Non-Fiction

The Story of the Great British Bake Off by Anita Singh

Before heading over to London to visit my sister in June, I figured I should brush up on what is currently topping British popularity charts – that meant, Bake Off! I downloaded a whole season on Netflix for my overnight flight across the pond and wound up watching all night instead of sleeping!

Synopsis

When The Great British Bake Off made its debut in August 2010, it had the makings of a modest hit. But nobody – not the programme-makers and certainly not those first contestants – could have predicted what was to come. Here was a show in which the biggest weekly drama was whether or not a sponge cake would sink in the middle. And oh, how we loved it.

Here is the ultimate Bake Off fan book: from Bread Lions to Bavarian Clock Towers; from heart-throbs to heroes; from soggy-bottoms to sticky buns. This is the celebration of Britain’s most popular cookery contest.

Review

In honor of a new season popping up on Netflix on Friday in the US and the start of the holiday shopping season, I give you, The Story of the Great British Bake Off! I’ve been an avid baker for a few years – my family always did more in the way of candy making pre-holidays before I took on epic cake decorating in college as a way to de-stress and be creative. I’ve never done anything on par with GBBO’s showstoppers, but a couple of the signature bakes are similar to things I’ve concocted in the past. But first, for those unfamiliar, a bit of background on The Great British Bake Off.

The Great British Bake Off is the antithesis of American cooking and baking competitions. The biggest difference – there’s NO prize money. The 12 amateur bakers compete for fun. The competition takes place over 10 weekends and bakers must get themselves back and forth from the competition site and their homes across the UK every weekend that they are on the show. The vast majority compete while working full time, going to school full time, etc.

Each episode/competition/weekend sees the bakers face three challenges – the first, a signature challenge that they get to practice ahead of time, the second, a technical challenge just blind by the judges and a complete surprise to the bakers each week, and the third, the following day, the showstopper challenge, a long bake that is usually difficult technically and detailed in regards to decoration.

The book follows the first seven seasons of the show, the seasons that aired on the BBC before the show made the jump to Channel 4. Here in the US, it includes the seasons that have aired/are airing on PBS, the first four seasons on Netflix as The Great British Baking Show and The Great British Baking Show: The Beginnings. Because that’s not confusing at all…

What that means is that to American readers, one should avoid some of the early chapters because those seasons haven’t aired yet here. However, it is a fun and insightful look at the show for us here in the states who did not have a great deal of background information on the series while they were airing or who, like me, are latecomers to the GBBO phenomenon.

It’s an absolutely delightful read and the perfect gift for your favorite fellow GBBO enthusiast!

Rating: 9 out of 10 stars

Edition: Hardcover • $29.95 • 9781786694430 • 224 pages • published January 2018 by Head of Zeus • average Goodreads rating 3.54 out of 5 • read in August 2018

The Great British Bake Off Website

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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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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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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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Contemporary, Fiction, New Adult

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

A book? About a mysterious bookstore with a millennial cast of characters? My response to finding out about was as follows: WHY DID I NOT KNOW ABOUT THIS BOOK SOONER?!? And then I told my boss about it and made him buy it. Yep, I’m that kind of indie bookstore manager – I upsell to my boss. 

Synopsis

The Great Recession has shuffled Clay Jannon away from life as a San Francisco web-design drone and into the isles of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. But after a few days on the job, Clay discovers that the store is more curious than either its name or its gnomic owner might suggest. The customers are few, and they never seem to buy anything – instead, they “check out” large, obscure volumes from strange corners of the store. Suspicious, Clay engineers an analysis of the clientele’s behavior, seeking help from his variously talented friends. But when they bring their findings to Mr. Penumbra, they discover the bookstore’s secrets extend far beyond it’s walls. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is exactly what it sounds like: an establishment you have to enter and will never want to leave.

Review

To say that I enjoyed Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore would be to put it lightly. I had been intrigued by it for quite some time and eventually requested the audiobook on the library Overdrive app. I was hooked immediately – and for someone who has only read a handful of fiction titles this year, that’s saying a lot. There was a lot I thought would annoy me – it’s in first person, it’s a male narrator, Kindles are referenced in the first few pages… all the things that might annoy a feminist bookseller. But I kept listening, and just wow.

I now realize that I am 5+ years late to the Penumbra party. It’s a book that has been raved about in various literary circles for years now but hasn’t graced the shelves of my bookstore for the better part of those five years. Why, I asked myself, if this book is so good, do we not have it? Because it needed a champion. There is nothing about its spine to entice a reader to pick it up off the shelf. This is not dissimilar to Penumbra’s bookstore – there’s nothing about the outside that would make you necessary decide to go in and browse (other than the fact that it’s a bookstore… but, I digress on that point). There’s a mystery inside, as there is in the physical book, and there’s a bunch of references to things that you really wish actually existed, just like Harry Potter.

There are hidden gems for booksellers to find, and Clay, our protagonist and narrator, goes on a journey from Kindle reader to indie bookstore champion that all indie booksellers adore. There are secret reading rooms, artifacts from antiquity, and, most important to us millennial readers, accurate depictions of people who are disproportionately affected by the great recession. As a 2011 college grad, these are my peers in these pages. And I can relate to them all. The book is fun, the characters and their friendships are great, the whole effect of the book is great, and I know I don’t usually repeat such a useless word so often, but I’ve decided to become this book’s champion and so, if you haven’t read it, go do so. It’s really great.

Rating: 9 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $17.00 • 9781250037756 • 304 pages • originally published October 2012, this edition published September 2013 by Picador • average Goodreads rating 3.75 out of 5 stars • read August 2018

Robin Sloan’s Website

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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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Memoir/Autobiography, Non-Fiction

Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain

Oddly enough, Kitchen Confidential was not the first Bourdain I read, but the last, despite it being the entire reason that the world knows his name. I put it off, thinking that they way it was described was not in line with the Tony I had come to know and respect through his various television programs and world travels. But I was wrong. So wrong.

Synopsis

After twenty-five years of ‘sex, drugs, bad behavior and haute cuisine’, chef and novelist Anthony Bourdain decides to tell all. From his first oyster in the Gironde to his lowly position as a dishwasher in a honky-tonk fish restaurant in Provincetown, from the kitchen of the Rainbow Room atop the Rockefeller Center to drug dealers in East Village, from Tokyo to Paris and back to New York again, Bourdain’s tales of the kitchen are as passionate as they are unpredictable, as shocking as they are funny.

Review

By sheer happenstance, my husband and I spent June 8th on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, Tony’s home of many years (when he wasn’t traveling, which was rare). We were going to a concert in Brooklyn that night and decided to go the Met (Metropolitan Museum of Art) for the day. As we were driving to our “local” train station in NJ in rush hour traffic from our home west of Philadelphia, we listened to NPR, as we always do. And around 8AM, as we sat in Trenton traffic, we turned the volume up because we couldn’t believe what we had heard. Tony died. By his own hand. To my husband and I, this was unthinkable. We’d been watching No Reservations since we’d started dating. Our relationship had two television constants, Top Gear and Tony.

As we made our way into the city on NJ Transit as we’ve done countless times before, I took my usual news junkie status to a new level. My hero, he was gone. Gone without explanation. The BBC, CNN, NBC, ABC, NPR, no one had anything else to report except that which we already knew. He was gone. I texted my boss at the bookstore straight away and begged him to put the books in stock out on display with the staff pick blurbs I’d written for them ages ago. Medium Raw, my favorite summer read, Appetites, the only cookbook I cook out of, and, though I hadn’t read it, obviously we needed to order in Kitchen Confidential ASAP. Then I started dreading the fact that I’d be meeting with our publisher rep at the start of the week, the rep who handled his imprint for Harper Collins. I couldn’t bring myself to think straight.

I looked up whether or not we could get a reservation for a mid-afternoon meal at Les Halles, only to discover it had closed. Only months ago, we could have gone and didn’t. I kicked myself for it. When we walked past it later in the day, I saw the remembrances people had left. It inspired my first post two days later, Dear Tony. I debated whether or not I could bring myself to watch Parts Unknown anymore and when it turned out to be too tear-inducing, I decided to read the one book of his I didn’t want to, Kitchen Confidential.

I was afraid I wouldn’t like it. I was afraid it would talk too much about drug use and that I didn’t really want to read about, I’ve dealt with it enough in my family. I was afraid that the Tony writing was different than the Tony we’d come to know and love. And then, I decided to be brave and listen to him read it. I was on my way to London to visit my sister when I finally gave in. I still didn’t even own a copy of it. But after only five minutes, I realized I had nothing to worry about – Tony was still Tony – already a master storyteller, already with three novels to his name, already well on his way to not becoming, but staying himself, and then revealing that self to the world. And when I found a special edition of the book with all his notes and handwritten margin doodles at a bookshop in London, well, I had to have it.

Kitchen Confidential is, for anyone who has gotten to know Anthony Bourdain through his various shows, thoroughly him. The story isn’t linear or chronological (his never are, even Parts Unknown), and he is very open and honest about his periods of dishonesty and chef-poaching, honest about his privileged upbringing and squandering it, honest about the world of the professional kitchen. Honest and candid about his life and how he got to where he is, and the result, for anyone who, like me, had watched for years and never read, is heartbreaking.

Because in reading now, for the first time, it is impossible to disassociate the book with the end. It is impossible to ignore the fact that we will never have another Bourdain masterpiece. Impossible to forget that he’s no longer here to tell us stories on Sunday night. Impossible to understand how things went this way. Because as much as I wish I had known him, I didn’t. I didn’t know, I don’t know, what led him to do what he did. But I can read his works, reread, rewatch, and hope, beyond hope, that he has changed the world for the better.

Rating: 9 out of 10 stars (Medium Raw is still my favorite)

Edition: Paperback • £10.99/$16.99 • 9781408845042 (UK)/9780060899226 (US) • 352 pages • originally published May 2000 by Bloomsbury • average Goodreads rating 4.02 out of 5 • read in July 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

Fantasy, Fiction

All Souls Trilogy by Deborah Harkness

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

A Discovery of Witches Synopsis

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

Series Review

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

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

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

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

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

Series Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

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

Deborah Harkness’ Website

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Discovery of Witches

Fiction, Historical

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

UPDATED WITH SARAH’S REVIEW!

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

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

Synopsis

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

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

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

Laura’s Review

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

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

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

Laura’s Rating: 10 out of 10 stars

Sarah’s Review

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

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

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

Sarah’s Rating: 8 out of 10 stars

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

Annie Barrows’ Website

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Guernsey 2