Fiction, Historical, Young Adult

Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein

I may need to reread Rose Under Fire – when I first read it, I was “broken” on World War II novels – I’d read so many, I didn’t really “feel” anything when I read them anymore. There are things that happen in Rose Under Fire that are absolutely horrific and I just kept turning the pages. SO, if you decide to pick this wonderful book up, I advise doing so when you have not, like me, been binge-reading WWII novels.

Synopsis

While flying an Allied fighter plane from Paris to England, American ATA pilot and amateur poet, Rose Justice, is captured by the Nazis and sent to Ravensbrück, the notorious women’s concentration camp. Trapped in horrific circumstances, Rose finds hope in the impossible through the loyalty, bravery, and friendship of her fellow prisoners. But will that be enough to endure the fate that’s in store for her?

Review

I feel emotionally broken by books about World War II. But not in the way one would expect. I’m out of emotion. I’ve exhausted all the “feels” that come along with reading about the war by reading every book I can get my hands on with a female protagonist and a setting in the ten-year period from 1935 to 1945. I’ve tried so hard to find my grandmother’s story in book form that I’ve stopped connecting to the characters.

Time of truth: I didn’t feel anything while reading Rose Under Fire. “What?” You cry, “A book about a young woman suffering through Ravensbrück- RAVENSBRÜCK! and you felt… nothing?” But it’s true. I didn’t care about Rose. She seemed entirely too self-absorbed. Her friends died, and I didn’t shed a tear because I felt like I didn’t know them – I have enough people I know about to cry for, and Rose didn’t give them much life. But her writing is stupendous – Elizabeth Wein is one of the best writers that I have ever had a pleasure to read and for that reason I’ve rated this reasonably well and why I will still read anything and everything she writes. But back to the book.

Survivors’ accounts of the concentration camps and the Holocaust are incredibly moving because they are true, and I think Elizabeth Wein took on a massive challenge in trying to recreate a fictional survivor’s account and, by public opinion poll, she was incredibly successful. I think I found it less successful because I’m too close to it – my grandmother lost so many people in her hometown of Nürnberg during the war – real people that she loved and cared for. My love for my grandmother makes her tragedy part of my history, part of my cultural identity. My annoyance with Rose made it incredibly hard to care about the trials and tribulations of her and her compatriots. I kept wondering if it was the overall story I didn’t connect with or the character and ultimately, it was the character. Rose bores me when compared to the literary juggernaut who appears in both Code Name Verity and Rose Under Fire and I’m not talking about Maddie, but I don’t want to give anything away. I would have loved to read that story. Any chance of a third book from a certain German’s perspective?

Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $9.99 • 9781423184690 • 384 pages • originally published September 2013, this edition published September 2014 by Disney-Hyperion • average Goodreads rating 4.13 out of 5 • read in June 2015

Elizabeth Wein’s Website

Rose Under Fire on Goodreads

Get a Copy of Rose Under Fire

Rose Under Fire

Fantasy, Fiction

The Magicians trilogy by Lev Grossman

Happy Halloween! Since I don’t read a lot of horror, I figured a fantasy series was the next best pick for Halloween.

The Magicians Synopsis

Intellectually precocious high school senior Quentin Coldwater escapes the boredom of his daily life by reading and rereading a series of beloved fantasy novels set in an enchanted land called Fillory. Like everybody else, he assumes that magic isn’t real – until he finds himself unexpectedly admitted to a very secret, very exclusive college of magic in upstate New York.

After stumbling through a Brooklyn alley in winter, Quentin finds himself on the grounds of the idyllic Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy in late summer. There, after passing a gruesomely difficult entrance examination, he begins a thorough and rigorous education in the craft of modern sorcery, while also discovering the joys of college: friendship, love, sex, and alcohol. But something is missing. Even though Quentin learns to cast spells and transform into animals, and gains power he never dreamed of, magic doesn’t bring him the happiness and adventure he thought it would. After graduation, he and his friends embark on an aimless, hedonistic life in Manhattan, struggling with the existential crises that plague pampered and idle young sorcerers. Until they make a stunning discovery that propels them on a remarkable journey, one that promises to finally fulfill Quentin’s yearning. But their journey turns out to be darker and more dangerous than Quentin could have imagined. His childhood dream is a nightmare with a shocking truth at its heart.

Series Review

Oh Quentin. My bloody brilliant Quentin. I both adore and despise you. This might be less of a review and more of a Quentin Coldwater character analysis…

Never have I had such a love-hate relationship with a primary character in a book. I abandoned The Magicians halfway through the first time I started reading it back when I was a 20-year-old junior in college because I hated Quentin. I couldn’t stand him. He embodied everything that I hated about the stereotypical college boys but at the same time, like my dear, beloved, favorite character Alice (she rivals my Hermione love like no other), I was inexplicably drawn to him. I just didn’t want to read about him.

Fast forward five years and I found myself one day just staring at the cover of The Magician’s Land and, surprising longing for Quentin’s world of Brakebills College of Magic. So, continuing on my quest of “reading” the books already on my shelves by listening to the audiobook, I rented The Magicians from the library as I find it best to return to the beginning and not to trust my loathsome memory to remember all the details (and especially why I found Alice so awesome) required to start in the middle of The Magicians half a decade after my initial foray into reading about Quentin and his motley crew.

Is Q still terribly annoying more than 75% of the time? Yes. Does it matter anymore? No. Because I realized that Quentin is simply the mouthpiece for the larger story and by the time The Magician King rolls around, he is not the only point of view character (yay!). Quentin isn’t even the hero of his own story half the time (which leads to his melancholy and delight for me!) and he really messes up – like royally screws things up and skewers his own happiness by trying to be happy. Crazy, I know, but true. But this happens to nearly every twenty-something – invariably we wind up making something we care about worse by trying to make it better, but trying to fix something that isn’t broken to begin with.

The trilogy covers roughly 13 years of Quentin’s life and over that time he grows from a scrawny, gangly asshole at 17 to a semi-distinguished (albeit fired) professor at 30. But what I really love about The Magicians trilogy is that isn’t not just the Quentin show 24/7, but all the other supporting characters, particularly classmate and eventual love interest Alice, are whole. They are complete, and they are independent, and they are certainly not defined by their relationship to Quentin, hero though he insists on being. And if Quentin pisses them off, so be it. They move on with their lives and things aren’t magically righted or fixed just because he eventually finds it in himself to say sorry (even when it’s 7 years later).

Point being, Quentin can suck, a lot. But, and it’s a big but, you don’t have to care about Quentin to enjoy the story, you just must tolerate him and his role that he plays in the big scheme of things. And eventually, he grows on you. You might have to give him 600 pages and hours and hours of your life, but eventually, you’ll be routing for him (and Alice) too.

Series Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

The Magicians Edition: Paperback • $16.00 • 9780452296299 • 402 pages • originally published August 2009, this edition published May 2010 by Plume Books • average Goodreads rating 3.47 • read in June 2015

Lev Grossman’s Website

The Magicians on Goodreads

Get a Copy of The Magicians

Magicians

Contemporary, Fiction

The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

The bookstore that I work at has a number of book clubs, the largest being the original, with 25 to 30 members and last night, they celebrated their 14th year in existence. Typically, they read former bestsellers, which they vote upon every three months or so. Last November, they voted overwhelmingly to read The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry. I don’t normally pick up the book for the book club, I have my own, The Modern Readers, but after everyone at the store, staff and customer alike, started raving about it, I figured it was one to pick up!

Synopsis

A. J. Fikry’s life is not at all what he expected it to be. He lives alone, his bookstore is experiencing the worst sales in its history, and now his prized possession, a rare collection of Poe poems, has been stolen. But when a mysterious package appears at the bookstore, its unexpected arrival gives Fikry the chance to make his life over – and see everything anew.

Review

I have recommended this book at the store and given it as a gift more times than I can count since reading it in November last year. Gabrielle Zevin’s storytelling is top notch, the pacing is very measured and the page turning comes quite quickly. I laughed, I cried, a shared in A.J.’s joy and despair. The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry runs the full gamut of emotions.

The story centers not just on life in the bookstore, but the publishing world and life on a small island as well. Zevin expertly weaves together the stories of not just A. J. and his family, but all of the richly developed and intriguing supporting characters as well. From A. J.’s unexpected best friend, his former sister-in-law, the dynamic and lovely publishing rep, and the seasonal and regular bookstore customers, each is given utmost love and care from their creator, their author. It is clear to any reader that Zevin cares about her characters and she does not take their fates lightly.

It is a perfect summer vacation, beach or airplane read and is a quick one at that. I strongly recommend it for people who enjoy an intriguing and fulfilling story.

Rating: 9 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $14.95 • 9781616204518 • 288 pages • originally published April 2014, this edition published December 2014 by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill • average Goodreads rating 3.97 out of 5 • read in December 2016

Gabrielle Zevin’s Website

The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry on Goodreads

Get a Copy of The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry

Storied Life of A J Fikry

Biography, Non-Fiction

Notorious RBG by Irin Carmon & Shana Knizhnik

A year and a half ago, shortly after I started working at an indie bookstore, I started a book club, The Modern Readers. It was not only a way to read new and interesting things, but also a way to meet new people and make new friends who have similar interests as myself. The Modern Readers have read everything from horror to chick lit, military history to science books, and there have been books I’ve loved, and books I’ve loathed, but I’m glad I read them. Notorious RBG is one of my favorite Modern Readers’ picks.

(Each month I create a sign for the store for the book club and the one for Notorious RBG below is by far my favorite!)

14 - January 2017 - Notorious RBG

Synopsis

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg never asked for fame – she was just trying to make the world a little better and a little freer. But along the way, the feminist pioneer’s searing dissents and steely strength have inspired millions. Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, created by the young lawyer who began the Internet sensation and an award-winning journalist, takes you behind the myth for an intimate irreverent look at the justice’s life and work. As America struggles with the unfinished business of gender equality and civil rights, Ginsburg stays fierce. And if you don’t know, now you know.

Review

Ruth Bader Ginsburg is one of my heroes. While I’ve always had an ear for politics (when your mother works in public education, you learn about politics young), but it wasn’t until I took AP Government back my senior year of high school that I finally started to think about politics for myself and make up my own mind about how I would react to certain political events instead of parroting my mother’s opinions.

When we studied particular court cases, I always looked for opinions written by either Ruth Bader Ginsburg or Sandra Day O’Connor, and I used to compare the two of them for fun. My political education continued at the University of Pittsburgh – the full title of my major was: Early American History and the Foundations of American Government with a special focus in American legal history and it’s foundations in British common law. Yep, I’m a dork. For awhile I thought about becoming a lawyer, until I realized I didn’t like political philosophy… but I digress – back to RBG!

A few years ago, Shana Knizhnik created the now famous Notorious RBG meme and it took off like a shot, particularly as RBG’s opinions and dissents were starting to be discussed more by the American public, not just the news and law lovers like myself. She is an icon – not only for lawyers, but for women everywhere. Her fight to be taken seriously throughout all stages of her career, especially as a young mother, was difficult to say the least. Her husband supported her and never limited her opportunities to be the best in her field. Just as RBG owed a great deal to Sandra Day O’Connor breaking the gender barrier on the Supreme Court, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor would not be in the positions they are today as her benchmates if RBG had fought as hard as she did.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a remarkable woman and her the story of her life is one that I will share with every child I know, if for no other reason than to fully drive home the point that they can be absolutely anything that they want to be, so long as they work hard at it!

Rating: 10 out of 10 stars

Edition: Hardcover • $22.99 • 9780062415837 • 227 pages • published October 2015 by Dey Street Books • average Goodreads rating 4.22 out of 5 • read in January 2017

Notorious RBG Tumblr

Notorious RBG on Goodreads

Get a Copy of Notorious RBG

Notorious RBG

Memoir/Autobiography, Non-Fiction, Photography/Art

It’s What I Do by Lynsey Addario

Every year between Christmas and New Year’s, my now husband and I travel to Greenville, South Carolina to stay with his aunt, uncle and cousins for the holiday season. Given that my husband, Ben, and I met while working in a library, it is well known to his family that I love books and his aunt keeps me apprised of all the bookstore goings on in Greenville. This past year, they moved to a condo with in walking distance to my new favorite bookstore, M. Judson Booksellers. I walked there every day of our visit. On the first day, I noticed a beautiful, heavy hardcover sitting on their future page-to-screen display. As someone who gets a discount at my own indie bookstore, I spent the week debating whether or not I had to have It’s What I Do, or if I could wait until I got home. Turns out, I couldn’t wait.

Synopsis

(Get ready, it’s a long one!)

Lynsey Addario was just finding her way as a young photographer when September 11 changed the world. One of the few photojournalists with experience in Afghanistan, she gets the call to return and cover the American invasion. She makes a decision she would often find herself making – not to stay home, not to lead a quiet or predictable life, but to set out across the world, face the chaos of crisis, and make a name for herself.

Addario finds a way to travel with purpose. She photographs the Afghan people before and after the Taliban reign, the civilian casualties and misunderstood insurgents of the Iraq War, as well as the burned villages and countless dead in Darfur. She exposes a culture of violence against women in the Congo and tells the riveting story of her headline-making kidnapping by pro-Qaddafi forces in the Libyan civil war.

Addario takes bravery for granted but she is not fearless. She uses her fear and it creates empathy, that is essential to her work. We see this clearly on display as she interviews rape victims in the Congo, or photographs a fallen soldier with whom she had been embedded in Iraq, or documents the tragic lives of starving Somali children. Lynsey takes us there and we begin to understand how getting to the hard truth trumps fear.

As a woman photojournalist determined to be taken as seriously as her male peers, Addario fights her way into a boys’ club of a profession. Rather than choose between her personal life and career, Addario learns to strike a necessary balance. In the man who will become her husband, she finds at last a real love to complement her work, not take away from it, and as a new mother, she gains an all the more intensely personal understanding of the fragility of life.

Review

Whoa. Literally, just whoa. For someone who has lived a fairly sheltered life in Pennsylvania for my entire existence, it blows my mind how people can just pick up at a moment’s notice and not just go on an adventure, but go to a war-ravaged country that is most certainly on the state department’s travel advisory list. But time and time again, that’s what Lynsey does.

When I picked up It’s What I Do, I was on a biography/autobiography kick, having just finished Notorious RBG, and I was looking for some inspiration as I tried/am still trying to figure out what it is I want out of my life. And while I certainly want adventure, I don’t think I’m quite cut out for Lynsey’s level of adventure, but let me step back a bit.

In 2014, my sister moved to Washington D.C. right after her college graduation. When Ben and I went to visit her, we planned a little mini trip, which included a visit to an old favorite, the Library of Congress, and a new spot, the Newseum. While I never considered journalism as a career, I’ve followed Christiane Amanpour since she first was referenced on Gilmore Girls, I am a perpetual student of political science, and I am an obsessive news junkie. So needless to say, the decision to go to the Newseum was a no-brainer. While there, I learned about the numerous and life-threatening risks journalists take to bring the information they have gathered back to us. And when they travel to dangerous places, they are traveling as members of the press, but more importantly, not as soldiers or military personnel, but as civilians.

Lynsey Addario rarely hesitated when making the decision to go overseas to follow a breaking story/event. All I can say is that her story is simply amazing and I have been recommending It’s What I Do left, right and center at the bookstore. I’ve found every excuse and opportunity to display it, to share it, to talk about it – I even forced my mom into a copy and she doesn’t read anything but Baldacci and spy thrillers (though I sold it to her as a real-life spy thriller).  If you are in a reading slump, or just need some motivation to get up in the morning, It’s What I Do is the book for you.

Rating: 10 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $18.00 • 9780143128410 • 368 pages • originally published February 2015, this edition published November 2016 by Penguin Press • average Goodreads rating 4.31 out of 5 • read in January 2017

Lynsey Addario’s Website

It’s What I Do on Goodreads

Get a Copy of It’s What I Do

It's What I Do