A relentlessly downbeat account, but the author still manages to bring his ancestors’ stories to life.

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SARAH VALENTINE, NO GREAT EXPECTATIONS

PART ONE

Coates makes his debut with a comprehensive biography of his great-great-grandmother—a long narrative that’s as much a history of a time and place as it is of a family legacy. 

This first volume of a planned trilogy covers the first 18 years of Sarah Valentine’s life. She was born in the East End slums of London in 1819, the first child of Jim and Sarah Valentine. Three years later, her brother Jimmy was born, followed by several additional siblings. Most survived, but two didn’t—and that was just the start of a chain of tragedies that would plague the family. The abject poverty of the district, which Coates describes here so vividly, is barely imaginable today: several families sharing a single room, sewage spilling from overflowing privies in courtyards and alleys, children wearing threadbare clothing and walking the streets barefoot in the winter, no heat, no food, and polluted water (children were frequently given ale to drink, as it was safer). When Sarah was 8, she joined a pack of thieves and pickpockets, which was made up of destitute children. She would return home late at night, drunk and defiant. Eventually, when she was about 12, her parents decided they could no longer control or care for her, and they placed her in the Shoreditch Workhouse. Sarah would find herself in and out of that workhouse over the years. Coates has clearly done his research in this book, and its pages are filled with minutiae, such as street and tavern names, as well as rambling dissertations on the growth of slums in London. Much of this will be of interest to historians, and there are enticing tidbits that readers can pick up along the way; for example, the author notes that men’s trouser zippers didn’t come into fashion until later in the Victorian era—they were frowned upon as causing improper focus on the male anatomy. However, there’s too much repetition of horrid, depressing conditions, which are well-established upfront. The excessive detail sometimes distracts from the compelling, heartbreaking story, which will make readers anxious to get back to the characters.  

A relentlessly downbeat account, but the author still manages to bring his ancestors’ stories to life.

Pub Date: Nov. 11, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-5246-6540-1

Page Count: 280

Publisher: AuthorHouseUK

Review Posted Online: Dec. 30, 2016

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Doyle offers another lucid, inspiring chronicle of female empowerment and the rewards of self-awareness and renewal.

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UNTAMED

More life reflections from the bestselling author on themes of societal captivity and the catharsis of personal freedom.

In her third book, Doyle (Love Warrior, 2016, etc.) begins with a life-changing event. “Four years ago,” she writes, “married to the father of my three children, I fell in love with a woman.” That woman, Abby Wambach, would become her wife. Emblematically arranged into three sections—“Caged,” “Keys,” “Freedom”—the narrative offers, among other elements, vignettes about the soulful author’s girlhood, when she was bulimic and felt like a zoo animal, a “caged girl made for wide-open skies.” She followed the path that seemed right and appropriate based on her Catholic upbringing and adolescent conditioning. After a downward spiral into “drinking, drugging, and purging,” Doyle found sobriety and the authentic self she’d been suppressing. Still, there was trouble: Straining an already troubled marriage was her husband’s infidelity, which eventually led to life-altering choices and the discovery of a love she’d never experienced before. Throughout the book, Doyle remains open and candid, whether she’s admitting to rigging a high school homecoming court election or denouncing the doting perfectionism of “cream cheese parenting,” which is about “giving your children the best of everything.” The author’s fears and concerns are often mirrored by real-world issues: gender roles and bias, white privilege, racism, and religion-fueled homophobia and hypocrisy. Some stories merely skim the surface of larger issues, but Doyle revisits them in later sections and digs deeper, using friends and familial references to personify their impact on her life, both past and present. Shorter pieces, some only a page in length, manage to effectively translate an emotional gut punch, as when Doyle’s therapist called her blooming extramarital lesbian love a “dangerous distraction.” Ultimately, the narrative is an in-depth look at a courageous woman eager to share the wealth of her experiences by embracing vulnerability and reclaiming her inner strength and resiliency.

Doyle offers another lucid, inspiring chronicle of female empowerment and the rewards of self-awareness and renewal.

Pub Date: March 10, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-9848-0125-8

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Dial Books

Review Posted Online: Dec. 22, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2020

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An engrossing memoir as well as a lively treatise on what extraordinary grace under extraordinary pressure looks like.

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BECOMING

The former first lady opens up about her early life, her journey to the White House, and the eight history-making years that followed.

It’s not surprising that Obama grew up a rambunctious kid with a stubborn streak and an “I’ll show you” attitude. After all, it takes a special kind of moxie to survive being the first African-American FLOTUS—and not only survive, but thrive. For eight years, we witnessed the adversity the first family had to face, and now we get to read what it was really like growing up in a working-class family on Chicago’s South Side and ending up at the world’s most famous address. As the author amply shows, her can-do attitude was daunted at times by racism, leaving her wondering if she was good enough. Nevertheless, she persisted, graduating from Chicago’s first magnet high school, Princeton, and Harvard Law School, and pursuing careers in law and the nonprofit world. With her characteristic candor and dry wit, she recounts the story of her fateful meeting with her future husband. Once they were officially a couple, her feelings for him turned into a “toppling blast of lust, gratitude, fulfillment, wonder.” But for someone with a “natural resistance to chaos,” being the wife of an ambitious politician was no small feat, and becoming a mother along the way added another layer of complexity. Throw a presidential campaign into the mix, and even the most assured woman could begin to crack under the pressure. Later, adjusting to life in the White House was a formidable challenge for the self-described “control freak”—not to mention the difficulty of sparing their daughters the ugly side of politics and preserving their privacy as much as possible. Through it all, Obama remained determined to serve with grace and help others through initiatives like the White House garden and her campaign to fight childhood obesity. And even though she deems herself “not a political person,” she shares frank thoughts about the 2016 election.

An engrossing memoir as well as a lively treatise on what extraordinary grace under extraordinary pressure looks like.

Pub Date: Nov. 13, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-5247-6313-8

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Crown

Review Posted Online: Nov. 30, 2018

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