The New York Times: Footsteps

A curated collection of the New York Times’ travel column, “Footsteps,” exploring iconic authors’ relationships to landmarks and cities around the world

Before Nick Carraway was drawn into Daisy and Gatsby s sparkling, champagne-fueled world in The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald vacationed in the French Riviera, where a small green lighthouse winked at ships on the horizon. Before the nameless lovers began their illicit affair in The Lover, Marguerite Duras embarked upon her own scandalous relationship amidst the urban streets of Saigon. And before readers were terrified by a tentacled dragon-man called Cthulhu, H.P. Lovecraft was enthralled by the Industrial Trust tower– the 26-story skyscraper that makes up the skyline of Providence, Rhode Island.

Based on the popular New York Times travel column, Footsteps is an anthology of literary pilgrimages, exploring the geographic muses behind some of history’s greatest writers. From the “dangerous, dirty and seductive” streets of Naples, the setting for Elena Ferrante’s famous Neapolitan novels, to the “stone arches, creaky oaken doors, and riverside paths” of Oxford, the backdrop for Alice’s adventures in Wonderland, Footsteps takes a fresh approach to literary tourism, appealing to readers and travel enthusiasts alike.”

I’m not sure I’ve ever reviewed a travel book on ILR before. It’s not my style of book at all. However, I was immediately drawn in by the description of faraway places visited by some of the best known authors. Walking in their footsteps is on my bucket list. I’ve recently discovered just how much I long to travel, and since my next big trip isn’t for another year…at least I can read about it, right?

Most of the essays were every bit as romantic as one would hope. Clearly these were written by bibliophiles like myself–readers and dreamers who love to sit in a cafe with a glass of wine in one hand a book in the other, thinking about the author who wrote that novel and the life they led. The mystery has been taken out of it some what nowadays, since we can “meet” our authors on social media. (Not that I am complaining, I will totally watch every single one of your Instastories, don’t you worry about that.) But wouldn’t it be cool to drink tea with Jane Austen?

I didn’t read every single one of the essays, and there were a few I skimmed–mostly because while I recognized and liked most of the authors chosen, there were some I either didn’t recognize or care about. But I might read the one about James Baldwin anytime I read Giovanni’s Room, and the one about Byron and Shelley, while cringey, certainly shed a lot of light on that whole…um…situation.

I’m not sure I’d pick up a book like this if it were on any other subject matter. Just people randomly strolling thru Paris for no particular reason besides travel? Not a collection I’m interested. But add in the author quest and I’m totally down. I know a few friends I will be recommending this to. Should you be one of them?

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AJ Mendez Brooks: Crazy is My Superpower

Three-time WWE Diva’s Champion A.J. Brooks’ Crazy is My Superpower is a literary memoir chronicling her unlikely rise from 100-pound nerd growing up in extreme poverty and enduring years of abuse to international sex symbol and professional wrestling champion (known as A.J. Lee). A.J. fought against stereotypes, forced the men in her industry to view her with respect, and inspired a huge fan base of over 2 million Twitter followers with her fierce independent streak.

Let me start this review by telling you:  I know ZIP about professional wrestling. I have friends who set up a ring in the backyard and held their own faux championships, but outside of that and Dwayne The Rock Johnson…nope. Nothing. NA to the freaking DA.

What I’m trying to say is…if you’re looking for a review from a well educated wrestling fan, run in the other direction. That is not me.

But there was a nerdy girl in Chucks on the cover of this book talking about mental illness, and I’m all here for that.

Another thing I’m here for? AJ Mendez Brooks is a girl who gives ZERO fucks. And I do mean zero. She has been through hell a million times over and just doesn’t have time for people’s shit. She is going to conquer this world, whatever she puts her mind to–through poverty and a mega dysfunctional family and her own bipolar disorder. She’s just gonna do it. Also, she thinks abandoned dogs are the greatest thing since sliced bread and I am DEFINITELY here for that.

There are two things that gave me pause:

There is a lot of “I’m not like other girls, I’m just one of the guys” going on. I get it, you’re a TomBoy who wrestles on TV, wears sweats, and doesn’t brush your hair all the time…but sometimes it got a little superior in attitude. (Also she kept calling her sweats “asexual sweats,” and that’s just…asexuals can be fashionable too, you know?)

Also, if there is a negative or derogatory term for mental illness, she used it. I did hesitate when requesting this book–not because of my lack of wrestling knowledge, but because of the title. It’s a little off putting to me. However, like I said, she just gives zero fucks. And in the end, she tells us why she uses the word ‘crazy’ so much. For her, the only way to reduce the stigma surrounding the word is to reclaim it.

I think AJ could probably eat me for breakfast and move on. I absolutely admire her strength of character. I don’t agree with everything she said in her memoir, but her quirky writing style had me entertained right up until the end. I loved her diary entries that were interspersed between the chapters, and the drawings (I think by her brother Robbie) were kick ass. If you’re a wrestling fan, comic book fan, or just general all around nerd, I think you’ll like this memoir.

Blogging for Books and Crown Publishing provided a copy of this book for unbiased review.

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Rosalyn Eves: Blood Rose Rebellion

The thrilling first book in a YA fantasy trilogy for fans of Red Queen. In a world where social prestige derives from a trifecta of blood, money, and magic, one girl has the ability to break the spell that holds the social order in place.

Sixteen-year-old Anna Arden is barred from society by a defect of blood. Though her family is part of the Luminate, powerful users of magic, she is Barren, unable to perform the simplest spells. Anna would do anything to belong. But her fate takes another course when, after inadvertently breaking her sister’s debutante spell—an important chance for a highborn young woman to show her prowess with magic—Anna finds herself exiled to her family’s once powerful but now crumbling native Hungary.

Her life might well be over.

In Hungary, Anna discovers that nothing is quite as it seems. Not the people around her, from her aloof cousin Noémi to the fierce and handsome Romani Gábor. Not the society she’s known all her life, for discontent with the Luminate is sweeping the land. And not her lack of magic. Isolated from the only world she cares about, Anna still can’t seem to stop herself from breaking spells.

As rebellion spreads across the region, Anna’s unique ability becomes the catalyst everyone is seeking. In the company of nobles, revolutionaries, and Romanies, Anna must choose: deny her unique power and cling to the life she’s always wanted, or embrace her ability and change that world forever.

I’ve been waiting for a series to spark my interest for sometime and finally Rosalyn Eves has come along to capture it. She blends historical fiction with magical fantasy and brings a revolution I’d never heard of to life.

At first, I thought I was going to have to put this book down, or at least do a hate read. I was side-eying it SO hard because she was using the derogatory term “Gypsy” over and over again. However, that turned out to be the point, and it was challenged multiple times later on–especially by the main character, after she was corrected and informed on it’s nasty connotation by her Romani friend.

Blood Rose Rebellion turned out to not only be a book about the Hungarian Rebellion in the 1800s, but also an outstanding look at privilege and the difference in hiding behind it, or using it to help those who do not have it. Anna took her Luminate privilege and made hard choices to fight for the rights of others to have a level playing field, instead of taking the easier path.

“I could not ignore the external factors–the threats to me and to those I loved. But stripped of those externals, the question was a simple one:  should every individual (man, woman, creature) be free to decide their own course?”

Ok, enough serious stuff–I fell IN LOVE with so many people in this book. The characters were so well fleshed out, I just couldn’t help it. I related to Anna quite a bit:  she didn’t fit in with her family because of differences in herself she could not change; she had an advocate’s heart and wanted to help people but didn’t always seem to know where to start–but once she got going, it was impossible to stop her or change her mind; and Anna felt deeply things that she felt she had an effect on–intentionally or unintentionally.

One of my favorite things about the story is the interesting relationship Anna has with the men. There is a whole fleet of ships:  Freddy, Gábor, Mátyás…even a character named Hunger is around for awhile. I can’t go into them because, spoilers. But jealousy never enters the picture, and it never feels like a love triangle situation.

The world building is also very strong. I fell right into the magical world of the Luminates. It almost feels Steampunkish to me–maybe it was just the time period, but that’s what I was imagining.

I need to stop going on and on and just let you read this book. And you should read it. The reviews on Goodreads haven’t been stellar, which makes me sad. I almost didn’t request it because of them. But give this a shot, seriously. I cannot wait for the second installment. I tend to go against popular opinion on big series, and this is just one of those–I loved it.

Blogging for Books and Alfred A Knopf provided a copy of this book for unbiased review.

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Phillip Lewis: The Barrowfields

A richly textured coming-of-age story about fathers and sons, home and family, recalling classics by Thomas Wolfe and William Styron, by a powerful new voice in fiction

Just before Henry Aster’s birth, his father—outsized literary ambition and pregnant wife in tow—reluctantly returns to the small Appalachian town in which he was raised and installs his young family in an immense house of iron and glass perched high on the side of a mountain. There, Henry grows up under the writing desk of this fiercely brilliant man. But when tragedy tips his father toward a fearsome unraveling, what was once a young son’s reverence is poisoned and Henry flees, not to return until years later when he, too, must go home again.

Mythic in its sweep and mesmeric in its prose, The Barrowfields is a breathtaking debut about the darker side of devotion, the limits of forgiveness, and the reparative power of shared pasts.

I am fairly certain that to qualify for the genre “literary fiction” there is only one requirement:  that your book must be as morose as possible. Look up Literary Fiction in the thesaurus and you will find the words Depressing, Melancholy, Miserable, Sulky, and Sullen. I cannot name a single book from the genre that does not fit this description. Maybe I’m wrong. But all the examples I can think of are just this.

The Barrowfields is all of these. It starts out interestingly enough–almost reminiscent of Cold Mountain in its descriptions of Appalachia. You can hear the mountain twang in the narrator’s voice as he speaks about his father’s family history. Only later do you realize you’re no longer in the 1800s, but in modern times.

That shift really confused me–as did the change in the narrator’s voice. At some point, he loses that twang and gains a snobby upper class air. To be fair, his father raises him in literature, but the vocabulary used is a bit obnoxious. Words like excrescence, deliquesce, and indomitable are commonplace in his story.

We lose characters a lot in this book too. People just drop off for no discernable reason–his mother, his school friends. People come into his life and then he moves on without them. Time passes, and he isn’t interested in waiting on it.

I feel very  melancholy about The Barrowfields. I didn’t dislike it, nor did I particularly like it. It’s literary fiction, so I suppose I am meant to feel SOMETHING…and I do. I’m just not entirely sure what that SOMETHING is.

Blogging for Books and Hogarth provided a copy of this book for unbiased review. This post contains affiliate links.

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Damion Searls: The Inkblots: Hermann Rorschach, His Iconic Test, and the Power of Seeing

The captivating, untold story of Hermann Rorschach and his famous inkblot test, which has shaped our view of human personality and become a fixture in popular culture

In 1917, working alone in a remote Swiss asylum, psychiatrist Hermann Rorschach devised an experiment to probe the human mind. For years he had grappled with the theories of Freud and Jung while also absorbing the aesthetic of a new generation of modern artists. He had come to believe that who we are is less a matter of what we say, as Freud thought, than what we see.

Rorschach himself was a visual artist, and his test, a set of ten carefully designed inkblots, quickly made its way to America, where it took on a life of its own. Co-opted by the military after Pearl Harbor, it was a fixture at the Nuremberg trials and in the jungles of Vietnam. It became an advertising staple, a cliché in Hollywood and journalism, and an inspiration to everyone from Andy Warhol to Jay-Z. The test was also given to millions of defendants, job applicants, parents in custody battles, workers applying for jobs, and people suffering from mental illness—or simply trying to understand themselves better. And it is still used today.

Damion Searls draws on unpublished letters and diaries, and a cache of previously unknown interviews with Rorschach’s family, friends, and colleagues, to tell the unlikely story of the test’s creation, its controversial reinvention, and its remarkable endurance—and what it all reveals about the power of perception. Elegant and original, The Inkblots shines a light on the twentieth century’s most visionary synthesis of art and science.

So often when we think about study psychology, we talk about different methods–but we rarely think about the people who dedicated their lives to figuring out the science behind those methods. Aside from Freud and Jung, how many psychologists can you name? Not many! We see inkblots everywhere in our culture, and not even just as the tests themselves anymore. They are mimicked in art and on album covers, on tshirts and in the media. But I never knew who Hermann Rorschach was–when he lived, how he died, where the inkblots came from.

It’s all pretty fascinating, actually. Rorschach had a troubled childhood, but he was a good person, and genuinely wanted to help people. Medicine wasn’t enough, he wanted to see them for who they were. He worked his whole life with schizophrenics in asylums, trying to determine whether it was a life sentence or not, how he could get inside their heads and bring them back. He didn’t create the first Inkblot Test, but he perfected the cards used today.

The Inkblots is a very dense book. It is not only a biography of Rorschach himself, but also a biography of the Inkblot test. Hermann died young, and so the Searls shifts halfway through to the modern history of his test (WWII-current). The discussion of the Nuremberg trials and how the Rorschach test was used there stopped me in my tracks. Some of the results were so surprising…and poignant to today. I’ve certainly put more reading on my TBR surrounding that subject!

This isn’t a book to be missed for anyone interested in the history of psychology. As I mentioned before, it is dense–definitely not a fast read or something you’re going to fall in love with on vacation–but certainly fascinating. Also, Hermann Rorschach was HOT, and that’s all I have to say about that.

Blogging for Books and Crown Publishing provided a copy of this book for unbiased review. This post contains affiliate links.

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Derek Palacio: The Mortifications

Derek Palacio’s stunning, mythic novel marks the arrival of a fresh voice and a new chapter in the history of 21st century Cuban-American literature.

In 1980, a rural Cuban family is torn apart during the Mariel Boatlift. Uxbal Encarnación—father, husband, political insurgent—refuses to leave behind the revolutionary ideals and lush tomato farms of his sun-soaked homeland. His wife Soledad takes young Isabel and Ulises hostage and flees with them to America, leaving behind Uxbal for the promise of a better life. But instead of settling with fellow Cuban immigrants in Miami’s familiar heat, Soledad pushes further north into the stark, wintry landscape of Hartford, Connecticut. There, in the long shadow of their estranged patriarch, now just a distant memory, the exiled mother and her children begin a process of growth and transformation.

Each struggles and flourishes in their own way: Isabel, spiritually hungry and desperate for higher purpose, finds herself tethered to death and the dying in uncanny ways. Ulises is bookish and awkwardly tall, like his father, whose memory haunts and shapes the boy’s thoughts and desires. Presiding over them both is Soledad. Once consumed by her love for her husband, she begins a tempestuous new relationship with a Dutch tobacco farmer. But just as the Encarnacións begin to cultivate their strange new way of life, Cuba calls them back. Uxbal is alive, and waiting.

Breathtaking, soulful, and profound, The Mortifications is an intoxicating family saga and a timely, urgent expression of longing for one’s true homeland.

I can’t believe it is only January 5th (when I’m writing this), and I am already sick of reading books by men.

I really wanted to like this. I don’t think I’ve read anything by a Cuban author previously, and there was some intriguing chatter about Palacio. It began well too, I finished the first quarter pretty quickly. Unfortunately, it didn’t stay this way, and I lost interest by the midway mark. I tried to keep going for a bit, but it just got progressively worse and I had to put it down. My grimace just got bigger and bigger and it just wasn’t worth continuing.

Soledad and Isabel were both solid, interesting characters. The mother, escaping Cuba during the boatlift, builds a successful life in New England for her children. Isabel, her daughter, is maybe the most complex character in the book, becomes The Death Torch–a novice nun who “helps” dying patients find peace on their way into the afterlife. I found the two main men in the story to be sort of flat and dull.

Unfortunately, this is a man’s literary fiction–and so that is the perspective we mostly get. The Mortifications is more about bland sexual relations than actual human relationships. And wow is there a LOT of sex in this book. Maybe I shouldn’t call it bland–just unrealistic. The kind of sex that if I read one of the scenes to you without telling you who wrote it, you would still know it was written by a man. I found it to be quite Oedipal and stomach churning. It wasn’t sexy at all, just wrong.

I stopped a little after the halfway point, but I have a feeling the second half of the book was going to turn even nastier. The letter leading up to it was a gaslighting mess, hinting at a direction I did not want to go.

I hate that this is such a big no, since it is a POC author and has diverse characters. But I just can’t recommend this. I am still very much interested in reading books by Cuban and/or Cuban-American authors, so if anyone has recommendations, I’d love to read them. I’m going to search for some myself, too. There are great ones out there–let’s go find them.

Blogging for Books and Tim Duggan Books provided a copy for an unbiased review. This post contains affiliate links.

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Ted Koppel: Lights Out

In this tour de force of investigative reporting, Ted Koppel reveals that a major cyberattack on America’s power grid is not only possible but likely, that it would be devastating, and that the United States is shockingly unprepared.
 
Imagine a blackout lasting not days, but weeks or months. Tens of millions of people over several states are affected. For those without access to a generator, there is no running water, no sewage, no refrigeration or light. Food and medical supplies are dwindling. Devices we rely on have gone dark. Banks no longer function, looting is widespread, and law and order are being tested as never before. 

It isn’t just a scenario. A well-designed attack on just one of the nation’s three electric power grids could cripple much of our infrastructure—and in the age of cyberwarfare, a laptop has become the only necessary weapon. Several nations hostile to the United States could launch such an assault at any time. In fact, as a former chief scientist of the NSA reveals, China and Russia have already penetrated the grid. And a cybersecurity advisor to President Obama believes that independent actors—from “hacktivists” to terrorists—have the capability as well. “It’s not a question of if,” says Centcom Commander General Lloyd Austin, “it’s a question of when.” 

And yet, as Koppel makes clear, the federal government, while well prepared for natural disasters, has no plan for the aftermath of an attack on the power grid.  The current Secretary of Homeland Security suggests keeping a battery-powered radio.

In the absence of a government plan, some individuals and communities have taken matters into their own hands. Among the nation’s estimated three million “preppers,” we meet one whose doomsday retreat includes a newly excavated three-acre lake, stocked with fish, and a Wyoming homesteader so self-sufficient that he crafted the thousands of adobe bricks in his house by hand. We also see the unrivaled disaster preparedness of the Mormon church, with its enormous storehouses, high-tech dairies, orchards, and proprietary trucking company – the fruits of a long tradition of anticipating the worst. But how, Koppel asks, will ordinary civilians survive?

With urgency and authority, one of our most renowned journalists examines a threat unique to our time and evaluates potential ways to prepare for a catastrophe that is all but inevitable.

Every book sounds good on late night talk shows. It’s the host’s job to provide enough witty banter to make the book sound exciting and accessible to everyone. There’s a reason it’s called “The Colbert Bump.”

However, I quickly learned that Lights Out was not written for me. It’s probably extremely well-researched, informative–even interesting. I just couldn’t get into it. It just went over my head from the very beginning. You really need to have a solid foundation in military structures and acronyms to get more than 20 pages in. After that you start to lose the thread quickly. I had zero idea of what he was talking about.

I’ll put this on my shelf, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see my husband pick it up eventually. He’s way more into military nonfiction than I am, and I know he was interested in Koppel’s Colbert interview too. I’m disappointed that I couldn’t get further into this, it sounded like an interesting (albeit terrifying) theory.

This book was provided by Blogging for Books and Crown Publishing for an unbiased review. This post does contain affiliate links.

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Jeff Wilser: Alexander Hamilton’s Guide to Life

Two centuries after his death, Alexander Hamilton is shining once more under the world s spotlight and we need him now more than ever.
Hamilton was a self-starter. Scrappy. Orphaned as a child, he came to America with nothing but a code of honor and a hunger to work. He then went on to help win the Revolutionary War and ratify the Constitution, create the country s financial system, charm New York s most eligible ladies, and land his face on our $10 bill.The ultimate underdog, he combined a fearless, independent spirit with a much-needed dose of American optimism.
Hamilton died before he could teach us the lessons he learned, but Alexander Hamilton s Guide to Life unlocks his core principles intended for anyone interested in success, romance, money, or dueling. They include:
Speak with Authority Even If You Have None (Career)
Seduce with Your Strengths (Romance)
Find Time for the Quills and the Bills (Money)
Put the Father in Founding Father (Friends & Family)
Being Right Trumps Being Popular (Leadership)
For history buffs and pop-culture addicts alike, this mix of biography, humor, and advice offers a fresh take on a nearly forgotten Founding Father, and will spark a revolution in your own life.”

Ah, Alexander Hamilton. He has gone from historical obscurity to being our most famous founding father–as he rightly should be. It’s amazing, once you take a close look at him, how much A. Ham really contributed to every single piece of our government…for better or worse.

Hamilton really did write like he was running out of time, and he had so much to tell us. Jeff Wilser broke down some of his more prolific statements into a sort of Founding Father self-help book. It’s full of witticisms and insightful commentary, modernized of course.

It’s supposed to be the type of book Hamilton would have written if he would have had time to write such a thing. Of course, if he had…it would have been four volumes and probably would have included some kind of impossibly boring personal finance plan along with the life advice. I’m glad Wilser left that chapter out. As it is, the Guide is a funny way to take in much of the history we already know from Chernow’s massive biography, while singing along to LMM’s cast album. There’s no mistaking who the author is targeting here. Luckily…who ISN’T a fan of the musical at this point?

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Blogging for Books and Three Rivers Press provided a copy of this book for an unbiased review. This post contains affiliate links.

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Frances Mayes: Under the Tuscan Sun

Frances Mayes—widely published poet, gourmet cook, and travel writer—opens the door to a wondrous new world when she buys and restores an abandoned villa in the spectacular Tuscan countryside. In evocative language, she brings the reader along as she discovers the beauty and simplicity of life in Italy. Mayes also creates dozens of delicious seasonal recipes from her traditional kitchen and simple garden, all of which she includes in the book. Doing for Tuscany what M.F.K. Fisher and Peter Mayle did for Provence, Mayes writes about the tastes and pleasures of a foreign country with gusto and passion.

This was the first book I read when I decided to go on hiatus. Blogging for Books had sent me the 20th Anniversary Edition, and since I’d already read it and was in the middle of a couple of challenges, I set it aside. But when I got stuck and needed to recalibrate my brain, there was no better book than Under the Tuscan SunFood, wine, and a big old house? It was just what I needed. Plus, there’s nothing like a reread to get out of a slump.

I’ll hazard a guess that many of you have seen the movie with Diane Lane. It’s one of my favorite feel good chick flicks. I sure wish I could look that good in a white dress, I’ll tell you that much.

Frances Mayes’ real story is nothing like the movie. There’s a big old broken down house called Bramasole. And you’ll recognize tiny bits, like the old man with the flowers and the creepy old pine trees, the Polish wallworkers and the grapes that even smell purple. But this is much more of a travel memoir than rom-com.

It’s every bit as beautiful though. You will want to dive straight into the pages and eat your fill of gnocchi. The produce is so fresh and the wine is overflowing. I NEED to go to Italy right this second.

Alas, I cannot. So I will just have to replace it with reading Frances Mayes’ incredible description of Cortona over and over again. And maybe try and find a white dress.

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Blogging for Books and Broadway Books provided a copy of this book for an unbiased review. This post does contain affiliate links.

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Hans Christian Andersen: The Snow Queen

Hans Christian Andersen’s magical tale of friendship and adventure is retold through the beautiful and intricate illustrations of Finnish illustrator Sanna Annukka. Cloth-bound in deep blue, with silver foil embellishments, The Snow Queen is elevated from a children’s book to a unique work of art. It is an ideal gift for people of all ages.

It’s interesting how fairy tales used to be so harsh and murderous. The world was so simple. Death was a part of life–people felt, they got angry, there were consequences and murder. Fairy tales were not for children.

Now, these stories have been so watered down. This isn’t a fairy tale I’ve read before, and maybe that’s because it would be pretty hard to Disney-fy it. That said, I wonder if this influenced CS Lewis when he wrote The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. There is a lot of resemblances to Edward’s story line.

The book itself is stunningly beautiful with its blue paper cut out illustrations, done by Sanna Annukka. That is what drew me to it on Blogging for Books.  It is cloth bound hardcover, and would make a gorgeous gift for any collector.

A copy of this book was provided by Blogging for Books and Ten Speed Press. This post does contain affiliate links.

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