Online Reading Challenge – April

Hurrah! It’s April which means flowers and birdsong and springtime! And, it means it’s time for the next installment of the Online Reading Challenge! This month we’re traveling to the 1800s!

“Whoa!” I can hear you say. “1800s?! Isn’t that kind of a broad time period?! Like, everything happened in the 1800s!” OK, not everything happened in the 1800s, but I admit, a lot did happen. Which just means you have even more great books (and movies) to choose from. To make it a little easier, I’ve divided some suggestions by event/era.

Regency. This is the time period of Jane Austen, which enough said. If you haven’t read Jane Austen, here’s your chance. My favorite is Persuasion, but I love the others of the “big four” (Emma, Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility) We could (well, I could) spend an entire reading year discussing these books and debating the merits of the many movies that have been made from them (by far, my favorite movie is Sense and Sensibility starring Emma Thompson although I also dearly love the BBC’s production of Emma.)

If Jane Austen isn’t your thing (which I can’t even fathom), I highly recommend the Master and Commander series by Patrick O’Brian. Set in the world of tall ships, when the British Navy ruled supreme, this is a series (20 volumes!) full of adventure, intrigue, heartbreak and humor. Highly recommended.

Civil War. There are a lot of books set during the Civil War and for good reason. It’s a time that defined the American character in many ways and it was a sharp divide between the past and the future. Look for authors Jeff and Michael Shaara and Shelby Foote. Or go classic with Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell or Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane.¬† Another excellent option is Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier.

Victorian. Ah, so many books. Lots and lots of mysteries in this category including Sherlock Holmes. I really liked the mysteries by Deanna Raybourn and Tasha Alexander – strong women characters and charming settings. Light and fun.

Some random recommendations include Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier about the discovery of fossils by ordinary women, Little Women by Louisa May Alcott and Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton.

You’ll notice that there aren’t any titles about the “Wild West” – we’ll be reading about Westward Expansion in a few months, so I’m keeping those titles for that time period.

I’m going to read The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry about a young widow who moves from London to the country and finds herself drawn into a mystery. Sounds intriguing!

That’s just the tip of the iceberg – be sure to stop by one of our Davenport locations for displays with lots more titles to consider. And don’t forget to tell us what you pick!

Flowers from the Storm by Laura Kinsale

Don’t judge this wonderful book by its covers, which are egregious. Laura Kinsale’s Flowers from the Storm is, by a wide margin, the most intelligent and engaging romance I’ve ever read. It proves what romance readers have known for generations: a love story with a happy ending can be just as powerful and thoughtful as any other literary novel. The heroine, Maddy Timms, is a devout Quaker: she speaks in a thee-thou manner that other characters remark upon as often you inevitably will. It’s infuriating, it’s different, it’s overly pious and hard to understand. It marks Maddy as a person who lives apart, in a smaller and humbler world than her Anglican peers. Her religion is restrictive and judgmental, but it’s also warm and forgiving and kind – just like Maddy herself. Christian Langland is a standard romantic hero (a strapping, handsome, fabulously wealthy Duke who happens to be a well-known rake), until a neurological illness strikes out of nowhere, shattering his ability to communicate. Only Maddy recognizes that he is not incompetent, an idiot, a savage struck down by God for his immoral ways: he is a sick man. And she is led by God to restore him to health.

There are layers upon layers in this book. Christian is mad; Maddy is a Christian. Flowers and storms pop up in significant junctures throughout the story, bolstering the plot as well as reminding you of the central theme: there is always a way to find something beautiful, something wonderful, even in the darkest and most harrowing times. The point of view alternates between Christian and Maddy, and Ms. Kinsale does an absolutely phenomenal job of illustrating Christian’s rapid mental decline and slow recovery both from inside and outside his fuddled mind. She very rarely writes the same moment from both characters’ perspectives, so you only know what Christian can piece together or what Maddy has been present to see. The scenes inside the lunatic asylum in the immediate aftermath of Christian’s illness are heartwrenching, as we watch him struggle to make even the simplest thought understood by his doctors. Maddy is the first and only person to truly understand him, to know that his intelligence is as fierce as ever but his ability to speak and to understand has been compromised. As their love blossoms, Maddy struggles with her religious convictions and Christian struggles with his illness, his family, and his legal obligations. I’ve never been moved to root for a romance novel couple as I was for these two.

If you’re a romance reader and you’ve never read Flowers from the Storm, do so right away! You won’t regret it. Then, pass it on to a skeptical friend who thinks romances are cheap, tawdry, worthless, or sub-literary: I’ve never read a book more likely to change their mind.