“Even In Darkness” by Barbara Stark-Nemon

I’m a sucker for World War II fiction. There really isn’t any other way to put it. That being said, I was very excited to get into Barbara Stark-Nemon’s EVEN IN DARKNESS. The story she writes is one of those tricky historical fiction ones that are based on actual events, in this case her great-aunt Klare’s experiences during World War I, World War II, and the years in between.

This balance, I’ve learned from reading a lot of these books, can be delicate because the author must keep true to historical fact, keep true to the characters who were real and who were important, and keep a narrative going that makes everyone want to keep reading.

Stark-Nemon does that well in this story.

The places her great-aunt existed, including Thereseinstadt, are described in ways that I have read them described before but not with the intense detail that might leave the narrative lacking. The focus is kept solely, for the most part, on Klare Kohler and what she sees as she goes from an eighteen year old girl with the world at her fingertips to a survivor of Nazi death camps and beyond.

Honestly, the thing I wanted more from the story was a longer, more detailed note at the end. Stark-Nemon referenced her family and how they survived but she didn’t mention Ansel Beckmann, the Catholic priest who figured so heavily in the story and who I am not sure was even real, or details on Bernhardt Steinmann and Melisande Durr, who were heroes in the story. I want to know more about them. So, basically, I want a non-fiction accounting of this story too.

And that, it seems, makes it an excellent book.

“Behold the Dreamers” by Imbolo Mbue

I didn’t realize I managed to read Imbolo Mbue’s BEHOLD THE DREAMERS just three days but, apparently, I did. Thanks for keeping track, Goodreads addiction of mine!

I think I didn’t realize because I got lost so fast and so hard in this fantastic story of what America means to those who are born here and to those who come here. It seemed like I spent weeks in the fictional lives of Jende Jonga, a Cameroonian illegal immigrant, and Clark Edwards, a high powered Wall Street man, as they traverse the uncertain world just before the and just after the 2008 economic recession. And it seemed wholly appropriate to start the book, left too long on my to-read list, just after recent events made news.

I think I appreciated Mbue’s novel more because I read it when I did. I didn’t mean to read a politically, socially relevant to current events story. I meant to read a book by a POC for the reading challenge I’m doing. I accomplished both and I could not be more pleased with it.

Mbue is an immigrant to America from Limbe, Cameroon – the hometown she gives Jende and Neni Jonga – who now lives in New York City. This makes the story that much richer, because she tells a story of her people, a story she knows. And I feel more educated for it. My favorite kind of fictional book is the one that teaches me something and this book taught me a lot.

It isn’t always an easy read. I found myself wanting to shout at Jende for how he treats his wife, Neni. I wanted to hate Clark Edwards because I do not like the power of Wall Street. But… when I sat back and thought about it, none of that made sense. Jende’s chauvinistic, domineering, my-way-or-the-highway persona is… real. Not being a Cameroonian immigrant, I completely trust Mbue on this. The way he treats Neni, as though he is lord of all things, and the way he is subservient to Clark Edwards to an extreme, as though he truly believes Clark is his better, is no doubt indicative of how immigrants straddle two worlds when they come to America. And Clark, though he is one of the main power players at Lehman Brothers, has motivations for working constantly and not seeing his family enough and his motivations are his family. He’s doing what he knows how to do, straddling two worlds as he tries to be two men. I have to imagine, not being a rich New Yorker, that his is not an uncommon, yet human struggle among families there.

I am so glad I read this book and I encourage everyone to read it too. It’s so important and so good.

And now I want to try Cameroonian food too, after Mbue’s mouth-wateringly vivid descriptions!

(I received a copy of BEHOLD THE DREAMERS through NetGalley and Random House in exchange for an honest & original review. All thoughts are my own.)

“Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History” by Bill Schutt

I don’t remember exactly why seeing Bill Schutt’s CANNIBALISM: A PERFECTLY NATURAL HISTORY on NetGalley made me think “ooh, I need to read that book” but I requested it. I got it. I added it to my To Be Read list. And I didn’t read it. But then… I decided to do a reading challenge for 2017 (and by “do a reading challenge” I do mean “attempt and probably fail a reading challenge”) and events went sort of like this…

I scanned the list of categories to assign books, because when you feel overwhelmed by something you chose to do you should always make it more complicated. I saw the category “A Book About Food.” I remembered that I had an ARC of Bill Schutt’s book on cannibalism. I stopped looking for other books on food.

It was a good match.

And it became a perfect match after I read the book.

Truth be told, I liked this book so much family and friends got tired of me telling them about it. I have no regrets about continuing to tell them about it, even as and partly because they proved some of Schutt’s points about cannibalism being a taboo that still brings out strong opinions – like my pregnant sister being very defensive over the idea that breastfeeding might be a form of cannibalism.

But talking about books is what makes them worth reading, in my humble opinion. And I refused to be swayed from that.

One of the odder things about the book, however, is that I found the first half, the half about cannibalism in the animal kingdom far more interesting than the part of the book about human and human related cannibalism. I think that may be because the human part focused so heavily on BSE (Mad Cow Disease) and the kuru that affected the Fore tribe of New Guinea. That was an awful lot of science for the non-science mind that I possess. Chromosomes and genetics and adapted virus are just… 

I like history so the explanations, more in depth than I’ve read before, of Christopher Columbus and how he maybe turned the larger part of the Caribbean and Central America into would-be cannibals because he found no gold to speak of and needed to make money on heathen cannibal slaves were perfect for my history mind.

And the story about how former President George H.W. Bush narrowly escaped being food… I did not know that!

What made the still science-y part of animal kingdom cannibalism readable and enjoyable to a lay person like me was Schutt’s jokes, self-deprecating humor, and editorial asides on everything. it made a book that could be required reading for a college biology course fun. And it made me kind of, whatever that says about me, obsessed with the topic. 

Not that I’m about to start cooking up my neighbors. I like the history of it, the clear and logical explanations for it as survival, and the way it was presented.

I am so glad I requested this book and I think it fits perfectly a a “Book About Food”!

(I received an advance copy of this book through NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for an honest and original review. All thoughts are my own.)

“The Bone Witch” by Rin Chupeco

Books that start with necromancy and end with (apparently) necrophilia should not work, one would think.

But apparently sometimes they do. Just ask Rin Chupeco, or read her book The Bone Witch when it comes out on March 2, 2017. Then you’ll see. Now, according to Amazon the recommended ages for this first book in a coming YA series are 12-17. I read it anyway, because I was lucky enough to get an advanced read copy through NetGalley and the book’s publisher, because just about any book will make me happy. However, I would not let a twelve year old read this book – if I had a twelve year old. Why?

Necromancy, possible necrophilia (at least platonically) are big reasons. But Chupeco also focuses heavily on war and violence and political intrigue… and those topics are important, but perhaps best explained in a different setting.

All that being said… YA books about twelve year old girls who discovers she is a (dark) witch when she accidentally raises her brother from the dead are surprisingly good! I feel it important to mention that said girl, named Tea, is not in love with her brother… it’s a different dead person, see.

The story is compelling on the whole; a collection of city-states vastly different from one another and yet united against destructive mythical creatures, that women are at the forefront of society and the last line if defense against the dragons, that it is a female driven society…

It does falter in places, though. Chupeco has tied a large part of the story to color – the color of dresses, flowers, uniforms, and heartsrune necklaces. Each color has a meaning and there are a lot of colors heavy with meaning. It is nearly impossible to keep it all straight. I hope that final editions have appendices with lists and explanations for readers. I would have liked that. Chupeco also spends a lot of time… organizing. Organizing is a good word. And it makes sense. It is the first book in a coming series so the world needs to be organized and established. 

So despite the slow moments of organization, The Bone Witch is a compelling start to a series and I will keep an eye out for the next book. It is going to be good!

“Summer of My German Soldier” by Bette Greene

Summer of My German Soldier by Bette Greene

“Time to get going on my ambition. It’s not the only one I have, but it’s the only one I work at.”

Exciting news, fellow readers!

I have, inadvertently, just read one of the most banned books of the 2000-2009 era in school libraries! Summer of My German Soldier came in at #55, according to my Wikipedia-ing for background to use in this review. I am rather proud of this accidental discovery, and the reasons for my pride and happiness are many.

First and foremost, as evidenced by the photo of my book it is not a new book. No, I got this book in fourth grade – and I was in fourth grade before 2000. I remember it was fourth grade because it’s even marked with a reading level grade five, age eleven and up and I was not at those milestones when I got it. I don’t remember exactly why this book called to me. Possibly my mother had introduced me to Anne Frank. What I do remember is this – I loved this book. I scoured the library for the sequel (which I may look for again because I only remember it being beyond my understanding at the time). I made sure I did not lose this book when we moved. This book has never not been on my bookshelf with all the other books I love.

And that is the second reason for my reader joy – it’s been a years since I read Bette Greene’s pre-teen novel, though I did read it a couple times between fourth grade and now, and I still love it. Just enough time passed that I forgot just enough that I was able to rediscover passion for the story of Patty Bergen in the four days it took me to read this book.

“Cruelty is after all cruelty, and the difference between the two men may have more to do with their degrees of power than their degrees of cruelty.”

Now, don’t get me wrong, I can see what people might use for grounds to ban this book on; child abuse (physical and emotional), the use of the n-word among other racist things, a twenty-one year old man declaring love – in words alone – for a twelve year old girl, religious intolerance…

However, I do not believe in banning books. Certainly not on the grounds that they accurately portray history in a fictional setting, and that would be the story of this book. 

In case it isn’t clear, Summer of My German Soldier takes place during World War II. It is set in a small town called Jenkinsville, Arkansas. Patty Bergen is the daughter of the only Jewish family in town. They are wealthy enough to employ a housekeeper named Ruth who is African-American. There is a POW camp for German prisoners on the outskirts of town.

If we compare that to history, we find that:

  • small town Arkansas was probably not the most open-minded place in America for Jewish families to live
  • African-Americans and white people did not live in the same parts of town, especially in the South, during the 1940s
  • white families often employed housekeepers and staff who were not the same color as them
  • the n-word was a part of daily language, for better or for worse
  • there were POW camps for German prisoners of war all over the United States during World War II
  • it was not necessarily seen as against the rules or against the rule of law to use a belt on your daughter when she did not do as you wanted her to do

In essence, the truth hurts sometimes but it is still the truth. To paper over truth because of modern sensibilities is to ignore what mistakes were made, and risk the mistakes happening again.

“Maybe you’re right, but maybe, just maybe, we all have an enormous capacity for believing in anything that will provide us with a bit of comfort.”

“I’ve found this here a cold world, a mighty cold world, and a man and a woman, well, they needs a little comforting ‘for they freeze to death.”

This book should be read, not banned.

In any case, the summary of the book is more than why people might wish to ban it.

Patty Bergen’s parents are rich, on the comparative scale of Jenkinsville, and they do not particularly care what she does so long as she does what they expect her to do. Her mother’s mix of hyper-criticism of her looks and total lack of interest in her is heartbreaking. Her father is obsessed with no one ever seeing fault with him or the world he has created, so much so that he uses a belt on her for playing with a poor boy but buys her the finest steaks. Until a prisoner escapes from the POW camp, Patty’s only real friend is the family housekeeper, Ruth. It is Ruth who gives her the nuturing she craves and needs, and she substitutes Ruth for her parents with such intensity that she prays the prayers Ruth teaches her rather than the ones she learned at synagogue.

Patty hides the escaped prisoner, seeing it not as treason but as an act of kindness. It is obvious that it is a kindness she wishes someone would show her if she ever got away from her parents. She is able to see the prisoner, Anton, as a young man away from his home and his family and in need of help. And he sees her not only as a means to an end but as a kindred spirit who will look past labels and see the honest truth of anything and everything.

Summer of My German Soldier is a story of three different people, as different as possible in that time and that place, sharing a tiny spot in time during which their beliefs, their values, their hopes, and their dreams are called into question. 

The Books of 2016

Way back, before the horrible year that was 2016 had a chance to get… you know, horrible, I set a Goodreads goal to read 60 books in 2016. And, according to the handy counter on the Goodreads site, I succeeded. Woot! Sort of.

True confession: I didn’t finish all the books I rated and reviewed in 2016. Most of them got finished. And I tried hard, damn hard, to finish them all.But if we all read, loved, and finished the same books there would be less books in the world. Less books would equal far more sadness in the world. And 2016 did not, I assure you, need more sadness.

In any case, if the Goodreads Powers That Be are reading this… my wish for 2017, at least from you, would be to be able to shelve a book I don’t finish without it counting toward my challenge total. Even not giving it a star but marking it as “read” counts toward the total. Can’t there be some other category? Is that wishing my life was harder? Possibly. But I can’t take as much pride in my total if it’s not… honest.

Am I the only one who feels this way?

I hope not.

Anywho… I read, technically speaking, sixty books in 2016. And these, my friends and fellow book lovers, are the ten best books I read in 2016, in no particular order… 

  1. Under A Dark Summer Sky by Vanessa Lafaye … … this book fits into a tie for Best Historical Fiction of 2016, and I read a lot of historical fiction. The effect of Jim Crow laws on the South, the way government and society worked in the 1930s, the inner workings of a small town just a little bit different from everyone else, the effect of a massive hurricane on said town… Lafaye includes it all in this book with a deft hand for storytelling. Having based it on an actual hurricane that hit the actual town of Islamadora on Labor Day 1935, she was able to draw on true, verifiable historical fact to create a fictional setting that pulled me in from the start. I have recommended this book to friends and family, and I recommend it to everyone.
  2. After You by Jojo Moyes … … oh, this book. My first reaction to the news that there would be a sequel to Me Before You was “why?! half of what made it good is gone!” and I did not buy this book when it was first released out of both skepticism and doubt, and not wanting to mess up the original which I love. But I resolved that if I saw it in paperback, at a store, on sale I would buy it. So I did. And, while probably not entirely necessary, I love it just the same. Apparently my psyche needed to see how those who loved and lost Will Traynor carried on. And my psyche was satisfied.
  3. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews … … in a year that I also read The Fault in Our Stars for the first time, I have to say that Andrews’ tale of a boy, a girl, and someobdy dying of cancer is the better of the two. It is grittier, it is real in a different sort of way, and it has the honest, harsh humor that would seem to come along with such situations. The characters are less perfect than John Green’s, but you will not love them less for it.
  4. The Second Mrs. Hockaday by Susan Rivers … … this is the other book in the tie for Best Historical Fiction of 2016 (it was an ARC, and I think the actual publication date is next month – February 2017 – so considered it added to your to-read lists!). This book was surprising because there is really no narration. It is a book made up essentially and almost wholly of letters and diary entries. The story is not told in the normal ways. It is told in a way that probably would not work for every plot but definitely works for this plot. It’s sort of what you’d expect the Cliff Notes version of Gone With the Wind to be. The difference is that the second Mrs. Hockaday is not as wealthy as Scarlett, she is not as privileged, she is not as naive. She thinks she is, she tries to be, but she is not. And the fact that she is not any of those things makes for a most interesting story.
  5. Harem: The World Behind the Veil by Alev Lytle Croutier … … the best nonfiction book of the year for me, though I realize it did not originally come out in 2016. I requested the ARC of it on a whim and then read it with some trepidation because, what average person really thinks “let’s read a long, detailed description on harems for kicks?” Apparently, I do. Because I devoured this book like I have not devoured a non-fiction book in a long time. The history, the mystery, the intrigue, the drama… I never realized how important harems were or how complicated they could be. It may be an odd book to recommend, but I do!
  6. The Readers of the Broken Wheel Recommend by Katarina Bivald … … this is, I’d have to say, the best chick lit I read in 2016. A foreign girl finding awkward romance in a tiny town of meddling tiny town-dwellers? What more fun could be had? And that it is a book about said foreign girl and her love of books… well, that just made it all the more relatable to me. Read this book if you love books, love sweet romance, and love a slightly kooky cast of lovable characters.
  7. The Human Body by Paolo Giordano … … true confession, I had not read any novels about the recent wars in Iraq or Afghanistan until I read this book. And this book was originally published in Italy and is about an Italian army unit in Afghanistan, and I had not realized Italy had quite that presence in Afghanistan. This book deserves to be read in every language. It makes war, and the effect that war has on men and women who serve and their families had home more real and more honest. The honesty is brutal at times, but Giordano seems to want to open the reader’s eyes to reality. He opened mine. There is a lot of military lingo and fact and detail that can be a bit of a struggle to get through but the story told around it is worth every minute.
  8. The Great Zoo of China by Matthew Reilly … … we’re going to say that this is my sci-fi best book of 2016, though I didn’t really read that many. But there are dragons so… sci-fi fits, right? Honestly, I could totally see China deciding to breed dragons in a zoo just because. I could see the US doing it. Matthew Reilly chose China, and the setting was perfect! I never thought campy, cheesy Syfy Channel-type movies (see “Sharknado”) could translate well into the written word but Reilly succeeded. This book is campy, cheesy, and slightly cliched in all the right places and, to my honest surprise, I finished the book with ease and happiness.
  9. The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven by Sherman Alexie … … this collection of short stories was a re-read for me and it was not any less good the second time around. In fact, it was better. I read the stories more carefully and I understood them better. I think. I want to think I did. I can’t pick a favorite story because they are all woven together and each one is just different enough from the last to make them all stand out. Though the introduction, I have the twentieth-anniversay edition (a signed copy!), may be the best part of all!
  10. After Before by Jemma Wayne … … it’s hard to say which category this book best fits into so I’m just going to suggest you try reading it and see for yourself. The story focuses on three women who could not be more different; dying matriarch, bad girl turned good, and refugee who fled genocide. It could have seemed horribly trope-ish to tie their lives together for the sake of a plot device but Wayne has balanced it carefully to make it real and reasonable that the three could end up in each other’s lives. The antagonist in the story is not clear at first, because we readers tend to look for a character that causes trouble, but it becomes clear as the women come together. The antagonist is life, and all the decisions that lead us to certain places in certain times. And that is the story that this book tells.

    And so, fellow readers, those are one-sixth of the books I read last year (if I did the math right… my sister is the numbers one, I’m the words one). Try them out, if they strike your fancy. You won’t be disappointed. And please, if you’ve read this far and you read a book in 2016 that I should absolutely, definitely read… leave a comment and tell me so!

    Here’s to many good books for all of us in 2017! 

    Reviewed: “A Cool and Lonely Courage: The Untold Story of Sister Spies in Occupied France” by Susan Ottaway

    World War II is one of the most written about parts of human history. Acts of heroism, acts of madness, acts of sacrifice, acts of survival… it is all covered in every aspect of the written word, fiction and non-fiction. And yet Susan Ottaway has managed to find something, someone whose story has never really been told. And that is the basis for A Cool and Lonely Cocurage: The Untold Story of Sister Spies in Occupied France.

    The sisters are Jacqueline and Eileen “Didi” Nearne, born to British parents and raised in France. When the Nazis invaded France, the sisters wanted to help the war effort however they could so they travelled to England, where they held citizenship. Jacqueline was the first to find true work for the war effort, joining the SOE and training as a agent who would be sent to France to work against German interests. Older than Didi, Jacqueline made deals to keep her sister out of France while she went to work as a courier and an organizer.

    Didi wanted to go to France.

    And she went, working as a wireless operator until she was eventually captured by the Gestapo and taken through a variety of work and concentration camps.

    Ottaway tells the story of sisters, in its simplest form. The older sister wants to protect the younger sister. The younger sister looks up to the older sister. She tells the story of war, of an almost inexplicable desire to fight and to be a part of eventual victory. She tells the story of survival, of living through more than ever thought possible and yet never being the same again.

    Ottaway’s book does contain a lot of facts, dates, and details. But the balance she gives with the story of humanity is perfect. Reading about the organizational structure of the SOE headquarters in London and a half dozen circuits scattered throughout France could be cumbersome but it is not. Not when the people come alive on the page and when their very lives are on the line.

    This book is a must-read for any student of World War II history.

    (I received a copy of A Cool and Lonely Courage through the Goodreads First Reads giveaway program and the publisher in exchange for an honest and original review. All thoughts are my own.)