Fiction, Historical, Young Adult

Sky in the Deep by Adrienne Young

There are blurbs on this book from authors I love, and the description of it is Vikings meets Wonder Woman made it a “total Sarah pick” as our Macmillan sales rep told me. So of, course, eventually, I had to read it.

Synopsis

From the Back Cover:
Raised to be a warrior, seventeen-year-old Eelyn fights alongside her Aska clansmen in an ancient rivalry against the Riki clan. Her life is brutal but simple: fight and survive. Until the day she sees the impossible on the battlefield: her brother, fighting with the enemy – the brother she watched die five years ago.

Faced with her brother’s betrayal, she must survive the winter in the mountains with the Riki, in a village where every neighbor is an enemy, every battle scar possibly one she delivered. But when the Riki village is raided by a ruthless clan settling in the valley, Eelyn is even more desperate to get back to her beloved family.

She is given no choice but to trust Fiske, her brother’s friend, who sees her as a threat. They must do the impossible: unite the clans to fight together, or risk being slaughtered one by one. Driven by a love for her clan and her growing love for Fiske, Eelyn must confront her own definition of loyalty and family while daring to put her faith in the people she’s spent her life hating.

Review

This books makes me remember why I don’t read YA anymore, unless it’s one of my personal fab five: Sarah J. Maas, Leigh Bardugo, Renee Ahdieh, Marie Lu, or Ruta Sepetys (who, coincidentally all have books coming out in the next six months, all but one of which I already have advance copies for and the fifth has been promised!!). That’s it. That’s my YA short list. Am I missing out on other great titles? Of course I am. But I’m also the buyer of the adult books at the store and my free-choice reading time is incredibly limited, so I want my YA selections to be top notch. And with a blurb on the cover from Renee, along with the aforementioned Vikings and Wonder Woman comps, I figured this one was a pretty safe bet.

Alas, not so much. The cover is beautiful, the premise promising, the execution though… eh, not so much. Despite a strong showing of love and support, I just didn’t see all the things the other author fans raved about. I felt like the characters fell flat – I didn’t really get a sense of any of their personalities, nor that any of them had really changed, despite the fact that by book’s end, the world and warring factions were in a different position than when they started.

The world was also described as richly developed, which, shocker, it’s a forest. She’s really good at describing a wooded forest. Now, if you’ve never seen one, then yes, it’s very good. But I grew up in the Appalachian mountains of central Pennsylvania. I’m good on forests, thanks, as are most readers in the US, save for a few western states that are mostly deserts, but also sparingly populated.

And then the plot, again, meh. Romeo and Juliet in a vaguely Viking-inspired world. And while the brother-sister dynamic should play first fiddle, based on the description and established premise, it really didn’t feel like it was fully realized. And after the initial battle, up until the end battle, there really weren’t too many catalyzing events taking place. It was 250 pages of filler between two, admittedly well done, battle scenes.

All in all, I’ve discovered that any time a book comes to me with great amounts of hype, I’m likely to find it lacking and it often won’t meet my standards. I’m told time and time again by customers that I must read this book or that, and I have to struggle not to show my disgust each time I’m told that I would just love beyond measure Where the Crawdads Sing. No offence to Delia Owens (I hear she’s great), but I’m not going to read a number one Indie bestseller, I’m not going to read a book that’s high on hype, it’s just not how I do my reading.

So maybe, if Sky in the Deep had come to me with just a cool cover and an awesome synopsis, I might have felt differently. But I spent the entire book waiting for it to get as good as the authors and other booksellers promised, but ultimately, I found it completely wanting. While I was given a copy of the companion novel that releases this fall, I don’t think I’ll be one of the early readers. I wish Adrienne Young luck, but it’s just not for me.

Rating: 6 out of 10 stars

Available for purchase with free international shipping through Book Depository.

Contemporary, Fiction, New Adult

The Royal Runaway by Lindsay Emory

I’m a sucker for a royal romance. And given my current requirement that all fiction I read must feature Scotland in some way shape or form (and oddly enough, be an imprint of Simon & Schuster, which is probably just a coincidence…), I picked up my long forgotten ARC of The Royal Runaway one night when I was looking for something, anything, that would hold my attention.

Synopsis

From the Back Cover:
Princess Theodora Isabella Victoria of Drieden of the Royal House of Laurent is so over this princess thing.

After her fiance jilted her on their wedding day, she’s back home, having spent four months in exile. AKA it’s back to putting on a show for the Driedish nation as the perfect princess they expect her to be. But Thea’s sick of duty, so when she sneaks out of the palace and meets a sexy Scot named Nick, she relishes the chance to be a normal woman for a change. But just as she things she’s found her Prince Charming, he reveals his intentions are less than honorable: he’s a spy and he’s not above blackmail. As they join forces to find out what happened the day her fiance disappeared, together they discover a secret that could change life as they know it.

Review

Is it perfect? Of course not. It falls into my favorite contemporary fiction sub-genre – royal fanfic. Often an ARC will feature a letter in the front from the author or editor and the letter in this one promised a book that I wouldn’t want to put down and would remind me simultaneously of The Princess Diaries and The Royal We. Two books I love. Well, she was right, I’m just, once again, disappointed it took me over a year of owning said ARC to read it. I started reading around 9pm and finished the book the following morning by 11am. It was the perfect rainy summer night romp.

Character-wise, Thea is definitely a new favorite. Super smart, with a great love of history (yay history buff protagonist!) and an even greater love of speaking her mind, she is just awesome. And Nick is Scottish. And also smart. And while initially annoyed by Thea, quickly comes to accept her for who she is and, doesn’t try to change her! Again, yay! It’s a great palette cleanser of a book, which is where most royalist fiction lives, and is genuinely a fun book.

Are there plot holes? Yes. Are most of the other characters in the book mostly one-note and not at all developed? Yup. But if you just want to escape real life for a couple of hours and you want a lighthearted book that doesn’t insult your intelligence, or you’re like me and just really love royalist fiction, look no further. It’s just a fun book.

Rating: 9 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback – $16.00 – 9781501196614 – 304 pages – published October 2018 by Gallery Books – average Goodreads rating 3.47 out of 5 stars – read June 2019

Fiction, Historical

The Lost Queen by Signe Pike

I’m reading fiction again! Oh my gosh, it’s a shocker! First time in 2 years!!! Well, other than Dear Mrs. Bird, but that doesn’t entirely count…

Synopsis

From Advanced Reader Copy:
Already being compared to Outlander, Camelot, and The Mists of Avalon, this spellbinding debut introduces Languoreth – a forgotten queen of sixth-century Scotland and the twin sister of the man who inspired the legend of Merlin.

This tale of bravery and conflicted love has everything you could want in a lusciously big and bold novel: courage in battle, enchantment, a changing society at war with itself, passionate romantic love, treachery and betrayal, and beautiful evocations of the natural world. At the center of it all is a girl becoming a woman who can throw a knife, read her twin brother’s thoughts, and fall in love with one man and marry another, a woman who must take frightening risks and make unimaginable sacrifices to secure the future of her people. Written by an extraordinary new talent and born storyteller, The Lost Queen mesmerizes readers through to its heart-stopping ending, leaving them eager for Book 2 of the Lost Queen Trilogy.

Review

Oh my gosh. I am so embarrassed to admit that I sat on this book for so long it is now available in paperback in the US. As a bookseller, when you are given an advanced copy, you’re expected to read it prior to the hardcover publication. Not the paperback… failure on my part. Though to be fair, I’ve had absolutely no interest in reading fiction for the past two, almost three years. So there’s that… But I literally carried the book around Scotland in January and didn’t read it until I go back and was missing the country like crazy.

I’d move to Scotland. I became obsessed when I first visited Edinburgh in June of last year and again when my husband and I road-tripped from Edinburgh to Kirkwall on the Orkney Islands and back in January. I’d love to find a job that affords me to the opportunity to spend every January there – it is beautiful and breathtaking, and I’m, well, clearly a bit obsessed. I told our publisher reps at the bookstore, I’ll read fiction – but only if it’s historical, set in Scotland, and not Outlander. Though full disclosure, I started the television show and I don’t hate it.

The Lost Queen is what I hope my own novel will be – a fully realized story about an extraordinary woman whose story has become lost to history, or worse, bastardized by the men who decided to make it a parable of Christian morality. Languoreth is the Scottish Alfhild (Alfhild was a Viking princess and subject of my current novel-in-progress) and boy can she kick some misogynistic ass. The Lost Queen, narrated by our fierceass protagonist, is her story, one of many years (roughly ten to thirty-two) and spanning a time of great change in Scottish history. It is post-Roman, pre-Viking, and specifically focuses on the rise of Christianity in the Western part of the UK.

Langoureth is my favorite type of protagonist, fiercely outspoken and one who is usually quick to fight with her words before thinking through their consequences. Some of the finer plot points and character relationships can feel a bit off/rushed/not fully realized, but it is by far one of the best debut novels I have had the pleasure to read. I’m already heavily anticipating the sequel – due out next summer – and am eternally grateful to the publisher for both the character listing and pronunciation guide provided in the book. So if you’re looking to get lost in a sweeping historical novel with tinges of magic, The Lost Queen is the perfect summer read.

Rating: 9 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback – $17.00 – 9781501191428 – 560 pages – originally published September 2018, this edition published June 2019 by Atria Books – average Goodreads rating 4.18 out of 5 stars – read June 2019

Book Club, History, Non-Fiction, STEM

Isaac’s Storm by Erik Larson

After a few years of being without a book club to lead (I still participate in my former club), I felt the nagging urge to start one that better suited my current tastes, nonfiction! Below is my review for the inaugural book, Isaac’s Storm!

Nonfiction Book Club (2)

Synopsis

From the back cover:
September 8, 1900, began innocently in the seaside town of Galveston, Texas. even Isaac Cline, resident meteorologist for the U.S. Weather Bureau, failed to grasp the true meaning of the strange deep-sea swells and peculiar winds that greeted the city that morning. Mere hours later, Galveston found itself submerged by a monster hurricane that completely destroyed the town and killed over 6,000 people in what remains the greatest natural disaster in American history – and Isaac Cline found himself the victim of a devastating personal tragedy.

Using Cline’s own telegrams, letters, and reports, the testimony of scores of survivors, and our understanding of the science of hurricanes, Erik Larson builds a chronicle of one man’s heroic struggle and fatal miscalculation in the face of a storm of unimaginable magnitude. Isaac’s Storm is the story of what can happen when human arrogance meets the uncontrollable force of nature.

Review

So, I missed the first book club meeting of my own book club. I had to go to the Hudson Valley in New York for a book buyer’s retreat (which was a lot of fun) and so my coworker, Su, filled in for me. Three ladies showed up, a strong presence for a brand new club, and apparently they had a lively discussion. I absolutely cannot wait to join in for the next meeting – if you want to follow along with our reading from afar, check out our book club page here!

I have now read three works by Erik Larson, Dead Wake (my favorite), In the Garden of Beasts (my least favorite) and now Isaac’s Storm (my middle choice). Unlike the first two works I read, Isaac’s Storm focuses on one main storyline, that of Isaac and the town of Galveston before, during, and after the storm. Other people and places make brief appearances, but the primary narrative sticks to the Texan Gulf coast.

As one of Erik’s earliest works, it is not surprising that what we think of as his trademark storytelling style, epitomized in Devil in the White City according to my coworkers, is not present in Isaac’s Storm. It is still an enjoyable book and a fascinating portrait of the early days of the American weather service. It is also difficult to fathom that Erik wrote this book before Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf coast. The bureaucracy involved in getting word out to the area that a storm was coming is laughable, but still in place today.

Unfortunately, I walked away from Isaac’s Storm without much more than a “I’m glad I didn’t live in turn of the century Galveston.” I didn’t particularly care for Isaac and I couldn’t tell you the names of any of the townspeople mentioned throughout, they just didn’t stick with me the way the people in his other books did. It wasn’t a bad read, just not Erik’s strongest (also not surprising, at it is one of his earliest works).

Rating: 7 out of 10

Edition: Paperback • $16.95 • 9780375708275 • 336 pages • originally published August 1999, this edition published July 2000 by Vintage • average Goodreads rating 4.06 out of 5 stars • read in March 2019

Isaac's Storm

Fantasy, Fiction

Nevernight by Jay Kristoff

I’ve been trying to read Nevernight for the better part of two and a half years. Which is weird, because I really like it. I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to read it, save for my occasionally annoying new obsession with all thing nonfiction that makes fiction seem boring. Which again, weird. Fiction is supposed to be the opposite of boring.

Synopsis

From the Back Cover:
In a world where the suns almost never set, a woman gains entry to a school of infamous assassins, seeking vengeance against the powers that destroyed her family. Daughter of an executed traitor, Mia Corvere is barely able to escape her father’s failed rebellion with her life. Alone and friendless, she wanders a city built from the bones of a dead god, hunted by the Senate and its thugs. But her gift for speaking with the shadows leads her to the hearth of a retired killer and a future she never imagined.

Now, Mia is apprenticed to the deadliest flock of assassins in the entire Republic – the Red Church. Deadly trials await her within the Church’s halls: blades and poisons, treachery and death. If she survives to initiation, she’ll be inducted among the chosen of the Lady of Blessed Murder and be one step closer to the only thing she desires: revenge.

Review

I’ll admit, Nevernight is not an easy book to get into reading, let alone enjoying. It is dense and full of not just elaborate descriptions, but anecdotal footnotes. Lots of footnotes. And I’m not big on footnotes, I find they disrupt the reading flow and often unnecessary. It took me 100 pages to figure out that the footnotes were Jay’s way of filling the reader in on the history and customs of the world of Nevernight and as the world gets fleshed out, the footnotes taper off.

But once the world feels a bit more complete to the reader, it takes off like a shot. As I first picked up Nevernight because a friend told me it was an adult Throne of Glass, I kept waiting to feel like I was getting inside Mia’s head, a feat I think I finally felt I achieved when she arrived at the Red Church. From this point on, Mia’s physical journey slows down, but her mental and emotional journey accelerates and I found myself flipping page after page to get to the conclusion of the first book.

With the release of the third book swiftly approaching in September, I’m going to linger a little bit more on the second in the trilogy, but I am glad I waited until now to finish Nevernight. I have finally come to understand the people who wait until entire series are released to get started – after spending much of my reading life waiting for the next book in a series, or having to reread from the beginning because I’m forgetful (the primary reason why I haven’t finish the Throne of Glass series because I was an early reader) and I hate the feeling of having forgotten something major in a plot. This may also be why I’ve been reading a lot of nonfiction…

Rating: 8 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $17.99 • 9781250132130 • 464 pages • originally published August 2016, this edition published June 2017 by Thomas Dunne • average Goodreads rating 4.31 out of 5 stars • read March 2019

Biography, History, Non-Fiction

A Gross of Pirates by Terry Breverton

I love being an adult book buyer at a bookstore. When the publisher reps hear me getting particularly excited about something, they occasionally will send me a copy, and I was lucky enough to come home the other day to A Gross of Pirates sitting on the front porch waiting for me.

Synopsis

From the Dust Jacket:
It is no use pretending that these criminals do not evoke admiration – even envy. Part of the appeal is the democrati nature of their activities, characterised as far back as the 14th century by Klaus Stortebeker thieving in the Baltic – his crew were called the Likedeelers, the equal sharers. Author Terry Breverton has brought together the extraordinary stories of 144 pirates throughout history. They include Norman privateers, Barbary Corsairs, Elizabethan adventurers, Chinese pirates, the ‘Brethren of the Coast’ – and of course the pirates of the Caribbean.

Beginning with the 9th-century ‘Shield Maiden’ pirate Alfhild and ending with Mohamed Abdi Hassan – ‘Afweyne’ (Big Mouth) – who ransomed supertankers for tens of millions of dollars, A Gross of Pirates is an exciting journey under full sail across a millennium of blood and treasure.

Review

I’ve been working on a fictionalized retelling of the adventures of Alfhild, the Shield Maiden mentioned on the cover of A Gross of Pirates for years now, ever since I was first introduced to her story in Princesses Behaving Badly five and a half years ago. So little information exists about her (her actual existence is itself debatable), I get particularly excited every time I see her mentioned somewhere and because of that, I probably own every book that references her.

While A Gross of Pirates offers me no further information on my heroine, it does offer a great detail of helpful, factual, and entertaining information about 143 other pirates, many of whom this particular pirate enthusiast has never heard of. There are the typical suspects, Henry Morgan, Blackbeard, Anne Bonny, of course, and Breverton even includes my distant relation, Sir Francis Drake, who kick-started my pirate obsession when I was in the fifth grade. The others, though, were new to me. And as an enthusiast of mini-bio books (my term for books that include short features on numerous people), it has been a long time since I’ve come across new names!

The pirates are grouped by time period, location, type of piracy, and each story seems more shocking then the one before. If you have any interest in a deliciously entertaining yet thoroughly researched pirate book, you cannot go wrong with A Gross of Pirates!

Rating: 8 out of 10 stars

Edition: Hardcover • $31.95 • 9781445682921 • 320 pages • published March 2019 by Amberley Publishing • read in March 2019

Gross of Pirates

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, 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

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

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