Fiction, Historical, Young Adult

Sky in the Deep by Adrienne Young

There are blurbs on this book from authors I love, and the description of it is Vikings meets Wonder Woman made it a “total Sarah pick” as our Macmillan sales rep told me. So of, course, eventually, I had to read it.

Synopsis

From the Back Cover:
Raised to be a warrior, seventeen-year-old Eelyn fights alongside her Aska clansmen in an ancient rivalry against the Riki clan. Her life is brutal but simple: fight and survive. Until the day she sees the impossible on the battlefield: her brother, fighting with the enemy – the brother she watched die five years ago.

Faced with her brother’s betrayal, she must survive the winter in the mountains with the Riki, in a village where every neighbor is an enemy, every battle scar possibly one she delivered. But when the Riki village is raided by a ruthless clan settling in the valley, Eelyn is even more desperate to get back to her beloved family.

She is given no choice but to trust Fiske, her brother’s friend, who sees her as a threat. They must do the impossible: unite the clans to fight together, or risk being slaughtered one by one. Driven by a love for her clan and her growing love for Fiske, Eelyn must confront her own definition of loyalty and family while daring to put her faith in the people she’s spent her life hating.

Review

This books makes me remember why I don’t read YA anymore, unless it’s one of my personal fab five: Sarah J. Maas, Leigh Bardugo, Renee Ahdieh, Marie Lu, or Ruta Sepetys (who, coincidentally all have books coming out in the next six months, all but one of which I already have advance copies for and the fifth has been promised!!). That’s it. That’s my YA short list. Am I missing out on other great titles? Of course I am. But I’m also the buyer of the adult books at the store and my free-choice reading time is incredibly limited, so I want my YA selections to be top notch. And with a blurb on the cover from Renee, along with the aforementioned Vikings and Wonder Woman comps, I figured this one was a pretty safe bet.

Alas, not so much. The cover is beautiful, the premise promising, the execution though… eh, not so much. Despite a strong showing of love and support, I just didn’t see all the things the other author fans raved about. I felt like the characters fell flat – I didn’t really get a sense of any of their personalities, nor that any of them had really changed, despite the fact that by book’s end, the world and warring factions were in a different position than when they started.

The world was also described as richly developed, which, shocker, it’s a forest. She’s really good at describing a wooded forest. Now, if you’ve never seen one, then yes, it’s very good. But I grew up in the Appalachian mountains of central Pennsylvania. I’m good on forests, thanks, as are most readers in the US, save for a few western states that are mostly deserts, but also sparingly populated.

And then the plot, again, meh. Romeo and Juliet in a vaguely Viking-inspired world. And while the brother-sister dynamic should play first fiddle, based on the description and established premise, it really didn’t feel like it was fully realized. And after the initial battle, up until the end battle, there really weren’t too many catalyzing events taking place. It was 250 pages of filler between two, admittedly well done, battle scenes.

All in all, I’ve discovered that any time a book comes to me with great amounts of hype, I’m likely to find it lacking and it often won’t meet my standards. I’m told time and time again by customers that I must read this book or that, and I have to struggle not to show my disgust each time I’m told that I would just love beyond measure Where the Crawdads Sing. No offence to Delia Owens (I hear she’s great), but I’m not going to read a number one Indie bestseller, I’m not going to read a book that’s high on hype, it’s just not how I do my reading.

So maybe, if Sky in the Deep had come to me with just a cool cover and an awesome synopsis, I might have felt differently. But I spent the entire book waiting for it to get as good as the authors and other booksellers promised, but ultimately, I found it completely wanting. While I was given a copy of the companion novel that releases this fall, I don’t think I’ll be one of the early readers. I wish Adrienne Young luck, but it’s just not for me.

Rating: 6 out of 10 stars

Available for purchase with free international shipping through Book Depository.

Contemporary, Fiction, Horror, Thriller

We Sold Our Souls by Grady Hendrix

A good friend loves Grady Hendrix’s books and so when I was looking to branch out and read a horror book on the beach, she told me I had to read We Sold Our Souls.

Synopsis

From the Back Cover:
Only a girl with a guitar can save us all. Every morning Kris Pulaski wakes up in hell. In the 1990s she was lead guitarist of Dürt Würk, a heavy-metal band on the brink of breakout success until lead singer Terry Hunt embarked on a solo career and rocketed to stardom, leaving his bandmates to rot in obscurity.

Now Kris works as night manager of a Best Western; she’s tired, broke, and unhappy. Then one day everything changes – a shocking act of violence turns her life upside down , and she begins to suspect that Terry sabotaged more than just the band.

Kris hits the road, hoping to reunite Dürt Würk and confront the man who ruined her life. Her journey will take her from the Pennsylvania rust belt to a celebrity rehab center to a satanic music festival. A furious power ballad about not giving up, We Sold Our Souls is an epic journey into the heart of a conspiracy-crazed, pill-popping, paranoid country that seems to have lost its very soul.

Review

We Sold Our Souls is what I’ve started calling pop-horror, pop culture inspired horror. It’s not monsters (well, not in the traditional sense), nor is it supernatural (again, not in the traditional horror sense), and it’s not really what I think of when I think of scare-you-sh*tless horror movies or novels. There’s some psychological suspense and other thriller aspects to it, but it is first and foremost rooted in the American ideal of the rock star and band-lore. Its US paperback is clearly styled off of Rolling Stone because that’s what Quirk Books wants you to be thinking about when you read it – juicy Rock ‘n’ Roll gossip.

My opinion on the books evolved significantly from when I started reading, finished reading, and then sat back and started thinking about how to review it. In the end, I wound up so displeased I returned it in exchanged for David Epstein‘s Sports Gene, back in my current “safe zone” of nonfiction. But I didn’t start off feeling that way. I started off excited – as Greater Philadelphia suburb resident, I was thrilled. I knew the places, the story started off strong, perfect day-at-the-beach type of read, interesting but not requiring much brain power.

As I got deeper into the story, parts of it just didn’t line up, which, definitely supposed to be a bit confusing and disorientating. The violence started to feel entirely gratuitous and not like a real threat any longer. The tension felt forced, but I was still invested in seeing how the story ended. I wanted to know if Kris and Terry had their face off. And when they did, it was great. Hellstock ’19 was crazy (especially reading this in July, a few months before it theoretically happens), though a few parts regarding sexual assault were glossed over which bothered me – I’m sick of throwaway storylines about assault where nothing is mentioned or resolved, almost like it didn’t happen.

And then the story ended. And it was not a satisfying ending. I do not need a happy ending, but a satisfying conclusion that fits with the tone of the rest of the book would be nice. Or a feeling like the world or people changed a bit would be good. But once I put it down and thought about it for a few days, I just kept thinking, what was the point? There’s multiple hours of my life I got tricked into giving up for a book that ultimately fell flat. I’m glad people love it, it’s just really not for me. I like to see some sort of character growth or world-change in my fiction books, especially since I read so few – I’d like it to feel meaningful.

Rating: 5 out of 10 stars

Available for purchase with free international shipping through Book Depository.

Fantasy, Fiction

Nevernight by Jay Kristoff

I’ve been trying to read Nevernight for the better part of two and a half years. Which is weird, because I really like it. I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to read it, save for my occasionally annoying new obsession with all thing nonfiction that makes fiction seem boring. Which again, weird. Fiction is supposed to be the opposite of boring.

Synopsis

From the Back Cover:
In a world where the suns almost never set, a woman gains entry to a school of infamous assassins, seeking vengeance against the powers that destroyed her family. Daughter of an executed traitor, Mia Corvere is barely able to escape her father’s failed rebellion with her life. Alone and friendless, she wanders a city built from the bones of a dead god, hunted by the Senate and its thugs. But her gift for speaking with the shadows leads her to the hearth of a retired killer and a future she never imagined.

Now, Mia is apprenticed to the deadliest flock of assassins in the entire Republic – the Red Church. Deadly trials await her within the Church’s halls: blades and poisons, treachery and death. If she survives to initiation, she’ll be inducted among the chosen of the Lady of Blessed Murder and be one step closer to the only thing she desires: revenge.

Review

I’ll admit, Nevernight is not an easy book to get into reading, let alone enjoying. It is dense and full of not just elaborate descriptions, but anecdotal footnotes. Lots of footnotes. And I’m not big on footnotes, I find they disrupt the reading flow and often unnecessary. It took me 100 pages to figure out that the footnotes were Jay’s way of filling the reader in on the history and customs of the world of Nevernight and as the world gets fleshed out, the footnotes taper off.

But once the world feels a bit more complete to the reader, it takes off like a shot. As I first picked up Nevernight because a friend told me it was an adult Throne of Glass, I kept waiting to feel like I was getting inside Mia’s head, a feat I think I finally felt I achieved when she arrived at the Red Church. From this point on, Mia’s physical journey slows down, but her mental and emotional journey accelerates and I found myself flipping page after page to get to the conclusion of the first book.

With the release of the third book swiftly approaching in September, I’m going to linger a little bit more on the second in the trilogy, but I am glad I waited until now to finish Nevernight. I have finally come to understand the people who wait until entire series are released to get started – after spending much of my reading life waiting for the next book in a series, or having to reread from the beginning because I’m forgetful (the primary reason why I haven’t finish the Throne of Glass series because I was an early reader) and I hate the feeling of having forgotten something major in a plot. This may also be why I’ve been reading a lot of nonfiction…

Rating: 8 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $17.99 • 9781250132130 • 464 pages • originally published August 2016, this edition published June 2017 by Thomas Dunne • average Goodreads rating 4.31 out of 5 stars • read March 2019

Graphic Novel, Memoir/Autobiography, Non-Fiction

Kid Gloves by Lucy Knisley

I don’t know if I want kids. Thankfully, my husband also isn’t sure, so we are unsure together. And when Lucy announced her own pregnancy at the beginning of 2016, I was so excited because I knew, eventually, she’d write about it has she has done with countless other events in her life, such as when she got married and wrote Something New. So once again, I turn to Lucy for wisdom and advice, guidance and experience, to help me continue to understand my own feelings toward motherhood as my 30th birthday swiftly approaches.

Synopsis

From the inside flap:
Her whole life, Lucy Knisley wanted to be a mother. But when it was finally the perfect time, conceiving turned out to be harder than anything she’d ever attempted. Fertility problems were followed by miscarriages, and her eventual successful pregnancy plagued by health issues, up to a dramatic near-death experience during labor and delivery.

This surprisingly informative memoir not only follows Lucy’s personal transition into motherhood but also illustrates the history and science of reproductive health from all angles, including curious facts and inspiring (and notorious) figures in medicine and midwifery. Whether you’ve got kids, want them, or want nothing to do with them, there’s something in this graphic memoir for you.

Review

I have always felt like Lucy Knisley is the big sister I wish I had. I had a few older step sisters over the years, but as seems to be the case with most American families these days, we didn’t keep in touch when our respective parents split. So on Lucy I rely. French Milk I read before studying abroad, Displacement to help me cope with my grandmother’s aging on a family trip to the Bahamas, Something New arrived shortly before I got married… and now, as my husband and I contemplate having children, Lucy has come through for me once again, releasing Kid Gloves.

When I begged our publisher rep for an early copy, the rep with whom I’ve had many conversations about our childbearing decisions, warned me that it wasn’t a glowing recommendation either way, but a chronicle of Lucy’s unique experience, which was exactly what I needed. Lucy’s honest depictions of her life have offered me more guidance and wisdom than any other author of the last decade of my reading life.

As my friends have, and try to have, children, I find myself wondering if I want to join their ranks or if I would be happier as Aunt Sarah. When my nephew was born in late 2017, I revisited my feelings once again, and found myself happily Aunt Sarah, happy to hand him back to my brother- and sister-in-law. Lucy’s memoir has helped me understand my own feelings and it is truly a spectacular book.

It is perfect. Her best yet, and I’ve read every single one. Lucy’s son, “Pal,” is now a social media darling in his own right, and Lucy, and her husband John, faced miscarriages, depression, anxiety, pre-eclampsia and eclampsia to have their son and Lucy details each of these experiences in Kid Gloves with, at times, excruciating and raw emotional detail. It is a beautiful graphic novel memoir, the style typical of Lucy’s other books, but she’s really knocked it out of the park with the emotional content this time.

Rating: 10 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $19.99 • 9781626728080 • 256 pages • published February 2019 by First Second • average Goodreads rating 4.68 out of 5 • read November 2018

Kid Gloves (3)

Memoir/Autobiography, Non-Fiction, Sociology, Travel

Travels with Myself and Another by Martha Gellhorn

In continuing my war correspondent memoir/biography trend, I figured it was time I pick up Martha Gellhorn’s Travels with Myself and Another. Those who know who she is typically think of her as Hemingway’s third wife, but those who care about journalism, know her as one of the first female war correspondents, and inspiration to my favorite journalist, Marie Colvin.

Synopsis

As a journalist, Gellhorn covered every military conflict from the Spanish Civil War to Vietnam and Nicaragua. She also bewitched Eleanor Roosevelt’s secret love and enraptured Ernest Hemingway with her courage as they dodged shell fire together.

Hemingway is, of course, the unnamed “other” in the title of this tart memoir, first published in 1979, in which Gellhorn describes her globe-spanning adventures, both accompanied and alone. With razor-sharp humor and exceptional insight into place and character, she tells of a tense week spent among dissidents in Moscow; long days whiled away in a disused water tank with hippies clustered at Eilat on the Red Sea; and her journeys by sampan and horse to the interior of China during the Sino-Japanese War.

Review

Martha Gellhorn has fascinated me for quite some time, given my present obsession with female war correspondents this should not be surprising. Her life, one wholly unconventional for her time, is inspiring, but also, in light of twenty first century sensibilities, one I had to remind myself, began over a century ago.

A feminist at her core, Martha, M as UC (unwilling companion, AKA Hemingway) calls her, sets off on each “horror journey” as she’s dubbed them, without a great deal of pre-planning, other than the bare minimum required by her destination. The era of traveling by your bootstraps, hopping flights when you need them, hoping to stumble upon a hotel with available rooms each night, etc. is simply unheard of today. Even when Ewan MacGregor and Charley Boorman went around the world and south through Africa on motorcycles, they still had reservations and accommodations, or at least tents to sleep in each night. Did Martha? No.

When I think of a single woman traveling in the 1940s, ’50s, and early ’60s, I feel a sympathetic sense of dread. I keep waiting for something to go thoroughly wrong, but by her wits or the kindness of others, she avoids any great gender related danger. M doesn’t typically discuss how her gender has anything to do with her ability to travel and I LOVE IT. I felt the real sense of, “If M can do it, so can I!” much more so than when reading Lynsey Addario’s autobiography and Lindsey’s biography of Marie Colvin (apparently a disproportionate number of my favorite journalists are Lindseys…) – they went to the front lines of war. Martha, due to either her gender or the time period, goes to the back lines of war. The war that we don’t see that isn’t quite as dangerous as the war everyone saw on the newsreels each night.

When M and UC (Hemingway) go to China during World War II, it never feels like there is a great threat on their lives. When M goes to the French islands of the Caribbean, I learned a great deal about how the Vichy government affected their lives, but I was never fearful of M’s survival. These adventures, and M’s quite frequent poor decision making – when the pilot of the boat tells you he won’t wait for you to scale a dormant volcano because he can’t dock safely, you should probably heed his warning and not be surprised when you get up in the morning and he’s gone – just a thought. But all these adventures are learning experiences for M and for us, her readers, 40 years after the original publication, 70 years after the adventure. But the real sticking point for this collection for me is M’s trip to Africa.

Holy mother of colonialism. In January of 1962, Martha Gellhorn went to Africa. I found the map in my photo in my collection of vintage maps with a copyright date of 1960 – pretty darn close to how the continent was divided politically at the time of Martha’s travels. Given that Martha’s trip to Africa is by far the longest and move life-affecting of this collection of essays, it seemed a fitting backdrop for the book. But to think of Martha’s approach to the continent, it makes me retch a bit inside.

It seems so foreign to me that we, as human beings, particularly white people, could stereotype an entire continent of people and refuse to get to know them, learn about their communities, and simply label them as selfish, liars, etc. The thing that terrifies me the most is that M was probably considered progressive for her time. While I’m sure there are readers who would find it difficult to turn off their 2018 filters and would find her recounting of her trip to Africa offensive, at it’s core it is a compelling historical and sociological exploration into the changing nature of how we travel and interact with people, and is definitely worth reading.

Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $17.00 • 9781585420902 • 320 pages • first published 1979, this edition published May 2001 by TarcherPerigee • average Goodreads rating 3.83 out of 5 stars • read in December 2018

Travels with Myself and Another

Fiction, Historical

Dear Mrs. Bird by A. J. Pearce

Working six days a week at the bookstore for the holidays is crazy and I’m way off of my normal posting schedule. But it’s probably one of my favorite times in the store – I get to tell people about my  favorite books all day and they’re most inclined to buy them as gifts! Each year everyone on the staff picks 3 books for our top “gift giving books” of the year and Dear Mrs. Bird is one of mine.

Synopsis

Emmeline Lake and her best friend Bunty are doing their bit for the war effort and trying to stay cheerful despite the German planes making their nightly raids. Emmy dreams of becoming a Lady War Correspondent and when she spots a job advertisement in the newspaper she seizes her chance, but after a rather unfortunate misunderstanding, she finds herself typing letters for the formidable Henrietta Bird, renowned advice columnist of Women’s Friend magazine.

Mrs. Bird if very clear: letters containing any Unpleasantness must go straight into the bin. But as Emmy reads the desperate pleas from women who may have Gone Too Far with the wrong man, or can’t bear to let their children be evacuated, she begins to secretly write back to the readers who have poured out their troubles.

Review

I have loved a good World War II novel for a very long time and have been a deep lover of the genre of historical fiction as a whole for more than two decades (which is more than two thirds of my life given that I’m just shy of 30). A few years ago, though, it seemed to be all I read – great for giving recommendations as at the bookstore, not so great for mental health and reading enjoyment. I felt broken – scenes in concentration camps no longer elicited any feelings from me. I should be bawling my eyes out and I wasn’t. I should have felt something more than simple blase. So I took a break.

Then our Simon & Schuster sales rep gave me and ARC of Dear Mrs. Bird. When it came out and I still hadn’t read it, he sent me a finished copy. When he stopped in to see us and I still hadn’t read it, he very kindly told me (lectured me) about not doing so. He thought it’d be perfect for me. I should have listened to him sooner.

When the holiday staff table was looking like it needed a jolt of historical fiction, I figured it was the perfect time to read this most delightful of books. Did I cry? Of course I did – it’s a World War II novel and is not without it’s share of doom and gloom. But that’s not the main point. That’s not the main plot. It’s not the driving force of Emmy’s life. Is it perfect? No. It’s a debut and the pacing and plot can be clunky and lacking. But it is a most enjoyable and delightful read and an excellent addition to the genre.

So, if you’re a WWII lover like me but are feeling a bit broken by each book trying to be the next Book Thief or Nightingale, take a look at Dear Mrs. Bird. I promise you won’t be disappointed.

Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

Edition: Hardcover • $26.00 • 9781501170065 • 288 pages • published July 2018 by Scribner • average Goodreads rating 3.81 out of 5 • read in December 2018

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

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

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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

Contemporary, Fantasy, Fiction, Young Adult

Killer Unicorns duology by Diana Peterfreund

Unicorns are a pretty hot topic these days so I figured it was time to honor someone who led the charge for unicorns before the train even left the station.

Rampant Synopsis

Forget everything you ever knew about unicorns…

Astrid Llewelyn has always scoffed at her eccentric mother’s stories about killer unicorns. But when one attacks her boyfriend – ruining any chance of him taking her to prom – Astrid finds herself headed to Rome to train as a unicorn hunter at the ancient Cloisters the hunters have used for centuries.

However, all is not what it seems at the Cloisters. Outside, unicorns wait to attack. And within, Astrid faces other, unexpected threats: from bone-covered walls that vibrate with terrible power to the hidden agendas of her fellow hunters to her growing attraction to a handsome art student… an attraction that could jeopardize everything.

Review

Imagine a world where unicorns are not only real, but the antithesis of the cuddly, soul saving, pointy-horned creatures fantastical literature has made them out to be. Usually, when I give the basic premise of the series to my fellow readers, I get a raised eyebrow and a skeptical expression. To which I always answer, “Just trust me, you’ll love it.” And thus far, I’m pleased to report that has, overwhelmingly, been the case.

Astrid just wants to be a regular teenage girl, but her mother, a descendant of Alexander the Great, knows Astrid’s destiny is far superior to ordinary high school life – she’s one of the few who can protect the world from the five races or unicorns who seek to destroy humanity. So Astrid is shipped off to a ramshackle training facility in the heart of Rome to begin her education in world saving. But fewer and fewer young women can join her in her quest against the unicorns as there is a clause in the world saving rules that keeps many eligible youngsters from being able to fulfill their noble destiny: they have to be virgins. And someone, out in the world, outside of their cloistered training ground (or possibly within it), is trying to make sure that the number of unicorn killers is kept to a minimum by taking advantage of this clause. Astrid must decide if she truly wants the life of a unicorn killer and if she’s willing to give up a budding romance with a delicious Italian in order to fulfil her destiny.

I know, that’s full of clichés about a teenage girl finding herself. It is Diana Peterfreund’s prose that makes the story impossible to let go of and ridiculously hard to put down. Astrid’s voice is firm and clear, she’s her own person and her character development is flawless. Like Amy before her, Astrid is an inspiration and role model for those looking to stand on their own two feet and fight for themselves.

Rating: 8 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $8.99 • 9780061490040 • 432 pages • first published September 2009, this edition published August 2010 by HarperTeen • average Goodreads rating 3.53 out of 5 • read July 2012

Diana Peterfreund’s Website

Rampant on Goodreads

Get a Copy of Rampant

Rampant