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

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In Extremis

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

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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

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Classics, Fiction, Mystery

The Body in the Library by Agatha Christie

Summer is here which means it is once again time for my annual Agatha Christie! This year it’s The Body in the Library, the second in her Miss Marple collection.

Synopsis

It’s seven in the morning. The Bantrys wake to find the body of a young woman in their library. She is wearing an evening dress and heavy makeup, which is now smeared across her cheeks. But who is she? How did she get there? And what is the connection with another dead girl, whose charred remains are later discovered in an abandoned quarry? The respectable Bantrys invite Miss Marple to solve the mystery… before tongues start to wag.

Review

As this is my third Agatha Christie, and also the third detective/series I’ve sampled, I’ve come to the conclusion that my enjoyment of her work is not just a fluke as exemplified by my delight in Murder on the Orient Express and And Then There Were None. Now I just need a Tommy & Tuppence book and I’ll have read one of each of her series and a stand alone. Though I’ve been greatly struggling with The Secret Adversary so we’ll have to see if I’m a fan of the T&T series as well.

The Body in the Library follows a similar structure to Orient Express in that the crime is committed before the book even starts (as opposed to None) and the book is spent trying to solve the crime. Miss Marple is lovely and funny and charming, as are her friends who often enlist her help to solve crimes, as Mrs. Bantry does in The Body in the Library. As a character, despite not actually getting too much “page time,” readers get a sense of who she is and what she values.

Christie’s plot and pacing are masterful as ever, the twists abound, and while you may think you’ve solved the mystery as quickly as Miss Marple, I promise you there is always still one more twist lurking in the shadows that you probably missed. I recommend The Body in the Library just as highly as Murder on the Orient Express and And Then There Were None.

Rating: 8 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $13.99 (though Harper Collins are jacking up Christie prices with each reprint) • 9780062073617 • 224 pages • first published in 1942, this edition published April 2011 by William Morrow Paperbacks • average Goodreads rating 3.85 out of 5 • read in June 2018

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Picture_20180617_184154633.jpg

Fantasy, Fiction

All Souls Trilogy by Deborah Harkness

Back in January 2013 I was trying to find a new favorite book (which never works, you can’t force it) and I had been eyeing A Discovery of Witches for a while and decided to take a chance on it. I read the first 30 pages, got really annoyed and put it away, only to start reading it again shortly before the second book in the trilogy came out because Kit Marlowe and Queen Elizabeth would be involved (as well as a trip to Prague) which gave me hope that the trilogy would improve.

A Discovery of Witches Synopsis

Deep in the heart of Oxford’s Bodleian Library, Diana Bishop – a young scholar and the descendant of witches – unearths an enchanted manuscript. Wanting nothing to do with sorcery, she banishes the book to the stacks. But her discovery has set a fantastical underworld stirring, and soon a horde of daemons, witches and other creatures descends upon the library. Among them is the enigmatic Matthew Clairmont, a vampire with a keen interest in the book.

Series Review

The first time I started reading A Discovery of Witches, it had just come out in paperback. I’d been intrigued by the title for some time, but the synopsis sounded vaguely Twilight-y and that I did not like. I started reading it, and my prejudices got the better of me and I quit after 30 pages. Almost a year later, I started it again because I heard there would be a second one that involved time travel to Elizabethan England and Queen Elizabeth I has been my habitual girl crush since I was 10 so sign me up! I read A Discovery of Witches solely so I could read Shadow of Night and have it make sense. I’m glad I approached it this way as it allowed me to make it through A Discovery of Witches, and enjoy it, because I was so looking forward to Diana and Matthew’s Elizabethan adventure in both London and on the continent (particularly Prague).

Diana thoroughly intrigued me and her attraction to Matthew just felt like every young woman going through a “bad boy phase.” I didn’t expect it to last, or to take over her entire life, but of course, it did. This was strike one. I’m all for an opposites-attract, star-crossed lovers romantic subplot but I like it when it is just that: a subplot. While traipsing about Renaissance Europe in Shadow of Night, Matthew and Diana are married by Matthew’s father (who is deceased in the present). The marriage was bound to happen, it happens in all books with a protagonist in her late twenties/early thirties. However, while the books were spaced out over the course of a year and a half, in the land of the All Souls Trilogy it’s been a few months.

Our sharp and quippy Diana becomes an insipid and annoying newlywed who just wants babies. Or maybe she doesn’t and I’m projecting my annoyance at the fact that this attitude has thoroughly consumed my peers, onto innocent Diana. Point being, I’m so sick and tired of every woman’s story ending the same way: marriage, babies, now my life completely revolves around marriage and babies and I can’t seem to remember the fact that I was an awesome individual before my life became defined by those I chose to love.

Yes, Diana becomes a kick ass witch, yes she thoroughly lays waste to all the big baddies in her way, yes she still is witty. But why couldn’t she have done all that without having to marry and have babies? Why did that have to become her new purpose in life? Why couldn’t she remain an academic? Why was she so okay with giving up her entire life to follow Matthew? And he may claim it’s all for her and the book, The Book of Life, but is it really? He’s controlling and manipulative and has an incurable RAGE disease! He warns Diana that he’s basically unstable and unsafe and does she listen? No. Does any female protagonist when faced with a hot vampire ever turn and run? No. Because that’s not the story line every woman my age supposedly wants to read.

I guess this is why I don’t read books like 50 Shades of Grey and Twilight. I’m just so annoyed and disenchanted with the protagonist and for me, if I can’t identify with them, there’s no way I’ll love the book.

Series Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

A Discovery of Witches Edition: Paperback • $18.00 • 9780145119685 • 579 pages • originally published February 2011, this edition published December 2011 by Penguin Books • average Goodreads rating 3.99 out of 5 • finished reading series December 2014

Deborah Harkness’ Website

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Discovery of Witches

Fiction, Historical

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows

UPDATED WITH SARAH’S REVIEW!

Laura: I found this book on my mom’s shelves and when she noticed that I had picked it up she told me I should absolutely read it. It is one of the few non-mystery type fiction books she has read in the past 10 years, and she thoroughly enjoyed it. Knowing my love of all WWII related stories, she knew how much I would enjoy the book as well. And she was right, because I’ve told people I know well and people I’ve just met that they should read this book.

Sarah: Laura had been telling me to read this book since she finished it and became obsessed with all things Guernsey. As she has read just about every book I’ve told her to, I figured it only fair to return the favor.

Synopsis

“I wonder how the book got to Guernsey? Perhaps there is some sort of secret homing instinct in books that brings them to their perfect readers.” January 1946: London is emerging from the shadow of the Second World War, and writer Juliet Ashton is looking for her next book subject. Who could imagine that she would find it in a letter from a man she’s never met, a native of the island of Guernsey, who has come across her name written inside a book by Charles Lamb….

As Juliet and her new correspondent exchange letters, Juliet is drawn into the world of this man and his friends–and what a wonderfully eccentric world it is. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society–born as a spur-of-the-moment alibi when its members were discovered breaking curfew by the Germans occupying their island–boasts a charming, funny, deeply human cast of characters, from pig farmers to phrenologists, literature lovers all.

Juliet begins a remarkable correspondence with the society’s members, learning about their island, their taste in books, and the impact the recent German occupation has had on their lives. Captivated by their stories, she sets sail for Guernsey, and what she finds will change her forever.

Laura’s Review

I loved this book. It was a relatively quick and easy read, partly due to the structure of the novel. It is an epistolary novel, and is split into two distinct parts. For the first half, Juliet is living in London having successfully accomplished a book tour for her collection of wartime stories, Izzy Biggerstaff Goes to War. The second half finds her on the island of Guernsey after searching for a new story to write and becoming pen pals with several of the island’s inhabitants.

I knew very little about the inhabitants or experience of the Channel Islanders during the Second World War. The islands are briefly mentioned in The Montmaray Journals’ final book with the comment that they have been under the “Nazi jackboot” since 1940. In this novel, Juliet begins corresponding with Dawsey Adams, a Guernsey resident, after the end of the war. Dawsey was in possession of one of Juliet’s old books that she had donated and was hoping she might be able to help him locate several other books. Thus begins Juliet’s introduction to the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society and the traumas that the Channel Islanders suffered under Nazi occupation.

This is a story about resilience, acceptance, and finding a place for oneself in an ever-changing world. It is not until Juliet travels to Guernsey and meets the literary society that she truly feels like she has a place where she belongs. Through Juliet, the reader learns about the horrors committed by the Nazis against the Islanders, their sufferings, and their ability to find solace in books during the time. Juliet meets members of the literary society who had previously shown no interest in reading until becoming a member of the society allowed them to forget about their island’s invaders for a few hours each week. After reading this book I decided I absolutely needed to visit Guernsey. As I am now in London, this will be easier than from the USA, so my wonderful sister and I have decided that when she visits, going to Guernsey is a top priority.

Laura’s Rating: 10 out of 10 stars

Sarah’s Review

Continuing with my current audiobook obsession, I listened to the audiobook of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and it is definitely one of the best audiobooks I have listened to in quite awhile. Laura calls it an epistolary book, which means that it is written in letters. As an audiobook, this means that each letter is read by a different reader, based on who it is written by – the reader for Dawsey’s letters reads all of his, Juliet’s hers, etc.

While this is a wonderful change to the typical structure of novel writing, it can at times be frustrating because it is all clearly in the past tense (not uncommon for novels) but I found myself often wanting to get the big moments firsthand, as they were happening, not in letters. The second challenge, is that there are so many points of view with all of the letters that the plot gets a bit muddled, or the plot goes in a different direction for awhile as we “catch up” with certain characters.

All in all, I think Mary Ann and Annie pull off their unique format magnificently, and, like our protagonist/primary letter writer Juliet, I found myself fully immersed in the story of the one member of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society who is not still on the island in 1946, the year the letters are all exchanged. It is definitely worth a read, or a listen, and takes the tried and true WWII novel and gives it an interesting spin.

Sarah’s Rating: 8 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $17.00 • 9780385341004 • 290 pages • first published July 2008, this edition published May 2009 by Dial Press • average Goodreads rating 4.12 out of 5 • read in July 2017

Annie Barrows’ Website

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society on Goodreads

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Guernsey 2

Memoir/Autobiography, Middle Grades, Non-Fiction

Four Perfect Pebbles by Lila Perl & Marion Blumenthal Lazan

One of my grandmothers grew up in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s, specifically in Nürnberg and the surrounding countryside. She doesn’t talk about it. As such, I have spent my entire life fascinated by the stories of German children between 1933 and 1945. I don’t remember the first book I read that fit the bill for learning more about that time and people’s experiences, but Four Perfect Pebbles was a book that quickly caught my attention. And when I found out that Marion would be coming to the bookstore I work at, I knew it was going to be a moving moment.

Marion Blumenthal Lazan (r) & I (l)

Marion Lazan

Synopsis

Marion Blumenthal Lazan’s unforgettable and acclaimed memoir recalls the devastating years that shaped her childhood. Following Hitler’s rise to power, the Blumenthal family – father, mother, Marion, and her brother, Albert – were trapped in Nazi Germany. They managed eventually to get to Holland, but soon thereafter it was occupied by the Nazis. For the next six and a half years the Blumenthals were forced to live in refugee, transit, and prison camps, including Westerbork in Holland and Bergen-Belsen in Germany, before finally making it to the United States. Their story is one of horror and hardship, but it is also a story of courage, hope, and the will to survive.

Review

Marion describes her story as the one that Anne Frank might have told had she survived past March 1945. Both Anne and Marion spent time in Westerbork and later Bergen-Belsen. Of the 120,000 Jews detained in Westerbork, 102,000 perished before the end of World War II, 18,000 survived. Anne fell into the former group, Marion, the latter. While Anne’s story is typically read by pre-teens and early teenagers in the world today, Marion’s serves as an introduction for those who are just starting to ask their parents and teachers how people can be so mean and intolerant of one another.

In a society that is quickly becoming more divided and more intolerant, Marion’s message of hope, faith, and family strength, is even more important than it was when she first started discussing her experiences a couple decades ago. While most may brush off the striking similarities to the current president’s rise to power and the Nazis, it is hard for those who truly know their history to ignore. It is even harder for those who know that atrocities of WWII still ring loud in their older generation’s ears, and yet their younger generations engage in racist and destructive behavior.

Marion’s story is one of compassion and hope during one of the world’s worst times. My only reason for giving a less than superb rating is that brevity of the book. While written with young children (9-11 years old) in mind, there is only so much that one can remember about those years themselves, particularly 50 years later, as was the case when Marion & Lila wrote Four Perfect Pebbles and Marion recounted her childhood to Lila. Everyone always wants more from a good book, but at 160 pages, Four Perfect Pebbles is incredible concise.

Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $6.99 • 9780062489968 • 160 pages • originally published March 1996, this edition published October 2016 by Greenwillow Books • average Goodreads rating 3.92 out of 5 • re-read March 2018

Four Perfect Pebbles Website

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133-Four Perfect Pebbles

Biography, History, Non-Fiction

Princesses Behaving Badly by Linda Rodriguez McRobbie

I found this book on my very first visit to the Strand in New York City right after I finished student teaching. I’ve always loved multi-story books about historical women. Additionally, while reading this book at the Greyhound station in New York City while waiting for my bus back to Philadelphia, I stumbled upon my new heroine in my latest writing endeavor!

Synopsis

You think you know her story. You’ve read the Brothers Grimm, you’ve watched the Disney cartoons, and you cheered as these virtuous women lived happily ever after. But real princesses didn’t always get happy endings. Sure, plenty were graceful and benevolent leaders, but just as many were ruthless in their quest for power – and all of them had skeletons rattling in their royal closets.

Review

Princess Behaving Badly is one of my favorite types of books – a nonfiction book that is written in a series of short vignettes, each focused on a different woman of aristocratic birth. What I really enjoyed most about this book versus some of my other favorites, like Doomed Queens and Lives of Extraordinary Women is how the author uses a very loose interpretation of the word “princess.”

The 30 “princesses” of Princesses Behaving Badly are grouped into 7 categories: Warriors, Usurpers, Schemers, Survivors, Partiers, Floozies, and Madwomen. Each little story about the princess of choice is written like a tabloid entry which some people might not like, but I thought it a great way to poke fun at the media’s obsessions with princesses and the aristocracy. Some notable women are excluded, i.e. Lady Diana Spencer, but for the most part, I loved learning about different women who are not so widely covered by my extensive collection of notable women books.

Overall, I take books like this lightly and do not interpret them to be in-depth and extensive portraits of trouble maidens or explanations for the princesses’ often weird and strange life choices. That’s what biographies are for and this book makes no pretentions about trying to be a serious piece of deeply researched literature on the lives of 30 women who caused a stir in the lives of others over the course of the last couple of millennia.

Rating: 8 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $16.99 • 9781683690252 • 304 pages • first published November 2013, this edition published March 2018 by Quirk Books • average Goodreads rating 3.61 out of 5 • read in December 2013

Linda Rodriguez McRobbie’s Website

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Princesses Behaving Badly

Contemporary, Fiction, New Adult, Young Adult

Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series by Ann Brashares

I have been best friends with Tibby, Carmen, Lena and Bridget for more than half my life now. The summer before I turned fourteen, I was attempting to walk to the Barnes and Noble of Virginia Beach with Moppy in order to keep ourselves busy while Mom drove Laura home to get her braces off. After wandering the parking lot in sweltering heat for the better part of a half hour, we finally found the beloved bookstore and I managed to stumble upon my four new best friends. I read most of the book that day in the store and I was beyond hooked. In 2011, nearly ten years after the release of the first book, Ann Brashares brought our best friends back, now in their late 20s and living completely separate lives, and gives them the biggest tragedy anyone could experience to cope with.

Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants Synopsis

Four very different friends. One pair of magical pants. And a summer apart… We, the Sisterhood, hereby instate that following rules to govern the use of the Traveling Pants. 1. You must never wash the Pants. 2. You must never double-cuff the Pants. It’s tacky. There will never by a time when this will not be tacky. 3. You must never say the word “phat” while wearing the Pants. You must also never think “I am fat” while wearing the Pants. 4. You must never let a boy take off the Pants (although you may take them off yourself in his presence). 5. You must not pick your nose while wearing the Pants. You may, however, scratch casually at your nostril while really kind of picking. 6. Upon our reunion, you must follow the proper procedures for documenting your time in the Pants. 7. You must write to your Sisters throughout the summer, no matter how much fun you are having without them. 8. You must pass the Pants along to your Sisters according to the specifications set down by the Sisterhood. Failure to comply will result in a severe spanking upon our reunion. 9. You must not wear the Pants with a tucked-in shirt and belt. See Rule #2. 10. Remember: Pants = love. Love your pals. Love yourself.

Series Review

If you broke the foursome into their “stereotypes,” it would certainly be a great curiosity as to how they ever became friends. Fiery Carmen has a temper that would make even the fiercest warrior quake; shy, talented artist Lena is unsure of herself; Bridget’s mom died young and athletic Bridget is extremely reckless, and Tibby, older than her younger siblings by 12 years, feels like no one in her family understands her and rebels accordingly. They really only became friends because their mothers took an aerobics class together while pregnant and they were all born in September.

In The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, the girls spend their first summer apart and away from Bethesda. Carmen’s off to see her dad in South Carolina (where she learns he’s about to be remarried), Lena’s trekking to Greece with her grandparents (where she meets the love of her life), Bridget heads off to Baja for soccer camp where she flirts with her older soccer coach and Tibby feels neglected, left at home to work a menial job and, while trying to make a video that is worthwhile in an effort to further her directing career, she meets Bailey, a young cancer patient who has a profound effect on her life. Second Summer of the Sisterhood, Girls in Pants and Forever in Blue chronicle each subsequent summer of the girls’ lives in similar fashion, three leave and one girl is at home, and they send the pants around to each other. Each book is written from all four girls viewpoints.

I could, and can still, identify with all four girls and when I first picked up The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, I felt like I’d finally found the literary version of my middle school best friends, Ashlyn, Melanie and Nina. Who we each would be and whether we’d fit into the same pair of jeans, I’m unsure, but I do know that there’s a bit of all four girls in me.  The final book, Sisterhood Everlasting, upset many of my friends and my little  sister when they read it – it starts with tragedy, and I’ll say it straight off, one of the four is no longer with us. The girls are 28, living separate lives and barely in touch. Until one reaches out to bring them to Greece to reconnect. It is here that mysteries begin and the gradual reveal of secrets begins as the young women reconnect with each other and other beloved characters from the first four books. Ann Brashares let her girls grow with her readers and for that I am forever grateful. Sisterhood Everlasting is heartbreaking, achingly beautiful, ridiculously sad, and yet, there is a light at the end of the tunnel and our farewell to our best friends is a satisfying one. The books, the friendships, it’s all beautiful and I honestly cannot watch the movies or even the book trailers without tearing up over what happens.

Rating: 7 out of 10 stars for the series

Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants Edition: Paperback • $9.99 • 9780385730587 • 336 pages • first published September 2001, this edition published March 2003 by Ember • average Goodreads rating 3.76 out of 5 stars • read in July 2002

Ann Brashares’ Website

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128-Sisterhood Everlasting

Contemporary, Fantasy, Fiction, New Adult

My Name is Memory by Ann Brashares

I picked this book up a few years ago at my favorite local bookstore (where I now work). It was shortly after I moved to the southeastern part of Pennsylvania and I was really lonely, trying to make friends and I was drawn to the story (and admittedly the cover – I’m a sucker for starry nights). I overlooked all the comparisons to the Twilight saga because I knew Ann Brashares writing – she brought the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants into my life so clearly it couldn’t be that similar to Twilight

Synopsis

Lucy is an ordinary girl growing up in the Virginia suburbs, soon to head off to college. On the night of her last high school dance, she hopes her elusive crush, Daniel Grey, will finally notice her. But as the night unfolds, Lucy discovers that Daniel is more complicated than she imagined. Why does he call her Sophia? And why does it make her feel so strange?

The secret is that Daniel has “the memory,” the ability to recall past lives and recognize the souls of those he’s previously known. And he has spent centuries falling in love with the same girl. Life after reincarnated life, spanning continents and dynasties, he and Sophie have been drawn together, and then torn painfully, fatally apart – a love always too short. And he remembers it all. Ultimately the two of them must come to understand what stands in the way of their love if they are to reach their happy ending.

Review

Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants Spoiler Alert! I loved the first 90% of this book – I love the idea of Daniel following Sophia through the ages, I love the flashbacks and how Ann Brashares did not pick the popular parts of history for Daniel’s past lives but gave him wholly ordinary and typical life experiences every time he came back. She also manages to tell the entire story without any sort of religious slant, a massive achievement for a book that pretty much revolves around the idea of reincarnation. I listened to the audiobook with great interest and wonder, always hoping that all would work out well for the characters in the end. At the back of my mind, however, a feeling of dread kept circling through my thoughts, “This is the woman who killed Tibby, nothing can be ruled out.” And unfortunately, that nagging feeling followed me straight through ‘til its realization in the last few pages.

Never in my life have I wanted to physically tear apart a book as much as I did when reading the last 37 pages of this one. I listened to it in the car up until then and decided to just read the last few pages – I had to know how it ended and what a terrible way it went! I should not have overlooked the Twilight comparison – my blood boiled and I’ve only felt such immense hatred toward a book once – while attempting to read the book to which this one is compared: Twilight. I think it has been well established at this point that I detest books with female characters that I deem to be weak and pathetic and overly-womanly. I loathe plotlines that play out the stereotypical path that a woman’s life can take – love, sex, babies and then that’s it, you’ve completed your mission on this earth, pack up and you’re done – your story is no longer an interesting one to tell.

I was incredibly excited for this story because it is one of few books that I could see myself classifying as “New Adult” – new adult literature (at least for the first 300 pages). It’s a well relayed story and an enjoyable one to read. And I really hoped it ended with Lucy and Daniel finally getting to spend some time together getting to know each other. Lucy and Daniel spend 5 minutes in high school and one car ride in Mexico 5 years later talking to each other before jumping in to bed together. I have no problem with this, I was thrilled when Lucy slept with her best friend’s little brother – that’s normal. It’s a way of life for more than a few people in their 20s. But do Lucy and Daniel really love each other? I don’t see how you can really love someone without getting to know them, not some perceived former version of their soul. Sophia and Daniel loved each other, Constance and Daniel loved each other, and even though Lucy makes a point of differentiating herself from her two former lives, it doesn’t answer the question of how she can love someone she barely knows.

I got the distinct impression that Ann Brashares wasn’t sure how she wanted to end Lucy and Daniel’s story. The last section, the “resolution” of the climax, just spins wildly out of control (Spoiler Alert!) – they survive an ocean storm for hours off the coast of Mexico, their rescue is unbelievable, they had sex once and Lucy’s pregnant after Daniel couldn’t have children for 1500 years, and then he abandons her in Bhutan and she doesn’t think she can even tell him about the baby. Just WHAT??? When did the tone of the story change so completely? Why? Just why does this have to be the direction of Lucy’s life? Not every ending needs to be a happy one, but it would be nice if it made at least a little sense and didn’t sound like it was hobbled together from random odds and ends.

Rating: 4 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $17.00 • 9781594485183 • 336 pages • first published in June 2010, this edition published June 2011 by Riverhead Books • average Goodreads rating 3.7 out of 5 • read in May 2015

Ann Brashares’ Website

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My Name is Memory