chef's kiss

One of my favorite bookish surprises is to find out that whatever I’m reading has recipes included in it. Not a cookbook, mind (though those are great too!), but a novel or a graphic novel with recipes after each chapter or at the end of the story. Going into it, I didn’t know that graphic novel Chef’s Kiss by Jarrett Melendez, Danica Brine, Hank Jones, and Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou would be one of these books. What I did know? Cooking plot, romance, gay protagonist, and I saw the cute, piggy cupid on the front cover – and that was more than enough to sell me on this title. I’m so glad it did! And I’ll be checking out the recipes too.


chef's kiss by jarrett melendez, danica brine, hank jones, hassan otsmane-elhaou book cover
Watch things start to really heat up in the kitchen in this sweet, queer, new adult graphic novel!

Now that college is over, English graduate Ben Cook is on the job hunt looking for something…anything…related to his passion for reading and writing. But interview after interview, hiring committee after hiring committee, Ben soon learns getting the dream job won’t be as easy as he thought. Proofreading? Journalism? Copywriting? Not enough experience. It turns out he doesn’t even have enough experience to be a garbage collector! But when Ben stumbles upon a “Now Hiring—No Experience Necessary” sign outside a restaurant, he jumps at the chance to land his first job. Plus, he can keep looking for a writing job in the meantime. He’s actually not so bad in the kitchen, but he will have to pass a series of cooking tests to prove he’s got the culinary skills to stay on full-time. But it’s only temporary…right?

When Ben begins developing a crush on Liam, one of the other super dreamy chefs at the restaurant, and when he starts ditching his old college friends and his old writing job plans, his career path starts to become much less clear.


Ben and his friends have just finished up college, and they are living together while figuring out what happens next: more schooling, job hunting, first job woes, etc. Ben, an English major, is not having any luck applying to jobs that might use his degree – and he’s feeling a little desperate one day when he sees a “Help Wanted” sign at a restaurant. Then it turns out that staff member Liam is hot, Ben gets to use his cooking skills, and (most) of the staff is nice… could this be the thing he’s meant to do? A gourmet food-loving pig will decide his fate, and Ben will have to wrestle with disappointed parents, friend conflict… and maybe dating too, if he’s lucky.


One of the lovely bits of Chef’s Kiss is that the side characters, Ben’s friends and coworkers, all have real moments in the story, from nonsensically talking about a bong decorated like Vlad the Impaler amid a friend negotiation, to a quick moment of asking someone to celebrate you transforming from surprise, to misunderstanding, to hurt when folks aren’t on the same page. I appreciated the healthy resolution of those moments. It may not have resulted in the most drama-filled plot, but it is excellent modeling for readers, and that’s okay to have sometimes! I also appreciated the conversation throughout the book about “what’s next” after college, and the affirmation that it’s okay not to know. So not only was this a cute and satisfying book, I felt that it was rewarding, too. I’m looking forward to putting it in my classroom library.

 

As with any graphic novel, the art plays a huge role. Danica Brine’s line art and Hank Jones’ color feel like a cross between manga and traditional superhero comics styling, and it is of course beautiful! The focus on each page is definitely on the clean lines and dialogue. I think this is the most text-heavy graphic novel I’ve read in a while. As a result, I got a sense of each character’s voice, which was a good thing. I also loved the art in the back matter, including the illustrated recipes (of course!) for Mushroom Ricotta Tart and Butternut Squash Soup.

 

The only thing I take issue with about this book is that the back cover (e.g. the publisher) calls it a romance. I think it is more of a coming-of-age story, with a little bit of incidental romance along the way. I say that because it doesn’t feel as though the romance is the POINT of the book – instead, the point is settling into adulthood, figuring out what you want to do, doing your best, and showing up for the people around you. Also, the romantic bits are quite innocent, so it definitely feels sweet in a YA kind of way. And none of this is a real criticism! I think the story and art are lovely and they don’t need a heavier romantic element. I just tried to think of a quibble and found one, don’t mind me, lol.

 

In all, Chef’s Kiss is an adorable, light read with: a satisfying conclusion, notes on healthy friend and family relationships, a hilarious pig character (and I do mean character), recipes at the end (!), and a sprinkling of romance. 

 

Recommended for: fans of Bloom, Our Dining Table, Check, Please!, and other food-themed graphic novels and manga, and those looking for sweet LGBTQ+ reads with a similar wholesome- and friendly-feel to Alice Oseman’s Heartstopper.

 

This review is part of Weekend Cooking, hosted by Marg of The Intrepid Reader. Click to learn more about Weekend Cooking.

waves

I’ve been reading graphic novels of all stripes for years now – from heartbreaking immigrant sagas to silly-wonderful middle grade romps! But one subgenre I haven’t read much of (mostly due to personal preference, tbqh) is that of contemporary adult. This genre finds its material in laying bare the mundane, everyday pain/joy of living. And if more of them are like Ingrid Chabbert’s Waves, illustrated by Carole Maurel, I’ve been missing out.


waves by ingrid chabbert, illustrated by carole maurel cover
A young woman and her wife's attempts to have a child unfold in this poetic tale that ebbs and flows like the sea.

After years of difficulty trying to have children, a young couple finally announces their pregnancy, only to have the most joyous day of their lives replaced with one of unexpected heartbreak. Their relationship is put to the test as they forge ahead, working together to rebuild themselves amidst the churning tumult of devastating loss, and ultimately facing the soul-crushing reality that they may never conceive a child of their own.

Based on author Ingrid Chabbert’s own experience, coupled with soft, sometimes dreamlike illustrations by Carole Maurel,
Waves is a deeply moving story that poignantly captures a woman’s exploration of her pain in order to rediscover hope.

Waves tells the story of a personal tragedy – the sort of horrible, catastrophic loss and aftermath that can happen to anyone, no matter their privilege or any other factor. When a young queer couple lose their long-awaited baby, the aftermath of lost dreams and plans stretches into empty space and feels like the end of hope. Chabbert’s story, based in part on her own experience, depicts small moments of connection in therapy, in community with others who have experienced the same loss, and through expansive visual and textual metaphors for grief.

 

While Waves is primarily concerned with miscarriage, it is also about life, and how it changes and diverges from the paths and plans we make for ourselves, and how people carry on in the face of the unimaginable, personal tragedies of life. I think it is especially apt after such a collective grief moment (or denial thereof) as we have experienced with the recent pandemic. The book contains no names, except for the doctor, which gives it a purposeful anonymity or anybody-ness. In the aftermath of the loss, an encounter with a dog at the shore allows an unburdening and is a meditation on who we tell our stories to, when they are not happy or silly or perfect.

 

Maurel’s art is pen and ink, colored in watercolors – bright but not too bright. Some panels are purposefully left black and white, with only an object or two in color, highlighting specific actions. The linework is gorgeous, and Maurel particularly succeeds with the shadows and lighting in the underwater page spreads. The art, as always with graphic novels, is a star and a focus, and in this case it seems to effortlessly mesh with the text, drawing out emotion. If this book doesn’t make you cry, I’ll have questions.

 

In all, Waves is an intensely moving and beautiful depiction of one of the most haunting, everyday losses in life, and one that does not often find its way into graphic novels, much less so beautifully, gracefully, and with so much care.

 

Recommended for: fans of Lucy Knisley’s memoirs, the recent (and excellent!) Stone Fruit, and anyone who appreciates art that treats tough topics with a deft hand.

the magic fish

I know I’m not the only book lover in the world who justifies their reading purchases to themselves in creative ways [insert laughing crying emoji]. Mostly I do so by telling myself that when I’m done with it, I’ll put it in my classroom library! The only trouble is, sometimes it takes many months (or years!) for me to work my way through those books I promised were “for the kids.” That was the case with Trung Le Nguyen’s debut graphic novel The Magic Fish. I preordered it back in October 2020, and I’ve been hanging onto it at home ever since, thinking it would be my next read. It finally made it to the top of the pile over the weekend, after the last day of school for the year. I am happy to say it’s stunning and emotionally authentic, and sad that I waited so long to pick it up. And it will DEFINITELY go on the shelves in my classroom in the fall. 

 

the magic fish by trung le nguyen book cover
Tiến loves his family and his friends…but Tiến has a secret he’s been keeping from them, and it might change everything. An amazing YA graphic novel that deals with the complexity of family and how stories can bring us together. 


Real life isn’t a fairytale. 

But Tiến still enjoys reading his favorite stories with his parents from the books he borrows from the local library. It’s hard enough trying to communicate with your parents as a kid, but for Tiến, he doesn’t even have the right words because his parents are struggling with their English. Is there a Vietnamese word for what he’s going through? 

Is there a way to tell them he’s gay? 

A beautifully illustrated story by Trung Le Nguyen that follows a young boy as he tries to navigate life through fairytales, an instant classic that shows us how we are all connected. The Magic Fish tackles tough subjects in a way that accessible with readers of all ages, and teaches us that no matter what—we can all have our own happy endings.


The Magic Fish is a masterpiece of art and narrative. It interweaves the stories of Tiến, a Vietnamese-American boy growing up in the Midwest who doesn’t have the language or knowledge to tell his family he is gay, his mother Helen, who immigrated from Vietnam many years ago and made a life for her family in America, and various retellings of fairy tales, inflected by multiple cultures, and underpinned by gorgeous artwork of couture-inspired princess dresses. Visually, it is gorgeous, and it is also incredibly lovely in the fine crafting and interconnection of the major narratives. It is, I think, one of the most beautiful books I’ve read in the past 10 years.

 

Tiến’s story is perhaps the baseline for the book, though he shares many pages (and time) with his mother Helen. They read books together in the evenings to practice their language skills. Those books are full of fairy tales, and as several of the characters remind each other, fairy tales change in the retelling – there is no one right way to tell a fairy tale. This truth mirrors the story of Helen’s immigration to America – that there is no one “true” immigration story, and that each one changes in its retelling and memory.

 

The two main fairy tales in The Magic Fish are Cinderella (and its close cousin Tattercoats) and The Little Mermaid. The retellings are interspersed alongside Tiến’s tension and confusion about how to express his truth to his parents, his mother’s memory of home and her longing to return to her mother, and her wish to reconnect with a past that she feels is slipping away. Author Trung Le Nguyen treats all of these strands of story with deftness and authority, and the whole is bittersweet, layered with meaning, and true in the way that sometimes only fiction can be.

 

One of the things that I noticed immediately in the reading was the way that color signifies a change in scenery and time-space. Blue is the palette of fairy tales, yellow the palette of the past (especially Helen’s world pre-Tiến), and red is the present for Tiến and his family. Beyond this signaling of worlds, the focus of the art is the intricately detailed linework. Seriously, it is mesmerizing and intense. The detail in the illustrations of hair alone is incredible, and then add in the dresses, crafted with couture classics in mind and with seriously magical details, flounces, and draping – it’s really unbelievable.

 

Of the many marvelous things about this book, the art is of course the most obvious, given the medium. But I am now intensely interested in the depth of the narrative – the symbolism of the sea, peaches, princesses, and celestial imagery, the choices in the treatment of language (Vietnamese indicated by “<>” within speech bubbles), and the afterword, which features musings on comics as an art form, and fairy tales as immigration stories. I want to teach this book – it is multimodal and rife with connections and allusions. I’m sure I’ll be rereading it again this summer and considering how I could incorporate it in my high school classes.

 

The Magic Fish is a profound, magical working of art and story. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

 

Recommended for: art lovers, comic readers, those interested in the best of young adult literature, and fans of fairy tales and beautiful dresses.

icebreaker

I find myself picking up more and more fantasy and science fiction these days, sometimes out of pure inclination, but also as a way to step away from the reading I do as an English teacher. However, every now and then something else will grab my attention, as A.L. Graziadei’s Icebreaker did. As a hockey fan, I couldn’t pass up their debut YA contemporary about rivals going to college together and (inevitably) falling in love in the face of high-stakes hockey pressure. 

 

icebreaker by a.l. graziadei book cover
Seventeen-year-old Mickey James III is a college freshman, a brother to five sisters, and a hockey legacy. With a father and a grandfather who have gone down in NHL history, Mickey is almost guaranteed the league's top draft spot.

The only person standing in his way is Jaysen Caulfield, a contender for the #1 spot and Mickey's infuriating (and infuriatingly attractive) teammate. When rivalry turns to something more, Mickey will have to decide what he really wants, and what he's willing to risk for it.

This is a story about falling in love, finding your team (on and off the ice), and choosing your own path.

 

Mickey James III is as self-aware as a white seventeen-year-old hockey prodigy-slash-legacy and college freshman could be. He’s also not doing so well. First of all, he’s fixated on going #1 in the NHL draft, second, he’s actively trying not to make close friends (he’s only going to be in college one year, after all), and third, he’s deeply depressed and hiding it from everyone who cares about him. When teammate (and fellow prodigy) Jaysen Caulfield shows up and seems to thrive off of shaking up Mickey’s world, he does the unthinkable: he starts falling for him. Icebreaker is a story about learning to listen to your feelings, learning to trust, and dealing (or not dealing) with mental illness – all under the pressure of the bright lights of an NHL future.

 

What I liked: okay, wow, I liked a lot about this book, so hold on tight. First off, the detail and description of/about hockey behind the scenes, and the reality of being a college athlete, were well done. I can’t claim to be a college athlete fiction completist, but I was a two-sport college athlete myself, and that portion of the book felt very true-to-life. Pre-season training, forced team bonding, figuring out a college campus while feeling woefully inadequate? Yep yep yep. Icebreaker’s authenticity of the behind-the-scenes chaos of college sporting life also reminded me strongly of an all-time favorite series, Ngozi Ukazu’s Check, Please! As did the forbidden pining for a teammate, lol.

 

Other things I loved: Mickey is the youngest of five sisters, all of whom are stars in their own right. I loved their back-and-forth banter, and the way they looked out for their little bro. I cannot express how much it reminded my own college experience, when my younger sister and I helped my brother adjust to campus life (yes, siblings do sometimes all go to the same school, lol). Mickey’s unabashed support and belief in his sisters was super sweet too, rounding out his character nicely. Combined with Mickey’s chip on the shoulder attitude and understandable abandonment issues, he definitely came across as a well-formed character, and a moody boy too. I also loved Mickey’s text message banter with Jaysen, his coming out scene(s), and the way that his hockey-famous family don’t make his sexual orientation a problem.

 

Weaknesses: Backstory and detail around Mickey’s childhood wasn’t introduced until quite late in the narrative. This left his self-identity out of focus, sort of hanging out in the background as he adapted to college, and experienced new-to-college adventures, until BAM! trauma ahead!! That was a little jarring. I think it makes sense – it’s authentic to the way humans think (avoid, avoid! avoid!!! until unavoidable), and the story is told in the first person after all. It was just a bit confusing on the reader side of things, as it was hard to understand Mickey’s unwavering focus on the draft as the be-all and end-all, and his fixation on a rivalry with Caulfield, without it. The college jock banter also felt half-formed. Some of it felt real, yes. But I think that the book would have benefited from about 20% more dialogue overall, to really get a sense of characters other than Mickey.

 

What I wanted more of: the James siblings! In Mickey’s eyes his sisters are certainly larger-than-life, and I feel like I could read a story centered around each one of them. I also wanted to know more about Nova Vintner, Mickey’s ex and best friend. The reader basically only gets to know her through texts, and I wanted more about her and how she and Mickey arrived at rock-solid friendship at age seventeen. There were also a couple of points where Graziadei mentions that the characters chatted about insignificant things, or important stuff… but then didn’t give details! As a reader, I would prefer to read those conversations than try to imagine them! (I didn’t know enough about the other characters to guess what they might talk about, and our protagonist Mickey is described as grumpy and socially stunted).

 

Overall, Icebreaker was a very enjoyable read as a fan of hockey, LGBTQ+ YA, and as a former college athlete. Though it wasn’t perfect, I was definitely rooting for Mickey (and Jaysen!), and I devoured their story in one day.

 

Recommended for: fans of hockey and Check, Please!, and those looking to round out their bookshelves with college-set YA, LGBTQ+ representation, and/or contemporaries that deal with mental health challenges.

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