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

Biography, Memoir/Autobiography, Non-Fiction

Jell-O Girls by Allie Rowbottom

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

Synopsis

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

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

Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 9 out of 10 stars

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

Allie Rowbottom’s Website

Jell-O Girls on Goodreads

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Jell-O Girls

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

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Memoir/Autobiography, Non-Fiction

Talking as Fast as I Can by Lauren Graham

To say that I am a Gilmore Girls fan may be a bit of an understatement. I am a basic white (elder – according to Iliza Shlesinger) millennial young woman, therefore I love Gilmore Girls. It’s basic logic. However, as I wasn’t a huge fan of Graham’s fiction (Someday, Someday, Maybe) it took my sister over a year to convince me to actually read her memoir.

Synopsis

In Talking as Fast as I Can, Lauren Graham hits pause for a moment and looks back on her life, sharing laugh-out-loud stories about growing up, starting out as an actress, and, years later, sitting in her trailer on the Parenthood set and asking herself, “Did you, um, make it?” She opens up about the challenges of being single in Hollywood, the time she was asked to audition her butt for a role, and her experience being a judge on Project Runway.

In “What It Was Like, Part One,” Graham sits down for an epic Gilmore Girls marathon and reflects on being cast as the fast-talking Lorelai Gilmore. The essay “What It Was Like, Part Two” reveals how it felt to pick up the role again nine years later, and what doing so has meant to her.

Some more things you will learn about Lauren: She once tried to go vegan just to bond with Ellen DeGeneres, she’s aware that meeting guys at awards shows has its pitfalls, and she’s a card-carrying REI shopper. Including photos and excerpts from the diary Graham kept during the filming of the recent Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life, this book is like a cozy night in, catching up with your best friend, laughing and swapping stories, and—of course—talking as fast as you can.

Review

I find the best way to “read” celebrity/prominent people’s memoirs is to listen to the audiobook. Oftentimes the person in question reads the book themselves, as is the case not only with this book, but also with Who Thought This was a Good IdeaI Hate Everyone Except YouWhy Not Me?, and all of Anthony Bourdain‘s works, or at least those are the ones I have listened to. The other side of celebrity memoirs, which Lauren Graham actually points out, is the idea that the celebrity clearly didn’t write the book themselves. Of those mentioned above, I can guarantee at least two were self-written, one admittedly co-written and the other, who really knows?

Then I start thinking to myself, well, do they only have a book deal because they’re a celebrity? Most likely. Does being a person of interest increase public interest in their lives? Yes (whether this is good or bad is not the topic of debate here, but an interesting one to be sure). Lauren Graham is certainly a good writer. And her essay collection here is entertaining and delightful. She approaches her life honestly and with contemplation, particularly in why the character of Lorelai Gilmore has always had such a precious place in her heart.

As a long time fan, I was delighted when the revival of the show was announced, however, I was extremely disappointed. Lauren, naturally, loved stepping back into the role and, as the book, and therefore stories, were written and published before the series was available for viewing and as she was a large part of it, it would make sense that her opinion differs from that of the public. However, her stories were good, and her emotional investment in the series certainly contributed to our continuing love of it in 2018 (despite the revival – we’ll pretend that never happened.)

My only gripe, is that she continually referenced the photos in the book, while reading the audiobook. Can’t very well look up the page in the book while listening to it while driving, now can I? And for those who don’t have the physical copy and just the audiobook? Not going to work out so well.

Rating: 8 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $16.00 • 9780425285190 • 240 pages • originally published November 2016, this edition published October 2017 by Ballantine Books • average Goodreads rating 3.99 out of 5 stars • read in August 2018

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Talking As Fast As I Can

Memoir/Autobiography, Non-Fiction

Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain

Oddly enough, Kitchen Confidential was not the first Bourdain I read, but the last, despite it being the entire reason that the world knows his name. I put it off, thinking that they way it was described was not in line with the Tony I had come to know and respect through his various television programs and world travels. But I was wrong. So wrong.

Synopsis

After twenty-five years of ‘sex, drugs, bad behavior and haute cuisine’, chef and novelist Anthony Bourdain decides to tell all. From his first oyster in the Gironde to his lowly position as a dishwasher in a honky-tonk fish restaurant in Provincetown, from the kitchen of the Rainbow Room atop the Rockefeller Center to drug dealers in East Village, from Tokyo to Paris and back to New York again, Bourdain’s tales of the kitchen are as passionate as they are unpredictable, as shocking as they are funny.

Review

By sheer happenstance, my husband and I spent June 8th on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, Tony’s home of many years (when he wasn’t traveling, which was rare). We were going to a concert in Brooklyn that night and decided to go the Met (Metropolitan Museum of Art) for the day. As we were driving to our “local” train station in NJ in rush hour traffic from our home west of Philadelphia, we listened to NPR, as we always do. And around 8AM, as we sat in Trenton traffic, we turned the volume up because we couldn’t believe what we had heard. Tony died. By his own hand. To my husband and I, this was unthinkable. We’d been watching No Reservations since we’d started dating. Our relationship had two television constants, Top Gear and Tony.

As we made our way into the city on NJ Transit as we’ve done countless times before, I took my usual news junkie status to a new level. My hero, he was gone. Gone without explanation. The BBC, CNN, NBC, ABC, NPR, no one had anything else to report except that which we already knew. He was gone. I texted my boss at the bookstore straight away and begged him to put the books in stock out on display with the staff pick blurbs I’d written for them ages ago. Medium Raw, my favorite summer read, Appetites, the only cookbook I cook out of, and, though I hadn’t read it, obviously we needed to order in Kitchen Confidential ASAP. Then I started dreading the fact that I’d be meeting with our publisher rep at the start of the week, the rep who handled his imprint for Harper Collins. I couldn’t bring myself to think straight.

I looked up whether or not we could get a reservation for a mid-afternoon meal at Les Halles, only to discover it had closed. Only months ago, we could have gone and didn’t. I kicked myself for it. When we walked past it later in the day, I saw the remembrances people had left. It inspired my first post two days later, Dear Tony. I debated whether or not I could bring myself to watch Parts Unknown anymore and when it turned out to be too tear-inducing, I decided to read the one book of his I didn’t want to, Kitchen Confidential.

I was afraid I wouldn’t like it. I was afraid it would talk too much about drug use and that I didn’t really want to read about, I’ve dealt with it enough in my family. I was afraid that the Tony writing was different than the Tony we’d come to know and love. And then, I decided to be brave and listen to him read it. I was on my way to London to visit my sister when I finally gave in. I still didn’t even own a copy of it. But after only five minutes, I realized I had nothing to worry about – Tony was still Tony – already a master storyteller, already with three novels to his name, already well on his way to not becoming, but staying himself, and then revealing that self to the world. And when I found a special edition of the book with all his notes and handwritten margin doodles at a bookshop in London, well, I had to have it.

Kitchen Confidential is, for anyone who has gotten to know Anthony Bourdain through his various shows, thoroughly him. The story isn’t linear or chronological (his never are, even Parts Unknown), and he is very open and honest about his periods of dishonesty and chef-poaching, honest about his privileged upbringing and squandering it, honest about the world of the professional kitchen. Honest and candid about his life and how he got to where he is, and the result, for anyone who, like me, had watched for years and never read, is heartbreaking.

Because in reading now, for the first time, it is impossible to disassociate the book with the end. It is impossible to ignore the fact that we will never have another Bourdain masterpiece. Impossible to forget that he’s no longer here to tell us stories on Sunday night. Impossible to understand how things went this way. Because as much as I wish I had known him, I didn’t. I didn’t know, I don’t know, what led him to do what he did. But I can read his works, reread, rewatch, and hope, beyond hope, that he has changed the world for the better.

Rating: 9 out of 10 stars (Medium Raw is still my favorite)

Edition: Paperback • £10.99/$16.99 • 9781408845042 (UK)/9780060899226 (US) • 352 pages • originally published May 2000 by Bloomsbury • average Goodreads rating 4.02 out of 5 • read in July 2018

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IMG_20180715_100550_488

Fantasy, Fiction

All Souls Trilogy by Deborah Harkness

Back in January 2013 I was trying to find a new favorite book (which never works, you can’t force it) and I had been eyeing A Discovery of Witches for a while and decided to take a chance on it. I read the first 30 pages, got really annoyed and put it away, only to start reading it again shortly before the second book in the trilogy came out because Kit Marlowe and Queen Elizabeth would be involved (as well as a trip to Prague) which gave me hope that the trilogy would improve.

A Discovery of Witches Synopsis

Deep in the heart of Oxford’s Bodleian Library, Diana Bishop – a young scholar and the descendant of witches – unearths an enchanted manuscript. Wanting nothing to do with sorcery, she banishes the book to the stacks. But her discovery has set a fantastical underworld stirring, and soon a horde of daemons, witches and other creatures descends upon the library. Among them is the enigmatic Matthew Clairmont, a vampire with a keen interest in the book.

Series Review

The first time I started reading A Discovery of Witches, it had just come out in paperback. I’d been intrigued by the title for some time, but the synopsis sounded vaguely Twilight-y and that I did not like. I started reading it, and my prejudices got the better of me and I quit after 30 pages. Almost a year later, I started it again because I heard there would be a second one that involved time travel to Elizabethan England and Queen Elizabeth I has been my habitual girl crush since I was 10 so sign me up! I read A Discovery of Witches solely so I could read Shadow of Night and have it make sense. I’m glad I approached it this way as it allowed me to make it through A Discovery of Witches, and enjoy it, because I was so looking forward to Diana and Matthew’s Elizabethan adventure in both London and on the continent (particularly Prague).

Diana thoroughly intrigued me and her attraction to Matthew just felt like every young woman going through a “bad boy phase.” I didn’t expect it to last, or to take over her entire life, but of course, it did. This was strike one. I’m all for an opposites-attract, star-crossed lovers romantic subplot but I like it when it is just that: a subplot. While traipsing about Renaissance Europe in Shadow of Night, Matthew and Diana are married by Matthew’s father (who is deceased in the present). The marriage was bound to happen, it happens in all books with a protagonist in her late twenties/early thirties. However, while the books were spaced out over the course of a year and a half, in the land of the All Souls Trilogy it’s been a few months.

Our sharp and quippy Diana becomes an insipid and annoying newlywed who just wants babies. Or maybe she doesn’t and I’m projecting my annoyance at the fact that this attitude has thoroughly consumed my peers, onto innocent Diana. Point being, I’m so sick and tired of every woman’s story ending the same way: marriage, babies, now my life completely revolves around marriage and babies and I can’t seem to remember the fact that I was an awesome individual before my life became defined by those I chose to love.

Yes, Diana becomes a kick ass witch, yes she thoroughly lays waste to all the big baddies in her way, yes she still is witty. But why couldn’t she have done all that without having to marry and have babies? Why did that have to become her new purpose in life? Why couldn’t she remain an academic? Why was she so okay with giving up her entire life to follow Matthew? And he may claim it’s all for her and the book, The Book of Life, but is it really? He’s controlling and manipulative and has an incurable RAGE disease! He warns Diana that he’s basically unstable and unsafe and does she listen? No. Does any female protagonist when faced with a hot vampire ever turn and run? No. Because that’s not the story line every woman my age supposedly wants to read.

I guess this is why I don’t read books like 50 Shades of Grey and Twilight. I’m just so annoyed and disenchanted with the protagonist and for me, if I can’t identify with them, there’s no way I’ll love the book.

Series Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

A Discovery of Witches Edition: Paperback • $18.00 • 9780145119685 • 579 pages • originally published February 2011, this edition published December 2011 by Penguin Books • average Goodreads rating 3.99 out of 5 • finished reading series December 2014

Deborah Harkness’ Website

A Discovery of Witches on Goodreads

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Discovery of Witches

Essays, Memoir/Autobiography, Non-Fiction

I Need a Lifeguard Everywhere but the Pool by Lisa Scottoline & Francesca Serritella

This year will be the third year the bookstore I work at will host mother-daughter writing duo Lisa & Francesca. For the last two years, I’ve pretended that I’ve read their essay collections… This year I figured I better have some truth to back up those words.

Synopsis

The bestselling and “perennially hilarious” mother-daughter team is back with a new collection of stories from their real lives that are guaranteed to make you laugh out loud. Join Lisa and Francesca as they regret drunk-shopping online, try smell-dating, and explore the freedom of a hiatus from men – a “guyatus.” They offer a fresh and funny take on the triumphs and face-palm moments of modern life, showing that when it comes to navigating the crazy world we live in, you’re always your own best lifeguard.

Review

Apparently it takes a lot for a book to make me actually laugh out loud. I’ve met Lisa & Francesca half a dozen times (Lisa literally lives 20 minutes from the store) and in person, they’re quite funny. Their essays make me smile when I read them, but lately it seems, a book just can’t pull a laugh out of me.

I enjoyed reading Lisa & Francesca’s essays, I could relate to just about all of Francesca’s and Lisa’s reminded me a great deal of my mom. But something was nagging at me – maybe it’s the fact that I feel like it’s time to diversify our reading and, well, Lisa & Francesca are affluent white women. While I agree that women as a group tend to encounter sexism and other challenges, I felt like I kept wanting to scream “suburban white people problems!” while reading. Which doesn’t make for the greatest reading experience.

I wasn’t angry, per se, just disappointed. I feel like I’ve transitioned and grown as a reader in that, when I read nonfiction, I want to learn something. I don’t want to reinforce my own established beliefs. But I also live in the suburbs, grew up in a similar manner to Francesca, and find her writing so unbelievably relatable that it’s a bit absurd. So, long story short, if you live in an affluent area and your greatest concerns are about your dog’s bowel movements or being a writer in NYC, this is totally the book for you. If not, well, you probably want to look for something else.

Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $16.99 • 9781250059994 • 336 pages • first published July 2017, this edition published June 2018 by St. Martin’s Griffin • average Goodreads rating 3.7 out of 5 • read in May 2018

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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

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Contemporary, Fiction

The Ex-Debutante by Linda Francis Lee

This was one of the first “adult” fiction books I read after graduating high school and deciding I needed to branch out from the young adult section. And while I’m a northern at heart, when presented with the opportunity to read about southern debutantes, I usually do so in order to mock them later. But in this book, there is so much heart and character development that I simply cannot mock. And the main character is named Carlisle, as is my beloved hometown.

Synopsis

When Carlisle Wainwright Cushing, of the old-moneyed Texas Wainwrights, moved to Boston three years ago to work at one of the city’s most prestigious divorce law firms, she thought she had escaped the high society she’d grown up in – after all, no one in Boston, not even her fiancé, knew she was an heiress. But now Carlisle has been lured back to Texas to deal with her mother’s latest divorce and the family-sponsored hundredth annual debutante ball, which is on the verge of collapse. She’s afraid she’ll never get back to Boston, at least with her reputation intact, especially when good ole’ Southern boy Jack Blair shows up on the opposite side of the divorce court, making her wonder if he’s going after her mother in the proceedings – or her. Carlisle’s trip home challenges her sense of who she really is and forces her to face her family’s secrets.

Review

I picked this book up as a quick read the summer after my sophomore year at the University of Pittsburgh, one of many books that I figured might be enjoyable if I read it, but wasn’t super into starting. Once I did, though, I could hardly put it down! It’s not news that I’m driven towards books that are more character-driven than plot-driven and that I appreciate strong and independent female characters that think and speak for themselves and never turn down an opportunity for deliciously witty banter with a romantic interest. The Ex-Debutante fulfilled my expectations of Carlisle. Come to think of it, after I read it I was fairly certain that if I ever had a daughter, I would totally name her Carlisle.

There were many things that drew me towards the book – I’d been on a She’s the Man kick (which features debs), I’d entertained the idea of becoming a lawyer (at the time I still didn’t want to teach), and I was infatuated with a guy name Jack that’d just broken my heart. Connections abounded and reading about Carlisle and how she handled her life gave me the confidence to take a greater interest in shaping my own life to be what I wanted, not just what was expected of me as a 19-year-old-almost-college-junior.

The end of your sophomore year of college is when you’re supposed to have your mind made up (if you didn’t when you started) about what you want to be when you “grow up” and who you are as a person. Your days of finding yourself are supposed to be done – you were either supposed to take a year off to traipse through Europe before enrolling or have it all sorted by the time you’re done your first semester so that you can settle in and start working towards some nonexistent goal that is supposed to define the rest of your life.

But, as with many other things in life, we don’t all follow the same path, our development as human beings really isn’t mappable as some psychologists would try to lead us to believe. And in a time of great personal confusion, Carlisle personified that twisting, knotting, ineffable desire to be unique and individualistic to a tee. I’d spent the four months before reading The Ex-Debutante caring for family and supporting those around me. While I’m beyond glad that I took time off from college to do so, reading The Ex-Debutante was the first time I took a break that was just for me, that I took time out of the day to do something I enjoyed, even if it was just reading. So my review is less about the book, but more about what the book, and the protagonist, made me realize about myself.

Rating: 8 stars

Edition: Paperback • $22.99 • 9780312354985 • 341 pages • first published April 2008, this edition published March 2009 by Griffin • average rating 3.67 out of 5 • read in May 2009

Linda Francis Lee’s Website

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Ex-Debutante

Contemporary, Fiction, New Adult

Jessica Darling quintet by Megan McCafferty

Jessica Darling helped me survive high school. I was first introduced to the delightfully snarky, sarcastic and spunky teen heroine of Sloppy Firsts when I was a freshman in speech and debate practice after school one autumn afternoon back in 2003. A frenemy of mine was testing out an excerpt from Second Helpings for a speech competition and it was certainly effective: I remember nothing else of the speech and debate season but hearing about Jessica handle the popular girls in a Jersey mini-mall still resonates in my head a decade plus later.

The series consists of five books and originally Megan McCafferty only intended to write the first two and they stand alone very well. I also read Second Helpings before Sloppy Firsts and while slightly confusing, I think it just made me love Marcus even more. I also had the great pleasure of meeting Megan McCafferty my junior year at Pitt and she has now started a Jessica Darling in middle school series which is quite wonderful as well, even though it differs from the originally established timeline.

Sloppy Firsts Synopsis

When her best friend, Hope Weaver, moves away from Pineville, New Jersey, hyperobservant sixteen-year-old Jessica Darling is devastated. A fish out of water at school and a stranger at home, Jessica feels more lost than ever now that the only person with whom she could really communicate has gone. How is she supposed to deal with the boy- and shopping-crazy girls at school, her dad’s obsession with her track meets, her mother salivating over big sister Bethany’s lavish wedding, and her nonexistent love life?

Sloppy Firsts looks at Jessica’s predicament as she embarks on another year of teenage torment – from the dark days of Hope’s departure through her months as a type-A personality turned insomniac to her completely mixed-up feelings about Marcus Flutie, the intelligent and mysterious “dreg” who works his way into her heart.

Series Review

There are, thus far, 8 books about Jessica Darling. Therefore, understandably, my review cannot simply be contained to one book, each reading changes and effects how I view the books so it may be a bit garbled and I’ll try to review book by book without any spoilers, but bear with me!

Sloppy Firsts I have read only once and I did so after reading Second Helpings, the stronger of the pair, writing wise. I was introduced to Jessica after Marcus, after her sister’s wedding, and after she’s met, and discovered the truth about, Hyacinth Anastasia Wallace. All of these things take place in Sloppy Firsts but I didn’t know the full story. At the start of Sloppy Firsts, Jessica is broken, though she does her best to hide it. Her best friend Hope has moved away and while Hope does not actually physically enter the story until the end of Second Helpings, I had already met her. But her influence on Jessica’s life is profound – she is her best friend, her confidant. For a young girl to have such a strong friendship is an incredible thing to behold and when that friendship is no longer as present, depression can quickly ensue. Throughout Sloppy Firsts, Jessica must handle changing feelings, embarking on a friendship she fears Hope would disapprove of, and betrayal of her trust by a new friend. The waters of high school are choppy and Jessica must learn how to cross them safely without her navigator and first mate, Hope.

Second Helpings: My copy of Second Helpings is thoroughly beat up. I love the book, I’ve read it over and over and over again whenever I have been in need of inspiration for my own writing, or when I just want to read about characters that I love dearly. So who came up with it first, JK Rowling or Megan McCafferty? Both have a character known as “he who shall not be named” and Jessica is horribly mad at the one who walks around her high school’s halls. Her feelings have been hurt, irrevocably, she claims, and she swears to never forgive the sinner. Second Helpings is set during Jessica’s senior year and from the very start, it seems as if all hell will be breaking loose. She must deal with national tragedy (9/11), personal tragedy when a beloved family member is lost, and coming to grips with her own moral quandaries and whether or not a friendship is still a friendship if secrets are kept.

Charmed ThirdsFourth Comings: In which Jessica follows her heart and goes to her dream college and lands what she believes to be her dream job. Charmed Thirds & Fourth Comings are my two least favorite books and for the longest time I would not read them. Laura had started them and was unimpressed. However, when I met Megan McCafferty, I needed a book for her to sign and so I picked up a copy of the new edition of Charmed Thirds. I will cherish it always as it bears McCafferty’s lovely looping signature and I got to meet her with some of my best college friends. However, Jessica, is just not Jessica in these two books. While Sloppy Firsts & Second Helpings cover roughly a year and a half between them, Charmed Thirds & Fourth Comings span almost 8 years and everything feels so rushed.

Perfect Fifths: When I went to hear Megan McCafferty speak, she read aloud from the recently released Perfect Fifths and I was hooked. It was the first time we the readers get Marcus’ point of view and WOOHOO!!! I powered through Charmed Thirds & Fourth Comings just to get to the part Megan McCafferty read in the dimly lit auditorium of Frick on my beloved Pitt’s campus. As the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series did years later, the fifth book takes place when the main characters are in their late twenties. And it is pure literary gold. It’s an ending, without being final but also without fully answering all the questions that have so far gone un-answered. But it is perfect, perfect for you, yes, you to enjoy.

Jessica Darling is a relatable girl for those who grew up feeling pressure in high school, fearing being misunderstood, missing their best friend, wondering when their lives would really begin and if their relationships with others were/are meaningful. Jessica, Marcus, Hope, Bridget, Percy, Bethany and even Mr. and Mrs. Darling make up an unforgettable cast of characters. As is the case with all series, there high points and low points, both within the story and the story telling but all-in-all, Jessica is a character to depend on and a role model for those who don’t quite fit in, feel a little lost or who simply want a shoulder to cry on. She’s your girl.

Series Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

Sloppy Firsts Edition: Paperback • $13.99 • 9780609807903 • 304 pages • published August 2001 by Broadway Books • average Goodreads rating 3.94 out of 5 • series finished April 2010

Megan McCafferty’s Website

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Jessica Darling