Biography, History, Non-Fiction

The Woman Who Smashed Codes by Jason Fagone

Bestsellers intrigue me. I don’t read many, which seems to confuse bookstore patrons until I tell them that I read other books so that when they have finished a bestseller and want something similar, I have a recommendation for them. But when The Woman Who Smashed Codes started to fly off the shelves, I was intrigued enough to take a look.

Synopsis

In 1916, a young Quaker schoolteacher and poetry scholar named Elizebeth Smith was hired by an eccentric tycoon to find the secret messages he believed were embedded in Shakespeare’s plays. But the urgencies of war quickly transformed Elizebeth’s mission, forcing her to apply her skills to an exciting new venture: codebreaking – the solving of secret messages without knowledge of the key. Working alongside her was William Friedman, a Jewish scientist who would become her husband and lifelong codebreaking partner.

Review

A number of customers at the bookstore came in looking for The Woman Who Smashed Codes because their book club had decided to read it. Each time I showed it to them, I’d flip it over, read the back cover myself, and think it was interesting before ultimately putting it back down. Then came holiday (over)ordering at the bookstore and when The Woman Who Smashed Codes came off the bestsellers and we still had a few too many copies on hand, I decided to make it my pet project to sell it myself, without the “bestseller” status, but with the “staff recommends” qualifier.

The holidays are the ultimate time for recommending books to customers. While we are always helping people find a book for themselves, now is the time when people come in with their holiday list and ask us to pick out books for their loved ones. Most of the time they give us some basic information: they like history books, fantasy, science, they’re accountants, etc. and then we take that information to pick out books for them in the store. With that in mind, I’ve decided to change up my review for this book today to my bookstore pitch, but in the opposite way, for customers who come up and ask us if a book is any good. (This is an idealized conversation, but I do have many that go somewhat like this)

Customer (holds up The Woman Who Smashed Codes): Is this book any good?
My Coworker: My manager, Sarah, loved it! Let me ask her to help you!
Me: I really enjoyed The Woman Who Smashed Codes! Is there anything in particular you would like to know about it?
Customer: Who would enjoy it?
Me: It would be a great gift for anyone who is fascinated by World War II history, or someone who enjoys lesser known stories from history, or anyone who loves a great biography of a unique person.
Customer: What was your favorite part of the book?
Me: I love stories about how people we’ve never heard of today played major roles throughout history. Elizebeth, the subject of the book, worked tirelessly to break the codes of Nazis during WWII and her work played a key role in the Americans’ decryption of the German Enigma machine. Additionally, it was her husband who broke the Japanese decryption machines – they were a fascinating couple and I loved how the author, Jason Fagone, really delves into their relationship instead of just focusing on Elizebeth’s work for the government.
Customer: That sounds really neat! I think I’ll give it a shot!

As booksellers, we know, especially during the holiday season, that we may only have a minute or two to share with a customer why we really love a book. Every customer can read the back of the book for a description of the plot/subject, but that information (and what I always include as the “synopsis”) comes from the publisher. I figure my role, as bookseller and blogger, is to put the personal emphasis on the books I love, the books that may also get overlooked on a store’s shelves if they don’t have colorful spines or staff picks tied to them.

When I can’t find the time to personally tell every customer about the books I think they’ll love, I write short little “blurbs” to put under the books on the shelf or print the blurbs up on bookmarks as we do at the store annually for our top holiday gift picks. That being said, my question to you, dear readers, is: When you go into a bookstore during the holidays, or any time of year, to you seek out staff picks? Do the staff’s recommendations hold any sway with what you end up deciding to read or take home?

Rating: 9 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $16.99 • 9780062430519 • first published September 2017, this edition published August 2018 by Dey Street Books • average Goodreads rating 4.19 out of 5 • read in November 2018

Woman Who Smashed Codes

 

Bookish Tuesday

Books That Made Me Happy

Coming into the holiday book/gift buying season, I like to reflect on the books that brought me joy – very few people want tearjerkers as their holiday read! Below are just a few titles that are on my “holiday recommendations” shelf at the store!

Rejected Princesses by Jason Porath

Rejected Princesses

I can’t say enough how wonderful this book is. Equal parts cute and adorable and completely badass, it’s a great compendium of women throughout history who did wonderful and totally rad things!

Notorious RBG by Irin Carmon & Shana Knizhnik

Notorious RBG

Another woman who has done, and continues to do, fabulous things, RBG is quickly becoming the hero of the millennials and liberals and we hold our breath every time she takes a spill. Whether you agree with her positions or not, she’s led a remarkable life and this biography of her is worth a read.

Royally Matched by Emma Chase

43-Royally Matched

I love a fun new adult romance – I read one a year around the holidays. They make me feel cozy and love the Prince Harry inspired Royally Matched for it’s approach to more than just romance – there’s friendship, mental health discussions, all sorts of worthwhile secondary characters – it’s worth judging by more than just the half naked dude on the cover.

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

Mr Penumbra

A fun, again millennial, story about bookstores and the people who work in them. The bookseller in me adores this book (I even convinced my boss to read it and he loved it), and it’s just a great relaxing read that really allows your mind to explore the Mr. Penumbra’s store in your head – it’s different for everyone and that’s one of the many things I love so much about it.

Furiously Happy by Jenny Lawson

Furiously Happy

Jenny Lawson always brings a smile to my face. I bought a copy of Furiously Happy for my cousin-in-law who just started college last year and it has become a favorite gift for me to give to other young women (and men!) in the family.

Essays, Non-Fiction, Sociology

Shrill by Lindy West

I have no idea why WordPress unpublished this review from last week, but here it is, once more on the blog!

In my never-ending quest to find a fun audiobook to listen to before bed, I stumbled upon Shrill and was immediately intrigued. I remembered picking it up at the store months ago and it sounding interesting so I figured I’d give it a shot!

Synopsis

Coming of age in a culture that demands women be as small, quiet, and compliant as possible – like a porcelain dove that will also have sex with you – bestselling author and humorist Lindy West quickly discovered she was anything but.

From a painfully shy childhood in which she tried, unsuccessfully, to hide her big body and even bigger opinions; to her public war with stand-up comedians over rape jokes; to her accidental activism and never-ending battle royale with Internet trolls, Lindy narrates her life with a blend of humor and pathos that manages to make a trip to the abortion clinic funny and wring tears out of a story about diarrhea.

Review

I love a good sociology essay collection and Lindy’s is up there with Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me. While I found some of the essays difficult to relate to from her perspective, a decent number of the essays have to do with body type and stereotypes, but they certainly made me think about my preconceived notions about people who are different than me, in terms of body type. People who are, as Lindy says, Fat, face a whole different and unique set of challenges in navigating everyday life, along with the stigma and dirty glances from other humans which I had never really noticed before.

While thinking differently about my inherent biases is my primary take away from Lindy’s book, there were certainly essays that reminded me that we really are just human beings, looking for love and respect from everyone. The essay about dealing with trolls is one I could relate to – I’ve been trolled online for having asthma, as well as the pair of essays, “The End” and “The Beginning.”

Lindy’s father died of cancer. And if you’ve ever had to watch a loved one die slowly from a disease or illness that medical science could no longer treat, you’ll recognize the optimism, fear, grief, all the feelings that are associated with the sense of loss, that Lindy describes. Those two essays resonated with me the most, and I highly recommend picking up this collection if you want a laugh, a cry, and all the emotions in between.

Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $16.00 • 9780316348461 • 272 pages • first published May 2016, this edition published February 2017 by Hachette Books • average Goodreads rating 4.21 out of 5 stars • read in November 2018

 

Shrill b&w

Bookish Tuesday

The Age Old Debate: Book vs. Movie

is the question all book lovers are asked, “Well, which was better? The book or the movie?” And every good book lover knows that the correct answer, 99% of the time, is “The book, of course!” But sometimes, we book lovers must admit that the filmmakers did something well and the movie, is in fact, quite good. Below are some of each – my favorite films and television adaptations, as well as a few that completely missed the mark.

In Extremis & A Private War

While they are not directly related, the film A Private War is based on a Vanity Fair article, “Marie Colvin’s Private War,” their near simultaneous release dates and identical subjects make them inexorably linked. In Extremis is my favorite book of the year, and continues my great love of war correspondent books. Rosamund Pike plays Marie Colvin in A Private War and she does an absolutely tremendous job – Oscar worthy in my opinion. I give both book & film two very enthusiastic thumbs up!

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

When I first sat down to watch the film adaptation of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, I was so excited – a, it’s practically a Downton Abbey reunion, b, I was super curious about how they were going to adapt the letters into a cohesive narrative, and c, I wanted to see Guernsey. The cast captured the characters almost exactly as I imagined them and it was wonderful. However, on that fateful first watching, I ranted about how the filmmakers changed parts of the story. Which, as a filmmaker, I know you kind of have to when the source material doesn’t give a clear cut narrative structure for drama and tension. So now, I must think of them as two entirely separate entities, and, in that manner, I enjoy them both tremendously.

The Magicians

I was very excited about The Magicians television adaptation, and, well. I hated it. Quentin, oh my Quentin, you are perfectly cast. And Alice, I adore you. But WHY OH WHY DO WE NEED NEW CHARACTERS? And why does Julia have to have such a large role? It’s well done, I give the show runners credit for that. But I feel like the changes made were not wholly necessary. It captured the spirit for the most part, but when you have a cast of characters who are fairly apathetic by nature, it is hard to feel invested in a show. In the books, you can always hold out hope that they’re different in your head and create your own head-cannon.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

This is a tricky one – a true purist will tell you that the book is always best, followed by the original adaptation, then the remake. Which, technically, the American version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo could be considered a remake… but it is far superior to the Swedish adaptation, in style, plot, and depiction of Lisbeth. In my humble opinion of course, but as it is one of my husband’s all time favorite movies, I might be a touch bias.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Some movies are just so bad they’re good. I love The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy film because it’s just so bad. It’s not even a guilty pleasure, it’s just a really good bad movie. It’s funny and enjoyable and, so long as you don’t think too hard about it, a fairly accurate depiction of the book!

Non-Fiction

The Story of the Great British Bake Off by Anita Singh

Before heading over to London to visit my sister in June, I figured I should brush up on what is currently topping British popularity charts – that meant, Bake Off! I downloaded a whole season on Netflix for my overnight flight across the pond and wound up watching all night instead of sleeping!

Synopsis

When The Great British Bake Off made its debut in August 2010, it had the makings of a modest hit. But nobody – not the programme-makers and certainly not those first contestants – could have predicted what was to come. Here was a show in which the biggest weekly drama was whether or not a sponge cake would sink in the middle. And oh, how we loved it.

Here is the ultimate Bake Off fan book: from Bread Lions to Bavarian Clock Towers; from heart-throbs to heroes; from soggy-bottoms to sticky buns. This is the celebration of Britain’s most popular cookery contest.

Review

In honor of a new season popping up on Netflix on Friday in the US and the start of the holiday shopping season, I give you, The Story of the Great British Bake Off! I’ve been an avid baker for a few years – my family always did more in the way of candy making pre-holidays before I took on epic cake decorating in college as a way to de-stress and be creative. I’ve never done anything on par with GBBO’s showstoppers, but a couple of the signature bakes are similar to things I’ve concocted in the past. But first, for those unfamiliar, a bit of background on The Great British Bake Off.

The Great British Bake Off is the antithesis of American cooking and baking competitions. The biggest difference – there’s NO prize money. The 12 amateur bakers compete for fun. The competition takes place over 10 weekends and bakers must get themselves back and forth from the competition site and their homes across the UK every weekend that they are on the show. The vast majority compete while working full time, going to school full time, etc.

Each episode/competition/weekend sees the bakers face three challenges – the first, a signature challenge that they get to practice ahead of time, the second, a technical challenge just blind by the judges and a complete surprise to the bakers each week, and the third, the following day, the showstopper challenge, a long bake that is usually difficult technically and detailed in regards to decoration.

The book follows the first seven seasons of the show, the seasons that aired on the BBC before the show made the jump to Channel 4. Here in the US, it includes the seasons that have aired/are airing on PBS, the first four seasons on Netflix as The Great British Baking Show and The Great British Baking Show: The Beginnings. Because that’s not confusing at all…

What that means is that to American readers, one should avoid some of the early chapters because those seasons haven’t aired yet here. However, it is a fun and insightful look at the show for us here in the states who did not have a great deal of background information on the series while they were airing or who, like me, are latecomers to the GBBO phenomenon.

It’s an absolutely delightful read and the perfect gift for your favorite fellow GBBO enthusiast!

Rating: 9 out of 10 stars

Edition: Hardcover • $29.95 • 9781786694430 • 224 pages • published January 2018 by Head of Zeus • average Goodreads rating 3.54 out of 5 • read in August 2018

The Great British Bake Off Website

The Story of the Great British Bake Off on Goodreads

Get a Copy of The Story of the Great British Bake Off

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Biography, Non-Fiction

In Extremis: The Life and Death of War Correspondent Marie Colvin by Lindsey Hilsum

I first came across In Extremis when going through front list (new release) publisher orders and, thanked my lucky stars I have such a good relationship with the rep because when I begged her to send me an advance copy, she happily obliged. And I think it is safe to say, In Extremis is my favorite read of the entire year.

Synopsis

When Marie Colvin was killed in an artillery attack in Homs, Syria, in 2012, at age fifty-six, the world lost a fearless and iconoclastic war correspondent who covered the most significant global calamities of her lifetime. In Extremis, written by her fellow reporter Lindsey Hilsum, is a thrilling investigation into Colvin’s epic life and tragic death based on exclusive access to her intimate diaries from age thirteen to her death, interviews with people from every corner of her life, and impeccable research.

After growing up in a middle-class Catholic family on Long Island, Colvin studied with the legendary journalist John Hersey at Yale, and eventually started working for The Sunday Times of London, where she gained a reputation for bravery and compassion as she told the stories of victims of the major conflicts of our time. She lost sight in one eye while in Sri Lanka covering the civil war, interviewed Gaddafi and Arafat many times, and repeatedly risked her life covering conflicts in Chechnya, East Timor, Kosovo, and the Middle East. Colvin lived her personal life in extremis, too: bold, driven, and complex, she was married twice, took many lovers, drank and smoked, and rejected society’s expectations for women. Despite PTSD, she refused to give up reporting. Like her hero Martha Gellhorn, Colvin was committed to bearing witness to the horrifying truths of war, and to shining a light on the profound suffering of ordinary people caught in the midst of conflict.

Review

I love war correspondents’ memoirs and biographies – It’s What I Do was one of my favorite reads of last year. And, just, oh my goodness. In Extremis dethroned Lynsey from the top of my personal ranking. Granted, I’ve only read two to completion so far (I’m reading Martha Gellhorn’s, the role model for both Lynsey and Marie, right now), but goodness gracious, it will be a long time before I find another book like this. And it caused one of the longest book hangovers I’ve ever had. And, through In Extremis, I had the opportunity to check off a book seller life goal and be the first review for a title on Goodreads and Lindsey Hilsum responded to my review!

My husband, Ben, and I have been together for almost a decade and he could not recall a single instance in that time when I stayed up past midnight to read. I absolutely love to read, but am borderline narcoleptic so I’m not a big night time reader. But for days on end, I stayed up far later than I should have, unable to put down Lindsey Hilsum’s marvelous biography of her friend and fellow journalist, Marie Colvin.

Lindsey Hilsum is, in the humble opinion of someone who has not personally met her, the best person to write Marie Colvin’s biography. A friend, but not an intimate acquaintance, she approaches her subject with the kind and caring hands of someone who felt a deep loss when she died, but removed enough to offer a fairly objective perspective on the life decisions she made that led her to that final, fateful trip to Homs, Syria in 2012. Marie kept extensive journals her entire life and they serve as the basis for the bulk of In Extremis, making it as close to an autobiography as it could possibly be. Sprinkled in are excerpts from Marie’s reporting for London’s Sunday Times, and they offer an even deeper glimpse into what inspired and drove her to seek out war zones and report on the stories of the people who live there.

A few years ago, Ben & I visited the Newseum in Washington D. C. which triggered my current obsession with journalism. I’d always loved writing and have been a news junkie from a very young age (the day does not start until I’ve checked the BBC, CNN and my custom Google newsfeed), but I never appreciated just how important journalists are worldwide until that trip. They are responsible for keeping the world apprised of the goings on in far reaches of the world and at home. And nothing, well, almost nothing, in regards to my country’s current political climate, makes me angrier than the unofficial war on journalism and the president’s constant claims of fake news. As I rally against it, and uninformed fellow Americans, I remind myself of the fact that Marie Colvin had to stand up to people who challenged the authenticity of her reporting and she did so with kindness, grace, and style.

Even though Marie’s personal life may have been a bit of a mess, okay, quite a big mess, she played a crucial role in ensuring that the western world knew exactly what was going on in the war zones of the world, particularly the Middle East. It is easy enough for those of us sitting in our living rooms in the Northeast of the US to ignore the challenges facing not only that area of the world, but also in Europe as they struggle to accommodate record numbers of refugees, and to dehumanize those who are struggling because their struggles don’t affect us directly. But Marie wouldn’t let us. She did everything in her power to bring that suffering, the plights of the people who were displaced from their homes, and the challenges they faced daily, into our collective consciousness.

When reading, and therefore constantly Google-ing Marie Colvin, I came across the production of A Private War, Matthew Heineman’s cinematic depiction of Marie’s life. While the movie is based on the Vanity Fair article published immediately after Marie’s death and not on Lindsey’s biography, the two, given their near simultaneous release dates, will become inexorably tied to each other in future. I was very nervous when I found out that Rosamund Pike is playing Marie – I adored her in Pride & Prejudice, but is she the best choice to play my new hero? After reading articles about production and how much the process of portraying Marie affected her personally, and the fact that a documentary filmmaker is at the helm, I’m far less concerned and a great deal more excited.

Lindsey’s writing is tremendous, Marie’s life equal parts inspiring and cautionary tale, and I truly hope that her story reaches as many people as possible and helps us all recognize that we are all human. We all share this world, and the sufferings of a few are the sufferings of us all.

Rating: 10 out of 10 stars

Edition: Hardcover • $28.00 • 9780374175597 • 400 pages • published November 2018 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux • read September 2018

In Extremis on Goodreads

Get a Copy of In Extremis

In Extremis

Memoir/Autobiography, Non-Fiction

From the Corner of the Oval by Beck Dorey-Stein

I’ve slowly but surely been making my way through the four major Obama White House Staffer memoirs – first was Who Thought This Was a Good Idea?, followed by this one, next will be Thanks, Obama (my coworker Su’s favorite), and last The World as It Is

Synopsis

In 2012, Beck Dorey-Stein is working five part-time jobs and just scraping by when a posting on Craigslist lands her, improbably, in the Oval Office as one of Barack Obama’s stenographers. The ultimate D. C. outsider, she joins the elite team who accompany the president wherever he goes, recorder and mic in hand. On whirlwind trips across time zones, Beck forges friendship with a dynamic group of fellow travelers – young men and women who, like her, leave their real lives behind to hop aboard Air Force One in service of the president.

As she learns to navigate White House protocols and more than once runs afoul of the hierarchy, Beck becomes romantically entangled with a consummate D.C. insider, and suddenly the political becomes all too personal.

Against the backdrop of glamour, drama, and intrigue, this is the story of a young woman making unlikely friendships, getting her heart broken, learning what truly matters, and, in the process, discovering her voice.

Review

Beck is a Philly suburb-raised elder millennial like me. I was so excited about her memoir of her years in the White House, maybe more so than Alyssa Mastromonaco’s, which I adored. The four names of Alyssa, Beck, David Litt & Ben Rhodes are inextricably linked in my mind as the authors of the collective “Obama White House Memoirs.” I’ve even tried to arrange displays so that I can feature all four together without anyone really noticing that that was my primary objective. Alyssa, whose was published first, even references her fellow staffers literary endeavors in her own. But onto Beck.

As a White House stenographer, a person who records all of the president’s conversations and then transposes them later for memos, briefings, and posterity, Beck had incredible insider access to the Obama White House. She kept extensive journals during her years there and her memoir reflects her attention to detail. The details of her personal life.

Beck traveled all over the world, met countless interesting people, and experienced many once-in-a-lifetime adventures alongside the leader of the free world. But what makes up the bulk of her memoir? Her affair with a fellow White House staffer. Each of the magnificent locales she travels to is given a cursory description, and then we endure Beck’s exposition of her affair. We get a more in depth description of the White House staff parking lot than the whole of southeast Asia.

I get it – it’s her memoir, she can write about whatever she wants. And Beck is a marvelous writer, I finished the whole of From the Corner of the White House because her writing is so strong. And yes, she obviously talks about friendships and travels and what is going on in our country and parts of her life other than the affair, but its dominating force in her life also makes it a dominating force in the book. And I felt significantly misled. Based on the publisher synopsis above, I thought I was going to get an insider glimpse into life inside the White House, The West Wing in book form so to speak (without any confidential details of course), but instead, I got an insider glimpse to Beck’s personal life, not exactly what I was expecting.

Rating: 6 out of 10 stars

Edition: Hardcover • $28.00 • 9780525509127 • 352 pages • published July 2018 by Spiegel & Grau • average Goodreads rating 3.85 out of 5 • read October 2018

From the Corner of the Oval on Goodreads

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From the Corner of the Oval

Biography, Memoir/Autobiography, Non-Fiction

Jell-O Girls by Allie Rowbottom

I’ve been half-heartedly participating in a book club that used to be mine and has now migrated into someone else’s, but I’ve still had a foot in the door. When a fellow member picked Jell-O Girls for today’s discussion, I was thrilled to finally read nonfiction AND get to talk about it. Downside, my opinion and personal experiences seemed to be in the minority…

Synopsis

In 1899, Allie Rowbottom’s great-great-great-uncle bought the patent to Jell-O from its inventor for $450. The sale would turn out to be one of the most profitable business deals in American history, and the generations that followed enjoyed immense privilege – but they were also haunted by suicides, cancer, alcoholism, and mysterious ailments.

More than one hundred years after that deal was struck, Rowbottom’s mother, Mary, was diagnosed with the same incurable cancer that had claimed her own mother’s life. Determined to combat what she had come to consider the “Jell-O Curse” and her looming mortality, Mary began obsessively researching her family’s past, bent on understanding the origins of her illness and the impact on her life of both Jell-O and the traditional American values the company championed. Before she died in 2015, Mary began to send Rowbottom boxes of her research and notes, in the hope that her daughter might write what she could not. Jell-O Girls is the liberation of that story.

Review

I’ve been in a bit of a book-finishing rut for the past month and a half. All year I’d been flying through books and then, as soon as my grandmother got sick and passed away, I haven’t wanted to touch a book. Until now. Part of getting back to my normal life it seems must include reading (which is very logical given my occupation, I just hadn’t felt like opening a book), and these days, reading means primarily nonfiction. It’s been a year of my near complete lack of interest in fiction and YA (my two staples for the past two decades), so when book club finally veered back to nonfiction, I was thrilled – I hadn’t actually finished a new book club book since, uh, January 2017.

If I were to write a memoir, it would be a lot like Jell-O Girls. The publisher summary doesn’t exactly capture the spirit of the memoir – it sensationalizes it more than needed. Allie Rowbottom faces an interesting inheritance – money from Jell-O which supported her artist mother her entire life, and a “curse” so to speak, which is basically her family trying to find a source of blame for poor genes. I was intrigued when I picked it up, and it held me captivated until I finished it – in 48 hours. And then I went to log it in Goodreads and see what other people thought about it. Oh boy.

I need to start holding off on looking a Goodreads reviews until I’ve finished a book. I adored Jell-O Girls and thought it one of the best books I’ve read so far this year. It seems, however, I am in the minority when it comes to most readers and I think that there are two primary reasons for this. Firstly, the integration of the Jell-O story with that of Allie’s family doesn’t always work particularly well. It’s nice, and a refreshing interlude at times, to see how Jell-O has changed over the years, but it really has very little to do with Allie, her mother Mary, and her grandmother, Midge, our three female protagonists of the memoir. Second, if you’ve never experienced any of the traumatic events and family situations the main characters experienced, it can be easy to discount them as Rich White People Problems, as most people in my book club, and on the interwebs of Goodreads, seemed to do.

Those two things considered, as someone who has been the primary caretaker to a family member slowly dying of cancer, just lost her grandmother, has had to handle the fact that her mother will most likely die of cancer given that she’s already a three-time survivor, whose parents are divorced, whose family has a long history of mental illness, when you’ve struggled with anorexia nervosa and developed OCD tendencies, passed out and not remembered the last time you ate because you couldn’t control anything in your life except what you ate, well. You could say Allie’s Jell-O Girls is the story of me and my mother’s family.

We’re all a little crazy, humanity proves this. And when you’ve experienced very similar situations to Allie and you want to convey just how magnificently she captures the feeling of waiting for hours on end in the surgical waiting room that you struggled for years to find words to describe, you want to share that with people. You want to talk about just how important this book is to you, not just because you think it’s good, but because it let you know that you are far from alone. That other people have experienced the same set of traumas, self-inflicted and otherwise, that you have. That it’s okay to feel like you’re losing your mind and that you are not alone.

Despite working in a bookstore and talking about books for a living and recommending countless books to people over the last few years, I don’t actually have the chance to sit down and talk about books in detail with many people. I get to give people my thirty-second elevator pitch on a book and hope they’ll buy it. And part of the success of the store I work at is that all of the employees have their own genres of interest – Su reads things dark and twisty, Pam reads contemporary women’s and historical fiction, Mary reads commercial nonfiction and fiction, Jennifer is our children’s buyer and can tell you anything and everything about all the picture books on the shelves, Kaz specializes in LGBT literature, PK reads business and history, Hadley reads the little known random books published by small, academic and indie presses, Staci reads just like my mom, thrillers and mysteries from Baldacci to Scottoline, and I read a little bit of everything in between. There’s not a whole lot of overlap. Therefore, enter book club – the perfect opportunity to discuss books with (mostly) like-minded individuals.

I miss picking all the books (I am aware that this is very selfish). I miss it being a way to support the store (I’m now the only one who doesn’t buy the book on Amazon or from B&N). I miss having productive discussions about interesting books. No one likes to feel like they’re under attack or being misunderstood when they choose a book or have a specific feeling about a book. And I love Jell-O Girls. In my 29 years of existence and of the 220 books I’ve read since I started working at the bookstore in 2015, it is one of the best books I’ve ever read. I don’t care if the rest of the world disagrees with me. I will praise it for handling life situations that so many people find difficult to talk about. So please, ignore the plethora of poor ratings on websites. Ratings don’t capture the spirit of the book. If you think reading this book would benefit you, your family, please. Take a look at it.

Rating: 9 out of 10 stars

Edition: Hardcover • $28.00 • 9780316510615 • 388 pages • published July 2018 by Little, Brown and Company • average Goodreads rating 3.2 out of 5 stars • read in October 2018

Allie Rowbottom’s Website

Jell-O Girls on Goodreads

Get a Copy of Jell-O Girls

Jell-O Girls

Fiction, Historical

The Kennedy Debutante by Kerri Maher

I’ve started reading again! In an effort to ingratiate myself with our publisher reps at the bookstore, I’ve decided to read an advanced reader copy a month BEFORE the book comes out AND write an “Indie Next” pick for it – this is the first! Downside, I read it back in July so my memory of it is a touch fuzzy…

Synopsis

London, 1938. The effervescent “It Girl” of London society since her father was named the ambassador, Kathleen “Kick” Kennedy moves in rarefied circles, rubbing satin-covered elbows with some of the twentieth century’s most powerful figures. Eager to escape the watchful eye of her strict mother, Rose; the antics of her older brothers, Jack and Joe; and the erratic behavior of her sister Rosemary, Kick is ready to strike out on her own and is soon swept off her feet by Billy Hartingon, the future Duke of Devonshire.

But their love is forbidden, as Kick’s devout Catholic family and Billy’s staunchly Protestant one would never approve their match. And when war breaks out like a tidal wave across her world, Billy is ripped from her arms as the Kennedys are forced to return to the States. Kick finds work as a journalist and joins the Red Cross to get back to England, where she will have to decide where her true loyalties lie – with family or with love…

Review

Kick Kennedy has fascinated me for years (for the full background on my love of Kick, see my review of Barbara Leaming’s biography, Kick Kennedy) so when Cheryl, our Penguin sales rep, told me about The Kennedy Debutante, I begged her to send me an advance copy. I happy wrote an Indie Next nomination for it, even though I didn’t love it as much as I hoped. And it didn’t make the list, but I felt a sense of accomplishment in doing it!

The Kennedy Debutante has taken Kick’s story and turned it into commercial women’s fiction. And for someone who doesn’t read a great deal of commercial fiction, particularly this year, I wasn’t entirely thrilled with the focus of the story being almost exclusively on Kick & Billy’s love story. Which has always been the least fascinating part of Kick’s story. The best parts of the book involved one of the few invented characters (no historical counterpart), a priest, Father O’Flaherty, who serves as Kick’s moral and religious counselor and is a bright spot in the face her parents’ darkness in the disconcerting time in London leading up to World War II. O’Flaherty is kind and compassionate and helps Kick come to terms with who she is, and the role that she has to play in British society, and subsequently it’s history, during her lifetime.

Additional bright spots include any time the Kennedy kids come into the frame, Joe & Jack (JFK) are quite a pair, and the inner glimpses into Rosemary and Eunice’s lives also show how close the sisters were and the obvious inspiration for Eunice’s founding of the Special Olympics. The siblings’ closeness was another bright spot of the book and I found myself often reading in anticipation of the next time the Kennedy clan would appear on set.

Overall, I enjoy The Kennedy Debutante, but if Kick was not the protagonist and it was say, about one of the Mitford sisters or a generic English woman living during WWII book, I would not have picked it up or bothered to be interested in it, given its position in the very saturated field of WWII fiction.

Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

Edition: Hardcover • $26.00 • 9780451492043 • 384 pages • published October 2018 by Berkley • average Goodreads rating 4.01 out of 5 • read in July 2018

Kerri Maher’s Website

The Kennedy Debutante on Goodreads

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In Memory of My Favorite Reader

An update to What Do You Do When Your Favorite Reader Can’t Read Anymore?

A few weeks ago I shared the fact that my grandmother had lost her eyesight and could no longer read books in the traditional manner. The support from you, my fellow book lovers, and the suggestions you offered, were greatly appreciated. Unfortunately, my grandmother will no longer be reading with us on earth. She passed away a week ago. As I prepare for her memorial service tomorrow, I’ve been reflecting on just how much she loved books and reading.

Moppy & Sarah (maybe)

As I’ve spent the past week going through pictures, I came across this little gem of her reading to me when I was very young, probably in 1990. When I was 3, she bought me my first encyclopedia. When I was 10 and obsessed with Harry Potter, she read the first book, and every book thereafter, so she would know what on earth Quidditch was. And last year, she went to London with my sister and learned how to fly a broomstick for herself.

flyingmoppy

My grandmother, who my sister and I affectionately refer to as Moppy, loved adventure, adventure of any kind. She traveled widely, not just in real life but in books as well. Her love of reading, and in particular her love of discussing books with me will always comfort me during the times that I really miss her most. So maybe, before this terrible month is over, I’ll finish my next book. And write the book that we had always intended to write together, the adventures of Merton (her hedgehog) and Ellie (my elephant) and their travels around the world together.