The Complete Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis #1-4)

One of the reasons that books are important is that they teach us about other people or events in history. Books can help us to understand people from different cultures, or they help to understand the different ways people experienced historical events. With that I don’t only mean history books, but also fiction books, be it comic books, children books, young adult books or books for adults. There is a big sub-genre in comic books doing exactly that, and Persepolis is a good example. Persepolis tells the story of Marjane Satrapi (1969) who grew up during the Iranian Revolution. Her story tells us how normal people living in Iran dealt with the revolution and the consecutive Islamic regime.

This book is a memoir of Satrapi’s life from when she was about 10 until about 25. At 25 she left Iran and moved to France and she hasn’t been back in Iran. In between, she lived in Vienna for a while to attend high school, where her parents hoped she’d find more freedom. However, in Vienna, she finds loneliness and alienation and she returns to Iran. Eventually, she decided to leave Iran as well, because she cannot deal with the restrictive regime anymore. She moved to France and she hasn’t been back to Iran since then. Satrapi writes the book from the perspective of herself, which means that when she is ten the book is told from her perspective as a ten-year-old, and when she is fourteen from the perspective of a fourteen-year-old and so on. In this way, at the beginning of the book, we learn to make sense of the sudden changes in Satrapi’s world, just as she has to do as a child. One way this is done is when Satrapi asks her grandparents about the history of Iran, giving us as readers important background information as well. When Satrapi grows older her frustration with the regime grows and we as readers are frustrated with her because we both know more about the regime.

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This story has two main storylines: The first one is the Iranian revolution which started in 1978 and culminated in the Islamic theocracy in Iran up to this day. The other storyline is the coming-of-age story of Marjane Satrapi during the revolution. Throughout the book, her life, and that of her parents changes dramatically. Bit by bit the freedom they were used to disappeared. Freedom of opinion, the choice to wear what one wants, the ability to drink and to have social gatherings with men and women together. Not all people disagree with the new laws though and tension grows between the more modern Iranians and the ones adhering to traditional religious rule. The easiest way to explain this contrast is comparing ‘modern’ with a Western way of living, and religious as following rules from the Koran and against everything Western. The reality is more complex, but for that, I advise you to read the book.

Satrapi was a passionate child with a large sense of right and wrong. Also, her parents were progressive thinkers and adhered to some Marxist ideas. They motivated Satrapi to read a lot of books and to develop an independent mind. However, an independent mind is dangerous in the new regime. Her parents struggled to make her heed the new laws imposed by the revolution. Satrapi is too young at the beginning to fully understand how dangerous the country is becoming. When her parents get a call from Satrapi’s school because she is talking back to the teachers they tell her the story of a girl who got raped and murdered by the police. There are many stories like that and Satrapi learned to be more careful. She is not giving up rebellion completely though. She tries to bend the new laws as much as possible by wearing lipstick, having illegal posters in her room and asking her parents to smuggle punk music into the country when they go on a holiday. And there are many people like her doing the same things.

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The book isn’t only about Satrapi’s life though, it also tells us the history of Iran and especially about Reza Shah and the new government led by Grand Ayatollah Khomeini. This was very helpful to put the events of the story into context and to get the different opinions of all the characters in the book. However, different opinions became dangerous after the revolution when life became more restricted. One example of that is the institution of the ‘Morality police’, whose job it is to check people’s adherence to Islamic law. They dress like normal people and you can never know which neighbour or schoolmate is checking on your movements. Satrapi and her friends tried to defy those rules as much as possible but also lived in fear of that police. A simple trip to the grocery store could become dangerous if one of the dress codes is not followed. Something that can happen by accident, because at school, they dress in a headscarf, but at home or at friends places they dress however they want. A mistake is easy to make when the Western clothing is not hidden before going out. Satrapi and her friends and family are living a double life, not willing to give up the way of life they would choose for themselves.

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The best thing about this book is that it tells the story of Iran from the Iranian’s perspective. It shows that not the entire country is full of religious extremists, but that there are also a lot of people who just try to live their life as peaceful as possible. However, when you only focus on the news or certain information sources it is easy to see the entire country in the light of the bad things you hear about it. Books like this, which show the reality of a country or culture of everyday people, are important because it creates understanding and empathy. When you read stories like this it turned out that people from a different country are not scary, and it shows that those people are a lot like yourself. Satrapi, like many children, needs her freedom to explore her own identity but is restricted. She struggles a lot to cope with that and that struggle makes her decide to leave Iran for Paris in the end. However, now she is an activist and most of her work is centred around Iran. Her parents raised her to love Iran and love of the culture is very clear in the book. The message of Satrapi’s book seems to be: Iran is my home and a beautiful country except for the current regime.

All of this doesn’t make this book sound like an easy or fun read, but it is. However, the book has an abstract comic style which makes it easy to read the story. There is nothing in the drawings that isn’t relevant to the story and distracts from the storylines. Also, the drawing style makes the tough parts of the book easier to cope with, without taking away from its seriousness. The style reminds of those funny comics you see in newspapers – ‘cartoons’. I liked that style because it will make it easy for new comic-book readers to get into the story. And most importantly: this book is also very funny. Humour in a book about revolution, torture and oppression sounds strange, however, Satrapi says herself that you can only complain so much about the horror in one’s life. At some point, the only thing you can do is laugh. Her family laughs a lot about the antics of the Islamic government because it is the only way they can cope and keep their spirit intact.

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It is clear by now that I am a fan of this book. I am a fan of any book that helps people to connect with persons from other cultures. Especially when those people are rarely portrayed in a positive light in the media. And because of the accessible drawing style and humour, this book is suitable for teenagers and adults alike. It is the perfect book to read for anyone who wants to know a bit more about the history and the life of other people without relying on the media only. Also, it is suitable for people who don’t feel like reading complex history books to understand a bit better what’s going on in this world. There is no excuse to not read this book and broaden your mind.

Princess Frog award for teaching us to think with our heart and not with the preconceptions we have from the media and other sources.

 

Marjane Satrapi, The Complete Persepolis (New York, 2003)

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Bella G. Bear

Bone: The complete edition by Jeff Smith

This is one of those books that made me wonder why the world was still turning as if nothing had happened when I finished it. I was so engrossed in the story that I wanted to talk about it with everyone. This comic book has everything: humour, adventure, excitement. It had me bite my nails because it was so scary and it also had me cheering with the protagonists when things went right. And also very important, the ending was very satisfying. However, this comic has over a thousand pages, consisting of nine volumes in total, and I knew it would be hard to convince anyone to read it and read it quickly as well because I am not patient. Let me use this review to convince you to read this amazing epic adventure comic. I’ll be reviewing the comic series as a whole which consists of nine volumes. The target audience for this book is children around twelve years old.

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This story fits within the fantasy genre: it is set in a world different from ours and besides humans, other creatures are living in this world. There are the creatures called ‘Bones’, which are the white ones in the picture, dragons, rat creatures and locusts. The story starts when three Bone cousins, the protagonist Fone Bone, careless Smiley Bone and shady businessman Phoncible Bone, are chased out of Boneville because of one of Phoncibles schemes has gone wrong. Eventually, they end up in a valley which looks very idyllic and peaceful. In the valley, the cousins look for someone who can show them the way back to Boneville. Before they can leave, however, winter sets in with a big thud and they are stuck. In the picture, you see how suddenly winter set in, one example of the slapstick humour. Luckily, they meet Thorn and her grandmother Rose in the forest and they are allowed to stay until the end of winter. Life in the valley is peaceful at first, full of chores and hard work and watching grandmother Rose compete with cows in a running match. However, soon it becomes clear that things are not as peaceful as they seem. After the first two volumes, the story takes a darker turn and the adventure takes its full shape.


One day, Fone Bone meets the Red Dragon in the forest who tells him of the threat of the Lord of the Locusts. The Lord of the locust is the leader of a plague of locusts out for the destruction of the lives of the people in the valley. The people of the valley have been at war with the Lord of the Locust before. At that time the people in the valley were united as a kingdom and dragons lived among them. During the war, their king and queen were killed and the last descendant, a baby girl, disappeared together with the dragons. The people of the valley narrowly won the war with the locusts at that time. Now, the threat is bigger because there is no king or queen anymore to reunite the people of the valley. Throughout the first few volumes, the only thing the Bone cousins want is to return to their own town. However, slowly they get dragged into the war and before long they find themselves fighting the locust threat along with the people from the valley.

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As I said before, this book is a mix of humour with a chilling adventure. This creates a good balance where the book never becomes completely dark, which makes the scary scenes easier to take. I think that’s a good thing in a book aimed at children. When the story gets too scary, there will be a joke to break the tension. One recurring joke is the rat creatures. They are dangerous because they constantly chase all the characters to eat them. However, whenever they manage to catch someone they fail to eat them because the creatures cannot agree on how to prepare their catch. One of the rat creatures dreams of trying out a quiche. However, the other creature doesn’t want that because it is not evil enough for a rat creature. Every time they catch someone they discuss how to prepare their meal at such length that their catch easily escapes. The scary parts are the choices the characters have to make and how they deal with the consequences of their decisions. When they make a bad decision other people suffer because of it and their friends get into danger. This made the story realistic because in every war tough decisions have to be made and there are consequences of those decision to deal with. Those consequences forced the characters to grow and to become better than they are so the war can be won and their friends will be saved. Jeff Smith managed to portray the growth of each character very well.

I own two physical copies of this series: the first one is all nine volumes in colour in separate books. The second version is one massive collection of 1000+ pages of all the volumes in black and white. I first read the series digitally in black and white and when I got the coloured version I decided I didn’t like it and got the black and white version. Reviewers on Goodreads suggest they coloured in the drawings to appeal to children more. That might be true, but for me, the colours distract from Jeff Smith’s amazing drawing style. It is a whimsical, detailed style that gives each creature he created a life of its own. Also, his style distracts a bit from the scary elements of the story. I prefer the black and white version as well because that fits more with the darkness within the story and it balances the scary and humour parts better. The coloured version looks too silly to me. But I am also predisposed to like black and white children comics because they remind me of time spent at my grandparents’ place. They had a Ducktales comic in black and white which I read at least fifty times. Sometimes I was also allowed to colour in the pictures myself which I always loved. It made me feel like an artist and part of the creation of the stories. Compare for yourself the coloured pages versus black and white:


In conclusion, I want to say that this is a whirlwind fantasy story that benefits of its length because once you pass the first volume you’ll find yourself turning pages like a maniac which won’t run out! This story is often compared to Lord of the Rings, but funnier. Both stories are indeed epic long adventure stories where unwilling heroes fight an ominous threat. However, there are more differences: Bone is aimed at children and consequently has a more an innocent feel to it; there is more humour in Bone; Bone is a Jeff tells his story with images and words in an excellent way. Adults and children alike – those who love to emerge themselves in a big epic adventure story – would all love this story. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, it’ll change your life, read this book so I have someone to talk to about it. You won’t regret it.

Goosebumps Award  for giving us a story that is scary, and also so much fun

 

Jeff Smith, Bone: The complete collection (Columbus,  1991)

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Bella G. Bear

 

 

Desert Flower by Waris Dirie and Cathleen Miller

The woman in the picture is model Waris Dirie. She is a pastoralist woman from the Somali tribe from Somalia. Pastoralist means she grew up herding the camels and goats of her family moving from place to place as a nomad. Waris Dirie her youth was very typical for a pastoralist girl, including the ritual of female genital mutilation (FGM). In FGM the female sexual organs are circumcised and sewn together as a cultural practice. This book tells Dirie’s life story from her time in the desert, where she was cut, until she became an activist and ambassador for the UN to fight for women’s rights and against FGM. Female empowerment is the main theme of the book and throughout Waris Dirie’s life. I must warn you that the FGM ritual is described with a lot of graphic details. This biography is written by Cathleen Miller, who is a professional non-fiction writer of stories with political meaning.

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The story starts in the desert where Dirie and her family scrape out a livelihood with their livestock. Despite the hardships, it is described as a happy youth. The only thing that disturbs that is when she is circumcised. But to her it is a normal practice, so when she is healed life continues as before, although there are added health challenges caused by the circumcision such as an extreme painful menstruation. That is, until her father decides to marry her to an old man. Waris Dirie flees from her family and  runs through the desert. She ends up in Mogadishu, the capital city of Somalia. There she lives with her sister until she gets the offer to become a house servant in London for a wealthy uncle on a diplomatic mission. In London, she becomes a model who travels all over the world. Through an interview in a magazine where she opens up about FGM, she becomes an activist and UN ambassador. There are many more things happening in her life between arriving in London and becoming a model, but for that, you have to read the book.

The book talks about the many challenges Waris Dirie faced in her life from illiteracy, poverty, the threat of deportation, exile and racism. But the toughest challenge was dealing with the reality and repercussions of FGM. FGM is an extremely painful ritual which can lead to death and other health complications during the procedure and in the rest of the girls’ lives. In Waris Dirie’s case, her sexual organs were sown together to only leave a small hole to pee or menstruate. This makes menstruation painful and makes sex and pregnancies a risk. I mention the graphic details on purpose because that is how it is written down in this book. I think it is written like that because Waris Dirie wants people to know the truth of what happens, and not a watered-down version people can wave away as ‘not that bad’.

Waris Dirie decides to become an activist to prevent other girls from undergoing the same ritual. Also, she wants to break the silence around the subject. When Dirie first arrived in London she did not know that what happened to her is not normal. She finds out because of how easy other girls have when they pee. However, she doesn’t dare to talk about it or to ask questions to her friends or the doctor. For her, and many women like her there is a big taboo to talk about their sexual organs, also in front of a doctor. I read somewhere that this book helped to start outlawing FGM. I can understand that because the book talks about it openly, including parts of the issues which are not immediately apparent, such as the stigma and fear of women to admit what happened to them. Waris Dirie finds the courage to go to a doctor to find out what happened to her and to see what can be done to make her life easier. There are surgeries available to help with this. My hope is that other women will find the courage to do the same when they read this book.

Looking at all Waris Dirie’s achievements, you can say that she managed to build a successful life away from the culture and habits of her youth. However, there is also a sense of sadness and nostalgia in her story. She misses nomadic life and her country and family and there are certain Western habits she could never get used to. Things like exact timekeeping with a watch and accumulating a lot of possessions. She grew up relying on the position of the sun in the sky to know the time and to be able to travel light. At some point, she is exiled from Somalia because of immigration issues, and the thought of never seeing her mother again brings her to a very low point. It is clear that Waris Dirie loves the culture and country she comes from, even though she dedicated her life to fighting certain parts of that culture. It is an important point to note in stories about activism and discussions of changing certain cultural practices that we don’t compare one country or culture with others in terms of good and bad, with a conclusion that one culture should make room for another one. It is more important to discuss the good and bad of cultural practices and judge them depending on that. This book does a very good job with that because Waris Dirie talks about her likes and dislikes of Western culture and her time as a pastoralist woman openly and honestly.

The last thing I want to discuss is the writing style of the book because it felt strange to me. It reads as if the story was not completely edited before the book was published. I read the Dutch translation of the book though, so I don’t know what the original English is like. However, there were a lot of short sentences and half descriptions. For example, Waris Dirie talks about her ex-husband who stalks her and even follows her to New York. But she doesn’t go into detail. That makes it sound like it was no big deal to her and that events in her life follow on each other without having much impact on herself. However, that can’t be true. Everything that happens to us shapes us in one way or another. So, this is probably because of the way the story is edited or translated, keeping to the facts and leaving interpretations to the reader.

At the core of this book is the story of female empowerment. Waris Dirie is determined to live her life the way she wants and her resilience to overcome challenges is an inspiration to us all. The prevalence of FGM has gone down since Waris Dirie’s youth, but it is still happening to this day. This book contributes to showing people the truth of the FGM practice and the pain and repercussions of the practice for women. However, this book is not only that. It also talks of the resilience of a woman who underwent FGM and did not let that determine her fate. Reading the graphic scene of Waris Dirie’s circumcision left me sleepless. However, reading how she overcomes her challenges and became an activist for women inspired me to fight for women’s rights in my own way to honour Waris Dirie her legacy and those of the many other women doing similar work. One way of doing that is by sharing stories of women like Waris Dirie to empower them and to create awareness about what’s happening.

Sleepless nights award to think of ways for women empowerment so we can decide what happens to our own bodies.

 

Waris Dirie & Cathleen Miller, Desert Flower (London, 1998)

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Bella G. Bear

The Reckoning by John Grisham

The Reckoning is the first John Grisham novel I’ve read. Besides Agatha Christie, I haven’t read much murder mysteries at all, because I always thought those books were not for me. I bought The Reckoning as a gift for my boyfriend when I flew to Kenya. On my first flight on that journey, I decided to give the book a try. I am sure that I am not the only bookworm who reads books bought as presents before giving it. From the moment I started until this moment, two weeks later, I’ve been reading this book like a madwoman. Part of The Reckoning is set in the Philippines during the Second World War and part of it is set in the deep South of the USA a few years after the war.

The Reckoning centres around the Banning family. They have been a respected cotton-farming family for many generations in the town of Clanton, Mississippi. That is, until the day Pete Banning, the patriarch of the family, gets up, goes to town and kills the beloved Methodist priest Dexter Bell. He hands himself over to the police but refuses to give a motive for the murder. His two children Stella and Joel, his sister Florry and his wife Liza are all distraught by what happened. They try to ask Pete why he killed the priest, but he refuses to tell them as well. What follows is a story that alternates between courtroom scenes regarding Pete’s trial and the aftermath of that. These scenes are alternated by stories of how the Banning family copes with the murder and trial and how they try to build back a life. In the middle of the book, the story moves to the Philippines where we learn about what happened to Pete during the war.

Pete started as a cavalier soldier during the war. After that, he became a Japanese prisoner of war when the Americans surrendered. Eventually, he escapes and becomes a guerrilla fighter in the jungle of the Philippines where he spends most of his war years. In this part of the book, we also learn more about Pete and Liza’s marriage and how it changed after the war. Pete hasn’t told his family anything about what happened to him during the war. Likewise, he knows little of his family’s life at home at that time. The Banning family is not used to talk about anything that happens to them. This brings a lot of questions, such as why did Pete kill the priest? What is the role of the priest in the disintegration of Pete’s and Liza’s marriage? Do Pete’s employees know the truth? And there are many more questions like this. All these questions together form the bigger mystery of the book, which is slowly unravelled in the book by revealing what happened in the Philippines and what happened at home. This ends in the conclusion where the mystery might or might not be revealed. I won’t spoil that for you. I can only say that I was thoroughly satisfied with the ending.

The question of whether the mystery will be revealed or not is one thing that made the book exciting to me. Most of the book I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to know the answers. The Banning family is known for their secrecy, so I feared it might feel unrealistic if all the mysteries would be revealed. Also, sometimes it is best if not all secrets are revealed in a murder mystery, so the book keeps you wondering. However, I also really wanted to know what happened. This book keeps you wondering in a good way. A big part of the book doesn’t even talk about the mystery directly but is about the life of all the characters. The connection between all the characters and the murder is not immediately clear either. I liked that Grisham spends a lot of time introducing all the characters because that gives us readers the opportunity to theorize about the mystery ourselves.

Overall, I loved this book, however, it is also very long-winded at certain points. There is too much detail about things such as particulars about the trial. It didn’t surprise me at all when I discovered John Grisham is a lawyer, seeing all the details he puts in those scenes. The level of detail gave the book a realistic vibe, but to me, it felt excessive. Another way Grisham stretches the word count in this novel is by repeating the explanations of certain things or concepts every time it’s mentioned. For example, communication is done through a phone system called ‘the rural party line’. This means that neighbours on the same line can listen in to conversations at will, making sensitive discussions public rather than private. This, Grisham explains every time the term ‘rural party line’ is used. To me, it would have been better if Grisham realized his readers understand the concept after the first time it is mentioned.

The easy writing style and the structure of the book compensate for the repetition in the book: reading never feels like a chore and you can read for hours without getting tired. Also, Grisham gives clues to the mystery at the right moments: when my attention started to slack, I found out something new. Still, the book is longer than necessary. I am not saying that every book should be as short as possible, because reading is as much about the pleasure of turning the pages as it is about finishing books. However, an author should take care not to bore or annoy its readers with too many repetitions.

All in all, I enjoyed my first John Grisham novel a lot. Especially because about two thirds through the book I had expansive theories of what happened and why Pete killed the priest. And I am delighted to say that I was partly correct! This puzzling out the mystery and being right helped a lot to enjoy the book. The Reckoning is recommendable for everyone who loves a murder mystery written in an accessible writing styles and with enough clues to figure out part of the mystery yourself. At the end of this review, I must conclude that murder mysteries are my kind of books after all. Do you have any recommendations of what to read next?

Sherlock Holmes award for giving us a murder mystery where everyone can figure out some of the clues themselves and feel smart.

 

John Grisham, The Reckoning (New York, 2018)

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Bella G. Bear

The man in the brown suit by Agatha Christie

Personally, I always associated Agatha Christie with thrilling murder plots solved by prying old ladies or a slightly overweight Belgian man. While reading The Man in the Brown Suit, I discovered Christie also writes thrilling adventure stories! We at Bookworms United love Agatha Christie, shown in the fact she has been reviewed before: The Pale Horse by Agatha Christie and By the Pricking of my Thumbs by Agatha Christie, however never by me. Reading and reviewing the murder books is usually more Jo’s and Thura’s cup of tea. However, I’ve always loved reading Agatha Christie, so it is time for me to review one of her works.

The Man in the Brown Suit is about Anne Beddingfield, whose father died at the start of the book leaving her an orphan. Her relationship with her father was distant because he was obsessed with his work and treated Anne as his assistant. Anne lived a boring life with her father, which frustrated her because she believes she is made for adventure. Upon the death of her father, she immediately moves in with friends in London in the hope to find an exciting life there. Initially, Anne is disappointed, because life turns out not more exciting in London, despite her initial excitement to move. That is until she takes the underground one fateful day. She is waiting for her train when she makes contact with a man standing on the platform. The stranger looks at something behind Anne which gives him such a fright that he dies of shock.  A man in a brown suit appears on the scene to investigate the man and disappears in a rush. Something about the man attracts Anne and she decides to pick up a note the man in the brown suit has left behind.  On the note is written the name and date of a ship leaving for South Africa: the Kilmorden Castle

Things are getting even more exciting when Anne reads about a murder in the morning papers. An unidentified woman was strangled in Mill House, the house of renowned politician Eustace Pedler. The suspected culprit is a man in a brown suit. Overwhelmed by these coincidences, Anne decides solving these murder cases is the adventure waiting for her. She buys a ticket on the Kilmorden Castle with her last money and leaves for South Africa. On the ship, she meets the other characters of this book. You have Suzanne Blair, a wealthy lady who helps Anne to investigate the mystery. They become friends because of their shared love for excitement and adventure. Colonel Race is Suzanne’s travelling companion, a very suspicious character. He tells the ladies about a mysterious diamond theft linked to the murders.  Also, the politician Sir Eustace Pedler and his two secretaries are on board. Sir Eustace has to travel to Johannesburg to hand over important documents to stop the strikes and riots there. From the moment she boards the ship to South Africa, Anne gets all the adventure she wished for including murder attempts, instant love, wooden giraffes and a fateful scene near a waterfall.

The pace of this book is super quick, with one exciting event following on after the other without pause.  Also, there is not much logic or explanation behind the actions of the characters. In that sense, this is truly an adventure book and not a whodunnit in my opinion. It is true that there is the mystery of the murders and diamond theft, but I found myself so caught up with the action, that I did not care to puzzle out the solution for myself. I just laid down, let myself be entertained by the book and Anna’s lust for adventure, and let the events unfold. Reviewers remark that there is not much logic to the events and decisions of Anne, and that is true. But if you read like me it doesn’t matter. In a span of around 200 pages, we go from cruise to kidnapping in Cape Town, riots in Johannesburg and souvenir buying in Rhodesia and it’s fantastic. It is interesting that someone who is famous for writing intricate murder plots also enjoys writing a rambunctious adventure story. Maybe we all like to relax sometimes.

Writing interesting characters, especially enlarging their idiosyncrasies, is what Christie does best in my opinion. Most of her characters are a bit more dramatic or ridiculous, strange or funny than people would be in real life. It’s like Christie was fascinated by people’s small idiosyncrasies and liked to explore them to the fullest in her stories. This doesn’t create realistic characters, but rather personalities that are funny and fit within the story. This book is a good example of that habit. For example, Sir Eustace perpetually complains about his secretary running his life. There must be people in Christie’s life who were facing that problem on a small scale where a secretary takes a bit too much leadership when it comes to their employers agenda. However, Sir Eustace lives that problem and I would not be surprised if he feels he has to ask his secretary to use the loo. This makes most of the characters in Christie’s books a bit ridiculous and I love them that way. Her writing shows us the silly habits people sometimes have and her British writing style makes us laugh at the habits, and don’t take the ridicule too seriously. Another character who is made fun of is Suzanne Blair: she is rich, married and bored. She barely speaks to her husband and mocks him for his annoying tendency to ask for her attention, how could he right?

This book is not a good example of Christie’s murder stories and intricate plots. It is a perfect example of her skills to write an exciting adventure full of funny, although slightly ridiculous, characters. I read through this book super quickly while laughing and what more can we hope for in an adventure book written by one of the world’s most renowned and appreciated writers?

 

Bilbo Baggins awards because we all secretly  like an adventure sometimes, be it in fiction or in real life

 

The man in the brown suit, Agatha Christie (London, 1924)

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Bella G. Bear

The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark

Thura warned me about Muriel Spark. She said she is an amazing writer, but when you read her books, you get a strong sense of foreboding and that something very very wrong is going to happen. She especially warned me that the ending would be a shocker because that is how Spark rolls. And she was right! I still haven’t fully accepted the ending of this book. However, when you read the description of this book, it sounds very unlikely that drama or a shocking ending will happen. The book is about a group of girls who live together in a boarding house, called the May of Teck Club, for girls with little money. The hospice protects them from bad influences from the outside world. So, nothing should go wrong right?

The girls in the hospice are from poor, but respectable families. Among the girls are clergy daughters and impoverished nieces. The hospice is a refuge for girls below thirty years of age who want to make their way in London. However, a lot of the girls are hoping for marriage. The older girls live on the top floor and are the main characters. This book is set in the year 1945 in London. They are engaged in all kinds of jobs to get more money or food stamps. There is Joanna who gives elocution lessons which can be heard echoing through the whole hospice. Jane is a chubby girl who does a lot of ‘brain work’. Brain work means her work for a publisher forging letters from famous writers for cash and grooming new promising writers. There is also glamorous Selina who is small enough to fit through the bathroom window, so she can bask in the sun on top of the roof or sleep with her lover Nicholas. Nicholas is one of Jane’s writers. He is an anarchist and wannabe writer who becomes friends with the May of Teck girls. The book is set around the second world war, so the poverty of the girls is not only from their background but also because of war. Food, clothes and all other luxuries are rationed, and stamps are as good a way to pay people as money. The girls must think smartly to get out of life what they want, and still have money or stamps left for food or soap.

On Goodreads, people remarked that very little happens in this book. There is not a main storyline with a clear beginning, middle, and end. Rather the book tells about the day-to-day life of the May of Teck girls in the year 1945. I partly agree, because for a long time I had no clue what was going on in this book either. I still liked reading it though, because all the characters are so fascinating. They are an interesting mix of serious and silly. They are aware of the reality of poverty and war they live in, but they also find time to worry about a nice dress, being thin or to use their soap rations to squeeze through the lavatory window. Besides, if the characters are still not enough entertainment for you, the extreme dramatic turn of events at the end takes away all your right to complain of ‘nothing going on in the book’. I won’t tell you what the ending is, but I did not see it coming! I really believe I should have though, especially reading what Rosemary Goring said in the introduction of Spark’s book about certain events foreshadowing the ending. The Girls of Slender Means is the kind of book that benefits from a second or third reading to understand everything Spark wanted to say. I really admire that kind of writing and I look forward to reading this book, again and again, to understand it better.

Another thing I liked about the book is the setting of London, in the year 1945. I don’t know much about the day-to-day life of people in London during the end and aftermath of World War II,  so I enjoyed reading about it in this book. Especially when I found out Spark has lived through those days as well. Spark herself describes the London of those days as: ‘bombed-out London was the first real London I would get to know’. She describes living in that London was a  strange  sensation, because there were bombed-out buildings everywhere, but at the same time people were not too bothered about the scenery because they were a daily presence: it’s simply how London was. This attitude is also clear in the book. Austerity and the anxieties coming with the war are omnipresent, but they don’t limit the girls in pursuing the life they want. This is exemplified by the Schiaparelli gown, a very fancy dress, one of the girls owns. She trades use of the dress for luxury goods to impress the men the girls go on dates with.

This combination of the everyday life of the girls, war and a looming presence of disaster is told in the witty style of Muriel Spark. She has a fantastic way with words, which turns everything funny. There is also a sense of irony to it. You’re never sure if Spark is making fun of the characters or having a lot of fun telling the story. I will conclude this review by saying this is really the kind of book you have to discover for yourself. It’s hard to explain the sense of foreboding you get reading about the seemingly normal life of the girls. Also, it is more fun to get to know these characters for yourself to judge what you think of them. It is only a short book, so I urge you to get to know these girls of slender means for yourself, at least two times.

Cinderella’s spirit award for showing the grace and creativity of girls with slender means

 

Muriel Spark, the Girls of Slender Means (Edinburgh, 1963)

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The Quilter’s Legacy by Jennifer Chiaverini (Elm Creek Quilters #5)

I am a quiltmaker. I also love the history behind each quilt made and the meaning people give to them. Especially quilts which are sewn for a special occasion such as a wedding or birth. Giving quilts for special occasions is a  common thing to do now and in the past. I am telling you all this because the book I review here, The Quilter’s legacy, is part five of a twenty-part series about the lives and history of a fictional group of quilters called the Elm Creek Quilters. Their stories are told through the quilts they make. Sylvia Compson is one of the main characters in the books. This particular book is about five lost quilts, ‘the legacy’,  Sylvia’s mother made to commemorate her wedding, anniversary and her journey towards motherhood.

All the books in this series can be read separately. That is also why I review the fifth part – The spoilers don’t bother me because I read for the atmosphere of the book and not the plot. The books switch perspective between contemporary time and history. One part is the life of the Elm Creek Quilters now, and the other part tells the story of Sylvia’s family from the moment they moved to Waterford halfway the 19th century. This particular book focuses on the history of her mother, called Eleanor, who grew up in New York around the turn of the 20th century. Eleanor has a heart condition which the doctors fear will lead to an early death. Consequently, her whole family treats her as a dying small bird and the only one who treats her as a normal person is Frederick Bergstrom who sells horses to her father.  Frederick harbours a secret love for Eleanor. When Eleanor has to flee her family home in New York to avoid a forced marriage he offers to take her to Waterford. Eleanor agrees and they get married soon after.

Meanwhile, in contemporary Waterford, Sylvia is preparing for her wedding with Andrew. They are planning a road trip together to visit Andrew’s children to tell them about the engagement in person. However, they fear to bring this news, because Andrew suspects his children won’t accept their marriage. Sylvia is some years older than him (in her 70s) and had a stroke a few years back. The children fear it won’t be a marriage but more a caregiver relationship for Andrew. Meanwhile, Sylvia also decides to look for the quilts her mother made, among them her marriage quilt. Her mother is the one who taught her to quilt, so it would fit to give her wedding quilt a role in the marriage.  First, she goes to the attic of the mansion, but the quilts are not there. It turns out that Claudia, her estranged sister who lived in the mansion for years after Sylvia left, sold the quilts when she had money problems. That means the quilts can be anywhere.

Sarah, another Elm Creek Quilter, suggests putting the description of the quilts on a website dedicated to finding lost quilts. People can connect with each other through the website to share clues of the whereabouts of the quilts. A quilter’s own style is so distinctive that it is possible to find and recognize long-lost quilts. Soon the clues come in from all over the country.  Andrew and Sylvia decide to extend their road trip to investigate some of the clues they get. Some turn out fruitful, others were useless.

This search for the long-lost quilts was a great element in the story because the question whether Sylvia would find the quilts kept me reading. What I particularly liked about the quest in this book is that not all clues led closer to the quilts. Sometimes in adventure books, everything that happens to the protagonist somehow adds to solving the mystery, which is unlikely. Now, a clue was sometimes useless and some clues they got put into question the possibility of finding the quilts at all! This felt more realistic. It is possible to find a long-lost quilt, but certainly not easy. I won’t spoil whether Sylvia finds the quilts or not. I’ve read some of the other books in the series, and they are sometimes a bit long-winded. This part did not have that problem, because the search for the quilts kept it exciting and the plot moving.

What I like most in this series is the changing perspective between the contemporary and historical part of the story. Each book in the series focuses on a particular member of the Bergstrom family, so each book gives you new clues to piece together their complete family history. This also makes me interested in the other books in the series, which is a smart move by Chiaverini. Both the contemporary and historical perspective are told from the perspective of a woman. Its focus is on how the women find a place for themselves in the world and happiness at whatever time they are living. It is interesting to read how historical events and times impact that. However, some of the historical parts of the book felt unrealistic to me. The Bergstrom family seems to be caught up in ALL major events in American history. Be it the abolition movement, the Titanic, the Spanish flu or the Second World War. It was especially unrealistic because the Bergstrom family are somehow always on the ‘right side’ of history. I get that Chiaverini wants to use the family to write about American history, but I think she is too ambitious.

Despite these shortcomings, I thoroughly loved this book. I cared about the characters, and it was interesting to read about their lives, despite it being unrealistic at times. Focusing on the female perspective and quilts also adds something very wholesome to the books. Quilts are often associated with groups of women working on them in companionship. This is combined with a quiet kind of freedom because through a quilt a woman has always been able to express and explore her individual taste and personality. This is done in solidarity with other women. In these books the same kind of solidarity and warm feelings are present. This makes the books a perfect feel-good read when you need a pick-me-up.

 

Stitchers award for weaving together the lives of women through the quilts they stitch

Jennifer Chiaverini, the quilters legacy (Elm Creek Quilters #5), (New York, 2003)

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My name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

One morning my mother came downstairs, pushed this book into my hands and said: “Here read this, you’ll enjoy it.” This happens quite a lot between me and my mom and I am sure my fellow book lovers will recognize this occurrence with the book-loving people in their life. There are few things better than a loved one walking up to you with a book and saying ‘here read this, you’ll love it’ or you walking up to a loved one with a book yourself. It was an interesting way to get my hands on this particular book because it is about the bond between a mother and a daughter.

The story is about Lucy Barton. This book tells about her time spent in the hospital when she got an appendectomy. Due to complications, Lucy is forced to spend six weeks in the hospital. During her hospitalization, her estranged mother visits her and stays at her bedside for about a week. At that time, she had not seen or spoken to her mother for years. During their time together, mother and daughter don’t talk a lot with each other but mainly sit together in silence. Lucy observes her mother and sees all the ways she cares for Lucy. This is most clear when Lucy is taken for an X-ray somewhere in the hospital while her mother is gone. Lucy is worried about that, but when she comes out of the X-ray room her mother sits outside waiting for her. Lucy realises she must have looked for Lucy all over. The things they do talk about are people from Lucy’s youth and her growing up. This helps us, readers, to piece together parts of Lucy’s youth. But we get to know more about Lucy’s past through Lucy’s memories stirred by her mother’s visit. This book weaves together those stories of Lucy’s past, with anecdotes of her life now with her husband and two young daughters, her time in hospital and also about her future and how she becomes a writer. The talks between her mother and her in the hospital form the basis of Lucy’s first book.

The themes in this book are family, love, poverty, abuse and forgiveness. Lucy grew up in poverty. They lived in an uncle’s garage until he died and they moved into his house. Her father was traumatized by the Vietnam war which had its effect on the family. Both Lucy and her mother are too afraid to address these topics and even their new-found closeness cannot break the silence. Only later, after her stay in the hospital, Lucy wonders whether there was abuse in their family because of the conversations she has with another writer while writing her first book. Often Lucy wants to ask her mother questions to clarify her own memories to know what exactly happened. There is a lot Lucy seems to have forgotten. However, she never dares to, as if she is afraid to chase her mother away and to break the fragile bond they have now. The relationship between Lucy and her mother and the rest of her family is strained. There has been no contact since the moment Lucy left her childhood town for New York. This strained relationship also has its effect on the relation Lucy has with her daughters and husband. In all the little anecdotes she tells about them her love is obvious, but also a kind of powerlessness to understand and connect with them shines through the same as with Lucy’s family growing up. Weaving all these different storylines and anecdotes together works very well to create a picture of Lucy and her life.

What I really liked about this book is the way Elizabeth Strout has set up the narrative and story. The story is not told with a linear timeline, but pieces of the past, present and future are interwoven. For example, in one chapter you read a hint about something that might have happened, which is confirmed in a later chapter when Lucy talks about her book. In this way, we get to puzzle together Lucy’s story ourselves as readers without being sure about everything. This makes Lucy a very interesting character because every reader will have their own opinion on her. It also makes Lucy feel like a realistic woman. I liked Lucy but thought she was a bit too passive. This is all written in a very careful writing style where no word is too much. The whole book is less than 200 pages, but there are a lot of elements in this story. Consequently, I found myself reading the book very slowly, reading a few pages once every few days, so I could take in the whole story and not miss anything. I needed time to reflect and think about what happened. And still, I missed a lot. This is definitely the kind of book you can read again and again to see if you can understand Lucy better.

It could also be that the melancholic atmosphere of the book made me read slowly. There is a very sad, bittersweet feel to this book and I didn’t want that feeling to become too big by reading too much. However, this book is also strangely optimistic. I call it strangely optimistic because despite that generally this book put me in a sad mood, it was a happy kind of sad. As if, although Lucy and her family’s lives are by no means a happy one, it is somehow alright because of that time she spends with her mother in the hospital. As if her mother’s stay at her bedside showed Lucy the kind of love from her mother, she has been looking for her whole her life. For example, her mother could never tell her she loved her. Even in the hospital, she can’t. But in the hospital, Lucy gets to see the different ways her mother shows love. It seems that moment freed her to make new decisions in her life and to finally become a writer. Or maybe it was the ending that made this book the happy kind of sad. The book ends with a short chapter which is Lucy’s love letter to her childhood home: she describes the sunset on the farmlands around her childhood home. In this way, she makes peace with her past.

In short, this is a very nice book about a woman ruminating about her past and what it all means to her in her life now. It also asks the question of how to find a way to overcome that past to continue living in your own way. Also, the question of the role of family in one’s life plays a big part in this book. This is the kind of book that stays with you long after it’s finished. Especially if you love stories about family and all the different ways they function or don’t function. To speak in Tolstoy’s words: “All happy families are the same, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” This book shows how an unhappy family can come to terms with a part of this unhappiness.

Family award for showing us the complex mix of love, happiness, sadness and forgiveness between people when there’s blood involved.

 

Elizabeth Strouth, My name is Lucy Barton (New York, 2016)

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The book of unholy mischief by Elle Newmark

I bought this book at a clearance sale at my local library. The barcode is crossed out, but I like to imagine that if you take this book through the little gates at the entrance the alarm will still go off. Then I can tell myself I’ve actually stolen this book and that I have to hide it from other people, so my thievery won’t be found out. Also, if people find out I have this book they will try to steal it back from me to read its secrets. I’m imagining this story because Newmark’s story is about a mysterious book full of secrets everyone pursues: people steal, lie and kill to get their hands on the book. I’ve decided to review this book to show its contents are innocent. And if you want to read the book afterwards you can borrow it, but please don’t steal it.

The plot of this book is set in 1498 Venice. The protagonist is Luciano who is a teenage orphan living on the streets. One day he steals a pomegranate: an act seen by the head cook of the doge, the head of state, of Venice. He takes Luciano off the streets, feeds him and makes him his apprentice. A few weeks in his new life, rumours start to rise about a mysterious book somewhere in Venice. Nobody is sure what the secrets in the book are: is it a recipe for eternal life, how to make gold, the recipe for a love potion or does it contain secrets which will shake the balance of power in the city? The book seems to contain exactly whatever the one pursuing it desires most. Around the palace of the doge, where Luciano works, there are many intrigues and plots to get the book. This is intertwined with the struggle for power in Venice, especially because the old doge is dying. As a servant, Luciano sees many people pass through the chambers of the doge and he listens in on many incriminating conversations. The players in this game over power and ownership of the secrets in the book do not shrink away from murder.

After a while, it turns out that the cook called Ferraro is more than a kind man and a brilliant cook. He seems to be a key player in the game of power, although in a more subtle role. While Luciano and Ferraro’s friendship grows, Ferraro shares more and more secrets with Luciano. Secrets that reveal the role of Ferraro and the role of his cooking in the power game being played in the city. However, the question that isn’t answered for Luciano is how that all is connected with the mysterious book everybody keeps talking about. Meanwhile, Luciano is also struggling with elements of his past life on the streets. His friends demand of him to steal food for them and are slowly getting involved with his and his master’s secrets, although he isn’t sure whether he can trust his old friends. Also, Luciano is in love with a novice called Francesca. He has heard the book contains the recipe for a love potion, so he also has his own interest to find the book, unconvinced as he is to be able to win her heart on his own merits. Even though, his master Ferraro urges him to either forget about her or to win her heart on his own.

The best thing about this book is the writing style. It is written in such a way that it drags you in and won’t leave you alone until the book is finished. The first time I finished this book I couldn’t even tell you if the plot was good or not, because I was too busy recovering from the thrill of reading this book. The book has a good balance of action and character development. Luciano goes from a street boy who doesn’t know which direction to take in his life to finding a cause to fight for and to better himself. One of the things he does is learning how to read and educating himself. His growth is illustrated in a particularly beautiful scene near the end where Luciano has to travel alone for a long time. He is not excited about the new adventure in his life, but rather sad about everything that has happened and the friends he has lost. A chapter of his life is ending and his future is uncertain. Despite his sadness and fear he still goes on to execute the responsibility given to him by his master. Luciano has learned from his master Ferraro to be strong and to face whatever is necessary to lead a meaningful life with purpose and integrity. Newmark created vulnerable characters who felt real with their own doubts, goals and shortcomings.

Another great element in this book is the role of food. It feels as if food is the actual protagonist in this book. There are lengthy descriptions of the food characters eat and the dishes Ferraro prepares for the doge and his guests. First, I thought Elle Newmark just really liked food, but it soon becomes clear that food has a bigger role. Food is used to calm people down, to manipulate them and to steer the course of history and even has the potential to be dangerous when used wrongly. Ferraro choices his dishes in such a way as to manipulate the thoughts and decisions of everyone who eats them aided by ingredients from his mysterious garden. The other people working in the kitchen look with suspicion at his cooking because it is sinful and looks like magic. Luciano is fascinated by the power of his cooking though, and me and Luciano both suspect more than one of Ferraro’s secret ingredients are some kind of drugs. I like the role of food in this book. It gives the book a very original and distinctive element and it made me appreciate the food I ate weeks after finishing this book. Especially how Ferraro forces Luciano to eat a grape with full intention. To focus on the taste, texture and smell. At that moment Luciano truly learns how to taste food and his career as a cook apprentice can start. Newmark’s descriptions are so real that you grave the food the characters get to eat, and you can even smell the dishes while you read about them.

As with all historical novels, there is, of course, the question of historical accuracy. Newmark herself confesses in a postscript of the book that she made up some things in the book, such as a bridge, for the purpose of storytelling. Also, there is no proof whether all the dishes would have been possible in 1498, but she says it is plausible of all of them. I am not a historian at all, for that you need to turn to Jo or Thura, and maybe that has been a blessing for me reading this book. I read the book as it is: a glorious adventure full of intrigue, mysteries and descriptions of amazing food. I was not bogged down by questions of historical accuracy or finesse of the plot and that is also what Newmark says: she asks understanding from the readers for mistakes made because her main goal was to tell a great story and that is what she did.  This book is a whole lot of fun and would certainly inspire everyone to go a bit further to learn cooking skills. -You never know when you need them to manipulate someone.

Mother’s kitchen award for all those times we ate food cooked with a precision that made us rich in feeling or ready to overthrow a government.

 

Elle Newmark, the book of unholy mischief (New York, 2007)

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#Girlboss by Sophia Amoruso

There’s this series on Netflix called Nasty Gal. It is about Sophia Amoruso who starts a business selling vintage clothes on eBay from her bedroom. The shop grows from eBay to a website, and now it is a multi-million fashion business called Nasty Gal. I had never heard of Nasty Gal, but I suppose people who are into fashion have. I loved the series because I love second-hand clothes and a girl finding her path and success in this world. So, when I was walking through the second-hand stores in my town and I saw this book I obviously picked it up.

The book is Amoruso’s own work. In it, she tells about her journey of founding Nasty Gal and it becoming a 100 million business at the time of the book (2014). Also, she tells a bit about her youth and the Nasty Gal business now. She wrote the book as a motivation to show other #Girlbosses of how they can get success for themselves. Also, there are portraits of other successful #Girlbosses in fashion. Amoruso especially wanted to tell her story because she did not get her success in a traditional way (her words). She did not finish high school, never had a job for more than half a year, is a misfit and in her early years set to defeat the system. She started selling vintage clothes on eBay, because that is what she knew about, and that job allowed her to work on her own. Ten years later she is the CEO of a big company with employees and annual budgets.

Sophie’s challenge growing up is that she is easily bored. It’s not that she could not finish high school, she just really did not want to. She decided to work instead and threw herself full force in every job she got. One of the things she learned from that is making the perfect tuna sandwich from her time at Subway. Nasty Gal started when she had a permanent job at a university checking IDs at the entrance to get health insurance benefits for an operation. The job was so boring that she had a lot of time to muck around on the internet and to start an online business. The business grows and went from her bedroom to a house in suburbia, and ended up in a giant office in Los Angeles. The philosophy behind the business Nasty Gal is to help other misfits like her dress to feel good about themselves. She makes what her customer loves, and her customer loves edgy, non-boring and non-conventional clothing.

Sophia’s philosophy is that everyone can achieve their dream career if they decide to go for it. She used to be against capitalism, but now she likes to see it as alchemy: with hard-work, self-determination and creativity, things will eventually start moving for you. She hates people who say her success was only luck, and people who want to put her on a pedestal because she achieved so much despite her history. She did not succeed despite all odds, but because of hard work and creativity. And she wants other people to believe they can do the same. I agree with her that putting people on a pedestal can make success look unachievable. However, I also think Amoruso’s intelligence and experience played a big role in her success. And there is always luck of being in the right place at the right time. Hard work is a big part of success, but not everything and sometimes hard-working people don’t succeed. This book doesn’t address that part of the equation and focusses only on her personal success.

This book manages to do its motivational job though. About four pages in I wanted to underline everything Sophia said and shout ‘Yes Girl!’. Especially phrases to take control of your own life, work hard, be a bad-ass and change the world will give everyone creative energy. However, she does start to repeat herself. The book is only 240 pages but still got boring halfway through. Each chapter had its own theme such as firing people, taking care of your business and on being recalcitrant. The conclusion at the end of every chapter was: work hard, know yourself and be determined and I even feel I’m repeating myself in this review. She makes good points, but they would also be good only repeated three or four times instead of twenty times. Repetition to this extent always gives me the feeling people don’t have more to say. I doubt if that’s true for Sophia though, so it’s a shame it happens so much in this book.

On the other hand, I can understand the repetition. Sometimes that is the way to bring a message home. In that way, this book serves as a good friend who keeps shouting at you to keep hope and to keep trying whenever you feel down: it does its job being super motivational. Especially because she says that no matter what happens to you, it is a learning opportunity to get where you want to be. You never know what information turns out to be useful. Maybe I expected more of the book. I hoped for stories about thrift store shopping and altering dresses and stories of slander by boring vintage sellers. However, she only shortly touches on those subjects. Which is in line with her thinking to ignore the haters and keep doing your thing. The book is very business oriented in that way. On Goodreads, it has won an award for being the best business book, so I guess I could have known that. This is the kind of motivational book for people who want a big life and be successful in business. If you don’t, this book is not for you.

Ultimately, what Sophia Amoruso does in this book is persuading you to go out and work for your dream. She says to do whatever you feel you should be doing, and do it with full conviction. That is never a bad message to live by, although I doubt if the message that success is imminent with hard work is a good one to push that hard. After all, it is clear by now that the American dream that hard work will make you succeed is not true. Some people won’t and that is not their fault. That doesn’t mean you should not try, of course, hence I still recommend this book. It lacks variety to keep it interesting though so I would advise you all to find the book in a second-hand store. Read it on a quiet Saturday afternoon, learn from it, and then discard it for another book. That will be in line with Sophia’s philosophy of taking on everything in life that comes on your path until you find out what you’re supposed to be doing. You’ll never know beforehand which information will turn out to be vital.

Motivational #Girlboss award for giving us a clip around the head to get off our butt and do some work.

 

Sophia Amoruso, #Girlboss (New York, 2014)

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