Midsummer's Mayhem by Rajani La Rocca, illustrated by Rachel Suggs, 352 pp, RL 4
Midsummer's Mayhem by Rajani LaRocca,
illustrations by Rachel Suggs
Purchased from Barnes & Noble
Midsummer Mayhem is a delicious delicacy that I wanted to devour, but took my time and savored. Kid's books (especially those focused on diversity and representation) are my first passion, cooking my second, so I will be laying the food metaphors on thick here. I watch cooking shows while I cook dinner and even while I am on the treadmill. And, while I write reviews, I have already-watched old episodes of the Great British Bakeoff playing in the background for white noise. I feel a little like Rajani Larocca wrote this book for me! And Rachel Suggs's one and two page illustrations are the icing on this delectable cake.
Eleven-year-old Mira Mackson, who goes by Mimi, is the fourth and youngest in a family of very talented children and narrator of Midsummer's Mayhem. Oldest sister Riya is a gifted dancer with a beautiful singing voice. Mimi says she is like an "Aleppo pepper - striking and fragrant, but with a substantial kick." Anjuli, or Jules, is a star soccer player and talented percussionist who reminds Mimi of her homemade cannoli ice cream sandwiches filled with chocolate chip ricotta ice cream - "sweet and universally liked, if sometimes stiff and unyielding." Then there is Henry, the Shakespearian actor and guitar player. They are all thriving and growing up in Comity, MA, "hometown of the talented and famous," as Jules tells their new neighbor, Cole. When we first meet Mimi, she is sitting on her porch swing, reading one of her many cookbooks, having just baked "welcome home" brownies (with cinnamon and a "dash of cayenne for extra zing") for her traveling food writer and critic father. Mimi is both a skillful and thoughtful baker, flavoring her bakes to suit the person or event she is baking for, like the lemon-lavender cupcakes she baked for her best friend Emma before she moved away.
Feeling a bit like she is not as talented as her siblings, Mimi jumps at the chance to enter a baking contest for kids at the newly opened While Away Café in town, despite the fact that is seems as though their baker and waitstaff doesn't know what she's doing. The elegant, aloof proprietor, Mrs. T., entices Mimi with the promise of extraordinary prizes - maybe even the chance to meet Comity native, world famous baker Puffy Fay - and a delicate gold box containing a single, intricately decorated chocolate candy. When Mimi accepts the challenge and gives the chocolate to her father, a disastrous chain of events is set in motion.
Mimi's father begins eating and eating, indiscriminately and so voraciously that he chokes more than once. He also seems to have lost his ability to taste and describe what he eats, referring to everything as "scrumptious" where he once could tease out every single flavor Mimi added to her recipes. Heading into the woods behind her house where she and Emma had built a fort, Mimi meets a new kid, Vik, who, surprisingly, is from the same small village in Tamil Nadu, India where Mimi's mother's family is from. Vik takes an interest in Mimi's bakes and shows her a hidden herb patch she had never known about. This goes perfectly with The Book, an ancient tome Mimi finds in the woods that is filled with drawings and descriptions of herbs and spices along with stories from ancient times. With The Book and Vik at her side, Mimi tries new bakes, some that fall flat, some that succeed and some that seem to have strange effects on those who eat them. As Mimi bakes and bakes, trying to win the contest and bring balance back to her family, things get crazier and crazier. She even has a falling out with Vik before the final judging of the baking contest and the climax of the book when the veil between worlds is lifted and she sees exactly what she has to do.
There is so much I haven't even touched on in this richly delectable book! From the gentle presence of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream woven throughout the book, with Henry rehearsing his lines for the production of that very play to be held on Midsummer's Eve and Vik playing an entrancing tune on his flute to the fairies Cobweb and Peaseblossom masquerading as waitstaff at the While Away, and, of course, the annual wager between Tatiana, Queen of the Fairies, and Oberon, King of the Fairies, (here, quite cleverly, it is between sweet and savory and which is better) LaRocca adds just enough to make readers want to know more about the play itself. Then there are all the Indian flavors LaRocca adds to the book, from the pitta bird and banyan tree that mysteriously appear in the forest and the gotu kola herb Mimi finds growing there to the mouthwatering Indian foods that make this book even more special, especially those (like the gulab jamun and kulfi) that Mimi transforms into her own creative, mouthwatering desserts. Then there are the desserts. I could seriously list them all here but . . . Happily, in addition to a glossary of baking terms, herbs and spices and Indian foods, LaRocca includes RECIPES for some of Mimi's more spectacular bakes. I am definitely going to try the Chocolate-Chunk Thyme Cookies with Citrus Zest (Mimi used tangerine - so creative!) but I'm a little intimidated by the Gulab Jamun Cupcakes with Candied Rose Petals. I'll be honest, while I love to cook and have a few bakes I will make, if I lived in Comity, MA the summer story unfolded, I would be lined up at the Salt Shaker with the rest of the town, waiting to order chips and fries. I love absolutely everything about Midsummer's Mayhem and can't WAIT to see what Rajani LaRocca - and Rachel Suggs - do next!