Book Review: The Secrets of Mary Bowser

I have been on a historical fiction kick lately and The Secrets of Mary Bowser was a pleasure to read. Written by Lois Leveen is a fictional account of Mary Bowser, as slave who was freed and educated in Philadelphia. On the cusp of the Civil War, Mary returns as a slave to her hometown of Richmond, VA in order to spy upon the Confederate army.

Like most slaves, there are very few records of Mary Bowser. During her research, Leveen was able to find a baptismal record and a record of Mary Bowser’s marriage.  Most of the events in Mary Bowser’s life were imagined by the author including how she obtained her freedom to her education to her secret spying.

Whether the details of Mary’s life is real or imagined, what she did was very inspiring. Her character gives readers a different view from the typical master and slave dynamic. Mary was a house slave, not the half naked, often whipped slaves that her Philadelphia friends imagined. Though her situation was not as dire as the field slaves, the chains of slavery still chafed.

Written in first person narrative, Mary’s vocabulary and distinct voice allowed me to see life in her shoes. I appreciate that the author took the time and research to write the way people in that time period might have spoke.

I’ve never been fascinated with the details of Civil War battles, but The Secrets of Mary Bowser made me want to read more about life pre-Civil War. I highly recommend it.

More Summer Reading

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I’ve been remiss in actually writing down my summer reading list for this year.  Kim shared part of her list recently; I thought I’d share mine today!

I consider the “summer reading” season to be from Memorial Day to Labor Day each year; last year I squeezed in about 15 books.  Summer is busy, but I’m hoping this year with my kids a year older (and more independent) I’ll have more time to spend curled up with books.  Plus, my daughter has a fantastic reward waiting for her at the end of the summer – if she meets her summer reading goal, she earns herself a Nook Color.  I suspect she’ll be buried in books more often than not.

So, in no special order, here’s what I’m planning to read this summer.  Some books have been sent to me by the publishers for review, a few have been on our home bookshelves for quite some time (and my husband has heartily recommended them to me), and a few are by favorite authors I am excited to read more from.  Take a look:

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline (completed)
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (completed)
Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn
Dark Places by Gillian Flynn
Shadow of Night by Deborah Harkness (completed)
Heart Sick by Chelsea Cain
Iron Council by China Mieville
Embassytown by China Mieville
The City and the City by China Mieville
The Kraken by China Mieville
Arranged by Catherine McKenzie*
Picture This by Jacqueline Sheehan*
Walking Into the Ocean by David Whellams*
Woman Chased By Crows by Marc Strange*
Nemesis by Jo Nesbo
The Redbreast by Jo Nesbo
The Devil’s Star by Jo Nesbo
The Unseen by Katherine Webb*
Summer of Night by Dan Simmons
The Drowned Cities by Paolo Bacigalupi
That’s twenty-three books on my list, in fifteen weeks.  Books with an asterisk next to them are the publisher-requested reviews.   Plus, I’m planning to re-read the Sookie Stackhouse series (but really….that might take a couple of days, max, lol!).  I also am revisiting my library of  Thich Nhat Hanh books, to do a little re-centering.  Enough writing about the books – I’m off to read!
Do you do “summer reading”?  What’s on your list this year?  Leave me a comment – I’d love to hear about it!

My Summer Reading List

The Reckoning by Alma Katsu

I feel like summer is half over, yet I haven’t compiled my book list. So I’m grabbing my huge stack of books and pulling some out for my July and August reading. I’m going to be on a lot of airplanes within the next two weeks so I hope I can get lots of reading done!

I always feel like a part of me isn’t whole if I don’t get a little bit of reading in each week. Here what I have on my list so far:

The Reckoning by Alma Katsu

Alma Katsu‘s The Reckoning is on the top of my list. I met her last year at Book Blogger Con. Not only is she smart, funny, and sweet, she’s a great writer. On my train ride home from BEA last year, I read The Taker in one sitting. In the Reckoning, Lanore has found her happy place in her long, immortal life, but now she is once again on the run from her creator who has finally escaped from the bonds Lanore created for him. The Reckoning is the second book of  The Taker trilogy. Don’t you love the cover? It’s so strking.  (Gallery Books)

Secrets of Mary Bowser by Lois Leveen

The Secrets of Mary Bowser by Lois Leveen is a fictional account of a slave that was freed and educated in Philadelphia. The historical fiction is based off a real person. Mary Bowser then returned to the South and became a Union spy during the Civil War. Sounds fascinating right? I don’t know of very many female spies, much less a African-American woman spy. (William Morrow)

The Boy Who Stole the Leopards Spots by Tamar Myers

The Boy Who Stole the Leopard’s Spots by Tamar Myers is set in the Belgian Congo. Amanda, an American missionary; a police chief plus a local witch doctor and his wise-woman wife become involved in the mystery of a decades old murder. I’ve read Tamar Myer’s Den of Antiquity cozy mysteries but haven’t read her more literary work. I’m looking forward to “traveling” to Africa. (William Morrow) Update: My review for the book is posted.

Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot has been sitting on my shelf for over a year. It time I read it. Part biography, part a look at cancer studies, this book gives credit to unknown Henrietta Lacks. Known to scientists at HeLa, Lacks’ human cells are still alive today as scientists use her cells to develop vaccines, study cancer and much more. This non-fiction uncovers yet another example of the United States’ history of experimentation of African Americans. (Crown)

I have a few more books I could add to this list, but I’m not sure if I’ll get to them. It’s a pretty diverse list.

Have you read any of these books? What’s on your summer reading list?

For some of these books, I received review copies. This post contains affiliate links.

Book Review: Arranged by Catherine McKenzie

Arranged by Catherine McKenzie

Arranged by Catherine McKenzie

My kids just left to spend a few weeks at Camp Grandparents, and I’m excited about having uninterrupted reading time. Waiting for me on my bookshelf was Arranged by Catherine McKenzie. I needed something light and fun after my Book Expo America brain overload. Seemed like a perfect match.

In the first chapter of  Arranged, our protagonist Anne Blythe, whose mother named her after the famous Anne of Green Gables,  finally walks out on her cheating boyfriend.  She tries to recover from yet another failed relationship when her best friend announces she’s getting engaged. Feeling completely lost, Anne calls up a dating agency, only to find out that it’s an exclusive arranged marriage service.

For contemporary fiction, I found the premise a bit too contrived. For the first few chapters I couldn’t get a grasp on Anne. Sometimes I liked her, other times I found her whiney. Once Anne visits the agency, coincidentally named Blythe & Company, and signs up for an arranged marriage, I was hooked. I want to know what what happens to Anne.

I won’t spoil the story by telling you what happens to Anne after that.  Anne’s search for love is a journey than many women can empathize with. You’ll find yourself rooting for Anne and her happy ending.

Arranged by Catherine McKenzie is perfect for a bit of poolside reading.

I received a copy of the book for review. Links to the title are affiliate links.

The Imperfectionists

The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman

The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman

At the beginning of the summer, members of the From Left to Write book club engaged in a fun discussion about our summer reading lists.  The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman was on quite a few lists, and for good reason. I finished it up last week, and I loved every page.  I’m willing to admit that the cover art for this book hooked me.  I love the font, the empty space, the stack of newspapers.  I’m always a fan of the less-is-more approach.

Rachman, a foreign correspondent, set his debut novel in Rome and weaves an intricate story of how this English-language paper came about, and how the lives of the various employees intersect.  The overall feeling of this book is melancholic (albeit with a few chuckles thrown in).  It could truly be real-life, which is refreshing.  Each chapter reads as a stand-alone short story, focusing on one particular employee.  Occasional chapters are thrown in giving the reader some backstory about the paper’s founder and original employees, and the group that runs it.  Rachman writes this book flawlessly, with a depth of feeling and connection to the characters that is very impressive for a debut novel.

Each character is a real person, complete with flaws, issues, and hang-ups.  No one person is a hero or extraordinary in any way; all of the characters simply work to put out a daily edition of this declining newspaper and none seem to be aware of the goings-on of their co-workers’ personal lives.

I read the 304-page paperback edition in just a couple of days – it is an engrossing novel.   I look forward to reading more of the author’s work!  Have you read The Imperfectionists?  What did you think?


Summer Reading Recap: How Did You Do?

A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

Can you believe it?  Summer is quickly drawing to a close – it’s the last day in August, most of the kids have returned to school (or will be soon), football is almost back….where did lazy days by the pool go?  If you are like me, you had an ambitious summer reading list. Personally, my goal was twenty  books in thirteen weeks. Lofty but doable, even with two young children.

I set my “finish line” at Labor Day, which is fast approaching. Technically, I have just over five full days left, and three and a half books to go. Yikes!  I can make it, though. I’m over halfway finished with The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman, which is a delight to read.  The remaining books on my list seem promising as well.

Someone asked me yesterday what my favorite books from my summer list have been.  Well, that’s a tough question!  I tried narrowing it down to two, but that proved difficult. So today I’ll just share my first two favorites, and then next week I’ll share another two that I loved.

A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness was absolutely delightful. So great, in fact, I’ve actually checked it back out of the library to re-read, even though I just finished it a couple of weeks ago. Harkness combined witches, vampires, demons, history, and romance in her debut novel (a quick read despite its 592-page length).  Harkness also manages to produce an interesting discussion on the origin story of each type of creature, and what it means to the individuals to actually understand their beginnings and where their power comes from.  This book really does have a bit of everything – good vs. evil, science vs. magic, desire vs. conformity.  It’s a fantastic read!  I won’t share any spoilers or recap it for you – I’ll save that for another post.


People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

My second summer favorite is an older novel, People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks. Originally published at 384 pages in early 2008,  it’s the story of an Australian rare book conservator, invited to report on the condition of the centuries-old Sarajevo Haggadah.  While the book itself (the Haggadah) is real, the story Brooks wrote is mostly fictional.  She seamlessly weaved a history of the book’s journey from its original artist to its present location.  Readers follow the small pieces of evidence uncovered about the book back in time, and witness how and why the book was made. I read this novel in one sitting: it’s that engrossing. Brooks created not only a moving journey  through time, but a great narrative of the human story – suffering, tragedy, perseverance, and the ability to overcome.


How is your summer reading list progressing?  Have you finished? What are some of your “best of the list” titles?  I’d love to hear some – leave a comment below!