Biography, History, Non-Fiction

The Woman Who Smashed Codes by Jason Fagone

Bestsellers intrigue me. I don’t read many, which seems to confuse bookstore patrons until I tell them that I read other books so that when they have finished a bestseller and want something similar, I have a recommendation for them. But when The Woman Who Smashed Codes started to fly off the shelves, I was intrigued enough to take a look.

Synopsis

In 1916, a young Quaker schoolteacher and poetry scholar named Elizebeth Smith was hired by an eccentric tycoon to find the secret messages he believed were embedded in Shakespeare’s plays. But the urgencies of war quickly transformed Elizebeth’s mission, forcing her to apply her skills to an exciting new venture: codebreaking – the solving of secret messages without knowledge of the key. Working alongside her was William Friedman, a Jewish scientist who would become her husband and lifelong codebreaking partner.

Review

A number of customers at the bookstore came in looking for The Woman Who Smashed Codes because their book club had decided to read it. Each time I showed it to them, I’d flip it over, read the back cover myself, and think it was interesting before ultimately putting it back down. Then came holiday (over)ordering at the bookstore and when The Woman Who Smashed Codes came off the bestsellers and we still had a few too many copies on hand, I decided to make it my pet project to sell it myself, without the “bestseller” status, but with the “staff recommends” qualifier.

The holidays are the ultimate time for recommending books to customers. While we are always helping people find a book for themselves, now is the time when people come in with their holiday list and ask us to pick out books for their loved ones. Most of the time they give us some basic information: they like history books, fantasy, science, they’re accountants, etc. and then we take that information to pick out books for them in the store. With that in mind, I’ve decided to change up my review for this book today to my bookstore pitch, but in the opposite way, for customers who come up and ask us if a book is any good. (This is an idealized conversation, but I do have many that go somewhat like this)

Customer (holds up The Woman Who Smashed Codes): Is this book any good?
My Coworker: My manager, Sarah, loved it! Let me ask her to help you!
Me: I really enjoyed The Woman Who Smashed Codes! Is there anything in particular you would like to know about it?
Customer: Who would enjoy it?
Me: It would be a great gift for anyone who is fascinated by World War II history, or someone who enjoys lesser known stories from history, or anyone who loves a great biography of a unique person.
Customer: What was your favorite part of the book?
Me: I love stories about how people we’ve never heard of today played major roles throughout history. Elizebeth, the subject of the book, worked tirelessly to break the codes of Nazis during WWII and her work played a key role in the Americans’ decryption of the German Enigma machine. Additionally, it was her husband who broke the Japanese decryption machines – they were a fascinating couple and I loved how the author, Jason Fagone, really delves into their relationship instead of just focusing on Elizebeth’s work for the government.
Customer: That sounds really neat! I think I’ll give it a shot!

As booksellers, we know, especially during the holiday season, that we may only have a minute or two to share with a customer why we really love a book. Every customer can read the back of the book for a description of the plot/subject, but that information (and what I always include as the “synopsis”) comes from the publisher. I figure my role, as bookseller and blogger, is to put the personal emphasis on the books I love, the books that may also get overlooked on a store’s shelves if they don’t have colorful spines or staff picks tied to them.

When I can’t find the time to personally tell every customer about the books I think they’ll love, I write short little “blurbs” to put under the books on the shelf or print the blurbs up on bookmarks as we do at the store annually for our top holiday gift picks. That being said, my question to you, dear readers, is: When you go into a bookstore during the holidays, or any time of year, to you seek out staff picks? Do the staff’s recommendations hold any sway with what you end up deciding to read or take home?

Rating: 9 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $16.99 • 9780062430519 • first published September 2017, this edition published August 2018 by Dey Street Books • average Goodreads rating 4.19 out of 5 • read in November 2018

Woman Who Smashed Codes

 

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

Get a Copy of Jell-O Girls

Jell-O Girls

Fiction, Historical

The Kennedy Debutante by Kerri Maher

I’ve started reading again! In an effort to ingratiate myself with our publisher reps at the bookstore, I’ve decided to read an advanced reader copy a month BEFORE the book comes out AND write an “Indie Next” pick for it – this is the first! Downside, I read it back in July so my memory of it is a touch fuzzy…

Synopsis

London, 1938. The effervescent “It Girl” of London society since her father was named the ambassador, Kathleen “Kick” Kennedy moves in rarefied circles, rubbing satin-covered elbows with some of the twentieth century’s most powerful figures. Eager to escape the watchful eye of her strict mother, Rose; the antics of her older brothers, Jack and Joe; and the erratic behavior of her sister Rosemary, Kick is ready to strike out on her own and is soon swept off her feet by Billy Hartingon, the future Duke of Devonshire.

But their love is forbidden, as Kick’s devout Catholic family and Billy’s staunchly Protestant one would never approve their match. And when war breaks out like a tidal wave across her world, Billy is ripped from her arms as the Kennedys are forced to return to the States. Kick finds work as a journalist and joins the Red Cross to get back to England, where she will have to decide where her true loyalties lie – with family or with love…

Review

Kick Kennedy has fascinated me for years (for the full background on my love of Kick, see my review of Barbara Leaming’s biography, Kick Kennedy) so when Cheryl, our Penguin sales rep, told me about The Kennedy Debutante, I begged her to send me an advance copy. I happy wrote an Indie Next nomination for it, even though I didn’t love it as much as I hoped. And it didn’t make the list, but I felt a sense of accomplishment in doing it!

The Kennedy Debutante has taken Kick’s story and turned it into commercial women’s fiction. And for someone who doesn’t read a great deal of commercial fiction, particularly this year, I wasn’t entirely thrilled with the focus of the story being almost exclusively on Kick & Billy’s love story. Which has always been the least fascinating part of Kick’s story. The best parts of the book involved one of the few invented characters (no historical counterpart), a priest, Father O’Flaherty, who serves as Kick’s moral and religious counselor and is a bright spot in the face her parents’ darkness in the disconcerting time in London leading up to World War II. O’Flaherty is kind and compassionate and helps Kick come to terms with who she is, and the role that she has to play in British society, and subsequently it’s history, during her lifetime.

Additional bright spots include any time the Kennedy kids come into the frame, Joe & Jack (JFK) are quite a pair, and the inner glimpses into Rosemary and Eunice’s lives also show how close the sisters were and the obvious inspiration for Eunice’s founding of the Special Olympics. The siblings’ closeness was another bright spot of the book and I found myself often reading in anticipation of the next time the Kennedy clan would appear on set.

Overall, I enjoy The Kennedy Debutante, but if Kick was not the protagonist and it was say, about one of the Mitford sisters or a generic English woman living during WWII book, I would not have picked it up or bothered to be interested in it, given its position in the very saturated field of WWII fiction.

Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

Edition: Hardcover • $26.00 • 9780451492043 • 384 pages • published October 2018 by Berkley • average Goodreads rating 4.01 out of 5 • read in July 2018

Kerri Maher’s Website

The Kennedy Debutante on Goodreads

Get a Copy of The Kennedy Debutante

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

The Bookshop on the Corner on Goodreads

Get a Copy of The Bookshop on the Corner

Bookshop on the Corner

Fantasy, Fiction, Science Fiction, Young Adult

Reduction Duology by Diana Peterfreund

Diana Peterfreund is one of my most favorite authors. I first discovered her works when I was getting ready to head off to college in 2007 and I stumbled upon the Secret Society Girl series. It is one of the few series that actually covers college age activities and one I love dearly. Downside, it’s all but out of print and therefore I will not be reviewing it on here. So! I have decided to review my second favorite series by Diana, the Reduction duology.

For Darkness Shows the Stars Synopsis

It’s been several generations since a genetic experiment gone wrong caused the Reduction, decimating humanity and giving rise to a Luddite nobility who outlawed most technology.

Elliot North has always known her place in this world. Four years ago Elliot refused to run away with her childhood sweetheart, the servant Kai, choosing duty to her family’s estate over love. Since then the world has changed: a new class of Post-Reductionists is jumpstarting the wheel of progress, an Elliot’s estate is foundering, forcing her to rent land to the mysterious Cloud Fleet, a group of shipbuilders that includes renowned explorer Captain Malakai Wentforth – an almost unrecognizable Kai. And while Elliot wonders if this could be their second chance, Kai seems determined to show Elliot exactly what she gave up when she let him go.

But Elliot soon discovers her old friend carries a secret – one that could change their society… or bring it to its knees. And again, she’s faced with a choice: cling to what she’s been raised to believe, or cast her lot with the only boy she’s ever loved, even if she’s lost him forever.

Reviews

For Darkness Shows the Stars is the first book, Across a Star-Swept Sea is the second and my favorite of the two.

For Darkness Shows the Stars Review

Elliot is dedicated to her family and the Reduced who live and work on their family’s lands. Her family, alas, is not. It is this unwavering dedication to her family and maintaining the health and livelihood of those whom she has been charged to look after, that lost her the first great love of her young life. Until he shows back up on her family’s estate a completely changed man and Elliot is once again torn between her desire to help her family and her desire to spend time with the one she loves.

Unfortunately for me, I do not identify with Elliot at all. Her quandary is not one that I have ever really had to deal with – I’ve never been responsible for the wellbeing of anyone outside of my family, I’ve never had a dependent whereas Elliot has many, most of whom are adults. The reduction leaves many with a reduced mental capacity and so it’s almost as if Elliot is taking care of a group of elderly dementia patients, which at the time, was hard for me to understand as I lacked a frame of reference.

Elliot is a strong character, unwavering in her beliefs and loyalty to those she loves and cares about. Kai’s departure was not wholly her fault and while she does feel responsibility, she doesn’t apologize for her reasons for staying behind.

Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

Across a Star-Swept Sea Review

In the world of New Pacifica, the genetic experimentation that led to the reduction of mental abilities in a significant portion of the population has ended. But there is a new medical scare facing those who were medically un-reduced, a darkening of the mind similar to Alzheimer’s and dementia. Persis Blake, the Scarlet Pimpernel of her people, known as the Wild Poppy, is facing the prospect of her mother’s darkening. To the outside world, she is a shallow socialite, confidant of the queen but vapid and unsubstantial, her true identity hidden from all but the queen and another of their friends. Her mission is to rescue those who are being subjected to a drug that causes the reduction, the aristocracy of her neighboring island which teetering is on the brink of civil war.

Persis, in the tradition of Peterfreund’s protagonists in her other series, Amy and Astrid before her, is a strong and resilient character, wonderfully witty and clever and always quick on her feet. Her adventures are marvelously depicted on the pages that fly by with intensity and ferocity. She cannot stand the hypocrisy of those around her and instead of sitting idly by, she takes matters into her own hands. Basically, I cannot recommend any of these marvelous books enough – Diana’s writing is simply fabulous.

Rating: 10 out of 10 stars

For Darkness Shows the Stars Edition: Paperback • $9.99 • 9780062006158 • 407 pages • first published June 2012, this edition published July 2013 by Balzer & Bray/Harperteen • average Goodreads rating 3.88 out of 5 • read in July 2012

Diana Peterfreund’s Website

For Darkness Shows the Stars on Goodreads

Get a Copy of For Darkness Shows the Stars

137-Reduction duology - Across a Star-Swept Sea

Contemporary, Fiction, New Adult, Young Adult

Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series by Ann Brashares

I have been best friends with Tibby, Carmen, Lena and Bridget for more than half my life now. The summer before I turned fourteen, I was attempting to walk to the Barnes and Noble of Virginia Beach with Moppy in order to keep ourselves busy while Mom drove Laura home to get her braces off. After wandering the parking lot in sweltering heat for the better part of a half hour, we finally found the beloved bookstore and I managed to stumble upon my four new best friends. I read most of the book that day in the store and I was beyond hooked. In 2011, nearly ten years after the release of the first book, Ann Brashares brought our best friends back, now in their late 20s and living completely separate lives, and gives them the biggest tragedy anyone could experience to cope with.

Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants Synopsis

Four very different friends. One pair of magical pants. And a summer apart… We, the Sisterhood, hereby instate that following rules to govern the use of the Traveling Pants. 1. You must never wash the Pants. 2. You must never double-cuff the Pants. It’s tacky. There will never by a time when this will not be tacky. 3. You must never say the word “phat” while wearing the Pants. You must also never think “I am fat” while wearing the Pants. 4. You must never let a boy take off the Pants (although you may take them off yourself in his presence). 5. You must not pick your nose while wearing the Pants. You may, however, scratch casually at your nostril while really kind of picking. 6. Upon our reunion, you must follow the proper procedures for documenting your time in the Pants. 7. You must write to your Sisters throughout the summer, no matter how much fun you are having without them. 8. You must pass the Pants along to your Sisters according to the specifications set down by the Sisterhood. Failure to comply will result in a severe spanking upon our reunion. 9. You must not wear the Pants with a tucked-in shirt and belt. See Rule #2. 10. Remember: Pants = love. Love your pals. Love yourself.

Series Review

If you broke the foursome into their “stereotypes,” it would certainly be a great curiosity as to how they ever became friends. Fiery Carmen has a temper that would make even the fiercest warrior quake; shy, talented artist Lena is unsure of herself; Bridget’s mom died young and athletic Bridget is extremely reckless, and Tibby, older than her younger siblings by 12 years, feels like no one in her family understands her and rebels accordingly. They really only became friends because their mothers took an aerobics class together while pregnant and they were all born in September.

In The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, the girls spend their first summer apart and away from Bethesda. Carmen’s off to see her dad in South Carolina (where she learns he’s about to be remarried), Lena’s trekking to Greece with her grandparents (where she meets the love of her life), Bridget heads off to Baja for soccer camp where she flirts with her older soccer coach and Tibby feels neglected, left at home to work a menial job and, while trying to make a video that is worthwhile in an effort to further her directing career, she meets Bailey, a young cancer patient who has a profound effect on her life. Second Summer of the Sisterhood, Girls in Pants and Forever in Blue chronicle each subsequent summer of the girls’ lives in similar fashion, three leave and one girl is at home, and they send the pants around to each other. Each book is written from all four girls viewpoints.

I could, and can still, identify with all four girls and when I first picked up The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, I felt like I’d finally found the literary version of my middle school best friends, Ashlyn, Melanie and Nina. Who we each would be and whether we’d fit into the same pair of jeans, I’m unsure, but I do know that there’s a bit of all four girls in me.  The final book, Sisterhood Everlasting, upset many of my friends and my little  sister when they read it – it starts with tragedy, and I’ll say it straight off, one of the four is no longer with us. The girls are 28, living separate lives and barely in touch. Until one reaches out to bring them to Greece to reconnect. It is here that mysteries begin and the gradual reveal of secrets begins as the young women reconnect with each other and other beloved characters from the first four books. Ann Brashares let her girls grow with her readers and for that I am forever grateful. Sisterhood Everlasting is heartbreaking, achingly beautiful, ridiculously sad, and yet, there is a light at the end of the tunnel and our farewell to our best friends is a satisfying one. The books, the friendships, it’s all beautiful and I honestly cannot watch the movies or even the book trailers without tearing up over what happens.

Rating: 7 out of 10 stars for the series

Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants Edition: Paperback • $9.99 • 9780385730587 • 336 pages • first published September 2001, this edition published March 2003 by Ember • average Goodreads rating 3.76 out of 5 stars • read in July 2002

Ann Brashares’ Website

The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants on Goodreads

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128-Sisterhood Everlasting

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

At the Water’s Edge on Goodreads

Get a Copy of At the Water’s Edge

122-At the Water's Edge

Fantasy, Fiction, Middle Grades, Retelling

Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine

I’ll readily admit that Ella’s dark green dress on the front cover of the first paperback edition was what first caught my attention. But given my established record as a lover of fairy tale adaptations, it should come as no surprise that this is the book that started my obsession!

Synopsis

How can a fairy’s blessing be such a curse? — At her birth, Ella of Frell was given a foolish fairy’s gift—the “gift” of obedience. Ella must obey any order given to her, whether it’s hopping on one foot for a day or chopping off her own head! — But strong-willed Ella does not tamely accept her fate. She goes on a quest, encountering ogres, giants, wicked stepsisters, fairy godmothers, and handsome princes, determined to break the curse—and live happily ever after.

Review

I LOVE Ella Enchanted. Other than the American Girl books, it was the favorite book of my childhood. When I was home sick in elementary school, this is the book I made mom and dad read to me. When I wanted to find a costume for Halloween, I wanted to be Ella. When I grew up and got married, I wanted it to be to Prince Char. When Laura was making me crazy, I called her Hattie. When I wanted a book to make me happy and cheer me up, I reread Ella Enchanted.

​I had the same copy of Ella Enchanted since it was first published in paperback for the school market in 1998 when I was 8 and in 3rd grade and it finally suffered its last spine crease this summer and I was forced to buy a new copy. So, I bought two! One for me and one to read to Ben’s little sister because I’ll be darned if she misses Gail Carson Levine’s literary greatness! If you are looking for an excellent book for the upper elementary school age girl in your life, look no further than Ella! And please, if you haven’t already, don’t watch the movie.

Rating: 10 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $7.99 • 9780064407052 • 250 pages • first published 1997, this edition published May 2017 by Harper Trophy • average Goodreads rating 3.97 out of 5 stars • read in 1998

Gail Carson Levine’s Website

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118-Ella Enchanted

Fiction, Historical, Young Adult

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

I finally realized why I read so many books about young women during World War II. My grandmother grew up in Nürnberg during this time and she has never spoken about her childhood. From what my father has told me about her experiences, I wouldn’t talk about it either. I read so many books because I wonder – is this her story? Liesel Meminger’s tale is probably closest I’ll get to the unknown story of my grandmother’s childhood in Germany.

Synopsis

It is 1939. Nazi Germany. The country is holding its breath. Death has never been busier, and will become busier still.

By her brother’s graveside, Liesel Meminger’s life is changed when she picks up a single object, partially hidden in the snow. It is The Grave Digger’s Handbook, left there by accident, and it is her first act of book thievery. So begins a love affair with books and words, as Liesel, with the help of her accordion-playing foster father, learns to read. Soon she is stealing books from Nazi book-burnings, the mayor’s wife’s library, wherever there are books to be found.

But these are dangerous times. When Liesel’s foster family hides a Jew in their basement, Liesel’s world is both opened and closed.

Review

The Book Thief is an extraordinary book. Narrated by Death, it chronicles Liesel Meminger’s life from 1939 to 1943 – the time in which she lived with her foster family, the Hubermanns, in Molching, Germany, a suburb of Munich. Liesel is not Jewish, but an incredibly reluctant member of the Hitler Youth. Her daily life, at the start of the war, continues in much the same way as life before and after the war. She plays soccer on the streets with her friends, she attends school, she reads books, and she delivers laundry for her foster mother. But as the war progresses, her life changes in the ways one would expect a young German girl’s life to change due to war – rationing, air raids, knowing people who have been drafted into the army, etc.

However, Liesel’s story is not the typical WWII era narrative as it is, on the surface, the tale of the ordinary German, not very sensational or particularly moving. But Liesel is a literary powerhouse of a protagonist. Her brother dies, and she copes by stealing a book – a book from which she learns to read. And learning to read, that changes the course of her entire life.

It was an interesting choice, on Markus Zusak’s part, to have Death narrate the book – it adds a sense of foreboding but also a tone of almost “hyper-reality” – giving a voice to the one fact that we all know but don’t like to confront – everyone dies. Death is exhausted by World War II, between the soldiers, the Jews, and the civilians, he’s exhausted. But Death is touched by Liesel, the girl who seems to see him and a girl he encounters more times than he believes he should (I use “he” because I listened to The Book Thief and the reader is male).

Personifying Death takes away the fear, Death narrates the book like Liesel’s old friend, not as an inevitable outcome and I believe that makes Liesel’s tale more profound and moving. My words are inadequate in describing the suffering Liesel endures but Markus Zusak does so with a great love for her, for all his characters. Throughout The Book Thief, Liesel is moved herself by the power of words and though she starts as an illiterate child, she quickly becomes a voracious reader. She recognizes the power words have, the words that stay with us long after they are spoken or read, and she learns some valuable life lessons from her words and the words of others. Death reveals the outcome of the book long before the final pages but that doesn’t make the end any easier to accept. While not a direct story about the Holocaust or a novel of expected and imminent danger, the outcome is heartbreaking and completely, harshly real to Liesel and the reader.

Rating: 10 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $12.99 • 9780375842207 • 552 pages • first published March 2006, this edition published September 2007 by Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers • average Goodreads rating 4.36 out of 5 • read in May 2015

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Book Thief

Fantasy, Fiction, New Adult, Novella

Hear Me by Viv Daniels

This book is known to my family as “the reason Sarah owns a dreaded Kindle.” New Adult author Viv Daniels (aka my second favorite author in the whole wide world Diana Peterfreund), originally released this book eBook only. Two years later, I found that I could order a paperback (pictured above), but of course I had to read it as soon as it was released and therefore begged my dad to get me the device I swore I never wanted for Christmas that year. And while I’m not a big “holiday” reader, this is one of the few winter/Christmas books I read in December and it really did help get me in the holiday spirit.

Synopsis

Once upon a time, Ivy belonged to Archer, body, heart, and soul. They spent long summer days exploring the forest, and long summer nights exploring each other. But that was before dark magic grew in the depths of the wilderness, and the people of Ivy’s town raised an enchanted barrier of bells to protect themselves from the threat, even though it meant cutting off the forest people—and the forest boy Ivy loved—forever.

And there’s a naked man lying in the snow. Three years later, Ivy keeps her head down, working alone in her tea shop on the edge of town and trying to imagine a new future for herself, away from the forest and the wretched bells, and the memory of her single, perfect love. But in the icy heart of winter, a terrifying magic blooms—one that can reunite Ivy and Archer, or consume their very souls.

Review

For an eBook of not even 200 pages, Hear Me sticks with me, a good 3 years after I finished reading it. In one sitting. Viv Daniels (Diana Peterfreund) has cemented herself as an extraordinary writer and story crafter. Typically, when I go about “topic-tagging” a book, as I call, it there are usually about 10 to 15 that I assign, 5 to 10 for the books that are not at all complex or intriguing. This one? Over 30. That’s on par with a good series and, it weighs in at only 170 pages.

I had previously written off New Adult as being just “young adult with a steamy sex scene thrown in.” Does Hear Me fulfill that? Yes. If there was an R rating for books, this would have it. But Hear Me does so much more than tell the tale of loner Ivy and her aching, Archer loving heart – it explores the themes of oppression and racism, self-loathing and self-acceptance, desperation, and sacrifice, all in the name of love, and in a world, that is far from kind and frequently cruel and unjust. So, as is often the question with New Adult these days it seems, does it need the sex? No. Does the steaminess make it more enjoyable? Maybe. Does Viv Daniels do an expert job in telling an interesting, intriguing, and thought-provoking story? Absolutely.

Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $10.00 • 9781937135140 • 204 pages • published November 2014 by Word for Word • average Goodreads rating 3.26 out of 5 • read in December 2014

Viv Daniels’ Website

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Hear Me