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

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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

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Rampant

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

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

Fantasy, Fiction, Retelling

Mermaid by Carolyn Turgeon

I love a good fairy tale adaptation and when I first heard the true story of the Little Mermaid, I became a bit obsessed with all accurate adaptations.

Synopsis

Princess Margrethe has been hidden away while her kingdom is at war. One gloomy, windswept morning, as she stands in a convent garden overlooking the icy sea, she witnesses a miracle: a glittering mermaid emerging from the waves, a nearly drowned man in her arms. By the time Margrethe reaches the shore, the mermaid has disappeared into the sea. As Margrethe nurses the handsome stranger back to health, she learns that not only is he a prince, he is also the son of her father’s greatest rival. Certain that the mermaid brought this man to her for a reason, Margrethe devises a plan to bring peace to her kingdom.

Meanwhile, the mermaid princess Lenia longs to return to the human man she carried to safety. She is willing to trade her home, her voice, and even her health for legs and the chance to win his heart…

Review

I had beautiful, enchantingly high hopes for Mermaid. I wanted it to be what I think the author originally envisioned it to be – an amazing retelling of the classic tale that added some depth, intrigue, and a few more character flaws, into the original plot. Unfortunately, this was not the case. I still award three stars, simply for the fact that it held my attention. I read it quite quickly as I kept waiting for it to turn into something amazing, but then encountered a lackluster ending, put it down and just said, “Huh.” On to the next book I guess.

Like most fairy tales, our female protagonists profess great love for the prince despite hardly knowing him, and Lenia, the mermaid, gives up everything for a handsome, unconscious human, and then unrealistically expects him to fall in love with her. The prince, being a philandering human with fully functioning anatomy, takes advantage of this gorgeous woman throwing herself at him, and she mistakes this act for deep and enduring love. Boring and predictable and this does not elevate the retelling or rectify the issues I had with the Disney movie. Hopefully must adult women reading this book are intelligent enough to realize that they do not want to be like the mermaid – they should aim to be more like Margrethe, Lenia’s rival for Prince Christopher’s affection.

​Well, not really, but if you’re going to pick one of the two women to focus on as a better role model, Margrethe is a clear winner. Brought up in a convent for her own protection, she encounters the prince first when she discovers him on the beach where Lenia saved him. She nurses him back to health, and then later realizes that if she marries him, she might save her country from the ceaseless wars they’ve been fighting with Christopher’s kingdom. Additionally, she realizes that she doesn’t love Christopher, but realizes she will be serving the greater good, not her own selfish desires. Does this make her a better human? I don’t know. But she does agree to raise Lenia and Christopher’s daughter which is at least a little admirable. Either way, I’ve already ordered Carolyn’s next book and hope that it will be more satisfying than this one!

Rating: 6 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $14.00 • 9780307589922 • 224 pages • published March 2011 by Broadway Books • average Goodreads rating 3.62 out of 5 • read in November 2011

Carolyn Turgeon’s Website

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Mermaid

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

Contemporary, Fiction

Brida by Paulo Coelho

One of my GED students from Brazil recommended this book to me as the author is from her home country (though she read it in English) and she really enjoyed the premise. I agreed to read it in an effort to continue to encourage her to read in English, but I was not quite as impressed as she was.

Synopsis

Brida, a young Irish girl, has long been interested in various aspects of magic but is searching for something more. Her search leads her to people of great wisdom. She meets a wise man who dwells in a forest, who teachers her to trust in the goodness of the world, and a woman who teachers her how to dance to the music of the world. As Brida seeks her destiny, she struggles to find a balance between her relationships and her desire to become a witch.

Review

Brida is… interesting. I’ve read a few books that are translations from the original language or dialect, but this is the first time I’ve read a work of fiction that was a translation and it just felt… awkward? It’s been a few weeks since I’ve finished reading Brida and I’m still trying to figure out if my feeling of awkwardness comes from the translation or Coelho’s writing style.

Brida is an intriguing character as she is a young woman who simply decides that she wants to be a witch. The story starts off with her quest to find the Magus, a potential teacher/mentor for her to follow on the path of the sun, a spiritual path open to those who choose to study witchcraft. The Magus, however, realizes that the path of the sun is not Brida’s destiny but that she is, in fact, his soul mate. The Magus points her in the direction of Wicca, a teacher of the path of the moon, which seems to fit Brida better on a spiritual level.

Brida takes an interesting approach to the world of magic be enveloping it in to organized religion and taking it beyond Wiccan culture. The paths of the sun and moon are described as paths to God. The book is a discussion of the “meaning of life” through Brida’s decision to become a witch. She learns to dance to the music of the world, use all five of her senses simultaneously, and ultimately get the most out of life. She goes through a crisis of “faith” or two and doubts her abilities and life choices. Overall, though, I think I was ultimately disappointed because it just felt so ordinary and scatter-brained.

Rating: 5 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $14.99 • 9780061578953 • 212 pages • first published in 1990, this edition published February 2009 by Harper Perennial • average Goodreads rating 3.46 out of 5 • read in June 2015

Paulo Coelho’s Website

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125-Brida