Archive for the ‘read in 2012’ Category

I managed to read 114 books in 2012, up from 103 in 2011, so I had a lot of books to consider when compiling my list of favorite books for the year.  I wanted to highlight the best books I read last year, and I managed to narrow down my favorites to 10.  These are the books that are still with me, months or weeks after reading them.  (These are books that I read in 2012, and not all of them were published this year.)

My Top 10 of 2012

the plum treeThe Plum Tree by Ellen Marie Wiseman

(from my review) “Despite the darkness and sadness inherent in such a novel, it’s one I can see myself reading again for the beautiful writing and Wiseman’s ability to pull readers into the scene from the first page.  It’s rare that a novel makes me lose myself as completely as this one did.  My heart would race when the bombs started to fall, and at times I was so overcome with emotion that I had to put the book down and sit for a bit in silence.  This is definitely a novel to press into the hands of people who mistakenly believe all Germans were Nazis or supported Hitler, and it’s a must-read if you’re as obsessed with World War II novels as I am.”

emmaEmma by Jane Austen

(from my review) “I couldn’t help but love Emma; she was self-important and manipulative, but she did have good intentions where Harriet was concerned.  I’m not surprised she thought so highly of herself, given how everyone but Mr. Knightley kept telling her how wonderful she was.  And Mr. Knightley!  When Harriet is slighted at the ball by Mr. Elton, and Mr. Knightley, dead set against dancing, comes to her rescue, I just about melted. I also loved the conversations between him and Emma, where he doesn’t mince words and tells it like it is. Emma does have some hard lessons to learn, and while he is critical of her, you can tell he has her best interests at heart.”

code name verityCode Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

(from my review) “Code Name Verity is a book about war and friendship.  It’s shocking, haunting, and brilliantly paced and structured.  The characters are believable and endearing, and the narrative is fresh and on-the-edge-of-your-seat exciting.  I could keep gushing, but you really just need to get your hands on a copy and lock yourself away for a few hours because you won’t want to be disturbed.”

before ever afterBefore Ever After by Samantha Sotto

(from my review) “Before Ever After is a love story at its core, but Sotto doesn’t go overboard with the romance.  It’s also an adventure set during some fascinating periods in history and a discussion of life’s most difficult questions about time, love, devotion, and death.  Sotto’s writing beautifully blends the history and heartache with humor and hope, and her ability to make the past come to life through ordinary people coping with extraordinary events kept me turning the pages and made me sad when it ended.”

the baker's daughterThe Baker’s Daughter by Sarah McCoy

(from my review) “I was instantly captivated by Elsie’s story, and McCoy does a brilliant job setting the scene.  I felt like I was in the bakery, with the smells of the dough, the brick oven, and Elsie’s fear in the air.  McCoy perfectly captures the frustrations of the Germans as the war nears the end; they are hungry, scared to say the wrong thing with the Gestapo always watching, and torn between their love for their country and their disillusionment with the politics of the Reich.  This patriotism and confusion are exemplified by Elsie, as she accepts Josef’s proposal for the protection it offers not because she loves him, and especially by Elsie’s sister, Hazel, who is a resident of the Lebensborn program and has given birth to twins for the Fatherland, and one of the infants appears not to be a perfect Aryan.  McCoy also gets into the heads of some of the minor characters as well, particularly Josef and Riki, juxtaposing one’s struggles with Nazi ideology with the other’s involvement in the border wars between the U.S. and Mexico as he questions immigration laws even while he enforces them.”

Shadows Walking coverShadows Walking by Douglas R. Skopp

(from my review) “This book made me sad, angry, and sick to my stomach.  I hated Johann, his faulty thought processes, and his evil actions, and I also hated that by the end of the book, I realized there had been times when I felt sorry for him.  Of course, the extent of my sympathy toward him was nowhere near the sorrow I felt for the victims, but the fact that I felt it at all was disturbing.  But I think that’s what Skopp intended, for readers to see that people just like you and me got caught up in all the madness.  Johann was smart, he was a decent husband and father who worked hard to support his family, and he had the same worries about money and health that we all have.  Yet Johann was a Nazi, he was so quick to blame other people for his problems, and he took it all to the extreme.  No one wants to believe they could ever sink as low as Johann did; just the mere thought of it is downright frightening.”

city of thievesCity of Thieves by David Benioff

(from my review) “Benioff brilliantly balances the lightness with action and suspense so that even when you’re chuckling or shaking your head at Kolya, you never once forget that they are on a dangerous and futile mission.  He took me on an emotional roller coaster for sure, and I was unable to put the book down for fear I’d miss something and then I was reading through my tears.  Benioff masterfully paints a picture of a city under siege, giving glimpses of people who go to different lengths to survive but who all are cold, hungry, scared, and mostly resilient.”

the far side of the skyThe Far Side of the Sky by Daniel Kalla

(from my review) “The Far Side of the Sky is an exciting and beautifully written story about a city and people in turmoil.  There is a lot going on in this novel, and Kalla does a wonderful job balancing and connecting all of the plot threads, including the plight of the Jews in Vienna and the Chinese under Japanese rule, the ethical dilemmas that threaten Franz’s career and the fate of his family, the convergence of numerous cultures in one city, the starvation and disease that ran rampant, and the sadness of the people who escaped the Nazis realizing that they probably would never see the relatives they left behind ever again.  Kalla’s descriptions of Shanghai made the city come alive, and I could see the chaos, smell the stifling odors and the exotic aromas, and feel deeply for each of the characters, all of whom felt so real to me.”

a parachute in the lime treeA Parachute in the Lime Tree by Annemarie Neary

(from my review) “Neary does a wonderful job showing how war was hell and how many people didn’t have a happy ending, and though she doesn’t focus too much on the horrible things that happen during wartime, it’s always there so the reader cannot forget the enormity of it all.  The novel also touches on Ireland’s neutrality during World War II, and how even while the country itself may have been neutral, many of its people were not.  A Parachute in the Lime Tree is a story of the desperation inherent in both love and war, and how the lines between each are sometimes blurred.”

charity envieth notCharity Envieth Not (George Knightley, Esquire #1) by Barbara Cornthwaite

I won’t have a review of this book posted until sometime in January as it was the last book I read this year, but I wanted to highlight this retelling of Jane Austen’s Emma through the eyes of the hero, Mr. Knightley.  Cornthwaite does a great job getting into his head, giving readers a glimpse of the responsibilities he had as magistrate and estate owner and helping them understand how his feelings for Emma changed from that of an old friend to a lover.  I can’t wait to read the second book that will conclude Knightley’s story.  Stay tuned for my review!

The 2012 Honorable Mentions

Maus I: My Father Bleeds History and Maus II: And Here My Troubles Began by Art Spiegelman — A graphic non-fiction tale of the Holocaust with interesting symbolism and a powerful story about the long-lasting impact on survivors and how their children were affected.

The Last Storyteller by Frank Delaney — The last book in a trilogy about undying love and the Irish art of storytelling.

Across the Mekong River by Elaine Russell — A beautifully complex story of the immigrant experience, one that surprised me with its wonderfully flawed characters and intense emotion.

Searching for Captain Wentworth by Jane Odiwe — A novel about time travel, Jane Austen, and the inspiration for one of my favorite novels, Persuasion.

My Berlin Kitchen by Luisa Weiss — A foodie memoir that made me fall in love with a city I’ve never seen in person!

What were the best books you read in 2012?

© 2012 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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Source: Personal library
Rating: ★★★☆☆

Weakened as the vampire was from lack of sustenance, it was nevertheless clear that Harriet had only frantic moments to live before she would succumb to his vicious designs.

Mrs. Goddard fainted dead away and fell to the ground as Emma came running from the house, waving her father’s old sabre in both hands.

With a single, clean swath of the sword, Emma severed the head of the vampire.  It bounced on the ground and rolled a few feet, and then the body of the creature collapsed as well.

(from Emma and the Vampires, page 17)

Emma and the Vampires is a fun and silly retelling of Jane Austen’s Emma.  The plot is the same as Austen’s original, but with vampires thrown in (of course).  Emma Woodhouse is essentially a frivolous, spoiled rich girl, who also happens to be clever and has a good heart.  No amount of chastising from her friend and brother-in-law Mr. Knightley will stop her from trying to match her friend Harriet Smith with the vicar Mr. Elton, and nothing he can say will persuade Emma to think poorly of Frank Churchill, who waltzes into Highbury seemingly interested in winning Emma’s affection.

While Emma is busy making a mess of her love life and Harriet’s, a pack of wild vampires is roaming around Highbury, attacking the young girls at Mrs. Goddard’s school and draining them of their blood.  Mr. Knightley, an aristocratic vampire, insists something must be done about the vampire menace, and while he prepares the final attack, Emma finally realizes she’s been clueless about everything, including her own heart.

In Emma and the Vampires, Wayne Josephson sometimes uses Austen’s original prose and sometimes paraphrases, almost like he’s simplifying the text for younger readers while inserting vampires for excitement.  The vampire additions, however, leave much to be desired.  Whether Emma realizes that Mr. Knightley and most of the other gentlemen of Highbury are vampires, how these men became vampires, their feeding habits, and the difference between the aristocratic and wild vampires are not fully explored.

However, I enjoyed Emma and Harriet as vampire slayers, lopping off heads and reaching under their skirts to pull out the wooden stakes tied to their legs with ribbons.  I could picture Emma and Knightley fighting the vampires side by side as equals, while Mr. Elton and Frank Churchill stand back with the fainting ladies.  Emma and the Vampires is not meant to be taken seriously, and while it was the right book for me at the moment, I would have enjoyed it a lot more had Josephson given more depth to the vampire story line.  I think this book would be a fun, light read for fans of the Austenesque and an amusing introduction to Jane Austen for younger readers.

Book 8 for Explore the Many Genres of Jane Austen Challenge (Paranormal)

I was saddened to learn that Shanna from Existing’s Tricky lost her battle with cancer in April. To honor her memory and her love of books, I am determined to complete her challenge. May she rest in peace.

Disclosure: Emma and the Vampires is from my personal library.

© 2012 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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Source: Public library
Rating: ★★★☆☆

“He’s very cunning,” Hawking said, as if admiring him.  “Perhaps brilliant, strong, dedicated, all qualities one might be proud to possess.”

“B-but…,” Carver stammered, “he’s also evil.”

Hawking turned his intense gaze on Carver.  “And no one wants to hear good things about the devil, eh?”

(from Ripper, page 201)

Ripper, my book club’s December pick, is a young adult historical/steampunk novel focused on orphan and amateur detective, Carver Young, in 1895 New York City.  The 14-year-old Carver is adopted by a not-so-retired Pinkerton detective, Albert Hawking, just as murders reminiscent of London’s Jack the Ripper begin, putting pressure on the city’s police commissioner, Teddy Roosevelt, who is working tirelessly to reform the corrupt police department.

Carver is thrust into a world he believed to be the stuff of crime novels, brought by Hawking to an underground crime lab run by the New Pinkertons, whose agents are working secretly to solve the murders in hopes of putting the agency back in the limelight.  He is tasked with finding his biological father, known to him only through the letter in his orphanage file, under the tutelage of the eccentric Hawking.  Although he is fascinated with the gadgetry of the New Pinkertons, Hawking teaches Carver how to narrow down the possibilities and to trust his gut — which comes in handy when it becomes obvious that finding his father is not only a daunting but also very dangerous task.

Stefan Petrucha uses the facts known about the London murders committed by Jack the Ripper, along with actual letters he sent to the newspapers and police, as a foundation for a chilling tale.  But Ripper is more about Carver’s evolution than finding the man responsible for the brutal slayings of city socialites.  Watching Carver mature and develop his detective skills is the highlight of the novel, along with how turn-of-the-century New York City becomes a character in itself.

However, the book was slow-moving for the most part, helped along by the fact that the big mystery becomes obvious early on.  The Girl (age 12) read this book with me, and she figured it out right away and frequently mentioned how “blah” the descriptions were.  Moreover, the murders were barely described, so they didn’t have much of an impact, and while Petrucha might have toned that down for the target audience, The Girl pointed out how she’s read YA zombie novels that were much gorier and exciting.  Petrucha picked up the pace in the last quarter of the book, which made it much easier to read and enjoy.

Overall, Ripper was just an okay book for us.  The history was interesting and the premise was intriguing, but we felt there was something missing in the execution.  The book club seemed to feel the same way.  Most members said they simply weren’t part of the target audience, but even the youngest member of the group had a hard time with its predictability and lack of excitement.  Even though the book lacked the gore one would expect when focusing on a serial killer, there was a hint of creepiness in both the asylum where Hawking lived and worked and the home of the crazy cat lady and member of the Midnight Band of Mercy.  Ripper didn’t make for a captivating mystery, but it shines as a coming-of-age story about a young boy unsure of who he is, what to make of his parentage, and how to rise above the evil attacking him and the city he loves.

Disclosure: I borrowed Ripper from the public library.

© 2012 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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Source: Review copy from author
Rating: ★★★★★

Christine had never been to the opera, but she imagined that this was how the tragedies would be played out.  She looked around to examine the faces of those around her, wondering if anyone else could see Hitler’s malevolent soul coming through in his authoritarian words and exaggerated movements.  Red and black shadows danced over the sea of upturned faces, making facial features indistinguishable.  She had the unsettling image of a horde of lost souls standing at the gates of hell.

(from The Plum Tree)

My mother was born in Germany almost a decade after World War II ended, and she moved to the United States in 1956 when she was only 3 years old.  She didn’t know what a Nazi was when swastikas were spray painted on the door of her family’s home in Pennsylvania, and she didn’t understand why one of her teachers kept commenting on her lack of blonde hair and blue eyes.  From the Q&A in the back of The Plum Tree, it sounds like author Ellen Marie Wiseman had a similar experience growing up as the daughter of a German immigrant, whose wartime experiences served as the basis for the novel.

The Plum Tree follows the Bolz family in Hessental from the fall of 1938, when the Nazis were passing laws restricting the freedom of the Jews, and into the post-war years, when the German people were held accountable for horrific crimes against humanity.  In the blink of an eye, 17-year-old Christine Bolz’s dreams of a happily ever after with Isaac Bauerman are shattered.  Yet their love grows even as they are forced to hide their feelings for one another and meet secretly — first once a week, then once a month, and then not at all.  As the years pass and Christine’s family struggles to survive the hunger and cold that accompany the war, she has no idea how the Bauermans are faring — whether they were able to flee Germany, or went into hiding, or were taken away by the Nazis — but she knows her love for Isaac remains as strong as it did on that last carefree day before the Nazis declared their love illegal.

In beautiful and vivid prose, Wiseman paints a portrait of an ordinary German family during the darkest days of their lives.  This is a family that wants to live in peace, does not approve of Hitler’s policies, and worries about the path their country is on, yet they face imprisonment or worse if they even make a careless comment to a neighbor who either supports the Nazis or wouldn’t think twice about reporting them in exchange for food.  Wiseman shows how Christine’s mother must get creative and abandon sentimentality in order to keep her two teenage daughters, her two young sons, and her aging parents fed.  She brings to life the hopelessness of the German soldiers fighting in Stalingrad when Christine’s father is drafted into the army, the craziness of a Nazi rally when Hitler visits Hessental, the terror of the villagers running from the Allied bombs, the horrors of Dachau, and the unwillingness of some people to believe the truth about what happened to the Jews.

Wiseman also emphasizes how some Germans risked their lives to help in seemingly small but still important ways.  More importantly, she touches on the issue of collective guilt and whether civilians were responsible for the actions of their government, as evidenced by villagers being forced to tour the concentration camps and bury the dead.  It is easy to point fingers and assign blame, but Wiseman underscores how there are no easy answers when it comes to war and how there are good and bad people on both sides.

The Plum Tree is unique among the Holocaust novels I’ve read so far in its focus on the everyday struggles of non-Nazi Germans and in its treatment of Christine and Isaac’s relationship.  One might think the forbidden love between a German and a Jew is a theme that’s been overdone, but Wiseman infused their relationship with beauty and hope, and she didn’t need a single sex scene for readers to understand the depth of their love.  Wiseman’s writing blew me away, and I was captivated by the characters, especially their resilience and their heart.  Every character, even the villain, felt real, and I wasn’t ready to let them go when the story came to an end.

I’m sure you’ve all figured out by now that The Plum Tree is my favorite book of the year.  Despite the darkness and sadness inherent in such a novel, it’s one I can see myself reading again for the beautiful writing and Wiseman’s ability to pull readers into the scene from the first page.  It’s rare that a novel makes me lose myself as completely as this one did.  My heart would race when the bombs started to fall, and at times I was so overcome with emotion that I had to put the book down and sit for a bit in silence.  This is definitely a novel to press into the hands of people who mistakenly believe all Germans were Nazis or supported Hitler, and it’s a must-read if you’re as obsessed with World War II novels as I am.

Book 43 for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge

Disclosure: I received The Plum Tree from the author for review.

© 2012 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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Source: Review copy from Independent Publishers Group
Rating: ★★★☆☆

Tuesday, August 6, 1940

I’ve been remembering how last year before war came there still was the half-hope that war would not come. And now all the brave words are rotten and we know we were fools to believe them and I know the words are rotten and illusions that lie.

(from Home Front Girl, page 140)

Home Front Girl is comprised of journal entries by Joan Whelen Morrison found after her death in 2010 by her daughter, Susan Signe Morrison, who edited this collection.  The book chronicles Joan’s coming of age in the days before and during World War II, from 1937 when she was 14 to 1943 when she was 20.  The subtitle, “A Diary of Love, Literature, and Growing Up in Wartime America,” describes the book perfectly.

Like a typical teenager, Joan writes about crushes and kisses, and there’s the usual teen melodrama and school woes.  Since the diary was penned during her high school and college years, there’s a lot of talk about her classes.  It was interesting to see how she was influenced by the books she read, and there was a serious side to Joan in which she shared deep thoughts about war, life, immortality, and religion.  In fact, she actually wrote her journal entries believing that they would be read by others some day.

However, I didn’t think it was much of a “home front” book, at least not in the way I was expecting.  Joan followed the reports of war long before the U.S. got involved, but there are only a handful of entries after Pearl Harbor.  I was a bit disappointed that there was nothing about what it was like to live in the U.S. during wartime, i.e. rationing, etc., but the inclusion of photos, sketches, and poems helps make up for it.

Home Front Girl is a charming book about being a teenager in the late 1930s and early 1940s.  From these entries, it’s easy to see Joan was intelligent, funny, vivacious, well liked, and thoughtful.  What a treasure for her daughter to find these writings after her death, as through them Joan lives on.  Readers of all ages will find much to like in these pages and might even be inspired to write their own stories for future generations to ponder.

Disclosure: I received Home Front Girl from Independent Publishers Group for review.

© 2012 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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Source: Review copy from author
Rating: ★★★★☆

“But don’t you see, Lizzy, if you shut yourself away, the Germans have claimed another victory, and it is a series of small victories that in the end wins wars.”

(from Darcy Goes to War, page 94)

Darcy Goes to War combines two of my biggest reading interests, World War II and Jane Austen.  In this retelling of Pride and Prejudice set in 1944, Fitzwilliam Darcy is a bomber pilot, and Elizabeth Bennet transports supplies as a lorry driver.  Mary Lydon Simonsen retains the basic plot points of Austen’s original, but she moves things along at a faster pace.

Darcy doesn’t make a good first impression when Elizabeth first sees him in a pub drinking his sorrows away, but with World War II in high gear, he has even more obstacles to overcome in building a relationship with her.  Having witnessed the horrors of war firsthand and having comforted her sister, Jane, after the death of her first love in battle, Elizabeth wants nothing to do with romance until the war is over.  However, she finds it hard to resist Darcy’s charms once she gets to know him, and a heart-to-heart talk with her father, a veteran of the World War I trenches, makes her realize that she must carry on despite the war.

Although Mr. Wickham, Mr. Collins, Caroline Bingley, and Lady Catherine are mostly or completely absent from the novel, the war is the big tension-builder here.  Simonsen does a great job bringing wartime England to life through the war work performed by the Bennet sisters, the bombing raids flown by Darcy and Bingley, and the destruction caused by Hitler’s V2 rockets.  She introduces some intriguing American soldiers, even emphasizing how many girls found themselves pregnant during the war.  Not a single aspect of life, not even dating, was left unaffected by the war.

Unlike other Austen-inspired novels, Darcy Goes to War is different in that Darcy’s parents are alive, eliminating Lady Catherine’s influence.  However, this doesn’t mean Darcy gets off easy, and his troubled relationship with his parents plays out in his personality and in his relationship with Elizabeth.  Meanwhile, Simonsen takes the love story up a notch by giving Darcy and Elizabeth a spiritual connection that gets them through some difficult times.  Some might say it is a bit over the top, but I think it works in the context of war.

Darcy Goes to War was a pleasant read, especially for a novel with World War II at its core.  I love how Simonsen takes Austen’s characters and makes them her own and how she uses the romance to keep things light even when the book heads toward darker territory.  Darcy Goes to War is a must for fans of the Austenesque, underscoring the power of love to survive even the darkest days of war.

Disclosure: I received Darcy Goes to War from the author for review.

© 2012 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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Source: Review copy from Sourcebooks
Rating: ★★★☆☆

“Or we could live in it!”

Lara’s heart went thuddity-thud.  “You mean here in Bath?”

“I was thinking we could maybe attach it to five million multicolored helium balloons and float it to wherever takes our fancy.”  Gigi rolled her eyes.  “Yes, Mum, of course here in Bath.”

(from A Walk in the Park)

I think I say this every time I read one of her books, but Jill Mansell is the master of British romantic comedies, and she’s the only contemporary author I read who time after time creates secondary characters that are just as captivating as the main characters.  Although it’s not my favorite Mansell novel, A Walk in the Park was the perfect book for me following a busy week of cooking for Thanksgiving and decorating the house for Christmas.  It was a charming story and a quick read.

When her father dies, Lara Carson returns to Bath for the first time after leaving suddenly 18 years prior at the tender age of 16.  She takes up residence in the family home and realizes there’s so much she doesn’t know about the mother she lost when she was 13.  Lara falls easily back into her friendship with Evie, who needs a shoulder to cry on when her wedding doesn’t go as planned, and she reconnects with Flynn, the boyfriend she’d left behind all those years ago.  While Flynn deals with a shocking revelation, Lara does her best to deny her feelings for him.

At the same time, Mansell introduces still more secondary characters, including Gigi, a spunky teenage girl wise beyond her years; Harry, an old-fashioned, kindhearted shop owner who is catapulted into the spotlight by American hip-hop artist and womanizer EnjaySeven; Nettie, Lara’s feisty aunt; and Don, a jewelry store owner with a big (but bad) heart.  Harry and Enjay are complete opposites, and their banter was the highlight of the book for me.  Just picture a superstar rapper who gets everything he wants standing next to a straitlaced British man who brings a book to a nightclub.  Hilarious!

A Walk in the Park seemed to have more secondary characters than other Mansell novels.  I think she does a great job juggling so many unique personalities, and while their stories were resolved satisfactorily by the end, it felt like some of them were rushed.  I also had a hard time feeling the passion between Lara and Flynn, maybe because the only glimpse we get of them together as teenagers is during a fight.  However, neither of these issues prevented me from thoroughly enjoying the book.

Mansell amazes me with the unique and embarrassing situations she puts her characters in, and she never fails to make me laugh.  She also does a great job weaving in more serious storylines that threaten to bring a tear to your eye.  A Walk in the Park is a lighthearted novel about reclaiming your life, figuring out who you are, and never settling for less than what you deserve.  It’s a pure escapist read, with plenty of drama and romance to make you forget your own troubles for a little while.

Disclosure: I received A Walk in the Park from Sourcebooks for review.

© 2012 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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Source: Review copy from Putnam
Rating: ★★★★☆

She had built her restaurant kitchen out of scents and tastes and textures, the clean canvas of a round white dinner plate, the firm skins of pears and the generosity of soft cheeses, the many-colored spices sitting in glass jars along the open shelves like a family portrait gallery.  She belonged there.

(from The Lost Art of Mixing)

Slated for release in January, The Lost Art of Mixing is the sequel to The School of Essential Ingredients, which I read a few years ago and absolutely adored.  I didn’t re-read the first book before tackling this one, and I admit that I didn’t remember everything, but that didn’t matter; although I recommend reading them in order, you certainly could start with this one.

Lillian is still a successful chef with a knack for reading people and knowing exactly what they need.  She’s in a relationship with Tom, a widower who attended her cooking class in the first book, and unsure whether he’s really ready to move on, she cannot bring herself to tell him the news that will change their lives forever.  Bauermeister also revisits Chloe, a young woman trying to regain her footing after a tough childhood and a failed relationship, and Isabelle, who takes Chloe in just as her memory loss starts becoming a problem.  Isabelle’s daughter, Abby, who feels overwhelmed by responsibility; Finnegan, a very tall young man who somehow manages to fade into the background and carries around notebooks filled with stories; Al, who finds comfort in numbers and longs for the rituals of his childhood; and Louise, an angry woman who has spent 52 years trying to conform to an ideal instead of just being herself all factor into the story.

Bauermeister is a master storyteller.  As in Joy for Beginners, each chapter in The Lost Art of Mixing is like a short story that when blended together creates a novel rich with unique characters with whom readers can all relate in some way.  Bauermeister writes about food, love, and family in a way that is deep and beautiful and really gets you thinking about your own life.  Her prose is wonderful in that you can almost smell and taste the food, and the characters’ souls are bared in a way that makes them feel like old friends.

The Lost Art of Mixing is about how people separate and come together.  It’s about learning to trust, the importance of memory, and moving on after loss.  Bauermeister’s understanding of human nature, our need for companionship, and the ways in which food can repair broken souls combine to create a powerful novel that will warm readers’ hearts.

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for having me on the tour for The Lost Art of Mixing. To follow the tour, click here.

Disclosure: I received The Lost Art of Mixing from Putnam for review.

© 2012 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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Source: Personal library
Rating: ★★★★☆

“No, as far as the Nazis know,
there are eight hundred adults
and no children
left in the Lodz ghetto.”

Well, then, aren’t we clever,
I think as I drift off.
We know more than the Nazis do.

(from Yellow Star, page 143)

Yellow Star is the story of Holocaust survivor Sylvia (Syvia) Perlmutter, as told to her niece, Jennifer Roy.  Roy presents her aunt’s story in verse — which reminded me of T4 by Ann Clare LeZotte — intended for middle-grade readers.  Syvia was four-and-a-half when World War II broke out, and she was one of just 12 children to survive the Łódź ghetto.  When the ghetto was liberated by the Soviets in January 1945, only 877 of the more than 200,000 Jews sent there were still alive.

Based on taped conversations with Syvia, Yellow Star is written in the first person, so young readers see the horrors of the ghetto through the eyes of a child with whom they can relate.  Because she is too young to work, Syvia is alone while her parents and older sister are working.  When children under 10 are deported to the Chełmno extermination camp, Syvia must stay hidden indoors and remain quiet at all times.  Even though I knew she survived because she was telling her story, my heart still beat rapidly as I read about how she and her father hid as the Nazis went from room to room, taking children away from their families and sending them to their deaths.

Roy does a great job contrasting Syvia’s innocence with the evil perpetrated by the Nazis.  The family is hungry and cold, her beloved doll was sold and its carriage burned to keep warm, and Syvia occupies herself with clever games.  Even in the midst of all the hardship, there are heartwarming, hopeful moments, particularly in the way that Syvia’s family emphasized her value when the Nazis did their best to make her feel worthless.

A family’s fierce love and will to survive are at the core of Yellow Star.  I never grow tired of these amazing stories of courage and survival during the Holocaust.  Roy shows how Syvia’s family kept their wits about them through the chaos, evading deportation time and again and staying alive when so many others perished.  I read this book in a single afternoon, but I remain haunted by Syvia’s story weeks later.  Yellow Star is a good introduction to the Holocaust for younger readers, but there is much in the poetic prose for adults to appreciate as well.

Disclosure: Yellow Star is from my personal library.

© 2012 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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Source: Review copy from Viking
Rating: ★★★★★

Along the way to adulthood, I acquired one six-inch chef’s knife, a dark-green glazed cast-iron pot, and the growing realization that baking and cooking were not just a sure way to end up with a pan of warm brownies or a kitchen full of the fragrance of beef stew.  Busying myself in the kitchen was how I conjured the people and places I loved the most in the steam rising off the pots on the stove.  And when I came down with a rare and chronic illness known as perpetual homesickness, I knew the kitchen would be my remedy.

(from My Berlin Kitchen)

I admit that I’m not big on memoirs and I’d never heard of Luisa Weiss’ blog, The Wednesday Chef, but I wanted to read My Berlin Kitchen the minute I saw Berlin in the title. My mother was born in Germany (Freudenstadt, to be exact) and lived there until she was three.  Since I can’t afford to travel to Germany any time soon, I have to settle for traveling there through books, and Weiss’ foodie memoir was just the ticket.

Weiss was born in Berlin to an American father and an Italian mother.  After their split, she spent part of her time with one parent, then with the other, so it’s easy to see how she would grow up feeling confused about where she belonged.  Even while living in New York City, she felt the pull to Berlin, mainly because of the food and the culture — and the man who would become her husband.

Somewhere along the way, she learned to cook, and then she began to blog about the various recipes she attempted in her own kitchen.  Weiss isn’t a trained chef, and that’s what makes the book appealing to me.  Every chapter ends with a recipe or two, and all of the recipes are ones I would actually try.  In fact, I made the Kartoffelsalat (a potato salad with a marinade of white wine vinegar, chicken broth, and Dijon mustard) for my November book club meeting.  It was pretty good, but unfortunately I didn’t remember to take a picture of it before it was all gone.

I really enjoyed My Berlin Kitchen, especially the voice and tone of the narrative.  Weiss comes off as very likable, and her beautiful descriptions of the cooking process and the completed dishes reminded me of The School of Essential Ingredients by Erica Bauermeister.  I could almost hear the crackling and bubbling of the food cooking and almost smell the warm aromas.  Needless to say, this book made me very hungry!

Weiss made me fall in love with Berlin, and I’ve never been there.  I was captivated by her tales of crossing the border between East and West Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall, the changing of the seasons, apartment hunting adventures, and German holiday traditions.  I honestly was surprised that I found a memoir I couldn’t put down.  I enjoyed it so much that as soon as I turned the final page, I visited her blog so I could see what started it all and put faces to the names she mentions.

Subtitled “A Love Story (with Recipes),” My Berlin Kitchen is very much a book about love, but not just the romantic kind.  Weiss writes about the love of family and friends, love for the country you call home, the love of food and cooking, and the simple joys of feeding the ones you love.  There is a passion underscoring the narrative, and even if you can’t relate to her loneliness and confusion, you’ll most likely relate to the emotional connection between food and home.

Disclosure: I received My Berlin Kitchen from Viking for review.

© 2012 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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