2018 Online Reading Challenge – January Wrap-Up

Hello Online Reading Challenge Readers!

We’ve come to the end of the first month of the 2018 Online Reading Challenge already. Did you enjoy reading something set during the Tudor/Renaissance era? Did you find something especially wonderful? Let us know in the comments!

There seems to be an endless supply of books about the Tudors and the tangled political plots in pursuit of the throne (and a male heir). But there was plenty of other interesting things going on during this time period – did anyone find something set in Renaissance Europe, or Asia or Africa? It would be fascinating to compare!

Hang onto your library card, we’re about to leap several centuries forward in time to the 20th century and the pivotal and tumultuous 1950s and 60s! Still lots of political intrigue but now with indoor plumbing!



Victoria and Abdul on DVD

This is the Queen Victoria that most of us are probably familiar with – elderly, dour, overweight, always dressed in black. She is mostly a figurehead now with the ruling of the country handled by the Prime Minister and her councilors. She has outlived most of her contemporaries, despises her children (especially Edward, the heir apparent), is in poor health and has few interests. And then, into this dull and tedious existence steps an unexpected bright spot – Abdul.

Victoria and Abdul is the story of the unusual (but true) friendship between the Queen of the most powerful country in the world, and a commoner from India. Sent to England to present the Queen with a coin created in honor of her Golden Jubilee (he was chosen because he was tall), Abdul looks past the trappings of the Crown and sees the person. He is optimistic, cheerful and respectful and, when she asks questions about his country and his life, he answers her easily, weaving colorful, poetic pictures of a life very different from her own. Victoria emerges from her shell, delighting in new interests.

However, not everyone is happy about the friendship between Victoria and Abdul. There is a lot of racism against Indians in England (there is a great deal of unrest in colonial India resulting in several battles during this time; India did not become independent from England until 1947) and there is a concerted effort to remove Abdul from Victoria’s circle, testing the bonds of loyalty.

This is a lovely movie, beautifully acted by Judy Dench and Ali Fazal with gorgeous imagery and costumes. It is also somewhat melancholy; Victoria doesn’t have much to live for at this point in her life – she still misses Albert, who died nearly 40 years before, and everyone around her is basically waiting for her to die. That the one bright spot in her life, Abdul, is discouraged and kept away is very sad. If you’ve been watching Victoria on PBS (which is excellent), it’s also a bit of a shock, the contrast between the young, vibrant and very active young Victoria and the elderly woman she becomes.

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

I had read Celests Ng’s first book, Everything I Never Told You, when it first came out and it captivated me. The story of a family torn apart by the disappearance and death of the middle child, Lydia, captures the rifts and examines the ways that family members struggle to try to understand each other. When I saw that Ng was coming out with another book entitled Little Fires Everywhere, I knew I needed to read it because Ng has the ability to craft domestic fiction that is both engaging and realistic that I simply can’t put down.

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng tells the story of the residents of Shaker Heights. Shaker Heights is a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio, that prides itself in its ability to plan. This progressive suburb has rules for everything: the colors of the houses, the layouts of the roads, the types of houses, the schools, etc. Every little thing is laid out, even the jobs and lives that residents are expected to lead.

This highly structured, yet surprisingly calm and tranquil, community is normal to the residents that live there, especially longtime resident Elena Richardson. Leaving for college, coming back with a husband, raising four children, and working at the local paper are all things that were expected from Elena. The order and sense of community are both major appeals for Elena in Shaker Heights. She believes that the rules are there for a reason and lives her life making sure everyone around her follows the rules.

Elena’s sense of security is shaken when Mia Warren and her teenage daughter Pearl move into town. Mia is a single mother who makes a living as an artist. She and Pearl move around every couple months, but Mia promises Pearl that Shaker Heights is the place they will stay forever. Arriving in town, Mia rents a house from the Richardsons and soon both families become tangled together. All four Richardson children find Mia and Pearl to be mysterious and are quickly drawn to the pair. The closer the two families become, the more questions come to the surface.

Mia’s arrival in Shaker Heights begins to unsettle the delicate balance of rules and order that the community relies on to survive. To start, Mia has an untraditional job, a very mysterious part, and a disregard for the standard of living that Elena holds dear. Mia keeps part of her past hidden for good reason and some of the Richardson family members take it upon themselves to figure out why.

Mia’s disruption of the status quo comes to a head when Mia and Elena find themselves at opposite sides of a custody battle that’s splattered all over the news. An old family friend of Elena’s is trying to adopt a Chinese-American baby. Mia finds herself championing the biological mother, while Elena is firmly on the side of the adoptive parents. Elena is determined to do anything for her friend, even if that means digging into Mia’s past to discover her secrets and motives. Little does she know that her obsession will quickly unravel her life and the lives of everyone around her in abrupt and unforeseen ways.

This book is also available in the following formats:

Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve

guest post by Teague Shosh

There is no shortage of post-apocolyptic books to read these days and looking at the books I’ve read over the past several years it is clear that I have an obsession a healthy interest in all things dealing with our planet earth in the future.  There is something so captivating about a story describing the collapse of earth as we know it and the subsequent reconstruction of a new society rising from the chaos—all from the safety of my twenty-first century life.

My brother recently asked if I had read the book Mortal Engines that Peter Jackson has based his next movie on and suggested I check out the trailer.  I usually try to avoid seeing even a smidgeon of a movie based on a book until I have read it, so I grabbed a copy of Mortal Engines by Phillip Reeve and dug in.

Mortal Engines is the first in a four part series, The Hungry City Chronicles.  It is a post-apocalyptic steam punk novel that takes place hundreds of years after the Sixty Minute War destroyed earth and made the land an unstable place to live.  Cities are now giant machines run by steam, rolling on wheels, and searching for increasingly scarce resources to survive.  These Traction Cities rule most of the earth, except for the Dead Continent (North America) and pockets of resistance can be found in The Anti-Traction League who wish to stop the movement of cities and slow the consumption of earth’s remaining resources.  Technology is almost non-existent and scavengers hunt for relics from the past to build on their knowledge of robotics, mechanization, and computers.

Mortal Engines begins on the city of London as fifteen year-old orphan and aspiring Historian Tom Natsworthy witnesses an attack on a prominent citizen and suddenly finds himself tossed into the Outland.  Tom struggles to make his way back to London with the help of Hester, who is also alone, but angry and seeking revenge.  The two unlikely friends embark on an adventure that uncovers a secret plot by London that changes everything Tom thought he knew about his city and the world.

Although the book was originally published over fifteen years ago, the idea of cities on wheels battling for survival was new to me and I thoroughly enjoyed seeing Reeve’s innovative take on this genre.  After reading the descriptions of traction cities, with level after level stretching to the sky reflecting the increasing wealth of its citizens the higher you go, it is easy to see why Peter Jackson decided to turn the book into a movie.   I watched the trailer when I finished the book and it is clear that Mortal Engines is going to provide a beautiful visual experience when it comes to theaters at the end of this year.  Before then, you should read this entertaining book to find out more about Tom, Hester, and a host of other colorful characters surviving on a very different sort of earth than the one we live on today.


The Sun and her Flowers by Rupi Kaur

The Sun and her Flowers, a 2017 Top Fiction and Literature book of poetry as well as a New York Times Bestseller, is the second brilliant poetry book by Rupi Kaur.

Kaur’s Poignant second book is another incredible work helping all of us relate to our human condition and the common thread binding us between each other…..this thread of humanity, raw emotion, depression, tears, joy, love and life in all of it’s glorious and dark forms.  Excerpt from the book:

“this is the recipe of life

said my mother

as she held me in her arms as i wept

think of those flowers you plant

in the garden each year

they will teach you

that people too

must wilt




in order to bloom”

Life is hard. We all do our best. Be kind, do your best. Go to your local library and check out this book.

Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer

guest post by Laura

An expert storyteller, Kimmerer recounts her journey of learning to embrace the science of biology from the viewpoint of two different cultures, Potawatomi and mainstream American culture in Braiding Sweetgrass. From the Potawatomi creation story to the cautionary tale of the greed of the monster, Windigo, she weaves her way through the wisdom of various indigenous cultures juxtaposed with current stories of endangered species and environmental destruction.

Kimmerer makes a case for listening to the wisdom of peoples who had learned over millennia how to live in a reciprocal manner, taking in restrained amounts and giving back to the Earth. One example of this is the three sisters. What looked like a messy garden to the new settlers to the Americas was a strategic planting method of corn as support, beans as nitrogen fixers, and shade/weed prevention from the squash.

This beautiful tome is difficult to read at times when she talks about the mistreatment of the peoples of the First Nations as well as the destruction of once-thriving ecosystems. Kimmerer is no pessimist despite the many sad tales she recounts. She gives anecdotal and even research evidence from one of her graduate students that humans and nature not only can co-exist harmoniously, in some cases nature thrives only when humans tend to it.

The main audience for this book may be environmentalists but this is also the story of the author raising two daughters as a single mom. Those who enjoy indigenous history and folklore will also enjoy the tales. She finds neighbors who become friends, gardens, and fights a humorous losing battle in reclaiming a backyard pond from nature.

Ali: A Life by Jonathan Eig

I absolutely cannot wait to get back into my car and drive from Davenport, IA to East Moline, IL across the frozen tundra that is the Quad Cities. You might think I’ve lost my mind, and perhaps I have a little bit; but let me tell you that the Ali audiobook, narrated by Kevin R Free, and based on author Jonathan Eig’s “definitive biography” is absolutely stunning. Although my experience with audiobooks is relatively limited, I have to say this one makes me want to read all 623 pages of the biography. Free, who also considers himself a storyteller,  narrates the larger-than-life biography of Muhammed Ali (Cassius Clay) with conviction and eloquence, the perfect example of a well-executed audiobook and also a testament to author Eig’s finely-crafted prose.

Normally, it’s easy for me to snooze on audiobooks and lose focus in the middle of a chapter (or worse, a sentence). In fact, listening to audiobooks has proven to be an act of meditation: I’m consciously directing my attention to the narrator and, sometimes painfully attempting to stay focused on the developing story. Too often, like a child who loses interest in a new toy just moments after receiving it, I lose interest in the storyline unless the narrator is particularly emotive, funny, or engaging. But every chapter Free narrates makes me feel like I’m watching an award-winning film. The imagery, writing, and narration are that good. I’ve read a few reviews, and one commenter noted that he felt like he was “ringside” during the fight descriptions because the writing truly is that good.

Cassius Clay, who died in 2016 at the age of 74, endured 200,000 punches throughout his career. I cannot possibly conceive of what that would feel like. He was wildly inspired by Sugar Ray Robinson, a famous boxer well known for being particularly outlandish, flashy, and bold. Ali was single-mindedly focused on becoming the greatest boxer who ever lived; yet he was insanely complex as well as he came into his own in the context of segregation, The Blood of Emmett Till, and the Little Rock Nine. One might simply state that Ali was a fighter in every sense of the word: you can be sure he fought fiercely against racism and injustice that plagued the post-war United States.

I’m nowhere near finished with this book, but I can only imagine it gets better. Check out this article with Author Eig who concludes, after 500 hours of interviews with Ali that “no biography is complete. There’s always more to explore.” Here is what NPR , the Washington Post, and The New York Times had to say. Of course not all the reviews are shining. This particular article claims that Eig did not shed light on the last 30 or so years of Ali’s life and that the book provides “a somewhat perfunctory account of how his story fits into the larger arc of race in America.” As someone who is only about ten chapters in, I appreciated the historical backdrop that Eig establishes early on in the book; although it’s not like a few measly chapters could possibly address the terrible blight of racism on our collective history, so I will wait to see if maybe Eig delves more deeply into issues of race in America. One hopes that a “definitely” biography has earned its heavyweight title, just like the greatest boxer of all time.

Online Reading Challenge Mid-Month Check-In

Hello Fellow Readers!

How is your first month of the 2018 Online Reading Challenge going? Have you found any great new titles? Let us know in the comments!

I’ve already finished my choice for this month – My Lady Jane a collabrative effort by three young adult authors – Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton and Jodi Meadows and it was so very excellent. If you’re a stickler for historical accuracy then you need to take a pass, but if you delight in witty, clever dialogue and description, are willing to let go of cold, hard, boring facts and able to accept a bit of magical realism well then, you’re in for a treat.

According to the cold, hard, boring facts, Lady Jane Grey was the great granddaughter of Henry VII. When her cousin, King Edward VI became ill, he wrote his will naming Jane as his successor instead of his half-sister Mary. Edward choose Jane because she was Protestant and would continue the reformations he and his father had instituted while Mary was Catholic and wanted to return the country to Catholicism by any means (thus the “Bloody Mary” nickname). And indeed, at Edward’s death, Jane (reluctantly) became Queen. She only lasted nine days though as Mary was able to raise an army and the Privy Council abandoned Jane. At first Jane’s life was spared but later Mary had her executed, fearing continuing support for her. And thus ends a brief reign (and life, she was only 15 or 16 when she died).

Never fear Gentle Readers! The authors of My Lady Jane have a far different ending in store for you! There are many twists and turns, but, surprisingly, the story follows the basic outline of Jane’s life – her early childhood, her relationship with Edward, her forced marriage, Edward’s terminal illness and writing of a new will to make Jane queen, her studious nature and reluctance to become queen, the Privy Council’s betrayal, Mary’s brutal claim to the throne. It’s all there, but now with lots of humor, interesting back stories and motivations, cultural and historical barriers and some sly references to the Bard himself, who may or may not have been William Shakespeare. I don’t remember having read a book that I was smiling or laughing or making unladylike snorting noises the entire time I was reading it and yet there is real tension about the outcome. This is a tough book to put down both for sheer enjoyment and for the urgency to find out what’s going to happen!

The sad part is that the book ends, the happy news is that these same three authors have collaborated again and are coming out with another title, My Plain Jane, in June of this year, which will be about Jane Eyre herself. Perhaps they’re creating a series reimagining the lives of famous Janes? Could Jane Austen be next? One can only hope.

A Column of Fire by Ken Follett

guest post by Laura

Ken Follett’s Kingsbridge series readers have patience. He released the Pillars of the Earth in 1989, World Without End in 2010, and A Column of Fire in 2017. They’re not sequels in the traditional manner. They take place in the same location hundreds of years apart and have some loosely, genealogically connected characters.

I was excited to see A Column of Fire came out in the fall of 2017. There’s quite a long waiting list to read it, so you may have time to catch up on the previous two if you’re a fan of historical fiction after you’ve gotten on the list. Just as in the previous two novels, this is a sweeping tale of romance with plenty of intrigue and this one even includes a few pirates. In contrast to the other books, A Column of Fire expands into international politics and crosses borders, reflecting the importance of interstate commerce and increased modes and routes of global travel.

It was fun to discover who the real historical figures and who the fictional characters were at the end, although one could guess. If you’re well-versed in European history during the 1500s, you will be spoiled. I had only a general knowledge so I was in suspense much of the time. Like his other novels, he includes the major historical occurrences of the time, focusing on the religious turmoil between Catholics and Protestants.

I grew somewhat tired of the predictability of the fates of some of his fictional characters. There is definitely a pattern in his writing. Real life isn’t so just and predictable and I felt cheated that he thought I wouldn’t be satisfied with a divergence from his typical ending. I’m guessing most of his loyal fans may not agree with me on that, however. Overall, I enjoyed the book and am happy I was able to read all three over the span of a couple of decades.

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