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

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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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Biography, Non-Fiction

Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret by Craig Brown

I’ve always had a certain fascination with Britain’s royal family, ever since Princess Diana died. When The Crown started airing, I was watching from the beginning, and, like most, discovered what a volatile character Princess Margaret was. So, as per usual when it comes to books, when our publisher rep for Macmillan told me there would be ARCs for this book, I begged her for one immediately!

Synopsis

She made John Lennon blush and left Marlon Brando tongue-tied. She iced out Princess Diana and humiliated Elizabeth Taylor. Andy Warhol photographed her. Gore Vidal revered her. Francis Bacon heckled her. Peter Sellers was madly in love with her. For Pablo Picasso, she was the object of sexual fantasy.

Princess Margaret aroused passion and indignation in equal measure. To her friends, she was witty and regal. To her enemies, she was rude and demanding. In her 1950s heyday, when she was seen as one of the most glamorous and desirable women int eh world, her scandalous behavior made headlines. But by the time of her death in 2002, she had come to personify disappointment. One friend said he had never known an unhappier woman. The tale of Princess Margaret is Cinderella in verse: hope dashed, happiness mislaid, life mishandled.

Such an enigmatic and divisive figure demands a reckoning that is far from the usual fare. Combining interviews, parodies, dreams, parallel lives, diaries, announcements, lists, catalogues, and essays, Craig Brown’s Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret is a kaleidoscopic experiment in biography and a mediation on fame and art, snobbery and deference, bohemia and high society.

Review

It is a truth universally acknowledged that Princess Margaret could, at her best, be described as lacking direction, and at worst, a terrible human being. It is also worth remembering that Vanessa Kirby, the wonderful actress who portrays Margaret on The Crown, is not actually Princess Margaret which I had to remind myself of repeatedly.

The woeful tale of Princess Margaret, as I’ve taken to calling it, is, as some have described, Cinderella in reverse. I disagree. Cinderella, regardless of her circumstances, was still charming and delightful. Which some people seemed to have thought of Princess Margaret, but doesn’t seem to be the prevailing impression of her. However, what one’s personal opinions of the Princess, and whether we should really judge a woman who grew up in a very different era in a very different circumstance than 99.999999999% of the world’s population, is a discussion for a different day. Today, I will try to focus on the book itself, and less on my judgemental opinions of its subject.

Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret is just that, 99 short vignettes about her life, of which about 90 are true and 9 are hypotheticals – tales of what Margaret’s life would have been had she made a different decision at key, often romantic, points in her life – i.e. married Peter Townsend, been seduced by Picasso, etc. The vignettes are snarky and satirical, which, once I Googled who Craig Brown was in British society, made a great deal more sense than they had before I did a little digging into the author’s background.

The best analogy I have to Ninety-Nine Glimpses is that of a train/carwreck. It’s terrible, but you just can’t help but stare. Or in this case, turn the pages. Brown covers every bit of her life from the tales of the little princesses’ governess/nanny Crawfie to her later years and the burning of the letters towards the end of her life. If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to be a Queen’s little sister, of which history has given us very few, Ninety-Nine Glimpses is a book for the ages.

Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

Edition: Hardcover • $28.00 • 9780374906047 • 432 pages • originally published in the UK September 2017, published in the US August 2018 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux • average Goodreads rating 3.73 out of 5 • read in August 2018

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Princess Margaret2

Memoir/Autobiography, Non-Fiction

Talking as Fast as I Can by Lauren Graham

To say that I am a Gilmore Girls fan may be a bit of an understatement. I am a basic white (elder – according to Iliza Shlesinger) millennial young woman, therefore I love Gilmore Girls. It’s basic logic. However, as I wasn’t a huge fan of Graham’s fiction (Someday, Someday, Maybe) it took my sister over a year to convince me to actually read her memoir.

Synopsis

In Talking as Fast as I Can, Lauren Graham hits pause for a moment and looks back on her life, sharing laugh-out-loud stories about growing up, starting out as an actress, and, years later, sitting in her trailer on the Parenthood set and asking herself, “Did you, um, make it?” She opens up about the challenges of being single in Hollywood, the time she was asked to audition her butt for a role, and her experience being a judge on Project Runway.

In “What It Was Like, Part One,” Graham sits down for an epic Gilmore Girls marathon and reflects on being cast as the fast-talking Lorelai Gilmore. The essay “What It Was Like, Part Two” reveals how it felt to pick up the role again nine years later, and what doing so has meant to her.

Some more things you will learn about Lauren: She once tried to go vegan just to bond with Ellen DeGeneres, she’s aware that meeting guys at awards shows has its pitfalls, and she’s a card-carrying REI shopper. Including photos and excerpts from the diary Graham kept during the filming of the recent Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life, this book is like a cozy night in, catching up with your best friend, laughing and swapping stories, and—of course—talking as fast as you can.

Review

I find the best way to “read” celebrity/prominent people’s memoirs is to listen to the audiobook. Oftentimes the person in question reads the book themselves, as is the case not only with this book, but also with Who Thought This was a Good IdeaI Hate Everyone Except YouWhy Not Me?, and all of Anthony Bourdain‘s works, or at least those are the ones I have listened to. The other side of celebrity memoirs, which Lauren Graham actually points out, is the idea that the celebrity clearly didn’t write the book themselves. Of those mentioned above, I can guarantee at least two were self-written, one admittedly co-written and the other, who really knows?

Then I start thinking to myself, well, do they only have a book deal because they’re a celebrity? Most likely. Does being a person of interest increase public interest in their lives? Yes (whether this is good or bad is not the topic of debate here, but an interesting one to be sure). Lauren Graham is certainly a good writer. And her essay collection here is entertaining and delightful. She approaches her life honestly and with contemplation, particularly in why the character of Lorelai Gilmore has always had such a precious place in her heart.

As a long time fan, I was delighted when the revival of the show was announced, however, I was extremely disappointed. Lauren, naturally, loved stepping back into the role and, as the book, and therefore stories, were written and published before the series was available for viewing and as she was a large part of it, it would make sense that her opinion differs from that of the public. However, her stories were good, and her emotional investment in the series certainly contributed to our continuing love of it in 2018 (despite the revival – we’ll pretend that never happened.)

My only gripe, is that she continually referenced the photos in the book, while reading the audiobook. Can’t very well look up the page in the book while listening to it while driving, now can I? And for those who don’t have the physical copy and just the audiobook? Not going to work out so well.

Rating: 8 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $16.00 • 9780425285190 • 240 pages • originally published November 2016, this edition published October 2017 by Ballantine Books • average Goodreads rating 3.99 out of 5 stars • read in August 2018

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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

Biography, History, Non-Fiction

The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich

I’m not a big post-it note person when it comes to reading, but just in the introduction to this book, I put 6 notes. The content is so unbelievable, it just can’t be made up.

Synopsis

The Unwomanly Face of War is the long-awaited English translation of Svetlana Alexievich’s first book, a groundbreaking oral history of women in World War II across Europe and Russia. Alexievich chronicles the experiences of the Soviet women who fought on the front lines, on the home front, and in the occupied territories These women – more than a million in total – were nurses and doctors, pilots, tank drivers, machine-gunners, and snipers. They battled alongside men, and yet, after the victory, their sacrifices were forgotten. Alexievich traveled thousands of miles and visited more than a hundred towns to record these women’s stories. Together, this symphony of voices reveals a different aspect of the war – the everyday details of life in combat left out of the official histories.

Review

Recently I saw a question asked on a Goodreads forum about whether or not a book was “another Holocaust book.” The asked wanted to know because she was sick of reading that narrative. The population of the internet, being the internet, set about roasting her alive. How, they asked could she be so callus and cold? And no one was forcing her to read such books, etc, etc. She later clarified that she simply wanted a different perspective on the war, a different take, a different story. And to that, I could relate.

Given my present nonfiction binge, added to my fascination with the women’s role in WWII (also the topic of Laura’s masters thesis), I began reading both The Unwomanly Face of War and The Women Who Flew for Hitler. And I’ve now convinced Laura to read them, but that’s a bit besides the point. There are two predominant WWII narratives, the harrowing narrative of the Jews, such as the narrative of Anne Frank, and the narratives of the battles, such as Dunkirk, with some political intrigue thrown in (Churchill, Roosevelt, etc.). The narratives of individual servicemen and women are often overlooked in favor of the larger narrative. The narrative of war is collective, suffering individual.

Many of the women Alexievich interviewed were a bit shocked that she wanted to hear their stories and their husbands were incredibly shocked that their wives were sharing such stories. Because they are far from pretty. They are far from decent. Their descriptions of what life was like in the Soviet military are absolutely shocking. And most importantly, their narratives deserve to be heard. Take the time to read this atypical WWII narrative I you will not be disappointed, I promise.

Rating: 10 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $18.00 • 9780399588747 • 384 pages • originally published in English in July 2017, this edition published April 2018 by Random House Trade • original Russian publication 1985 • average Goodreads rating 4.52 out of 5 • read June 2018

Svetlana Alexievich’s Website

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20180527_142714 2

Memoir/Autobiography, Non-Fiction, Political Science

Who Thought This Was a Good Idea? by Alyssa Mastromonaco

Like my present obsession with the Royals (well, persistent obsession since I was 7 years old and Diana died), I’ve recently become entranced by the the American version, and no, I absolutely do not mean the Kardasians, but those who occupy the White House. Prior to the current occupants. Wow, there are a lot of stipulations on my interests… anyway, White House memoirs and bios are my jam lately apparently.

Synopsis

Alyssa Mastromonaco worked for Barack Obama for almost a decade, and long before his run for president. From the then-senator’s early days in Congress to his years in the Oval Office, she made Hope and Change happen through blood, sweat, tears, and lots of briefing binders.

But for every historic occasion – meeting the queen at Buckingham Palace, bursting in on secret climate talks, or nailing a campaign speech in a hailstorm – there were dozens of less-than-perfect moments when it was up to Alyssa to save the day. Like the time she learned the hard way that there aren’t nearly enough bathrooms as the Vatican.

Full of hilarious, never-before-told stories, Who Thought This Was a Good Idea? is an intimate portrait of a president, a book about how to get stuff done, and the story of how one woman challenged, again and again, what a “White House official” is supposed to look like.

Review

I had a whole clever introduction figured out in my head earlier today, but, as is the case with my most brilliant phrases, they were lost to the sands of time because I didn’t write them down. That happens more often these days it seems. When I first picked up Who Thought This Was a Good Idea?, I did so with the intention of giving it to my mother for her birthday. And then I really hoped she’d read it, and then I’d read it, and we could talk about it. I don’t think she’s read it yet though, so I’m going to share all of my thoughts with you lovely readers!

It’s hard to put my finger on exactly how to classify this book – part memoir, part job search assistant, part political insider knowledge, part humor, part everything, and I enjoyed each and every facet of it. Lately I’ve been trying to find the motivation to take the steps necessary to move back into the world of teaching and, once I realized that the intended release date was meant to coincide with graduations, the job advice part really made sense and stuck. It’s been quite helpful, and I’m glad I’ve finished it before high school graduation season here at the store so that I can recommend it to those looking for insightful and helpful presents.

The timeline of Who Thought This Was a Good Idea? is not chronological which, for a memoir, takes some getting used to (I would make memoir its primary genre, though I found it in domestic affairs at a B&N which I disagree with – we shelve it in biography). As with First Women, Mastromonaco tends to share things thematically, which I appreciated. There are some continuing threads, including stories of her cat and family (some of my personal favorites) and travel, mostly with Obama. I would strongly recommend it to anyone who is looking for an enjoyable book about political life that really has nothing to do with politics and everything to do with growing up and figuring out who you are while you attempt to change the world and bring hope to America.

Rating: 9 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $15.99 • 9781455588237 • 272 pages • originally published March 2017, this edition published March 2018 by Twelve • average Goodreads rating 3.89 out of 5 • read May 2018

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Fantasy, Fiction

A Darker Shade of Magic by V. E. Schwab

Do you ever look at your shelves of books and think “This book has been here too long.”? That’s how I’ve felt about A Darker Shade of Magic – I’ve had it since 2015 and I’ve been recommending it to bookstore patrons for just as long, but without admitting that I hadn’t read it. So now, it’s time, I have read it. And for the life of me I can’t figure out why it took so long.

Synopsis

Welcome to Grey London, dirty and boring, without any magic, with one mad king – George III. Then there is Red London, where life and magic are revered, and White London, a city slowly being drained through magical war, down to its very bones. And once upon a time, there was Black London… but no one speaks of that now.

Officially, Kell is the Red Traveler – one of the last magicians who can travel between the worlds – acting as ambassador and messenger between the Londons, in the service of the Maresh empire. Unofficially, he’s a smuggler, which is a dangerous hobby for him to have – as proved when Kell stumbles into a setup with a forbidden token from Black London.

Fleeing into Grey London, Kell runs afoul of Delilah Bard, a cutpurse with lofty aspirations, who first robs him, then saves him from a dangerous enemy, and then forces Kell to spirit her to another world for a proper adventure. But perilous magic is afoot, and treachery lurks at every turn. To save all the worlds, they’ll first need to stay alive.

Review

It’s been quite awhile since I read a fantasy novel, longer still since I read one that is typically shelved on the adult side of the store versus young adult. This fact is one that makes my coworkers laugh, given that I am the staff member most likely to offer recommendations in said section. I’d been meaning to read A Darker Shade of Magic since it first came out shortly before I took my bookstore job in 2015 and first started hearing wonderful things about Victoria/V. E. Schwab.

I certainly was not disappointed. Given how few fiction books have held my attention these days, the fact that I finished it in the first place is a massive endorsement. Kell and Lila are a fun pair of characters, equally matched in cleverness and wits and I appreciated that they were both well developed and quite wonderfully flawed. The plot was quick and enjoyable and, thankfully, the moments of suspense were done so wonderfully – I actually feared for the characters lives, despite knowing that further books in the series exist.

Additionally, it doesn’t end on a cliffhanger! I was nearly jumping up in down when I got to the end and didn’t want to chuck the book across the room. Cliffhangers make me nuts – I’ve found I’ve mostly lost my taste for series these days and I enjoy a story that has a clear beginning, middle, and end. A Darker Shade of Magic can be read all on its own, but for the promise of female pirates in the second, V. E. Schwab has this girl hooked!

Rating: 9 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $15.99 • 9780765376466 • 416 pages • originally published February 2015, this edition published January 2016 by Tor Books • average Goodreads rating 4.08 out of 5 • read May 2018

V. E. (Victoria) Schwab’s Website

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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

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