“Mad Miss Mimic” by Sarah Henstra

I freakin’ love this book! And I am so sad it only took me two days to read it! I’m going to read it again, no doubt about it.

But onto the details first…

Sarah Henstra’s MAD MISS MIMIC is about one Leonora Sommerville who lives in Hastings House with her sister and her doctor brother-in-law in Victorian era London. Leo, as she prefers to be called is seventeen and her older sister is desperately trying to marry her off despite the facts that she suffers from selective mutism, stuttering, and outbursts of mimicry. Naturally, Dr. and Mrs. Dewhurst decide the bad doctor’s business partner, the future Lord Rosbury, is the perfect match for the unmarried sister – he needs a pretty wife who won’t say much, after all.

This does not work out, for anyone.

As you might expect.

Dr. Dewhurst is perfecting the art of morphine, on the poor of London who suffer terribly at his hands, while keeping his wife dosed up on laudanum. The future Lord Rosbury is arguing for a ban on opium after getting very rich already on importing opium into England. Leo figures she really ought to get married to someone who doesn’t mind her speech problems, of which her sister is absolutely horrible about, so she resigns herself to a life as Lady Rosbury.

But then…

Somebody keeps blowing things up in London and killing people, all related to the potential opium ban. And Leo begins to suspect that Dr. Dewhurst and her future husband isn’t all it seems on the surface. So, with the help of Tom – the lockpick, pickpocket, mechanical genius who is working against the partnership already, she begins to investigate.

And the twist there? Tom loves Leo and Leo loves Tom.

All the wrong social circles, though, of course.

But there is drama, there is suspense, there is medicine, there is mystery, there is history, there is romance, there is angst, there is love… and everybody should read this book!

(I received a copy of MAD MISS MIMIC through NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for an honest and original review. All thoughts are my own.)

“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.)

“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. 

Now I really want to go to Paris… in 1889…

  • The book: To Capture What We Cannot Keep
  • The author: Beatrice Colin
  • Dates read: September 28, 2016 – October 21, 2016
  • Where to get it: Amazon (on November 29, 2016)

25901561.jpgI’m gonna be honest here, I requested an ARC of this novel for three reasons; 1) it takes place in Paris(!), 2) it is historical fiction – i.e. the stuff I live on, and 3) the cover looked like the covers on a lot of “must-have” books that I’ve been too cheap to buy in recent months. See? Honesty.

Anyway, that third thing on the list is the lucky, if silly, reason I found myself getting lost in Beatrice Colin’s lyrical, fantastic novel of love, mostly unrequited in Paris, France as it was during the years that Eiffel Tower was being built for the World’s Fair in 1889. Sometimes it really does pay to be cheap and stubborn.

It is the story of Caitriona Wallace, a thirtysomething widow from Scotland who, because widows in the 19th century had few prospects, takes a job as chaperone to the newly adult niece and nephew of a Scottish engineer as the brother and sister leave for a tour of Europe, as the children of the wealthy did then. Alice and Jamie Arrol are essentially as I expect wealthy kids of their era were – a whole lot of spoiled and just a little bit naive. The fourth person who makes the story is Emile Nouguier, who is an actual historical person – an engineer and architect who was one of the designers of the Eiffel Tower.

Books are nothing without characters to care about (love them or hate them, so long as you feel them) so they are what makes or breaks a story for me and, god, did Cait, Alice, Jamie, and Emile make this story for me.

Let’s start with the siblings. You would be forgiven for worrying that spoiled rich kids could come across as annoying cliches, especially in the realm of historical fiction. The Arrols do not. Perhaps it’s because Colin writes them with a slight air of being proverbial fish out of water, and more “nouveau riche” than cushioned by centuries of wealth, but both Alice and Jamie struggle mightily to balance the world they want to live in with the world they do live in. Alice is perpetually obsessed by making a good marriage, and there is even a line where her uncle tells Caitriona that she’d marry a lamppost if it asked her, but she is still a girl at heart, one who wants to have fun and toe the line and figure out who she is before she marries. She might not always recognize those things but, through Colin’s writing, it is easy to see that she is really an ordinary girl. Alice’s brother Jamie, a few years older, can also be seen as typical – the young man who wants to impress not only the nearest eligible female but his uncle and the older men in his world. Jamie’s struggles with this are almost tragic, it’s clear he’s got little interest in his uncle’s ironworks but he knows he should so he manages to secure a job, that he fails at rather spectacularly, working on the Eiffel Tower when he, Alice, and their chaperone returned to Paris to live. Likewise, he is driven by the urges of young people everywhere and, much to his very real shame, he ends up designing a room at the famed, and real, Le Chabanais brothel to pay off his debts.

Caitriona and Emile are the opposites of Alice and Jamie (and it should be noted I only just Googled Emile and discovered he was real so I cannot say how… true to life Colin wrote him). She married who she was supposed to marry, and suffered terribly for it. He never had any interest in marrying, despite his mother’s desperate wishes, and kept a mistress he was misguidedly, to put it mildly, enamored with. He was, to be fair, more married to his work. And then Emile met Caitriona by chance and Beatrice Colin managed to write one of the least cheesy, most beautiful loves-at-first-sight I have ever read. The novel is the story of them not being together. They travel parallel with one another, occasionally intersecting as Jamie decides Emile is the man to marry his sister – irregardless of neither Alice nor Emile wanting that, and finally pulling apart when the shame that an amateur historian knows came with being a woman in the late Victorian period.

Maybe there’s a happily ever after, maybe Cait and Emile find each other again. Maybe there’s no happily ever after, maybe he stays married to his work and she does just what Victorian widows were expected to do.

You’ll have to read this breathtaking book to find out!

(I received a copy of TO CAPTURE WHAT WE CANNOT KEEP through NetGalley and Flatiron Books in exchange for an honest and original review. All thoughts are my own.)

Reviewed: “The Visitant: A Venetian Ghost Story” by Megan Chance

24982850.jpgGhost stories are not generally the genre I go for. Historical fiction is my go-to genre. I don’t usually like stories that involve exorcisms, because they are so often used for the shock factor. But exorcisms in the context of actual history… I like that.

All this makes Megan Chance’s THE VISITANT a perfect book for me.

Set in the latest years of the 1800s, in Venice no less, it is the story of Elena, an American woman seeking redemption for a mistake that cost her father his job by nursing an ex-pat back to health in Venice so he can be married to a proper lady. The twist, because it’s hard to say what else you can call it, that Samuel the ex-pat is epileptic is not something I’d expect in a historical fiction romance ghost story. Chance brilliantly weaves the then-modern thinking on epilepsy into the story, making it a forbidden, hidden thing that everything is done to hide when it is the only son of a powerful family. This only raises the pressure on Elena, facing her own unhappy future, and she is stubborn in her determination to heal-slash-hide Samuel’s condition so she can have some chance of happiness.

She isn’t so self-centered as to not see the truth of Samuel’s reality, though, as she lets him tease her into reading erotic novels and falls in love with his best friend, Nero, whose house they are both staying at. Elena, though, is her own harshest critic and she considers admitting defeat many times. It is always Samuel who pulls her back.

Even as she becomes convinced that she loves the aptly named Nero, if you know anything about ancient Roman history, she senses something is wrong. And that something involves the ghost who makes Samuel’s condition worse, and yet different, as s/he tries to tell the story of his/her death.

There are many unexpected twists and turns in Chance’s novel. The three main characters (and it can’t really be considered a love triangle for reasons that fast become obvious) – Elena, Samuel, and Nero – are vivid in their personalities and their motivations. The supporting characters – servants and ghosts and family – are just as vivid and intriguing. I would have read a book about any one of them. It really is the characters who make the story, and the story is incredibly well made.

(I received a copy of THE VISITANT from NetGalley and Lake Union Publishing in exchange for an honest & original review. All thoughts are my own.)

Reviewed: “How to Party with an Infant” by Kaui Hart Hemmings

27276345HOW TO PARTY WITH AN INFANT is a bit of a misleading title for an otherwise fine book.

There are no infants, to begin with, and lead character Mele does not party. Mele has a child, who is old enough to be potty-trained, say some words, and walk around. She is not an infant. Mele is a single mother who spends her days at playgroups and playgrounds with a group of friends, selected by the San Francisco Mother’s Club. None of them are really ever in the mood to party.

Maybe the title is meant to be ironic… that the idea of partying with an infant is irony at it’s finest.

Still, though, no infants to be found.

The premise of the story is good. Mele, it seems but is never made totally clear, is either an aspiring amateur chef or was an actual chef before getting knocked up by her engaged-to-someone-else boyfriend. Short story, she likes to cook. So she enters a cookbook writing contest sponsored by the SFMC. The cookbooks are supposed to be inspired by other members of the SFMC so Mele focuses on the other mothers, and one father, in her playgroup and creates recipes based on stories they tell her.

None of the stories are totally happy. Everybody has problems and it is the problems that inspire the food. As it should be. Problems make life interesting.

Some of the stories are more interesting than others. Some feel more thought out and some feel sort of phoned in. The book itself reads sort of like a collection of short stories, based on the stories of Annie, Georgia, Barrett, and Henry with editorial commentary from Mele. But that’s what it’s meant to be, I think.

HOW TO PARTY WITH AN INFANT checks all the boxes for an easy chick lit summer read; single mom, cute kid, angsty romance, glossed over details, girlfriends…

The weak parts of the story are few and simple; misleading title, that I finished it two days ago and can remember the stories in general but not who belongs with what story, and that it’s sort of like reading about the troubles of the 1% and upper middle class from the perspective of Mele, who is obviously supposed to be the middle class everywoman.

All in all, I’m glad I read it and if easy chick lit is your thing you should read it too.

(I received a copy of HOW TO PARTY WITH AN INFANT from NetGalley and Simon & Schuster in exchange for an honest and original review. All thoughts are my own.)

Reviewed: “The Figaro Murders” by Laura Lebow

20613617.jpg** spoiler alert ** I finished Laura Lebow’s THE FIGARO MURDERS. So there is that. The book is more or less interesting, interesting enough to see the story through anyway. The murders, and there are three, have very little to with Figaro, Figaro being the lead character in the famous Mozart opera. Mozart plays a role too, though not a large one. The story focuses instead on Lorenzo Da Ponte who really was the librettist for Mozart when he wrote Figaro.

Da Ponte, Lebow explains in her notes after the story, was chosen as the focus of the story because too much is known about Mozart for him to have been a viable storyteller in a murder mystery. That little is known about Lorenzo Da Ponte made him more compelling, in her eyes.

The trouble is… the story was a good story from the start. It didn’t need an actual character to be interesting. Da Ponte tells the story well enough, because20613617.jpg the emperor’s poet would have traveled in all the worlds necessary to tell the story but it almost seems as though Lebow tries too hard to keep him in character, when little seems to known about his character. He’s not the most interesting person in the story.

The supporting characters, the entirely fictitious characters are. I want to read them tell me the story.

But it’s a good enough read to pass the time and be happy about it.

(I received a copy of THE FIGARO MURDERS through NetGalley and ___ in exchange for an honest and original review. All thoughts are my own.)