Memoir/Autobiography, Non-Fiction, Sociology, Travel

Travels with Myself and Another by Martha Gellhorn

In continuing my war correspondent memoir/biography trend, I figured it was time I pick up Martha Gellhorn’s Travels with Myself and Another. Those who know who she is typically think of her as Hemingway’s third wife, but those who care about journalism, know her as one of the first female war correspondents, and inspiration to my favorite journalist, Marie Colvin.

Synopsis

As a journalist, Gellhorn covered every military conflict from the Spanish Civil War to Vietnam and Nicaragua. She also bewitched Eleanor Roosevelt’s secret love and enraptured Ernest Hemingway with her courage as they dodged shell fire together.

Hemingway is, of course, the unnamed “other” in the title of this tart memoir, first published in 1979, in which Gellhorn describes her globe-spanning adventures, both accompanied and alone. With razor-sharp humor and exceptional insight into place and character, she tells of a tense week spent among dissidents in Moscow; long days whiled away in a disused water tank with hippies clustered at Eilat on the Red Sea; and her journeys by sampan and horse to the interior of China during the Sino-Japanese War.

Review

Martha Gellhorn has fascinated me for quite some time, given my present obsession with female war correspondents this should not be surprising. Her life, one wholly unconventional for her time, is inspiring, but also, in light of twenty first century sensibilities, one I had to remind myself, began over a century ago.

A feminist at her core, Martha, M as UC (unwilling companion, AKA Hemingway) calls her, sets off on each “horror journey” as she’s dubbed them, without a great deal of pre-planning, other than the bare minimum required by her destination. The era of traveling by your bootstraps, hopping flights when you need them, hoping to stumble upon a hotel with available rooms each night, etc. is simply unheard of today. Even when Ewan MacGregor and Charley Boorman went around the world and south through Africa on motorcycles, they still had reservations and accommodations, or at least tents to sleep in each night. Did Martha? No.

When I think of a single woman traveling in the 1940s, ’50s, and early ’60s, I feel a sympathetic sense of dread. I keep waiting for something to go thoroughly wrong, but by her wits or the kindness of others, she avoids any great gender related danger. M doesn’t typically discuss how her gender has anything to do with her ability to travel and I LOVE IT. I felt the real sense of, “If M can do it, so can I!” much more so than when reading Lynsey Addario’s autobiography and Lindsey’s biography of Marie Colvin (apparently a disproportionate number of my favorite journalists are Lindseys…) – they went to the front lines of war. Martha, due to either her gender or the time period, goes to the back lines of war. The war that we don’t see that isn’t quite as dangerous as the war everyone saw on the newsreels each night.

When M and UC (Hemingway) go to China during World War II, it never feels like there is a great threat on their lives. When M goes to the French islands of the Caribbean, I learned a great deal about how the Vichy government affected their lives, but I was never fearful of M’s survival. These adventures, and M’s quite frequent poor decision making – when the pilot of the boat tells you he won’t wait for you to scale a dormant volcano because he can’t dock safely, you should probably heed his warning and not be surprised when you get up in the morning and he’s gone – just a thought. But all these adventures are learning experiences for M and for us, her readers, 40 years after the original publication, 70 years after the adventure. But the real sticking point for this collection for me is M’s trip to Africa.

Holy mother of colonialism. In January of 1962, Martha Gellhorn went to Africa. I found the map in my photo in my collection of vintage maps with a copyright date of 1960 – pretty darn close to how the continent was divided politically at the time of Martha’s travels. Given that Martha’s trip to Africa is by far the longest and move life-affecting of this collection of essays, it seemed a fitting backdrop for the book. But to think of Martha’s approach to the continent, it makes me retch a bit inside.

It seems so foreign to me that we, as human beings, particularly white people, could stereotype an entire continent of people and refuse to get to know them, learn about their communities, and simply label them as selfish, liars, etc. The thing that terrifies me the most is that M was probably considered progressive for her time. While I’m sure there are readers who would find it difficult to turn off their 2018 filters and would find her recounting of her trip to Africa offensive, at it’s core it is a compelling historical and sociological exploration into the changing nature of how we travel and interact with people, and is definitely worth reading.

Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $17.00 • 9781585420902 • 320 pages • first published 1979, this edition published May 2001 by TarcherPerigee • average Goodreads rating 3.83 out of 5 stars • read in December 2018

Travels with Myself and Another

Fiction, Historical

Dear Mrs. Bird by A. J. Pearce

Working six days a week at the bookstore for the holidays is crazy and I’m way off of my normal posting schedule. But it’s probably one of my favorite times in the store – I get to tell people about my  favorite books all day and they’re most inclined to buy them as gifts! Each year everyone on the staff picks 3 books for our top “gift giving books” of the year and Dear Mrs. Bird is one of mine.

Synopsis

Emmeline Lake and her best friend Bunty are doing their bit for the war effort and trying to stay cheerful despite the German planes making their nightly raids. Emmy dreams of becoming a Lady War Correspondent and when she spots a job advertisement in the newspaper she seizes her chance, but after a rather unfortunate misunderstanding, she finds herself typing letters for the formidable Henrietta Bird, renowned advice columnist of Women’s Friend magazine.

Mrs. Bird if very clear: letters containing any Unpleasantness must go straight into the bin. But as Emmy reads the desperate pleas from women who may have Gone Too Far with the wrong man, or can’t bear to let their children be evacuated, she begins to secretly write back to the readers who have poured out their troubles.

Review

I have loved a good World War II novel for a very long time and have been a deep lover of the genre of historical fiction as a whole for more than two decades (which is more than two thirds of my life given that I’m just shy of 30). A few years ago, though, it seemed to be all I read – great for giving recommendations as at the bookstore, not so great for mental health and reading enjoyment. I felt broken – scenes in concentration camps no longer elicited any feelings from me. I should be bawling my eyes out and I wasn’t. I should have felt something more than simple blase. So I took a break.

Then our Simon & Schuster sales rep gave me and ARC of Dear Mrs. Bird. When it came out and I still hadn’t read it, he sent me a finished copy. When he stopped in to see us and I still hadn’t read it, he very kindly told me (lectured me) about not doing so. He thought it’d be perfect for me. I should have listened to him sooner.

When the holiday staff table was looking like it needed a jolt of historical fiction, I figured it was the perfect time to read this most delightful of books. Did I cry? Of course I did – it’s a World War II novel and is not without it’s share of doom and gloom. But that’s not the main point. That’s not the main plot. It’s not the driving force of Emmy’s life. Is it perfect? No. It’s a debut and the pacing and plot can be clunky and lacking. But it is a most enjoyable and delightful read and an excellent addition to the genre.

So, if you’re a WWII lover like me but are feeling a bit broken by each book trying to be the next Book Thief or Nightingale, take a look at Dear Mrs. Bird. I promise you won’t be disappointed.

Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

Edition: Hardcover • $26.00 • 9781501170065 • 288 pages • published July 2018 by Scribner • average Goodreads rating 3.81 out of 5 • read in December 2018

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, 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

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In Extremis

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

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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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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

Memoir/Autobiography, Non-Fiction, Political Science

Who Thought This Was a Good Idea? by Alyssa Mastromonaco

Like my present obsession with the Royals (well, persistent obsession since I was 7 years old and Diana died), I’ve recently become entranced by the the American version, and no, I absolutely do not mean the Kardasians, but those who occupy the White House. Prior to the current occupants. Wow, there are a lot of stipulations on my interests… anyway, White House memoirs and bios are my jam lately apparently.

Synopsis

Alyssa Mastromonaco worked for Barack Obama for almost a decade, and long before his run for president. From the then-senator’s early days in Congress to his years in the Oval Office, she made Hope and Change happen through blood, sweat, tears, and lots of briefing binders.

But for every historic occasion – meeting the queen at Buckingham Palace, bursting in on secret climate talks, or nailing a campaign speech in a hailstorm – there were dozens of less-than-perfect moments when it was up to Alyssa to save the day. Like the time she learned the hard way that there aren’t nearly enough bathrooms as the Vatican.

Full of hilarious, never-before-told stories, Who Thought This Was a Good Idea? is an intimate portrait of a president, a book about how to get stuff done, and the story of how one woman challenged, again and again, what a “White House official” is supposed to look like.

Review

I had a whole clever introduction figured out in my head earlier today, but, as is the case with my most brilliant phrases, they were lost to the sands of time because I didn’t write them down. That happens more often these days it seems. When I first picked up Who Thought This Was a Good Idea?, I did so with the intention of giving it to my mother for her birthday. And then I really hoped she’d read it, and then I’d read it, and we could talk about it. I don’t think she’s read it yet though, so I’m going to share all of my thoughts with you lovely readers!

It’s hard to put my finger on exactly how to classify this book – part memoir, part job search assistant, part political insider knowledge, part humor, part everything, and I enjoyed each and every facet of it. Lately I’ve been trying to find the motivation to take the steps necessary to move back into the world of teaching and, once I realized that the intended release date was meant to coincide with graduations, the job advice part really made sense and stuck. It’s been quite helpful, and I’m glad I’ve finished it before high school graduation season here at the store so that I can recommend it to those looking for insightful and helpful presents.

The timeline of Who Thought This Was a Good Idea? is not chronological which, for a memoir, takes some getting used to (I would make memoir its primary genre, though I found it in domestic affairs at a B&N which I disagree with – we shelve it in biography). As with First Women, Mastromonaco tends to share things thematically, which I appreciated. There are some continuing threads, including stories of her cat and family (some of my personal favorites) and travel, mostly with Obama. I would strongly recommend it to anyone who is looking for an enjoyable book about political life that really has nothing to do with politics and everything to do with growing up and figuring out who you are while you attempt to change the world and bring hope to America.

Rating: 9 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $15.99 • 9781455588237 • 272 pages • originally published March 2017, this edition published March 2018 by Twelve • average Goodreads rating 3.89 out of 5 • read May 2018

Who Thought This Was a Good Idea? on Goodreads

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Who Thought This Was a Good Idea

 

Fantasy, Fiction

A Darker Shade of Magic by V. E. Schwab

Do you ever look at your shelves of books and think “This book has been here too long.”? That’s how I’ve felt about A Darker Shade of Magic – I’ve had it since 2015 and I’ve been recommending it to bookstore patrons for just as long, but without admitting that I hadn’t read it. So now, it’s time, I have read it. And for the life of me I can’t figure out why it took so long.

Synopsis

Welcome to Grey London, dirty and boring, without any magic, with one mad king – George III. Then there is Red London, where life and magic are revered, and White London, a city slowly being drained through magical war, down to its very bones. And once upon a time, there was Black London… but no one speaks of that now.

Officially, Kell is the Red Traveler – one of the last magicians who can travel between the worlds – acting as ambassador and messenger between the Londons, in the service of the Maresh empire. Unofficially, he’s a smuggler, which is a dangerous hobby for him to have – as proved when Kell stumbles into a setup with a forbidden token from Black London.

Fleeing into Grey London, Kell runs afoul of Delilah Bard, a cutpurse with lofty aspirations, who first robs him, then saves him from a dangerous enemy, and then forces Kell to spirit her to another world for a proper adventure. But perilous magic is afoot, and treachery lurks at every turn. To save all the worlds, they’ll first need to stay alive.

Review

It’s been quite awhile since I read a fantasy novel, longer still since I read one that is typically shelved on the adult side of the store versus young adult. This fact is one that makes my coworkers laugh, given that I am the staff member most likely to offer recommendations in said section. I’d been meaning to read A Darker Shade of Magic since it first came out shortly before I took my bookstore job in 2015 and first started hearing wonderful things about Victoria/V. E. Schwab.

I certainly was not disappointed. Given how few fiction books have held my attention these days, the fact that I finished it in the first place is a massive endorsement. Kell and Lila are a fun pair of characters, equally matched in cleverness and wits and I appreciated that they were both well developed and quite wonderfully flawed. The plot was quick and enjoyable and, thankfully, the moments of suspense were done so wonderfully – I actually feared for the characters lives, despite knowing that further books in the series exist.

Additionally, it doesn’t end on a cliffhanger! I was nearly jumping up in down when I got to the end and didn’t want to chuck the book across the room. Cliffhangers make me nuts – I’ve found I’ve mostly lost my taste for series these days and I enjoy a story that has a clear beginning, middle, and end. A Darker Shade of Magic can be read all on its own, but for the promise of female pirates in the second, V. E. Schwab has this girl hooked!

Rating: 9 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $15.99 • 9780765376466 • 416 pages • originally published February 2015, this edition published January 2016 by Tor Books • average Goodreads rating 4.08 out of 5 • read May 2018

V. E. (Victoria) Schwab’s Website

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Darker Shade of Magic

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

First Women on Goodreads

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First Women