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

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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Darker Shade of Magic

Non-Fiction, STEM

What If? by Randall Munroe

The audiobook kick continues! My husband recommends this book to just about everyone (despite the fact that he hasn’t read it!) so I figured it was about time I revisit the realm of science and read (welll, listen to) it myself.

Synopsis

Millions of people visit xkcd.com each week to read Randall Munroe’s iconic webcomic. His stick-figure drawings about science, technology, language, and love have an enormous, dedicated following, as do his deeply researched answers to his fans’ strangest questions. The queries he receives range from merely odd to downright diabolical: – What if I took a swim in a spent-nuclear-fuel pool? – Could you build a jetpack using downward-firing machine guns? – What if a Richter 15 earthquake hit New York City? – Are fire tornadoes possible? His responses are masterpieces of clarity and wit, gleefully and accurately explaining everything from the relativistic effects of a baseball pitched at near the speed of light to the many horrible ways you could die while building a periodic table out of all the actual elements. The book features new and never-before-answered questions, along with the most popular answers from the xkcd website. What If? is an informative feast for xkcd fans and anyone who loves to ponder the hypothetical.

Review

What a fun book! I love hypothetical questions, I am the person who constantly had to ask “Why?” in school, much to the chagrin of my teachers, I’m sure. However, it does mean that, as a teacher, I will always answer my students “Why-s.” The topics covered in What If? range across many different aspects of math and science and is the perfect classroom book – for students who finish early on work, or who just love to question everything about the world around them.

My one gripe – it does get a little highbrow. Between each “chapter” (serious question), there are other questions collected that Munroe doesn’t answer, and instead gives a snarky remark/answer to, basically treating them like stupid questions he doesn’t deem worthy of answering. Downside to this, even the smartest of readers don’t always know why he considers them stupid and would really like to know the answer to said questions. I’d take an answer over a snarky comment any day.

Rating: 8 out of 10 stars

Edition: Hardcover • $25.00 • 9780544272996 • 320 pages • published September 2014 by Houghton Mifflin • average Goodreads rating 4.17 out of 5 • read in May 2018

xkcd Website

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Fantasy, Fiction, Middle Grades

Fantastic Beasts & Where to Find Them by J. K. Rowling

More Harry Potter? Why yes please, of course!

Synopsis

Fantastic Beasts & Where to Find Them, Newt Scamander’s classic compendium of magical creatures, has delighted generations of wizarding readers. Now, in this updated edition with a new foreword by Newt himself and unveiling of six beasts little known outside the American wizarding community, Muggles too have the chance to discover where the Thunderbird lives, what the Puffskein eats, and why shiny objects should always be kept away from the Niffler.

Proceeds from the sale of this book go to Comic Relief and Lumos, which means that the dollars you exchange for it will do magic beyond the powers of any wizard. If you feel that this is insufficient reason to part with your money, one can only hope that passing wizards for more charitable if they see you being attacked by a Manticore.

Review

Sarah’s Review

Laura is one of the few diehard Harry Potter fans who can claim yes, she has had this book since it’s original publication in the early ‘aughts. And so, for the last 17 years, she’s been telling me to read it. Enter the movies with Eddie Redmayne playing Newt Scamander, and a new version of the audiobook from Pottermore with him reading it and I was sold!

Think of Fantastic Beasts as a fantastical encyclopedia more than a textbook. It reminds me a great deal of Cressida Cowell’s Book of Dragons from the How to Train Your Dragons series. The illustrated edition is beautiful, the downside, there’s not a whole lot of information included, the focus is on identifying the creatures. There’s more information in the individual books about creatures like unicorns, basilisks, and dragons.

Laura’s Review

That is true, I am very proud of the fact that I have had the original Fantastic Beasts textbook since it first came out. I love that J.K Rowling published this book, along with Quidditch through the Ages, as it expanded the world of Harry Potter for me as a ten year old kid. My favorite part of the original version was not the information about the animals, but the annotations that Harry and Ron had added for some of the creatures including basilisks and acromantulas.

Due to my love of this book I was thrilled when a movie series was announced starring Eddie Redmayne, even if I had no idea how a textbook would be turned into a 5 part movie series. And with the creation of an illustrated version, I just now want some of these creatures as pets, especially a phoenix and maybe a niffler, as long as I hid my valuables…

Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

Edition: Hardcover • $12.99 • 9781338132311 • 128 pages • originally published 2001, this edition published March 2017 by Arthur A. Levine Books • average Goodreads rating 3.97 out of 5 stars • read in April 2018

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Pottermore Website

Fantastic Beasts

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

Contemporary, Fiction, New Adult

The Bookshop on the Corner by Jenny Colgan

A few years ago I picked this book up and thought it looked adorable and perfect for a friend. A perfect chick-lity read, a book about books, that she would love. Two years later, I found the audiobook on Overdrive I figured it was time I read it as well.

Synopsis

Nina Redmond is a literary matchmaker. Pairing a reader with that perfect book is her passion… and also her job. Or at least it was. Until yesterday she was a librarian in the hectic city. But now the job she loved is no more.

Determined to make a new life for herself, Nina moves to a sleepy village many miles away. There she buys a van and transforms it into a mobile bookshop that she drives from neighborhood to neighborhood, changing one life after another with the power of storytelling.

From helping her grumpy landlord deliver a lamb to sharing picnics with a charming train conductor who serenades her with poetry, Nina discovers there’s plenty of adventure, magic, and soul in a place that’s beginning to feel like home… a place where she just might be able to writer her own happy ending.

Review

About a year and a half ago, the big book club at the bookstore I work at read The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin and told my boss, P. K., who moved to the US from India 40 years ago, that the main character, the bookstore owner A. J., reminded them of him. Needless to say, the rest of the staff were curious and had to read this book and it quickly became a favorite among us all. As someone who succeeded in landing her present job by telling said boss that my life goal was to be Meg Ryan’s character in You’ve Got Mail, I wondered if there was a book about books with a main character like me.

Well, I’ve found her. Jenny Colgan, thank you for creating Nina and then letting her out of your head to play with the rest of us. There’s a certain amount of belief that has to be suspended to really embrace Nina’s story – there are definitely moments when you shake your head and think, really? That’s really how that situation unfolded? I have to think there’s a certain amount of magical realism at play in The Bookshop on the Corner to have Nina’s life work out so well. But her approach to life is almost always positive and with an air of Lizzie & Mr. Darcy strewn about the tale, it is an enjoyable one and got me out of my fiction slump! Seriously, in the last 7 months, I’ve read two works of fiction. Which is just crazy for me, lover of all things historical fiction and fantasy.

While I greatly enjoyed The Bookshop on the Corner, this is one of the few books I don’t think I’ll be enthusiastically recommending to all of my bookstore followers as it is fairly out of my ordinary reading habits, but also probably why it broke my slump! So, if you are in need of a bookish “palate cleanser,” The Bookshop on the Corner is for you!

Rating: 9 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $14.99 • 9780062467256 • 368 pages • published (USA) September 2016 by William Morrow & Company • average Goodreads rating 3.87 out of 5 stars • read in March 2018

Jenny Colgan’s Website

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Bookshop on the Corner

Fantasy, Fiction, Young Adult

Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo

I just realized I’m reviewing the Leigh Bardugo books I’ve read in the opposite order in which I read them! It you have any interest in reading any of the books in her Grisha-verse, I recommend starting with this one and reading them in the order they were published. As with many authors, Leigh’s writing only gets stronger as she goes and if you start with her later books (i.e. Six of Crows), you will invariably be disappointed by Shadow and Bone. That being said, start with this one, and you’ll love the whole series!

Synopsis

Alina Starkov doesn’t expect much from life. Orphaned by the Border Wars, the one thing she could rely on was her best friend and fellow refugee, Mal. And lately not even that seems certain. Drafted into the army of their war-torn homeland, they’re sent on a dangerous mission into the Fold, a swath of unnatural darkness crawling with monsters who feast on human flesh.

When their convoy is attacked, all seems lost until Alina reveals a dormant power that not even she knew existed. Ripped from everything she knows, she is whisked away to the royal court to be trained as a member of the Grisha, the magical elite led by the mysterious Darkling. He believes she is the answer the people have been waiting for: the one person with the power to destroy the Fold.

Swept up in a world of luxury and illusion, envied as the Darkling’s favorite, Alina struggles to fit into her new life without Mal by her side. But as the threat to the kingdom mounts, Alina uncovers a secret that sets her on a collision course with the most powerful forces in the kingdom. Now only her past can save her… and only she can save the future.

Review

While I dish out book recommendations left, right and center, especially at my job at a bookstore, I’m generally very reluctant to read books others have recommended to me, mostly because I feel like they will always fail to live up to: a, my ridiculously high expectations for books and b, give me unrealistic expectations for them based on how much my friend loved it. That all being said, Shadow and Bone fell only slightly flat – and I probably would not have been so harsh on it if it hadn’t been described as very similar to Throne of Glass, which is my most favorite book ever. I did enjoy Shadow and Bone, however, just not as much as I would have liked, given the hype, and the awesome impression I got of Leigh Bardugo when I saw her play truth or dare with Marissa Meyer (author of the Lunar Chronicles) at BookCon.

Alina, central character of the trilogy, falls into a very stereotypical female archetype: girl pines for childhood friend, girl discovers she has an unknown special power, boy realizes he loves girl, girl saves lives/has some great revelation about good and evil, girl and boy run off together. While it’s not a “The End, Happily Ever After” ending for the first book, the general arc rings true to the story. And even though Alina has a little more backbone than most female fantasy lead characters and has her moments of clarity, unfortunately I’ve got a huge girl crush on Celaena/Aelin and alas, next to her, no other can compare.

Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $10.99 9781250027436 • 358 pages • originally published June 2012, this edition published May 2014 by Square Fish • average Goodreads rating 4.05 out of 5 • read in September 2015

Leigh Bardugo’s Website

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Shadow & Bone (2)

Non-Fiction, Sociology

Vargic’s Miscellany of Curious Maps by Martin Vargic

I love when books come into the bookstore and just surprise me. I had seen maps from this collection in a Buzzfeed article, but had no idea that they were being compiled into a book. This review is short, solely because words really don’t do the book justice, it really deserves to be flipped through. 

Synopsis

Vargic’s Miscellany of Curious Maps is a wonderfully weird collection of meticulous and striking cartegraphic creations, such as the infamous Map of Stereotypes. Based on a westerner’s stereotypical view of the world, Slovakian artist and cartophile Martin Vargic assigns more than two thousand labels and prejudices to cities, states, countries, continents, oceans and seas on a large-scale, visually stunning world map, which alone took more than four months to create. The conceptual Map of the Internet and the Map of Sports are exquisite and surprising, and infographic maps showing the number of heavy-metal bands per capita, the probability of getting struck by lightning, average penis length, and the number of tractors per 1,000 inhabitants make it hard not to share with the person next to you.

Review

Curious Maps is my new (and probably only) favorite coffee table book that I am excited show to everyone who walks through my door. As a collector of geographic oddities and atlases, I was immediately drawn to Vargic’s unique and intricately drawn maps of literature, sports and pop culture. The maps are beautiful, frame-worthy works of art that I would love to hang in a proper library of my own one day. It is worth paging through and I can’t emphasize enough how wonderful it is!

Rating: 10 out of 10 stars

Edition: Hardcover • $35.00 • 9780062389220 • 128 pages • published December 2015 by Harper Design • average Goodreads rating 4.22 out of 5 • read in January 2016

Martin Vargic’s Website

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Vargic's Miscellany of Curious Maps