A Brief History of Montmaray by Michelle Cooper

It turns out there’s a cult following of Michelle Cooper’s Montmaray Journals series.  Now, I’m one of them.  The audio version of  A Brief History of Montmaray took me across several states (and back).  Sometimes I was so engrossed that I didn’t notice how low the gas gauge was – a lack of attention that can be dangerous on some stretches of South Dakota highway.

It’s written as the secret diary of (Princess) Sophie FitzOsborne,  one of the ruling family of the  island kingdom of Montmaray.

Sophie’s view of herself, and  her  family  evolves as she learns more of the tragedies surrounding her family’s history, including her aunt’s disappearance. The cast of characters include her very eccentric Uncle John (the king), her siblings and cousin – all  with their own obsessions and quirks. There’s a secret language that the cousins have developed – she encodes parts of her diary in this language, in case the book falls in the wrong hands. There are also secret tunnels, the possibility that the crumbling castle may have connections to the Holy Grail, a jeweled egg gifted by the Romanovs, and perilous rescues and invasions by sea and air.

It is 1936, and world events are overtaking the seclusion of the tiny country in the waters off the coasts of France and Spain,  in the Bay of Biscay. The remaining FitzOsbornes are very aware of the political turmoil in Europe, especially the Spanish Civil War and rising fascism in Germany.  German soldiers land on the shores of Montmaray one day, as part of the historical/archaeological research wing of the Nazis, and life is never the same again.

At the end of the first volume, there are still many mysteries to be solved.  I can’t wait to hear more from this charmingly eccentric family.

It Ends with Us by Colleen Hoover

It Ends with Us by Colleen Hoover is a twisted love story that had more depth than I was expecting. This begins with Lily escaping back home after her father’s funeral. Lily grew up in a very small town in Maine where everyone thinks that they know everyone else’s business, but as readers are quick to realize, Lily’s whole family has deep dark secrets that she can’t seem to escape from no matter where she goes. Back in Boston after her father’s funeral, Lily hopes to settle back into the life that she has made for herself since she graduated from college.

As she’s struggling to regain her composure, Lily has a run-in with a gorgeous neurosurgeon named Ryle Kincaid. Lily’s life all of a sudden seems perfect. Ok, maybe. Maybe Ryle seems a little bit too assertive and arrogant and a tad bit stubborn, but if you were a neurosurgeon still in training, working insanely busy days and doing VERY long surgeries wouldn’t you act the same way?! Despite his flaws, Ryle is brilliant, knows exactly what he wants, is sensitive, and even though he doesn’t want a relationship, he still has a soft spot for Lily. If he only could get over his complete aversion to relationships, Lily thinks he would be the perfect man.

Flash forward some months and Lily finds herself bumping into Ryle again as she starts her new business. This second chance encounter ends with the discovery that both Lily and Ryle can’t get the other out of their heads. Ryle decides to make an exception to his ‘no-dating’ rule just for Lily, but Lily is left wondering why he had that rule in the first place.

Lily and Ryle’s new relationship, combined with Lily’s new business and Ryle’s crazy work schedule, leads Lily to reflect on her very first love – Atlas Corrigan. Besides being her first love, Atlas is a messy connection to her past that Lily was glad to escape. In her tumultuous past, Atlas was the one good thing that brightened up her depressing circumstances. Reading through old journals that she shoved in the back of her closet, Lily finds herself remembering things she wishes she could forget. She also keeps wondering while Atlas never came looking for her like he promised that he would. Lily believed they were kindred spirits and he was her protector.

As Lily and Ryle progress further into their relationship, Atlas suddenly reappears. This reappearance comes at a crucial time in Lily’s life and in her relationship with Ryle. Lily quickly finds everything she has worked with Ryle to build is threatened and is forced to think about what she really wants in life. Does she want to follow in her mother’s footsteps? Or break the cycle? Should she choose Ryle or Atlas? Or will she choose to put herself first?


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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!

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.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I listened to this book on my last road trip and after I returned to work, I discovered that it was one of PBS’s Great American Reads! (Check out the Library for a display of these books or look online for a printable list of all 100 books. You can also vote for your favorite at any Davenport Library location.) I was already trying to read my way through as many of those books as I could,  so I was happy that I had stumbled upon Americanah  and that I could check this book off my list!

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is the story of race, identity, and struggling to find yourself both away from home and at home. Ifemelu and Obinze fell in love when they were very young, living in military-ruled Nigeria. Both Ifemelu and Obinze were attending a Nigerian university when a series of university strikes began. Without a solid education and no other real plans in motion, Ifemelu and Obinze decided to leave the country.

Ifemelu decides to leave Nigeria and head to America. She and Obinze work out a plan. Once he finishes school, he will leave Nigeria and come to her. In America, Ifemelu has academic success, but struggles to fit into black America. This novel wonderfully describes the African experience and how it differs between the USA, England, and Nigeria. Ifemelu may have found her way at an American university with academic success, but she struggles with understanding the differences between what is accepted in America vs what was/is accepted in Nigeria. To help her cope, Ifemelu decides to start a blog that talks about race issues in America. Obinze’s life is complicated in a different way. Not being able to head to America, he instead moves to England and ends up becoming an illegal immigrant. His journey is complicated like Ifemelu’s and he struggles to find himself amongst a country that wants to send him back home.

Flash forward years and Ifemelu and Obinze find themselves in the same country again, trying to deal with past resentments, hurt feelings, and denials. Their current lives are under scrutiny as they each try to juggle their foreign selves with accepted culture and identity standards in place in Nigeria. Reuniting in newly democratic Nigeria after years abroad, both Ifemelu and Obinze have issues to work through as they deal with their new selves, the new Nigeria, and the unique relationship/reunited passion between each other and their native homeland. Some issues are spoken, while others lie under the surface only called out when they directly influence others in the open. These cultural subtleties make up a vast swath of this book and the author is adept at bringing them to light. This is fiction with a message, yet the message is conveyed in an appealing and socially conscious way.

This book takes a deep look at race and immigration, specifically the intricacies of race and how that experience is different between the USA and Nigeria. In frequent conversations throughout this novel, readers are given a glimpse into what it means to be black in Africa and what it means to be black in the USA. The author takes readers on a tour of various countries as seen through the eyes of Ifemelu and Obinze. Their life stories play out over many years and many countries as they both struggle to find themselves amongst countries who value the same culture in different ways.

I recommend listening to this book. While it may take you a little bit to understand the accents like it took me, I ultimately felt like it was worthwhile. The accents allowed me to fully engage with the book and realize that I was gaining a glimpse into a culture entirely different from mine. When I finished listening to this book, I realized that if I had read a print copy, I would have lost the accents completely, would have probably given the characters an incorrect accent, or would have imagined the characters with only slight accents. There really is something positive to be said about listening to books with narrators who really know how to correctly portray the characters.


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Not That I Could Tell by Jessica Strawser

  Not That I Could Tell by Jessica Strawser is a mysterious read about a group of neighborhood women who are all connected to each other. Yellow Springs is a small Ohio town that is rocked by the sudden and shocking disappearance of young mother Kristin and her twins.

The women of Yellow Springs are excited to realize that their baby monitors all reach one of the women’s backyard. They gather around a firepit one Saturday night to relax and take a night off from husbands, kids, and life in general. They drink too much and share more than usual. After all, everyone has secrets.

On Monday morning, whispers begin to circulate around town that one of the women is missing. Kristin, the adorable twin mom, who seems to have everything together and under control with her handsome doctor husband, has disappeared into the night without a trace with her two children. As police begin investigating, they dig up secrets surrounding each woman. Instead of finding answers about what happened to Kristin, whether she’s dead or alive, police discover that Kristin doesn’t seem too worried about her impending divorce, even with her husband moved out. Kristin’s husband, Paul, finds himself at the center of the investigation as he moves back into the family home and starts packing up their belongings to move on with his life.

Kristin’s closest neighbor, Clara, is having difficulties with Kristin and her children’s disappearance. Clara’s past is troubled. With the police searching the neighborhood and interviewing the neighbors, this incident is triggering memories of her past that Clara would really like to forget. Soon Clara unwittingly finds herself dragged right into the center of the investigation. When she’s thrust into the spotlight, Clara’s suspicions begin to rise.

Each neighbor is forced to closely examine their own lives behind closed doors as secrets begin to leak out and suspicions about what really happened thrown around. Kristin and the twins’ disappearance becomes a cold case, leaving the neighborhood feeling confused, betrayed, and worried that something sinister could be lurking around their idyllic town of Yellow Springs.

This book was an interesting read as it sheds light on what really is happening behind the scenes and how real life usually always varies from what is presented in the media. While I had issues with some characters, I liked how the author went beyond the surface details and let us see the divide between what we present to the public and what is actually happening behind closed doors.


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The Identicals by Elin Hilderbrand

Growing up, I always wished that I had an identical twin sister. I blame The Parent Trap movie for that wish. Having someone who looked exactly like me who would be there to trick our friends and family into thinking they were the other person sounded like so much fun. I met a set of identical twins in middle school, realized just how confusing that would actually be, abandoned that desire, and stuck with my normal, not identical, siblings. A lot easier that way. I had forgotten about my twin sister desire until I picked up The Identicals by Elin Hilderbrand and got a glimpse into what it is like to have an identical twin as an adult.

The Identicals by Elin Hilderbrand tells the complicated stories of Tabitha and Harper Frost. One twin lives on Nantucket, while the other lives on Martha’s Vineyard: a distance of only two and a half hours away by ferry. Yet that two and a half hour separation is widened by years of disagreements, arguments, and resentment that continuously builds because the two never talk to each other. While the two may look exactly like each other, that doesn’t mean they are alike AT ALL. Their personalities, life decisions, and clothing choices only prove to illustrate this point.

Harper and Tabitha have spent their entire lives trying to separate themselves from the other twin and from their other parent. You see, when Tabitha and Harper were young, their parents divorced and each parent took one of the twins to live with them year round with vacations thrown in so the other twin got to see the parent that they didn’t live with. This awkward situation left the twins with some major resentment towards each other and weird interactions with the other parent.

A major family crisis forces the two women together after many years apart. This forced reconciliation sounds like a recipe for disaster, but add in the twin’s mother and Tabitha’s teenage daughter and things are bound to get interesting. Each twin’s personal life keeps forcibly making itself known to the other twin which results in confusion amongst others as they try to figure out which is which. Tabitha and Harper may not want to have to band together through this family crisis, but they sure know how to appear like they like each other. These false appearances can only last so long though and the twins are soon forced to turn to each other for real.


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The Escape Artist by Brad Meltzer

Military suspense thrillers have been popular for years, yet I have seldom read any. I decided to change this by stepping lightly into this genre. The Escape Artist by Brad Meltzer may not be considered a strict military suspense thriller, but there is a definite military feel since the majority of this book takes place on or near Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. Add in a compelling story line, missing people, and high levels of secrecy and I was hooked.

The Escape Artist tells the story of Jim ‘Zig’ Zigarowski and his quest to find out what really happened to Nola Brown. Nola Brown was on a flight from Alaska when the plane mysteriously fell from the sky. All on the plane perished and Nola’s body was found not far from the crash site. Mysteries surround this crash as one of the President’s very close friends was on board: the Librarian of Congress. Tasked with finding out what happened, Zig soon finds all of the bodies from the crash delivered to him at the morgue at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. With identities already confirmed by their supervisors, Zig and his colleagues are expected to perform the autopsies as quick as possible and get the bodies back to the families.

When looking at Nola’s body, Zig discovers that there is no way that the body in front of him could be that of Nola Brown. Nola was a childhood friend of Zig’s daughter. A long time ago, Nola saved Zig’s daughter’s life. As a result of that, Nola has a tell-tale scar that Zig knows to look for on Nola. Discovering that it isn’t there and knowing that there wouldn’t be a cosmetic way to make that disappear, Zig realizes that Nola is still alive. The question of why someone would go through such steps to say that this body is Nola’s nags at Zig. He decides that he has to find Nola, if for no other reason than to pay her back for the time that she saved his daughter’s life.

Nola is supposed to be dead. With some investigating, Zig digs into Nola’s past and tries to learn what in her life caused people to want to kill her. He discovers that Nola is a mystery, her previous supervisors believe that she is a curse and trouble follows her everywhere. Looking into these incidents, it becomes clear why the Army chooses to sequester Nola as their artist-in-residence. This keeps her out of the line of fire and hopefully decreases her tendency to bring trouble to any situation.

Nola’s current job allows her to travel the world to any location and any catastrophe in order to make art and observe. Each artist-in-residence has a theme to their artwork throughout their residency. As Zig looks around, he discovers that Nola’s missions may have triggered the notice of an enemy who will do whatever it takes to silence her. Zig and Nola find themselves thrown together on a journey to discover the truth behind a centuries-old conspiracy that reaches all the way up to the highest levels of government and involves an unlikely partner: Harry Houdini.

Here’s to hoping that Brad Metzler turns this book into a series! I’d love to find out what happens with Zig and Nola next.


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The Great American Read

What is your favorite book of all time? If a cross-section of Americans voted on their favorite book and made a list of the top 100, would your favorite make the list? Time to find out!

PBS has launched a program called The Great American Read which producers say is “designed to spark a national conversation about reading and the books that have inspired, moved, and shaped us.”  The first of eight episodes aired on May 22, 2018.  It featured some famous people like George R.R. Martin, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Venus Williams, Wil Wheaton, Chelsea Clinton, and Jenna Bush Hager and Barbara Bush sharing what they love about their personal favorites – The Lord of the Rings, Gulliver’s Travels, The Chronicles of Narnia, Dune, Where the Red Fern Grows and The Book Thief,respectively. If you missed it – don’t worry. You can watch it here.

The final episode is scheduled to air some time in October 2018, according to the show’s official website. Until that time, Americans are encouraged to go online and vote for their favorite book. One vote per day is allowed.

If you are curious about how many books from the list you’ve read, download the checklist and start counting! (I’m at 23 so far.) My personal favorite is To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. I first read it in 9th grade English class and have loved it ever since. If you, like me, are eager to check more titles off that list, be sure to look for the displays we have at each of our three locations where you can easily find and check one out.

As the show’s host Meredith Viera says, “The Great American Read is happening all across the country, all summer long. So invite your friends to share in the celebration!” I urge you to post a comment to tell us which book is your favorite of all time. We at the library are curious to see how QCA voters will compare to the nation as a whole when the book with the most votes is revealed later this fall!

Breaking Sad edited by Shelly Fisher & Jennifer Jones

Breaking Sad: What to Say After Loss, What Not to Say, and When to Just Show Up edited by Shelly Fisher & Jennifer Jones lays out for you what to say when you just don’t know what to say. Loss, grief, bereavement, and sympathy are all complicated emotions and states of being that have the power to bring even the strongest, calmest, and most stoic of us to their knees. When that happens, what are those of us surrounding the bereaved supposed to do? If you’re like me, you stand awkwardly by in fear that you will say the wrong thing or that the words you meant to be kind will somehow be construed the wrong way. Breaking Sad helped me figure out what to do.

Breaking Sad breaks down loss into multiple sections: new loss, sudden loss, loss with time for a good-bye, loss at a tender age, persistent loss, complicated loss, unacknowledged loss, other kinds of loss, and loss and time. It additionally ends with a section of takeaways and an epilogue entitled: “One for the road”. Each section of loss features real stories and real feedback from people who have struggled with each type of loss presented in this book. These personal stories allow readers to gain a better understanding of what the bereaved are feeling. Each story further shows to highlight how people all grieve differently as what comforts one person only proves to irritate another. Grieving with a sudden loss versus a loss with time for a good-bye necessitates mourners to comfort the bereaved in different ways.

The part that I found the most helpful were the suggestions from survivors about how to comfort them. These suggestions are broken down into four sections: best thing someone did or said, worst thing someone did or said, advice for someone going through a similar experience, and advice for those surrounding the bereaved. Reading about such a wide variety of loss coupled with the suggestions from the survivors gave me a well-rounded look into how I should approach someone when they’re going through a loss. This book helped me work through my own grief and helped me become more comfortable when it comes to offering support and caring for people when they’re struggling through their own grief.

In addition to giving me real-life examples and ways to comfort others, this book also helped me work through grief of my own. Being able to read through situations that were similar to mine helped me realize that the emotions that I have felt, both in the past and the present, are normal and valid and that there is no right way to grieve. Having someone say those things to your face are one thing, but being able to read multiple accounts of people going through the same process is another. Everyone grieves in their own way, just like everyone expresses their sympathy and grief towards another in a different way. We’re all human beings. This book continuously reminded me to live in a place of kindness and understanding towards others because we truly have no idea what could be living under the surface. Be kind to everyone because you have no idea the battles waging within.

This book by no means captures all types of loss, all stages of grief, and even all the different ways that sympathy can be extended towards the bereaved. Read this as more of a guidebook, a collection of signs, that can help guide you towards what to say and how to act.