Memoir/Autobiography, Non-Fiction, Travel

The Road to Little Dribbling by Bill Bryson

My mother had a copy of A Short History of Nearly Everything in our minivan for pretty much my entire adolescence. Intrigued, I figured that when I finally wanted to read nonfiction (once it was done being assigned to me), I would read a book by Bill Bryson, especially as I planned a trip to visit my sister in the UK.

Synopsis

Twenty years ago, Bill Bryson went on a trip around Britain to discover and celebrate that green and pleasant land. The result was Notes from a Small Island, a true classic and one of the bestselling travel books ever written. Now he has traveled about Britain again, by bus and train and rental car and on foot, to see what has changed–and what hasn’t.

Following (but not too closely) a route he dubs the Bryson Line, from Bognor Regis in the south to Cape Wrath in the north, by way of places few travelers ever get to at all, Bryson rediscovers the wondrously beautiful, magnificently eccentric, endearingly singular country that he both celebrates and, when called for, twits. With his matchless instinct for the funniest and quirkiest and his unerring eye for the idiotic, the bewildering, the appealing, and the ridiculous, he offers acute and perceptive insights into all that is best and worst about Britain today.

Review

I think I made a mistake… I picked my first Bill Bryson book based on which one was available on the library Overdrive app as an audiobook for me to listen to while driving to my grandmother’s one day last week. According to everyone I talked to about Bill Bryson books once I was halfway through listening to it, I made the wrong choice.

For a little context, the description does not make is abundantly clear that you really should have read Notes from a Small Island prior to reading The Road to Little Dribbling. Not just for a bit of context for why Bill travels to the locations he visits in this book, but also to acclimate yourself to his writing and voice. Because without a little context, well, The Road to Little Dribbling reads like an alternate draft of Grumpy Old Men.

Some of the observations that Bryson makes about how Great Britain has changed are reasonable based in reality. Other times, it seems like he’s complaining and for the sake of being a jerk. One of my coworkers tried to tell me that that was the basis of his writing and he was being sarcastic, but I feel like I’m not so dense that I cannot tell when someone is being sarcastic, it is my second language after all.

And then, the more I listened, the more I felt like it was probably a generational thing. Bill Bryson is clearly a member of the Baby Boomers and I am thoroughly a millennial. And while I often rag against people disparaging against other generations, I find it is quite clear that there is absolutely a difference in each generation’s approach to life. So while I’ve decided that I’m not a fan of The Road to Little Dribbling, I might still be a fan of Bill Bryson’s and just have to accept that this one is not for me.

Rating: 6 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $16.95 • 9780804172714 • 400 pages • first published January 2016, this edition published October 2016 by Anchor Books • average Goodreads rating 3.71 • read in January 2018

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Road to Little Dribbling

Fiction, Young Adult, Contemporary, New Adult

Bunheads by Sophie Flack

When I was a little girl, I took many ballet classes and I loved it! Unfortunately, I wasn’t very good. In fact, I was incredibly clumsy, and as such, I never really managed to finish a recital or class without causing bodily harm to myself or someone else and therefore, I had to give it up. Then, after binge watching the entire mini season of Bunheads (created by Gilmore Girls genius Amy Sherman-Palladino!), I was on a dance kick and needed to read this book to further explore the lives of young ballerinas!

Synopsis

Until now, nineteen-year old dancer Hannah Ward has followed the Manhattan Ballet company’s unofficial mantra, “Don’t think, just dance.” But when she meets Jacob, a spontaneous musician, Hannah’s universe begins to change. With her eyes newly opened to the world beyond the theater, she must decide whether to compete against the other “bunheads” for a star soloist spot or to strike out on her own.

Review

I love when authors write about what they know as it tends to be the most realistic way to learn about a topic. Sophie Flack is particularly qualified to write this book and it would not be nearly as realistic if the author did not have Sophie’s ballet background. While the complaint of many reviews I read was that the book was littered with too many French, dance-specific terms, to the extent that it detracted from the story, I disagree – this is an exceptional and unique look into the lives of young professional dancers.

Hannah reminds me a great deal of one of my own protagonists, Natalie, my goalie girl. Hannah debates the merits of dedicating her life to ballet, a career that will last a decade, if she’s lucky, or following the path of most nineteen-year-olds in New York City and enrolling in college. My character, Natalie, debates following the seemingly impossible dream of becoming a professional goalie or going to college like most girls her age. In addition, the themes of Bunheads are marvelously true to life – so true that I found myself often wondering if Bunheads is semi-autobiographical. Hannah’s relationship with Jacob is completely recognizable as it is filled with confusion and muddled emotions and feelings – common identifying aspects of most relationships of actual young adults.

There’s a thought that crosses most young adults’ minds more than once during their college years, “Did I make the right choices so far in my life or is it time for a change?” While I found Bunheads in the young adult section of Barnes and Noble, it really embodies the new “New Adult” genre and fuels my dream to see more books about actual young adults and college-age girls trying to figure their lives out on the book shelves of my local book store.

Rating: 8 stars

Edition: Paperback • $10.99 • 9780316126540 • 320 pages • first published October 2011, this edition published October 2012 by Poppy Books • average Goodreads rating 3.73 out of 5 stars • read in June 2013

Sophie Flack’s Website

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Bunheads

Non-Fiction, Photography/Art, Travel

The Grand Tour Guide to the World by Jeremy Clarkson, James May & Richard Hammond

It’s all my husband’s fault. When we first started dating, he asked if I wanted to watch a little British show call Top Gear. “What is Top Gear?” I asked, ignorant of it’s cultural relevance. “Oh, well it’s kind of a car show, kind of a comedy show,” he answered. “Ok,” I shrugged, “let’s watch it.” Oh how little I anticipated that it would quickly become my favorite show of the decade.

Synopsis

The world is a big place full of interesting thins… And The Grand Tour has seen several of them. That’s why few people are better placed to lead you around this vast planet of ours than Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May. As long as you don’t mind getting hot and lost.

In this indispensable guide you’ll discover an abundance of information, most of which is probably wrong and potentially dangerous. Alongside occasionally accurate guides to the places visited on the show, you’ll find exclusive interviews with the presenters and see how some of the show’s most spectacular sequences were made.

As well as being a factually dubious encyclopaedia, The Grand Tour Guide to the World is also a companion for anyone inspired by the Grand Tour traveling circus. Learn how to blend in with French car enthusiasts, how to speak Welsh (wrongly) and how to wow people with amazing facts about Swindon. And on top of all this, we reveal the world’s fastest cop cars and the planet’s greatest car makers. And there’s a picture of James May in an anorak.

Review

So I rambled about Top Gear at the beginning and you’re probably thinking, but Sarah, the title of the book says it’s called The Grand Tour! Yes, because the BBC fired the top presenter, Jeremy Clarkson, so he and his mates got picked up by Amazon to make a new show call The Grand Tour.

The Grand Tour started its second season shortly before Christmas and, when you’re working in a retail environment during the holidays as I was, you look for just about anything and everything to cheer yourself up and The Grand Tour fit the bill. Most of the original features of Top Gear (the news, celebrities driving cars, making fun of each other, races, etc.) are in the new series but with slightly different names. The boys can be counted on to make even the most mundane topic intriguing and entertaining. Even if you don’t really care about cars, like my sister… (ahem, Laura), you can still find something to laugh about.

The book is organized into 10 sections, one for each episode/location the show traveled to in the first series of The Grand Tour. The graphic design is stunning, and the content is, for the most part, informative. Would I recommend it as an actual travel guide? Of course not. But, if you are a fan of The Grand Tour, or you want to see what Clarkson, May and Hammond are all about, I suggest at least flipping through the pages of The Grand Tour Guide to the World. At the very least, their irreverent humor will occasionally bring a smile to your face.

Rating: 8 out of 10 stars

Edition: Hardcover • $29.99 • 9780008257859 • 272 pages • published October 2017 by HarperCollins • average Goodreads rating 3.83 out of 5 • read in January 2018

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Grand Tour Guide to the World 2

 

Memoir/Autobiography, Non-Fiction

Let’s Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson

It is not often that I get the idea in my head that I absolutely must read a book at a particular time, but I decided this year before Christmas that I absolutely had to read Furiously Happy. My coworker, Jennifer, who loves Jenny Lawson, said “No, no. You have to read Let’s Pretend This Never Happened first.” And boy was she right.

Synopsis

When Jenny Lawson was little, all she ever wanted was to fit in. That dream was cut short by her fantastically unbalanced father and a morbidly eccentric childhood. It did, however, open up an opportunity for Lawson to find the humor in the strange shame-spiral that is her life, and we are all the better for it.

In the irreverent Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, Lawson’s long-suffering husband and sweet daughter help her uncover the surprising discovery that the most terribly human moments – the ones we want to pretend never happened – are the very same moments that make us the people we are today.

Review

I don’t often shove a book in my husband’s face and say, “Here! You MUST read this chapter right now!” Any time I have attempted this before, he groans and shoves said book out of my face. There aren’t many books that I’ve read that strike me as books he would particularly enjoy. But, while reading Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, I did this no less than 10 times. 10! And each time, he laughed too (which was very reassuring) and agreed with my declaration that Jenny, the author, and Victor, her husband, represent the two of us in five to ten years.

There have been a few books, fiction mostly, where I have identified with the main character to the point where I declare, “me too!” (not in the present #metoo sense, but in an I-can-thoroughly-relate-to-what-you’re-saying sense). But this definitely falls into the same category of Hyperbole and a Half where I feel like I’m reading a slightly altered account of my own life. My father was a builder, not a taxidermist, I grew up in Pennsyltucky (rural PA), not rural Texas, but I also am the messy one in my marriage, met my husband in college, say things out loud at social gatherings that I really shouldn’t, and have generalized anxiety disorder, though my panic attacks are mostly triggered by driving.

As Jenny writes, these things make me human, and they make me, me. And now I  know that there are far more people like me than I previously thought. If you’re looking for a book that will make you laugh out loud and that you can thoroughly relate to, look no further than Let’s Pretend This Never Happened.

Rating: 10 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $16.00 • 9780425261019 • 363 pages • first published April 2012, this edition published March 2013 by Berkley Books • average Goodreads rating 3.9 out of 5 • read in January 2018

Jenny Lawson’s Website

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Let's Pretend This Never Happened

Fantasy, Fiction, Young Adult

Graceling by Kristin Cashore

For the past few weeks I’ve been debating picking up the book Bitterblue as I’d seen it all around the book stores. When I finally did decide to read it, I realized that it was a companion novel to Graceling, which was published first so I figured I’d give it a shot and I was hooked from the very first page.

Synopsis

Katsa has been able to kill a man with her bare hands since she was eight – she’s a Graceling, one of the rare people in her land born with an extreme skill. As niece of the king, she should be able to live a life of privilege, but Graced as she is with killing, she is forced to work as the king’s tug.

When she first meets Prince Po, Graced with combat skills, Kata has no hint of how her life is about to change. She never expects to become Po’s friend. She never expects to learn a new truth about her own Grace – or about a terrible secret that lies hidden far away…

Review

Graceling is the first of three related novels by Kristin Cashore and is set in a fantasy world of seven kingdoms. The capitals of each kingdom are named for their rulers and the kingdoms’ names are based on their geographical location (i.e. the Midluns are in the middle of the continent, Estill is in the east, Sunder is to south, etc.) Scattered across the kingdoms are a select group of individuals, each born with a Grace, a special ability unique to them and possessed only by that individual. They are known as the Gracelings, identified by eyes of two different colors.

Katsa, niece of the king of the Midluns, has started a secret council with the intention of using it to do some good in the seven kingdoms instead of falling into her role of court enforcer as her uncle expects. Graceling starts off with Kasta on a rescue mission of an elderly, gentle grandfather being kept in the dungeons of a neighboring king. On her way out, she runs into another Graceling with whom she spars until he, miraculously, just lets her go. She knocks him out for good measure, but she cannot stop thinking about him. When he arrives at her home court a few days later, she realizes the connection he has with the grandfather she rescued and his purpose for stopping her before.

Thus begins Katsa and Po’s adventure across the seven kingdoms to right a wrong and solve a long standing, though recently revealed, mystery. Their adventure covers rough terrain and obstacles that would make a lesser heroine turn right around. Katsa is a force to be reckoned with – sure of herself but also scared of her abilities. She is an intriguing character and she is full of spunk and zest and her relationship with Po is remarkably well developed for young adult fantasy fiction. The premise isn’t entirely unique but overall the book was enjoyable and I appreciated the great adventure with a bit of romance thrown in.

But there’s just something, and it’s probably just me, that I cannot shake. I can’t name it and it is the fault of this reviewer that my displeasure is so obtuse, but there’s something missing. And for that unshakable notion that a part of the story has gone awry, I cannot quite recommend Graceling as strongly as I hoped to be able to do.

Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $9.99 • 9780547258300 • 471 pages • first published October 2008, this edition published September 2009 by Graphia Books • average Goodreads rating 4.1 out of 5 • read in March 2014

Kristin Cashore’s Website

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Graceling

Contemporary, Fiction, New Adult

Jessica Darling quintet by Megan McCafferty

Jessica Darling helped me survive high school. I was first introduced to the delightfully snarky, sarcastic and spunky teen heroine of Sloppy Firsts when I was a freshman in speech and debate practice after school one autumn afternoon back in 2003. A frenemy of mine was testing out an excerpt from Second Helpings for a speech competition and it was certainly effective: I remember nothing else of the speech and debate season but hearing about Jessica handle the popular girls in a Jersey mini-mall still resonates in my head a decade plus later.

The series consists of five books and originally Megan McCafferty only intended to write the first two and they stand alone very well. I also read Second Helpings before Sloppy Firsts and while slightly confusing, I think it just made me love Marcus even more. I also had the great pleasure of meeting Megan McCafferty my junior year at Pitt and she has now started a Jessica Darling in middle school series which is quite wonderful as well, even though it differs from the originally established timeline.

Sloppy Firsts Synopsis

When her best friend, Hope Weaver, moves away from Pineville, New Jersey, hyperobservant sixteen-year-old Jessica Darling is devastated. A fish out of water at school and a stranger at home, Jessica feels more lost than ever now that the only person with whom she could really communicate has gone. How is she supposed to deal with the boy- and shopping-crazy girls at school, her dad’s obsession with her track meets, her mother salivating over big sister Bethany’s lavish wedding, and her nonexistent love life?

Sloppy Firsts looks at Jessica’s predicament as she embarks on another year of teenage torment – from the dark days of Hope’s departure through her months as a type-A personality turned insomniac to her completely mixed-up feelings about Marcus Flutie, the intelligent and mysterious “dreg” who works his way into her heart.

Series Review

There are, thus far, 8 books about Jessica Darling. Therefore, understandably, my review cannot simply be contained to one book, each reading changes and effects how I view the books so it may be a bit garbled and I’ll try to review book by book without any spoilers, but bear with me!

Sloppy Firsts I have read only once and I did so after reading Second Helpings, the stronger of the pair, writing wise. I was introduced to Jessica after Marcus, after her sister’s wedding, and after she’s met, and discovered the truth about, Hyacinth Anastasia Wallace. All of these things take place in Sloppy Firsts but I didn’t know the full story. At the start of Sloppy Firsts, Jessica is broken, though she does her best to hide it. Her best friend Hope has moved away and while Hope does not actually physically enter the story until the end of Second Helpings, I had already met her. But her influence on Jessica’s life is profound – she is her best friend, her confidant. For a young girl to have such a strong friendship is an incredible thing to behold and when that friendship is no longer as present, depression can quickly ensue. Throughout Sloppy Firsts, Jessica must handle changing feelings, embarking on a friendship she fears Hope would disapprove of, and betrayal of her trust by a new friend. The waters of high school are choppy and Jessica must learn how to cross them safely without her navigator and first mate, Hope.

Second Helpings: My copy of Second Helpings is thoroughly beat up. I love the book, I’ve read it over and over and over again whenever I have been in need of inspiration for my own writing, or when I just want to read about characters that I love dearly. So who came up with it first, JK Rowling or Megan McCafferty? Both have a character known as “he who shall not be named” and Jessica is horribly mad at the one who walks around her high school’s halls. Her feelings have been hurt, irrevocably, she claims, and she swears to never forgive the sinner. Second Helpings is set during Jessica’s senior year and from the very start, it seems as if all hell will be breaking loose. She must deal with national tragedy (9/11), personal tragedy when a beloved family member is lost, and coming to grips with her own moral quandaries and whether or not a friendship is still a friendship if secrets are kept.

Charmed ThirdsFourth Comings: In which Jessica follows her heart and goes to her dream college and lands what she believes to be her dream job. Charmed Thirds & Fourth Comings are my two least favorite books and for the longest time I would not read them. Laura had started them and was unimpressed. However, when I met Megan McCafferty, I needed a book for her to sign and so I picked up a copy of the new edition of Charmed Thirds. I will cherish it always as it bears McCafferty’s lovely looping signature and I got to meet her with some of my best college friends. However, Jessica, is just not Jessica in these two books. While Sloppy Firsts & Second Helpings cover roughly a year and a half between them, Charmed Thirds & Fourth Comings span almost 8 years and everything feels so rushed.

Perfect Fifths: When I went to hear Megan McCafferty speak, she read aloud from the recently released Perfect Fifths and I was hooked. It was the first time we the readers get Marcus’ point of view and WOOHOO!!! I powered through Charmed Thirds & Fourth Comings just to get to the part Megan McCafferty read in the dimly lit auditorium of Frick on my beloved Pitt’s campus. As the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series did years later, the fifth book takes place when the main characters are in their late twenties. And it is pure literary gold. It’s an ending, without being final but also without fully answering all the questions that have so far gone un-answered. But it is perfect, perfect for you, yes, you to enjoy.

Jessica Darling is a relatable girl for those who grew up feeling pressure in high school, fearing being misunderstood, missing their best friend, wondering when their lives would really begin and if their relationships with others were/are meaningful. Jessica, Marcus, Hope, Bridget, Percy, Bethany and even Mr. and Mrs. Darling make up an unforgettable cast of characters. As is the case with all series, there high points and low points, both within the story and the story telling but all-in-all, Jessica is a character to depend on and a role model for those who don’t quite fit in, feel a little lost or who simply want a shoulder to cry on. She’s your girl.

Series Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

Sloppy Firsts Edition: Paperback • $13.99 • 9780609807903 • 304 pages • published August 2001 by Broadway Books • average Goodreads rating 3.94 out of 5 • series finished April 2010

Megan McCafferty’s Website

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Jessica Darling

Fantasy, Fiction, Historical, Young Adult

Infernal Devices trilogy by Cassandra Clare

While an undergrad at Pitt, I was book browsing before seeing a movie with a friend, I saw Clockwork Angel sitting on the shelf at the Waterfront Barnes & Noble. Not knowing anything about the vast popularity of the Mortal Instruments series, I picked it up as I was intrigued. Eventually I attempted to start the MI series, but found Tessa to be a must stronger heroine.

Clockwork Angel Synopsis

When sixteen-year-old Tessa Gray crosses the ocean to find her brother, her destination is England, the time is the reign of Queen Victoria, and something terrifying is waiting for her in London’s Downworld, where vampires, warlocks, and other supernatural folk stalk the gaslit streets. Only the Shadowhunters, warriors dedicated to ridding the world of demons, keep order amidst the chaos.

Kidnapped by the mysterious Dark Sisters, who are members of a secret organization called the Pandemonium Club, Tessa soon learns that she herself is a Downworlder with a rare ability: the power to transform, at will, into another person. What’s more, the Magister, the shadowy figure who runs the club, will stop at nothing to claim Tessa’s power for his own.

Friendless and hunted, Tessa takes refuge with the Shadowhunters of the London Institute, who swear to find her brother if she will use her power to help them. She soon finds herself fascinated by – and torn between – two best friends: James, whose fragile beauty hides a deadly secret, and blue-eyed Will, whose caustic wit and volatile moods keep everyone in his life at arm’s length… everyone, that is, but Tessa. As their search draws them deep into the heart of an arcane plot that threatens to destroy the Shadowhunters, Tessa realizes that she may need to choose between saving her brother and helping her new friends save the world… and that love may be the most dangerous magic of all.

Series Review

The Infernal Devices Trilogy is the prequel to the much more popular Mortal Instruments double trilogy. However, I find it to be the more intriguing story (from what I’ve heard about the Mortal Instruments). Tessa, our confused protagonist, receives a letter from her brother in London, beckoning her to cross the pond from NYC and join him. Her love for her brother is overwhelming and blinding as, even when she is abducted by the evil Black sisters, she cannot believe that her brother would have anything to do with something so bad and terrible. She is taken in by the Shadowhunters of London and slowly learns about what is really going on in London and what her trickster brother has been up to. At the institute, her new home, she meets two friends, Will and Jem, who both fall for her (of course), as well as an exciting cast of supporting characters. And what could have been a stereotypical plot contrivance, two boys in love with the same girl, forms the basis for a beautiful tale of love, loss, desperation and heartbreaking loss.

The way Cassandra Clare introduces each of the characters residing in the London Institute is rich and inviting. She develops a real sense of family amongst the rag tag bunch of Shadowhunters calling the old and crumbling church there home. Charlotte is the big sister, attempting to keep everyone organized and under control, her husband Henry like a lovable uncle, always tinkering away on his inventions. Jessamine is the vain one, but with a hidden softer side, Will the cold hearted orphan-by-choice who left his family willingly to keep them from harm, and Jem the delicate and fierce Asian fighter, slowly dying from horrid, debilitating disease. And then there is Tessa, a young and spunky girl trying desperately to figure out who she is and why the mysterious Magister insists upon marrying her. All in all, the characters drive the story, even though the plot is exciting and intoxicating, it is the human way the characters all interact with each other is mesmerizing.

Series Rating: 8 out of 10 stars

Clockwork Angel Edition: Paperback • $13.99 • 9781481456029 • 544 pages • first published August 2010, this edition published September 2015 by Margaret K. McElderry Books • average Goodreads rating 4.33 out of 5 • series finished May 2013

Cassandra Clare’s Website

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Infernal Devices

Fiction, Historical, Photography/Art

The War Bride’s Scrapbook by Caroline Preston

Each year for Christmas, my boss at the bookstore lets each of us pick out a book for our Christmas present. It is SO hard to narrow it down to just one, but this year, The War Bride’s Scrapbook screamed my name.

Synopsis

Lila Jerome has never been very lucky in love. She has always been more interested in studying architecture and, more recently, supporting the war bond effort on the home front. But in the fall of 1943, a chance spark with a boarder in her apartment sets Lila on a course that shakes up all her ideas about romance.

Lila is intoxicated by Perry Weld, the charismatic army engineer who’s about to ship out to the European front, and it isn’t long before she discovers the feeling is mutual. After just a few weeks together, caught up in the dramatic spirit of the times and with Perry’s departure date fast approaching, the two decide to elope. In a stunning kaleidoscope of vibrant ephemera, Lila boldly attempts to redefine her life in America as she navigates the heartache and longing of a marriage separated by an ocean and a war.

Review

This is not your typical WWII historical fiction novel. It is nothing like The Book Thief, The Nightingale, Code Name Verity, Salt to the Seaetc. It is the story of the American homefront, a story with many similar elements to stories that my grandmother tells my sister and I about what life was like in Philadelphia during the Second World War. And, if you have a chance to flip through the pages of The War Bride’s Scrapbook, it is, in fact, a scrapbook. It is not laid out like a traditional novel and is beautiful in it’s full-color ephemera splendor.

While I am a frequent reader of graphic novels, this is my first “scrapbook” book and it is a format I would be excited to read again. The storytelling is done primarily with letters between Lila and Perry as most of the scrapbook is dedicated to their time apart during the war. At first I was concerned that I would find the pacing choppy, but it is clear that either Caroline Preston is, herself, an avid scrapbooker, or, more likely, an expert storyteller who can work her craft in a very unique medium.

Given that it is Lila’s scrapbook, we, the readers, get ample insight not only into her head-space during the war, but also of society’s as a whole as she remarks on the activities of her friends and family. Perry is a character of contradictions, which adds to the point that he and Lila barely knew/know each other. There are moments of laughter, particularly when characters come together out of need, necessity or shear coincidence. And, my post 2017 understanding of women’s rights feminist self is very excited about the fact that Lila is her own person, her own character, and is not reliant on Perry for her happiness.

Rating: 9 out of 10 stars

Edition: Hardcover • $29.99 • 9780061966927 • 224 pages • published December 2017 by Ecco Press • average Goodreads rating 4 out of 5 stars • read in January 2018

Caroline Preston’s Website

The War Bride’s Scrapbook on Goodreads

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War Bride's Scrapbook