only doing it to pay the mortgage. That’s how he sleeps at night.

The supporting players are Nick’s M.O.D. Squad, the friends-cum-support-group whose self-designated moniker stands for Merchants Of Death. Together, they represent the tobacco, alcohol, and firearms industries, and more than one argument breaks out over whose product is the most deadly. All of the lobby groups in Thank You For Smoking have knee-slappingly ironic names and acronyms: the Moderation Council for booze, the Society For The Humane Treatment of Calves for veal, and so on.

Nick’s opposition are the congressmen (the very few of them not on the take) and public health advocates who hold him – and Big Tobacco, by extension – responsible for 1,200 deaths a day. They’ve got righteousness on their side, but it’s no match for Nick’s quick wit and doublespeak. In fact, Nick is so effective in his role that he becomes the target of anti-tobacco terrorists, who paper him with nicotine patches in a showy effort to bump him off. Nick survives, but he’s left with a terrible and apparently life-long distaste for cigarettes – a significant handicap in his line of work. Plus, the FBI suspects that he faked the whole thing to garner sympathy.

Despite his provocative rhetoric on Oprah, Nick knows he’s just plugging holes. The tide is turning against cigarettes. His boss, ever-skeptical of Nick’s media strategy, intimates that he’s one strike away from getting the sack – and that’s before he realises Nick is sleeping with an attractive young reporter who has promised him a favourable profile. Nick’s Hail Mary offering is to fly to Los Angeles and make a deal that would see movie stars smoking on the big screen (and not just the villains and the crazies). After all, product placement works for beer and popcorn, why not cigarettes?

Yes, Thank You For Smoking is funny and fast-paced and just a little farcical. It’s a thoroughly entertaining read. The thing is, reading it reaffirmed all the arguments I’ve ever heard in favour of – not quitting smoking, don’t be ridiculous – not watching the movie before you’ve read the book (or, at least, not reading the book of a movie you’ve enjoyed). I just kept picturing scenes from the (remarkably faithful, it must be said) movie version the whole way through. The laughs just weren’t quite as hearty coming from the page. Thank You For Smoking is a book I probably would have loved-loved-loved otherwise. As it stands, it was just pretty good. I’d recommend it for anyone who has a taste for political satire and a dark sense of humour.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Thank You For Smoking:

  • “Good plot, well told with excellent humor and all loose ends tied up expertly. Just the right length and stopped well in time before it got tedious.” – Kindle Customer
  • “Had to buy this book for a class. I like that it was hard back but when I received the book it had a unique smell to it and I had to leave it outside for a few days to air it out.” – Glen
  • “This was a gift and I didn’t read it. However, I do like Christopher Buckley’s writing and knowing this I’m sure it was great for the intended two smokers.” – Carole Stevens
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