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, History, Non-Fiction

In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson

Looking for an interesting historical book about Nazi Germany, and knowing that my book club was going to read Dead Wake, I decided to read In the Garden of Beasts. Downside, it is a difficult book to get into, upside, the audiobook is well done and enjoyable.  

Synopsis

The time is 1933; the place, Berlin, when William E. Dodd becomes America’s first ambassador to Hitler’s Germany in a year that proved to be a turning point in history.

A mild-mannered professor from Chicago, Dodd brings along his wife, son, and flamboyant daughter, Martha. At first Martha is entranced by the parties and pomp and the handsome young men of the Third Reich with their infectious enthusiasm for restoring Germany to a position of world prominence. But as evidence of Jewish persecution mounts, confirmed by chilling first person testimony, her father telegraphs his concerns to a largely indifferent State Department back home. Dodd watches with alarm as Jews are attacked, the press is censored, and drafts of frightening new laws begin to circulate. As that first year unfolds and the shadows deepen, the Dodds experience days full of excitement, intrigue, romance, and – ultimately – horror, when a climactic spasm of violence and murder reveals Hitler’s true character and ruthless ambition.

Review

In the Garden of Beasts is a bit dry. Even for those who are very interested in the time period, and Americans’ experiences in early Nazi Germany it can be a bit difficult to get into. Therefore, I recommend pairing it with another book that covers an alternate perspective during the same time, or close to it. And listen to the audiobook.

In the Garden of Beasts is less the story of the Dodd family and more the story of what was really going on in 1933 Berlin, and Germany as a whole. Even most people with an interest in the time and subject matter do not know of just how atrocious that actions of the Brownshirts/Stormtroopers/SA/SS were at the time. The concentration camps? Already in existence. Jewish purges? Already happening. Americans threatened? Yep. Already hating the Soviet Union? Check. To the point where the US didn’t even want to acknowledge it’s existence. Hitler lying repeatedly? Absolutely. Dissidents disappearing mysteriously or being shot point blank? Anyone who denies any of this, and the war atrocities and Holocaust happening? Remind them that the Nazis gave us one small means of confirming their despicable actions – they were meticulous record keepers.

Like all populist revolutions, the German revolution started off with charismatic leaders and promises that most people could support. As mentioned in my review of Four Perfect Pebbles, however, this seemingly perfect revolution can quickly become dangerous. The same thing happened in Iran as recounted in Persepolis. No one should think that they have to destroy an entire group of people.

Also, Erik Larson does a terrific job of differentiating between the German people and the members of the Nazi party. The Dodds were in Germany at a time when the German army still held loyalty to the president, Hindenburg, not the chancellor, Hitler. The actions of the Nazis were not the actions of all of the German people. As the granddaughter of a German woman who, while not Jewish, still suffered greatly during the war, my sister and I appreciate the distinction being made. My grandmother faced enough adversity in coming to the US without needing to be blamed for killing people, she was only ten years old when the war ended.

Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $17.00 • 9780307408853 • 448 pages • originally published May 2011, this edition published May 2012 by Broadway Books • average Goodreads rating 3.82 out of 5 stars • read March 2018

Erik Larson’s Website

In the Garden of Beasts on Goodreads

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In the Garden of Beasts

Contemporary, Fiction, New Adult

The Royal We by Heather Cocks & Jessica Morgan

Yesterday a book came into the bookstore that I could not believe my coworkers did not show me immediately – a new biography of Prince Harry! I freaked out so much my boss just gave it to me… I should probably tone down my royalist tendencies. But it reminded me of another book that I read a few years ago that I loved that has now made its way around the staff at the bookstore – The Royal We! Laura first sent me a picture of the cover when it was first released expecting me to mock it, and instead I told her I wanted it. It has been a favorite ever since. After Laura read it, we decided it should be a book club pick.

16 - March 2017 - The Royal We

Synopsis

American Rebecca Porter was never one for fairy tales. Her twin sister, Lacey, has always been the romantic who fantasized about glamour and royalty, fame and fortune. Yet it’s Bex who finds herself living down the hall from Prince Nicholas, Great Britain’s future king. And when Bex can’t resist falling for Nick, the person behind the prince, it propels her into a world she did not expect to inhabit, under a spotlight she is not prepared to face.

Dating Nick immerses Bex in ritzy society, dazzling ski trips, and dinners at Kensington Palace with him and his charming, troublesome brother, Freddie. But the relationship also comes with unimaginable baggage: hysterical tabloids, Nick’s sparkling ex-girlfriends, and a royal family whose private life is much thornier and more tragic than anyone on the outside knows. The pressures are almost too much to bear, as Bex struggles to reconcile the man she loves with the monarch he’s fated to become.

Which is how she gets into trouble.

Now, on the eve of the wedding of the century, Bex is faced with whether everything she’s sacrificed for love – her career, her home, her family, maybe even herself – will have been for nothing.

Review

I completely adore this book. Even though I am a diehard (American) royalist, I never entertained princess fantasies after the age of 9 (other than hoping I’d run into Prince Harry while on a London vacation when I was 16), but I am a sucker for a well-written and convincing royal love story. Thankfully, The Royal We delivers on both counts. I’ve been burned by terrible royalist fanfiction over the years, drivel full of simpering and annoying characters that made we want to gag (you can be royal and still have a personality you know…) and the last time I read a decent royal princess book was when I read Ella Enchanted and Just Ella back to back and over and over again when I was in the 4th grade. That was 16 years ago and I’d been searching ever since. Finally, my search is over!

Bex is a modern American young woman (props to the authors for writing awesome college characters!) who jumps at the chance to study art at Oxford as an exchange student from Cornell – yep, she’s witty and brilliant too! She thoroughly embodies what I think of when I think of a model New Adult protagonist – like Mary Poppins, she’s practically perfect in every way! And by practically perfect, I mean she’s real, she has flaws, she can be impulsive and indecisive and questioning but also strong and fierce and proud to be herself. Nick is charming, and also particularly perfect in his flaws as well. To the point where I questioned whether or not Heather Cocks and/or Jessica Morgan knew Prince William and if he was anything like Nick in his early twenties.

Beyond the two main characters (as The Royal We is told from Bex’s point of view, clearly it’s mostly about her and Nick and their relationship), the supporting cast are equally intriguing (oftentimes more so than B & N) and never fall flat, unless they’re literally falling flat on their faces, which might happen occasionally… Prince Freddie behaves in what I imagine to be a very Prince Harry like fashion, their father is cold and cruel (which does contrast to the image of slightly goofy Charles) and the addition of a mother character on the royal end is fascinating. Bex’s family is charming and clearly love her unconditionally, but it’s her twin sister that readers see the most of, and, well, Lacey’s not too thrilled to be giving up the spotlight. A good bit of sisterly drama unfolds which, having a sister, I could thoroughly appreciate, and it a strong point of the story to see their relationship change, evolve, and, eventually, deteriorate, though there is hope for future reconciliation!

I could read The Royal We over and over again and probably not get bored, for at least the first three re-reads. Though now, Laura has read it so given that she had at first hoped I’d mock it, we’ll have to see how she weighs in in her review in a few weeks!

Rating: 9 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $14.99 • 9781455557110 • 496 pages • first published April 2015, this edition published April 2016 by Grand Central Publishing • average Goodreads rating 3.8 out of 5 • read in August 2015

Heather Cocks & Jessica Morgan’s Website

The Royal We on Goodreads

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Royal We

Fiction, Science Fiction

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

I had wanted to read Station Eleven for quite a while, since I first saw it sitting on a table in a bookstore. I picked it up regularly in stores and contemplated purchasing it before finally doing so two years ago. And then it sat in my to-be-read pile for far too long. So when I decided to start my book club, The Modern Readers, I thought it would be the perfect first book! In starting a book club, I hoped that if I picked the books, I would really want to read them and it wouldn’t feel like required reading… but, confession time, alas, it sort of did feel like required reading – I was flying through most of the second half of the book while half-awake early in the morning a few hours before our first meeting.

1 - October 2015 - Station Eleven

Synopsis

Kirsten Raymonde will never forget the night Arthur Leander, the famous Hollywood actor, had a heart attack onstage during a production of King Lear. That was also the night when a devastating flu pandemic arrived in the city, and within weeks, civilization as we know it came to an end.

Twenty years later, Kirsten moves between the settlements of the altered world with a small troupe of actors and musicians. They call themselves the Traveling Symphony, and they have dedicated themselves to keeping the remnants of art and humanity alive. But when they arrive in St. Deborah by the Water, they encounter a violent prophet who will threaten the tiny band’s existence. And as they story takes off, moving back and forth in time, and vividly depicting life before and after the pandemic, the strange twist of fate that connects them all will be revealed.

Review

Station Eleven was a book I desperately wanted to love. As the first pick for the Modern Readers, I was hoping it would just knock my socks off. Unfortunately, I was disappointed to find that I was struggling just to finish it, let alone enjoy it.

I don’t know what exactly was so disappointing about Station Eleven, other than to say all of my fellow book club members seemed to feel similarly. Our overall consensus was that the idea was completely intriguing – a disease decimates most of the population and those who survived must figure out how to survive in this new and unfamiliar world. My problem, specifically, was in the characters. They really just existed in the world and their connections and relationships to each other all felt a bit forced and contrived and didn’t really add to the reader’s understanding of the characters.

There was one big exception to this – Clark, the British friend of the man who started everything, Arthur, the great actor. While Clark is absent for the vast majority of the story, when he does come back into play, his presence is not meant to only draw other story lines together, but we really get some insight into who Clark is as a character – the first and only time we really get any character motivation injected into the story.

Other than a perceived lack of character development, we collectively agreed as a book club that we would have loved to see some of the drawings and pieces of the graphic novel mentioned throughout the story that lends the book it’s title, Station Eleven.

Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $16.00 • 9780804172448 • 352 pages • first published September 2014, this edition published June 2015 by Vintage • average Goodreads rating 4.02 out of 5 • read in November 2015

Emily St. John Mandel’s Website

Station Eleven on Goodreads

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Station Eleven

Classics, Fiction, Mystery

A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Last summer, my book club, the Modern Readers, decided to go on a magical mystery tour, reading one contemporary, one Agatha Christie and one Sherlock Holmes mystery. We had a heck of a lot of fun and we will definitely do it again at some point!

9 - August 2016 - Sherlock

Synopsis

Though endlessly reinterpreted, reinvented, and imitated, the Sherlock Holmes stories have never been surpassed. Sporting his signature billowing coat and pipe in hand, the genius investigator Holmes captivates readers with his alluring melancholy and superhuman intuition, while his partner, Dr. Watson, remains ever the perfect foil, a classic Victorian gentleman with brilliant intellect. Set in the seductive world of Victorian London, the stories of Holmes and Watson live on, as immediate and original in our time as in their own.

Review

When the Modern Readers decided to embark on a Magical Mystery Tour of a summer, we thought that we’d be ending the summer with what would be our favorite of the lot. We all loved the Guy Ritchie/Robert Downey Jr. movies, we were a 50/50 split on the Cumberbatch mini series, but we figured that the source material would have to be great to inspire so many revisits and retellings.

But it wasn’t. And we all agreed that it wasn’t what we anticipated, it didn’t live up to our lofty expectations for it. We concluded that a good mystery lets you hypothesize, come to your own conclusion before the “big reveal!” Mystery writing, for all its nuances, really is formulaic – and it needs to be for a reader to fully engage in what they’re reading. Sir Arthur’s Sherlock doesn’t even attempt to let you try to solve the mystery with him. You’re given all the facts, not potential suspects, and then an extremely complicated backstory that even the great and wonderful Sherlock should never have been able to deduce as a means of explaining why the perpetrator did what they did.

There was no following along, no reasonable ability to follow Sherlock’s thought pattern. While this is understandably Sherlock’s MO, which we all knew going in as somewhat respectable Sherlockian aficionados, but in film and television, it’s easier to suspend believability and reality.

Rating: 5 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $9.00 • 9780140439083 • 192 pages • originally published in 1886, this edition published October 2001 by Penguin Books • average Goodreads rating 4.15 out of 5 • read in August 2016

A Study in Scarlet on Goodreads

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Sherlock Holmes