Online Reading Challenge – August Wrap-Up

Hello Fellow Fans-of-Reading!

How was your August? Did you find something wonderful to read that was set during the Edwardian Era? Or maybe you watched a movie – tell us about you read or watched!

I started the month planning to read The Alienist by Caleb Carr, a book that has been popular for several years and now has a television series based on it on TNT. I tried to read it, I really did. But. It just wasn’t my cup of tea. I’m a strong believer that, if a book isn’t working for me, I abandon it. I know some people will stick with a book to the bitter end, disliking it the whole time, but there are too many titles on my “to read” list. So I dropped The Alienist and instead picked up The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson. Much better.

The Summer Before the War starts in June 1914 and is set in the idyllic English countryside. Beatrice Nash, whose father has recently died, has come to Rye to be a Latin teacher. She soon becomes involved the lives of the people around her, learning about their secrets and dreams. When war is declared in late July, there is a burst of patriotic fervor and excitement with men and boys joining up to “advance their careers” and proclaiming that they’ll “be home by Christmas”. The reality of the war soon begins to creep into their lives, both on a national and personal level, and the old ways of thinking are slowly torn away.

I very much enjoyed this book. It wasn’t necessarily ground-breaking, but it is much more than a simple, quaint story. It was interesting to read about the very constricted lives women were allowed and how Beatrice had to fight for her job even though she was far more qualified than her (male) competition. I was also fascinated by how the strict codes of society dictated everyday life, such as who could dine with who, and how merely talking to someone considered disreputable could ruin your own standing. The war eats into these rules as death and pain impact everyone no matter your place.

Beatrice is a wonderful main character – witty, smart and confident in her abilities but struggling to make her way on her own in a world that scorns spinsters. She finds compassion from unexpected sources and strength from within to face a time when everything changed.

Now it’s your turn. What did you read this month and how did you like it?

Little Moments of Love by Catana Chetwynd

Have you ever read a book that instantly reminded you of your life? I felt this way with Little Moments of Love by Catana Chetwynd. I have been following Catana Comics online since they started in 2016. When I noticed that Catana was coming out with a collected book of comics, I knew I needed to read it.

Little Moments of Love by Catana Chetwynd is all about Catana and her boyfriend John. The title of this book couldn’t be more true. As I was reading this, I was hit with all the love pouring from each comic. These moments of everyday relationships will force you to slow down and look at your life a little bit differently. It’s the tiny acts of love scattered throughout the day that have the biggest impact on the ones around you. It doesn’t take much to brighten someone’s day and these comics certainly illustrate that.

Catana’s round drawings and repeated expressions of love gave me an all-over good feeling as I flipped through this book. I found myself repeatedly thinking, ‘Oh that’s me!’ or ‘I do that all the time’! The seemingly instant relatability of this comic has quickly made it one of my favorites to read and one that I’m always on the look out for when I’m looking online. These collections of relatable everyday humor show readers that it’s the little moments of life that end up meaning the most.

Give this graphic novel a read and see if you can find yourself or your significant other in any of these comics. It’s a good read.

The Tuscan Child

Rhys Bowen’s newest mystery, The Tuscan Child, is one of those books that starts out a bit slowly. But when there is a change of locale, the book really hits its stride. Alternating chapters are set in either the 1970’s  or in the 1940’s.  The 1970’s chapters begin when Hugo Langley’s daughter, Joanna, first learns of her father’s death. She then travels to Tuscany to find out more about his experiences  during the war, and this is when the book really takes off.

The novel goes back and forth between Joanna’s visit to Italy and  the period when her father was  shot down  in the remote hills of Tuscany.  Not only must he brave the elements, hiding in a ruined monastery, but he is nearly immobilized by a broken leg.

The suspense really builds as the reader is excruciatingly aware of the danger faced by those who helped Allied servicemen. The Germans threaten to kill everyone in the village if they find proof that one of them has been aiding the pilot they suspect is still in the area. Bowen supplies lots of detail about life in these towns overrun by the Germans, as well as about the groups of men who resisted.  Even though these groups were anti-Fascist, they could also pose a threat to civilians caught in everchanging alliances that made any kind of trust dangerous.

There is  suspense even in the 1970’s as there are long-held secrets about the war and how the villagers had to deal with the German occupation. Another mystery is the relationship between Hugo and Sofia. Joanna’s impetus to visit Italy is a letter from Hugo to Sofia, the young woman who fed and helped to hide Hugo. Sofia’s son, Renzo, still lives in the village and Joanna wonders if he is, in fact, her brother.  (This would be awkward as there is some romantic tension between the two).

There are many appeals to the substance and the style of the novel.  There is the enjoyment of learning lesser-known facets of history, such as how war impacts civilians, both during the actual conflict and how it resonates decades afterwards. The novel’s structure highlights the contrast between Hugo in his final years and Hugo as a young man. It’s a compelling illustration of how death and loss can change a courageous and generous hero into an embittered man.

Another thread of the plot deals with artistic masterpieces and how, tragically, many were destroyed or went missing. This is given extra relevance because Hugo is a gifted artist, himself.

I love the way information is slowly discovered by Joanna. You get a sense of the terror of the wartime, and why families would not want everything to be known, even 30 years later. It did bother me a bit that one final mystery was never revealed – the fate of one of those villagers who was key to the story. Perhaps Bowen will revisit San Salvatore, and the intriguing cast of characters who live there.

 

The Cactus by Sarah Haywood

I’m a sucker for a book with a gorgeous cover and a British audiobook narrator. The Cactus by Sarah Haywood had both of these and I knew I was a goner. I mean, look how gorgeous this cover is!

The Cactus by Sarah Haywood tells the story of Susan Green. Susan is very particular in how she wants her life to run. Everything around her is perfectly ordered. Anything out of the norm presented to her must be weighed carefully by Susan to assess the pros and cons before she decides to either add it to her life or banish it completely. Emotions are one part of daily life that Susan just doesn’t see the point of because they are unpredictable and don’t fit into her perfectly ordered existence. They’re messy. Susan doesn’t like messy.

Susan has the perfect flat for one, a job that lets her logical side run free, and a longstanding, as she calls it, ‘interpersonal arrangement’ that has been going on for 12 years. This arrangement provides Susan with all the cultural and more intimate personal relations she feels she needs. With all this perfection and order, something is bound to go awry. And sure enough, Susan is soon faced with changing circumstances she can not control.

Susan’s mother unexpectedly passes away. Her mother’s will leaves Susan angry and confused as it details that Susan’s lazy and spoiled brother is given the larger share of everything. Susan also learns that her ‘interpersonal arrangement’ with Richard has resulted in her becoming pregnant, a fact that knocks her off course.

Susan is losing control. Despite her best efforts to curtail her brother’s efforts and to deal with her pregnancy, nothing seems to go her way. As her due date looms closer, the circumstances with her brother seem to be getting more complicated and do not clear up the way that she had hoped. Soon everything comes to a head and Susan finds herself looking for help from the most unlikely of people in the oddest of ways. Susan discovers things about herself that she previously didn’t know. This self-discovery amidst her mother’s death and unexpected pregnancy allows Susan to find the strength to move forward and create a different life.

This book reminded me a lot of Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman, so much so that I had to consciously remind myself that these were two separate books. If I had read them back to back, my confusion would have been great! Both main characters seem to have Asperger’s Syndrome, have difficulty relating to others, and have complicated personal and professional lives. Definitely recommend them both.

Paper Ghosts by Julia Heaberlin

Finding old black and white photographs hidden in drawers or on the shelves of antique stores is one of my favorite things. Those photographs seldom have identifying information on the back. As a result, my mind will wander and make up stories about whoever happens to be in the shot. When I stumbled upon my last read, I knew it was meant to be, based purely on the cover. When I read the description, I was even more hooked.

Paper Ghosts by Julia Heaberlin is a mysterious murder plot of a book. Carl Louis Feldman is a documentary photographer living in a home for suspected serial killers who have mental issues. It’s thought that Carl has dementia. Certainly all the symptoms point to it, but the fact that Carl is not in prison at the moment for his crimes leads a mysterious young woman searching for answers to his doorstep.

This young woman has been obsessively searching for answers to her sister’s disappearance since she was twelve years old. She has been waiting to meet Carl and has planned, researched, and trained in every way possible. Showing up where Carl lives and breaking him out of the home is the easiest part. Now she and Carl are traveling across Texas to three red dots marked on her map as she works to see whether or not Carl is guilty of murdering all these women and of kidnapping and murdering her own sister.

Carl might be a serial killer. He might have dementia. He might not remember committing a string of violent crimes across Texas that match up with a series of famous photographs he took. This woman doesn’t believe anything Carl says and hopes that this road trip will help her figure out the truth about Carl and what happened to her sister.

This novel could have gone many different ways. I found myself constantly wondering what was going to happen to Carl and this mysterious young woman. Was he faking? Was she going to kill him? Would either of them ever find answers? I was hooked cover to cover. Give it a read and let me know what you think.

No One Ever Asked by Katie Ganshert

No One Ever Asked by Katie Ganshert tells the story of three women whose families are all affected by the consequences of a local school district that loses its accreditation. The twelve miles that separate South Fork and Crystal Ridge may not seem like a long distance, but the conditions present in each area are drastically different. All three women and their families find themselves clashing with the difference in circumstances those twelve miles have thrust open them. With affluent Crystal Ridge resisting South Fork’s advance on their children’s education and sports prospects, parents in South Fork are fighting for the right to transfer their children to a better and more equal school district that still has its accreditation.

Anaya Jones grew up surrounded by the South Fork community. Her father even taught at the local South Fork school. Fresh out of college and the first college graduate in her family, Anaya wishes to teach at South Fork just like her dad did. She wants to show the families who attend South Fork that there are people who care for them, no matter what the public says about their town. With South Fork’s lose of accreditation for their school district however, Anaya finds herself instead working as the newest teacher at a top elementary school in the nearby affluent community of Crystal Ridge. Anaya is thoroughly unprepared for the tense situation she is walking into, even though her family’s situation has her slightly on edge around Crystal Ridge anyway.

Jen Covington has worked as a nurse her entire life, a career that she hoped would help her when she became a mother. Despite her and her husband’s intense desire to become parents, Jen’s history and physical body have resulted in a long, painful journey with no baby in sight. After realizing they were unable to have a baby of their own, Jen and her husband turned to adoption, hoping that process would be quicker. Adoption, however, took a long time as well, with Jen and her husband learning as much as they can to prepare themselves for their daughter’s arrival. Once their adopted daughter is home, Jen finds herself struggling in her new day-to-day life despite how much she prepared. Add in a move to Crystal Ridge and Jen and her new family soon find themselves dropped right into the Crystal Ridge and South Fork dilemma.

Camille Gray is the quintessential suburban mom. The wife of an executive, mother of three, PTA chairwoman, and master fundraiser for Crystal Ridge’s annual run, everyone assumes that Camille’s life is perfect. She thinks everything is perfect too. Everything changes when she learns that South Fork has lost its accreditation and that there is a possibility that Crystal Ridge could be affected by this. Students may be given the opportunity to transfer to a school decided upon by the administration. Once it is decided that Crystal Ridge will be the transfer school, the already unruly chaos taking over the community is ratcheted up. While Camille struggles to navigate the challenges presented by this school upheaval, her personal life is also undergoing major changes. Her strength is tested as she works to find a new normal for herself and her family.

What I enjoyed about No One Ever Asked is that the author chose to tell this story from three different points of view which really allowed the reader to understand each person’s motivations for their actions. This book will force you to challenge your perception of discrimination and prejudice right alongside each woman as they struggle with what they believe to be true.

Great American Read – Part 2

We’re about halfway to finding out which book will be named America’s favorite by PBS in the Great American Read. I don’t know about you, but I have been inspired to check more books off this list in the past couple of months. Rather than just reading them on my own, I asked my mother if she would like to have our own little book club for two. I thought it would be a great bonding experience and give us something fun to talk about on our weekly phone calls. We decided to take turns picking books neither of us had read yet and allow two weeks to read it, discussing it both at the halfway point and again when we finished. Mom likes listening to them on audio, and I tend to read the print version.

We started with Mom’s choice: Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift. She had seen the 2010 movie starring Jack Black, but hadn’t read the book. I had neither seen the movie or read the book, although I did recall possibly seeing bits and pieces of the 1996 TV miniseries starring Ted Danson. I love how this book helped me see what a sense of humor my mother has.  This book gave us plenty of laughs (admittedly, we’re a little warped). At one point the main character is on an island inhabited by tiny people. A fire breaks out in the wing of the tiny royal castle where the princess resides. Giant-size Gulliver “helps” by urinating on the fire. He was disappointed that his “help” wasn’t as appreciated as much as he thought it should be. On the whole, I think Swift meant for it to be more of a political satire than a comedy. However, it is clear he had a sense of humor. Although written almost 300 years ago, much of the subtext is still relatable today. I think that is a mark of a truly great novel.

When we finished with that, I chose for us to read Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan. It was an apt one for me to discuss with my mother, because it is centered around mother-daughter relationships: specifically, four Asian mothers living in San Francisco and their their American-born daughters.  I was also planning a family vacation to San Francisco, so I wanted to read as many books set there as I could before going. The book’s themes center around family, culture, and class and how these things shaped the experiences of these eight particular Asian women. I would recommend reading this if you have not already. I also checked out Joy Luck Club on DVD and watched the movie on my own, which I enjoyed.

The third book we read was an Agatha Christie novel. The Christie novel on the Great American Read list is And Then There Were None, but somehow Mom and I got it in our heads that it was Murder on the Orient Express. Maybe it was because I have a tendency to get excited when I can read a book and then watch the movie made based on that book, and I knew that the Murder on the Orient Express movie had just been made in 2017. (I have since learned that there are also movies based on And Then There Were None.) So we read Murder on the Orient Express, then watched the movie together. We both found it to be a quick read. We also loved the unexpected ending. The movie was a little different than the book (as most movies based on books tend to be) but overall true to the story in an enjoyable way. The movie boasts an all-star cast including Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Michelle Pfeiffer, Josh Gad and Daisy Ridley. But enough about that one. It’s not even on the list.

I think we are going to read the Vonnegut novel next. I better double-check the list to make sure we get the right one!

In my last blog post, I asked readers to comment with their favorite book from the list. I also set up a display at each of our three locations with a voting box. When the Great American Read announces America’s favorite book in late October, I will tally our local votes and announce Davenport’s favorite. If you haven’t voted yet please do so by either commenting on this blog post or writing your favorite title from the Great American Read list on a slip of paper and leaving it for us in the turquoise box at one of our locations.

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.


This is also available in the following format:

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.

Online Reading Challenge – Mid-Month Check In

Hello Again!

How is your month of Edwardian reading going? Have you found something that has grabbed your interest? If you’re still looking, maybe a movie would be the ticket – there are some gorgeous films set during this time period. Here are a few to consider:

A Room With a View – From the famous production team of Merchant and Ivory, this gorgeous film of love and romance stars Helen Bonham-Carter and Daniel Day-Lewis and is set in the idyllic Italian countryside.

Howard’s End – Another beautiful Merchant and Ivory production, starring Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins, brings the rigid rules of Edwardian society into sharp focus.

Edwardian Farm – Find out how the other half lives when two archaeologists and a historian recreate farm life for a full year using practices from 1906 England. Fascinating!

The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady – So beautiful! Filmed on location in England and Scotland, this drama follows artist Edith Holden through the changing seasons.

Murdoch Mysteries – Follow Detective William Murdoch as he solves murder mysteries in Edwardian Toronto using the latest scientific methods.

Parade’s End – From the end of the Edwardian era through World War I, this epic story of romance and betrayal stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Rebecca Hall.

Mary Poppins – For something much lighter and happier, you can’t go wrong with Mary Poppins. It’s magical and fun and surprisingly thoughtful. Don’t miss it.

Miss Potter – The charming story of Beatrix Potter’s efforts to publish her first books and gain some measure of independence as a single woman in Edwardian England. Lovely and heartbreaking. Starring Renee Zellweger and Ewan McGregor.

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