The Power by Naomi Alderman

I’ve been searching for books about women empowerment. I found The Power by Naomi Alderman popping up on a lot of 2017 award lists and decided to give it a shot. This speculative fiction fantasy novel is an expertly written piece of alternative history with a strong woman empowerment component that also serves to discuss what would happen if women and men changed roles. I was thoroughly engaged from beginning to end.

The Power by Naomi Alderman, as I discussed before, is a work of fantasy/science fiction, that takes readers down a path of alternate reality and forces them to take a closer look at our world in slightly uncomfortable and surprising ways. All across the world, lives are changing as it is discovered that teenage girls and women (really all females) have a mysterious new physical power. This power comes from within and gives them the ability to cause horrifying pain and, if pushed far enough, death. These young women find that they have the ability to release skeins of electrical current out into the world. After discovering they have such massive power, the women begin to rise up, trying to awaken the power in other women who don’t have the power yet. As expected, the whole of society begins to fall apart with the sudden shift of power from men to women. No one is sure what to do as women all over the world are finally given the ability to stand up against their aggressors.

Not everyone is so out in the open and happy with the new power and structure order. Here is where readers really gain a glimpse into the lives of four key players in the new world order: Roxy, Mother Eve, Tunde, and Margot. While there are certainly many, many other characters in this novel, these four are highlighted and discussed the most as readers follow them and discover how they are dealing with the new power and the revolution at hand.

Roxy is a London girl from a tricky family who soon discovers that the skein inside of her gives her the power of a true warrior. With her new ability, she has the power to shake the world and be whoever she wants to be.

When her power came to be, Mother Eve was living as a foster child with two very religious parents who hid their true nature behind a self-contained wall. She ran away from home and became a symbol for change called Mother Eve.

Tunde is a rich Nigerian boy who, before the skeins were discovered, only worried about hanging around the family pool. After the power shift, he finds himself traveling the world searching for stories to put out to the press.

Margot is an American politician scrabbling for a rise of government power when the women with skeins began to come out. Margot’s family and her career drastically change when she realizes that her family has been personally affected by the skeins. She must decide how she wishes to present herself to the public as she contends with a government that doesn’t necessarily feel the same way that she does.

All four of these people have important and worthy roles to play as the world seems to shift from the old normal to the old normal. I enjoyed following each character’s journey and discovering the lengths that each is willing to go to as they work to get back on their feet in a world rocked by chaos, confusion, and seemingly never-ending change.


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Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik

What would you do to save your family? To break free of the narrow path set before you? Would you be able to make the sacrifice, stand against the terrible fear? What about the people affected by your actions? Would you have the courage to step forward and make amends?

In Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik we follow three young women as they face these difficult questions. Miryem is the daughter and granddaughter of moneylenders. While her grandfather is very successful, her father is not and she is forced to take over their business. Wanda is the daughter of a poor woodsman who takes out his anger and frustration on his surviving children, gambling and drinking away what little money they have and forcing her to work off his debt. And Irina is the daughter of a powerful Duke, disappointingly plain and awkward with no suitors and no future. These three lives, seemingly with little or no connection, weave and entwine as they each find their purpose and in the process save their country.

Events are set into motion when Miryem, who turns out to be very good at collecting debts and turning a profit, boasts that she can turn silver into gold. This catches the attention of the King of the Staryk, whose northern winter kingdom is slowly engulfing the surrounding lands, bringing poverty and hardship. The Staryk demands that Miryem turn a handful of silver coins into gold and in exchange, agrees (reluctantly) to make her his (also reluctant) Queen. And from that beginning, spins the tale.

Beautifully written, Novik creates a complex, convincing world that is part fantasy, part dark fairy-tale, part love story, part heroic quest with a dash of Game of Thrones (without the Red Wedding or incest, thank goodness) There are many “real” aspects (Miryem and her family are Jewish and experience much of the same history as in our world and the country, with it’s ever encroaching winter, feels like Siberia) but it is also uniquely it’s own. One caution – the narrator of the book changes frequently and other than a small symbol before each change, there is no indication of whose point-of-view you are now reading. It can be momentarily confusing but I found that it became clear quickly. Don’t let this slight challenge keep you away from this mesmerizing and suspenseful novel!

Online Reading Challenge – August

It’s August already, Reading Fans! Time to take a look at our next challenge!

This month we’re exploring the Edwardian Era. Technically, the Edwardian Era lasted from 1901 to 1910, which is the time that Edward VII ruled England following the death of Queen Victoria. However, it is popularly considered to run from the 1890s to the start of World War I in 1914.

The coming of war lends a certain bittersweet feeling to this time period, the last golden days of the English Empire and the innocence that would soon be shattered. The Summer Before the War by Simonson embodies this “on the brink” time beautifully, set in a small English village. Cavendon Hall by Barbara Taylor Bradford is a novel about the intrigues of a wealthy family and their servants (think Downton Abbey). Rutherford Park by Cooke is another English country house family drama set in this time period.

It’s not all about the landed gentry in England though. The Titanic sank in 1912 and there is lots of fiction and non-fiction about the sinking and its consequences. The Dressmaker by Kate Alcott is gives us a personal account of the disaster and the aftermath when an accomplished seamstress joins a famous fashion designer on the Titanic as her personal maid. Or try A Night to Remember by Walter Lord, a classic about the ships final hours.

Other notable events during this time include the first manned flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina (The Wright Brothers by David McCullough) and the golden age of arctic exploration (Shackleton’s Heroes by Wilson McOrst). American classics by E.M. Forster (Howard’s End and A Room With a View) or Edith Wharton (The Buccaneers) are great choices. For mystery lovers, check out the Molly Murphy series by Rhys Bowen.

I am planning on reading The Alienist by Caleb Carr about the beginnings of forensic science set in New York City. This is a little outside of my comfort zone, so we’ll see how it goes!

What about you – what will you be reading this month?

Online Reading Challenge – July Wrap-Up

Hello Reading Challengers!

How did your reading go in July? Did you read something wonderful set during the time of Westward Expansion?

I set out to read Undaunted Courage by Stephen Ambrose. Real world disclaimer here: I haven’t finished it yet. But – but! – not because I didn’t like it – in fact I’m loving it! It’s just that other obligations got in the way. I have every intention of finishing it and soon. I’m about a third of the way through, so here are my impressions so far and why I’m loving it so much.

Undaunted Courage is about Lewis and Clark’s “voyage of discovery” when they crossed the western half the North American continent, beyond the known frontier. Before their journey, most of the information about the land was made up of myths and legends and less-than-reliable reports of itinerant fur trappers.

The book opens with an in-depth look at Meriwether Lewis’ youth and upbringing in Virginia where he managed his family’s plantation. He also served in the militia and then worked as an aide to the newly elected President Thomas Jefferson who was a neighbor back in Virginia. I had not realized how well Jefferson and Lewis knew each other, and how much they worked together. At first, already pressed for time, I had planned to skim this part of the book, thinking it would be dull but it isn’t! It’s fascinating! It shows the unique circumstances that shaped Lewis, what they taught him, how they influenced his life viewpoint and how one day they would prepare him for this great adventure. It is also a eye-opening insight into how and why the Founding Fathers thought and operated. It’s like reading about the building blocks of this new nation that would become America.

Jefferson, President, diplomat and political strategist, was also an enthusiastic amateur scientist. He wanted to create friendly relations with the Indians and find a waterway to the Pacific Ocean, but he also desperately wished to find out what the land was like – the soil, the weather, the plants and the animals. Jefferson, like most scientists of his day, believed that mastodons still roamed the land, that there were active volcanoes and that the mountain range between the Mississippi River and the Pacific was no higher than the Appalachians.

Lewis was the perfect choice to lead the expedition and Jefferson undertook to teach him as much science as possible before he left including astronomy, rudimentary medicine, botany, preservation of specimens and map making. Lewis engaged an army friend William Clark (brother of Revolutionary War hero George Rogers Clark) as co-commander and, after a great deal of planning and several setbacks the Corps of Discovery set off.

I’ve just read to the part where they will make their first winter camp, about six months into the journey. They have encountered the Sioux and other tribes, have already discovered many new species of birds, animals and plants and have seen sights never before known to white Americans. Lewis writes about flocks of carrier pigeons so numerous they block out the sun, of the great migration of buffalo, elk and antelope – something not seen by a living person for 100 years now, plentiful game and fruit, endless rolling prairie under a sea of grass. I try to imagine what they must have seen, the wildlife, the endless prairie untouched by fences or roads and am awed (I also think about the difficulty of traveling where there are no roads, no hotels, no GPS and progress on a good day was 30 miles and am grateful to living in the present.)

It’s kind of a cliffhanger that I’ve left it at – after this winter camp they will venture into truly unknown territory – so yes, I look forward to reading the rest of this adventure. What about you? What adventure did you read about this month?

 

 

My Lisbon by Nuno Mendes

My Lisbon: A Cookbook from Portugal’s City of Light by Nuno Mendes is an example of cookbook as travelogue.  It’s a joy to peruse.  Mendes is an engaging writer; his prose captures the mood and spirit of Lisbon. Interspersed with recipes are his vignettes of life in Portugal – Lisbon in particular.  Not only is the text authentic and breezy, but the photos are so spontaneous – you feel as if you’ve glimpsed private moments in the public spaces of this urban, yet warm and relaxed  city.  The oldest part of Lisbon, Alfama, is particularly intimate – the streets are so narrow and there is often virtually no space between the public street and a family’s private living area beyond a thin wall or window. Laundry is literally aired  in public; just look above you!

Whenever I visit a new city or country, I have so many questions. Why do  they do this? What’s the history of that?  This book is ideal for solving these mysteries. After a recent visit to Lisbon, I wanted to know more about why lisboetas decorate the facades of their houses and restaurants with Christmas decorations  – in April. It has to do with the festival of Santo Antonio in which sardinhas (sardines) are enthusiastically celebrated – cooked, eaten and enjoyed in the streets and restaurants.

I wanted to know the story behind the elegantly shabby azulejo (tile) on its buildings. As a native, Mendes speaks with authority and experience about the smells, tastes and sounds of a city that has been dependent on the sea for hundreds of years. Mendes is also a restaurateur so he provides fascinating detail about  the stories behind local ingredients and specialties  (salt, sardines, ham, and custard and more). Many times these stories relate to Portugal’s glory days in the 15th and 16th centuries when its navigators ruled the oceans and claimed vast portions of the globe for their country.

I’ve devoured many guidebooks, dvds, and travelogues about Portugal, but, to me, this book truly captures what’s special about this magical city.

My Plain Jane by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton and Jodi Meadows

The Janeites (authors Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton and Jodi Meadows) are back with a fix-it for another sad Jane story (after the lovely My Lady Jane) and that makes a lot of their fans very happy.

My Plain Jane takes on the fictional Jane Eyre and the very real Charlotte Bronte, except that here, Jane is a real girl. It opens in Northern England in 1834 where both girls are living in a less-than-comfortable boardinghouse where it’s always too cold and there’s never enough food. Both girls have big dreams, but their prospects are meager at best. The twist is that Jane can see and control ghosts. Of which there seem to be a great many.

The ghosts do not frighten Jane, nor do they harm her. In fact, the ghosts are very fond of Jane. However, no one else knows Jane’s secret and when she is seen whispering to what appears to be thin air, she is labeled as odd and awkward and is a social outcast. Charlotte (who is also something of an outcast) is her only (non-dead) friend. Everything changes when handsome Mr Blackwood from the Royal Society for the Relocation of Wayward Spirits arrives to perform some ghostbusting. Jane tries to help the ghost but in the process, Mr Blackwood (who can also see ghosts) realizes Jane’s talent and tries to recruit her to the Society. Jane wants nothing to do with them (believing they are cruel to ghosts) and flees the school to become a governess to a certain brooding Mr Rochester. Who is hiding something in the attic. Hmmmm.

Charlotte is busy observing and taking lots of notes all this time.

What follows is the adventures and mis-adventures of the girls as they struggle to find a path for themselves during a time when a woman’s choices were very limited. They are smart and loyal and very brave (although they don’t think of themselves as brave) Like the previous book, there are many asides to the reader, lots of funny commentary and lots of action. There is also a lot of literary references to many famous books which kind of took me by surprise. I did like the previous book more – I think that’s because the characters were actual, historical people and I enjoyed the clever ways the authors stuck with the facts but with a new perspective. Don’t pass on this one though – it’s a lot of fun to read!

 

 

 

The Lost Book of the Grail by Charlie Lovett

The Lost Book of the Grail   by Charlie Lovett is a book lover’s dream, a celebration of the preservation of knowledge, a reverence for the past, an appreciation of tradition and loyalty. It’s also a cracking good story!

Arthur Prescott is very content with his life, thank you very much. True, he’s not thrilled with his job at the boring, modern Barchester University, but working here means he has access to the library at the Barchester Cathedral. Here he can indulge in his greatest love, the search for the Holy Grail, comfortably surrounded by the modest collection of medieval manuscripts. Founded by St Ewolda in 560 A.D., Arthur is convinced that the key to finding the Grail is hidden somewhere in the cathedral.

Into this idyllic, tech-free world waltzes a young American, Bethany Davis, who has come to digitize the ancient books at Barchester Cathedral. Digitize! Arthur is properly scandalized and horrified and deeply concerned that Ms Davis will discover his secret passion for the Grail. When he learns that Bethany is also an avid fan of the Grail and the search for it, things begin to change and when the future of the Cathedral and its library are threatened, this odd couple team finds a way to work together. Arthur begins to appreciate some of the advantages of technology, learns how to email, opens himself to new adventures and makes many discoveries, some profound and some personal.

This would be a great choice for anyone who was a fan of Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code but without the murderous psychopath chasing them. The beginning of each chapter has a brief flashback to what was happening to Barchester in the past, from it’s earliest years to the Reformation to World War II, then back to the present – the contrasts are intriguing and it’s fun to watch how the actions of the past are interpreted today. Arthur and Bethany and the supporting characters are thoughtful and interesting and there is quite a bit of (dry, British) humor. And the ending is incredibly satisfying. Highly recommended.

 

Online Reading Challenge – July

Hey Folks! It’s time for a new month of reading with our Online Reading Challenge! What will you read this month?

The theme for July is Westward Expansion. Most of us probably immediately think of cowboys and Native Americans and the “wild west” and while there are several very good Westward Expansion books with exactly this setting, you don’t have to limit yourself to that era. In reality the “wild west” only lasted a few decades, no matter that it holds such a vivid place in our imagination. Westward expansion  started with the arrival of colonists on the East coast of the continent, continuing through US history as the population pushed westward, including into Alaska.

Unfortunately, Westward Expansion also encompasses some of the worst of American history, the treatment of Native Americans which ranged from poor to horrific. This might be the time to read more about their history. Try the modern classic Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: an Indian History of the American West by Dee Brown or The Earth is Weeping: the Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West by Peter Cozzens for insights into the story of these proud people.

There are a lot of great books to read in this category, including some American classics. Try My Antonia by Willa Cather for an evocative, breathtaking view of life on the prairies. Two of my personal favorites are Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry – a chunk of a book that nevertheless ends too soon – and News of the World by Paulette Jiles – a slim volume packed with heartfelt emotion. Both of these titles recall a time when the West was still raw and life was difficult. They depict a time that is, at first look, similar to traditional stories of the West, but in fact both show great depth and the complexity of the time.

Now might be the time to try a classic Western – Max Brand, Zane Grey or Louis L’Amour. For a woman’s view of the West, take a look at the novel The Diary of Mattie Spenser by Sandra Dallas or the non-fiction Frontier Grit: the Unlikely True Stories of Daring Pioneer Women by Marianne Monson.

I’m setting my sights on Undaunted Courage by Stephen Ambrose about the journey of Lewis and Clark. It’s been on my list for a long time and I’m looking forward to following their epic adventure.

As always, there will be displays with these titles and lots more at each of our library locations. And let us know what you plan to read!

 

Online Reading Challenge – June Wrap-Up

Hello Everyone!

How was your reading in the month of June? Did you find something new and wonderful, or did you revisit a childhood favorite? It was a month full of possibility with the potential for a lot of fun. Let us know how it went for you!

This month I went with a children’s classic, A Wrinkle in Time by Madelaine L’Engle. Winner of the Newbery Medal in 1963 (the Newbery is awarded each year to the best children’s book in writing), this is a dramatic adventure story filled with alien creatures, distant planets and fantastical imagery. It’s also a story on a more intimate level – the value of friends and family, loyalty, accepting others as they are, being courageous and, most of all, the power of love.

Meg’s father has been missing for many months and she feels his absence keenly. She doesn’t know what has happened to him, only that he was working on something called a tesseract and no on can explain where he’s gone. When her little brother Charles Wallace introduces her to three strange women living in the woods behind their house, it sets them, along with their friend Calvin, on an incredible journey.

While I enjoyed this book – there’s quite a lot of action and even some scary bits where you just want to know what happens – I think I would have liked it even more if I had read it when I was a kid. Maybe my imagination is too “stuck” now to let go with the flights of fancy described here, or maybe I’m just not scientifically inclined (this book really celebrates math and the sciences). I did love Meg and how brave she was, even when she didn’t feel brave. She’s a young teen, at that awkward and unsure stage, but she’s smart and she’s strong. A role model for anyone.

What did you read this month? What did you think of your choice? Let us know in the comments!

 

Happy Summer 2018

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It’s summer at last (although it has felt like summer for several weeks now!). Time to kick back and relax and spend some quality time with a good book.

Still looking for a great beach read (or lazy-laying-in-the-hammock read)? The Daily Beast has a list of the best summer reads of 2018 that ranges from thriller, to tear-jerker to in-depth investigation. Or try the list of 40 Summer Beach Reads from Woman’s Day, books that are a couple years old and easier to find. And NPR published this list of 100 Best Beach Books Ever which, really, can just become your “to-read” list for any time of year.

And, because it’s summer, take some time to get outside (maybe with a book in hand?). Next time you’re at Eastern I highly recommend that you take a walk around the prairie gardens that surround the building. As you can see from the pictures here (which I took yesterday), it has become quite colorful and beautiful. Not pictured is the birdsong, the sense of peace and calm, and the open skies. Well worth a visit!