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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History, Memoir/Autobiography, Non-Fiction

First Women by Kate Andersen Brower

I’ve always loved biographies of the royals and, as an #ImWithHer girl, when I realized that First Women existed, I figured it would be one that I should take a look at.

Synopsis

One of the most underestimated – and demanding – positions in the world, the first lady of the United States must be many things: an inspiring leader with a forward-thinking agenda of her own; a savvy politician, skilled at navigating the treacherous rapids of Washington; a wife and mother operating under constant scrutiny; and an able CEO responsible for the smooth operation of the White House resident. Now, as she did in The Residence, former White House correspondent Kate Andersen Brower draws on a wide array of untapped, candid sources – from residence staff and social secretaries to friends and political advisers to the former first ladies themselves – to tell the stories of the ten remarkable women who have defined the role since 1960.

Brower offers new insights into this privileged group of women. The stories she shares range from the heartwarming to the shocking and tragic, exploring everything from their friendships with other first ladies to their public and private relationships with their husbands. She also presents a new portrait of one of the most-watched first ladies of all time, Hillary Clinton.

Review

I poured through First Women with an obsessive attitude. I devoured all of the information about the first  ladies from Jackie to Michelle (I read the hardcover and therefore did not read the afterward about Melania). First Ladies includes glimpses into the lives of the following ladies: Jackie Kennedy, Lady Bird Johnson, Pat Nixon, Betty Ford, Nancy Reagan, Rosalind Carter, Barbara Bush, Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush & Michelle Obama with a few illusions to Mamie Eisenhower and the first truly modern first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt.

I’ve always had my personal favorites, Jackie, Nancy, Hillary & Michelle, and the others I really didn’t know much about. My favorite line emphasizes the regal aspect of the Kennedys, when Grace Kelly’s daughter, and real life princess, Princess Caroline, refers to Caroline Kennedy as Princess Caroline Kennedy. I’ve always been fascinated by Jackie and so learning more about her thrilled me. Learning more about Rosalind, Pat & Barbara, who just recently pasted away, was also enlightening and enlivening.

Each chapter is divided by topic, not by first lady as I anticipated. This was mostly helpful, though occasionally confusing. Brower has a penchant to use lots of pronouns, which means I would often lose track of which first lady she would be referring to. Additionally, her primary source in regards to Michelle Obama was clearly her hair dresser and every time Michelle enters the narrative, Brower feels the need to emphasize, repeatedly, that Michelle did not want to be first lady. Over and over again – we get it, she didn’t want to be there. It seemed like the life of Michelle was shunted aside in favor of Lady Bird and Nancy particularly.

Because of this, what I feel was an, extreme oversight of the value of the first lady beloved by the country, I did not have the most favorable opinion of the book, and yet, I couldn’t stop reading.

Rating: 6 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $15.99 • 9780062439666 • 416 pages • first published April 2016, this edition published January 2017 by Harper Paperbacks • average Goodreads rating 3.70 out of 5 stars • read in May 2018

Kate Andersen Brower’s Website

First Women on Goodreads

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First Women

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, 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

Brida on Goodreads

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125-Brida

Fiction, Historical

At the Water’s Edge by Sara Gruen

I love any book set in Europe during World War II, it is by far one of my favorite time periods to read about. I requested the audiobook from the library to listen to while driving to and from work and I wound up enjoying it so much, I bought the actual book as well.

Synopsis

After disgracing themselves at a high society New Year’s Eve party in Philadelphia in 1944, Madeline Hyde and her husband, Ellis, are cut off financially by his father, a former army colonel who is already ashamed of his son’s inability to serve in the war. With his best friend, Hank, Ellis decides that they only way to regain his father’s favor is to succeed where the Colonel once very publicly failed – by hunting down the famous Loch Ness monster. Maddie reluctantly follows them across the Atlantic, leaving her sheltered world behind.

The trio find themselves in a remote village in the Scottish Highlands, where the locals have nothing but contempt for the privileged interlopers. Maddie is left on her own at the isolated inn, where food is rationed, fuel is scarce, and a knock from the postman can bring tragic news. Yet she finds herself falling in love with the stark beauty and subtle magic of the Scottish countryside. Gradually she comes to know the villagers, and the friendships she forms with two young women open her up to a larger world than she knew existed. Maddie begins to see that nothing is as it first appears: the values she holds dear prove unsustainable, and monsters lurk where they are least expected. As she embraces a fuller sense of who she might be, Maddie becomes aware not only of the dark forces around her but of life’s beauty and surprising possibilities.

Review

While I had never read any of Sara Gruen’s books, well, still have never read as I listened to this one, I have seen the film adaptation of Water for Elephants and enjoyed her story-telling technique. Typically, when I choose a book to listen to in the car while driving back and forth from work, I pick one that is sitting on my shelf, but that I just haven’t had the chance to read yet. With At the Water’s Edge I decided to go for a new book, in keeping with my love of women’s World War II stories. Plus, it starts in the high society quarter of Philadelphia (Rittenhouse Square), near where my grandmother lived as a young girl during World War II.

Maddie, main character of At the Water’s Edge, starts off as the agreeable, and mostly clueless wife of a charismatic young man, Ellis, born into great wealth. Her family is tainted by scandal via her mother and his through his perceived inability to serve in the war. Together, with Ellis’ friend Frank, they set off in search of the Loch Ness monster to reclaim their rightful place in society. They find themselves sheltered in a rundown inn quite near the loch where the manager is surly and the young women who work there don’t think much of the trio’s high society ways. Over the course of a few weeks, Ellis and Frank habitually leave Maddie to her own devices as they search out the monster and Maddie befriends the two women who work in the inn, Anna and Meg (who are by far the best characters in the book).

At the Water’s Edge is what I have come to discover is stereotypical woman’s fiction. Shortly into their adventure, Maddie realizes that her husband is a world class asshole and she attempts to assert her independence in any way she can. In this sense, Maddie goes from being the docile little sheep being led around blindly by Ellis and Frank (she crossed the Atlantic in the middle of the war because they suggested it) to standing on her own two feet and defending those she has come to care about. She eschews her high society background and falls in love with the Scottish Highlands, and the grouchy inn manager to boot. This shouldn’t be a surprise – it was bound to happen or there would be no story – Nessie only exists in our imaginations.

​Sara Gruen’s work reminds me of that of Sarah Addison Allen (are we noticing a pattern of Sarah’s here?) in the sense that it was a breezy read/listen, the characters were intriguing, and the plot was predictable, but not to the point of boredom or irritation. The best scenes are the unexpected ones, particularly those involving the Canadian lumberjacks. Maddie, Anna, and Meg are all real, emotional characters that waver occasionally on being two-dimensional, but their friendship is believable and that is the most impressive part of the book. Writing female relationships is more challenging than writing romantic ones and Gruen does so here with an expert hand.

Rating: 6 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $17.00 • 9780385523240 • 416 pages • first published March 2015, this edition published November 2015 by Spiegel & Grau • average Goodreads rating 3.65 out of 5 • read in May 2015

Sara Gruen’s Website

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Essays, Non-Fiction, Sociology

Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit

This seems like an apt title for this week! I am an unabashedly HUGE Eagles fan and I have been, according to my mom, since birth. It helps that her father, my grandfather, played for them briefly in the 1950s. We are an Eagles family, we bleed green. And nothing, well, almost nothing, frustrates me more than when I am trying to answer one of my female friend’s questions about the sport and a man feels the need to jump in and explain what’s going on to both of us.

Synopsis

In her comic, scathing essay “Men Explain Things to Me,” Rebecca Solnit took on what often goes wrong in conversations between men and women. She wrote about men who wrongly assume they know things and wrongly assume women don’t, about why this arises, and how this aspect of the gender wars works, airing some of her own hilariously awful encounters.

She ends on a serious note – because the ultimate problem is the silencing of women who have something to say, including those saying things like, “He’s trying to kill me!”

This updated edition of the book features that now-classic essay as well as Solnit’s recent essay on the remarkable feminist conversation that arose in the wake of the 2014 Isla Vista Killings.

Review

The great reckoning, in terms of sexual assault, had been bubbling beneath the surface of society for years, decades, even centuries, before it burst through the surface and made headlines in late 2017. The most important aspect I want to make sure that I state in regards to this review is that Men Explain Things to Me is not an essay collection that bashes men.

Rebecca Solnit’s purpose in collecting together the essays that make up the book Men Explain Things to Me is, like any good journalist’s intention, to make her readers aware of things that are going on in the world today. Each essay in the collection deals at least in some small way how we interact with each other, both as members of society and within personal, intimate relationships. It is about encouraging women to find their voices and encouraging men to think about how their words and actions are perceived and interpreted.

For a fairly short book (less than 200 pages), it took me the better part of three weeks to read. Not because it was dense, or because I didn’t like, but because I wanted to make sure that I remembered Rebecca’s words and used them to do good in the world. One of the biggest strengths and challenges with the written word is that they can be interpreted in many different ways. Reading Men Explain Things to Me can be twisted and turned to make anyone’s point, and I don’t want to do that. I want to take what Solnit writes and make myself a better contributing member of society. And I have to believe that’s what she would want as well.

Rating: 8 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $12.95 • 9781608464661 • 176 pages • first published May 2014, this edition published September 2015 by Haymarket Books • average Goodreads rating 3.92 out of 5 • read in February 2018

Rebecca Solnit’s Website

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119-Men Explain Things to Me

Contemporary, Fiction

The Ex-Debutante by Linda Francis Lee

This was one of the first “adult” fiction books I read after graduating high school and deciding I needed to branch out from the young adult section. And while I’m a northern at heart, when presented with the opportunity to read about southern debutantes, I usually do so in order to mock them later. But in this book, there is so much heart and character development that I simply cannot mock. And the main character is named Carlisle, as is my beloved hometown.

Synopsis

When Carlisle Wainwright Cushing, of the old-moneyed Texas Wainwrights, moved to Boston three years ago to work at one of the city’s most prestigious divorce law firms, she thought she had escaped the high society she’d grown up in – after all, no one in Boston, not even her fiancé, knew she was an heiress. But now Carlisle has been lured back to Texas to deal with her mother’s latest divorce and the family-sponsored hundredth annual debutante ball, which is on the verge of collapse. She’s afraid she’ll never get back to Boston, at least with her reputation intact, especially when good ole’ Southern boy Jack Blair shows up on the opposite side of the divorce court, making her wonder if he’s going after her mother in the proceedings – or her. Carlisle’s trip home challenges her sense of who she really is and forces her to face her family’s secrets.

Review

I picked this book up as a quick read the summer after my sophomore year at the University of Pittsburgh, one of many books that I figured might be enjoyable if I read it, but wasn’t super into starting. Once I did, though, I could hardly put it down! It’s not news that I’m driven towards books that are more character-driven than plot-driven and that I appreciate strong and independent female characters that think and speak for themselves and never turn down an opportunity for deliciously witty banter with a romantic interest. The Ex-Debutante fulfilled my expectations of Carlisle. Come to think of it, after I read it I was fairly certain that if I ever had a daughter, I would totally name her Carlisle.

There were many things that drew me towards the book – I’d been on a She’s the Man kick (which features debs), I’d entertained the idea of becoming a lawyer (at the time I still didn’t want to teach), and I was infatuated with a guy name Jack that’d just broken my heart. Connections abounded and reading about Carlisle and how she handled her life gave me the confidence to take a greater interest in shaping my own life to be what I wanted, not just what was expected of me as a 19-year-old-almost-college-junior.

The end of your sophomore year of college is when you’re supposed to have your mind made up (if you didn’t when you started) about what you want to be when you “grow up” and who you are as a person. Your days of finding yourself are supposed to be done – you were either supposed to take a year off to traipse through Europe before enrolling or have it all sorted by the time you’re done your first semester so that you can settle in and start working towards some nonexistent goal that is supposed to define the rest of your life.

But, as with many other things in life, we don’t all follow the same path, our development as human beings really isn’t mappable as some psychologists would try to lead us to believe. And in a time of great personal confusion, Carlisle personified that twisting, knotting, ineffable desire to be unique and individualistic to a tee. I’d spent the four months before reading The Ex-Debutante caring for family and supporting those around me. While I’m beyond glad that I took time off from college to do so, reading The Ex-Debutante was the first time I took a break that was just for me, that I took time out of the day to do something I enjoyed, even if it was just reading. So my review is less about the book, but more about what the book, and the protagonist, made me realize about myself.

Rating: 8 stars

Edition: Paperback • $22.99 • 9780312354985 • 341 pages • first published April 2008, this edition published March 2009 by Griffin • average rating 3.67 out of 5 • read in May 2009

Linda Francis Lee’s Website

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Ex-Debutante

Contemporary, Fiction, New Adult

Jessica Darling quintet by Megan McCafferty

Jessica Darling helped me survive high school. I was first introduced to the delightfully snarky, sarcastic and spunky teen heroine of Sloppy Firsts when I was a freshman in speech and debate practice after school one autumn afternoon back in 2003. A frenemy of mine was testing out an excerpt from Second Helpings for a speech competition and it was certainly effective: I remember nothing else of the speech and debate season but hearing about Jessica handle the popular girls in a Jersey mini-mall still resonates in my head a decade plus later.

The series consists of five books and originally Megan McCafferty only intended to write the first two and they stand alone very well. I also read Second Helpings before Sloppy Firsts and while slightly confusing, I think it just made me love Marcus even more. I also had the great pleasure of meeting Megan McCafferty my junior year at Pitt and she has now started a Jessica Darling in middle school series which is quite wonderful as well, even though it differs from the originally established timeline.

Sloppy Firsts Synopsis

When her best friend, Hope Weaver, moves away from Pineville, New Jersey, hyperobservant sixteen-year-old Jessica Darling is devastated. A fish out of water at school and a stranger at home, Jessica feels more lost than ever now that the only person with whom she could really communicate has gone. How is she supposed to deal with the boy- and shopping-crazy girls at school, her dad’s obsession with her track meets, her mother salivating over big sister Bethany’s lavish wedding, and her nonexistent love life?

Sloppy Firsts looks at Jessica’s predicament as she embarks on another year of teenage torment – from the dark days of Hope’s departure through her months as a type-A personality turned insomniac to her completely mixed-up feelings about Marcus Flutie, the intelligent and mysterious “dreg” who works his way into her heart.

Series Review

There are, thus far, 8 books about Jessica Darling. Therefore, understandably, my review cannot simply be contained to one book, each reading changes and effects how I view the books so it may be a bit garbled and I’ll try to review book by book without any spoilers, but bear with me!

Sloppy Firsts I have read only once and I did so after reading Second Helpings, the stronger of the pair, writing wise. I was introduced to Jessica after Marcus, after her sister’s wedding, and after she’s met, and discovered the truth about, Hyacinth Anastasia Wallace. All of these things take place in Sloppy Firsts but I didn’t know the full story. At the start of Sloppy Firsts, Jessica is broken, though she does her best to hide it. Her best friend Hope has moved away and while Hope does not actually physically enter the story until the end of Second Helpings, I had already met her. But her influence on Jessica’s life is profound – she is her best friend, her confidant. For a young girl to have such a strong friendship is an incredible thing to behold and when that friendship is no longer as present, depression can quickly ensue. Throughout Sloppy Firsts, Jessica must handle changing feelings, embarking on a friendship she fears Hope would disapprove of, and betrayal of her trust by a new friend. The waters of high school are choppy and Jessica must learn how to cross them safely without her navigator and first mate, Hope.

Second Helpings: My copy of Second Helpings is thoroughly beat up. I love the book, I’ve read it over and over and over again whenever I have been in need of inspiration for my own writing, or when I just want to read about characters that I love dearly. So who came up with it first, JK Rowling or Megan McCafferty? Both have a character known as “he who shall not be named” and Jessica is horribly mad at the one who walks around her high school’s halls. Her feelings have been hurt, irrevocably, she claims, and she swears to never forgive the sinner. Second Helpings is set during Jessica’s senior year and from the very start, it seems as if all hell will be breaking loose. She must deal with national tragedy (9/11), personal tragedy when a beloved family member is lost, and coming to grips with her own moral quandaries and whether or not a friendship is still a friendship if secrets are kept.

Charmed ThirdsFourth Comings: In which Jessica follows her heart and goes to her dream college and lands what she believes to be her dream job. Charmed Thirds & Fourth Comings are my two least favorite books and for the longest time I would not read them. Laura had started them and was unimpressed. However, when I met Megan McCafferty, I needed a book for her to sign and so I picked up a copy of the new edition of Charmed Thirds. I will cherish it always as it bears McCafferty’s lovely looping signature and I got to meet her with some of my best college friends. However, Jessica, is just not Jessica in these two books. While Sloppy Firsts & Second Helpings cover roughly a year and a half between them, Charmed Thirds & Fourth Comings span almost 8 years and everything feels so rushed.

Perfect Fifths: When I went to hear Megan McCafferty speak, she read aloud from the recently released Perfect Fifths and I was hooked. It was the first time we the readers get Marcus’ point of view and WOOHOO!!! I powered through Charmed Thirds & Fourth Comings just to get to the part Megan McCafferty read in the dimly lit auditorium of Frick on my beloved Pitt’s campus. As the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series did years later, the fifth book takes place when the main characters are in their late twenties. And it is pure literary gold. It’s an ending, without being final but also without fully answering all the questions that have so far gone un-answered. But it is perfect, perfect for you, yes, you to enjoy.

Jessica Darling is a relatable girl for those who grew up feeling pressure in high school, fearing being misunderstood, missing their best friend, wondering when their lives would really begin and if their relationships with others were/are meaningful. Jessica, Marcus, Hope, Bridget, Percy, Bethany and even Mr. and Mrs. Darling make up an unforgettable cast of characters. As is the case with all series, there high points and low points, both within the story and the story telling but all-in-all, Jessica is a character to depend on and a role model for those who don’t quite fit in, feel a little lost or who simply want a shoulder to cry on. She’s your girl.

Series Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

Sloppy Firsts Edition: Paperback • $13.99 • 9780609807903 • 304 pages • published August 2001 by Broadway Books • average Goodreads rating 3.94 out of 5 • series finished April 2010

Megan McCafferty’s Website

Sloppy Firsts on Goodreads

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Jessica Darling

Fiction, Thriller

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

I began reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo after the movie was announced (though before watching it) after one of my friends recommended it. Based on my knowledge of the friend who offered the recommendation, it was nothing as I expected.

Synopsis

It’s about the disappearance forty years ago of Harriet Vanger, a young scion of one of the wealthiest families in Sweden… and about her octogenarian uncle, determined to know the truth about what he believes was her murder.

It’s about Mikael Blomkvist, a crusading journalist recently at the wrong end of a libel case, hired to find the underlying cause of Harriet’s disappearance… and about Lisbeth Salander, a twenty-four-year-old pierced and tattooed genius hacked possessed of the hard-earned wisdom of someone twice her age – and a terrifying capacity for ruthlessness to go with it – who assists Blomkvist with the investigation. This unlikely team discovers a view of nearly unfathomable iniquity running through the Vanger family, astonishing corruption in the highest echelons of Swedish industrialism – and an unexpected connection between themselves.

Review

I don’t read mysteries or thrillers for fun. They freak me out and give me nightmares. I have a great deal of difficulty getting the villain out of my head. It’s even worse when they’re exceptionally well crafted and convincing, as is the case in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the first in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series.

I typically try to read a book before I see the adaptation and I really wanted to see the movie (my hang-ups with thrillers mentioned above don’t seem to apply to film) so figured that I should read the book first because there was a good chance I would miss some important detail throughout the course of the movie (which is probably why I love, but can rarely follow, Bond films – I’m never paying enough attention). However, to understand the world in which Vanger, Blomkvist and Lisbeth are living, I needed a crash course in Swedish elitist politics or I would miss something important.

Never had I done so much research before reading a work of fiction, but I knew going into the book that I had to familiarize myself with a society that differed from my own to understand the actions and behaviors of the characters, particularly the secondary ones. But what really drew me to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is the girl herself, Lisbeth Salander.

Lisbeth is a ward of the state, an orphan with a traumatic background, declared mentally unstable which puts her finances, and therefore life, into the hands of a court appointed guardian – a rare kind man who unfortunately suffers a stroke at the start of the book. The man who replaces him, Nils Bjurman, is quite the opposite.

Lisbeth is highly aggressive towards those who abuse women and when Bjurman forces her into submissive and degrading positions to procure her pre-determined allowance. The revenge she takes on him is magnificently cruel and degrading, equal to the treatment he forced upon her. Lisbeth is fierce, and perhaps more than a little crazy, but her talents are unequaled in the art of hacking and manipulation. But her heart is pure, hidden though it may be, and she is capable of suffering heartbreak, despite her cold exterior and extremely introverted personality. Lisbeth is the heart and soul of the book and without her, the corporate espionage and possible murder plots mean little.

Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

Edition: Mass Market Paperback • $9.99 • 9780307949486 • 644 pages • first published in English in September 2008, this edition published November 2011 by Vintage Books • average Goodreads rating 4.11 out of 5 stars • read in January 2011

Stieg Larsson’s Website

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Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

 

Fiction, Historical, Retelling, Young Adult

Scarlet trilogy by A. C. Gaughen

I’d been debating picking this book up for a while and decided to just go ahead and order it. I flew threw it – I definitely should have started it sooner! It has now led to me re-watching all the Robin Hood adaptations I love – starting with the BBC series.

Scarlet Synopsis

Will Scarlet is good at two things: stealing from the rich and keeping secrets – skills that are in high demand in Robin Hood’s band of thieves, who protect the people of Nottingham from the evil sheriff. Scarlet’s biggest secret of all is one only Robin and his men know… that the slip of a boy terrorizing the sheriff’s men is really a girl. Her real identity is in danger of being exposed hen the thief taker Lord Gisbourne arrives in town to rid Nottingham of the Hood and his men for the last time. As Gisbourne closes in, Scarlet must decide how much the people of Nottingham mean to her, especially John Little, a flirtatious fellow outlaw, and Robin, whose quick smiles have the rare power to unsettle her. There is real honor among these thieves and so much more – making this fight worth dying for.

Review

Scarlet took a bit getting used to – her voice is that of a lower-class English girl and A. C. Gaughen writes in completely in first person, from Scarlet’s point of view. Once I could read fluently without lamenting her accent, it was a delight to read. Who is Scarlet and why is she so fearful of Gisbourne? What secrets does her past hold that makes Robin Hood fearful of trusting her? All valid questions, all artfully dodged by the cunning and clever Scarlet.

Scarlet is a love story, an adventure tale, a re-imagining of a tale the English-speaking world grew up with and it is crafted with love and is masterfully told. I, like A. C. Guaghen, never really cared for wimpy, washed out Marion – her character was never fully developed and always full of insipid flaws. Why should the beloved Robin Hood be stuck with a fair maiden he has to save over and over? How can she be a real partner to him if she can’t manage to do anything more than cower behind him or run away? Scarlet is the answer – a strong female character for the testosterone filled bardic tales of Robin and his Merry Men. It’s always all about the men but hopefully Scarlet can change that!

What I truly love about her, though, is she is completely female. When she gets upset, she’s not above tears (though she tries to avoid them) and sometimes, she just wants a little comfort. She doesn’t seek to play games with the guys, she’d honestly prefer they just ignore the fact that she’s a girl, but when push comes to shove, she must admit what she truly feels, to both herself, and the band. And she does it in a way that isn’t sappy and is thoroughly courageous.

I flew through (most of) Lady Thief and Lion Heart in 3 days. I just had to know what happened and I’ll try my best to review sans any major spoilers. It took me awhile, when starting Lady Thief, to get back into the swing of Scarlet’s accent and then as soon as I did, I pulled a classic “great book, can’t stop reading” all-nighter to finish it as soon as I possibly could! As it had been a year since I read the first book in the trilogy, Scarlet, I hoped that Lady Thief and Lion Heart would really flesh out Scarlet as a character as well as all the Merry Men and her relationship with Robin Hood.

Scarlet is forced, from the start of Lady Thief to make a next to impossible choice regarding her marriage to the despicable Gisborne: stay with him for a fortnight and he’d grant her an annulment or be hunted down for the rest of her natural life. Things are not easy with the less-than-Merry Men and Scarlet does everything she can to build a better future for them, even if it means acquiescing to Gisborne for a short period of time. Alas, trouble still finds Scarlet in the form of the evil and impish Prince John and Scarlet is scarred both physically and emotionally by their encounter. But not even the clever Scarlet and Rob can predict the prince’s conniving actions and Scarlet lands herself accused of a crime that appears to benefit her, but that she clearly did not commit, and on her way to prison at the start of Lion Heart. The kindness of the Queen Mother pulls her out of the prince’s clutches and Scarlet and her beloved Rob must, once again, do everything in their power to rebuild and reclaim their home in Nottingham.

The twists and turns of the characters’ actions are amazing and so many terrible things have happened to them that when someone good finally seems to be taking shape, I was constantly turning the pages waiting for the inevitable catastrophe that would ruin the happiest of happy moments. Beloved characters will die, others will be forced to make impossible decisions, but ultimately Gaughen demonstrates just how scarlet Scarlet can get and how that rage and anger she’d been holding inside is finally unleashed to wield good and positive power for the people of Nottinghamshire. My only criticism is that the ending felt a bit rushed, but I was glad that the last bit of thievery wasn’t drawn out or over-extended, I wanted to know that Scarlet and Rob would finally have a slightly less difficult time (one can’t quite call it a happy ending) in Nottingham!

Rating: 8 out of 10 stars for series

Scarlet Edition: Paperback • $9.99 • 9780802734242 • 292 pages • first published February 2012, this edition published February 2013 by Walker & Company • average Goodreads rating 3.96 out of 5 • read in July 2014

A. C. Gaughen’s Website

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Scarlet