Monday, November 20, 2017

Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue

This was a powerful novel, and if not for folks around me talking about it, I probably would have passed it by.  However, fate intervened, and I'm happy to have spent the time reading about Jende and Neni Jonga's experience as immigrants in America.  There is so much to talk about, it is definitely a novel you'll want to discuss with friends. 

Jende is a native of Cameroon, and is living in New York City with his wife Neni and their young son, Liomi.  Jende had arrived in New York City alone, and spent a few years working hard, scraping up enough money to marry Neni and bring her to America.  His dream was to leave Cameroon, where opportunities to succeed were slim to none.  Jende is extremely hard working, of noble character, and polite to a fault.  He's also living in the U.S. without a green card, and an expired visa.  

Jende's chance to make a huge leap in providing for his family comes when he's offered a job as the chauffeur to Clark Edwards, an executive with Lehman Brothers.  It's 2007; Barak Obama is running for President, and the financial crisis that rocks Wall Street is looming. Neni attends school, with the dream to be a pharmacist.  Jende and Neni are two hard working people who save every penny they can, live very modestly on very little, and dream of providing a future for their son that wouldn't be possible in Limbe, their hometown.  America is their dream, if only Jende could receive a green card.  

Jende's employment with the Edwards family extends to Clark's wife Cindy and their sons, Vince and Mighty.  As he chauffeurs them around New York City, he learns that money cannot buy happiness.  Cindy is a closet alcoholic, deeply unhappy with life, and haunted by a terrible childhood.  Clark is desperately working to keep Lehman Brothers from falling apart; Vince loathes everything about America and longs to run away to India.  Mighty, Clark and Cindy's young son, is watching everything he knows crumble and fall apart. 

Jende's life is also hanging in the balance; he has an upcoming court date with Immigration, and chances are good he may be deported. What will he do if this happens?  How will it change his life, and that of his family, if he's forced to return to Cameroon, a place that is at once home, but also a place of failed opportunities?  Jende's anxiety and desperate hope that he will stay in America is palpable throughout the novel, and I kept getting anxious every time his looming immigration court date was mentioned.  As the Edwards' life implodes with the Lehman Brothers scandal, Jende's life is also affected in ways that are startling and for me, unexpected.  Neni's anger at the prospect of leaving America is so powerful; as a woman I could understand her desire to make a better life for herself;  and her willingness to work very hard to do so. Neni's fierceness in protecting her family is a welcome part of her character development.  For most of the novel, she's quiet, hard working, and supports Jende in everything he does. But as their life takes a sudden turn, she finally opens up and demands to be heard, not only by Jende, but by everyone in her life. 

One of the most interesting aspects of this novel is the idea of home and where we come from.  How it can be both the most wonderful place, and the one place we never want to return to because we see it as a sense of failure and giving up.  We see it in both Jende and Neni, and the Edwards family.  Success can be measured in so many ways, and it changes depending on where we are in life.  But it doesn't matter if you're black, white, an immigrant, or a citizen. 

This book was very good, and I'm hopeful Imbolo Mbue writes more.  This was an extraordinary first novel.  Random House has helpfully provided reading group discussion questions, as well as an interview with Imbolo Mbue in the latest paperback edition of the book.  Both sections are worth reading.  A timely novel that will generate many discussions on immigration policy, and the plight of immigrants not only in America, but throughout the world. 

Rating:  6/6 for a novel that explores immigration, race, dreams, family,  and the meaning of success. 

Available in paperback, audio, and ebook.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

I Can't Wait to Tell You What I'm Reading in December: Bring on the Holiday Novels!

As I'm making my way through two three novels this week, and hitting a dip in my NaNoWriMo project, I have been longingly thinking of the holiday books I've got lined up for December.  

I started reading fun, holiday themed books in December while I worked in retail. Working extra hours, literally running back and forth in the bookstore for hours each day, left me completely spent and fried. My solace was to dive into books that helped remind me that the holiday season was about family, friends, and that wonderful anticipation of Christmas morning.  I'm out of retail, but I still find myself feeling a bit overwhelmed at the holidays and needing that reminder to slow down and enjoy the season.  So, starting shortly after Thanksgiving--I've made myself wait until then--I've got a load of new holiday titles to read.  Maybe there's something in my list that you'll love, too:

As you can see, there are plenty of new titles out this holiday season.  Meanwhile, I'll be working away on my title list for November.  Reviews coming soon!  What holiday books are you reading in December?  Let me know!  

Monday, November 13, 2017

Give a Girl a Knife by Amy Thielen

This memoir had been on my TBR list for quite some time, but I had to be patient and wait my turn at the library.  I had watched Amy's cooking show, Heartland Table on the Food Network years ago, and was intrigued by her kitchen. It looked small, rustic, and not fancy at all.  No high end, shiny, expensive kitchen gadgets; no gleaming countertops. I liked the way she talked about food, and how she used her garden and what she could find at her local grocery store to make amazing meals.  Her Midwest nature appealed to this Midwest woman.  

So with that in mind, I started to read her memoir.  It took me many days (okay, weeks) to get through this memoir, and I'm puzzled as to why.  Amy writes beautifully; if she hadn't made it as a cook, she would find her niche in writing.  Her descriptions of food make your mouth water; her fondness for the food of her Minnesota youth spars with her awakened palate for fine food.  

Amy's story begins in Minnesota, and ends there.  But in between, Amy and her boyfriend, artist Aaron Spangler move to Brooklyn and live there off and on for years.  Aaron is working on his art and Amy attends cooking school, then bounces around some of the most famous restaurants in New York City, learning from the best.  What I found refreshing about Amy is that she was not interested in moving up the ranks to someday be top chef, or even run her own restaurant in New York City.  For her, it was all about learning the skills, and exploring flavors.  Amy and Aaron would sometimes leave Brooklyn and return to Minnesota to spend the summer in Aaron's rustic (no running water, no electricity) little home out in the wilds of Minnesota.  There they would plant a huge vegetable garden, harvest wild rice out of their front yard, and puzzle over their yearning to be home, yet at the same time resenting the pull of home. Two people who never thought they would return to Park Rapids, Minnesota, yet find themselves homesick for the flavors, the quiet, and the freedom from busy city life.  

Amy and Aaron get married, and continue to live in Brooklyn.  Her work as a cook demands 80 plus hours a week, and she's not making much money at all.  Aaron finally gets some well deserved attention for his art, and it looks like Brooklyn is finally paying off.  Until Aaron tells Amy he wants to move back to Minnesota and build a studio next to their rustic little home. Amy, who has been questioning her passion for the high stress world of New York haute cuisine, realizes that what she really wants is to be a home cook.  Armed with her skills and her new palate, she returns to Minnesota with Aaron and creates a life that happily continues to fulfill them both.

Amy's book is a bit different from other cooking memoirs I've read, mostly because of her attitude towards the cooking industry.  She started cooking school after college, and knew her strengths and weaknesses going into her various tenures at restaurants in New York City.  For her it wasn't about rising to the top, or making the big bucks.  She became obsessed with creating flavors, and it almost consumed her.  Her passion for cooking was overwhelming to read; sometimes I had to put the book down and take a break.  Part of me kept thinking, the customer doesn't care about all the heart and soul you put into that one dish! They just want something good to eat, and something worth the money they're spending. I almost felt bad for all the effort she put into dishes, knowing the recipients had no idea, and probably wouldn't have cared to know.  

I did enjoy this book, but it was a bit of an effort to read it.  It made me very aware of just how much food is a part of our memories, our childhood; how it alters the way we look at the world.  I recently had a birthday, and my boyfriend wanted to take me out to dinner.  I didn't want to go to a restaurant.  Instead, I made my favorite birthday dinner.  One that my Mom made for me almost every birthday I had in my youth:  scalloped potatoes and ham, followed by a chocolate cake with chocolate frosting.  I made it a little different than my Mom's recipe, but that special flavor was there, and it made me very happy to dive into a plate of creamy potatoes dotted with bits of ham and cheese.  For just a few minutes, I was back at home with Mom and Dad and my siblings, eating my favorite meal on a cold November night.  These memories are all the more precious now that my parents are gone. Food, more than anything else, keeps me connected to my very best memories of childhood. 

Rating:  4/6 for a savory, finger licking good memoir about food, home, and memories. Amy reminded me that food is more than just fuel for the body.  

Available in hardcover, ebook, and audio.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

November Reads: My Library Cup Overfloweth

I looked up, and it's already November 7th.  Thanksgiving is a few short weeks away, and I'm still startled to see Christmas in every retail store.  You also know Christmas season is around when the Hallmark Channel starts playing their holiday movies at the end of October.  And as I pointed out to my boyfriend's mother, there are 21 new Hallmark holiday movies this season.  What?!  My DVR will get a workout this month.  

Much as I'd like to A) watch Hallmark movies and B) dive into my TBR piles at home, the library elves have decided that now is the time to have all of the books I've placed on hold become available.  So while I may sneak in a few books off my shelves at home, most of what I'm reading this month will be courtesy of my library.  I've had some dangerous moments, wandering the aisles.  So many books I want to read!  I have to turn my back, or I'd be checking out books almost every day.  The life of a bookworm is just not that easy.  

So, while I'm gamely working on my novel for NaNoWriMo (the tug of war between reading and writing is fierce every day), I'm also working on my stack of library books.  Here's what I'm reading this month:

A favorite author has another paranormal novel out!

A YA novel based on a true story

I watched her cooking show on Food Network, had to read the book!

Scotland.  Enough said. 

A timely novel about dreams, immigration, and reality.

A little bit of everything tossed together.  Next month I'll be reading a gaggle of holiday novels, and I can't wait!  Bring on the early nights, bring on the chilly weather.  I'm ready to stay home and read. 

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Two Reviews in One: The House Between Tides & How to Change a Life, Plus Other Book Stuff

The march to the end of 2017 is picking up speed, and while this is probably the first upcoming holiday season where I don't have a zillion things to do, I expect I will be busy with last minute baking, get togethers, and *ahem* creating my homemade limoncello.  

And, my beloved books will always be at the forefront of everything I do.  I haven't read nearly everything I wanted to this year: Lincoln at the Bardo, The Hate U Give, Origin, The Underground Railroad...just to name a few.  Sometimes I wish I was more disciplined with my reading--spreadsheets, mapping out what to read when; but then I realize some of the best reads I've stumbled on purely by accident and because they weren't planned.  So I'll stick with my purely organic, absolutely no spreadsheet approach to reading and reviewing. I always believe the books I'm meant to read will find their way to me.  

With a time crunch, I'm reviewing two books I've read in the past few weeks.  Both were on my October To Be Read list.  Reviews are short mainly because I was a bit disappointed with both novels.  

How to Change a Life by Stacey Ballis. I have read some of her previous novels, and would readily recommend her to anyone who loves Chicago, foodie novels, and novels about women past the first bloom of youth, but not quite into middle age.  That part of life where you start to look at the choices you've made, and wonder if they were the right ones, or if you have to reset and do something different.  Normally I gobble up her tales--they always have a happy ending, but not the soppy ending you find in a standard romance.  For some reason, this one just didn't click with me.  Eloise is a private chef in Chicago; the death of a beloved high school teacher brings her back in touch with her two best friends from high school, and they decide to revive their lists of things to accomplish before 40--as they are all 39.  Some of the items on Eloise's list:  go out on dates, and put together a cookbook proposal. 

 I will say, the romance that comes into Eloise's life was really pretty good, but I felt like it was just a little too perfect. Eloise meets a man at a Halloween party, and things click from there.  One twist is that she's white, and he's African American.  It was refreshing that this wasn't belabored over at all, but for a few conversations that Eloise and Shawn have concerning meeting each other's parents. They have a very mature relationship (with plenty of sparks!), and an obvious drama pops up from Shawn's past that I felt didn't provide enough of a conflict to make a big difference in the storyline. I felt that if Eloise was so ready for changes in her life, it didn't take much for her to do them, and left me wondering why she didn't do them earlier.  There didn't seem to be much of a change in her besides meeting a wonderful partner and entering a serious relationship.  Not much drama between the friends, and not really any big conflicts between Eloise and Shawn.  So while it was an enjoyable read, I just wasn't terribly impressed with Stacey Ballis' latest. 
I give this novel a 2/6.
It is available in paperback and ebook. 

The House Between the Tides by Sarah Maine was another book that fell a bit short for me.  Darn it all, I was really ready for a gothic tale set in Scotland.  At first, I was completely into the novel.  Hetty Deveraux travels to Muirlan, a home she's inherited in Scotland's Outer Hebrides.  What's unusual about this home is that it sits on an island and is only accessible by foot and car when the tide is out. Muirlan's history revolves around artist Theo Blake, who lived there until his death by drowning in the 1940's.  Theo had brought his new bride, Beatrice, to Muirlan in 1910, and things didn't go well for the couple.  Theo was broody, sullen, and had lost his way artistically.  Hoping to recover that passion, he pinned his hopes on being back at his beloved home.  A failed romance from the past leaves him haunted, and Beatrice finds out the man she married isn't quite who she thought he was--now what should she do?

In present day, Hetty wants to turn the home into a hotel.  James, a local architect, has been hired to look over the house. It's in pretty bad shape, and while looking around inside, he finds disturbed floorboards, and a skeleton placed in the hollow underneath.  Who is it, and who placed the body there, so long ago?  

The novel moves back and forth between Hetty's struggle to solve the mystery, and 1910, when Theo and Beatrice arrive at the island and spend one summer there before Beatrice disappears from the scene.  I did find Theo and Beatrice's story much more interesting, but the story dragged and I lost interest, but kept plodding through.  I didn't much care for Hetty.  She seemed completely unaware that her plan was not feasible, and distrusted James to the point that it felt more reactionary than because she had a good reason.  The romance between Hetty and James was not a surprise, and I was happy about that; it certainly didn't come as a surprise.  Beatrice's story is sad, so darn sad; you do get all the answers, eventually, in the last chapter.  While this had all the promise of a good gothic mystery, it petered out and felt too long.  Nuts.  
I give this novel a 3/6 for atmosphere and setting. It is available in paperback and ebook. 

Now, book business.  Heading into November, I've got a pretty good list of books to read, and I'll have an upcoming reviews post in a few days.  December I traditionally read holiday novels--it's my way of enjoying Christmas and so far I've gathered quite a few new titles for December.  I'll be sharing those with you at the end of November.  Meanwhile, I am also taking part in NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month, which runs from November 1-November 30.  It's a way to nudge your inner writer into action, and requires you to write a 50,000 word novel.  No editing, no polishing--just get those words down on paper (or Word).  It is a challenge to keep writing every day; it's easy to fall behind.  I've managed to complete it once, years ago, and am trying again.  Wish me luck!  

Sue A/K/A
The Bookalicious Babe

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

The Last To See Me by M Dressler

I had to finish out the month of October with a ghost story.  Happy Halloween!  I spotted this novel while looking at upcoming releases, and when I saw the main character was a ghost, I just had to read it.  What I got was part supernatural, part history, part philosophical.  

The novel takes place in Benito, California; a small Northern California town previously known in the early 1900's for the timber industry.  Now it's a quaint tourist stop.  Hunters--ghost hunters--are bonded by law, and hired to clear spirits out of places, and they've done a pretty good job in Benito--except for one ghost.

Emma Rose Finnis died in 1915, and she continues to haunt the town of Benito, and the stately Lambry Mansion.  Alice, the last Lambry, has died, and directed the mansion to be sold and the profits to be divided up between her distant family.  A obnoxious rich couple want to buy the mansion, and completely gut it and change it from the beautiful home it is into a contemporary monstrosity.  Emma won't have it. 

Philip Pratt is hired to clear out whatever spirit is causing all the trouble at the Lambry Mansion.  He teams up with the realtor, Ellen DeWight, to figure out who the spirit is--once he knows their name, he has all the power.  Emma is pretty smart, however, and has had plenty of practice honing her skills, and keeping her anger from allowing her to be seen.  

The novel switches back and forth between the contemporary plot, and Emma's life as a chambermaid in Benito.  Her mother died in childbirth, and her father died from a horrible logging accident, leaving Emma to fend for herself as a teenager.  She was a good girl, and only wanted to have a simple life, and maybe find some peace.  But that wasn't to be. After attracting the attention of one of the Lambry sons, Mrs. Lambry offers her a position as housekeeper to a family hired to help at the lighthouse on a desolate piece of land.  She takes the job, but what should be a means for her to save money and eventually leave quickly turns into a nightmare--and leads to Emma's death.  

You feel for Emma.  She's at times angry, sorrowful, and lonely.  Pratt has a job to do, and sees all spirits as not human, but creatures that harm living people.  When he sends them away, he destroys them--and whatever bits of humanity were left disappear.  It's an interesting novel, in that you see both sides of the story.  It's hard not to sympathize with Emma, however.  

The ending is a bit of a surprise, for sure.  There is more going on that you realize, until the last bit of the book.  And as you move closer to learning about Emma's death, the tension does grow.  You'll start to think about what death really means, and why some souls move on, and others stay.  What is it about a life that keeps us here?  And do those souls deserve a place here to heal?

A different kind of ghost story, and a good one.  The writing is beautiful, and ethereal.  A perfect tale for a dark, spooky night. 

Rating:  4/6 for a ghost story unlike any other I've read, with a compelling spirit you'll be rooting for, even though you wish her peace.  

Available in hardcover and ebook. 

Happy Halloween!!


Monday, October 23, 2017

The History of Bees by Maja Lunde

My interest in bees is fairly new. Up until about 3 years ago, my only reaction to bees was the painful memory of being stung in my ear by a bee as a kid, and how much it hurt! As I started to garden at my house, I would walk outside and notice the butterflies and bees flitting around my flowers, and I was happy--as long as they stayed away from me. 

That slight awareness of bees became an interest when I stumbled upon urban beekeeping articles as I was searching for a paper topic in grad school.  From then on, I was interested in bees, and horrified at the mysterious deaths that are sending our bee population into a nosedive.  All of that back history drove me to pick up this book at my library.  

This novel is told in three separate historical settings: William, a biologist in 1852 England,  George, a beekeeper in 2007 Ohio, and Tao, a human pollinator in 2098 China.  In Tao's world, the bees have disappeared; world population has plummeted due to food shortages (no bees=no food!), and she is part of a group of workers who climb fruit trees and hand pollinate in order to produce crops.  It's endless work; every day, back breaking work with little pay, and very little to eat.  Tao lives with her husband and young son, Wei-Wen in a little house near the fields.  She hopes for a better future for her son, but has no idea how to make that happen.  

William is in a deep depression.  A budding biologist, his hopes of studying and research ended when he married and had children.  His former mentor has dismissed William, and now he's spent months lying in bed, as the money runs out and his seed shop remains closed.  One day, his son visits him, and provides a spark for William.  He finally gets out of bed, determined to begin research again--and finds that bees and hives are his passion.  Can he create a new, man made beehive that will revolutionize beekeeping, and provide his family with wealth?  

George is the latest in his beekeeping family.  A successful farmer, he's always made his own beehives from a family plan handed down through the generations.  His son Tom is away at college, but George has plans to work along side his son and hand off the family beekeeping operation to the next generation.  Tom, however, returns from college a changed man--one who isn't all that interested in beekeeping.  It's 2007, and reports of whole bee hives mysteriously dying off has folks puzzled and afraid.  Will George manage to keep his farm going?

Well.  We know it doesn't go well for the bees, thanks to Tao's story.  By 2098 the world is decimated--all because of The Collapse.  If anything, this novel makes you aware of just how vitally important bees are to, well, EVERYTHING.    It's serious stuff, and not made up fiction. Tao's world can be avoided.  

While this could be a novel about hopelessness, it's actually the opposite.  Tao's story is the most interesting one, because it's through a horrible tragedy involving Wei-Wen that hope is once again born in the world. You may wonder how these three characters, decades apart, could possibly be connected.  Oh, they are--in such a wonderful way.  I myself just had to cheer for William at the end of Tao's story.  Yes, both William and George (and Tom) are vitally present in 2098 China.  A perfect example of how we are all connected, and how much bees have helped sustain life over and over, and will continue to do so--if we just be mindful of them and get out of their way. 

It took me a while to get through this book. I had some trouble sticking with it, but have to admit Tao's story kept pulling me back, and I'm so glad I finished the novel.  It is one of those reads that resonates after you've read it and have time to think about it.  I'm definitely going to do my part next Spring and plant plenty of bee-friendly flowers in my yard. This novel may just be the catalyst to your interest in bees, and how incredibly important they are to our survival. There are plenty of books and documentaries about The Collapse, the history of bees, and yes--even how to be an urban beekeeper.  Get busy!

Rating:  3/6 for a good novel, but one I had to work to get through, until it clicked about 3/4 of the way through and then I raced to finish it.  A fascinating look at history, how we all are connected, and the power of bees.