5 Literary Cookbooks to Make You Feel Like You’re in Your Favorite Book!

5 Literary Cookbooks

Many readers dream of being able to travel into their favorite book–or at least dream of being able to try the food! Below we review five literary cookbooks that will take readers from Middle-Earth to Regency England.

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The Anne of Green Gables Cookbook by Kate MacDonald, Evi Abeler

Anne of Green Gables Cookbook

This book is charmingly illustrated with aptly-named recipes that correspond key moments in the story from Diana’s raspberry cordial mishap to Anne’s liniment cake. There are quotes from the Anne books scattered throughout, so readers know which lines inspired each recipe. Regrettably, however, there is no information on cooking history and only a brief biography of L. M. Montgomery at the end. I wanted to see fun facts about cooking in Anne’s time, even if the recipes are modernized for convenience.

The recipes look easy to make and generally require common ingredients, which is nice. However, perhaps because the book is geared towards children, many of the recipes seem pretty standard, like egg salad sandwiches, shepherd’s pie, and macaroni and cheese. There is nothing I could not already easily make without this book; even the raspberry cordial recipe is just raspberry lemonade.

I did appreciate the cooking tips at the beginning of the book, which make it–along with the simplicity of the recipes–a wonderful gift for children. I do not see myself purchasing a copy, however, since the recipes are so standard that I can already do most of them.

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Dinner with Mr. Darcy by Pen Vogler

Dinner with Mr. Darcy

This book is a delightful foray into the dining and cooking of Austen’s time. I loved the interludes explaining things like when meal times were taken or how tables were set, as well as the notes about how many of these conventions changed during Austen’s own life. The recipes are really interesting as many are probably not meals most would cook or eat today. Many of the meals are very meat-heavy, however, which is not really appealing to me. So any recipes I try out will likely be from the dessert and tea sections.

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The Little Women Cookbook by Wini Moranville

Wini Moranville clearly appreciates Alcott’s work and attempts to offer a cookbook that acknowledges Alcott’s beloved book while also providing recipes for authentic period dishes–thankfully updated for the modern cook. Recipes are mostly based on actual meals and food mentioned in Little Women. But other recipes are those found in the “receipt” book Meg consulted, or recipes that would have been common at the time. The result is that readers will feel confident that they are really experiencing something akin to what diners in the 1860s would have.

Fascinating historical facts and explanations intersperse the book, making it an interesting read for fans of Little Women, even if an individual does not feel like making any of the recipes. For example, Moranville illuminates readers as to the nature of the “messes” Meg cooked for Beth; discusses how the Marches, though poor, managed to afford lobster; and explains what a blacmange is. Other historical notes explain why Louisa May Alcott’s work was filled with apples, or talk about how her father was what we would now call a vegan. Moranville ends up answering questions about Little Women and its author that readers may not have even known to ask.

Easy-to-make recipes paired with full menu suggestions make this a cookbook that I actually use. I have tried the apple orchard chicken, the pickled lime cookies, the Dijon mustard, and the hot milk sponge cake–and I make the sponge cake regularly. I intend to try more recipes since they have all been delicious!

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The Secret Garden Cookbook: Inspiring Recipes from the Magical World of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden by Amy Cotler

This beautifully-illustrated cookbook was precisely the type of book I wished to find after reading The Little Women Cookbook. Period dishes are paired with explanations of how food would have been prepared during Mary Lennox’s time. The author also clearly explains the different types of food that might have been available in the countryside versus the city, and how people of different social classes might have eaten. There is even a section on recipes that were imported from or inspired by the British presence in India. Many of the recipes look delicious, and I have bookmarked a few to try out in the future.

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An Unexpected Cookbook: The Unofficial Book of Hobbit Cookery by Chris-Rachael Oseland

I have to admit that I was expecting more recipes directly inspired by Middle-earth, so I ended up merely flipping through this book and not cooking anything. The dishes are mainly English countryside Victorian fare that J. R. R. Tolkien might have eaten. I was not particularly interested in recipes for things like steak and ale pie, venison cobbler, porter cake, and Yorkshire pudding, however, so maybe I am not the target audience for this book. Also, there are similar recipes in here as contained in The Secret Garden Cookbook–and I thought The Secret Garden Cookbook was superior. I did appreciate the historical notes about cooking and food in Tolkien’s day, however.

The Wild World Handbook: Creatures by Andrea Debbink


Goodreads: The Wild World Handbook: Creatures
Series: None
Age Category: Middle Grade
Source: Quirk Books for review
Publication Date: November 2, 2021

Official Summary

Packed with real-life tales of adventure, breathtaking illustrations, and practical tools, this handbook is an inspiring guide for the next generation of climate activists, conservationists, and nature lovers.

We share this incredible planet we call home with countless living creatures, from butterflies and falcons to koalas and dolphins. And just like us, animals everywhere are faced with the growing threat of climate change.

Featuring seven categories of creatures, this handbook offers a roadmap for change and an invitation to explore the outdoors with fascinating facts, hope-filled stories, and hands-on STEAM activities. Each chapter highlights the biographies of scientists, artists, and adventurers from diverse backgrounds who have used their passion and skills to become courageous advocates for animals around the world.

The second book in a middle-grade series for young activists and conservationists, The Wild World Handbook: Creatures empowers readers to appreciate and protect Earth’s wildlife.

Inside you will find:
• Seven incredible categories of creatures
• Fourteen inspiring biographies
• Seven kid-friendly DIY activities
• Seven fun field trips
• And much more! 

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I would not say I am an “animal person.” I like them well enough and vaguely find some cute and some interesting, but I have never been the type of person who read extensively about animals, loved zoos, or wanted to work with animals. So it was with great delight I discovered this book is FASCINATING and I read it cover to cover in two days.

Part of the book’s brilliance is the variety of information: fun facts, biographies of people who help animals, information on specific species, crafts, and learning activities you can do. I never felt like I was reading the same thing or had to slog through.

I also love the emphasis on how kids can continue to learn about animals and become helpers themselves, which is motivational. Stories of animals that HAVE gone extinct and others that have been saved help illustrate the importance of this.

The beautiful illustrations also make the book fun and compelling to read. I highly recommend this.

3 Stars

Making Avonlea: L. M. Montgomery and Popular Culture, ed. by Irene Gammel

Making Avonlea


Goodreads: Making Avonlea
Series: None
Age Category: Adult
Source: Library
Published: 2002

Official Summary

Since the publication of Anne of Green Gables in 1908, L.M. Montgomery and the world of Anne have propelled themselves into a global cultural phenomenon, popular not only in Canada, but in places as diverse as Japan, the United States, and Iran. Making Avonlea, the first study to focus on Montgomery and her characters as popular cultural icons, brings together twenty-three scholars from around the world to examine Montgomery’s work, its place in our imagination, and more specifically its myriad spin-offs including musicals, films, television series, t-shirts, dolls, and a tourist industry.

Invoking theories of popular culture, film, literature, drama, and tourism, the essayists probe the emotional attachment and loyalty of many generations of mostly female readers to Montgomery’s books while similarly scrutinizing the fierce controversies that surround these books and their author’s legacy in Canada. Twenty-five illustrations of theatre and film stills, artwork, and popular cultural artefacts, as well as snapshot pieces featuring personal reflections on Montgomery’s novels, are interwoven with scholarly essays to provide a complete picture of the Montgomery cultural phenomenon. Mythopoetics, erotic romance, and visual imagination are subjects of discussion, as is the commercial success of various television series and movies, musicals, and plays based on the Anne books. Scholars are equally concerned with the challenges and disputes that surround the translation of Montgomery’s work from print to screen as well as the growth of tourist sites and websites that have themselves moved Avonlea into new cultural landscapes. Making Avonlea allows the reader to travel to these sites and to consider Canada’s most enduring literary figures and celebrity author in light of their status as international icons almost one hundred years after they first arrived on the scene.

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With its broad focus on everything from interpretations of Anne of Green Gables and Emily of New Moon to film analyses, descriptions of doll-making, and explorations of Japanese Anne clubs, Making Avonlea is a fascinating look at how Montgomery’s work has been received, reinterpreted, and commodified. The essays range from scholarly critiques to personal confession, with each writer bringing their unique perspective to a field that they hope will continue to find acceptance in the broader scholarly community. However, despite the academic emphasis, the collection will also appeal to a more popular audience; any fan of Anne’s will be intrigued by the new viewpoints raised, and encouraged to look at Montgomery’s writings (and their reincarnations) with fresh eyes.

Like any collected work, Making Avonlea contains essays that vary in quality and interest. For my part, I found several of the analyses of Anne of Green Gables and Emily of New Moon lacking–though this did not surprise me. I remain convinced that the “publish or perish” mentality in higher academia has led to a wealth of sub-par publications, which often do not seem to have any real point (observing things in a literary work, but not saying why it matters) or that seem to be far-fetched theories in an attempt to say something new. This is true of many publications, not just this one.

So, for instance, I was intrigued by Irene Gammel’s “Safe Pleasures for Girls: L. M. Montgomery’s Erotic Landscapes” and its argument that Montgomery subversively represents reader desire in her works. However, I started to question how far the argument can really go when Gammel writes that Emily’s sexual awakening occurs at Priest Pond and experiences menstruation in the Pink Room, as represented by what Gammel calls “Montgomery’s complex literary cryptogram for menstrual symptoms,” i.e. Emily’s “cold perspiration, anxiety, terror, horror, panic, and a none-too-subtle Gothic vision of a ‘bleeding nun'” (123). I am not sure that anxiety and terror are the most obvious symptoms of menstruation. Had Emily experienced cramps, bloating, backache, a headache, or fatigue, I would be more convinced that she is on her period, and not just experiencing an overactive imagination.

In the same vein, while I find it interesting for Gammel to argue that, “Wyther Grange signal the heroine’s entrance into fertility… ‘Grange’ (=grain) evokes the ancient fertility rites,” (123) I tend to be skeptical of criticism where we have to read too much into the work. Yes, the text can support the argument since the evidence is there. But…isn’t it a bit much to start linking Emily’s visit (where, it is true, she does grow up, does have a weirdly sexual encounter with a grown man, and does learn about sex from her female relatives) with fertility rituals? I tend to be a bit old-school with my literary criticism preferences, and I dislike when scholars seem to need to reach to prove their cleverness with unlikely allusions and assertions. An analysis of Emily’s experiences and how she emerges from them with new knowledge and less innocence is sufficient for me.

My favorite parts of the collection were the essays that did not focus on the books, but on the adaptations and products linked to the works. It is fascinating to see how Montgomery’s writings have spawned a bunch of industries, turning P.E.I. into a tourist destination designed to please fans who mistakenly think Anne is real (or conflate her with her author), creating copyright disputes and fights for “authenticity” when mass producing Anne products, and even inspiring an Avonlea section of a Japanese theme park. Some of these essays seem more like observations than analyses–or observations with a few sentences tacked on the end, in a half-hearted attempt to link the observations to some nebulous broader theme. But the questions they raise about Anne’s popularity, how she has been received by fans, and how others seek to capitalize on or manipulate fans’ enthusiasm are ones that will haunt readers as they consider their own place in the ever-expanding world of Anne.

Overall, Making Avonlea is both an enjoyable and an engrossing read. Anyone interested in Montgomery’s writing, popular culture, or, of course, Anne will want to check this out. The many incarnations of Anne may surprise even the most avid of fans!

Chasing Lincoln’s Killer by James L. Swanson

Chasing Lincoln's Killer by James Swanson


Goodreads: Chasing Lincoln’s Killer
Series: None

Official Summary

Based on rare archival material, obscure trial manuscripts, and interviews with relatives of the conspirators and the manhunters, CHASING LINCOLN’S KILLER is a fast-paced thriller about the pursuit and capture of John Wilkes Booth: a wild twelve-day chase through the streets of Washington, D.C., across the swamps of Maryland, and into the forests of Virginia.

“This story is true. All the characters are real and were alive during the great manhunt of April 1865. Their words are authentic and come from original sources: letters, manuscripts, trial transcripts, newspapers, government reports, pamphlets, books and other documents. What happened in Washington, D.C., that spring, and in the swamps and rivers, forests and fields of Maryland and Virginia during the next twelve days, is far too incredible to have been made up.”

So begins this fast-paced thriller that tells the story of the pursuit and capture of John Wilkes Booth and gives a day-by-day account of the wild chase to find this killer and his accomplices. Based on James Swanson’s bestselling adult book MANHUNT: THE 12-DAY CHASE FOR LINCOLN’S KILLER, this young people’s version is an accessible look at the assassination of a president, and shows readers Abraham Lincoln the man, the father, the husband, the friend, and how his death impacted those closest to him.

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I admit I was expecting more from this book, based on the glowing reviews. I know little about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, other than that it happened at Ford’s Theatre, and that John Wilkes Booth escaped into Maryland and was subsequently shot and killed in a barn in Virginia. Chasing Lincoln’s Killer, however, did not noticeably improve my understanding of the manhunt. It draws the chase in broad strokes, mainly tracing where Booth went and whom he met, but without providing many of the little details that might make history come alive. Chasing Lincoln’s Killer is a serviceable first read, for those new to the tale, but readers truly interested in the matter will want to check out other books that might bring out the nuances of history more clearly.

Perhaps the lack of details is a result of the story adapted for children or maybe there simply is not as much historical evidence about the chase as one might want. Either way, once the the Booth departs from Washington, D. C. and into Maryland, the story loses much of its impetus. The author seems concerned mainly with tracing Booth’s path from one safe house to another, but the characters he meets do not get extensive background treatment, nor does the historical moment. What were the lives of these Marylanders like before and after they encountered Booth during his escape? What was happening back in Washington? What was the mood of the nation? What was the mood of Booth’s family, including the reaction of his famous brother, the actor (and Unionist) Edwin Booth? Readers receive only a glimpse.

And the nuances of the history seem to be lost in this telling, as well. Intrigued by what I had read in Chasing Lincoln’s Killer, I did a short internet search for Booth. Simply reading a few online articles informed me that the history may not be as straightforward as Swanson presents it. In his version, for instance, Boston Corbett shoots Booth inside the barn, says he did it to defend his men, is court-martialed for disobeying orders, but ultimately let go. He eventually goes mad and disappears from history. Wikipedia adds to this story, noting that eyewitnesses disputed Corbett’s account that Booth had been reaching for his gun; some even expressed doubt that Corbett had been the one to shoot Booth. Additionally, Corbett does exhibit unusual behavior and eventually disappear from history, but it is believed he settled in Minnesota where he perished in the Great Hinkley Fire (though this cannot be confirmed). These are small details and probably not pertinent to the overall account of what happened. It may even be that historians do not doubt that Corbett was the one to kill Booth, and so perhaps some may not feel the need to note that eyewitnesses were not entirely sure who made the shot. And yet, these little details, and the messiness they represent, are what make history interesting.

The writing style, too, leaves something to be desired. Perhaps in an attempt to sound dramatic, the book often repeats itself on the sentence level. So, for instance, the author might inform readers of something to the effect that actress Laura Keene wanted to make history that night by being present at Lincoln’s death. But then the book will say that same thing two more times, in slightly different ways. One would think that, being condensed from a longer work, this book would not need to repeat itself for content. And this does nothing for the story except make for an awkward reading experience.

Part of me suspects that this book has received so much attention mainly because of the subject matter. Lincoln’s death continues to grip, and haunt, the nation. A book about his killer would certainly be of interest to many, especially considering that there have been several conspiracy theories over the years, suggesting Booth did not really die in a barn that April night. However, Chasing Lincoln’s Killer is really a surface-level treatment of the history, presenting the basic facts, but not really situating the events in the historical and political context, or even offering any historical analysis. The book is a good place to start, but curious readers will want to keep learning more.

3 Stars

The Busy Girl’s Guide to Speed Cleaning and Organizing: Clean and Declutter Your Home in 30 Minutes by Elizabeth Bolling


Goodreads: The Busy Girl’s Guide to Speed Cleaning and Organizing
Series: None
Age Category: Adult
Source: Library
Published: 2014

Official Summary

You have a busy life, and cleaning your house does not fall very high on your list of priorities. Luckily, that doesn’t mean you have to live in an unclean home. It’s possible (and easy!) to enjoy a clean, fresh home in just thirty minutes! In The Busy Girl’s Guide to Speed Cleaning and Organizing, author and cleaning expert Elizabeth Bolling provides a goldmine of advice on the best ways to quickly and efficient achieve a clean home, without sacrificing precious time with your family and friends.

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I borrowed an ebook of The Busy Girl’s Guide to Speed Cleaning and Organizing from the library, so I wasn’t aware of exactly how short it is until I downloaded and started flipping through it. I was disappointed to find that it doesn’t include that much information and doesn’t hold a lot of secrets about how to actually save myself time cleaning. The end point boils down to: spend a ton of time upfront deep cleaning your house and then clean a little bit every day to maintain it.

Now, I don’t think Bolling is wrong about her main points. I’m sure you do actually need to deep clean and “start” with a clean house to make things easier, and I can see how decluttering and getting rid of things you don’t use will make cleaning faster, too. (I recently decided myself that “not owning anything” was probably the key to a tidy living space.) However . . . these things obviously take time, a lot of time. So you’re going to have to invest days into cleaning and donating things before you can get to the part of the book you were probably looking forward to when you got it, which is how to spend only 30 minutes cleaning.

And that part is kind of disappointing. She basically recommends spending 5 min. cleaning each bedroom you have and 3 min. on each bathroom. Other rooms like the kitchen, living room, etc. also get 3-5 min. Then she gives a list of tasks you are supposed to do in your five minutes, like picking up clothes or making the bed. Vacuuming and mopping aren’t included, so that’s a whole other chunk of time you spend cleaning later. And, clearly, if you have more than 2 bedrooms you are going to spend more than 30 min. cleaning because you will have spent half or more of your allotted 30 min. just cleaning 3, 4, or 5 bedrooms you have.

I was looking for tips on how to clean faster or just clean less. Like, is there a certain product I can use that will keep my toilet cleaner longer so I don’t have to clean it as often? Instead, I just got a list of tasks to do and the instructions to . . . do them fast? Now, there may be SOMETHING to that. I do have some interest in setting a timer and seeing if I can actually clean a bathroom in 3 min. Maybe I can, and I usually take longer because I’m dawdling or something. But I didn’t check out a whole book telling me the secret is to have a clean house in the first place and then sprint around like an Olympian runner when I want to touch it up. The one really practical thing I came away with was the suggestion to carry a bag and put anything you want to move to a different room into that bag. Put it away in the right room once you go to that room, instead of walking back and forth. Otherwise, I didn’t get much out of this.

If I had looked at the Goodreads reviews first, I probably wouldn’t have checked this book out because none of them are that impressed. I was lured in by the promise of keeping my space clean with little effort, but this book simply doesn’t deliver any useful information on that front.

2 star review

You’re Not Listening: What You’re Missing and Why It Matters by Kate Murphy

You're Not Listening


Goodreads: You’re Not Listening: What You’re Missing and Why It Matters
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 2020

Official Summary

At work, we’re taught to lead the conversation.
On social media, we shape our personal narratives.
At parties, we talk over one another. So do our politicians.
We’re not listening.
And no one is listening to us.

Despite living in a world where technology allows constant digital communication and opportunities to connect, it seems no one is really listening or even knows how. And it’s making us lonelier, more isolated, and less tolerant than ever before. A listener by trade, New York Times contributor Kate Murphy wanted to know how we got here.

In this always illuminating and often humorous deep dive, Murphy explains why we’re not listening, what it’s doing to us, and how we can reverse the trend. She makes accessible the psychology, neuroscience, and sociology of listening while also introducing us to some of the best listeners out there (including a CIA agent, focus group moderator, bartender, radio producer, and top furniture salesman). It’s time to stop talking and start listening.

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Kate Murphy’s You’re Not Listening is a fascinating journey into what she calls the “lost art of listening,” that important part of a conversation that so many of us, desperate to “sell” ourselves, often neglect to focus on. Through a series of chapters dedicated to different aspects of listening, such as social media, marketing, relationships, listening to one’s inner voice, and more. Murphy stresses that listening is more than simply making eye contact, nodding, and saying, “Mmm-hmm,” in the correct places. Listening is an attitude, a sense of curiosity that allows another person to feel that they are being experienced and understood. And while listening well can lead to wonderful things–a company’s next successful product, an award-winning science experiment–perhaps its most meaningful value lies in the way listening allows individuals not only to connect with others, but also to feel that they themselves are seen and understood.

In some ways, a book about listening may seem obvious or unnecessary. Or course, listening is good! Of course, we all appreciate a good listener and we can all point to the marks of a bad listener (on their phone, not paying attention, giving a response unrelated to what was just said). But Murphy’s book still provides eye-opening information. For instance, even though presumably just about everyone values listening in the abstract, it appears that many cannot find anyone to listen at all. Murphy cites a 2018 study where about half of 20,000 Americans said that they “did not have meaningful in-person social interactions” and about the same number said “they often felt lonely and left out even when others were around.” There is apparently a listening problem, and we see the effects every day.

Perhaps most relevant to many is Murphy’s research about social media, which companies and organizations increasingly rely on to discover people’s moods and opinions, market products, and even win elections. Murphy questions whether we can really get to know people through social media, however, when “it’s estimated that 15-60 percent of social media accounts do not belong to real people.” Further, it is estimated that only 1% of any given platform create most of the content. And that 1% is comprised of a certain type of commenter, the “personality type who a) believe the world is entitled to their opinion and b) have time to routinely express it.” So, when we see movements happening on any given platform, we have to reconsider the assumption that even a seemingly large number of comments are representative of the majority opinion. A scant 1% of users are the ones driving the content–so why are companies, journalists, politicians, and more allowing them to drive the narrative for everyone?

Also timely is the chapter on “listening to opposing views,” as it has become increasingly common (and expected) for individuals to cut off all contact with anyone who does not agree with them. One professor interviewed by Murphy noted that her students actually fear to listen to anyone else’s perspective, because they might be persuaded and change their minds. Apparently, when people are so firmly entrenched in their own political stance, they not only refuse to listen to anything that does not affirm their beliefs, but actually show brain responses that indicate that they are in “fight or flight” mode when they hear from the other side. And 19% of college students interviewed in one survey said it was acceptable to resort to violence to silence a speaker.

Murphy argues, however, that refusing to listens to others results in “insular thinking,” which in turn means that “we are no longer drawing on common sources of information.” This then means that people are shutting each other out–refusing to speak to or listen to friends, family members, and coworkers. It has created an atmosphere of hostility and fear. But what do we lose when we do not listen? Certainly the opportunity for understanding, learning, and growth. A good listener is open to different viewpoints, dedicated to understanding why a person thinks they way they think, and secure enough in themselves to be able to hear someone they might not agree with. Listening to the other side might not seem worth it, but Murphy’s book might have readers reconsidering their own stance on this, as well.

Ultimately, You’re Not Listening is a provocative look at the ways in which we are no longer hearing each other. The narrative so often seems to prioritize speaking up, marketing one’s self, making one’s mark. But a conversation goes two ways, and the real magic of a relationship can only happen when people feel heard. You’re Not Listening will likely have readers re-examining their assumptions about listening and reflecting on the ways they themselves can listen better.

4 stars

Little Kid, Big City!: London by Beth Beckman and Holley Maher


Goodreads: Little Kid, Big City!: London
Series: Little Kid, Big City!
Source: Quirk Books for Review
Published: June 15, 2020

Official Summary

Curious kids will find plenty of sights, smells, and tastes to explore in this illustrated, choose-your-own-adventure travel guide series. Next stop: London!

If a kid were given the opportunity to lead a tour through London, where would they go? Would they hop on the Tube to visit Buckingham Palace, watch a play at Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, or pass the time with Big Ben? By following prompts at the end of each page in Little Kid, Big City, the options are endless!

In this series, an illustrated travel guide collides with an interactive format, allowing children to imagine, create, and explore their own routes through the greatest cities on the planet. With gorgeous illustrations, lovable characters, and dozens of different forks in the road, Little Kid, Big City is a new way for kids to take part in their travels and invent their own adventures.

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Little Kid, Big City!: London is exactly in the same vein as Little Kid, Big City!: New York, which I loved and reviewed previously. The book is set up as a kind of choose-your-own adventure. Each page describes a tourist attraction or thing to eat or do in the city, and then there’s a choice at the bottom asking what you want to try next.

The beauty is that book works both as a fun read – the interactive element makes you feel as if you’re travelling, even if you’re just sitting at home – but it’s also functional as an actual travel guide if you truly want to plan a trip. It has tongs of suggestions of popular things to do, and the back of the book has extra material and information to really round out your plans. And while, obviously, the book is about kid-friendly attractions, it has great suggestions for everyone.

I had fun with the New York book because I’ve been there several times, and even while I’ve done many of the things recommended, I haven’t done all of them. I’ve never been to London at all, however, so this was a really fun book to pretend I was on a trip because, you know, the pandemic; I haven’t been anywhere overly exciting in a while!

Both books are fun and informative, and the illustrations are really welcoming and light-hearted. I trust any new books in the series will be just the same.

Note: Some reviewers on Goodreads have pointed out some factual errors. Again, I haven’t been to London, so these aren’t necessarily things I would notice, but it’s worth looking into, particularly if you actually do start planning a trip based on the book. (I did notice myself that Stonehenge is not in London and probably should not be included in the book.)


Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her by Melanie Rehak

Girl Sleuth


Goodreads: Girl Sleuth
Series: None
Source: Library
Publication Date: 2005


A history of Nancy Drew over the decades, as well as the two women who brought her to life: Mildren Wirt Benson, a Midwestern journalist and Nancy’s first ghostwriter, and Harriet Stratemeyer Adams, the head of the Statemeyer Syndicate and later ghostwriter of Nancy.

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In Girl Sleuth, Melanie Rehak brings to life the women who created Nancy Drew: Mildred Wirt Benson, Nancy’s first ghostwriter, and Harriet Stratemeyer Adams who took over the Stratemeyer Syndicate after her father’s death, initially managing the ghostwriters of the Syndicate’s juvenile series, and then eventually taking over herself as “Carolyn Keene.” Though many believed (and still do) that Carolyn Keene was a real person, the book illustrates to what lengths the Syndicate went to keep the secrets of its ghostwriters, with Harriet even getting individualized stationery for the company’s various pseudonyms, creating fake signatures for them, and somehow getting the Library of Congress to agree to keep the secret, as well. As the popularity of certain series grew, however, the ghostwriters who had initially signed away all their rights to the books and the characters began to want recognition for their contributions. Girl Sleuth is a fascinating page-turner that delves into the mysteries behind Nancy Drew as it traces the detective’s enduring popularity in American culture.

In some ways, the story of Girl Sleuth can be read as a dark one. Readers who love Nancy with a passion, who believed that Carolyn Keene was a real person, or who believe that writing is a sacred art form that must be done only by an inspired individual, may feel like Nancy’s dirty laundry is being aired. The truth is that Nancy is the product of a syndicate, the brainchild of Edward Stratemeyer, a man who sold so many popular dime novels that he one day realized he did not have time to write them all–and did not have to. Stratemeyer formed a company where he would write the outlines for his juvenile series books (the Bobbsey Twins, Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew etc.), send them out to a ghostwriter who would write the book to his specifications, then revise the drafts as needed to fit the company’s policies on what was “good” for children to read. After his death, his two daughters Harriet and Edna continued the company* until the day Nancy’s publisher demanded so many new books in such a short timeframe that Harriet decided it was best to drop Nancy’s then-ghostwriter (Mildred Wirt Benson) and just do the writing herself in-house. Thus began a sordid struggle over who had “created” Nancy Drew, who was her true author (the ghostwriter or the syndicate providing plot outlines), and who had the right to determine what Nancy would look like in books, films, TV shows, and more.

In this story, it is also easy to make Harriet the villain. She dropped Mildred Wirt Benson without any warning or notice, then eventually crafted for herself a story in which she was the sole creator of Nancy (once she was willing to admit that Carolyn Keene was not real, anyway). She neglected to mention that her father had come up with the series and plotted the first five books before his death, that her sister Edna had created outlines books, that her father’s secretary had helped with outlines and revisions (coming up with Bess and George), and that Benson and another ghostwriter had worked on the series at all. But perhaps this is no surprise. Even today collaborations are often revered less than products that spring from an “individual genius” and even today few recognize that it takes many hands to craft a book. But still, one can imagine the outrage Mildred Wirt Benson must have felt, as Nancy’s first writer. She had, in many ways, created Nancy, even if Harriet then recreated Nancy as a bit more polished.

However, the story is also about two women who fought their way to recognition and success in a man’s world. Both were trailblazers of their time, making careers for themselves even as they balanced being wives and mother’s. Harriet struggled to get respect as the head of her own company, and Mildred fought to keep her position as a journalist in a field dominated by men. Though Mildred was reluctant to call herself a “feminist,” both women were in favor of equality, and both demonstrated in their own lives that they believed women were equal to men in intellect and capability. Their determination no doubt informed the character of Nancy, who even today is recognized as a feminist icon, a woman who never backs down and always saves the day–even when the men cannot.

The book covers not only the biographies of both women, but also gives a fascinating account of the rise of Nancy and how she managed to feel fresh and modern as each decade passed. Even as other books struggled in the Depression, sales of Nancy were constant. At first, Nancy hearkened back to a better yesterday, when no one had to worry about money. Later, Nancy, with her cleverness and strength, anticipated struggles for women’s rights after WWII when the men came home and women proved reluctant to go back to the kitchen. Then, again in the 1960s, Nancy was ready to be claimed as a feminist hero. No matter what was going on culturally in America, Nancy seemed equal to it. Today, her popularity endures.

Avid fans of Nancy Drew will want to pick up Girl Sleuth and learn the incredible history behind one of America’s most-recognized literary figures. The story has just as much excitement as any one of Nancy’s own adventures.

*Edna eventually became a silent partner, solely concerned with the revenue being raised by the syndicate, to the extent that she became convinced Harriet wasn’t doing anything properly and refused to let Harriet have a raise for all her work.

5 stars

Shakespeare in a Divided America: What His Plays Tell Us about Our Past and Future by James Shapiro

Shakespeare in a Divided America


Goodreads: Shakespeare in a Divided America
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 2020

Official Summary

From leading scholar James Shapiro, a timely exploration of what Shakespeare’s plays reveal about our divided land, from Revolutionary times to the present day.

Read at school by almost every student, staged in theaters across the land, and long highly valued by both conservatives and liberals alike, Shakespeare’s plays are rare common ground in the United States. For well over two centuries now, Americans of all stripes–presidents and activists, writers and soldiers–have turned to Shakespeare’s works to address the nation’s political fault lines, such as manifest destiny, race, gender, immigration, and free speech. In a narrative arching across the centuries, James Shapiro traces the unparalleled role of Shakespeare’s 400-year-old tragedies and comedies in making sense of so many of these issues on which American identity has turned. Reflecting on how Shakespeare has been invoked–and at times weaponized–at pivotal moments in our past, Shapiro takes us from President John Quincy Adams’s disgust with Desdemona’s interracial marriage to Othello, to Abraham Lincoln’s and his assassin John Wilkes Booth’s competing obsessions with the plays, up through the fraught debates over marriage and same-sex love at the heart of the celebrated adaptations Kiss Me Kate and Shakespeare in Love. His narrative culminates in the 2017 controversy over the staging of Julius Caesar in Central Park, in which a Trump-like leader is assassinated.

Extraordinarily researched, Shakespeare in a Divided America shows that no writer has been more closely embraced by Americans, or has shed more light on the hot-button issues in our history. Indeed, it is by better understanding Shakespeare’s role in American life, Shapiro argues, that we might begin to mend our bitterly divided land.

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In Shakespeare in a Divided America, James Shapiro invites readers to a deeper understanding of how Shakespeare has been received in America, and how his plays have been understood, performed, and mobilized for various political, social, and cultural causes throughout the history of the nation. This engaging survey will appeal to both avid Shakespeare fans and more casual readers, demonstrating how and why the Bard and his works continue to be relevant today.

Chapters include:

  • a look at race and miscegenation through the lens of Othello
  • a look at how gender was perceived in 1845 with an emphasis on gender-bending actress Charlotte Cushman and her performances as Romeo
  • class warfare and the Astor Place riots in 1849
  • John Wilkes Boothe’s and Lincoln’s views on Shakespeare and government and leadership
  • immigration and xenophobia in 1916, with the rise of performances of The Tempest
  • marriage and gender roles through the lens of The Taming of the Shrew and the making of Kiss Me, Kate
  • same-sex love and the making of the movie Shakespeare in Love
  • the political divide in 2017 when a production of Shakespeare in the Park infamously depicted the assassination of a Trump-appearing Julius Caesar.

Rooted explicitly in its own historical moment, written during the rise of Trump, the book repeatedly returns to questions of America’s divisiveness, its inability to reconcile many of its high ideals with its own practices. Through a study of Shakespeare, Shapiro illuminates how the nation has grappled with many of the same issues since its inception, always returning to the Bard not only in an attempt to understand itself and its place in the world, but also as a means to justify various social and political agendas. But perhaps this is no surprise. The issues the U.S. faces are the same ones that Shakespeare and his contemporaries faced.

Part of what makes Shakespeare and his works so compelling, and so open to use by competing political agendas, is that the plays give no easy answers. The final chapter on the 2017 performance of Julius Caesar, in which a Trump-like leader is assassinated, perhaps most clearly illustrates how open to interpretation the works are. While the producers of Julius Caesar evidently meant for the performance to shock, to make playgoers think through the actual effects of a political assassination, outraged Republicans saw the performance as a straight invitation for the opposition to resort to violence. But the play itself is ambiguous about this. The play both praises and condemns Brutus. The play both praises and condemns Caesar. In other words, the play can be interpreted any way you like–either as a call to violent political action, or as a cautionary tale about enacting political violence. The play could be co-opted by either side of a political movement. How an audience receives the play says more about the audience than it says about the play.

And this is the whole premise of the book: Shakespeare illuminates America and how Americans perceive themselves. One of the most interesting chapters (for me) was the chapter on the 1849 Astor Place riots, rooted in the professional rivalry between American actor Edwin Forrest and British actor William Macready. Their interpretations of Shakespearean roles lead to the working class followers of Forrest rising up against the wealthier supporters of Macready. (Tensions were exacerbated by the construction of a theatre meant clearly only to welcome the rich at a time when theatre was one of the few places open to the masses.) Attempts to disrupt Macready’s performances ultimately erupted into a full-scale riot as Macready performed Macbeth, leading to at least 22 deaths. The riots say less about Shakespeare than they do about Americans’ perception of their country as one where the rich should not get to shut out the poor, as a place where Shakespeare should be open to all. It is probably fair to say that no one that day died for Shakespeare; they died for their ideals, which Shakespeare reflected back to them.

Shakespeare in a Divided America is not a book merely for readers passionate about Shakespeare. Its engaging writing style, combined with gripping history, makes it an excellent choice for readers who enjoy social history or even readers who just enjoy a well-written nonfiction. It certainly makes Shakespeare a lot more exciting than your English class probably did.

4 stars

Perilous and Fair: Women in the Works and Life of J.R.R. Tolkien ed. by Janet Brennan Croft and Leslie A. Donovan

Every year on March 25, the anniversary of the Downfall of Sauron, the Tolkien Society hosts Tolkien Reading Day. This year’s theme selected by the Tolkien Society is Hope and Courage. The primary goal is to promote the reading of the works of J.R R. Tolkien! To celebrate, Pages Unbound will be hosting two weeks of Tolkien-related posts. In addition to our own thoughts, we will be featuring a number of guest posts! Check out the full schedule of events by clicking here.

Perilous and Fair book photo


Goodreads: Perilous and Fair: Women in the Works and Life of J.R.R. Tolkien
Series: None
Source: Purchased
Published: 2015

Official Summary

Since the earliest scholarship on The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion, critics have discussed how the works of J. R. R. Tolkien seem either to ignore women or to place them on unattainable pedestals. To remedy such claims that Tolkien’s fiction has nothing useful or modern to say about women, Perilous and Fair focuses critical attention on views that interpret women in Tolkien’s works and life as enacting essential, rather than merely supportive roles.

Perilous and Fair includes seven classic articles as well as seven new examinations of women in Tolkien’s works and life. These fourteen articles bring together perspectives not only on Tolkien’s most commonly discussed female characters—Éowyn, Galadriel, and Lúthien—but also on less studied figures such as Nienna, Yavanna, Shelob, and Arwen. Among others, the collection features such diverse critical approaches and methods as literary source study, historical context, feminist theory, biographical investigation, close-reading textual analysis, Jungian archetypes, and fanfiction reader-response.

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Overall, this collection is essential reading for anyone who loves Tolkien, and it will provide some eye-opening arguments for anyone who thinks Tolkien’s women are flat or his portrayals are sexist. The authors consistently offer evidence that while, of course, Tolkien would not have held the views of a 21st-century feminist, the women in his books are nuanced and powerful and generally subvert gender expectations rather than fulfill them. Tolkien was also a champion of women academics in his personal life, and we have no evidence to suggest he didn’t like or respect women.

Here are some brief thoughts on the individual essays:

“The History of Scholarship on Female Characters in J. R. R. Tolkien’s Legendarium: A Feminist Bibliographic Essay” by Robin Anne Reid

This essay lists feminist articles about Tolkien’s work, beginning in the 1970s (when there were only two) and continuing to 2013, right before Perilous and Fair was published. Reid summarizes the articles and gives readers an idea of what feminist Tolkien scholarship has looked like and where it might go, but I admit I’d probably find this bibliography much more useful if I were planning to do some research myself. For pure reading value, this is mildly interesting, but I think it can be skipped unless you actually want to go read some of the articles listed.

“The Missing Women: J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lifelong Support for Women’s Higher Education” by John D. Rateliff

I understand what this essay is doing. The idea that Tolkien was mired in a nearly all-male world (and that he preferred it that way) in ingrained in many people’s understanding of Tolkien and his life. Rateliff even quotes parts of Humphrey Carpenter’s biography that argue explicitly this point- and this may be why so many people believe it, since Carpenter’s biography is generally considered the definitive one. However, it’s still a bit funny that, in order to correct this misconception and demonstrate that Tolkien knew women and was even a staunch supporter of them academically when others weren’t (coughLewiscough), Rateliff found it necessary to comb letters, archives, and people’s personal memories in order to make a list of every time Tolkien ever interacted with a woman.

“She-who-must-not-be-ignored: Gender and Genre in The Lord of the Rings and the Victorian Boys’ Book” by Sharin Schroeder

An interesting comparison between Tolkien’s work and the “boys’ book” genre that early critics dismissively accused The Lord of the Rings belonging to. It seems weird today that anyone would accuse LotR of being a children’s book and I don’t 100% see the need any longer for people to “defend” Tolkien’s work. However, Schroeder does go beyond that to explain how gender in LotR compares to that in popular Victorian boys’ books and touches briefly on some books Tolkien might have been familiar with or read in his own youth. It focuses heavily on She: A History of Adventure by H. Rider Haggard (as it’s one of the few books Tolkien explicitly mentioned in an interview), which frankly didn’t mean much to me as I’d never heard of the book before.

“The Feminine Principle in Tolkien” by Melanie A. Rawls

An excellent look at masculine and feminine characteristics and Tolkien and the important point that both men and women need to embody both characteristics. (This essay is quoted in a few of the other essays, so definitely an influential piece to pay attention to.)

“Tolkien’s Females and the Defining of Power” by Nancy Enright

Enright explores the power that Tolkien’s women have. She has an interestingly extensive discussion of Arwen, considering many readers write her off as barely even being in The Lord of the Rings.

“Power in Arda: Sources, Uses, and Misuses by Edith L. Crowe

Crowe argues that Tolkien’s works can fit in with some definitions of feminism and also points out the importance of female power and involvement in creation in The Silmarillion. She also makes the intriguing point about how important renunciation of power in Tolkien is and how not killing plays such as important role, rare in modern fantasies.

“The Fall and Repentance of Galadriel” by Romuald I. Lakowski

This is one of those essays that really highlights how much Tolkien revised his writing and how much was never fully resolved. There are different versions of Galadriel’s story, but the only things we can say for certain about her are in The Lord of the Rings because otherwise Tolkien was constantly revising his material concerning her. However, this is an insightful look at what we do know and what different information would mean for readers’ interpretations of her character and her power.

Cami D. Agan, “Lúthien Tinúviel and Bodily Desire in the Lay of Leithian”

This essay reads into silences in the text and asks, “How then might it affect the text to assume that Lúthien and Beren consummate their love in the forest?” (172). This is not my favorite approach to literary criticism (How would it affect the text to assume something happens that readers have no direct evidence actually happens?), but Agan still manages to make interesting arguments about Lúthien’s power and how it’s tied up with her body. Personally, I haven’t read Lúthien’s story recently, and I would like to be more familiar with it to have any stronger opinions on this essay.

“The Power of Pity and Tears: The Evolution of Nienna in the Legendarium” by Kristine Larsen

Nienna is another figure I’m not 100% familiar with, but this look at the value of pity and tears is convincing, and of course one can see the importance of pity in The Lord of the Rings, as well. Larsen also discusses whether pity is considered a particularly feminine trait and what that might mean.

If this topic interests you, you can check out one of our previous guest posts, “She Who Weeps:” The Value of Sorrow in Tolkien.

“At Home and Abroad: Éowyn’s Two-fold Figuring as War Bride in The Lord of the Rings” by Melissa A. Smith

I dislike assertions that Tolkien’s writing was “influenced” by his wartime experience (though, of course, one’s life experience must imbue one’s creative works in some way), but the argument that Eowyn can be read as a war bride is persuasive and explains things like how quickly she and Faramir develop a romantic relationship. Smith points out that Tolkien seems to acutely understand something of women’s psychology here, what it means to be left behind in war, what it means to fall in love with someone you recently met, etc.

“The Valkyrie Reflex in J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings: Galadriel, Shelob, Éowyn, and Arwen” by Leslie A. Donovan

This piece stands out in the collection for bringing in Arwen and Shelob, along with Galadriel and Eowyn. I do think the lists of “and this is how Character X has valkyrie characteristics!” went on a bit long for my tastes. (Apparently luminous eyes are notable, and all these characters have descriptions of their eyes?) But the look at how Tolkien might have been influenced by depictions of valkyries is intriguing.

“Speech and Silence in The Lord of the Rings: Medieval Romance and the Transitions of Éowyn” by Phoebe C. Linton

A very good essay looking at Eowyn, as well as what her apparent silences in the book indicate. I think, however, it raises similar points as other essays in the book do, as Eowyn is an obvious subject for a look at “women in Tolkien,” and I probably would have enjoyed this more if I’d read it on its own or if I’d read it first rather than practically last. I can only read the same quotes about Eowyn and what they mean so many times, no matter how interesting I think they are.

“Hidden in Plain View: Strategizing Unconventionality in Shakespeare’s and Tolkien’s Portraits of Women” by Maureen Thum

I’m always on the fence about comparative essays. Thum makes insightful points about the subverting of gender expectations in Twelfth Night and The Lord of the Rings, but I think she could have written two entirely separate essays; the points about Shakespeare don’t really illuminate Tolkien. Additionally, her arguments about Eowyn and Galadriel are convincing but don’t strike me as overly different arguments from other essays in this collection. It’s a fine essay but certainly not my favorite in this book.

“Finding Ourselves in the (Un)Mapped Lands: Women’s Reparative Readings of The Lord of the Rings” by Una McCormack

A good look at Tolkien fan fiction and the way women authors have chosen to write themselves into the story of LotR where they feel they have been excluded. This is interesting from an academic viewpoint, but I can’t say it made me particularly curious about reading the fan fiction itself, as McCormack herself admits some of it can be Mary Sue-ish as authors work out how to insert female characters– as female knights, as original side characters, as lovers of existing female characters, etc.

5 stars