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

In Extremis on Goodreads

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In Extremis

Biography, Memoir/Autobiography, Non-Fiction

Jell-O Girls by Allie Rowbottom

I’ve been half-heartedly participating in a book club that used to be mine and has now migrated into someone else’s, but I’ve still had a foot in the door. When a fellow member picked Jell-O Girls for today’s discussion, I was thrilled to finally read nonfiction AND get to talk about it. Downside, my opinion and personal experiences seemed to be in the minority…

Synopsis

In 1899, Allie Rowbottom’s great-great-great-uncle bought the patent to Jell-O from its inventor for $450. The sale would turn out to be one of the most profitable business deals in American history, and the generations that followed enjoyed immense privilege – but they were also haunted by suicides, cancer, alcoholism, and mysterious ailments.

More than one hundred years after that deal was struck, Rowbottom’s mother, Mary, was diagnosed with the same incurable cancer that had claimed her own mother’s life. Determined to combat what she had come to consider the “Jell-O Curse” and her looming mortality, Mary began obsessively researching her family’s past, bent on understanding the origins of her illness and the impact on her life of both Jell-O and the traditional American values the company championed. Before she died in 2015, Mary began to send Rowbottom boxes of her research and notes, in the hope that her daughter might write what she could not. Jell-O Girls is the liberation of that story.

Review

I’ve been in a bit of a book-finishing rut for the past month and a half. All year I’d been flying through books and then, as soon as my grandmother got sick and passed away, I haven’t wanted to touch a book. Until now. Part of getting back to my normal life it seems must include reading (which is very logical given my occupation, I just hadn’t felt like opening a book), and these days, reading means primarily nonfiction. It’s been a year of my near complete lack of interest in fiction and YA (my two staples for the past two decades), so when book club finally veered back to nonfiction, I was thrilled – I hadn’t actually finished a new book club book since, uh, January 2017.

If I were to write a memoir, it would be a lot like Jell-O Girls. The publisher summary doesn’t exactly capture the spirit of the memoir – it sensationalizes it more than needed. Allie Rowbottom faces an interesting inheritance – money from Jell-O which supported her artist mother her entire life, and a “curse” so to speak, which is basically her family trying to find a source of blame for poor genes. I was intrigued when I picked it up, and it held me captivated until I finished it – in 48 hours. And then I went to log it in Goodreads and see what other people thought about it. Oh boy.

I need to start holding off on looking a Goodreads reviews until I’ve finished a book. I adored Jell-O Girls and thought it one of the best books I’ve read so far this year. It seems, however, I am in the minority when it comes to most readers and I think that there are two primary reasons for this. Firstly, the integration of the Jell-O story with that of Allie’s family doesn’t always work particularly well. It’s nice, and a refreshing interlude at times, to see how Jell-O has changed over the years, but it really has very little to do with Allie, her mother Mary, and her grandmother, Midge, our three female protagonists of the memoir. Second, if you’ve never experienced any of the traumatic events and family situations the main characters experienced, it can be easy to discount them as Rich White People Problems, as most people in my book club, and on the interwebs of Goodreads, seemed to do.

Those two things considered, as someone who has been the primary caretaker to a family member slowly dying of cancer, just lost her grandmother, has had to handle the fact that her mother will most likely die of cancer given that she’s already a three-time survivor, whose parents are divorced, whose family has a long history of mental illness, when you’ve struggled with anorexia nervosa and developed OCD tendencies, passed out and not remembered the last time you ate because you couldn’t control anything in your life except what you ate, well. You could say Allie’s Jell-O Girls is the story of me and my mother’s family.

We’re all a little crazy, humanity proves this. And when you’ve experienced very similar situations to Allie and you want to convey just how magnificently she captures the feeling of waiting for hours on end in the surgical waiting room that you struggled for years to find words to describe, you want to share that with people. You want to talk about just how important this book is to you, not just because you think it’s good, but because it let you know that you are far from alone. That other people have experienced the same set of traumas, self-inflicted and otherwise, that you have. That it’s okay to feel like you’re losing your mind and that you are not alone.

Despite working in a bookstore and talking about books for a living and recommending countless books to people over the last few years, I don’t actually have the chance to sit down and talk about books in detail with many people. I get to give people my thirty-second elevator pitch on a book and hope they’ll buy it. And part of the success of the store I work at is that all of the employees have their own genres of interest – Su reads things dark and twisty, Pam reads contemporary women’s and historical fiction, Mary reads commercial nonfiction and fiction, Jennifer is our children’s buyer and can tell you anything and everything about all the picture books on the shelves, Kaz specializes in LGBT literature, PK reads business and history, Hadley reads the little known random books published by small, academic and indie presses, Staci reads just like my mom, thrillers and mysteries from Baldacci to Scottoline, and I read a little bit of everything in between. There’s not a whole lot of overlap. Therefore, enter book club – the perfect opportunity to discuss books with (mostly) like-minded individuals.

I miss picking all the books (I am aware that this is very selfish). I miss it being a way to support the store (I’m now the only one who doesn’t buy the book on Amazon or from B&N). I miss having productive discussions about interesting books. No one likes to feel like they’re under attack or being misunderstood when they choose a book or have a specific feeling about a book. And I love Jell-O Girls. In my 29 years of existence and of the 220 books I’ve read since I started working at the bookstore in 2015, it is one of the best books I’ve ever read. I don’t care if the rest of the world disagrees with me. I will praise it for handling life situations that so many people find difficult to talk about. So please, ignore the plethora of poor ratings on websites. Ratings don’t capture the spirit of the book. If you think reading this book would benefit you, your family, please. Take a look at it.

Rating: 9 out of 10 stars

Edition: Hardcover • $28.00 • 9780316510615 • 388 pages • published July 2018 by Little, Brown and Company • average Goodreads rating 3.2 out of 5 stars • read in October 2018

Allie Rowbottom’s Website

Jell-O Girls on Goodreads

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Jell-O Girls

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

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore on Goodreads

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Picture_20180819_192702391

History, Non-Fiction

Empire of Blue Water by Stephan Talty

This book is about pirates. I have been fascinated by pirates for a very long time. In conclusion, pirates. Read it. Just kidding – full review below!

Synopsis

The passion and violence of the age of exploration and empire come to vivid life in this story of the legendary pirate who took on the greatest military power on earth with a ragtag bunch of renegades. Awash with bloody battles, political intrigues, natural disaster, and a cast of characters more compelling, bizarre, and memorable than any found in a Hollywood swashbuckler, Empire of Blue Water brilliantly re-creates the life and times of Henry Morgan and the real pirates of the Caribbean.

Review

Seriously, pirates. I don’t know when, where or how my love of them began, maybe all little kids are born with a fascination of the pirate’s life. From Peter Pan’s arch-nemesis Captain Hook to Will Turner in the first Pirates of the Caribbean to Alvilda, the protagonist of my current writing project who is based on the Viking pirate princess Alfhild, my love runs deep. When a coworker first told me about Cinnamon & Gunpowder, I jumped at the chance to read it for the sole reason that it featured a female pirate! Everywhere that I’ve traveled from the Outer Banks in North Carolina to Nassau in the Bahamas, I have visited each locale’s respective pirate attractions and museums.

In addition to pirates, I also love a good non-fiction book that can be affectionately referred to as “novelistic nonfiction” as exemplified by Erik Larson, among other authors. Talty’s prose also falls into the subgenre of nonfiction. I find that, as a bookseller, when I recommend nonfiction to primarily fiction readers, this trait is ideal. The pages turn quickly, the action moves at a good clip and the book holds the readers interest. Gone are the days of nonfiction being judged as dry and without character – half the time when reading I have to remind myself that the people in Empire of Blue Water are/were real people – not characters. Though when referencing Henry Morgan, the myths about him are hard to ignore.

Additionally, Empire of Blue Water is not just about Henry Morgan, but about a great many other pirates who lived and raided around the same time, as well as the political culture of the colonies in the Caribbean, South, Central & North America. It is a fascinating and compelling read, and, of course, PIRATES!

Rating: 8 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $16.00 • 9780307236616 • 332 pages • first published April 2007, this edition published April 2008 by Broadway Books • average Goodreads rating 3.86 out of 5 stars • read in June 2018

Staphan Talty’s Website

Empire of Blue Water on Goodreads

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Contemporary, Fantasy, Fiction, Young Adult

Killer Unicorns duology by Diana Peterfreund

Unicorns are a pretty hot topic these days so I figured it was time to honor someone who led the charge for unicorns before the train even left the station.

Rampant Synopsis

Forget everything you ever knew about unicorns…

Astrid Llewelyn has always scoffed at her eccentric mother’s stories about killer unicorns. But when one attacks her boyfriend – ruining any chance of him taking her to prom – Astrid finds herself headed to Rome to train as a unicorn hunter at the ancient Cloisters the hunters have used for centuries.

However, all is not what it seems at the Cloisters. Outside, unicorns wait to attack. And within, Astrid faces other, unexpected threats: from bone-covered walls that vibrate with terrible power to the hidden agendas of her fellow hunters to her growing attraction to a handsome art student… an attraction that could jeopardize everything.

Review

Imagine a world where unicorns are not only real, but the antithesis of the cuddly, soul saving, pointy-horned creatures fantastical literature has made them out to be. Usually, when I give the basic premise of the series to my fellow readers, I get a raised eyebrow and a skeptical expression. To which I always answer, “Just trust me, you’ll love it.” And thus far, I’m pleased to report that has, overwhelmingly, been the case.

Astrid just wants to be a regular teenage girl, but her mother, a descendant of Alexander the Great, knows Astrid’s destiny is far superior to ordinary high school life – she’s one of the few who can protect the world from the five races or unicorns who seek to destroy humanity. So Astrid is shipped off to a ramshackle training facility in the heart of Rome to begin her education in world saving. But fewer and fewer young women can join her in her quest against the unicorns as there is a clause in the world saving rules that keeps many eligible youngsters from being able to fulfill their noble destiny: they have to be virgins. And someone, out in the world, outside of their cloistered training ground (or possibly within it), is trying to make sure that the number of unicorn killers is kept to a minimum by taking advantage of this clause. Astrid must decide if she truly wants the life of a unicorn killer and if she’s willing to give up a budding romance with a delicious Italian in order to fulfil her destiny.

I know, that’s full of clichés about a teenage girl finding herself. It is Diana Peterfreund’s prose that makes the story impossible to let go of and ridiculously hard to put down. Astrid’s voice is firm and clear, she’s her own person and her character development is flawless. Like Amy before her, Astrid is an inspiration and role model for those looking to stand on their own two feet and fight for themselves.

Rating: 8 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $8.99 • 9780061490040 • 432 pages • first published September 2009, this edition published August 2010 by HarperTeen • average Goodreads rating 3.53 out of 5 • read July 2012

Diana Peterfreund’s Website

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Rampant

Biography, History, Non-Fiction

The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich

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

Synopsis

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

Review

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

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

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

Rating: 10 out of 10 stars

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

Svetlana Alexievich’s Website

The Unwomanly Face of War on Goodreads

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20180527_142714 2

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

A Discovery of Witches on Goodreads

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Discovery of Witches

Non-Fiction, Travel

Atlas Obscura by Joshua Foer, Dylan Thuras & Ella Morton

Fun and eccentric travel book with lots of random and unknown places in it? Can I have a copy now please? These may or may not have been my exact words to my boss when this book first showed up at the store. 

Synopsis

It’s time to get off the beaten path. Inspiring equal parts wonder and wanderlust, Atlas Obscura celebrates over 700 of the strangest and most curious places in the world.

Talk about a bucket list: here are natural wonders–the dazzling glowworm caves in New Zealand, or a baobob tree in South Africa that’s so large it has a pub inside where 15 people can drink comfortably. Architectural marvels, including the M.C. Escher-like stepwells in India. Mind-boggling events, like the Baby Jumping Festival in Spain, where men dressed as devils literally vault over rows of squirming infants. Not to mention the Great Stalacpipe Organ in Virginia, Turkmenistan’s 40-year hole of fire called the Gates of Hell, a graveyard for decommissioned ships on the coast of Bangladesh, eccentric bone museums in Italy, or a weather-forecasting invention that was powered by leeches, still on display in Devon, England.

More cabinet of curiosities than traditional guidebook, Atlas Obscura revels in the unexpected, the overlooked, the bizarre, and the mysterious. Every page expands our sense of how strange and marvelous the world really is. And with its compelling descriptions, hundreds of photographs, surprising charts, and maps for every region of the world. It is a book you can open anywhere. But with caution: It’s almost impossible not to turn to the next entry, and the next, and the next.

Review

Christmas shopping each year for my brother-in-law and his wife is next to impossible. As corporate lawyers in New York City (now in Miami), they want for just about nothing, so getting them a present that speaks to the interests and sensibilities is the only way to go. And it’s hard. Easier now than it was before they had children back in 2016 when this beauty arrived in the store and for once, in the 6 years I’d been buying them presents, I knew exactly what to get them. I made the book one of my staff picks for holiday gift giving and, as my boss gets each of the staff a book of their choice for Christmas each year, I asked for a copy of my own.

As regular world travels (I have great and excessive envy of their passports), my brother-in-law and his wife delighted in picking out the places they’d been and where they’d want to go. They spent hours on Christmas Day pouring over the pages and it was passed around the family for hours after that. When visiting them at their apartment, it was the only book they had out on the table, the edges now worn and clearly turned repeatedly with care.

Now, as I plan my trip to the UK to visit my sister in June, I’ve post-it noted the places I want to go, and also marked them on the Atlas Obscura website because the book is too precious (and heavy) to travel with. I’ve altered my travel plans with her to suit visiting some of the places included in this book (as well as Lonely Planet’s Global Coffee Tour) and in my researching and paging through, I was pleasantly surprised to find it included some places I had already traveled too!

Rating: 10 out of 10 stars

Edition: Hardcover • $35.00 • 9780761169086 • 480 pages • published September 2016 by Workman Publishing • average Goodreads rating 4.25 out of 5 • referenced repeatedly since December 2016

Atlas Obscura Website

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Atlas Obscura

Biography, History, 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

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First Women

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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Fantastic Beasts