Memoir/Autobiography, Non-Fiction, Sociology, Travel

Travels with Myself and Another by Martha Gellhorn

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

Synopsis

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

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

Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

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

Travels with Myself and Another

Fiction, Historical

Dear Mrs. Bird by A. J. Pearce

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

Synopsis

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

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

Review

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

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

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

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

Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

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

Biography, History, Non-Fiction

The Woman Who Smashed Codes by Jason Fagone

Bestsellers intrigue me. I don’t read many, which seems to confuse bookstore patrons until I tell them that I read other books so that when they have finished a bestseller and want something similar, I have a recommendation for them. But when The Woman Who Smashed Codes started to fly off the shelves, I was intrigued enough to take a look.

Synopsis

In 1916, a young Quaker schoolteacher and poetry scholar named Elizebeth Smith was hired by an eccentric tycoon to find the secret messages he believed were embedded in Shakespeare’s plays. But the urgencies of war quickly transformed Elizebeth’s mission, forcing her to apply her skills to an exciting new venture: codebreaking – the solving of secret messages without knowledge of the key. Working alongside her was William Friedman, a Jewish scientist who would become her husband and lifelong codebreaking partner.

Review

A number of customers at the bookstore came in looking for The Woman Who Smashed Codes because their book club had decided to read it. Each time I showed it to them, I’d flip it over, read the back cover myself, and think it was interesting before ultimately putting it back down. Then came holiday (over)ordering at the bookstore and when The Woman Who Smashed Codes came off the bestsellers and we still had a few too many copies on hand, I decided to make it my pet project to sell it myself, without the “bestseller” status, but with the “staff recommends” qualifier.

The holidays are the ultimate time for recommending books to customers. While we are always helping people find a book for themselves, now is the time when people come in with their holiday list and ask us to pick out books for their loved ones. Most of the time they give us some basic information: they like history books, fantasy, science, they’re accountants, etc. and then we take that information to pick out books for them in the store. With that in mind, I’ve decided to change up my review for this book today to my bookstore pitch, but in the opposite way, for customers who come up and ask us if a book is any good. (This is an idealized conversation, but I do have many that go somewhat like this)

Customer (holds up The Woman Who Smashed Codes): Is this book any good?
My Coworker: My manager, Sarah, loved it! Let me ask her to help you!
Me: I really enjoyed The Woman Who Smashed Codes! Is there anything in particular you would like to know about it?
Customer: Who would enjoy it?
Me: It would be a great gift for anyone who is fascinated by World War II history, or someone who enjoys lesser known stories from history, or anyone who loves a great biography of a unique person.
Customer: What was your favorite part of the book?
Me: I love stories about how people we’ve never heard of today played major roles throughout history. Elizebeth, the subject of the book, worked tirelessly to break the codes of Nazis during WWII and her work played a key role in the Americans’ decryption of the German Enigma machine. Additionally, it was her husband who broke the Japanese decryption machines – they were a fascinating couple and I loved how the author, Jason Fagone, really delves into their relationship instead of just focusing on Elizebeth’s work for the government.
Customer: That sounds really neat! I think I’ll give it a shot!

As booksellers, we know, especially during the holiday season, that we may only have a minute or two to share with a customer why we really love a book. Every customer can read the back of the book for a description of the plot/subject, but that information (and what I always include as the “synopsis”) comes from the publisher. I figure my role, as bookseller and blogger, is to put the personal emphasis on the books I love, the books that may also get overlooked on a store’s shelves if they don’t have colorful spines or staff picks tied to them.

When I can’t find the time to personally tell every customer about the books I think they’ll love, I write short little “blurbs” to put under the books on the shelf or print the blurbs up on bookmarks as we do at the store annually for our top holiday gift picks. That being said, my question to you, dear readers, is: When you go into a bookstore during the holidays, or any time of year, to you seek out staff picks? Do the staff’s recommendations hold any sway with what you end up deciding to read or take home?

Rating: 9 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $16.99 • 9780062430519 • first published September 2017, this edition published August 2018 by Dey Street Books • average Goodreads rating 4.19 out of 5 • read in November 2018

Woman Who Smashed Codes

 

Biography, Non-Fiction

In Extremis: The Life and Death of War Correspondent Marie Colvin by Lindsey Hilsum

I first came across In Extremis when going through front list (new release) publisher orders and, thanked my lucky stars I have such a good relationship with the rep because when I begged her to send me an advance copy, she happily obliged. And I think it is safe to say, In Extremis is my favorite read of the entire year.

Synopsis

When Marie Colvin was killed in an artillery attack in Homs, Syria, in 2012, at age fifty-six, the world lost a fearless and iconoclastic war correspondent who covered the most significant global calamities of her lifetime. In Extremis, written by her fellow reporter Lindsey Hilsum, is a thrilling investigation into Colvin’s epic life and tragic death based on exclusive access to her intimate diaries from age thirteen to her death, interviews with people from every corner of her life, and impeccable research.

After growing up in a middle-class Catholic family on Long Island, Colvin studied with the legendary journalist John Hersey at Yale, and eventually started working for The Sunday Times of London, where she gained a reputation for bravery and compassion as she told the stories of victims of the major conflicts of our time. She lost sight in one eye while in Sri Lanka covering the civil war, interviewed Gaddafi and Arafat many times, and repeatedly risked her life covering conflicts in Chechnya, East Timor, Kosovo, and the Middle East. Colvin lived her personal life in extremis, too: bold, driven, and complex, she was married twice, took many lovers, drank and smoked, and rejected society’s expectations for women. Despite PTSD, she refused to give up reporting. Like her hero Martha Gellhorn, Colvin was committed to bearing witness to the horrifying truths of war, and to shining a light on the profound suffering of ordinary people caught in the midst of conflict.

Review

I love war correspondents’ memoirs and biographies – It’s What I Do was one of my favorite reads of last year. And, just, oh my goodness. In Extremis dethroned Lynsey from the top of my personal ranking. Granted, I’ve only read two to completion so far (I’m reading Martha Gellhorn’s, the role model for both Lynsey and Marie, right now), but goodness gracious, it will be a long time before I find another book like this. And it caused one of the longest book hangovers I’ve ever had. And, through In Extremis, I had the opportunity to check off a book seller life goal and be the first review for a title on Goodreads and Lindsey Hilsum responded to my review!

My husband, Ben, and I have been together for almost a decade and he could not recall a single instance in that time when I stayed up past midnight to read. I absolutely love to read, but am borderline narcoleptic so I’m not a big night time reader. But for days on end, I stayed up far later than I should have, unable to put down Lindsey Hilsum’s marvelous biography of her friend and fellow journalist, Marie Colvin.

Lindsey Hilsum is, in the humble opinion of someone who has not personally met her, the best person to write Marie Colvin’s biography. A friend, but not an intimate acquaintance, she approaches her subject with the kind and caring hands of someone who felt a deep loss when she died, but removed enough to offer a fairly objective perspective on the life decisions she made that led her to that final, fateful trip to Homs, Syria in 2012. Marie kept extensive journals her entire life and they serve as the basis for the bulk of In Extremis, making it as close to an autobiography as it could possibly be. Sprinkled in are excerpts from Marie’s reporting for London’s Sunday Times, and they offer an even deeper glimpse into what inspired and drove her to seek out war zones and report on the stories of the people who live there.

A few years ago, Ben & I visited the Newseum in Washington D. C. which triggered my current obsession with journalism. I’d always loved writing and have been a news junkie from a very young age (the day does not start until I’ve checked the BBC, CNN and my custom Google newsfeed), but I never appreciated just how important journalists are worldwide until that trip. They are responsible for keeping the world apprised of the goings on in far reaches of the world and at home. And nothing, well, almost nothing, in regards to my country’s current political climate, makes me angrier than the unofficial war on journalism and the president’s constant claims of fake news. As I rally against it, and uninformed fellow Americans, I remind myself of the fact that Marie Colvin had to stand up to people who challenged the authenticity of her reporting and she did so with kindness, grace, and style.

Even though Marie’s personal life may have been a bit of a mess, okay, quite a big mess, she played a crucial role in ensuring that the western world knew exactly what was going on in the war zones of the world, particularly the Middle East. It is easy enough for those of us sitting in our living rooms in the Northeast of the US to ignore the challenges facing not only that area of the world, but also in Europe as they struggle to accommodate record numbers of refugees, and to dehumanize those who are struggling because their struggles don’t affect us directly. But Marie wouldn’t let us. She did everything in her power to bring that suffering, the plights of the people who were displaced from their homes, and the challenges they faced daily, into our collective consciousness.

When reading, and therefore constantly Google-ing Marie Colvin, I came across the production of A Private War, Matthew Heineman’s cinematic depiction of Marie’s life. While the movie is based on the Vanity Fair article published immediately after Marie’s death and not on Lindsey’s biography, the two, given their near simultaneous release dates, will become inexorably tied to each other in future. I was very nervous when I found out that Rosamund Pike is playing Marie – I adored her in Pride & Prejudice, but is she the best choice to play my new hero? After reading articles about production and how much the process of portraying Marie affected her personally, and the fact that a documentary filmmaker is at the helm, I’m far less concerned and a great deal more excited.

Lindsey’s writing is tremendous, Marie’s life equal parts inspiring and cautionary tale, and I truly hope that her story reaches as many people as possible and helps us all recognize that we are all human. We all share this world, and the sufferings of a few are the sufferings of us all.

Rating: 10 out of 10 stars

Edition: Hardcover • $28.00 • 9780374175597 • 400 pages • published November 2018 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux • read September 2018

In Extremis on Goodreads

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In Extremis

Fiction, Historical

The Kennedy Debutante by Kerri Maher

I’ve started reading again! In an effort to ingratiate myself with our publisher reps at the bookstore, I’ve decided to read an advanced reader copy a month BEFORE the book comes out AND write an “Indie Next” pick for it – this is the first! Downside, I read it back in July so my memory of it is a touch fuzzy…

Synopsis

London, 1938. The effervescent “It Girl” of London society since her father was named the ambassador, Kathleen “Kick” Kennedy moves in rarefied circles, rubbing satin-covered elbows with some of the twentieth century’s most powerful figures. Eager to escape the watchful eye of her strict mother, Rose; the antics of her older brothers, Jack and Joe; and the erratic behavior of her sister Rosemary, Kick is ready to strike out on her own and is soon swept off her feet by Billy Hartingon, the future Duke of Devonshire.

But their love is forbidden, as Kick’s devout Catholic family and Billy’s staunchly Protestant one would never approve their match. And when war breaks out like a tidal wave across her world, Billy is ripped from her arms as the Kennedys are forced to return to the States. Kick finds work as a journalist and joins the Red Cross to get back to England, where she will have to decide where her true loyalties lie – with family or with love…

Review

Kick Kennedy has fascinated me for years (for the full background on my love of Kick, see my review of Barbara Leaming’s biography, Kick Kennedy) so when Cheryl, our Penguin sales rep, told me about The Kennedy Debutante, I begged her to send me an advance copy. I happy wrote an Indie Next nomination for it, even though I didn’t love it as much as I hoped. And it didn’t make the list, but I felt a sense of accomplishment in doing it!

The Kennedy Debutante has taken Kick’s story and turned it into commercial women’s fiction. And for someone who doesn’t read a great deal of commercial fiction, particularly this year, I wasn’t entirely thrilled with the focus of the story being almost exclusively on Kick & Billy’s love story. Which has always been the least fascinating part of Kick’s story. The best parts of the book involved one of the few invented characters (no historical counterpart), a priest, Father O’Flaherty, who serves as Kick’s moral and religious counselor and is a bright spot in the face her parents’ darkness in the disconcerting time in London leading up to World War II. O’Flaherty is kind and compassionate and helps Kick come to terms with who she is, and the role that she has to play in British society, and subsequently it’s history, during her lifetime.

Additional bright spots include any time the Kennedy kids come into the frame, Joe & Jack (JFK) are quite a pair, and the inner glimpses into Rosemary and Eunice’s lives also show how close the sisters were and the obvious inspiration for Eunice’s founding of the Special Olympics. The siblings’ closeness was another bright spot of the book and I found myself often reading in anticipation of the next time the Kennedy clan would appear on set.

Overall, I enjoy The Kennedy Debutante, but if Kick was not the protagonist and it was say, about one of the Mitford sisters or a generic English woman living during WWII book, I would not have picked it up or bothered to be interested in it, given its position in the very saturated field of WWII fiction.

Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

Edition: Hardcover • $26.00 • 9780451492043 • 384 pages • published October 2018 by Berkley • average Goodreads rating 4.01 out of 5 • read in July 2018

Kerri Maher’s Website

The Kennedy Debutante on Goodreads

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Biography, History, Non-Fiction

The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich

I’m not a big post-it note person when it comes to reading, but just in the introduction to this book, I put 6 notes. The content is so unbelievable, it just can’t be made up.

Synopsis

The Unwomanly Face of War is the long-awaited English translation of Svetlana Alexievich’s first book, a groundbreaking oral history of women in World War II across Europe and Russia. Alexievich chronicles the experiences of the Soviet women who fought on the front lines, on the home front, and in the occupied territories These women – more than a million in total – were nurses and doctors, pilots, tank drivers, machine-gunners, and snipers. They battled alongside men, and yet, after the victory, their sacrifices were forgotten. Alexievich traveled thousands of miles and visited more than a hundred towns to record these women’s stories. Together, this symphony of voices reveals a different aspect of the war – the everyday details of life in combat left out of the official histories.

Review

Recently I saw a question asked on a Goodreads forum about whether or not a book was “another Holocaust book.” The asked wanted to know because she was sick of reading that narrative. The population of the internet, being the internet, set about roasting her alive. How, they asked could she be so callus and cold? And no one was forcing her to read such books, etc, etc. She later clarified that she simply wanted a different perspective on the war, a different take, a different story. And to that, I could relate.

Given my present nonfiction binge, added to my fascination with the women’s role in WWII (also the topic of Laura’s masters thesis), I began reading both The Unwomanly Face of War and The Women Who Flew for Hitler. And I’ve now convinced Laura to read them, but that’s a bit besides the point. There are two predominant WWII narratives, the harrowing narrative of the Jews, such as the narrative of Anne Frank, and the narratives of the battles, such as Dunkirk, with some political intrigue thrown in (Churchill, Roosevelt, etc.). The narratives of individual servicemen and women are often overlooked in favor of the larger narrative. The narrative of war is collective, suffering individual.

Many of the women Alexievich interviewed were a bit shocked that she wanted to hear their stories and their husbands were incredibly shocked that their wives were sharing such stories. Because they are far from pretty. They are far from decent. Their descriptions of what life was like in the Soviet military are absolutely shocking. And most importantly, their narratives deserve to be heard. Take the time to read this atypical WWII narrative I you will not be disappointed, I promise.

Rating: 10 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $18.00 • 9780399588747 • 384 pages • originally published in English in July 2017, this edition published April 2018 by Random House Trade • original Russian publication 1985 • average Goodreads rating 4.52 out of 5 • read June 2018

Svetlana Alexievich’s Website

The Unwomanly Face of War on Goodreads

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Fiction, Historical

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows

UPDATED WITH SARAH’S REVIEW!

Laura: I found this book on my mom’s shelves and when she noticed that I had picked it up she told me I should absolutely read it. It is one of the few non-mystery type fiction books she has read in the past 10 years, and she thoroughly enjoyed it. Knowing my love of all WWII related stories, she knew how much I would enjoy the book as well. And she was right, because I’ve told people I know well and people I’ve just met that they should read this book.

Sarah: Laura had been telling me to read this book since she finished it and became obsessed with all things Guernsey. As she has read just about every book I’ve told her to, I figured it only fair to return the favor.

Synopsis

“I wonder how the book got to Guernsey? Perhaps there is some sort of secret homing instinct in books that brings them to their perfect readers.” January 1946: London is emerging from the shadow of the Second World War, and writer Juliet Ashton is looking for her next book subject. Who could imagine that she would find it in a letter from a man she’s never met, a native of the island of Guernsey, who has come across her name written inside a book by Charles Lamb….

As Juliet and her new correspondent exchange letters, Juliet is drawn into the world of this man and his friends–and what a wonderfully eccentric world it is. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society–born as a spur-of-the-moment alibi when its members were discovered breaking curfew by the Germans occupying their island–boasts a charming, funny, deeply human cast of characters, from pig farmers to phrenologists, literature lovers all.

Juliet begins a remarkable correspondence with the society’s members, learning about their island, their taste in books, and the impact the recent German occupation has had on their lives. Captivated by their stories, she sets sail for Guernsey, and what she finds will change her forever.

Laura’s Review

I loved this book. It was a relatively quick and easy read, partly due to the structure of the novel. It is an epistolary novel, and is split into two distinct parts. For the first half, Juliet is living in London having successfully accomplished a book tour for her collection of wartime stories, Izzy Biggerstaff Goes to War. The second half finds her on the island of Guernsey after searching for a new story to write and becoming pen pals with several of the island’s inhabitants.

I knew very little about the inhabitants or experience of the Channel Islanders during the Second World War. The islands are briefly mentioned in The Montmaray Journals’ final book with the comment that they have been under the “Nazi jackboot” since 1940. In this novel, Juliet begins corresponding with Dawsey Adams, a Guernsey resident, after the end of the war. Dawsey was in possession of one of Juliet’s old books that she had donated and was hoping she might be able to help him locate several other books. Thus begins Juliet’s introduction to the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society and the traumas that the Channel Islanders suffered under Nazi occupation.

This is a story about resilience, acceptance, and finding a place for oneself in an ever-changing world. It is not until Juliet travels to Guernsey and meets the literary society that she truly feels like she has a place where she belongs. Through Juliet, the reader learns about the horrors committed by the Nazis against the Islanders, their sufferings, and their ability to find solace in books during the time. Juliet meets members of the literary society who had previously shown no interest in reading until becoming a member of the society allowed them to forget about their island’s invaders for a few hours each week. After reading this book I decided I absolutely needed to visit Guernsey. As I am now in London, this will be easier than from the USA, so my wonderful sister and I have decided that when she visits, going to Guernsey is a top priority.

Laura’s Rating: 10 out of 10 stars

Sarah’s Review

Continuing with my current audiobook obsession, I listened to the audiobook of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and it is definitely one of the best audiobooks I have listened to in quite awhile. Laura calls it an epistolary book, which means that it is written in letters. As an audiobook, this means that each letter is read by a different reader, based on who it is written by – the reader for Dawsey’s letters reads all of his, Juliet’s hers, etc.

While this is a wonderful change to the typical structure of novel writing, it can at times be frustrating because it is all clearly in the past tense (not uncommon for novels) but I found myself often wanting to get the big moments firsthand, as they were happening, not in letters. The second challenge, is that there are so many points of view with all of the letters that the plot gets a bit muddled, or the plot goes in a different direction for awhile as we “catch up” with certain characters.

All in all, I think Mary Ann and Annie pull off their unique format magnificently, and, like our protagonist/primary letter writer Juliet, I found myself fully immersed in the story of the one member of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society who is not still on the island in 1946, the year the letters are all exchanged. It is definitely worth a read, or a listen, and takes the tried and true WWII novel and gives it an interesting spin.

Sarah’s Rating: 8 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $17.00 • 9780385341004 • 290 pages • first published July 2008, this edition published May 2009 by Dial Press • average Goodreads rating 4.12 out of 5 • read in July 2017

Annie Barrows’ Website

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society on Goodreads

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Guernsey 2

Fantasy, Fiction, Retelling

Mermaid by Carolyn Turgeon

I love a good fairy tale adaptation and when I first heard the true story of the Little Mermaid, I became a bit obsessed with all accurate adaptations.

Synopsis

Princess Margrethe has been hidden away while her kingdom is at war. One gloomy, windswept morning, as she stands in a convent garden overlooking the icy sea, she witnesses a miracle: a glittering mermaid emerging from the waves, a nearly drowned man in her arms. By the time Margrethe reaches the shore, the mermaid has disappeared into the sea. As Margrethe nurses the handsome stranger back to health, she learns that not only is he a prince, he is also the son of her father’s greatest rival. Certain that the mermaid brought this man to her for a reason, Margrethe devises a plan to bring peace to her kingdom.

Meanwhile, the mermaid princess Lenia longs to return to the human man she carried to safety. She is willing to trade her home, her voice, and even her health for legs and the chance to win his heart…

Review

I had beautiful, enchantingly high hopes for Mermaid. I wanted it to be what I think the author originally envisioned it to be – an amazing retelling of the classic tale that added some depth, intrigue, and a few more character flaws, into the original plot. Unfortunately, this was not the case. I still award three stars, simply for the fact that it held my attention. I read it quite quickly as I kept waiting for it to turn into something amazing, but then encountered a lackluster ending, put it down and just said, “Huh.” On to the next book I guess.

Like most fairy tales, our female protagonists profess great love for the prince despite hardly knowing him, and Lenia, the mermaid, gives up everything for a handsome, unconscious human, and then unrealistically expects him to fall in love with her. The prince, being a philandering human with fully functioning anatomy, takes advantage of this gorgeous woman throwing herself at him, and she mistakes this act for deep and enduring love. Boring and predictable and this does not elevate the retelling or rectify the issues I had with the Disney movie. Hopefully must adult women reading this book are intelligent enough to realize that they do not want to be like the mermaid – they should aim to be more like Margrethe, Lenia’s rival for Prince Christopher’s affection.

​Well, not really, but if you’re going to pick one of the two women to focus on as a better role model, Margrethe is a clear winner. Brought up in a convent for her own protection, she encounters the prince first when she discovers him on the beach where Lenia saved him. She nurses him back to health, and then later realizes that if she marries him, she might save her country from the ceaseless wars they’ve been fighting with Christopher’s kingdom. Additionally, she realizes that she doesn’t love Christopher, but realizes she will be serving the greater good, not her own selfish desires. Does this make her a better human? I don’t know. But she does agree to raise Lenia and Christopher’s daughter which is at least a little admirable. Either way, I’ve already ordered Carolyn’s next book and hope that it will be more satisfying than this one!

Rating: 6 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $14.00 • 9780307589922 • 224 pages • published March 2011 by Broadway Books • average Goodreads rating 3.62 out of 5 • read in November 2011

Carolyn Turgeon’s Website

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Mermaid

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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122-At the Water's Edge

Fantasy, Fiction, Young Adult

Graceling by Kristin Cashore

For the past few weeks I’ve been debating picking up the book Bitterblue as I’d seen it all around the book stores. When I finally did decide to read it, I realized that it was a companion novel to Graceling, which was published first so I figured I’d give it a shot and I was hooked from the very first page.

Synopsis

Katsa has been able to kill a man with her bare hands since she was eight – she’s a Graceling, one of the rare people in her land born with an extreme skill. As niece of the king, she should be able to live a life of privilege, but Graced as she is with killing, she is forced to work as the king’s tug.

When she first meets Prince Po, Graced with combat skills, Kata has no hint of how her life is about to change. She never expects to become Po’s friend. She never expects to learn a new truth about her own Grace – or about a terrible secret that lies hidden far away…

Review

Graceling is the first of three related novels by Kristin Cashore and is set in a fantasy world of seven kingdoms. The capitals of each kingdom are named for their rulers and the kingdoms’ names are based on their geographical location (i.e. the Midluns are in the middle of the continent, Estill is in the east, Sunder is to south, etc.) Scattered across the kingdoms are a select group of individuals, each born with a Grace, a special ability unique to them and possessed only by that individual. They are known as the Gracelings, identified by eyes of two different colors.

Katsa, niece of the king of the Midluns, has started a secret council with the intention of using it to do some good in the seven kingdoms instead of falling into her role of court enforcer as her uncle expects. Graceling starts off with Kasta on a rescue mission of an elderly, gentle grandfather being kept in the dungeons of a neighboring king. On her way out, she runs into another Graceling with whom she spars until he, miraculously, just lets her go. She knocks him out for good measure, but she cannot stop thinking about him. When he arrives at her home court a few days later, she realizes the connection he has with the grandfather she rescued and his purpose for stopping her before.

Thus begins Katsa and Po’s adventure across the seven kingdoms to right a wrong and solve a long standing, though recently revealed, mystery. Their adventure covers rough terrain and obstacles that would make a lesser heroine turn right around. Katsa is a force to be reckoned with – sure of herself but also scared of her abilities. She is an intriguing character and she is full of spunk and zest and her relationship with Po is remarkably well developed for young adult fantasy fiction. The premise isn’t entirely unique but overall the book was enjoyable and I appreciated the great adventure with a bit of romance thrown in.

But there’s just something, and it’s probably just me, that I cannot shake. I can’t name it and it is the fault of this reviewer that my displeasure is so obtuse, but there’s something missing. And for that unshakable notion that a part of the story has gone awry, I cannot quite recommend Graceling as strongly as I hoped to be able to do.

Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $9.99 • 9780547258300 • 471 pages • first published October 2008, this edition published September 2009 by Graphia Books • average Goodreads rating 4.1 out of 5 • read in March 2014

Kristin Cashore’s Website

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Graceling