2018 Online Reading Challenge – February Wrap-Up

Hello Fellow Readers!

How did the month of February treat you reading-wise? Did you discover something great to read (or watch)? I had another good month, reading The Midwife by Jennifer Worth which I loved.

The Midwife is about young Jenny Worth’s experiences as a midwife in one of the poorest areas of London. The time is the early to mid 1950s and the setting is the East End of London, an area that is still feeling the effects of being heavily damaged in WWII.There is a lot of sadness and suffering in these stories, but there is also joy and laughter, community and life.

Jenny’s comfortable upbringing doesn’t prepare her for the hardships she encounters in the slums, but her compassion and understanding grows quickly. Some of the stories are very funny and some are heartbreaking. As you would expect from a book set in England, there are many eccentric characters and lots of “stiff-upper-lip”. I choose this book because it was about nursing and although I never entertained the idea of pursuing that career myself, my Mom was a nurse in the 1940s (she retired after serving in the US Army during World War II to become a farm wife and raise her family). Although The Midwife takes place 5-10 years after she practiced, I gained a lot of insight into medicine and health practices similar to what my Mom worked under and found it fascinating.

Now, some untangling of the title of this book. It was originally published with the title The Midwife: a Memoir of Birth, Joy and Hard Times which is actually the first of three books (the other two are Shadows of the Workhouse and Farewell to the East End). The BBC created what became a very popular tv series based on these books, using the title Call the Midwife and the books have been republished with the new name. The beloved series is running on PBS here in the United States with DVDs available of the earlier seasons.

Now it’s your turn – what did you read for this month of the Online Reading Challenge?

 

The Lying Game by Ruth Ware

Ruth Ware is quickly becoming one of my go-to, will-never-disappoint authors. I know I will enjoy whatever she writes because her books always pull me in and wrap me up in their suspenseful psychological messes. Bonus: the narrator for both of her books that I listened to was thoroughly engaging.

The Lying Game tells the twisted, complicated story of four young girls who met at Salten, a boarding school near the cliffs of the English Channel. Fatima, Thea, Isabel, and Kate helped each other navigate the murky waters of this boarding school during their teenage years. Their friendship was so strong that no matter what happened, they each knew that the other three girls would have their back. These girls became inseparable and solidified their reputations as untouchable and the ‘bad girls’ with the invention of the lying game. The lying game may have started out harmless, but quickly grew out of control as the girls’ abilities to keep their lies and truths straight deteriorated. The number one rule of the lying game: don’t lie to the other players. That rule became more and more difficult to follow the longer the game went on, something that had the possibility to destroy all of their lives.

After leaving abruptly in the middle of the school year, all four friends find themselves thrust back into the regular world without a clue what to do. Fatima, Thea, Kate, and Isabel have woven a complicated, messy relationship that none of them can escape.  Each will still drop whatever they are doing to come to the rescue of the other, even though many years have passed.

One morning in June, the four friends’ lives begin to unravel. Human remains are discovered near Salten by a woman walking her dog next to a tidal estuary. The discovery of the body shocks this peaceful town out of its idyllic reverie. Fatima, Thea, and Isabel soon find themselves thrust back into Salten life when they receive a distressing text from Kate saying that she needs them. Arriving back into town, the four’s shared past bursts to the surface and their realities come crashing down.  A shared secret has the ability to destroy their current lives as well as drastically change their pasts.


This book is also available in the following formats:

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.

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.

Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz

Agatha Christie was my favorite mystery author growing up, thanks to my grandmother who consistently bought me her books and watched her ‘Marple’ and ‘Poirot’ series on television. The classic whodunit mystery holds a special place in my heart. As a result, I have turned into a picky mystery reader. A mystery novel has to grab my interest quickly, sustain it through the end, and be complex enough that I am unable to predict whodunit. Enter in Anthony Horowitz’s Magpie Murders and I felt like I was back at my grandma’s watching Poirot solve a crime. This book felt like a delicious dive into my childhood.

Magpie Murders is a book within a book, a mystery within a mystery, a murder within a murder. Susan Ryeland is the editor of Alan Conway’s mystery series featuring detective Atticus Pund. This book opens with Ryeland receiving a copy of Conway’s latest book, Magpie Murders, and her decision to read it over the weekend. Such begins the first foray into the book within the book. Conway’s Magpie Murders is the classic whodunit that takes place in the English countryside in a small village in 1955 where a well-known woman has died. Atticus Pund, a German concentration camp survivor who has become famous for his sleuthing skills, decides to head to the small village of Saxby-on-Avon to try to solve this Agatha-Christie like puzzle. A housekeeper named Mary Blakiston fell down a flight of stairs at Pye Hall. Her death had been ruled accidental, but the fiancée of Mary’s estranged son seeks Pund and asks for his help. There are many questions that Pund must answer and after a second crime occurs, Pund decides to visit on his own accord and figure out what exactly is happening in Saxby-on-Avon.

Flash to the present when Susan Ryeland has reached the end of the Magpie Murders manuscript only to discover that the last chapter is missing. Confronting her boss, Charlie Clover, about the missing chapters, both Clover and Ryeland are surprised to learn that the author, Alan Conway, has committed suicide. Conway mailed a letter to Clover before his death explaining why he decided to commit suicide. After reading the letter, Susan decides to look for Conway’s last chapter and sets off interviewing his family and friends to find it and to learn more about Conway’s motives for killing himself. That last chapter will save Magpie Murders and hopefully Susan’s business as the death of Conway will certainly sink the company if that last chapter is never found. As she searches, Susan comes to believe that maybe Conway didn’t kill himself. She soon finds herself becoming sort of a detective as she tries to figure out what exactly happened to Alan Conway.

I really enjoyed this book. Atticus Pund’s story was entertaining enough, but the addition of Susan’s story adds a delightful twist to the whole book. I was thoroughly entertained from beginning to end in both stories. I also enjoyed how the stories intertwined together and how Susan was able to rely on the Magpie Murders manuscript to help her figure out what happened to Conway. There were so many tiny clues and revelations hidden in both Pund’s and Susan’s story that had me on the edge of the seat wondering whodunit.


This book is also available in the following formats:

This Beautiful Fantastic

A librarian with a garden – how could I possibly resist? And there’s no need to resist – This Beautiful Fantastic is a charming, modern fairy tale about friendship and trust and finding beauty in the ordinary.

Bella Brown is a shy, reclusive librarian (disappointingly, a bit of a stereotype, although Bella is young and does not wear her hair in a bun!) whose dream is to become a children’s book author. Lacking the confidence to show her work to anyone, let alone a publisher, she stays hidden in the shadows, avoiding her neighbors and other people, following a careful routine of work and home.

One day her landlord appears and tells her that she will be evicted in 30 days if she does not revive the badly neglected garden at her house (in British-speak, “garden” is what American’s would call a “yard” and in a city is usually quite small with lots of plants and a small grass lawn). Understandably, Bella is upset since she knows nothing about gardening and her first attempts are disastrous. Her grumpy neighbor watches in horror, makes unhelpful, scathing remarks and then, after Bella confronts him, agrees to help her (turns out he’s an expert horticulturist and had turned her in in the first place)

What follows is the blossoming of an epic friendship (yes! I went there! Bad pun!!), the meeting of two opposites that understand loneliness and isolation and tentatively learn to accept the other, blemishes and all and in the process, learn to let other people in as well.

This is a typical British comedy with eccentric characters, dry humor and quirky settings. The library that Bella works at is endlessly fascinating – and weird. I don’t know a lot about public libraries in England, but this library is obsessed with quiet (another stereotype!), is stocked only with very old books and has crazy hours. Also, Bella has apparently memorized the exact location of every single volume!

Bella is played by Jessica Brown Findlay who you might remember as Sybil in Downtown Abbey and the grumpy neighbor is expertly played by Tom Wilkinson; they are joined a cast of familiar British character actors. A delight for all.

 

22 Britannia Road by Amanda Hodgkinson

I have been reading a lot of World War II fiction recently, purely by chance. 22 Britannia Road by Amanda Hodgkinson fit so neatly into the timeline of a previous WWII book that I had read that I noticed myself mixing storylines. Once I realized, I paid more attention and started taking notes (Taking notes is more than okay to do! Even when you’re not in school.) This novel was enjoyable and I found myself connecting to most of the characters.

22 Britannia Road tells the story of a family’s rediscovery of each other after World War II. Silvana and Janusz were married right around the beginning of the war. Their marriage began sweet and full of promise with each other’s past left fully in the past. Silvana’s family was less than caring about her, while Janusz is very close to his. Silvana and Janusz settle in Warsaw where they work at keeping their marriage together. Janusz leaves Silvana and their young son to join the military. Years pass, both during the war and after the war, with Silvana and Janusz doing whatever they have to in order to survive.

Once reunited the family moves to England where they struggle to put the past behind them. Both Sylvana and Janusz have secrets though, plus the area where they are living brings its own issues to the surface. Janusz has very much adapted to the English way of life, while Sylvana and their son still mostly speak Polish and have troubles adapting to their new normal life. Settling into their new house, Sylvana and Janusz begin a tentative new life, rediscovering each other and their new home after the ravages of war. Each of them carry secrets that even before they are voiced begin to eat away at Silvana and Janusz inside. What did Janusz do those six years that he was gone? Where did Sylvana and their child end up? How did they survive?

This novel juxtaposes both the present day and the past to show what happened to Silvana, Janusz, and their son during the time when they all were separated from each other. I greatly enjoyed the flashbacks because it helped me to justify and see some of the reasons that each family member behaves the way that they do. This psychological fiction really had me thinking about the secrets we keep from the people we love and the secrets that we’ve become so accustomed to that they eventually feel like our normal life.


This book is also available in the following formats:

The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir by Jennifer Ryan

The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir by Jennifer Ryan is a fascinating glimpse into the homefront of World War II England. Set in a village in Kent, this focuses on the women who maintain their communities, families, and the war effort after their sons and husbands have joined the military services. I didn’t realize how real the fear was that the Nazis were going to arrive on English soil – people near the coast really began to feel that an invasion was imminent. I also didn’t comprehend the extent of the damage  outside of London  during the Battle of Britain. We’re so used to seeing the rubble of London, that we forget the impact on the countryside.

Several women of Chilbury describe their fears and the strength they gather from each other and from singing together; we read their first-hand accounts through letters and diary entries. At first, they seem to be stock English characters, but they begin to show their complexity as the war and tragedy change them.  Venetia Winthrop was particularly interesting, I thought. At the start of the novel and the war, she’s vain, selfish, and revels in her power over men. As she suffers pain and loss, she becomes more a more generous sister and friend. Not only are the accounts from the point of view of women, but we see them become stronger and more independent. They find their voices both musically (the power of music is movingly conveyed by Ryan), and in their ability to stand up for themselves and for other women.

Not everyone is admirable; there are men and women behaving badly, sometimes criminally, but, overall, there is a sense of hope, and satisfaction is watching a community and country support each other.

The Queens of England

People! Have you been watching the new series about Queen Victoria on PBS? Mark your calendar immediately – this is one of those must-see, highly addictive historical series that Masterpiece Theater is famous for (i.e. Downton Abby)

Opening just as the 18-year-old finds out her uncle has died and she is now the Queen of England, Victoria stars Jenna Coleman and airs on Sunday nights. As we have come to expect from Masterpiece Theater, the costumes and jewels are lavish and the sets are breathtaking (Filmed mostly in Yorkshire with various manors and castles standing in for Buckingham and Kensington Palaces and Westminster, you’d be hard put to tell the difference on screen) Coleman does an admirable job with this massive role, playing the young Queen who, in the early episodes, struggles to find her way. Sheltered and controlled by her mother and her mother’s partner (who had planned to rule thru Victoria), Victoria breaks with them quickly and forges ahead on her own. Nowadays, when we think of Queen Victoria, we tend to think of the old woman, heavy and dressed entirely in black with a dour expression. We often forget that she was once a young girl who loved to dance, who fell in love, who ruled the largest Empire in the world. In Victoria we catch a glimpse of that young girl, her naivete, her mistakes, her growth and her courage. It is fascinating to watch.

Victoria is currently showing on PBS. You can catch the first couple of episodes (there are 8 all together) online on pbs.org or you can request the DVD from the library. I recommend that you do!

While you wait for the next episode (or to fill your life-of-the-royals needs), here are some further recommendations.

Young Victoria starring Emily Blunt. Covering almost the same time period of Victoria’s life as the PBS show, this is another beautiful, superbly acted look at the young Queen, focusing on the romance between Victoria and Albert (which will begin in episode 3 of Victoria)

Mrs. Brown starring Judy Dench takes a look at the elderly Queen, still deeply in mourning for her beloved Albert, who meets and forms a deep friendship with the Scotsman who looks after her horses. Was there more than friendship?

For a great book about her life, try Victoria the Queen by Julia Baird or Becoming Queen Victoria by Kate Williams. For a closer look at their famous romance, check out We Two: Victoria and Albert by Gillian Gill or A Magnificent Obsession by Helen Rappaport.

If you’d rather go a little more modern, there’s a terrific series, The Crown, now running on Netflix about Elizabeth II – it just won Golden Globes for Best Performance by an Actress (Claire Foy who plays Elizabeth) and Best Television Drama. Each season will cover about a decade of Elizabeth’s life, with the first season starting just before she married Phillip and ending shortly after Winston Churchill (superbly played by John Lithgow) retires as Prime Minister. It’s promised to come out on DVD eventually, but no release date has been announced so either queue it up on your Netflix account, or find a friend that already subscribes!

 

 

 

 

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

the girl on the trainThe Girl on the Train is a messy intrigue of a book. If you’ve read Gone Girl, this book covers the same bases: suspense/psychological/mystery fiction, murder victims, witnesses, married people, and missing persons. This book is fast-paced and, at least for me, it was difficult to pin down who the killer actually was.

The Girl on the Train is the story of Rachel Watson’s life post-divorce. Every day she takes the same commuter train to London to work and passes the same houses and scenery. As one is apt to do on long train rides, Rachel creates stories about the people, places, and things that she sees along the way. One particular couple catches her eye on every trip. Rachel soon finds herself looking out for this married couple every time she speeds by, hoping to catch more of a glimpse into their daily lives. She gives them names, invents background stories for them, and even gives them careers. Everything is seemingly perfect until one day when she sees something out of the ordinary happen at the married couple’s home and soon after, the woman goes missing.

Rachel is forced to confront whether she should go to the police, contact the missing woman’s husband, or just lay low. Rachel is having a rough time dealing with her past, with her ex-husband, Tom, and his new wife, Anna. Her life is spiraling out of control and the peace that she found while watching the married couple has been shattered, leaving her in the lurch and without a solid place in the world. This novel shifts between three different narratives: Rachel, Anna, and the missing woman. Each narrative is packed full of action. Readers will be left wondering what happened and wondering about each characters’ motives.

The Girl on the Train will also be released as a movie on October 7th!


This book is also available in a wide variety of other formats.